Sunday, March 19, 2006

1. My parents visited me this weekend. We ate dinner Saturday with the Prices, who graciously invited us to join in their St. Patrick's feast. You haven't had corned beef until you've had corned beef bao (Chinese dumplings). They were incredible; so was the corned beef curry and the rest. And a jolly time was had by all.

2. While I was biking to campus for my students' midterm review session, I had another of those great math-language insights, which tied into what I wrote below.

Economists, sociologists and psychologists have been trying for years to explain away human actions as purely the instinctive pursuit of one's physical and social needs (rationalized to ourselves, so that we don't think of them in such a base way). The acts that don't make sense in this picture are defined to be neuroses, or expressions of more deeply hidden needs, or anything but what they are at face value: the seeking of the true, good and beautiful, or the self-destructive rages of pride.

So what occurred to me is that human beings can be thought of as clever animals acting to fulfill their physical and social needs, but that's only the first-order Taylor polynomial of human nature. It only approximates it so well.

3. If you're looking for a team to cheer in the NCAA Tournament, a team that's been doing it with good discipline and clever strategy rather than big scholarships, look no farther than West Virginia. (The story's a month or so old, so it doesn't mention their tournament so far.) It doesn't hurt that my dad's business partner, a great guy, is coach John Beilein's brother. Go Mountaineers!

Oh, and anyone interested in seeing a Sweet 16 game with me in Oakland? Like, maybe, Gonzaga/UCLA?
Take a Bow for the New Revolution

The following is more rhetorical and hortatory than my usual fare. But I think that the topic deserves it.

In reading Plato, I've been struck by how much Socrates' arguments depend on the concepts that were obvious to his interlocutors: things like virtue and art, nature and form, which we don't use in nearly the same ways. At first I thought, if Socrates were alive today, he would have a much more difficult time getting us to agree to anything. But then I realized that if he were in today's world, he would instead use the concepts that we take for granted, the ideas that are beyond argument, the many things that we think are obvious which were never taken as such before.

That's when the similarities started occurring to me.

We once were convinced that the physical phenomena that mystified us were the effect of strange gods or spirits, whom we named and thus knew. How far we have advanced; now we are convinced that the parts of human nature that mystify us must be caused by some primeval evolutionary advantage, or failing that, caused by psychological disorders, which we name and thus know.

We once were certain that we were to propitiate the gods by sacrificing humans to them, and that if we did this wholeheartedly they would reward all with unending prosperity. How far we have come; now we sacrifice our poor to our economic system, certain that if we let the invisible hand of capital and the free market do as it wills, we will all be rewarded with unending prosperity.

We once were satisfied that a drugged maiden on the Pythian seat could tell us the deep truths, how we ought to live, even the future. How far we have grown; now we are sure that every question of truth, ethics, and prediction can be satisfied by a repeatable scientific experiment and nothing else.

We once found it obvious that certain acts were ugly and wrong, no matter whether they hurt any person; and if you tried to argue the opposite, you would speak to them only nonsense. How wise we have become; now it is obvious to us that if an act hurts no person against their consent, it cannot after all be that wrong; and if you argue the opposite, you speak only foolishness.

We have become so sophisticated, you and I. We count ourselves superior to the ancients whose idols were painted representationally, in the forms of beasts and men. For now we paint our idols abstractly, as are Democracy and Privacy, Capitalism and Science, Liberty and Psychology. We know that our age is right because it sits in judgment on all the false notions of prior ages, and we are certain that the ages to come will only ratify our judgments.

Socrates would have a field day in the universities.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

And Another Thing Before I Go.

The invaluable Tom of Disputations has concisely formulated something that I see too, something that strikes to the heart of theology for me.
I've been struck by the inchoate notion that to speak of "the problem of evil" is to miss the fact that the problem we are truly facing is the problem of good. The real question isn't, "How can an all-powerful, all-good God permit bad things?," but, "How do we face the fact of an all-powerful, all-good God?"

Or, to put it another way, I might think I know what I mean by a "good God" the way a six-year-old might think she knows what she means by a "good Mom": one who's always nice to her, who's only around when she's wanted, who makes no demands and gives all the candy and toys the girl wants. That her actual mother is being loving even while refusing her what she wants, even when punishing her, is too difficult for the six-year-old to grasp; she thinks of "Mom while nice" and "Mom while angry" almost as two different entities (just like "Old Testament God" and "New Testament God", you know?). The scale is vastly different to us, the very real miseries of the world seem so vast that it seems rather patronizing of me to compare them to the punishments and disappointments of a six-year old- and yet those disappointments seemed so real and important at the time, don't you recall? It's only because we grew up that we can see them as trivial.

The reason that I was so moved and inspired by Deus Caritas Est is that, as I've said, one of the questions that really drives me is "What does love really mean?"

It was years ago that I first came to the conclusion that love, after all, wasn't always nice: an intervention for an alcoholic was an example there. The concept that "Love is seeking what is best for the Other" did well for me, prevented a lot of foolishness, but it was only a concept. It makes it sound as if the highest love possible was that of the coolly detached philosopher weighing the scales of morality and coming away with the decision to surprise his wife with flowers. I suppose there are many titles one might praise Kant with, but "Apostle of Love" I daresay isn't one of them.

But the Saints- ah, that's another matter. If, as I've now come to think, "God is Love" is more a definition for us of Love than of God, if human loves are truly participations in God's love, then we can see Love best in looking at Christ, and in looking to the Saints.

Love is patient and kind, yes, but it is also harsh, as was Jesus' rebuke to Peter on the road to Jerusalem. Love does not take offense, but neither is it afraid of giving offense when proper, as Christ offended the Pharisees. Love allows itself to suffer at the hands of others, not with resignation but with joy, like Felicity and Perpetua. Love asks more of us than we can give, like Abraham binding Isaac to the altar. Love is absurd, for it is alien to our natures; it comes to us as a grace we do not ask for in the beginning, sometimes one we never ask for.

And yes, snappy conclusion goes here. Like Deus Caritas Est, this post should have a second section about how I'm going to put charity into practice. But the few meager good things I do I shouldn't indulge in boasting about, and the things I don't do I have no knowledge of. And my daily life is rife enough with self-centredness too. So I'll leave that discussion for another day, for I'm afraid that it's midnight.

Have a good week, everyone. Yes, I did read your blog today, just didn't give myself the time to comment. What can I say? Mea culpa.
You Forget So Easy

I've been reading a series of sci-fi books recently (The Book of the New Sun and The Urth of the New Sun) in which one of the major elements is the perfect memory of the narrator. Severian doesn't just recall the events of his past, he relives them. And I am just the opposite.

If you know me, you know I have a brilliant (if I may flatter myself) memory for facts, for ideas and for the written word. However, my own past is a foreign country, whether it was ten years or two days ago. I tell my own stories badly because they're always a matter of reconstruction; if you were there and you tell it as it was, it's like a new adventure to me.

Perhaps this is a good character for living in the present, never being too concerned with things like moving across the country or passing my qualifying exam, my regrets in life happening upon me only in rare spasms and then evaporating. But it doesn't much help with the Delphic injunction; knowing oneself is as much a matter of memory as wisdom.

I'd been struck with the San Francisco Bay Blues for some time now. I'd breathe in the clear air, stare at a world of February green under a pure blue sky, and think of futility. I've found myself incredibly awkward, incredibly inarticulate and shy, in my whole time here, and I've been quite hard on myself over it.

I was writing in my journal about it all this week, feeling pretty darn sorry for myself, and I wrote something to the effect that I've never been so out of place before. And the answer drifted back to me from years of forgetting: of course I have been, four years ago, my freshman year at Chicago in the winter months. All the same emotions, frustrations, wanting so badly to be cool, to be admired by those around me. Silly rabbit, popularity is for kids; I've got better things to look after.

But the Eternal Recurrence is freeing and joyful, as Nietzsche has it. To know that my melancholy and alienation have precedent, that they faded away as I grew up into the place I came to love so well, is for the spell of those feelings to be broken today. It's for me to recognize the same lesson I learned then: be patient, content with seeking the good and avoiding evil, because it's not all about me.

So I skipped the dance party and read Brighton Rock last night, and I hooted as I ran in the rain today, and I won't worry about impressing my parents this weekend (they love me, wise or foolish), and I'll stop being so darn serious around you, I promise.

Oh, and have you read Brighton Rock? That ending, it just hits me in the gut; I couldn't fall asleep for thinking about it. That's the sign of a great book for me.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Going blogless this week was... highly productive. But I suppose I oughtn't think of it primarily in those terms.

I realized that I haven't listened to anything but Radiohead for about a full week. I mean, I just bought Hail to the Thief and it's earth-shattering and all, but this has Gone. Too. Far. No more apocalypse for me!

The beard is gone, I shaved it off in shame. After six weeks of growth, it still had the discrete topology. I refused to put up with its delusions of opacity!

OK, I'm not spending a lot of time in Blogdom today, either. Go read something fun, kids. May I suggest...

Erik's Rants and Recipes:
I created a little setting for the Friday Afternoon Sermon: a hot, slightly muggy day, in a piazza. The hearers of the sermon are not really there all by choice, and the piazza is full of various police in a variety of levels of uniform. Those who mutter against the Leader get stern looks from one of the secret policemen, you know, the guy over at that other table, sipping his Campari and looking for all the world like somebody's uncle.

Or perhaps Ecumenical Panheresy:
I think it was pretty good, well-argued, well-written. At one point, however, I did consider writing, "...even then, my paper would still be just as brilliant." And a lot of my "argumentation" was in fact merely repeating my contentions louder. And saying how friggin' intense I was. But, I did refrain from titling my paper, "WHY I WRITE SUCH GREAT PAPERS."

Well, I'm off to do graduate-type things. Perhaps I'll see whether Jon Stewart can save the Oscars from total decrepitude. As my Magic 8-Ball would say, "All Signs Point To No."