"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Francis Collins on Science and Faith

Anyone interested in the conversation between science and faith will benefit from watching this talk by Francis Collins, physicist, medical doctor, microbiologist, head of the NIH Human Genome project, and Christian believer. It is a wonderful and illuminating discussion and sets an example of the way in which I hope the conversation will proceed in the coming decades. He is a little more hopeful than I am about the ways in which human beings are likely to use what scientists are learning. But his embodiment of the possibility of being both a rigorous rational scientist and a believer that the moral law is fundamental to what human beings are is wonderfully encouraging.

(I am very grateful to my former student Jason, who heard the talk, for sending me the link.)

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Review of _The Clean House_

Review of The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl, at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, directed by Sam Woodhouse.

I am grateful to Sam Woodhouse for his invitation to see his production of Sarah Ruhl’s play The Clean House, and I am happy to say that the direction was deft, the performances competent, and the set impressive. At the same time, I have nothing good to say about the play itself. Despite its author’s receipt of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, the play exemplifies precisely what is so profoundly wrong with contemporary theater: namely, the incessant production of plays written in banal and manipulative language that convey absolute and uncritical worship of human emotion as the primary, indeed the only, meaning in life.

Here’s what the play does not touch on: virtues or spiritual gifts like heroism, justice, humility, compassion, patience, temperance, faith, and wisdom; the real and problematic powers of traditional values and practices in a world of increasing doubt; the pressing philosophical questions posed by science; the ironies of history; the mystery of the relation between body, heart, and mind, nature and spirit, free will and fate; the difficulty of balancing individual liberty and social responsibility. Instead the play, which like many another seeks to achieve universal human seriousness by depicting a death, dissolves all human concerns in a bath of bathos, feelings the only reality. The ultimate goal of theater today by implication? Sentimentality.

In The Clean House a surgeon betrays marital fidelity with an older woman with whom he has fallen in love when preparing to perform a mastectomy on her and then brings her into the home he has shared with his wife, a successful but repressed medical doctor, for the sake of becoming one big happy non-traditional family. In the meantime, the wife’s equally repressed sister is secretly cleaning the doctors’ house because the Brazilian maid is busy trying to come up with the perfect joke, defined as that joke at which one will die laughing—literally. In fact, the play shares only one joke with the audience (three, if one understands Portuguese), a joke that I first heard in 1980, here told badly. In the end everyone is healed by the power of sentiment.

The justification for the adultery and for the murder by joke is the “aura” surrounding the dying older woman, her ability to make people feel things like vitality, compassion, enjoyment of the taste of apples, and acceptance of death. It is not an aura the audience can share in perceiving. It is not evidenced by any moral vision, human insight, depth of compassion, or religious, philosophical, or intuitive genius. We are simply told of its existence and expected to believe in it. The production attempts to make up for this gap in meaning and authenticity with deconstructed, post-modern stylization, the only thing that distinguished it from a TV sitcom. It was not distinguished from a sitcom by its supposedly poetic language: The height of its inspiration by the muse was represented by such phrases as “something between an angel and a fart.”

My response during the play was ho-hum. Thinking about it afterwards, I was peeved. Feel good about adultery; feel good about love; feel good about breaking out of the repression hidden in order and cleanliness by making a mess of the living room; feel good about dying. Feel good because the dying woman with the aura tells you it’s all ok. When St. Francis or the Baal Shem Tov tells us to rejoice, we may rejoice. We see that they have won the dues of rejoicing from a triumphant battle with reality. When Sarah Ruhl tells us, in a play about jokes that is almost never funny, to rejoice because love makes adultery ok and comedy makes euthanasia ok, some may walk out feeling good. I walked out exasperated at the shallowness, the banality, and the waste of opportunity. If this is what passes for genius in the contemporary theater, then we are in bigger trouble than contemporary theater is willing to imagine.

P.S. There is one passage in the play that asserts that according to a law of Judaism, finding one’s “bashert”—which the play defines as one’s soul mate, the person with whom one is destined to share a perfect mutual love—justifies adultery and abandonment of one’s wife. The character admits that this was heard on NPR, which for some is sufficient evidence of its origin in whole cloth. Nevertheless, I feel obliged to say that, so far as I know, there is no such Jewish law. One’s “bashert” means the person one is destined to marry. Nowhere in traditional Judaism does falling in love justify adultery.

Monday, March 17, 2008

ETs, Environment, and Religion

A colleague writes:

There are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on all the beaches of the earth. Think about that. The only logical conclusion to be drawn from that stat is not merely that there are other ‘Suns” and “Earths” out there, but billions, if not trillions. What are the odds that not a single one of them developed life, or that a single one of those which developed life did not develop a technological species? For us to assume that we are so special as to be the only “intelligent” species for 13 billion light years is the height of human bombast, and symptomatic of all our other problems—the Medieval notion that we are somehow above nature, or that nature will look out for us because we are so special. Yes, religions teach that, but I could use your demand for proof in reverse: where’s the evidence for divine providence? Trillions of trillions of stars make for more hard evidence for proof that life exists throughout the universe than a stack of Bibles or Korans or Torahs can provide for the existence of life on earth only.

My reply:

The “conclusion” that given the hugeness of the universe the odds must be that there is life on other planets is based upon the assumption that life on earth came about by a purely material process entirely accounted for by the laws of physics plus time. This assumption is precisely that, an assumption, unprovable. It is, in more traditional language, an act of faith. If one grants that assumption, your conclusion is perfectly reasonable.

However, since your argument gives no account of how the laws of physics came about, one is permitted by reason to make an alternate assumption, namely that there is a mind—utterly incommensurable with the human mind, and one that seems to have revealed a part of its purpose to human beings in unaccountable ways—behind the very existence of the universe and its laws of physics. Under that assumption, it is equally reasonable to conclude that the universe exists partly in order for our minds to exist and that until and unless we find evidence for life in other worlds, there is no reason to assume its existence.

It does no good for you to argue conclusions unless we can agree on premises. And since our two premises are different and both are unprovable acts of faith, all attempts to convince one another of our opposite conclusions by means of reason is pointless. We must just agree (for the sake of peace, which is both a natural and a moral value) to allow one another our different faiths.

I have never argued that the existence of God can be proven by reason or empirical evidence. On the contrary, my references to empirical evidence are to show that it is not incompatible with either of the above assumptions.

Finally, your attack on the “bombast” of the Medieval period is a false accusation. The religious traditions you are attacking (as distinct from some of their ignorant followers) never taught that “nature will look out for us because we are so special” nor that human beings are “somehow above nature”—except in one sense. They taught that we are special precisely because we are not merely nature, that being a combination of nature and spirit, we have duties to behave morally that nothing else in nature has.

In fact, your whole moral passion about saving the natural world from the depravities of man could not exist if it were not built upon the assumption that man has not only a vested interest in treating his environment with respect but also a moral duty to do so. When you labor to make the abusers of earth, air, and water feel guilty for their actions and exhort them in the name of truth and righteousness to go green, you are doing so, like it or not, on the assumption that human beings make choices for which they are morally responsible. If we were merely nature doing its thing, you would have absolutely no grounds for complaining that we are destroying our own environment. So what? Environments change, creatures come into existence and go out of it, and nature continues. Why get worked up about it? But you do, and that is because, like it or not, you are a moral being and believe in your heart that it is not only a matter of self-interest to preserve the environment, but a moral obligation to ourselves and our posterity. And I agree with you.

As I say, there can be no rational or empirical proof one way or another whether we are merely nature doing its thing or whether we are created to be responsible beings. But whatever you think, you are behaving as if you were the latter and expecting others to behave so too. In this, your character seems to me (given my assumptions) to be superior to your reasoning. To attack the religions that tell man he is a morally responsible being is, in the realm of human decision-making, exactly like attacking the environment that sustains our natural life. It is to cut the ground out from under your own feet.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Look into Hillsdale College

Last week I heard a talk by the president of Hillsdale College, an increasingly well-known small college in southern Michigan that takes absolutely no federal money and is therefore free from all federal-government-imposed rules. The college runs solely on private donations and tuition, has a traditional curriculum and a noble honor code, and trains young people not only in academic disciplines but in the principles and practice of self-government, moral responsibility, and integrity.

Hillsdale also sends out a monthly newsletter called Imprimis at no charge. For any of my readers who is interested in an exemplary path to quality education, sensible government, and more than merely rhetorical hope, go to the Hillsdale College website and investigate. You can order your free subscription to Imprimis there.