Color your world


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One of my favorite thinkers makes the astute observation that “[y]ou can never prove a horizon. You arrive at it from a different horizon, by going beyond the previous one. [You go] beyond a previous [horizon] because [you have] found something that makes the previous horizon [either] illegitimate [or unsatisfying]” (B. Lonergan, Philosophy of God, and Theology).

First, what is a horizon? Well, there’s the dictionary definition of a line or circle that forms the boundary between earth and sky. This picturesque understanding of a natural phenomenon is often applied to human experience, as in the quotation above. A horizon of meaning now, it describes our basic orientation in the world. In looking at what’s before us, we see a horizon but rarely attend to it. We take for granted, too, all the contents for which a horizon serves as a horizon. It literally grounds us in a way we come to appreciate when vertigo hits, when we become unseated, as it were, in our usual commerce with the world, when we suddenly loose our footing for whatever reason. A synonym is ‘worldview’, a fortunate translation of the German original “looking-at-the-world” (Weltanschauung). And yet horizon strikes me as something more fundamental, more implicit than worldview as a “system” of beliefs seems to suggest.

A horizon is what rivets us to the world. It orients how we connect with others, with ourselves, with our very surroundings, providing for the sensibility that keeps us from feeling unhinged. That’s some serious shit right there! In the commerce of life we move in and out of horizons sparingly—it’s that fundamental! But hopefully when rather than if we do, some adjustment takes place. The things that used to move us now give us pause. A child moving out of a world where money grows on trees into one that comes with the responsibility of earning her keep is quite the game changer and representative. Philosopher Paul Feyerabend (in Fairwell to Reason) puts it in these terms: “The events that surround a forest ranger differ from the events that surround a city dweller lost in a wood … The Greek gods were a living presence; ‘they were there.’ Today they are nowhere to be found.” Horizons filter our worldviews. They breathe life into our beliefs, flushing our world with vibrancy and color separating us from the zombie.

Nice. But what about that whole vertigo thing that awakes us to transition? Thank heavens that happens sparingly! Still, it’s a great reminder that authenticity is built on movement, not stagnation. Recall our initial quotation: “[You go] beyond a previous [horizon] because [you have] found something that makes the previous horizon [either] illegitimate [or unsatisfying].” In the movement from one horizon to another, we feel as though in limbo, not quite the deathlife of zombies … ok not even close. Let’s try again. The uncomfortable squeeze of uncertainty that overtakes us as we shift horizons makes us feel zombie-like. It’s care, combined with reasoning, which keeps our foot in life. In this new horizon underway time is required to reinvigorate a newfound sensibility in which our sense of connectedness, in partial vertigo, develops into a worldview that feels authentic, real, true. The Greek gods may not be resuscitated there but what allowed them to manifest resuscitates us. Horizon collides with worldview and a new Adam, a new Eve, is born!


Feeling perky


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One of the perks about being a professor is feeling as though you’re starting a new job every year. (Sorry, another blog about work! September is less than a month away and I need to get excited about teaching … again.) I get butterflies each time. I walk into class just before or after Labor Day, thinking: what will this year’s group be like? Will they be dynamic? Belligerent? Apathetic? What new challenges await me? Etc. etc. There are some things that are recurrent, of course. Students who feel herculean at the beginning of term is just one heartwarming example. Remember what it was like: new utilities, new books, and new environment. What is positively endearing are those students who approach me the first week of class biting off way more than they can chew. “Sir” (yes, the dreaded address! I don’t mind it much, to be honest); “Sir, kindly recommend some other readings. I find your list quite limited and I want to get a head start on things!” Similar requests, if you can believe it, even reach me during the summer months via email. I have to chuckle as I imagine how these eager requests turn into desperate pleas by midterm. “Sir, please … please! I need an extension!” I won’t discuss how bad things sometimes get by the end of term. Item 1: Impress Prof. Fail! Too cute!

As I was saying, I feel as if my job is new every academic year. But don’t let your imaginations run away with you. It’s not all a charming air of vigor and vitality. A ritual of mine, to give you a picture, is to cue Guns N’ Roses on my smartphone on the first day of class as I walk past my university’s gates: “Welcome to the jungle / It gets worse here everyday / Ya learn ta live like an animal / In the jungle where we play”. Ok, slight exaggeration, but you get my meaning. It can be a zoo. Especially “invigorating” is the persistent stream of advising appointments that necessarily bombard me, along with other—yes, yes! … necessary—suffocating administrative duties. University is a business after all. Most of my friends, envious of my summer “holiday”, feel I’m getting my just desserts, but let’s take the high road and forgive their ignorance. The cacophony of overlapping concerns, professors’, administrators’, and students’ alike (despite the looming stupor of frosh), is quite overwhelming. Item 2: Gain reader’s sympathy. Fail. Doh!

No, but seriously, it’s new each time. I walk past them every day, to the podium or instructor’s chair, some notes in hand. They, the notes, are incomplete, not to mention paltry. They express a past experience, if one is so lucky to have taught the course before. And yet the vivacity that the notes hope to embody was improvised even then in their extemporaneous delivery. And how! Let’s not forget the group dynamic, the audience addressed. It’s as elusive as my experience and for that reason unpredictable. I’m sensing glimmers of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle! If there’s to be any chance of “success” in this context, it is necessary to be as alert as the spotted hyena whose kill entices the scavenging lion.

And yet, and yet I say, I wouldn’t pass up the experience for the world. I take it so seriously that I have to tell my students to prepare to have their lives changed. Intense, I know. It’s my way of telling them: I’ll keep up my end of the bargain, if you keep up yours. They doubtless find it a little over the top but, as I also tell them: I don’t want to be wasting my time anymore than they want to be wasting theirs. We embark on a journey together to learn not only about things “out there”, a history of others, their ideas and lives, but more importantly about ourselves. We observe, yes, but not from a precipice of superiority. We are the history we observe and life is too short, too precious, to realize our agency at the end of it. Learn now that you’re implicated in the things you learn and your existence will be the richer for it. I leave a changed man at the end of courses (I tell them that too!), including those I’ve taught for years. I recognize that as an achievement, which has kept me interested and non-suicidal. I sincerely hope the same for them. Item #3: Enjoying the perks. To be continued.

I used to hate my job


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I used to hate my job. That’s right, I used to hate it! I fell into it by fluke. (Let’s leave aside metaphysical speculation as to whether or not it was a fluke.) It started when I was a university student, long, long ago. Like many arts majors, I was driven to school by a desire for knowledge culled by existential yearning. I clued out to education as an adolescent. I hated that, too! Education and learning piqued my interest about as much as my road bike fascinates a slug. If it didn’t have to do with girls or drums—yes, drums; a subject for another blog!—I could care less.

And there I was, years later, in a classroom, studying philosophy and theology! Was this a high-school dropout’s idea of a joke? Did I mention I lacked a sense of humor? There I was, at the top of my class. “So what do you want to do once you get your PhD?” my mentor asked. (Once I awoke to learning, I wanted the PhD. My mentor knew that.) “Do you want to teach?” “Sure,” I responded. “Sure”! Imagine it with me. An undergraduate barely finished his degree, committing himself to a minimum decade-long pursuit and subsequent lifelong career with a prosaic “sure”. I know, it sounds terribly flippant. To a certain extent it was. Back then it was believed, certainly more than it is now, that those who chase the PhD also embrace a life of teaching and publishing in their area of expertise. My “sure” was basically a kneejerk approval. Still, it didn’t feel as flippant then as it did rolling off my tongue, at least that’s what I vaguely remember and also what I like to believe.

And there I was, years later, on a podium, being handed my PhD. “Enjoy it,” whispered another mentor, “because the buck stops here!” He was right. What a rude awakening! Only weeks later I was teaching students eager to learn about things I probably shouldn’t have been teaching. I’m almost as embarrassed by it now as I was painfully aware of it then. But in trying to make a living comfort is rarely an initial luxury. This is when I started to hate my job and consequently … sigh! … myself. The self-aggrandizing intoxication of learning, excited by a budding list of credentials, turned into a vomitus impostor syndrome. I wasn’t a fraud but I felt like one. I embodied the view that knowledge is communicated best when depersonalized. I lost myself to guard a semblance of objectivity and academic integrity. Understandable, necessary even, this nonetheless went a long way to contributing to my self-alienation: my past, my present, my strengths, my fragility.

Ok, you get the picture. An unhappy camper feeling he has no voice, no opinion. Bleak! Blah! Yuck! But suddenly it dawned! Through accidental slips, in lectures, academic advising, and the like, my quirky self, quarantined upon academic enlightenment, crashed the stodgy party I was hosting. Students found me interesting: me … interesting. Cue heavenly choir! I didn’t like my past. I didn’t like that person who subconsciously fed the one I now gratefully exploit. That past was … weird, so different from what I gathered was my socially acceptable present (the subject of another blog). Through trial and error—and a great deal of courage—I invited this person in, into my teaching self. The party became less stuffy and I began to feel revitalized and full of direction. The content I was teaching remained but I had changed. This made all the difference in the world as it reunited the joy of learning in me with that of teaching.

The lesson? I now love my job and I’ll be damned if I suffer the drab of professionalism without all my idiosyncrasies!

God’s in the house, yo!


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“Do you believe in God?” This is a question I get asked constantly. There are basically two meanings to this question; a question, after all, is never just a question. You can’t possibly believe in God, is one version, when science has answered most, if not all, the questions religion and/or theism used to supply. Moreover, what of the doubts surrounding the existence of such a being, let alone the atrocities committed in Its name? They’re so pervasive and refined that the slightest indication of belief seems laughable. The other meaning implied in the question is basically: give me the answer because, despite what’s just been said, I really do want to believe.

Let’s back up a little and consider a context. Let’s seek to do justice to both perspectives. Why? A question is never just a question, remember? What’s more is that this particular question, however bothersome (and I must admit it is to me), is quite special. It’s rarely, if ever, raised dispassionately. It is a question of meaning. Somehow, in our minds, to answer this question “objectively”, in the negative or the positive, would be to settle life’s conundrums. Putting it in these terms seems hyperbolic but the ferocious growth of the industry surrounding this question suggests it. Punch our question into, if you don’t believe me!

In the context of meaning, rather than that of proof or of faith, our two proposed connotations above, an interstice emerges—everything is about the interstice on this blog! There’s no privileged position here. None, in fact, exists that settles this issue either by a resounding yes or a deflating no, as Kierkegaard knew so long ago. Probability scales never settle a question of meaning and that, quite frankly, is what “objective” evidence, pro and con, supplies. Unconvinced? Look again at your search results. No, reader friend, this question isn’t settled by science or faith supported by science. And here’s the clincher: it never should be settled!

I don’t make this matter of belief in God one of proof for that reason. It misunderstands what proofs achieve and how that achievement is to connect with “reasons” for living or believing. A philosopher’s use of science to convince people either way is crafty but finally, in my opinion, ineffective. The importance of this question, at least philosophically, consists in its debatability. Not simply that it can be debated philosophically but that the question itself is interminably debatable. We exercise the mind this way. Huh? Yes, you heard correctly. We exercise the mind by thinking what by definition is unthinkable; by pushing the boundaries, as it were; by stretching our minds in directions of possibility, not certitude—as if we ever attain philosophical certainty about things that really matter to us. The question of God is never answered definitively intellectually because the term “God” itself is a vista, not a villa.

Am I in any way prejudging the validity of such a belief? I think I’m saying that believing in God is “sensible” without committing myself to a specific definition or argument. Am I hinting at the possibility that such a stance is reasonable and hence legitimizes belief? I don’t think so. I prefer to think of it in terms of inciting the ability to develop one’s decision to believe daily. Don’t fall prey to simplistic ideas about the need to demonstrate such things before belief can take place. That particular game involves a category mistake that’ll only breed cynicism about objects that need to be transcended in your quest anyway.

So, do I believe in God? Yes, but that’s debatable.

The Dreaded Question


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“So what do you do for a living?” Now there’s a question that irks many in my field, perhaps as much as the question “what are you studying?” nauseates my students. I can’t speak for my students, but my response is usually the innocuous, “I’m a professor”. Imagine the response at barside. My hope is that the conversation stops there and I can continue to sip my wine or scotch unharrowed by a flurry of questions regarding specifics. But no such luck, as you probably guessed.

One look at me, and my interlocutor can’t help himself: “He’s obviously not an engineer or an accountant!” he thinks to himself. You don’t say! “A professor! How interesting!” surfaces the retort—as does my trepidation. “A professor in what?” That, my friends, is the dreaded question! It’s not that I don’t like what I do or that I’m ashamed of it. On the contrary, I love my vocation. It’s the (mis)understanding and effort involved in explaining myself that inspires reluctance.

“Uh … er … philosophy”, I blurt out somewhat bashful at what I expect next. “I knew it! You’re Greek; it stands to reason!” And then another. “What kind of philosophy?” I swash down a larger quantity of wine or scotch—or, quite frankly, whatever’s nearby. “Philosophy of religion.” An uncomfortable pause. “Wow!” I smile. “That’s amazing!” I smile again. It’s not enough that philosophy is seen by society as a dubious profession, but I also have to suffer further by tacking on religion. “Do you want to be a priest?” I choke. And thus begins my diatribe. “Philosophy of religion is a subdiscipline of academic philosophy that addresses technical questions as … and …. Moreover, ….” I finally stop myself as I try to lower my heart rate. The interest of my interlocutor has noticeably waned. A cloud of incomprehension overtakes his posture. “Well, that sounds interesting. Can I get you another drink?” “No,” I giggle. “I think I owe you one!”

Philosophy, of religion, of history, of life, or whatever, inspires all sorts of reactions that are justified on either side of the academic divide. The disconnect becomes palpable as philosophers (all academic types really) spiral into arcane thoughts to which their initial, innocent questions unwittingly led. And yet both they and non-academic types are always led by an innate sense of wonder that’s either stifled in youth or over-nurtured in adolescence. We wander in life with that propensity either muffled or valued, literally losing ourselves in a business or trade where the “bottom line” guides all our decision making or in an academic discipline where patronage often dictates what’s valuable.

I’ve only recently started to realize that “the dreaded question” occupies an important interstice. What’s really dreadful, in other words, isn’t the question of my interlocutor or even my wary response, but the stalemate reached in our conversation controlled by disconnected worlds. We are no longer the prattlers of youth, to be sure. We’ve gained in experience—should we be so lucky!—and discovered a path in life—should we be so lucky, again! But in our bar-side conversation is a wonderful opportunity to reconnect as humans and to rediscover what the ancient Greek philosophers understood all along: that the love of wisdom (‘philosophy’) is a way of life, an art of living, and not simply an academic discipline. Here is an opportunity to ferret out that other part of our existence interested in the world, invested in our cohabitation in it. “Bartender, I’ll take that drink now, for me and my friend!”

Thinking as the spice of life


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For the past few years I’ve been fleshing out a form of philosophy that I call “enecstasis”. The term itself is not important to develop here. Suffice it to say that I created it to negotiate complex issues in the history of western philosophy. When it comes down to it, however, enecstasis communicates a disposition Greeks describe in terms of “meraki” (μεράκι):

meraki [may-rah-kee] (adjective)

This is a word that modern Greeks often use to describe doing something with soul, creativity, or love — when you put “something of yourself” into what you’re doing, whatever it may be. Meraki is often used to describe cooking or preparing a meal, but it can also mean arranging a room, choosing decorations, or setting an elegant table. (

Well, I think we can now add to the list meraki as a means of thinking with soul, creativity, or love. I was reminded of the term by a friend as I was communicating the disposition to students in an informal session. I thought to myself: that’s exactly what I mean by “enecstasis”! It seems to me that meraki, in conjunction with enecstasis, captures the classical significance of philosophy where one pursues knowledge as an integral part of oneself, as a way of caring for the self and, by extension, others (anyone interested in thinking, e.g., students or the mythically well-read layperson) rather than simply communicating a craft, a specialty, or facilitating a disengaged acquisition of knowledge.

Philosophy without meraki is like body without soul: necessary but lifeless. Pass the salt, please!