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Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman RIP



Sad to see that Paul Newman has died. I haven't seen a lot of his movies, and I've especially missed those considered great, like The Hustler (1961), Hud (1963), and Cool Hand Luke (1967), but one that I remember liking was The Verdict.

The Verdict, a remake of an earlier film, was made in 1982, directed by Sidney Lumet, and adapted from a novel by David Mamet. It starred, besides Newman, Charlotte Rampling, Jack Warden, James Mason, Milo O'Shea and Lindsay Crouse, and Bruce Willis has an uncredited background appearance as an extra :) The basic plot .... an alcoholic lawyer takes a medical malpractice case against a Catholic hospital, for a brain damaged client, for the wrong reasons but manages to turn himself and the case around. I liked the way Newman's character defied the low expectations others had of his alcohol-compromised abilities and ethics, to redeem himself and avenge his now vegetative client. Here's a quote from Newman's character's summation to the jury ....

You know, so much of the time we're just lost. We say, "Please, God, tell us what is right; tell us what is true." And there is no justice: the rich win, the poor are powerless. We become tired of hearing people lie. And after a time, we become dead... a little dead. We think of ourselves as victims... and we become victims. We become... we become weak. We doubt ourselves, we doubt our beliefs. We doubt our institutions. And we doubt the law. But today you are the law. You ARE the law. Not some book... not the lawyers... not the, a marble statue... or the trappings of the court. See those are just symbols of our desire to be just. They are... they are, in fact, a prayer: a fervent and a frightened prayer. In my religion, they say, "Act as if ye had faith... and faith will be given to you." IF... if we are to have faith in justice, we need only to believe in ourselves. And ACT with justice. See, I believe there is justice in our hearts.


Roger Ebert gave the movie 4 stars. Here' his review of the film ....

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There is a moment in "The Verdict" when Paul Newman walks into a room and shuts the door and trembles with anxiety and with the inner scream that people should get off his back. No one who has ever been seriously hung over or needed a drink will fail to recognize the moment. It is the key to his character in "The Verdict," a movie about a drinking alcoholic who tries to pull himself together for one last step at salvaging his self-esteem.

Newman plays Frank Galvin, a Boston lawyer who has had his problems over the years - a lost job, a messy divorce, a disbarment hearing, all of them traceable in one way or another to his alcoholism. He has a "drinking problem," as an attorney for the archdiocese delicately phrases it. That means that he makes an occasional guest appearance at his office, and spends the rest of his day playing pinball and drinking beer, and his evening drinking Irish and looking to see if there isn't at least one last lonely woman in the world who will buy his version of himself in preference to the facts.

Galvin's pal, a lawyer named Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden) has drummed up a little work for him: An open-and-shut malpractice suit against a Catholic hospital in Boston where a young woman was carelessly turned into a vegetable because of a medical oversight. The deal is pretty simple. Galvin can expect to settle out of court and pocket a third of the settlement - enough to drink on for what little future he is likely to enjoy.

But Galvin makes the mistake of going to see the young victim in a hospital, where she is alive but in a coma. And something snaps inside of him. He determines to try this case, by god, and to prove that the doctors who took her mind away from her were guilty of incompetence and dishonesty. In Galvin's mind, bringing this case to court is one and the same thing with regaining his self-respect - with emerging from his own alcoholic coma.

Galvin's redemption takes place within the framework of a courtroom thriller. The screenplay by David Mamet is a wonder of good dialogue, strongly seen characters and a structure that pays off in the big courtroom scene - as the genre requires. As a courtroom drama, "The Verdict" is superior work. But the director and the star of this film, Sidney Lumet and Paul Newman, seem to be going for something more; "The Verdict" is more a character study than a thriller, and the buried suspense in this movie is more about Galvin's own life than about his latest case.

Frank Galvin provides Newman with the occasion for one of his great performances. This is the first movie in which Newman has looked a little old, a little tired. There are moments when his face sags and his eyes seem terribly weary, and we can look ahead clearly to the old men he will be playing in 10 years' time. Newman always has been an interesting actor, but sometimes his resiliency, his youthful vitality, have obscured his performances; he has a tendency to always look great, and that is not always what the role calls for. This time, he gives us old, bone-tired, hung-over, trembling (and heroic) Frank Galvin, and we buy it lock, stock and shot glass.

The movie is populated with finely tuned supporting performances (many of them by British or Irish actors, playing Bostonians not at all badly). Jack Warden is the old law partner; Charlotte Rampling is the woman, also an alcoholic, with whom Galvin unwisely falls in love; James Mason is the ace lawyer for the archdiocese; Milo O'Shea is the politically connected judge; Wesley Addy provides just the right presence as one of the accused doctors. The performances, the dialogue and the plot all work together like a rare machine.

But it's that Newman performance that stays in the mind. Some reviewers have found "The Verdict" a little slow moving, maybe because it doesn't always hum along on the thriller level. But if you bring empathy to the movie, if you allow yourself to think about what Frank Galvin is going through, there's not a moment of this movie that's not absorbing. "The Verdict" has a lot of truth in it, right down to a great final scene in which Newman, still drinking, finds that if you wash it down with booze, victory tastes just like defeat.

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Feelings Of A Republican On The Fall Of Bonaparte

- Percy Bysshe Shelley

I hated thee, fallen tyrant! I did groan
To think that a most unambitious slave,
Like thou, shouldst dance and revel on the grave
Of Liberty. Thou mightst have built thy throne
Where it had stood even now: thou didst prefer
A frail and bloody pomp which Time has swept
In fragments towards Oblivion. Massacre,
For this I prayed, would on thy sleep have crept,
Treason and Slavery, Rapine, Fear, and Lust,
And stifled thee, their minister. I know
Too late, since thou and France are in the dust,
That Virtue owns a more eternal foe
Than Force or Fraud: old Custom, legal Crime,
And bloody Faith the foulest birth of Time.


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Al Gore calls for civil disobedience


- A migrating blue whale surfaces off the coast of Long Beach, CA, near an oil rig (thanks, L.A. Unleashed)

Bill Clinton's annual summit of world leaders and celebrities opened today - Heavyweights talk world issues at Clinton event - and Al Gore gave a speech in which he addressed, among other things, the bizzare democratic backing of a bill in the house to undo the ban on offshore drilling and coal mining. Here are some excerpts from the speech (from GRIST's post 'That assumption just went splat') ......

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"The current economic crisis was triggered of course by the sudden collapse of an assumption. The so-called subprime mortgages were many of them without collateral -- that people weren't expected to pay back. The assumption was that if you lumped them together and securitize them, and magically that is going to remove the risk ... That assumption just went splat, and things began to unravel. And now in the midst of this frenetic effort to find a bailout, many are saying we should have prevented this. We should have realized that the short-term greed was overcoming a clear vision of what the risk was. Well, now is the time to prevent a much worse catastrophe, because the world has several trillion dollars in sub-prime carbon assets, based on the assumption that it is perfectly alright to put 70 million tons of global warming pollution into the atmosphere every 24 hours.

Since we met here last year, the world has lost ground in the climate crisis. This is a rout -- we're losing badly. The water supply is partly held in the ice packs of the mountains and the glaciers. They're disappearing. Haiti was ravaged by four different hurricanes, and of course the devastation came after the environment had been devastated with all the trees had been cut down. There are still people in Galveston waiting for food, for water, and medicine. A half a million people were evacuated from their homes in California because of record fires. The University of Tel Aviv just published research showing that for every one degree of warming, there will be a 10 percent increase in lightning strikes all over this planet, with drier vegetation in a warmer world and more dead vegetation because beetles are no longer held back by frost.

The fires are out of control on every front -- the strength of the storm, the depth of the drought, the movement of tropical diseases into areas that never experienced them before. This is the result of a dysfunctional, insane global system that we have to change. For the first time in all of human history, we as a species have to make a decision. If we make the right decision ... the answer to the economic crisis can truly provide an opportunity to make the right kinds of change."

... ....

"We should stop burning coal without sequestering the CO2. The coal and oil companies have spent in the United States alone half a billion dollars in the first 8 months of this year promoting the lie that there is such a thing as "clean coal." "Clean coal" is like "healthy cigarettes" -- it does not exist. It could theoretically exist. The only demonstration plant was canceled. How many such plants are there? Zero. How many blueprints? Zero."

.. ...

"Today the U.S. Congress is talking about energy. They are, without debate and without a single hearing, preparing to lift the moratorium on the development of oil shale, which would vastly multiply the amount of CO2 from every gallon of gasoline. This is utter insanity, and it demonstrates that the wealth and power and influence of the entrenched carbon lobby, that twists policy and puts out illusory impressions, is overwhelming the free debate. We need to stop this."

.....

"I believe that for a carbon company to spend money convincing the stock-buying public that there's no risk from the global climate crisis represents a form of stock fraud, because they are misrepresenting a material fact. If you're a carbon company and you're going out there and trying to convince people to buy your stock and that the climate crisis isn't that big a deal, and you're superstitiously giving money to these phony think-tanks that go out and try to gin up phony arguments while the entire scientific community has put out five unanimous reports in the past years practically screaming from the rooftops about how we need to solve this -- if you're a carbon company doing this, in my opinion you're guilty of a form of stock fraud, and I hope the state attorneys general around the country will try to take some action on that."

......

"And if you're a young person looking at the future of this planet and looking at what's being done now, I believe we've reached the stage where it's time for civil disobedience to prevent the construction of new coal-fired power plants that do not have sequestration."

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Ben Witherington on voting

I saw an excellent post on voting at Ben Witherington's blog - AN EVANGELICAL VOTERS GUIDE-SIX WEEKS OUT. No, I haven't switched sides, I'm still a liberal Catholic democrat :) but I think you'll agree, if you take the time to read what he's written, that his advice is wise .........

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[...] DO YOUR HOMEWORK—
There is really no excuse for laziness when it comes to being an informed voter, especially when we now have such a wealth of information online, and through other viable sources of news about candidates. Do not use the ‘cop out’ of ‘they’re all just the same’, or ‘no politicians are trustworthy’ or ‘I don’t have time for this’. If you have time to enjoy the freedoms you have in this country, then you certainly have time to become an informed voter. Period.

PLAN ON VOTING, EVEN IF YOU ARE FRUSTRATED—
The percentage of Christians who could vote but don’t is high, much too high, and the end result of such bad behavior is that we often get exactly what we’ve voted for--- Nothing! Or at least, nothing good. Do not let the fact that at this juncture there may seem to be no obvious candidate for a truly conservative Christian to vote for, for this office or that, deter you. There is better and there is worse, and you’d better figure out which is which, or what we will get is worse. This is particularly an urgent matter since in the last eight years things have certainly gotten worse economically and it terms of our relationships both with our allies and enemies. The politics of fear is trumping the politics of faith and sound reasoning repeatedly, and this leads to disastrous results in the long run for our country-- both economically and militarily.

DO NOT BE A ONE ISSUE VOTER--
However passionate you may be about a particular issue, lets say abortion, you should never, never vote for someone simply on the basis of a single ethical issue. Never. Did, I mention not ever. Why not?

Because there are a plethora of inter-related important issues that affect our lives, and our Christian existence, and if you privilege only one such issue, you are likely to make a mistake in evaluating candidates. It is fine to allow a stance on one issue to be the tipping point such that you favor candidate A over candidate B, when otherwise it’s pretty much of a wash, but there should be no shibboleth. One illustration will have to do.

In a crucial election during the time of the cold war, and with heightened tensions with Cuba. Kennedy ran vs. Nixon. Many people did not vote for Kennedy, simply because he was a Catholic, and we had not had a Catholic President previously. There were even stupid and ill-considered inflammatory remarks made about how if Kennedy got elected, the country would be subject to the influence of the Pope in some objectionable ways. Thank goodness such benighted ideas did not determine the outcome of the election. Kennedy was the right man at the time, and he helped diffuse the Cuban missile crisis. We need to learn some lessons from the political past lest we continue to make the same mistakes over and over again.


From here on, in this post, I will be talking about matters that pertain to critical thinking on the issues.

THINK ABOUT HOW MUCH CHARACTER SHOULD WEIGH IN WHO YOU VOTE FOR---
Life is complex, and so are ethical issues. One of the things you need to decide is whether it is more important to you what kind of person you vote for, in terms of character, or what the stances are of the person you are voting for. Sometimes we have elected well-meaning good Christian folks who couldn’t govern their way out of a paper bag. Sometimes we have elected very effective politicians, who nevertheless raised some issues for us because of their stances on particular issues. In a perfect world we could wish for candidates who are both skilled as public servants and have impeccable character.

Unfortunately, this all too often not the case, especially because of the way our political process now works with PAC money and lobbyists and numerous other unhealthy factors determining who actually can be viable candidates for a major office. In the situation we are in, how much should the candidate’s agreement with me on my list of hot button issues weigh in my decision? How much should their apparent character weigh? What do you do if it’s hard to tell? These are important questions. Personally I would rather have a politician skilled in the art of compromise (which is of the essence of modern democracy and policy making) who is of generally good character, but with whom I may disagree with on this issue or another, than a devout but unexperienced and unskilled Christian person. Let me use an analogy.

Would you rather have a surgeon operating on you in a life threatening situation who is a devout Christian, but not all that skillful and experienced in getting the job done right, or would you rather have a surgeon who has an impeccable record in regard to doing his job well, a stellar record of good outcomes when he applied his skills but whom you had some ethical disagreements? I personally would want surgeon B, if there had to be a choice.


PRIORITIZE WHAT YOU IN GOOD CONSCIENCE THINK ARE THE MOST CRUCIAL ISSUES—AND EVALUATE THE CANDIDATES ON THE BASIS OF THOSE PRIORITIES.---
Obviously, this list of vital issues is a moving target which will change in some cases, as our country’s situation changes. I wouldn’t think anyone would be weighing where the current crop of candidates stand on the Spanish-American war many moons ago! I would strongly urge Evangelicals not to limit their list to just personal ethical issues, such as matters of sexual ethics, abortion, and the like. These are very important, but as thinking Evangelicals you also need to weigh where candidates stand on various aspects of foreign policy—the trade deficit, the war in Iraq, or economic relationships with China and other third world countries, the position of the candidate on Darfur, the issue of nuclear regulation (in North Korea, Iran etc.), our relationship with crucial Muslim countries where we have a stake but are not embroiled in military action currently—Turkey, Pakistan, etc. In other words, we need to be global Christians, and think globally, especially if our first commitment is, as it should be, to the worldwide body of Christ and the worldwide spread of the Gospel.


BE SMART ENOUGH TO SEE WHEN A CANDIDATE IS NOT BEING HONEST OR FORTH-RIGHT ABOUT HIS OR HER VIEWS
Obfuscation and fuzziness has of course become a political art form, and sometimes this is because the potential emperor has no clothes, or hasn’t thought through the issues themselves. The last thing we need in our current situation is politicians who make it up as they go along, or show signs of constantly shifting their views, depending on which way the political wind blows.


DON’T JUST VOTE ON GUT INSTINCT. THINK, EVALUATE, DISCUSS, PRAY BEFORE PULLING THE LEVER.
I wish I could tell you that the above outlined process of discernment was easy, but it is not. And there will be ambiguities, and you will have to make some judgment calls. You have to accept that you may well make some mistakes, and all the more is this likely to be the case when there is no clear front-runner that an Evangelical Christian of any stripe might think was someone one ought obviously to vote for.


Over the course of the coming six weeks, pay attention to the ads, watch a few of the debates, read up on the candidates web sites, watch the primaries, and be prepared. It would be a great tragedy if only a minority of Christians voted in the next election who are eligible, and the country continued its downward slide as a result. The old saying ‘you get what you pay for’ could be changed to ‘you get what you do or don’t vote for’.

Remember the old adage—all it takes for something bad to happen, or continue happening, is for good people to stand idly by and let that transpire.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

NT Wright on the economic failure

I've been reading about the Wall Street thing in the news, of course, but I don't understand economics so haven't posted anything on it. But today I came across Bishop of Durham NT Wright's answer at On Faith to the question, Are the economy's recent financial failures also moral failures? Are credit and debt religious issues? Do you have faith in the economy?. Trust him to drag in TS Eliot and CS Lewis :) ........

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Economy Built on Wishes and Wants

As someone with a close family member right at the heart of the current crisis -- he is quite senior in Lehmans and has hardly slept for the last month -- I have taken a close interest in this. No, I don't 'have faith in the economy'; my experience of talking to economists both in Oxford and in London is that, like weather forecasters, though they can tell you how past patterns have worked and what the immediate future is likely to bring, they don't control the weather and are regularly taken by surprise. Frequently the large-scale banking and international finance system, when you ask key questions to key people, looks remarkably like a hugely complex system of betting on horse-races and staying sufficiently ahead of the game so that the by the time the problems strike you are several moves ahead on another deal.

Two generations ago wry commentators like T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis noted that in the Bible and the Koran it is forbidden to use money to make money, i.e. to take interest -- and that our entire modern western economy, and now more or less the global economy, is built on that system and nothing else. Ironically (in view of the moral posturing of 'the West' against Islam in recent years) some countries, certainly my own in recent legislation, have quietly made provision for Muslims to 'do business' in different ways so they can keep (a version of) their laws. Nobody has suggested making similar provisions for Jews or Christians.

All this makes me reflect that it is highly likely that there are sicknesses of various sorts quite deep within our present culture and that we shouldn't be surprised when, from time to time, they burst out the way they are doing right now. Of course, there are the daily and hourly sicknesses which result from the arrangements put in place in the mid-1940s -- the Bretton Woods agreement and cognate measures -- which were designed to make the western economies flourish at the expense of the third world, and are continuing to do so. I get howls of protest whenever I mention the problem of global debt, but I have yet to see actual good arguments for a system where the rich get richer at the expense of the poor. And though there are many fine, honest and generous people working in the system, it may well be that the system as a whole needs a much more critical examination, by those qualified to do so, than most Christians have dared to offer. Certainly the way the 'debt culture' has spiraled -- remember that credit cards and the like are a very, very recent invention, and that the idea of 'taking the waiting out of wanting' was, until very recently, widely regarded as a sign of moral degeneracy -- is a major index of societal ill-health, in which, as with lotteries, the poor are effectively taxed by the rich while the rich tell them 'aren't you having fun!'.

This isn't a diagnosis; it's a signpost towards one. Nor do I have a remedy lying ready to hand. What does 'repent and believe' mean in this situation? I'm not exactly sure; but I do know that it will involve cheerful generosity. Giving money away is the first great step towards dethroning it as an idol. As long as we are a culture of mammon-worshippers we can expect, quite literally, to pay the price that idols always demand.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Some Paris churches

I've been thinking about Paris, partly because the Pope was visiting there but more so because the story in the book I'm listening to, The Magician: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, is taking place there. The book has so far mentioned Sacré-Coeur Basilica, which I posted about a while ago, and I thought I'd take a look at some other churches in Paris via Wikipedia. Here are some photos from a few of them. Follow the links to read more about them and see more pics .....


- the upper chapel of Sainte Chapelle



- interior of the Panthéon, which was originally built as a church dedicated to St. Genevieve, but now combines liturgical functions with its role as a famous burial place of notables like Voltaire, Rousseau, Marat, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, and (my favorite :) Alexandre Dumas. Also of interest, Foucault's pendulum was constructed here



- a gnomon is in the background of this pic (see the obelisk?) and in the foreground the brass meridian line lies on the floor of Église Saint-Sulpice .... remember this was part of the plot of The Da Vinci Code?



- the tomb of Descartes, in the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés



- L'église de la Madeleine, began existence as a church named for Mary Magdalene, went through a number of reconstructions and planned purposes, including a temple to the glory of Napoleon's army, and later a possible train station, but was finally consecrated as a church in 1842



- the tomb of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in the Basilique de Saint-Denis, the burial site of almost all the French monarchs since Clovis I (465 - 511)


Sunday, September 21, 2008

More David Foster Wallace

I came across this transcript of David Foster Wallace's 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address, thanks to a post at dotCommonweal, and thought I'd post it, as it's pretty interesting. I think commencement speeches are intriguing - I've posted bits of others in the past, including one by Jesuit Ignacio Ellacuría. You can look up others at Humanity.org's commencement speech archive.

Here's Wallace's speech ....

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(If anybody feels like perspiring [cough], I'd advise you to go ahead, because I'm sure going to. In fact I'm gonna [mumbles while pulling up his gown and taking out a handkerchief from his pocket].) Greetings ["parents"?] and congratulations to Kenyon's graduating class of 2005. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"

This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story ["thing"] turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.

Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I'm supposed to talk about your liberal arts education's meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let's talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about quote teaching you how to think. If you're like me as a student, you've never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I'm going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we're supposed to get in a place like this isn't really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I'd ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious.

Here's another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: "Look, it's not like I don't have actual reasons for not believing in God. It's not like I haven't ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn't see a thing, and it was fifty below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out 'Oh, God, if there is a God, I'm lost in this blizzard, and I'm gonna die if you don't help me.'" And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. "Well then you must believe now," he says, "After all, here you are, alive." The atheist just rolls his eyes. "No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp."

It's easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people's two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy's interpretation is true and the other guy's is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person's most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there's the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They're probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists' problem is exactly the same as the story's unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up.

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don't worry that I'm getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being "well-adjusted", which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education -- least in my own case -- is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let's get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what "day in day out" really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I'm talking about.

By way of example, let's say it's an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home. You haven't had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It's the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it's pretty much the last place you want to be but you can't just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store's confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough check-out lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can't take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.

Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn't yet been part of you graduates' actual life routine, day after week after month after year.

But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it's going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.

Or, of course, if I'm in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV's and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.

You get the idea.

If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn't have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It's the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities.

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it's not impossible that some of these people in SUV's have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he's in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.

Again, please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it's hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat out won't want to.

But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it.

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.

They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and [unintelligible -- sounds like "displayal"]. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don't just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

"This is water."

"This is water."

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

I wish you way more than luck.

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Time Eater


- Stephen Hawking and the Corpus Clock. My favorite part of the clock is the grasshopper escapement, the insectile Chronophage, on top. Here's a bit about the Chronophage from Wikipedia ....

****

The dominating visual feature of the clock is a sculpture of a grim-looking, devouring, metal insect similar to a grasshopper or locust. The sculpture is actually the clock's escapement (see below). Taylor calls this beast the Chronophage (literally 'time eater', from the Greek χρόνος (chronos) time, and φαγέω (phageo) to eat). It moves its mouth, appearing to 'eat up' the seconds as they pass, and occasionally it 'blinks' in seeming satisfaction. The creature's constant motion produces an eerie grinding sound that suits its task. The hour is tolled by the sound of a chain clanking into a small wooden coffin hidden in the back of the clock.

The clock is entirely accurate only once every five minutes. The rest of the time, the pendulum may seem to catch or stop, and the lights may lag or, then, race to get ahead. According to Taylor, this erratic motion reflects life's 'irregularity'.

Conceived as a work of public art, the Chronophage reminds viewers in a dramatic way of the inevitable passing of time. Taylor deliberately designed it to be 'terrifying': 'Basically I view time as not on your side. He'll eat up every minute of your life, and as soon as one has gone he's salivating for the next.' Others have described it as 'hypnotically beautiful and deeply disturbing'.

****

How a grasshopper escapement works ....




Saturday, September 20, 2008

Visio Divina


- It is Finished, 23" x 16.5". collagraph, 2005, by Sandra Bowden.

I've read a little about lectio divina, but for the first time I noticed something called visio divina at the Episcopal Cafe .... they have a great art blog. That made me look up the term and I came across an interesting Episcopalian site - Visio Divina ....

The practice of visio divina shares its origins with the long-practiced form of scripture reading known as lectio divina. As with lectio divina, visio divina nurtures the spiritual life through an intentional practice of reflection on scripture. With visio divina, visual art and scripture are considered together, supporting the practictioner through the reading of the Word, seeing with the eyes, listening with the heart, and responding in prayer.

For those interested in art and scripture, there's a different page I often visit - Art Index By Scripture - New Testament There you can find the scriptural passage you're interested in, click on it, and get a page of links to artworks representing that passage.


Friday, September 19, 2008

James Alison on the Holy Spirit

I don't really understand about the Holy Spirit, and reading what Fr. Alison has to say about it in his book, Knowing Jesus, both confuses and excites me. That's why I like to read him :) Here's some of it .....

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I have been trying to fill out the density of the presence of the risen Lord to the apostles, so as to give some possibility of our entering into the experience which they had, to which they bear witness, and which is normative for any experience of Jesus which we might have .....

So what was the difference between the way Jesus was present to the apostles in his resurrection appearances, and his presence thereafter? Well, I've underlined two ways of Jesus' being present to them: his actual physical presence, by which he appeared, they could touch him, and he could eat fish; and, along with that, and as part of it, the gratuitous forgiving presence that called them out of themselves towards the other whom they found difficult to recognize, and which gradually transformed their lives. These two came together in the case of the apostles. They do not come together for us. The physical appearances of Jesus came to an end after an interval which Luke puts at the symbolic figure of forty days, though the surprise appearance to Saul was later. During that period, Jesus taught them about the kingdom of God (Acts 1.3), and helped the fullness of the novelty of the resurrection sink in. Then he ascended to heaven, and shortly thereafter, the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles.

That's how Luke presents it. John's approach is rather different. He has Jesus breathe the Holy Spirit into the apostles on the first evening of the resurrection. Then Jesus carries on appearing for a time, but there is no Pentecost in John ..... but in both cases the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the risen Lord, the Spirit that was in Christ. The Spirit constantly makes present the crucified and risen Lord, thus perpetually reproducing those changes of relationship which the risen Lord had started to produce as a result of his resurrection. What I'm trying to say is that outside the group of apostles who were physical witnesses to the resurrected Lord, no one gets to see the physically risen Lord. But instead, all the really important elements of the resurrection - the irruption into our lives of a gratuity as forgiveness, permitting a recasting of relationships - all that, is made constantly available to us by the Holy Spirit, so that we are able to become witnesses to the resurrection in our own lives ......

The Holy Spirit and the risen Lord are not simply identical, any more than Jesus and the Father are simply identical. There is in both cases a relationship to someone who is other than, and yet the same as, Jesus ... Suffice it to say that what the Holy Spirit brings is the whole life and death of the risen Lord, reproducing that life in the lives and deaths of the faithful, so that they become witnesses to that risen life and death. The Holy Spirit is the giving of himself by Jesus, to us to be killed, in obedience to the Father, and the giving back of his life to Jesus by the Father, simultaneously. That is what I think is meant by the Spirit that is in Christ. It is the Spirit of self-giving made present through the concrete human life and death of Jesus. To put it crudely, it is the internal workings of the life and death of Jesus. It is what informed his relationship with the Father, and with us, and the Father's relationship with him, and with us. The dynamic that was at work in all that: that is the Holy Spirit.

It is important to grasp that there aren't 'other bits' of the Holy Spirit which we might experience instead, that are separate from, and nothing to do with, the presence of the life and death of the crucified and risen Lord. The Holy Spirit is not some vague, numinous force that is somehow bigger and less exclusive than the crucified and risen Jesus - and rather nicer, perhaps, having to do with peace and joy and so on, rather than murder and violence. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the crucified and risen Jesus .... the Spirit was precisely made maximally present and available because of the crucifixion and resurrection. All the power and self-giving of God that went into the crucifixion and the resurrection is perpetually present in the Holy Spirit, and so is perpetually present to all of us who receive it ......

I've chosen to describe the Holy Spirit in a rather different way from what is usual. And this is for a firm reason: for many people, the term 'Holy Spirit' is a comfortingly benign and vague term, a term with no real content or bite on life. If you like, it's God at his most ethereal. If in doubt, attribute it to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will sort out our tangled petitions and desires and so on. Well, I don't want to deny that. I constantly hope and pray that the Holy Spirit sorts out my tangled petitions and desires. But I want to bring a little more down to earth, give a little more content to, what the Holy Spirit is about. The Holy Spirit is a divine reality who works on a human level, and our best approach to understanding what goes on is not to let go of the human level, but to allow that level to be deepened. It is not by fleeing the human dimension of our faith, nasty though it be, that we will find God, but by learning how God loves it and transforms it.

It is in the changes in human ways of relating brought about by the presence of the crucified and risen Jesus that we will find out about the Holy Spirit. So I have chosen to talk about these changes without using the word Holy Spirit, to prevent us from flying off into an ethereal realm, and to keep us more firmly tied to how the crucified and risen Lord affects us. It is only thus that we will find out how it is that exactly the same package is available to us with exactly the same force, leading to exactly the same sorts of conversion, or change of heart, as was present to the apostles. That means that just as the risen Lord irrupted into the middle of their lives, in exactly the circumstances in which they were, in the sadness and treachery, and rivalry and fear which characterized them, and started the huge work of their transformation with the materia prima that was to hand, so also does he do with us.

Well. That sounds powerful, but in a sense too powerful to be convincing .....

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:)


News

I saw a story in The Wall Street Journal - Catholic Bishops Seek to Meet With McCain, Obama. Here's some of it ....

For the first time in recent memory, leaders of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops have invited the two presidential candidates to meet with them before the election. Neither Republican John McCain nor Democrat Barack Obama have replied to the invitations offered last month, said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the conference .....

For the first time in recent memory, leaders of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops have invited the two presidential candidates to meet with them before the election. Neither Republican John McCain nor Democrat Barack Obama have replied to the invitations offered last month, said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the conference.

"This isn't born of any concern or worry or problem," said Bishop Murphy. "We think it would be helpful for us to have that time and we think it would be helpful for the candidates to hear from the teachers of the Catholic church …as to what our concerns are." ......


I'd like to be a fly on that wall :)


Thursday, September 18, 2008

Numb3rs



This week's movie rental wasn't a movie but discs of a tv series I'd never watched before - Numb3rs.

The series is produced by the Scott brothers, Tony and Ridley (of Blade Runner fame). It's about FBI Special Agent Don Eppes (Rob Morrow) and his genius math professor brother, Charlie Eppes (David Krumholtz), who lives with their dad and who helps Don solve crimes.

The show focuses equally on the relationships between Don Eppes, his brother Charlie Eppes and their father, Alan Eppes (Judd Hirsch), and on the brothers' efforts to fight crime, normally in Los Angeles. A typical episode begins with a crime, which is subsequently investigated by a team of FBI agents led by Don and mathematically described by Charlie, with the help of [theoretical physicist and cosmologist] Larry Fleinhardt (Peter MacNicol) and Amita Ramanujan (Navi Rawat). The insights provided by Charlie's mathematics are always in some way crucial to solving the crime.

The FBI stuff is good, and the relationship between the brothers is interesting, but science idiot that I am, I'm especially fascinated by all the science and math stuff (the show won the Carl Sagan Award for Public Understanding of Science in 2006, and the National Science Board's Public Service Award in 2007). Charlie works at a fictional college called CalSci, and the scenes which take place at CalSci are mostly filmed at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). I've watched only a few episodes and they've already discussed game theory, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, Schrödinger's cat, logic, the Millennium Problems, the Foucault pendulum, and the weird mathematics of paper folding.

Anyway, I like the series very much and recommend it. And for those interested, there is a neat blog run by Prof. Mark Bridger at Northeastern University - The Math behind Numb3rs - that explains the math used in each episode.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Beauty

- Charles Baudelaire

I am as lovely as a dream in stone;
My breast on which each finds his death in turn
Inspires the poet with a love as lone
As everlasting clay, and as taciturn.
Swan-white of heart, as sphinx no mortal knows,
My throne is in the heaven's azure deep;
I hate all movement that disturbs my pose;
I smile not ever, neither do I weep.

Before my monumental attitudes,
Taken from the proudest plastic arts,
My poets pray in austere studious moods,

For I, to fold enchantment round their hearts,
Have pools of light where beauty flames and dies,
The placid mirrors of my luminous eyes.


A Letter Home

- Siegfried Sassoon

1

Here I’m sitting in the gloom
Of my quiet attic room.
France goes rolling all around,
Fledged with forest May has crowned.
And I puff my pipe, calm-hearted,
Thinking how the fighting started,
Wondering when we’ll ever end it,
Back to Hell with Kaiser send it,
Gag the noise, pack up and go,
Clockwork soldiers in a row.
I’ve got better things to do
Than to waste my time on you.

2

Robert, when I drowse to-night,
Skirting lawns of sleep to chase
Shifting dreams in mazy light,
Somewhere then I’ll see your face
Turning back to bid me follow
Where I wag my arms and hollo,
Over hedges hasting after
Crooked smile and baffling laughter.
Running tireless, floating, leaping,
Down your web-hung woods and valleys,
Garden glooms and hornbeam alleys,
Where the glowworm stars are peeping,
Till I find you, quiet as stone
On a hill-top all alone,
Staring outward, gravely pondering
Jumbled leagues of hillock-wandering.

3

You and I have walked together
In the starving winter weather.
We’ve been glad because we knew
Time’s too short and friends are few.
We’ve been sad because we missed
One whose yellow head was kissed
By the gods, who thought about him
Till they couldn’t do without him.
Now he’s here again; I’ve seen
Soldier David dressed in green,
Standing in a wood that swings
To the madrigal he sings.
He’s come back, all mirth and glory,
Like the prince in fairy story.
Winter called him far away;
Blossoms bring him home with May.

4

Well, I know you’ll swear it’s true
That you found him decked in blue
Striding up through morning-land
With a cloud on either hand.
Out in Wales, you’ll say, he marches,
Arm in arm with oaks and larches;
Hides all night in hilly nooks,
Laughs at dawn in tumbling brooks.
Yet, it’s certain, here he teaches
Outpost-schemes to groups of beeches.
And I’m sure, as here I stand,
That he shines through every land,
That he sings in every place
Where we’re thinking of his face.

5

Robert, there’s a war in France;
Everywhere men bang and blunder,
Sweat and swear and worship Chance,
Creep and blink through cannon thunder.
Rifles crack and bullets flick,
Sing and hum like hornet-swarms.
Bones are smashed and buried quick.
Yet, through stunning battle storms,
All the while I watch the spark
Lit to guide me; for I know
Dreams will triumph, though the dark
Scowls above me where I go.
You can hear me; you can mingle
Radiant folly with my jingle.
War’s a joke for me and you
While we know such dreams are true!

S.S. Flixécourt. May 1916.


Inventory Of Hades

- E. J. Pratt

1. Statesmen and apothecaries,
Poets, plumbers, antiquaries,
Premiers with their secretaries,
Home and foreign missionaries,
And writers of obituaries.

2. Mediaeval disputants,
Mystics in perpetual trance,
Philosophers in baggy pants,
Puritans to whom the chance
Had never come in life to dance
Save when the dreadful circumstance
Of death removed their maiden aunts.

3. Scribes with wide phylacteries,
Publicists and Sadducees,
Scholars, saints and Ph.D.’s.

4. Doctors, auctioneers and bakers,
Dentists, diplomats and fakirs,
Clergymen and undertakers.

5. Rich men, poor men, fools and sots,
Logicians, tying Shades in knots,
Pagans, Christians, Hottentots,
Deacons good and bad in spots,
Farmers with their Wyandots.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Good Bye


- Dr. Franklin on B5 was played by Richard Biggs, who passed away in 2004

I've had a song in my head since last night. I'm still working on discs from the science fiction series Babylon 5 and just watched a memerable episode - Walkabout. Dr. Stephen Franklin, who has more or less lost himself to a drug addiction, decides to go on a walkabout to find himself again. He describes it this way to his friend Garibaldi ....

You just leave everything and you start walking. The Foundation [his religion of choice] adopted the idea from the aborigines back on Earth. The theory is, if you are separated from yourself, you start walking and you keep walking, until you meet yourself. Then you sit down and you have a long talk. You talk about everything that you've learned and everything that you've felt. Now you talk until you have run out of words. Now that is vital, because the real important things can't be said. Then, if you are lucky, you look up and there is just you. Then you can go home.

On his walkabout, he drops into a bar in the deteriorated Downbelow sector and listens to a lounge singer (played by Erica Gimpel) sing Good Bye. Here's a YouTube of that part of the B5 episode - Stephen walking into the bar and Erica singing :)




Caveat emptor



When I saw the story in the news about the Chinese contaminated milk powder that's harmed babies, I was reminded of last year's contaminated pet food that killed a number of dogs and cats here, also from Chinese sources. In both cases, a chemical used in plastics was added to increase a perceived protein content in the products A story in the Christian Science Monitor brings up an important point - it's impossible to oversee all aspects of business, and we must and do, at least to some degree, rely on peoples' integrity to insure the relative safety of products. Here's some of the story ....

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Behind bad baby milk, an ethical gap in China's business

Beijing - As Chinese officials warned Tuesday that contaminated milk powder may have sickened more than the 1,200 babies already identified, the scandal revealed more than a recurrent regulatory problem, Chinese and foreign experts suggested.

Rather, they said, it pointed to a deeper malaise in Chinese society where private profit often trumps the public good as the country races to create a market economy that has outstripped government regulators.

"China has the problems of any transitional economy," says Yanzhong Huang, a global health expert at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. "But the deeper and more fundamental challenge China faces is a systematic lack of business ethics."

"You cannot fully police the whole food chain," adds Dali Yang, a politics professor at the University of Chicago. "A lot depends on changes in social norms. People have to recognize that integrity does matter." ......

Investigators say it appears that milk merchants, selling to Sanlu the raw milk they had bought from farmers, had added the chemical – normally used in plastics and fertilizers – to boost the milk's apparent protein content ......

Not only did Sanlu fail to detect the melamine in its milk powder, the company has also so far failed to explain why it did not publicly reveal the problem until Sept. 11, although it had received complaints from worried parents as early as last March, and identified the contamination on Aug. 6 .....

Last year, after a wave of food safety scandals involving pet food, toothpaste, and seafood, the Chinese government pledged stricter controls, especially of food destined for export ......

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- from 2007


Monday, September 15, 2008

Animal Minds



Here's part of an article from National Geographic - Animal Minds - which my sister brought over today ....

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[...] Certain skills are considered key signs of higher mental abilities: good memory, a grasp of grammar and symbols, self-awareness, understanding others' motives, imitating others, and being creative. Bit by bit, in ingenious experiments, researchers have documented these talents in other species, gradually chipping away at what we thought made human beings distinctive while offering a glimpse of where our own abilities came from ......

Charles Darwin, who attempted to explain how human intelligence developed, extended his theory of evolution to the human brain: Like the rest of our physiology, intelligence must have evolved from simpler organisms, since all animals face the same general challenges of life. They need to find mates, food, and a path through the woods, sea, or sky—tasks that Darwin argued require problem-solving and categorizing abilities. Indeed, Darwin went so far as to suggest that earthworms are cognitive beings because, based on his close observations, they have to make judgments about the kinds of leafy matter they use to block their tunnels. He hadn't expected to find thinking invertebrates and remarked that the hint of earthworm intelligence "has surprised me more than anything else in regard to worms."

To Darwin, the earthworm discovery demonstrated that degrees of intelligence could be found throughout the animal kingdom. But the Darwinian approach to animal intelligence was cast aside in the early 20th century, when researchers decided that field observations were simply "anecdotes," usually tainted by anthropomorphism. In an effort to be more rigorous, many embraced behaviorism, which regarded animals as little more than machines, and focused their studies on the laboratory white rat—since one "machine" would behave like any other.

But if animals are simply machines, how can the appearance of human intelligence be explained? Without Darwin's evolutionary perspective, the greater cognitive skills of people did not make sense biologically. Slowly the pendulum has swung away from the animal-as-machine model and back toward Darwin. A whole range of animal studies now suggest that the roots of cognition are deep, widespread, and highly malleable ......

"People were surprised to discover that chimpanzees make tools," said Alex Kacelnik, a behavioral ecologist at Oxford University, referring to the straws and sticks chimpanzees shape to pull termites from their nests. "But people also thought, 'Well, they share our ancestry—of course they're smart.' Now we're finding these kinds of exceptional behaviors in some species of birds. But we don't have a recently shared ancestry with birds. Their evolutionary history is very different; our last common ancestor with all birds was a reptile that lived over 300 million years ago.

"This is not trivial," Kacelnik continued. "It means that evolution can invent similar forms of advanced intelligence more than once—that it's not something reserved only for primates or mammals." ..........

"Sometimes the human cognitive psychologists can be so fixed on their definitions that they forget how fabulous these animal discoveries are," said Clive Wynne of the University of Florida, who has studied cognition in pigeons and marsupials. "We're glimpsing intelligence throughout the animal kingdom, which is what we should expect. It's a bush, not a single-trunk tree with a line leading only to us."

Some of the branches on that bush have led to such degrees of intelligence that we should blush for ever having thought any animal a mere machine.

In the late 1960s a cognitive psychologist named Louis Herman began investigating the cognitive abilities of bottlenose dolphins. Like humans, dolphins are highly social and cosmopolitan, living in subpolar to tropical environments worldwide; they're highly vocal; and they have special sensory skills, such as echolocation. By the 1980s Herman's cognitive studies were focused on a group of four young dolphins—Akeakamai, Phoenix, Elele, and Hiapo—at the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory in Hawaii. The dolphins were curious and playful, and they transferred their sociability to Herman and his students.

"In our work with the dolphins, we had a guiding philosophy," Herman says, "that we could bring out the full flower of their intellect, just as educators try to bring out the full potential of a human child. Dolphins have these big, highly complex brains. My thought was, 'OK, so you have this pretty brain. Let's see what you can do with it.' " ........

"There are many things they could do that people have always doubted about animals. For example, they correctly interpreted, on the very first occasion, gestured instructions given by a person displayed on a TV screen behind an underwater window. They recognized that television images were representations of the real world that could be acted on in the same way as in the real world."

They readily imitated motor behaviors of their instructors too. If a trainer bent backward and lifted a leg, dolphin would turn on its back and lift its tail in the air. Although imitation was once regarded as a simpleminded skill, in recent years cognitive scientists have revealed that it's extremely difficult, requiring the imitator to form a mental image of the other person's body and pose, then adjust his own body parts into the same position—actions that imply an awareness of one's self ........

"I loved our dolphins," Herman says, "as I'm sure you love your pets. But it was more than that, more than the love you have for a pet. The dolphins were our colleagues. That's the only word that fits. They were our partners in this research, guiding us into all the capabilities of their minds. When they died, it was like losing our children."

Herman pulled a photograph from his file. In it, he is in the pool with Phoenix, who rests her head on his shoulder. He is smiling and reaching back to embrace her. She is sleek and silvery with appealingly large eyes, and she looks to be smiling too, as dolphins always do. It's an image of love between two beings. In that pool, at least for that moment, there was clearly a meeting of the minds.

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Are some things still worth dying for?


- Wallace

I saw a post at America magazine's blog today - David Foster Wallace, RIP, and a Provocation to Catholic Theology by Tom Beaudoin, professor of practical theology at Fordham University. Here's the beginning of it ....

The death of David Foster Wallace, who apparently took his own life last week, is a permanent, and perhaps underappreciated, deep loss for theology in general and Catholic theology in particular. As the commentary about his life and work over the last several days has begun to spell out, Wallace's work, both the form and the content of his creativity, registered the complexities and possibilities of post-1960s American culture. Particularly in his biblical tome Infinite Jest [Time Magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.] .....

Literary dummy that I am, I had never heard of David Foster Wallace, but looked him up and saw, among other things, reference to a short essay in The Atlantic that caught my attention. Here it is below ......

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Just Asking by David Foster Wallace

Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea* one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”?* In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are evidently worth that high price? Is monstrousness why no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned about more than 200 years ago? What exactly has changed between Franklin’s time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice—either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?

In the absence of such a conversation, can we trust our elected leaders to value and protect the American idea as they act to secure the homeland? What are the effects on the American idea of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Patriot Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.? Assume for a moment that some of these measures really have helped make our persons and property safer—are they worth it? Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?

FOOTNOTES:
1. Given the strict Gramm-Rudmanewque space limit here, let's just please all agree that we generally know what this term connotes—an open society, consent of the governed, enumerated powers, Federalist 10, pluralism, due process, transparency ... the whole democratic roil.

2. (This phrase is Lincoln's, more or less)

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

The devil's advocate


- Professor Langdon is flown to CERN in a Lockheed Martin X-33

After the recent exciting news of the particle accelerator at CERN, I decided to see if Dan Brown's book, Angels & Demons, which features CERN, might be in audio form. The library had it - 18 sound discs. It begins with the murder of a scientist/Catholic priest working at CERN. Robert Langdon, a professor of religious symbology at Harvard, is called to help by CERN's director, as the corpse is found with the brand of a legendary secret society, the illuminati, burned into its chest.

I'm not sure if I'll keep reading the book. The writing style is ok, if not inspired, and the subject matter is interesting, but the writer does a lot of mixing truth and untruth (or inaccuracies) For instance, Brown uses CERN in the story, which of course does exist, but he must have known that it's impossible to build a bomb using antimatter as it would take literally billions of years to produce the amount needed, yet still he has an antimatter bomb in the book. Some of the stuff about the Church is also inaccurate.

One interesting thing I've learned from the story ...... the meaning of a devil's advocate in the context of the making of a saint. One of the characters in the book is a Promoter of the Faith, otherwise known as a devil's advocate. Here's a little of what wikipedia writes about that position ....

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[...] During the canonization process of the Roman Catholic Church, the Promoter of the Faith (Latin Promotor Fidei), popularly known as the Devil's Advocate (Latin advocatus diaboli), was a canon lawyer appointed by the Church to argue against the canonization of the candidate. It was his job to take a skeptical view of the candidate's character, to look for holes in the evidence, to argue that any miracles attributed to the candidate were fraudulent, etc. The Devil's advocate was opposed by God's advocate, whose job was to make the argument in favor of canonization. The office was established in 1587 during the reign of Pope Sixtus V and was abolished by Pope John Paul II in 1983. This abolition streamlined the canonization process considerably, helping John Paul II to usher in an unprecedented number of elevations: nearly 500 individuals were canonized and over 1,300 were beatified during his tenure as Pope as compared to only 98 canonizations by all his 20th-century predecessors.

Such a dramatic increase suggests that the office of the Devil's Advocate had served to reduce the number of canonizations by complicating the process. Some argue that it served a useful role in ensuring that canonizations did not proceed without due care and hence the status of sainthood was not easily achieved. In cases of controversy the Vatican may still seek to informally solicit the testimony of critics of a candidate for canonization. The British born American columnist Christopher Hitchens was famously asked to testify against the beatification of Mother Teresa in 2002, a role he would later humorously describe as being akin to "representing the Evil One, as it were, pro bono" .....

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Hmmmm .... this makes me think of the canonization of Josemaría Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei.


Saturday, September 13, 2008

Online Retreat



Creighton University's Online Retreat for Everyday Life, what Ignatius of Loyola called the 19th annotation version of the Spiritual Exercises, is beginning tomorrow. It's actually always available and people can start it at any time, but if it is started tomorrow, it will be in sync with the liturgical year. Here's a bit of the blurb from Creighton's invitation page for the retreat ....

We adapted the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola so that very busy people could experience how easy it is to grow spiritually, in the midst of our everyday lives.

Ignatian Spirituality has never been about "leaving the world." It has always been about finding God in our world - finding God where I live, in the midst of my problems, struggles, challenges, and desires. It is about growing in perspective, freedom, and the ability to give myself in service more generously.

Just read the weekly Guide, and as many of the Resources as you have time for. See how much clarity and peace you'll begin to experience, week by week. Make the retreat alone; make it with a spouse or friend or with a group of friends. We guide you step by step along the way, with a user friendly web site that you can access on your schedule, 24 hours a day.


As I've mentioned before, I have done it myself and found it, well, hard to describe. Maybe I'll let others describe it instead. Here below is just the beginning of an article I saw at the National Catholic Reporter that describes this kind of Spiritual Exercises retreat -

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Following in the footsteps of Ignatius

They’ve been called a school for freedom, a work of teacherly genius and a powerful tool for conversion. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius are being turned to by growing numbers of people who say the 450-year-old primer on prayer and contemplation offers a personal encounter with the divine that frees them to be more themselves.

“There’s no sense of predicting how you’ll change,” said Belden Lane, a theology professor at St. Louis University who did the exercises in 1994-95 and calls them “risky in the very best sense.”

A Presbyterian minister who grew up in a fundamentalist Protestant family, Lane, said the exercises led him to come to terms with his father’s suicide years ago, his mother’s dying during the months he was doing the exercises and his own mortality. “You’re taken into loss and death and all the denials and illusions you play with. It can be profoundly disconcerting,” Lane said.

“There’s a kind of desert journey,” he said. “You travel into terrain that you want to forget about. You go there and you don’t run away and you work through your fears and then you have the experience of Isaiah 35: the desert blooming like a rose.”

For Lane, one of the unexpected gifts of the exercises was rediscovering the aliveness of the Bible, which as a child he had grown up reading on a daily basis.

For Victoria Carlson-Casaregola, an instructor of English at St. Louis University, the greatest challenge the exercises presented was integrating the head and the heart.

Whatever their individual experience, those who practice the exercises agree that the process is creative and the effects of the exercises unexpected.

“You’re in it in order to be in the act of becoming,” said Vincent Casaregola, an associate professor of English who did the exercises several years ago. “You can’t name it ahead of time, and if you could name it ahead of time you’d stop the process.”

A spiritual classic

St. Ignatius of Loyola was still a layman when he began taking notes on his own spiritual experiences. These formed the genesis of the spiritual exercises, which Ignatius was eager to share with others in his lifetime and which have since become a classic work in Christian spirituality.

Not surprisingly, the Society of Jesus, the religious order Ignatius founded in 1539, is rooted in Ignatian spirituality. At least twice in the years leading up to their final vows, all Jesuits make a silent 30-day retreat in which they do the exercises.

The 19th annotation of the exercises -- so labeled by Ignatius when he wrote the exercises -- is an at-home retreat that consists of an eight-month program of prayer in which those doing the exercises, often referred to as the exercitants, commit to an hour a day of prayer following the pattern of scripture reading, prayer and contemplation Ignatius laid down. As exercitants read the gospels and place themselves inside the stories, they are encouraged to pay attention to how God is inspiring them.

Today the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius are no longer just the preserve of Jesuit retreat houses. All of the 28 Jesuit colleges in the United States and most of the 40-plus Jesuit high schools offer the spiritual exercises to their faculty and staff, part of an effort these schools have undertaken in an era of dwindling vocations to the priesthood to transmit a key element of Jesuit identity and education to their non-Jesuit faculty members and staff.

Increasingly, it’s the 19th annotation of the exercises rather than the classic 30-day retreat that people are turning to, if for no other reason than that few people have the time to make a month-long retreat. Even the at-home retreat requires a substantial time commitment.

The surprise is that so many people make that commitment.

“It would be safe to say that more people are engaged in these exercises today than at any time in history,” Jesuit Fr. Joseph Tetlow, secretary for Ignatian spirituality in Rome, wrote in National Jesuit News in 1995.

The 30-day retreat calls for retreatants to spend five hours a day in prayer and is divided into four blocks of time that are approximately one week each. The 19th annotation stretches each of these weeks into several. But retreatants still spend their time meditating on sin and their own experience of sin in the period designated as Week 1, on Christ’s life and early ministry in Week 2, Christ’s passion in Week 3 and the resurrected Christ in Week 4. The exercises follow the liturgical year, which is one reason why persons practicing the 19th annotation often begin in the autumn and end around Easter.

Today the popularity of the spiritual exercises has taken on an independent life of its own. “It’s kind of a contagious thing,” said Fr. Charles Currie, head of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities in Washington. “When people see how helpful they are, they tell their friends,” .....

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“When people see how helpful they are, they tell their friends,”

And that's what I'm doing :)