Some Reflections on an Auspicious Occasion

Cap and GownI’ve been promoted to full “Professor.” I am no longer “Associate Professor M.G. Piety.” I am now, or will be as of 1 September, “Professor M.G. Piety.” According to my colleague Jacques Catudal, I am the first person to make full “Professor” in philosophy at Drexel in more than 18 years.

It has been a long journey, as they say. I decided to study philosophy when I was an undergraduate at Earlham College, a small Quaker college in Richmond, Indiana. I became hooked on philosophy as a result of taking a course on rationalism and empiricism with Len Clark. I didn’t particularly enjoy reading philosophy, and I hated writing philosophy papers. I loved talking about it, though. Talking about it was endlessly fascinating to me, so I switched my major from English to philosophy. I became hooked on Kierkegaard after taking a Kierkegaard seminar with Bob Horn. “Bob,” my friends at Earlham explained, “was God.” He was preternaturally wise and kind and a brilliant teacher who could draw the best out of his students while hardly seeming to do anything himself. I don’t actually remember Bob ever talking in any of the seminars I took with him, and yet he must have talked, of course.

I spent nearly every afternoon of my senior year at Earlham in Bob’s office talking to him about ideas. I worried sometimes that perhaps I should not be taking up so much of his time. He always seemed glad to see me, though, and never became impatient, even as the light began to fade and late afternoon gave way to early evening. I don’t remember him encouraging me to go to graduate school in philosophy (my guess is that he would have considered that unethical, given the state of the job market in philosophy). I do remember, however, that he was pleased when I announced that I had decided to do that.

Graduate school was enormously stimulating, but also exhausting and, for a woman, occasionally demoralizing. There has been much in the news in the last few years about how sexist is the academic discipline of philosophy. Well, it was at least as bad back then when I entered graduate school as it is now, and possibly even worse. Still, I persevered. I began publishing while still a student and was very fortunate to gain the support and mentorship of some important people in the area of Kierkegaard scholarship, including C. Stephen Evans, Robert Perkins and Sylvia Walsh Perkins, and Bruce H. Kirmmse, who was one of my references for a Fulbright Fellowship I was awarded in 1990 to complete the work on my dissertation on Kierkegaard’s epistemology.

I lived in Denmark from 1990 until 1998. I received my Ph.D. from McGill University in 1995 but remained in Denmark to teach in Denmark’s International Study Program, then a division of the University of Copenhagen. I wasn’t even able to go back for my graduation, so I learned only a couple of years ago, when my husband bought me my own regalia as a gift, how gorgeous the McGill regalia are (see the photo).

I came to Drexel from Denmark in 1998 as a visiting professor. I liked Drexel. It was overshadowed by its neighbor, the University of Pennsylvania, but that seemed to me almost an advantage back then. That is, Drexel had carved out a unique niche for itself as a technical university, somewhat like MIT but smaller, that provided a first-class education in somewhat smaller range of degree programs than were offered by larger, more traditional institutions. The College of Arts and Sciences seemed to me, at that time, and to a certain extent, still today, a real jewel, as Drexel’s “secret weapon,” so to speak, because while most large universities had class sizes ranging anywhere from 40 to several hundred students, most of the courses in the humanities at Drexel were capped at 25 students. Drexel also boasted some first-class scholars who were as committed to teaching as to scholarship. Drexel was providing its students with what was effectively the same quality of education in the humanities as is provided at small liberal-arts colleges, while at the same time giving them invaluable hands-on work experience (through its co-op programs) that few liberal-arts colleges could provide.

Drexel asked me to stay on for a second and then a third year, despite the fact that my beginning was less than auspicious in that at the end of that first fall term, I had mistakenly conflated the times of what should have been two separate exams and hence left my students sitting in a room waiting patiently for almost an hour for me to materialize and administer the exam. It was too late, of course, to do anything by the time I learned, via a phone call from one of the secretaries in the department, of the mistake. I was relieved when not only was the then chair of the department, Ray Brebach, not angry with me, he was actually eager to see if I would be willing to stay on for another year. Ray has been one of my favorite colleagues ever since.

I received my tenure-track appointment in the spring of 2001. I liked my department. It was originally the Department of Humanities and Communications and included the disciplines of English, philosophy and communications. It was enormously stimulating to be in such a cross-disciplinary department. There were poets and novelists, as well as traditional literary scholars. I particularly liked being around the communications people, however, because many were engaged in politically significant media studies and that sort of work was reminiscent of the dinner-table discussions I remembered from childhood when my father was an editorial writer for one of the two newspapers in the town where I grew up. My association with the communications people led to the publication of an article I wrote together with my husband on the behavior of the mainstream media in the U.S. leading up to the second Iraq war.

Eventually, however, the communications people left our department and formed a new department together with the anthropologists and sociologists called the Department of Culture and Communications. So then we became the Department of English and Philosophy. I was sad to see the communications people go, but there were still plenty of creative writing people in the department who helped to make it a more stimulating environment than it would have been had it been comprised exclusively of traditional scholars. These people, including Miriam Kotzin and Don Riggs, both brilliantly talented poets, are some of my closest friends. Miriam has encouraged me to write for her outstanding online journal Per Contra, and Don, a talented caricaturist as well as poet, drew the picture of me that I occasionally use for this blog.

It was an ordeal, however, to go up for tenure. Our department has a tradition of requiring monstrously comprehensive tenure and promotion binders into which must go almost everything one has done on the road to tenure or promotion. I think each one of my tenure binders was around 500 pages in length (people going up for tenure or promotion must produce three separate binders: one for teaching, one for service, and one for scholarship). It took me the entire summer of 2006 to put those binders together, a summer when I would much rather have been writing material for publication. To add possible injury to the insult of having to devote so much time to the compilation of these binders was my fear that some of the reports of my “external reviewers” might not be so positive as they would haven been had I not become involved in a scandal in Denmark surrounding a controversial Danish biography of Kierkegaard. I lost several friends, including the aforementioned Bruce Kirmmse, as a result of my role in that controversy, friends whom I feared might well have been recruited to serve as external reviewers.

To this day I don’t know who all the reviewers were. Two were selected from a list I had provided my tenure committee, but the rest were selected by the committee itself. Whatever the reviewers said, however, it was not so negative as to override what subsequently became apparent was the high esteem in which my colleagues held me and my work. I was granted tenure in the spring of 2007 and I have fond memories to this day of the little reception provided by the dean for all faculty who where granted tenure that year. There was champagne and there were toasts and I was very, very happy.

I’d always been happy at Drexel, so I was surprised by the change that took place in me upon my becoming tenured. I felt, suddenly, that I had a home. I felt that people both liked and respected me. More even than that, however, I felt that I had found a community of high-minded people. People committed to principles of justice and fairness. I felt I had found a small community of the sort that Alasdair MacIntyre argues in After Virtue we must find if we are to live happy and fulfilling lives, the kind of community that is increasingly rare in contemporary society.

That all seems long ago now. Drexel has grown and changed. I am still fortunate, however, to have many brilliant, talented, and fair-minded colleagues. Thanks must go to my colleague Abioseh Porter, who chaired the department for most of the time I have been at Drexel and who was a staunch supporter of my development as “public intellectual” long before “public philosophy” enjoyed the vogue it does today. Thanks must also go to the members of my promotion committee, but especially to my colleague Richard Astro, who chaired the committee. I know from merely serving on tenure-review committees that no matter how uncontroversial the final decision is anticipated to be, there is an enormous amount of work demanded of the committee members, simply because of the level of detail required in the final report.

Thanks must also go to everyone who has supported me throughout my career. I set out, actually, to list each person individually, but then I realized that there are many, many more people than I would ever be able to list. I have been very fortunate.

Thank you everyone. Thank you for everything.IMG_0886

 

 

Le Temps Perdu

IMG_0483People talk about how much of life is lost to sleep, one third of it, or something like that. One rarely hears, however, about how much of life can be lost to pain. I ran across a reference recently in a novel by Miklós Bánffy, to a character, Countess Miloth, who was described as “prone to migraine and nervous headaches.” “[W]hile her sister was always busy with household tasks,” writes Bánffy, Countess Miloth “would remain idle for days, resting in a darkened room.”

“Idle.” That’s a strange way of describing being incapacitated by pain. And yet it’s technically correct. I could not even begin to calculate how much of my life has been lost to this enforced “idleness.” I woke up this morning, that is, I woke up in the morning, with a headache. The pain is what woke me up, as it often does. I could not at first tell how bad it was, and I had forgotten to bring my medicine up to my bedroom, so I came downstairs. I took some medicine and made some coffee, hoping that the coffee would help, as it sometimes does. Migraines are believed to be caused by dilation of blood vessels in the brainstem. Coffee, or more correctly, caffeine, is a vasoconstrictor, thus it works, at least in part, in the same way that the migraine medicine works.

But the pain seemed to get worse as I moved around, so I made myself an icepack and secured it to my forehead with a headband. I poured myself a cup of coffee, but before I was able even to taste it, I was stricken suddenly with pain so intense I dropped to the floor and prayed.

The pain isn’t always, or even usually, that bad. But sometimes, like this morning, it is so bad it is indescribable. Imagine the searing pain of a hammer blow to the skull. Now imagine it lasting not merely for that brief moment, but indefinitely, for hours, or even days. I feared, as I have several times before, that my head could not possibly contain all the pain, that it was literally going to split apart, that I was going to be obliterated by it. I lay there this morning for I don’t know how long whispering “please God, please God, help. Please God, please God, make it go away,” until, finally, I was able to struggle upstairs again to my bed.

I could not sleep, though. I lay writhing in agony like a wounded animal, unable to find a comfortable position, praying I would not throw up because I had had neither the strength nor the presence of mind to bring a bucket up with me. Vomiting when one has a migraine almost never brings the relief that it does when the nausea has some other source. It’s only an additional misery.

At least I was no longer lying on the floor. At least I had been able to struggle up again to my bed, unlike the time at Heathrow when I had missed a connecting flight because of a migraine, and British Airways, thinking that my vomiting had been because I was drunk, had simply deposited me on a cold linoleum floor somewhere in the bowels of the airport to “sleep it off.”

“Do you think you will be able to make the next flight to Berlin in 45 minutes?” a voice had asked. And then sometime later the question came again from someone I could not see.

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” I mumbled over and over again, until, finally, the pain passed as a storm does and I was able to sit up again and to talk and laugh as if I had not wanted to die only an hour ago.

Once, years ago, before I had medicine that would help, I lay in bed, writhing in pain, repeating over and over again to myself: “It will go away. It will go away” because the pain of a migraine, when it is really bad, is so bad that you can’t think a complex thought through to the end. It will be interrupted and made incoherent by the pain before you can finish it. But still something races through the brain, if not complex thoughts, bits and pieces of thoughts, disconnected bits and pieces. That confusion seems actually to make the pain worse, so I learned to focus on that one saving thought.

“It will go away. It will go away,” I lay repeating to myself, in between the rapid shallow breaths women use to control the pain of childbirth. (It appears to be instinctive to breathe like that when one is in really extreme pain.) And then for an instant, for a brief instant when I was actually able to think a complex thought, I asked myself: What if you knew the pain wouldn’t go away? Would you want to die? And the answer came just as quickly as the question: Yes, I would want to die.

There is nothing redeeming about being sentient when all one can experience is pain–nothing. No, it is worse than that. It is not simply that there is nothing redeeming about such an existence. There is something terribly, terribly wrong with it.

Fortunately, I am seldom overcome by that kind of pain these days. Usually, the medicine works. It doesn’t work so well as it used to, though. It used to be miraculous how it would take the pain away completely in just an hour or two. In the old days, these headaches were something that would wake me up, usually in the wee hours of the morning, and I would realize, as I was waking, that the day would be lost to me, that I would not be able to get up until it was dark again and then only if I were lucky, because sometimes the pain would last for a couple of days. I would awaken on what I was dimly aware was a Monday morning, but then, when I was finally healthy again and able to get up, it would be Wednesday.

I don’t know how many days I lost like that, how much of my life I have lost to an oblivion more malevolent than sleep. I know I’ve lost a lot because there was a period of many years when hardly a week went by that I didn’t lose at least a couple of days this way. There was a period of many years when my awareness leapt over great chunks of time, like a person leaping from one stone to another to cross a stream. Monday–Wednesday-Thursday-Saturday, on and on and on, so that my life was made up of strange asymmetrical weeks.

I used to live in fear of these attacks. Even when I was happy and healthy there was always the specter of this pain lurking at the edges of my consciousness, like black clouds gathering for a storm, a tiny pin-prick size awareness that this vigorous health would not last. The fear was not so very different, I think, from that of a thief that he will be caught. I lived every day, every day with the fear that the pain I knew was stalking me would find me again.

When I lived in Copenhagen, I used to have a little philosophy discussion group. I missed a meeting once because of a headache. I tried to explain to the other members when I saw them again, that it had not been an ordinary headache that had kept me away, but a very, very bad one.

One of the members of this group was a physician. He listened intently as I described my headaches.

“That sounds like a migraine,” he said.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” I responded. “I don’t get any of those visual auras. No tunnel vision, or anything like that. And also,” I continued, “I’ve been able to connect them with stress and stress headaches, I know, are not the same as migraines.”

“Yes,” he answered, “but still, your headaches sound like migraines. I am going to write you a prescription for some new medicine that works very well for migraines. If they are not migraines, then the medicine won’t work, because it is not a pain killer. It works specifically on what causes migraines.

(This is a good place to explain that pain killers, anything short of morphine, anyway, don’t work on migraines. The pain of a migraine is so intense that it defeats all traditional pain killers. For years I thought aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, etc., were a huge pharmacological hoax, because I had never experienced even a shadow of relief from any of them.)

So I took the prescription, which was for six 100mg pills of sumatriptan succinate, and had it filled. The next time I had a headache I dutifully took one of these new pills, put some ice on my head, and tried to go back to sleep. And, miraculously, I was able to go back to sleep. I slept for something like an hour, or an hour and a half, and then, suddenly, while it was still morning, I sat bolt upright. The pain was gone. Like a dark cloud that had been blown away by a strong wind, it was gone, completely gone. I was myself again, laughing, happy, astonished at my sudden and miraculous rescue.

That medicine was a miracle. It changed my life. It wasn’t just that it gave me back days that would otherwise have been lost. It took away the specter of fear I had lived with every day for most of my adult life. I felt like the thief who had been pardoned. I felt liberated. I felt free.

Gradually, however, the medicine has ceased to work as well as it did in the beginning. I have cycled through several different formulations of the new migraine medicines. They still help, most of the time anyway, though not so dramatically as at first. Occasionally, they are no help at all. I think it helped this morning, though, finally. My guess is that, had I not taken the medicine, I would still be in bed now, even though it is evening.

It seems wrong that something so apparently innocuous as dilated blood vessels can cause such excruciating pain. Oliver Sacks mentions this phenomenon in one of his last essays “A General Feeling of Disorder” (New York Review of Books, April 23, 2015). “Nothing is more crucial to the survival and independence of organisms,” he writes, “than the maintenance of a constant internal environment.” This “constant internal balance” is homeostasis. It is maintained by the autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that, as the name indicates, we cannot consciously control, but which controls itself. Usually, it does this well, but occasionally, something disturbs is. The balance is lost, with the result that one feels ill. Migraine, he explains, “is a sort of prototype [of this] illness, often very unpleasant but transient, and self limiting; benign in the sense that it does not cause death or serious injury and that it is not associated with any tissue damage or trauma or infection.”

“Benign” seems a strange word, as does “unpleasant,” to describe pain so intense it deprives existence of all meaning. It is also incredible that it apparently does no physical damage because when I am suffering from a particularly painful migraine and am repeating to myself that the pain will eventually go away, I am often gripped by a fear that it must be the expression of some profound disorder and that it will leave my brain so damaged that I will never be the same again.

“The worst affected patients,” Sacks continues, “ may be reduced to lying in a leaden haze, feeling half-dead, or even that death would be preferable.” In my case “leaden haze” is an improvement on the worst part of an attack. The “leaden haze” stage is achieved when I am finally able to lie in one place without moving, without writhing in agony emitting the kinds of frightening groans and whimpers of a wounded animal. At that stage, I fear any movement will catapult me back to the earlier more intense pain, so I lie still, play dead, in effect, to fool the pain.

At no stage do I feel half dead, though I know I probably appear half dead. At every stage I am only too aware that I am not dead.

I have wanted for years to write an essay about pain, about how horrific it can be, about the violence it can wreak on the personality. About how dehumanizing it is. About how anyone who has ever experienced really extreme pain could not possibly support torture, no matter to whom or for what reason it was done. About how anyone who has ever experienced really extreme pain could not possibly be opposed to euthanasia for those for whom such pain is chronic.

But I fear a real description of that kind of pain defeats me. The best I can do is to explain how it can shorten one’s life, take great, unrecoverable chunks of it. My head is better now, but I was unable to get up until after 2:00pm, and even now when it is almost 7:00pm, I’m too weak and tired to do any work. That’s why I’m writing this. It’s by way of apology and explanation. There is so much work I should have done today that I will not be able to do until tomorrow. Today is lost now, like so many other days before.

Material Culture

I like things. I’ve always been like that. I’m acquisitive. I have so much stuff that I routinely have to go through it get rid of some of it. I used to feel guilty about my acquisitive tendency, but I’ve become reconciled to it in the last few years.

My desk

I’m fascinated by things. I don’t remember when I first started haunting thrift stores, junk shops, salvage places, but I know that I was very young. There was something compelling to me about things that were old, things that had been so well made that they’d survived when shoddier things would have to have been thrown away, something fascinating about what time, and much handling, does to things. I liked the sheer variety of utilitarian things because they seemed to me to be a concrete expression of the ephemera of human experience, of the daily grind of, for example, working in an office. I like old office supplies, the heavy old Royal typewriters like the one my father used when I was a child, old staplers, hole punches, mechanical pencils. I wonder, always, whether the offices where these things were once so useful still exist, if people are still working there, or if perhaps they’ve been torn down.

I especially like old fountain pens. This is partly, I think, because I write so much and partly because I come from a family of writers. I’ve used a fountain pen for as long as I can remember and have been collecting them for at least twenty years. When I say “collecting,” I don’t mean that I’m stockpiling rare and expensive pens. Firstly, I don’t have the money to do that. Secondly, I buy pens to write with, not to look at.

I’ll go through long periods where I won’t buy any pens, but then I’ll start buying them again. Not many, just one or two. I couldn’t afford to buy more than that because they’re not cheap. In the beginning, I told myself that I was searching for the perfect pen and that when I found it, I’d stop buying pens. But I could never content myself with a single pen for long, no matter how nice it was. You might think that perhaps my standards are too high. It isn’t that, though. I love all my pens (the ones I have kept, anyway; the others I sell). It’s not that I become disappointed with the pens I have. It’s that I want more. I crave variety.

I’ve bought and sold many pens online. I’d never been to a pen show, though, until last weekend when there was one in Philadelphia, where I live. I didn’t need any new pens, of course, but I did need work done on a couple of pens I already had, and I needed someone to show me how to fill my Parker Vacumatic. The Vacumatic has a unique filling system that is not used anymore and is difficult to figure out. I knew there would be someone at the show who could explain it to me, so I packed up my Parker and headed for the Sheraton on 17th Street where the show was being held.

It seemed everyone in the pen world was there. There were lots of dealers selling both new and vintage pens, along with other writing equipment and arcane sorts of office supplies and pen ephemera. I was in heaven! I caught just a snippet of a conversation as I was wandering from one table to another. One of the dealers was talking to a customer:

“You have to have passion for something,” he said. “Passion is what makes life worth living!”

I suspect everyone there would have agreed. Most of the interest was in the old pens, the ones that had seen lots of use but which had been so magnificently conceived and constructed that they now, almost a century later in some cases, could still be used.

The biggest attractions at most pen shows, though, are not the pens. Anything can be bought online now, even the oldest eyedropper pens from the nineteenth century. No, the biggest attractions are the nibmeisters, the guys who repair old pens and, in particular, custom grind nibs. They can take a medium point and grind it down to a fine, put an angle on it for what is called an “oblique” nib, turn it into a “stub” or an “italic.” You don’t have to go to a show to get a custom-ground nib. You can mail a pen off to be reground. That takes a while, though (sometimes months), and, more importantly, you might not be entirely happy with the results. The nib might be too fine, or it might be scratchy. You won’t know, though, until the pen comes back, and if you aren’t entirely happy with the regrind, you’ll either have to settle for less than what you wanted or pop it back in the mail again and endure another long wait. If you get a nib ground at a show, on the other hand, you can sit there while the work is being done. You can try it out and give it back immediately to the nibmeister for an adjustment if you aren’t entirely happy with it.

I had a nib I wanted worked on. I’d started collecting Pelikan pens. I love Pelikans for several reasons. First, they hold more ink than most other pens, and second, they feel very good in the hand. Third, they have what are called “responsive nibs,” meaning nibs that give somewhat if pressure is applied to them so they feel just a little like how old quill pens must have felt. Their nibs tend to be a slightly broader, however, than the nibs on the pens I was used to, so I had brought my latest Pelikan to see if something could be done to it to give it a crisper line. I asked James Baer, of Monomoy Vintage Pen in Newton, MA. He’d shown me how to fill my Parker Vacumatic, so I thought he might also be able to help me with my nib. Unfortunately, he wasn’t doing any grinding at the show. He directed me instead to a young man named Tim Girdler sitting just a few tables away.

I had to put my name on a waiting list and then wander around the show until my turn came.

“What do you want?” he asked like a cook at a lunch counter. I had a Pelikan, I explained.  It had a “fine” point, but I’d started with Japanese pens and their “fines” were much finer so the Pelikan seemed a little “blobby” to me. I told him that I’d like him to put a slight slant on the nib, to make it into an “oblique” because I knew that would give me a crisper line.

He asked me to write something so he could see how I wrote, the angle at which I held the pen. After I did a little writing sample for him, he said he didn’t think that an oblique was really what I wanted.

“Let me try something,” he said. He took the pen and began to rub the nib on a little piece of emery paper.

“Now try it,” he said as he handed it back to me.

It was better, but still not what I wanted, so I gave it back to him and he got out his little motorized grinding stone so that he could work more aggressively on it than the emery paper would allow.

“How’s this?” he said eventually, and then added “you’re going to hate it.” I knew why he’d added that. He’d flattened out the nib like a stub, but he hadn’t bothered to smooth it yet. He wanted to see if I liked the line quality of the new grind before he put in all the effort to make it write smoothly.

He was right, I did hate it. And yet, and yet, it had just the line quality I’d been looking for. The only problem was that it was scratchy, but I knew that was fixable.

“I like it!” I exclaimed, a smile spreading across my face, “except, of course, for the fact that it is very scratchy.” I gave it back to him and he went to work on it again with the emery paper.

When he finally gave it back to me it was perfect. I mean it was really perfect! It had exactly the line quality I wanted, and it wrote very smoothly. He cautioned me that it would never write quite so smoothly as a regular nib. That’s the thing about italic nibs, he explained, they aren’t scratchy if they’re ground properly, but they aren’t so smooth as a standard nib either. There’s a sweet spot on them, he explained. You have to hold the pen at exactly the right angle or you’ll get a little drag. A standard nib is more forgiving, but it’s also less distinctive.

He said I had sixty days, or something like that, during which I could still have adjustments made, so I took his card, just in case. I’d heard him say to the person before me that he’d been a seminary student. I was surprised, though, when I looked at his card, to read “Tim Girdler Pens: Ministering Through the Perfect Pen.” He had made my life better, I realized, through the work he’d done on my pen, through the concern he’d shown for what I wanted.

I’m so happy with with my “new” pen, I’m just writing and writing, so happy now to have my pen just the way I want it. Passion is indeed what makes life worth living. Tim Girdler has it. It must have taken him years to become so skilled as he is now, skilled at something that he must always have known would never be in great demand. Tim Girdler has passion and he uses it to make people’s lives better. He isn’t the only pen person who cares for more than his own material wellbeing. Rick Propas, of “The PENguin Fountain Pens,” once offered to send me a whole tray of pens to practice repairing–for nothing, just because he could tell I shared his passion. I’d never met him either, but only corresponded with him via email.

Passion is part of what attracts me to things. You can see it in the design of things, in how they’re finished, in the attention to detail. You can see, in things, the shape of human aspirations. There’s a humanity that pervades things made by human beings for human purposes. This is even more evident, I think, in things that have been used. That’s why I like the patina of use. It shows the humanity of the thing, or the humanity that clings to it. I can’t get enough of that, or enough of the things that speak in that way of other peoples lives.

So I keep buying things, especially old pens. There’s a line I love in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Big Daddy, who has just learned he’s dying of cancer, is talking to his son about mortality. “The human animal,” he explains, “is a beast that dies and if he’s got money he buys and buys and buys and I think the reason he buys everything he can buy is that in the back of his mind he has the crazy hope that one of his purchases will be life everlasting!”

I wonder if it isn’t life everlasting that I’m looking for. I feel sometimes, when I’m trawling through other people’s discarded possessions, or sitting at my desk surrounded by things I know once belonged to people now long dead, that life everlasting is what I have in my things. It’s as if I’ve taken the lives of these other people up into my own, as if, in that way, I’ve created a timeless connection between us, a timelessness that is a little eternity of its own.

(This essay originally appeared in Counterpunch under the title “Living in a Material World.”

The Great Conflict

Portrait caricatureDenmark experienced one of the most difficult periods in its recent history in the spring of 1998.  This was time of the paralyzing general strike that was known as “The Great Conflict.” The normally placid Danes were driven to unprecedented extremes in their efforts to survive what was a protracted period of privation. I lived in Denmark during that time and kept a journal throughout the strike. I do not pretend that my account of the events of this period is comprehensive or objective. I simply recorded the influence of the strike on my life and the lives of those around me, in the tradition of such distinguished diarists as Samuely Pepys and Elizabeth Smith, with the intention of preserving a record of this period for posterity.

Day 1 (Monday, 27 April)

The hysteria over “The Great Conflict,” as it is being called, started the weekend before the strike itself. Paul was dressed earlier than usual Saturday morning. When I asked him where he was going, he said he had to stock up on milk and other basic foodstuffs before the big strike began on Monday. That was actually the first I’d heard of the strike. We don’t have a TV, so I’m sometimes behind on the news. There’d been talk of a general strike about a month ago, but then nothing happened, so I figured they’d come to some sort of agreement.

“They” are LO, which stands for Landsorginasationen and which translates into English as the Confederation of Danish Trade Unions, and Dansk Arbejdsgiverforening, or the Confederation of Danish Employers. One out of every ten Danes is a member of LO. They are striking for, among other things, a sixth week of paid vacation. I don’t know why they didn’t strike last month when they were supposed to, but now it appears they are serious and people have been hoarding, or “hamstering” as the Danes call it, since the weekend. Milk is the main thing people have been buying, milk and dairy products generally. (I don’t know why they are going for dairy products particularly, except that this is Denmark where life without dairy products is inconceivable.) The papers said on Monday, however, that the dairy drivers were not affected by the strike and now everyone is stuck with 15 liters of milk in their refrigerators.

People are buying other stuff too. There is no more yeast anywhere in the entire country. Yeast! I can’t imagine why people are buying yeast unless they are afraid the strike will last so long they won’t be able to get bread. But then why aren’t they buying flour?

The strike hasn’t affected us much yet. We have enough milk to last a couple of weeks and lots of lunch meat and dinner stuff. The stores in our neighborhood did run out of toilet paper, so Paul bought paper towels instead. We aren’t out of toilet paper yet though, so I don’t know why he bought the paper towels unless it was because he was afraid even they might be gone by the time we needed toilet paper.

Day 2 (Tuesday, 28 April)

I forgot to mention that I got into an argument with someone at work over whether it was reasonable to demand six weeks of paid vacation. I hadn’t actually said it was unreasonable. I’d just said it was hard for an American to understand how a sixth week of vacation could be so important. This observation was met with such hostility from my Danish colleagues, however, that I felt I might as well have suggested the reinstatement of child labor.

Today was pretty uneventful, except that I noticed a sign on the front door of our apartment asking us to do something in particular with our trash since it wouldn’t be collected during “The Great Conflict.” I think we were supposed to sort it or something, but we do that already, so I didn’t pay too much attention to the sign. I’ll have to go back down later and take another look at it.

I got a letter from my union (Ph.D.s have a union in Denmark) informing me that although they were not directly involved in the strike, I shouldn’t do any scab work or cross any picket lines. They did say, however, that I could call the police if the entrance to my own workplace were blockaded.

Day 3 (Wednesday, 29 April)

Well, it seems the wave of “hamstering” is continuing. The paper went out and interviewed a bunch of theologians (yes, theologians, Denmark still has a state church) on why people were hamstering. When I heard that, I figured we’d get some long editorials about hamstering being an expression of sin and all that. Sin is actually a bit extreme, however, for the Danish Lutheran Church. They wouldn’t come right out and say it had anything to do with sin. They just said it wasn’t very nice, that people shouldn’t do it and that Kierkegaard wouldn’t like it.

I dragged Paul to our “Nationalism” class tonight, but our teacher never showed up. Some of the trains and buses are running on a reduced schedule because they are afraid the strike will eventually cause gas shortages, so I figured she might have been held up. I mentioned this to the unruly mob that was the other five people in the class, but they responded that she lived right downtown and that the bus schedule should not thus affect her. They left after fifteen minutes, but Paul and I stayed an extra five minutes just to make sure.

She never came, so we went to Illum, the department store, to look for a birthday present for me, and then tried to go over to McDonalds. McDonalds was open, but the door to the walkway between Illum and McDonald’s was locked. There was a sign on it that said “Locked because of The Great Conflict.” I didn’t quite understand that, but anyway, we just went outside and around the corner to get into McDonalds.

I got a letter from the university informing me that classes would continue as usual during The Great Conflict, but that they would be in touch in there were any new developments.

Paul said there was someone in the store on Monday with 36 liters of UHT milk in his cart. Some other guy apparently got irritated with him and suggested he should leave some milk for everyone else. That must be an example of the “hysterical frenzy” the newspapers have been saying the television news has whipped everyone into.

Day 4 (Thursday, 30 April)

The animal rights people are demanding dispensations for the people who drive the feed out to farm animals so none of them will go hungry. It looks like dispensations will also be handed out to lots of other groups such as zoo workers, ambulance drivers, employees in the pharmaceutical industry, truck drivers (how else will the drugs get to the pharmacies?) and lots of other groups that I can’t remember now.

Day 5 (Friday, 1 May)

We still have plenty of milk and Paul even found some toilet paper.  I heard on the radio today that some of the strikers were actually making more money striking than they would make if they were working because strike pay is not taxed. Someone from LO was being interviewed about this and was asked whether this might not encourage the union to draw out the negotiations unnecessarily. Oh no, of course not, was the reply of the union representative, although his wording was a little less straightforward.

Day 6 (Saturday, 2 May)

The strike apparently had no effect on the annual May Day festivities in Fælledparken (The Communal Park). The brewery truck drivers, the papers explained, were not involved in the strike.

There was an article in the paper today about church functionaries (i.e., organists and people who sing in the choir). “Church Functionaries have Wretched Working Conditions!” was the headline. It seems these people, who work only on Sundays and religious holidays, receive what Danes consider meager wages (though they are, of course, well above minimum wage in the US) and now it looks like they may lose their paid vacations. “No wonder,” read the article, “it is becoming so difficult to find organists and choral singers. Who would want to work under those conditions!”

Day 7 (Sunday, 3 May)

A guy wrote in to the paper that they had run out of coffee where he worked and that now everyone was having to drink tea. That’s rough for the Danes, who drink more coffee than everyone else in the world except the Dutch. Of course he didn’t say that he’d run out of coffee at home.

Day 8 (Monday, 4 May)

Not much happened yesterday except that we didn’t get our Sunday paper, which is a drag. I couldn’t get my regular bread from the bakery either. I got some kind of cornbread instead. It’s not cornbread like we make it in the U.S., but regular bread with cornmeal in it. It was quite good though.

We had to cancel our reading group meeting because Jette said Ole was saving gas for visits to patients (doctors still make house calls here). That was just as well because I had a lot of work to do.

Paul said the stores were nearly cleaned out except for milk. He said Netto had just gotten a shipment of milk, but that there was no one in the store to buy it. I haven’t been in a grocery store yet, so everything seems pretty normal to me.

I heard from my students today that the night buses were gone. We were discussing the field trip I’d planned for next week, when one of them pointed out that the buses might not be running by that time. That was when it came out that they’d already stopped the night buses. Everyone in class seemed to know this. The loss of the night buses must be cutting seriously into their drinking and carousing.

I don’t think the strike will go into next week. Of course I could be wrong. I passed a couple of strikers set up at Rådhuspladsen (The Court House Square) on my way to the German book import store. They were sitting in chairs in front of one of the shops with a big sign that said “6 Ugers Ferie!” (Six Weeks of Vacation!).

The mail came early today. It usually comes around 1:00, but today it was here before 10:00.  It was as if the normally lackadaisical postal workers (who were themselves out on strike last month) were trying to make amends for the behavior of LO.

Day 9 (Tuesday, 5 May)

I went to the post office today to pay some bills. (There is a bank that operates out of post offices here, as in many other European countries.) There was a sign there on the little machine that spits out the numbers you take to determine the order in which you will be served. I copied it verbatim. It read:

To Our Customers:

We would like to make our customers aware that as a result of the Great Conflict, we are unable to guarantee that the payment of bills will be recorded by the recipient according to the standard schedule

There may, among many other things, be a problem if all our computers, or the computers of the recipients, break down and we are unable to call anyone to repair them.

We hope our customers will excuse the inconveniences that may possibly result from the Great Conflict.

Sincerely,

BG Bank

Day 10 (Wednesday, 6 May)

The government stepped in and forced a settlement. They said the strike was beginning to affect the economy (too horrible to contemplate).

We never did run out of toilet paper, so we still have all those paper towels Paul bought. It’s kind of nice, actually, to have paper towels. We don’t normally buy them. I hope I don’t become addicted to them.

Postscript

I read in the paper some baker had calculated there was enough yeast now in Danish households to bake a loaf of bread that would reach from Copenhagen to the Black Sea and back again.

The “Housewife Hotline” in Glostrup has been besieged by callers who want to know whether it is possible to freeze yeast. Gerda Rieber, from the hotline, says you can freeze it, but that it should be thawed in the refrigerator and preferably in a cup because it will have a tendency to become runny.

We were finally able to get together with Ole and Jette a couple of days ago. We had hoarded so much half and half we thought we would bring them some along with our usual hostess gift. A “hamster gift” we decided to call it. I envision them becoming all the rage. Imagine handing your hosts a package of frozen yeast along with the traditional flowers or bottle of wine!

Paul said he heard on the radio this morning that Danish priests (who, remember, are state functionaries) are complaining about having to work on Sundays. It seems it cuts into their quality time with their families.

Dawkins’ Delusions

Cuisinart EM-100

Cuisinart EM-100

I’d put off reading any of the ”new atheists” until recently. What I knew of their criticisms of religion had not impressed me as particularly sophisticated or even as new, so there seemed no urgency to read them. I’m teaching philosophy of religion this term though and my students expressed a desire to look at the new atheists, so I reluctantly purchased a copy of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and began reading it in preparation for class.

I was afraid I wouldn’t like it. I was wrong. It’s hilarious! Not only has it caused me to laugh out loud, but it has brought home with particular force what an egalitarian industry publishing is. Anyone can publish a book, even a blithering idiot making claims that are demonstrably false and pontificating on things he knows nothing about and on works he has not read.

To be fair to Dawkins, I should point out that he’s clearly not a run-of-the-mill blithering idiot or he’d never have risen to his current position of prominence in science. He’d have been wise, however, to have restricted his public pronouncements to that field. His foray into the fields of religion and philosophy has made it clear that he’s closer to an idiot savant on the order of the infamously racist Nobel Prize winner James D. Watson, than to a genuine intellectual such as Stephen Jay Gould.

The preface to the paperback edition of The God Delusion includes Dawkins’ responses to some of the criticisms that were advanced against the book when it first appeared. In response to the charge that he always attacks “the worst of religion and ignored the best,” Dawkins writes

If only such subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would surely be a better place, and I would have written a different book. The melancholy truth is that this kind of understated, decent, revisionist religion is numerically negligible. To the vast majority of believers around the world, religion all too closely resembles what you hear from the likes of Robertson, Falwell or Haggard, Osama bin Laden or the Ayatollah Khomeini. These are not straw men, they are all too influential, and everybody in the modern world has to deal with them (p. 15).

From where does Dawkins get his statistics concerning the proportion of religious believers who subscribe to “understated, decent, revisionist” views of religion? How does he know their numbers are negligible? Evidence suggests otherwise. That is, most people in the economically developed world appear to accept modern science, so if surveys concerning the proportion of the population in this part of the world who are religious are correct, then the numbers of the “decent” religious people are not negligible, in fact, these people are vastly in the majority.

Of course to give Dawkins credit, he does refer to believers “around the world,” and not just in the economically developed part. It’s possible that Dawkins intends his book to enlighten the followers of Ayatollah Khomeini and other Muslim fundamentalist leaders, as well as to the few fundamentalists in the economically developed world who reject science. It does not appear to have been aimed, however, at such an audience and I’ve not heard anything about Dawkins’ underwriting the translation of the book into Farsi or Arabic.

Also, how come science gets to “develop,” but religion that has changed over time is referred to pejoratively as “revisionist.” Germ theory was not always part of natural science, but I wouldn’t call contemporary science “revisionist” because it now includes belief in the reality of microorganisms.

“I suspect,” writes Dawkins, “that for many people the main reason they cling to religion is not that it is consoling, but that they have been let down by our educational system and don’t realize that non-belief is even an option” (p. 22).

Dawkins is either being disingenuous in the extreme or he is, in fact, feeble minded. Notice he says “our” educational system, so here he is clearly not talking about Iran or the Middle East. The whole reason that it is occasionally controversial to teach evolution in school in the U.S. is that religious extremists have become offended by the ubiquity of evolutionary theory in the science curriculum.

Far from education “letting people down” in failing to make clear to them that non-belief is an option, it more often lets people down in failing to make clear to them that belief is an option. It tends to caricature religious belief in precisely the way Dawkins’ conflation of religion with religious fundamentalism does, with the result that young people are literally indoctrinated with the view that religion itself, not one particular instantiation of it (i.e., fundamentalism), but religion itself is simply a particular form of superstition that is essentially in conflict with the modern world view. Dawkins would appear to be a victim of such indoctrination himself in that he repeatedly conflates religion with religious fundamentalism. He acknowledges occasionally that not all religious people hold the views he attributes to them, but he can’t seem to remember this consistently.

The reader of The God Delusion is faced with a dichotomy unflattering to the book’s author: either a rigorous systematic distinction between religion in general and religious fundamentalism in particular taxes Dawkins’ cognitive abilities beyond what they can bear, or his repeated conflation of these these two distinct phenomena is cynically calculated to raise a false alarm concerning the purported threat that religion in general presents to the advancement of civilization in the hope that this alarm will cause people to storm their local Barnes and Noble in an effort to secure, through the purchase of his book, ammunition they can use to defend themselves against the encroaching hoards of barbarian believers.

In the preface to the original hard cover edition Dawkins writes:

I suspect— well, I am sure— that there are lots of people out there who have been brought up in some religion or other, are unhappy in it, don’t believe it, or are worried about the evils that are done in its name; people who feel vague yearnings to leave their parents’ religion and wish they could, but just don’t realize that leaving is an option (p. 23).

Really, he writes that, I’m not kidding. I cut and pasted that text from the ebook. Yes, Dawkins is seriously asserting that there are people “out there” who do not realize that it’s possible, even in principle, to reject the faith they were born into. Obviously, these are not church-going folks. If they were, they would surely notice the children who cease at some point (usually in late adolescence or early adulthood) to attend church with their parents, or overhear the laments of parents whose children have “left the faith” during the coffee and cookies that often follows services on Sundays.  These people who “just don’t realize that leaving is an option” must be a rare non-church-going species of fundamentalist. Even the Amish, after all, know that “leaving is an option.”

It’s admirable that Dawkins is so concerned about this infinitesimally small portion of humanity that he would write a whole book for their benefit. The view, however, that they represent a significant threat to Western civilization is hardly credible.

A charitable reading of Dawkins might incline one to think that what he meant was that it was not an emotional option, that it would wreak more havoc in their lives than they fear they could bear. (This, presumably, is why more Amish don’t leave the faith.) But if that were truly Dawkins concern, he’d have written a very different type of book because that problem has nothing to do with science or the failure of religious people to understand it.

Atheists, according to Dawkins, are under siege. “Unlike evangelical Christians,” he bemoans, “who wield even greater political power [than Jews], atheists and agnostics are not organized and therefore exert almost zero influence” (p. 27). Oh yeah, atheists exert “zero influence.” That’s why we’re all taught the Bible in school, right? And why my university, like so many universities in the U.S., has such a huge religion department relative to, say, the biology department.

Wait, we’re not taught the Bible in school, that’s part of what fundamentalists are so up in arms about. We don’t teach creation, we teach evolution. We don’t have a religion department at Drexel. We don’t even lump religion in with philosophy, as is increasingly common at institutions that appear to be gradually phasing out religion all together. We don’t teach religion period, not even as an object of scholarly study, let alone in an attempt to indoctrinate impressionable young people with its purportedly questionable “truths.”

The Penguin English Dictionary,” observes Dawkins, “defines a delusion as ‘a false belief or impression’” (p. 27). Is the belief that religion represents a serious threat to the advance of civilization not obviously false?  “The dictionary supplied with Microsoft Word,” continues Dawkins, “defines a delusion as ‘a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence” (28). Is there not “strong contradictory evidence” to the claim that atheists are under siege?

Is it possible that the survival of modern science really is threatened in Britain, in contrast to the clear cultural hegemony it enjoys in the U.S.? Maybe. Eating baked beans on toast has always seemed pretty backward to me. My guess, however, is that Dawkins suffers from the delusion that we in the U.S. are more backward than the folks on the other side of the Atlantic.

I’ll give Dawkins one thing. He’s right about how our educational system has failed us. That’s the only explanation I can think of for the popularity of Dawkins alarmist clap trap. It ought to be obvious to anyone with even a modicum of formal education that Dawkins is talking sheer nonsense. But then Dawkins is a scientist, not a philosopher or theologian. He simply doesn’t seem to understand Stephen Jay Gould’s lovely straightforward presentation of the nonoverlapping magisteria view of the relation between science and religion.

But then it’s hard to say whether Dawkins failure to understand, NOMA, as it is now called, is an expression of his cognitive limits or of his intellectual irresponsibility in that it appears he hasn’t actually read Gould’s paper. What makes me think this, you ask? Well, because Gould goes on at length in this paper about how creationism (Dawkins’ apparent primary concern) is “a local and parochial movement, powerful only in the United States among Western nations, and prevalent only among the few sectors of American Protestantism that choose to read the Bible as an inerrant document, literally true in every jot and tittle” (emphasis added), and one could add here “has made no inroads whatever into the system of public education.”

Perhaps Dawkins thought it was unnecessary to read Gould, that anyone who would defend religion must not be worth reading. We all have our blind spots. I, for example, though I am devoutly religious, refuse to believe that prayer effects any change other than in the one who prays. It’s not because of some paranoid fear I have of inadvertently falling into superstition. It’s because the idea of a God whose mind could be changed by a particularly passionate entreaty, that is, of a God who is capricious and vain, is not at all edifying to me. I refuse to believe God is like that, quite independently of anything that might be presented to me as evidence for or against such a view.

Fortunately, my understanding of the relation between science and religion is a little more sophisticated than Dawkins’, so I can rest easily in my convictions, unperturbed by the phantom of their possible overthrow in the indeterminate future by some hitherto unknown type of empirical evidence. There is no such thing as empirical evidence either for or against the truth of religious convictions of the sort I hold. Fundamentalists may have to live with their heads in the sand but people with a proper understanding of the relation between the phenomenal and numinal realms do not.

That’s where our educational system has failed us. Too many people, even well educated people, have been taught that science conflicts with religion, not with a specific instantiation of religion, that is, not with fundamentalism, but with religion period. Education has failed us in a manner precisely opposite to the one in which Dawkins claims it has. The problem is not that the educational system has led people to the position where they feel that non belief is not an option. The problem is precisely that the pretentious misrepresentation of the explanatory powers of empirical science and the reduction to caricature of anything and everything that goes under the heading of “religion” has led people to the position where they feel that belief is not an option.

I have enormous respect for honest agnostics, despite William James’ point in his essay “The Will to Believe,” that agnosticism is formally indistinguishable from atheism in that it fails just as much as the latter to secure for itself the good that is promised by religion. Agnosticism is at least intellectually honest. The question whether there’s a God, or as James puts it, some kind of higher, or transcendent purpose to existence, cannot be formally answered. Even Dawkins acknowledges that it’s not actually possible to demonstrate that there’s no God (though he asserts, bizarrely, that God’s improbability can be demonstrated). But if God’s existence cannot be disproved, then disbelief stands on no firmer ground than belief, so why trumpet it as somehow superior?

The fact is that we’re all of us out over what Kierkegaard refers to as the 70,000 fathoms. I’m comfortable with my belief. I’m not offended by agnostics. I’m not even offended by atheists. I’m not offended by the fact that there are people who don’t believe in God. I would never try to argue to them that they ought to believe. That to me is a profoundly personal matter, something between each individual and the deity. What’s strange to me is that there are many people, people such as Dawkins, who are apparently so uncomfortable with their atheism that the mere existence of anyone who disagrees with them on this issue is offensive to them. It’s as if they perceive the very existence of religious belief as some kind of threat. What kind of threat, one wonders, might that be?

Religious belief, at this stage of human history anyway, certainly does not represent a threat to scientific progress. Dawkins blames religion for the 9/11. Experience has shown, however, that terrorism, of pretty much every stripe, is effectively eliminated with the elimination of social and economic inequities, just as is religious fundamentalism. So why isn’t Dawkins railing against social and economic inequities?  That would appear to be a far more effective way to free the world of the scourge of religious fundamentalism than simply railing against fundamentalism directly. Direct attacks on fundamentalism are analogous to temperance lectures to people whose lives are so miserable that drinking is the only thing that brings them any kind of joy.

“[A] universe with a creative superintendent,” asserts Dawkins, “would be a very different kind of universe from one without one” (p. 78). But what is the difference for people such as NIH director Francis Collins, and myself, who believe that the description of the universe that is provided by science is precisely a description of the nature of God’s material creation? Dawkins is right in that there’s a difference between those two universes. He’s wrong though in believing that difference to be material.

Suppose that one morning you found on your doorstep an apple. Suppose you love apples. Suppose as well that though you could not preclude the possibility that this apple had simply fallen from an overly-full grocery bag of some passerby, for some reason that you cannot explain, you were infused with the conviction, as soon as you laid eyes on the apple, that someone had placed it there for you. What a lovely thought! The whole experience changes your morning, even your day, in a positive way.

In a material sense, of course, it makes no difference whether the apple came there by chance, or by design. It is the same apple, after all, whatever the explanation for its presence. It is not at all the same experience, however, to believe that one has found an apple by chance and to believe one has found it by design.

Now suppose a well-meaning friend, points out the superfluity of your assumption that the apple had been placed there by someone. Suppose this person pointed out that nothing in the mere presence of the apple compelled such an assumption and that you should thus content yourself with a “natural explanation” of how it came to be there. Ought you to abandon your belief in your invisible benefactor? What would you gain by abandoning it? If your friend had been ridiculing you for your “foolishness,” then presumably that would cease. You would regain his respect. But at what cost? It’s none of his business what you chose to believe in such an instance. That he would make fun of you for believing something the truth of which he cannot disprove but which makes you happy paints a very unflattering picture of him. So you would regain the respect of someone whose respect many would rightly disdain, even while you would lose something that had made you happy. And why is the explanation you have supplied for the presence of the apple less “natural” than his? You didn’t assume the apple had spontaneously sprung into existence. The real difference between your view of how the apple came to be there and his is that yours is nicer, that it makes you feel better.

Or to take a more apposite example in my case: Say that for as long as you can remember, you’ve wanted one of those fancy, expensive home cappuccino makers. You know the ones I’m talking about. Not the little cheapie things that can be had for under a hundred dollars, but the really expensive ones that resemble the real thing that they use in fancy cafes and coffee houses. Say that you have always wanted one of these fancy cappuccino makers but because you had chosen the life of an academic and the modest salary that went along with it, you felt a fancy cappuccino maker was an extravagance you simply couldn’t allow yourself. Lawyers can afford such things you reasoned, but then they also needed them because they are generally very unhappy in their work. If you had gone to law school, you could have had a fancy cappuccino maker. You knew this, of course, but chose to go to graduate school in philosophy instead because you believed a career in philosophy would be more fulfilling than a career in law. You made your choice and so must content yourself with a fulfilling career and more modest coffee-making set up.

This seems to you a reasonable trade off, so you do not waste away large portions of your life lusting after a fancy home cappuccino maker. Still, you do think wistfully of such machines sometimes, particularly when you see them in the homes of your lawyer friends, or in one of those fancy kitchen stores that always have so many of them. You have accustomed yourself, over time, to this occasional quiet longing.

But then one Saturday, when you are on your way back to your apartment, after having done your morning shopping, you spy a large bag on the sidewalk in front of one of the houses on your block. People often put things out on the sidewalk that they no longer want, so you stop to see if there is anything there you might be able to use. As you approach the bag, your heart begins to beat more quickly. Peeping out of the edge of the bag is what looks for all the world like the top of one of those fancy, expensive cappuccino makers that you have always wanted. You peer disbelievingly into the bag and discover that not only does it indeed contain such a machine, but all of the accoutrements that generally go with them, a little stainless steel milk frothing jug, metal inserts in both the single and double espresso size (as well as one to hold those Illy pods that you would never buy because they are too expensive), and a coffee scoop with a flat end for tamping down the coffee. As you are peering into the bag, your neighbor emerges from the front door of her house with more bags of stuff to put out on the sidewalk.

“Are you giving this away?” you ask tentatively.

“Yes,” she replies.

“Does it work?” you ask.

“Yes,” she replies.

“Why are you giving it away?” you ask incredulously, convinced that any minute she will change her mind.

“Well,” she says nonchalantly, I’ve had it for four years and never used it. I figure that if you have something for four years and never use it, you should get rid of it.”

You nod and laugh, affecting a nonchalance to match your neighbor’s. As soon as she has disappeared into the house, though, you snatch up the bag that contains the machine and all the accoutrements and stagger under its weight the short distance to your door. You download the manual for the machine (a Cuisinart EM-100, which you discover retails for $325), set it up and give it a trial run. It works like a dream!

Your innermost wish for a fancy, expensive cappuccino maker has been fulfilled! One was deposited practically on your doorstep. Of course it came there in a perfectly natural, explicable way, but still, your heart overflows with gratitude toward God whom you believe has arranged the universe, in his wisdom and benevolence, in such a way that this fancy, expensive cappuccino maker should come into your possession now. God has favored you with the rare and coveted have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too status in that you have been allowed to pursue your life’s calling of being a philosophy professor and have a fancy, expensive cappuccino maker!

You do not need to attribute this turn of events to any supernatural agency in order to see “the hand of God” in it. It does not trouble you to think that your neighbor had very likely been considering putting that machine out on the street for quite some time. That the whole event came about very naturally. But still, it is deeply significant to you and fills you with a sense of awe and wonder. Why should that bother Richard Dawkins?

It is fair, of course, to point out that you might just as well be annoyed that God had not arranged for you to receive this fancy, expensive cappuccino maker earlier. But you do not think that way. Why, you do not know. You attribute this wonderfully positive psychological dynamic to God’s Grace, but of course you could be wrong, perhaps it’s genetic. Earlier it seemed to you that the sacrifice of a fancy, expensive cappuccino maker in order to pursue your life’s calling was really not so very much to ask, and you accepted it stoically. Now, you are overcome with gratitude toward God for so arranging things that your wish for such a machine has been fulfilled. Earlier you were happy, now you are happier still. What’s wrong with that? That seems to me to be a very enviable situation.

Experience may incline us to expect certain emotional reactions to various kinds of events, but reason does not require such reactions. Many religious people are effectively deists in that they accept what scientists call the “laws of nature” and do not believe that God arbitrarily suspends those laws in answer to particularly passionate entreaties. Such people accept that God must thus be responsible in some way for the things they don’t like just as much as for the things they like, but consider that perhaps there is some reason for those things that human reason simply cannot fathom, and look to God for emotional support when the bad things in life seem to overwhelm the good and thank God when the reverse seems to be the case.

To be able to find strength in God when times are bad and to thank him (her or it) when times are good is an enviable gift. Who wouldn’t want to be like that? Of course it is possible to rail against God for not ensuring that times are always good, but it isn’t necessary. The failure to condemn or to become angry is not a failure of logic. Objectively, everything simply is, nothing necessitates a particular emotional reaction. The dynamic of faith is just as rational as the dynamic of skepticism. In fact, it could be construed as even more rational. That is, happiness is something that it is generally acknowledged human beings almost universally pursue and the dynamic just described is clearly a particularly good way of achieving it in that it effectively ensures a generally positive emotional state. Maybe believers are wrong, but even Dawkins acknowledges that no one will ever be able to prove that. Even if they are wrong, however, it seems there is little, if any harm, in their beliefs and a great deal of good.

Why does religion so offend atheists such as Dawkins? No one is forcing them to sign up. Dawkins is not alone in his outrage. It’s pervasive among atheists. The invectives they hurl at believers always put me in mind of those hurled by a child at the participants in an invisible tea party to which he has not been invited.

“There isn’t really any TEA there, you know!” he yells.

But is the outrage over the fictitious nature of the tea, that anyone should pretend to drink something that isn’t really there, or is it at not having been invited to the party? Perhaps the problem with the atheist is the feeling of being left out. Perhaps they are angry that other people get to enjoy something from which they have been excluded, something they have been led to believe is “not an option” for them.

(For a really excellent piece on The God Delusion see Terry Eagleton’s “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching” in the London Review of Books.)

On Teaching

Plato

Plato

I don’t remember ever forming the ambition to be a teacher. When I was very small, I used to play “teacher” with my dolls. I had a little slate that I would position for them as a blackboard and on which I would write my “lessons.” That was a child’s game though, not an ambition. I did it, I suppose, because school was a large part of the world of my experience, so when I was alone with my dolls I naturally imitated the few adults I’d had exposure to. That meant that if I wasn’t playing “mother,” I was playing “teacher.”

I was an art major when I first entered college. It had been drilled relentlessly into me that I would not be able to make a living as an artist, but that since I could draw, I would probably be able to make a living as a medical illustrator. So I enrolled at Ohio State, one of the few schools in the country that had a program in medical illustration. I did not fit well though into the community of art students, either at Ohio State, or at the Columbus College of Art and Design where I subsequently enrolled. I remained an art major, however, even after leaving both institutions, more out of a lack of imagination, I supposed, than out of positive commitment.

I studied, God knows what (I don’t remember now) at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle before, finally, ending up at Earlham, a small Quaker college in Richmond, Indiana, still an art major. I took some art classes, but I also took a philosophy class. I don’t remember what prompted me to take that class; I think some philosophy class must have been required for my major. The subject, I still remember, was rationalism and empiricism. It sounds very unromantic, but I loved it. I changed my major soon after that first class and took almost nothing but philosophy from that point on.

I didn’t particularly like reading philosophy, as I’ve written elsewhere, but I loved talking about it. I loved talking about it so much that I actually tried to talk to my father about Kant’s Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics the first summer after I transferred to Earlham.

“All that stuff about ‘a prior synthetic cognition’ may be very interesting to you,” my father observed somewhat patronizingly, “but you’re not going to find many young men interested in it.” I didn’t bother him after that with philosophy. I kept it to myself, or at least kept it to myself until I was back at Earlham again and could drop by the office of my professor and advisor Bob Horn.

“Bob is God,” is what students at Earlham used to say about him. He was kind and patient and brilliant. He didn’t talk too much, the way I fear I tend to do with my own students now, but just enough, just enough to get, or keep, the conversation going. He was tolerant and understanding. He wrote on one of my friend’s papers, “Eric, I understand you as if through a cloud.”

Nearly every afternoon of my senior year was spent in his office. I would head there as soon as my classes were done for the day and sit in the slanting afternoon light and talk and talk and talk about the ideas that were always swarming in my head like so many bees. And he would smile patiently and respond occasionally with his vastly superior knowledge and wisdom. I never felt though that he was talking down to me. I felt as if we were kindred spirits, as if we connected at a level that is rarely reached by two human beings.

Even when I decided, in my senior year, to go to graduate school, it had not been because I’d harbored any ambitions of becoming a teacher, but because I couldn’t conceive of any other life than the one I’d come to know, the life of philosophy, the life of talking about philosophy with some kindred spirit. I was afraid of teaching, in the beginning, afraid I would never be more than a kind of fraud, afraid I would never be able to approach the knowledge and wisdom of my own professors, particularly Bob. I cherished a little hope, like a tiny flame in the darkness, that somehow graduate school would transform me into a paragon of philosophical knowledge, but that day never came. The more I learned, the clearer it became to me how very much there was to know, and how little of it I had actually mastered.

They ease you into teaching in graduate school. You start out as a teaching assistant, which means you are really sort of a glorified student so you don’t feel you have to be so knowledgeable as the professors but can luxuriate in the experience of being ever so slightly more knowledgeable than the students. I did that for a few years before finally teaching my first course, so even if I still felt something of a fraud when students referred to me as “professor,” my impostor syndrome was not quite so pronounced as it would have been if I’d been thrown into teaching right after I’d gotten my undergraduate degree.

I like people. I’m an animal lover and people are animals, so I like people as well as other animals. I was raised not to dissemble, so I didn’t pretend to know things I didn’t know, and I learned gradually that in fact, over time, I’d acquired a great deal of knowledge and that even if I still fell pitifully short of the standards of my own undergraduate professors (particularly Bob), I was actually in a position to be of some real, concrete help to my students.

I taught in Denmark for several years before I came to Drexel. I never had a student for more than one course when I taught in Denmark, however, because my students there were nearly always Americans or other non-Danish nationals who were taking their semester abroad. I loved my students, but in a very detached way. I never got to know any of them, really, but that was okay with me. I’ve always been kind of a loner. I liked engaging with them intellectually, but it didn’t bother me that I would have them for only one course and after that would never see them again.

My situation when I came to Drexel was not so different. Drexel didn’t allow students to major in philosophy. The best they could do was a minor. I didn’t mind that; in fact, I rather like it. I loved teaching, but I also loved writing, and the fact that my exposure to the lives of my students was very limited suited me well. I got to go into the classroom and do what I loved–talk about philosophy–without having to spend any time helping my students navigate the practical difficulties of their lives. I had all the fun of teaching, or so I thought, with none of the inconvenience.

But then someone senior to myself got the idea that we should offer a major in philosophy. Drexel had had one before but had jettisoned it after several professors retired and were not replaced. Philosophy students do inordinately well on the GREs, so it wasn’t too difficult to convince the dean that a philosophy major would be good for the university. I was ambivalent about it myself, though. I knew that if we had a major I would suddenly “have students” in a way I had never “had students” before and that these “students” would cut into my research time.

I couldn’t bring myself to protest the reinstatement of the major, but neither could I champion it. I sat by quietly with a curiosity not unlike that of a disinterested person watching a train wreck. I didn’t think our students were sufficiently prepared for such a rigorous and intellectually challenging major and I feared that I was emotionally incapable of forming the kind of attachment to them that it seemed to me was necessary for a productive mentoring relationship.

I like large chunks of time all to myself, time when I don’t have to see, attend to, or worry about anyone else. I couldn’t picture myself hanging out with my students, couldn’t imagine welcoming them into my office and cheerfully allowing them to monopolize my time the way Bob had allowed me to monopolize his. I liked my students, but more as abstract beings than as concrete ones. I knew that in this respect I fell short of the standard that Bob had set for me, but I had accepted long ago that I would never be able to meet any of Bob’s standards, Bob, after all was “God.”

But then when we got the major back, everything changed. As if out of nowhere students began to appear who stood out from the students I’d had before. They weren’t interested in philosophy; they were possessed, possessed as I had been all those years ago when I’d practically lived in Bob’s office. Not only did I have them for more than one class; I had them in more than one class at a time! I teach only two courses per term, so I was surprised to find that I had a couple of students in both my classes and not just for one term, but for several terms in a row.

Something else happened with the reinstatement of the major: the size of my classes shrank. Where before I’d been teaching critical reasoning to twenty-five students, I suddenly found I was teaching epistemology to ten, and ten students who were a cut above, at least in terms of their commitment to the material, the ones I had become used to.

I suddenly found myself caring about my students very much. I couldn’t help but get to know them. They would talk to me not simply about the material they had read for class, but about their lives and long-term ambitions and I realized that by that point in my life, I’d actually lived long enough to have acquired some wisdom that could be helpful to them with respect to these more general concerns. They would come talk to me, as I had to Bob, and I found to my surprise that I actually enjoyed talking to them, even about things that were not directly related to philosophy.

“Your students are not your friends,” a colleague once remarked when advising new faculty on the perils of socializing too much with students. He’s right, of course. There’s a certain responsibility in a pedagogical relationship. A teacher must never confide in a student, or look to a student for emotional support. It is perfectly appropriate for a student to do these things, however, with a teacher. A teacher stands in loco parentis. Most college students are young people who have not yet made their way in the world but who are going to college as part of their preparation for that. They are more than their student numbers. They are inexperienced adults who occasionally need support and guidance when contemplating life’s larger questions, or simply how to survive a term in which they are taking too many courses in order to minimize their student-loan debt.

A teacher cannot hold himself too emotionally aloof from his students and still be an effective teacher. The point of a liberal arts education is not merely to impart knowledge to students on a variety of subjects. It is not even to introduce them to the joys of the life of the mind. It is to help them to become happy and thriving adults, to help them in their pursuit of “the good life” in the classical sense. But that can be done only by teachers who are willing to engage with their students as human beings and who can draw on their own humanity, and not simply their intellects, in those relationships.

A teacher has to love his students in a manner that is perhaps unique to that relationship, and in that way teach them that it is natural for people to care about one another and that the world into which they are entering, though challenging, is a friendlier place than they may have thought.

Newsflash– “Piety” is a real Surname!

Portrait caricatureI’d like to clear up what may be a confusion in the minds of some of my readers. I got an email awhile ago, from someone who liked my blog on Kierkegaard, asking me if “Piety” was a pen name. That’s a natural question, I suppose, especially for a Kierkegaard scholar (I’m sure John Wisdom was always being asked if “Wisdom” was his real name). “I know that word,” people probably think, “and it’s not a name!” That, in any case, was the explanation offered by my friend David Leopold when the American Academy of Religion misspelled my name. That seems plausible. Either that, or they simply didn’t know how to spell “piety” (which, if it were true, would confirm the suspicions of the folks over at the Society of Biblical Literature).

No, “Piety” is my real name. There have been Pietys in the U.S. since before the Revolutionary war. In fact, my ancestor, Thomas Piety, served under Gen. Arthur St. Clair in the American Army when George Washington was president. Arthur St. Clair was an ancestor of Jeff St. Clair, editor of the wonderful online journal Counter Punch, for which I sometimes write, so a Piety is still serving under a St. Clair.

My father, Harold Piety, was briefly the religion editor at the East St. Louis Journal. According to my mother, he used to enjoy answering the phone: “Religion, Piety speaking.”

My middle name is Gaye. I changed my name when I married the legal scholar and humorist Brian J. Foley, to “Marilyn Gaye Piety Foley,” so “Piety” is still my real name, or at least part of it. I plan to keep using it too. I think it’s a good name for a Kierkegaard scholar.

(An earlier version of this post appeared on the blog Piety on Kierkegaard.)