Wittgenstein in Middle-School: Homily

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Solute, by Julian Vadas

The prayer for homily last week was about being many and one—so, set up to motivate an appreciation of diversity in unity. Since Wittgenstein’s approach to this is one of my main philosophical interests , I figured that I’d try and give a homily that managed to communicate some of the more practically important conclusions that can be gleaned from his writing in a way that 60 middle schoolers might enjoy at 8:30 in the morning. I figured the attempt would be interesting, and at the least provide an answer to the question, ‘why should we care about conceptual analysis of theology?’ In any case, it’s basically an attempt to apply several aspects of my account of Wittgenstein’s religious philosophy. Enjoy! (The actual homily was obviously a bit different, but it stuck to the text for the main part.)

Many and one; multiplicity and Unity. One of my main philosophical interests—it was actually central to all of my papers for Divinity school this year. So, I’m going to use this gathering to run through three of the most important things about unity and diversity, and why they’re important.

How many things can be described as One? [Get answers from students.]

That’s quite a lot of different things. And the most important side of this is not just that lots of different things can be called ‘one’: it’s that each of these things is ‘one’ in a different way. A person is ‘one’ in a different way to a school. A country is ‘one’ in a different way to a school. A way of being ‘good’ is ‘one’ in a different way to one country. And so on.

So, the first thing to remember is that there are many different ways of being one. Which also means that there are many different ways of being diverse.

Now, some of you may have noticed that not only are there many different ways of being one, but that there isn’t necessarily anything in common between all these ways. Some things are closer together than others—but one trilogy of books, for example, doesn’t seem to have much in common compared to say, one banana. And this holds for other things too. Let’s take ‘good.’ Now, I hope we all know that there’s more one way of being good, or being good at something. It’s important to remember, however, that there might not be anything much in common between these ways of being good. And even where we appear to have one way of being good at something—being smart, for example—there can be different ways of being good in this one way, and they don’t have to have anything in common.

This is a really, really important thing to remember. I think we all get stressed about whether or not we’re good enough, or whether we’re good at all. And I think we all sometimes look at other people and think, ‘they’re good, and I’m not like them—this must mean that I’m not good.’ Well, however much a way of being good might be one, there are always different ways of following that one way. And they don’t have to be similar. If you start doubting yourself, then, don’t start comparing yourself to others and judging yourself according to them. Your path need not be theirs; and it might be incredibly important that your goodness is different to theirs. To take basketball, for example, there’s almost nothing in common between Zaza Pechulia and Steph curry. But they both contribute to making the Warriors look more or less unbeatable. God has made each of us different, meanwhile—but precisely in that difference, we are all of equal value to our Creator. The essential thing to remember is that the fact of difference does not mean that there is a difference in value.

So, we’ve had two things. First, there are lots of different ways of being ‘one.’ Second, these ways don’t all necessarily have to have one thing in common. I’m going to keep to third thing short, but it’s really important. When you’re a part of something, it can and should change you. We’re all a part of this school, for example, and this has changed us all in some way. And this is a part of what it means to be part of one thing—to be changed by that belonging.

But for most things, this has to work both ways. Your belonging to something shouldn’t just change you; it should also change that thing. The fact that you are a member of this school, a member of your family, a member of your community is what makes each of these things what they are. This is a key part of community—that the membership of each individual changes the whole, and so each individual also has a transformative effect on each other. If someone says, for example, that you must be a certain way in order to be American, then you can let them know that ‘American’ should mean something different to what they think, because you are who you are. And in the knowledge of this difference, you can both see each other as connected individuals, a real diversity within unity.

Anyway, I think that’s probably enough on that. Here are three things to remember: there are lots of different ways of being one and lots of different ways of being many. There doesn’t have to be anything in common between different individuals for them to still be one. And being a part of something that is ‘one’ doesn’t just have to change you—it can, and often should, change that thing as well. That’s all quite a lot of information, but the longer I’m alive, the more I’m convinced that these three things are really, really important.

Wittgenstein’s Religious Philosophy (in light of Pseudo-Denys)

IMG_4505This was one of my term papers for Spring Semester of Yale Divinity School. It’s not the kind of thing I would usually post, but the subject is close to my heart and I was really happy with the paper. So, here it is. 

The purpose of this paper is to argue that Ludwig Wittgenstein can be read as continuing and correcting Pseudo-Denys’ project in The Divine Names. I am first going to argue for an interpretation of The Divine Names as Pseudo-Denys’ attempt to facilitate our yearning for union with God by relativizing human concepts in order to render our thought transparent to divine revelation. I will argue that he fails in this, however, because the concept of ‘unity’ is not itself relativized. I will then argue that Wittgenstein can be read as continuing and correcting this attempt on the basis that he does relativize unity in a similar way and for similar religious reasons to Pseudo-Denys. I will conclude by reflecting on how this can connect with some of Sarah Coakley’s recent work on asceticism. Continue reading “Wittgenstein’s Religious Philosophy (in light of Pseudo-Denys)”

If We Want the Episcopal Church to Engage in Effective Political Advocacy, then We Must Evangelize

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Awakening the Spirit in Missouri (Source: ENS)

A substantial number of Episcopal Bishops recently wrapped up a conference in Chicago. Titled “Unholy Trinity: the Intersection of Racism, Poverty, and Gun Violence,” it was organized by Bishops United Against Gun Violence and it dealt with how to broach these three social sins in scriptural and theological frameworks. It was probably a very powerful event, especially given the panel it put together. I can also easily imagine that the work done will inspire new forms of advocacy and activism within various Episcopal Dioceses.

Continue reading “If We Want the Episcopal Church to Engage in Effective Political Advocacy, then We Must Evangelize”

The Problem of Memory: Forgetting the Teachings of the Church

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Augustine: not an American, or a Western European. (Source: Wikipedia)

I wrote this in Denver last year, but for some reason didn’t post it. It seemed like it might be important then, so figured it might still be worth posting now.

I’m writing this introduction on Tuesday, June 7th. This morning I had a conversation with a woman at the Network Coffee House on 14th and Pearl—a place of community for the homeless and impoverished, and one of the most beautiful locations in Denver. When the woman told me that her name was Grace, I remarked that this was one of the most powerful words in the English language. She agreed, adding ‘I’ve only recently started to learn what it really means. We learn a lot of words in America, but we aren’t always rightly taught what them.’ We spoke for a while longer, musing on how wonderful it is that when learning the meaning of our own names, we can also learn both who we are and who God is.

Continue reading “The Problem of Memory: Forgetting the Teachings of the Church”

Some Thoughts on the Prosperity Gospel

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I can very clearly remember the day, several years ago, that one of my students came into graduate support at SMPA clutching a Joel Osteen book. My immediate reaction was general shock, and expressed as such—not least because they were one of the most thoughtful and spiritually motivated students I’ve had the privilege of working with (to say nothing of their keen intellect). My second reaction was one of puzzlement, caused by reflecting on this second truth. So I asked them why they were reading Osteen. The answer was that reading him gave the student a sense that they were and could be worth something; to God, to themselves, to their family. The book laid out clearly many of the psychological blocks to realizing this worth (both social and personal), advocated clearing them away by considering the great power of God, and promised that once these blocks were removed that power would work through them to bring this worth to light in prosperity. Continue reading “Some Thoughts on the Prosperity Gospel”

A Lesson from The Socialist Controversy at Berkeley Divinity School

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The memorial bulletin for W.P.Ladd, around whom the controversy centered. (RG216, Box 2, Folder 50)

On December 2nd, 1919, an unassuming Brit by the name of Wilfred Humphries gave a talk at Berkeley Divinity School (then located in Middletown, CT, now a part of Yale Divinity School). The stated purpose of his talk was to give a first hand account of the contemporary situation in Russia, and he dedicated it to describing what he took to be some of the more positive aspects of the new Bolshevik regime. During the talk he shared a slide of the Russian flag and described how it was perceived by the Russians he had met. He also said a few complimentary words about Lenin and Trotsky.

This talk had been given at several New England colleges without provoking much of a reaction. After the talk in Middletown, CT, however, several members of the public claimed that the talk was unpatriotic communist propaganda. Newspaper editorials were written denouncing Dean W.P. Ladd and his faculty as corrupting both the Gospel and their students with socialism. A three person committee investigating the matter was formed at Ladd’s request. The provincial storm made national headlines, but Ladd was not forced to resign. It was decided that Berkeley had not propagated socialism, that Ladd himself had not sought to do so, and that the faculty were not responsible for the content of or reaction to the lecture—though the offending lecture was declared ill-advised and it was decided that it would have been Ladd’s responsibility to prevent it if he had known its content beforehand. A motion was put forward by several trustees (notably Judge Greene, who was on the above committee) requesting Ladd’s resignation in June 1920. This, however, appears to have been motivated by his combative response to the trustee’s recommendations following the committee’s report and questions over whether or not he respected the rules of Berkeley’s charter, rather than culpability for the initial affair.1 A compromise was reached where Ladd worked with an advisory committee of sorts. All in all, he weathered the assault, oversaw Berkeley’s move to Yale, and served as Dean until his death in the early 1940s, inspiring an uncommon loyalty in the student body. Continue reading “A Lesson from The Socialist Controversy at Berkeley Divinity School”

Advent and Time (SMPA Homily)

Most Fridays, I give a 5-10 minute homily for Morning Gathering at Saint Martin de Porres Academy. It’s one of the ways I’m still able to help out at the school I spent my first three years in the US working for. And it’s a great way of making sure my thought remains grounded (in some sense at least) in trying to figure out how to communicate a message worth hearing to 60 or so 10-14 year olds at 8:30 in the morning. 

Anyway, I usually just work off notes, but I wrote a full text for my homily this Friday. The actual delivery was of course pretty different to what is written here—kids clapping for the end of term, for example, followed by a call and response discussion about the desirability, or lack thereof, of perpetual termtime (turns out the kids didn’t think school year round would be a good thing!). It was also one of those ones where everyone was especially tired, plus a little antsy at the imminent prospect of the Christmas holidays. But the main body of the homily is still written here, and it’s a text I’m oddly happy with. It’s less linear than most of my homilies (partly to try and refer back to concrete memories as often as possible, to make the more abstract parts more accessible for the younger kids), but I think it works. And since I haven’t posted anything on here for a while, I thought it might be worth sharing this. Hope it’s worth reading, and Happy Advent!

Continue reading “Advent and Time (SMPA Homily)”