Tuesday, March 31, 2009

What Would Jane [Austen] Blog?

Next week in my class we will be reading Jane Austen's masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice. In preparation, I came across this site, the Republic of Pemberley, named after Mr. Darcy's estate in P&P. If you go to their shoppe, you will find the true meaning to WWJD: What Would Jane Do? As can be found here.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Plutocratic University

The University world is often viewed as a meritocracy on all levels, whether faculty advancement or student marks. And while some realize that (in the past) it has been really the wealthiest who tend to go to the most prestigious institutions (just due to the price tag), the trend will become more pronounced with next year's incoming class at universities around the country. Indeed, the cost of university education has been increasing at an alarming rate for a long time now, but the economic crisis will now exacerbate the divide between the haves and have nots in terms of university admissions policies. As the NYTimes reports, universities with shrinking endowments are taking the ability of a student to pay fully in cash into admissions considerations, turning the meritocracy increasingly into a plutocracy. Socio-economic diversity will be reduced, and, since unfortunately so often socio-economic diversity is linked with ethnicity, ethnic diversity is likely to decrease in private universities. The universities claim that by doing this, by focusing on wealthier students, they will be able to afford to offer scholarships to the less economically fortunate...but student aid, as a whole, will be down next year.

Some universities are traditionally "need blind," meaning that they admit students without regard for wealth. At the moment, only the wealthiest universities can afford to do so. At the same time, "need blind" universities DO look at wealth for international students, wait-listed students, and transfer students (this is the case at Brandeis), and, interestingly enough, international admittance is up at need-blind universities. Many private institutions, however, are openly aware of wealth and have been and will take even added consideration of wealth and background (including using your ZIP code as a possible indicator of economic background!).

In sum, if you are a weaker student, but from a wealthy background, you have a better chance of getting into a good school than usual, because those who are bright but cannot pay the rising costs of education without a scholarship or aid are out of the running this year. And god forbid you live in the wrong neighborhood (ZIP code)!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Erotics, Not Hermeneutics

In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art. (Susan Sontag, "Against Interpretation")

This is to give a conclusion before the premise. Part of the problem for Sontage is the artificial, illusory separation of form and content, especially the privileging of content over form:

And it is the defense of art which gives birth to the odd vision by which something we have learend to call "form" is separated off from something we have learned to call "content," and to the well-intentioned move which makes content essential and form accessory. (ibid.)

This illusory separation of form and content seems to be an act of violence whereby the critic creates a fissure in the work of art. It is in this violent tearing apart that space is made for interpretation, itself an act that sustains the illusion that makes it possible:

...it is the habit of approaching works of art in order to interpret them that sustains the fancy that there really is such a thing as the content of a work of art. (ibid.)

...interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world--in order to set up a shadow world of "meanings." It is to turn the world into this world. ("This world"! As if there were any other.) The world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have. (ibid.)

Such sentiments recall Montaigne in "On Experience," in which he is also extraordinarily against interpretation and doubts any ability to make any meaning through interpretation as well as any ability to know a text in itself: both are impossibilities.

Interpretation turns to the text, or work of art, into something it is not--if it did not, it would not be interpretation, but merely restatement. As it opens one fissure, it attempts to close another: the gap between text and ourselves as interpretation generates "meanings," which Sontag sees as dissatisfaction with the text, a desire to transmute it into something else.

How to resist, then, this violence of meaning? This violence of tearing apart the text to tame it? Partially, one might emphasize formal analysis, express the importance of its shape. As the Montaigne allusion (from me, not Sontag) suggests, to experience a text rather than interpret it, feel it rather than explain it:

Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life-its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness-conjoin to dull our sensory faculties.... What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.

Seeing, hearing, feeling, experiencing, rather than interpreting, explaining, or, really, explaining away:

The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.

In a sense, as Sontag starts her essay, it is to recover the magic of the word, phrase, text, that precedes any mimesis.

It is such a thing, such a difficult, evanescent quality of a work of art that Roland Barthes feels toward and touches in The Pleasure of the Text, an erotics of reading.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Another Quote from Barthes

We are scientific because we lack subtlety.
(Roland Barthes, "Pleasure of the Text"; trans. Richard Miller)

Quote of the Day: Roland Barthes

...nine times out of ten, the new is only the stereotype of novelty. (Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text; trans. Richard Miller)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The "Profzi" Scheme

From PhD Comics:

Does anyone else have the sense that the scheme is on the verge of collapse?

Monday, March 23, 2009

On Translation

Translation attains its full meaning in the realization that every evolved language (with the exception of the word of God) can be considered a translation of all the others.... Translation is removal from one language into another through a continuum of transformations. Translation passes through continua of transformation, not abstract areas of identity and similarity. (Walter Benjamin, "On Language as Such and the Language of Man," in Reflections; trans. Edmund Jephcott)

Friday, March 20, 2009

A Bit 'O Daily Greek

I have seen this on Stephen Carlson's sidebar for a while now, and finally decided to add it to my own blog: a daily NT passage in Greek. It is just to the right under my info... You can get it for yourself here. A bit 'o Greek a day keeps the doctor away...

I wonder if there is something like this for Hebrew? Anyone know?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Polutropos: Much-Turned Speech in the Odyssey and Hebrews

Ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ
πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν:
πολλῶν δ’ ἀνθρώπων ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω,
πολλὰ δ’ ὃ γ’ ἐν πόντῳ πάθεν ἄλγεα ὃν κατὰ θυμόν,
ἀρνύμενος ἣν τε ψυχὴν καὶ νόστον ἑταίρων.
(Odyssey 1.1-5)

Πολυμερῶς καὶ πολυτρόπως πάλαι ὁ θεὸς λαλήσας τοῖς πατράσιν ἐν τοῖς προφήταις ἐπ’ ἐσχάτου τῶν ἡμερῶν τούτων ἐλάλησεν ἡμιν ἐν υἱῷ, ὃν ἔθηκεν κληρονόμον πάντων, δι’ οὖ καὶ ἐποίσεν τοὺς αἰῶνας: ὃς ὢν ἀπαύγασμα τῆς δόξης καὶ χαρακτὴρ τῆς ὑποστάσεως αὐτοῦ, φέρων τε τὰ πάντα τῷ ῥήματα τῆς δυνάμεως αὐτοῦ, καθαρισμὸν τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ποιησάμενος «ἐκάθισεν ἐν δεξιᾷ» τῆς μεγαλωσύνης ἐν ὑψηλοῖς, τοσούτῳ κρείττων γενόμενος τῶν ἀγγέλων ὅσῳ διαφορώτερον παρ’ αὐτοὺς κεκληρονόμηκεν ὄνομα.
(Hebrews 1:1-4)

I thought I would write an essay—in Montaigne’ sense of a try, an experiment, an attempt that is never conclusive but always questioning—by bringing together two texts and just seeing what happens. It is really a midrashic moment, in fact, because I started thinking about these two texts due to a single word that appears in the first line of each with slight variation: πολύτροπον and πολυτρόπως. This bringing together two texts based upon the occurrence of a single word is, as noted, a midrashic technique, one known as gezera shawa, a technique employed by one of the texts under consideration—Hebrews—but, as we will see, my interpretive maneuvers of reading one text against another through the occurrence of a single word is not to channel the meaning of one text in the manner of the other, as usually happens in gezera shawa, but, in fact, my mode of interpretation is more akin to Erich Auerbach’s in Mimesis: comparison of seemingly two similar aspects of a two different texts is ultimately a differential analysis; the act of comparison helps to highlight differences in nuance, style, perspective, ideology, etc., even as they may employ similar terminology, concepts, and themes.

Beginning at the most basic level of πολύτροπος and πολυτρόπως is that one is an adjective; the other, an adverb. They mean something like “many turns” or “much turned,” although often translated as “many ways.” It has connotations of versatility, shiftiness, change. Most of these connotations result from its earliest written occurrence, referring first and foremost to the man of many turns, Odysseus. It refers to his fluidity of character, a man who can never settle down, but is always on the move. Perhaps that is why he is most at home at sea. It refers to his famed cunning, most exemplified through his speech—his speech is famously well-turned, yet duplicitous. We never know whether or not to trust what he says, particularly in his speech to the Phaiakians, in which he recounts his most fantastic and unbelievable journeys to the most naïve people. In the Odyssey, Odysseus constantly lies, telling the famous “Cretan lies,” which are far more dangerous, since they are half-truths—deceit inheres in his character. His speech and cunning are also his primary features in the Iliad—he is a powerful speaker (as recounted famously in the “Teichoskopia” scene) and in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, book 12, where he runs rhetorical circles around Ajax in order to claim the fallen Achilles’ armor. So, the man of many turns has much-turned speech, the most salient aspect of his character to survive the turbulent retellings of many authors throughout the ages.

The “many” aspect echoes throughout the passage with the anaphoric repetition of πολλά: he has many journeys, he sees many men’s cities and minds, and he suffers many pains. This results in a high degree of alliteration in these first five lines with all the “p” as well as “l” sounds. All the while, he seeks his own and his companions’ νόστος or homecoming, the culmination of the narrative—although, we know, if we are careful readers, that it is not the end: according to Teiresias, Odysseus will continue to wander until he expires. His homecoming is but a respite to a further end, but it is the telos, the goal, of the narrative itself.

There is another text that uses this term in the first sentence, speaks of much-turned speech, echoes the “many,” alliterates with “p” sounds, and features a homecoming: Hebrews. I am not saying that Hebrews deliberately echoes the Odyssey, but I would not exclude it either. The author’s command of Greek clearly shows a high education, one in which the author may have learned, recited, and, in fact, memorized excerpts of Homer. Considering the importance of Homer in antiquity as the poet often modeled, often imitated, often retold (in the Roman period through Virgil and Ovid among many others), as part of the curriculum, an educated audience may pick up on such subtle echoes, echoes that are, for intensive purposes, immediately suppressed as the homily turns on its own model for its much-turned speech: the biblical text of the Law, Prophets, and Psalms—all of which are ultimately prophetic. These will become the new refracted, much-turned, speech for Hebrews, a text, as we know, quite familiar with traditional forms of rhetoric. If Hebrews does, in fact, echo the Odyssey, it does so to overturn it. Yet the comparison of the similar elements makes the differences so much starker, it is the difference of heaven (the unshakable realm, especially) and earth, or, really, the sea.

The difference/similarity strikes one, in fact, with the word πολυτρόπως itself: Hebrews is the reference in Liddel and Scott for the adverbial form—a riff on the more traditional, Odyssean adjective, shifting from a characterization to a mode, from the “what” to the “how.” Looking back to the Odyssey from Hebrews, the weight of the first line in the Odyssey is “man.” “Man” (ἄνδρα) is the first word. The focus, then, is the man of many turns, Odysseus himself, rather than the turns themselves, per se. It is Odysseus’ speech which is much-turned; yet, in Hebrews the focus shifts away from the human aspect of much-turned speech and toward God, it is ὁ θεὸς who speaks πολυμερῶς καὶ πολυτρόπως. If we have Odysseus in the background, what does it mean to think that God speaks with many turns? The problem of cunning and duplicity of Odyssean speech lurks behind this terminology—it has a connotation, recall, of being shifty and versatile, unstable. Indeed, if there is any stability in Odysseus, it is that he is always a man of many ways, he never changes in this aspect of constantly changing. He cannot not lie; he cannot not be shifty or cunning. It is his character. But, in Hebrews, it is no longer a characterization, but a manner, a mode of action. God, in fact, can and does change the changeability of much-turned speech. At the same time, having hidden God after the πολυμερῶς καὶ πολυτρόπως, Hebrews, in contrast to Homer, places greater emphasis on the mode of speech itself rather than on the speaker (ultimately God)—that mode of speech becomes, by the end of the sentence, the enthroned Son.

The multiplication of “p” sounds in the Odyssey repeats in Hebrews, but the first alliterative instance of πολυ- after πολυτρόπως is πάλαι, almost as if relegating the Odyssey’s anaphoric repetition of πολλά to the remote past, as, from the situation in time of first-century CE, it was. The πολυ-/πολλά is relegated to the past by contrast to “these last days.” It, in fact, is doubly alliterative, echoing both the “p” and the “l” sounds. At the same time, the πολυτρόπως is doubled, mirrored, by its synonym, the first word of Hebrews: πολύμερως. When all taken together, there is an amazing balance of sound, not just alliteratively with πολυ-, πολυ-, πάλαι, but also with internal rhyme— Πολυμερῶς καὶ πολυτρόπως πάλαι—in which the ending of the second and the fourth words rhyme with “ai” sounds. The “p” sound then continues with the fathers and prophets, the τοῖς πατράσιν ἐν τοῖς προφήταις, the past hearers and speakers, respectively, after which these sounds appear but as faint echoes of this initial burst of labial “p” sounds.

In fact, what will pull this earlier part of the sentence (for the first four verses of Hebrews is but one long sentence) with the later part will be modes of speech and through whom: many-turns (λαλήσας) to the fathers through the plurality of prophets (ἐν τοῖς προφήταις) versus a singular, penetrating perfect, completed, speech (ἐλάλησεν) of the son. It is as if the scattering of “p” sounds represents the much-turning, overturning, returning speech of God beforehand, perhaps a reminder of rhetorical acrobatics, but the diffusion of such alliterative qualities turns into a different mode without such obvious artistic affectation: however one looks at it, as God changes different modes of speaking from prophets to the son, the language of Hebrews also shifts away from alliteration on nearly a poetic level—the crystallized form of speech that Homeric dactylic hexameters never leave—to prose; the language of Hebrews matches the shift in modes of speaking: many to one, prophets to son, and alliteration (perhaps “art”) to creative nature (since the son is the one through whom God made all, having the “word of power” (τῷ ῥήματα τῆς δυνάμεως)). This is not to discard the “prophets” who spoke to the ancestors, but to redirect their many-turned speech, to channel it into the singular Son. As such, the multiple prophetic voices of the past reverberate throughout Hebrews. Interestingly enough, these prophetic voices primarily derive from Psalms and the Pentateuchal books with references to “prophetic books” (Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.) very rare indeed. The fascinating lattice-work of quotation and allusion of many voices really form an antiphonal choral between Pentateuch and Psalms—yet it is all prophetic.

These multiple voices harmonize into the new, singular mode of speech, which is, indeed, powerful speech, more powerful than the much-turned speech from the prophets of old, as it refolds the multiplicity of past speech into its self, unifying it in its unique perspective that sees, hears, and knows all:

For the word (λόγος) of the Lord is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with him we have to do. (Heb. 4:12-13)

What a wealth of imagery: the word, or, in fact, speech of the Lord is sharp, it is discriminating, distinguishing between the minutiae of such inseparable aspects as bone and marrow or soul and spirit. Yet this speech has eyes, poetically mixing oral and visual registers, eyes with singular focus that, at the same time, see all. This piercing speech turns into a piercing gaze, one that allows it, as a mode, to discriminate and ultimately to judge. If one has not grasped this “powerful word” or discriminating speech/word, then Hebrews reminds you at the end, showing that this new mode of speech can shake the foundations of reality itself:

See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less shall we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. His voice then shook the earth; but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of what is shaken, as of what has been made, in order that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.

We have moved from the Son’s “powerful word” (τῷ ῥήματα τῆς δυνάμεως αὐτοῦ) to the Son as word, as piercing, discriminating, discerning word (λόγος) to the voice (φωνή) that can shake heaven and earth, with only the unshakable realm remaining, the rest, heavenly Jerusalem, or, indeed, the heavenly homeland toward which the author exhorts us.

These registers come together with the realms of the homecoming: one speech of the word/God/unshakable realm (heavenly homeland) versus much-turned speech/man/this world of flux (Ithaka). Moving from much-turned, in the Odyssey the focus is on the return, the homecoming, while in Hebrews the homecoming is less of a return and more of an upturn—it is the journey to the heavenly homeland, itself figured in multiple ways throughout Hebrews as entering rest (3:7-4:11) and God’s sanctuary (10:19-25) and drawing near to the throne (4:14-16) and to God (7:19, 25), yet, again, as seeking the heavenly homeland, the heavenly Jerusalem (11:13-16; 11:39-40; 12:18-24). The Odyssey, in fact, depicts many different homecomings: Agamemnon’s, whose homecoming ended quickly in disaster as he died by the hands of his wife, Clytemnestra and/or her lover Aigisthos; Menelaos’, who reached home with his wife, Helen, after several years of distraction in Egypt; Nestor’s, although more vaguely; Telemachos’, who journeyed throughout the Peloponnese to find word of his father, Odysseus, too, has a journey and a return; and, finally, Odysseus’ rather tricky and complicated homecoming, delayed for so long, beset by many temptations and trials, which were overcome by his famous deceitful cunning. This multiplicity of homecomings, including many individuals going to many different places—Agamemnon to Mycenae, Menelaos to Sparta, Odysseus to Ithaka, etc.—stands against Hebrews, which depicts many people reaching their heavenly homeland, but not quite yet (or not “apart from us”) and to all one place—the heavenly Jerusalem. They too are beset by trials and temptations and their ability to reach their heavenly homeland depends upon their degree of faithfulness and obedience. The unfaithful and disobedient fail to “enter the rest” (3:7-4:11) while the faithful and obedient, while not yet receiving the promised homeland, greeted it from afar (11:13) because they could not receive the promise “apart from us” (Heb. 10:39-12:2). So, while the multiplicity of much-turned speech has shifted from the Odyssey to Hebrews to a singularity of mode exemplified by the Son, also the multiplicity of νόστοι to different destinations and at different times has collapsed into a singularity, to going to a single place and, seemingly, at a single time, since the great heroes of the past (Hebrews 11) could not reach the “promise” of the heavenly homeland “apart from us” (11:40). The only singularity that remains in the Odyssey, the text of fluidity, is Odysseus himself: while he is the man of many ways, the many ways ultimately only refer to him—the kaleidoscope of turns is entirely his own turning. The true “man of many ways who traveled far journeys” in the New Testament, however, would have to be Paul, especially in Acts, but that is another story.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy St. Pattie's Day

I wish I knew modern Irish, but, alas, I do not. So, I'll just have to say in English, "Happy St. Patrick's Day." Liam has the Irish here. I'm celebrating by continuing to grade midterms.

For your Irish enjoyment, and appropriate for a Bible scholar, here are some images from the Book of Kells:

The Book of Kells is one of the most famous manuscripts from the medieval period, and its artistry is justly famous. It dates to approximately 800 CE. The second image, by the way, is from the Gospel of Matthew.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Brief Prosaics of Walter Benjamin


Work on good prose has three steps: a musical stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven. (Walter Benjamin, "One-Way Street," in Reflections; trans. Edmund Jephcott)

So..are you composing, building, or weaving at the moment?

SBL Greek Unicode Font/Polytonic Keyboard Question

I have been playing around with the new SBL Unicode Greek font. I like the look of it. I just have one problem. I cannot seem to figure out how to use a circumflex and an iota subscript on the same letter!

Let's take the phrase in my favorite NT text, Hebrews, from the opening exordium: "through a son" (Heb. 1:2). In the Unicode text using the Polytonic Keyboard (which SBL recommends), I can write ἐν υἱῶ and I can write ἐν υἱῳ, but I cannot get the iota subscript under and the circumflex over the omega at the same time! I looked at the FAQ's and they said that to get two accent or diacritical marks on the same letter, you had to treat them as one...but how do you do that when the iota subscript is the same keystroke as the circumflex? Meaning, in regular keyboard type, the circumflex is the key that in roman script gives you "[" and the iota subscript is the shift plus the same key, giving you "{". I find this rather annoying.

By the way, when I try to do both, the greek mark is converted to block parenthesis. I am very happy to have the unicode font, but not being able to do this maneuver is frustrating, since it is quite common in the dative singular.

So, if you know how to solve this problem, please let me know!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Sacrifice as a Symbolic System

In his magisterial multi-volume commentary on Leviticus (for Anchor Bible), Jacob Milgrom, interacting with the work of Mary Douglas, suggests that the ancient Israelite system of sacrifice was not merely a bunch of scattered practices, but a unified system--a symbolic system. The unifying factor for Milgrom is death-avoidance. In response, Jonathan Klawans has suggested a two-fold organizing principle: imitatio dei and attracting/maintaing the divine presence (itself sort of a throwback to R.E. Clements, God and Temple). Klawans presents imitatio dei as the organizing principle and maintaining the divine presence as the function of sacrifice. See my fuller discussion here.

I actually like Klawans's thesis, and use a lot of his insights in my dissertation. Interestingly enough, however, the idea that the ancient sacrificial cult was a symbolic system did not begin with Mary Douglas, Jacob Milgrom, and Jonathan Klawans, but St. Augustine (and perhaps earlier), who suggests a different unifying principle: love.

If in times gone by our ancestors offered other sacrifices to God, in the shape of animal victims (sacrifices which the people of God now read about, but do not perform) we are to understand that the significance of those acts was precisely the same as that of those now performed amongst us--the intention of which is that we may cleave to God and seek the good of our neighbor for the same end. Thus the visible sacrifice is the sacrament, the sacred sign, of the invisible sacrifice. (Augustine, City of God 10.5; trans. Bettenson)

Augustine is attempting to create an equivalence of ancient sacrifices with current practices through INTENTION. The intention is to cleave to God--perhaps close to attracting and maintaining the divine presence, except going the opposite direction: the "sacrificer" here ascends to cleave to God rather than having God descend upon the temple--and help one's neighbor do so also. In the process, we also get Augustine's famous definition of sacrament as a visible sacred sign (signum) that points to (signifies) an invisible reality (res). The invisibility of which he speaks, however, again comes back to intent--he culls up passages from Psalms and prophets (Ps. 16:2; 51:12, 18f; Mic. 6:6f; and Hos. 6:6) to focus on the heart. Yet we still have not really gotten to the organizing principle that keeps all of these practices of sacrifice together--whether the animal sacrifices in the temple, or the intention of the heart, etc. It, as noted above, has to do with love:

The instructions about the multifarious sacrifices in the service of the Tabernacle or the Temple are recorded in Scripture as divine commands. We see now that they are to be interpreted as symbolizing the love of God and the love of one's neighbor. For "on these two commands the whole Law depends, and the Prophets." (ibid.)

The quotation is Matt. 22:40. So, I think Augustine would say that the organizing principle of the sacrificial system is love of God and love of neighbor (Jesus' organizing principle for the entire Torah), while, in fact, he might say that the function of sacrifice is union with God. This, in fact, is the flip side of Klawans's function of maintaining the divine presence. Perhaps, too, for Augustine to love god and neighbor would also be an act of imitatio dei, given his particular view of the inner-workings of the Trinity (see De Trinitate) based upon mutual love.

We are the Temple

In the New Testament, Jesus's body is the temple (John 2:19-22) and the community is a temple of the Holy Spirit (e.g., 1 Cor. 3:16f), but in Paul's articulation it is not always clear whether it is the individual or the community--some passages tend toward one or the other, but there is enough ambiguity. Augustine responds quite unequivocally which it is: both. Yet he takes the body/temple connection even further:

For we are his temple, collectively, and has individuals. For he ocndescends to dwell in the union of all and in each person. He is as great in the individual as he is in the whole body of his worshippers, for he cannot be increased in bulk or diminished by partition. When we lift up our hearts to him, our heart is his altar. We propitiate him by our priest, his only-begotten Son. We sacrifice blood-stained victims to him when we fight for truth "as far as shedding our blood." We burn the sweetest incense for him, when we are in his sight on fire with devout and holy love. We vow to him and offer to him the gifts he has given us, and the gift of ourselves.... We offer to him on the altar of the heart, the sacrifice of humility and praise, and the flame on the altar is the burning fire of charity. (Augustine, City of God 10.3; trans. Bettenson)

So, not only is the body, both individual and collective, the temple of God--and it can be both since God is indivisible and everywhere at once without being diminished in the individual or increased in the group--but the heart is the altar. Sacrifices are not only actual shedding of blood (reference is to Heb. 12:4), but also humility and praise. The incense is supplied by devout and holy love. And the fire of the altar is charity. To have your temple (yourself and your community) operating fully, therefore, you need a heart full of love, charity, praise, and humility. Ultimately, not a bad reading of Paul, especially 1 Corinthians.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Stem-Cell Research and Religion

Obama's overturning of Bush-era restrictions on stem-cell research has had an interesting religious response according to AP. The interesting aspect of it is its complexity and ambivalence.

Firstly, the divide is largely between killing innocent life and the importance of alleviating suffering (all quotations from AP):

The embryonic stem cell research debate is steeped with religious arguments, with some faith traditions convinced the research amounts to killing innocent life, others citing the moral imperative to alleviate suffering, and plenty of religious believers caught somewhere in between.

The expected Catholic response of opposition came from Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia:

Cardinal Justin Rigali, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities, called Obama's move "a sad victory of politics over science and ethics."

"This action is morally wrong because it encourages the destruction of innocent human life, treating vulnerable human beings as mere products to be harvested," Rigali, the archbishop of Philadelphia, said in a statement.

Justin Rigali before becoming archbishop of Philadelphia had that same position in St. Louis (before he became Cardinal). This is one of those places where Catholics and the Southern Baptist Convention agree:

Some religious traditions teach that because life begins at conception, any research that destroys a human embryo, as this research does, is tantamount to murder and is never justified. The Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention are among those that oppose the research.

Nonetheless, this is not the ONLY Catholic position--different Catholics fall on different sides of the innocent life/alleviating suffering divide:

Catholic bishops have been outspoken in opposing embryonic stem cell research. Other Catholics, though, are more open to lifting the Bush-era restrictions, with caveats. The Rev. Tom Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, said restrictions should be put on embryonic stem cell research — including prohibition on their buying and selling, and using only embryos that otherwise would be destroyed.

"I'm trying to make an argument for some middle ground here," Reese said. "Hopefully down the line we can reach a point where we don't have to use embryonic stem cell research."

Polls show some believers are willing to buck their leaders on the issue. Fifty-nine percent of white, non-Hispanic Catholics and 58 percent of white mainline Protestants favor embryonic stem cell research, according to a poll released in July 2008 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Only 31 percent of white evangelical Protestants, however, favored the research.

The interest in the poll of "white" mainline versus "evangelical" Protestants might suggest different results for other Protestant ethnicities. Nonetheless, the Evangelical Protestant position is not so simple. 1/3 of all evangelicals is a huge chunk of evangelicals even if not the majority, suggesting a significant mixture within the Evangelical camp--it is not so monolithic. For example...

The Rev. Joel Hunter, an evangelical pastor from Orlando, Fla., who serves on an Obama White House advisory panel, said he was encouraged by Monday's developments.

"The principle is still that it's not only understandable but in some ways moral to use embryonic stem cells that are destined for destruction for research for helping people," he said. "I think we have to tread very lightly and very carefully, and I think we have to be vigilant for years to come."

But most evangelicals criticized Obama's move. Gilbert Meilaender, a Christian ethicist at Valparaiso University and a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, created by President George W. Bush, said Obama's decision was especially disappointing because scientists are advancing toward being able to produce cells that act like embryonic stem cells without destroying any human embryos.

So, so far, while the official or general positions of Catholics and Evangelicals is in opposition, this is not monolithic; many Catholics and Evangelicals support Obama's position. Perhaps the least complex, most unified in this way are the mainline Protestants and Jews:

On the other side is the Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, a United Church of Christ minister and a professor at Chicago Theological Seminary.

"There is an ethical imperative to relieve suffering and promote healing," she said. "This is good policy for a religiously pluralistic society that cares about human suffering and the relief of human suffering."

Obama alluded to religion in announcing the changes, saying, "As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly."

Other more liberal traditions, including mainline Protestant and Jewish institutions, believe the promise to relieve suffering is paramount. In 2004, the governing body of the Episcopal Church said it would favor the research as long as it used embryos that otherwise would have been destroyed, that embryos were not created for research purposes, or were not bought and sold.

Under Jewish law, an embryo is genetic material that does not have the status of a person. According to the Talmud, the embryo is "simply water" in the first 40 days of gestation. Healing and preserving human life takes precedence over all the other commandments in Judaism.

Then Muslims are divided down the middle and the Church of Latter Day Saints has not taken a position:

Some groups and faiths are divided on the issue. Muslims disagree over — among other things — whether an embryo in the early stage of development has a soul. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormon church, has not taken a position.

So, what have we learned? Obama's overturning of Bush's policies on stem-cell research has demonstrated a religious divide in this country. But this divide is NOT between religions: there are Jews, Muslims, and Christians on both sides. This divide is not even between Catholics/Evangelicals on one side and Mainline on the other side (in the Christian world), although they still tend toward one side or the other, since there is such a large number of Catholics and Evangelicals on each side of the issue. The divide is between those who want to save innocent life and those who want to alleviate suffering--both religious positions within each religion.

If God is the God of Gods, then Who are the Gods?

I became interested in this question in my research into the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, which consistently refers to heavenly beings as "Gods," rather than merely "Angels." It does refer to "Angels," but they seem to be among the lower rungs of the "Gods"--the "Angels" are "Messengers," the errand-runners. Often this terminology is mistranslated as "Angels" or "Strong Ones" (which is correct in an etymological sense, but then we would have to translate "God" as "Strong One" as well). So, if ancient Jews were comfortable referring to a multitude of divine beings as "Gods," then I guess modern scholars should just face the facts and, when a particular text calls for it, do so as well. I have written far more about this here.

Since then, I discovered that it is a title of Jupiter in Virgil's Aeneid (I'll quote this at a later time); it seems to be the title of the highest God in an ancient pantheon--as Jupiter is to the members of his divine council, so YHWH to his.

Interestingly enough, Augustine argues this is just a matter of semantics:

The Platonists may prefer to call those good angels "gods" rather than "demons," and to include them among those whom Plato, their founder and master, writes of having been created by the supreme God. They may do as they like; there is no need for us to engage in a tiresome dispute about words. If they mean that they are immortal, but, at the same time, created by the supreme God and that they are blessed, not by themselves, but through adhering to him who made them, then their meaning is the same as ours, whatever title they use. That this is the opinion of the Platonists, or at least of the better Platonists, can be proved by their writings. As for the actual title, the fact that they give the name "gods" to creatures who are immortal and blessed in the above sense, there is here not dispute between us, simply because one can find in our sacred Scriptures such quotations as "The Lord, the lord of gods, has spoken," and in another place: "Give thanks to the God of Gods," and "a great king above all gods." (Augustine, City of God 9.23; trans. Henry Bettenson)

And he goes on, piling on examples, the latter of which are places in which God refers to humans as gods. But the gist is we say angel, you say god, but we all mean the same thing: there may be a different "signum" but the same "res." Or, sort of. He only really agrees with the Platonists (or the better ones), and Platonizes the biblical sense with a post-Nicene sentiment in the process. I dare think the biblical terminology interacted not with Platonic thought, but with mythic thought (using "myth" in its original meaning, not its pejorative sense). It is probably more in line with the tales that Augustine rejects: Jupiter in the Aeneid. Or better yet, the collective Anunnaki in ancient Babylonian thought. The post-Nicene coloration can be seen in the emphasis on creator/creature. Augustine is willing to concede the terminology only insofar as the Platonists recognize these beings as created. I personally do not see such an emphasis in the biblical texts Augustine cites. In the Nicene Creed, Jesus' high status is emphasized because he is "begotten, not made." The "made" in this terminology distinguishes divinity from non-divinity. Thus, if the Platonists refer to their "gods" as "made," then Augustine won't make a fuss about calling them "gods"--as long as they recognize the substance of being as made rather than maker. Earlier texts make occasionally make this distinction, but I do not think this distinction was particularly widespread or given such a privileged position of a litmus test until 325 CE, and definitely not particularly relevant for biblical literature. The litmus test I see in earlier literature is not necessarily creator/creature (it may be there, but is not decisive), but of worship: you only worship the "God of Gods," the highest one up there. But, then again, that is not necessarily monotheism, but monolatry. Nonetheless, I would happy to be shown that I am wrong.

Academic Job Market

The NYTimes posted basically what I already knew: the current academic job market is TERRIBLE. Between curtailed budgets, hiring freezes, and retirement-age professors holding on because they've seen their 401K's/pensions/savings shrink significantly, the job openings have dropped significantly. People who would be getting jobs, are staying back in the post-doc programs and, therefore, keeping people just coming out from getting those positions--so there is a trickle-down effect that intensifies the joblessness.

March 7, 2009

Doctoral Candidates Anticipate Hard Times


Chris Pieper began looking for an academic job in sociology about six months ago, sending off about two dozen application packets. The results so far? Two telephone interviews, and no employment offers.

“About half of all the rejection letters I’ve received mentioned the poor economy as contributing to their decision,” said Mr. Pieper, 34, who is getting his doctorate from the University of Texas, Austin. “Some simply canceled the search because they found the funding for the position didn’t come through. Others changed their tenure-track jobs to adjunct or instructor positions.”

“Many of the universities I applied to received more than 300 applications,” he added.

Mr. Pieper is not alone. Fulltime faculty jobs have not been easy to come by in recent decades, but this year the new crop of Ph.D. candidates is finding the prospects worse than ever. Public universities are bracing for severe cuts as state legislatures grapple with yawning deficits. At the same time, even the wealthiest private colleges have seen their endowments sink and donations slacken since the financial crisis. So a chill has set in at many higher education institutions, where partial or full-fledge hiring freezes have been imposed.

A survey by the American Historical Association, for example, found that the number of history departments recruiting new professors this year is down 15 percent, while the American Mathematical Association’s largest list of job postings has dropped more than 25 percent from last year.

“This is a year of no jobs,” said Catherine Stimpson, the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at New York University. Ph.D.s are stacked up, she said, “like planes hovering over La Guardia.”

The anticipated wave of retirements by faculty members who are 60-something is likely to slow as retirement savings accounts and pensions wither, administrators and professors say. That means that some students who have finished postdoctoral fellowships and who expected to leave for faculty positions are staying put for another year, which in turn closes off an option for other graduate students coming up the ladder.

“I was encouraged to aim very high initially, but as I have watched more and more jobs pulled, I am worried about whether I can even get a postdoc,” said Vanessa Svihla, 33, a graduate student in science education at the University of Texas, Austin. She is defending her dissertation next month. “Amidst all the normal stress of finishing a dissertation and trying to get publications out, hiring freezes are a bit overwhelming,” she said.

Although some people think that graduate school is a good place to wait out a crash, some undergraduates said they had either canceled or postponed plans to enter graduate school this fall because of the bad economy or their inability to get student loans.

Aisha Hadlock, 21, a senior at Oberlin College who majored in Islamic studies, decided to delay graduate school for at least a year. “I don’t have the financial means to support myself through grad school in this economy, and grants and loans are so hard to get right now,” Ms. Hadlock said. The types of programs that offer generous financial aid “will be overrun with applicants,” she added.

Andrew Delbanco, the chairman of the American studies program at Columbia University, said that the system producing graduate students was increasingly out of sync with the system hiring them.

“It’s been obvious for some time — witness the unionization movement — that graduate students are caught between the old model of apprentice scholars and the new reality of insecure laborers with uncertain employment prospects,” Mr. Delbanco said. “Among the effects of the financial crisis will clearly be shrinkage both in graduate fellowships and in entry-level academic positions, so the prospects for aspiring Ph.D.’s are getting even bleaker.”

Many in the humanities fear that their fields are going to suffer most. Humanities professors are already among the lowest-paid faculty members, according to the Humanities Indicators Prototype, a new, decade-long effort to establish a database of information led by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

What’s more, nearly half of all the positions are part time — with no job security and no benefits — a situation that many educators expect to worsen.

Many students now finishing their doctorates began working on them when the economy was in much better shape. It often takes about nine years to complete a dissertation in English, said Louis Menand, an English professor at Harvard, explaining that students have to devote so many hours to teaching and making money that they don’t have time left over to write.

William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Mich., who writes a column for The Chronicle of Higher Education under the name Thomas Benton, has frequently tried to dissuade undergraduates from pursuing a graduate degree in the humanities. He is convinced that the recession will push universities to trim the number of tenure-track jobs further.

Columbia, so far, has resisted an all-out hiring freeze, but there have been cutbacks in the budget in general and for each department.

The Humanities is the hardest-hit sector:

In the past 30 years, public and private money dedicated to the humanities has also significantly declined. The budget for the National Endowment for the Humanities is roughly a third of what it was at the high point of 1979, after adjusting for inflation, according to the Humanities Indicators data, though stimulus money may raise that figure.

Only 13 percent, or about $16 million, makes its way into scholarly projects. And unlike the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes for Health, the humanities endowment does not give awards to postdoctoral students.

Of course the humanities don’t require labs and expensive equipment, but as Leslie Berlowitz, the chief executive of the arts and sciences academy, notes, the humanities suffer more from across-the-board cuts because those professors are much less able to generate financing outside of the university, unlike the hard and social sciences. Such scholars also find fewer job opportunities outside of academia.

Again, I didn't really learn anything in this article that, as Michel de Montaigne would have said, I could not learn from my own experience. The prospects for next year look bleak. I think something will loosen up in 2-3 years, however. I don't know why--let's call it artists' intuition.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Argumentum Ornithologicum

From the great theologican, Jorge Luis Borges, a new argument...well, by comparison to medieval and early modern thinkers...of God's existence:

I close my eyes and see a flock of birds. The vision lasts a second, or perhaps less; I am not sure how many birds I saw. Was the number of birds definite or indefinite? The problem involves the existence of God. If God exists, the number is definite, because God knows how many birds I saw. If God does not exist, the number is indefinite, because no one can have counted. In this case, I saw fewer than ten birds (let us say) and more than one, but did not see nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, or two birds. I saw a number between ten and one, which was not nine, eight, seven, six, five, etc. That integer--not-nine, not-eight, not-seven, not-six, etc.--is inconceivable. Ergo, God exists. (Jorge Luis Borges, "Argumentum Ornithologicum"; trans. Andrew Hurley)

Who needs the "ontological argument" when you have the argument by birds?!

What Happens to Words When You Put Them Away?

I was amused by this line from Borges's short story, "The Aleph":

...as a boy, I would be astounded that the letters in a closed book didn't get all scrambled up together overnight... (Jorge Luis Borges, "The Aleph"; trans. Andrew Hurley)

Indeed! How did he know that they didn't scramble up overnight and rearrange themselves when he reopened the book? (I would think this is an observation Borges would appreciate!)

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

To Lose Oneself: The Art of Straying

Not to find one's way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance--nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city--as one loses oneself in a forest--that calls for quite a schooling. Then, signboards and street names, passers-by, roofs, kiosks, or bars must speak to the wanderer like a cracking twig under his feet in the forest, like the startling call of a bittern in the distance, like teh sudden stillness of a clearing with a lily standing erect at the center. Paris taught me this art of straying; it fulfilled a dream that had shown its first traces in the labyrinths on the blotting pages of my school exercise books. (Walter Benjamin, "A Berlin Chronicle" in Reflections; trans. Edmund Jephcott)

Monday, March 2, 2009

Covered with Eyes: Revelation and the Aeneid

Here are two passages: one from Revelation; the other, the Aeneid. Each depicts a supernal monstrous divine-like being with lots of feathers and eyes all over:

And round the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within.... (Rev. 4:6b-8a; RSV)

This depiction is, as is often noted, an adaptation of Ezek. 1:5-14. The difference being that each being in Ezekiel has four faces, one of each animal. Another major difference are the eyes. There is absolutely no real discussion of eyes in Ezekiel's vision as there are for John of Patmos. In fact, the vision in Revelation strongly draws attention to this innovation, mentioning that the beasts around the throne have eyes all over, front and back, inside and outside, twice--at the beginning and end of their description. There is, however, a text that precedes Revelation by a century that does have such a characterization of a supernal beast: Virgil's Aeneid. In the Aeneid, Virgil introduces us to the character of Rumor, a monstrous birdlike goddess, described as...

and lithe of wing, she is a terrifying
enormous monster with as many feathers
as she has sleepless eyes beneath each feather
(amazingly), as many sounding tongues
and mouth, and raises up as many ears.
(Aeneid 4.238-42; trans. Mandelbaum)

For Revelation, the multi-eyed, multi-winged beast is near to God, attending God at the throne and singing praises to God constantly. The ever-vigilant Rumor is also always seeing and always speaking, but not praises (or not only praises). She repeats whatever she hears, amplifies it, whether it is true or false or a bit of both. She spreads unsubstantiated information. She is slander, praise, liar, and truth-teller--and you never know which! So, in these two relatively contemporaneous texts (merely a century between them), we have two depictions of an all-seeing beast with multiple eyes and feathers/wings (giving a nice birdlike quality), but evaluated completely differently. While both are (semi-)divine, Virgil's depiction is entirely negative, while Revelation's perhaps inspires awe. Perhaps many eyes and many wings are just to be used of any creature to represent its all-seeing vigilance and speed / mobility. Or is there something particularly Roman about this creature? If anyone has any other examples of multi-eyed divine beasts from antiquity (Mediterranean, Ancient Near Eastern, etc.), please send them on and perhaps we can compile and see how these characterizations develop in different contexts.

Happy Birthday, Theodor Seuss Geisel

Or, as you know him, Dr. Seuss, was born March 2, 1904.

I remember him best for Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs 'n Ham and more recently his Horton Hears a Who made into a motion picture, his whirling trisyllabic rhymes, his word pictures that forced you to think outside the box (like...One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish). Of course his illustrations are equally amazing and distinctive.

Lesser known, he also worked as a political cartoonist, especially during WWII, which have been collected in Dr. Seuss Goes to War.

He died in 1991.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Quote of the Day: Montaigne (yes...again) on Life/Death

Death mingles and confuses itself with our life throughout. Decay anticipates its time, and even insinuates itself into the course of our growth. (Michel de Montaigne, "On Experience," Essays 3.13; trans. J.M. Cohen)

There are perhaps two major themes I have seen arise in most of the works of literature that we have studied this year in my Literature Humanities class. The first is the power, duplicity, and ambiguities of language; the other, death. From the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, etc., to Montaigne's Essays, Death interweaves itself, or, in Montaigne's terms, insinuates itself throughout my entire fall and spring syllabus, whether in the attempt to overcome it through undying glory (Iliad), establishing great works (Epic of Gilgamesh; Aeneid), gaining or failing to gain immortality (Gilgamesh; Genesis), or seeking a beatific afterlife (Divine Comedy) or, here, through the complacent acceptance of its inevitability. In this more mature vision of death, Montaigne writes that living itself is the process of dying (or vice versa). Perhaps Umberto Eco, in his essay, "On Some Functions of Literature," was right: above all else Literature teaches us how to die.

On Interpretation

The first quote is inspired by the comment in the last post:

And those men who think they can lessen and check our disputes by referring us to the actual words of the Bible are deluding themselves, since our mind finds just as wide a field for controverting other men's meanings as for delivering its own. (Michel de Montaigne, "On Experience," Essays 3.13; trans. J.M. Cohen)

This is a broad-side attack on the entire early Protestant mentality coined by Luther, sola scriptura. And Montaigne has been proven right--there are just as many readings of the biblical text as there are readers. It leads not to agreement, but to fragmentation. Perhaps that is partly beneficial and partly problematic. The problem in Montaigne's day was at a high pitch, since he lived during the wars of religion. He also gave a nice broadside attack on traditional commentary--commentaries of commentaries of commentaries of a text.

There is more trouble in interpreting interpretations than in interpreting the things themselves, and there are more books on books than on any other subject. We do nothing but write comments on one another. The whole world is swarming with commentaries; of authors there is a great dearth. (ibid.)

At first take, this contradicts the earlier quotation about getting back to the bible itself--since, indeed, shouldn't it be easier to interpret the book than interpret interpretations of the book? Yet the broader point that each of these quotes lead to is not about getting back to an original meaning of a book; it is not reading the Bible versus reading a commentary on the Bible or any other book. It is about experience. You can learn more about yourself, how do adjudicate yourself, and guide yourself through your own life's experiences rather than through reading the Bible, Cicero, etc. To truly know oneself, as the oracle at Delphi says, is to know the only thing you can possibly know:

I would rather understand myself well by self-study than by reading Cicero. In the experience that I have of myself I find enough to make me wise, if I were a good scholar. Anyone who recalls the violence of his past anger, and to what a pitch his excitement carried him, will see its ugliness better than in Aristotle, and will conceive a juster hatred for it. Anyone who remembers the ills he has undergone and those that have threatened him, and the trivial happenings that have brought him from one state to another, thereby prepares himself for future changes and for the understanding of his condition. (ibid.)

It takes great courage to analyze oneself this way, to extrapolate life's philosophy out of one's own life's experience, because the conclusion one must come to is difficult. It is rather similar to Socrates' "All I know is that I know nothing." Here is Montaigne's version:

To learn tha tone has said or done a foolish thing, that is nothing; one must learn that one is nothing but a fool, a much more comprehensive and important lesson. (ibid.)

Why is this an important lesson? It is important for the same reason that one cannot claim to know anything, including the original meaning, tone, etc., of any book or interpretation of a book--it leads to humility and flexibility. It removes dogmatism:

Assertion and dogmatism are postiive signs of stupidity. (ibid.)

And, it is quite clear that this assertion and dogmatism come in two basic forms in Montaigne's thought: religion and legal systems. Humility derived from acknowledging one's own foolishness (and society's foolishness), one's inability to know, the lack of rigidity from not concluding, remaining open-ended, appears to be the underlying dynamic of all interactions between people, with oneself, and with your text before you.