April 27th, 2007

In Jackson WY–Jan. 2006

Personal/Theological Notebook: Dinner with Bill and Helen, Absent Jen, Starting "Earthly Powers"

Well, my schedule management has suffered quite a bit of late, and I've not been updating here easily at all. More to come, but this will perhaps get me going again....

Introducing today: the long-overdue LJ-tag "restaurants" – all my previous discussion of which would have been under "friends" or city names and the like. How un-useful...!

Tonight featured a dinner out with my Uncle Bill and Aunt Helen, and was great fun. They were very interested in hearing about Jen, who, unfortunately couldn't join us because she's off working in a retreat center in Missouri for the weekend. Helen, who is very enthusiastic in all things, is very enthusiastic in her excitement to meet her. Bill interjected a bit of excitement when Helen sat down and joined us at the restaurant, saying that Jen and I had broken up yesterday. She gasped and turned to me for confirmation of this, and without missing a beat I explained that Jen hadn't told me until then that she'd undergone gender reassignment surgery, and Helen's eyes popped out of her head as her jaw disconnected and fell onto the table. When she realized we were pulling her leg, we then had a much more normal (and enthusiastic) conversation.

We ate down in the Third Ward, at a very agreeable and classy place called the Coquette Café, which Jen doesn't know and which we'll have to explore together some time in the future. (I had a French classic with their Coq au Vin: red wine braised chicken with mushrooms, pearl onions and smoked bacon.) Other than Jen, the chief topic of the night was their recent trip – just a few weeks ago – to visit their son, my cousin Ben, who is a junior at Ripon College, but who is spending this year studying in Córdoba, Argentina. Some of his desire to do some more traveling elsewhere afterward led us to talking about Jen a bit more in regard to traveling alone, which she had done in Chile not too far in the past, but which is something that always seemed very lonely to me and isn't something I've done. Ben appears to be developing a taste for it. He'll be back in June or July, and I'm looking forward to hanging with him and seeing the effect this year has had.

We've had some good time in with friends of late: Jen came over and joined me for dessert and chatter with Dan and Amy after I'd had a Grey's night at the Lloyds', and I've been tickled with how welcoming they are of her, and then the next evening we were part of a dinner party with a great couple among her friends named Doug and Michael. I was down at one end of the table, mostly talking away with Michael for the evening, and it was a good time of that sort of getting to know her more by getting to know her friends.

After working at home and attending our own Dr. Deirdre Dempsey's presentation at the Seminar on the Jewish Roots of Christian Mysticism on "Biblical Transmission according to Ibn Aṭ-Ṭaiyib," which highlighted some ancient Christian speculations on the origins of language and writing, that was pretty much the rest of my day. I'm in the Introduction, still, of Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe, from the French Revolution to the Great War by the U.K.'s noted Third Reich historian Michael Burleigh, which, to this point, has been about historians and their take on the subject, and the intent of this particular study, than getting into the history itself. I had read a quite good review in last month's First Things on the second volume of the study, Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, from the Great War to the War on Terror, and it noted the wide praise the work was receiving. It certainly sounded more sensible than the silly secularist assessment of religion being the source of all evil, and sounded like it might have the positioning to be a consensus-changing study at the popular level, which particularly grabbed my attention. There's a bit of sloppiness in the editing – incidental mistakes that ought to have been caught, but they are more "detail facts" than "facts that determine the validity of the argument"-kinds of mistakes. It's still looking to be compelling and fun reading. I found a new copy in the used bookstores section of Amazon for a mere $5.50 (hardcover), so I've a copy to mark up now on the way....
Life and Other Impossibilities

Personal/Theological Notebook: Recovery; Fukayama; Emily; Matthew Sutton and Adrienne von Speyr

My neglected journal lacks summaries of the following fun and interesting adventures. (Part One)

Cancer surgery – and recovery! Does life get any more exciting than ugly skin thingies on the side of your nose? For over a year I lived with this unsightly hole, and I'm obviously lucky in that this was really so much of nothing that I can just complain of its aesthetic effect. The non-metastazing basal-cell carcinoma on my left nostril was cut out by a friendly Jewish surgeon who regaled me with a tale of the apparently-miraculous giant statue of the Virgin Mary that had come with her house and which she had gone to great lengths to donate to an area monastic community, where it gained its peculiar reputation. This is the kind of thing people tell you when they hear you're a theologian. She also wanted to know if she could get a bigger tax write-off because of its apparent mysterious powers. The plastic surgery went swimmingly, with the details I related in my entry at the time. When I went in a week later, the surgeon and I – who now met face-to-face instead of us both being masked – were both pleased to have him announce that it was quite a successful procedure, and that the slightly more long-shot option we went with looks to have gone as intended, and thus likely to leave me without a mark. Jen and I watched in fascination over these last two weeks as the wound has almost entirely vanished.

Dan Lloyd and I did attend the Allis Chalmers Distinguished Professor of International Affairs Lecture, "American Foreign Policy after the Bush Doctrine," given by Dr. Francis Fukuyama on Thursday, April 12, at 7 p.m. This space should soon see Dan's summary notes of the talk.

[Retroactive Entry Designation: Moments That Justify My Life]: On the following Saturday, the 15th, I spent the afternoon and evening with friede, meeting her face-to-face for the first time, after being good LiveJournal friends for a few years, now. Her own epic account of the day Collapse ) could only be supplemented by a few more observations. I might also note that I, too, would never have noticed George Bellows' The Sawdust Trail without her, but I was also quite taken with a portrait of a girl in the same room, the name of which now escapes me and which isn't on the Milwaukee Art Museum's website. The use of the colours was extraordinary, somehow being both very realistic and human, and yet also utterly unrealistic, like the large patch of blue-green that composed part of her forehead, but which was perfectly the colour of a vein seen under the skin. Emily mentioned that in her own painting, she used colour in such a "wide" way, and that also made me notice and pay attention to the technique in a way that I wouldn't have, otherwise.

I also remember a discussion of politics which she doesn't include, perhaps more on my end, when she asked me about my politics and I made my way from describing myself as "Contrarian," alluding to my annoying habit of drifting to the opposite end of whatever political consensus I hear emerging in a given room. My own strong inclination toward political independence (and that everyone else should be independent – just like me), and my annoyance with anyone who seems to think that any given political party or left/right orientation can be correct on every point while the other pole is miraculously – and conveniently – wrong about everything. This is the worst feature in American politics, to my mind, with the undemocratic demonization of the Other, and the lack of any impulse to work with others, and it's a mindset I try to warn my students away from as soon as I begin talking with them, especially given that so much of the American university and intellectual culture substitutes such orientations in place of actual thought. Thus, I ended up largely describing my politics as ultimately "Augustinian," in that I'm fully aware of human tendencies toward corruption and thus tend to vote not so much for strongly positive reasons, but rather for whoever and whatever I suspect is the least evil of my choices at any given moment. Emily didn't seem to think that this was entirely absurd of me, for which I was grateful....

It was one of those meetings that is an ideal result of a LiveJournal friendship. I say "ideal" because other than the basic surprise of the sound and styles of our speech, we really weren't surprised by one another: we had accurately conveyed ourselves in our writing. I did in fact notice Emily's avoidance of eye contact, even if I didn't mention it. When it came up in her original entry which I copied above, I simply mentioned that I understood the kind of vulnerability that comes with the real speech of eyes: if she was more aware of it than others, I figured that that was more to her credit than not, and that that sort of comfort would come as we got more used to one another, as it did.

That weekend had also seen the Friday the 13th dissertation defense of my classmate Matthew Lewis Sutton, with his long-developed project, The Gate of Heaven Opens to the Trinity: The Trinitarian Mysticism of Adrienne von Speyr, which had begun back when we took Professor Raymond Gawronski, S.J.'s course on the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar in the spring of 2004, which was one of the highlights of my coursework. I had long heard friends enthuse about Von Balthasar's work, particularly P.J. McCurry during our years at Saint Joe's in South Bend, but I'd never had the opportunity to really dig into his work in that way before. Matthew had been working on this project more-or-less since his research paper for that course, (von Speyr was a mystic with whom von Balthasar collaborated for years) and it was great to see it come to term in front of his board and an interested crowd. In Matthew's words,
In this dissertation, I synthesize what von Speyr says about the Trinity, integrate her many insights into its central themes, and interpret their significance in light of Catholic Trinitarian theology. My central thesis is that according to the Trinitarian mysticism (Mystik) of Adrienne von Speyr, the gate of heaven opens to the Trinity and reveals the original image (Urbild) of the eternal, immanent relations of triune love. The gate of heaven is opened by the Father in the mission (Sendung) of the Son to be the incarnate Word of obedience (Gehorsam) and together they have sent the Holy Spirit to be like a religious rule (Ordensregel) accompanying the obedience of the Son and the disciple. The open heaven reveals that the Trinity is the original source (Ursprung) of the sacraments and prayer, inserting man through the gate of heaven into the inner love of the Trinity.
I came in late because I had to teach until 4pm (he had started at 3) and I had to leave early because I'd told Jen I'd meet her at 4:30, and I hadn't known the defense would go until 5. That was a shame not only in missing more of the content, but also in not being able to with Matthew and his wife Elizabeth well, and not having a chance to pay my respects to Fr. Gawronski, who had since left the Department, to our great loss. Matthew and I had taken almost all the same coursework, so we were both kind of relieved that he got ahead in his writing, with me having been sick earlier and with my teaching responsibilities this year: that way we wouldn't go on the market at the same time and have to compete against one another for jobs!