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Border Crossing

Posted by on Sep 17, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Border Crossing

Last week, I was able to experience Rick Shaefer’s Refugee Trilogy, an exhibit at the BYU Museum of Art.1 Three immense triptychs formed the walls of the one-room exhibit, each symbolizing a different form of refugee travel: “Land Crossing,” “Sea Crossing,” and “Border Crossing.” Although all three pieces were moving (especially when considered and felt together), I found “Border Crossing” particularly striking. The large charcoal sketch is crowded with figures: feral lions, alligators, and hippopotamuses; armor-clad soldiers and bare men; angels and infants. All struggle with each other in a violent and haphazard display of what a border is and what it effects. It struck me that although “land” and “sea” both present difficulties for refugee and migrant travel, borders and border enforcement are unique in their particular social constructedness—even though natural and supernatural elements play a significant part in the piece, the border becomes the crux of these interests only after humans decide the place and function of the given border. Considering the arbitrary nature of borders and enforcement, then, it is no wonder that the sketch is composite black and white with an incredible amount of gray. In the midst of the commotion, though, the central figure to me is the lion. His anthropomorphic features, quite unique in context of the other animals portrayed in the exhibit, betray a morose countenance. Even he, one of the enforcers, is dejected—disappointed—demoralized by what he sees. He seems to ask, what is the cure for this suffering? Even considering the fact that immigration and border reform have long been topics of modern public discourse and artistic debate, the exhibit still seems particularly timely for the United States. Last year saw the first time that the U. S. resettled fewer refugees than the rest of the world, dropping from 97,000 in 2016 to just 33,000 in 2017.2 As for other migrants and asylum seekers, most readers will be familiar with one of this year’s biggest border crises, in which strict enforcement led to the incarceration and separation of thousands of children from their families. As of August 31st of this year—according to the Washington Post—nearly 500 of those children are still in U. S. custody.3 Considering how much horror can be experienced at borders, it is sometimes seems difficult to even fathom how they are created and why they exist. Robert Frost famously found similar perplexity. In “Mending Wall,” Frost presents a narrator at odds with his neighbor. As they come together to mend the fence between them (a wall that decays naturally as entropy takes its toll), he questions his neighbor as to why they need a wall in the first place; their trees are different enough that no man-made border would seem necessary to keep them from encroaching on one another’s property. His neighbor simply replies, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Frost’s narrator, though, isn’t having any of it: ‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it Where there are cows? But here there are no cows. Before I built a wall I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offense.4 Frost seems to ask: when enforcement becomes only an end in itself, to what actual use is the border? On a broader plane, it recalls to me C. S. Lewis’s lecture, “The Inner Ring,” wherein he examines the human desire to exclude. As humans, he says, we tend to create “inner rings” of “deserving” individuals in order to puff ourselves up and look down on others. Now in some instances, exclusion is necessary to the activity...

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Spiritual Exercises in a Humanistic Register (III): Kevin Hart

Posted by on Sep 4, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Spiritual Exercises in a Humanistic Register (III): Kevin Hart

This is the third installment of a three-part series on spiritual exercises in humanistic registers. The impetus for this series derives from my interest in the nature, meanings, and forms of spiritual experience in secular as well as religious contexts. As one aspect of that wider interest, I’ve been struck by a particular appeal to spirituality across three distinct genres of humanistic discourse—an appeal in name, the “spiritual exercises,” if not always in methodology. Part 1 reviewed the place of these exercises in the philosophy of Pierre Hadot and Part 2 took up their practice in some poems by Denise Levertov. In this third installment I consider a provocative reference to spiritual exercises in literary criticism. Kevin Hart, Edwin B. Kyle Professor of Christian Studies at the University of Virginia (and one of the speakers at our upcoming symposium “On Being Vulnerable: ‘Crisis’ and Transformation”), concludes a recent book review by declaring that “we value” this book’s author “for bringing the discourses of spiritual exercises and phenomenology into the field of seventeenth-century literature. He is unlikely to remain alone for long in his endeavors.”[1] The book to which Hart refers is David Marno’s Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention, which involves extended reflection on—holy attention to, as it were—a sonnet of John Donne’s. Naturally, in a book of more than three hundred pages Marno attends to more than a single Donne poem. But he crafts his book around one of Donne’s most famous sonnets, “Death, Be Not Proud,” which poses perhaps more of a challenge conceptually and theologically than it does poetically. Marno is especially taken by how Donne brings his complex poem, with its sophisticated, even occasionally acrobatic turns of thought and phrase, to the point of a simple declarative clause. I cite here the full sonnet, a poetic address to a personified death: Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me. From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow, And soonest our best men with thee do go, Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery. Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell, And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well And better than thy stroke; why swells’t thou then? One short sleep past, we wake eternally And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.[2] The last line—the entire poem, really—is Donne’s plain restatement of Paul’s flourish in 1 Corinthians 15: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”[3] Those words paradoxically animate death, awakening it rhetorically by way of apostrophe (“O death … O grave”) and thereby call attention to the blatant contradiction—the metaphysical conceit, almost—on which Christianity is founded: because of Christ’s atonement and resurrection, all rise from the dead; mortal existence converts to one of eternal duration. Donne’s poem bears substantive similarity to the general purport of Paul’s epistle, though with some important differences. It awakens death in its chastening first line, “Death, be not proud,” and then proceeds through a series of taunts, almost in the poetic tradition of flyting, or banter: “some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, [but] thou art not so”; “those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow / Die not”; “rest and sleep [is all] thy pictures be”; and so on. The final lines divulge the base company death keeps—“poison,...

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Spiritual Exercises in a Humanistic Register (II): Denise Levertov

Posted by on Aug 3, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Spiritual Exercises in a Humanistic Register (II): Denise Levertov

In 1992, the American (immigrant) poet Denise Levertov received a frightening medical report: she had contracted lymphoma. Localized and not—yet—life-threatening, the illness prompted in Levertov a desire for a more vivid spiritual awakening. Having converted to non-denominational Christianity during the mid-1980s, then to Catholicism in 1989, she met with a priest and expressed an interest in undertaking the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the sixteenth-century priest and founder of the Jesuits. Consisting primarily of prayer and meditation, this four-week program was designed to help people feel more intensely the effects of their faith. (Participants begin by dwelling on their personal abjection and then, in a series of steps, increasingly affirm their need for, and access to, Christ’s grace.) The exercises may be best known for their encouragement of imaginative identification with scriptural texts. With the help of spiritual guides, exercitants ponder Biblical episodes, striving to visualize themselves within these scenes. From that immersive vantage point they witness not only the arc of a well-known story but also scores of unmentioned details: air temperature and odor, the look and texture of clothing, ambient noise and the murmur of peripheral conversations, and so on. These meditative practices bore immediate fruit for Levertov as she reported such carryover effects as intensely happy dreams. She also recounted another experience, less an occurrence than an epiphany, that would prove important to her work as a poet. Donna Krolik Hollenberg, Levertov’s biographer, relates that this revelation happened one day when Levertov was waiting for a taxi. Levertov’s own account is interspersed with Hollenberg’s: Looking at the play of light on the leaves … [Levertov] had the “familiar thought, ‘I wish Mother could see this too,’” and then she felt that “she was seeing it through me—not in the old style of vicarious appreciation of my travels … but as if she had taken my place for a moment inside my head and were looking through my eyes.” Later in the day, she thought this experience gave her an insight into what Saint Paul meant when he said, “Not I but Christ in me.” That is, if one can integrate “something, almost viscerally, of a loved person’s presence, into one’s perceptions,” this is analogous to how a holy person, a Mother Teresa, for example, might come to see people and events “in Christ’s way, not merely a human way…. Their compassion isn’t only their own.”[i] The effect of imaginative projection here is doubled, even tripled: Levertov does not see her mother as much as she sees her mother seeing her, or seeing through her, gazing at the world through her daughter’s eyes. And this in turn conduces to a flash of religious insight as Levertov understands one of Paul’s signature aphorisms in a new light—and, by extension, vicariously shares the rapturous ethical vision of modern saints like Mother Teresa.[ii] Moved by this experience, Levertov incorporated the spiritual exercises into her poetry. The results are compelling. Already lauded for her attention to fine detail—the poet and critic Donald Revell draws inspiration from Levertov’s description of a flea bite incurred by the exuberant presence of an unchastened dog[iii]—Levertov produced a series of poems reflecting her newfound inspiration. Fittingly for pieces modeled on the Ignatian exercises, the poems are flush with vivid impressions and a host of new meanings derived from ancillary speakers and incidents. To an extent, this was a familiar practice to Levertov. She had already composed a number of poems based on imaginative reconstruction of Biblical episodes. One, inspired by Luke 24 and a seventeenth-century painting by Diego Velázquez, retells the story of Christ sitting with...

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Spiritual Exercises in a Humanistic Register (I): Pierre Hadot

Posted by on Jul 2, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 2 comments

Spiritual Exercises in a Humanistic Register (I): Pierre Hadot

A few years ago, I became invested in spirituality as a humanistic subject. By “humanistic” I mean a category that pertains to the humanities more than to the history of humanism per se, but also something irreducible to religion or theology, which is where one typically finds attention to spirituality. Or so one used to. While one still finds extraordinary scholarship on the meaning of spirituality within religious traditions (e.g., the robust scholarship on mysticism), spirituality in the “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) era has widely come to represent a turn away from the definitions associated with organized religion to those that are more personal and self-willed, earthier (whether imagined in terms of ecological consciousness or New Age hipsterism), eclectic and idiosyncratic, more responsive to changes of mood and life circumstance, less implicated in belief than in modalities of belonging.[1] As the sociologist Robert Wuthnow puts it, spirituality in our present era is more one of “seeking” than of “dwelling,” of negotiation than of covenant, of ephemeral flow than of steady cultivation.[2] This is, in short, a spirituality fitted to the sensibilities of a modern (better said, perhaps, a postmodern) age. And yet, for all its pop cultural cachet, many scholars in the humanities are still loath to speak its name given its historical associations with the inner life of religion. One scholar who recently invoked it in the context of literary studies acknowledges that she did so with trepidation: “Spirituality is a charged word, one I use gingerly.” And yet, she continues, she appeals to it “deliberately, in hopes that it might give [her peers] a way of thinking broadly about the intellectual, moral, ethical, personal, and political resources that literature affords in a secular age.”[3] She appeals to spirituality, that is, because of its holistic agglomeration of meanings: it’s intellectual but not of the intellect only; it’s ethical but not of ethics only; and so on. Hence, what this scholar implies is that spirituality, perhaps better than any other word, captures the inner life of her discipline, or of what she wishes it were: an engrossing and even transformative practice, one that truly matters. This conviction implicitly conjures a fascinating book I read recently: Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life, a compilation of Hadot’s lectures, mostly from the 1980s and early 1990s. Ordained to the Catholic priesthood as a young man, Hadot gave up the prospects of life as a priest to teach philosophy, and he eventually became renowned for his insights into the ancient Greco-Roman philosophies of “Socratism, Platonism, Aristotelianism, Epicureanism, Stoicism, Cynicism, [and] Skepticism.”[4] Borrowing from his theological training, Hadot identified within these schools a set of “spiritual exercises,” a term more widely identified with the religious regimen formulated in the mid-sixteenth century by Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. But for Hadot, the term bears wider circulation: “Spiritual exercises.” The expression is a bit disconcerting for the contemporary reader. In the first place, it is no longer quite fashionable these days to use the word “spiritual.” It is nevertheless necessary to use this term, I believe, because none of the other adjectives we could use—“psychic,” “moral,” “ethical,” “intellectual,” “of thought,” “of the soul”—covers all the aspects of the reality we want to describe…. [T]hese exercises in fact correspond to a transformation of our vision of the world, and to a metamorphosis of our personality. [81-82] The purpose of ancient philosophy, Hadot contends, was not to teach us concepts, but to inculcate a way of life. As he explains, these spiritual exercises drew—again, holistically: a hallmark of spirituality—on logic, ethics, and...

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On Being Vulnerable, as Experience and Symposium

Posted by on May 12, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 2 comments

On Being Vulnerable, as Experience and Symposium

When I was eighteen and a freshman at UC Irvine, I was deeply unsure of what I wanted for my short- and long-term future. Of one thing I was certain: I did not wish to be a college student. Symptomatic of that wish to be elsewhere and otherwise, I made a weekly trip up to Burbank, where I enrolled in a class for aspiring actors. (Feel free to insert joke here. Sometimes, when I think I’m doing poorly at being an academic, I think of how bad I might have been in my job had I actually tried to become a professional actor. That thought gives me a strange, self-flagellating form of comfort.) One day, the instructor had us discuss qualities we appreciated about successful Hollywood actors. The observations were fairly typical. Meryl Streep? Chameleon-like ability to get into character. Robert DeNiro? Riveting intensity. Robert Redford? Here I offered my two cents: “He always appears to be in control.” The instructor turned toward me – and, it seemed, turned on me. “Control is a dangerous word for an actor!” As he explained it – and he was right – the desire for control prevents an actor from channeling certain emotions and from opening herself or himself to fellow actors onstage or in front of the camera. Control destroys scenes, productions, and eventually careers. If you wish to nail a scene or a part, you have to be willing to open yourself, render yourself vulnerable; to find your life as an actor, you must be willing to lose it, to lose control. Right, so I never became an actor, though I did, for a few short breaths, get an agent. But then, instead of taking parts in industrial films and reading for roles in soap operas, I decided to pursue a drama of a different order by serving an LDS mission. That experience changed me. Among other things, it awakened a fascination in humanity, an appreciation of its inscrutable depths (of culture, of history, of sublime goodness and/or depravity, and of its capacity for transformation) that I had never previously imagined. It planted the seed that would eventually compel me to pursue higher education and a life in the humanities. And it made me acutely aware of my vulnerability – as a “dumb American” in a foreign country and as an inept kid tasked with divine things. When I wasn’t overwhelmed I was simply unconscious; the experience was equivalent to a low-grade trauma born in small doses, bit by bit, day by day. As I say, it changed me. And while it didn’t make me less instinctively desirous of control, it’s made me less satisfied when I realize I’ve obtained some measure of it, for that’s always a sign that something is missing, that the world has grown too insular. Those conflicting impulses to achieve and risk losing control are pervasive in my life, including my professional life: they help explain the trajectory of my scholarly work and my evolution as a teacher. Doubtlessly, they also inform the symposium our BYU Humanities Center is organizing this coming September. Not that they are that symposium’s impetus; not at all, in fact. I attended a conference last summer and found myself in conversation with people who in varying ways expressed dissatisfaction with the tenor of academic culture and discourse. One grad student in particular spoke of feeling so much more alive to ideas before she entered her PhD program. She missed feeling vulnerable and open to life, she said, amid the endless posturing and striving for the appearance of indomitability. This sat...

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On Teaching Postsecular Theory as Postsecular Practice

Posted by on Apr 9, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

On Teaching Postsecular Theory as Postsecular Practice

“Do you consider yourself postsecular?” That was the last writing prompt I crafted for students of my graduate course on postsecular theory this semester. The responses were creative and frequently moving, as I expected they would be. More on those responses, including my own, below. First, let me provide some backdrop for those who may be less familiar with postsecularism or its contexts. Postsecularity broadly names a renewed interest in religion, spirituality, or some combination thereof. This is an academic field, and it designates a body of theory – a field defined by a densely secular history – so it should surprise no one to learn that postsecularity is characterized by wide diversity of opinion and approach, much of it ambivalent. Some scholars in the field are devoutly religious and welcome the prospect of addressing religion and religious experience – in language that is, or is almost, religious – in academic work. A greater number are not religious, at least not overtly so, but express fatigue with the hegemonic “hermeneutics of suspicion” and delight in a resurgent cultural poetics of wonder. Still others embrace the postsecular as part of an unfolding, global project of enlightenment, contending that “we moderns” must make a space for religious cultures in the public sphere lest we betray our secular ideals by becoming as dogmatic as they. And then there are those who, affecting a kind of world-weary wisdom, argue that it might be nice if we could actually invest faith in religious nonsense, given how important it is to our history and all that, but alas … pass the vodka. The end of that last paragraph grows a bit glib, but actually, I empathize with the skeptics, at least to a degree. Religion is all around us, whether we like it or not – and often in forms we don’t like. I’ve heard Church leaders express dismay over the findings of the Pew Research Center that Westerners seem to be less and less religious but more and more spiritual – SBNR: spiritual but not religious – because spirituality is so notoriously individualized and individualizing. There’s great irony in this, to be sure: in his landmark 1902 study The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James concluded that spirituality connects us to each other and to things beyond ourselves: “the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance,” and “union or harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end.”1 And yet, in practical terms, spirituality is often “eclectic, practicing outside or on the margins of institutionalized religions,” thus devolving into something “self-authorizing and idiosyncratic … [and] commercialized.”2 Religious fervor, meanwhile, if not downright intoxication, seems more evident in social movements than in traditional faith communities: witness the tribalism infecting American politics, where even ethical causes toward which many of us are sympathetic mobilize gatherings that take on the quality of secular revivalist meetings. In short, religion and spirituality in the modern age are subjects that often emit more heat than light. The postsecular thus represents not so much a “return” to these topics as an exploration of what they mean in our contemporary moment. My class on postsecular theory addressed this question by mapping broad territories of the field. We read Charles Taylor’s massive intellectual history, A Secular Age, which charts the complex course of religious belief in modernity. We took up debates – Jürgen Habermas vs. William Connolly – about whether religion could be accommodated within the rational mores of civil society or, by contrast, whether the depth of religious attachments might help us...

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