Friday, December 29, 2006

Today was one of those days

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Overslept and missed my first class (it doesn't help that my school is 30 minutes away). Lost my semi-new rain jacket on the way there (fell off my scooter in traffic). Missed breakfast. Felt sick and sluggish. Discovered, as the day went on, a number of small errors -- and one huge one -- on some of my tests (finals tomorrow morning).

Ah, but I can't say it was all bad. It being a Friday, I and the students were generally very cheerful. We had a good time reviewing for tests and eating Christmas candy. I did a little exercise in my room during a break.

When I got home I packed up for the big weekend: a hike with Taiwanese friends! Snow Mtn is the destination. New Year's Eve on the second highest mountain in Taiwan, not too shabby! There's already snow on He Huan Mtn. so we can definitely expect some powder on Snow Mtn. I am so happy to have new boots, too (info also here)!

Well, I've got class tomorrow morning at 9 (teaching my Taichung Ichung senior high guys to play poker in English), and then I catch the 11 AM train to Taipei. Arriving at Snow Mtn. Saturday night, we plan to hike a couple hours to the hostel. Then it's 7-10 hours up to the peak on Sunday.

God be with us till we meet again.

Well hot damn!

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That just ain't right.

(BTW, that lady looks like the coolest cucumber in Asia, considering.)

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Ritalin Fan Club?

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You know I like to (try to) coin new words. So why not try for a new phrase? I googled it and found nothing matching "ritalin fan club". I'm callin it!

The thought came to mind today because I recalled how in college I became very anxious about the possibility I had (have) ADHD, or something like it. I have always been curious to try the stuff, to see what effect it had. Imagining myself loving the ritalin high -- a methylphenidate euphoria -- I envisioned founding the Ritalin Fan Club, Intl. It would consist of people united in their panegyrical anecdotes for ritalin. The screenplay would be a musical, bursting with hymns to "livin on ritalin". My favorite piece is the "Ritalin Blues".

Such is I.

Do you see now why I wonder about me and ADHD? :emoticon:

Storming the weather

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What silly Althusserian Marxist chicanery. The weather, a crucial tool in shaping the all-decisive means of production! This just goes to show the harder Commies work to reduce the personal dimensions of history at the altar of absolute materialist determinism, the more they must assert personal whimsy to do so.

Apparently, the Reds also want to initiate a real name blogging system, too. So much for noms de plume!

In all fairness, my American jingoism is pierced and saddened to see Bush and the neocon contingency have vied for the same. The problem is that while knowing a cyber-stalker's real name might help the authorities catch him, it would cut just as easily the other way: a cyber-stalker could by some means find out the real name of someone he interacts with (say, threateningly) online and then extend his malice offline to that real person. To my knowledge, there's a simple way to trace cyber-IDs back to their author: identify his IP address. It's a bssic feature of hosting comments on a blog,Link so it's not at all unfeasible. Even though knowing an IP address doesn't help locate the baddie offline (because he uses a mobile compy or changes compies, etc.), it would still, if need be, allow authorities (or, yes, hackers) not only to go to work on that IP (e-embargoes at eBay or Paypal, blocking the IP from registering for websites, posting an online "WANTED" poster, etc.), but also to trace his behavior online and then perhaps catch him offline. If a villainous IP posted on some innocuous board, "I'll see you at the Linkin Park show Friday", authorities could at least have that lead in the real world.

Anyway, what do you think?

UPDATE: Just read this piece about online pseudoynym generators. Man, in all his wily freedom, is why communism will never succeed in perfecting Man, in all his materialist subjection, and why Marxism will never reign. Only that which takes man seriously in his radical freedom -- freedom for both good AND EVIL -- will earn man's free submission. And that is the Gospel: to allow man to see himself as he really and freely is, but then still to find an infinitely superior love waiting to transform him.

Well, well, well

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Last night I was on a Santa run. I dropped by a friend's place to give him the perfect Christmas gift: pop rocks and can of Coke. As I was walking to his stairwell, I heard windows around me rattle, then a bicycle fell over. The complex is circular and sometimes winds howl around inside the courtyard. I didn't feel a wind, but what explained the windows and the bike?

Well, just as I mounted the first step, one of the roommates was scurrying down the stairs, his eyes bugged. "Did you feel that?" he asked. "Feel what? Was that a wind?" I said.

"That was my first earthquake!" he continued. Then he hurried down the stairs to inspect the courtyard, his eyes still bugging.

"Oh, an earthquake, huh?" I said. I hadn't felt a thing from it. And I didn't feel anything much about it either.

Since I'm from Florida, and now live in a place that only 6 years ago was rocked by a 7.0 quake, you might expect my tolerance for quakes is pretty low. This roommate with bugged eyes is from NYC, so he was flabbergasted. I guess having lived in Taiwan over three years and feeling things shake every few months has quickly gotten me adjusted to quakes and tremors. Unless it's a big one, in which case panicking is the worst thing to do, I can't seem to generate alarm for any lesser tremor.

Apparently this latest quake was a biggie, a 7.1 just off the southwest coast of Taiwan. It made for three shakes over 5-10 minutes, but I tell you, I felt not a thing. Dumb me, I guess.

It saddens me because, while I felt nothing, apparently two dozen people felt great turmoil (China Post). Surely there is a deep truth about life in this. The worst tragedy of some people's month (or perhaps life), is but a curiosity for someone miles away. I pray the one casualty had prepared his soul to meet God. Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy. His grace is given to deliver us eternally from such natural woes, even as they destroy us in time.

I cannot help but see something providentially "stirring" in all this: the quake struck on the two-year anniversary (12/26) of the massive Sumanda-Atraman tsunami. Further, something that might have stirred awareness, of not solidarity, in the West, Great Britain experienced its biggest quake of the year that same day. Certainly, facile connections could be made between any number of events. But for the moment, I wonder: How is my soul doing? And yours?

NOTE: The China Post provides different info than I first heard. Apparently, measured by (or in) Taiwan, the Richter value was 6.7.

Monday, December 25, 2006

This is grrrrreat!

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An ATM for books

Coming soon: The most inclusive reader's catalog in the world, at your fingertips.

Not new but renewed

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You may have heard it before: "There's nothing new in Christianity." The ethics of love and sacrifice, the virtues of patience and fortitude, the freedom of spirit over Law, etc. all were already expounded by Stoics, Pharisees, and so forth before Christ took the stage. The Golden Rule is virtually a universal religious truism. Jesus was a mere rabblerouser who created no new insights for faith. And so forth.

Leaving aside the highly uncritical nature of these claims, what would the effect be if they were true? What if indeed Jesus did not bring anything new in the religious agora? By my lights, the effect would be quite small, or rather, quite illuminating in the opposite direction the critics intend.

Christ did not come to invent a new thing, but to redeem all old things (though this redemption in some cases means judging end expunging some things). Objecting that Christ did not invent anything conceptually new is as irrelevant, theologically, as claiming He did not invent any new chemical elements or fashion trends. He did not invent a new biology for humans either; He "copied" the old one to redeem it. He came to redeem the entire creation, to redirect it to its original telos by a singular and authentic act of human consecration to the Ultimate, the Father of lights. In a key respect, then, Christ had to be redundant. For as the Fathers stated time and again, "what is not assumed, is not healed." It was precisely by "mimicking" and assuming (incorporating) older ways of thought (and speech and even behavior) that Christ assumed them into his perfect act of consecration.

To tweak a biblical proverb, "There is nothing new in the Son". There need not be anything utterly new because the point of the Incarnation was not didactic novelty but saving renewal. Christ emptied Himself into the categories and limitations of the creation in order to fill them from within. Adding new layers to the creation would only create barriers, calluses as it were, between His saving Incarnation and fallen creatures. If the Son did not assume temporality, He could not redeem temporal beings. If the Son did not assume corporeality, He could not redeem corporeal beings. If He did not assume language, He could not redeem speaking agents. And so forth. The specific point for this post is that if He did not assume, say, Stoic truths or rabbinic precedents, then He could not redeem people attached to those truths. Much the same holds for other religious parallels.

This is the great and shocking truth of recapitulatio (or anakephailosis), found most prominently in St. Irenaeus: all things are drawn from their roots back to their true head, the Father, in Christ, the Head of the Church. The biblical roots of the doctrine are clear in a passage like Ephesians 1:10:

In the dispensation of the fulness of times, to re-establish all things in Christ, that are in heaven and on earth, in him. (plhrwmatoV twn kairwn anakefalaiwsasqai ta panta en tw cristw).

In fuller form, as St. Gregory Nazianzen said,

If anyone has put his trust in Him as a Man without a human mind, he is really bereft of mind, and quite unworthy of salvation. For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole. Let them not, then, begrudge us our complete salvation, or clothe the Saviour only with bones and nerves and the portraiture of humanity.

The ascended Christ can, by the infused power of the Holy Spirit in "earthen vessels" continue to assume things "apostolically" (vicariously), by His Body the Church, so His "assumptive" powers are not limited to His pre-glorified, localized person. This is the principle behind why the Church has such a stunning (if not always uncontroversial) history of appropriating cultures. The Church endures in every age in order to assume redeemable treasures from every age, so they may be reconstituted for the end of the ages at the final heavenly banquet. The paradox is that even when it tries to incorporate "old leaven", the Church is relentlessly novel in its recreation of the old ways. As John Zizioulas argues in Being as Communion, the Church virtually created the concept of "person" by appropriating and transforming -- redirecting -- pagan concepts like persona, hypostasis, substantia, ousios, etc. (Much the same can be gleaned from Pelikan's Christianity and Classical Culture, among a number of works in the same vein.) This unwittingly regenerative power of the Church is especially evident at Christmastime, when whole swaths of pagan fabric have been assumed, washed, refitted, restitched and worn anew in honor of Christ the King.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

A thousand words is worth a picture?

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I have an ecumenical idea.

Hopefully it will create some peace between the Catholic/Orthodox Churches and fundamentalists that rail against icons and religious images. It will make icons less appalling precisely by respecting the latter's belief in sola Scriptura.

As there are 773,692 words in the (KJV) Bible, and as a picture is worth a thousand words, I think any fundamentalist can in good conscience harvest 773.69 religious images from the Bible. (The seven-tenths they can decide to round up or ignore.) As long as they're solely scriptural, they're legit!

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The animated world

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Upon exiting, be sure to shake the hand of a any child that offers it.

I was at McD's a few hours ago, being all Santa up in it. For my cram school I donned the cheap red suit, the cheap itchy beard (it sheds!), and handed out spoon-fork-and-chopstick kits (for the mere utterance of "Merry Christmas!"). Well, it was fun seeing my students out of the classroom. I really do enjoy kids. One of our teachers, I discovered, has a couple small ones herself. The two-year-old was a hoot. We played the point-at-each-other-and-smile game for a good five minutes, before mommy put his hand away. Despite my being he skinniest and worst clad Santa south of the North Pole, the kids ended up taking to me very well (even when I went beardless).

Well, as I was leaving, one little boy, the brother of one of my students, insisted on saying goodbye. I met his hand with a slow high-five, a sort of upright handshake. Just as we made contact, my teacher instinct kicked in and I emitted a small "Bing!" As I descended the stairs I pondered how that effect struck the boy. As a teacher of primarily middle school and elementary kids, I not only get to see how they interact with each other, but also how they react to various stimuli I send their way. Invariably, making small or large noises (bing, ding, biang, dong, etc.) to accentuate words and actions gives them a rush. Such cartoonish extras strike them very well; they bridge the gap, I think, between the fading world of cartoons from kindergarten and the new, saner, more boring world of high school and (gasp) incipient adulthood.

Weeks a go I was subbing at a kindergarten and gained a whole new insight into the matter, the "lived vision" of children (literally their world-view). Being kindergarteners, the kindergärtners weren't too interested in my long-winded diversions in grammar and etymology, nor even in my long-winded mantra to sit sit sit sit sit. But they were interested in drawing. So we drew. What struck me about all their artwork was its surrealism. Enormous suns, trees growing sideways, floating houses, three- (and no-) armed people, etc. And nothing was to scale. Colors were out of whack. I cut them some slack, of course, on account of them lacking advanced motor skills. But I wondered. Perhaps their internal sense of the picture they wanted to draw was to scale, but their little fingers just couldn't pull off the vision. Perhaps internally they did know the right color schemes, but Crayola's meager offerings weren't up to the task, and so they fudged the colors too far the other way. Perhaps, I granted, it was just a matter of time till their motor skills caught up with their otherwise very accurate internal sense of things.

But something in their eyes made me wonder in the other direction. Their eyes were much looser in their heads than mine (though certainly much tighter than mine in their heads). Their heads wobbled in too many directions, I thought, to give a steady, clear view of he world. Washing machine TV, I said to myself. Plus, when it came to certain tasks, like writing words on, or coloring within, the lines, they did pretty well. They certainly all had enough manual dexterity to work video games and remote controls. So why was their artwork so skewed?

Ask an adult to draw a landscape, and you'll probably get something very realistic, even boringly so. No matter how poor her artistic motor skills are, the adult won't draw mammoth suns (yes, plural), leaning trees, houses smaller than their residents, rivers that flow mid-sky, etc. You'll see an accurate, if sloppy, picture of an internally imagined landscape.

Ask a child to draw a landscape however and you'll see all the surreal joy of the pictures I've described. I am convinced this is a function not of children's motor skills, but of their actual view of reality. Kids actually have cartoon eyes. Because their brains are still more neurally fluid, not yet fossilized, everything can be experienced more fluidly, more surreally. Because the child's brain is plastic, her perception of the world is plastic. And everyone knows kids love plastic toys.

Why do small children find even the simplest motions done again and again with zest, funny? Because in their eyes, that moving thing really is far out. Why do kids find even the smallest missteps or dropped objects so funny? Because in their looser sense of causality, that sort of thing is random, magical, funny. Because kids are not yet bound by "the way the world really works", they meet things in the world more spontaneously. They don't anticipate a cup on the edge of a table will in all likelihood" (magic, likely?) fall; so when it does, it's a pure surprise, sheer madness. Falling cups! Who would imagine! Hearing a man's voice is not just hearing "another man's voice"; for children, every voice is more unique. Types and patterns are not yet so neatly classified for convenience. Everything is in disarray, like a party. Anchor float and balloons crush the earth. The artwork on any parent's refrigerator door is the paper trail of the madness within.

From my EMS training and my scattered medical reading I understand that he appeal of hallucinogenic and psychotropic drugs is that they loosen the bonds of reality and open "the doors of perception" (as Aldous Huxley put it). The normal barriers and locks in our brains open, allowing stimuli to enter in the out door and one hemisphere to dialogue more freely with the other. The world melts, the user floats, inhibitions disappear, should and must take flight, everything is funny, everything is a surprise, everything is beautiful. The funniness of hallucinations is of course dependent on the user being in a pleasant environment. Being "setting-dependent" drugs, hallucinogens can just as easily make a surreal nightmare for a user in a bad setting. This only underlines my point about children: because their brains are that much closer to a hallucinogenic status, they are that much more likely to perceive the world like a psychotropic user would.

Realizing, dimly, the cartoonish "affect" of younger children (I had seen cartoonish antics work so well in the classroom), I accentuated it by all the funny noises and silly mannerisms.

And so, to come full circle, when I "binged" the boy's hand tonight, I had to wonder if he didn't see, peripherally as it were, a small bulb flash when our hands met. I nearly did. The sound was so apposite; free for a moment from the adult world of noiseless handshakes, I could enter the boy's perceptual "matrix", where a flashing, ringing handshake is just as to be expected as the dull adult kind. For a moment I saw the world as he did: animated.

I quote at length from Chesterton's "Ethics of Elfland" (in Orthodoxy):

In fairyland we avoid the word “law”; but in the land of science they are singularly fond of it. Thus they will call some interesting conjecture about how forgotten folks pronounced the alphabet, Grimm’s Law. But Grimm’s Law is far less intellectual than Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The tales are, at any rate, certainly tales; while the law is not a law. A law implies that we know the nature of the generalisation and enactment; not merely that we have noticed some of the effects. If there is a law that pick-pockets shall go to prison, it implies that there is an imaginable mental connection between the idea of prison and the idea of picking pockets. And we know what the idea is. We can say why we take liberty from a man who takes liberties. But we cannot say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn into a fairy prince. As IDEAS, the egg and the chicken are further off from each other than the bear and the prince; for no egg in itself suggests a chicken, whereas some princes do suggest bears. Granted, then, that certain transformations do happen, it is essential that we should regard them in the philosophic manner of fairy tales, not in the unphilosophic manner of science and the “Laws of Nature.” When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o’clock. We must answer that it is MAGIC. It is not a “law,” for we do not understand its general formula. It is not a necessity, for though we can count on it happening practically, we have no right to say that it must always happen. It is no argument for unalterable law (as Huxley fancied) that we count on the ordinary course of things. We do not count on it; we bet on it. We risk the remote possibility of a miracle as we do that of a poisoned pancake or a world-destroying comet. We leave it out of account, not because it is a miracle, and therefore an impossibility, but because it is a miracle, and therefore an exception. All the terms used in the science books, “law,” “necessity,” “order,” “tendency,” and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.” They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a MAGIC tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.

I deny altogether that this is fantastic or even mystical. We may have some mysticism later on; but this fairy-tale language about things is simply rational and agnostic. It is the only way I can express in words my clear and definite perception that one thing is quite distinct from another; that there is no logical connection between flying and laying eggs. It is the man who talks about “a law” that he has never seen who is the mystic. Nay, the ordinary scientific man is strictly a sentimentalist. He is a sentimentalist in this essential sense, that he is soaked and swept away by mere associations. He has so often seen birds fly and lay eggs that he feels as if there must be some dreamy, tender connection between the two ideas, whereas there is none. A forlorn lover might be unable to dissociate the moon from lost love; so the materialist is unable to dissociate the moon from the tide. In both cases there is no connection, except that one has seen them together. A sentimentalist might shed tears at the smell of apple-blossom, because, by a dark association of his own, it reminded him of his boyhood. So the materialist professor (though he conceals his tears) is yet a sentimentalist, because, by a dark association of his own, apple-blossoms remind him of apples. But the cool rationalist from fairyland does not see why, in the abstract, the apple tree should not grow crimson tulips; it sometimes does in his country.

This elementary wonder, however, is not a mere fancy derived from the fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy tales is derived from this. Just as we all like love tales because there is an instinct of sex, we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him. This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.

To close: all these musings have convinced me there is a great mini-documentary to be made about people drawing landscape. The film would focus on their hands, how fastidious they are about scale and order and accuracy. It would be a study in contrasts: children and adults being asked to draw the same things, with magically different results.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

What are we fighting for?

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I was driving to work today and began pondering the hostility between secular humanists/atheists and religious believers. The conflict is, I think, especially acute in a country like the USA. Two of the nation's founding ideological voices were polar opposites. Tom Paine is as much a part of the US American constitution as Jonathan Edwards. Two centuries later, Ingersoll and Kaufmann were as key a source of "inspiration" for secularists as Sheen and Graham were for believers. Nowadays we have the likes of Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett doing the heavy lifting secular rationality, while a host of leading Christians and Jews counter their efforts. It really is a battle.

But this morning I wondered why the battle is so pitched. Most Christians need only hear so and so is "an atheist" and they will feel an instinctive clenching of the throat, a small wave of vertigo at such an odious specimen. The same goes for secularists. Both sides react impulsively to "trigger words" like atheist, Christian, free thought, faith, etc. Even without actively or articulately engaging the issues and debating opponents, both sides feel an innate hostility to what their opponents represent. Most intellectual disputes remain at a lower key; geologists may scorn flat-earthers as embarrassing, but they most likely don't detest them as threats or enemies. So what accounts for this animus in religious and anti-religious dialogue?

Certainly an underlying motive for both "camps" is the desire for truth as such. But why would such a noble aim generate such hostile polemics? There must be more than "pure love for the truth". Seen in a positive light, we could imagine both sides seem angry because their altruism is being thwarted, like a schoolboy who throws a tantrum when his Valentine rejects his candy. Seen in the most idealistic light, perhaps both sides are just throwing tantrums because the other side is rejecting true efforts to help. Perhaps secularists wish for nothing more than to see all people "unshackled" and able to develop themselves without scruple. Perhaps believers most desire to see their neighbors accept a great and liberating truth -- to be saved.

These motives sound so ideal because they are so idealized. The fact is, while Christians should consistently regard their enemies with love, many often react out of baser, more visceral motives. And the same certainly can be said for secularist, for whom there is not even a common duty to "love thy enemy". Christians do not merely "overreact" at the prospect of people going to hell for disbelief. (Strong predestinarians accept that fate for the damned as an eternal decree; so to speak libertarians, like Catholics, Orthodox and Methodists, accept the fate nonbelievers freely choose.) Secularists likewise do not react so negatively to "god-idiots" just because they're "missing out on" being a "free" secularist.

I think the fundamental issue is that both groups react so strongly because they see the opposition as threatening their central values. Both groups fear the other is trying to rip each others' hearts out, the very core of their respective lives. For Christians, the central value is to know and love God as God. For secularists, the central value is to be as human as you can be. When secularists impose human restrictions on the sovereignty and glory of God on earth, Christians feel their heart squeezed in a vise. When Christians chastise "humanity" for being sinful or imperfect or incomplete, secularists feel their hearts being crushed.

Talk of God threatens the secularist because it imposes limits on man's autonomy. Talk of a godless universe threatens the religious believer because it undermines the very ground of his being, God, the very core of his aspirations, God. Thus, the hostility between atheists and believers is so pitched because it amounts to true ontological warfare. Christians continuously remonstrate against secularists that they are not only limited -- non-autonomous -- but also are trying to dislodge the highest and deepest source of life and light. Meanwhile, believers feel as if even the mere denial of God, however politely stated, is a hammer blow against the keystone in the arch of being and goodness. Both sides fight so zealously because they feel the other side is literally destroying their ontological habitat.

God, for the theist, is so fundamental a reality, that even the thought of"doing away with it" is obscenely, hostilely bizarre. An analogy I propose is that between the reality of God for a theist and the reality of, well, reality for an atheist. Material reality is so self-evident and so massive a reality for the materialist that the mere thought of "compromising" it, or subjecting it to a "higher plane of existence" is a hostile obscenity. (%%) As to objection that material reality is really self-evident while God is plainly not so evident -- else why would He be denied in countless ages? -- the very obvious answer is that material reality has just as long, if not longer, a history of being denied, by idealists, perceptionists, et al. If the contestability of God weighs against His existence, then so to does the contestability of matter weigh against materialism. (%%) Where would physical science be if people denied the coherent existence of physical objects? The existence of the universe as a self-existent reality (even if "our" universe" is construed as one bubble in the eternal multiverse), is so basic a truth for the secularist that denying or even "qualifying" )and thus challenging) it is vulgar fantasy. I suggest that this same visceral outrage is at work in the theist when God is "qualified" or, worse, directly and hostilely rejected. God is to the theist what the universe (or, material reality) is to the atheist. The two camps are so pitted against each other because they totally invert each other's valuative axioms. God is a result of the universe at work, on atheism; on theism, the universe is a result of God at work. On theism, an all-seeing God creates a blind and contingent universe; on atheism, an all-powerful universe, which "knows" everything because it is coextensive with everything, creates a blind and contingent god. In both cases, the battle is waged over who is actually standing over an abyss: the atheist who makes a creator out of the creation or the theist who makes a creation out of the creator? To challenge either claim is to burst the bubble and those on it into an abyss of ontic annihilation.

For, if the secularist is right, the best thing we can do is align ourselves in any way we see fit with the eternal universe. We may dissolve into the quagmire of atoms once more, but at least we will not resist the flow of nature. If the theist is right (and I of course believe he is), the best thing we can do is align ourselves with the source of the created goodness we know, by heeding the counsel of God as lights and stepping stones out of the dissolution of the universe. In either case, the ultimate aim is seen to let ourselves go and "flow into" the ultimate reality, which, in both cases, is eternal. If a man denied the existence of God, he would not only be damning himself into oblivion, apart from that Great Be-ing (which should generate altruistic proselytism), but also would be eradicating a true and awesome Good from the ontological "stage". Such a denial would be a destruction not only of one's self in the "after-show party" but also of the very screenwriter and director himself! The secular animosity, by contrast, stirs up from a loathing for being "upstaged" by the screenwriter. An actor need not personally know the writer to act out, to live, a great character on stage. Likewise, the secularist says, a great human need not know the Author of Life to live well. Insisting some "god" take center stage ruins, in secular eyes, the free play of the actors. Above all, then, secularism hinges on the belief in man's autonomy; any attack against that autonomy calls forth battle cries.

It is precisely here where I disagree with the secularist. The autonomy of humans? What could the term even mean? The great paradox of materialist secularism is that while it defends man's rational autonomy from the encroachments, the upstagings, of God and His laws, it simultaneously does so by arguing man is totally bound by material reality. Further, every argument an atheist makes against "revelation" on the grounds that transcendence and dogma have a very porous "genealogy", an all too "holey" and all-zu-Menschliches background, is itself an argument against man's autonomy, since the categories of secular humanism themselves have just as swiss-cheesy an origin. If everything is genealogically so fragile contingent and so rigidly materially bound, then only Everything is autonomous -- and devastatingly autonomous over little Man. Ralph Ellison wrote of “changing the joke and slipping the yoke”; black people could creatively transform the jokes told against them, laughing the laughter to bits as it were, and thus slip off the yoke those jokes imposed. I see an inverted process at work in secularism: by slipping the yoke of that Great Joke of a Sovereign Sky-God, secularism ends up just switching the yoke without ever dispelling the Joke of Man's autonomy. If a God allegedly limits Man, steals his intrinsic autonomy, then certainly an unthinking deterministic universe is just as limiting for human autonomy. The quest to bring the pie down from the sky just ends up leaving an empty pie pan; and the pie pan must be filled. The path of secularism has always aimed to be the path of Progress. This just switches the yoke from a heavenly pie to a Utopian pie; the Joke never fades; man is never autonomous. Secularism is only a different cell of the same old prison of heteronomy.

Ultimately, I suppose the “cure” for secularism as humble realism, or, realistic humility. Can a campaign b founded on such a farce as the “autonomy of man”? Surely not. In a man's life, can a meaningful philosophy really be founded by such a chimera as one's “personal autonomy”? Surely not. If we look at the texture and the terrain of our lives, we are faced at every turn, in every fold of experience, with the humbling, even humiliating, reality of our weakness, frailty, inconsistency, contingency, dependence, emptiness, neediness, error, misanthropy, and so forth. Only by denying such huge tracts of empirical deontology can secularism say with a straight face, “Man is autonomous; Man is complete in himself to make his own ends.” The campaign against God, then, is founded on a big joke, the irreal and surreal farce of Autonomous Man. (Surely not only I see the hilarious incongruity of the little man Nietzsche -- born of a Lutheran minister, raised by a half dozen women, pining for a prostitute, enjoying the comforts of an academic chair at 24, raging mysoginistically and atheistically, then dying of syphilis in a mental asylum – of this little man claiming to forge a path to Übermenschentum! Nietzsche was so surreal a philosopher because he claimed such irreal powers for himself.

I take this talk of irrealism, of an escapist tendency from the horrors of human frailty, very literally. I see secularism as a fiction. Being a writer, I think in writer's terms. For the secularist, talk of God's immutable laws restricts human freedom to make and remake himself for a better (well, how could say for sure?) world. God, in a word, gives man existential writer's block. Likewise, for creative writers, prattling on about immutable natural laws imposes limits on her creativity. If a narrow-minded critic insisted “humans can't fly!”, and therefore the writer's protagonist superhero “just can't fly”, the writer would have to violate her story to appease the critic. The other option, which I endorse for creativity's sake, is to ignore the critic, with his narrow-mind, and get on with sending the hero aloft. From this analogy, I'm inclined to see secular humanism as metaphysical sf -- it creates a myth of human autonomy -- the superman, der Übermensch -- which the "laws of God" would otherwise keep grounded. The problem is that while a writer can let her hero live in a world where he can fly, at the end of the day the writer herself must return to our world, where people can't fly. The Autonomous Man, then, is a fictional superhero; we human beings, however, must live in a world fraught with our own humbling heteronomy. The metaphysical turn theism requires is to keep our fantastic dreams distinct from our lived reality, and find the true fantasy of being in its source, God.

I propose

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I do not claim to coin the term, but I do propose a common useful meaning for "selfen". Selfen should stand in distinction to "selfish". While the latter term has a mostly negative meaning, I think selfen should carry a more ambivalent, if not to say positive, connotation.

A selfish person is driven to think of only himself first. This may not have a conscious origin, but it should manifest itself consciously to count as being selfish. If it were a mere social blind spot, people wouldn't scold us for "being selfish". Selfish people devote the nergies and resources primarily to seeing themselves come out well. A selfish person chooses to be that way, since he knows it will best gratify his self.

A selfen person, by contrast, is one whose position in life lead to unintended "selfish" behavior.
I place myself in this category. I am a bachelor living alone in Taiwan, a foreign country. I am occupied with many things, which do not really count as "selfish" endeavors. Volunteering in a church youth group, leading a free English Bible study before Mass, helping in Mass, leading a book study after Mass, teaching, witnessing in the classroom, writing and designing for a free evanglistic Catholic cultural review, etc. By living apart from my family, by living apart from a community, by living unmarried, etc. -- in all these ways, the conditions of my life convert even my best intenioned efforts to be "selfless" into at times apparently "selfish" behavior.

"Elliot, do you have time to hang out?"

"No, I'm busy."

Multiply this exchange a thousand times over a hundred different situations, and the only central theme that emerges is my "I", my busy self in the pursuit of things that inexorably draw me away from, or cut me off from, being considerate of others -- and for the sake of other others at that!

A selfen person may be told he is "doing a lot for people", but because his lifestyle is almost totally individualized, he ends up looking like a loner. Always buzzing here and there -- by himself, and thus seemingly for himself.

Plainly, I am writing from my own experience. But I think the distinction between selfish and selfen holds.

More later, perhaps...

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Thus spake Fakespeare

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"Philosophy is ontological voyeurism."

"Perfecton is a thankless job. So speak boldly even if you're rong."

Monday, December 4, 2006

Pardon his French

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A good friend of mine in Japan visited me here some months ago. He's a big "fan" of postmodern, Continental philosophy (PCM); I am not particularly such a fan. But he shared some of his zeal for it with me and by the time he left, we agreed to read Michel Foucault's The Order of Things (Les mots et les choses) together in absentia, as it were. Well, after several weeks, weeks full of job changes, apartment relocations, visa runs and the like, I hit a wall at page 126 (Vintage edition). Since then, Les cots et les choses has been staring at me like a gargoyle, a Cheshire-like grin beaming from it as smugly as PCM regards its predecessors. I guess I just couldn't "pardon his French".

Well, for whatever reason, a week or two ago I bought a Foucault reader (Paul Rainbow's Pantheon edition). I was put off by Foucault's large works, but was still interested in getting a more straightforward, not so very abstruse introduction to Pere Fester (my nickname for Foucault). Well, after reading Rainbow's preface, I fell into a Foucault frenzy. I snagged his Power/Knowledge, Archaeology of Knowledge, and Miller's biography of Pere Fester, and spent much of Sunday devouring bits and pieces of them all.

It's not so much that I find Foucault irresistibly insightful; it's more basically that I LOVE clearing whole tracts of my ignorance (which is, I must admit, pretty much what my knowledge of PCM amounts to: acres of ignorance).

Basic considerations so far:

+ The present is its history; but history has a history refracted by the present.
+ Biblical powers are more explicit and believable in the light of (Foucauldian) PCM than ever.
+ Synergistic redemption on all levels is more tractable (so to speak) given the radical plasticity of social fabric.
+ Crucial ambivalence between re- and destructuring power dynamics for social "battle" and his refusal to direct the struggle. Actively committed to remaining uncommitted.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Friends, Romans, countrymen

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Lend me your eyes (I can guarantee a 10% markup when I'm done with them). I am blogging less because I am actually involved in offline writing at last. I am involved with some friends in starting a quarterly here in Taichung. Titled "In Form", the quarterly will engage "big issues" from a Catholic perspective, both to strengthen the faithful and to evangelize non-Christians. I'm attaching a rough draft of the inaugural issue introduction editorial (by our editor-in-chief, Cyril de Sales). Please pray for this undertaking: printing fees and magazine layout are the biggest hurdles ahead.

"What, another magazine?"
This may be your reaction upon seeing, well, another magazine. It's understandable. With GQ, Sports Illustrated & Good Housekeeping already cluttering your coffee table, why pick up any other periodical, especially one as squat & business-like as the one you're now reading? To be honest, I can't tell you why you'd read another magazine (after all, it's you that are reading at this very moment), but I can tell you what you'll get if you keep reading In Form. Hopefully, once you see the what – the vision & structure, the Geist und Gestalt – of In Form, you'll have a much better sense why you should read it. The benefits (being habitually literate, for example) just might outweigh the costs (such as putting off the next season of Smallville for a day or two).

"In Form" – a deceptively terse title
The first benefit you'll get from reading In Form is a love for words well written. The last thing In Form aims to be is a content cipher – lots of "important ideas" in depressingly bland prose. As a Catholic magazine, we believe not only that the Word is Life, but, consequently, that our every word should be alive, rich, dynamic, & meaningful. Our title, for instance, is a three-level play on words. First, in every issue, we offer solid INFORMATION about major cultural issues (with a particular emphasis on science, ethics, & philosophy) both inside & outside the Catholic Church. Second, in every issue, we provide FORMATION for Christians trying to address the same issues in their faith lives. In every issue, we rally people to stand IN FORMATION for the notorious "culture wars."

Every quarterly issue of In Form has a proper, recurring theme. First, the winter (January) issue explores space science, cosmology, creation, etc. As our explorations will always set out from the "City of God (polis Dei)", let's call winter our Cosmo-Politan issue. Next, the spring issue (April) discusses biology, bioethics, ecology, etc., and, as we head out again from the polis Dei, we'll call spring's the Bio-Polar issue. Third, the summer issue (July-August) delves into cultural & inter-religious dialogue, history, politics (oh so obliquely), etc., & is best labeled our Cultur-opolis excursion. Finally, while In Form always brings a theological & philosophical bearing to the table, the fall issue (November) concentrates systematically on theology & philosophy as such. And, as the City of God is lit by the light of Wisdom who is Love, let's call winter's the Theo-Thought issue. (Sorry, kids, no monopoly for the "polis" gimmick.)

"Is that all?" you ask. Not quite. A fundamental motivation for this quarterly is to highlight & inform our readers about the work of Rev. Stanley L. Jaki. In Form is here in large part to acknowledge, & then reverse, the fact that you just said, "The work of who?" We are honored that Fr. Jaki (pronounced YAH-kee)** will speak for himself in this our inaugural issue. There is also a book review of Fr. Jaki's autobiography, so your ignorance of this great scholar's work will meet it greatest enemy: information. Despite having earned Ph.D.'s in both theology & physics, despite having published some 40 books, dozens of articles, & numerous pamphlets, & despite his international repute in theological & academic circles – despite all this, nearly every Catholic I have asked, has no idea who Jaki is (our contributors & supporters confirm the same ignorance in their experience). This – like a neglected goldmine – is nothing less than a minor tragedy; rectifying the situation is what delivers In Form (a minor deus ex machina?) into your hands. The quarterly array of information In Form offers, then, an underlying "Jakian" focus.

If every Christian enterprise needs a theme verse from the Bible, In Form makes the grade with Galatians 4:19: "My little children, with whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you (palin odino mechris ou morphothe Christos en umin)!" More than mere content, or even clever wordplay, In Form aims both to promote the Catholic faith among non-Christians & to deepen that faith in Christians. The goal of this formation, traditionally known as catechesis, is to help our readers understand both how the Catholic faith impacts many contemporary issues & how to respond to those issues with Christian sensibility.

Specifically, as our subtitle implies, In Form's forming a Christian sensibility takes place in an Asian milieu. Informing & forming the Ecclesia in Asia (Church in Asia), entails drawing Asia into the Ecclesia, which is the body, the very fullness (pleroma), of Christ in whom the fullness of God fills all things (cf. Ephesians 1:23 & Colossians 1:19). Hence, as strange as it may seem, while we draw everything up in English, In Form is actually written for readers in Taiwan, mainland China, & the Philippines, extending itself to Chinese communities abroad. The goal is to release a Chinese edition at every mid-quarter, that is, 5-7 weeks after the English edition is distributed. (Calling all would-be translators!)

The admittedly intellectual emphasis of In Form is not accidental. Catholic faith is not merely an individualistic, emotional, pietistic diversion; it is the whole counsel of God for the salvation of all things by the Logos (Rational Word) of God. According to John 1:1, 14, God is Logos, that is, consistent, total truth, & Jesus Christ is this same God made flesh – truth spoken into, incarnated into, our concrete world. The speaking of this Logos, then, is not a monument to Unreason, but to Super-reason. God is often labeled as "nonsense" not because He makes too little sense for us to believe, but because He makes too much sense for us to fathom. Hence, God's ways are not so much irrational as super-rational: our wisdom stands about where His folly kneels (cf. 1 Corinthians 1). A glove can neither "violate" the structure of the hand upon which it fits nor, however, shrink to fit within the hand; likewise God's revelation neither violates human reason nor shrinks to fit within it. It is precisely by conforming to, & then outsizing**, reason that God's Logos is all too reasonable.

The traditional way to express this truth is, "Gratia non destruit sed supponit et perficit naturam (Grace does not destroy but builds upon nature)."** Flowing as it does from the God-Man, Jesus Christ, the Catholic faith is both natural & supernatural, both rational & super-rational, giving each aspect its full due. The Christian faith, as the faith of God made Incarnate, is literally & fundamentally Logi-cal, which is very much why Jesus exhorts his followers to love God with our hearts & minds (Matthew 22:37). In the same vein, which is a major theme of Fr. Jaki's, according to Romans 12:2, Christians are exhorted to cultivate a "spiritual (or, reasonable) worship" (logiken latreian). The ultimate goal of such "logical worship" is, as that same St. Paul prayed, for Christians to comprehend the fullness of God's riches of love in Christ the Logos-made-flesh (cf. Ephesians 3:18-19).

Undoubtedly, (I speak to you, Non-Christian Reader), you feel your head spinning as your eyes glaze over with every line of Scripture you wade through. "Why bore me with Christian details," you wonder, "if you want to keep me reading?" In Form is convinced the "logical worship" of the Catholic Church is not just an insider secret. Catholicism, while not strictly egalitarian, is not Gnosticism, which is elitism. In the Church all alike are called to the same beatific goal of comprehending God. In Form is convinced the Catholic faith does not merely speak "at you", but in fact says something, indeed many things, worth hearing to you. "Logos", after all, most basically means "word". Christianity is a speaking religion because the God of Christianity has spoken. Hopefully, In Form can make more accessible & compelling just what this "God of the Word" has to say in our own day & age. Regardless how easily "the pope" & "the Church" & "the Bible" are shrunk down to sound-byte sizes, In Form insists on stretching the discussion back to human-size proportions. If you've read this far, hopefully you are willing to consider the depths of the Catholic faith (or at least to pass along your copy to someone who is).

So, whether you read In Form (or any other document) from inside or outside the Church (or from who-knows-where-for-sure), the key is to realize that facing truth claims is no more a verbal game than Christianity is a pious diversion. Embracing the truth ultimately entails embracing the Person of Christ, Truth made flesh. Indeed, the more deeply & authentically you love truth, the more closely you are united to Him, albeit in strange & imperceptible ways. (For any of you who imagine yourselves as living "beyond truth", or perhaps truth as being "beneath you", you should inform your employer now you have no qualms about his "take on" the bottom line.) Granted, the greatest embrace of Truth is the sacramental embrace commonly known as the Eucharist, which is itself the miracle of Truth-made-flesh becoming Truth-made-gift; but asking you to swallow all that on the first issue is asking a lot, so for now, just keep reading.

The "military brats" among you should recognize a familiar ring in this phrase: soldiers stand in formation. As mentioned above, In Form holds a position in the culture wars. Even so, In Form does not intend to be pugnacious & antagonistic; contrary to the contrarian zeal of some pundits (both Christian & not), the goal of the "culture wars" is not simply to win. The goal is defend, & perhaps even regain, the best of culture. As indelicate as the terminology sounds to our politicized & media-conditioned ears, there are deep divisions & conflicts in the world which are best understood at times in terms of real fighting. To be sure, there's no lack of such themes in the Bible. Sirach 4:28, a motto of both Fr. Jaki & In Form, says, "Fight to the death for truth (Eos thanatou agonisai peri tis** alitheias) and the Lord God will war on your side." Likewise, two of St. Paul's later writings link eternal life with the literally agonizing struggle to attain & defend it: "Fight the good fight of faith (Agonizou ton kalon agona tis pisteos); take hold of the eternal life to which you were called" (1 Timothy 6:12). "I have fought the good fight (Ton kalon agona igonismai), I have finished the race, I have kept the faith" (2 Timothy 4:7). Shiver me timbers, mate, them's fightin' words! Yes, indeed, they are.
But what makes them shiver our timbers? People find the idea of "fighting" for human culture, indeed, for human beatitude, distasteful because they ignore a plain fact: to protect our culture & ensure our beatitude, we fight all the time – against gravity & entropy. Gravity would bring down our highest; entropy would unravel our finest. But we hold our own as Homo sapiens (the wise man), only because we first & foremost refuse to abdicate our place as Homo erectus (the upright man). That is precisely the spirit in which In Form wages the "culture wars": the spirit of resisting moral gravity & entropy for the good of Homo sapiens. Just as we humans constantly battle to stand upright (erect) against the unsleeping power of gravity, & to preserve harmony against the ravages of entropy, so too must we struggle for ever-ascending wisdom, beauty, & harmony against natural & supernatural forces that strive to draw us, & with us all the cosmos, away from the Father of light in the heavens, back into the primeval chaos of Genesis 1.

Freely falling stones
Despite our apparent "militancy", In Form only sees as opponents those that choose to ally themselves, like freely falling stones or suicidally shattered vases, with the powers of moral gravity & spiritual entropy. Enmity is a consequence, not a prime directive, of being Homo sapiens in a world satisfied with Homo erectus. We here at In Form solemnly defend the truth that, though fallen, all people still retain the inviolable dignity & beauty of God's image created in them. (People are not "good at heart", but good by nature.) Hence, we at In Form can & will the use the only weapons that work – the fruit of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the New Adam (cf. **) – against the only enemies worth fighting for – our equally fallen brethren in the first Adam. "For we are not contending against flesh & blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12**). In Form is here to rally the brethren from the ranks of a sinking Adam to stand in formation among the ranks of a risen, & rising, Christ. As Fr. Jaki notes in numerous places, insofar as the origin of the word "culture" is "cult" (i.e., religion), the true nature of the culture wars is that of cult wars: we actually see competing assemblies, even those that explicitly deny any cultic identity, vying for the victory of their own cultic culture.

Brass tacks
So much for the vision of In Form, now let's cover a few brass tacks of before diving into this issue's content. Our chief patron saint is St. Francis de Sales, known as "the gentleman saint" & recognized as the patron of Catholic writers & journalists. Two other saints very important in this endeavor are Sts. Peter Canisius, patron of catechesis, & Cyril of Thessalonica, co-patron of Europe & a model of "incarnational" missionary zeal.

Aside from highlighting a recurring quarterly "Jakian" theme, each issue will have some fixed features:
• An editorial introduction & preview of the issue
• A lead thematic essay (including an editorial synopsis/abstract)
• A lower-key thematic essay or reflection
• A Socratic dialogue
• At least two book reviews

Possible extras, in our "AMPER&AND" section, include patristic quotes, poems, short stories, original art, etc. Depending on our budget (not to mention our staff's competence), zealous readers may be gratified to find an online edition posted at the start of every following quarter. For now, quarter by quarter, we want to keep everything "land-locked", in print, old school.

Finally, it is a sweet dream of this editor to make "Letters to the Editor" a fixed feature as well.* Without a trace of blushing, In Form abides by G.K. Chesterton's "great journalistic maxim", which is that "if an editor can only make people angry enough, they will write half his newspaper for him for nothing."

* Letters, angry or otherwise, may be sent by e-mail to Cyril de Sales at, or to him by mail at 17 Chongching Road, Taichung 400, Taiwan (R.O.C.), c/o "In Form". The same procedure goes for donations, but please contact Mr. de Sales before sending any finances, so he can clarify the details.

1. The second last thing we aim to be is a money-maker: we are a not-for-profit review & depend greatly on the kindness of strangers!
2. Meanwhile, we hope In Form, being a highly verbal endeavor, can from time to time be a decent refresher, or even primer, for Greek, Latin, German, French, etc.
3. It's worth mentioning the same St. Cyril more or less invented the Russian Cyrillic alphabet for missionary liturgical purposes.
4. Ensuing editorials will not be nearly so self-referential, & perhaps not as long, as this one. The inaugural issue demanded an explanation of our bearings.
5. Heretics (London, 1905), p. 118.