It's a whole new world. My first semester was full of awkwardnesses and delights. A new city, new people, new responsibilities and new opportunities are all double-edged swords in their own way.
Moving in was pretty easy with the help of my Uncle Bill and Aunt Helen and their kids Ben and Becca who let me crash at their place for a few days and ease into the transition. With their help, I also managed to figure out how to squeeze a one-bedroom apartment's worth of material into a studio, although it was tough going for a bit. A few of the more daring souls introduced themselves in the elevator and I spent a few days exploring the city with one Caitlin Andrews, who was starting a Masters in dealing with speech/hearing issues. I also began to meet people through the department. One of my classmates, Alejandro Crosthwaite, OP, and I made a point of getting to know one another through some dinners which were good fun comparing notes on how we'd ended up in the theology department.
I especially got lucky in getting grabbed by the energetic Kari-Shane Davis and invited to join an ecumenical Bible study/social group that she was involved in. I weighed this, wondering whether I wanted to get involved in an evangelical circle again, since to some extent I felt like I'd moved past that part of my life, but I'm glad I said yes. It turned out that Chris Dorn, who I'd met at Deirdre McQuade's big bash back in April, was part of the group, so already the networking was setting in. Though them I met Mike Dougherty and his fiancé Michelle Ruggaber, and so the cast of the rest of the semester was more-or-less set.
Right at the beginning of the school year it came time for little Grace to be baptized. My sister and brother-in-law had asked me to stand as Godfather for her, which filled me with delight, and Jim's sister Juliet was Godmother. Miss Grace was very dignified through the entire ritual, and in fact afterwards seemed rather sleepy, so we celebrated for her. As a theologian, of course, I'm already laying my plans for her education. This little girl is going to be shockingly well-informed...
One of the first really interesting things that I did in getting to know Milwaukee was going down to the Art Museum to catch the opening of a new exhibit. Here's the text of the advertisement for the event:
"Leonardo da Vinci and the Splendor of Poland: A History of Collecting and Patronage" Prince Adam Karol Czartoryski of Poland will be at the Milwaukee Art Museum for the September 13 opening of Leonardo da Vinci and the Splendor of Poland: A History of Collecting and Patronage, an exhibition of 77 paintings from public and private collections in Poland. Prince Czartoryski, of The Princes Czartoryski Museum in Cracow, Poland, brings the jewel of the exhibition, Leonardo's Lady With an Ermine, to Milwaukee. He shares the story of this work's survival throughout the 20th century during the opening night celebration, including music and dance performances, at MAM September 13. The celebration begins at 5 p.m. and Prince Czartoryski speaks at 6:15 p.m.I went to that one with Caitlin, although we had the difficulty of having irreconcilable museum-speeds. You know what I mean? I'm one of those people who wants to stop and read and looks at everything. And Caitlin was one of those people who cruises through pretty fast. So we compromised on a medium speed that probably just irritated the both of us. We did spend some extra time with the da Vinci, although I have to say that months later, I still don't know what to make of it. I find his lighting to always be unnatural, or perhaps "transcendental" would be a better word, and something "trans-human" to his figures. Even his hideous caricatures are somehow an idealization of humanity, and I guess it's his idealization--what's behind it; what it means--that somehow throws me.
The other real wonder of the exhibition was Hans Memling's Last Judgment, here shrunk down, although you can click on it to enlarge it and see it in its detail. This vast painting was simply overwhelming in its power and awfulness. It wasn't disturbing in the way that Hieronymous Bosch is--it struck me as more straightforward and less, well, perverse--but it shared the kind of horrific realization of apocolyptic vision: the kind of honest acknowledgment of what the end of all things really entails.
A thorough review of the entire exhibition, if you're the least bit interested, can be found here.
As far as school went, I started my career with two doctoral seminars--that's full-time status in the Ph.D. program--on Ecclesiology with Michael Fahey, SJ, and the Theology of Grace with Fr. David Coffey. As some of you might remember, Fahey is the fellow I came up here to study with--the fellow I judged to be the best ecclesiologist in the States--and Coffey is my advisor, who I was also assigned to as assistant. That last bit also meant that I got my own office accross the hall from Coffey--not a bad perk as perks go. Since I'd been reading a lot on ecclesiology over the last few years, Fahey's class seemed pretty straightforward to me. There was new information, of course, but the broad "theoretical" outline was already pretty familiar to me. Coffey's class, on the other hand, blew my mind.
WARNING: THIS NEXT SECTION CONTAINS SIGNIFICANT AMOUNTS OF THEOLOGICAL RAMBLING. (YOU MAY SKIP TO THE CONCLUSION NOTICE IF YOU SO DESIRE.) It was clearly the toughest course I've ever taken, in any subject, anywhere. Our main text was his own Grace: The Gift of the Holy Spirit along with a generous selection of work from across the entire scope of the last 2000 years of Christian theology. What made it difficult was the issue of Grace and Freedom: how is it that you can have a God who is sovereign over the universe and have humans with free will inside that universe? I had an answer that worked off of Augustine's old free will defense to the problem of evil that made a great deal of sense to me: that God, in His sovereignty, willed that there be freedom within the confines of creation. In other words, although both human choice (I build a bomb and blow up Milwaukee) or happenstance (a meteor falls out of the sky and blows up Milwaukee) may result in events that God would not choose, the freedom involved in such a universe--a freedom where humans can choose to love God and Neighbour--is what God desires.
The problem for Catholic theology was that that particular position--which is also the Eastern Orthodox theology of Grace--was later more-or-less rejected by Catholicism, and later given the polemical name of "Semi-Pelagianism," which effectively lumped it in with a position much more clearly to be rejected. My difficulty was that the reasoning for the rejection of that position, given in a small, regional synod in 529, seemed pretty suspect to me and blatantly political. Yet it has more-or-less stood as the "official" teaching of the church since then, although the defenses of it seemed to me to be filled with double-speak. The later Augustine moved to a position that was more along the lines of "if we do evil, it was our freedom that chose it; if we do good, it was God's power that chose the good." How we could be "free" to choose evil, but never be free to actually choose the good, seemed like nonsense to me. Coffey was very, very patient as I began working through this problem. I still don't know that I buy the stock answer--it seems very sloppy to me, but I think I'm beginning to get an idea of why Augustine started leaning the way that he did: that all of our goodness is really God's goodness because God is the Good. And a choice of evil is a "non-choice" in essence because it is choosing a non-reality over the Good which is real (and is therefore of our flawed wills and not of God, who is the Real). I'm not sure if that's enough of an answer yet, but he may be on to something worth saying better, especially in light of ways of looking at our universe that take freedom, randomness and quantum theory into account.
END OF THEOLOGICAL RAMBLING.
In November, my Mum celebrated her 60th birthday and we celebrated with her! In fact, a conspiracy that had been brewing for over a year climaxed with this gathering. She thought she was going down to my sister's in November just to spend her birthday with her and Jim, my brother-in-law. What she did not know was that my brother Joe, his fiance Daniele, and I were also going to be in attendance. Naturally, she was pleased, and thought that that was the whole of the surprise for her birthday. We therefore took great pleasure in surprising her with more. Leslie took advantage of having us all together to have this family portrait taken, but in the evening as we were all gathered around (although I can't remember if baby Grace had been put to bed by this point...), we presented our gift. Mom opened a package to find a picture guidebook to Ireland and a homemade ticket entitling her to one free trip to the ancestral homeland. She had a hard time taking it in, and we all had that kind of good laugh that you can have when you completely overwhelm someone in the best way. She'd gone without our whole lives to take care of us and we were thrilled to be able to give her an opportunity that she'd always wanted but assumed that she'd never be able to have. As Mike Dougherty had gotten me in the habit of saying: Excellent!
So that's the type of thing that consumed me during my first semester. Getting to know people, and getting back to Ph.D.-level thinking after five years in high school. It was both invigourating and humbling to go from being intellectually dominating without trying in a classroom back to being well out of my league. Getting to know people was easier. And of course I kept up with old friends, too. I made it back down to the Bend to attend the third in a series of Culture and Ethics conferences at Notre Dame, this time to hear P.J. McCurry present his first conference paper, as well as getting down there to enjoy the first season under Coach Tyrone Willingham by watching the monumental defeat of Michigan with Kevin Fleming. I was also able to get time in with my beleagured former students who'd been left in charge of the school newspaper and were now watching all their work go down the drain while putting up with singularly bizarre behaviour from their new advisor. Poor kids. That just highlighted (ouch, no pun intended, for those who'd get it....) how torn I was feeling about leaving my old post to pursue this new opportunity. It took me the entire semester to really come to terms with the change....