Legolas, Gimli, and Lothlorien

 

Whatever else Heaven is or is supposed to be, it’s a place with only the memory of evil. And this means peace: swords into plough-shares, wolves dwelling with lambs, all tears wiped away. 

Lothlorien, and to a lesser extent Rivendell, are little heavens on Middle Earth. We’re told during the Council of Elrond that the Black Speech of Mordor had never been uttered in Rivendell until Gandalf dared to speak the language as a warning to all of the perils faced so long as the Ring endured. But Lothlorien is an even holier place. We’re told that there is no evil in the Golden Wood, save for any evil brought in from the outside. The Fellowship, all except Boromir, anyway, find rest there and some comfort after the loss of Gandalf in Moria. It is heaven on Middle Earth. 

So it is no wonder that the deep and lasting friendship of Legolas the Elf and Gimli the Dwarf is sealed in Lothlorien. As the Fellowship embark on their voyage down the River Anduin aboard the boats given them by Celeborn, Tolkien goes out of his way to tell us that Gimli and Legolas rode together in one of the boats, having become “fast friends” during their stay. 

In Heaven all people of all the nations live together in concord. All the old hostilities and suspicions and fears melt away. In Heaven on Middle Earth an Elf and a Dwarf overcome their prejudices and become friends. Given enough time traveling battling foes together, they might have become friends anywhere. But Tolkien makes Lothlorien the setting, further driving home the paradisal quality of the place. 

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Family Life in a College Dorm: A Touch of Humanity

 

For the last year or so we’ve been living in a freshman dorm. By ‘we’ I mean my family, which currently comprises a three year old daughter and eight months pregnant wife. And myself. 

We’re not Resident Directors, or Resident Assistants, or Resident Ministers, or any of the typical staff positions you find in modern, staff-bloated American universities. Instead I’m Faculty in Residence, a newish position at my university created for the purpose of providing evidence to the students that professors have real lives too. 

If you were to enter our building you would not imagine it as the sort of place a married couple would be raising their young family. The lobby looks like a million dorm lobbies: drab, utilitarian, with some notice boards and construction paper welcome signs and a couple vending machines. The smells are also predictable: occasionally and especially at night, the unambiguous smell of perfume or cologne or marijuana; more often the composite smell of industrial-strength cleaners and dirty carpet and, on our particular floor, on which I am the only male, a lingering sweetness, the lasting fruit of a hundred female grooming products. 

And yet, through the lobby, up four floors, through the fourth floor lounge, down the girls’ wing, a door on the left which looks like every other door opens not into a dorm room but to a cozy two bedroom apartment which we’ve done our best to colonize as a Real Home. 

Our living situation has all the eccentricities and inconveniences you can imagine. But it’s fun. I wouldn’t want to do it forever, but we’re enjoying ourselves. And we’re doing some good, too. These kids (yes, kids) show up at college only three months’ removed from high school. They’re simultaneously intoxicated with their own freedom and longing for the comforts of home. And here we are, a mom and a dad and a super cute little girl, not in charge of them, having no authority over them, just living with them. Reminding them of Home and Family and all those good things it’s easy to trick yourself into forgetting. 

My own idea is that a college dorm, however awesome it is, is just not a good way for a human being to live life. It’s highly artificial and encourages foolishness. However much we try to tell ourselves that dorm life prepares you for it, It’s not at all like real life. Unless you plan to live on the set of Friends. Which you can’t because that show ended when these freshmen were in Junior High. 

My hope is that we’re helping to counteract this dehumanizing aspect of dorm life. We’re a constant reminder to students that there are more generations alive in the world than their own. And we’re a constant reminder that what they call having fun and just chilling out is not always consistent with the sorts of things they really value and really want out of life: a loving family and a happy home. (And I’m not just talking about the ladies, here).

Here’s a section of our living room. It’s not bad under the circumstances: 

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Posted in Autobiography, Home | 3 Comments

Pope Francis and Sts. Francis and Francis

 

Habemus Papam. Pope Francis, formerly Jorge Bergoglio, is not just the first South American pope but the first pope named Francis. John Allen said that it’s a shocking name choice, because St. Francis is such a unique figure in Church history. There can only be one Francis, Allen says. Well, he’s wrong: there’s St. Francis Xavier, S.J. (Pope Francis is also S.J.)

St. Francis of Assisi is by far the better-loved saint. But St. Francis Xavier had an extraordinary calling: he preached the gospel in many part of Asia at a time when the Church was not so keen on missions.

I don’t know which St. Francis the new pope had in mind, but I hope he had both in mind. St. Francis of Assisi received the admonition to rebuild the Church of Christ. And St. Francis Xavier took the gospel to the ends of the earth. Sounds like just what we need.

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Concerning My Fountain Pen

 

My little essay on my fountain pen is now up at The Hipster Conservative. Since I wrote the essay several months ago it’s worth saying that the pen which the essay concerns still enjoys daily use.

Posted in Autobiography | 3 Comments

Update

 

I know there are a handful of you who have this blog in your RSS feeds. So in case anyone is wondering why I’ve stopped writing again after a few months of sort-of consistent posting, I thought I’d say why. I’ve begun to feel that my mental energy is better-served on longer-term writing projects. Blog-posts, therefore, will be even less frequent than they’ve recently been, and will tend to stay away from topics that require deeper reflection than a hastily-written 1000-word post can sustain. 

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On the Dangers of Waiting to Write Up Your Ideas, or, How Shall We Praise Both Walmart and Black Friday?

 

On December 3, 2012, I created a “reminder” on my iPhone. It reads, “Post idea: Black Friday at Walmart not so bad.” Now, I wish I had taken the time to write the post I had in my mind when I made this reminder, because thinking about it just now fills me with more embarrassment than inspiration. 

Look, I really don’t like shopping at Walmart. For any item you want or think you need, its flimsiest, lousiest, ugliest incarnation lies waiting for you down some crazy Walmart isle. That particular Walmart smell of new plastic and McDonald’s french fries is unwholesome and repulsive.

And I really don’t like Black Friday, or at least the extremes of Black Friday. I have no objection to bargains. But I do have objections to acquisitive families cutting short their Thanksgiving holiday to go to bed early in order to rise refreshed to stand in line for the 5am opening. And like everyone I sneer self-righteously at footage of deranged shoppers dog-piling over some stack of Chinese electronics. But. 

But what? What did I have in mind five weeks ago when I wrote that reminder? I wish I knew. 

Interlude…Tom puts on his Chesterton hat and tries to find the best in every popular practice, acknowledging vulgarity and wickedness but finding far more interesting whatever golden slivers of goodness shine through…Hat doesn’t fit well…Still interluding…Ok, maybe….Maybe?…Well, let’s give it a go…

Commerce is intrinsically good. With a few exceptions, anything you can buy is, under some imaginable circumstances, worth buying. It is, in general, good to buy things. This is because, 1) things in general are good and because 2) possessing things is good and because 3) in buying a thing you give someone else the opportunity to possess things. 

While it is good to recognize that there are inappropriate times and places for commerce (see Jesus and the moneychangers…this is probably not the point of the temple cleansing…but like Church Fathers I’ll adapt the Bible to my own high purpose), it’s also snobbish to separate commerce overmuch from your day-to-day, real life. You are not wholly an economic entity, but you are an economic entity, made that way not by capitalism but by nature. You are a finite, fragile hunk of dust and rely on all sort of external goods to keep you going, and hence rely on all sorts of other people to supply you those goods. So it’s not good to poo-poo commercial activities like going shopping and hunting for bargains. Even if these activities are done in a mini-van, even if they’re done in a (the squeamish may skip the following word) suburb, even if you must transverse a parking lot so expansive that all of old Oxford could fit into it, still, the activities are good and noble. Food and textiles and electronics and toys: they’re awesome!

So here’s my thought. Black Friday shopping wraps a noble human activity into one of our most cherished national holidays. While we’re taking time to be with family and friends in an extra-intentional way, while we’re taking time to reflect on all the good things we enjoy and to express gratitude for them however and to whomever we know how to express gratitude, we’re also taking time to buy things for ourselves and others in a way that prudently stewards the resources we have. 

Additionally–and this is anecdotal–Black Friday, if celebrated as a holiday instead of endured as a chore, can be a time of genuine solidarity with your neighbors. For those minivan driving suburban Walmart shoppers, Black Friday may be the one old-fashioned “market day” of the year, where all manner of people come out proffering their wares or, on the other side of the counter, demanding the best deals; everyone rubbing elbows together and embracing manfully our humble economic humanity, not wincing or sneering like an aesthete or a rich man. My in-laws were standing in some enormous line waiting for one of the hot-ticket items to become available, and struck up many conversations with those around them. My father-in-law bought fries and a coke for a few people behind him, my mother-in-law asked the other ladies where else they were going and traded notes about the best deals. Too busy to wait in one long line, my mother-in-law offered to pay a purchasing fee if anyone in line would pick up something for her (all demanded too high a price, as it turned out). 

You see, ordinarily shopping is not so interactive or so festive. So keep making your criticisms of Black Friday–they’re probably all valid–but don’t dismiss the tradition (yes, it’s become that).

Postlude…so how was that? It was okay…no idea if this is what you were thinking about on 12/3…Rhetoric a bit forced…but point about economic human nature genuinely insightful…and I almost imagined Walmart as a Turkish bazaar as you were talking about the crowds and the interaction…still, will you actually celebrate Black Friday next year?…I plead the Fifth…  

Posted in The 21st Century! | 2 Comments

The Paradox of Multiculturalism

 

Multiculturalism is something stronger than a mere appreciation of different cultures. ‘Isms usually mean ideologies, and multiculturalism is no exception. If you’re a multiculturalist, you think that institutions and political communities should have some sort of official sponsorship of the values and practices of other cultures, especially cultures that have minority representation or which have at some time in history been treated badly. 

The problem with multiculturalism is that it’s a self-defeating ideology. Here’s why. If you take stock of the things you value, you’ll see that there are some which you consider to be universal values and some which you consider to be personal or local values. For example, you might have the belief that it’s proper to wear a tuxedo when you get married. But you’d be silly to think that any man getting married anywhere should wear a tux at his wedding. It’s a local value; you think it only applies to a certain culture, for example modern Western culture. (That’s probably too broad; I actually don’t know what’s the proper dress for grooms in Denmark or Austria. But you get the idea.) By contrast, your belief that people who are governed should have some say in how they are governed is a universal value. You think it applies everywhere there are people governed, regardless of the current authoritarian practices or beliefs of some community. 

Now look at multiculturalism. We can suppose that there are local and universal varieties of multiculturalism. A local variety would hold that one’s own community should be multicultural; a universal variety would hold that all communities should be multicultural. The problem with universal multiculturalism is easier to see than the problem with local multiculturalism, so I’ll start with it. Universal multiculturalism, if implemented, would become uni-culturalism. The culture of every community would just be to affirm the culture of every other community. Soon we’d have nothing to affirm except copies of ourselves. We’d all look reverently on a past that included many cultures, maybe promote the study of culture as a historical phenomenon. But we’d no longer have a plurality of real, live cultures to affirm. So as good multiculturalists we shouldn’t want universal multiculturalism.  

The problem with local multiculturalism is that it doesn’t extend to one’s own culture the same reverence it does to others’. If I’m a multiculturalist I want all those primitive tribes in Africa and South America to be able to go on doing their thing without interference from the outside world. I want all the strange, local customs to endure all over the world. I don’t want them to be obliterated by the ominous evangelism of American missionaries, American pop culture, and American foodstuffs. I want cultures to go on being cultures. But I don’t want this for my own culture. My adoption of multiculturalism has forced me to look at culture, all cultures, including my own culture, from the outside looking in. But you can’t inhabit a culture if you’re looking from the outside. And there’s no culture to inhabit if everyone’s looking from the outside. So as good multiculturalists we shouldn’t want local multiculturalism, either. But this means that multiculturalism entails anti-multiculturalism, which is a contradiction. 

The motivation for multiculturalism is to avoid the sort of cruelty that is born of ignorance. “You’re not like us, so we don’t have to treat you with the same respect with which we treat ourselves.” And cruelty born of ignorance is very good to avoid. So the thought is that if we could get everyone to just play down their membership in their own cultures and be more knowledgable about and affirming of other cultures, we’d be better to one another. One way this is done in practice is to teach children about all the bad things their own culture has done, and all the good things about other cultures. So for example it’s very popular to subvert inspiring narratives about revered leaders. But this is a sort of cruelty too. A cruelty born, maybe not out of ignorance, but out of fear. It’s cruel to the culture which instilled in you the liberal values that have allowed you to appreciate other cultures, and it’s cruel to those young people who won’t have the chance to inhabit authentically any culture. 

The best way to really value the wonderful diversity of cultures is to sustain your own. 

 

Posted in Philosophy, The 21st Century! | 3 Comments

The Innocence of Voluntarism

 

I think I’m a voluntarist. But many people think voluntarism is a very bad and dangerous and harmful idea, and I don’t think that my beliefs are very bad and dangerous and harmful. So this makes me question whether I’m a voluntarist or should be. It also makes me question whether I understand what voluntarism is. But in the end I think I do, and in the end I think folks who think it’s bad are sort of overreacting. 

Voluntarism is a view about will, whether divine or human (or angelic!) will, which says something about how the will is related to the intellect when the will wills. Specifically, voluntarism holds that the intellect does not determine the will to will what it wills. This makes most sense to me when I think about it in terms of reasons for action. Voluntarism does not say that the will wills what it wills for no reason. Instead it says that–with perhaps some exceptions–no reason(s) determine what the will wills.

Here’s an example, courtesy of Al Ghazali. Imagine a starving man under a date palm. Before him hang two delectable dates. He will eat one; probably he’ll eat them both since he’s starving, but he’s going to eat one before the other. How will he decide? Suppose that both dates are equally tasty-looking. Neither is closer to the man than the other. In fact, with respect to any consideration relevant to the deliberation about which date to choose, there is nothing to distinguish one from the other. Voluntarism says that we get no Buridan’s Ass result here. The man will choose a date. And of course he’ll choose a date for some reasons (I’m starving, the date will satisfy my hunger, etc.). But as far his reasons go, he might just as well have chosen the other date. Inspect all his reasons and you won’t find any reason why just this date was chosen and not the other. But the man will choose a date. 

It’s a correct application of the term to say that the man’s action is “arbitrary.” But when people complain that voluntarism makes willing arbitrary, usually what they mean is that voluntarism means that the will wills for no reason. And that’s just wrong. The man under the palm chooses for reasons, lots of good reasons. It’s just that his reasons don’t determine precisely one course of action.

Let me clear up a slight ambiguity that is difficult to avoid here. When I say that the intellect does not determine the will, I mean two things. First, I mean that, given some reasons, almost always there will be two or more acts of willing that can be described equally well as actions for those reasons.  Second, I mean that, given some reasons, almost always there is never an act of willing that necessarily occurs upon the intellect’s apprehension of those reasons.

Let me also say something about the possible exceptions to the voluntarist claim that the intellect does not determine the will. I think that the intellect does determine the will to assent to some necessary truths. Suppose you’re doing a logical proof and you come to QED. Obviously your intellect is at work in working out the proof. But so is your will. You assent to the conclusion when you “see” that it deductively follows from premises. But, given that you understand the premises and the relationships between the premises, in other words, given a certain action of your intellect, your will necessarily assents. Here your intellect determines your will. 

In a future post I plan to address a couple sticky issues arising from the application of voluntarism to divine action, and specifically how voluntarism about God’s will determines (ha!) a view about the foundations of moral imperatives like “Thou shalt not kill.” Is the voluntarist committed to the apparently insidious claim that God could have commanded instead “Thou shalt kill?” We shall see. Hint: Yes and No. 

Posted in Philosophy | 6 Comments

Is Immortality Desirable?

 

Christians and many others hope that their deaths are not the end of their stories. They hope that there is some afterlife which will be much better than the life we now enjoy. Two features distinguish the hoped-for afterlife from this present life: it is completely blessed, with no spot of pain or sadness; and it is neverending.

It is trivially true that a completely blessed life is desirable. But is a neverending life desirable? I think it is, but I don’t think it’s obvious that it is, so I’ll try to show that it is. Specifically, I’ll try to show that having a never-ending life is a necessary component of a completely blessed life, such that however blessed a life is, if it will cease to exist (whether or not the person enjoying such a life knows that she will cease to exist), then it is not a completely blessed life.

At first glance it seems that if you were very blessed but are destined eventually to come to an end, to cease to exist, then by that very fact you could not be completely blessed. The fact that you would eventually cease to exist would cloud somewhat your present life, making it somewhat less blessed than it would be if you were going to to live forever. 

But suppose that you don’t know that you would cease to exist, and suppose that you will have no anticipation of the moment of your annihilation. Here it may not seem quite right to say that you couldn’t be completely blessed. Every moment of your life, suppose, was filled to the brim with blessedness; qualitatively your life was extremely enjoyable, as enjoyable as your life could be. Why not suppose that this is a completely blessed life? It is true that there could be a life more blessed than yours. Someone who had a life qualitatively as enjoyable as yours but lived an extra day would, I suppose, have had a more blessed life. But, like two cups of different volumes each filled to the brim, both lives would be completely full of blessedness even though one had more than the other. 

But we, who live in the valley of the shadow of death, we could never have such a life. Once touched with the thought of the possibility of annihilation—and we have all been touched—we cannot hope to achieve the state of complete ignorance about this possibility.

Perhaps, though, we could view our annihilation as benign. Perhaps we could walk through our long blessed life knowing that it will eventually come to an end but also knowing that at no time will we ever suffer a decline. Since, as Epicurus reasoned, we won’t be around to be bereaved by our own annihilation, we could imagine coming to view our annihilation neither as an improvement nor as a decline of blessedness. 

But this is solipsistic, or at least selfish. If my blessed life is social, if there are others with whom I enjoy my blessed life, then my annihilation cannot be benign. Even if we suppose my whole community to be equally reasonable about their own annihilation, the loss of one member of the community will detract from the blessedness of everyone else. Even if we wouldn’t suppose that they’d be sad by this loss, still, inasmuch as that person added to the blessedness of the others, the loss of that person detracts from their blessedness. 

But suppose we all go down together. Imagine that our annihilations are perfectly synchronized so that no one continues to exist even for a moment without any member of his community. Then maybe we could regard our ceasing to exist as benign. 

Still, it’s hard to see how anyone really could come to see their end as completely benign. You would be aware of the possibility of living beyond your allotted time. You would reason that your life would be more blessed, even if just a little more blessed, with even one extra day. You could pose the question to yourself, “Of the two, a life of n days and a life of n + 1 days, each of which is as qualitatively enjoyable as the other, which is to be preferred?” How could your answer not be n + 1? And if you knew that you would eventually come to an end, you would know that no matter how large your n, there would always be an n + 1. You would want, and reasonably want, the longer life. 

Moreover, the completely blessed life is not static. You are doing things in it: learning, creating, sharing. So ceasing to exist involves the interruption of these projects—the  unsolved equation, the unfinished painting. You would reasonably want to continue these and other projects. But there is no end to the acquisition of knowledge and there is no end to creative activity. There is no possible time at which you could say truthfully, “I have learned all I want to learn; I have made all I want to make.” So the moment of your corruption is an abortion of some ongoing activity. Remember, we’re not imagining growing old, where diminishing powers lead the reflective person to settle accounts and bring their affairs as much as possible to a natural close. We’re imagining a postmortem life without natural decay or weariness, with unfailing mental and affective powers. There would be in this life, therefore, no natural summing up point, no reason to put away the brushes and paints. If, in such a life, we knew the day and hour of our annihilation, we might tidy things up before our departure, but it would be an artifical cessation. “Well, okay, I guess it’s time to stop.” 

Again, it’s hard to see how God could ever have a good reason for annihilating any completely blessed person. He does not get bored, He does not stop loving, He does not get too busy. He would want this blessed life just to go on being blessed. He created this life and in creating it wills its good, not its good for a few years or centuries, but its good. To annihilate such a life is to cease to will its good; but there is no good reason for God to do such a thing. 

In sum, it seems to me that being neverending is a practically necessary constituent of being completely blessed. So being completely blessed entails being neverending. 

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Death and Bravery

 

If Death is very scary, scarier than monsters and zombies and terrorists and aliens and totalitarian regimes, and if we all die, then we all–however quiet and ordinary our lives have been–get one shot at a truly courageous action. Not to quail before death: this is the one chance we all have to be heroes. 

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