Posts Tagged ‘Monty Python’

Ralph, Bart, & Jesus

December 14, 2012

I thought it was pretty much all over but the grading, except for one last exam yesterday. But we also had one last report presentation: Jesus!

Jacob, standing by his man and citing C.S. Lewis’s weird and cryptic statement about prophets who claim to be poached eggs etc., said we finally have just three basic belief options:

  • Jesus was not who he claimed to be, God (the, not just a… like Phil Connors) and he knew it. Or,
  • He was sincere but deluded. Or,
  • He was the real deal.

Well, I told the class, at least two more options leap instantly to mind: he was misrepresented, and he was misunderstood. Call them the Ehrman* and Emerson options, respectively.

Ehrman contends that the New Testament is riddled with contradictions about the life of Jesus and his significance. He has provided compelling evidence that early Christianity was a collection of competing schools of thought and that the central doctrines we know today were the inventions of theologians living several centuries after Christ.  Commonwealth Club

Ehrman has lived those contradictions. He was “born again” at 15 in Kansas (where he was a pal of my colleague Mike Hinz, btw, which is why Bart spoke on our campus February before last), a religion student at arch-conservative Moody Bible College (where all his teachers were required to sign an oath to represent only one perspective on the question of Biblical literalism and “inerrancy”), Wheaton College, and Princeton, and a devout Christian well into his career at Chapel Hill. The problem of suffering ultimately disabused him of his faith and made him a “heretic.” He came to understand that we shouldn’t follow anyone or anything with unwavering, unquestioning obeisance. We’re all individuals. We all have to think for ourselves.

rweJesus Christ estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, `I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.’ But what a distortion did his doctrine and memory suffer in the same, in the next, and the following ages! …`This was Jehovah come down out of heaven. I will kill you, if you say he was a man’ …He spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain. Emerson, “Divinity School Address

We could do a course on this Emersonian sort of naturalized religious sensibility. Throw in the Jefferson Bible, along with some other ways of moving naturalism forward. Some Jamesian pluralism, some Deweyan natural piety, some humanistic science.

Maybe we will.

*Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed  the Bible and Why

Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible

Forged: Writing in the Name of God-Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are

God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question-Why We Suffer

Day 1!

August 27, 2012

Opening Day is here: Happy New Year!

First day of class means a fresh start, a blank slate, a chance to sew “fresh seed” into our discussions. We’re like birds fluttering into a lighted hall to roost briefly before flying back out into the darkness.

We’re all whales wondering what’s happening as we whoosh towards that large unnamed expanse below.

But this is crucial: we’re birds of a feather, a plurality of plummeting whales, a surfeit of seed-sewers. We don’t have to wonder wordily in solitude, we can talk about our thoughts and experiences and the transient objects of our world.

We won’t always see eye-to-eye in philosophy class, but our arguments won’t just be exercises in mutual contradiction either. Though of course they can be.

In any event, it should all be eye-opening. “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones…”

Ready, set…

Oh, wait. Those remarks are tailored to the Intro/CoPhilosophy course. I think they can readily be adapted to Environmental Ethics and Activism too, since collaboration very often does lead to ethically-rooted action in pursuit of shared goals like, say, sustainable ecosystems. I’ll talk about that a bit on the radio this afternoon.

Here’s where we begin in EEA:


The secret is bright

December 6, 2011

It’s the last day of class in SOL. If we’re going to nail down “the secret of life” we’d better do it now.

Actually I think we’ve identified many secrets, exposed many strategies. Matthieu Ricard’s (& HHDL’s) Buddhist path undoubtedly holds great promise for many. Others will prefer Bertrand Russell’s rational conquest, Jennifer Hecht’s de-mythified pluralism, or even Barbara Ehrenreich’s anti-brightness campaign. We’ve only just begun to scratch the surface.

Next time this course comes up in rotation I’ll try to scratch deeper, with the likes of Sissela Bok’s Exploring Happiness and Owen Flanagan’s Bodhisattva’s Brain. And maybe we’ll go back to originals like Epicurus, Montaigne, Hume, and James. I’m open to suggestion.

But, I still don’t expect ever to get better insight into the way of happiness than that offered by the Pythons. This is no substitute for the full course, not even the full five minutes, but I think you can bank on it. The secret of life?

Well, it’s nothing very special. Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.

Oh, and one more thing (Ms. Ehrenreich notwithstanding): always look on the bright side of life, and have them sing it at your funeral.

Don’t worry. Be happy.

roads to freedom

November 18, 2011

In a silly mood this morning, for some reason. Speaking of J-P Sartre’s Roads to Freedom, 

Marie was noting, in connection with yesterday’s SOL discussion of the Dalai Lama and the question of emptiness at the core of human existence, that Sartre wrote (and wrote and wrote) of “the desire to be good…or if you prefer the desire to be god”…

Well, as Woody Allen said: I gotta model myself after someone.

Sartre was wordy. Did anyone ever write more about Nothingness? But he was very terse when Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion crossed the channel to ask him about freedom.

The happy “citizen of the universe”

October 13, 2011

We finish Russell’s Conquest today, even though he already told us the secret of happiness* back in chapter 10 and we talked about it last time.

But there’s more. “Even the dullest work is to most people less painful than idleness.” Not that Lord Russell ever had to turn himself to the dullest work. He flipped no burgers, for sure, and had no electronic diversions to fill idle hours. And there are times when “thinking of nothing and doing nothingare deeply gratifying. But in general, idleness and soul-crushing boredom go hand-in-glove.

Impersonal Interests are those “lying outside the main activities” of your life and work. I’m still taking a very intense impersonal interest in the MLB postseason, for instance. (Cards win!)

The world is full of things that are tragic or comic, heroic or bizarre or surprising, and those who fail to be interested in the spectacle that it offers are forgoing one of the privileges that life has to offer.

Those who do cultivate a wide and varied interest in life’s rich pagaent, though, experience “deep happiness.” Life becomes communion with the ages, personal death pales to insignificance (“a negligible incident”).

That’s a little sketchy, but (speaking for myself) Russell’s cosmic pedagogical perspective– he calls it Spinoza’s, which would also make it Einstein’s– again inspires.

I should seek to make young people vividly aware of the past, vividly realising that the future of man will in all likelihood be immeasurably longer than his past, profoundly conscious of the minuteness of the planet upon which we live and of the fact that life on this planet is only a temporary incident…

Makes you feel sort of small and insignificant, eh Mrs. Brown? But Russell has the antidote to feelings of personal smallness engendered by reflections on the vastness of the cosmos. Just remember

the greatness of which the individual is capable, and the knowledge that throughout all the depths of stellar space nothing of equal value is known to us. 

In other words, just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving and…

Effort and Resignation. This chapter  begins with grudging praise for Aristotelian moderation, the key to balancing personal ambition with fate. The race is not always to the swift etc., so we’d best be prepared not to realize all our dreams… and still be happy. The “golden mean” is key, opening us to insights like:

Health is a blessing which no one can be sure of preserving; marriage is not invariably a source of bliss. [So] happiness must for most be an achievement rather than a gift of the gods.

In a thousand ways the failure of purely personal hopes may by unavoidable, but if personal aims have been part of larger hopes for humanity, there is not the same utter defeat when failure comes.

The man who is working for some much-needed reform may find all his efforts sidetracked by a war, and may be forced to realise that what he has worked for will not come about in his lifetime. But he need not on that account sink into complete despair, provided that he is interested in the future of mankind apart from his own participation in it.

Worry and fret and irritation are emotions which serve no purpose… in the history of the cosmos the event in question has no very great importance.

It’s all about shucking the false skin of isolated selfhood, tribal exclusion, and narrow nationalism. The Happy Man or woman is

a citizen of the universe, enjoying freely the spectacle that it offers and the joys that it affords, untroubled by the thought of death because he feels himself not really separate from those who will come after him. It is in such profound instinctive union with the stream of life that the greatest joy is to be found.

So there you have it. Go find, and enjoy. And enjoy your Fall Break.

Then begin enjoying Jennifer Hecht’s Myth of Happiness for next time.

*The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible , and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.

Well, maybe. But maybe those other Brits were onto something too:

Well, it’s nothing special. Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.

But that’s fundamentally all the same advice, isn’t it?

growing old with Gaia

March 30, 2011

Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, The last of life, for which the first was made…

Finally we’ll finish midterm presentations in NW today, before a quick & easy exam on Nature’s Way (just the closing chapters) and Native Science– both of which I enjoyed a great deal.  I feel like I’ve really had my sympathy for the native American sensibility (if there is such a singular thing) stretched.

We’ll pick Lovelock’s Vanishing Face of Gaia up again on Monday. Meanwhile, consider this self-referential passage from ch.3:

Because I am old, I often think of Gaia as if she were an old lady of about my age… since she is now 3.5 billion years old she has already lived nearly 88 percent of her life [leaving about 500 million years]. If I can reach one hundred then, intriguingly, at 89 as I write [he’s up to 91 now], I am now the same relative age as Gaia.

Why do so many images depict her as a jeune fille?  I still prefer Terry Gilliam’s animated version of Mother Cosmos, in Eric Idle’s accompanying Galaxy Song. That’s what has to come of a Big Bang. Whatever her age, as Carl Sagan suggested in Varieties of Scientific Experience, Mother Earth is just too small for such an amazing and expanding cosmos. “The God portrayed is too small. It is a god of a tiny world and not a god of a galaxy, much less of a universe.”

But I think Lovelock’s “Pecksniffian colleagues” are right, he really is engaging in some sentimental anthropomorphizing here. Maybe that’s good, in the same way some native creation myths are constructive: they deepen our respect for the old girl, and encourage us to lighten our step.

Our obligation as an intelligent species is to survive; and if we can evolve to become an integrated intelligence within Gaia, then together we could survive longer.

Sounds like a plan. When can we see the details? Or have we already? Time for that exam.


One more thing, STUDENTS: if you submitted an essay electronically I have to ask you to re-submit, in hard copy this time. Thanks again, Hacker.

play ball

January 13, 2011

It’s another Opening Day for Intro to Philosophy-let the journey begin…

The syllabus has been posted in the Pipeline, for those who’ve matriculated at our Enormous State University. Your first assignment, STUDENTS, is to find it there and read it. (If you’ve already printed the version posted previously you’ll need to update the sequence of assignments, which has been revised.)

Thinking is serious business but it’s also meant to be fun and enlarging, so we’ll be playing with a graphic as well as textual approach to big questions about life, the universe, and everything. (That’s a lot to cover, admittedly; the universe is really big.)

What is philosophy? I still like William James’s answer: an unusually stubborn striving for clarity. Stubborn, but not inflexible or intransigent. Argumentative but not disagreeable. Philosophy in the classroom is conducted with words pondered, spoken, and heard. That’s why I also like Sally Brown’s experimental approach to this question.

On Day#1 we need to set the right tone by emphasizing the importance of listening not just to our own words but to others’ as well, respectfully and with an appropriate humility.

We all have much to be humble about, not only the limits of our own personal perspicacity but those of the very enterprise we are engaged in: using words to express thoughts and feelings that begin in inarticulate wonder.

Maybe that’s enough words to get us going.

irrational exuberance

December 24, 2010

Exuberance carries us places we would not otherwise go—across the savannah, to the moon, into the imagination… Kay Redfield Jamison

Generosity continues to speak to me, this morning in connection with those nuns whose own exuberance for living the cloistered life is so contrary to my own sensibility, and so sad to me. But just listen to them, they’re beside themselves with the ecstatic joy of a meaningfulness they had not found in the secular world. Sister Beatrice says

this is the most freeing thing I could have chosen, because everything else would have been trying to find this — this defining relationship that would give value to everything.”


“I met the person for me. I’ve been known by him forever. And I’ve known him more or less throughout my life. And now I know that this is where I’m called to.”

“We’re all orienting ourselves towards heaven,” says another Sister. I find that creepy and depressing, myself. But we’re not talking about me.

Ex uberare—”the pouring forth of fruit.” If we’re going to be Jamesian pragmatists about this we’ll just have to overlook some of the absurdity and focus on the fruit, the good works, the charity, the high-spirited mobilizing of personal and institutional energies for good.

And for bad, Hitch will remind us: church edicts proscribing contraception in Africa, priestly perversion and child rape… it all goes onto the scale.

Wisdom, James said, is knowing what to overlook. My challenge, again, as an aspirant “atheist with a soul”, is where to draw the line beyond which tolerable absurdity becomes the kind that should no longer be overlooked?

Julia Sweeney pointed out in Letting Go of God that the line between trinitarian virgin birth and Joe Smith-style weirdness is specious, just a shade this side of Scientology. And Deepak Chopra’s New Age quantum weirdness is right in there with them.

But, on this holiday eve, it would be much more in the spirit to overlook all that for now and instead accentuate the positive. Take it away, Eric

So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth,
And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space,
‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth.

OK, that last couplet isn’t entirely positive. But I’m told there’s healing in prayer.

backing off

November 24, 2010

“Sustainable” is a squishy word, says Bill McKibben. It purveys the lie that we can keep on going as we’re going, indefinitely. We can’t. We have to back off.

Better are words like durable, sturdy, stable, hardy, robust…

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Looks like it’s Bring Younger Daughter to Work Day. She’s out already for Thanksgiving Break and says she’ll accompany me to class today-with an “activity” for you, and maybe cookies too.

4 PM UPDATE: She wants all of you who did not make it to her class today to know: no cookies or cupcakes for you!

Poor Alan Greenspan, the “tiny wizard behind the curtain,” unexpectedly bereft of his eternally-expansionist libertarian “belief system.” It all goes back to thinking nature can play second fiddle to “society,” on McKibben’s reading. Last few decades, we’re just too big for our britches.

We need to get back the spirit of ’76 (or ’75?), before American patriotism was indistinguishable from nationalism and exceptionalism… back when it was all about “the defense of the small against the big.” Before we were Big Gulping, Super-sizing, planet-hogging, growth-gorging, future-robbing Consumers.

(But what about Madison’s “Federalist 10” and the push for strong central government? That was never meant to be permanent, McKibben contends a bit unpersuasively.)

Nobody cares about Mars, that world of wonders? The President does: “we want to leap into the future. We want major breakthroughs, a transformative agenda for NASA.”

Admittedly, three decades of benign neglect of deeper space has taken a toll, on that front. People get excited about big projects when opinion leaders lead effectively. Lately the Pythonesque absurdity of large-scale ambitions has been hard to shake, in the absence of a clear-eyed and articulate visionary to tap our idealism. As Jason reminded us the other day, we need another Sagan.

And we need another wave of reason.

What’s left after you go is
The good you’ve left behind
You have to believe in hope
You have to believe in the future

There are more and more people coming around to the point of view that
A positive future for humanity requires human expansion to space

We’re at a crossroads today
We either muster the courage to go
Or we risk the possibility of stagnation and decay

If the short-term future is going to be shrunken,  a long-term vision will be harder to hold.  But times do change. They’ll change again. Right?

If cheap energy has fueled our  “neighborless lifestyle,” and made us less happy, we’d better hope so. The Farmer’s Diner (“Think Globally–Act Neighborly” sounds like a great role model for these changing times.

Wendell Berry’s “mad farmer,” too.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns…

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts…

But… no more “key” national projects anymore? So soon on the heels of civil rights, in a time of vanishing civil liberties, in the fresh echo of “Drill, Baby, Drill”? That really seems premature.

And so does despair. “Far more people take care of each other than take advantage of each other.” That’s true enough, isn’t it? Is it an authentic underpinning of hope? Is the future of “community” bright enough?

Could be. You wouldn’t bet, would you, that the next chapter by the author of The Age of Missing Information, on the Internet, will be any brighter? But that’s the thing about the future (and it’s also my favorite word in English, as it was Joaquin Andujar’s): Youneverknow.

We are “the lucky ones.” Happy Thanksgiving! Pay it forward

Kant, Hegel, Marx…

November 9, 2010
Immanuel Kant was a real pissant who was very rarely stable.”*
No, he wasn’t. Not at all. But  that’s still the first thought that ever pops into my head when I hear his name, thanks to the Bruces.* (The second involves my old Kantian professor from grad school, whose Brooklyn accent made semi-shocking his story of “how I met my wife.” But never mind.)
Kant was actually the most soberly stable and fastidious of men. They “set their watches by him as he went on his daily walk” in 18th-century Konigsberg, Prussia. That’s probably the thing about him I like most. He well knew the truth of William James’s  later observation that steady habits are our greatest productive ally. Kant was as productive as he was un-flashy.
“Awakened from his dogmatic slumbers” and his romantic dalliance with Rousseau and  Leibniz by David Hume’s dash of cold water skepticism, he assigned appearance and reality to the phenomenal and noumenal worlds, respectively. He didn’t mean that phenomena are unreal or unknowable, just that we know them through the categorical spectacles of our projective understanding. We don’t know them “in themselves,” the “ding-an-sich” is a non-starter.
But Kant knew what he knew. The stars are awesome, and so is a dutiful conscience (“the moral law within”). Fealty to the latter led him to his “Categorical Imperative” and its “silly” obsession with inflexibly rational consistency.
Kant. Obsessive, punctual of habit, semi-gregarious, a mouth-breather, fond of Cicero, and also a philosophical walker (but with a weird aversion to sweat). Famous last  word: “Sufficit.” Enough. (I like his countryman Goethe’s better: “Mehr licht.” More light. (Or was it “Mehr nicht,” No more?) Famous living words: “Sapere aude.” Have the courage to think.
Hegel said “the real is the rational & the rational is real,” implying a tightly-interlocked jigsaw of spirit, nature, and mind unfolding progressively over time. The zeitgeists of successive eras reflect “the march of reason.”
The end-point of all that marching: the “Absolute,” when nature finally comes to know itself through the self-consciousness of rational agents like, well, like Hegel himself. Seems a bit self-indulgent, doesn’t it? Schopenhauer (“Hegel is a stupid and clumsy charlatan”) and Kierkegaard definitely thought so. They objected to his turgid, convoluted style as well as his project of reducing all to Reason.
Kierkegaard was contemptuous of Hegel’s rational ambitions, doubting there was any place in his grand system of  objective reality for living individuals. Was his “leap of faith” a fatal leap from the bridge of reason, “rational suicide”? Or is it just another way of affirming the will to believe?
“The negation of the negation…” Sounds like gobbledy-gook of the sort that might inspire another philosopher to ingest laughing gas, but it is possible to read Hegel non-mystically as saying some very sensible things about life in its experiential and historical unfolding. He did not believe in disembodied spirits or the immortality of the soul, but he did believe in Spirit as communal self-knowledge. Turn it over and you get hard-boiled history and the political struggle for justice that Hegel (and Feuerbach) provoked in Marx. Hegelian philosophy resembles his student Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge, an impressive structure built on sand.

But Feuerbach thought he was on to something. Some thing: material, social, economic reality. “The philosophical cure consists in overcoming alienation, demystifying Christianity and bringing human beings towards a true self-understanding.” We should stop kneeling before visions of remote perfection that we’ve projected onto Christ (and other iconic objects) and stand up on our own feet.
Schopenhauer, like most post-Kantian Germans, couldn’t resist saying too much about the “thing-in-itself.” For him it was blind, striving, implacable, insatiable will (aka desire, attachment, ambition) which must be renounced and denied. “Sounds like Buddhism to me,” too, but without HHDL’s lightening chuckle.

“You are what you eat,” said Feuerbach. Marx construed “eat” broadly,  in

material and economic terms, and agreed with Hegel that human progress unfolds historically and dialectically. But our ideas (“consciousness”) must catch up to social reality, not the other way around. When they finally do, he predicted, we’ll throw off our chains, abolish private property,  and for the first time really know Eden.
Utopian? So far.
[more realityGermans (mostly)…  Kant to Marxsourpuss…]
NOTE TO STUDENTS: Exams are graded, essays are not. Thanks for not asking. More report presentations this afternoon.