Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Many Faces of Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day is a fringe figure. She lived on the fringes of society, she is a hero of people still living there, and she continues to exist in the margins of popular consciousness. A noble if enigmatic figure, most people recognize her name only enough to know they should know it or perhaps to tap into a few superficial bits of trivia appropriate for coffee house discourse. For my part, I only knew Dorothy Day insofar as I needed to evaluate whether or not she fit, so far as I was the judge, the intellectual category of "Christian anarchist" often applied to her. I admit my judgments were largely negative and largely misinformed.

Yet Day was thrust into the national spotlight late last year when the Catholic Church took a strong step forward in her canonization process and, in response, the New York Times saw the startling unanimity of the bishops as an opportunity to convert Day into the staging ground for an ideological battle between progressives and conservatives who both want to lay claim to contradictory visions of Day. Thankfully, the vision of the Times and the tumult it created has largely died down as devotees of Day apparently want to focus less on her partisan alignment and more on the example set by her life:

The thing to know about Dorothy Day is not where she fell on the ideological spectrum, it is that she chose to follow Jesus radically, right down to the core of her life, the rhythms of her day, the habits of her heart, the fervency of her prayers. She was intensely loyal to the Church, but not above criticizing some of its potentates. She was suspicious of power in any form, except the power of Jesus' love. She understood, and lived, the call to both love and serve the poor in ways that shame the rest of us. She is undoubtedly a saint. She is also undoubtedly not fit fodder for anyone's ideological cannon.

Curiously, and mostly in ignorance of the debates about her in the popular press, around the same time I picked up Day's autobiography, The Long Loneliness, with much the same intent I always approached her writings with, as part of a broader potential historical study of anarchism in America. What I found therein, however, thwarted my one-dimensional, narrow-minded attempts to distill Day into her philosophy of power and response to the problem of evil. Instead I found a multifaceted person, like so many of us more often unsure of herself than our constructed icons of ideological juggernauts typically allow. She was, in short, a human being, and the authenticity of her self disclosure in The Long Loneliness instilled in me a profound respect and admiration for her (even if I also walked away still uneasy about where she fits on the spectrum of anarchist thought) and created in me an intense interest in her canonization effort, still decades away from fruition, I suspect.

In the following weeks I would like to share some of the new sides of Dorothy Day, new to me at least, that I encountered in her writings. The act of compartmentalizing her personalty is perhaps not much better than flattening her into a suspect Christian anarchist, but, short of meeting her in flesh and blood (an opportunity sadly not available), I can think of no better way to encounter her than this.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Angel Killed by Drive-By Shooter

There has been a merciless assassination in Connecticut:

Sometime during the night of Friday Jan. 18 or the morning of Saturday, Jan. 19, someone driving on Pendleton Hill Road took aim at two cows in a field. Using a high powered rifle, the shooter or shooters shot a Holstein and an Ayrshire in their faces.

The good news is, the Holstein will recover. The Ayrshire, whose name is Angel, will be euthanized. The damage is apparently too extensive. I can't help but agree with the owners evaluation:

“They have to be degenerates. They have to be someone who has nothing to lose,” he said. “I don’t have any enemies that I know of.”

I can't imagine the Ayrshire having any enemies either. Perhaps the worst part is that these gentle creatures were destined for a life as dairy cows on a little New England farm as part of a herd of five, no reduced to four.

All elegiac excesses aside, what sort of callous anthropo-chauvinism makes someone believe that it is appropriate to shoot cattle with a high powered rifle for thrills (or revenge)? Perhaps the same logic that permits sport hunting.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Moore on Science

In his landmark book Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans, Laurence Moore reflected on the tendency of the American media to periodically declare that occultism is on the rise. The charge of press sensationalism is not new--and not his point. Instead, looking back to the "occult" religious sects of the 19th century, he makes an intriguing point about the myth of secularization through science:

The American press likes to announce occult revivals in which Americans react against the world view of "modern science." Yet the journalistic emphasis on ebb and flow seems much overdone. The truth is that we do not live in an uncomplicatedly secular age. The scientific revolution, wherever in time one wants to cut into it, has promoted in almost equal parts a respect for empiricism among experimental scientists and a more popular belief that experiment can push beyond the limits of ordinary sensory awareness...

[This way of thinking], rather than being rendered archaic by scientific and technical progress, has, like science fiction, often gained credibility among those who have welcomed that progress. The people who believe in ESP, after all, do not think of themselves as Criticizing science per se. In their minds, they are merely urging science to stretch beyond the materialistic assumptions that proscribe certain types of research.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Mitt Romney: A Failed Mormon Prophecy

Well, it's official. Barack Obama has been sworn in for his second term as president, and the news media has parsed all the important issues: eye rolling, lip syncing, and age-appropriate hair. Finally it feels appropriate to share an observation out of Mormon history when it should have none of the sourness of political partisanship (which I try so desperately to avoid).

In the Winter of 1855, with full blown war with the federal government on the not-so-distant horizon, Brigham Young, governor of the Utah Territory and leader of the Latter Day Saints, envisioned a time when America would fall into such a state of disrepair that the people would call on a Mormon to save them:

Brethren and sisters, our friends wish to know our feelings towards the government. I answer, they are first rate, and we will prove it too, as you will see if you only live long enough, for that we shall live to prove it is certain; and when the Constitution of the United States hangs, as it were, upon a single thread, they will have to call for the "Mormon" Elders to save it from utter destruction; and they will step forth and do it.

If the LDS church's loudest public voice is to be believed, America has reached that precipice. Then why the monumental failure of Mitt Romney to secure the presidency and save America? Could it be that Glenn Beck is wrong and ACORN, radical Islamic militants, and Reform Jews didn't conspire to put a socialist race-warrior into office? Or could he perhaps be right and Satan still holds the world in his thrall, leaving the saints to wait for the nation to get just a little bit worse before their final vindication? Is it possible that the Mormons in general and Brigham Young in particular were not actually gifted with any special ongoing revelation from God?

Let's table all those wonderfully provocative suggestions for the moment and consider another. One year earlier, Brigham Young had delivered a Fourth of July address as part of a series of speeches by prominent Mormons taking America to task for its partisanship and its failure to realize the lofty goals of the American Revolution. Young had his own observations about failures of the US in its highest office and proposed a different set of qualifications for the highest office. Maybe Romney failed to be the great Mormon savior of America because, it turns out, he's not the kind of man Mormon's thought the nation needed and the people deserved:

The people should concentrate their feelings, their influence, and their faith to select the best man they can find to be their President, if he has nothing more to eat than potatoes and salt--a man who will not aspire to become greater than the people who appoint him but be contented to live as they live, be clothed as they are clothed, and in every good thing be one with them.

[A man] capable of communicating to the the understanding of the people according to their capacity, information upon all points pertaining to the just administration of the Government. He should understand what administrative policy would be most beneficial to the nation. He should also have the knowledge and disposition to wisely exercise the appointing power, so far as it is constitutionally within his control, and select only good and capable men for the office. He should not only carry out the legal and just wishes of his constituents, but should be able to enlighten their understanding and correct their judgment. And all good officers in a truly republican administration will constantly labor for the security of the rights of all, irrespective of sect or party.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

History for History's Sake

In his 1969 article, "Second Thoughts on History at the Universities," British historian Sir Geoffrey Elton made the following recommendation:

Teachers of history must set their faces against the necessarily ignorant demands of 'society'...for immediate applicability. They need to recall that the 'usefulness' of historical studies lies hardly at all in the knowledge they purvey and in the understanding of specific present problems from their prehistory; it lies much more in the fact that they produce standards of judgment and powers of reasoning which they alone develop which arise from the very essence, and which are unusually clear-headed, balanced and compassionate.

Elton's view is likely to win at least public support from many academic historians, as much as it is equally likely to elicit public scorn from just about everyone else, particularly those outside of the humanities (and of those particularly scientists for whom usefulness is assumed, in the discipline if not always in the particular research project). Yet, in truth most historians today go to great lengths to contort themselves and their work to conform to expectations of social relevance. Every new paper, every new book is subjected to one degree or another to questions not just of how it advances human knowledge but how it might benefit human society. Most defenses are theoretical and superficial, but that they must be made at all reveals something.

It would be easy, not to mention self-serving, for me to now turn and defend a universal application of Elton's advice that history be pursued without regard for usefulness. After all, I have spent most of my admittedly short academic career studying the most utterly useless facts jotted into the marginalia of history. The more esoteric, the more alluring. But critics of the humanities in general and history in particular are largely correct. Rightly gone are the days when the government could and would subsidize the pursuit of knowledge of the sake of knowledge, particularly knowledge which has no clear future applicability. History is, in this respect, the worst academic offender.

Yet Elton is correct when his own language is allowed to limit the scope of his observation. The above are from reflections on "history at universities" and directed at "teachers of history." As history continues to be rightly scrutinized for its social value, it is important not to transfer criticisms of professional historians onto the discipline as a whole. Historical thinking--rather than the academic fruits of the professionalized application of historical thought--is in fact a necessary tool. It has been rightly observed that all humans are historical thinkers, existing as much in their reflection on their individual (and on our collective social) past as they do in the present. The "standards of judgment" and "powers of reasoning" that characterize self-conscious historical thought are crucial tools in the continued functioning of our species. If we allow our critique of ivory tower academics to come to bear on the general curriculum--in universities, but also in high school or middle school as well--then we jeopardize the intellectual future of our children.

It is not uncommon now--and this is true both of where I went to school and of the university I work for now--that undergraduates can be expected to take more than twice as much science as history, regardless of their intended field. The deeply incorrect assumption here is that people on average will need more biology in their lives than, for example, American history, more familiarity with chem-lab safety protocol than the causes and consequences of the communist revolution in China. The devaluing in the public mind of history, abetted as it has been by the increasing specialization in the discipline (e.g. a professor I know who studies only the history of agricultural technology in the plantation South), is poised to create a generation of historically and culturally illiterate actors, agents in the making of our ongoing history.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Too Cute to Eat

Meet Archie the bull. At a little over two years old, Archie is only 30 inches tall making him the world record holding shortest bull and apparently much too cute to eat.

“When we bought Archie he was destined for beef,” [Ryan Lavery, 15,] explained.

“However, by Christmas time, he still hadn’t grown and because we had become so fond of him we decided to keep him.

“His size saved him and now he’s going to live out the rest of his life as a pet.

If I were the judge of cuteness, all cows would quickly be converted into companion animals, but alas...

Monday, January 14, 2013

A Pairing of Quotes

This is arguably one of the most thoroughly neglected texts on Christian ethics and perhaps my favorite passage from the Pauline epistles:

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

This, on the other hand, is a rightly obscure line from Gregory the Theologian's Epistle 49 but one which made me think he had perhaps not forgotten the letter to the Thessalonians:

My greatest business always is to keep free from business.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Remembering Ken Neller

I was forty hours without sleep on the last leg of a cross country Greyhound trip last night when the news, vague and uncertain, that Dr. Ken Neller of Harding University had died. Unfortunately, I awoke this morning to find that news confirmed:

We are grieving tonight the sudden passing of our friend and colleague, Ken Neller. Ken collapsed this afternoon while playing racquetball. Attempts to revive him were unsuccessful. Ken would’ve been 59 next month.

We have mourned here the deaths of several great figures, those I have known and those who have influenced me indirectly, but Ken Neller stands apart both as a man who leaves us without warning and before his time and as a mentor of mine during my formative years at Harding. As a mark of the greatness of his character, word of this tragedy has spread quickly through the diverse networks that demonstrate the far-flung, perhaps unknown reaches of Ken Neller's spiritual and intellectual influence.

I had the privilege of taking roughly half a dozen courses with Dr. Neller as an undergraduate, from larger required courses to small, intimate independent studies, and we came in further contact through my close relationship with Downtown. The memories which I might share about him have flooded back to me in the last twelve hours, and I suspect I will be trading stories with those who knew him in the coming days. For now, let one anecdote serve as a memorial to his character.

Toward the end of my time at Harding, having developed an easy rapport with Dr. Neller, I found myself in a small seminar he was teaching on the prison epistles. It wasn't a class I was required to take or even supposed to be allowed to take, but scheduling conflict has allowed me a special curriculum dispensation. I had taken an independent study with Dr. Neller focusing on the Greek of Ephesians and Colossians the previous semester, so I was more than amply prepared for the kind of vivid discussion that only happen in those last fleeting moments of college when every bit of knowledge seems so urgent.

The seminar was like nothing I had ever experienced, not because of the content or even because of any special insight from Dr. Neller. Instead, what set that experience apart was the respect Dr. Neller paid to his students. So rare in a world in which professors jealously guard the teacher-student power dynamic, Ken Neller treated me more nearly as an equal than a pupil which was all the more humbling. In a debate about the existence of demons, Dr. Neller sacrificed precious class time (and the patience of my peers, no doubt) to make sure he understood the theory I was espousing about the meaning of Ephesians 6 about which I was writing a paper. Only when he was sure he grasped my point and acknowledged that he hadn't thought of it that way before did class proceed. One day, when I had skipped class for no other reason than I didn't want to go, he found me in the student center to express his regret that I hadn't been there. Not disappointment, mind you, that I had shirked my academic duties but genuine regret that we hadn't been able to enjoy our customary interchanges. And when the time came, as it inevitably does, for him to assign readings which he had written and published, he singled me out and solicited my public criticism of his argument, which I offered and which he accepted as valid.

Death has a way of chiseling our memories into marble, smoothing out the rough-hewn edges of humanity. It would be all too easy to forget times when I fumed against his comments on my papers (sometimes to his less than patient person) or his intransigence about breaking from the traditional Greek curriculum. Still, the essence of his character was gentle and compassionate. He smiled easily and perhaps a little goofily. He spoke of his wife often and only with the greatest respect, an important influence for a newly married nineteen year old me. He calmly advised temperance when my lust for academic conflict prompted less than diplomatic word choice. He will be deeply mourned, but the loss to his family and those of us who knew him is arguably inestimably less than the loss to the hundreds of future students we all assumed he had left to teach.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Wisdom of Alexander von Humbodlt

Alexander von Humboldt was once among the most famous names in all America, a fact testified to by the dozens of cities, rivers, bays, and species that were named after him. An explorer, commentator, and philosopher, he is best remembered today, if he is remembered at all, as the father of the 19th century scientific movement that bears his name and stresses the interrelatedness of the various aspects of nature and of humanity and nature.

More interesting to me, however, are these comments he made about liberty in America. For as strong as America's love was for Humboldt--and for a time Humboldt returned that affection, particularly through a personal friendship with Thomas Jefferson--Humboldt proved himself a willing and able critic of American hypocrisy. At a time when the American rhetoric about liberty was its most eloquent and its failure to live up to that rhetoric most obvious, Humboldt made this observation:

In the United States there has, it is true, arisen a great love for me, but the whole there presents to my mind the sad spectacle of liberty reduced to a mere mechanism in the element of utility, exercising little ennobling or elevating influence upon mind and soul, which, after all, should be the aim of political liberty. Hence indifference on the subject of slavery. But the United States are a Cartesian vortex, carrying everything with them, grading everything to the level of monotony.

Americans are less philosophical in their ideals and less overt in their failure to live up to them, but I suspect that Humboldt's criticism remains largely accurate.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Hey Diddle Diddle

As if to confirm my long held belief that anything horses can do, cows can do cuter, an eleven year old girl in Belgium has trained her cow to jump fences.

Sadly, I'm afraid I weigh more than a prepubescent girl, forever dashing my hopes of competitive cow jumping.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Wisdom of Benton MacKaye

Benton MacKaye is not a figure most are familiar with. Avid hikers will know him as the originator of the Appalachian Trail, but most know little beyond that. I don't exclude myself from that category, as I only just encountered an in depth treatment of him in Paul Sutter's history of the wilderness movement, Driven Wild. It was there that I came across this incisive quote about the nature of cities and the need of humanity to reestablish its connections with the natural world:

The modern metropolis is the product, not of its immediate region, but of the continent and the world. It is a nerve center in a world-wide industrial system. Less and less is it indigenous; more and more is it standardized and exotic. It depends on tentacles rather than on roots. The effect of an unbalanced industrial life, it is the cause of an unbalanced recreational life. For its hectic influence widens the breach between normal work and play by segmenting the worst elements in each. It divorces them into drubbing mechanized toil on the one hand and into a species of “lollipopedness” on the other.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Looking Back on 2012

I crawled out of the hole I slink into every year for the holidays to find that Word Press had compiled a present for me: a colorfully designed "year-in-review" post pre-made for publication. And because blogging is almost inherently self-indulgent, I thought I would post it here and share with everyone. Click here to see the complete report.

Here's an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 3,500 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 6 years to get that many views.

More interesting to me was the fact that the most visited post here this year was on the nature of ethics from my comparative series on Christianity and Jain. What will be the most visited post this year? Probably not this one.