The Relativism of Objectifying Tradition

Patrick Archbold of Creative Minority Report rejects the Jesuit theologian James Keenan’s use of the term relativism to describe a kind of objectification of tradition, calling him “lazy” and a “moron” for failing to come up with “new words to describe heresies of the right.” Fr. Keenan, however, is correct. The objectification of tradition can become relativistic when truth is made relative to a traditional way of thinking and acting. Tradition, we must remember, is something situated in time and place; it may disclose the timeless, but it itself is not timeless. So to treat tradition as if it were timeless truth itself, to uproot it from all subjectivity and to treat it as objective reality, is really to treat truth as if it were fully contained in the boundaries of one tradition. Such treatment makes truth something only as big as one of our traditions and that tradition the standard by which we assess truth. It’s correct to call that treatment of truth a form of relativism.

It's a $330 Fan

The search for a wedding gift took me and parents to the store one of my younger siblings calls the Lowe's for women: Bed Bath & Beyond.  Shortly after walking through the entrance, we came upon a row of fans for sale.  One of them caught my eye.  It had no fan blades.  It was just a circle that somehow blew air.  You could even put your hand through the circle and touch all around it.  And touch and touch and touch until the store manager came over and told you to stop.  No chance of a blow against the fingers; just the calm blowing of air.  Then I saw the price tag: $329.99.  For a fan.

Ah, but this was not just any old fan your grandparents might have used ages ago to cool your house yesterday.  This was the Dyson Air Multiplier.  It produces an uninterrupted stream of smooth air with no unpleasant buffeting.  'Cause, you know, that buffeting of air that my fans produce has always given me that not so pleasant feeling.  I just never realized until now how much I loath that buffeting of air.  Truly Bed Bath & Beyond should initiate a line of skincare products that help repair the damage caused by those unpleasant buffetings. 

I would have bought two right then and there - one for me and one for my soon-to-be-married brother - but there was the price, staring me in the face, that not even the buffeting free airflow of the Dyson Air Multiplier could blow away.  $329.99.  I had to pass and remain among the have-nots.  And now, every time my delicate skin feels the buffeting of air, I shed a tear of longing and loss.

Plus now I have to listen to my laptop moan about the air keeping him from overheating.  Seriously, what do you say to a laptop that tells you it would rather overheat than feel unpleasant buffeting?

A Literary Pet Peeve

A few weeks ago some extended family members, my wife and I sat huddled together on a couch in a cozy lake house where we were staying as guest for another family member's wedding.  Evening had passed into the night, and we were watching an episode of Joss Whedon's short-lived but brilliant show Firefly, a show not everyone in the family had seen.  One among us took offense at something the lead character, Malcolm Reynolds, said at the episode's end about how anyone who's ever had a statue made of him was unsavory in some way or another.  I didn't agree with Mal myself, but I didn't think any offense was warranted.  Mal's a cynic about the human condition.  Had the plucky and cheerful Kaylee or the awkward and altruistic Simon been in Mal's place, they'd have said something entirely different and not disparaged anyone and everyone enshrined in a statue.  Mal spoke for Mal, not for the other characters, not as the mouthpiece for the show's theme, and not, so far as we can tell from the show itself, for the author. 

I get a bit peeved when the words of a character are attributed to the author.  I see this done a lot with words Shakespeare wrote but most certainly didn't believe himself.  It's Macbeth, not Shakespeare, who came to the conclusion that life was a meaningless tale told by an idiot.  It's Polonius, not Shakespeare, who advises one to be true to one's own self (even if one's own self is a horrid or wretched thing).  It's also Portia, not Shakespeare, who speaks of mercy seasoning justice.  Now I readily admit that it's most certain that Shakespeare agreed with his heroic Portia, especially given the thematic significance of the play, and yet we cannot necessarily say that an author agrees with the words his heroes say.  The move from the one to the other doesn't follow logically when all we have to go on is that a heroic character says something.

The polish phenomenologist Roman Ingarden put it this way in his book The Literary Work of Art
It is not permissible then - as is frequently done by critics and historians of literature - to carry the judgments spoken by representative characters beyond the bounds of the world represented in the given work and to interpret them as judgments concerning the real world or as the author's opinions about certain questions pertaining to the real world.  Such a procedure deforms the peculiar sense of such sentences and falsifies the peculiar structure of the work.
Authors writing literary works use language in a unique way: their usage doesn't refer to the real world, it creates and then refers to a fictional world.  Now that fictional world may disclose something of the real world to us, and in that sense literary works may be true or false, but they do not, as such, have to correspond to the real world.  The statements and judgments of a character, even a character that closely resembles the author, cannot be said to necessarily express the authors statements and judgments.  The author may or may not agree with the character, and, furthermore, the reference of fictional language functionally points to the fictional world.  Therefore, when we quote a fictional character, we should attribute the words to that character, and not, without proof exterior to the quote itself, to the real person who wrote the words.

Why I Use Facebook

I think of it as a public service. 

Consequences of Religious Freedom

The reactions to the the building of mosques and Muslim community centers in New York, Tennessee and elsewhere have got me thinking about the ramifications of religious freedom for our increasingly pluralistic society. Exercising the freedom of religion in this country as we do, we can't reasonably expect our society to remain religiously static. Religious freedom allows for more than the freedom to worship (or not worship) as one sees fit in one's home or private community; it also allows for religious believers to proclaim their religious beliefs in the public square through words, deeds, art, literature, architecture and other works of sacred significance. Moreover, as those who truly believe hold their beliefs to be, well, true, they tend to want to share their beliefs with others. Christians seek to make disciples of all nations. Muslims seek to spread Islam. It's therefore quite conceivable that Christianity could in time cease to be the prominent religion in the United States. Another religion might someday take its place as the most commonly practiced religion. Such is a consequence of religious freedom.

The freedom that allows for the ebb and flow of prominent religions also prevents practitioners of a religion from using the law of the land to force others to follow their ways. Those who wish to practice their religion tomorrow would be ill advised to throw out religious freedom today fearing that another religion looks poised to increase its sway within society. It does no good to diminish or remove another's freedom of religion fearing that the other will someday diminish or remove one's own. We all share the same religious freedom. Fighting against another's, we fight against our own. Those who fear a future in which they are no longer free to practice their religion ought to be out there defending religious freedom, even if it means an increase in religious pluralism.

The increased influence of Islam on our culture obviously challenges the narrative that the United States is a Judeo–Christian nation, and I suspect that challenge accounts for some of the reactions to the proposed Islamic places of worship. That narrative has more or less persisted under our framework of religious freedom, but the two are not necessary compatible. It's therefore not surprising to see the religious freedom of Muslims being called into question by those who identify the U.S. as being essentially Judeo–Christian.

Spoiling Stories for Children

My son, who recently turned four, prefers books with pictures, and so my efforts to read him The Hobbit have led us through the novel at the pace of a hungry hobbit moving away from his dinner table.  We're nearing the end, though.  Bard just pierced the dragon Smaug with his trusty black arrow.  I'm not sure how much the boy is comprehending and remembering, given his young age and the fact that he tends to fall asleep after a few pages.  Still, I've been debating with myself whether or not I am spoiling his first read of the book.  When I read The Hobbit, I hadn't the foggiest about what was to transpire, so the suspenseful parts proved very suspenseful.  When Tolkien wrote that Bilbo fell into darkness and knew no more, I seriously wondered if the little adventurer had met his untimely end.  My son, I'm sure, will read the books I've read to him regardless of his knowing the gist of what happens, but will his first reading experience of them be as good as if he were in the dark about the major plot points?  Are spoilers really that big a deal in works of classic literature?

Wilhelm Röpke's Works Now Online

Joe Hargrave directs my attention to the online availability of the works of economist Wilhelm Röpke. A couple gems from A Humane Economy:
"Man simply does not live by radio, automobiles, and refrigerators alone, but by the whole unpurchasable world beyond the market and turnover figures, the world of dignity, beauty, poetry, grace, chivalry, love, and friendship, the world of community, variety of life, freedom, and fullness of personality."

"Let us beware of that caricature of an economist who, watching people cheerfully deporting themselves in their suburban allotments, thinks he has said everything there is to say when he observes that this is not a rational way of producing vegetables - forgetting that it may be an eminently rational way of producing happiness, which alone matters in the last resort."

Postcards from a Cyclist

I smelled gasoline while turning a bend on my bicycle ride home today. It was a nice feeling to know it wasn't coming from me. Were I driving, I would have been worried.

I am pleased to report that several drivers today recognized my having the right of way. They actually stopped to let me cross. Amazing. Regular readers know that I'm often taking my life onto my pedals just getting to and from work each day, and yet today more than one motorist was paying attention to what was happening right in front of them. I'm grateful.

The Rancid amidst the Resplendent

A potent stench can ruin a splendid view. My recent trip to the East Ohio River valley reminded me of this adage. Eastern Ohio presents some lovely scenes: rolling hills, lush grass-heavy valleys, and, among my favorite, a peaceful lake hidden at the foot of steep, winding path. And hidden as well from cell phone signals--unless one stands upon a particular tree stump waving the phone around in the air.

Alas, there’s also the infectious smell of pollution. I understand the air is much cleaner than it used to be. I read a children's book about how drivers in an nearby industrial town had to turn on their headlights at noon because of the dense concentrations of smoke in the air. You can’t see the pollution as much these days, but the nose knows it’s still there, lurking. Sundays seem particularly stinky for some reason.

So despite the beautiful scenery, I don’t think much of the environment. Or, rather, when I do think of the environment there, I think mostly of the stink and much less frequently of the sights. If I didn’t have family there (who, for the record, are fine-smelling people), it would be a place I’d rather visit through pictures than in person.

Memo to Captain Needa

Ask for permission first; don't ask for forgiveness later.

Too Big to Spy?

Dana Priest and William Arkin investigate the U.S. government's gigantic and secret system of counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence. This little nugget gives a sense of their findings:
"Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications. The NSA sorts a fraction of those into 70 separate databases."

Healthcare Legislation and the Conflict of Interpretations

The long historical disagreement about how to interpret the plainly written U.S. Constitution, and the many conflicting interpretations of it that mark our national history, clearly show that certainty of meaning is not likely to be found in the actual practice of writing, interpreting and enforcing our nation's laws. Those who write a law may intend one meaning, while those who apply it may understand its meaning differently. We can see these differences of interpretation in the recent debate over whether or not the newly passed healthcare legislation will fund abortions. My co-bloggers at Vox Nova, Morning's Minion and MZ, argue that the legislation is clearly written to prevent such funding, while others warn that "Obamacare" will undoubtedly fund abortion, pointing to how the legislation is being interpreted and applied in Pennsylvania and other states. We've seen still other positions and arguments, such as those from opponents to the legislation who point to how Planned Parenthood has interpreted it, asking if abortion isn't going to be funded, why is the organization so pleased with its passage.

At this stage, I cannot answer the abortion funding question with certainty because textual interpretation and speculation about how a text will be interpreted and applied do not allow for certainty. Even if a piece of legislation were to contain the most clear and unequivocal language establishing the most effective safeguards against abortion funding, still certainty would not be completely available. Debates such as the ones we're having now might still exist.

The absence of certainty shouldn't prevent us from interpreting, of course, but it should perhaps keep us ever-so-slightly doubtful and suspicious about our own interpretations. I may not know with certainty whether or not "Obamacare" will fund abortions, but I can still do the best I can to reasonably understand and speculate and, if having come to a conclusion, act on it. However, and I want to stress this point, my interpretation and subsequent action are just that: mine. They are the result of my attempt to understand. They do not rise to the level of a certain standard by which I can judge all other interpretations and actions. I cannot say with certainty that the CHA was wrong to support the bill or that its many detractors were wrong to oppose it.

A day may come when we can see with concrete evidence how dollar X was used to pay for abortion Y. At that point we have left speculation and entered historical fact. Even at that point, though, certainty may well elude us, as I'm pretty sure that in such a case a debate would emerge over whether the use of dollar X to pay for abortion Y was the result of a proper interpretation or improper interpretation of "Obamacare."

Texan Camaraderie

We recently returned from a trip up north to see my brother and my wife's bother get married. Not to each other, but a week apart and not too far from one another. My brother-in-law changed his wedding date so that we could attend. He's cool like that, and we're not too shabby ourselves. The world would be a better place if more people structured their lives to suit our wants and needs.

It was a good vacation-hence the dearth of posts lately. We saw some interesting sights on the road: rain falling on the Mississippi River, a Ford Mustang police car, a single sign advertising Donuts! Guns! Archery! and a billboard warning drivers about eternal damnation for adultery positioned next to a billboard directing drivers to an adult bookstore.

On the return trip to Texas, while driving through Kentucky, a car passed our car and the person in the passenger seat gave us a friendly wave. I didn't recognize him, but the reason for his wave became apparent a moment later. The car had a Texas license plate, as did mine. I've lived in several states, but none has the state pride and camaraderie of Texas. While I'm not a Texan by birth, I felt a kinship with this stranger on the road whom I saw for only a few seconds. I can't really imagine having had the same sort of experience when I lived in other states.

Legends of the Poop

Being a writer with a young, precocious son has its perks. For instance, I have a reoccurring excuse to incorporate potty tales into what I generally present as a respectable blog. The boy who turned four today asked his mother and me to pause Star Wars so that he could use the potty. After doing his business, and much of it, I reminded him to flush the toilet. Well, he didn't want to flush the toilet. Why? He wanted his mother to come over and see how much poop he had pooped. I kindly told him that his mom didn't need to or want to see his poop. What she wanted to see was Kenobi and Vader dual with lightsabers, and not excrement, floating or otherwise. We weren't, for example, watching Episodes I or II. The boy thought otherwise and expressed his hopes: "But she might come in here, see my poop, and say 'Wow! That's SO COOL!'"

Philosophy for the Skin

Yesterday my wife showed me an ad that came in the mail for a line of bath, skincare and fragrance beauty products called "philosophy." Each container features a word the designers apparently thought sounded philosophical: "purity," "grace" and "hope" marked the featured products in the ad. Under each word is written the product's philosophy. Hope skincare reads "where there is hope there can be faith. where there is faith miracles can occur." I guess when you have hope in a jar and philosophy caring for you skin, you don't need capitalization. Anyhow, suffice it to say that my wife and I prefer philosophies that aren't skin deep.

The War Is Making You Poor Act

E.D. Kain makes the case in the pages of National Review for Democratic congressman Alan Grayson's proposed "The War Is Making You Poor Act," which, writes Kain, would "carve out $159 billion of pork from the defense budget and give 90 percent of that money back to taxpayers," using the remaining 10 percent to trim the national debt. Social justice advocates might prefer to see that money go toward social welfare programs, a preference I understand, but the bill is much more likely to gain bi-partisan support if it simply returns the money to the taxpayer than if it redirects the funding towards programs that fiscal conservatives and others would undoubtedly oppose.

A Passion for the Possible

Brian Treanor, whose previous book inspired this blog's title, has a new book due to be released on July 15th. Treanor edits A Passion for the Possible: Thinking with Paul Ricoeur. The product description reads:


Paul Ricoeur's entire philosophical project narrates a "passion for the possible" expressed in the hope that in spite of death, closure, and sedimentation, life is opened by superabundance, by how the world gives us much more than is possible. Ricoeur's philosophical anthropology is a phenomenology of human capacity, which gives onto the groundless ground of human being, namely, God. Thus the story of the capable man, beginning with original goodness held captive by a servile will and ending with the possibility of liberation and regeneration of the heart, underpins his passion for the more than possible. The essays in this volume trace the fluid movement between phenomenological and religious descriptions of the capable self that emerges across Ricoeur's oeuvre and establish points of connection for future developments that might draw inspiration from this body of thought.