Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Follies

In 1511 Erasmus wrote a wonderful little treatise called Encomium Morae, literally "Praise of Folly" but also a pun on the name of his friend, St. Thomas More (in medieval Latin, the final -ae of the word morae would have been pronounced the same way the final -e in the name "More" would have been pronounced at that time in English [these days it's silent]). I was reminded of that treatise as I reflected on some of the comments posted here of late. In particular, I found myself wondering, in a couple of cases, what sort of person had left the comment. Usually it's rather difficult to ascertain such things, since the world of blogs, Facebook, Myspace, and other similar fora tends to be a world of alternate identities, where folks either refuse to say entirely who they are or they present a persona to the world that they rather wish were more true to life.

So what I usually go by is the person's blog, if s/he has one--often they don't, but just log in long enough to leave a rude comment and get out, like some rowdy who pops into a room, burps loudly, and then exits with a guffaw. In some cases, though, there are blogs, and some of them are very interesting. Indeed, in a few cases I have been impressed by some of the things I have seen out there, and I sometimes find myself wondering why some of these intelligent folks don't drop in more often to say what they think. This was particularly true in the case of some Orthodox bloggers who left comments on some of my posts on the Trinity, the Filioque controversy, and the distinction between essence and existence. These folks are impressive people, not merely because they are smart and articulate but, to judge from the evidence they have left on the web, they manifest to the world that combination of insight, intelligence, and faithfulness that seems to me to be an impressive witness to the sort of imago Dei that we are all called to be.

In a rather amusing exception to this pattern, however, I recently came across a blog by someone who bills himself as a "Jewish atheist". Like many bloggers, he does not leave many clues as to who he really is, though that, too, can be discerned if one is interested enough in learning such things. I was interested in looking at his blog because the comment he left was articulate and intelligent and, even though it was clear from the start that he and I see the world in very different ways, it seemed equally clear to me that here was a guy I could like: smart, intellectually curious, someone worth talking to, listening to, and, perhaps--hopefully, learning from. Some of what I found at his blog was, indeed, rather interesting, and I won't say that I didn't like any of it. There was a lot of left wing politics, which faithful readers of this blog will know did not particularly appeal to me; there was a lot of "progressive" social thought; but mostly there was a lot of sex. I was reminded of the following passage from Erasmus' Praise of Folly:
I may as well speak frankly to you in my usual way. What is it, I ask you, which begets gods or men--the head, the face, the breast, hand or ear, all thought of as respectable parts of the body? No, it's not. The propagator of the human race is that part which is so foolish and absurd that it can't be named without raising a laugh. There is the true sacred fount from which everything draws its being, not the quarternion of Pythagoras.
Youth. If I had to guess, I would say the guy is probably either fresh out of law school or some sort of computer geek. I remember those days. I'm a little puzzled by his nom de plume, however. "Jewish atheist" strikes me as an oxymoron, but nobody ever asks me for my opinion about such things, and who am I to complain if somebody wants to give an encomium of the oxymoron? I suppose the claim is supposed to be that "Jewish", in addition to referring to a religious culture, refers to a race of people. It's a little surprising to find allegiance to a "race" in a self-styled "progressive" (see my dissing of race-talk here), but some things are hard to put aside. I still have some of my Hot Wheels cars (I particularly like the one called "Red Baron"). There are some folks who call themselves "Catholic", too, for no other reason than that they were "raised Catholic", but that is equally meaningless, if not more so since there is no question of anything like a "race" being involved there. And yet I know some otherwise very intelligent people who call themselves "Catholic" in this purely cultural sense, while making no commitments whatsoever to any of the necessary and sufficient beliefs that actually cause one to be a Catholic. Some of these people are, in fact, self-styled atheists who are quite certain that what the Catholic faith says about itself is incoherent and literally silly. Why anyone who thought such a thing would want to hang on to the moniker in public is beyond me, but, then again, there's that whole "Red Baron" thing....

So some people are just weird, and I guess I ought to know from first hand, personal experience that bloggers are the weirdest of the bunch. I'm learning to deal with it, though. When I was in college, one of the very first classes I attended was taught by a man who introduced himself on the first day of class as "a militant Marxist atheist." Hey man, it was 1975, it was cool to say things like that back then. Although I was not a Marxist, I was pretty much an atheist, so I didn't have any worries. You might think, though, that as I grew less and less of either a Marxist or an atheist, I would look back on those days with a feeling that I somehow dodged a bullet. But in fact I look back fondly on those days, and on that guy in particular. He was my academic adviser, and he was a very good one. During the intervening years I have come to value more and more, rather than less and less, the impact he had on my life. You see, he was intelligent, articulate, and committed to principle, and even though we did and still do disagree an many things, he taught me by his example what it is to be intelligent, articulate, and committed to principle. It's too bad he picked the wrong principles, but some people are just weird.

Not too long ago I quoted from Henry Harding who complained that it is just plain silly to think it possible for different religions to coexist peacefully in the world, given the history of attempts at such things. He seems to think that monoculture is better than variety, but as any student of evolutionary biology knows, without variation, natural selection and, hence, adaptation and evolution, is impossible. Difference is sometimes a good thing, even in politics and religion. To say otherwise strikes me as folly.

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