Saturday, March 28, 2015

Warranted Obstinacy

Last week, I read two things with striking parallels: Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Faith and C. S. Lewis’s “On Obstinacy in Belief.” Both address accusations that the mind of the Christian believer is malfunctioning somehow. Lewis answers the claim that Christians believe in spite of the evidence; Plantinga answers the claim that Christians believe, without warrant, a set of doctrines whose truth or falsity cannot be known.

Lewis’s answer includes several observations that still need to be made in this world, even though they seem obvious to me: that Christians do have evidence on which they base at least some of their beliefs, that many Christians are and have been quite intelligent, that many scientists believe in Christ, that Christian faith is faith in a Person (three Persons, to be precise), that evidence seeming to vilify a person we trust needs to stack up pretty high before we give up that trust, and so on. He deals with the view that Christian belief is only wish-fulfillment in two ways: (1) by pointing out that Christian belief isn’t all the happy stuff of fairy-tale castles, and (2) by critiquing the theory of wish-fulfillment itself.

Plantinga’s main argument comes in two stages. First, belief is warranted when held by a properly functioning mind operating according to its design plan, in the right physical and intellectual environment, and functioning for the production of true belief, not survival or comfort. So the believer who has read her Nietzsche and her Dawkins and still believes in God can have warrant. Second, if Christian doctrine is true, then belief in Christianity is trust in a personal God whose Holy Spirit provides an internal basis for belief unavailable to the unbeliever. Like Lewis, he emphasizes the importance of the personal nature of the belief, the intelligence of many Christians (his ideal believers read Nietzsche and Dawkins), the nature of evidence, the possibility of wish-fulfillment, and more. They even both address the self-defeating problems of naturalism.

Where Plantinga parts from Lewis, I think, is in claiming that Christian belief, like trust in our memories, isn’t based on arguments and evidence. Philosophy can at most, he says, dismantle arguments against Christian belief, not find the demonstration that proves its truth. I followed most of his explanation, and he mostly convinced me. But I kept wondering: is this only true of some or most Christians? Surely some Christians have come to faith on the basis of logical arguments. And it occurred to me: C. S. Lewis himself claimed to have come to Theism by thinking through arguments for and against various theories of the foundations of existence. His Christian faith came about largely through a discussion with Tolkien about competing views on the nature of myth. But then even Lewis also admitted that these arguments and proofs came his way only because a holy Person chased him down like a Hound of Heaven.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Traveling on Foote

Fifty years ago, my family went to Springfield, Illinois, and I got interested in the Civil War; I didn’t know then exactly when I would visit other sites associated with the war. Ten years ago, I drew up my current ten-year reading plan; I didn’t know then what I would be doing in March of year 9. Last year, I got a job at the University of Tennessee; I didn’t know then exactly when I’d travel to see any given Civil War sites in the area. A couple of months ago, my wife and I decided to go to Virginia for a Spring Break trip; I didn’t remember then that I had scheduled Shelby Foote’s The Civil War for March.

This past Monday, we traveled up I-81 to New Market and then went east on US-211 to cross Massanutton Mountain and visit Shenandoah National Park. That very morning I had read about part of Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign of 1862, in which he went north through the wider part of Shenandoah Valley, then turned east at New Market and took his army through the gap in Massanutton Mountain. We followed in his very footsteps. Wednesday, we visited battle sites east of Richmond. That evening, I went back to the motel and picked up the book to resume my steady pace of fifteen pages per day; it turns out I read that evening about the Seven Days battles east of Richmond, which even took place in the order in which we had visited them that very day. Stonewall’s footsteps are difficult to account for in those June days of 1862, but I can say we followed in the footsteps of Robert E. Lee. Seldom (if ever?) has my scheduled reading so closely coincided with the rest of my life.

Someone has called Foote the American Homer. One surface-level detail in Foote’s massive three-volume narrative that justifies the comparison to my mind is his use of various sobriquets for the characters. The blind bard calls Achilles variously “son of Peleus” and “the swift-footed” as well as “Achilles.” Similarly, while Foote usually calls General G. P. T. Beauregard “Beauregard,” he sometimes styles him as “the hero of Sumter and Manassas” (especially when Beauregard is about to mess up), and often as “the Creole.”

But perhaps a better basis for likening Foote to Homer is that Foote concentrates not on the clearest exposition of orders of battle (as a few curmudgeonly raters on Amazon enjoy pointing out) but on the emotions of the characters and groups. I know that the Confederacy survives 1862 and eventually loses in 1865, but Foote has me feeling the dread that filled Jefferson Davis’s people in that second summer of the war. It really feels like the war could end any minute. The author does this partly by shifting his narrator’s eye from Tennessee to Virginia, from the Valley to Richmond. He achieves the effect partly by quoting both generals and privates. I may not know exactly where Magruder’s corps was during the battle of Savage’s Station, but I know what it feels like to be in those woods.

But then again, I was just in those woods.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A History of the West in Six Pieces of Music

On the way to and from work, I’ve been listening to A History of the World in Six Glasses. Author Tom Standage runs through this history (primarily a history of the West) by looking at beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and cola. And it’s remarkable how well this gimmick works. I had no idea beer played such a vital role in the beginning of civilization (i.e., humans living in cities): the first writing samples often indicate amounts of beer stored in temples or warehouses and paid to workers, and the world’s first written recipe tells how to make beer. Beer was so much a part of city life, anyone who didn’t drink beer was considered a rude bumpkin. How things have changed!

Similarly, wine contributes to and is emblematic of the Greeks’ ideas of equality and free discourse. The symposium, essentially a Greek dinner party for intellectuals, was named from roots meaning “drinking together.” As it happens, I even blogged just a few weeks ago about Plato’s proposed use of wine drinking in his Laws. After a follow-up on the importance of wine to the Romans and Christians, the “history of the world” then jumps to the Atlantic slave trade of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for a look at spirits. But something like continuity returns with the section on coffee: the clarity (or apparent clarity) that comes from drinking this new concoction from Arabia perfectly suited the Enlightenment discussions of eighteenth-century France.

I’ve been thinking about what a parallel book based on music would look like. I first thought of A History of the World in Six Pieces. But then most historical pieces don’t have the long-term social prevalence that Standage’s six drinks do. Gregorian chant and Messiah come to mind as the notable exceptions that prove the rule. So how about A History of the World in Six Genres? I thought about sacred song, the motet, the mass, the opera, the symphony, and the recorded popular song. But if the first idea proved too narrow, this one is way too wide: each of those genres could fill (and has filled many times over) its own large volume of history.

But what about six pieces that represent six genres? I may be on to something. The thread of history would have to weave backwards and forwards rather than being stretched out in one linear path. But the book might look something like this. It could start with Bach’s choral hymn “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” (“O Sacred Head Now Wounded”). As a representative of sacred song, the section could discuss the Greeks’ religion through the Seikilos hymn, Charlemagne though the unification of Gregorian chant practice, and the Reformation. Machaut’s “Ma fin est mon commencement,” in representing the medieval chanson, could support stories about Frankish barbarians and the rise of nation states and modern languages in the Middle Ages. Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro could launch a brief history of opera that would in turn outline the Florentine Renaissance, the English Civil War, absolute monarchies of the seventeenth century, and (through Figaro himself) the downfall of those same absolute monarchs.

Would it feel like cheating to represent the symphony by Dvořák’s New World Symphony? The genre tells the story of the rise of the middle class and Enlightenment thinking, and the Czech’s peculiar work (my least favorite of his, actually) could provide an excuse for covering both the discovery of America and the revolutions and nationalistic movements in nineteenth century Europe. And then how could one responsibly discuss “All You Need Is Love” without covering the Industrial Revolution, two World Wars, and postmodernism?

It’s a book I will never write. But after putting this post together, I think it’s a really good book that I will never write.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Image of the Maker

In The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers uses a (layman’s) psychological view of the artist to demonstrate Christian doctrine. At the point in Genesis when God says, “Let us make man in our image,” almost all we know about this God, she points out, is that He created. The image imprinted on his human creation, then, is that of a maker. Consequently, she goes on, we should have insight into the nature of God by examining artistic creation. And she does a remarkably good job drawing parallels between artistry on the one hand and Christian theology on the other. The Trinity, the two natures of Christ, the Incarnation, free will and predestination, sacrifice and redemption, and more all find their way into the discussion. And if the parallels work, the doctrines should, Sayers hopes, look a little less foolish in the eyes of the world; if we see something like a trinity in the acts of the artist next door, we can’t well say that the theological doctrine of the Trinity is completely unlike anything we’ve ever encountered and thus irrational.

The doctrine of the Trinity was actually the least convincing parallel in the book to my way of thinking. Sayers cites Augustine in the epigraphs at the beginning of the relevant chapter, but she didn’t use Augustine’s own parallels. I find the good bishop’s idea that the power of the Father, the wisdom of the Son, and the love of the Holy Spirit lie within every human action interesting and helpful. I just lit a candle: I did it because I had the power (or physical ability) to do it, because in practical wisdom I know what actions to take in order to light the candle (take off the lid, pull the trigger on the lighter, touch the flame to the wick), and because I wanted to do it (i.e., my will was directed toward the action in love rather than away from the action in aversion). But Sayers aligns the Father with “the Idea” (which sounds confusingly close to Augustine’s wisdom, which he ascribes mainly to the Son), the Son with “Energy” (which she sometimes refers to as “Activity” and which sounds a lot like the “power” of Augustine’s Father to me), and the Spirit with “Power” (which sounds exactly like “power” to me, and possibly to you as well). She’s certainly free to outline her own trinity of ideas inherent in a given artistic act, but why start off citing Augustine only to cut against his grain?

But then she eventually makes something of this trinity of Idea, Energy, and Power. I have in my mind the Idea for a book (or a blog post); in other words, I know which way it’s going to go and what its general tone will be. I may not know all the details at first, but then these come into concrete reality (are incarnated) when I commit the Energy to actual composition. No line can be written without the guiding Idea, and no Idea comes to fruition without the Energy. The two are logically but not actually separable. Finally (because the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son), the completed work (or the completed line, or even just the discovery of one perfect word choice) is an existent human artifact whose Power is experienced by the artist and any other reader (viewer, listener, etc.) who comes into contact with it.

In one of the most interesting parts of the book, Sayers demonstrates artistic heresies through her trinitarian doctrine. I have to admit that the section on artistic gnosticism hit very close to home. The religious Gnostic believed that Jesus’ appearance on Earth was only an illusion; matter is evil, and the good, wholly spiritual God could not actually take on flesh without damaging Himself. Her parallel representation of gnosticism in art comes from the playwright who loves his ideas and possibly even the words on paper but hates to have anything spoiled by actual directors, actors, and set designers. Everything makes sense in her own head, but not when “incarnated” on a physical stage. Well, I have a long history of writing songs for ideal bands. Some of them include intricate guitar parts, and not only have I never found a guitar player to perform any of them, I don’t even know if the parts could actually fall under human fingers placed on an actual fretboard. I’ve written vocal melodies that I think could be sung by certain singers I’ve heard on recordings (the guy on the Alan Parson Project’s album based on Poe stories would be fantastic on some of my songs), but these melodies were all composed with no hint of a practical plan for getting said singers to perform them.

I don’t even to this day know the name of the guy on the Alan Parson Project’s album based on Poe stories. I’m too much of an artistic gnostic.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Was Verne Scientific?

I don’t really want to answer the question “Is Jules Verne scientific?” He researched his novels meticulously, wrote with vision for the future, and juxtaposed current scientific knowledge with Atlantis and dinosaurs that live in the Earth’s interior. So the obvious answer is that he developed a public persona as a scientific thinker without actually being one. I’m much more interested in whether his protagonist Prof. Arronax from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is scientific. But I thought that “Is Professor Arronax Scientific?” wouldn’t go as well with my post title from a couple of weeks ago.

I’ve learned something recently about Verne translations. It seems all the early English translations abridged his novels severely, leaving out much of the scientific information that he so painstakingly researched. What translation did I read as a teenager? It could have been a nineteenth-century hack job, one of the more modern, complete translations from the 1960s, or a children’s version. I don’t know which one I read, but I remember caring for it the least of all the Verne novels I read. I much preferred Around the World in Eighty Days, Off on a Comet!, From the Earth to the Moon, and Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Lately I’ve been reacquainting myself with the novel by listening to Anthony Bonner’s translation from the 60s, and my earlier impression has held: it gets tedious too often. Near the end of the novel, just before escaping from the Nautilus, Professor Aronnax reminisces and rehearses all the amazing episodes in his journey of twenty thousand leagues: the underground cemetery, the attack by the natives in Borneo, the passage under the isthmus of Suez, seeing Atlantis, the fight with the giant squid, and so on. Sure enough, these tableaus shine with the lustre of the brightest pearls harvested by Captain Nemo’s crew. But in between these pearls are strung lists of sea creatures. Every new sea reached brings with it a new list of plants and animals, many of them carefully classified all the way from sub-kingdom to species. Was I supposed to learn some biology from this? Was I supposed to keep track of the differences from sea to sea? Was I supposed to be impressed with Verne’s knowledge? I did none of these things. Mostly I just zoned out and, since the characters never develop, waited for the next action sequence.

I can’t even defend the prolix descriptions as a means of revealing Prof. Arronax’s scientific mind; he never performs any science. He doesn’t develop any hypotheses, look for any evidence, run any tests, or draw any explanatory conclusions. He just describes and lists. In fact, he’s so consistently unscientific, I’m tempted to say that Verne did it all on purpose to present us with a charlatan for a protagonist. After all, Arronax never gets anything right. Near the beginning of the book, he dismisses the theory that a submarine might exist and instead assures the world that the monster is a giant narwhal. And he completely misreads Nemo for the bulk of the book and never learns any of his secrets. But I think Verne really meant the professor to be a scientist and just didn’t know how to pull it off in any other way than by listing scientific names for hundreds of things he sees through the submarine’s windows. I’m looking forward to rereading the others, but maybe the early translators were right to abridge this book.