Monday, May 31, 2010

After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre

This is the first major work by MacIntyre that I mentioned in the Canticle post and the second assigned reading in the class I'm sitting in on right now. I'd read portions of After Virtue a couple of semesters ago and I even used it in a term paper or two, but it was helpful to sit and read it straight through. MacIntyre is a joy to read in part because his prose moves the reader forward with the authority of someone who knows what he is doing, but mostly because the things that he says make deep-down, core-level sense.

On why politics are so aggressive and national issues so irreconcilable:

"It is precisely because there is in our society no established way of deciding between these claims that moral argument appears to be necessarily interminable. From our rival conclusions we can argue back to our rival premises; but when we do arrive at our premises argument ceases and the invocation of one premise against another becomes a matter of pure assertion and counter-assertion. Hence perhaps the slightly shrill tone of so much moral debate" (8).

On the fundamental incoherence of the modern conception of individualism:

"Contemporary moral experience as a consequence has a paradoxical character. For each of us is taught to see himself or herself as an autonomous moral agent; but each of us also becomes engaged by modes of practice, aesthetic or bureaucratic, which involve us in manipulative relationships with others. Seeking to protect the autonomy that we have learned to prize, we aspire ourselves not to be manipulated by others; seeking to incarnate our own principles, and stand-point in the world of practice, we find no way open to us to do so except by directing towards others those very manipulative modes of relationship which each of us aspires to resist in our own case. The incoherence of our attitudes and our experience arises from the incoherent conceptual scheme which we have inherited" (68).

On the existence of human rights without a moral context:

"[T]here are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns. . . . [T]here are no self-evident truths. Twentieth-century moral philosophers have sometimes appealed to their and our intuitions; but one of the things that we ought to have learned from the history of moral philosophy is that the introduction of the word 'intuition' by a moral philosopher is always a signal that something has gone badly wrong with an argument" (69).

On what happens when most people try to understand themselves in relation to the world:

"When those immersed in the bureaucratic culture of the age try to think their way through to the moral foundations of what they are and what they do, they will discover suppressed Nietzschean premises" (114).

On the ability of narrative to allow us to create a coherent understanding of the world:

"[I]n determining what causal efficacy the agent's intentions had in one or more directions, and how his short-term intentions succeeded or failed to be constitutive of long-term intentions, we ourselves write a further part of these histories. Narrative history of a certain kind turns out to be the basic and essential genre for the characterization of human action" (208).

Sunday, May 30, 2010

On seeing what's there, and what isn't.

A couple of weeks ago, I was uploading pictures from my camera and frowning a little at how washed out they were. "You can fix that, you know," Daniel told me. He toggled the contrast and brightness levels in Microsoft Picture Viewer and suddenly my whole perception of the world changed. This is a little bit of an exaggeration. But this does reveal my unfortunate ignorance of the visual arts. Here I was thinking that my pictures always looked dull and unfinished because everyone else had a better camera than mine. Everyone else probably does have a better camera than I do, but I quickly discovered that I could at least make what I've got a lot more enjoyable to look at.

Monday of finals week, a group of friends and I got half-price Frappuccinos (greatest Starbucks promotion ever) and went down to the park in Liberty Station to do some studying. I spent about five minutes reading and then decided that any more effort wasn't going to significantly increase my performance on my test the next day. So I grabbed my camera and started taking pictures of whatever I saw. I heart macro settings a lot.

This is a lamppost, if you were wondering.

To demonstrate the radical difference just a little toggling can do, I have reproduced below two pictures of myself.


Here we have a nerdy girl taking self-timed pictures of herself in the park.

But with some photo editing, we have a really cool skirt and a magical world. Right? I do love that skirt. Angelica bought it at a thrift store but gave it to me because she thought it was too big on her. I thought it was too small on me until I tried it on again months later and it fit! I had to wear it. I had my Victorian lit final that day anyway. It just had to happen.

And below I am a guinea pig once again.


The original has a dismal industrial canal vibe, and I look like a seriously lost individual.

But with some contrast, and probably saturation and brightness or something, I can be lost in a technicolor wasteland. It's superb.

Altering my photos has an effect that is not unlike the sensation I had when I first put on my glasses (just about a year ago). Everything is clearer and brighter, and I am rediscovering details and images that I've been missing for so long.

I wondered briefly, after I discovered how this worked, whether changing my photos was on some level unethical, as if I were trying to alter reality. But I soon realized that my perception of cameras as capturing reality was faulty. Many (most) of my pictures don't look like what I see or what I am trying to portray. In a lot of cases, editing the photos actually creates an image that is closer to what I was perceiving and how I was perceiving it.

And some pictures, like this one, don't change too much even when I adjust the settings significantly. If anything, they just become a little more real.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller

So I'm sitting in on a summer class in part because half of the reading list was on my list of books I need to read this summer, and in part because Dr. Wright is teaching it. The title, if you can believe it, is "North Atlantic Philosophy at the Limit of Modernity: The Parallel Projects of Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor." MacIntyre, you'll recall, is the philosopher over whom Daniel and I bonded when we were first dating, or pre-dating, if you will. Daniel was reading MacIntyre because Dr. Wright recommended him, and I was reading MacIntyre because my philosophy prof, Dr. Thompson, recommended him, and it was just a joyful little confluence of reading recommendations.

Dr. Wright's first assignment was a 1959 Catholic science fiction novel (quite the genre, I know) that influenced MacIntyre's first major work and that gives valuable imagery for the subsequent course material, pictures upon which to hang the ideas that MacIntyre and Taylor present.

The director of the library walked by while I was reading Canticle and told me he became a librarian in part because of the book. One of the most meaningful functions of fiction is its ability to put into a few short scenes concepts that would takes pages of non-fiction prose to elucidate. With that in mind, I'm just going to catch a couple of the most important passages that I found in Miller's novel.

A fantastic picture of Taylor's concept of enchantment:

"In his own mind, there was no neat straight line separating the Natural from the Supernatural order, but rather, an intermediate twilight zone. There were things that were clearly natural, and there were Things that were clearly supernatural, but between these extremes was a region of confusion (his own)—the preternatural—where things made of mere earth, air, fire, or water tended to behave disturbingly like Things. For Brother Francis, this region included whatever he could see but not understand. And Brother Francis was never 'sure beyond a doubt,' as the abbot was asking him to be, that he properly understood much of anything. Thus, by raising the question at all, Abbot Arkos was unwittingly throwing the novice’s pilgrim into the twilight region, into the same perspective as the old man’s first appearance as a legless black strip that wriggled in the midst of a lake of heat illusion on the trail, into the same perspective as he had occupied momentarily when the novice’s world had contracted until it contained nothing but a hand offering him a particle of food. If some creature more-than-human chose to disguise itself as human, how was he to penetrate its disguise, or suspect there was one?"

The conflict of the secular perception of humans and the Christian view:

"'Look at him!' the scholar persisted. 'No, but it’s too dark now. You can’t see the syphilis outbreak on his neck, the way the bridge of his nose is being eaten away. Paresis. But he was undoubtedly a moron to begin with. Illiterate, superstitious, murderous. He diseases his children. For a few coins he would kill them. He will sell them anyway, when they are old enough to be useful. Look at him, and tell me if you see the progeny of a once-mighty civilization? What do you see?'
'The image of Christ,' grated the monsignor, surprised at his own sudden anger. 'What did you expect me to see?'
The scholar huffed impatiently. 'The incongruity. Men as you can observe them through any window, and men as historians would have us believe men once were. I can’t accept it. How can a great and wise civilization have destroyed itself so completely?'
'Perhaps,' said Apollo, 'by being materially great and materially wise, and nothing else.'"

An excellent inversion of the anti-intellectualism often associated with Christians:

"A young monk who was studying for the priesthood stood up and was recognized by the thon.
'Sir, I was wondering if you were acquainted with the suggestions of Saint Augustine on the subject?'
'I am not.'
'A fourth century bishop and philosopher. He suggested that in the beginning, God created all things in their germinal causes, including the physiology of man, and that the germinal causes inseminate, as it were, the formless matter—which then gradually evolved into the more complex shapes, and eventually Man. Has this hypothesis been considered?'
The thon’s smile was condescending, although he did not openly brand the proposal childish. 'I’m afraid it has not, but I shall look it up,' he said, in a tone that indicated he would not.
'Thank you,' said the monk, and sat down meekly."

History repeats itself, as the novel so skillfully illustrates. Try to build the kingdom of heaven on earth and it will end only in destruction:

"Too much hope for Earth had led men to try to make it Eden, and of that they might well despair until the time toward the consumption of the world—"

A perceptive acknowledgment of the gnostic heresy:

"Abbot Zerchi smiled thinly. 'You don’t have a soul, Doctor. You are a soul. You have a body, temporarily.'"

And, of course, the unbelievably incisive ending scenes, with the recognition of the secular need to eliminate suffering and the depiction of the competing allegiances of the state and the church:

"Abbot Zerchi groped for a sharp reply, found one, but swiftly swallowed it. He searched for a blank piece of paper and a pen and pushed them across the desk. 'Just write: "I will not recommend euthanasia to any patient while at this abbey," and sign it. Then you can use the courtyard.'
'And if I refuse?'
'Then I suppose they’ll have to drag themselves two miles down the road.'
'Of all the merciless—'
'On the contrary. I’ve offered you an opportunity to do your work as required by the law you recognize, without overstepping the law I recognize. Whether they go down the road or not is up to you.'"

Thursday, May 27, 2010

More fun with finals week.

So about three months prior, Daniel tells me that he's going to a Ben Folds concert in May. "It's during finals week, and the tickets are $35, but I feel like I've earned it," he told me. I asked him if I could go with him. "Well yeah, but I wasn't sure if you'd be interested," he said. Not interested in going with Daniel to his second concert ever and seeing a guy he's listened to for probably a decade? Come on. I'd go even if I didn't like Ben Folds. So we went.

Confession: It was my first "secular" concert, so I was right there in inexperience. And it was actually even better than I expected it to be. We were one or two bodies away from the stage, and a solo Ben Folds is just a genuinely good performance. Daniel's been playing piano for like 15 years, so he could vouch for the skill. I knew when he played second one of my favorites, "Annie Waits," that I was going to enjoy myself. And when he stood up and asked the audience how he looked because he just started wearing jeans this year, I couldn't stop laughing (see Christmas break post on what I gave Daniel). The whole standing for five hours straight thing was totally worth it.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Notes from Telling God's Story: Narrative Preaching for Christian Formation by John W. Wright

This is quickly becoming a handy, accessible catchall for the quotations from books that I want to keep. The first non-assigned book I picked up after finals week was by my pastor and professor. Daniel had read Telling God's Story during one of our semester breaks, and he said it had deeply contributed to his understanding of Dr. Wright's sermons. I'm also sitting in on a philosophy class with Dr. Wright this summer, so reading something by him was doubly illuminating.

Much of the book is practical instruction for shaping sermons in a manner that follows a tragic arc, rather than the comedic arc that has become the hallmark of evangelical preaching. Wright is also concerned with the formation of the congregation as a group distinct in purpose and meaning from other social bodies: "When the church is no different from the neighborhood watch group in ethos or mission or consequences, it is much easier for a family to stay in bed to watch the neighborhood over the paper before the NFL games begin than to load the kids in the car to attend worship services at a small church, for which they provide the financial backing" (69).

Wright incisively explains the process by which we have arrived at the prevailing church format: "With no ecclesiology committed to the gospel teachings of Jesus or the Pauline or Jamesian ecclesial formation, the covenant of grace, which often begins embracing the poor, tends to become upwardly mobile. Because salvation is solely individual, the church moves toward the wealthy and the powerful within society as the preferred market for the individual narrative of salvation. By reaching the influential, it is hoped that covenant of grace will envelop more and more people through the resources and influence that power and wealth possess. Such a move requires that we leave a specific market niche to a broader, more general demographic market" (72).

Wright's critique of nationalism mirrors that of William Cavanaugh, who spoke at our school this semester. If the nation is the same as the church, we may as well just be active in the nation (73).

Viewing ourselves as Christians and not as, for example, Americans, is a simple and yet devastatingly revolutionary move that completely rewrites the narratives we have of ourselves and our place in our culture: "While the covenant of grace and the federal covenant eclipsed the biblical narrative, the Scriptures still remain to call forth a faithful people through the workings of the Spirit. . . . [This church] would understand that conversion is more than a personal experience of a personal relationship with God; conversion requires the incorporation of an individual into a new people, a new family and developing the necessary virtues to live as aliens and exiles in this new transnational community" (74).

I'm a big fan of subtle feminist readings, and so I appreciated Wright's characterization of North American society as divided into the managerial (gendered male) and therapeutic (gendered female) realms (129-31). On this view, the workplace and the areas of commerce as well as political action are hard, rough, managerial realms that necessitate the therapeutic realm, into which churches often fall.

"Balance becomes a key virtue for sustaining life within such a cultural arrangement. "[Robert] Bellah argues that contemporary culture isolates the managerial from the therapeutic in ways that did not exist earlier in history" (131). This results in emotivism, moral good residing in the judgment of the individual (132). "Whether the church embraces this context or develops into a peculiar people that discerns where and how to be different makes all the difference in the world" (133).

But the church simply cannot fit into this managerial/therapeutic binary. "The biblical narrative does not tell us how to negotiate between public and private realms, nor how an individual might live a meaningful, self-fulfilled life. These simply are not categories consistent with the biblical narrative. The biblical narrative reveals how individuals might become members of God's elect people in order to witness to God's love, a witness that can—and often does—involve suffering for righteousness's sake" (137).

"Within God's story the church does not aim to provide therapeutic services for disturbed individuals. The church does not exist so that individuals might seek intimacy with others, themselves or God. The church exists as a people, a distinct people, whose witness can bring opposition from the world through the fact of its nonconformity, but whose communal life provides concrete, embodied resources for support amid the resultant suffering" (138).

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Fun with finals week.

I always dread finals week and then enjoy it more than most of the semester combined when it finally comes. Last week was no different. The Saturday before, Daniel and I headed to Hillcrest to finally, finally try Hash House, which we'd attempted to do for months. Afterward, we drove around the Banker's Hill area for a while. Turns out there's a fantastic old footbridge hidden in the middle of the neighborhood.

I googled it later. Turns out it's called the Spruce Street Bridge and it was built in 1912.

It was gorgeous.

I was a little unnerved by how high it was.

San Diego can be a magical place sometimes.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Today the ocean looked like a rash of silver ants on piled cobalt dirt. Trust me.

This is my commute—a twelve-minute walk from the dorm on campus closest to the ocean. It's like I'm rediscovering this place all over again.

I realized this afternoon stacking books in the library that I must have been going through caffeine withdrawals because, in between the moving and the starting jobs and whatnot, I hadn't had my cup per meal per usual, and I had a must-get-coffee-so-I-don't-fall-asleep-in-class moment, and then I had a revelation: I don't need to bring my A game to anything. No one's going to lecture me for 75 minutes and expect me to be alert and engaged the entire time; no one's going to make me responsible for arcane information and demand I recite it at arbitrary times; no one's going to assign a letter to my actions. I can be a little sleepy and a little dull.

This is the first summer in three years that I'm not taking classes, and a three-month stretch without homework is breathtakingly spread before me. Time to drop the textbooks and see what's outside my window.