living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Merton

It Is Finished!

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Yesterday, Monday, April 11th, between 9:30 and 11:30, I successfully defended my dissertation (I link to the full-text at the end of this post). It passed with no need for further edits and with a surprising amount of enthusiasm! It’s been nine years since I started my academic journey in theology. To be honest, the emotions are still trying to figure out what what they should be doing!

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The run up to my defense was chaotic. The person in charge of scheduling the defense was on maternity leave with no auto-response associated with their email address, so our request to schedule my defense (now already after the spring graduation deadline!) sat for an additional two weeks unanswered. When we finally got in touch with someone, things moved fast. Much faster than I was emotionally prepared for!

I was given essentially a week and a half to prepare. I’d never been to one of these before, so I was faced with the added difficulty of not really having a concept of what I was preparing for. At the very least, I knew there was to be a 10 to 20 minute introduction that I would have to give. Seeing that fairly objective, and also feeling the most anxiety about the presentation element of my defense, I got busy cranking out a stellar presentation.

I worked my brain to exhaustion repeatedly over the next ten days. Then, with two days left to practice and read through my draft one last time, I finished my presentation and gave it a test run…

It took me THIRTY EIGHT MINUTES to talk through about a THIRD of it!

The word “doomed” floated across my mind. I imagined myself walking into the defense hall, shrugging my shoulders and saying “Well, I tried to put together an intro, but I screwed it up. What say we just state the title nice and clearly and move on to the questions?”

Instead, I got up early the next morning, retreated to the detached garage in the back yard, stoked a nice fire and proceeded to craft a stripped-down version of both my talk and slides. I began practicing that night. More practicing the next day was combined with an afternoon of reading my dissertation again (while Megan sewed the button back onto the only pair of dress pants that fit me anymore!) Megan and I hit the road at 3:00pm to stay with her sister and our brother-in-law near St. Paul. To bed early, then awake, unable to sleep at 3:30 am. And finally, after some tense traffic, we were alone in an empty auditorium awaiting the arrival of my committee.

“The work is done” I kept telling myself. “All that’s left to do now is relax and be responsive to your readers.” My body seemed altogether unwilling to take my mind’s sage advice, so I fumbled around fretfully arranging the podium and occasionally walked to the window to get my mind off of the stark surroundings. There was a bronze sculpture called “Living Hope of the Resurrection” in the small garden just outside. Its presence was a gift.

The gift was to increase, for just then Megan returned to the conference room with a number of my friends and colleagues who had arrived. The room quickly filled with graduate students, recently graduated friends, and finally my committee, Dr Lois Malcolm (my adviser) and Drs Amy Marga and Mary Hess (my readers).

The actual defense was a blur. I recall feeling deeply relieved that things were finally underway, and pleasantly surprised at the general enthusiasm and encouragement of my committee. My only regret is that I once caused Dr Marga to forget her question when a certain topic she touched on led me to turn and wink at my good friend Derek Maris in the audience. Maybe regret is too strong of a word, but I did feel a little bad about it.

In the end, my committee helped me to reconnect with the possibility that there may well be something important going on in my work. After years of these ideas being couched within a process that we’ve just been trying to just get through, it’s been easy for me to lose sight of what led me to these ideas in the first place. They pushed me to really think about how the theological method I’ve begun to chart has validity for both religious communities as well as for a culture that has largely ceased to give a rip about religious communities. I’m looking forward to the challenge.

Megan and I breathed a tremendous sigh of relief as we walked to the car, only to discover that we had gotten, not one, but TWO parking tickets… which turned out to be letters of congratulations that my Aunt Debra had snuck over sometime during the defense. 🙂

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My Facebook feed has been a non-stop accumulation of well wishes and congratulations ever since the first word went out yesterday. What a tremendous feeling. Thank you all!

And now, for those who are curious, I present to you the final draft of my dissertation: Dying to Live: The Paradox of Christian Salvation, The Terror of Death, And Developmental Stages Theory. It is a mix of personal narrative and academic reflection. Many of you have been a part of the narrative it contains. It is my hope that the narrative will only continue and deepen. Thank you!

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Thomas Merton: The Basic Sin of Christianity

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Being a Christian has never been easy for me. There have been numerous seasons where I’ve wanted to simply ditch the whole program. Yet, over the years, I eventually came to see that I had good Christian reasons for my dissatisfaction. This morning I came across a wonderful passage by Thomas Merton that helps illuminate what I mean by that. He suggests that Christianity is tempted with a single basic sin. He says that,

The basic sin, for Christianity, is rejecting others in order to choose oneself, deciding against others and deciding for oneself. (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 172.)

It is a simple statement with powerful depth. With that single sentence Merton essentially captures all the various elements of my religion that made it nearly impossible for me to remain. From the stubborn defense of cherished readings of the Bible against other truth-seeking discourses (such as the empirical sciences) to the exclusivist theology in which only those who believed the right things would attain true humanity and avoid everlasting torment. All of these things amounted to the choosing and defense of oneself and one’s ideas over against the destabilizing possibilities that others represent.

Merton and the Dali Lama

During my own religious crisis, I would often say that what I wanted more than anything was truth. If my religion, and therefore the meaning of my life, was not in fact truth, I wanted to know that. While I was in seminary I encountered some who seemed much more keen on preserving the meaning of their life in the form of their religion. I was always unsettled and aggravated by such encounters. At the time, I interpreted it as a conflict between truth and Christianity, and as such I felt a growing pressure to leave Christianity. It would be some time yet before I came to see the conflict as having much more to do with the sin of self-justification.

Merton drives the point home powerfully:

Why is this sin so basic? Because the idea that you can choose yourself, approve yourself, and then offer yourself (fully “chosen” and “approved”) to God, applies the assertion of yourself over against God. From this root of error comes all the sour leafage and fruitage of a life of self-examination, interminable problems and unending decisions, always making right choices, walking on the razor edge of an impossibly subtle ethic (with an equally subtle psychology to take care of the unconscious). All this implies the frenzied conviction that one can be [one’s] own light and [one’s] own justification, and that God is there for a purpose: to issue the stamp of confirmation upon my own rightness. In such a religion the Cross becomes meaningless except as the (blasphemous) certification that because you suffer, because you are misunderstood, you are justified twice over—you are a martyr. Martyr means witness. You are then a witness? To what? To your own infallible light and your own justice, which you have chosen.
This is the exact opposite of everything Jesus ever did or taught. (Conjectures, 172.)

In contrast to much of what passes as Christianity in our day, Merton helps us see that the true mark of Christian faithfulness lies not in vigorous demonstrations of certainty, or in a zeal to defend the purity of the faith against the contamination of others (be they political, religious, or otherwise). Such are the machinations of self-preservation. True Christianity is just the opposite. True Christianity, like Christ, exposes our self-preserving tendencies. True Christianity cares little about whether or not it is true Christianity, for its eyes are no longer anxiously searching itself for its own justification. In the power of grace, one’s “self” is allowed to pass away, and others cease to be a threat. A posture of defense turns to a posture of hospitality.

This is not a form of Christianity that I have any temptation to leave. It is not open to my critique, but rather I find myself always exposed in its presence. But not only exposed, also accepted, and called by its beauty. It has been a long road, but I am deeply grateful for thinkers like Merton who have helped me see that what seemed like unfaithfulness was in reality the movement of a deeper stirring. I pray that we all might find such light to live by, beyond pretension, defensiveness, and fear.

Written by Alex

August 11, 2015 at 9:19 am

Reflections on Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation: Chapter 3, “Seeds of Contemplation”

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This post is part of a series of reflections on Thomas Merton’s book New Seeds of Contemplation


If the elemental question, “Who am I?”, is one that resonates with you, this chapter is a gold mine. Here Merton begins to unfold the heart of, not only this particular book, but his life-long intellectual and spiritual obsession: the contrast between authentic and inauthentic human being, what he often calls the “false self” and the “true self.”

The Truth of Self and God via the Death of Self and the Gods

In talking about the self, Merton is talking about God. His God is framed by his quest for identity, and his quest for identity is framed by God. What is especially interesting is the way he connects these terms. It is often heard that we will find our true identity in God, but Merton recognizes that this is dangerous talk. How can we know that what claims to be the will of God really is God and not merely the egoism of yet another impostor, another false self?

Merton’s way of addressing this begins with the idea that God is a reality that we are both separated from and inescapably united with. In the same way our true self is a reality with which we are both separated and inescapably united. When we live out our lives in the realm of our false self we live under the dominion of false gods, false powers that make false promises and false demands. “Live here and you will be happy and safe.” “Work here and you will be respected.” “Make enough money, then you will know freedom.” When, however, we are reunited with our true self we simultaneously live out of the truth of ourself as well as God. Merton here calls this “a union of deep wills” in contrast to the superficial separation of our routine life. Merton’s trope of choice to describe the transition from this state of estrangement to reunion is “death.”

We must learn to realize that the love of God seeks us in every situation, and seeks our good. His incurable love seeks our awakening. True, since this awakening implies a kind of death to our exterior self, we will dread His coming in proportion as we are identified with this exterior self and attached to it. But when we understand the dialectic of life and death we will learn to take the risks implied by faith, to make the choices that deliver us from the routine self and open to us the door of a new being, a new reality (15-16).

The Contrary is Not the Truth

This talk of our “exterior self,” “routine self,” and “false self” that must be died to, however, easily misleads us. It conjures up the idea that the only true way of being is somehow removing ourselves from the limits of spatio-temporally determined being and flouting all routine. This is not likely what Merton meant given the fact that when he wrote these words he was living as a Trappist monk—a life of routine if there ever was one—which included the vow of stability that committed him to living out the rest of his life at the Abbey of Gethsemani.

Merton evidently thought that living a life constituted by an intensification of routine and external limitations had something to do with connecting with his true identity, with God. He was convinced that the truth of both God and ourselves can only be received in freedom, spontaneity, and love. It is a tantalizing paradox, then, that to connect with this truth he committed himself to what looks like the very opposite of these qualities: obligation, routine, and isolation.

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Salvific Death by Normalizing the Abnormal

The genius of monastic life is the way it both recognizes that conventional life is founded upon the determined quest for freedom, spontaneity and love, and upon recognizing this, it systematically frustrates this quest. But why? Outside the monastery we are living every moment of our lives trying to attain these qualities. We are working hard. We are praying. And yet each moment we think that we have grasped satisfaction, it fades away. We are left unhappy, frustrated, tired, empty. What the monastic life does is remove the illusion that we will ever attain true satisfaction via our attempts to possess true satisfaction. The monastic life is arranged from the inside out to render the very quest impossible.*

Does it seem depressing to you? Your days of being off on a whim to travel the world are forever over. Your clothes are the same every day… and the same as what everyone around you wears. The routine is unrelenting. Do you see why the idea of “death” comes naturally to mind in describing this way to the truth of self and God? Listen now to his words:

The mind that is the prisoner of conventional ideas, and the will that is the captive of its own desire cannot accept the seeds of an unfamiliar truth and a supernatural desire. For how can I receive the seeds of freedom if I am in love with slavery and how can I cherish the desire of God if I am filled with another and an opposite desire?… I must learn therefore to let go of the familiar and the usual and consent to what is new and unknown to me. I must learn to ‘leave myself’ in order to find myself by yielding to the love of God. If I were looking for God, every event and every moment would sow, in my will, grains of His life that would spring up one day in a tremendous harvest (16).

Can you begin to hear what he is after? The answer to the question “who am I?”, the answer to the question “Who is God?”, is received in every moment as new life. It is unknown to us. It is like the joy of an unexpected present that doesn’t fade upon opening it, for we never stop opening it. Our sin is that we grab at it; we strive to make it known, make it ours to control, a possession. The gift of our life becomes like a small holiday bonus put toward paying off already incurred credit card debts.

The Dead and the Living

It’s a strange thing that the dead should be most fully alive. But Merton and those few like him certainly give that impression. It makes a certain kind of sense, for who is the most free to be spontaneously present to the moment in love but the one who has nothing to lose by being there.

May we be open the the courage that sheds all these false-securities and so awakens us to the gift that is ourself, fully present in the center of God’s love.


Click here for more in this series of reflections.

*As an aside, that monasticism cultivates detachment by means of ascetic practices might well be simply an accident of history. In a culture dominated by ascetic practices it might be imagined that salvific detachment might better come via a hedonistic practices that risk tarnishing the carefully crafted ascetic image. If the reigning metaphor was death, salvation would come by way of life. The point is that neither asceticism nor hedonism are ends in themselves; rather, each of them, under the right circumstances, might serve to open one to the ever abundant love in which we live.

Written by Alex

April 23, 2014 at 11:07 am

Paul Tillich: Why Love Is a Constant Spinning

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Yesterday I wrote a post about a deep affinity between the deconstructive philosophy of Jaques Derrida and the activism of Thomas Merton. I concluded by suggesting that “love is a constant spinning,” by which I mean that love is always sensitive to the changing dynamics of the love situation, both in ourselves as the lover and within the object loved as the beloved. If love is to be authentic it needs to be seeking that which is real in the other from the place of what is real in our self. Love is a union of what is real. It cannot live in the house of pretense, superficiality, or caricature.

The reason that love must be a constant spinning—that is, a constant unresolved sensitivity to the concrete love situation—is that reality, be it the reality of the other or of our self, does not easily and obviously disclose itself to us. We live by way of mental concepts and images that, to varying degrees, are “relatively adequate,” to use David Tracy’s phrase. This relative adequacy stands in tension with the absolute drive within love to unite with reality.

The single most important text for me when it comes to this idea of love being a constant spinning is Paul Tillich’s words on Christ’s love and the overcoming of the absolute and relative tension in reason. If he’s too abstract for you, try the couple paragraphs that follow him. He says,

The law of love is the ultimate law because it is the negation of law; it is absolute because it concerns everything concrete. The paradox of final revelation, overcoming the conflict between absolutism and relativism, is love. The love of Jesus as the Christ, which is the manifestation of the divine love—and only this—embraces everything concrete in self and world. Love is always love; that is its static and absolute side. But love is always dependent on that which is loved, and therefore it is unable to force finite elements on finite existence in the name of an assumed absolute. The absoluteness of love is its power to go into the concrete situation, to discover what is demanded by the predicament of the concrete to which it turns. Therefore, love can never become fanatical in a fight for an absolute, or cynical under the impact of the relative. Systematic Theology V I, 152.

The phrase “love is a constant spinning” is an attempt to mirror what Tillich is saying here. It is an attempt to unite the absolute and the relative tensions in human thought and action. Love is absolutely a constant spinning. As long as life is moving, love never lands. It is always sensitive, always moving, as life itself moves.

Years ago dear friend and mentor of mine captured this insight in a way that has never left me. His name is Jim Bjork and he was a friend to countless young people as well as a potter. His pottery provided him with seemingly endless analogies between is craft and a life well lived. So if I may borrow a page from his book, what I’m getting at is that, like a potter who is endlessly attentive to the clay spinning on her wheel, to its texture, speed, shape, even smell, love is endlessly attentive. The novice who see his own ideas more clearly than the clay upon which he works will end up both personally frustrated and having to deal with a pile of mush. The difference is, of course, that eventually the potter’s wheel stops, whereas life moves on. Have a look at the video below for a beautiful look at the work of an attentive potter.

From this I hope it can be seen that, in both Derrida and Merton, their refusal to accept settled answers is not evidence of a superficial relativism, but rather it is the logical response to a deeper absolute, the absolute of love.

Petersen Pottery Company Spinning Nantuckets from Petersen Pottery on Vimeo.

Written by Alex

March 14, 2014 at 9:28 am

Jaques Derrida’s Religon & Thomas Merton’s Atheism: Love is a Constant Spinning

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Jaques Derrida and Thomas Merton have much in common, which is interesting because, on the face of it, they shouldn’t. One was a destabilizing atheist philosopher, while the other was an activist and Benedictine monk. The only way prevailing habits of mind are able to relate two men bearing labels such as these tends to be by imagining them behind their respective podiums, ready for another sensational debate (much like the “creation debate” I recently wrote about). “Prevailing habits of mind,” however, have much to learn from these two figures, but it’s not going to happen from a podium.

Jaques Derrida & Thomas Merton

Derrida and Merton through the Eyes of a Young Evangelical

I was among the evangelicals when I awoke to explicitly religious thought, and, like every community, there was a certain set of other groups that we were led to view as enemies. Among them were “postmodern philosophers,” the chief of whom was Jaques Derrida. The reason we worried about him was simple: Derrida’s deconstruction took away everything we possessed by faith via an endlessly destabilizing approach to truth. Rather than engage him, we just shook our heads. Whatever he was up to didn’t make any sense. He struck us as more pathetic and confused than dangerous. Normal atheists made sense. We lined up behind the mic to debate them. Derrida was a different kind of enemy, one we didn’t understand. Looking back, I think he would enjoy that he impressed upon us a feeling of “not understanding.”

I also remember hearing the name Thomas Merton during those years. Merton was not someone that we personally read; rather, he was someone read by some of the spiritual writers we read. We learned of him as a name reverently dropped from their lips. Something to do with “seven stories” and a mountain. In any case, it would have never occurred to me then that he and Derrida would have anything at all in common, especially something so deep as the heart of their religiosity.

The “Faith” of Deconstruction
and the “Atheism” of Faith

The other morning a friend of mine, Sara Lynn Wilhelm Garbers, drew my attention to a wonderful interview with John D. Caputo in the New York Times by Gary Gutting. Caputo is a “postmodern philosopher” and Derrida scholar. The interview was very engaging, as Gutting continually pressed Caputo with the sort of questions that an informed evangelical might ask.

In turn, Caputo did his best to show that the truth deconstruction is after is deeper than anything our settled concepts can grasp. For deconstruction, truth is always a moving target. As such, what Caputo calls Derrida’s “religion without religion” is likewise intended to be a dynamic idea rather than a settled label. The paradoxical form of this phrase immediately deconstructs itself. Whatever “yes” is stated is immediately followed by a “no.” If you try to resolve “religion without religion” into religion—“ah! So Derrida really is religious!”—then the “without religion” rushes in with its “not so fast!” The same operation occurs from the other direction if the phrase is resolved into “atheism.” Its paradoxical form is always drawing us in, but forcing open our conceptions. The goal of this operation is to foster an endless attention that is at all times actively disrupting our complacency or pretension.

A Tillichian Aside

As an aside, I can’t help but mention that this paradoxical operation is exactly that which lies at the heart of Paul Tillich’s theological rationality (something Caputo also rightly notes in the interview). Robert Sharlemann put the point well when he argued that, in Tillich’s thought, “the untruth of the Gods is precisely the essence of the true God, the one who is truth itself.

Back to Derrida and Merton

But we have a hard time with this notion since we can’t “do anything with it.” One wants to stop attending, grab a hold of something, and get to work. But this endless spinning doesn’t seem to give us anything but negativity. To this point Gutting asked,

Is there any positive content to his view of religion or is it all just “negative theology”? Is he in any sense “making a case” for religion? Can reading Derrida lead to religious belief?

The phrase “just ‘negative theology’” is telling, but the concern behind the phrase is understandable. In response Caputo does his best to describe the elusive positivity that necessitates the negativity.

In its most condensed formulation, deconstruction is affirmation, a “yes, yes, come” to the future and also to the past, since the authentic past is also ahead of us. It leads to, it is led by, a “yes” to the transforming surprise, to the promise of what is to come in whatever we have inherited — in politics, art, science, law, reason and so on. The bottom line is “yes, come.”

Here we have the positivity that deconstruction presupposes. Deconstruction seeks the yes by way of the no. “The authentic,” the “really real” emerges, though is never grasped as a possession, by way of a constant “spinning,” a dismantling of the adequacy of our settled approach to it.

With that in mind, let us now turn to the words of Thomas Merton. Again we will see the negativity and underlying positivity in his words.

The true solutions are not those which we force upon life in accordance with our theories, but those which life itself provides for those who dispose themselves to receive the truth. Consequently our task is to disassociate ourselves from all who have theories which promise clear-cut and infallible solutions, and to mistrust all such theories, not in a spirit of negativism and defeat, but rather trusting life itself, and nature, and if you will permit me, God above all. “Letter to an Innocent Bystander”, in Raids on the Unspeakable, 61.

Merton calls this underlying positivity “God,” but it cannot be stressed strongly enough, that, for Merton, “God” is not the settled answer to the question. Merton is rightfully called an atheist to the extent that theism is construed as a settling of the question of existence with the answer “God.” God is just as much the positing of the question as the answer (a point I have tried to make clear in a previous post). This is integral to his reasons for arguing that “our task” is standing against any who presume to have settled answers. Like Caputo’s stress on the “yes” behind deconstruction, Merton also urges that the critical posture of the activist is not birthed from mere “negativity,” but from trust in the ongoing rationality that constitutes our very being. A rationality that, viewed from one angle, can never be spoken, and yet, viewed from another, underlies all speech. The “spinning” never ends, but it can be entered into faithfully, in hope, and in love.

Love Is a Constant Spinning

A few years ago in a PhD seminar, Dr. Walter Sundberg remarked to me that Paul Tillich’s book “Dynamics of Faith” is a master work of endless spinning. He keeps talking about faith, and you want to just grab him, give him a good shake and ask him, “Faith in what?” But the spinning never ends. Tillich never “lands.” I think that’s about right. (I take up this point in more detail in a later post.)

For both Derrida and Merton the situation is similar. A distrust of human pretension and complacency is the proper response to the encounter with a truth that emerges as gift rather than possession (a place we might “land”). God’s “yes” implies a “no” to any and all complacent or pretentious human attempts to claim truth solely for its own deployment. To be among “those disposed to receive it” we must live in attention, ever awaiting truth as gift. For my part, it has indeed been a gift to see at least one way that that these two ostensibly “ancient enemies” have a bit more in common than I’d once been led to believe.

Written by Alex

March 13, 2014 at 8:49 am

A Gift. A Deep Ache

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I am more or less incapacitated as I write this. A few moments ago I was picking up a few of things in my room before I settled in to get some reading done. In the process I came across an old picture frame that my son Adrian (who is now 7) had tossed on my bed since it was broken. As I picked it up to have a look, it was as if someone had grabbed a hold of my stomach and squeezed.

The photo was of Adrian as a chubby little guy, along with a small impression of his hand. I don’t know if it had something to do with the fact that the frame was broken, or the way the construction paper with his hand print had already begun to fade, but whatever it was, it got to me. I’m writing through tears.

Adrain

This moment has reminded me of why I’m in the line of work that I am, why I spend my days reading, taking notes, and writing. I do it, because life matters—because love matters. Yet so much of life deadens us to this primal awareness! So much thought hides the significance of life behind walls of speculation. Wake up! It’s all around you! It’s in you! These are not the assertions of a man who’s hoping. These are the sounds made by one who’s been punched in the gut and for whom the world is now wavy with tears.

Every moment and every event of every man’s [sic] life on earth plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because men are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity and love. –Thomas Merton, 14.

Written by Alex

March 3, 2014 at 11:03 am

Posted in Theology

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A Few Words on the Creation Debate

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There’s a common character in horror flicks, the one who, after having gone missing, has just been discovered gagged in some unexplored room. This person will know something rather important, but, since they are unable to speak, those who have just discovered them will usually go on simply saying things like, “Oh Jimmy we were worried sick!” or perhaps “Wow, Jimmy, you wouldn’t believe the crazy stuff that’s been going on around here!” All the while the gagged person will be wide-eyed and struggling to warn their friends of the crazy dude with an axe (or what have you).

As as a theologian training in the academy, I had a lot of sympathy for that character as I watched (some) of the debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye last night. Allow me to remove the gag for a moment.

creation debate

It was a sad experience for me on many levels. I know I was not alone in my general frustration, since my twitter feed was going nuts with a lot of irritated progressive-type religious commentators. Unfortunately, their enthusiastic support of Nye left me (almost) as bothered as Ken Ham’s insular framework. But why?

As the story goes, Nye stood against a particularly crafty form of dishonesty that could freely twist itself into almost any shape in order to appear honest. So far as that goes, it’s a good thing, yes? He was the champion of scientific rationality which is responsible for so much we in the modern world hold dear (including the very computer I use to compose this post!). Again, good stuff, so far as it goes.

But, among other things, what bothered me was his explicitly stated reasons for entering into the debate in the first place. Nye is worried that the rationality behind creation science is undermining America’s ability to produce more quality scientists. Specifically, he pointed to the work of scientifically trained engineers who, as he said, “make things.” And if we can’t compete in the worldwide game of “making things,” America will lose its place on the global scene.

Now, of course making things is, to a certain extent, good, but Ham and his followers have a larger vision that captivates them, one that outstrips any industry or nation. Yet it seemed that the highest Nye could reach was ultimately a utilitarian form of self-preservation. In Ernest Becker‘s terms, he, just as much as Ham, was engaged in a death denying ideology; he was invested in playing his role in the heroic drama that American society had carved out for the scientific community. And part of what keeps debates of this sort going is that Nye’s heroics were of a lesser caliber than that of Ham (even if it had more empirical support).

As strenuously as I’d also wish to criticize Ham, I can’t help but point out that Nye’s motivation is also a dangerous sham and a reduction of the greatness of scientific rationality. The greatness of science is its ruthless truth-seeking that methodologically cuts out, as much as possible, all “interests,” such as “preservation of the American way” or “showing a literalist reading of Bible to be true.” The moment science becomes a mere tool for achieving any end other than truth as such, it begins to lose its dignity. The ultimate dignity of science is its self-critical restraint which allows the mystery of reality to, in a limited way, emerge for us.

But it’s the practical results of science that tend to dominate the contemporary mind which Nye represented. As Sebastian Moore points out, “Our culture has in it a systematic reluctance to let the mystery of being consciousness suggest itself. We inhabit a scientific culture; and a scientific culture—as opposed to the open-ended desire-to-know which drives science itself—is one in which the results of scientific exploration at the practical level are what count in the fashioning of our common mind.”  (Let This Mind Be in You, 53)

What I would have loved to have seen Nye do would have been to embody the self-critical posture that makes science great (rather than go off half-cocked and try to counter Ham’s discovery of “wood encased in 85 bazillion year old rock” (or whatever) by suggesting that “maybe the rock moved over the wood?”). I would have loved for him to have explained the way that, though science is enormously fruitful in the realm of reality it is equipped to engage with, it nevertheless engages with only a narrow slice of reality (that which is amends itself to empirical testing). I would have loved to have heard how even within this limited domain, scientific rationality is not concerned with itself. And exactly because it is not concerned with itself, it is concerned only with the provisional truth that emerges through its particular method of study. I would have loved to have heard that no matter how impressive the findings of science may be, there will always be the rain that coveres both he and Ken Ham alike.

Rain

Written by Alex

February 5, 2014 at 8:16 am