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December 2015

The Right's War on Christmas

An interesting read from the Washington Post about the right's war on the spirit of Christmas with its xenophobia and racism.  An excerpt:

It’s been a banner year for fear and loathing, xenophobia and racism. What has made the year genuinely ominous is the emergence of fictions presented (often, but hardly exclusively, by Donald Trump) as facts that legitimize a sense of both grievance and hatred: New Jersey Muslims celebrating 9/11; the quarter-million Syrians that the Obama administration is planning to bring in; a wave of black-on-white homicide. Concoctions all, but credible enough to the sizable share of Republicans who also believe the president is a Kenyan Muslim. Fed by talk radio, Fox News and paranoid websites, millions of our compatriots dwell in a parallel universe of alternative realities. My colleagueDana Milbank has noted that the fashion among conservatives is to dismiss hard facts that clash with their alternative realities as “politically correct.” That’s Republicanese for “empirically correct” — verifiable by research, but at odds with the stories they’ve created to justify their rage.

Dr. Bob Clarke

Dr. Bob Clarke was one of my two undergraduate philosophy professors.  He died on December 16.  You can read his obituary here

The best class I ever had with Dr. Clarke was "Evil and Suffering."  I have had an abiding interesting in the problem of evil and suffering since my father died when I was sixteen.  Dr. Clarke's class was my first thorough introductwion to the intellectual problem and the various theodicies.  We read Hume and Augustine, Plantinga and Camus, Hick and Wiesel, and more.  I was intellectually, spiritually, personally fascinated.

I'll never forget reading and discussing Wiesel's Night in that course.  Dr. Clarke was himself, obviously, deeply moved by the story and its implications for Christian thought.  If God is hanging upon the scaffold does that mean that God is dead as a concept of meaning or that God is present in human suffering?

Though Dr. Wester had the previous year introduced me to Whitehead, Dr. Clarke played a role in my growing love for process thought when he lectured on process theodicies.  His discussion of Whitehead's lure for feeling awakened me to creative theological possibilities, an adventure that continues 22 years later.

Dr. Clarke had studied with the great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and spoke admiringly of him.  In one of our classes Dr. Clarke said that clearly Dr. Heschel was in heaven and that any Christian theology that said otherwise was wrong.  Still developing my own views on such things, Dr. Clarke's statement was transformational.

He enriched my understanding of ancient and medieval thought and introduced me to the mystics.

My favourite Dr. Clarke classroom moment was in our History of Religions course.  He was lecturing on Zoroastrianism and had listed a number of things on the board before class that were the influences of Zoroastrianism upon Judaism, things like a Messiah, angels, heaven and hell, etc.  As he began discussing this influence of the Persian religion upon the Jewish faith, I could see my mostly conservative Baptist classmates growing nervous (I had encountered this fact already and had already adjusted my worldview accordingly).  A student raised a hand and Dr. Clarke called upon him.  The student asked, "Dr. Clarke, I think I misunderstand you, you're saying that these are ways that Judaism influenced Zoroastrianism?"  Dr. Clarke looked puzzled.  "No, I'm not saying that.  These are influences of Zoroastrianism upon Judaism."  He then turned back to the board and his lecture and you could see an anxious panic spreading across the faces in the classroom and multiple hands went up.  Dr. Clarke turned and saw all the hands and called on someone else who asked, "Dr. Clarke, you're saying that all these ideas come from Zoroastrianism and aren't there originally in Judaism?"

Somewhat exasperated Dr. Clarke said, "Yes.  These are influences of Zoroastrianism upon Judaism.  These ideas came from the Persians.  That's what I've been talking about since class began."  He then turned back to his lecture.  I've never seen crises of faith occur simultaneously across a room of normally rather confident people.  And Dr. Clarke never seemed to notice the impact his presentation was having.

Of course, what I fondly remember of him, was that the sides of his body were usually covered in chalk, as he had a tendency to stand sideways against the chalkboard while writing, which meant he accidentally erased much of what he had already written.

A good teacher and a good man.


The Philosophical Baby

The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of LifeThe Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life by Alison Gopnik
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Gopnik states in the introduction that "in some ways young children are actually smarter, more imaginative, more caring, and even more conscious than adults are." Then she sets out to demonstrate how this is the case and how reflecting upon the experiences of babies and toddlers can help us to understand various philosophical problems ranging from our understanding of causation to the origins of morality and spiritual experience. An enjoyable book for philosophers and non-philosophers, for parents and non-parents, it may radically alter your understanding of childhood development.

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Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and WarMayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The most unsettling thing about reading Philbrick's account of Plymouth Colony is reading about my own ancestors, a feeling I first had in tenth grade reading about John Howland's falling off of the Mayflower and almost drowning. I raised my hand and told the class, "I'm glad they pulled him in, otherwise I wouldn't be here."

Philbrick wants to relate the real story instead of the myth while also explaining the development of that myth. Around half of the book is actually set a generation later than the founding of the colony, during King Philip's War. Philbrick wants to point out that the good relations between the Pilgrims and Pokanokets did not last more than fifty years. Yet, he believes the pluralistic society developed during those fifty years could be a model for America in the 21st century.

"Mayflower" is an odd title since little of the book has to do with the boat and the voyage. "Pilgrims" or "Plymouth" would have been better, I think.

The book is engrossing and well-written and taught me much I didn't know, including some I wish I didn't know, like how some of my Howland ancestors were involved in slavery.

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Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? by Michael J. Sandel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sandel's text, which is a book form of his well-regarded Harvard class, has been useful in my ethics class at Creighton this year. Sandel intelligently discusses the major ethical and political theories and uses very engaging real-life stories and thought experiments that greatly assisted the classroom discussion. The book could use a new edition, as some of the contemporary references aren't contemporary to a current crop of students ("What's a Unabomber?" was asked in class, for instance) and his idyllic hopes for the Obama administration expressed in the final chapter have not quite born fruit.

There are some shortcomings. The chapter on utilitarianism did not seem fair to me, even though I'm not big on that theory. He too cavalierly dismisses Mill in particular and also gives no sense of any development to the theory since Mill (in class we read Peter Singer's latest book to make up for that). Also, he gives little in the way of recent virtue theories, something else I also supplemented. And given his final critique of the Rawlsian tradition for what he considers the impossibility of a neutral public reason, the book could use a chapter on Martha Nussbaum's attempts from within the Rawlsian tradition to address this concern.

He gives a great presentation of Kant.

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