Tag Archives: Rene Descartes

Schrödinger’s God

Fifteen or more years ago my professional writing and research interests were largely focused on the philosophical implications of various interesting and important issues in the sciences, particularly the theory of natural selection in biology and philosophy’s contributions to cognitive sciencecognitive science (an interdisciplinary investigation of consciousness and the brain involving biology, neuroscience, physics, psychology, linguistics, philosophy, and several other disciplines). For a number of reasons my professional research and writing energies have shifted over the years, but I still have a fond place in my heart for the intersection of philosophy and science. So when I read an essayist the other day compare the Christian claim that Jesus was both human and divine to the famous “uncertainty principle” in physics, my virtual ears perked up. With apologies in advance for oversimplification to my colleagues and friends in various physics departments, let’s take a look.

The uncertainty principle was introduced by Werner Heisenberg in 1927 as a statement of one of the most fascinating and mind-bending features of the world of quantum physics. The principle states that the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa. In other words, you cannot know both the position and the speed of a particle at the same time. uncertainty_principle-The notion that two directly measurable quantities of the same physical particle cannot be nailed down simultaneously sounds odd, to say the least, but philosophers have long grappled with the problem of how to handle two truths that are both obviously and logically true yet are incompatible with each other.

Dualistic philosophers, for example, claim that a human being consists of two fundamentally incompatible things, a physical body and a non-physical mind. Yet we know experientially that our bodies and minds interact with each other all the time—something mind and body should not be able to do if they are substantially different. So are they really different sorts of things or not? descartee of bohemiaPrincess Elizabeth of Bohemia once pressed the great René Descartes so vigorously on this in their letter correspondence–How can mind and body be different substances and still interact in the human person?—that he finally wrote, in essence, “I don’t know. They just do.” Not a great philosophical argument, but at least he tried.

Which brings me back to the Ian Frazier essay I mentioned in the first paragraph that got me to thinking about all of this. Frazier writes that

Whatever Jesus actually looked like, trying to adjust him to any physical image is misleading, because he was both God and man. This concept is so powerful, yet so challenging, to hold in the mind that whole huge heresies have thrown in the towel and simply picked one side or the other. I try to think of Jesus as being a sort of oscillation between the two. science is realA similar idea in physics is the uncertainty principle, which says you cannot know both the position and the speed of a particle at the same time. Jesus was God and man oscillating back and forth—either and both, both or either, simultaneously.

That’s a peculiar notion, to say the least—I’m kind of picturing Jesus in an endless dance between two incompatible states at such speed as to make mere mortals unable to tell that he’s moving at all. I’m not sure it’s very helpful theologically. But this got me to thinking about another possible application of quantum craziness to Christianity: “Uncertainty Principle Jesus” is nothing when compared to another hybrid of Christianity and physics: “Schrödinger’s God.”

One of the strangest features of quantum physics is that atom or photon can exist as a combination of multiple states corresponding to different possible outcomes—a situation called a “quantum superposition.”Quantum_Supe We know that superposition actually occurs at the subatomic level, because there are observable instances in which a single particle is demonstrated to be in multiple locations at the same time. One of the leading quantum theory interpretations says that an atom or photon remains in this indeterminate superposition until it is observed, before which only probabilities can be predicted. We cannot know with certainty ahead of time which of the various states the atom or photon will settle into. The act of measurement affects the system, causing the set of probabilities to reduce to only one of the possible values immediately after the measurement. Yet another demonstration of the apparent conflict between what quantum theory tells us is true about the nature and behavior of matter on the microscopic level and what we observe to be true about the nature and behavior of matter on the macroscopic level — everything visible to the unaided human eye.

In 1935 Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger came up with a thought experiment that drives the point home directly, a thought experiment that has come to be known as Schrödinger’s Cat. Place a living cat into a steel chamber, along with a device containing a vial of hydrocyanic acid, a radioactive substance. If even a single atom of the substance decays during the test period, a relay mechanism will trip a hammer, which will, in turn, break the vial and kill the cat.schroedinger experiment

But given quantum superposition, we cannot know whether or not an atom of the substance has decayed, and consequently cannot know whether the vial has been broken, the hydrocyanic acid released, and the cat killed. Since we cannot know, according to the quantum superposition of states, the cat is both dead and alive. It is only when we break open the box and learn the condition of the cat that the superposition is lost, and the cat becomes one or the other (dead or alive). to be and not to beThis situation is sometimes called quantum indeterminacy or the observer’s paradox: the observation or measurement itself affects an outcome, so that the outcome as such does not exist unless the measurement is made.

Scientists, philosophers, and fiction writers have had a field day with Schrödinger’s poor cat for the past eighty years; Schrödinger himself is rumored to have said, later in life, that he wished he had never met that cat. Further discussion of the scientific implications of a world in which things at a foundational level are radically uncertain until we interact with them is well above my knowledge and pay grade. Does God ExistBut transfer Schrödinger’s thought experiment to a classic question from an entirely different field of human inquiry: Does God exist? The traditional and common sense assumption is that there is a solid “yes” or “no” answer to this question—something either exists or it doesn’t, right? The issue then becomes “what do you mean by ‘God’?’ and “what evidence do you consider to be relevant to the question?” The fact that things immediately spin out of control in terms of complication and confusion does not obviate the fact that the original question—Does God exist?—sounds for all the world like a simple “yes” or “no” sort of question.

But in a Schrödinger world, even that isn’t clear. Just as in a world of physical indeterminacy Schrödinger’s cat is both alive and dead until someone looks, so in a world of theological indeterminacy God both exists and does not exist—until someone looks. As long as the discussion is abstract and verbal, no progress can be made and no conclusions can be drawn. But as soon as one commits to action rather than abstractions, something happens. Just as one finds the cat either dead or alive when the box is opened, so one finds a living or dead deity when one engages actively. What one finds is not simply a function of what’s going on “out there.”blind to sight It is equally a function of what one brings to the activity of looking. We tend to find what we are looking for. At the very least, the God question is answered experientially, not intellectually. For the blind man who said after Jesus had left town that “I was blind, and now I see,” his new faith was based on an experience, not argumentation. Before the experience, no argument would have convinced him. After the experience, no argument was necessary.

I Am Because You Are

I almost never give up on a book half-way through; I was reminded a few days ago of why this is a good habit to have developed. I was deep into a book that I should have loved. Patrick Henry (a descendant of that Patrick Henry of “Give me liberty or give me death!” fame),ironic christian the author of The Ironic Christian’s Companion, is a historian of religion and the former director of the ecumenical institute where I spent a sabbatical semester in 2009. But I was struggling with the book. I liked most of the author’s ideas, but not his writing style, the haphazard organization of the book, or what seemed to me a minor case of his being a bit too full of himself. I had not dipped into it for a week or so, and decided to give it one more go. I’m glad I did, because the next chapter resonated on several levels, beginning with perhaps the most famous claim in the history of Western philosophy.

“I think, therefore I am”—it is not much of an oversimplification to say that with this single sentence Descartes rewrote the playbook for Western philosophy and set Western philosophy and science on a path that it has taken more than four centuries to begin steering away from. The subjective turn, the insistence on certainty that begins with me, the dualism that separates mind from body as well as intellect from emotion—the list of thorny philosophical problems traceable back to Rene Descartes goes on and on. cogitoI am very familiar with Descartes—I wrote my dissertation on his moral philosophy in which he struggles mightily with the problem of how the solipsistic individual mind that is the center of his metaphysics is to live her or his life in a world that sharply distinguishes neither between mind and body nor between the autonomous self and the billions of other such selves on earth. Patrick Henry, a dedicated academic with a powerful intellect, writes that

When I used Descartes, as elaborated by a whole intellectual and academic culture, as my guide, I got the world wrong. I have spent much of my life trying to unlearn Descartes’ lesson.

Long before I went to graduate school, a theologian friend of my father’s once told me that the darkest day in the history of Western civilization was the day that Descartes shut himself alone in a stove-heated room and began to think. I didn’t know what he meant then, but I do now—and so does Patrick Henry.

Philosophical puzzles and problems aside, the real problem arising from the vision of reality that Descartes creates is that it closes each of us off from each other and establishes the autonomous human individual as the measure of what is true and real. becausePatrick Henry writes that he began to break free from Descartes’ hold when a friend from Kenya told him that “in Africa, we say I am because you are.” My existence is not self-defined; I cannot start from scratch and it is no accident that each of us finds ourselves surrounded by other human beings. We define ourselves not in the solipsistic privacy of our individual minds, but through interaction with others. This is a difficult thing for academics to learn; some of us never do. Trying to get academics to do anything collectively is often referred to as similar to trying to herd cats; it’s actually a lot more difficult than that. My years of chairing a large academic department, then directing an even larger academic program, revealed that trying to organize academics is like trying to herd cats when each of the cats has a PhD and truly believes it is the smartest cat in the room. The chances of creating an academic community when each individual in the community trusts her or his own intellect more than what might be learned from others are very small.

My own academic department is currently a prime example of what can happen when a group of very smart people over time becomes convinced that they have little or nothing to learn from each other, unless they already happen to largely agree with the others in question. My department is large as philosophy departments go; the very idea of more than twenty philosophers occupying the same space might be enough to cause normal people to despair. sienaBut for the first fifteen or so of the twenty-two years I have been a member of this department, we argued, challenged each other, took contrary positions, but were also mutually supportive and largely managed both to get along and learn from each other. For a host of reasons—more than I can even remember—this began to change several years ago.

Factions began to form, suspicion replaced trust, posturing replaced dialogue, and ideology replaced the pursuit of truth. After a few years of this poisonous brew stewing, we have come to the point where there is little conversation in the halls other than between people who know they all agree, no benefits of a doubt have been given in months, the administration and lawyers have become involved, and our dysfunction has made us the laughing-stock of the campus. Although I would love to think that I am the only person in the department who can listen to and communicate with all sides, I know this not to be the case. I am just as likely as anyone else to roll my eyes when certain colleagues raise their hand in a meeting before they even open their mouths, because I “know” that I will entirely disagree with what they say and since I “know” there is nothing I could possibly learn from this person; I have no doubt some of my colleagues have the same reaction when I raise my hand. better than thisA junior colleague said to me at lunch the other day “But we’re above all this!” And indeed we should be, but sadly we are not.

Patrick Henry tells a story of how a botched prayer unexpectedly provided an insight into why no one person’s or group’s intellectual commitments can possibly serve as a foundation for truth. Once when offering grace before a meal, Henry’s mother-in-law recited a well-known prayer that ends with asking God to “make us ever mindful of the needs of others.” Except that this time she closed the prayer with make us ever needful of the minds of others. I don’t think I’ve ever read a better counter to Descartes’ claim that my own activity of thought is sufficient to establish my identity. As Henry develops in the following pages, I (and each of us) need the minds of others because I cannot know enough, what I do know is distorted, my ways of knowing are different from the ways of others, and I can easily fool myself. Only through constant engagement with others, not in order to prove oneself right but rather in order to truly come to knowledge together, can a true community be formed.

I am continually reminded of this through regular seminars I conduct with friends and fellow travelers once a month after the morning service at Trinity_Cranstonthe Episcopal church I attend. I am the “professor” in the group and we use one of my recent blog essays as a jumping-off point for conversation each month. Yet I have learned far more about faith and life itself from the members of this group than they could learn from me in a million years. Each of us has developed not only trust in each other but reliance upon each other, because each of us knows that we are needful of each other’s minds, hearts, and experiences. Whether the situation in my department can be turned around or even salvaged, I do not know. But I do know that if there is any hope for improvement, it might begin with each of us taping on our bathroom mirrors and computer screens what Patrick Henry learned from his African friend: I Am Because You Are. Even if we don’t particularly like each other.

When Logic Fails

mind-body problemMy novel of the week is Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem. I first encountered Goldstein over the past few weeks when I plowed through her most recent work, Plato at the Googleplex, a creative and insightful insertion of Plato into various twenty-first century venues in an attempt—successful—to establish that the timeless questions of philosophy remain as relevant today as they were in the days of Socrates. The book came highly recommended from the President of my college who also is a fine philosopher—I’m grateful for the heads up. The Mind-Body Problem is Goldstein’s earliest work of fiction (from thirty years ago); something tells me that there’s a lot of autobiography in it. Renee Feuer is a brilliant graduate student in philosophy at Princeton (where Goldstein earned her PhD in philosophy) who at a party meets, then subsequently marries, Noam Himmel, a world-renowned mathematician who made his name in the field at the age of twelve. Academic high jinx ensue of the sort that can only be fully described by an academic and probably only fully understood and appreciated by other academics. mind-bodyI’m enjoying the story immensely, but wonder to what extent my enjoyment might be that of an insider.

Chapter Five (“Reality”) might be a test case. Packed into thirty-five pages are a spirited debate between Renee’s best friend Ava (a physicist) and Noam about the nature of logic and what is real, a fine overview of the mind-body problem and what’s at stake in its various proposed solutions provided by Renee, a depressingly accurate description of what it is like to try to find a job at the annual apaAmerican Philosophical Association Eastern Division convention, a neat schematic fitting Descartes in relation to his philosophical heirs Spinoza and Leibniz, a brief foray into the mind-numbing world of linguistic analysis and logical positivism, and a quick overview of Noam’s favorite philosophical argument: “Himmel’s Proof for the Nonidentity of a Person with His Body.” “Reality” touched base with areas in philosophy that I used to be smack in the middle of but have strayed away from over the years. But I loved it—it felt like I was back in some of my graduate seminars at Marquette and enjoyed remembering some of the philosophical issues—particularly Descartes and the mind-body problem—that sucked me into the philosophical vortex so many years ago. A great way to spend an hour waiting for my delayed plane to Toronto at Logan Airport.

I suspect, however, that my enjoyment of this novel would not be shared by some, perhaps most, of the literate novel-reading public. Many would find “Reality” mind-numbingly obscure and insufferably boring. I know this because my lovely wife is one of these “many.” As shocking as it may seem, not everyone gets pumped up by philosophical puzzles and arguments about whether idealism, materialism, or dualism provides the most reasonable approach to the mind-body problem. Iphilosophy gene have been teaching philosophy for twenty-five years and take great pride in my ability to seduce even the most recalcitrant philosophy-phobes into my world. But not everyone has what I call the “philosophy gene.” Some people just don’t get the point—or they do get the point and find it to be about as interesting and stimulating as watching paint dry. My suspicion is that most people are inclined genetically either toward or against academic philosophy. Chapter Five of The Mind-Body Problem would be a good test for the philosophy gene. If the neophyte makes it through the chapter intrigued and fascinated (even if she doesn’t “get” all of it), she’s a philosophy major in the making. If she doesn’t make it past the first couple of pages before glazing over, she isn’t.

I ran into this sort of thing the other day in the midst of a seemingly benign Facebook discussion. An acquaintance of an acquaintance contributed the following: I have always said that the academic discipline of philosophy is essentially mental masturbation. That makes philosophy majors a bunch of wankers. mental masturbtionWell that was not very nice. What follows is a verbatim transcription of my back-and-forth with this guy (note, please, that I care more about spelling and sentence structure in my Facebook communication than he does).

    • Me: Really, XXXXX? Here’s what philosophy academics do: http://freelancechristianity.com/are-philosophers…/ [Notice how deftly I snuck in a plug for my blog]
    • Him: none of that really has anything to do with the price of potatoes. I have in my experience found philosphy majors and grad students to be insufferable bullshit artists incapable of making a concise point or acknowledging practical realities. philosophers_on_strikeThe products of the discipline stand as proof that otherwise intelligent people can think themselves into stupidity.
  • Me: XXXXX, what do you know about the academic discipline of philosophy?
  • Him: Well lets see I was forced to suffer through a number of courses in the discipline as part of my curriculum at Tulane, along with a number of related courses such as political theory (gag!) and international relations theory (gag! vomit!) literary theory (gagvomit was that a little blood I just puked up?)
  • Me: None of the last three courses you listed are “philosophy” in the academic sense. Sorry that you had a bad experience as a student–it hardly qualifies you, however, to make a blanket statement such as “the academic discipline of philosophy is essentially mental masturbation.” You’ll need to be part of the discipline for twenty-five years teaching and writing as I have before you earn the right to that opinion.
  • Him: no I took some philosophy courses as well. not teaching it for 25 years doesnt make it any less clear that it is mental masturbation. in fact I would wager that I see it far more clearly
  • Me: An impossible wager for you to back up. But I stand corrected under the weight of your vast experience and insight. Except that your point was made on the basis of anecdotal evidence–something that a return to Logic 101 would perhaps cure. [According to the handy “Ten Commandments of Logic,” so far the guy has violated commandments 1, 3, 6 and 9].1483220_718769974810683_97803309_n (2)
  • Him: no, the anecdotal evidence just supports the logical conclusion. But as the great philosopher Spock once said: “Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.” although while we’re talking about logic 101 you might want to look up “Appeal to Authority” fallacies

Please note that even though “Appeal to Authority” is considered to be a logical fallacy, it is not included in the “Ten Commandments of Logic.” Furthermore, when the authority cited is me, it is not a fallacy at all. 🙂

But to be honest, my initial and continuing attraction to the strange and wonderful world of philosophy has little to do with logical rigor. Rebecca Goldstein expresses it well. The process of philosophy always reminds me of fireworks. One question is shot up and bursts into a splendorous many. Answers? Forget answers. The spectacle is all in the questions.fireworks

My Best Friends

I sat down in my usual aisle seat on one of my infrequent airplane flights not long ago, and immediately dug out one of the half-dozen books in the backpack containing my current reading obsessions. This is my custom when flying, because I want to let my neighbors know that I am busy, I am deep in thought, Introvert[1]and I am not the least bit interested in striking up a conversation with a stranger, just one of the many effective tricks of the introvert trade. This behavior, along with the fact that the book I am reading is by some obscure author and the fact that I have a gray ponytail, usually provide sufficient clues that one tries to engage me in conversation at their peril.

On this particular day, however, the window seat to my left was occupied by a guy my age who apparently never got past the class clown stage. At the conclusion of the stewardess’s usual spiel about what to do if we have to land in water or lose cabin pressuresafety-demo[1], we were asked to turn off all electronic devices for takeoff. I, of course, read all of the way through the stewardess’s instructions and continued to read as people all around me turned off their phones, I-pods, and other electronic paraphernalia. “Hey!” my neighbor shouted down the aisle at the retreating stewardess while pointing at me. “Make him turn his book off too!” He repeated the exact same routine at the end of the flight when we were instructed to turn our electronic devices off for landing. Very funny—but he had a point. Of the two dozen or so fellow passengers within my field of vision throughout the flight, I was the only one reading a book.

9780312429980[2]Which reminds me of another flight several months earlier. This time in the middle of the flight I was deeply engrossed in reading Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall. As the woman seated in the seat across the aisle one row in front of me returned from a journey to the facilities, she noticed what I was reading. “Do you like it?” she asked. “I love it,” I replied. “So do I!” she exclaimed as she pulled her KindleKT-slate-02-lg._V399156101_[1] out of her purse.” “I’m reading it too! Isn’t that weird?” I thought something that an extrovert or a rude person might have said out loud: “It would be a weird coincidence if you were actually reading, but looking at words on a screen is not the same thing as reading.” As I’ve said many times to many people over the past several years, when they invent a Kindle (or whatever) that feels and smells like a real book, I’ll buy one.

On occasion in our early years of being together, Jeanne would observe how few close friends I had (and have). This, coming from a person who is in the 1% most extroverted beings in the universe, was not an entirely fair comment. But one time she added “it doesn’t matter, though, because your books are your friends.” That not only is a fair comment, but it is entirely true. It’s too bad you can’t be friends with a book on Facebook, because that would increase my Facebook friend count from its current 568 well into the thousands. Several years ago I assisted my carpenter/general contractor uncle (actually I was more like his indentured servant)301189_269422219756617_1084268382_n[1] at my house as he tore out a wall in a corner-bedroom-soon-to-hopefully-be-a-library for the purposes of building a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling mahogany bookcase in its place. “That’s a hell of a lot of books!” he laughed as he looked at the stacks of dozens and dozens of books on the floor for whom the bookcase would be a new home. “Have you actually read all of them?” (haw, haw, haw). “Actually I have,” I truthfully answered. “And these are less than a quarter of the books we have, plus an equal number or more in my office at school.” End of that conversation.

I suppose there is something to be said for the inevitable move from the printed word to the e-word, but whatever that something is, I’m not going to say it. There are few activities I enjoy more than organizing books on a bookshelf, roughly categorizing them according to an intuitive scheme that I am only partially conscious of. But when Jeanne is looking for a book that she read several months ago, prior to the last two book reorganizations, I can zero in at least on which two shelves of our multiple bookcases at home the book lives. When our basement, after two and a half years of sucking money out of our checking account, was finally finished the first furniture event was deciding which books should go on the bookcase in the new reading corner. I decided on the category “During- and post-sabbatical books roughly in the spirituality range that have been  meaningful to me (and occasionally to Jeanne) over the past six years.”

Moving those books downstairs opened up various possibilities for new groupings upstairs, more or less like planning the seating arrangement at a sit-down party with well over a thousand attendees. Who would like to talk with whom? Will charlesdickens[1]jodi-picoult[1]Charles Dickens mind sitting next to Jodi Picoult? (Charles probably would mind. He can sit next to George Eliot and Jodi can hang out with Pat Conroy). Would Episcopal Bishop Jack Spong get1216[1] along with Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister?df66925abac20a7d9362c6.L._V192220566_SX200_[1] (Yes). Who might the Pope like to sit next to?—I haven’t decided yet, but I’m thinking perhaps either Marcus Borg or Rowan Williams. Would it make more sense to seat Doris Kearns Goodwin next to David McCullough, or would the party benefit more by having the historians on different shelves? (Separate them).There is a distinct visual attractiveness and interest to a well-arranged bookcase. Tall and short, thick and thin—the appearance of books is as varied as their contents.

plato-2[1]aristotle3[1]My planning of the party in my philosophy department office has always been less creative, with chronology the order of the day across the shelves of my four large bookcases. But as I move in four years worth of accumulated books from my former director’s office, I’m rearranging the shelves to make room and am thinking that it’s time to mix things up. Plato must be sick of talking only to Aristotle by now (they’ve been disagreeing for over two thousand years) and would probably enjoy conversing with William James220px-Daniel_Dennett_in_Venice_2006[1] or Richard Rorty.Thomas-Aquinas[1] I’m pretty sure Aristotle would have a great time sitting down with Friedrich Nietzsche. And if Aquinas or Augustine sits down with Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, all bets are off!

Many years ago, shortly after we met, Jeanne bought me a paperweight that occupies a prominent place on the desk in my philosophy department office. It contains the following attributed to Descartes: “Reading books is like having a conversation with the great minds of the past.” Indeed it is. Which brings me back to where I started. I cannot enter the world of electronic books because real friendship—with books and with people—is a multi-sense experience. Visual, olfactory, tactile. I can be friends with a book, but I cannot be friends with a digital screen. I could, presumably, load every book I own into a Kindle and carry my friends with me wherever I go. But my Kindle-books would no more be my friends than the 10,328 “friends” that an acquaintance of mine has on Facebook are really his friends. I don’t know what will happen to my books when I die; amazingly my sons are not competing to get them. But in my version of heaven my friends will be with me. No friend left behind.

The Latin Quarter, Paris, France

The Latin Quarter, Paris, France

How Do I Get There?

I was at a conference last Friday and Saturday to present a paper for the first time in five years, an opportunity to connect with old friends and colleagues while being reminded of why I really don’t like academic conferences (a blog post about that coming soon). The conference was held in a room that clearly had once been a chapel, containing a huge, round stained glass window on the front wall.VANCEPC - WIN_20150424_083221

From a distance I could not figure out the theme of the window–its central figure was a young man in full medieval armor, so I figured it was probably St. George without the dragon. Upon closer inspection, I read the text on the banner underneath the soldier: “Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” “Oh my God!” I thought as I returned in memory to my childhood–“that’s Christian from Pilgrim’s Progress!”

As I followed the various scenes around Christian clockwise around the window starting at the bottom, I observed Christian’s struggle against various tempters and opponents on his journey from despair to heaven. PilgrimThis book, with beautiful illustrations, was a staple of my childhood home, ranking in my mind equally with the omnipresent picture Bible. My mother read it with me frequently–I’m pretty sure I hadn’t thought of it in forty years. But it came flooding back to me as the conference began–Pilgrim’s Progress introduced my at a very early age, more effectively than anything in scripture, to the most basic human questions that have obsessed me my whole life. Where do I come from? Where am I going? And, most pressingly, how do I get there?

220px-Dead_poets_society[1]In my all-time favorite movie, Dead Poet’s Society, Mr. Keating teaches an important lesson about non-conformity to his students with a brief experiment. Bringing his young charges out of the classroom into a nearby courtyard, Keating directs three of the students to start walking around the perimeter. Although they start off at a different pace, soon all three are marching in lock step, with Keating singing an impromptu Marine-style tune and the other students clapping in accompaniment. Keating’s point is about conformity. Given the opportunity to walk uniquely and independently, the boys choose instead to fall into step with each other. Keating then evokes Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken ” to introduce the alternative of individual risk and choice.

IMV5BMTc2MzgwNjAzNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTUyNjQzMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR7,0,214,317_[1]n another of my favorite movies, Young Frankenstein, director Mel Brooks inserts a hilarious version of a visual joke that’s older than the hills. After entering the Transylvanian castle where he is employed, Igor, played by Marty Feldman, says “walk this way” to Gene Wilder’s Dr. Frankenstein, then sets off with a cane-assisted gait, dragging his lame leg and hunchbacked self down the stairs. Frankenstein follows him down the stairs with precisely the same limping and awkward gait, until after a few steps Igor turns around and says, “No, I mean follow me!”

The right way to walk, the best road to take, is on my mind a regularly as a teacher and just a normal human being. I frequently have the opportunity to introduce freshman students to Rene DescartesFrans_Hals_-_Portret_van_René_Descartes[1], one of the most—arguably the most—influential philosophers in the Western tradition. I wrote my dissertation on Descartes twenty-five years ago and was told by my director that, at that time at least, more secondary literature had been written on Descartes than any other Western philosopher, including Plato and Aristotle. After his education was finished, Descartes in his early twenties decided to see the world. As many young men of his time, he chose to do this by signing up as a mercenary soldier for a local political power-broker, in Descartes’ case the Duke of Bavaria. One night while on campaign in the winter of 1619, Rene sought refuge and warmth in a small, stove-heated room.220px-Fouday-Poêle[1] That night he had three dreams or visions that changed his life. In the third dream, he opened a book of poetry and read the following line from the Roman poet Ausonias: Quod vitae sectabor iter? What path in life should I follow? Descartes’ self-interpretation of this dream produced his lifelong project—the unification of science and, ultimately, all knowledge on a foundation of unshakeable certainty. What path in life should I follow?

It is a great question, perhaps the best question, to get nineteen-year-old freshmen to consider. Strangely enough, I have found over the past few years that it is an equally important question for a now fifty-nine year old guy to ask.Marquette University Old Postcard[1] In many ways my professional path has been clear from the moment I chose in my early thirties to major in philosophy in graduate school and do my PhD at a Catholic university (to the dismay of my professors and mentors in my Master’s program at a secular state university). Twenty-five years later I have achieved some success as an academic scholar, great satisfaction in the classroom on a daily basis, and have never regretted walking down this particular academic professor path. But I’ve learned more and more over the past few years that there are many paths more important than the professional one. By defining myself for years by what I do, I found it very easy to forget about figuring out who I am.micah_prophet[1] As Christian found out in Pilgrim’s Progress, the path to wholeness and integrity as a human being is fraught with far more pitfalls and dangers than any path to professional success. The prophet Micah tells us that all God wants is for us to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. But what is the nature of this walk? What paths am I to take? These questions have become more and more pressing.

Yesterday was “Good Shepherd Sunday” with sheep/shepherd readings from both the Gospels and the Psalms. Psalm 23 is all about paths. We are told that the Lord our shepherd leads us in paths of righteousness and even is with us in our darkest hours, as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Such a familiar text, however, can breed, if not contempt, at least complacency. Shepherds and sheep evoke a pastoral and peaceful image,sheep1[1] but very few of us have any knowledge of what the daily lives of shepherds and sheep are like. I got a peek into this life once over twenty years ago while we were living in Milwaukee.  Milwaukee is a city of festivals, with every ethnic group imaginable getting its own weekend and festival. During a celebration of all things Scottish, Jeanne and I were with the boys at one of the many large parks that Milwaukee has to offer for Scottish Fest. The weather was appropriate, drizzly and foggy with bone-chilling dampness.

One of the events that day was a demonstration of sheep herding. Upon being let out of the penned enclosure in which they were being held, a flock of forty or fifty sheep immediately scattered to the four winds, running into the surrounding residential neighborhood faster than I ever imagined sheep could move their fat, wool-laden selves. The shepherd remained standing in the now-sheepless park, with two small border collies at his side, as residents of the surrounding streets wondered where the hell the sheep in their back yards came from. Then at a signal from the shepherd, the border collies leaped into action. After they disappeared into the neighborhood like lightning bolts, we could hear the dogs occasionally barking in the distance. Border Collie, 9 months old, rounding sheepWithin a few minutes, sheep started appearing from various directions, with the border collies running manically back and forth behind them, nipping at their heels and talking trash as only a dog can. Before long, all of the sheep were back in the pen and the border collies returned to the shepherd’s side. He bowed in acknowledgement of our applause, even though his four-legged buddies had done all of the work.

As a youngster I always bristled at the frequent Biblical comparison of human beings to sheep, because I knew (or had read at least) that sheep were both smelly and stupid. I appreciated our rector pointing out yesterday that in ancient times, sheep were highly regarded sources of milk, wool and companionship, only becoming mutton once they became too old to provide any of the other stuff. I still resist the analogy, though, and believe that there are many more fruitful paths available to me than to a sheep. 5800660559_37c6d20f29_z[1]But it is comforting to know that there is divine companionship and guidance on whatever path I find myself on, as well as to know that if I listen, all of those paths lead home to God.

Two years ago, a couple of weeks after the end of the semester, I headed for the Benedictine New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California for a week of silence, meditation, centering, writing, and sampling of monk-made fruit cake (their specialty, apparently). I heard about the place from an Episcopanapa_valley[1]l priest I met the year before at a “Wisdom school workshop.” His parish is in the California wine country; someday I hope to have a chance to connect with him. Strange where unexpected paths might show up—“Yea though I walk through the valley of Napa . . .” My week at the hermitage was perhaps the most fruitful week of writing I have ever experienced. I may not be a sheep, but I’m happy to take whatever guidance that happens to come my way.

Zombie Jesus

A bit over year ago, as I prepared for the depression sure to occur upon the end of “Breaking Bad,” I ruminated on just how great television is these days–except for zombies. I hate zombies. But they get me to thinking . . .

Breaking-Bad-1[1]We are living in the golden age of television. I grew up on sitcoms, westerns, and sports—when we were allowed to watch television, that is—subjected to a three network, pre-cable fare that made the term “idiot box” entirely appropriate. That has all changed. Without ever having to check the basic networks other than for news and sports, viewers today are offered options rivaling anything on the big screen in both production value and quality of acting. Thanks to the wonders of on demand viewing, I can keep up with “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,”imagesCA3I36MA “Sons of Anarchy,” “The Newsroom,” or something from across the pond like “Downton Abbey” or “Broadchurch” with no scheduling conflicts while fast-forwarding through AMC or FX commercials, Downton_Abbey[1]descending just a notch or two lower to “Boardwalk Empire” or “Game of Thrones” when I feel like slumming it.

When Jeanne and I discover a series that’s been going on for a while, we can use Netflix to catch up on several seasons in short order, swept up in a viewing frenzy that is limited only by our inability to stay awake into the wee hours of the morning. This most recently happened when we discovered the great BBC series Inspector-Lewis[1]“Inspector Lewis” which eventually made its way to PBS’s “Masterpiece Theater,” watching six seasons worth in little over a month, and then descending into temporary television depression when realizing that we would no longer be swept up into the underbelly of Oxford with DCI Lewis and DC Hathaway because the sixth season was the final one. I was sucked similarly into “Breaking Bad” a couple of springs ago when my oldest son kept pestering me into watching. “You’ve got to watch ‘Breaking Bad,’ Dad!” Caleb insisted. “The main character Walt reminds me of you!” After using my Amazon Prime account to watch the first two episodes on my computer, I called him back. bryan-cranston1[1]“The only reason Walt reminds you of me is he’s a teacher and so am I! You don’t see me making a bit of extra money on the side by cooking meth with a former philosophy student, do you??” But I was hooked and literally watched five seasons of “Breaking Bad” in two weeks of extended evening viewing on my computer sitting in bed with a dachshund on either side while Jeanne was on the road. I am now preparing for an extended period of withdrawal from the adventures of Walt, Jesse, Skylar, Marie, Hank and Walt Jr. once the current final season concludes in a few weeks. I’m not over the withdrawal yet.

One of the side benefits of the current fabulous fare on television is how it regularly works its way into conversations with my colleagues on campus, conversations that in the past might have been focused on the intricacies of Descartes’ cogito or Hegel’s Logic rather than the unexpected bloodbath at the conclusion of season three of “Game of Thrones.” imagesCA1LUVQZOften these conversations turn into a confessional of just how much time each of us spends watching TV, as well as (usually) good-natured debates about which series is the best. “What do you mean you never watched ‘The Wire’??” a fellow philosophy professor sputtered as we were having a beer or two the other afternoon. “That’s the greatest television series ever!” he claimed, implying that I would forever be stuck in the television-viewing minor leagues until I graduated to the big show of “The Wire.” Things calmed down shortly after when we agreed that regardless of the current “Greatest Series Ever” title holder, it was soon to be replaced by “Breaking Bad” when its final season ends. Following my colleague’s advice, I watched one episode of “The Wire” on my tablet per visit to the gym this past summer. Great show.

banner_stargate_studios_the_walking_dead_952px[1]There is one show that has been touted and recommended to me by at least a dozen people as the best out there, a show that I guarantee I will never watch. “Have you ever watched ‘The Walking Dead’?” I frequently am asked. “Man, you’ve got to see that! Acting, storyline, suspense—there’s nothing better!” Let’s suppose, just for argument’s sake, that “The Walking Dead” is the greatest show ever to grace the small screen. I still won’t be watching it. I don’t like zombies.

As a philosophy professor I should be both familiar and comfortable with zombies, since in philosophy of mind the analysis of zombies has been somewhat of a cottage industry for at least a couple of decades. Really. Zombies in philosophy are imaginary creatures used to illuminate problems about consciousness and its relation to the physical world. issue96[1]Unlike those in films or witchcraft, philosophy zombies are exactly like us in all physical respects but without conscious experiences: by definition there is ‘nothing it is like’ to be a zombie. Yet zombies behave just like us, and some even spend a lot of time discussing consciousness. Lest the non-academics among you take this philosophical zombie obsession as evidence that the ivory tower needs to be torn down or blown up, it gets worse. I have been at large philosophy conferences where more than half of the papers presented were focused on the philosophical analysis of zombies. I did not participate—zombies creep me out.

I really do not get the general infatuation, academic or otherwise, that our culture has with zombies. A few weeks ago, as Jeanne and I were riding with our friend Michael and his eleven-year old son Sam to the grocery store during our annual Florida trek, we rode past a sign on the side of the road advertising a “5K Zombie Run” in downtown Tampa a few days later. I’m not sure how zombies could run five kilometers without falling apart, but my question was more general. “What the hell is the big obsession that people have with zombies??” I wanted to know. In short order Sam started to talk about zombies in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, zombies in books, in movies, in video games. “Really,” he concluded, “all a zombie is is someone who was dead and now isn’t any more. Hmm–Jesus was a zombie!”

zombie-zoom[1]I thought Sam’s “Zombie Jesus” connection was original—boy was I wrong. Just Google “Zombie Jesus” and see what happens, but don’t do it until you have taken your gross-out pills and fortified yourself with a main-line injection of irreverence and stupidity tolerance. The image to the left is the most tasteful one I could find. Zombie Jesus day (Easter, in other words), Zombie Jesus Facebook pages, a short film called “The Passion of Zombie Jesus” loaded by someone called “championofhell” on YouTube and described as “the most sacrilegious film in human history” (I didn’t watch it)—you  get the point. I find this laughably weak if intended to be a critique of Christian belief; certain believers might be outraged, but something tells me that the divine does not fall off its throne or lose any sleep over such things. But there it is again—the zombie meme has a viral life of its own, and I just don’t get it.

Unless, of course . . . unless the zombie thing is just another way in which the human desire to believe that there is more to our existence than just our short-term physical presence on earth pops up. Beneath the crudity and lack of imagination of the zombie obsession lies that deep human need to believe that this is not all there is. The-Walking-Dead-S3-Mid-season-1[1]It says something about the limitations of the human imagination that a bunch of almost-dead, decaying corpses staggering around and eating the flesh off fully alive humans is the best “life after death” scenario we can come up with, especially since a much more exhilarating and inspiring story is available.

“He who believes in me will never die.” That’s a pretty shocking and “out there” promise, but the prospect of taking it seriously enough to try to figure out what it means and how it might transform a life is far more attractive than wasting time with the undead. Sam’s attraction to zombies is understandable—things that were once dead do not generally come back to life, even in a half-baked, decaying form. But a full-fledged resurrection from the dead, new life awakening in a soul left for dead?  “Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst . . . It will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Someone should make a television show about that!

lilium_lily_uplandin_20090615_lah_005[1]

What I Have Learned From My Students This Semester

I have often said that the mark of a good class is one in which I learn as much as the students do. At the end of the semester, it is a good time to think back over the many unexpected truths I have learned from my students this semester. Since my colleagues and I frequently compare notes on this topic, I have also included in the selection below various items that I learned second-hand from students not in my classes through their professors. Truth is truth, after all—it doesn’t matter where it comes from. In no particular order, here is a sampling.

Some people are important enough to have followers before they are born. Students have told me for years that ancient persons from Socrates to Julius Caesar, literary characters from Achilles to Clytemnestra (“Clytemnestra did not behave as a good Christian wife should”), Francisand figures from the Hebrew Scriptures from Moses to David managed to be Christians before the birth of Christ, so that’s old hat. But in my latest batch of papers I learned that “Francis believed in living in poverty and taking a lifestyle that the Franciscans before him lived.” I wonder what the Franciscans who lived before Francis called themselves. Proto-Franciscans? Pre-Franciscans? Followers of a Crazy Guy Who Hasn’t Been Born Yet? Really Poor People?

Going to war against oneself is never a good idea: From a student paper submitted to a colleague: Roncevaux pass“[The Battle of Roncevaux Pass] occurred when the Franks intervened in a Muslim conflict between Charles the Great and the great army of Charlemagne,” further explaining that “There is a lot of hate between Charlemagne and King Charles…” Going to war against oneself complicates a number of things. For instance, how are Roland, the hero of this battle at the center of The Song of Roland, and Ganelon, his jealous father-in-law and traitor, supposed to know which side to fight on? Neither? Both? Everyone’s going to need therapy afterwards.

People whose names start with the same letter invariably have similar thoughts: DanteIn response to a question about the differences in world views between Dante and Montaigne, a student wrote that Descartes“Dante was extremely passionate that knowledge has to be 100% certain. And if there is knowledge that is certain it has to have no doubts that it could be corrupt.” I’m going to research this new-found information that Descartes was apparently plagiarizing the work of a fellow D-name who lived several hundred years earlier.

Martin Luther needed to be clearer about what he really meant: serpentFrom one of a colleague’s student papers: “Luther does not say precisely whether or not good works would help one achieve the goal of eternal life, but he does appreciate them.” Then the following from Luther’s “On Christian Liberty,” cited in one of my student papers: “The Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful serpent of all, and subject to everyone.” There obviously is another research project in finding the heretofore hidden influences of Luther’s Christian serpent on Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost.

Why use just a few words when a whole bunch of them will suffice? Assigned papers are an opportunity for students to flex their word-using muscles in print. Often a student who has never once opened her mouth in seminar will make sure that her quota of allowed words unused in seminar makes it into a paper. For instance, why write that

Works of literature often focus on the customs of people living in the author’s culture,

when you could write instead that

Throughout history, scholars have been displaying the impacts society has on people’s lives through various forms of expression. Of some of the more famous styles, writings and literature from oral teachings along with reflections on certain times provides future generations with important first-hand accounts of how lifestyles and culture influenced the people.

And why describe Dante’s organization of Hell in this manner:

Dante’s descriptions of the punishments in Hell, as well as the individuals one finds there, tell us much about the attitudes of his time.

when the following description will suffice?

During Dante’s pilgrimage through Hell, the descriptions as well as reasons for placement of particular individuals speaks through society’s influence, deeming Dante’s opinion in accordance with many of his time. Without Dante’s harsh portrayal of specific individuals, the backlash on society would be unknown.

You can only commit suicide once: When a student missed a seminar on Dante’s Inferno in the middle of the semester due to illness, I assigned her a makeup 1000-1200 word reflection on Canto 13Canto XIII, in which one finds the suicides—the “violent against themselves.” The seminar discussion focused on this section of Dante’s poem was fascinating, with my largely Catholic students flip-flopping back and forth between the position that they know they are supposed to hold as good Catholics—no suicide is ever justified—and a more nuanced judgment that permits consideration of individual circumstances.

In her makeup assignment, my student opened her reflection with noting that as

An extremely controversial topic, suicide has been a self-inflicting action from the beginning of time.

followed shortly after by the observation that

Suicide is an avoidable form of death.

As one of my colleagues wrote on Facebook when I put these two gems up for display on my wall, “Holy tautology, Batman!” Other friends and colleagues said that this immediately reminded them of the “Suicide is Painless” theme song from “M.A.S.H.”: “Suicide is painless, it brings on many changes, and I can take or leave it if I please . . .”

But others saw something I did not immediately recognize—possible profundity. “That’s deep,” a colleague from the chemistry department commented; new philosopher“The first comment strikes me as a particularly profound metaphysical point about the (a)temporal status of analytic truths,” a former philosophy major now in graduate school contributed. Then this from a Facebook acquaintance that I have never met in person, but with whom I share the privilege of having earned a Bachelor’s degree in the Great Books program at St. John’s College:

I think the second [student comment] is, indeed, quite discussable. Is death ever avoidable? Is suicide not now recognized as a possible outcome of untreated depression? Can a severely depressed person always be expected to take the steps required for his or her own treatment?

Is suicide always an avoidable form of death, in other words? From the mind of a stressed and possibly confused freshman emerges an apparent “Well, duh!” sort of statement that, as it turns out, might have surprising depth and complexity. I feel an essay coming on!

From my colleague Robin

From my colleague Robin

A Visit from Big Bird

My text to Jeanne at 6:37 AM, Thursday April 25:

This is promising to be a very taxing day. Big Bird had better show up.

The people who know me best, and even those who don’t know me that well, are aware that by nature I am incurably optimistic. It takes a lot for me to go negative. I’m also not in the habit of giving the Holy Spirit ultimatums, although my father did it all the time. So what’s the deal with this text? Let me explain.

Last Thursday was day six after Freshman registration day for the fall semester. Shepherding nine hundred freshmen into eight faculty teams and sixty-four seminar sections when every student is seeking to (a) schedule every class between ten and two, (b) avoid every faculty team with a professor with the reputation of being a “hard grader” (there aren’t any such teams), and (c) understand why they can’t get exactly what they want from the relevant authority figure in the same manner as they have ever since they were born—this is not easy. Or fun. These are the days that try a program director’s soul. Hundreds of emails begging for, nay demanding, overenrollment were topped off by the most disrespectful and obnoxious email I’ve received from a student in a decade, charmingly concluded with a “Respectfully Yours”logo-nc[1] at the end. And on Thursday morning there were a dozen more to deal with by 7:00 AM.

But wait–that’s not all. Out of the blue on Wednesday night I was made aware by a member of a current faculty team teaching in my program of a problem on the team that threatened to be very volatile. Upon receiving a second email early Thursday morning from another member of the same team cryptically asking for a meeting as soon as possible, I suspected and prepared for the worst as I headed for work and separate meetings with both colleagues.

cropped-penguins1[1]But wait–that’s not all. I had decided to delay my usual Thursday morning blog post until Friday morning, because I thought my planned post was mediocre, at best. I worked on it a bit Wednesday night and scheduled it to be released at 7:00 on Friday morning, planning to squeeze in a few moments of improvement somewhere during the day on Thursday. But how was I going to do that, when I was way behind on grading a pile of thirty-eight paper because of spending so many hours dealing with crabby students wanting overenrollment? All this was weighing me down as I texted Jeanne that Big Bird had better show up.

Jeanne’s text back to me at 6:39 AM,  Thursday, April 25:

He has and will. Don’t project. Invite him into ur day now. Tell him I’ll see him later.

Whatever, I thought, as I texted back I’ll call u this evening. Forgot to charge my phone and it’simages[7] almost dead. As if to confirm my lack of conviction concerning Big Bird’s caring about my day, I opened my email to find, first, that two of the most important people intending to attend a conference on campus Friday and Saturday that I’m hosting can’t come because one of them has food poisoning; between them, these two colleagues were scheduled to comment on five of the twelve papers being presented. Second, that my mediocre post scheduled for release on Friday at 7:00 AM had just been released into the world today at 7:00 AM because I apparently did not know the difference between April 25 and April 26 when scheduling it for release last night. SHIT!! I thought (or yelled) as I prepared for a crappy day.

First up was the meeting with member number 1 of the problematic faculty team. Having already figured out what the problem almost certainly was, I prepared for the worst. As it turned out, I was completely wrong. The real problem was a serious one, but as I talked with colleague 1, followed by a conversation with colleague 2 a couple of hours later, a crystal clear path toward resolution emerged, shaped by the honesty and professionalism of my two colleagues. As I breathed a sigh of relief—“That could have been a lot worse”—I  checked my blog stats to see what damage my less-than-stellar post was causing. Imagine my surprise when, at 9:30 in IMG_8712_1[1]the morning, I already had 30 visits coming in from four different countries. 30 posts is my bottom line for a good day—to have that many hits already, especially on a post I didn’t even like very much, was an unexpected bit of light in a still gray day. Literally—I forgot to add earlier that another lovely part of the beginning of the day was gray and drizzly in the forties.

My classroom responsibilities for the day were sitting in the back in two different classes that I team-teach with two faculty pairs as one of my colleagues lectured. KingLear3[1]First I heard a colleague with whom I have taught for seven or eight years do a set-up class on Shakespeare’s King Lear, which we would be focusing on in seminars the following week. Because of my long experience with this colleague, I knew what a great teacher he is. But on Thursday he was on a roll of the sort that is rare even for the best teachers. He was funny, he was insightful, he seamlessly moved from conversation to lecture to PowerPoint to film clip in a tour de force that reminded me—since I needed reminding that day—that there is nothing better than a classroom filled with the electric energy of learning.

As I stepped out of the building after class, I was greeted by brilliant sunshine. The gray morning had turned into a cloudless midday. In the forty-five minutes between the end of that class and the beginning of the next one, I (of course) checked my blog stats again. In comparison to anything I’ve ever seen on my blog in the eight months of its existence, my mediocre post was going viral. Five new people had signed up to follow it that morning (one or two new follower in a week is normal),logo_facebook[1] the number of hits for the day was approaching 100 (already the second biggest day in the history of my blog), one of my colleagues had shared the post with her Facebook friends, opening the blog up to hundreds of people who have never seen it before—and it wasn’t even supposed to have gone public until the next day! A possibility began to slowly dawn in the back of my mind, but I had to run to my next class.

This time I was treated to a lecture by a new, young colleague in only her second year at the college. The class was focused on Juana de la Cruz,SorJuana[1] a seventeenth-century polymath Mexican nun (don’t worry—I had never heard of her either). Look her up—she’s a fascinating figure. More fascinating to me, though, was my colleague’s performance. As I appreciated the depth of the knowledge of her subject, her passion, her ability to seamlessly tie the content to my lecture two days earlier on Descartes as well as material from early in the semester, I put my notebook down and smiled. “A Mexican nun who wrote poetry, did science experiments, and was a master chef in conversation with a French philosopher and mathematician,” I thought. “It doesn’t get any better than this!”

imagesCAM825NOBack to my blog, of course, right after class. I now had 140+ hits, making Thursday the best day in the history of my blog and the week, with three days still to go, my best week ever in the blogosphere. Just six hours since going public, this mediocre post was now the most looked-at post I had every submitted. More new followers, positive comments flying everywhere—I knew for sure now what was going on. Then as I walked out of the building on the way to my other office for office hours, I heard one of my favorite sounds—a cardinal chirping. Cardinals are my favorite bird, next to penguins, and I had only heard one cardinal and seen none thus far this spring. Crossing the road in the direction of the sound, I heard another, then another. On the bottom branch of a huge oak tree were three cardinals, less than ten feet above my head, two males and a female, serenading me. I began to laugh, looked in the direction of Big Birdpenguin_crossing_2sfw[1] (usually up and to the left) and said “Okay, I get it!! You showed up big time!! Thanks!!” and off I went. I almost expected to find a dozen penguins walking down the road.

And so it goes. I ended up with 193 hits on my blog that day from eleven different countries, exceeding my previous record by more than fifty.imagesCA38T9PB My workload did not magically decrease—I’m still behind in my papers, I’m still getting requests for overenrollment, I still had a conference to run. Nothing had changed, but everything had changed because the divine broke through my very human defenses. I’ll remember April 25 as the day that Big Bird made a visit; I’ll try to remember that Big Bird actually visits every day, if I just know where to look.

My Mistress

Twenty years ago I encountered a remarkable woman; over the past two days we hosted a conference on my campus that brought scholars from North America and Europe to discuss and celebrate her work. A few reflections . . .

Weil_Photo_3.124195806_std[1]My mistress is not beautiful; she’s not even pretty. Truth be told, she’s homely. She dresses with no regard for what she looks like, usually wearing baggy pants and sweatshirt combinations, together with an ankle length trenchcoat-style garment and a ratty beret to complete the ensemble when she goes out. She chops at her curly hair with a pair of scissors when it gets longer than collar length. She’s nearsighted and wears ugly tortoise-shell glasses that sort of complement her sort of tortoise-shell face. I once saw a picture of her taken when she was twelve years old—the beautiful, innocent, angelic girl with a swan-like neckSimone_Weil-11[1] in the picture bears little resemblance to the adult woman. I’ve sometimes wondered what the hell happened. My mistress hardly ever smiles, has no sense of humor, is intense beyond belief, is incapable of small talk, eats almost nothing, chain smokes like a chimney, and definitely does not suffer fools gladly. Half the time I don’t even like her very much. And yet she’s changed my life.

I met Simone during Lent in 1993, at an Episcopal silent men’s retreat of all places. I walked into the large gathering room where a dozen or so silent men were sitting around; she was in the corner, staring in my direction with an intensity that burned a hole through me. She was obviously waiting to be picked up, so I picked her up. I’m not in the habit of picking up strange women on a moment’s noticeimagesCAQ4V2PL, but I didn’t seem to have a choice in the matter. I took her with me to a comfortable couch in the corner of the room filled with silent men and we began to talk. Five or six hours later, we were still talking. I took her back to my room with me and we talked through the night; we pretty much talked all the way through the three-day retreat, I guess. I don’t remember much of anything else about it.

I introduced myself to Simone by describing my life as a teacher of philosophy. I was teaching at a small private college which focused on business and engineering. The only reason they needed a philosopher was to teach business ethics, so that’s what I was doing, even though my area of specialization was Early Modern philosophy and my dissertation had been on Descartes. The place paid so poorly that I was teaching four sections of business ethics per semester, three in the day and one in the evening, plus one other course just to make ends meet. I was only in my second year of teaching after getting my PhD, and was not at all convinced (1) that I was a very good teacher or (2) that my students were learning anything. I sure as hell was hoping I hadn’t made a mistake getting into this profession—the lives of my wife and young sons had been disrupted thoroughly in order to make it happen.

simone weil[1]Simone told me that she also had taught for a few years here and there. Then she said the most remarkable thing, that she believed the primary importance of school studies begins with “the realization that prayer consists of attention” and that this capacity of attention must be developed “with a view to the love of God.” School studies are crucially important, not because of the content taught, but because “the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies.” Only attentive people can love God, and school studies, properly approached, help to develop attentive people.

I thought this to be irrelevant to my frustration with business ethics or insecurities about being a mediocre teacher. I was just about ready to return Simone to where I picked her up from, but then she said something else very interesting. “Contrary to the usual belief, [will power] has practically no place in study. The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy.joy_sand-1[1] The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running. Where it is lacking there are no real students, but only poor caricatures of apprentices who, at the end of their apprenticeship, will not even have a trade.” This cut directly across all of my surface level concerns to the heart of the matter. Why did I want to teach philosophy, in many people’s estimation the quintessentially useless field of study? Why did I want to teach at all? She had expressed what I had lacked the words for—in my (at that time) thirty-seven years, what brought me the greatest joy, the most intense exhilaration, was the life of learning. Early in my life I had been infected by the love of books and of ideas; when it turned out, after many by-paths, that I was going to spend my life in school, I was not surprised. I think I had known this was where I belonged from the first day I walked into Miss Bailey’s first grade classroom. And all I wanted to do was pass this infection on to others. All I wanted to do was to help others find the joy in learning that had sustained me through times in my life when there seemed to be nothing else worthwhile except a book. If I was going to be good teacher, that’s what had to be at the heart of it. Simone had given me the words to express what I’d intuitedpearl-of-great-price-vibrance1[1] all along, that for me, teaching was a vocation, a sacrament, a holy thing.

She ended that part of our conversation by saying that in her opinion “Academic work is one of those fields containing a pearl so precious that it is worth while to sell all our possessions, keeping nothing for ourselves, in order to be able to acquire it.” I said “I think I love you—want to go home with me?” When I returned home after the retreat, I sat on the kitchen counter while my wife Jeanne was doing kitchen things and tried to introduce Simone to her. I don’t think I made much sense, but Jeanne recognized the energy exuding from my inner glow as something unusual, so she didn’t mind that I’d brought a strange woman home with me. As a matter of fact, it was Jeanne who, a few years later, started calling Simone my mistress because of how much time the two of us spent together.

Simone has changed how I think about myself, about my relationships, about the world around me, and ultimately about what transcends me. She frequently comes with me to class. A few years ago, I received a card at the office from a young woman who had graduated as a philosophy major the previous spring. She was a spectacular student and an even more spectacular human being, one of those wonderful gifts that occasionally drop into a teacher’s life. The card was a thank you card, uncomfortably over the top as the young woman thanked me for a number of things that she probably should have been thanking others or herself for. At the end of the card, she wrote “And above all, Dr. Morgan, thank you for introducing me to Simone.”

Simone Weil    1909-1943

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