Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Candles and Cake!

Happy Birthday Chaka!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Monday, April 28, 2008

I'm not really cynical, but I'd understand if you thought I was

I should know better than to start talking about a philosophical dispute that I don't have a good answer to, but I've been thinking about the problem of evil/suffering. It started with reading this dialogue between Bart Ehrman and N. T. Wright. It's a good exchange; both sides make really good points. Like I said, I don't have a good answer for my side (that would be the Yes-there-is-a-God side, in case you didn't know). It's not that Ehrman's arguments make me doubt the existence of God or his goodness; it's more like they leave me saying, "Well, it looks like he's got you there, God. I don't have any more arguments. How about you?"

What I've been thinking about in the last few days, though, is how the enormity of human suffering isn't just a challenge to the existence of the God of the Bible. It's also a challenge to the value of human beings (as put forth by Christian theology, our culture in general, and presumably other religions and cultures). Maybe the central challenge of suffering isn't to force us to justify God (theodicy). Maybe it's central challenge is to force us to justify our own sense that we matter (anthrodicy?). One can look at the vast amount of suffering for which no justification can be given, no advantage can be calculated, and conclude that a good, powerful God is an absurdity. But it seems just as reasonable to conclude that suffering doesn't count as much as we think it does.

I'm no doubt treading a well-travelled path here. There are many who have reached this conclusion, or at least observed (with far more art than I can) the wrenching gap between our sense that we matter and the universe's/God's seeming indifference. Stephen Crane. Shusaku Endo. Many observers would see the 20th Century as an era convinced of this point, that human beings just don't matter as much as we have been told; convinced of the point and lusting to prove it. Can you trace a straight line from the observation that "If God is dead, everything is permissible" to Auschwitz? (An observation that Dostoevsky may or may not have made. Now I need to re-read The Brothers Karamazov to find out. Or I could just watch the movie.) This isn't an argument, just a question: independently of trust in the words of God that assure us of his love for human beings (despite what we see of their suffering), how does one avoid the conclusion that human life is worthless? This isn't a "gotcha" question; I'm genuinely curious.

(Chesterton ridiculed the notion that the vastness of the universe made man insignificant, but why should we believe him just because he's a brilliant writer?)

I have one more thought to drop here. I make no attempt at coherence. It seems to me that the problem of suffering exposes the contradiction between our general claim that human beings are valuable and our general behavior. We (if you're reading this, you're included in the "we") are perfectly aware, for example, that people are dying for lack of food, water, and medicine. We are also perfectly capable of buying some of them food, water, or medicine. As they say in the appeals, "What if it were your own child about to die?" But who bankrupts himself to save a stranger's life?

I forget who proposed the following moral thought experiment. Suppose you knew that you could save a 1,000 lives on the other side of the world by crossing the room. Just get up, walk to the other side of the room, and 1,000 people are saved from a horrible death. We would think a person very wicked and perverse if he didn't cross the room. Now suppose you could save those 1,000 strangers by cutting off your pinky finger. It may just be my deep-seated fear of mutilation, but I can easily see myself deciding to keep my fingers intact.

It's not just an issue of money. We don't even have the emotional resources to make good on our belief that human lives are valuable. I shouldn't be so confident about this, since we barely make any effort to invest ourselves emotionally with people who are suffering; maybe it has been found too difficult and left untried. But my impression is that none of us could maintain the energy (or even the interest) to care about every person starving or being tortured or dying of thirst. With difficulty, we care about those that we know, those whose presence gives us pleasure, those who are like us.

As a Christian, this all makes a certain horrible sense to me. Caring only about myself is the way I am bent; it is the twisted shape we all share. I believe that human lives are valuable; that each is as valuable as my own. Yet my behavior, my real indifference to suffering, condemns me. The strange implication is, if human lives derived their value from my estimation of their value, or the sum total of people's estimation of their value, it would be undeniable that human lives have no value. Only if there is someone who could esteem each life equally would each life have value.

So let God be the one who speaks the truth, even if it makes every one of us a liar.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Hmong and the impossibilities of tonal languages

I've started taking Hmong language classes and after the first lesson I've learned one key lesson: I cannot repeat the difference between the 7 main tones!

If you happen to enjoy or understand linguistics, check out the very detailed explanations here.

If you want to hear the 'different' sounds and see if you can repeat them, go here. Choose one vowel and listen to each sound across the row for the different tones.

And lastly, pity me. I like to think I'm good at learning new things, but this Hmong stuff is tough! I feel so incompetent!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Engineers and cats

I just noticed that Professor Doctor Eco's watch face is on the inside of his wrist instead of the outside. Why does anybody wear it that way? Are they afraid of other people seeing what time it is?

If you like engineers or cats, or have ever heard of them, you will enjoy this video.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

"I invented Dan Brown"

So says Umberto Eco, and who can argue with him? (HT: Hogwarts Professor.) Actually, I imagine it's rather difficult to argue with him about anything. After enjoying The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, I tried reading one of his works on semiotics, Kant and the Platypus. I don't know that I got past the introduction; the philosophical woods were too thick.

Richard Rhodes has a post about learning dead languages here. I was also disappointed that they spoke Latin instead of Greek in The Passion of the Christ. And now doing movies in dead/obscure languages is kind of Mel Gibson's thing, which means nobody else will touch it for awhile.

Or maybe not. (Though I feel like I've been hearing about a Vin Diesel-as-Hannibal movie for about six years, now.)

Also, John McCain, still trying to capture the hearts of Evangelicals, comes out against the construction of pagan idols with American tax dollars.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Deconstructing Hotdish

As kottke says, tater tot hotdish is the Cadillac of hotdishes. You may never have experienced its exhilirating taste and texture. Perhaps you've never been to a church potluck; perhaps your mother didn't love you enough to prepare it for you; perhaps you grew up chained to a rock in a cave, watching the silhouettes of tater tot hotdish dance against the back wall of your prison. Whatever your reason, you have my sympathy.

I, of course, grew up with the healthy glow of hotdish all around me. For many years I was blissfully ignorant of the fact that not all are so privileged. In fact, it turns out that hotdish is a phenomenon with extremely limited geographic distribution. Tater tot hotdish is so rare a delicacy that its Wikipedia article has gone down the memory hole in the last month. Some outsiders who encounter tater tot hotdish have been known to express confusion or even disgust. As my (outsider) wife has said, "I don't expect to see tater tots outside a school cafeteria."

My perspective on tater tot hotdish is radically different now than it was at say, age twelve. At age twelve, I could eat and enjoy the dish unself-consciously. I probably didn't think that everyone in the world had encountered it; but I certainly wasn't aware that it was distinct to my small Scandinavian-influenced context. Now, however, I eat hotdish conscious of its uniqueness. Now it isn't just food: it's The Food of My People. I eat it self-consciously, as a marker of identity.

And in fact, I can only eat it self-consciously. Becoming aware of the uniqueness of hotdish has forever altered the meaning of this food. I can never return to my naive mental state. I have seen hotdish through the eyes of outsiders. Now hotdish is a social construct.

I'll bet you can think of something like this in your own life. Start with something you like that you read about on Stuff White People Like. You still enjoy it, but know you watch yourself enjoying it, thinking, "I am so white."

Which brings us belatedly, and weakly, to Fish. My unscholarly summary of his argument is that deconstruction didn't really change anything--or at least, it shouldn't have changed anything. According to Fish, identifying something as a social construct can't be used as an argument against it (even though that is precisely what deconstructionism is often used for). But even if he's right (I don't know that he is), deconstruction does change things. It fundamentally alters the meaning of a cultural event or object.

Or does it? You tell me.

Monday, April 14, 2008

I'm ashamed to show my face in here, but

You know how people say you should keep a pad and pen by your bed for when you wake up in the middle of the night with brilliant ideas? I've never done that. I have a lot of writings made while I was half asleep; they're called my notes from college. Every afternoon in Phonology I started nodding off. Literally, with the head slowly drooping and then jerking back up. It didn't matter that it was my favorite subject taught by my favorite professor. It was the afternoon, my regular bedtime was 2:00 am, and the deep voice of Joseph Stemberger lulled me into a somnolent torpor. I would try to take notes with one eye closed. I would just make the eyes trade off: first righty, then lefty. Pretty soon righty switched off and lefty forgot to switch on. Man, was I a loser.

But that's not what I'm here to talk about. I'm here to talk about the brilliant idea I had in the middle of the night, which I forgot the details of because I didn't have a pad and pen next to the bed. Fortunately, the details came back to me in a rush the next day as I was eating a pulled pork sandwich and french fries. In order to understand my idea, though, you have to read two things:

1) This really long editorial by Stanley Fish, in which he explains that deconstruction isn't really a big deal because Americans do it wrong. Go on, read it. It's okay to skip parts. And

2) This recipe for Tater Tot Hotdish.

What do they have to do with each other? Next post.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Music Website

Just thought I'd post a pretty bad-ass website I stumbled upon.

Lucky for you all, you can use songza to look up some Nirvana and Alice in Chains songs today. It happens to be the anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death. As well as the anniversary of Layne Staley's death.