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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

In the UK

I've been thinking about the UK and not just because the last movie I watched was MacGyver: Lost Treasure of Atlantis which was filmed in England :) I've noticed two things lately on the combo of British politics and religion ...

An audio interview with NT Wright about the failure (as he sees it) of secular government - Dr Tom Wright: 'The long failure of the enlightenment project' (and a comment on this interview by Andrew Brown - Bishop Tom vs the Enlightenment)

A article in The London Review of Books on Red Tory: How Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix it by Phillip Blond, a mentor to the British prime minister, Cameron ..... Cameron’s Crank by Jonathan Raban. Although I've been having some difficulty understanding what red toryism is (see What connects Cameron to Italian Catholics) I think I'm beginning to understand it (correctly or not) as the British equivalent of the US religious right but with Catholic/Anglican religious mystique rather than Protestant Evangelical. I thought I'd post part of the book review as it mentions something I've been interested in - John Rawls' idea of justice (see my post Justice as fairness).

Here's a bit of the book review ....


It’s been a quarter-century since I last listened to The Archers on Radio 4 ..... they’ve been chiming insistently with my reading of Phillip Blond’s Red Tory and my listening to David Cameron’s ‘big society, small government’ speeches. When Cameron speaks of Britain’s ‘atomised’ and ‘broken’ society, and calls for a return to a ‘broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation’, or Blond writes about the ‘revival of the associative society’, in which the ‘common good’ is ‘cultivated organically from within’, it’s Ambridge that they have in mind. The rhetoric of both men seems to be shot through with plaintive rural nostalgia for the small, self-contained life of the village; for a world where ‘frontline services’ are ‘delivered’ from within the community by the church, the WI and the Over Sixties Club, where no one dies unnoticed by his neighbours, the pub serves as a nightly local parliament, ‘ethos’ is reinforced by the vicar in the pulpit of St Stephen’s and ‘mutuality’ flourishes in the gossip at the shop ......

Since the immediate inspiration for this improbable scenario has been Phillip Blond, I suppose everyone has a duty to plough through Red Tory. Blond writes a kind of polytechnic prose in which the various jargons of philosophy, sociology, economics and theology are churned together as in a concrete mixer ..... the intellectual kernel, as it were, of his assault on the modern state (he means the New Labour government) as ‘the triumph of a perverted and endlessly corrupting liberalism’. After a drive-by shooting of John Rawls (‘he had no convincing vision of the good society or the good life’), and a wildly constructive misreading of Rawls’s famous ‘veil of ignorance’, Blond ties himself in verbal knots as he tries to assert that the liberal state is destined to become a tyranny precisely because it values individual rights too highly. Whatever merits there might perhaps be in this argument are lost in bluster, hyperbole and impenetrably bad writing .....

Once upon a time, long before the Industrial Revolution spoiled everything, it was different: Britain had an ‘organic culture’, a ‘vibrant agrarian culture’ with a ‘prosperous and relatively secure British peasantry’. In the good old days, everyone went to church, of course, and religion supplied the ‘transcendent idea of the good’, whose absence in our sorry, secular society is the root cause of our national misery. What we must now do, the parson says, is somehow resurrect the ‘British culture of virtue’; we need ‘a civil society built around the practice of virtue and exploration of the good’. For a start, schools must provide ‘education into the good’, but we ‘cannot have a moral society without a moral economy’, and it’s on the matter of the moral economy and the ‘moral market’, and how they might be achieved, that Blond’s sermon builds to its utopian climax.

He alludes, in passing, but with high approval, to G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, and their Catholic Distributist League. Aside from one quotation from Chesterton (‘Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists’) and one from Belloc (‘If we do not restore the institution of property we cannot escape restoring the institution of slavery’), Blond leaves the Chesterbelloc project – of which more in a moment – unexplored, but almost everything he says about the moral economy derives from it .....

In his final chapter, Blond, hailing Cameron’s ‘vision’, admiringly quotes him giving voice to thoughts he’s borrowed from Blond, which, in turn, Blond has borrowed from Chesterton and Belloc. ‘As Cameron pointed out, “The paradox at the heart of big government is that by taking power and responsibility away from the individual, it has only served to individuate them”’: this is pure Blond, especially in its but what does it mean? quotient. Does ‘them’ mean the singular ‘individual’? Does ‘individuate’ mean something like ‘make more “individualist”, and therefore selfish’? Who can tell. Cameron, who is usually plausibly articulate, abuses and misuses the language in a very Blondlike way when trying to channel his house philosopher. Blond tells us that Cameron offers ‘an associative society that is based on human relationships’, and pays this tribute to his pupil: ‘Cameron is crafting a politics of meaning that speaks to something more wanted and more needed than welfarism or speculative enrichment: it is the common project that the state has destroyed – nothing less than the recovery of the society we have lost and creation of the society we want.’ It doesn’t say much for Cameron’s vaunted intellect or his judgment that he is the willing mouthpiece for Blond’s secondhand ideas. The ‘moderniser’ of the Conservative Party has now found what he calls his ‘guiding philosophy’ in what began as Chesterton’s and Belloc’s homesickness for a rural and small-town life that never existed outside their Arcadian dream of Merrie England ......

If Cameron were to look into the unsavoury ancestry of his big idea, he might be surprised to find out that it was originally hatched by two admirers of Mussolini’s Italy. As Belloc, who despised all forms of elective parliamentary government ‘save in aristocracies’, wrote in The Cruise of the Nona: ‘What a strong critical sense Italy has shown! What intelligence in rejection of sophistry, and what virility in execution! May it last!’ Fascism is not what Cameron has in mind, but his embrace of Blond’s crankish political philosophy makes one wonder what on earth he does have in mind.

Cameron badly wants to win the election, and a big idea, however tainted its source, however underexamined and ill-thought-out, is a useful thing to brandish at the electorate, especially if it provides a cloak of nobility and ‘ethos’ for the old Conservative ambition to take a cleaver and sunder the connection between the words ‘welfare’ and ‘state’. Stripped of its obscurantist rhetoric and foggy sermonising, Red Tory issues a moral licence to government to free itself from the expensive business of dispensing social services and to dump them on the ‘third sector’ of charities, voluntary organisations, non-profits and the like. It won’t make Britain a more virtuous, civil, courteous or moral society. It certainly won’t restore us to that happy state of grace and comity in which, apparently, we all lived in medieval times. It won’t please Phillip Blond, who, in a recent article for Prospect titled ‘Why Cameron Shouldn’t Lurch to the Right’, berated the Conservatives for reverting to their ‘vestigial Thatcherite instincts’ when faced with narrowing poll numbers, and accused them of reneging on his (and the Distributist League’s) project of ‘recapitalising’ the poor to create a ‘popular capitalism for all’. It won’t even meet with much approval down in Ambridge. But it ought to make Lord Tebbit’s wintry face crease into a smile.


I'm as much a fan of the past as the next person - I used to belong to the Society for Creative Anachronism :) - but while it's a nice place to visit, I wouldn't want to live there, and much less would I want to live in the past that never was, invented by those who advocate a Catholic Third Way - maybe it's not so surprising that the political philsophy most associated with them is fascism.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Last Ember

- detail from the Arch of Titus showing spoils from Jerusalem

My latest book from the library is The Last Ember by Daniel Levin. I'm not far into it yet but it's kind of so-so. What's lacking in the writing is somewhat made up for by the interesting subject matter - it tells of a search by good guys and bad guys for the gold Menorah taken to Rome after the sack of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and then probably taken to Carthage by the Vandals who sacked Rome in 455, and then maybe secured by Belisarius in 515 and taken from Carthage to Justinian in Constantinople, after which it may have been sent to a Christian church in Jerusalem, where it might have been captured by the Persians in 614, but was probably instead smuggled back to Constantinople where may have lived until the crusader siege of the city in1204, whereupon it might have been taken back to Rome, languishing to this day in the secret vaults of the Vatican. Or not :)

Here's a review of the book from Biblical Archaeology Review ....


The Last Ember by Daniel Levin
- Reviewed by John Merrill

The Last Ember by Daniel Levin is an archaeology adventure novel, in the same genre as, for example, King Solomon’s Mines or Raiders of the Lost Ark. As we have seen from Eric Cline’s nonfiction account of searches for lost artifacts,a there is considerable public interest in such topics, and readers who have that interest may find author Levin’s tale to their liking. Its premise is that the fabled gold menorah, thought to have been looted from the Jerusalem Temple by the Roman general (and later, emperor) Titus, in 70 A.D., was in fact saved by none other than the controversial Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. The hunt for the fabled artifact, triggered in modern time by clues in the writings of Josephus himself, involves a dashing protagonist, a not-very-transparent version—i.e., lawyer trained in classics—of the author himself. Together with his once and future girlfriend, a gorgeous Italian archaeologist, the hero traces clue after clue through a maze of plot twists, with a colorful supporting cast that features terrorists who finance their activities by selling looted artifacts, a Colombo-like Italian police inspector, and so forth.

Although the tale is imaginatively constructed, it betrays some of the stylistic cracks that are often found in a first-time author’s armor. A well-known rule of imaginative fiction is that, in order to get readers to buy in to one’s made-up plot elements, the verifiable facts of the story need to be accurate. Thus, when the hero on page 1 is found arriving in Rome on an Alitalia flight from New York at midnight Rome time, the reader who has actually made such a trip, which in fact lands at midday, will have difficulty suspending his or her disbelief of the more imaginative parts of the ensuing plot. The plot’s credibility is similarly tested when Josephus’s birth date is given as 30 A.D., when it is widely accepted (and ascertainable from Josephus’s own writings) that he was born in 37 A.D.

The novel is a cornucopia of Latin, Hebrew and contemporary Italian expressions, as well as a complex catalogue of archaeological features—some real and some imagined. It moves at rapid pace through multiple venues, with plot transitions that will alternatively thrill readers or confuse them. In the end, even the author betrays some signs of fatigue, with early promises of workmanlike phrasing degenerating into lines like the following: “... Jonathan’s voice was around them like something vibrant, moisturizing. They gasped with delight, their cataract eyes ablaze.”

In his acknowledgments, the author praises his editors, as is customary. But in places like the foregoing, readers may find themselves wishing the editors had provided a bit more input.


Ouch :) I'm not sure I'd recommend the book, but I'm finding it interesting - a virtual visit to Rome and Jerusalem, with some history thrown in.

Saturday, August 28, 2010



Be Careful, It's My Heart

I dreamt about Kermit last night and in the dream I was singing her this song - Be Careful, It's My Heart. It's from the movie Holiday Inn which starred Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, with music by Irving Berlin. The video below shows Crosby singing the song to the woman he's hired to dance at his Holiday Inn. He's trying to keep her away from his friend, played by Astaire, afraid he will sweep her off her feet and out of his life as he did with his last girlfriend, but in this scene, his efforts fail (the song and dance start at about I min, 20 secs into the video, so don't lose patience) ....

Friday, August 27, 2010

We know only what we love

- pre-conversion Augustine from the film Augustine: The Decline of the Roman Empire

It's true that Augustine of Hippo is the saint I love to hate, but tomorrow is his day, so here's a short video about an exhibit from last June in Rome on his writings titled "St. Augustine, We know only what we love" ......

Philip Endean SJ on the Roman Missal translation

I haven't been paying much attention to the issue of the new translation, though I did notice Bryan Cones has had a series on the subject at US Catholic. Here's part of his Getting to know the new Mass, Part 3: Wait a second... ....

As I was singing the Holy, Holy (Sanctus) last night at Mass, I was struck by the fact that all the well-known settings of the Ordinary are being rewritten to accommodate a single change in the Sanctus, from "God of power and might" to "God of hosts" (armies, not wafers). Then, as I sang "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again," I was angry that such a simple text, composed in English, that so well captures the "mystery of faith" will be lost to us on the First Sunday of Advent 2011. Incidentally, that acclamation has been picked up by our Christian family in the churches of the Reformation, used at almost every Lutheran and Episcopal liturgy I've been to.

So it is with some dismay that I am already hearing a general surrender among the liturgical literati who taught me what I know about the liturgy. "Make the best of it" seems to be the attitude: In other words, let us try to contain the pastoral damage by making this a teaching moment on the liturgy. Let us protect the faithful from their sacred pastors and not tell them what has really happened here, and why they will be saying something as meaningless as "And with your spirit" four times during the liturgy ....

Today I noticed a post at America magazine's blog (English Jesuit on New Translations Process: "Abusive") on a Tablet article (Worship and power) by Philip Endean SJ on the translation. As I've been reading Fr. Endean's books on Karl Rahner lately, I thought I'd post something on his Tablet article. The article is really good (and long), so be sure to read the whole thing, but here's just a bit of it ....


Worship and power
- Philip Endean

[...] There are problems here about what counts as good translation. There are also serious questions about how authority is being exercised. In some ways, there are overlaps with the clerical-abuse scandal. Of course, the objective damage done by bad liturgy is as nothing to the moral wrong of children being violated. But in both cases authority has dealt high-handedly and secretively with the sacred, the intimate, the vulnerable. High officialdom has been evasive; lesser authority has tacitly colluded. What the situation needed was salutary English plain speaking .....

The best advocacy for the new translation that I have seen, from Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Canberra and Goulburn - who has also written well on the abuse crisis - refers to "an extraordinary level of consultation" in the preparation of the new translation. Perhaps, but I was myself involved in a couple of peripheral ways, and I was instructed to maintain strict secrecy when, through my then provincial, I was asked to comment on a draft of the Ordinary ....

This situation hardly inspires confidence or trust. Given that there are also strong objective arguments against Liturgiam Authenticam, we have a serious problem. How are responsible Catholics to cope? The standard answer to that question is: "trust the authority of the Church's office-holders; give them the benefit of the doubt; make the best of the situation." But it is just such moves that have proved so catastrophic in matters to do with sexual abuse. Why are we to suppose them appropriate in this liturgical context? ......

How might sensitivity mark the impending transition? .....

In general, the new translation's significance has to be situated within the conflicts underlying everything in Vatican II and its aftermath: how the Church deals with change; the relationship between Rome and local churches; how the Church addresses contemporary culture. Options about translation often imply controversial positions on more intractable human and spiritual issues. If Rome's real agenda when liturgical change is in question is that the English-speaking Churches got Vatican II wrong (or indeed the other way round), we should have that conversation openly. Arguments about ecclesiology are not conducted well in code ..... recognise that reverence and accessibility are theologically complementary. Vatican II's liturgy document speaks of the rites radiating a "noble simplicity" (n. 34). To be true to the Gospel, the liturgy needs to be both dignified and straightforwardly intelligible. It is as un-Christian to choose between these as to opt for Christ's being either divine or human. Orthodoxy could be defined as the refusal to fall into such ways of thinking. If the introduction of a new text can be described as one side "winning" some kind of competition between gospel values, things have gone badly wrong ..... at no point - on this or any other subject - should pastoral ministers teach or preach anything to which they cannot personally assent. Still less should they come under any pressure from their superiors so to do. Defending what you do not believe will be far more harmful to the Church than any public disharmony. Surely we have learnt by now the dangers of keeping up appearances "for the good of the Church" .....

This new translation, both in its content and in the manner of its imposition, represents a retreat from the salutary, evangelical reform of church style and mood that Vatican II represented. Those of us who experienced pre-conciliar Catholicism as abusive received Vatican II as a powerful reassurance that the Church was mending its ways. That gave us hope and liberation. It will be a scandal, in both the common and the theological senses of the word, if - at a level that really hurts - the new translation takes that reassurance back.


Thursday, August 26, 2010

Travellers at Cofton Park

- Vatican officials at the park

I had a post in 2006 about the Roma (Travellers/Gypsies) - Dr. Robert Ritter and the Roma - so I was interested when I saw in the news that France was deporting some of the Roma there and that the Pope had criticized France for doing so (France Deports Roma (Gypsies) Drawing Pope's Criticism). I saw a story about Travellers and the pope today that seemed then kind of sad - Travellers move on to Tolkien site 'to see the Pope' ....

Pope Benedict XVI is holding a special Mass in Cofton Park on Sunday 19 September, at the end of his four-day UK visit. Mr Mullaney, Birmingham City Councillor for Moseley and Kings Heath, said there were about 16 families who said they had made their way from County Donegal in Ireland. "I asked them what they were doing in Birmingham and what they said to me was, 'We've come here to see the Pope because we want to get his blessing at the Mass in Birmingham." He said more travellers may be on their way so the city needed to be proactive and let them know there will be no admission without a pass. "The pilgrim passes have all already been allocated to parish priests, and there will be no admission to the mass without a pass." An eviction notice has been served on the families and they are being encouraged to move on to a disused car park in Moseley ...

I hope the Travellers get to see the pope.

You can read more about how this is all connected to Tolkien - Pope in UK: A Tolkien-Newman Connection.

Monday, August 23, 2010

some roses

Sunday, August 22, 2010


This week's movie rental was Creation, a 2009 British film about Charles Darwin, starring Paul Bettany (Dustfinger!) and Jennifer Connelly, and based on the book Annie's Box: Charles Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution by Randal Keynes, Darwin's great-great grandson.

The acting was good, the cinematography was really well done with lots of arresting images, the story quite interesting - it told of the relationships between Darwin and his family, his friends Huxley and Hooker, and God, and the stresses on those relationships due to the writing and planned publication of On the Origin of Species. Having said that, I found the movie sad and disturbing. The pathos of Darwin losing his daughter to death was really painful, there were scenes (like the killing and skeletonizing of pigeons) that I wish I could erase from my mind, and the characters seemed to divide up into two polarized groups - Darwin's wife and the h minister (John Brodie-Innes) were on religion's side, and Darwin's daughter and his friends were on the science side (an anguished Darwin seemed almost caught in the middle between them).

I found the pov of religion as expressed in the movie to be pretty awful. The minister prayed ... Dear God, we know the world is governed by thy plan, extending to the merest creatures thou hast made, such that even a sparrow falls not to the ground without thy will. Teach us that all misfortune, all sickness and death, all the trials and miseries of which we daily complain, are intended for our good ....

I wasn't any more consoled by the science pov in the movie, offered by Darwin's brightly smiling daughter explaining away the killing of a rabbit by a fox as not worth tears because it was simply the way things were.

Somebody please tell me there's another way of looking at all the suffering in life that doesn't explain it away as a grotesque object lesson, or as a reductionist interpretation of the inevitable equaling the good.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Christian grimoire

- fresco of Uriel from The St. Ferapont Belozero Monastery

Speaking of David Bentley Hart, I found it really interesting when he wrote ....

[...] magic is essentially a species of materialism; if it invokes any agencies beyond the visible sphere, they are not supernatural -- in the theological sense of "transcendent" -- but at most preternatural: they are merely, that is to say, subtler, more potent aspects of the physical cosmos. Hermetic magic and modern science (in its most Baconian form at least) are both concerned with hidden forces within the material order, forces that are largely impersonal and morally neutral, which one can learn to manipulate, and which may be turned to ends fair or foul; both, that is to say, are concerned with domination of the physical cosmos ....... Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, p. 82

He seems to almost be saying that magic works, though he does appear to divorce it from theology. I was reminded of what he'd written by a book I just got from the library - Deryni Magic by Katherine Kurtz - that discusses fictitious rituals of Christian magic in the Deryni novels. Here's a bit from that book about the Archangels .......


Summoning the Archangels begins in the East .... The Archangel of the East is Raphael, who rules the element of Air. He (though angels truly have no gender) is usually depicted in flowing, air-stirred robes of pale, golden yellow. Traditional Judeo-Christian symbolism associates Raphael with the mercy of healing and identifies him as the angel who stirred the waters of the well in Tobit -- whence comes his common depiction holding a fish. In classic esoteric thought, the element of Air is associated with thought, intellect, and healing. Its symbol is the sword, which perhaps was an arrow originally -- an obvious Air attribute. In a working circle, the most common symbol of Air is incense smoke.

Second in the Archangelic pantheon is Saint Michael, Commander of the Heavenly Hosts, who rules the element of Fire in the South. Red is Michael's primary color and he is usually depicted in armor, wielding a fiery sword -- or sometimes a lance. In some traditions, it is he who guards the gates of Eden after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. It is he who will wield the scales at the final Judgement .... The element of Fire is associated with intuition and sight, but its weapon is not Saint Michael's sword but the wand -- once a fire-hardened stick or staff, used in control of Fire, such as pokers or torches. Lighted candles are the symbols of Fire in the ritual circle, as well as the fire that burns the incense.

The third Archangel is Gabriel, Guardian of the West and Water, usually depicted in blues and aquamarines. By very solid tradition, Gabriel is the Angel of the Annunciation, who carried the tidings of Jesus' impending birth to the Blessed Virgin with the immortal salutation "Hail Mary, full of grace ..." Gabriel also is the angel of the Last Judgement, who will blow his heavenly trumpet to raise the blessed dead. By association, then, Gabriel is the Heavenly Herald as well, and perhaps chief servitor of the Queen of Heaven ..... Water is associated with feeling, love, and taste/smell, and its symbol is the Cup -- originally the cauldron of immortality ... the Holy Grail. The holy water used in aspersing the circle is the ritual symbol of Water.

Finally, the Archangel in the North is Uriel (Auriel, by some reckonings), who rules the element of Earth. In one of Uriel's aspects, he is the Angel of Death, though not in a morbid sense but as the agent of the natural cycle of birth, death, and rebirth .... Uriel alone has truly feathered wings, usually likened to the green-black of ravens of magpies or the iridescent green of a mallard. The element of Earth is associated with learning, sensation, and touch. Its symbol is the Shield or the Pentacle, originally an early spade for scraping earth and planting seed, and thereby a link with sacred stones. The salt in the holy water used to asperse the circle provides the ritual symbol for Earth ......

Saint Raphael, Healer, Guardian of Wind and Tempest, may we guarded and healed in mind and soul and body this night ... Saint Michael, Defender, Guardian of Eden, protect us in our hour of need ... Saint Gabriel, Heavenly Herald, carry our supplications to Our Lady ... Saint Uriel, Dark Angel, come gently, if you must, and let all fear die here within this place.


Friday, August 20, 2010

David Hart and the zombie thought experiment

David Bentley Hart has a post at First Things ... Mysteries of Consciousness .... that touches on something I've posted about before - whether a person's consciousness/mind can be explained completely as a construct of the physical brain, whether consciousness/mind has a life of its own independent of the body, whether a soul has anything to do with all this. It's de rigueur for religious believers to eschew Physicalism (unless you're Nancey Murphy), so it should come as no surprise that Hart's post does so. Here's a definition of Physicalism from Wikipedia ....

Physicalism is a philosophical position holding that everything which exists is no more extensive than its physical properties; that is, that there are no kinds of things other than physical things ....

There are a number of arguments against Physicalism and Hart raises some, but one he doesn't mention is the Argument from philosophical zombies :). If I understand correctly (and I don't think I do), if consciousness is a construct of the physical brain, why then do zombies, who are just like us physically and do have brains, not have qualia or "minds"? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has quite an entry for zombies. Here's just a bit of the part relating to Physicalism and consciousness ... ...


Zombies are exactly like us in all physical respects but have no conscious experiences: by definition there is ‘nothing it is like’ to be a zombie. Yet zombies behave like us, and some even spend a lot of time discussing consciousness. This disconcerting fantasy helps to make the problem of phenomenal consciousness vivid, especially as a problem for physicalism.

Few people think zombies actually exist. But many hold they are at least conceivable, and some that they are ‘logically’ or ‘metaphysically’ possible. It is argued that if zombies are so much as a bare possibility, then physicalism is false and some kind of dualism must be accepted. For many philosophers that is the chief importance of the zombie idea ......

A good way to make the apparent threat to physicalism clear is by adapting a thought of Saul Kripke’s (1972, 153f.). Imagine God creating the world and deciding to bring into existence the whole of the physical universe according to a full specification P in purely physical terms. P describes such things as the distribution and states of elementary particles throughout space and time, together with the laws governing their behavior. Now, having created a purely physical universe according to this specification, did God have to do something further in order to provide for human consciousness? Answering Yes to this question implies there is more to consciousness than the purely physical facts can supply. If nothing else, it implies that consciousness requires nonphysical properties in the strong sense that such properties would not exist in a purely physical world: it would be a zombie world. Physicalists, on the other hand, are committed to answering No to the question. They have to say that by fixing the purely physical facts in accordance with P, God thereby fixed all the mental facts about the organisms whose existence is provided for by P, including facts about people’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, and experiences.

It seems clear that physicalists are committed to the view that the physical world specified by P is all there is, in which case all other true statements are alternative ways of talking about that same world. In this sense physicalists must hold that the mental facts ‘supervene’ on the physical facts, and that zombie worlds are not ‘possible’. To show that zombies are possible would therefore, it seems, be to show that the mental facts do not supervene on the physical facts: that a zombie world is possible and physicalism is false. That is why opponents of physicalism do not have to point to actual cases of zombiehood: it is enough if such things are possible ...


OK, now my head hurts :)

David Hart comes at the subject in a more personal way - he mentions a past friend who he hadn't seen for years, but about whom he'd been thinking of in a very melancholy way, later finding out that she had just died. He also mentions dreams that had come true and other uncanny examples of what he sees as proof of the existence of consciousness independent of the body ......

[...] such experiences should chiefly remind us how many and how deep the mysteries of consciousness really are. And the profoundest mystery of consciousness is consciousness itself, because we really have little or no clear idea what it is, or how it could either arise from or ally itself to the material mechanisms of the brain.

There are, of course, intellectually serious books with titles like How the Mind Works (Steven Pinker) or Consciousness Explained (Daniel Dennett), but the preponderant consensus in the philosophical world is that they do not deliver more than a fraction of what they promise. The logical high ground is still occupied by consciousness “mysterians” like Colin McGinn or, at least, by skeptics like John Searle.

Most attempts to describe the mind entirely as an emergent quality of the brain, or as another name for the brain’s machinery, not only fail convincingly to bridge the qualitative distance between sensory impression and coherent thought, but invariably bracket out of consideration a great deal of what any scrupulous phenomenology of consciousness reveals. Certainly they do not seem to explain the “transcendental” conditions by which consciousness is organized: that primordial act within and prior to all our other acts of mind and will; that constant mediation between thought and world that we both perform and suffer in advance of all experience or volition.

Consciousness has not been explained until one can provide a comprehensive picture of how the mind not only “fits” the world, but also “intends” and “constitutes” it as an intelligible phenomenon. And that is not the straightforward mechanical problem it is often mistaken for .......

What I find interesting is this bit from the Stanford Encyclopedia quote ....

Imagine God creating the world and deciding to bring into existence the whole of the physical universe .... Now, having created a purely physical universe according to this specification, did God have to do something further in order to provide for human consciousness?

I think this is Nancey Murphy's point, that dualism, the belief that there must be a physical body and then something spiritual added on to that in order to get consciousness and a soul, is not necessary. I mean, maybe the physical world somehow incorporates spirituality? I guess I'm not making sense, but here's a past post from Jonah Lehrer at The Frontal Cortex - it's not exactly about what I'm talking about (it's about free will and materialism instead of consciousness and materialism), but it sort of goes where I want to go .....


Morality and Materialism

Ramesh Ponnuru, of the National Review, says this:

What renders atheism incompatible with a coherent account of morality, when it is incompatible, is physicalism (or what is sometimes described as reductive materialism). If it is true that the universe consists entirely and without remainder of particles and energy, then all human action must be within the domain of caused events, free will does not exist, and moral reasoning is futile if not illusory (as are other kinds of reasoning).

Will Wilkinson offers up an astute reply:

This is a stupefyingly widespread view that flows from an elementary error in thinking. Suppose you know that there is free will or that moral reasoning is not futile. Next, suppose you find that the universe is made out of only whatever the universe is made out of. What do you infer? You infer that free will and moral reasoning, which occur inside the universe (or as aspects of the universe), whatever they may be, are made possible because of whatever it is the universe is made out of. And there you are.

Here is what you do not do. You do not start with a mystifying conditional like "If the universe is only physical (or whatever), then there is no free will," because how do you know that? You don't. But you may think you do and so you get caught in a retarded ponens/tollens showdown: the universe is physical, ergo no free will, or... free will, so the universe is not physical. But, again, through what method of divination do we validate this conditional? None. Because we already know it is false.

I think that's exactly right. Looking at the neural anatomy of morality didn't undermine morality, or disprove its existence. On the contrary, the "reductive materialistic" approach simply showed us where, approximately, moral questions are processed inside the brain. I think a similar thing will happen with the concept of free will. Although many commenters will claim otherwise, I'm very dubious that neuroscience or physics will ever "disprove" free will. Free will is such an elemental part of human experience that disproving free will would literally require some sort of Laplacean demon. Until we obtain that level of omniscience - and I'm not holding my breath - I'll continue to assume that free will is a natural side-effect of some element of the material universe. Quantum indeterminacy sounds about right.


Anyway, I still don't know exactly where I stand on the body/mind/soul issue - I'm having trouble really understanding what it's all about.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A benediction

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Playing God

This week's movie rental was Playing God, a 1997 film starring David Duchovny, Angelina Jolie, and Timothy Hutton.

The movie is a crime drama/comedy, sort of like Swordfish (Hugh Jackman and John Travolta) and Kalifornia (Brad Pitt and David Duchovny), in which a guy who is not really a criminal falls afoul of the law and is then seduced into an ever deeper enmeshment with the lifestyle of badness, but is eventually brought to his senses through the realization that badness is really bad, and of course, through the love of a good woman.

- Jolie, Hutton, abd Duchovny

This isn't the kind of movie I typically watch but I like David Duchovny so I gave it a try. There's lots of violence but also some humor .... at one point Duchovny's character, having been taken into protective custody by the FBI, expresses some doubt about their abilities, saying he's seen their work at Ruby Ridge - this from the actor who spent nine years playing Special Agent of the FBI, Fox Mulder :)

Here's the trailer ......

And here's part of Roger Ebert's review of the moie, to which he gave three stars ....


Playing God

BY ROGER EBERT / October 17, 1997

"Playing God" opens with the hero deep in trouble. Eugene Sands (David Duchovny) is a former surgeon, now a druggie, who's in a scuzzy bar looking to score synthetic heroin. Shabby as he looks, he attracts the eye of a dazzling woman across the room--but then shots ring out and a man is gravely wounded.

Sands argues, not unreasonably, that someone should call 911. But there are reasons the police should not be involved in this shooting, and soon the defrocked doc is re-enacting one of those classic movie situations where he barks orders and prepares for instant surgery. A master of improvisation (few battlefield surgeons must be this creative), he fashions a breathing apparatus out of a plastic pop bottle and some tubing from the club soda siphon, cuts a hole in the guy's chest, plugs the tube into his lung and restores vital signs. Of course the beautiful woman, named Claire (Angelina Jolie), has the right stuff and could become an expert ER nurse.

It is a tribute of some sort to Duchovny, the "The X-Files" star, that I was almost able to believe this was possible. He's a convincing actor. Among those his character convinces in the movie is Raymond Blossom (Timothy Hutton), a shady millionaire, who invites Sands to his home and gives him $10,000 for saving his colleague's life. Also at Blossom's home is, inevitably, Claire, a not-uncommon type in the movies: Living with a rich and dangerous man, she makes eyes at every poor slob who drifts into range.

In a flashback, we learn the sad story of ex-Dr. Sands. Up for 28 hours straight and exhausted, he once tried balancing uppers and downers and did it so well he came to a complete halt, losing a patient in the process. His license was lifted, and now he's a man without a career or future, until Blossom offers him one. The older man has a lot of pals who get shot, it appears. And none of them much want to go to the hospital. Blossom offers Sands a retainer to come on staff as the house specialist in gunshot wounds ......

And the surprise in the movie is Timothy Hutton, as the villain. I sense the curtain rising on the next act of his career. Having outgrown the sensitive-boy roles that established him ("Ordinary People," "Made in Heaven"), he returns to his dark side, to notes he struck in such films as ``The Falcon and the Snowman'' and "Q & A." He shows here what sets the interesting villains apart from the ordinary ones.

Too many movie villains are simply evil. They sneer, they threaten, they hurt, but they do not much involve us, except as plot devices. The best villains are intriguing. They have a seductive quality, as when Blossom tells the doctor, "Eugene, you should embrace your criminal self." We can believe that beautiful women would be attracted to them. Thin, chain-smoking, with a fashionable two-day beard, Hutton creates a character instead of simply filling a space.

"Playing God" is David Duchovny's first starring role, unless you count Showtime's "Red Shoe Diaries" episodes. It seems crafted to match his new stardom on "The X-Files," and it does: He has the psychic weight to be a leading man ..... This may not be a great movie, but for both Duchovny and Hutton, it's a turning point.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Be ecumenical

A while ago I saw a negative comment by someone about what Episcopalians believe. My only knowledge of what they believe comes from what I've read about them and by them online, and in my opinion it's all good. So when on a recent visit to the Episcopal Cafe I saw a post on the subject ... And just what *do* Episcopalians believe? ... I thought I'd write about it. I followed the link provided to the original post by The Rev. David Simmons of St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Waukesha, WI, and associate of the Order of Julian of Norwich. For those interested, here's part of what he wrote ....


[...] It is indeed sometimes confusing for people outside the Episcopal Church to put their finger on who we are. The confusion comes from our self-definition, which is that we are a creedal, rather than a confessional church. What this means is that we do not have foundational doctrinal statements other than the Nicene and Apostles Creeds. Most other Christian denominations have some sort of confessional document, like the Ausburg confession for Lutherans or the Greater Catechism for Roman Catholics, that lays out exactly what the teaching of the church is on most matters. Instead, our central document is the Book of Common Prayer, which defines worship rather than doctrine as a unifying principle. The mark of an Episcopalian is that he or she attends Episcopal services, which includes recitation of the creeds. However, there are no requirements that a layperson believes particular doctrine in order to become an Episcopalian. This is why the friend who says, "You can believe pretty much anything you want, so long as you enjoy going to services together with us" is largely correct. My experience as a priest is that as people participate in the liturgy over the years, the doctrine included in our regular worship becomes part of them by an osmotic process.

So what is it that sets us apart? In some ways, it's the fact that we insist that we are NOT set apart from or superior to other Christians. Episcopalians consider themselves one part of the universal catholic church, of which all baptized Christians are members. We like the way we do things, but do not insist that ours is the only or even the best way. This is why we have been leaders in the Ecumenical movement to reconcile the various denominations of Christianity. At one point in our history, we asked ourselves, "What is the minimum amount of agreement needed in order to re-unify the church?" William Reed Huntington articulated the answer in what we now refer to as the "Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral," which is a basis for ecumenical work:

1. The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the revealed Word of God.

2. The Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian Faith.

3. The two Sacraments,--Baptism and the Supper of the Lord,--ministered with unfailing use of Christ's words of institution and of the elements ordained by Him.

4. The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the unity of His Church.

The Theologian Robert Hughes III has remarked that if we talk in terms of dogma (which are core beliefs that are non-negotiable) as opposed to doctrine (on which different positions may be held) there really are only two for Anglicans: the doctrines of the Trinity, and of the two natures in one person in Christ. All the rest, while important, are not core to Episcopal identity. (Note that other doctrines, such as the Resurrection, are implied by those two.)

Therefore, your observation that our doctrine is a "moving target" is pretty apt. I often say that looking at the Episcopal Church is like looking at the universal church in miniature. There are Episcopalians who believe in Transubstantiation in the eucharist and ones who are Calvinistic. Some of us are more like Eastern Orthodox in our piety and others are more like Presbyterians. We have Anglo-Catholics who sing Latin hymns in worship and charismatics who speak in tongues. We are unified not by doctrinal uniformity, but by the Book of Common Prayer, the creeds, and a common belief that there are many ways to Christ.



"Anybody want a peanut?"

- a bluejay in the yard. He reminded me of that line from The Princess Bride :) ....

Monday, August 16, 2010

Rahner on death and after

My latest book from the library is Karl Rahner: Spiritual Writings edited by Philip Endean SJ. It contains essays, lectures, and some letters too. I've only read a little of it so far, but here's something from the very end of the book. The parts in italics are Fr. Endean's comments before and after Rahner's lecture ....


[...] Rahner's final public lecture of any substance took place in Freiburg, his birthplace, in February 1984, marking his eightieth birthday .... He concludes with a peroration about death and the afterlife. It centers on a simple question -- "but how, but how?" -- answered by a magnificent, apophatic sentence that is 280 words long in this translation and 235 in the German.


[...] It seems to me that the models and schemes people use to try and explain eternal life in general don't fit the radical rupture that nevertheless comes with death. People think to themselves about an eternal life that is generally described -- and this is already strange -- as "on the other side" and "after" death; these thoughts are dressed up too much with realities that are familiar to us here: continuing to live on; meeting with those who were close to us here; friends; happiness; banquets; joy and all that kind of thing. These things are presented as never ceasing, as carrying on. I'm worried that the radical past-all-graspness of what "eternal life" really refers to is being rendered innocuous, and that what we call the immediate vision of God in this eternal life is being leveled down to one among others of the pleasant occupations that fill this life. The ineffable outrageousness of the absolute Godhead in person falling stark naked into our narrow creaturehood is not being perceived authentically. I confess that it seems to me an agonizing task for today's theologian -- one that hasn't been managed -- to discover a better imaginative model for this eternal life that prevents these devaluings from the outset. But how? But how? When the angels of death have swept all the worthless rubbish that we call our history out of the rooms of our consciousness (though of course the true reality of our actions in freedom will remain); when all the stars of our ideals, with which we ourselves in our own presumption have draped the heaven of our own lived lives, have burned out and are now extinguished; when death has built a monstrous, silent void, and we have silently accepted this in faith and hope as our true identity; when then our life so far, however long it has been, appears only as a single, short explosion of our freedom that previously presented itself to us stretched out in slow motion, an explosion in which question has become answer, possibility reality, time eternity, and freedom offered freedom accomplished; when then we are shown in this monstrous shock of joy beyond saying that this monstrous, silent void, which we experience as death, is in truth filled with the originating mystery that we call God, with God's light and with God's love that receives all things and gives all things; and when then out of this pathless mystery the face of Jesus, the blessed one, appears to us and this specific reality is the divine surpassing of all that we truly assume regarding the past-all-graspness of the pathless God -- then, then I don't actually want to describe anything like this, but nevertheless, I do want to stammer out some hint of how a person can for the moment expect what is to come: by experiencing the submergence that is death as already the rising of what is coming. Eighty years is a long time. But for all of us, the lifetime assigned to us is the short moment in which what is meant to be comes to be.
- "Experiences of a Catholic Theologian" 14-15

After the applause, Rahner stood up and offered ....

I thank you warmly, and I ask you -- speaking as an ordinary Christian who knows what really matters -- to make perhaps just a small prayer in God's presence that His love and His mercy may finally be given me ...


A bee :) ...

... and some flowers

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Death is the road to awe ....

... or so says a character in The Fountain, a 2006 film by Darren Aronofsky starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz. I didn't see it when it came out because the reviews had been not so good, but when I saw it sitting forlornly at the library yesterday, I picked it up.

- a monstrance in the Spanish novel part of the film

This is a hard movie to explain. I almost stopped watching it in the beginning, but after about ten minutes, it began to take shape and involve me. There's been a lot of speculation on what's really happening in the film but I'll give you my interpretation (which is the same as Roger Ebert's and Matt Withers').

* beware of spoilers *

The story is about Tommy Creo (Hugh Jackman), a research scientist doing experiments on monkeys' brains to find a cure for cancer, and who has a wife (Rachel Weisz) with a soon to be fatal brain tumor.

- Tommy and Izzy

Izzy, Tommy's wife, has been writing a novel titled "The Fountain", and the movie viewer gets glimpses of the novel's story with Jackman and Weisz as the main characters in it. The novel takes place in medieval Spain at the time of the Inquisition, and tells of beautiful Queen Isabella who, when threatened by the creepy self-flagellating Grand Inquisitor, sends her true love, a conquistador, to the New World to find the Tree of Eternal Life, as guided by a Franciscan priest to a secret pyramid located at the world's naval, where a Mayan guards the tree and the mysteries of Xibalba, the underworld contained in a star (the Orion nebula).

- Tomas the conquistador

- Queen Isabella

Izzy realizes she won't be able to finish the novel before she dies, so she asks Tommy to write the last chapter. He does so, and the futuristic scenes of the movie seem to be the events in the chapter he writes: an older and sadder (and bald!) Tom lives in a transparent bubble spaceship with a huge almost dead tree, en route to Xibalba, a golden nebula wrapped around a dying star, working frantically at actions that seem ritualistically formed to keep his dead wife's person present to him and to bring her back to life.

- the bubble space-ship in the nebula

- the future Tom tattoos his arms with the ink and crow quill pen point given to him by Izzy to write the last chapter of the novel

There three different scenarios, one real-time and the other two fictional past and future, flit back and forth kind of like in Slaughterhouse-Five, but in the end of the movie we're back with Tommy in the present after his wife's death.

There was a lot about the movie that was visually interesting, and there was some disturbing stuff too - I myself found the parts about the experimentation on monkeys to be creepy, but doubtless everyone would find the pathos of Tommy trying so hard to save his wife, and his devastation when all comes to nothing, to be painful. Tommy tries to save his wife from death through science, sheer force of will, and love. Tomas, the conquistador, tries to save his Queen by finding the Tree of Life which bestows immortality. The future Tom tries to bring his dead wife and the dead tree back to life through devotion and sacrifice. They all fail.

Do I recommend the movie? I'm not sure, but it did really touch me.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

More flowers

- new blooms on the Chinese trumpet vine ...

- and some new hollyhocks ...

The Pope and the Bruce

- marker for burial of the heart of Robert the Bruce at Melrose Abbey

Saw this story in the news last night ... Benedict XVI should address the papacy’s treatment of Robert the Bruce .... which made me smile because I've been interested in (the excommunicated) Robert the Bruce, how he figures with the Knights Templar, and of course, how he came to known of as "braveheart" (Burial honours Robert the Bruce ). Here's a bit from the news story ...

The papal visit to Scotland is a month away, but already the question has been asked: will Pope Benedict mention the papacy’s treatment of Robert the Bruce? This was nearly seven centuries ago, but Scotland would not exist as an independent country if Robert, the hero-king, had not dared to defy Pope Clement V’s command to submit to the English.

Year after year, the papacy remained adamant that Scotland should be subservient to England. Scotland’s nationalistic clergy, plus the hundreds of thousands of Scots who followed Robert, refused equally steadfastly. All were excommunicated (Robert in 1306).

Nothing better illustrates the passion of the Scots for self-determination than the ceremony of Robert’s crowning by four bishops at Scone on Palm Sunday in the same year, which took place openly in defiance of the Pope – and the English.
Robert’s spirit of self-determination united the people of Scotland as never before ....

Throughout Robert’s 23-year reign his excommunication was never entirely lifted .... Although he had been an excommunicant for over two decades, when Robert lay on his deathbed in 1329, he planned an act of penance and devotion. His “bluddy heart” was to be cut out of his corpse, sealed in a silver casket and put in the care of his friend and warlord, Sir James Douglas, otherwise known as “the Black Douglas”.

The gruesome remnant was to lead a crusade to Jerusalem and be buried in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But neither the heart nor the Scots crusaders reached the Holy City. Catastrophe struck at Teba, near Malaga, where Douglas was killed in battle by Muslim forces. The heart was returned to Scotland and interred at Melrose Abbey, where it remains to this day ...

- In the 1995 film Braveheart, Robert the Bruce is portrayed by Scottish actor Angus Macfadyen. The film incorrectly showed him taking the field at Falkirk as part of the English army; he never betrayed William Wallace (despite having changed sides). - Wikipedia

As for the connection between Robert the Bruce and the Templars ... the Templars' leader had been burned at the stake in Paris and the order forcibly disbanded by Clement V, and there's the legend that some Templars moved then to Scotland and helped the excommunicated Bruce win the Battle of Bannockburn against the English (you can read more about Scotland and the Templars here at the BBC).

- the Battle of Bannockburn from the Holkham Bible, 1327-35

But back to the present pope and Scotland .... if he can un-excommunicate the SSPX bishops, why not the Bruce? :)

Thursday, August 12, 2010


- Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin

Saw this in the news - Pope rejects bishops' resignations.

There's a post about this at America magazine's blog - Pope 'unresigns' Irish bishops, and David Gibson writes at Politics Daily ....

If Pope Benedict XVI is trying to dig the Catholic Church out of the sex abuse scandal, he only seems to be making the hole deeper.

That's the apparent consensus after it was reported that the pope has rejected the resignations of two bishops in Ireland who asked to quit last December after they were named in an independent report for their lack of diligence and action in the country's awful history of the sexual and physical abuse of children by priests.

The bishops, Eamonn Walsh and Raymond Field, are auxiliary, or assistant bishops, to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, who was sent to Dublin to clean up the abuse mess. Martin, who was profiled by PoliticsDaily earlier this year, had pushed Walsh and Field to resign, which they did in Christmas Eve letters to the pope .....

"The Vatican [was] not impressed with the way Diarmuid Martin went on PrimeTime [an Irish television news program] and called on other bishops to be accountable," Garry O'Sullivan, editor of the Irish Catholic newspaper in Dublin, told The Associated Press. "It's not the way business is done in Rome." .....

Other analysts suggested that behind the Vatican's rejection was the fear of a "domino effect" in which any bishop or cardinal implicated in the abuse crisis could be pushed to resign, which is a nightmare scenario to a tradition-minded pope like Benedict XVI.

"In other words, there may still be many Irish bishops with 'mishandling/bureaucratic,' sex abuse skeletons still in the cupboard who would also have to resign," Paddy Agnew wrote in The Irish Times ....

Last week there were posts all over Catholic blogdom about what a dope Anne Rice was for leaving the Catholic Church, how jejunely questionable were her reasons for doing so. Some asked with what seemed like sincere bewilderment how she could see a discrepancy between what Jesus preached and what the hierarchy of the church practices. Others opined that being a Catholic isn't really about what Jesus preached. What exactly is it all about? :(

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The allocation of honor and recognition

I saw that the Harvard philosophy class on Justice taught by Michael Sandel has been squished into a one hour talk at - Michael Sandel on Justice: A Journey in Moral Reasoning. What's interesting is that he mainly talks about what Aristotle thinks justice is and he brings up contemporary issues like same-sex marriage. Why should we care what Aristotle thought? I care because I like Greek history, but if you're Catholic, you might care because Thomas Aquinas so hijacked - oops, I mean embraced :) - Aristotle's philosophy, and the church in turn has so embraced Thomas' theology.

If I understood what Michael Sandel said correctly, Aristotle believed that justice is about the allocation of honor and recognition gained through virtue - a person is given what they deserve based on the match between the purpose of what is given and the person being given it. The question that arises is what's the purpose or end or goal of the thing at stake. In the case of marriage, if you believe the purpose of such is love and mutual commitment extended over time (as I do), then you'd be ok with the state allocating honor and recognition to same-sex marriage.

Here's the part of the video where he begins speaking about Aristotle .......

Monday, August 09, 2010

Jerusalem, Jerusalem

I saw an interesting article in The Boston Globe by James Carroll, the third in a series about the problems in the Middle East (he has a book coming out soon - Jerusalem, Jerusalem: The Ancient City that Ignited the Modern World). I didn't know much about him so looked him up first. Here's a bit of what Wikipedia has on him .....

James Carroll (born 22 January 1943 in Chicago, Illinois) is a noted author, novelist, and columnist for the Boston Globe. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1969. Carroll served as Catholic chaplain at Boston University from 1969 to 1974. During that time, he studied poetry with George Starbuck and published books on religious subjects and a book of poems. He was also a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter (1972-1975) and was named Best Columnist by the Catholic Press Association. For his writing on religion and politics he received the first Thomas Merton Award from Pittsburgh’s Thomas Merton Center in 1972. Carroll left the priesthood to become a writer, and in 1974 was a playwright-in-residence at the Berkshire Theater Festival .... Carroll has been a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a Fellow at the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at the Harvard Divinity School. He is a trustee of the Boston Public Library, a member of the Advisory Board of the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life at Brandeis University, and a member of the Dean’s Council at the Harvard Divinity School. Carroll is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and is a member of the Academy’s Committee on International Security Studies ...

Here below is part of the first installment of the series on the Middle East problem in The Boston Globe (the second is Pursuit of the holy land and the third is Enter Christianity) .....


In this corner

[...] Israelis and Palestinians are trapped in a corner. But the walls of that corner were constructed by someone else — an unacknowledged third party. Those walls are anti-Semitism and colonialism, each of which is thought to be well understood. But their recombination begets something new — a lethal feedback loop, as the historic hatred of Jews mixes explosively with the contempt for native peoples that defined imperial expansion.

Now Europe, together with its legacy culture America, sends representatives, such as Mitchell and Blair, claiming to offer disinterested “help” to the stubbornly warring parties. Yet that broader culture is fully complicit as the source of the two momentous animosities. Because that complicity is never reckoned with, energetic diplomatic interventions, going back past Jimmy Carter and Henry Kissinger to successive British “white papers,” have come to nothing.

If the past is remembered as a tapestry, take only a single thread, one that leads back through World War I. The arrival in Palestine of the British under Lord Edmund Allenby in 1917 established the permanent pattern. The overlord method of British imperialism was to ignite conflict within local populations, and the new rulers made contradictory promises to Arabs and Jews alike. This double game would last a full generation.

When Palestinian Arabs, claiming a national identity distinct from Pan-Arabism, finally mounted resistance in 1936, the British response was brutal, involving more royal troops in Palestine than there were in the entire subcontinent of India. Zionist fighters struck at Arabs, too, but overwhelmingly this was a London-ordered colonial war. In three years of fighting, more than 5,000 Arabs were killed. Whole villages and neighborhoods were destroyed. Political institutions and economic systems were devastated. The Palestinian social fabric was ripped asunder, never fully to be restitched again.

This crippling of Palestinian hope in its infancy partially explains the Zionist complaint at the lack of local leaders on the other side with whom to deal. If Palestinians seem invisible, as they often protest, the phenomenon begins not with willfully unseeing Jews, but with British eradication. Thus, the Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi writes that the Arab defeat of 1948 was “no more than a postlude, a tragic epilogue to the shattering defeat of 1936-39.” Who remembers that today?

Of course, those were the precise years in which European anti-Semitism was reaching its grotesque boil with the Nazi assault on Jews. Juden raus! Of the nearly 500,000 Jews who lived in Palestine in 1939, most had arrived in that decade.

The return to the land of Israel was momentous for people who had prayed for most of two millennia, “Next year in Jerusalem.” From the Arab point of view, however, Zionism could only be taken as a manifestation of the colonialism that native Palestinians had by then every reason to detest. Just as it is wrong to take Zionism as colonialism, it is wrong to take Palestinian hatred of Jewish arrival — and, even more pointedly, of Israeli occupation — as anti-Semitism.

It makes the point to note that even a fierce partisan like the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said saw the double-ruff connection between anti-Semitism and colonialism, how both peoples bear a brutal legacy for which neither is responsible. Said described “orientalism,” which he defined as Europeans’ colonialist contempt for the “East,” especially the Arab East, as “a secret-sharer of Western anti-Semitism.” Indeed, the empire-enabling European (and American) denigration of indigenous peoples, especially the Muslim “infidel,” was itself patterned on Christian contempt for the Jew.

When Palestinian and Israeli negotiators finally face each other across one table, these common notes of experience should be paramount — but only for the sake of moving beyond them. Two peoples who have each defined themselves positively by negative hatred of the other have been at the mercy of a broad culture that created this very habit of mind. Jews and Arabs can renounce this history without renouncing themselves. Each can then receive the other’s account of the past, and, perhaps for the first time, hear it respectfully.

That, more than anything else, is the prerequisite to peace. The Palestinian and Israeli negotiators need the diplomatic support of outside powers. But in this long history, the West has not been a disinterested bystander. By naming it as a secret-sharing third party to the conflict, historic creator of the double-sided trap of Jew hatred and colonial contempt, Israelis and Palestinians can leave the trap to find the way forward. They can focus on what remains between them, which is enough.


Sunday, August 08, 2010

Hitchens and Voltaire

Today I read an article by Christopher Hitchens for Vanity Fair - Topic of Cancer. I've seen posts in the Catholic blogosphere about his illness, some saying they'll pray for him, some hoping he'll deteriorate, others wondering if they can sell him 'fire insurance'. It reminds me of something I read yesterday about Voltaire .....

"This is no time to make new enemies." These are supposedly the last words of the philosopher Voltaire, uttered when a priest asked him to renounce Satan. Voltaire had been a critic of the church for years and, according to some accounts, his last words, directed at a priest, were actually an angry cry: "For God's sake, let me die in peace!" Apparently back in the day, the church wouldn't even let you die on your own terms. And it sure as heck wouldn't bury you in its cemetery after such a deathbed quote. Which is exactly why Voltaire's friends, in a final ironic twist, snuck in and buried his corpse in the Abbey of Scellières. Take that, church!


I hope Christopher Hitchens gets well. Here's some of what he wrote .....


[...] The notorious stage theory of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, whereby one progresses from denial to rage through bargaining to depression and the eventual bliss of “acceptance,” hasn’t so far had much application in my case. In one way, I suppose, I have been “in denial” for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light. But for precisely that reason, I can’t see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it’s all so unfair: I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me. Rage would be beside the point for the same reason. Instead, I am badly oppressed by a gnawing sense of waste. I had real plans for my next decade and felt I’d worked hard enough to earn it. Will I really not live to see my children married? To watch the World Trade Center rise again? To read—if not indeed write—the obituaries of elderly villains like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger? But I understand this sort of non-thinking for what it is: sentimentality and self-pity. Of course my book hit the best-seller list on the day that I received the grimmest of news bulletins, and for that matter the last flight I took as a healthy-feeling person (to a fine, big audience at the Chicago Book Fair) was the one that made me a million-miler on United Airlines, with a lifetime of free upgrades to look forward to. But irony is my business and I just can’t see any ironies here: would it be less poignant to get cancer on the day that my memoirs were remaindered as a box-office turkey, or that I was bounced from a coach-class flight and left on the tarmac? To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?

The bargaining stage, though. Maybe there’s a loophole here. The oncology bargain is that, in return for at least the chance of a few more useful years, you agree to submit to chemotherapy and then, if you are lucky with that, to radiation or even surgery. So here’s the wager: you stick around for a bit, but in return we are going to need some things from you. These things may include your taste buds, your ability to concentrate, your ability to digest, and the hair on your head. This certainly appears to be a reasonable trade. Unfortunately, it also involves confronting one of the most appealing clichés in our language. You’ve heard it all right. People don’t have cancer: they are reported to be battling cancer. No well-wisher omits the combative image: You can beat this. It’s even in obituaries for cancer losers, as if one might reasonably say of someone that they died after a long and brave struggle with mortality. You don’t hear it about long-term sufferers from heart disease or kidney failure.

Myself, I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient. Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water ......


Saturday, August 07, 2010

Remember Tron?

I never saw Tron at the theater but did see it a few times on tv, and though it always seemed a little dated, I liked it because I liked Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner (of Babylon 5). Here's a little of what Wikipedia says of it ...

Tron is a 1982 American action science fiction film produced by Walt Disney Pictures. It stars Jeff Bridges as the protagonist hacker Kevin Flynn (and his program counterpart inside the electronic world, CLU), Bruce Boxleitner as Tron (and Tron's "user", Alan Bradley), Cindy Morgan as Yori (and her "user", Dr. Lora Baines), and Dan Shor as Ram. David Warner plays all three main antagonists: the program Sark, his "user", Ed Dillinger, and the voice of the Master Control Program. Tron was written and directed by Steven Lisberger, and has a distinctive visual style, as it was one of the first films from a major studio to use extensive computer graphics .....

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four out of four stars and described the film as "a dazzling movie from Walt Disney in which computers have been used to make themselves romantic and glamorous. Here's a technological sound-and-light show that is sensational and brainy, stylish, and fun". However, near the end of his review, he noted (in a positive tone), "This is an almost wholly technological movie. Although it's populated by actors who are engaging (Bridges, Cindy Morgan) or sinister (Warner), it is not really a movie about human nature. Like [the last two Star Wars films], but much more so, this movie is a machine to dazzle and delight us". Ebert was so convinced that this film had not been given its due credit by both critics and audiences that he decided to close his first annual Overlooked Film Festival with a showing of Tron .....

I bring this up because I saw today at the Apple trailer place that there's a sequel coming up - Tron: Legacy - also starring Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner :) Here's the synopsis for the film ...

TRON: LEGACY is a 3D action-packed adventure set in a digital world unlike anything captured on the big screen. Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), a rebellious 27-year-old, is haunted by the mysterious disappearance of his father Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a man once known as the world's leading video-game developer. When Sam investigates a strange signal sent from the abandoned Flynn's Arcade -- that could have only come from his father -- he finds himself pulled into a world where Kevin has been trapped for 20 years. With the help of the fearless warrior Quorra (Olivia Wilde), father and son embark on a life-or-death journey across a visually-stunning digital universe -- created by Kevin himself -- which has become far more advanced with never-before-imagined vehicles, weapons, and landscapes and a ruthless villain who will stop at nothing to prevent their escape.

Here's the trailer ....