Future, Present, & Past:



Speculative
~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"It's the secret of life."


Not long after Duane Christensen, as it turned out, my father-in-law Steve died.

Steve had been wheelchair-bound for 13 years due to an extremely rare neurological condition (he had first begun to show symptoms twenty years ago; he was finally diagnosed last year). Despite the fact that his world slowly and inexorably shrank, so that his bike rides, his camping excursions with his family, his trips to the park, were all eventually taken away, Steve continued to show not just what is often euphemistically called a "good attitude," but a downright disarming interest in life, and especially the lives of the people around him.

This was partly just a default stance of his, but it was also a conscious practice, a cultivation of gratitude and engagement, which has taught me a great deal. He did not disguise the fact that his life held great frustrations. But in his late 20's, during a profound struggle with depression, Steve had intentionally adopted a position of thankfulness, in which complaint was at best a tool with passing relevance and at worst a distraction. It was a kind of joyful discipline.

As a grad student, Steve had studied mathematics under J. Richard Büchi, who made significant contributions to automata theory and category theory. During Steve's last months I tried to take advantage of his expertise about these topics, but many of the conversations seemed to drift from mathematics into anecdote, and I found myself more eager for the story than for the math. He told me, for instance, that while reading a paper by Hans Läuchli, he'd realized that "You had to read papers with a pencil in your hand;" sometimes a lemma might be stated without being demonstrated, but that the significance of the paper might depend upon some detail in the (implied but unstated) proof. This seemed an observation that pertained as well to reading philosophy or a novel -- not the note-taking per se, but the need to always read between the lines. At one point he offered a high-level characterization of category theory: "Set theory is concerned with mathematical objects. Category theory is concerned with functors, with arrows between objects." This is, of course, far too inexact to serve by itself as a two-sentence summary of category theory, but it brought into focus something about Steve: what appealed to him was not definition but connection. He was preoccupied with the human beings who were or had been in his life, whether from his childhood or the last time he had been in the hospital. His concern with relationship became clear in his way of telling stories, which as he grew older reminded me more and more of Herodotus -- frequently there were many implied transitions of the form of "that reminds me of...," in what seemingly threatened to be an infinite deferral of "the point of the story;" but when they came full circle, one realized that there had been an implicit wholeness to the shape of the chain of anecdotes from the beginning. The connections could be almost anything: the color of someone's hair, the age of two people at the time of some important event, the city where something had happened. His recollections of the 1971 Tarski Symposium in Berkeley, for instance, were not primarily about the topics discussed, but about the people -- the mathematician he'd been too shy to introduce himself to; his cousin once removed, a year and a half old at the time, who was then living in Berkeley and who he'd met. When I said to him that these narrative connections reminded me of functors in Category Theory, the mathematical relevance was doubtless strained, but Steve smiled and understood.

Another of Steve's great loves was music; he listened to the Metropolitan Opera every Saturday morning, and the Big Band Swing program on the local radio station Saturday night. Though not an especially observant Jew, toward the end of his life he made a point of singing the haggadah from his youth at our last family Passover. He went to chamber music series and the local Symphony, and I am very grateful for the memories of our trips to the yearly bluegrass festival. Once I asked him whether he thought his appreciation of mathematics and of music were related. "I've heard they're supposed to be," he smiled. But this wasn't the aspect that interested him. Although he'd studied Hindemith, and had a rich understanding of musical theory, his conversation about music made no attempt to wrench the ineffable into expression. Rather, he'd move on to music history: either his own (say, the fledgling soprano whose performance he'd been impressed by, whose career he'd followed, and who went on to sing at the Met), or an anecdote he knew about Clara Schumann or Jacqueline du Pré. I sometimes thought that his connections with these people were as real as those with people he knew.

The stories were always there, but they became more and more brief. Toward the end of his life, as he settled with the realization that he would die, Steve more and more often would lapse into silence, and his remarks were more like hints of a whole that had to be inferred. He was wrestling with the last and greatest occasion for depression, and doing it with an astounding dignity and vulnerability. More and more, the ineffable came to the fore, and stayed there. During my last conversation with Steve, a week before he died, I happened to mention something about regretting having fallen out of touch with old friends. I wish I knew how to reach them again, I said; I wanted to preserve my relationships. Steve was a good listener and rarely interrupted, but at this word Relationship he cut in and said, in a tone of gravity and wonder, "It's the secret of life."

Monday, January 28, 2013

R.I.P. Duane L. Christensen


Earlier this month, I learned that Duane Christensen has died.

I corresponded with Christensen for a number of years, mostly via a web list he moderated, through which I was also privileged to meet Ernest McClain and a number of other renegade scholars of the ancient world. It is a deep regret of mine that we did not meet in person. Christensen was the author of a number of books on Biblical theology, including a translation and close reading of the book of Nahum for the Anchor Bible, and a two-volume study of Deuteronomy for the World Biblical Commentary. He was a quietly brave and unceasingly hard-working scholar, pursuing a far-reaching research agenda that perceived the underlying architecture of both the Hebrew and the Christian canons as organized around deep structural principles. Many have seen a chiasmus-structure in scripture, but Christensen was bold enough to suspect that this structure was far reaching and pertinent on many different scales. He developed a analytic protocol that pursued things down to the level of the syllable and the letter. He was extremely sensitive to the fact that scripture was always intended to be sung in a liturgical context, and his readings of Biblical books were always conducted with an eye to the setting of worship where they would have been used. Taking seriously the detail of the Masoretes' work, Christensen contended that the text of scripture had been engineered according to numerical and prosodic principles to approximate a breath-taking precision, but his hypothesis did not collapse into the unscientific permutation-mongering of Bible-Codeism. (My favorite books of his are those where he lays out this thesis most broadly, The Unity of The Bible and The Explosion of the Canon.) Moreover, he was always ready to engage anyone who asked (as I did, often), Why? His answer was essentially that certain numerical values were treated as divine, and there was a powerful incentive to encode these as frequently, and on as many textual levels, as possible. And while he marshaled a great deal of evidence in the form of close reading (and counting) to demonstrate his contentions, his readings never did violence to the surface meanings of the text.

This contention of Christensen's often brought him into conflict with the Documentary Hypothesis, and he was not shy about regarding it as superfluous. Christensen felt that consideration of the Bible must begin with the text at hand, not with hypothetical reconstructions of D, J, E and P, and he was equally indifferent to imaginings of proto-Mark and -Matthew and of an imaginary document called "Q". I disagreed with him about some of this (more about the Old testament than the New), and we argued respectfully several times. This was in itself an index of his stature as a human being. His accomplishment and learning were tremendous, but he deigned to give respectful hearing to the objections of a guy who had small Greek and less Hebrew, who was more or less thinking out loud. This was my first impression of him, and it was confirmed over and over.

Christensen's scholarship was formidable, and so was his risk-taking. His methods seemed to some readers over-reaching. He often corresponded with researchers who were far from the mainstream of scholarship, and whose somewhat far-out work would raise eyebrows among more conservative academics. (To my mind, however, Christensen was largely working out implications of the work of his former teacher David Noel Freedman.) But it's more important to note that his scholarly work was of a piece with his pastoral concerns. For many years, up until his death, he and his wife were volunteers at San Quentin prison, where he offered both spiritual counsel and lessons in Hebrew and Biblical theology. My respect for him derived not from the fact that he did this work "as well as" his scholarship, but from the fact that his scholarship and his pastoral work were of a piece. He had an indifference to the usual distinctions between practical this-worldly concerns and the usually abstruse academic pursuits. This made him, in my estimation, an unsurpassed role model.

Requiescat in pace.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Brief Blog Reviews I: Just Thomism


For a couple of years now I've thought I'd like to offer shout-outs of admiration to other blogs out there that might not be on people's radars. These are all in my (admittedly quite long) blog roll, off on the left side-bar there, but some are religious, some are political, some are philosophical, some are literary, some are random, and anyone could be excused for not noticing them. My hope is to do one of these hat-tips -- we'll call them Brief Blog Reviews -- a month, just to make sure things keep moving along.

My first nod goes to James Chastek's excellent, understated, and long-lived blog Just Thomism. Those two words do pretty much give you the sense of what's going on over there, but you could easily guess from them that the blog is heavy on the footnotes or on the dogma. In fact, this is anything but a for-Catholics-only scene. Indeed, Just Thomism may be the least defensive and least apologetic Roman Catholic philosophy site I know of. It lacks the implicit smugness that often slips out between the lines of a blog addressed to an in-crowd; but it's also missing the shamefaced, shucks-I-know-ain't-it-terrible tone of the embarrassed believer-in-waiting. In the best Thomistic tradition, the blog is grounded in what we used to call the life of reason. And actually, there are long stretches when there's precious little that is specifically theological, although of course there's lot's about God.

Nor is Chastek's site for-initiates-only. You don't have to know Peter Lombard or Albert the Great or Suarez or whoever to understand, but that's because you find out just how accessible and lucid Thomism, and medieval thought in general, is when you pay attention. Chastek isn't doing an online seminar, he's just thinking aloud, informed by Aquinas and the Church fathers and a number of exceptional thinkers all down the centuries. When a passage from the Summa, or from Marechal, or etc., is relevant, he quotes it and makes clear how it pertains. That's it, and that's all you need. This is a great blessing in an era where familiarity with the era of Western thought between Augustine and Descartes is sorely lacking. The temptation to sneak in little judgmental remarks like that is very strong (see? I just did it myself), but the more there are of them, the more you stop wanting to read. One reason Chastek stands out in my mind is that he's thoroughly entitled to make them, and almost never does.

There are, however, many, many blog entries --maybe even most (and Chastek sometimes edges towards one a day)-- that don't overtly refer to any authoritative text at all. In short, it is grounded philosophy without being either slavish or self-congratulatory.

An example (and it really is just an example, I plucked it more or less at random):
No small part of Newton’s scientific success consisted in putting off the demands of science (that is, of knowing nature) – his last verdict on his Principia is that he will feign no hypotheses about what gravity is but will stick to describing its activity in mathematical terms. This is a subtle but dramatic reformulation of the claim running from Plato to Galileo that numbers and geometrical quantities themselves were at work in nature, for in admitting that his mathematical descriptions do not get within the phenomena he is describing, Newton is making mathematics an extrinsic to the physical world. Mathematics is seen as substituting for nature and is not to be mistaken with knowing what is really happening in it i.e. it is at best a prologue to science and not science itself.
This is an entire post, somewhat on the short side, but it exhibits many of the virtues of Just Thomism; a compactness of insight, a provocative point made compellingly (at least enough to grab your attention), illustrations to give it traction, and a layer or two to reward thinking about it at length.

But I don't want to reduce Just Thomism to a box of mind candy (though the blog is attractively packaged in nice green and gold tones). Go over there and make it a regular stopping place. It will broaden your philosophical palate, nourish your mind, and brighten your smile.