Archive for February, 2009

O: Is it ok if we don’t go for a drive and look at stars tonight?

Me: Yeah, that’s fine. It’s a good idea. We can save it for another time.

O: But will the sky ever be clear again?


Hubble – You Decide: let your Weltanshauung shape science

As part of an extended program celebrating the 4ooth anniversary of Galileo’s telescope, you can help decide what the Hubble space telescope looks at next by voting on six candidate targets. Click here to vote. If you need some help choosing, here’s some advice on what might be interesting to see:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Dr. Summers advocates deciding by what you find interesting, but I propose that we vote according to our larger conception of existence in this universe. Interested in being hopeful, excited about new things? Vote for image 1 — a region where new stars are being born. More inclined these days to the red in tooth and claw vision of the universe, want to look destruction in the face? Vote for target 2 or 3 — planetary nebulae where stars are silently expelling their last gasps into space. Images 4 and 5 seem utterly boring to me, scientifically and existentially. But if you’re in an apocalyptic frame of mind, perhaps the colliding galaxies in image 6 will appeal to you.

I think I will vote for image 2:

Image 2

Let me know how you decide. And do it soon! Voting ends March 1!

A little litany for the masses

Feeling like the world is basically ok? Well, you shouldn’t be, least of all days today, Ash Wednesday, least of all worlds this one. To put yourself in a more proper Lenten frame of mind or, better, a proper frame of mind for any day of the year, read the Anglican Great Litany. You can find it here, in the original version of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer (“The Letany and Suffrages” begins on p. 30). If you don’t want to wade through 16th century typeface, you can also find it here, but the typesetting of the original, especially of the final prayer, is very beautiful.


The current Episcopal version, with the supplications for king and crown pared down to a one-line prayer for the President, and with “fornicacion” replaced by “all inordinate and sinful affections” is here. You can also hear it sung:

Old money

The bathroom stalls in Eckhart Hall, where the University of Chicago math department resides, are made of some sort of gray, polished stone – it could almost be marble, but the color is pretty dull, so I’m not sure. The doors to the stalls are hardwood, with little antique-looking metal locking mechanisms. From the ceiling hang two energy-saver florescent bulbs, bare. Whoa.

The emotivist self at home

Alasdair MacIntyre characterizes the modern self as emotivist — cut from objective, rational criteria for basing moral judgements, it sees all moral discourse as only expression of preference. This has social correlates:

The bifurcation of the contemporary social world into a realm of the organizational in which the ends are taken to be given and the means are not available for rational scrutiny and a realm of the personal in which judgment and debate about values are central factors, but in which no rational social resolution of issues is available … is itself an important clue to the central characteristics of modern societies which may enable us to avoid being deceived by their internal political debates. These debates are often staged in terms of a supposed opposition between individualism and collectivism, each appearing in a variety of doctrinal forms. … But in fact what is crucial is that on which the contending parties agree, namely that there are only two alternative modes of social life open to us, one in which the free and arbitrary choices of individuals are sovereign, and one in which the bureaucracy is sovereign, precisely so that it may limit the free and arbitrary choices of individuals. Given this deep cultural agreement, it is unsurprising that the politics of modern societies oscillate between a freedom which is nothing but a lack of regulation of individual behavior and forms of collectivist control designed only to limit the anarchy of self-interest. … Thus the society in which we live is one in which bureaucracy and individualism are partners as well as antagonists. And it is in the cultural climate of this bureaucratic individualism that the emotivist self is naturally at home.      

After Virtue

I feel like we can recognize the opposition he describes, and actually see these two forces alternately holding sway over this or that part of our society. (For example, a single person might be an individualist on abortion, and a collectivist on poverty.)

I do not know if MacIntyre is right, but I’m intrigued by his analysis. He’s saying that absent an ability to conduct moral discourse together from some agreed-upon starting points we get two competing (and secretly conjoined) impulses: individualism (moral judgements are my own to make) and collectivism (bureaucracy takes over to organize this mass of individuals and runs itself on inertia, its means not open to moral judgments which are only individuals’ own to make). This should put the question to the church, the university, etc: can you narrate together a framework for moral discourse robust enough to work at the levels of the individual and of the group so that something more coherent than oscillation between individualist and collectivist emerges?

Three – Batsheva Dance Company

Last night’s performance of Three, a piece by Ohad Naharin and danced by the Batsheva Dance Company, was fantastic! It was intriguing and engaging from start to finish, but the last movement, Secus, was by far the most striking and powerful. It contained a duet by two male dancers that was by far the highlight of the evening. I found this portion of the program particularly moving, especially as the duet was followed by a section in which dancers, arranged in lines directed towards the audience, one by one performed movements, returned to the end of their line and were then imitated by the next dancer. The very beautiful duet gave way to this communal ritual of interdependency and vulnerability. It was striking.

Here’s a taste of Three:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

And here’s Naharin writing about Gaga – his movement language.

And for my friend kg, who loves to post puns and play with sayings, and knows something about performance: At a few moments in Secus, the lights go completely out while the dancers continue. So… if a dance happens in the dark, and no one can see it, does it still make for a performance?

Athenagoras of Athens and purposive imago dei

Athenagoras (ca. 133-190) was a Christian apologist who lived during the second half of the 2nd century of whom little is known for certain, besides that he was Athenian (though possibly not originally from Athens), a philosopher, and a convert to Christianity. There is some evidence that he was a Platonist before his conversion, but this is not certain.

The treatise on the Resurrection of the Body, the first complete exposition of the doctrine in Christian literature, was written later than the Apology, to which it may be considered as an appendix. Athenagoras brings to the defence of the doctrine the best that contemporary philosophy could adduce. After meeting the objections common to his time, he demonstrates the possibility of a resurrection in view either of the power of the Creator, or of the nature of our bodies. To exercise such powers is neither unworthy of God nor unjust to other creatures. He shows that the nature and end of man demand a perpetuation of the life of body and soul.

On this last point: Athenagoras gives a purposive reading of the creation of humans in his argument for the resurrection. 

Therefore, if man has been created neither without cause and in vain (for none of God’s works is in vain, so far at least as the purpose of their Maker is concerned), nor for the use of the Maker Himself, or of any of the works which have proceeded from Him, it is quite clear that although, according to the first and more general view of the subject, God made man for Himself, and in pursuance of the goodness and wisdom which are conspicuous throughout the creation, yet, according to the view which more nearly touches the beings created, He made him for the sake of the life of those created, which is not kindled for a little while and then extinguished. For to creeping things, I suppose, and birds, and fishes, or, to speak more generally, all irrational creatures, God has assigned such a life as that; but to those who bear upon them the image of the Creator Himself, and are endowed with understanding, and blessed with a rational judgment, the Creator has assigned perpetual duration, in order that, recognising their own Maker, and His power and skill, and obeying law and justice, they may pass their whole existence free from suffering, in the possession of those qualifies with which they have bravely borne their preceding life, although they lived in corruptible and earthly bodies. … But since this cause is seen to lie in perpetual existence, the being so created must be preserved for ever, doing and experiencing what is suitable to its nature, each of the two parts of which it consists contributing what belongs to it, so that the soul may exist and remain without change in the nature in which it was made, and discharge its appropriate functions … and the body be moved according to its nature towards its appropriate objects, and undergo the changes allotted to it, and, among the rest (relating to age, or appearance, or size), the resurrection.    

                                  — On the Resurrection of the Body (Ch. XII)

So, for Athenagoras, the nature of humankind is known in its purpose, a purpose implicit in our creation, which cannot be for God (God cannot need, for Athenagoras) or the rest of creation. Instead our purpose is found and understood only in light of transformed, resurrected existence, natural to how we are created.

In their essay “The Chief End of All Flesh”, Stanley Hauerwas and John Berkman work from a purposive reading of imago dei in their treatment of human relations to other animals. 

Christians must not understand “image of God” to be based on any metaphysical or morphological difference between humans and other animals but must reconceive “image of God” in terms of the particular purposes that God assigns to humans. Specifically, Christians need to discover what it means for a human to act as an image of God’s rule in the world. 

Perhaps Athenagoras would not agree with the argument Hauerwas and Berkman have to bring against anthropocentric readings of imago dei (given his characterizations of ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ creatures) but the end result of an attention to purpose in creation is similar and very appealing to me. The focus in the end is not on creation as an explication of our static existence and certain special qualities, but as a preparation for our true purpose, directed by the statements Christians make about our future hope. For Athenagoras this is resurrection as our true future and purpose; Hauerwas and Berkmann further draw out the eschatological hope of the peaceable kingdom:

As a result, Christian lives are to display this purposive understanding of the image of God. In Genesis 1, the image of God is part of the vision of a peaceable creation, both between human and animal and between animal and animal, a peace where it is not necessary to sacrifice one for the other. Similarly, for Christians to live as the image of Christ means to live according to the call of the kingdom of God. In Gethsemene—in taking up the way of the Cross—Christ shows us clearly that the way of the kingdom of God is not the way of violence. In reaching the ultimate end of all our strivings, in the peaceable kingdom of God, we shall finally live in true shalom with all creatures of God.