Friday, April 28, 2006

Teaching and Learning

I think I mentioned in a post not too long ago that I've been working pretty hard at recovering my lost trumpet-playing skills. It turns out that playing music is not exactly like riding a bicycle--it doesn't just come back to you automatically. It's taken me about six months to get myself to a point where I'm actually much better than I was 35 years ago when I played 1st cornet in my junior high school band, but I couldn't have gotten here without help.

I started off with the best of intentions. I wanted to help my son practice his trombone. Like many 6th graders, he is loathe to do it, or anything, really, not related to computer games. Really the main reason I took the trumpet up again was so that I could practice with him, because for some strange reason he seems to enjoy certain things more when I do them with him. Go figure. Most of my friends have a tendency to search frantically for excuses whenever I ask them to do something with me. So he asked his band director for a copy of the "trumpet" version of the book they're using in his band lessons at school, and his director was apparently pretty excited that I was practicing with him and gladly supplied the book. I paid for it, though, so don't go thinking that I'm sponging off the public school system.

Since I tend to have a little more staying power than some 12 year olds, I quickly mastered the whole book and needed something more. So I went to the Ohio University Music Library and got myself a copy of that old stand-by, The Arban-Clarke Method for Cornet and Trumpet. That title will be familiar to anyone who has studied either trumpet or cornet--I used it as a kid and it was an incredibly old book even then. Jean Baptiste Arban was a French cornetist who lived in the 19th century--the Method was first published in 1864. That's remarkable when you remember that the cornet was only invented at the close of the 18th century, shortly after the invention of trumpets with valves (the valveless, or "natural", trumpet has been around much longer). Herbert L. Clarke published a "modernized" version in 1930, and it is still used by many students and professionals.

I began working my way through the exercises, and my progress was noticeable (just ask any of the hapless squirrels who fell off of the roof of my house when [because?] I was practicing). One of my favorite parts of the book is not the musical exercises but the written text. Get a load of this:
The proper production of tone having been duly arrived at, the executant should now strive to attain a good style. I am not now alluding to that supreme quality which is the culminating point of art and which is possessed by so few artists, even among the most skilful and renowned, but to a less brilliant quality, the absence of which would check all progress, and annihilate all perfection. To be natural, to be correct, to execute music as it is written, to phrase according to the style and sentiment of the piece performed,--these are qualities which surely ought to be the object of the pupil's constant research. But he cannot hope to attain them until he has rigorously imposed upon himself the strict observance of the value of each note. The neglect of this desideratum is so common a defect, especially among military bandsmen, that I think it necessary to set forth the evils arising therefrom and to indicate at the same time, the means of avoiding them.
You've got to love the expressions like "executant" and "desideratum". People just don't--or can't--write like this anymore. I wish my own students could. Even a banal essay would be more fun to read if it were written in this kind of prose. Playing without care will "annihilate all perfection"! It sounds funny to say, but it's so true! It's true in university coursework, too, that's how I know it is also true of learning to play music.

Or check out what he has to say about the portamento (a kind of grace note):
The portamento is a little note which is, in fact, merely the repetition of a note which the performer desires to carry to another by slurring. This kind of embellishment must not be used too freely, as it would be a proof of bad taste. When judiciously employed, it is highly effective; but, for my own part, I decidedly prefer that the tone should be slurred without having recourse to the grace note.
I don't actually know whether this part of the text was written by Arban or is an addition from Clarke, but I love the freely-dispensed normative judgments. People don't worry enough these days about proving that they have bad taste.

After working with Arban for a while I decided it was time to get some real lessons, so I enrolled in the Athens Community Music School, a service branch of the Ohio University School of Music. I was assigned a graduate student trumpet player, and I have been enjoying working with him. He is a great teacher, and my playing is already much better after only a few sessions.

It is sometimes easy to forget, when you are a teacher, what it is like to be a student. So, too, students sometimes either forget or, possibly, never even think about, what it means to be a serious learner. I am having something of a renaissance with these trumpet lessons, and I'm thinking that there has got to be some way to communicate the excitement that I feel to my own students, because, if there were, learning would cease to be the chore that some students apparently find it to be.

Attitude, it seems to me, is very important here. When I step back and look at the learning process itself, I am sometimes very moved by the nature of the relationship that I see there. Let me take a rather banal example. I sometimes watch the Golf Channel, and those of you who also watch it will know that the daytime programming hours are filled with instructional programming. As an avid but lousy golfer, I know what it feels like to want to golf better. I went to a few workshops to improve my game and I remember very well the feelings I had as some old geezer patiently stood next to me while I tried swing after swing, failing each time to send the ball where he told me. With each swing he calmly explained what had gone wrong and what I could try to do to fix it. When one fix did not work, he suggested another, then another, then another. He never ran out of suggestions, in fact, even though I think I hit the target zone maybe one or two times out of thirty. He never showed any sign of frustration that I just wasn't "getting it". If he suspected that I was unteachable, he did not show that, either. I came away only slightly improved in my golf game, but with a vastly improved sense of the difficulty of teaching and learning. More importantly, however, I had a new sense of how that relationship--the relationship between teacher and student--ought to be. I saw myself in that particular situation as someone looking for some help, and the teacher as someone willing and able to give it. It was not some commodity that I was purchasing (although I did, in fact, pay a fee to attend the workshop, upon reflection that seemed immaterial to me), but rather a desire, on the one hand, for betterment, and a willingness, on the other hand, to do what was in one's power to provide that betterment.

So, too, in the case of my music. Here is this excellent trumpet player taking time out of his day to help me to achieve a goal that is very important to me. What's it to him if I play the trumpet better than I do now? I will probably never play as well as he does, because for me it's just a hobby, a diversion. For him it is his career. Soon he will be gone, playing in some orchestra or other, and in all likelihood he will never see me again, let alone hear me play. He will have no access to the fruits of his own labors, and yet he takes great care, utilizes great patience, to help me to reach my goal. Granted he gets paid for his services. I don't actually know how much he gets paid, since I wrote a check to the school in exchange for the ten 45 minute lessons, and I don't know how much they give to him and how much they keep for administrative costs. What I do know is this: his expertise is freely dispensed as though his primary concern is the dispensing of the expertise itself and not the remuneration that follows. Because of him, the world will have better trumpet playing in it, and that is what appears to motivate him. As St. Paul said, the laborer deserves his wages--the fact that teachers are paid to do what they do in no way diminishes the nobility of what they do. We have lots of little colloquialisms that express this idea: when someone thanks us for something we've done for them, we sometimes say things like "It was no trouble at all", "It was a pleasure", or "Glad to be of service." No need to thank me, these expressions say, I got as good as I gave.

How to replicate this result in my own work? I am a teacher, after all. At least some people think I am. Learning to play golf or a trumpet is one thing, but learning to think like a philosopher is arguably a lot less fun, and perhaps is not high on the list of priorities of most students. In one sense I am luckier in this respect that many other teachers, since my classes are not required of anyone, so the students who take them tend to self-select a little bit. It's true that Philosophy 101, an introductory course, and Philosophy 130, an introduction to ethics, are the sorts of courses that fulfill general distribution requirements, but most of the classes I teach are for folks who are deeply interested in philosophy and who take it because they want to (well, in some sense of the word "want", anyway). But it can be difficult, on some days, to make that connection, the one I have as a student of my trumpet teacher, the connection that ignites a spark of interest that turns quickly into a flame of passion.

The irony is that philosophy, at least so it seems to me, is the discpline that, above all others, is all about sparking the fascination with learning and intellectual growth. I feel as enthusiastic about teaching it as I do about learning to play the trumpet or golf, but I understand perfectly well that most students do not come away from my classes eagerly looking forward to the next lecture the way I leave my trumpet lesson eagerly looking forward to the next one, nor do they go home and plow into their texts the way I go home from my lesson and immediately start looking for some down time in which I can close the door and play that trumpet some more. I certainly was not like that when I was a kid, so why should I expect anything different from my students? Of course, now I have that sort of attitude towards what I do for a living. I'm particularly geeky in my spare time, reading books about Plato and Aristotle or, when I really want to get away from it all, books about theology or renaissance history and culture. Sometimes I read trashy stuff, as I've mentioned before, but more often than not my leisure time is filled with stuff that would make most people want to run away. When I'm not playing golf or the trumpet, that is. Certainly I don't expect kids in their 20s to live life the way an old academic turd like me does, so what does one do to begin to inculcate in them the excitement that they not only need to have to do well in school but more importantly have a right to? What I mean by that is, education is a very important thing, and in particular the education that is a liberal arts education is what completes us as human beings, makes us capable of participating in society in such a way that the common good really is fostered, and we all have a basic right to that simply by virtue of our dignity as human beings. We should all be excited by the project of fulfilling our ends as human beings--it is a degenerate culture that places a premium on the transitory and material enjoyments of the moment, but sadly that is more and more what our popular culture is becoming.

There is hope, however. When I was on that field trip with my son's 6th grade class last week I spent a lot of time with one of the teachers, Mr. David House. I won't sit here and tell you that he's an idealistic young man out to change the world one 6th grader at a time becuase, in addition to being trite and sacharine that would also be false. He has a very healthy understanding of what he is doing and what he is up against. He is also, however, one of the most exciting and inspiring people I have been around in a long time. He has an enthusiasm for--not his work per se, but for the content of his work, for teaching and learning as such. He is particularly interested in science, and so we talked about a lot of interesting issues surrounding science and science education. We even talked a little about the demarcation controversy and how to distinguish creationism from real science. His energy levels were much higher than my own, but then he's 18 years younger than I. Even so, his energy was infectious, and by the end of the trip I felt pumped up, ready to get back to work and spread some intellectual cheer of my own. Best of all, he helped me to see how much fun it can be to approach the task of teaching with energy and good will, and in particular how to interact with kids like my son, who sometimes can be hard to communicate with.

So I'll keep at it. I'll do my best to communicate my own enthusiasm to my students. It won't catch on with most of them, of course, but if it ignites a few, then there will be more interest in philosophy--in the life well-lived--in the world, and it will be there, at least in part, because of me, and for that I can be grateful.

Glad to be of service--it's a pleasure.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

A Tale of Two Bishops

There was a fascinating essay by Peter J. Boyer in the New Yorker for this week regarding the Present Unpleasantness in the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. I was drawn to the essay like a rubbernecker to a traffic accident, principally because of my own past involvement with the PECUSA. Another important element in the essay, at least for me, was the attention paid therein to my old friend and mentor, the Right Reverend Bob Duncan, Episcopal Bishop of Pittsburgh. I haven't seen Fr. Bob in person for a long time, and it was rather dear to read the quotes from him in the essay--his personality jumped right off the page at me ("gracious sakes" he is quoted as saying at one point--I had forgotten his cornucopia of such quaint phrases).

I have written some emails to Fr. Bob over the years, but the last time I saw him in person was in May of 1984 when Peter James Lee was installed as the Bishop Coadjutor in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia (Lee is now Bishop of the diocese). Fr. Bob took part in the Consecration that day, laying hands on the man with whom he had worked as a parish priest in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I knew the two of them when they were at the Chapel of the Cross together, Fr. Bob as the University Chaplain, Peter Lee as the Rector of the parish. I was a member of the parish from 1980 until my conversion to Catholicism in 1983. By the time I converted, Fr. Bob had already left to become Rector of St. Thomas Parish in Newark, Delaware, but Peter Lee was still running the show at the Chapel of the Cross.

I worked closely with both of them--I was active in the Anglican Student Fellowship that Fr. Bob had set up, and I was also appointed by Peter Lee to serve as a kind of "secretary" to the Parish Vestry. During the 1982-83 academic year I worked particularly closely with Peter Lee because I was serving as an intern at St. Bartholomew's parish in Pittsboro. My plan was to become a postulant for the priesthood in the Episcopal church.

Looking back on those days fills me with a kind of nostalgia--though in some ways I see myself as having dodged a bullet by converting when I did. I cannot imagine what I would have done had I gone on to ordination in that denomination--one can only hope that one would have had the courage, fortitude, and intellectual integrity of a Fr. Alvin Kimel. Nostalgia is a word that we borrow, believe it or not, from the Homeric dialect. It is a combination of two Greek words: nostos, a homecoming, and algos, pain or distress. A painful homecoming: thinking of those days is much like going home, but I cannot help but feel distress when I ponder what has happened since--and what happened then. Fr. Bob and Peter Lee were very different in many ways: Southerner v. Yankee; High Church v. Broad Church; formal v. informal. But in one way they were alike: both men are very principled persons.

You can certainly see this in Fr. Bob these days--he led a group of 20 Bishops in a walkout from the 74th General Convention when the Consecration of Gene Robinson was affirmed. He now stands as a bulwark of orthodoxy within the American branch of the Anglican Communion, a light on the hilltop of the Anglican Communion Network, the group that has managed to preserve the doctrinal integrity of what was once the Episcopal Church. That group--the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America--has fallen into open heresy and ipso facto, cut itself off from Communion with other Christians of good will.

Heresy is a strong word, of course; some prefer to say PECUSA has merely entered into a schism. Peter Lee, famously, has said that he prefers heresy to schism, so perhaps the semantics here are not the main issue. Peter Boyle really hit the nail on the head in his essay when he noted that the PECUSA, lacking any kind of centralized teaching authority or disciplinary mechanism, cannot help but dissolve away in a sea of relativistic entropy as group after group decides, unilaterally, that their way of doing things is either the best way or, at the very least, a good enough way for them, regardless of whatever anyone else might have to say.

This, indeed, seems to be the prevalent attitude among the "progressives" mentioned in Boyle's essay. First, there is Robinson himself, who seems honest and decent enough as a person but for whom all truth appears to be grounded in his own subjective experience of things. For him, his homosexuality is a fact not about who he is but about what he is. Strangely, rather than offer up this fact about himself in a selfless act of kenosis by adopting a celibate lifestyle, he chose instead to just act on his impulses as though there were no reason or motivation to investigate whether each and every physical or emotional impulse is something that we ought to live our lives in accordance with. Similarly with John Spong, arguably the most visible and risible heretic in the Anglican fold (if he is really in that, or any, Christian fold), who is quoted as saying about the doctrine of Atonement that it is "a barbarian idea, based on primitive concepts of God". One can only imagine the arrogance of someone who would say such a thing out loud, let alone think it about those whom he professes to love with Christian charity.

Peter Lee's committment to principle is, I think, every bit as strong as Fr. Bob's, but it manifests itself in curiously different ways. When I was working with Peter at the Chapel of the Cross just before my conversion in 1983, a friend of mine asked me to approach him about the possibility of letting her group address members of the parish. Her group was an anti-abortion pregnancy support group with which Janet Smith was once affiliated. My friend came to me because Peter had apparently turned her down when she asked him directly for permission to talk to members of the parish. I asked him about it, and I was astonished at his reasoning. He had, he said, once paid for an abortion for a 13 year old African American girl, and he did not want anyone coming into the parish trying to persuade folks that abortion is morally wrong. He averred as how it "tore [him] up inside" to pay for that abortion, but apparently it did not tear him up quite enough to keep him from doing it. His committment was to a very different sort of principle than I was comfortable with--his principle was one of convenience, in a way, doing whatever needs to be done to keep things flowing smoothly for everyone on an even keel. I have no idea whether that girl is happy now that her abortion was paid for then, but I presume that Peter Lee thought that what he did was for the best, in the long run. One has to hope that it is such committment to principle that motivates him to prefer heresy to schism--better to make a doctrinal mistake than to sin against charity. Granted that a sin against charity is a very grave matter indeed, but the facile slogan ignores the possibility that some heresies are in themselves also sins against charity. John Spong, for example, in condemning those who view matters differently from himself in such strong and condescending terms not only commits grave doctrinal errors, but he also sins against charity in doing so. He is both a schismatic and a heretic, and that, surely, is not a very good place to be. This seems to me, as an outside observer, to be an attitue that is widely shared among the defenders of Gene Robinson, who see themselves as somehow more enlightened than the rest of the Anglican Communion. I was particularly distressed by Boyle's description of the way in which the African Bishops were treated at past Conventions. Now that the African delegates to the Convention represent the growing majority of worldwide Anglicanism, one hopes that their voices will be granted greater respect.

Fr. Bob, by contrast, commits neither a doctrinal error by standing up (literally) for the truth, nor does he sin against charity by reminding his brothers and sisters of what the truth is. Far from being a sin against charity the work of fraternal correction is rather a spiritual work of mercy. This is the sort of committment to principle that can bear only good fruit in the long run, whatever unpleasant fruit it may appear to bear in the short run. Sometimes we must undertake something unpleasant in order to serve the common good, as Plato so eloquently argued in such dialogues as Gorgias and Republic. It is no different, really, from taking an unpleasant medicine or undergoing a painful medical procedure in order to make oneself healthier, the only difference being that we are discussing the spiritual rather than the physical domain.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Science and Religion

There was a good opinion piece by Kevin Shapiro in last Friday's Wall Street Journal. Shapiro is a researcher in neuroscience at Harvard University, but I don't mention that merely by way of credentialism. Instead, I find it interesting that he is a serious scientist who agrees with Stephen Jay Gould's proposal that we treat science and religion as "non-overlapping magisteria". Too many scientists these days appear to think that materialist empiricism is the only magisterium in town, and that those who don't subscribe to it are hopelessly benighted. Shapiro makes the important point that materialist empiricism is the magisterium within the confines of scientific enquiry, but those confines are, well, most definitively confined. Science is a partiular domain of discourse, within which a certain attitude is proper a priori. Outside of that domain of discourse, however, we have no non a priori reason to adopt one attitude rather than another, but you would never know that to hear some people talk.

It is a commonly accepted attitude--not only among scientists and other academics, but also among many lay pundits--that rational discourse requires a kind of healthy skepticism, and skepticism, on this view, must go hand in hand with empiricism. The attitude is often put in terms of the Doubting Thomas slogan: until I put my fingers in the nail holes and my hand in his side, I will not believe it. People who shun this "Show Me" attitude are labelled "Magical Thinkers" or worse.

Personally I, too, endorse a healthy skepticism, but I suppose what I regard as "healthy" and what "pathological" is quite different from the distinctions drawn by others. When it comes to the demarcation battles, however, I am firmly on the side of Shapiro. Stephen Barr, a physicist and writer for First Things, represents a religious version of Shapiro's attitude. It is not shared by everyone among conservatives, but one hopes that it is growing in popularity.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Well I'm Glad That's Finally Settled!

An introduction to a piece on Future Church at the NPR website has this to say:
Inscriptions and images found on tombstones, frescoes and mosaics throughout the Mediterranean show that women held respected roles in the early Christian church that were identical to those held by men. They were apostles, priests, deacons and bishops.
So what's all the fuss about? It seems the Vatican is being obstreperous:
But the Vatican's official view of church history presents women in a different light.
Where do they get the morons who write these things, anyway?

See it for yourself.

Woodland Altars

Last week I served as a chaperone to my son's sixth grade class field trip. They went to a beautiful camp in Adams County, Ohio, called Woodland Altars. We spent nearly three days there, and I was quite impressed with the whole program of instruction. I was also impressed with the marked difference between the behavior of the kids on this field trip, and the behavior of the kids in my sixth grade class when we went on these kinds of trips.

One of my favorite sites on this trip was Serpent Mound, an effigy structure built by the "Fort Ancient" culture, which flourished around A.D. 950-1050 along the Ohio River. The Serpent Mound itself may not strike a casual visitor as anything like, say, a pyramid or an aqueduct, but, as with Stonehenge and the Celts, it is a structure that proves the astronomical prowess of the Fort Ancient people.

Even more amazing--at least to me--was the "Cryptoexplosion Structure" (PDF Map). This is, believe it or not, an impact crater nearly 5 miles in diameter, the remnant of a meteorite impact nearly 300 million years ago. The surrounding countryside is strikingly beautiful, and as you drive over the hills and ridges it is fascinating to think that these are all that are left of a crater similar to those one can see on the moon's surface.

We were blessed with perfect weather, which meant good hiking and camping, beautiful sunrises and sunsets, and peaceful redbud observation. I got to be better acquainted with the teachers, too, and I was genuinely moved by their sincere interest in the educational process. I was particularly impressed by the enthusiasm and high spirits of David House, whom I hope to get to know even better.

All in all it was a great chance to get away and be with the kids. If you manage to get out there yourself, be sure to pay a visit to the House of Phacops. Proprietor Thomas Johnson is an authority on trilobites, and he is slowing building a museum with many interesting fossils, gems, minerals, and geological curiosities. Some items are for sale (including some exquisite trilobite fossils). He is a warm and friendly person, and can tell you all about the geology of the area (and other areas as well).

Friday, April 14, 2006

Semetipsum Exinanivit

Lately I've been reading Fr. Richard Neuhaus' new book, Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth (New York: Basic Books, 2006), with great interest and pleasure. His is a tale of conversion, and I am often struck by some of the similarities between his spiritual journey and my own. In discussing his background, he mentions a thought that I have myself blogged about many times, if only because the truth of it only recently struck me like a ton of bricks: "The Christian life is the abandonment of the self" (p. 53). If you are a mature Christian, this will seem too obvious to mention, but those who know me well know that I am anything but mature, though I hope someday to deserve the name Christian. The sentiment, however, will be familiar to anyone who has read Philippians 2.7. St. Paul writes that Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at, but rather he "emptied himself", taking the form of a slave.

Christ's willingness to empty himself out to God (semetipsum exinanivit)--and his doing so on the Cross for our sake--has got to be the central and essential element of the Christian life. The Greek word in this verse is ekenôsen which means literally to become as a void, the absence of anything. It can be difficult to live that sort of life sometimes, and Michael Liccione has a good post up about it at Sacramentum Vitae. Most of the time, when I find myself confronted with an opportunity of abandoning myself for God's sake, my awareness of the opportunity comes only in time for me to chastise myself for having missed it. Eventually, one hopes, one will learn to recognize the approach of such opportunities in time to act on them. We owe it to him in whom we live and move and have our being.
Cum invocarem, exaudivit me Deus iustitiae meae.
When he calls us, we should be listening, too.

Thursday, April 13, 2006


The impulse to primitivism is not an unnatural one. It seems consonant with our intuitions that, if we are to follow Christ, it is necessary to know as much as possible about the earliest followers who, it is presumed, knew more about what it means to follow him, since they were closer in time to the Real Deal. There is certainly an element of this in Roman Catholic theology, since we trace our beliefs to Apostolic times, and we regard the Magisterium as a body of teaching that has been handed on to us from the Apostles themselves who, in their turn, got the doctrine from Christ himself. There would be no value at all in any of that if it were not of interest to us to do things as they were done then, to preserve that tradition as coming from Our Lord himself.

This can be taken in a mistaken direction, too, however. Some primitivists find themselves obsessed with the practices of the earliest Christians on the grounds that such practices are more "authentic" in some way than our own. In the 1970s this manifested itself in a variety of ways, some important, others less so. Among the less important, I suppose, were those folks who took delight in replacing the traditional round eucharistic wafers with home baked whole wheat unleavened bread, the gold- or silver-plated communion vessels with rough made earthenware pottery, the cotton and silk vestments with rough linens, and the traditional church architecture with simple room-like utilitarian buildings. All of this was thought to meet a kind of normative standard that the traditional stuff failed to meet, and it was very appealing to a certain crowd of people. Indeed, my own parish continues to use the unpalatable whole wheat, home-baked communion bread and earthenware communion vessels. Relics of a different time, now they stand out like John Denver at a White Stripes concert.

Such things are mere aesthetic anachronisms, however. More worrisome, at least in my opinion, is the attempt to reform contemporary theology in light of the earliest evidence available. This is worrisome precisely because much of the early evidence is extremely vague and open to multiple interpretations. A rather famous crux, for example, is the role of women in the service of the church during Apostolic times. The Greek word for "service" is diakonia, from which we derive the word "deacon" in English. Women are often spoken of as engaged in diakonia, which has suggested to some modern readers that women served the church from the beginning as "deacons". If we add to this what St. Paul writes in Romans 16.7, where he describes the woman Junias along with Andronicus as being episêmoi en tois apostolois--that is, "notable among the apostles"--then some are tempted to claim that women served the church from the beginning not just as "servants" of some kind (diakonoi) but in Holy Orders.

Holy Orders as such did not exist at the time, of course. There were "overseers" (episkopoi), but there is no textual evidence either that an apostolos was also necessarily an episkopos or that women served in the latter capacity. Indeed, there seems to be rather ample evidence that St. Paul used the word apostolos of any person who had been blessed by the Lord with a special revelation--this appears to be his reason for using the term of himself, for example--but to have been so blessed is not the same thing as to be chosen to fill the role of one of the Twelve. If we add to this the possibility that Junias was not even a woman (it would be highly unusual, but the Greek name Iunias could be masculine in form), or point out the ambiguity of the phrase "notable among the apostles" (notable in what sense? Notable as apostles or notable to the apostles, that is, well-respected by those other folks who were apostles?), and it is quite clear that this is not the sort of question that can be settled by a quick and easy glance at some clear and unambiguous passage of scripture or other historical source.

It is easily settled, however, if we understand Tradition, the Magisterium, as authoritative. Since the time when Holy Orders first did exist, right up until John Paul's infallible declaration in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, the Church has believed that she lacks the authority to ordain women to the priesthood.

The Magisterium settles many such problems, if we will let it. Yet still there is this desire to seek out the earliest beginnings, to know how and why the first Christians believed and behaved as they did. Tonight, for example, the feet of twelve men will be washed in imitation of Christ's humble act of washing the feet of his chosen Twelve. The rubrics here specifically call for twelve men (viri), not just any twelve people (homines)--though this point has been lost in many parishes in the United States--because it is an image of the calling of the apostolate, which is all male--according to the Tradition, if not according to the folks at So, too, our Triduum liturgies have been revised and re-revised since the 1930s in an effort to bring them in line with the most ancient of the traditions. As much as some self-styled traditionalists dislike certain elements of the post-conciliar Mass, the "newer" eucharistic prayers are in fact versions of eucharistic prayers that are much older than the Roman Canon (for example, one of them is a version of Hippolytus' canon).

The same impulse that drives us---well, some of us, anyway--to continue these most ancient of traditions and hand them on to our children drives some others to get themselves muddled in the bizarre. I think this is part of the explanation for some of the popular interest in such things as the recently published "Gospel of Judas." Hope springs eternal that we will be able to cast off the shackles of those hopelessly biased traditional Gospels and replace them with something older, something more "authentic". The Gospel of Judas is nothing new--the popular enthusiasm we see today is no different from what was witnessed in the 19th century or in the 1950s when similar things were brought to light--but it is exciting to a certain sort of mindset. Even as I write, Elaine Pagels is extolling the virtues of gnosticism on NPR's Talk of the Nation, while one of the other speakers has been going on about how we should rejoice in the "diversity" of early "christianities". When folks have such a muddled notion of truth it should come as no surprise to find them celebrating the possibility that we've been mistaken for nearly two millenia about what is necessary for salvation. On their postmodern, relativistic account of truth, there is no such thing as something that is "necessary" for salvation. Other than to be "deeply devout", perhaps, to use Elaine Pagels' description of the early gnostics. "Many of them were monks", she notes.

Indeed. During certain periods of Christian history it is possible that the majority of the clergy were Arian heretics. There have been popes who were arguably heretics. In certain times and places gnostics may have comprised the majority of the Christian population. None of this, however, ought to be taken as evidence that there is no such thing as heresy. The folks on Talk of the Nation today keep asserting that the Gospel of Judas is going to "change everything", and yet it changes nothing. It cannot count as real evidence of some more "authentic" sort of Christianity--it is too late a document for that. Even if it were an early text, however, it could do nothing to alter the character of what the Magisterium has ascertained to be the most authentic, whether or not it is also the most ancient, form of Christian belief and praxis. That is something that the Church has slowly discovered, and continues to discover, through time, as she digests, reflects upon, and teaches what has been handed on to her. True, things may have been different if more, or different, materials had been handed on to her--if the gnostics and Arians had not been "supressed" by the orthodox. But when you believe that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit, you find it is not mere chance that caused such things to be suppressed. If you are Elaine Pagels, or some other sort of non-believer, you think that things could have turned out differently, that history is always written by the victors, and that this sort of platitudinous analysis explains how things are today.

Not to sound smug or anything, but the excitement of these folks will prove to be short-lived. As Philip Jenkins has ably shown in his recent study Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost its Way (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), the media always present these "discoveries" as though they are going to change everything--perhaps in the hope that they can generate more news by doing so--but nothing ever really changes, other than that some heresy or other gets a fresh whacking by the better-informed and more scholarly. At least it can prove to be a teaching moment--some folks may never have heard of gnosticism before, and now they will get to see first hand just how stupid it is. When I first read the Gospel of Thomas I was perplexed as to how anybody could find it as congenial as the accounts in Mark or Matthew, let alone John--but the Gospel of Judas makes the Gospel of Thomas look like the most sublime of revelations by comparison. Adam Gopnik does a fine job of explaining the banality of the Gospel of Judas in the most recent number of The New Yorker. After perusing these gnostic texts one is reminded of that old Saturday Night Live sketch in which Jon Lovitz played a hapless Michael Dukakis debating a dithering and befuddled George Bush Sr. After listening to Bush say "a thousand points of light, stay the course" over and over again, Lovitz looks at the camera and says "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy." So too, one looks at the buzz generated by these gnostic texts over the years, and then one looks at the texts themselves, and a genuine cognitive dissonance is created. One thinks to oneself, "What the--this is what all that fuss is about?"

We live in debauched times. Is it any wonder that a public that gives higher ratings to American Idol, Survivor, and South Park than it does to such things Masterpiece Theater or the PBS Newshour should find itself all in a tizzy over the Gospel of Judas, hoping that it will "change everything?" Out with the boring, in with the exciting, however banal and insipid.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Cycling Merit Badge

Last Saturday my son, Michael, and I participated in a minor bike-hike as part of Michael's quest for the elusive Cycling Merit Badge. He has already gone on a 10 mile bike hike followed by overnight campout, and this event was to be a 15 mile bike hike followed by overnight campout, but the Athens Marathon was scheduled to run on the bike trail on Sunday morning, so the overnight part of the outing was cancelled. There will be another 15 mile trek in a month or so, followed by a 50 miler (!). Since I love cycling--and have the buttocks to prove it--I expect I will accompany the troop on all of these outings.

This particular outing was not at all bad, considering the time of year. The weather here is relatively warm this time of year, and although the skies were threatening all day it never rained, and the cloud cover kept things cool for those of us who were pedalling hard.

Not everyone was pedalling hard. My own preference, since I am someone who uses cycling as exercise, is to cruise at about 18-20 mph; these kids seemed to prefer something between 8 and 13 mph. The explanation lies in the manner in which they ride. For me, riding is an exhilarating dash through the beautiful countryside of Athens county; for them, it is like performing in a circus. Many of the boys were riding trick cycles, with axle posts and tiny little wheels that required them to pedal about 50 revolutions just to move forward ten feet. But they could accomplish this while standing on the seat of the cycle, or while flying through the air turning their bikes around through 360 degrees. Many of them were riding off-road cycles, and it was clear that they didn't want to leave anyone with the impression that they didn't know what kind of bike they were riding, since they took them off the trail as often as possible. It was not long before some of them were carrying a greater weight in the form of mud on their tires than they had in their backpacks. On those rare occasions when they actually were on the trail, that mud would dry and come flying off into the faces of those following too closely behind.

When we were about 12 miles out from Athens we stopped to climb one of the many ridges that comprise the piedmont of this beautiful region. According to our handy-dandy Scout-approved topographical maps, the top of the ridge was 264 feet above the level of the bike trail. That doesn't sound like much and, indeed, it didn't really look like all that much either, but I'm not exaggerating when I say that it was a climb virtually straight up into the air. Old farts with big thigh muscles may not have much trouble keeping up on a bike, since kids, for all their youth, simply don't have the muscle mass to drive a chain for very long. But when it comes to climbing up a hill, where short bursts of extreme strength are required, well, let's just say that I was not the first one up the ridge. At one point I was reduced to literally pulling myself up the hill with the aid of an old tree that had fallen in such a way as to lie straight up the incline. I used it like a kind of handrail, though the slope was such that it seemed more like rappelling than climbing.

Having said all that, I must say that in the end the exertion was well worth it, because the view was absolutely spectacular. Because the trees have not yet sprouted their new growth you could see out through the foliage to the Hocking River valley below, and the view extended for what looked like about 8 miles down the course of the river.

Although I had been one of the last ones up the ridge, I was the first one back to the parking lot after the ride home: kids these days just don't have the stamina. Or maybe they burn up all their potential stamina by wrestling with each other on every rest stop. Or by standing on their hands while they ride their bikes. Whatever the explanation, I was not the only exhausted biker sprawling in the living room that evening: Michael went to bed earlier than me for the first time in months.

Philosophy Forum

Each year the philosophy department at Ohio University hosts a major philosopher for three days of discussions and public lectures. There have been some heavy hitters at this yearly forum: Hilary Putnam, Robert Nozick, Alasdair Macintyre, Julia Annas, Arthur Fine, Simon Blackburn, and my personal favorite: Daniel Dennett. This year our guest was the distinguished philosopher of science James Woodward of the California Institute of Technology.

Woodward's recent book, Making Things Happen: A Theory of Causal Explanation, was the focus of the three-day event, beginning with a public lecture on Wednesday evening, followed by a full day of panel discussions on Thursday and concluding with a final panel discussion on Friday morning. Most of those in attendance were either faculty or graduate students in the philosophy department, but some of the Honors Tutorial College students also attended, along with a few faculty from related disciplines (mainly from the sciences).

The forum is something that we spend much of the year preparing for. We choose an author in that late spring for the following year--someone who has recently written an important book or whose current work is extremely important--then we spend the fall and winter quarters reading that author's work, and in the spring we bring them in for the event itself. The graduate students are required to take a seminar in the winter quarter designed around the person's work. Although it cannot rival the sort of activities that are available at major institutions in the big cities, the Philosophy Forum has consistently delivered extremely valuable opportunities for everyone in the department to engage in the sort of critical inquiry that makes philosophy exciting.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Spring Break

Somehow it seems a little counterintuitive to drive 275 miles north for spring break, but that's what we did--we spent the time in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where my mother-in-law lives and moves and has her being. We go there fairly often, and the whole family usually has a great time, but whereas we all used to go in a single car, we have taken to using two cars for the trip, because it affords an excellent opportunity to separate the children from each other for nearly five hours. That is only a means to an end, however: it has the effect of allowing each parent to enjoy upwards of five hours of time not listening to the children bicker.

Once we're in Ann Arbor things quickly get back to normal. The difference is that when you're in Ann Arbor you can modify their behavior pretty much at will by saying things that you could never say in Athens. "If you really want to go to the Hands-On Museum, you'll stop bugging your brother right now." That just wouldn't work here, since we don't have a Hands-On Museum. We're rather lucky, of course, in the fact that the children seem mysteriously obsessed with things like the Hands-On Museum. One can easily imagine a world in which saying the above would elicit only a tepid "So? I hate that stupid museum." But instead it elicits cherubic behavior for upwards of ten minutes at a time.

There is also fun stuff for grownups to do. The University of Michigan has a very nice art museum right on campus, and while we were there they had a very nice exhibit of Hiroshige prints. And of course there are bookstores and coffee shops all over the place. Unfortunately for the rest of my family, however, there was also a very nice music store there, where I got myself a new trumpet. I had an old, beat-up school model that a friend gave me for my birthday in 1982, but it was literally falling apart. So when I saw the beatiful silver, professional-grade model on sale for a remarkably low price, I made the decision then and there to teach some summer school this year so as to be able to afford it. I will leave it to your imagination to determine why I describe this purchase as unfortunate for my family.

It was pretty cold in Ann Arbor, and the return to Athens brought warmer temperatures. Spring is well under way here, though the trees will be a few more weeks in budding. But the wildflowers are out, and most flowering shrubs are well on their way. Pretty soon the weather will be simply too nice to be sitting in the house practicing one's new trumpet, and my family will have reason to celebrate Easter with even greater joy than usual.

Homily for Requiem Mass of Michael Carson, 20 November 2021

  Readings OT: Wisdom 3:1-6, 9 [2, short form] Ps: 25 [2] NT: Romans 8:31b-35, 37-39 [6] Alleluia verse: John 6:39 [...