Guests on Volume 152
• ELISABETH LASCH-QUINN on the revival of interest in pre-Christian philosophical schools (in response to postmodern nihilism)
• JEFFREY BILBRO on resisting the disorienting and disintegrating effects of modern media
• ZENA HITZ on the love of learning and the freedom animated by the intellectual life
• JAMES L. NOLAN, JR. on the lessons we should have learned from the experience of the Manhattan Project
• BISHOP ROBERT BARRON on God, freedom, faith, reason, and the need to keep theology linked with sanctity
• JASON BLAKELY on how the social sciences are interpretive disciplines, more like the humanities than the “hard” sciences
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“I do really think that part of what we see in these ancient schools of thought — and then, possibly in their resurgence — is that side of human beings: the intellectual and philosophical. And then, that’s not even speaking quite yet of the spiritual. But, I do think that in everyday life, we can see all around us philosophies of different kinds. You know, sometimes fragmented, but sometimes . . . speaking quite loudly, through pretty much everything that we do or say or think or even feel. . . . There is something about reality — the human reality, the reality of the human person — that can resist the incursions of various different other ways of thinking.”
— Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn
Historian Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn discusses philosophy as the art of living in her book Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living. Birthed out of her deep personal interest in antiquity and her alarm at the “shrinkage” of modern life and thought, Lasch-Quinn’s book explores five ancient philosophical schools experiencing a contemporary resurgence. Describing modern society as a therapeutic culture wedded with consumerism, she argues that we live in a “fourth sophistic” era, because of the “acrobatic” way words and philosophies are utilized in relation to actual truth. Lasch-Quinn argues that a return to philosophy as the art of living (not an esoteric territory claimed only by academics) offers an alternative way of life. ⇧
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“Curiosity, in the news context, you might think of the rubbernecking tendency: the tendency to be drawn toward the spectacular or the outrageous or the crazy. . . . It can also be a way of wanting to know stuff in order to better manipulate or control reality to get what we want. It doesn’t have to take superficial forms. You can be quite serious and still be curious. It’s about the posture toward new knowledge and the . . . ends to which you want to put this new knowledge to: Is it to better understand and love and care for creation, other people, your neighbor? Or is it to satisfy your own appetites?”
— Jeffrey Bilbro
English professor Jeffrey Bilbro explores a Christian posture toward contemporary digital media in his book Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News. Bilbro orients his inquiry around three questions: “To what should we attend? How should we imagine and experience time? And how should we belong to one another?” Bilbro is not a declinist – he recognizes that people have always struggled against distraction. Nonetheless, he is concerned with how social media amplifies that tendency. He wants Christians to evaluate their understanding of time, to realize that their experience of “chronos” time (modern quantified duration) inhabits “kairos” time (time that is seasonal and patterned). This type of realignment toward the eternal can help cultivate the sort of “holy indifference” which Pascal encouraged: a stance which enables Christians to care deeply, but also rest in the providence of God. ⇧
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“I want to distinguish between ‘knowledge as power’ in the contemporary sense — where it means . . . the power to do something, the power to get things, the power to acquire, I think, in the end, a kind of mastery. And, rather, it’s the power that’s connected with one’s dignity as a human being with the growth of one’s capacities, with the development of one’s freedom, that’s a different kind of power and it’s something that you have in yourself for its own sake, and that you can maintain in situations of really extreme powerlessness.”
— Zena Hitz
Zena Hitz explores the dignity and freedom possible through the pursuit of learning with her book Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life. An intellectual life is not necessarily tied to the university, according to Hitz. On the contrary, educational institutions are often captured by private interests and captive to the marketplace; they are not places where real learning can necessarily flourish. For Hitz, real learning is always hidden learning. It is not about competing for power and domination. It is also not an acquisition, a private possession. Real learning means studiousness, rather than the “love of spectacle.” And it entails a “seriousness about living and learning” which is ultimately undertaken in communion with others. ⇧
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James L. Nolan, Jr.
“It was a very exciting time in nuclear physics — the exchange of ideas and the kind of discoveries that were unfolding at a rapid pace and, you know, ‘Can we do this?’ and I think that was clearly part of it. And again, the consequences, in terms of the military application of it, I don’t think was the primary or the leading motivation for the scientists. So much so that once they saw the Trinity Test and witnessed the enormity of the explosion, many of them all of a sudden had worries. Oppenheimer famously cited the Bhagavad Gita, ‘I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ And there’s all of a sudden a sense of ‘What have we done? What have we created?’”
— James L. Nolan, Jr.
In the book Atomic Doctors: Conscience and Complicity at the Dawn of the Nuclear Age, sociologist James L. Nolan, Jr., tells the story of his grandfather’s medical involvement in the Manhattan Project — the World War II research and development which produced the first atomic weapons. Nolan had known the basics of his grandfather’s history in the nuclear age. However, it was only after discovering a box filled with family memorabilia that Nolan discovered the extent of his grandfather’s involvement, spanning from working on the Trinity Project to being one of the first doctors in Japan after the war. While the book is primarily a historical account, Nolan also sees this time period as a case study in the dangers of technological enthusiasm outpacing wisdom and caution, and he believes that we need to take these lessons seriously in our own day.
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Bishop Robert Barron
“Precisely because God is not a being among beings, he is not one being sort of competing for territory in the same ontological space as creatures, then God’s presence is a non-competitive one. God can come close to his creatures without compromising their integrity. And, of course, the great moment when we see this is the incarnation. The two natures coming together —‘without mixing, mingling, or confusion,’ as Chalcedon puts it. So, the integrity of Jesus’ s humanity is preserved, it’s enhanced, it’s made perfect and beautiful precisely by the closeness of God.”
— Bishop Robert Barron
One of the central threads of Bishop Robert Barron's work through the years has been the non-competitive transcendence of God — that “God can come close to his creatures without compromising their integrity.” In his latest book, Renewing Our Hope: Essays for the New Evangelization, Bishop Barron continues exploring this theme and (among other topics) how it conflicts with the modern conception of freedom. Rather than a "zero-sum game," where the existence of God means the loss of human freedom and dignity, Barron argues that God’s non-competitive transcendence means the possibility of true freedom and dignity. Bishop Barron also believes the application of this theme addresses the tragic rift between theology and spirituality — in the same way that God's existence does not denigrate human dignity, right doctrine does not denigrate the human experience. The encounter with Christ is the purpose of theology and doctrine, and Barron does his best to exemplify this in his life and work.
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“I think that actually the dominant philosophical school in the social sciences thinks of itself as on the path to articulating something akin to the natural sciences, this sort of descriptive theory that is often articulated in almost an abstraction away from the socio-political lifeworld. I mean, if you told a social scientist, ‘Are you interpreting?’ they might very well say, ‘Yes, I’m interpreting,’ but then if you looked at their actual methods and concepts, they would not show interpretive sensitivity.”
— Jason Blakely
Political scientist Jason Blakely argues in his book We Built Reality: How Social Sciences Infiltrated Culture, Politics, and Power that the social sciences have too often been treated as though they were the same as the natural sciences. In contrast to the natural sciences, where theories do not affect what is being studied, social theory massively affects and changes studies within the social sciences. When this is not recognized, the social sciences can be misused as pseudo-scientific means to justify changes in culture and politics. As a “hermeneuticist” committed to the art of interpretation, Blakely believes that the solution to this is to treat the social sciences in a way that is more akin to the humanities, recognizing the need for interpretive sensitivity. And he calls for social scientists to become comfortable with story as a way to capture the contingent causality that is always at play in the human sciences.