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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Personal--Of Booksales and Bowels 
19th-Aug-2004 09:26 pm
The last few days have continued to be focused on watching my medicine pretty closely and being paranoid about every tick and tremble of my belly. I know I have sufficient cause, but I do feel a bit silly about being so self-absorbed. Or sub-self-absorbed, since I'm only fixated upon one bodily system.

The last few days have been of a routine since returning: I get up, chat a bit with magdalene1, who's become a good chum, medicate, eat, and bathe, and then at some point head over to the Department of Theology to price books. A professor emeritus donated some hundreds of books to AnGST (the Association of Graduate Students in Theology) I found out when I surprised the rest of the board by showing up for a meeting Tuesday afternoon (I had been excused because of the surgery for all our August obligations), and we're going to be selling them as a fundraiser. Since "sedate" is exactly my speed in life right now, I've taken on the task of pricing them all, which is slower work than I would have guessed. But I have found lots of treasures to offer folks. The evening has been consumed by Olympics-watching and long-distance conversations with the likes of Kevin and Kari-Shane and then some late-night recording as I start making a demo of "This Romance," which I hope to premiere in this space within the next week.

I have yet to run into Bryan Massengale, for whom I will be the Teaching Assistant this year, but I have just learned to my dismay that he's teaching two sections of Intro to Theology, both full, which means I'll be grading homework for 80 kids. And to make it truly horrid, the classes are MWF at 9 and 10, which will destroy my two-year streak of having no obligations before noon. So I'm saying good-bye to my former life of leisure. If not for that, I was looking to have my most luxuriously-scheduled semester with the first of my two MW doctoral seminars starting at 3:30.

I'm still devouring David McCullough's John Adams, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. I even heard a glowing endorsement from a Department of History friend today, who said that the only harsh words against it by professional historians seems to be coming from those embittered by their own lack of writing success. I was intrigued the other day to see that Adams shared the same distaste of mine (which has arisen over the last few years) for Jefferson's phrase in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal." We both agree that this is not the case: that yes, all are equal in God's eyes, but the phrase in itself implies more and I've come to suspect that such "Enlightenment" phraseology betrays a nascent relativism.

My big news for the day is that Notre Dame's Center for Ethics and Culture accepted my paper proposal for "Salvador Dali's The Sacrament of the Last Supper: A Theological Re-Assessment" for the November conference that I was telling you all about, called Epiphanies of Beauty: The Arts in a Post-Christian Culture. Declined was my much less concrete and much more theoretical "The Arts as Prolegomenon to Theology in a Post-Christian Culture: Problems and Potentials." They also accepted my performance proposal, so I'm hoping to have all the artists that I brought together for the Renaissance Men--Mark Lang, J.P. Hurt, P.J. McCurry, Michael McGlinn and Kevin Fleming--performing our stuff together, along with the addition of Mark's girlfriend Dina Bembic, who is a writer of mind-numbing talent in my opinion. I have no idea how we'll end up doing all this, but all I know is that it'll be fun.
20th-Aug-2004 07:22 am (UTC)
I was struck by this passage:

"I was intrigued the other day to see that Adams shared the same distaste of mine (which has arisen over the last few years) for Jefferson's phrase in the Declaration of Independence that 'all men are created equal.' We both agree that this is not the case: that yes, all are equal in God's eyes, but the phrase in itself implies more and I've come to suspect that such 'Enlightenment' phraseology betrays a nascent relativism."

A nascent relativism?
Care to elaborate?
20th-Aug-2004 10:35 am (UTC)
Very briefly, I suspect that at the root of contemporary moral relativism has to be the presupposition that there can be no morally-superior person or position: that "equality"--understood in this sense to mean that no one has a basis for claiming any sort of superior position to another--is a metaphysical fact somehow written into the fabric of the universe. That all are not equal in any real sense of the word seem obvious to me: people have different inherent gifts and capacities, are born to inherited wealth or poverty--both financial, cultural and intellectual, and prove over the course of their lives to have wildly difference moral stature, or "content of their character," as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it when talking about how he wished his children would be judged.

Instead, I've just seen it happen too many times that "all are created equal" is invoked in the same insipid way that "do not judge" is misquoted by people (as though Jesus didn't urge his followers to make the most astute moral judgements possible) simply to the effect of "You can't say that anything I do is wrong because that's against the rules." I very much do like and endorse the idea that all are equal before God and equal before the law, which I think is the final intent of the phrase in Declaration, but I think it's legal weight and intent are mistaken for metaphysical intent in a culture that is philosophically malnourished and simplistic.
23rd-Aug-2004 07:09 am (UTC)
"I very much do like and endorse the idea that all are equal before God and equal before the law, which I think is the final intent of the phrase in Declaration, but I think it's legal weight and intent are mistaken for metaphysical intent in a culture that is philosophically malnourished and simplistic."

Isn't your response mistaking a metaphysical intent in that phrase?
23rd-Aug-2004 09:53 am (UTC)
Oops! There you go: and I just sent you a note asking, "when are you going to respond to this?" :-)

Well, I guess that's the question. I mean, first off, I think it's a mistake to read "all men are created equal" metaphysically because I think simple observation shows us otherwise, with a huge diversity of talents and resources given to all. We are equal before God, yes, and before the law, I hope. Did Jefferson mean it metaphysically? I guess that would be the next question. As a child of the Enlightenment, I suppose that he might have. He certainly wanted to argue that that was true with respect to the law. And, racism aside, he seems to have thought that that equality had some kind of metaphysical basis, although I'm at a bit of a loss right now to think about how he might have articulated that. Any thoughts? But yes, rather than being my tendency to call that a metaphysical truth, I was thinking that that seemed the common, and not-too-reflective habit of American thought to enshrine those words with a metaphysical depth that was unquestionable: to make "all are created equal" a First Principle of American thought.

Am I making sense or do I need to re-do this?
23rd-Aug-2004 11:53 am (UTC)
No, that makes sense.
I'm not sure what Jefferson meant, but I'm sure there's lots of scholarly debate I have yet to read about what he might have meant (since, how can anyone else truly know? Maybe even he didn't know what he was starting).
I think a proper interpretation is the "being" is equal, but the "idea" and the "action" that follow are not.
Not sure how to expound on that yet.
23rd-Aug-2004 02:14 pm (UTC)
lol... Can you expound just a little bit? :-) I'm not following you at all.... "Being," "idea" and "action?"
24th-Aug-2004 12:01 pm (UTC)
All people ("beings") are equal ("okay, what's a person?" "A collection of cells?" "Is a murderer a person?") [I don't know. But I would start focusing on people first, before the action/idea or regardless of it. Every single person deserves a certain minimum: life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness? It's about the law, and about metaphysics. I think it's supposed to be about a required minimum amount of human dignity, and not about the maximum or potential possible for that person.]

All ideas are not equal: "Health Care for All" is a good idea, "Killing Everyone Who Does Not Agree With Me" is not a good idea. Ideas should be open to debate, but the ones that violate the "equality as minimum required level of human dignity" theory should be disallowed.

All actions are not equal: "This person ran fast. This person ran faster." "This person chose the low-carb diet, the other person chose the vegetarian diet." "This person killed someone, this person saved someone's life." Not equal. [It shouldn't be about potential or physical skill or choices made. Those obviously are not equal.]

Does any of that make sense?

Check out some books on former Supreme Court Justice William Brennan. I'll bet you can find "Reason & Passion" in the library.
In the meantime, I'll let you point me towards some religious or metaphysical texts.
I'm always up for expanding the size of my brain.

4th-Sep-2004 08:33 pm (UTC)
Finally opened this up with the thought that, "Now I have time to read and think about what Mike said," having shut and saved your note immediately upon arrival the other day in the chaos of the semester starting.

Now, I just shuddered that you hit me with a book recommendation. I think I can't do outside book commitments (other than perhaps the minimum of junk reading I allow myself as recreation) until the Christmas break. My commitment in this area has been to commit to sitting in on the "History of Christian Thought: The Modern Era" class and to do the reading for that: right now a chapter on "Christianity and the Enlightenment." I've long known I was weakest in these early Moderns who, after all, were the core theorists that inspired the American Experiment. So keep on me about the reading Brennan. Just not yet. :-) And I don't know what I'd recommend you to read if you're talking about Religion and Civil Life. As much as I love this stuff, and know that we have a great guy named Thomas Hughson, SJ, that I like a lot teaching it here, I've never been able to schedule a class with him.

But otherwise, yes: you and I agree that all humans are equal in dignity before the law, regardless of the extent to which they live up to or actualize human dignity.

We also agree that both thought and action have to live up to an outside standard, reflective of that human dignity.

I would go on to argue that that human dignity is based upon humanity's intrinsic relationship to God, being in "the image and likeness of God," as the Tradition puts it. For reasons of secularism, American law will not say that, and instead must presume it as a first principle, which I think is weaker, if understandable. The government's and the culture's stability will, I suspect, then depend on the ability of that metaphysical rootedness of human dignity to be promoted by religion. Without it, the civic life will be on shakier foundations if a growing proportion of the populace does not, in fact, believe that principle of human dignity to be true.

Hmm. Reason and Passion is available....

How 'bout a text I thought about dissertating upon: Pope John XXIII's encyclical Pacem In Terris or Peace on Earth. I thought an analysis of it as the Church's political theory might be fun. Although more seem to be doing it now, he does something very cool in 1963 by balancing a statement and list of human rights with one of human responsibilities. More classic is, of course, Augustine's The Confessions (in Maria Boulding, OSB's 1997 translation), if you somehow got out of Notre Dame without being made to devour that text: it would augment your actor-argument, too! If you want to go mystical, I can enthusiastically recommend Julian of Norwich's Showings or Revelations of Divine Love (the title gets modified a lot). The translation I like best is harder to find, now, by Fr. John-Julian, OJN and is called A Lesson of Love. A modern, secondary-level kind of classic that I've not yet read, but jumps to my mind as possibly interesting for you is Ettiene Gilson's The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. And a modern spiritual writer is of course Thomas Merton, whose large, wandering Confessions of a Guilty Bystander is something I read slowly, but profitably, in his small sections over the course of a year. And I'm going to stop now, 'cause that was all very spontaneous and surprising on my end. And now I'm going to see if Notre Dame can save face at all in this spectacle tonight.
20th-Aug-2004 10:42 am (UTC)
Of course, I meant "but I think its legal weight" in that last sentence, and not that "I think it's legal weight" makes any sense. My apologies for the typo.
(Deleted comment)
20th-Aug-2004 10:37 am (UTC)
Just being thorough, Miss Clever Trousers. Or maybe the narcotics I'm taking are affecting me; I was told they were too mild for that.... :-)
20th-Aug-2004 08:33 am (UTC)
Forgot to ask you...

When you mentioned House on the Rock to your mom...did she let out some involuntary laughter? Almost like an insane giggle that she was trying to keep under control? Because that's the reaction most survivors of HOTR have when it comes up.
20th-Aug-2004 10:38 am (UTC)
Somewhat, but like I told you, the real shriek of laughter came at your proposal for a Survivor-like TV show of people who just had to stay in the House for a month without leaving....
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