Archive for July, 2010

Learning a Foreign Language

July 21, 2010 8 comments

Learning to read a foreign language is often one of the more frustrating parts of graduate school, particularly for those who do not come in with a great language background or who are simply not gifted with languages. The fact that crash-courses and reading exams make sophisticated texts only slightly accessible adds to this frustration. I remember trying to read Balthasar after passing my German exam and having trouble understanding even the basics of the text; not exactly an encouraging experience. What is the best way to become more proficient in reading another language?  For the past few years I have been fairly diligent about working on German. I have tried many different strategies and, even though they may not be novel, I want to point to number that I have found helpful:

  • The most common advice I have heard is simply to make a regular schedule of reading whatever language you are working on. Everyday or a few times a week, read something in that language whether it is theological or just a newspaper article. This is, of course, absolutely true but the fact is that most of us know this and very few people end up maintaining it is the midst of  coursework/exams/dissertation. Therefore:
  • Find a few books that you would actually enjoy reading. For me, this meant getting some of the Harry Potter books in German. This has given me something easy to read when I get tired of academic German but want to keep to my reading schedule. Another great book for me has been Ich bin dann mal wegthe best-selling journal of a comedian/actor about his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. The particular works aren’t important. Just find a few that you can move in and out of when you feel like it.
  • Find an article or book that you absolutely need (I assume that if you are trying to move beyond the beginning level of a language there will be such texts). I have started many articles/books which I thought might be helpful or be good practice but unless the piece is really necessary, I have found it hard to keep with it when it gets difficult.
  • Learn to speak the language at a basic level. I am by no means advanced in my German (I have gotten myself to somewhere around the intermediate level in speaking), but learning to produce German at even a basic level has given me a much better feel for the language and helped my speed and comprehension when reading. Of course, learning to actively produce a language takes even more time and usually means taking classes or a trip abroad. 
  • Find a reading group. However, I have found that unless the text being read is either enjoyable or necessary, groups oftentimes fall apart as quickly as an individual stop reading on his/her own.

Any other practices that people have found helpful?

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Knowledge and Love

July 20, 2010 1 comment

From the chapter “God of Knowledge” in Rahner’s Encounters with Silence:

How can we approach the heart of all things, the true heart of reality? Not by knowledge alone, but by the full flower of knowledge, love. Only the experience of knowledge’s blooming into love has any power to work a transformation in me, in my very self. For it is only when I am fully present to an object that I am changed by meeting it. And it is only in love that I am fully present – not in bare knowing, but in the affection engendered by knowing. Only then is my knowledge anything more than a fleeting shadow, passing across the stage of consciousness. Then I have knowledge which is really myself, which abides as I myself abide.

Only knowledge gained through experience, the fruit of living and suffering, fills the heart with the wisdom of love, instead of crushing it with the disappointment of boredom and final oblivion. It is not the results of our own speculation, but the golden harvest of what we have lived through and suffered through, that has power to enrich the heart and nourish the spirit. And all the knowledge we have acquired through study can do no more than give us some little help in meeting the problems of life with an alert and ready mind.

Thanks to Your mercy, O Infinite God, I know something about You not only through concepts and words, but through experience. I have actually known You through living contact; I have met You in joy and suffering. For You are the first and last experience of my life. Yes, really You Yourself, not just a concept of You…

You have seized me; I have not ‘grasped’ You. You have transformed my being right down to its very last roots and made me a sharer in Your own Being and Life. You have given me Yourself, not just a distant, fuzzy report of Yourself in human words. And that’s why I can never forget You, because You have become the very center of my being.

Encounter’s with Silence, 29-31

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Citing the blogosphere

July 19, 2010 9 comments

I also meant to mention that the same Peter Dula essay includes, in a bibliographic footnote about recent critiques of Hauerwas, a reference to Halden’s blog. He cites “the numerous conversations at Halden Doerge’s wonderful blog, ‘Inhabitatio Dei,'” and provides the URL to Halden’s whole Hauerwas category (p. 390, f. 51). Maybe they are more common than I think, but this is the first time I’ve seen a blog cited in a serious academic journal. And it was used exactly right, in my opinion: as evidence of increasing “conversations” about a particular theme or direction of thought. (Not that that’s the only way blogs could be usefully cited in an academic essay, but it does serve that purpose well.)

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Hauerwas and the Mennonites

July 19, 2010 1 comment

I just received the latest issue of the Mennonite Quarterly Review in the mail (84.3, July 2010), which is cast as a tribute to Stanley Hauerwas on his 70th birthday. Most of the essays come from Mennonite former students of his: Chris Huebner (now of CMU), Peter Dula (EMU), and Alex Sider (Bluffton). There’s also an essay by Mark Thiessen Nation, and a print version of Hauerwas’s recent commencement address at Eastern Mennonite Seminary.

Most exciting of all is the very first entry: “A Comprehensive Bibliography of the Writings of Stanley Hauerwas,” spanning 46 pages and 41 years worth of work—books, miscellaneous essays, reviews, sermons, and interviews. This painstaking work of love was performed by Angus Paddison of the University of Winchester and Darren Sarisky of Cambridge. It’s absolutely fascinating to read. The first two entries, editorals from 1969 and 1970, hearken back to a day before Hauerwas had become Hauerwas: “The Ethics of Black Power” and “The Ethics of Population and Pollution.” The compilers’ greatest contribution is to have tracked down the innumerable short, popular writings Hauerwas has done over the years. He wrote surprisingly often, for example, for the Notre Dame Magazine while he worked here—the quarterly publication the school produces for its alumni and devotees. I’m going to get my hands on some of these as soon as possible, like “Notes by a Non-Catholic” from 1974 and “Rev. Falwell and Dr. King” from 1981.

The relation between Hauerwas and Mennonites is extremely interesting, and I think even “productive” for theology in general. In Peter Dula’s contribution, for example (my favorite of the bunch), titled “For and Against Hauerwas Against Mennonites,” Hauerwas’s claim to be a “high-church Mennonite” is taken seriously as a critique of Mennonite ecclesiology. It seems to me that in the work (maybe in the person) of Stanley Hauerwas, more than almost anywhere else, the similarities and specific differences between “high” and “low” church ecclesiologies make themselves evident. That confrontation is not only crucial to an understanding of Hauerwas, but also one that has lain all too quietly beneath the surface of the growing popularity of high church traditions—manifested in the number of recent conversions and the phenomenon of quasi-Catholicisim—which has gone on without very much theorizing of the low-church end at all. This new generation of Mennonite scholars is starting to remedy that nicely. (Another major example among Mennonites is the work of Fernando Enns, who has made important inroads, occasionally criss-crossed with those blazed by Hauerwas, into the relation between ecclesiology and nonviolence.)

All this to say: the recent issue of MQR is highly recommended, as, along the same lines, are The Gift of Difference: Radical Orthodoxy, Radical Reformation (eds. Chris Huebner and Tripp York) and Unsettling Arguments (eds. Charles R. Pinches, Kelly S. Johnson, Charles M. Collier), a new festschrift for Hauerwas that includes essays by many of the same authors in this issue.

God of My Life

July 17, 2010 2 comments

Often readers of Rahner turn first to Foundations of Christian Faith, then maybe to Hearer of the Word and some of the Theological Investigations, and, if their really adventurous, to Spirit in the World. In my view, Hearer and various essays in TI are great places to start. Recently, however, I have been reading through Rahner’s short book Encounters with Silence and I am struck by how nicely it introduces Rahner’s thought. Published in 1938 (a year before Spirit in the World), it is a series of ten mediations on the Christian life written as prayers to God. The first is entitled “God of My Life” and it gives a great glimpse into the heart of Rahner’s early works:

Suppose I tried to be satisfied with what so many today profess to be the purpose of their lives. Suppose I defiantly determined to admit my finiteness, and glory in it alone. I could only begin to recognize this finiteness and accept it as my sole destiny, because I had previously so often stared out into the vast reaches of limitless space, to those hazy horizons where Your Endless Life is just beginning.

Without You, I should founder helplessly in my own dull and groping narrowness. I could never feel the pain of longing, not even deliberately resign myself to being content with this world, had not my mind again and again soared out over its own limitations into the hushed reaches which are filled by You alone, the Silent Infinite. Where should I flee before You, when all my yearning for the unbounded, even my bold trust in my littleness, is really confession of you?

What else is there that I can tell You about Yourself, except that You are the One without whom I cannot exist, the Eternal God from whom alone I, a creature of time, can draw strength to live, the Infinity who gives meaning to my finiteness. Ane when I tell You all this, then I have given myself my true name, the name I ever repeat when I pray in David’s Psalter, ‘Tuus sum ego.’ I am the one who belongs not to himself, but to You. I know no more than this about myself, nor about You, O God of my life, Infinity of my finiteness.

What a poor creature You have made me, O God! All I know about You and about myself is that You are the eternal mystery of my life. Lord, what a frightful puzzle man is! He belongs to You, and You are Incomprehensible – Incomprehensible in Your Being, and even more so in Your ways and judgments. For if all Your dealings with me are acts of Your freedom, quite unmerited gifts of Your grace which knows no ‘why,’ if my creation and my whole life hang absolutely on Your free decision, if all my paths are, after all, Your paths and, therefore, unsearchable, then, Lord, no amount of questioning will ever fathom Your depths – You will still be the Incomprehensible, even when I see You face to face…

But I am rambling on like a fool – excuse me, O God. You have told me through Your Son that You are the God of my love, and You have commanded me to love You. Your commands are often hard because they enjoin the opposite of what my own inclinations would lead me to do, but when You bid me love You, You are ordering something that my own inclinations would never even dare to suggest: to love You, to come intimately close to You, to love Your very life. You ask me to lose myself in You, knowing that You will take me to Your Heart, where I may speak on loving, familiar terms with You, the incomprehensible mystery of my life. And all this because You are Love Itself.

Encounters with Silence, 6-8

Milbank’s metacritique

July 15, 2010 8 comments

I’ve only just now, twenty years and many thick layers of satire after the fact, come around to reading Theology and Social Theory cover to cover. It’s always interesting to read a book for the first time that it seems you’ve ‘known’ forever, just by virtue of its being so integral to the academy’s collective consciousness. In these cases I almost always end up feeling sorry for the author. The book is usually so much better than the caricatures or isolated nostrums that get remembered. But once the simplified version has cemented, it is extremely difficult to see anything else even when the book is right in front of you. (This fact both confirms and complicates Harman’s advice to avoid reading much secondary work on an author that really matters to you until you’ve worked out what she’s saying all on your own. Secondary work is a seedbed of clichés, but when dealing with someone as ubiquitous as Milbank, the clichés take root without needing to be attached to any text at all. In those cases, a few carefully-chosen secondary works can open up interpretive space rather than covering it over.)

Still, in my experience, one or two features of the book usually stand out to you as completely misrepresented or unaccounted for by the caricatures. One of the things that struck me most about Milbank’s book is how little theology it actually contains. It’s often said that one of the book’s main contentions is the absolute superiority of theology over all ‘secular’ disciplines, a re-enthroning of theology as the queen of the sciences. That idea is certainly not foreign to Milbank, but to the extent that it’s argued at all, it’s confined to the book’s final chapter. The vast majority of the book is better read as a work in the philosophy of religion than in theology strictly speaking, arguing simply that ‘secular’ attempts of whatever kind (political, sociological, philosophical, or historical) to ‘position’ or explain religion by reference to a broader, supposedly self-evident whole, all fail. They fail because they are unable to recognize that their own view of the whole is just as controvertible, just as rationally contingent, as any ‘religious’ view. And none of this is argued by appeal to specifically Christian sources taken as normative. It’s presented as a philosophical ‘metacritique,’ depending for its substance on Hamann and Herder above all (who represent, he says, a “phantom Christian modernity which has never been” [p. 151, 2nd ed.]) and for its method on the same Nietzschean genealogical tradition he’s trying to overturn. What the metacritique really aims to establish is not the intrinsic superiority of theology, but on the contrary, the essential equivalence of theology with other discourses that have tried to claim their own ‘scientific’ superiority.

What’s particularly interesting to me is not the claim for theology’s superiority (which, in his metacritical idiom, amounts to not much more than that a view of the whole ‘positions’ the view of the parts), but the source and status of this metacritique, and the relation between this metacritique and Milbank’s actual preference for Christianity.

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“To privilege”

I just went to my computer’s thesaurus looking for a synonym for “privilege” used as a verb, and in its place found this hilarious rant from David Foster Wallace. I have no idea where it came from.

Even though some dictionaries OK it, the verb to privilege is currently used only in a particular English subdialect that might be called academese. Example: The patriarchal Western canon privileges univocal discourse situated within established contexts over the polyphonic free play of decentered utterance. (Yes: it’s often that ghastly.) Contemporary academese originated in literary and social theory but has now metastasized throughout much of the humanities. There is exactly one rhetorical situation in which you’d want to use to privilege, to situate, or to interrogate + some abstract noun phrase, or pretty much any transitivized-verb construction that’s three times longer than it needs to be—this is in a university course taught by a professor so thoroughly cloistered, insecure, or stupid as to believe that academese constitutes intelligent writing. A required course, one that you can’t switch out of. In any other situation, run very fast the other way.

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