Archive for July, 2009

Get thee to a punnery

July 30, 2009

The other day my wife and I were walking to the store to buy a pie.

Wife: “We should have pie à la mode.”

Me: “If one used distributed computing to find new digits of pi, that would be pi à la modem.”

Wife: “What would the mode of pi be?”

Me: “The most frequent digit in pi.”

Wife: “Wouldn’t that be a finger?”

Life is good.

Speaking of Hart…

July 29, 2009

For some reason the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart has been making repeated appearances here of late.  It’s not over yet: sometime in the next few weeks I’ll be posting some thoughts about his recent book Atheist Delusions, and today I am drawing attention to a short essay posted at First Things.  It’s a reflection on gnosticism, Darwinism, and that melancholy classic of children’s literature, The Little Prince.  Like pretty much everything he writes, it is worth reading.  For example:

Hans Jonas defined the special pathos of Gnosticism as the unearthly allure of the call from beyond, the voice of the stranger God that resonates within the soul that knows itself to be only a resident alien in this world. And he saw this as a pathos peculiarly familiar to us in this the age of “unaccommodated man.” This is undoubtedly correct, but it should also be said that this “call of the stranger God” is itself only one modality of a more general summons audible to all persons (except those who have laboriously deafened themselves to it), more or less at all times. It is that same experience of wonder at the sheer unexpectedness and mystery of existence that Plato and Aristotle called the beginning of philosophy, or the same primordial agitation of desire that Augustine described as the unquiet heart’s yearning for God. The distinctive note that shifts this summons into a Gnostic register, however, is that of alienation from the world; and this is largely a matter of cultural circumstance.

The entire essay is here.

Bach anniversary

July 28, 2009

Today marks, if my calculations are correct, the 259th anniversary of the death of J.S. Bach, not only one of the greatest composers in our history, but, according to David Bentley Hart, also one of our greatest theologians. (Actually, he calls him our greatest theologian, which is surely an exaggeration.  That is understandable; Bach provokes superlatives.)  To wit:

Bach is the greatest of Christian theologians, the most inspired witness to the ordo amoris in the fabric of being; not only is no other composer capable of more freely developing lines or of more elaborate structures of tonal mediation (wheresoever the line goes, Bach is there also), but no one as compellingly demonstrates that the infinite is beauty and that beauty is infinite.  It is in Bach’s music, as nowhere else, that the potential boundlessness of thematic development becomes manifest. . . In Bach’s music, each note is an unforced, unnecessary, and yet wholly fitting supplement, even when the fittingness is deferred across massive dissonances by way of the most intricate contrapuntal mediations.  Nor are dissonances final, or ever tragic: they are birth pangs, awaiting the glory to be disclosed in their reconciliations – their stretti and recapitulations.  Bach’s is the ultimate Christian music; it reflects as no other human artifact ever has or could the Christian vision of creation. . .

The analogy between God’s and Bach’s handiworks is audible chiefly in Bach’s limitless capacity to develop separate lines into extraordinary intricacies of contrapuntal complication, without ever sacrificing the ‘peace’, the measures of accord, by which the music is governed. . . [It] offers an aesthetic analogy to the work of the Spirit in creation, his power to unfold the theme God imparts in creation into ever more profuse and elaborate developments, and to overcome every discordant series.

David B. Hart,
The Beauty of the Infinite.

By way of illustration, here is Nathan Milstein playing Bach’s great Chaconne, from the Partita No.2 for solo violin, BWV 1004.  It looks like it was recorded sometime in the 1950s.

That ends rather abruptly; the remainder of the piece is here.

Wells: The First Men in the Moon

July 27, 2009

The First Men in the Moon (1901)
H.G. Wells (Modern Library, 2003)
260 p. First reading.

In The First Men in the Moon, Wells gives us a romance of exploration and discovery with dark undertones. By means of a quaint device he sends Cavor, a brilliant but eccentric scientist, and Bedford, an unimaginative but practical man of the world, to the moon.  There they discover, not a barren wasteland, but a strange world inhabited by an alien race of intelligent cave-dwelling creatures.  It is an adventure story, an engaging speculation on the pitfalls of cross-cultural communication, and, by presenting an alien civilization as a foil, a meditation on human society and culture. We are not completely outclassed in the comparison.

There are some delightful episodes.  The enabling premise of the story is that Cavor has invented a new material — “Cavorite” — that shields the gravitational force, such that if the material comes between an object and the earth, the object becomes weightless.  As Wells tells it, a sheet of Cavorite is extremely dangerous: it makes the entire column of air above it weightless, which makes the air pressure of that column drop to zero, which causes the surrounding air to implode on it, becoming weightless in turn, and so generating a self-perpetuating “air geyser” that empties the earth’s atmosphere into space.  That may not be right, but it is dramatic, and the scene in which Cavor first succeeds in making Cavorite is spectacular: he blows the roof of his house into pieces.

The chimneys jerked heavenward, smashing into a string of bricks as they rose, and the roof and a miscellany of furniture followed.  Then overtaking them came a huge white flame. The trees about the building swayed and whirled and tore themselves to pieces that sprang toward the flare.  My ears were smitten with a clap of thunder. . .

Our atmosphere is saved only because the geyser’s suction pulls the Cavorite itself into space. (As you might suspect, this same suction subsequently becomes the means by which Cavor and Bedford launch themselves toward the moon.)

Even more enjoyable are their initial explorations of the lunar surface.  Who has not imagined the joy one would feel taking long, leaping moon-strides?  Their pleasure is augmented when they discover that the Selenites, sensibly enough, lack the strength to bound about in this way, so that in comparison the humans have a “superhuman” strength.  This advantage, which emerges organically from the premises of the story, is used to great effect, as when Cavor and Bedford scale an enormous cliff by pulling themselves up the sheer face with incredible ease.  But perhaps best of all is Wells’ evocation of the lunar surface, bursting with vibrant plant life and arched over by the strange lunar sky:

About us the dreamlike jungle, with the silent bayonet leaves darting overhead, and the silent, vivid, sun-splashed lichens under our hands and knees, waving with the vigour of their growth as a carpet waves when the wind gets beneath it.  Ever and again one of the bladder fungi, bulging and distending under the sun, loomed upon us.  Ever and again in vivid colour some novel shape obtruded.  The very cells that built up these plants were as large as my thumb, like beads of coloured glass.  And all these things were saturated in the unmitigated glare of the sun, were seen against a sky that was bluish-black and spangled still, in spite of the sunlight, with a few surviving stars.

A strong point of Wells’ writing is that he saves something for the end.  I imagine that a pitfall for science fiction writing — as I remember them, Brave New World and A Canticle for Liebowitz both suffered from this problem to some degree — is that a brilliant premise does not automatically produce an engaging story. A car chase on Mars is still just a car chase.  But in The Island of Dr. Moreau, and again here in The First Men in the Moon, Wells saves something fresh for the final chapters.

In this case we are given a natural history of the Selenites, describing their social organization, beliefs, politics, and science, and I believe Wells intends this to be the intellectual heart of the book.  The Selenites have a rationally organized, hierarchical social structure.  There is a single government headed by the Grand Lunar.  Selenite society is highly specialized, and the physical and mental abilities of individual Selenites are engineered to make them suitable for a particular role: farmer, miner, linguist, astronomer, etc.  They have a fairly well-developed science — at least those not engaged in physical labour do.  They have no discernable religion, nor any living memory of war or social strife.  Their society is rational and peaceful.

Is this portrait of Selenite society supposed to be attractive?  On one hand, the tone of the description is largely admiring, and Wells puts it into the mouth of Cavor, his most sympathetic character.  Wells himself was a prominent advocate of eugenics and socialism, and it is not impossible that he does intend us to view it approvingly.  On the other hand, we cannot help being reminded of Brave New World.  The Selenites have a caste system, and though each Selenite may be happy in his role, this is itself an indictment, for it means that they have no aspirations, no love of liberty, no curiosity about what lies beyond their immediate duty, no philosophical or transcendental dimension to their lives.  Too much water has gone under the proverbial bridge in the last century for me to see the Selenites with anything but disgust.  C.S. Lewis apparently agreed with me, for I believe he began writing his Space Trilogy as a response to the philosophical views informing The First Men in the Moon.   It has been some time since I read his books, but now I’ve an additional incentive to revisit them.


Related reading:
From the Earth to the Moon — Jules Verne
Out of the Silent Planet — C.S. Lewis
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

Tolkien and the OED

July 22, 2009

I can remember when, as a young boy of eight or ten years, I first heard the word “lexicographer”.  I knew then what I wanted to be when I grew up.  Before that time I had gravitated toward “zoologist” — and I had a scrapbook of cut out animal pictures to prove it — but lexicography, the making of dictionaries, seemed a noble way to serve mankind, and the very word itself rang out like a song.   I was ready for the challenge.

In the end I didn’t make much progress toward that goal. There were no courses in lexicography in middle school, and anyway I was soon distracted by those newfangled computers and, later, by the glories of modern physics.  Yet I retain an admiration for the lexicographer’s art.  When in London a few years ago I made a pilgrimage to the former home of Our Lexicographer, Dr. Johnson;  the editor of the Canadian Oxford English Dictionary attends a church near my home that I have been known to frequent, and I regard her with quiet awe.  For my own part, I keep the Oxford English Dictionary within arm’s reach, for there are many treasures therein.

I was delighted, therefore, to discover that J.R.R. Tolkien worked on the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.  Did you know that?  While in his late 20s he had a two-year stint with the dictionary, from 1919-20.  He worked mostly on words between waggle and warlock, providing both definitions and etymologies.  His entries include walnut, walrus, and, as an exercise in careful distinction of usages, want.  He later said that he “learned more in those two years than in any other equal period in my life.”  His employment with the dictionary came to an end when he took up an academic position at Leeds University.

Subsequent editions of the OED have included several interesting new words: hobbit, orc, and mithril.  All the world’s a stage, my friends, and we are the players.

I learned about this from an OED newsletter, which tells more of the history and includes some scans of Tolkien’s handwritten notes.

Hart: The Story of Christianity

July 21, 2009

The Story of Christianity
An Illustrated History of 2000 Years of the Christian Faith

David Bentley Hart (Quercus, 2007)
255 p.  First reading.

Every so often I wander into the big box bookstores and peruse their discount tables.  There is almost always a “Religion” section, containing a hodge-podge of books on lost gospels, alien abductions, salubrious crystals, and so forth.  There is usually also a variety of picture books with titles like Great Stories of the Bible or Sacred Places.  I found The Story of Christianity among them, and at first I passed it over, just as I pass over all the others.  On a second look, however, I happened to glance at the author’s name, and my interest was kindled.  David Bentley Hart is a distinguished Orthodox theologian, a superb essayist, and author of The Beauty of the Infinite, a virtuosic and widely praised exploration of Christian aesthetics.  Needless to say, the book came home with me.

Simply to look at, the book is not substantially different from other books of the type.  It is a coffee-table book, with roughly half of the page space taken up with photographs, sidebars, and timelines.  It charts the history of Christianity from its beginnings down to the present day.  The book covers all of the standard plot points in accounts of Christian history, with a greater emphasis on Hart’s own Orthodox tradition than one commonly finds.  It discusses the early Church, the gnostics, the origins of Christian monasticism, the Church councils, the Crusades, the Renaissance and the Inquisition, the Reformation, the Galileo affair, and the martyrs of the twentieth-century, among many other topics. What sets this book apart from others like it is obviously Hart’s commentary; in such books the text is usually either dry and forgettable or sounds as though it has been translated by a computer from another language, but not here.  Hart has a firm grasp of the theology and the history, and he expresses it with his usual eloquence.

I am familiar enough with Hart’s other writings to see that he brings some of his special interests to bear on the story he tells: the Resurrection’s challenge to ancient conceptions of justice, the depth and abiding value of the Cappadocian Fathers, the wisdom of the Desert Fathers, the spiritual poverty of modernity.  Echoing in miniature the thoughts of his little book The Doors of the Sea, he argues that most contemporary debate on the problem of evil circles around the god of Enlightenment deism rather than the Christian God, and so poses little challenge to the historic, global faith.

And it is a global faith.  Hart’s history casts a wide net, taking in not only the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant forms of Christianity, but also the numerous Christian communities — the Armenian, Ethiopian, and Nestorian — that are very ancient but were never part of “Christendom”.  We tend to think of Christianity as a Western religion, but history reminds us that this is not so.  The geographic center of Christianity until the 7th century was the Mediterranean basin, taking in north Africa, the Middle East, and Asia Minor.  There have been Christian communities in Ethiopia and India since early times, and Nestorian Christians fleeing the Byzantine Empire took the faith well into Asia — which explains why Marco Polo kept running into them on his travels.  When the New World was discovered, missionaries brought Christianity to those cultures — and often opposed rather than blessed the economic and military imperialism of the European powers that accompanied them.  The Jesuits went as missionaries to Japan, and had good success until the government brutally suppressed the faith in the seventeenth century.  Even today, when some are inclined to view Christianity as being in decline, the truth is just the opposite: it is growing faster than at any other time in its history, the general decline in the West more than compensated by enormous growth in Africa and Asia.  There is a real sense, as Hart puts it, that even after 2000 years the Christian story is just beginning.

Miss Dashwood and Leviathan

July 16, 2009

A few months ago I drew notice to a new book which was attempting to breathe new life — if that is the right word — into Jane Austen’s literary legacy.  Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has since proved a smashing commercial success, and the publisher, not surprisingly, is having another go at it.  Here is the “trailer” for the forthcoming Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters:

I see that Nick Milne at The Daily Kraken has also taken notice, and he provides more information, including news about a number of other titles that are planned.  Among them: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  My goodness, these publishers have created a monster.

Blessed G.K. Chesterton?

July 16, 2009

Knight of the Holy Ghost, he goes his way,
Wisdom his motley, Truth his loving jest;
The mills of Satan keep his lance in play,
Pity and innocence his heart at rest.

— Walter de la Mare on GKC

That G.K. Chesterton was a humble, joyful, and courageous man was evident to those who knew him, and his singular spirit shines admirably through his many writings.  All indications are that he loved God and neighbour, and he spent his life fighting valiantly for truth wherever he saw it.  Is it possible that he was a modern saint?  The idea has been tossed around by his admirers for a long time now, and last week the notion got some traction.  England’s Chesterton Society held a conference at Oxford on the topic “The Holiness of G.K. Chesterton”, with the intention of assessing the case for his beatification.

Papers presented at the conference discussed the theological virtues in Chesterton’s life, his famous gift for warm humour, his humility (perhaps his most striking and refreshing characteristic), his sense of wonder and love of truth.  Aidan Nichols, OP, the imposing intellectual powerhouse of Blackfriars, and not, I wouldn’t think, a man given to facetiousness, proposed that Chesterton might well be considered a twentieth-century Doctor of the Church.

The good news is that, based on the discussion at the conference, the decision has been made to formally pursue Chesterton’s cause. [Update.  To clarify: those attending the conference decided that Chesterton’s cause was worth pursuing, but the local bishop, who must approve any official action, has not yet granted his support to the proposal.]

I am not sure exactly what is involved in preparing a cause for beatification or canonization, but I know it is usually a long and detailed process.  I will say that I am glad to see it going forward.  Whether he was a saint, I do not know, but he was a good man, and it seems entirely appropriate to make the argument and let the Church discern its merit.

One reservation is that if Chesterton were formally recognized by the Church as a blessed, I fear that it would harm his reputation in the eyes of some.  He was a great expounder of arguments and insights, many of which remain very prescient and relevant today, but the people who would benefit most from his opposition are, I am afraid, the same people least inclined to lend weight to the wisdom, however jolly, of an “official” Catholic.

What would Chesterton think of all this?  I expect that he would laugh heartily and raise a pint to Our Lady.  Go thou and do likewise.

Word of the day: campus

July 15, 2009

A few days ago when walking across campus I remembered Rome.  This happens from time to time.  In this case I thought particularly of the Campo de’ Fiori — the Field of Flowers — which in turn made me reflect that the word campus is just Latin for “field”.  I had not noticed that before.  I mentioned as much to my wife, and she remarked that the words company and companion were perhaps also related, and considering that each has a vaguely military connection she speculated that campus might have originally meant something like “field of battle”.  Not to be left out, our daughter interjected with “Gaa!”  At that, I gave thanks for them both, and I resolved to look into the matter further when I had access to a good dictionary.

Once home I hauled out the OED, cracked it open, and blew the dust from the musty, time-worn pages.  Sure enough, campus means “field”.  Interestingly, the word’s first recorded use was as late as 1774, when it was used to describe the grounds of Princeton University.  “Having made a fire in the Campus, we there burnt near a dozen pounds [of tea].”  (From the beginning, it seems, the university campus was a place of wild debauchery.)

It is probably not surprising to learn that campaign is a related word, which we have borrowed from French, where it also meant “field” or “countryside”.  Its military sense derives from the fact that armies used to “take the field” for training and operations.  Its political sense intimates that those seeking political office should be “put out to pasture”.

The word company, however, appears to have a separate etymology.  Both it and companion come from Latin (com-panis) via Old French (compaignon), meaning someone with whom (com-) one shares bread (panis).

You are probably thinking that campanology, campaniliform, and similar words must also be related.  However, these are derived from the Latin campana (bell), and I have been unable to discover a connection with our word of the day.

Kierkegaard: Judge for Yourself!

July 12, 2009

Judge for Yourself! (1851)
Søren Kierkegaard (Princeton, 1990)
127 p.  First reading.

Shortly after the completion of his Concluding Unscientific Postscript Kierkegaard published two short works under the title Judge for Yourself! They were issued under his own name, and belong to his “direct communication”.  Written as orations (though not, he insists, as sermons), they bear a marked similarity to his Upbuilding Discourses.  Both intend to awaken and deepen the reader’s Christian commitment, and in certain passages we hear the approaching rumblings of his later “attack on Christendom”.

The first piece, “Becoming Sober”, launches itself from 1 Peter 4:7 (“But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer”).  At Pentecost, when Peter preached to the people of Jerusalem, they accused him of drunkenness, yet here he suggests that they themselves are drunk.  And this is the relation of the Christian and the non-Christian: each appears to the other to be intoxicated, the former because of his enthusiasm, and the latter because of his sluggish apathy.  To be a Christian, says Kierkegaard, is “in reliance upon God to venture to relinquish probability”.  He has contempt for calculations of “probability” in faith not, as is sometimes said, because he had a fetish for the irrational, but because so long as one dwells on the probable one remains in the realm of the impersonal and objective, but true religion includes the subjective, for it is encounter between subjects. Probability commits one only “up to a point”, and consequently he who is over-reliant on probability lives a life that is inconstant, drowsy, and apathetic, like a drunkard:

. . . he becomes spiritually dizzy when he has lost himself in a knowing of another kind, or, as he says, in objective knowing — call to him, and you will see that he will seem to be awakening from a dream; just like a drunk man, he must, so to speak, rub his eyes, collect himself, remember his name.

To “become sober” is therefore to come to oneself through an encounter with God, the transcendent and infinite other. Only by knowing oneself before God is one completely sober.  Only by venturing into the open spaces, away from the supports of popular opinion or probability, does one’s former drunkenness become evident.  However important doctrine may be to religion, no doctrine can make one venture forth to this encounter.  A decisive act is required, with attendant risks.  Christianity has strength in the world only because some are willing to make this act and live as witnesses to the truth.  When mature, the lives and the words of such witnesses, their saying and their doing, are in harmony; they are sober.

The second piece, titled “Christ as the Prototype”, is based on the last section of Matthew 6 (“No man can serve two masters…”).  Christianity sets before us, says Kierkegaard, a surpassingly high ideal, of which Christ is the supreme model and prototype.  He lived the truth that no man can serve two masters: “He belonged to nothing and to no one, was in no alliance with anything or with anybody, was a stranger in this world, in poverty and lowliness, without a nest, without a den, without a place where he could lay his head.  Just like a straight line that touches the circle at only one point, so was he in the world and yet outside the world, serving only one master.”  Those who follow him, those who live in the world but serve God alone, will, like him, be persecuted by the powers of the age.  It is for this reason that the temptation to temper the demands of Christianity, to dilute and soften, is so seductive.  When something other than Christ is the prototype we reap benefits: we feel good about ourselves, we need not confront our failures, we can relax and get on with our fellows. What could be better? But the temptation lures us to ruin, for without a challenging ideal, without Christ at the center, and without imitation of Christ, Christianity becomes boring. It becomes unable to change lives, and falls prey to the spirit of the age. We see the truth of this time and again.  It is necessary, therefore, that the challenge of Christian discipleship not be blunted.  Let us be manly enough to set ourselves a high standard, even though it means that we fall short.  To those who suffer doubts, Kierkegaard prescribes this same remedy: imitation of Christ, for by venturing out and taking up one’s cross the mob of doubts is cleared away and silenced.