Saturday, February 28, 2015


As with Thursday’s post, again a single line from Dorothy Sayers’s Mind of the Maker has prompted a post. We know God only through his effects, she says, and all statements about Him are analogical. She goes on to explain this line by noting that we measure Him by our own yardstick because humans measure everything by the human yardstick necessarily. So we call Him Father, Lord, King, and so on, knowing what these things are in human terms and knowing where the analogy ceases. The heavenly Father, for instance, doesn’t procreate sexually.

That thought, that all statements about God are analogical has lingered in the back of my mind as I’ve been reading the Bhagavad Gita. In the central portions of the song, Krishna makes several statements about himself:
Whenever there is a decline in dharma . . . I create myself. . . . I am the intention; I am the sacrifice. . . . I am fire. . . . I am the father of the world – its mother, its arranger. . . . I am what is to be known . . . the Rig, the Sama and the Yajur Veda. . . . I am the way, the bearer, the great lord, the one who sees. I am home and shelter, the heart's companion. I am birth, death and sustenance. . . . I am sweet immortality, as well as death; being and non-being.
If I had read the Gita when I was sixteen, as I thought about doing through my love for the Beatles, I would have had a completely different reaction to these statements from what I experienced last week. Then my simple categorizational scheme would probably have dismissed it as mere blasphemy. Today, I think this Hindu scripture has something to teach me. But I have lots of questions. I know that all statements about God are analogical, but I don’t know where these analogies are meant to end. Is God one or many (or both) according to the Bhagavad Gita? When Krishna says “I am the sacrifice,” does he have transubstantiation in mind? Does the text mean for him to be a substance, or do these statements portray him only as a literary personification of all these things? And finally, taking these statements as statements about God with a capital G, I wonder: Which of these analogies are valid? Which can I agree with?

Certainly I believe that humans need divine revelation in order to understand God sufficiently for his purposes, and that the Bible provides that revelation, and not the Bhagavad Gita. But I also believe the words of Paul on Mars Hill, that God “made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him.” And I believe that the people of the Hindu religion have earnestly sought God in that hope and that Christians like me who accept their revelation second-hand and pre-packaged can learn much from those who feel after Him.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Also Sprach Lord Peter

I’ve been enjoying Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries over the last few years, one book a year. I had tried Strong Poison many years ago and came away indifferent to it. But I’ve enjoyed other things by Sayers immensely, and somewhere around year 2 or 3 of my current ten-year reading plan, I heard about a Lord Peter novel I just had to try because it’s subject fascinates me. So I came back to Sayers’s aristocratic sleuth for another go.

The Nine Tailors centers around the English tradition of change ringing, a musical expression of ever-changing patterns played out on a set of heavy church bells. Some of the patterns are so complex, they take a day or more to complete, and the murder in The Nine Tailors takes place in a small English village during one of these twenty-four hour change-ringing events. Change ringing continues to play a role in the structure and plot of the story, and so I ended up totally in love with the book and decided then gradually to read through every novel and story involving Lord Peter.

All of the ones I’ve read in the last five or six years, I’ve slurped down with great relish, and now I can’t exactly discern the source of my tepid response to Strong Poison. But as much as I like the books, I have been a little puzzled that Sayers fashioned a detective who maintains a respectfully skeptical relationship with the Church. Here’s the great explicator of Christian doctrine to a post-Christian world, I reasoned in my linear, blindered fashion. Why doesn’t she follow Chesterton’s path and give the world a detective who models Christian life while solving crimes?

The question has niggled me for a while, but I found a clue yesterday that may have pointed the way to a solution for my mystery of mysteries. I picked up The Mind of the Maker because I read recently that Sayers outlines there her view of artistry as a key component to understanding what “the image of God” might mean. She starts the book by setting out the difference between a fact and an opinion, mostly, she says, in an attempt to keep from being misunderstood. She wants readers to know that she is laying out facts about tenets of Christian doctrine, which in turn are meant to reflect facts about the universe. Opinions don’t change facts, she goes on, and her state of belief or disbelief in Christian doctrine is not a topic of the book; it could just as well have been written by a Zoroastrian.

Suddenly, three disparate lines met at a point before my mind’s eye. Christian doctrine remains what it is whether Sayers believes in it or not. The universe is in a state and has unfolded according to its laws whether any given religion understands that state and those laws or not. And Lord Peter Wimsey looks for facts, which stay factual whether Lord Peter is a Christian or not. Parhaps Sayers wants to use these mystery stories to illustrate some patterns of the universe that continue (if Sayers’s view of them is correct, of course) no matter the faith of the detective: Catholic, Anglican, Zoroastrian, or post-Christian apathetic. Of course, to test this hypothesis, I’ll have to read all the rest of the Lord Peter Wimsey books. I think maybe I can stand it.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Was Aristotle Scientific?

I’ve complained before about the modern era’s overhasty dismissal of Aristotle – or at least my high school’s overhasty doctrine of the dismissal of Aristotle. First of all, the man known in the Middle Ages as The Philosopher did the best he could with the observational tools (or lack thereof) that he had. In fact, he did the best anybody could have. How can anybody deny that the man’s mind was quick, penetrating, and visionary? Secondly, his work in logic, ethics, rhetoric, and poetics still fuels serious discussion, even where scholars have disagreed or refined his theories. And finally, his scientific ideas weren’t always that crazy – or even wrong. He said the heavier ball drops faster, and, despite a few decades of science saying he was wrong, we now have to acknowledge that he was right. Come to think of it, why would anyone have thought that we’re obligated trust Leonardo’s eyesight more than Aristotle’s reasoning? It seems modern science (again, as represented by my hopeless high school) believes that no one in the ancient world understood the importance of observation.

Or consider Aristotle’s four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. “What a simpleton!” my high-school faculty snickers collectively. “True science has shown us that the elements number over a hundred.” But I’m not so sure Aristotle’s “element” meant the same thing as our “element.” Aristotle described an element as a manifestation of the underlying matter, as one of four states that matter could be in. Any element could change into others under the proper and rather common conditions. Well, modern science doesn’t believe that elements routinely change into others; otherwise, we’d all be alchemists turning iron into gold. But modern science does tell us that matter can be in one of four states – solid, liquid, gas, and plasma – and that almost any given piece of matter can change from one state to another given a change of temperature. Now I know they’re not the same thing, but aren’t earth, water, air, and fire fascinatingly similar to solid, liquid, gas, and plasma?

So I’ve enjoyed reading Aristotle over the years and trying to see him in the best light, trying to concoct ways of seeing his science as almost true, or true enough for practical purposes. But in reading On the Heavens, I’ve come across some theories that I can’t save. According to Aristotle, Heaven is a sphere made of a fifth, indestructible element. The space between Earth and Heaven is filled with a layer of air and then a layer of fire. (By fire, he means not necessarily flame but a combustible “exhalation.”) The Earth sits unmoved at the center of the universe, and Heaven spins around it. The friction between Heaven and the layer of fire often ignites parts of the fiery sphere, and thus we get comets and shooting stars.

I was amazed to find Aristotle reporting that the Pythagoreans say that fire sits at the center of the universe and that the Earth revolves around the fire and creates the appearance of day and night by spinning on an axis once every twenty-four hours. So, the modernist in me says, if Aristotle had really been an intelligent scientist, he would have jumped on this idea, tested it by observation and reason, and found the Pythagorean model better than the model of the rotating heavnely spheres a couple of millennia ahead of Copernicus. I was even more amazed, though, to read his reasons for rejecting the theory of Earth’s rotation. The Pythagoreans, he explained, can’t  account for all the phenomena and instead simply choose the observations that fit their pet theory without testing it as far as it can go. So he had something like a modern scientific rationale for rejecting the more modern scientific model.

And this means that Aristotle in fact understood quite well the role of observation in scientific explanation. Anyone who thinks he doesn’t value observation just hasn’t read enough Aristotle in other words, there is a lack of observation, but not on the part of the ancient Greek. In his Meteorology, I recently read another indication of the role of observation in Aristotle’s scientific reasoning. As an introduction to the topic of comets, he says, “We consider a satisfactory explanation of phenomena inaccessible to observation to have been given when our account of them is free from impossibilities.” Is this Sherlockian stance a little too complacent? Perhaps. But it acknowledges the necessity of observation. The man who tried to figure out everything admits that his theory about comets may be completely wrong, but it implies that it will simply have to do until someone can get closer to one and get a better look.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Saint Godric

Saints aren't as saintly as their biographies might have us believe. If they are forgiven, it is because they have great sins that need to be forgiven. This is the message of Frederick Buechner’s Godric, a historical novel about the real Saint Godric.

The novel’s unusual prose style depends on ambiguity. In his narration, Godric refers to both "Godric" and "I," for instance. To give another example, he begins his account by saying that two of his friends have been snakes and then calls a third one Mouse; as it turns out, the snakes are actually slithery animals, while Mouse is a human. And you're never sure about the people who show up in the anecdotes Godric relates: Are they real humans? Demons? Dreams? Fantasies? Ghosts of saints?

As well as lending to the narrative’s misty tone, the ambiguity serves a symbolic purpose: Godric leads an ambiguous life. Is he a saint? Is he a sinner? The truth is that he’s both, just like all saints. He struggles and sins and doubts, and since he tells his life’s story out of order, we’re not quite sure whether some particular sins happen before his mystical, sin-releasing self-baptism in the Jordan River or after. But does it matter? The lifelong duration of Godric’s struggles means that he continually turns to and depends on God, more so perhaps than if he had had a more naturally pure heart. Like Wordsworth’s “Happy Warrior,” he is
More skillful in self-knowledge; even more pure,
As tempted more; more able to endure,
As more exposed to suffering and distress.
Near the end of Godric’s life (but near the beginning of the novel), an official biographer comes to hear and record stories of the great saint. For months or perhaps years, Godric harumphs and belittles the scribe for not understanding the ugly truth behind the sunny stories he’s determined to record. But in turn, Godric, by dismissing his sainthood, is almost incapable of seeing the beautiful truth that comes out of his darkness. For sainthood is not about the life of a saint but about the life of Christ.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Idylls Must Be Idylls

I love King Arthur. I love poetry. I love nineteenth-century Romanticism. So I expected Tennyson’s Idylls of the King to pull me into its magic web and keep me ensorceled from the stormy night at Tintagil castle all the way until the Round Table is broken and the King dead on the field of Camlann. But it hasn’t, so I’ve been trying to analyze my disappointment.

I’ve noticed a pattern that’s happened at least three times, and it suggests that the problem lies with me, not with Tennyson. (Try to appreciate my magnanimity in not insisting on ascribing the fault to one of the greatest poets of history.) Three times I’ve experienced disorientation and disappointment while reading parts whose plots aren’t familiar to me, only to find a few pages later that I’ve somehow become completely lost in enjoyment.

Since my dissatisfaction comes in the parts whose plots or characters are unfamiliar I think I just came to the work with too many assumptions on what the story would be. Tennyson doesn’t start with a stormy night at Tintagil; he starts with a dedication to the recently deceased Prince Albert. Then he portrays Arthur wooing Guinevere, with only a scant mention of Tintagil and Arthur’s birth as backstory. The next tale, that of Gareth and Lynette, is familiar and has been one of my favorite parts since I was twelve. So I loved that portion of the Idylls top to bottom. But then I got to two long cantos on Sir Geraint, of whom I don’t remember ever hearing before. And at first I most definitely did not like it.

So I’m reading along with vague thoughts of letdown, wondering why the poetic voice of the Poet Laureate sounds so dull, and wondering when I’ll get back to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. You know: the stories I grew up with. But without noticing any transition, suddenly I find myself transported to England. I’ve come to care for Geraint and Enid, and I ride along watching them eager to know what comes next. When the framework of reality snaps back in place and I realize again that I’m reading words on a page, that I’m reading lines of poetry, the language suddenly glistens with beauty. And this same pattern has happened with at least two other sections.

Let the Idylls be what they are, I have to tell myself. Let Tennyson be Tennyson. He has his own stories to tell, his own tableaus to paint, his own scenes to block out. When I quit expecting a poetic version of a familiar story and instead read to enjoy a new, fresh poetic tale, everything suddenly works. Because of Tennyson’s diction, every clash of swords sounds louder. Because of his rhythms, every color in a knight’s sigil is richer. Because of his imaginative figures, every pearl on a lady’s dress is more translucent. When I toss away my preconceptions, the steeds begin to snort and their skin twitches, the aroma of the forest paths wafts into my nostrils, hermits’ fingernails get dirty, and all the shades of ivory in Merlin’s long beard come to light.

I ruin my own enjoyment sometimes. Now what kind of way is that to pursue a ten-year reading plan? So I tell myself again: Let Tennyson be Tennyson.

Sunday, February 8, 2015


Ach! These Germans! I never know what I’m in for. They can write clearly and engagingly. Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Max Weber all did it. Even Kant shows that German prose can be thorny yet still ultimately meaningful. But sometimes German writing gets as dense and trackless as the Black Forest. (I’ve driven through the Black Forest, but I haven’t walked through it, so I don’t actually know if it’s dense and trackless. But it seemed like a fitting simile.) Spengler and Husserl especially come to mind.

I had hopes for Martin Heidegger. I had hoped he would write more like Schopenhauer and less like Spengler. But, ach! my hopes were dashed. If it weren’t for editor David Farrell Krell, I don’t know that I would understand any of the passages in the anthology that he (with help from Heidegger himself) put together. But he gives me no help with astonishing sentences such as this one: “Negation is grounded in the not that springs from the nihilation of the nothing.”

When he comes to the piece entitled “The Origin of the Work of Art,” even the editor admits that he doesn’t fully understand. And I can see why. Here’s a sample of the notes I took from this chapter:
“The world worlds.” [Yes, that third word is a verb.] “World is the ever-nonobjective to which we are subject as long as the paths of birth and death, blessing and curse keep us transported into Being.” Truth in an art work brings forth a being into an open region. “Where this bringing forth expressly brings the openness of beings, or truth, that which is brought forth is a work.” Circular? “Truth essentially occurs only as the strife between clearing and concealing in the opposition of world and earth.” The truth occupies the open region as a rift, and the rift “must be set back into the earth.”
I think of philosophy as the exploration of a difficult question, especially a question about a notion or turn of phrase that normal nonphilosophers take for granted in everyday life. Ideally, the philosopher’s conclusions should be expressed in such a way that that nonphilosopher on the street could understand it (with some moderate education and little effort, to be sure). But “open regions” and “rifts” don’t make the tricky concept of art any clearer to me. In fact, they’re more opaque and need more explanation than the cloudy word “art” itself.

But it’s occurred to me to consider Heidegger not as a philosopher but as a poet. And suddenly he gets a lot better. He says that human existence is a presence held out into nothing – a nothing, the reader will remember, that can be negated by the not of negation. As philosophy, I can make neither heads nor tails nor arms nor legs out of it. Present to what? Who or what is doing the holding? But as poetry, it might just work.
Human existence.
What is it?
It is a presence held out into
The world worlds,
and it subjects human existence
as long as the paths
of birth and death,
blessing and curse
keep us transported into Being.
We bring forth Truth,
carrying with it the openness of beings.
Truth occupies the open space as a rift,
but the human presence
sets the rift back into the earth,
and Art creates both Artist and Work.
Ach! With a few line breaks, it actually starts to make a little sense. A little sense.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Ned Land’s Healthy Skepticism

Through all my years growing up, my dad liked to go to the library. He’d check stock prices in the latest edition of the Wall Street Journal. He’d read some news and look things up in an encyclopedia. And then he would probably wander the fiction stacks and find a spy novel or thriller by perhaps Martin Caidin or Frederick Forsyth. I know he did these things because from the time I was about five years old, he took me with him.

My five-year-old self tried to find interest in his market research, and he tried to explain the charts to me. But eventually I always gave up, wandered to the juvenile section, and found a stack of books to read until Dad decided sit was time to go home. On one trip, tired of sixty-four page books with color illustrations on every page, I looked around and found something thicker. “It’s time for me to read a real book,” I thought. “This way I won’t need a stack; one book will last me all evening: all the way until Dad is finished with his business.” I don’t remember why I picked the book I did. But I can never forget the fantastic title: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

I took it over to the table where my dad was sitting and seated myself in the chair next to his, hoping he’d see the sheer size of my mature ambition. “I think it’s about a submarine that goes really, really deep,” I explained when he glanced over. “No, the title means that it travels that distance horizontally while it’s under the surface,” he corrected me, “not that it goes down that far.” OK, not quite so amazing. But still it sounded good, so I opened up the cover and began to read.

What a shock that first page dealt me. First off, the story started on page 5 or 9 or something, which I didn’t understand. Then I read the first sentence: “The year 1866 was signalised by a remarkable incident, a mysterious and puzzling phenomenon, which doubtless no one has yet forgotten.” Oh, boy. This might take more than one evening. I could read that sentence when I was five, but I had no way of understanding any of it. Still, I tried. I think I made it through about a page and a half while Dad found a way to increase his quarterly earnings by a few thousand.

When I came back to the book in my teen years, I understood it and loved it. At least I thought I understood it. But recently I’ve been listening to Verne’s marvelous underwater tale in the car on the way to and from work, and I suspect that I didn’t totally understand the purpose of harpooner Ned Land. Of course the scientist needs some muscle on his journey. Professor Lidenbrock took Hans to the Centre of the Earth, so naturally Professor Aronnax needs Ned Land.

But Ned provides more than brawn to Aronnax’s brain. Ned has thoughts and reasoning of his own that the Professor needs to hear. In many a disaster flick from the last few decades, a scientist predicts the calamity. No one believes him, of course, or there would be no disaster and hence no story to depict. In the movies, though, the scientist is always right in the end. Not so with Verne! More insightful than Hollywood producers, the great science-fiction writer has his scientist make mistakes.

When the world of the 1860s first experiences a strange phosphorescent object racing through the globe’s oceans and piercing the sides of approaching ships, Aronnax announces to the nations, backed by the credentials of Science and the irrefutable structure of Logic, that the phenomenon is a living creature, not a ship. But when the good professor meets Ned, he finds an unschooled fellow who, seeming not to recognize the authority of Science and Logic, doesn’t agree with his conclusion.
 "But, Ned, you, a whaler by profession, familiarised with all the great marine mammalia—YOU ought to be the last to doubt under such circumstances!" 
"That is just what deceives you, Professor," replied Ned. "As a whaler I have followed many a cetacean, harpooned a great number, and killed several; but, however strong or well-armed they may have been, neither their tails nor their weapons would have been able even to scratch the iron plates of a steamer."
Of course, it’s the uneducated fisherman who’s right, not the Scientist. Ah! Who’s using observation and logic now, Professor Aronnax?