Just a test of cross-posting

Nothing here to see…

Mobile post sent by nathan using Utterz Replies.  mp3

Owen Gingerich

Book CoverListened to Owen Gingerich tonight. He claims to have figured out a way to "make space for design" within the constraints of scientific thought as understood in a robust and rigorous way. It was interesting, but ultimately, for me, a little frustrating. Gingerich believes in God. He describes himself as "psychologically incapable" of imagining a universe without God. He's also a serious scientist. It seems to me that he's restated Steven Jay Gould's "nonoverlapping magisteria" idea in a slightly different way. He thinks that scientists develop efficient-causal explanations that require only materialist presuppositions. But since the universe is so remarkably friendly to life, and particularly, it's friendly to us — intelligent, moral, reflective life-forms — he imagines that this can't be by accident, and so therefore someone, some "super-intelligent" being, must have wanted it this way. (Stated this way, it kind of reminds me of the example of the golfer hitting the ball: the ball lands on a tuft of grass. There are thousands of tufts of grass out there. The chances that the ball lands on that particular tuft of grass are tiny. So, the golfer must have aimed at that tuft.) It's almost as if Gingerich starts with a completely materialistic, atheistic universe, and then declares that behind the scenes of the whole thing is the mysterious, intentionally-acting spirit, God, who gives the whole system purpose and meaning. Fine, but so what? How is this picture then different from a universe without God? The answer is that it's different to the individual believer. It feels different. Some people might think that this answer trivializes the problem, but I'm not so sure. Lots of theology is completely uninterested in some notion of purely "objective" reality, focusing instead on dynamics that connect the individual soul, creation, and God. Think of St. Augustine's De Trinitate, for example. The point is that a universe under God's control is comforting and compelling. Is that a bad reason to believe it? I don't know. But the way Gingerich describes it, it doesn't seem to have any explanatory power; rather, its appeal is sort of aesthetic. Rather than predicting or explaining events, it interprets them — it makes them make sense — in an way that is subjectively, intuitively, intellectually satisfying.

Part of my problem with this actually has to do with the religion side. Where's Jesus in all this? Or, to ask a similar question in a very different way, isn't this just a way of cheapening religion, relegating it to the status of a kind of all's-well-with-the-world sensibility? There's nothing difficult or challenging about this version of God. He makes no promises or demands. There's no Passion, no sacrifice, no grace or mercy. Certainly there's no salvation, no moksha, no nirvana, and no rituals. All that stuff just recedes further into the realm of custom and convention.

I need to think about this more. Something about it bugged me, even though I found his presentation very nicely done, very polished, and very intelligent. It just seemed like something crucial was being left out. And I need to actually read his book now and mine it for sources and quotations. I think his ideas reveal something important about contemporary language and attitudes about religion and its role but I'm not really sure what.

CIE: second paper assignment (CIE100.DD FA07)

Here’s the second paper assignment.

CIE100.DD (Rein)
Second paper assignment
First draft due Friday, October 12, 2007 in class

Since the semester began, we have spent a fair amount of time in class talking not just about the texts themselves but also about — for lack of a better word — the process of the class itself. In other words, we’ve talked about the texts, but we’ve also talked about what it’s like to talk about (and read, and think about) the texts. We are lucky enough to have formed a solid community in which genuine dialogue can take place. We have also read several dialogues, namely the Euthyphro and the Gita. We are now six weeks into the semester, with nine weeks to go. Thinking ahead to the rest of the term, here is your assignment. In the form of a four-to-five page paper (aim for 1500 words), write a letter to the rest of the class (including me) in which you describe what lessons we might draw from the dialogues found in the Euthyphro and in the Gita about how the class might run better.

These lessons can be positive (i.e., things we ought to imitate about those dialogues) or negative (things we should avoid). For the sake of balance, do your best to come up with at least one negative and one positive from each text. Be open-minded. Be aware of your preexisting opinions, but don’t be afraid to challenge them, either. (For example, you might ask yourself: if individual participants tried to imitate Socrates’s confrontational style of questioning in some ways, might that push the class towards deeper insights, and why, or why not? Or: if we thought more in terms of concrete, pressing moral dilemmas, like Arjuna, would that make the discussion more relevant? These are just examples, and you don’t have to discuss them; they’re just supposed to give you ideas.)
Organize your paper as a conventional essay — include a thesis statement that lays out your main point in a nutshell and include supporting evidence from the texts and from your observations about the class so far.
Your classmates will read your work.

For Monday, write some notes towards a draft, in the following form. First, write one paragraph each in which you describe what you find fruitful or relevant about the type of dialogue found in the Euthyphro, in the Gita, and in our class. Then, write one paragraph each in which you describe what you find alienating or unproductive about those types of dialogue. (In other words, a total of six short paragraphs.) Be sure not to stop at first impressions, but ask yourself why you have the reactions you do. In other words, don’t just say, “The dialogue in this text is boring,” but explain why you find it boring, being as precise as possible, and what it would take to make it not boring. Try to write quickly, if you can; you’re brainstorming. You’ll share this with the rest of the class.

Just watched the Gilgamesh production

Wow. That was … intense. I know I ought to say more, but I’ll save it for class.

Propaganda images from the Reformation

To see higher-quality versions of the images, use this link to download all four to your computer.

RELS-365: in case you forgot to write down the assignment…

… here it is.
RELS-365 assignment posted Wed., Oct. 3, 2007
And, don’t forget, use “fomes peccati” in conversation twice and be prepared to report on this.

One more time with the collapse of the medieval synthesis; and, the debate exercise

One thing I don’t seem to be able to manage to do in this class (RELS-365, the Reformation class): I haven’t been collecting any regular feedback from students (that’s you, if you’re reading this, probably, since I doubt anyone else even knows about this site) about whether or not what we’ve been talking about has been making sense. I’ve been thinking back over what we’ve talked about over the past eight meetings — four weeks — and there is really a single theme that I keep coming back to (so far), namely, the “collapse of the medieval synthesis.” I’ll be honest here. Personally, I think I’ve done a fairly good job of explaining what I mean by this in a somewhat evocative way. I like talking about this kind of thing. My impression, based on the way the class has been going, is that people are following along and understanding what I’m saying. However, on the other hand, one thing I’ve never been particularly good at as a teacher is figuring out ways of determining how well my students understand what I mean. (Other than by assigning full-fledged papers, that is. And I don’t think this class is quite ready for that yet.) That’s part of the reason I assigned online journals this semester, though it looks like I’m going to have to do a little more beating the bushes to encourage people to actually use them.

Anyhow, this is all by way of saying, if what I’ve been talking about doesn’t make sense, please speak up and let me know. And if you have any ideas about what else you’d like to see the class discuss, or what sorts of things you’d like to see happening in the class, tell me about it. I’m all ears. Really. To me, everything we’ve been reading, looking at and talking about fits together perfectly, but I don’t know if that’s true from your perspective. My biggest worry when it comes to teaching a course on the Reformation, since it’s my specialty and indeed my intellectual passion, is that I will stand up in front of you and babble on and on about stuff that’s fascinating to me but baffling to everyone else. In all likelihood — and I’m a little embarrassed to say this — I would be perfectly content to do that. I could blithely talk about Reformation-era religion and culture all day, every day, for months at a time without ever getting tired of it. But that probably wouldn’t make for a very effective or satisfying class for you. If that starts to happen, please stop me. I mean it. In the meantime I will start giving you some very short, informal “diagnostic” writing assignments to try to see what you’re getting from the material.

So, just one last time, the “medieval synthesis”: by this phrase I mean a hierarchical understanding of social, religious, cultural, and mental life in which all the various components seem to fit together and harmonize with one another. Society is understood in ideal, hierarchical terms, with every person occupying his or her proper place, role, and rank. Divine power sanctions the whole thing and “flows” downward from God through all social institutions, mediated by sacraments and sacrament-like practices. A person’s inner life was supposed to be fundamentally in accord with his or her social standing. All this can be seen reflected in the images we looked at today of these magnificent and imposing cathedral structures, with their showcasing of an aesthetic founded on system, repetition, order, harmony, structure, and top-down hierarchy. Make sense?

Here are copies of the images we looked at today (click to view larger versions):

One of the things I was pushing very hard today is this, just to re-cap: Erasmus, in both the Paraclesis and the Enchiridion, stresses the idea that everyone should be able to gain for him- or herself some access to the Bible and the stories and wisdom it contains. Studying is thus a holy, worship-like activity. A couple of you identified several reasons why Erasmus’s contemporaries might have found this idea unsettling or problematic, including ideas like the following: it could potentially fundamentally subvert the hierarchical social order and the authority that underwrote it, detract from the honor and majesty of the church and its sacraments, disrupt or fragment community relationships, or encourage new and dangerous levels of dissent. I think this is a really crucial point that I hope everyone will be able to reflect on somewhat. Fundamentally, Erasmus is emphasizing the value of education. This emphasis runs more or less parallel to the way in which Thomas à Kempis and Kolde emphasized the value a very emotion-laden, inward-focused model of Christian piety.

A couple of questions occur to me in this context. One is: are there similar dangers in the vision proposed by Thomas and Kolde? Another is: Lauren suggested that Erasmus’s point here isn’t really about acquiring knowledge, as if knowledge were a sort of commodity, but about elevating the activity of study itself to the status of something holy or almost holy. But in practical terms, what does this mean? (One possibility: maybe it would make sense to think of studying as a sort of new kind of “sacrament,” reminiscent of what we talked about a few class meetings back. If a traditional physical sacrament is in effect a material channel through which divine power and grace flow into the community, maybe the process and activity of studying can also form a sort of mental conduit by which divine wisdom and power can flow into and transform the individual.) How is this like and unlike modern ways of understanding what it is to have religious faith or be a member of a religious community? (And are those two things the same?)

Okay, I’m going to bed. A few words about preparing for the debate exercise on Monday. The main thing is this: imagine that you are “pitching” your particular understanding of the correct way of Christianity to a small community of middling lay people. They’re not dirt-poor peasants, but not rich nobles either; assume they have the basic necessities of life taken care of and at least several members of the group are able to read in the vernacular (but not Latin). They’re not monks or priests, but they’re concerned about the salvation of their souls. They are familiar with some of the stories of the saints and of the Bible, but they are not particularly educated. Up to this point they’ve been content to follow along with the practices of their parents and grandparents and their neighbors and friends. However, with news of various frightening crises in the world outside their village, and with a general sense that the old ways are no longer good enough, they have turned with some anxiety to several groups of experts (you). You are to argue that your way of seeing Christianity is the best. You are free to draw on any of the texts we’ve looked at up to this point. This should be an interesting and enjoyable process, but try to take it seriously, as if you were really trying to provide genuine spiritual counsel based on the identity and role your group has been assigned. Ground rules: plan to meet at least once before Monday. Each group will have fifteen minutes to present its case. I will then ask questions (I’ll pretend to be the lay audience) and you will have an opportunity to debate one another, rebut one another’s answers, and respond in turn to the concerns I raise. Plan to have every member of the group be actively involved in some way (i.e., everyone should have something to say on Monday), and your group’s presentation should be reasonably well coordinated. (In other words, try to prepare so that you’re not repeating the arguments or points made by another member of your group, and you’re also not contradicting other members of your group…)

Again, please let me know if these pointers don’t make sense or if you need more information.