Trees do not wait

I took the photo here on Dumbarton Street on the walk home recently, and it ties in with John Cuddeback’s reflection on autumn and the falling of leaves:

That the trees do not wait is perhaps a gentle reminder of many other things that will not wait, that call for our attending to each day.

The natural world speaks to us in so many voices. It speaks most powerfully, perhaps, when we recognize something of ourselves in it. Belloc writes of autumn as tending to unsettle us. The falling of leaves can cut a little close to the bone.

“Whatever permanent, uneasy question is native to men, comes forward most insistent and most loud at such times.”

It’s not that we have to go out in the woods and explicitly answer that permanent, uneasy question. It might be enough for us just to look up, and to listen. And to feel a little more our place in reality.

For every tree there will come a year in which its leaves will fall, never to be replaced. If the falling of leaves is poignant it is at root because human life is poignant; and a gift; something to be treasured and savored each day.

Whether we go for a walk alone, or alone with someone we love, something of who we are is waiting for us under the trees. Today.

 

Marquette Building and good public art

I’ve written before about what bad public art is for. When I was in Chicago earlier this past week I walked by the Marquette Building at night, and noticed an example of what I believe to be good public art:

I think two characteristics of good public art are, first, that it tells a story worth hearing, and second, that it is particular to its place in some sense. The engravings/reliefs above the entrance to the Marquette Building have these characteristics. They convey something of the rootedness of that particular place, and they convey some of the stories of the people who came before us in that place—in this case, apparently some of the story of “Father Jacques Marquette, the first European settler in Chicago, who explored the Chicago region in 1674 and wintered in the area for the 1674-5 winter season…”

In an arresting way, the Marquette Building does far more to connect the man or woman of the present with the distant past of this particular part of Chicago and this particular part of America than the beautiful but anodyne glass and wood foyer across the street will ever offer passersby of the future.

What I mean is that the Marquette Building offers people like me who walk by with the chance (even if only in the thinnest way) to connect with a bit of America’s far distant past and to encounter, in some sense, the realities of a far different generation of explorers and indigenous peoples. It knits together disparate generations and offers the chance of a sort of spiritual, or at least civic, wholeness.

Distinguishing nothing from something

Brandon Vogt and Bishop Robert Barron had what I thought was a great exchange on the topic of creation and being with respect to Stephen Hawking’s argument that the existence of the universe does not require an explanation:

Brandon Vogt: Hawking seems to suggest that really, the only reason to believe in God, is if you think he’s necessary to explain the universe. That God would have been the only possible cause of the universe, and so the rest of the chapter aims to show why the universe could have been created without God. Hawking says explicitly, “I think the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing according to the laws of science,” and he later says, “The laws of nature itself tell us that not only could the universe have popped into existence without any assistance like a proton, and have required nothing in terms of energy, but also that it is possible that nothing caused the Big Bang.” What’s your take on that analysis?

Bishop Robert Barron: He’s doing there what a lot of his acolytes do, which is equivocate on the term “nothing.” I know it seems odd to put it that way, because nothing is nothing. But they really are, they’re equivocating on the meaning of the term.

Let’s stay within the philosophical frame. Within philosophy, “nothing” designates absolute non-being, right? The absolute negation of being of any kind. But when the theoretical physicists use the word “nothing,” they’re using it in a highly equivocal way. They’re not intending by that word absolute metaphysical non-being. They’re talking about really a very rich and fecund field of energy out of which these subatomic particles emerge.

The minute you say what they came from and what they return to, you’re not designating nothing. You’re not designating absolute metaphysical non-being. You’re pointing to this very richly textured field out of which these energies appear. And so it’s throwing the word “nothing” around as though it’s solving a metaphysical problem. What they mean by it is not like a measurable thing, so you might be pointing to a dimension of reality which is not a measurable thing in the conventional sense. If by that you mean “nothing,” fine, but see, what they in fact are indicating is a contingent state of affairs that therefore needs to be explained metaphysically. We still can ask the question, “What’s the condition for the possibility of that state of affairs?”

The thing that you read, that passage, when I read that on the plane, I remember I laughed out loud because: so the universe comes out of absolute non-being, but given the laws of nature. Say what you want about the laws of nature—they’re not nothing. The laws of nature are naming certain fundamental constants that the scientists are operating out of. That’s the epistemological context in which scientists are operating. Say what you want of those, but they’re not absolute non-being. So then the question arises, “How do you explain the laws of nature?” Which I think is a very searching question.

Look, all of the sciences are predicated on the assumption that there is a fundamental intelligibility about being and “laws of nature” is just a way of saying that. That there is an intelligible structure to reality at the ordinary level of our experience and at the most fundamental level of theoretical physics. And Hawking is calling those, for sake of argument, “the laws of nature.” I want to know where those come from! I want to know how it’s just the case that reality is explicable in terms of densely complex mathematical intelligibilities. And all of the sciences assume it—they don’t prove it, they assume it, they rest upon it. Where did those come from? I want to know that.

And don’t play the game of saying, “Oh it’s coming from nothing, it just comes out of absolute non-being.” Oh, and of course conditioned by the “laws of nature.” I mean, philosophically speaking you’re just trading in nonsense there.

Little Free Libraries, ‘a spiritual gesture’

Todd Bol, the creator of the “Little Free Library” movement, died this month:

Little Free Library is a nonprofit organization that inspires a love of reading, builds community, and sparks creativity by fostering neighborhood book exchanges around the world.

Katharine Q. Seelye writes:

In 2009, Todd Bol was renovating his garage in Wisconsin when he ripped off its old wooden door. He liked the wood, though, and didn’t want to throw it out. So after staring at it for a while, he decided to use it to build a small monument to his mother, who had been a schoolteacher.

He fashioned it into a replica of a schoolhouse, two feet high and two feet wide, put his mother’s books in it, and planted it on his front yard, hoping to start a little book exchange for his neighbors.

“It was a spiritual gesture,” he said.

That gesture spawned what might be called the tiny library movement, leading to his founding of a nonprofit organization called Little Free Library a year later.

Since then more than 75,000 Little Free Library boxes, which blend the form of folk art with the function of a community water cooler, have popped up in all 50 states and in 88 countries.

I’d like to see a Little Free Library at the Mount Nittany trailhead in Lemont at some point. I think it would be a great thing for hikers to be encouraged to spend time on the mountaintop with nothing but the trees and a great book.

Progress on ‘unresponsive wakefulness’

Richard Doerflinger writes on the American Academy of Neurology’s recently released guidelines on care for patients like Terri Schiavo:

Court cases involving patients like Nancy Cruzan, Nancy Ellen Jobes and Terri Schiavo have established a broad right to discontinue feeding and let patients in a vegetative state die of dehydration.

Now enters the American Academy of Neurology with new guidelines on treatment of these patients, developed along with other experts and the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research. This group’s findings and recommendations are game-changing:

  • A more descriptive term for “vegetative state” is “unresponsive wakefulness syndrome.” (This will be welcomed by families who don’t appreciate their ailing loved ones being compared to broccoli.)
  • There is a significant chance for rehabilitation (sometimes allowing patients to return home and resume employment) even in patients who have been in this state for a year or more, so “continued use of the term ‘permanent vegetative state’ is not justified.” The term “chronic” should be used, as it does not imply irreversibility. Protocols are recommended for enhancing the prospects for recovery.
  • Studies show that the likelihood of misdiagnosing the condition is about 40 percent. This includes cases where patients diagnosed as “vegetative” actually had locked-in syndrome, where they cannot respond but are fully aware (so presumably they can hear their doctors calling them vegetables).
  • One study found that 32 percent of patients with severe traumatic brain injury died in the hospital — but 70 percent of the deaths were due to withdrawal of life support, and such withdrawal had more to do with the facility where care was provided than with the severity of the symptoms.

In short, our medical system has been giving up on far too many of these patients, prematurely ensuring their deaths based on faulty diagnoses and self-fulfilling hopeless predictions.

Bobby Schindler and I wrote earlier this year on the increasing shift from describing brain injured persons as “vegetative” to instead experiencing “unresponsive wakefulness:”

What was essential in their recoveries from the standpoint of their families and caretakers was, first, a willingness to acknowledge a certain powerlessness — We cannot always make our loved ones better by our own power — and, second, a willingness to embrace uncertainty about their ultimate fate — Are they still really ‘with us’? Will they ever fully recover?— yet an even stronger willingness to live hopefully and with the sort of care that could provide an environment for life and for recovery.

Every person intuitively knows in his or her heart that what makes the special people in our lives so special is not what they do for us, but instead who they are. Every person who matters to us is a gift, always unearned, and often unexpected, whose particular value is incalculable and priceless.

Yet our medical culture is designed increasingly to also be an accounting culture, which necessarily introduces some temptation to view those for whom it was originally created to care unconditionally not as gifts, but as products.

In aggregate, this results in treating patients as a sort of raw human material whose potential future worth, just like a rising or falling stock, dictates their present value.

For example, unresponsively wakeful persons are not “attractive investments” in a profit-driven medical and accounting culture, and this means that families facing such a diagnosis will have to be particularly brave in providing the sort of safe havens and environments for potential recovery from which Terri Wallis, Martin Pistorius and Patricia White Bull each benefited in their own way.

For a society wishing to be humane, no “unresponsively wakeful” patient who is not dying can be allowed to fall victim to an imposed death of starvation and dehydration by removal of so-called “artificial” food and water. It is neither a natural nor a simple way to die.

Encouraging to see the American Academy of Neurology rejecting the sort of medicine-governed-by-accountants culture and But what can they do in this condition? thinking that has led to the deaths of Terri Schiavo and countless others.

Cultureless ciphers

Patrick Deneen paints a harsh but not untrue portrait of the state of American education:

My students are know-nothings. They are exceedingly nice, pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned, and utterly decent. But their brains are largely empty, devoid of any substantial knowledge that might be the fruits of an education in an inheritance and a gift of a previous generation. They are the culmination of western civilization, a civilization that has forgotten nearly everything about itself, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference to its own culture.

It’s difficult to gain admissions to the schools where I’ve taught – Princeton, Georgetown, and now Notre Dame. Students at these institutions have done what has been demanded of them: they are superb test-takers, they know exactly what is needed to get an A in every class (meaning that they rarely allow themselves to become passionate and invested in any one subject); they build superb resumes. They are respectful and cordial to their elders, though easy-going if crude with their peers. They respect diversity (without having the slightest clue what diversity is) and they are experts in the arts of non-judgmentalism (at least publically). They are the cream of their generation, the masters of the universe, a generation-in-waiting to run America and the world.

But ask them some basic questions about the civilization they will be inheriting, and be prepared for averted eyes and somewhat panicked looks. Who fought in the Peloponnesian War? Who taught Plato, and whom did Plato teach? How did Socrates die? Raise your hand if you have read both the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Canterbury Tales? Paradise Lost? The Inferno?

Who was Saul of Tarsus? What were the 95 theses, who wrote them, and what was their effect? Why does the Magna Carta matter? How and where did Thomas Becket die? Who was Guy Fawkes, and why is there a day named after him? What did Lincoln say in his Second Inaugural? His first Inaugural? How about his third Inaugural? What are the Federalist Papers?

Some students, due most often to serendipitous class choices or a quirky old-fashioned teacher, might know a few of these answers. But most students have not been educated to know them. At best, they possess accidental knowledge, but otherwise are masters of systematic ignorance. It is not their “fault” for pervasive ignorance of western and American history, civilization, politics, art and literature. They have learned exactly what we have asked of them – to be like mayflies, alive by happenstance in a fleeting present. …

We have fallen into the bad and unquestioned habit of thinking that our educational system is broken, but it is working on all cylinders. What our educational system aims to produce is cultural amnesia, a wholesale lack of curiosity, history-less free agents, and educational goals composed of content-free processes and unexamined buzz-words …

Our students are the achievement of a systemic commitment to producing individuals without a past for whom the future is a foreign country, cultureless ciphers who can live anywhere and perform any kind of work without inquiring about its purposes or ends …

Conservatism and T.S. Eliot

Roger Scruton writes on T.S. Eliot, prefaced by this from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute:

Conservatism as understood by Burke and Eliot, isn’t blind adherence to tradition but the ability to immerse oneself in and clearly see present realities. Conservatism’s eye to the present makes it a modern animal.

What was T.S. Eliot about and why does his thinking resonate and endure? Scruton writes:

T. S. Eliot was indisputably the greatest poet writing in English in the twentieth century. He was also the most revolutionary Anglophone literary critic since Samuel Johnson, and the most influential religious thinker in the Anglican tradition since the Wesleyan movement. His social and political vision is contained in all his writings, and has been absorbed and reabsorbed by generations of English and American readers, upon whom it exerts an almost mystical fascination—even when they are moved, as many are, to reject it. …

Eliot attempted to shape a philosophy for our times that would be richer and more true to the complexity of human needs than the free-market panaceas that have so often dominated the thinking of conservatives in government. He assigned a central place in his social thinking to high culture. He was a thorough traditionalist in his beliefs but an adventurous modernist in his art, holding artistic modernism and social traditionalism to be different facets of a common enterprise. Modernism in art was, for Eliot, an attempt to salvage and fortify a living artistic tradition in the face of the corruption and decay of popular culture. …

The Waste Land was later republished with notes in which Eliot explained some of his references and allusions, such as that contained in the title, which alludes to the Fisher King of the Parsifal legend, and The Waste Land over which he presides, awaiting the hero who will ask the questions that will destroy winter’s bleak enchantment and renew the world. The allegory of modern civilization contained in this reference to the medieval fertility cults, and their literary transformation in Arthurian romance, was not lost on Eliot’s readers. Nor was it the first time that these symbols and legends of medieval romance had been put to such a use—witness Wagner’s Parsifal, to which Eliot refers obliquely, by quoting from Verlaine’s poem.

Nevertheless, there was a peculiar poignancy in the very erudition of the poem, as though the whole of Western culture were being brought to bear on the desert landscape of the modern city in a last effort to encompass it, to internalize it, and to understand its meaning. The use of anthropological conceptions parallels Wagner’s use of the Teutonic myths. (In The Waste Land there are more quotations from Wagner than from any other poet.) Eliot is invoking the religious worldview—and in particular the sense that life’s renewal depends upon supernatural forces—but as a fact about human consciousness, rather than an item of religious belief. In this way, he was able to avail himself of religious ideas and imagery without committing himself to any religious belief. As he was rapidly discovering, without religious ideas the true condition of the modern world cannot be described. Only by describing modernity from a point of view outside of history can we grasp the extent of our spiritual loss.

After The Waste Land Eliot continued to write poetry inspired by the agonizing dissociation, as he saw it, between the sensibility of our culture and the available experience of the modern world. …

Culture seems to me to be a necessarily directed thing, meaning that it’s not just a word used to describe community habits or ways of being together, but rather that culture and its roots in the cultus is concerned with elevating and holding sacred certain things, while marking out those things which are not life-giving. Scruton writes on how Eliot thought of culture and democracy as parallel and perhaps oppositional forces:

Eliot was brought up in a democracy. He inherited that great fund of public spirit which is the gift of American democracy to the modern world, and the cause of so much ignorant hatred of America. But he was not a democrat in his sensibility. Eliot believed that culture could not be entrusted to the democratic process precisely because of the carelessness with words, this habit of unthinking cliché, which would always arise when every person is regarded as having an equal right to express himself. …

Hence, the critic has, for Eliot, an enhanced significance in the modern, democratic world. It is he who must act to restore what the aristocratic ideal of taste would have spontaneously generated—a language in which words are used with their full meaning and in order to show the world as it is.

And Scruton on how Eliot thought of religion not simply as dogma, but as something with a rooted and timeless character:

For Eliot, however, religion in general, and the Christian religion in particular, should not be seen merely in Platonic terms as an attitude towards what is eternal and unchanging. The truth of our condition is that we are historical beings who find whatever consolation and knowledge is vouchsafed to us in time. The consolations of religion come to us in temporal costume, through institutions that are alive with the spirit of history. To rediscover our religion is not to rise free from the temporal order; it is not to deny history and corruption, in order to contemplate the timeless truths. On the contrary, it is to enter more deeply into history, so as to find in the merely transitory the mark and the sign of that which never passes: it is to discover the “point of intersection of the timeless with time,” which is, according to Four Quartets, the occupation of the saint. …

And finally here’s Scruton describing Anglican Christianity in a way I’ve never seen it described before:

For Eliot, therefore, conversion was not a matter merely of acknowledging the truth of Christ. It involved a conscious gesture of belonging, whereby he united his poetical labors with the perpetual labor of the Anglican church. For the Anglican church is peculiar in this: that it has never defined itself as “protestant”; that it has always sought to accept rather than protest against its inheritance, while embracing the daring belief that the truths of Christianity have been offered in a local form to the people of England. It is a church which takes its historical nature seriously, acknowledging that its duty is less to spread the gospel among mankind than to sanctify a specific community. And in order to fit itself for this role, the Anglican church has, through its divines and liturgists, shaped the English language according to the Christian message, while also bringing that message into the here and now.

Kevin Williamson wrote on Elon Musk and Eliot’s The Waste Land recently.

‘Better now and unimaginably changed’

I saw this excerpt on Twitter from a conversation with Nick Cave; a brief meditation on the death of his son:

It seems to me, that if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal. That’s the pact. Grief and love are forever intertwined. Grief is the terrible reminder of the depths of our love and, like love, grief is non-negotiable. There is a vastness to grief that overwhelms our minuscule selves. We are tiny, trembling clusters of atoms subsumed within grief’s awesome presence. It occupies the core of our being and extends through our fingers to the limits of the universe. Within that whirling gyre all manner of madness exist; ghosts and spirits and dream visitations, and everything else that we, in our anguish, will into existence. These are precious gifts that are as valid and as real as we need them to be. They are the spirit guides that led us out of the darkness.

I feel the presence of my son, all around, but he may not be there. I hear him talk to me, parent me, guide me, though he may not be there. He visits Susie in her sleep regularly, speaks to her, comforts her, but he may not be there. Dread grief trails bright phantoms in its wake. These spirits are ideas, essentially. They are our stunned imaginations reawakening after the calamity. Like ideas, these spirits speak of possibility. Follow your ideas, because on the other side of the idea is change and growth and redemption. Create your spirits. Will them alive. Speak to them. It is their impossible and ghostly hands that draw us back to the world from which we were jettisoned; better now and unimaginably changed.

If “infinities of experience” can exist in finite creatures like us, it makes sense to me that our fate is not ultimately finite, either.

Notre Dame at Northwestern

I caught the South Shore Line from South Bend Airport to Chicago’s Millennium Station as Notre Dame’s “Higher Powers” conference was close to winding down on Saturday in order to catch Notre Dame at Northwestern’s Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois.

It was a beautiful day, and the game was close right up until the final few minutes at which point it was raining steadily and quite cold. We caught an Uber back into the city afterwards.

Higher Powers

Notre Dame’s 2018 Fall Conference was a good and worthwhile experience, focused on the theme of “Higher Powers”. I was fortunate to meet Ignat Solzhenitsyn and Rod Dreher for the first time, and many other good people. Here’s context on the conference:

What is the proper relationship between God, the human person, and the state? In a 1993 address, Nobel Laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed that, “having refused to recognize the unchanging Higher Power above us, we have filled that space with personal imperatives, and suddenly life has become a harrowing prospect indeed.” Twenty-five years after Solzhenitsyn’s address, and one hundred years after his birth, the Center for Ethics and Culture’s 19th Annual Fall Conference will consider how every human pursuit can be oriented toward higher powers and reflect on the true measures of social progress, the role of morality in law and politics, and the dynamics of liberty, dignity, self-sacrifice, and the good in public life.

Daniel J. Mahoney’s conversation/interview with Ignat Solzhenitsyn on “Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Art and Truth in a Fearsome Century” was the highlight of the conference for me. Other highlights were Alasdair MacInytre’s talk “Absences from Aquinas, Silences in Ireland” as well as Adrian Vermeule’s “Liberalism and the Invisible Hand”. Carter Snead moderated the closing colloquy on “Catholicism and the American Project“, which provides glimpse into a wide and deep debate within American Catholicism on how to Catholics are to move forward in this country in the 21st century.

The colloquium “I Shall Write My Law Within Their Hearts” moderated by Rev. Séan Mac Giollarnáth, O. Carm. was also very good. It featured Hon. Thomas Donnelly (Loyola University) who spoke on “Freeing Law from Legalism”, Marianna Orlandi (University of Padua) who spoke on “Judges Who Refuse ‘Higher Powers,’ and Judges Who Die for Them: An Italian Case on Assisted Suicide, and on Sanctity” and Bernard Prusak (King’s College) who spoke on “The USCCB and the U.S. Supreme Court on Cooperation with Evil”.

Donnelly advocated the restoration of the U.S. jury trial to common practice and the habit of judges not hiding behind a technocratic method of rendering judgment, but instead fully engaging their cases as moral agents. Orlandi contrasted public disengagement from moral issues in the case of suicide by physician and contrasted this with the witness of Rosario Livatino, a young Italian judge murdered by the mafia who is now a Servant of God. Prusak spoke on the danger of all public questions of moral philosophy and moral reasoning being distilled to a narrow set of “religious liberty” issues in constitutional practice, making the point that many if not most so-called “religious” questions in American law are not properly theological disputes that are, consequently, unresolvable in law, but are in fact generally issues of moral philosophy and moral reasoning.