Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Faith, Hope, and Existential Choice

The Knight of Hope

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself.  Suppose we have.  Than all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones.  Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of your is the only world.  Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one.  And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it.  We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right.  But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow.  That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world.   I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it.  I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.
                                                                                    --C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair

            Let us assume, without argument, that faith is a kind of believing.  We can leave open and unanswered the question what sort of believing faith is.  I explained and defended a particular definition of faith in Why Faith is a Virtue, but the reader need not approve my view.  It’s enough, for now, to say that having faith implies believing something.  Perhaps you think faith means more than merely believing something (I would agree), but still it includes belief.  And to believe something means you think it is true.
            Imagine a person—with complete fairness, we can call him Louis Pojman—who was taught in childhood that a person must have faith to be a Christian.  His Catholic education taught young Louis a list of important propositions that all Christians must believe.  “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…” Young Louis dutifully learned catechism.  Perhaps for a while he believed every required proposition.
            However, as an adult and a careful, honest philosopher, Pojman confessed that he did not believe some of these crucial propositions, for instance, that there is in fact a transcendent, all-powerful, beneficent and all-wise eternal being.  Again, as a careful, honest philosopher, Pojman did not deny that God exists.  Finding neither theistic nor atheistic arguments convincing, Pojman thought it possible but not certain that God exists.  Unsurprisingly, he came to the same conclusion about other parts of the creed.  If you’re not sure that God is real, it’s hard to believe that the Son of God became a man, being born of a virgin, etc.
            As a mature philosopher, Pojman confessed that he did not have faith.  Nevertheless, being unconvinced by atheistic arguments, he thought Christianity might be true.  And, he believed, if it were true it would be a very good thing.  Thus, Pojman wrote, he could hope that Christianity is true.
            At its core, hope has two parts.  We desire something (the appetitive part) and we believe the thing we desire is possible (the intellectual part).  And by “possible” we mean it is neither certain nor impossible.  Pojman’s attitude toward Christian doctrine fits this definition well.  Is it possible to have genuine Christian hope without having Christian faith?
            Someone might argue that the core definition of hope isn’t accurate when it comes to Christian hope.  For Christian hope, one must desire that the gospel be true and one must believe that it actually is true.  But this objection has the odd result of making Christian hope a singular exception from the general theory of hope.  (It might also be a surprise to Aquinas, who first explicated the core definition of hope.)  So let us put aside this first objection.  Christian hope is a species of hope in general. 
            A second objector might agree with the core definition of hope, but say that in regard to Christian hope the core definition is not enough.  That is, Christian hope involves something more than desiring that the gospel be true and judging that it might be true.  What is that something more?
            The marsh-wiggle Puddleglum illustrates a possible answer.  Puddleglum and the two children, Jill and Eustace, have come to an underground world to rescue Prince Rilian.  After many adventures, they have found Rilian and freed him from the cursed Silver Chair.  But then the evil queen of the underworld appears.  Under the power of her magic, Puddleglum, the children, and Rilian all become confused.  Everything they thought was true seems questionable.  They cease to believe in the sun, trees, grass, Narnia, Aslan, etc.  If faith requires belief, they have lost their faith.
            At the crucial moment Puddleglum stamps on the witch’s fire, producing a horrible smell of burnt marsh-wiggle and a great deal of pain, two things that greatly help Puddleglum to think straight.  Then he launches into the speech I quoted above.  Notice the ending: “I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.”
            Puddleglum desires that his memories of Narnia, sun, moon, trees, grass, and especially Aslan be true.  He judges that these things might be true (although under the spell of the evil queen’s magic he came close to thinking they could not be true).  And he acts as if these things are true.  Immediately after the words I quoted, Puddleglum says: “So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once…”
            Soren Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism, wrote that we have a “task” of hope.  He meant, I think, that we need to order our hopes, so that we hope for things of real importance.  We need to clear our hearts of inconsequential hopes, or at least make them all subservient to our central first hope, our hope in God.  If I understand him rightly, Kierkegaard’s “task” of hope is not exactly Puddleglum’s action of hope.  Still, the idea that we ought to order our hopes is cousin to the idea that we act in hope.
            Puddleglum fits Kierkegaard in another, more obvious way.  The Danish philosopher insisted that Christianity requires commitment, what is often called “the leap of faith.”  We do not know that Christian dogma is true, he thought, and we must commit ourselves—with a passion that holds nothing back—without having such knowledge.  When Christians persuade themselves they have proofs of Christianity, Kierkegaard thought, they hide from passionate commitment.
            Now, Kierkegaard uses “faith” language: the knight of faith, the leap of faith, etc.  But it may be that his insights really help us understand hope.  Maybe we could call Puddleglum the “knight of hope.”

Thursday, November 2, 2017

On Endings

On Endings

            Fairy tale: “And they lived happily ever after.”

            The Return of the King (Tolkien): “And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Eleanor upon his lap.  He drew a deep breath.  ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.”

            With Malice Toward None:  A Life of Abraham Lincoln (Oates): “From Chicago the train ran south across the prairies, taking Lincoln and Willie home now, home at last to Springfield.”

            The Heart of the Sea: “And then I saw, not in imagination but in reality, the waiting faces on the shore.”

            Stories have beginnings, middles, and ends.  At least, most of them do.  I suppose some avant-garde author could try to make a philosophical point by writing a story that has no beginning or end, just sentences.  He could try; I don’t say succeed.
            Some philosophers have suggested that endings only come in stories.  Reality, it might be suggested, just keeps going.  The universe appears to be, and for all we know it really is, one of an infinite number of possible universes that might have followed from the big bang; and in that universe events deterministically succeed each other (except when they succeed each other indeterministically, i.e. by random chance, as allowed by quantum dynamics).  Such philosophers might argue that the imposition of beginnings and endings is merely a human way of looking at things.  By some stroke of chance, we have evolved to find meaning in things (and imagine the meaning is real), and so we invent stories.  In reality, the big bang is the only beginning and the eventual heat death of the universe is the only ending.
            At some point children graduate from fairy tale endings.  They want to know what happens after the princess slays the dragon and rescues her one true love.  Does she get old and wrinkled?  Does the prince start drinking too much?  Do they produce crabby children?
            American history did not stop with Lincoln’s assassination and burial.  His successor, President Johnson, was impeached, but not convicted.  Then President Grant presided over a depressingly corrupt administration.  And then … on and on.
            Sam comes home to Hobbiton at the end of The Return of the King.  But the final scene is followed by hundreds of pages of appendices.  The reader soon learns that Tolkien regarded the adventures of the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings as a single episode in a gigantic history of middle-earth.  As the creator of that world, Tolkien was more interested in its languages, peoples, and myths than in the War of the Ring.
            My story, The Heart of the Sea, ends with Denver Milton’s reunion with his wife and son.  What kind of ending is that?  Obviously, it’s not “the end.”  What becomes of little Tervik, anyway?
            So you see, the skeptical philosophers say, beginnings and endings are arbitrary.  Endings serve the purposes of storytellers, nothing more.  The only meanings stories have are the ones we make up.
            Notice that this denial of story-meaning takes the shape of a story, a grand meta-narrative.  It is a new story, the story of the universe as told by contemporary cosmologists.  It bears the imprimatur of science, so the skeptical philosophers present it as barefaced truth.  Other philosophers, who call themselves deconstructionists, delightfully point to the skeptics’ inconsistency.  Why is their story exempt from skepticism?  Jean Francois Lyotard famously wrote: “I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.”  He probably would include the cosmological story of “big bang leading to heat death” along with all the others.
            I agree with the deconstructionists that those I have called the story-meaning skeptics are inconsistent.  If you want to be skeptical, be skeptical all the way down.  But I agree that all our little stories achieve their meanings within the grand story.  Biographies and histories of nations fit within the human story writ large.  And the human story is part of the natural history of the planet and the physical universe.
            Natural history is part of a grander story still.  And that story centers on a single life, lived in Judea and Galilee two millennia ago.
            Our stories—biographies, histories or novels—give meanings to events by offering explanations.  Without meaning, without narrative, the events of the world are just “one damn thing after another.”  Our propensity toward story, toward meaning, is not just an accident of human evolution.  It is part of are essential nature as creative creatures.  (Here I am thinking with Dorothy Sayers, in The Mind of the Maker, who points out that the creation story—story again!—says that God made us in his image.  We are made to be makers.)
            Someone might object that I have merely asserted that our storytelling proclivities are not accidental.  Shouldn’t I give a argument?  But I already have, in the paragraphs above.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Last Walk 14

The Last Walk 14:
A Year Ago Today…

            I expect this will be my last entry under “Last Walk.”  It’s been almost one year since Karen died.  For a few weeks now, and especially in the last few days, memory has taken me back to the events of last year.
            There is a sense in which years are arbitrary units.  Orbits.  Why should it matter, in a person’s life, whether the earth has completed one of its journeys around the sun?  Mercury’s orbit is much shorter; Jupiter’s much longer.  Unless we are astronomers, we pay no attention.  We don’t live on Mercury or Jupiter.  Earth’s orbit we call a year, and we measure our lives in years.
            (Speculation: someday, perhaps in my lifetime, colonists will live on Mars.  They will almost certainly live “sols,” Martian days roughly thirty minutes longer than Earth’s days.  Mars takes almost twice as long as Earth to orbit the sun.  Will the colonists celebrate Martian birthdays?)
            Whether or not a year is an arbitrary length of time, it is built into cultural memes.  And since we are social creatures, the cultural meme structures our experience.  Without even trying, we inculcate time concepts into our children, as our parents gifted them to us.  So we live in years.
            One year ago today…
            July—Dr. Baros told Karen cancer had spread to her lymph nodes.
            August—Karen underwent chemotherapy and, subsequently, a blood transfusion because the chemo hit so hard.
            Early September—Karen’s visit to Kennewick was cut short because she felt a cold coming on and didn’t want to infect grandson Jakobi.
            October 5, a Wednesday—Rich Brown, our lawyer, and a notary public came with documents for Karen to sign.  She signed some, but then said she was too tired.  We’d do it later, we said.  A friend from St. Peter’s brought communion.
            October 6, Thursday—the hospice people brought a hospital bed.  Karen was unconscious all day.  We gave her pain meds in liquid form; deposited between cheek and gum, she swallowed them automatically.
            October 7, Friday—Ron Mock sat with me most of the morning at Karen’s bedside.  For a moment she opened her eyes.  I told her I loved her.  She mouthed words, which Ron and I both thought were, “I love you.”
            October 8, Saturday—Karen slept all day, breathing slowly.
            October 9, Sunday, 9:45 am—Karen stopped breathing.  I called hospice, and a nurse came within half an hour.  Shortly thereafter, hospice people came to remove Karen’s body.
            October 20—We attended funeral mass at St. Peter Church.
            October 22—Karen’s memorial service at Newberg Friends Church.

            I have a friend whose husband died more than two years ago.  She says the anticipation of the anniversary of death can be harder than the day itself.  Maybe so.
            I keep Karen’s ashes in two beautiful urns, a gift from Mark Terry.  The urns stand on top of Karen’s rosewood piano.  Legally, that piano is mine, but I cannot think of it except as Karen’s piano.  I bought a niche at the Friends Cemetery; someday, I presume, either I or our sons will move the ashes to the niche.
            In my life, the earth will probably orbit the sun twenty or thirty more times.  Maybe more, maybe fewer.  And that’s it, the end; our last walk is finally over.  So some people say.  But I hope … Well, if you have read these essays, you know about that.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Last Walk 13

The Photographer’s Resurrection

            Karen was a clinical psychologist for more than three decades, and it was only after retirement she took up photography seriously.  She made some very nice portraits, but her best pictures are art photos.  Insects, trees, and flowers; taken in extreme close-up or in unusual light, they display nature’s beauty in surprising ways.  And some of her work achieves pure abstraction, leaving the viewer guessing as to how the images were captured.
            Many weeks, months really, have passed since Karen made any photos.  She battles cancer, chemotherapy, and pain medications.  Too weak to stand without aid, unable to hold a camera, she also struggles to pursue coherent thought; the studied, inventive attention needed for art photos is beyond her.
            It is possible that she will rally physically.  She could receive more chemotherapy.  Chemotherapy might significantly retard or reverse cancer’s growth.  At this stage we still can hope that Karen will make more pictures.  But none of those things are likely.
            As a psychologist, Karen regularly had occasion to diagnose dementia.  That she often cannot complete a sentence or thought frightens and discourages her.  Along with everything else, she fights depression.
            I approve of Adrienne Martin’s term for hope; hope is a syndrome.  Hope shows up in our beliefs, plans, feelings, and perceptions.  Hope colors our imagination.  I also approve of Martin’s notion of incorporation.  When we have judged that a hoped for outcome is possible and then judged that it is practically important to us, we license ourselves to incorporate the hope into our lives.  We think about the hoped for thing, we perceive the world in its light, and we let ourselves imagine it.
            To that end, here is a bit of imagination.  Please, please, please: I am not saying what will be; I am only imagining what might be.  (The words above were written in September 2016.  Those that follow were written later.)

A Fine Green Morning

            Karen dreamed, but disjointedly.  She was lying in a bed, the hospital bed delivered by hospice.  How long had she been here?  But then, in her dream, she was seated in the blue recliner.  She liked that chair; she bought it for her home office three years ago, and they had moved it to the living room.  For some days, maybe a week, she sat and slept in the recliner until, as the cancer consumed her strength, Phil called hospice for the bed.  She knew she would die in that hospital bed.  Why did they move her back to the recliner?
            She recognized photographs on the wall above the sofa.  She had directed Phil when he mounted them—this one there, that one a bit higher—and the result pleased her.  The photography instructor at the college, John Bennett, had praised her work, and Phil especially liked her “art” pictures.  Close up photos of a cat’s eye, a flower, and green growing things, filled with pristine detail—the pictures satisfied.  If only she had started photography sooner, or if the cancer hadn’t come back…
            Karen shook her head, at least in her dream.  She would not waste strength on regrets.  The photos were what they were.  She had made them, and they satisfied.  The making of them had taught her to look at God’s world.  She had found amazing treasures just walking the streets of Newberg.  Of course, that was before the pain in her back and legs put an end to such things… 
            How long had it been since she had strength to hold a camera?  Three weeks?  Actually, she said to herself, it’s a blessing I’ve gone downhill so fast.  Just a month ago Phil drove me to visit Tim and Tia.  But my gut rebelled and Tim had to take me back next day.  I’m glad to die quickly without lingering.
            She looked closely at the photo of Buddy, the neighborhood cat.  Then she thought: How am I able to get so close?  The pictures are on the other side of the room.  And I’m not in the living room.  I’m in the hospital bed, dreaming of the living room.
            It’s legal for hospice to prescribe strong opiates.  I wonder which one they’re giving me.  I wouldn’t have expected to think so lucidly at the last.  I feared dementia, but this isn’t so bad, not from the inside.  Maybe as I fall deeper into the last sleep, everything happens in my mind.  Phil or Jennie see me lying in a bed and wait for my last breath.  But on the inside, it goes on forever.  Is that eternity?
            She turned her head.  Dining table here, piano there, the door, the windows; everything was in its place.  She certainly seemed to be standing, facing the north wall, alone in her house.  Judging by the light from the windows, it must be early morning.  She took a step forward.  Buddy and the other pictures were within arms reach. 
            I’m here.  I’m really here.
Shocked: Am I a ghost? 
            It took three steps to reach the piano.  She pressed a key and was rewarded with sound.  Not a ghost, then?
            Three decades of psychological study and practice carried her mind like a rushing river.  What an amazing phenomenon!  I am lying in a bed, dying of cancer, and yet I experience a lucid, reflexive dream.  The best dream of my life.
            “Karen, honey.”
            She spun around.  “Mom!”  (In the back of her mind: I would have expected Phil.)
            “It’s not a dream, Dear.  That is why it is I, not Phil.  How do you feel?”
            Karen took in a breath, and it felt wonderful.  She realized at that moment that she felt no pain: no pain in her back, no stabbing pain in her leg, and no mental confusion.  
            “It’s not drugs.”  Betty smiled and shrugged.  “It took me a while to get used to feeling good.  I didn’t have as much pain as you, but heart disease made me feel so worn out.  And I was sick longer.  It was a relief to let it go.”
            “I’ve died, then?”
            “Oh yes.  They told me I could welcome you, and I thought this room would be a good transition.  Is it alright?”
            “It’s wonderful, Mom.”  Karen hugged her, and in that hug, deep wonder began to sink into her mind.  “It’s just like it was.”
            Betty chuckled.  “Not quite.  The room has changed a little since they moved you into the bedroom.  And a while ago, after you died, the hospice men came to remove your body.  Do you know what Phil will do with it?”
            “He arranged for cremation.”
            “Oh.  It doesn’t matter, of course.  But I never liked the idea of cremation.  I’m glad you buried me next to Glenn.”
            “Yes, we did.  In that little cemetery near The Dalles.”
            Betty took Karen’s hand.  “Are you ready to go?”
            Karen felt surprise.  “Where are we going?  Do I have a choice?”
            “You made the choice long ago.  And you know where we’re going.”  Karen’s mother’s eyes sparkled with joy.
            Mother and daughter left the house, walking into a fine green morning.  “Oh, look!”

Saturday, August 5, 2017

HB 18

Hope for the Other

            Friedrich Nietzsche attacked Christianity for a number of faults.  One of them, he thought, was the Christian doctrine of resurrection and a blessed afterlife.  On Nietzsche’s account, hope for immortality is pernicious, in that it encourages a person to be satisfied with a miserable life now because of the consolation to come.
            You don’t have to be virulently anti-Christian to be suspicious of hope.  A contemporary Christian writer, Timothy Jackson (Love Disconsoled), wants to expunge hope from the list of Christian virtues.  The center of Christianity, Jackson says, is the ethic of agape love.  Genuine acts of love are undermined by self-regard, which expects some reward for good deeds.  True agape love must be totally centered on one’s neighbor, willing and acting toward the neighbor’s good without consideration of one’s own good.  Hope brings in consolation, Jackson says, and true agape must be “dis-consoled.”
            There is just enough right in what Jackson says to make it initially plausible.  Love really is the most important of the virtues, the heart of Christian ethics.  We are commanded by Jesus to love as God loves (Matthew 5:48).  Though we can’t actually do that (certainly not by an act of will), but we live as disciples with perfect love as our goal.  Many theologians have argued that God’s love—agape love—is “disinterested,” in the sense that it seeks the good of the beloved without regard for the good of the self.  A classical theologian like Thomas Aquinas would say that God is eternally blessed, complete and entire.  Since God is completely happy, God does not need anything and he is not made happier by human worship or obedience.  God commands our worship because he loves us.  We move closer to our best selves when we obey God.
            Someone might object that Jackson’s view contradicts scripture.  The New Testament repeatedly praises hope as a proper virtue for Christians.  This objection is completely accurate, but Jackson would not be persuaded by it.  If hope detracts from love, he would say, we must shed hope in favor of love.  Jackson is picking out what he thinks is the crucial part of New Testament teaching and trying to be faithful to that.  In practice, many preachers do this by returning over and over to those biblical texts which seem to them to express the more important truths.  As a theologian, Jackson is simply more open about it.
            Nevertheless, Jackson is wrong.  It is simply not true that hope is always self-regarding.  David Elliot, in Hope and Christian Ethics, points to a common scene: a graveside gathering of family whose loved one has been buried.  According to Love Disconsoled, the Christian minister might praise the dead person as a faithful disciple of Jesus and perhaps urge the family to emulate him or her.  But the minister should not talk of eternal life.  “Love’s priority implies the moral irrelevance of an afterlife,” says Jackson.
            How is it an act of love to disconsole those who are grieving?
            Jackson, or someone speaking on his behalf, might say that we hope for an afterlife for our friends and loved ones because we want to see them again.  That is, we sneak in self-consolation by introducing hope for resurrection.  But is that true?  Do I hope that Karen (my wife who died in 2016) will be raised to eternal life so that I can enjoy her company?  Not really.  What I hope is that Karen will experience perfect happiness, what Thomas Aquinas called beatitudo, the beatific vision.  She has moved out of my life (except in memory) and into the life of God.  I would not hope for her to have something less.  If in heaven there is a solidarity and fellowship of saints (so that we see each other again), well and good.  But my hope for Karen is that she experience the highest good, which is God.
            Hope is not opposed to love, because we hope for others as much as ourselves.
            There is another point to be made about resurrection hope.  The New Testament clearly teaches that we hope for eternal life.  Aquinas said our goal was friendship with God.  Perhaps we need to live forever because our real hope is to know the infinite God.  It will take eternity to truly know him.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Lost Worlds

Reflections on a Visit to Pont du Gard

            On a recent study trip in Europe I visited the Pont du Gard.  It is a UNESCO world heritage site.  Fittingly, the visit provoked thoughts about world history.
In the first century, when the Christian movement was just beginning, the Romans built an aqueduct to bring water from a mountain spring to a “colony” town called Nemausus (Nimes) in what is now southern France.  The uneven terrain of the region required a winding route for the system, more than 31 miles, digging through hillsides and leveling out depressions, so that the water could flow downhill all the way.  The aqueduct had to cross a river valley (the Gardon River), so the engineers built a bridge, consisting of three tiers of arches, and the water flowed in a covered canal on the top.
            The Pont du Gard and its bridge are a marvel of precision.  The canal on top of the bridge descends about 1 inch, a gradient of 1 to 18,241.  The 31-mile aqueduct descends 41 feet over its whole length.  Once completed, this gravity-glow system provided Nimes with water for baths, drinking, and fountains.  And the system worked, with little maintenance, for four or five centuries.  (Would your city’s water system last that long?)
            But even Roman engineering breaks down with no maintenance.  The empire fell to invading Goths, Visigoths, and other barbarians.  Without periodic cleaning, mineral buildup clogged the aqueduct and the water ceased.  For more than 1000 years, Nimes, like other medieval cities, depended on wells or local streams for water.  In medieval times, cities often had higher rates of disease than the countryside, because concentrated populations depended on limited or polluted water sources.
            Many Roman structures were destroyed by people who picked them apart, one massive stone at a time, as resources for other projects.  The Pont du Gard, though it no longer carried water, continued to serve as a bridge over the Gardon valley.  Medieval lords could charge tolls for wagons and horse traffic, so they protected the structure from looters.  In the last two centuries, governments have taken care to protect it as a tourist destination.
            What did medieval people think when they looked at the Pont du Gard?  Century after century, it stood there, 160’ high and hundred more than 1000’ long, a massive and beautiful structure, far beyond the ability of any living man to design or any lord to finance.  Most likely, they knew that it once carried water, but probably none of them had any understanding of how precisely it had been built.  We cannot see inside their minds, but we imagine they felt some awe at the knowledge of the ancients.
            The world’s literature has many examples of the myth of the golden age.  The Greeks gave us the lost city of Atlantis, the Hebrews told the story of Babel, the Babylonians told of kings who lived for thousands of years, and there are similar stories in other cultures.  Common to such stories is the idea that our distant ancestors were greater than we are—richer, smarter, longer-lived, and/or more holy.
            It’s one thing to tell a story of the golden age.  It’s something else to see proof standing like the Pont du Gard over a river valley.  For more than a thousand years Europeans could see—not just at Pont du Gard but also at other sites—clear evidence that Roman material culture surpassed anything they could build.  The richest noble in his castle in 950 or 1250 lived much less comfortably than upper class Romans of the first century.  (Besides baths and fountains, the Romans built houses with heated floors—in Britain!)  Reflecting on the Pont du Gard and other such structures, Europeans knew there really had been a lost age, an age when people knew more than they did.
            We can suppose that belief in the lost age was part of a medieval worldview.  But not in the modern world!  The recovery of ancient texts, the discovery of the new world, and especially the development of modern science brought a new idea, fundamental to the modern worldview, the idea of progress.  It’s not that we are smarter than our forebears, but we build on their accomplishments.  So we know more than any previous generation.  In the future we will learn even more, so human progress is potentially unlimited. 
To get a sense of the confidence of a modern worldview, try the novels of Jules Verne, e.g. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  The height of modern confidence in progress probably came in the 19th century.  Science and technology had produced railroads, telegraphs, electric lights, steamships, and inoculations and other ways to fight disease.  With the birth of scientific psychology and sociology, humanity could expect progress on “spiritual” problems as well.
The 20th century was not kind to the modern belief in progress.  People continued to make scientific discoveries and develop new technologies, but the uses of our technologies frighten us: nuclear and biological weapons, pollution of land and sea, totalitarian use of communication, eugenics, global climate change, and others.  Is it possible that people will come to look back on a lost age, an age when our ancestors did not know what we know or do what we can do, as better than ours?
Post-apocalyptic science fiction imagines a world like that of medieval Europeans.  A classic example is A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller, a story of monks living in a post-nuclear war world.  That’s not the sort of story I have in mind.  Post-apocalypse stories parallel the medieval experience; in such stories, the ancients are envied because of their knowledge and power, knowledge and power we no longer have.  I have in mind the opposite, where the ancients are envied for their ignorance and lack of power.
Philosophy has always said that knowledge is a good thing.  The post-modern idea that knowledge may be dangerous or bad is philosophically revolutionary.  Without wisdom, technology merely provides power.  So some philosophers of the 20th century (Jacques Ellul, for example) turned their attention to the dangers of technology.  In the 21st century, with technological power in the hands of terrorists or tyrants, we face horrible possibilities.  Global climate change confronts us with not possibility but virtual certainty of hardships.
The Pont du Gard is a beautiful bridge.  It stands as a reminder that engineering can make good things, things that improve human life.  It also symbolizes a lost world, a world lost through the loss of knowledge.  We stand at a time when we may long for a lost world, a world lost by the acquisition of knowledge.


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Power and Powerlessness

Reflections on a Visit to the Palace of Versailles

            In the early 17th century, a Parisian mob surrounded King Louis XIV’s palace when he was just a boy.  (His mother and her advisors managed the boy king’s affairs until he came of age.)  The young king was shaken by this experience and decided that when the time came he would move the royal court outside the city.  He chose his favorite hunting lodge at Versailles as the seat of royal power.
            Normal procedure for the Bourbon dynasty included a yearly round of kingly residences: a summer palace, the hunting lodge, the palace in Paris, and others.  The difference now was that Louis intended to make the Versailles palace his primary residence.  The king would visit Paris only when necessary; bishops, nobles, and courtiers would attend to him at Versailles.  The move helped Louis assert his power as absolute ruler of France, forcing the nobles to come to him.  No longer would he be vulnerable to a popular uprising or discontent among the nobility.  Furthermore, the new project gave Louis the opportunity to display his greatness to the world.
            “I am the state,” Louis said.  He intended that the Versailles palace demonstrate the wealth and glory of France—that is, himself.  He employed the best architects and designers available and spared no expense.  The palace included an opera, a private chapel, interior and exterior fountains, reception rooms, offices, bedrooms, the astonishing hall of mirrors, and many other features.  Gold, silver, crystal, inlaid floors, and hundreds of acclaimed paintings graced the building.  Outside the chateau, Louis’s designers turned his hunting forest into an enormous formal garden.
            Recently, I visited Versailles with a group of students from George Fox University.  Some of them remarked on the stark contrast between the opulence of King Louis’s palace and the poverty of 17th century French peasants.  Hardly surprising, they said, that the monarchy was eventually toppled by revolution.  Versailles pressed me to think about power and powerlessness, wealth and poverty.
            Ironically, our enjoyment of Louis’s palace was tempered by the mass of people crowding slowly through the rooms.  Too many people!  The indoor air became stuffy.  After a while I could hardly wait to get outside to the acres and acres of gardens, with refreshing shade and water fountains. 
What would Louis have said if he had known that millions of commoners would one day troop through his rooms, gaze at his paintings, and walk through his gardens?  More than anything, Louis aimed to establish his rule as absolute monarch; he resented the power of the nobility and worked tirelessly to bend the aristocracy to his will.  Commoners?  For Louis, ordinary people existed to work, pay taxes, man his ships, and serve in his army.  
How the world has changed!  The Versailles palace and gardens are now a national treasure, owned by the French republic, maintained for their historical significance and for the pleasure of tourists.  The crowds that file through Versailles symbolize a democratic spirit, a revolution in worldview that would have astonished Louis (so I suppose).
I am a child of that democratic spirit, schooled my whole life in republican values.  It’s easy for me, when thinking about Louis, to applaud my country for the moral superiority of democracy (and congratulate myself for applauding).  It’s easy to condemn the selfishness of a ruling class and an absolute monarch, because my political thinking starts with the moral worth of every person.  Louis and his ministers pursued policies aimed explicitly at magnifying Louis’s glory.  How could they not see that such vaunting pride was a vice?  How could they plan and praise such massive expenditures on one man while peasants died of starvation?
But that’s too easy.  We may be proud that republics (such as France or the United States) and other democratic states (such as the United Kingdom) have progressed beyond the injustice of absolute monarchies.  But before we congratulate ourselves too much, we should remember how far we have to go.  The moral foundation of democracy is the recognition of the value of every person.  And yet in our democratic states citizens still starve.  Victims of mental illness live under bridges and die of exposure.  Children grow up seeing visions of material luxury in entertainment and advertising with the knowledge they and the other children in their neighborhood will never enjoy those things.  In a word: inequality is a real and persistent fly in the democratic ointment.
Do we see inequality?  Are we troubled by it? 
Surely King Louis knew quite well that he had wealth and power far above any other Frenchman.  This fact did not trouble him at all.  Why should it?  In his mind, it was God’s will that he rule France.  And: “I am the state.”  Without any inconsistency, Louis could be indifferent to the poverty and powerlessness of others.
Citizens of democratic states can’t do that.  If we believe in the moral worth of each person, we need to do better.
Don’t misunderstand me.  I have said nothing about which public policies we ought to adopt in order to improve our democratic societies, nothing about how to provide for the poor or the powerless.  I’m just pointing to the right question.  My visit to Versailles reminds me that democratic republics ought always to ask how they will help those who have the least, those who cannot defend themselves.  Otherwise, future generations may shuffle through our buildings and wonder, “How could they not see…?”


Friday, May 26, 2017

God is Not Done

Reflections on a Visit to Tintern Abbey

            Not long ago a professor colleague and I shepherded nineteen university students on a tour of sites in Europe.  Caitlin, the history professor, introduced us to the story of Tintern Abbey. 
            It’s a beautiful place in the Wye Valley, just over the border from England into Wales.  In the last two hundred years, poets and painters have celebrated the ruins of Tintern Abbey as a place to get back to nature, to appreciate wild country and perhaps to feel a bit of holy otherness.  I want to reflect on the abbey’s story long before it became a talisman for romanticism.
            Cistercian monks founded Tintern Abbey in the 1130s.  Cistercians followed the Benedictine rule for prayer seven times a day, but they differed from other monastic orders in their desire for simplicity.  Cistercian monasteries aimed at economic self-sufficiency.  The Cistercian community earned its keep through a variety of enterprises: farming, manuscript copying, production of books, and (perhaps most profitably) raising sheep for wool.  The monastery had a guesthouse for visitors and a hospital space for the sick.  People of the region could buy a medieval version of retirement home with hospice care; an elderly person could move to the abbey and know that the brothers would take care of him until he died.
            Over four hundred years, Tintern Abbey experienced good times and bad.  A magnificent gothic church was built, and as many as three hundred brothers lived at the abbey at one time.  At other times, plague or mismanagement brought the abbey population down.  But from the 1130s to 1536, the community persisted, ministering by means of prayer and hospitality to an out-of-the-way corner of Wales.
            In the 1530s, Henry VIII decided that if the pope would not grant an annulment of his marriage, he would endorse Protestant theology (some of it, anyway) and leave the Roman church.  Henry himself became head of the English Church.
            It was a politically charged and dangerous move.  Henry feared rebellion from Catholic loyalists, and the monasteries seemed likely threats.  So Henry dissolved the monasteries of England.  Seizing the monastic lands made Henry suddenly the richest man in Europe, and he used his new wealth to buy loyalty from powerful nobles by distributing church property to them.  The monks were displaced from Tintern Abbey, artwork and gold were shipped to London, and the abbey lands given to Henry Somerset, 2nd Earl of Worcester.  Somerset turned the abbey property into cash the quickest way possible: he stripped away the lead—including the roof—and sold it.  Almost overnight, the abbey community disappeared and the abandoned buildings became ruins.
            In my imagination I try to enter into the mind of a monk of Tintern Abbey in the 1530s.  Perhaps he came to monasticism as a youth, or maybe later in life.  He feels certain that God has called him to this life of prayer, simplicity, and service.  As a Cistercian he has misgivings about some church practices, for he has heard of the wealth and ostentation of Rome.  But he is convinced that Martin Luther and John Calvin, the Protestants, are worse, and he is appalled that King Henry has adopted Protestant notions.  For four hundred years the brothers of Tintern Abbey have been serving God by prayer and labor—and now they are turned out by the order of an English king!  My imagined monk might well have been tempted by despair.  How could God allow his church to suffer such injustice?  What possible good could come from Henry’s destruction of the monasteries?  The Cistercian monk might lament corruption in the church and yet lament even more the church’s destruction at Henry’s hands.  He could not know what we know: the long cold war between Protestants and Catholics was just beginning.  But he may well have felt despair over what seemed to be the death of Christianity.
            And yet…God was not finished with his church.  The Quaker renewal would not come for another 115 years.  John Wesley and Methodism a century after that.  Pentecostalism came 150 years later still.  There are many other examples.
            For me, the ruins of Tintern Abbey are more than a romantic poet’s wilderness.  These ruins speak to me of Christians whose world was broken, who had reasons to despair over the church.  And they remind me that even when the world I know seems to be going to hell, God is not done.

Monday, April 10, 2017

HB 17

15. Hoping for …

            Environmentalists are sometimes hard pressed to say what they are hoping for.  What is the “object-state” they desire?  It won’t do to describe some world where anthropogenic climate change never happened; that would be to wish for an impossible world.  Hope always aims at something possible, even if it is unlikely.
            Christians who pray for God’s kingdom to come face a similar problem, because shalom is such an all-encompassing object-state.  We pray for God’s will to be done.  But history—right up to today’s news—shows us a world where people freely accomplish much evil.  We might wish that people had acted differently yesterday, but the past is fixed.  We cannot hope that the past be other than it was.
            How can we hope when we are not sure what future object-state is possible?  What follows is an earlier essay I wrote that may give direction.

Radical Hope

            Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow people lived his life in hope.  At least, that is the thesis offered by Jonathan Lear in Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation.  Plenty Coups hoped for a good future for the Crow people, a future in which they would keep their land and maintain their cultural identify as Crow.  And he held this hope in spite of his belief, grounded in visions he experienced as a boy, that the coming of white people to the plains would irrevocably change the Crow way of life.
            Lear says this is “radical” hope.  Radical hope looks forward to a good future even when the very concepts one uses to describe a good future have been robbed of their meaning.  The Crow people had a rich traditional way of life; centered on nomadism, buffalo hunting, and intermittent warfare against rival tribes.  Their traditions included religious rites (such as the boy Plenty Coups’ vision quest), sacred dances, celebrations of successful hunts and raids, and many other things.  White domination devastated the Crow way of life; by this Lear means not just that the Crow lost their independence but that they lost what philosophers call “thick” concepts of the good life that the future would hold.  Plenty Coups had only the “thin” concept that the future would be good after the storm.
Lear wants to make Plenty Coups available as an exemplar of wisdom for secular people.  He recognizes, of course, that Plenty Coups’ hope was grounded in religious beliefs.  Plenty Coups and the Crow elders interpreted the boy’s visions as messages from the Great Spirit, telling the Crow people to imitate the Chickadee, to listen and adapt.  Nevertheless, Lear denies that religious beliefs are necessary for radical hope.  He says that the goodness of the world is greater than finite people can possibly know.  Even secular people may rationally believe this.  Therefore, Lear argues, even secular people can hold to hope in times of cultural devastation.
Lear says nothing about which forms of cultural devastation that might threaten his readers.  What are the great anxieties of our culture?  Disastrous climate change?  Terrorists who obtain and use nuclear weapons?  A failure of liberal political regimes such that, when faced with terrorism, liberal states collapse into tyranny?  Technological horrors as depicted in science fiction dystopias?  A 21st century version of Big Brother?  Each of Lear’s readers is free to read Lear’s interpretation of Plenty Coups in light of her own deep fears.
Radical hope is not an ostrich-like denial that bad things may come.  Lear emphasizes the realism expressed in Plenty Coups’ visions (and the interpretation the elders placed on them).  Native American tribes had no way to prevent the onslaught of European invaders.  White trappers would be followed by white miners, white settlers, and white soldiers.  The invaders would bring their own definitions of justice, by which they forced the natives off their land, killing as many as necessary to take possession.  Crow leaders—to the degree they understood the situation in terms of realpolitik—knew that Plenty Coups’ vision was true.  The storm is coming, and we cannot stop it.
Our situation is different.  We do not know that any of the “storms” we fear are unavoidable.  It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the effects of climate change will be mitigated, that terror groups will be defeated, that liberal government will meet 21st century challenges, and that we will gain the wisdom to rightly use new technologies.  Nevertheless, we may say: it is possible that a storm is coming.  Radical hope enables one to look for a good future no matter how bad the storm.
But radical hope is not a Pollyannaish belief that everything will turn out fine.  The good future we hope for will be different that what we expect.  Lear underscores the depth of the disaster experienced by the Crow (and other tribes as well, but his focus in on Plenty Coups’ people).  The Crow had to learn a revised set of moral concepts.  Courage is still a virtue—but what is courage in this new age?  Courage no longer means planting a coup stick in battle.  It may mean facing a new age resolutely, even when many traditional behaviors no longer make sense.  As Lear understands him, Plenty Coups led his people to a new and deeper understanding of virtue and of the good life.
If one of our deep fears comes to pass, we will need radical hope.  The concepts we use now to describe human flourishing may need to change.  Jonathan Lear never says this explicitly, but I think it is implied by his argument.
Here is an example.
The dictator of North Korea threatened this week that his country has intercontinental ballistic missiles to carry his nuclear weapons to targets all over the world, from Seoul to Washington, D.C.  Does North Korea actually have this capacity?  Military and technical experts express some doubts, but it seems clear that North Korea aims to have such powers soon.  Does Kim Jong Un merely intend to bully his neighbors?  Would he actually use such weapons?  We may hope (a kind of extreme hope) that Un would have sanity sufficient to restrain himself and never use nuclear weapons.  But what if Kim Jong Un is as unstable as some news reports say he is?
Suppose North Korea fired missiles and destroyed Seoul, Tokyo, and Seattle (to pick a random North American city).  The international response would be immediate and overwhelming, for no political leader could tolerate letting North Korea fire a second round of missiles.  Let us suppose that retaliation, led by the United States, was carefully limited to strikes against North Korea.  (We may imagine that China endorsed retaliation against Kim Jong Un, so long as China was not attacked.)  But let us further suppose that somehow, either directly as a result of attacks on North Korea or because of sabotage by Korean fanatics, fifteen or twenty large nuclear weapons were detonated in North Korea.  What we are imagining is a North Korea turned into an atomic wasteland.
This scenario is not the doomsday story that haunted the cold war, the annihilation of humanity.  Most of the world’s people would survive.  But our future would be changed in unpredictable ways.  Nuclear fallout would hit South Korea, China and Japan first, but its effects would spread worldwide.  Radiation poisoning would affect tens of millions of people.  Just as important would be the social and political fallout—but we cannot predict what it would be.  What would governments do to try to prevent a recurrence of the Korean decimation?  What “lessons” would be learned by terrorist organizations?  How would ordinary people conceive a good life in a post-catastrophe world?
The Korea example is not the worst “storm” that might afflict our world.  Worse things are possible.  Nevertheless, we may hope.  We may hope for a good future, even if we are not sure what a “good future” might look like.