Difficult books & the death of reading

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Philip Yancey worries about “the death of reading” in a recent Washington Post opinion piece; he says that even he, an inveterate reader and possessor of several thousand books, finds it harder than it once was to read for several hours each day. He feels distracted by modern technology’s urgency yet suggests reading–now more than ever–offers not just intellectual but neurological rewards:  “neuroscience proves…it actually takes less energy to focus intently than to zip from task to task. After an hour of contemplation, or deep reading, a person ends up less tired and less neurochemically depleted, thus more able to tackle mental challenges.” (Yancey does not cite the study, so I cannot do so; I think he picked this information up from Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows).

I find I still have time to read; but I am not a well-respected writer of books, articles, opinion columns, and blogs, nor am I asked to appear in public as a speaker very often. Yancey has a life that requires hours at a computer. My life contains less urgency from an audience, although my students–when classes are in session–certainly supply a sense of “prioritize me!” that can get distracting.

Most of us recognize that there are many forms of urgent distractions in our lives.

Anyway, I continue to apply myself to books.

~

My latest difficult book has a bit of family history. Royce on the Human Self was written by one of my father’s college professors, J. Harry Cotton, and published in 1955. Harry Cotton was a Presbyterian minister who later taught at Wabash College, where my father encountered him. My dad gave me this book a month ago, saying, “I thought you might be interested in this one. I came across it in my shelves and read it, thinking I’d never read it before. But apparently I had, because I see that I annotated it in the margins. And I hadn’t recalled that he inscribed it to me.” The human self must overlap with consciousness, so why not introduce myself to Royce, especially given the circumstances?

Josiah Royce is not a name I encountered in Philosophy coursework, even when I was studying William James’ work (it was undergraduate study, so we did not get to James’ correspondence with Royce and their disagreements over the Absolute; James & Royce were colleagues and very good friends).

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My father notes the misspelling of his name by Dr. Cotton. I note the logic chart my father annotated above.

Royce’s philosophy was rather Hegelian–he studied in Göttingen–and he was a long-time proponent of “idealism” (defined in what strikes me as a rather phenomenologist way) based upon his rendering of what constitutes the Absolute. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, “In his later works, Royce reconceived his metaphysics as an ‘absolute pragmatism’ grounded in semiotics.” Royce moved from idealism into the possibility of objects, which took him for awhile on a symbolic logic train of thinking. He loses me a bit there, despite Dr. Cotton’s quite clearly-written summaries.

An intriguing aspect of the book, for me, is my then-22-year-old father’s marginalia. Sometimes, his notes–in handwriting that has hardly changed in 60 years–make a comment [“Royce denies a self-evident truth contra-Descartes”]. More often, there is a question, or some underlining, that suggests where his interests lay. I notice he seems to have skimmed over the “Logic as the Science of Order” chapter (that’s a section I found to be a bit of a slog myself).

I wonder whether the last chapter, which covers Royce’s late thinking on Christianity, the problem of evil, and salvation, would have made any sense to a person as young as my dad was in ’55. By the time Royce got to his most mature philosophical thinking on god and the human self, he was in his 50s and had experienced the loss of a young adult son to “madness” and typhoid. These are the sort of events that mature the thinking of a thinking and feeling human being such as Royce obviously was. In our early 20s, few of us have that kind of depth to our understanding of mortal, ethical, or spiritual issues.

~

Nevertheless–my father, influenced to some extent by his Uncle Raymond and by Harry Cotton–chose to go to graduate school in Theology. He may not recall whether Royce’s work on Salvation or Christianity had any bearing on his decision. But I wonder. I think of my dad–a classic extrovert, despite his prodigious reading habits–when I read the following words by Royce concerning the community and the relational aspect of the human self (in the Absolute, or in god, as referred to by the use of his in this quote):

And as the moments of my finite thought are to me when I reflect upon my own meaning and upon the relations of many moments of my life, so my neighbors and I are to the larger Self when, discoursing together about the same objects, we find ourselves as it were but moments in his inclusive unity.

All one. There are many philosophies and theologies that stress that premise.

 

 

 

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Science & philosophy

The small, religiously-affiliated university at which I work graduates, percentage-wise, a large number of baccalaureates in the sciences although it offers a liberal arts-based core curriculum. How does that affect what coursework students must do? For starters, two Theology courses and one Philosophy course are required for graduation.

Three critical-thinking method, scholarly courses ought not to be more than a student in the sciences–or any other discipline–can handle; but I hear a bit of resentment among the undergrads. They question the necessity of abstract ethics classwork, wondering how such material will be applicable to a fast-paced, technologically-advanced, science-oriented career or life. Philosophy doesn’t seem to be a skill set to them.

SocratesWhile I fundamentally disagree, I take their point. With so much new information coming at them, info-savvy young people might well feel skeptical about what they can gain from reading texts by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas.

Philosophy has been around for millennia, though; empirical science as we know it–with electron microscopes, satellite-mounted telescopes, petri dishes and x-rays–is brand-spanking new by comparison. The techniques we use today seem concrete and tool-like rather than theoretical; yet as every real scientist knows, the only way developments occur is through hypothesis–theory–claim–assertion–question–pushing the envelope of the known.

Which is what philosophers have been doing for thousands of years.

The budding scientists and medical-studies researchers I encounter seldom realize that without philosophy, science would not exist. Philosophers asked the “why” questions, came up with theories and categories, tried to see into a future that might someday have the technology to confirm or refute the theories they came to solely through human observation and deduction. Problem-solving skills. They were the scientists of their day, and the methods of thinking they came up with are those that contemporary scientists in all disciplines continue to employ.

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Descartes, 1640s

A wonderful book on the way philosophy developed into biology (to take just one of the scientific disciplines) is Marjorie Grene and David Depew’s The Philosophy of Biology: An Episodic History.

The authors–a philosophy professor and a rhetoric professor–provide a history lesson in science, taking us by steps and by leaps into the development of a scientific (empirical) skill set as derived from insightful cognitive understandings of those Dead White Guys on whose thinking Western philosophy is based.

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Darwin’s finches, 1840s

Now, I am not an advocate for a strict return to the Western Civ canon; I think university education should diversify into exploring (and questioning) other modes of cognition, culture, and philosophical approaches. Yet it seems to me imperative that students continue to study, and learn to value, the history of human thought. You can be a nurse without a thorough background in Aristotle’s categorical concepts; you can learn the drill about washing hands, donning gloves, and inserting catheters–all practical, concrete skills. You can understand the rationale for all of those skills; that’s true, and practical.

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Cajal’s drawing of a pyramidal neural cell, 1913

Nurses today, however, should have the thinking skills to solve unexpected problems rapidly and rationally, which is how things play out “in real life,” to deduce that something’s going wrong even when the readouts look stable, to recognize that the hurried intern added an extra zero to the number of milligrams of medicine prescribed. They need enough background in the history of medical care-giving to question a doctor or administrator when the ethics of a patient’s care seem to be at risk. These problem-solving skills are not only crucial, they are philosophically-based.

~

 

I will dismount from my high horse now. With all the disorienting information being bombarded at me these days, I need a poem to reorient myself. Here’s one by Mary Oliver.

Snowy Egret (by Mary Oliver)

A late summer night and the snowy egret
has come again to the shallows in front of my house

as he has for forty years.
Don’t think he is a casual part of my life,

that white stroke in the dark.

==

We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.

 

Memorial

Today is the anniversary of my friend David Dunn’s passing into the beyond, (1999).

And yesterday, I attended the memorial service for theologian, professor, writer, social activist, and family friend, Walter Wink. The memorial was held at the James Chapel of Union Theological Seminary, where Walter attended grad school with my dad and where Wink taught for awhile in the 1970s before moving to Auburn Seminary.

Words that stayed with me hours and hours after the services: iconoclast. creativity. non-violence. scholarship. action. impishness. curiosity. reconciliation.

I’ve read three of Walter’s books and some of his articles. He was a brilliant and unusual man, optimistic, forward-thinking, that rare combination of someone who is both a thinker/writer and a doer/person of action. I include here an excerpt of one of his articles on The Sermon on the Mount, well worth reading in its entirely for the force of his rational as well as spiritual argument, a relevant and timely reasoning for cognitive awareness and non-violent action in the lives of human beings who want to value themselves and others as human beings–not as inferiors, not as “other,” not as enemy–with dignity and compassion.

from–  http://www.cres.org/star/_wink.htm

Excerpt from Wink’s Jesus’ Third Way

“Seize the moral initiative
Find a creative alternative to violence
Assert your own humanity and dignity as a person
Meet force with ridicule or humor
Break the cycle of humiliation
Refuse to submit or to accept the inferior position
Expose the injustice of the system
Take control of the power dynamic
Shame the oppressor into repentance
Stand your ground
Make the Powers make decisions for which they are not   prepared
Recognize your own power
Be willing to suffer rather than retaliate
Force the oppressor to see you in a new light
Deprive the oppressor of a situation where a show of force   is effective
Be willing to undergo the penalty of breaking unjust laws
Die to fear of the old order and its rules
Seek the oppressor’s transformation

….

Gandhi insisted that no one join him who was not willing to take up arms to fight for independence.  They could not freely renounce what they had not entertained.  One cannot pass directly from “Flight” to “Jesus’ Third Way.”  One needs to pass through the “Fight” stage, if only to discover one’s own inner strength and capacity for violence.  We need to learn to love justice and truth enough to die for them, by violence if nothing else.

Jesus, in short, abhors both passivity and violence.  He articulates, out of the history of his own people’s struggles, a way by which evil can be opposed without being mirrored, the oppressor resisted without being emulated, and the enemy neutralized without being destroyed.  Those who have lived by Jesus’ words–Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, César Chavez, Adolpho Pérez Esquivel–point us to a new way of confronting evil whose potential for personal and social transformation we are only beginning to grasp today. Beyond Just War and Pacifism Just war theory was founded in part on a misinterpretation of “Resist not evil” (Matt. 5:39), which Augustine regarded as an absolute command to non-resistance of evil. No Christian, he argued, can take up arms in self-defense, therefore, but must submit passively even to death.  Nor can Christians defend themselves against injustice, but must willingly collaborate in their own ruin.  But what, asked Augustine, if my neighbors are being thus treated?  Then the love commandment requires me to take up arms if necessary to defend them.

But Jesus did not teach non-resistance.  Rather, he disavowed violent resistance in favor of nonviolent resistance.  Of course Christians must resist evil!  No decent human being could conceivably stand by and watch innocents suffer without trying to do, or at least wishing to do, something to save them.  The question is simply one of means.  Likewise Christians are not forbidden by Jesus to engage in self-defense.  But they are to do so nonviolently.  Jesus did not teach supine passivity in the face of evil.  That was precisely what he was attempting to overcome!

Pacifism, in its Christian forms, was often based on the same misinterpretation of Jesus’ teaching in Matt. 5:38-42.  It too understood Jesus to be commanding non-resistance.  Consequently, some pacifists refuse to engage in nonviolent direct action or civil disobedience, on the ground that such actions are coercive.  Non-resistance, they believe, only licenses passive resistance.  Hence the confusion between “pacifism” and “passivism” has not been completely unfounded.

Jesus’ third way is coercive, insofar as it forces oppressors to make choices they would rather not make.  But it is non-lethal, the great advantage of which is that, if we have chosen a mistaken course, our opponents are still alive to benefit from our apologies.  The same exegesis that undermines the Scriptural ground from traditional just war theory also erodes the foundation of non-resistant pacifism.  Jesus’ teaching carries us beyond just war and pacifism, to a militant nonviolence that actualizes already in the present the ethos of God’s domination-free future.

Out of the heart of the prophetic tradition, Jesus engaged the Domination System in both its outer and spiritual manifestations.  His teaching on nonviolence forms the charter for a way of being in the world that breaks the spiral of violence.  Jesus here reveals a way to fight evil with all our power without being transformed into the very evil we fight.  It is a way–the only way possible–of not becoming what we hate. “Do not counter evil in kind”–this insight is the distilled essence, stated with sublime simplicity, of the meaning of the cross.  It is time the church stops limping between just war theory and nonresistant pacifism and follows Jesus on his nonviolent way.”

–Walter Wink