Posts Tagged ‘photography’
The conditions were perfect. This was the largest coronal mass ejection that had been aimed directly at earth in a decade. But I was tired, and the action was probably not going to start until after midnight. Lucky my social media chatter about the event attracted two friends of mine who were itching to see the auroras.
We set out for the darkest sky we could find down a minimum maintenance road past a sign that read: “Most people meet the Lord through prayer, but trespassing is quicker.” We parked the vehicle and set out to do some recon. As we made our way through the chilly March darkness someone said, “What left these tracks? They’re huge!” About then there was a thundering sound off to our right and the sound of a large body crashing through the brush. Our headlamps reflected in giant eyes as the beast lunged past us… a horse, unencumbered by a fence.
We set up near a field and the glow on the horizon briefly intensified into shimmering pillars of light before returning to a slowly fading glow for the next few hours. The rest of the night passed without event, aside from a somewhat confused encounter with a local man in his skid-steer at quarter to 1:00 in the morning. A perfect night.
More great Minnesota photography here!
How did Christianity come to a place where the activity of honest rational inquiry became so threatening to its own foundation? To see how this came to pass we will be helped along by Robert Scharlemann’s analysis of the stages human reason as it has occurred since classical Greek thought.
Scharlemann sketches this history through the lens of Tillich’s philosophy which begins with the statement that “the human self (the subjectival) is constituted by a double relation to the objectival.” This is to say that one’s subjectivity relates to an other in two ways. First, “it grasps the objectivity of the objectival,” and secondly “it responds to the subjectivity of the objectival.” (Scharlemann, 3.) The first activity Scharlemann calls reflection, the second, he calls response. This fundamental statement sets that stage for Tillich’s entire philosophy of religion. Out of these two activities flow philosophy and theology as systems of thought. In seeking to grasp the objectivity of being, one is engaging in the activity of philosophy. In responding to the subjectivity of being, the result is theology. (Scharlemann, 4.)
The next element that must be seen is the presence of a critical element in human reason. At the appropriate level of development, the mind develops the capacity for some measure of critical awareness. Critical awareness introduces an element of the negative into both reflection and response in order to establish the reality of the objectivity and subjectivity of the objectival. This negative element turns reflection into critical reflection, and response into doubting response. (Scharlemann, 4-5.) In each case the subjectival removes the immediate experience of either an object or of the subjective power that is acting upon it. It does this in an attempt to establish what is really there. The salutary nature of this effort should be obvious, but as the history of this dynamic will show, it eventually lands both philosophy and theology in a bind that Scharlemann characterizes as the “absolute” systems of Hegel (reflection, philosophy) and Schleiermacher (response, theology). Let us now have a brief look at these stages of progression.
We will begin with the stages of critical reflection and return later to the stages of doubting response. Scharlemann sets the scene for us.
Critical reflection establishes objectivity by introducing a form of the negative. It can lay hold upon objectivity when it can distinguish an object from everything that contrasts with it. Thus the form of objectivity and the related form of negativity which are achieved depend upon the sort of object to which critical reflection is directed and this determines its several stages. (Scharlemann, 5.)
The first stage is characterized by reflection’s attempt to grasp the objectivity of any thing or group of things within the entire objectival sphere. The form of the negative suitable to establish objectivity in this realm is the contrast between what a thing is and everything that a thing is not. This, Scharlemann suggests, characterizes Greek thought, and is encapsulated in the philosophical axiom formulated by Aristotle as the rule of noncontradiction. What is not reflected upon at this stage is the whole itself. The whole is a given and thought is directed only at the contrast between “the different beings and kinds of beings.” (Scharlemann, 6.)
The second stage of reflection takes up this contrast that was not yet in view in the first stage. Here the object of reflection is not an object in the first sense at all, but rather the whole realm of being that comprises the world of objects. Scharlemann points out that the law of noncontradiction, which was formerly used in thinking, is now itself reflected upon. The nature of this object of thought cannot be contrasted with other beings, as in the first stage of reflection. Since the object of thought is being-as-such, its objectivity can only be grasped by contrasting it with sheer non-being. This philosophical realization was formulated most famously by Avicenna and Thomas Aquinas in the distinction between esse (being-itself) and entia or essentiae (beings or essences). (Scharlemann, 7.)
In the third stage of reflection “the connection is recognized between the negative, which is introduced in order to objectify an object, and the self who does the introducing.” (Scharlemann, 8.) Thus, the negative becomes identified with subjectivity. The contrast is then no longer between forms of what is and what is not, but rather between subjectivity and objectivity. This way of phrasing the matter should sound the most familiar to most readers since it lies at the heart of modernity, and therefore at the heart of most contemporary thought. Here “[t]he difference between objective and non-objective is not just a difference between ways of being but a difference in how the self is related to the objectival.” (Scharlemann, 9.) Descartes is the thinker associated with this stage of reflection because of his discovery of the “split” between subjects and objects. (Scharlemann, 9.) Scharlemann notes that the supernatural realm as it had been conceived by Medieval theology was dislodged by this Cartesian split. Here the supernatural and God become for the first time, merely ways that the subjectival reflects the objectival.
The fourth stage occurs when reflection “is directed at what is presupposed in the fact that subjectivity reflects objectivity, or toward what Kant called the ‘conditions’ of knowing at all.” (Scharlemann, 10.) The contrast at this stage is between objects as thought by subjects, and “the presuppositions, or conditions, implied in the fact that objects can be thought by subjects at all.” (Scharlemann, 10.) Here objectivity is established at two levels, first, at the level of objects as thought by subjects (which is Kant’s Verstand) and secondly as the objectification of the conditions for thinking at all (which is related to Kant’s Vernunft). (Scharlemann, 10.)
The fifth and final stage of reflection now introduces the decisive problem of the modern age. At this stage critical reflection is directed at the distinction between thinking the conditions of thinking, and the “here and now” act of thinking even those conditions. At this point I can do no better than quote Scharlemann at length.
If the subjectival engages only in trying to reflect its own act, it loses objectival content because it can never catch the here-and-now act. If on the other hand it does introduce content, the content is ultimately arbitrary and unfounded; it is posited but not confirmed as objective content, because the act which posits it had not in turn been reflected. How can any objectivity finally be established if critical reflection cannot reflect the act by which objectivity is established? Yet how can reflection establish itself since there is nothing with which it can be contrasted in the act of reflection? The choice seems to be this. Either I halt reflection at the point where it tries to grasp its own act and simply assume that it does establish objectivity, and then I defeat the purpose of reengaging in it in the first place and fail to achieve what it had promised; or I continue trying to reflect that act of reflecting and lose all content because of the interminable character of self-reflection. (Scharlemann, 11.)
Here we have the final stage that reflection reaches in its quest to arrive at an objective certainty. By all appearances this quest has finally found itself frustrated by the temporal character of all acts of reflection. This is the point, says Scharlemann, that thought becomes historical in the deepest possible sense. The young Tillich we met earlier did not yet have this horizon in view. His doubts at that time likely had more to do with the limitations picked out in the third and forth stages of reflection (the problem of subjectivity and the limited conditions of knowing). However this stage was later to become decisive for him since it was his attempt to correct what he saw to be Hegel’s failed solution to this problem that became the apex of his thinking.
According to Scharlemann, Hegel’s solution amounted to the construction of a system of thought that traversed all possible content and all possible kinds of reflection. In doing so, an absolute whole could be arrived at “whose content could not be, and need not be, further reflected because it already included the here-and-now act of reflecting.” (Scharlemann, 11.) As a consequence, Scharlemann points out, Hegel concluded that in his system thought was fully reconciled with being. History was thought to have ended in the sense that nothing new could emerge that the absolute system had not already contained. It was against this implication that Hegel’s critics reacted, and it was on this point that Tillich would attempt to make his most radical revision.
In the next post we will again be tracing the stages of reason, but this time with respect to response. Where reflection left us at the doorstep of Hegel, response will have us arrive at the stoop of Schleiermacher.
This post is a continuation of a series in which I make use of the blogosphere to motivate my dissertation free-writing. For context, read the short summary of my work here. There you will also find a table of contents with links to all the posts in this series.
 The terms subjectival and objectival are technical terms that Scharlemann introduces to avoid a confusion that results from using only the words “subject” and “object.” For there are such things as “objectival subjects” and “subjectival objects.” He intends these technical terms to indicate “poles or elements of thought.” The “subjectival” is “anything that is on the ‘I’ side of the relation implied when I think of something.” Whereas the “objectival” “is anything on the other side of the relation.” (Scharlemann, x-xi.)
 Scharlemann does not deal with developmental stages of individuals, but rather is concerned with the stages reason has gone through at a historical and cultural level.
 Which in one of its version reads, “It is impossible for the same thing both to be present and not to be present in the same subject and in the same respect.” (Scharlemann, 6.)
Whenever I stay at my in-laws I bring my tent and sleep in the back yard. I just think it’s easier this way. It avoids all the suffering and tears that inevitably follow from spending more time inside with everyone else… not to mention the runny nose, itchy ears, and all the sneezing. I have pretty bad allergies, you see, and their old family farm house has a lot of triggers for me.
As a father of two young children and with all the commitments that go along with that role, It’s been fun to make our frequent trips to the family farm into mini-campouts. It’s also become my own little gear lab. I generally pray for foul weather, and get a kick out of testing my various gear combinations without the risk that would accompany pushing the limits further from shelter.
This talk of “pushing the limits” might sound a bit overblown for a guy who is camping in the back yard, but it should be noted that I live in Minnesota. When it’s winter here, even a walk to the mailbox can be an experience of “pushing the limits!” At any rate, I sleep outside year round, and when it came to Christmas this year, even I was pretty sure that I would not last the night outdoors.
Our first night there was unseasonably warm. It was slightly above freezing all day long. This did not please me since, as I said earlier, I pray for foul weather. My night out passed without event, but I was awoken suddenly by the voice of my wife, “Alex, Alex!!! Get up!!! You’re going to miss it!!!” Groggily, I fumbled with the zippers on my sleeping bag, tossed on my down puffy, and emerged from my crunchy tent. There stood my wife clad in nothing but mukluks, her nightgown and a smile (why doesn’t every night of sleeping out end this way?) The reason for her smile was obvious. The sky was aflame with the rising sun. We crashed through the crusty snow taking pictures and laughing. Sometimes I’m glad that I have allergies.
It was the second night that my wish for bad weather was to be granted. Throughout the day the weather stations talked of the temperatures “falling off the shelf” and the arrival of high winds causing blizzard conditions. The winds were to arrive in the afternoon and temperatures were to reach -18°F as the night progressed. In hopeful expectation, I had brought two down bags (a 40° bag and a 15° bag) which I planned to nest one inside the other. For sleeping pads I brought my RidgeRest SOLite as the first layer, followed by my NeoAir Xlite. All of this was then to be snuggly inserted into my new single walled, 1 person, 4 season tent.
I had not personally slept out in conditions like this before. I’d done -8° with no wind, and a of couple years ago (again, during Christmas at the farm) I slept in an igloo with temps around -11, but igloos are famously warm by comparison, and wind dramatically changes things in the winter, so this really was going to be a different ballgame.
As the day went on, the predictions came true. The winds began to howl across the lake from the northwest, and the temperatures steadily dropped. Finally the time had come. With a nice full tummy of bacon wrapped li’ll smokies and and two shots of olive oil, filled my water bottle with hot water, grabbed my pee bottle and left the cozy warmth of the house for my tent.
It was perfect. The wind was surging through the trees with an enormous roar. It was like daggers, stinging any exposed skin. Off to bed. Getting situated with two bags, various bottles and all the zippers was a bit of a chore, but once settled in, it was a heavenly experience. All around me was this weather that we’d been worrying away at all day. To be exposed to it for even a short length of time would quickly kill anyone. And yet, here I was, in it, touching it, listening to it, tasting it. The tent shuddered against the wind, and the night went on.
At one point, I don’t know when, I woke up. To my surprise I was too warm. The wind was still howling. I got a nice shower of frost in my face as I unzipped my bags. “Need more ventilation,” I thought, so I unzipped the door. What greeted my eyes was much more than ventilation. The clouds had blown over and in their wake was a sea of icy stars flooding the sky. Not expecting that, I was gripped anew with child-like wonder. I spent the next several minutes with frozen hands fiddling with my camera trying to get a decent exposure before finally zipping back into my warm cocoon.
I found out later that temperatures had got down to -20°F. Though I did not expect to make it through the night, I ended up being toasty warm the entire time. Unfortunately, I was not greeted by my wife this time as I emerged from my tent, but I was sure to return the favor by crawling into bed with her and giving her a chilly hug once I got inside. Sometimes I’m glad that I have allergies… sometimes.
Note: I wrote after Christmas in 2014 but never got around to posting, so all references to weather conditions are dated.
When life is made superficial by an awareness dominated by the routine goals and desires of everyday life, adventure can be an opening to the depth of life, and therefore to the experience of salvation. That, in short, was the basic argument of the paper I presented at the Paul Tillich: Theology and Legacy conference last week in Oxford (You can view my photography from this conference here, if you’d like). Upon wrapping up the conference, I then proceeded to take a late flight to Iceland where I drove southeast, finally coming to rest under the arctic twilight at 3:00 a.m. beneath Seljalandsfoss, a breathtaking cascade of glacial melt water. After 3 hours of sleep, I hitchhiked with a former F-16 pilot from Oman to Skogafoss where the Fimmvörðuháls Trail begins. Over the next 19 miles I would climb and descend 3,280 feet; pass endless stunning waterfalls; cross a glacier; walk directly over Móði, one of the two eruption craters from the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull volcano; and be endlessly stunned by the otherworldly beauty of the weathered volcanic remains of Þórsmörk. (For those curious, you can view the complete photo set of this hike here. If you’d like prints of any of these images, check out my print shop)
The Fallacy of Self-Exemption
All the while I kept thinking about the words I had said at the conference. I had claimed both that adventure has the potential to deepen life, but also that anything in life—even adventure—can lose its depth and become superficial, ordinary, routine, “been there, done that.” When the latter frame of mind dominates our awareness our adventures become consumerism. We show up to our adventures looking to grab as many thrills for the least amount of effort so we can put them on like a suit and go home proving to our friends and family (and probably to ourselves) that we are authentic, daring, really alive. In this way, adventure is drug up from the depths and made to be merely superficial, a rather obvious form of pretension.
As I hiked along with my GoPro snapped to my pack and my giant DSLR bouncing conspicuously against my chest, I couldn’t help but feel the extent to which I was by no means innocent of my own critique. I noticed myself momentarily awestruck by some new feature the land presented me with: a waterfall, a flower, clouds forming all around me as the moist ocean wind cooled on its ascent… but then, just as quickly, I would anxiously reach for my camera. In that moment I had become a consumer. My anxiety about capturing the moment and my despondency upon missing it was evidence that I was trying to turn that unique gift into my own property. To the extent I lived in this frame of mind, my adventure had become superficial… an extension of merely everyday life.
Some Help from Walter Mitty
On the plane home I watched, for the second time, the slightly corny movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which, in spite of its campy style, remains one of my favorite movies of recent years. There is a moment where Sean Penn’s character, “Sean O’Connell” who plays an old-school photo journalist, is in the midst of almost capturing a photo of a rare snow leopard high in the Afghan Himalayas. As the ghost cat emerges from the rocks, Sean sighs with pleasure. He motions to Walter to have a look, but then he just sits there, gazing at the animal far across the mountain range. Walter is beside himself. “When are you going to take it?”, he asks. Sean replies, “Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.” In that brief statement O’Connell captures the experience I was wrestling with on the Fimmvörðuháls. There’s no anxiety when you’re able to “stay in it.” You don’t need to worry about consuming the moment, or deciding how to pin it to your chest as a badge of your authenticity. That’s what makes Sean’s character so appealing: the absence of an anxious ego born of a deeper security. In the terms of my paper, such is the experience of salvation.
Adventure Become Prayer
A major point of my paper was that salvation, as it appears through adventure, has the potential to enlarge our capacity to endure the unknown and the unknowable. And this was the other realization I had as I trekked over the Icelandic highlands: If one is able to let the consumerist mindset fall away, adventure becomes prayer. Each step, each breath, takes on the form of attentive expectation. One’s eyes begin scanning the horizon, even the ground beneath one’s feet, for the unfolding gift of life’s ongoing newness. As one settles into this sort of prayerful movement, absolutely nothing is “been there, done that.” All things are new, unexpected. One walks in gratitude. Photos become opportunities to share this joy with loved ones back home, rather than opportunities to prop up one’s ego.
Keeping Adventure Alive in the Everyday
In the end, my Icelandic adventure largely confirmed the intuitions I had when writing my paper, but what impressed me was how easy it was for my adventuring to fall off into the superficial. Much like the wandering mind during prayer, my everyday awareness was constantly reasserting itself even after being repeatedly knocked back by the wonders of my hike. Considering how difficult it was for me to shake this habit (It is most certainly still with me, even as I write this), I don’t suppose it would be too surprising for one to adventure for weeks on end without hardly denting their superficial frame of mind. I suppose for this reason, I may need to think more on how to further qualify this argument that I am still rather keen to make. All the same, with the help of my wife, and other close family members, I’ve been away 10 days. I’m just now working to get back into the rhythms of my everyday life. It’s been delightful to notice how, like any adventure turned to prayer, the everyday life one returns to will never be the same. I am filled with a new enthusiasm for keeping my mind tuned to notice when merely everyday life threatens to deaden me to the adventure that lies always right beneath my nose, in the throbbing center of every moment we live… each shared glance… every waking child… a breath, a touch, a sigh.
More amazing iceland waterfall art for sale here.
Men’s curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
(T.S. Eliot ‘The Dry Salvages’, 5.)
Eliot’s words marvelously point to the reason that a sort of “death” is so important to my developing work (of which I have written in the past). He’s grappling with the problem of the human spirit’s drive to grasp the eternal by way of its own finite resources. We can see the problem again in the very first lines of the preface of Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason.”
“Human reason, in one sphere of its cognition, is called upon to consider questions, which it cannot decline, as they are presented by its own nature, but which it cannot answer, as they transcend every faculty of the mind.”
Consciousness of this problem has emerged repeatedly in the classics of human thought, both East and West. It pervades all dimensions of human being, from our knowing, as Kant points to, to our moral experience, to the dynamics of intimacy. What I’m working to help us see is not a “solution” to the problem, per se, but rather, I hope to help us see the problem itself and to point toward a response that disarms its destructive potential. Eliot is on to it.
When our finite consciousness is impacted by consciousness of the infinite, it stands before a monumental decision. Will we cling to the dimension of our normal experience and thus be tormented by its inadequacy? Or will we, trembling, in fear, and in love, risk undergoing the death that Eliot points toward? Our response to these moments are, in all their variety, the singularly great event in human life. It is the “occupation” of the saint to which all of us, in our own ways, are called. It is the process by which all things are made new, the end of the era of futile possession. It is only here that life becomes pure gift and our hearts swell with gratitude and compassion.
This tradition I’m working in has helped me make sense of Paul’s words “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.” Whether or not these words carry any meaning for people in our time, I have no doubt that the form of life they reflect has the power to save us all.
Merton’s words here bring me to tears.
For pride, which is the inordinate attribution of goods and values and glories to one’s own contingent and exterior self, a cannot exist where one is incapable of reflecting on a separate ‘self’ living apart from God. How can a man be proud of anything when he is no longer able to reflect upon himself or realize himself or know himself? Morally speaking he is annihilated, because the source and agent and term of all his acts is God. And the essence of this contemplation is the pure and eternal joy that is in God because God is God: the serene and interminable exultation in the truth that He Who is Perfect is infinitely Perfect, is Perfection. To think that a man could be proud of this joy, once it had discovered him and delivered him, would be like saying: ‘This man is proud because the air is free.’ ‘This other man is proud because the sea is wet.’ ‘And here is one who is proud because the mountains are high and the snow on their summits is clean and the wind blows on the snow and makes a plume of cloud trail away from the high peaks.’ Here is a man who is dead and buried and gone and his memory has vanished from the world of men and he no longer exists among the living who wander about in time: and will you call him proud because the sunlight fills the huge arc of the sky over the county where he lived and died and was buried, back in the days when he existed? So it is with the one who has vanished into God by pure contemplation. –Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 286.