Blog Archives

Quote for the Week

But if any excursive brain rove over the images of forepassed times, and wonder that Thou the God Almighty and All-creating and All-supporting, Maker of heaven and earth, didst for innumerable ages forbear from so great a work, before Thou Wouldest make it; let him awake and consider, that he wonders at false conceits. For whence could innumerable ages pass by, which Thou madest not, Thou the Author and Creator of all ages? or what times should there be, which were not made by Thee? or how should they pass by, if they never were? Seeing then Thou art the Creator of all times, if any time was before Thou madest heaven and earth, why say they that Thou didst forego working? For that very time didst Thou make, nor could times pass by, before Thou madest those times. But if before heaven and earth there was no time, why is it demanded, what Thou then didst? For there was no “then,” when there was no time.

–Augustine of Hippo, Confessions Eleventh Book, XIII (370-400 AD) The Confessions of S. Augustine (1840) Tr. Edward Bouverie Pusey, pp. 233-234.  courtesy of Wikiquote

If You See Yoda on the Road, Kill Him! A Defense of The Last Jedi

I am, of course, aware that Yoda is already dead, and has been for decades.  Bear with me on this….  Beginning in 2015, the long-dormant big-screen incarnation of the Star Wars franchise was revived.  All the original cast returned, playing their iconic characters, and fresh new faces playing new characters were also present.  It was the first time since Revenge of the Sith in 2005 that a big-screen Star Wars movie had been made at all, and the first time since Return of the Jedi in 1983–thirty-two years previously!–that the original cast was back in action.  As of this writing (July 2019), two of the movies of the third and final trilogy–The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi–have been released, with the third, The Rise of Skywalker, slated for release in five months.  Two standalone movies, Rogue One and Solo have also been released, and further movies with a new cast are projected; but the main attention has been focused on the three movies which conclude the Skywalker saga.  Fan and critical reaction has been sharply divided on the two released so far, with seeming storms of controversy regarding The Last Jedi in particular.

I don’t really have anything to add to the discussion in terms of a conventional movie review or rating.  It’s been forty-two years since the original Star Wars debuted, and I still don’t think The Empire Strikes Back has been topped.  I certainly don’t have any interest in further stirring the pot of accusations and counter-accusations of sexism, racism, political correctness, and so on and so forth.  More heat than light has been generated on this front, and I doubt there is much likelihood of dialogue in this area, anyway.

What I do want to look at is the metaphysics, or perhaps more precisely, the philosophical and spiritual themes that are present in The Last Jedi and which have been little remarked on in all the tempestuous arguments about other issues.  I think The Last Jedi has definite flaws (some of which, in fairness, were inherited from the plot of its predecessor, and some of the stupid and cockamamie decisions J. J. Abrams made in writing the script for said predecessor), drags somewhat in the middle, and arguably loses focus a bit by expanding the already expanded cast even further.  I definitely would not place it above The Empire Strikes Back.  All that said, I would argue that Last Jedi is actually the second-best movie of the seven Skywalker-centric sequels and prequels to the original Star Wars, right after Empire (and allowing for the fact that Episode IX has not yet been released).  This, I assert, is because of the themes I have already alluded to, and because The Last Jedi is the only movie in the entire Star Wars franchise to take those themes seriously since The Empire Strikes Back (Rogue One made a nod towards some of these themes, but not to the extent that Last Jedi does).  Some of these films have been around quite awhile, and some not; but just to play fair, SPOILERS ABOUND for all the movies in the franchise from this point onward–tread with caution!

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Quote for the Week

Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul; on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful.

–Plato, The Republic, Book 3; courtesy of Wikiquote.

I Ain’t Got No Body, Yet Again: David Bentley Hart, Spirit, Matter, and Bodies

Way back here I looked at the distinction between embodied minds–that is to say, creatures like ourselves, which have both bodies and souls–on the one hand, and  bodiless creatures–pure minds lacking any kind of body composed of either matter or energy, that is to say, the beings we have traditionally referred to as angels and demons.  Later on, I reconsidered the matter, looking at the difficulties in the notion of completely disembodied minds, and speculating on the possibility that angels and demons might have bodies of a sort after all.  Recently, I have come across an interesting essay by David Bentley Hart, one of my favorite theologians and men of letters, which throws further light on this subject.

In setting the scene for the essay, Hart very forcibly argues that the Hellenization of Christianity is a feature, not a bug, that it goes back to the very beginning of the faith, and that modern attempts to remove said Hellenization in order to recover a “pure” Christianity are both doomed and missing the point altogether:

Naturally, this [picture of early Christianity drawn by N. T. Wright] also entails the simultaneous creation of an equally fictional late antique Judaism, of the sort that once dominated Protestant biblical scholarship: a fantastic “pure” Judaism situated outside cultural history, purged of every Hellenistic and Persian “alloy,” stripped of those shining hierarchies of spirits and powers and morally ambiguous angels and demi-angelic nefilim that had been incubated in the intertestamental literature, largely ignorant even of those Septuagintal books that were omitted from the Masoretic text of the Jewish bible, and precociously conformed to later rabbinic orthodoxy—and, even then, this last turns out to be a fantasy rabbinic orthodoxy, one robbed of its native genius and variety, and imperiously reduced to a kind of Protestantism without Jesus.

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Wright’s anxiety is quite in keeping with a certain traditional Protestant picture of the pagan and Jewish worlds of late antiquity, one that involves an impermeable cultural partition between them—between, that is, the “philosophy” of the Greeks and the “pure” covenantal piety of the Jews.

These are points I’ve made before in various contexts, and I strongly agree with Hart here.

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Līlā; or, It’s Just a Ride

One of the perennial questions of religion is raised by the existence of evil.  The world, as is apparent to  anyone with eyes to see, is a rough-and-tumble place, a place where huge amounts of extremely nasty things occur.  In and of itself, this obvious fact is, while unpleasant, also unremarkable.  For a non-believer, the evil in the cosmos just is.  There’s  no particular reason for it, any more than there is for any other observed phenomenon.  The universe is a quirk of random chance, and it is as it is, a mixture of good and bad.  Much of the badness, in fact, is a function not of any cosmic principle, but of our perspective as humans.  Disease, suffering, and death are very much meaningful–and unpleasant–to us, since they affect us in ways we don’t at all like.  For the disease-causing pathogens that live on us, though, we’re a veritable smorgasbord, a means by which they prosper, albeit at our expense.  Things like earthquakes, hurricanes, and such are impersonal phenomena that just happen with no motivations at all, either good or bad.  They occur merely because of natural processes, and the fact that we are sometimes in their way is our problem, not theirs. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Even for believers of various stripes, not all religions give any particular answer to the “problem of evil”.  Buddhism famously begins with the assertion that the cosmos is irremediably screwed up, to wit, the First Noble Truth, which declares that “all existence is suffering”.  In short, the world is a cesspit of misery that will never be any better than it is.  We may have better or worse experiences in the course of manifold reincarnations, but in the end, it all boils down to suffering, even if it’s deferred for a bit.  Thus the goal of Buddhism is to leave the wheel of birth and rebirth–samsara–for good by attaining nirvana.  At that point, one is no longer reborn into this universe of misery.  Jainism takes a similar viewpoint, in which the ultimate goal is the cessation of rebirth through moksha (liberation) at which point one’s jīva (soul) leaves the phenomenal cosmos for the Siddhashila, a place of perfection in which the now-purified and omniscient jīva dwells eternally in perfect bliss.  As with Buddhism, the idea is that evil, suffering, and nastiness are baked into the cake of the universe, so that the idea is to escape the universe.

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Quote for the Week

When does temporal suffering weigh most appallingly on a person? Is it not when it seems to him to have no meaning, procures and acquires nothing; is it not when suffering, as the impatient person expresses it, is meaningless and pointless? Does someone who wants to take part in a competition complain even if preparation takes ever so much effort; does he complain even if it involves ever so much suffering and pain? Why does he not complain? Because he, although running aimlessly, understands, or thinks he understands, that this suffering will procure the victory prize for him. Just when the effort is greatest and most painful, he encourages himself with the thought that the prize and that this specific suffering will help to procure for him.

If, however, the suffering embraces a person so tightly that his understanding wants to have nothing more to do with it, because the understanding cannot comprehend what the suffering would be able to procure when the sufferer cannot grasp this dark riddle, neither the basis of the suffering nor its purpose, neither why he should be so afflicted more than others nor how this would benefit him-and he now, when powerless he feels that he cannot throw off the suffering, rebelliously casts away faith, refuses to believe that the suffering will procure anything-well, then eternal happiness certainly cannot have the overweight, because it is totally excluded.

However, if the sufferer firmly holds on to what understanding admittedly cannot comprehend, but what faith, on the other hand, firmly holds on to-that suffering will procure a great and eternal weight of glory-then eternal happiness has the overweight, then the sufferer not only endures the suffering but understands that the eternal happiness has the overweight. (II Corinthians 4:17)

–Soren Kierkegaard, Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits, 1847, Hong p. 313-314; courtesy of Wikiquote.

Quote for the Week

Hard science gives sensational results with a horribly boring process; philosophy gives boring results with a sensational process; literature gives sensational results with a sensational process; and economics gives boring results with a boring process.

–Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes, p. 45; courtesy of Wikiquote.

Reason and Beyond

In going through old documents on my expansion drive, I found an essay that I had originally written for the defunct Beliefnet blog Kingdom of Priests.  I don’t recall the context in which I originally wrote it.  However, I think it’s an interesting and worthwhile discussion of faith vs. reason, and the possibility of miracles.  I have edited it very slightly, and will post it in “Religious Miscellany”, since it works best as a standalone essay, I think.  Enjoy!

I think there are important distinctions to be made among the irrational, the nonrational, and the suprarational. “Irrational” means “against reason”–especially in the sense of “contrary to established, observable fact“–and is rightly used as a derogatory term. Examples would be believing that the Earth is flat, or that 2 + 2 = 18; or behaviorally, punching someone out because he’s wearing blue. In short, “irrational” means lacking reason in an area in which it is expected.

“Nonrational” means “not having to do with reason” and is neutral. All lower animals and computers are nonrational–they have no self-awareness* and do not reason. Even a computer does what it does automatically. Emotions and preferences are also nonrational, but not necessarily irrational. My preference for vanilla ice cream over chocolate has nothing to do with reason–it’s a matter of taste–but it’s not irrational, either. No emotion is “reasonable”–emotions can be used for good or bad purposes, but they have their own domain while reason has its own area, as well. The interrelationship of emotion and reason is complex, but neither is “superior” to the other, or sufficient by itself. Reason by itself isn’t enough–as Chesterton said, the problem with the madman is not that he’s illogical, but that he’s only logical. Reason alone can’t give meaning, purpose, or proportion.  In the words of the Scrpit song, “You can’t find faith or hope down a telescope”. On the other hand, emotion alone is incapable of exercising judgement.  To jettison reason would put us at the mercy of every transient feeling.  That way lies barbarism and chaos.  True humanity is reason (or logic) and the non-rational (emotion and intuition) working together harmoniously (we hope!).  To be pop-culture about it, you need Spock and McCoy!

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Quote for the Week

 

If every one in the world will love universally; states not attacking one another; houses not disturbing one another; thieves and robbers becoming extinct; emperor and ministers, fathers and sons, all being affectionate and filial — if all this comes to pass the world will be orderly. Therefore, how can the wise man who has charge of governing the empire fail to restrain hate and encourage love? So, when there is universal love in the world it will be orderly, and when there is mutual hate in the world it will be disorderly.

–Mozi, Mozi, Book 4; Universal Love I; courtesy of Wikiquote.

Quote for the Week

To show forbearance and gentleness in teaching others; and not to revenge unreasonable conduct — this is the energy of southern regions, and the good man makes it his study. To lie under arms; and meet death without regret — this is the energy of northern regions, and the forceful make it their study. Therefore, the superior man cultivates a friendly harmony, without being weak — How firm is he in his energy! He stands erect in the middle, without inclining to either side — How firm is he in his energy! When good principles prevail in the government of his country, he does not change from what he was in retirement. How firm is he in his energy! When bad principles prevail in the country, he maintains his course to death without changing — How firm is he in his energy!

–Confucius, The Doctrine of the Mean; courtesy of Wikiquote.