On the Enlightenment

There’s a wonderful democratic republican pamphlet by Camille Desmoulins which was published at the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789 where he discusses this very point. He says the real issue, if you’re talking about revolution and turning everything upside down, what really counts in the 18th century, is not atheism as such, but the rejection of divine providence and religious authority. That’s what we’re really talking about. If there is no divine providence guiding the course of history, if there is no divine direction in the way things happen, this means that the existing social order – for instance the fact that most of the properties are owned by the aristocracy – can’t be part of the divine plan, or can’t be sanctioned by religious authority. Religious authority doesn’t have that kind of connection with divine providence that it claims to have, and therefore it doesn’t have the legitimacy that many people imagine that it does. This is deeply subversive, and is the connection between being revolutionary in religious matters and being revolutionary in social and political matters. That is one of the most important things to grasp about the Enlightenment...

I think Sorkin is absolutely right to say that we haven’t gone far enough in demonstrating that the religious Enlightenment was not just Protestant but also Catholic and Jewish. Going back to my theme of Five Books that cover all the major dimensions of the Enlightenment, this is really the first one to look at the transformation in religious thought and practice and of thinking about religion’s role in politics, philosophy and society. In that respect it’s a very interesting and important book and a very useful survey. No one else before Sorkin makes this claim, but I think he’s right. He shows that all the religions produce a very strong Enlightened tendency. At the same time he also demonstrates that there was a great deal of resistance to these changes within the churches, whether Catholic, Protestant or Jewish.

"Jonathan Israel on the Enlightenment" - http://fivebooks.com/interviews/jonathan-israel-on-enlightenment 

On Kafka

BBC Radio 4's In Our Time podcast discussed Kafka's The Trial, this past week. Kafka turns out to be essential reading for bureaucratic life in universities these days, although it is interesting to hear discussed the religious themes in Kafka's work as well. The discussion of Aesop was very good the week before, and this week it is a discussion of Zen: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/iot/all.

On Bad Parchment

While the velvety softness of perfect skin can be quite appealing to handle, getting to know imperfect parchment is ultimately more interesting and rewarding. Damage is telling, as this post shows, and it may shed light on such things as the attitude of scribes (who did not necessarily mind holes on the page), the manner in which a book was stored by its owner (with a missing clasp or in a wet environment), and even the state of mind of those looking at it (‘Must cut out golden letters!’). As a book historian it feels good to work with bad skin.

Spiritual Materialism

Interesting London based artist working on the intersection between materiality and spirituality: 

‘“Spiritual Materialism” is a collection of artifacts from the spaces in-between,’ Lauder explains, ‘reflections on the human hunger for profundity and although at the same time influenced by a number of cultures, pointing the finger in the direction of our common human heritage.’ Drawing on both religious and spiritual iconography, Lauder’s illustration work is complemented by his woodworking prowess... Despite heading to Bali to surf and escape the British summer (i.e. slightly warmer rainy season), Lauder found himself in a familiar location: the studio. ‘It was pretty tough finding a balance between enjoying the island life and making work for the exhibition,’ he says. ‘I basically shut myself away for six weeks in the studio and then when the [work] was done tried to cram in as much time in the water as possible.’

The exhibition's crafted and material focus is quite interesting to me. It strikes me that the artist is touching on an old nerve related to the making of religious books, which drew upon a similar sense of the spirituality of things.

On Outsourcing

Recent conversations about online higher education have revolved around how colleges can and should blast their courses out into the wider world. But for institutions that sell an intimate, localized experience, a more-pressing question might be how they can and should integrate courses from elsewhere.

"At Liberal-Arts Colleges, Debate about Online Courses is Really about Outsourcing" The Chronicle http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/?p=55151

Eichmann's Lies

As head of the Jewish Department within the Nazi SS, Adolf Eichmann held operational responsibility for the extermination of European Jewry through crucial years of World War II. To his chosen work of murder, Eichmann brought a zeal and commitment that he sustained even through 15 years of exile after the war. At his trial in Jerusalem in 1960, the Nazi leader attempted to present himself as a self-effacing servant of the German state, dutifully following orders from a higher command. The image of Eichmann as a technocratic bureaucrat has endured even as subsequently discovered testimony in his own handwriting and voice have revealed a man ferociously devoted to Nazi racial ideology—and utterly unrepentant for his vast crimes.

Bettina Stangneth, a German philosopher and historian, undertook the daunting task of mastering the Eichmann archive, including his postwar writings and hours of tape-recorded discussions with fellow Nazi exiles in Argentina. Her work was published in Germany in 2011 and released this year in English as Eichmann Before Jerusalem, a title that invites comparison with the classic work, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, by Hannah Arendt that did so much to fix and perpetuate the false image of Eichmann as a passionless bureaucrat.

"The Lies of Adolf Eichmann" The Atlantic - http://theatln.tc/1AqdbOD

A Decade since Derrida

Any fool can undo things. As he made clear in his last interview, Derrida loved the great cultural and artistic achievements of the past as much as anyone did, but he had the burden of writing about them under the conditions that we regard as postmodern. He positioned himself in his work like the Jewish God, never to be spelled out or pinned down. He played a unique writerly game in the hope that no one could fashion an image of what he meant and so everyone could learn from his lessons of evasion. Nevertheless, deconstruction became in its turn a graven image. Meaning no more than “undo” in today’s mediaspeak, deconstruction has become a banal technical exercise, its historical context for- gotten. Its spirituality has been so utterly displaced that no common user of the term could begin to imagine what it is, or was. The man whom, as he said, we may re-create by reading him after his death remains a plurality of possibilities. There were and there remain many, many Derridas.

Leslie Chamberlain, "The Sad Rider: A Decade Since Derrida," Common Knowledge vol 20 no 3: pp. 393-401 - http://commonknowledge.dukejournals.org/content/20/3/391.abstract

Religious Aliens?

Religions have surprisingly diverse approaches to the issue of possible extraterrestrial life, David Weintraub found. Below, a quick survey adapted from his book ‘Religions and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal With It?’ and interviews with the author... Judaism offers a set of rules for humans on or from Earth that encourages them to develop a relationship with the God of the entire universe. Judaism is not for the Klingons, unless the Klingons wish to live on Earth, though Judaism could continue to make sense as a religion for descendants of humans living on other planets... Members of the Unitarian Universalist Church embrace no single set of beliefs or sacred scriptures. The discovery of extraterrestrial life would trigger no issues.

"How Different Religions Would Deal with Aliens," - The Boston Globe - http://bit.ly/1z1GinI

A rather cursory if not curious post on religion today. Maybe another reason to abandon course titles like "world religions." 


Daf Yomi

But in fact, the Gemara goes on to counter, there is a way for a gentile woman to become marriageable: All she has to do is convert to Judaism. Doesn’t this mean that she is legally akin to other forbidden women, who are not forbidden forever and always, but only under certain conditions? But the rabbis deny the parallel. ‘When she converts, she is a different body,’ they say: Conversion creates a new legal person, who did not exist before. It is only this new person who is marriageable, not the old, gentile version of her who has ceased to exist.

"Converting for Love?" - Tablet Magazine, - http://www.tabletmag.com/?p=186707. Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

Borges on Divine Things

Ferrari: But we could say that in all poetry there’s an approximation to something else, beyond the words and the subject matter.

Borges: Well, language does not match up to the complexity of things. I think that the philosopher Whitehead talks of the paradox of the perfect dictionary, that is, the idea of supposing that all the words that a dictionary registers exhaust reality. Chesterton also wrote about this, saying that it is absurd to suppose that all the nuances of human consciousness, which are more vast than a jungle, can be contained in a mechanical system of grunts which would be, in this case, the words spoken by a stockbroker. That’s absurd and yet people talk of a perfect language, of a rich language, but in comparison to our consciousness language is very poor. I think that somewhere Stevenson says that what happens in ten minutes exceeds all Shakespeare’s vocabulary [laughs]. I believe it’s the same idea.

"In March 1984, Jorge Luis Borges began a series of radio 'dialogues' with the Argentinian poet and essayist Osvaldo Ferrari. Forty-five of them have just been translated into English for the first time by Jason Wilson and will be published this month by Seagull Books as Conversations, Volume 1. What follows is Borges’s conversation with Ferrari about the existence of God." - NY Review of Books - http://bit.ly/1y7kyG3

Errol Morris on Peace

Errol Morris has made a series of short films on peace for the NY Times. He chose to focus upon three individuals who ostensibly had little power, influence, means or ability, but who nonetheless changed the world. The first two in particular, explicitly cite faith as crucial to their political perseverance. Morris, as always, simply asks the questions in childlike wonder at the amazing stories they tell. 

God Games

"Kit Eaton reviews Godus, the Sandbox and Godville, three free mobile games that let you control an entire world, not just a single character." http://nyti.ms/1soP2Ue

It is an open question today whether and how video games foster religious thought. Nonetheless, I wonder if this is not rather the nexus where narcissism and atheism meet as the player displaces divinity.

The Myth of Religious Violence

The popular belief that religion is the cause of the world’s bloodiest conflicts is central to our modern conviction that faith and politics should never mix. But the messy history of their separation suggests it was never so simple.

Karen Armstrong, "The Myth of Religious Violence," The Guardian http://bit.ly/1vBXP5U

Peculiar that she doesn't cite William Cavanaugh's excellent book by that title.

On Mental Virtues

Fourth, there is humility, which is not letting your own desire for status get in the way of accuracy. The humble person fights against vanity and self-importance. He’s not writing those sentences people write to make themselves seem smart; he’s not thinking of himself much at all. The humble researcher doesn’t become arrogant toward his subject, assuming he has mastered it. Such a person is open to learning from anyone at any stage in life.

"The Mental Virtues" - http://nyti.ms/1tIqUvl

On Atheist Factories?

For people born after 1960, having a college degree doesn’t cause religious disaffiliation—young, highly educated people are more likely to identify with a faith, according to a new study... There are a lot of sociological factors at work here, but all of them puncture the stereotype of perniciously secular higher education. Clearly, those God-defying philosophy professors need to work a little harder if they want to build their armies of atheist young people.

"It Turns Out Colleges Aren't Actually Atheist Factories" - http://theatln.tc/VUkSue

Teaching is not a Business

While these reformers talk a lot about markets and competition, the essence of a good education — bringing together talented teachers, engaged students and a challenging curriculum — goes undiscussed... While technology can be put to good use by talented teachers, they, and not the futurists, must take the lead. The process of teaching and learning is an intimate act that neither computers nor markets can hope to replicate. Small wonder, then, that the business model hasn’t worked in reforming the schools — there is simply no substitute for the personal element.

David L. Kirp, "Teaching is not a Business," http://nyti.ms/1m5Z4Tq

On the Term "Scientist"

In response, Nature’s editor, Sir Richard Gregory... solicited opinions from linguists and scientific researchers about whether Nature should use ‘scientist.’ The word received more support in 1924 than it had thirty years earlier. Many researchers wrote in to say that ‘scientist’ was a normal and useful word that was now ensconced in the English lexicon, and that Nature should use it. However, many researchers still rejected ‘scientist.’ Sir D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, a zoologist, argued that ‘scientist’ was a tainted term used ‘by people who have no great respect either for science or the “scientist.”’ The eminent naturalist E. Ray Lankester protested that any ‘Barney Bunkum’ might be able to lay claim to such a vague title. ‘I think we must be content to be anatomists, zoologists, geologists, electricians, engineers, mathematicians, naturalists,’ he argued. ‘“Scientist” has acquired—perhaps unjustly—the significance of a charlatan’s device.’

"The History of 'Scientist,'" The Renaissance Mathematicushttp://wp.me/py7Pg-Bv

Time Passes

My parents celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary this past week. I couldn't be there so wrote a note on time's passing to be read in my absence, largely drawing on Heidegger's Phenomenology of Religious Life and Ricoeur's Time and Narrative.

On Spiritual Nones

‘Every day I add another piece to the religion that is my own,’ Dr. Moore writes. ‘It’s built on years of meditation, chanting, theological study and the practice of therapy — to me a sacred activity.’ At the very least, we might conclude that ‘spiritual but not religious’ isn’t necessarily vague or wishy-washy. It’s not nothing, although it may risk being everything.

"Examining the Growth of the 'Spiritual but Not Religious," - http://nyti.ms/1nFHDZn