Novak (novak) wrote,

Personal/Theological Notebook: Sunday at the American Academy of Religion Conference in Chicago

Talking with Saint Thomas University in Miami and Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT tomorrow. This was a day with a bit of a different beat – less taken up with the Job Center and a chance to take in a bit of the conference itself. I joined a group listening to David Tracy work through an in-progress chapter, if I understood correctly (I arrived a minute or two late) about notions of the infinite and God, and tied into recent phenomenological notions of "the impossible." This took us on an interesting walk through Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, along with intersections with modern authors including Derrida, Nietzsche, a bit of Heidegger, and a few others whose names escape me now. It would have been easier-going on paper rather than verbally, and I'm hard-pressed to sum it up as I want to got to bed now, but maybe I'll come back to it later. I've only read a bit of Tracy, and that some while ago, and this was my first time actually encountering him.

2008 Templeton Prize winner Michal Heller, a Polish priest and physicist, gave a Templeton-sponsored address entitled something like "Human Time and the Time of the Universe." I went to that one with Aaron S., whose dissertation hits on some similar themes, and Mark Ch. from our department, and, other than the difficulty of hearing Heller when he let the microphone drift from his face, was quite interesting, in a basic-science-for-the-masses way. I was personally struck by the timeline for the process of creating carbon in the universe through the element, which makes up the bulk of our living matter, being distilled over multiple generations of stars: the whole "we are stardust" bit. It hit me in kind of a pedagogical way. While the medievals knew from their astronomy that the Earth was a point so small in the universe that it could only be registered mathematically, they took this as a fact illustrative of the infinite love of God and of human worthiness over something so minute. Moderns, on the other hand, took the same fact (which they believed themselves to be more intelligent and informed for, forgetting medieval theology and assuming that such things cannot be known without Hubble telescopes and the like), and argued that there could not be a God, because why would an infinite God bother with something so minute and therefore meaningless? (While an overstatement, of course, that contrast, in and of itself, might serve as a basic summary of the difference between Medieval and Modern Western philosophies of humanity.) What struck me was the realization, after hearing Heller describe that multiple generations of stars seem to have been necessary to build the carbon from which organic life is made, is that this vast, vast universe was necessary to create the cosmically tiny seed of life that is Planet Earth. That scientific necessity, it seemed to me, would be an interesting point of contemplation to offer the next student who gives me the poorly-thought-out "giant universe means no God" argument.

Ran into Crip and Lisa at the Marquette party tonight and got a chance to catch up at some length with them, while also chatting some more with Aaron, Professor Wood, and a prospective doctoral student from Duke named Silas who stopped by. During the afternoon I got an hour or two in with Kari-Shane, ate some wonderful Cream of Potato and Leek at Kitty O'Sheas with her, Jeff W., and a gazillion rowdy Bears fans in from the game (in more of that wonderfully mild weather), and also ran into Gavril from Marquette in the hall and talked for a bit. I spotted Michelle Peterson from Masters time at Notre Dame in one of the Hilton lounges and caught up with her, comparing doctoral programs and exam, and hearing her cool philosophical approach to theology from her department at Iowa. All in all, another object lesson in why people are really excited to come to this monster national conference each year!
Tags: academia, astronomy/space, friends-marquette era, friends-notre dame era, personal, philosophical, scientific, systematic theology, theological notebook, travel

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