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August 2019


This summer I preached a sermon series inspired by the poetry of Mary Oliver.  One of the key features of the spiritual life Oliver recommends is paying attention.

So I enjoyed reading Iris Murdoch advocating attention as key to the moral life in her essay "The Idea of Perfection."  Here are some excerpts of her essay:

I have used the word 'attention,' which I borrow from Simone Weil, to express the idea of a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality. I believe this to be the characteristic and proper mark of the active moral agent.


But if we consider what the work of attention is like, how continuously it goes on, and how imperceptibly it builds up structures of value round about us, we shall not be surprised that at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is  already over.  This does not imply that we are not free, certainly not.  But it implies that the exercise of our freedom is a small piecemeal business which goes on all the time and not a grandiose leaping about unimpeded at important moments.


But I would suggest that at the level of serious common sense and of an ordinary non-philosophical reflection about the nature of morals it is perfectly obvious that goodness is connected with knowledge: not with impersonal quasi-scientific knowledge of the ordinary world, whatever that may be, but with a refined and honest perception of what is really the case, a patient and just discernment and exploration of what confronts one, which is the result not simply of opening one's eyes but of a certainly perfectly familiar kind of moral discipline.


This author discusses the paradox of Peanuts, child characters who aren't like most real kids and who are also subjected to cruelty, and yet children enjoyed the comic.  An excerpt:

What I took away from Schulz is that life is hard. People are difficult at best, unfathomable at worst. Justice is a foreign tongue. Happiness can vaporize in the thin gap between a third and fourth panel, and the best response to all that is to laugh and keep moving, always ready to duck.

The Forest Unseen

The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in NatureThe Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature by David George Haskell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For the last year I have used this book as something of an almost daily devotional here at my church office, reading a few pages of Haskell's observations of one small spot in a Tennessee forest and the reflections and insights that observation leads to. I also ended up reading it counter-cyclical, meaning during the summer I was reading about winter and vice versa, which was particularly nice during the long months of last year's Omaha winter to be reading about summer.

Near the close of the book Haskell concludes, "We create wonderful places by giving them our attention, not by finding 'pristine' places that will bring wonder to us."

View all my reviews

Williams' Social Compact

Victor Parrington gives this description of Roger Williams's idea of the social compact, a description I think is helpful in understanding the democratic idea of government:

But unlike the fiction assumed by Hobbes and Locke, this was no suppositious contract between ruler and ruled in prehistoric times, but present and actual, entered into between the several members of a free community for their common governance; nor on the other hand, like Burke's irrevocable compact, was it an unyielding constitution or fundamental law; but flexible, responsive to changing conditions, continually modified to meet present needs.  It is no other than a mutual agreement, arrived at frankly by discussion and compromise, to live together in a political union, organizing the life of the commonwealth in accordance with nature, reason, justice, and expediency.

Actually, reading that description, I think of Rorty.

A Rebel Against Stupidities

I've been reading Vernon Parrington's 1927 Pulitzer Prize winning book The Colonial Mind and today read his treatment of Roger Williams, which was a delight to read, as Parrington clearly is enamored of Williams.  Here are some descriptions he gives:

"Democrat and Christian, the generation to which he belongs is not yet born, and all his life he remained a stranger amongst men."

"An intellectual barometer, fluctuating with every change in the rising storm of revolution, he came transporting hither the new and disturbant doctrines of the Leveler, loosing wild foxes with fire-brands to ravage the snug fields of the Presbyterian Utopia."

"He was a rebel against all the stupidities that interposed a barrier betwixt men and the fellowship of their dreams."

"He was an adventurous pioneer, surveying the new fields of thought laid open by the Reformation."

"He was the incarnation of Protestant individualism."

"One of the most notable democratic thinkers that the English race has produced."

"The truest Christian amongst many who sincerely desired to be Christian."


Foster Parenting Trauma

Back in July, on my drive home from youth camp, I was listening to an episode of The Takeaway, when I heard this segment with Farai Chideya about the traumatizing impact of being a foster parent.  Listening to the segment made me quite emotional.  First, it validated my own experience of being traumatized by the very broken foster care system.  And listening I realized that I still have unresolved trauma, despite having received therapy in response to what we experienced as foster parents.  Largely this trauma is papered over by the beautiful blessing of our son Sebastian who arrived by other serendipitous means.  But every once in a while, usually when someone else is asking about fostering, we open up and share our story and the wounds are made real again.  Writing about this will likely be the next major memoir project, but it is not a easy topic to explore.  

That afternoon I also read Chideya's essay which had prompted her appearance on The Takeaway.  I keep intending to write her and say thank you, as I've also been intending to blog all of this for some time.