1973 - when I started asking questions, like, "Why are we all dressed so funny?"

Monday, October 31, 2011

Where's "Atheist Academy"?

Alas, even Richard Dawkins is not interested in starting a school for atheists.

Call me cynical, but is it because atheists don't think they themselves believe in anything worth communicating to others? No, the flood of books on the market by these evangelical atheists ("the good news is, life is meaningless") would disprove that theory.

Surely the atheists are morally upright and concerned about the future, and hence about education. Why no charter school with a STEM focus? Or a private school founded by a rich atheist (surely God doesn't just bless the theists!)?

Perhaps the reason is that they are happy with the public schools. Seriously.

Why start a school that incessantly talks about the God Who Isn't (as an atheist school presumably would) when you can send your child to a school that simply ignores that same Non-God? Ideally, an atheist might prefer an Atheist Academy, but Agnostic Public School works just as well and it's a lot more convenient.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Adolf or Therese?

One of the joys of taking a sabbatical (of sorts) is the change in routine it provides. A most pleasant change in my life has been decreasing the amount of AM talk radio chatter I listen to. Instead of this chatter, I've been reading more. Currently I'm reading St. Therese's Story of a Soul and William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Talk about an odd couple.

Power or Love?

What I've gleaned so far from Therese is an overarching idea (as simple as it is counter-cultural): success doesn't mean very much. As a public school teacher who became immensely bored by both the utilitarian praxis of the "educrats" and mindless slogans such as "every child can succeed," Therese's life is of great interest. She accomplished nothing that changed history, nor was she was responsible for a technological innovation that made life easier; rather, she simply made her entire life an offering to Christ's merciful love. She had one insight and ran with it. Now, she's a Doctor of the Church and her life is a compelling answer to the title of a book by Wendell Berry -- What are People for? Her life indicates that what ultimately matters is love, not the gods of power and success or blood and iron.

Enter Adolf

I've read many books on the Second World War. I even took a course entitled Nazi Germany (the professor was such an expert on the subject that it was no mere academic exercise -- his mannerisms while lecturing mirrored those of Adolf Hitler, which was at once hilarious and eery). But it is reading Shirer's book at this time in our history that I've been truly chilled by Hitler.

As I listen to AM radio (right and left, chocolate and vanilla), I see little corporals running through trench-works; I smell stale beer and acrid cigarette smoke in a beer hall; I hear the thud and scrape of heavy boots on cobblestone streets. Perhaps I have an overactive imagination.

Enter Ideology

What is not imaginary is the delusions of ideology. Not simply the delusions of a particular ideology (be it national socialism or communism), but the fact that ideology is never able to admit its inadequacies. In The Religious Sense, Luigi Giussani notes that ideology takes an aspect of reality and makes it "into an absolute" (p. 95). Herein lies both the appeal of AM radio and its reductionism, which could be fatal to the republic if it were taken seriously.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Virtues of "The Village"

The Village provides a window for understanding that adults and parents - always and everywhere - propose a way of life to children. This is no less true for successful, career-oriented parents living in a plush gated community than it is for Edward Walker and friends in the film.

The Better Portion.

The crucial difference between these two ways of life is that the villagers take seriously (and choose deliberately) what kind of life is to be preferred: one in which economic prosperity is the highest good or one in which an authentically human life can be lived? The villagers have chosen the latter and it seems in many ways to be a better choice.

Authentic Goods.

Despite the fundamental deception of the village's founding, the community possesses some authentic goods. While I would be loathe to suggest that the end justifies the means, the admirable qualities of this mythical place include charity, humility and fellowship.

Fellowship. When Noah Percy (Adrien Brody) misbehaves or murders, he is put in "the quiet room." The greatest punishment available in this community is to be shunned or isolated. Throughout the film, the villagers have a lively life together and truly enjoy each other's company. Whether it is sharing a community meal or washing the dishes, people stay together.

Humility. Although the village is founded upon a presumption that seems to say, "We can create a world without pain," Edward Walker (William Hurt) possesses the humility to ask, "What was the purpose of our leaving? Don't forget, it was out of hope of something good and right." He is thus willing to let the whole ideological edifice fall away if innocence can be protected. He adds: "If we did not make this decision [to go to the towns to seek medicine], we could never again call ourselves innocent, and that in the end is what we have protected here: innocence!" One is reminded of what Jesus says about scandal:
If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea (Matthew 18:6).
Naturally, the "scandal" of a society built upon deliberate omissions and falsifications does not disappear because of the founders' desire to protect the innocence of the children.

Charity. No one can fault the intentions of the villagers. Who, if given a choice, would refuse a good life for his son or daughter? Yet it is not mere theoretical love that is displayed in the film, but concrete actions:
  • Edward's agreement to allow Ivy to fetch medicines from the towns while knowing full well that the entire social order may collapse as a result of the secret being made known.
  • Ivy's willingness to risk her life for the beloved, Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix).
  • The security guard's willingness to protect Ivy's secret and not exploit her.
Theoretical versus Actual

I can't help but think of the Amish as a kind of point of reference in the film. The villagers are a kind of fictional doppelgängers with respect to them:
  • the Amish are religious but the villagers are secular and therapeutic
  • the Amish possess historical rootedness but the villagers create a history and culture from some raw materials and their collective imagination.
  • the Amish are willing to let their children risk living with "the English" as they reach adulthood, whereas the villagers are fiercely insular.
Thus the Amish possess in reality something greater and more human -- precisely because they have a tradition and are faithful to that, not a mere ideology.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Infinite Jello?

One doesn't generally think of ineffable sadness and longing with punk rock, but Dead Kennedys manage to pull it off with "Moon Over Marin." Told in the first person, the song is a lamentation over a toxified California coast and the protagonist's desire to find meaning through routine and the hope of a stable cosmic order.

In this dystopian future, our narrator is privileged enough to own some beach front property amid a "crowded future" and "still find[s] time to exercise" "on my beach at night." The beach itself seems to be the coast of the Valdez oil spill gone mad and global:

Another tanker's hit the rocks
Abandoned to spill out its guts
The sand is laced with sticky glops

Despite the horror, he concludes, "There will always be a moon over Marin."

Jello Biafra -- longing for the Infinite. Who woulda thunk?

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Vices of "The Village"

I couldn't help but be reminded of this passage in Aladair MacIntyre's After Virtue after viewing M. Night Shyamalan's The Village:

A crucial turning point in that earlier history [i.e., the Dark Ages] occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the coninuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead -- often not recognizing fully what they were doing -- was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness (2nd ed., p. 263).
While there are clear parallels between the fictional inhabitants of "the village" and say, a Benedictine monastery, the divergences are fascinating. I think the differences (of course on is fictional, the other historical!) can be attributed to the differences between ideology and faith. Luigi Giussani defines ideology this way: "Ideology ... is based upon an aspect of reality ... taken unilaterally and made ... into an absolute" (The Religious Sense, p. 95).

1. Suffering. This "partial aspect" of reality taken to an extreme is the desire to eliminate suffering (especially in the form of violence) by leaving behind "the towns" (the big city) and isolating the community into what appears to be the late 19th century. Thus absent from the community are tools of violence and technology. Naturally, suffering cannot be willed out of existence -- it is intrinsic to the human condition. Much of the story hinges upon how the characters deal with balancing the desire to protect utopia and to care for innocent victims of misfortune.

2. Evil's Ubiquity. All of the founders of the village have a box in which they keep reminders of their prior lives. These serve as physical reminders of the pain and sorrow that is found in the towns outside. Yet in reconstructing a 19th century world it was also psychologically necessary to exaggerate the nature of violence and evil found in modern cities.

3. Myth or Lie? Perhaps the most brilliant creation of the founders is "Those We Don't Speak Of" -- imaginary creatures that surround the village and serve as means of insulating the next generation from the temptation of leaving home. Unlike the Amish, the villagers make it impossible for their children to explore a different world. And yet there is a certain truth to the creatures because the world outside the village is hostile to much of what the villagers have constructed: mutual dependence, cooperation and affection. Although "made up," the creatures do express a truth.

4. "Our Therapist, Who Art in Vienna..."

a. Godless? But at bottom, the village is not sustainable. By my reckoning, God is mentioned once. Several times we hear this prayer: We are grateful for the time we have been given. It is a curious prayer. It references a What but not a Who. And yet if one follows the logic of this prayer, one must necessarily encounter a Giver.

b. "Church" and Community. It is not until toward the end of the film that I was able to make sense of the meetings in the church-like structure in the village: the elders gather together, often in a circle to discuss issues before the community, but it has the physical form of group therapy. This goes beyond the pragmatic need to govern the community but speaks of our human need to connect with each other.

This film has many layers but it can certainly be "read" as a cautionary tale against utopian aspirations. Next time I will discuss the "virtues" of The Village.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Why Nietzsche Matters

I went with some friends to a lecture entitled "GOD IS DEAD - Friedrich Nietzsche vs. G.K. Chesterton." Dale Alquist was as entertaining and humorous as I expected he would be. Yet I was a bit disappointed in one aspect of his talk and it also came out in how he answered questions about Nietzsche afterwards. It involves this question: How seriously should one take Nietzsche?

Mr. Alquist's answer was "not very"; in fact, I would say he was downright dismissive of Nietzsche. I think this is a mistake at two levels: first there is the theological virtue of charity; second there is the cardinal virtue of prudence.

Let's begin with charity. Love for another (even those odd "neighbors" who live the seventh heavens of academia, namely, philosophy professors) suggests that if people take a man and his ideas seriously and he's had a profound affect upon the shape of our civilization, this is worth our time and consideration. This doesn't mean personally mastering Nietzsche's work, but saying, "Hey, he has had a profound influence and I'd like to understand what draws you to him."

I've always been a bit frustrated in my reading of Nietzsche because it is not clear to me when he is posturing or when he is really serious. I'm not sure Nietzsche knew, either. Yet I think he worth taking seriously in way that, for example, Krapp's Last Tape by Samuel Beckett is not.

Why might prudence dictate opponents of Nietzsche take him seriously? Perhaps because we are all Nietzscheans now and it would behoove us to understand how we got this way. Granted, we are "soft Nietzscheans" inasmuch as we don't follow the logic fully, but can we truly say that we don't at times live "as if 'God' were 'dead" and organize much of our social order and relationships something very akin to Fredrich's "will to power"? If that last sentence has no resonance in your life, I salute you, while at the same I wonder if some special Providence has not protected you from the present age!

Nietzsche is a prophet -- not in the line of Melchizedek, but more like Flannery O'Connor's Misfit in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find": one who unwittingly can bring one to Christ if, and only if, we take seriously what he says, even if we giggle at the absurdity of his life.

Let's not forget that although "Satan fell by force of gravity" (as Chesterton tells us), Christ took him just seriously enough to be his undoing -- and to perhaps have the last laugh.