The wrath of God in America

Today we discussed Romans in class, and I described the traditional reading somewhat uncharitably: there’s something wrong with us such that it’s impossible for us to do the right thing, but if we believe in a certain story, then it’s alright. I know I should be more respectful, but no one seemed very disturbed by it. Perhaps I can get away with it because it’s obvious that I know a lot about the Bible and it means something to me (albeit in some kind of weird way). And in fact, that’s what motivates my dismissal of the traditional reading — it renders Romans (and the Bible more broadly) meaningless.

The traditional narrative of salvation, especially in its Protestant inflection, is one that never made much sense to me. I struggled mightily with it, growing up in a particularly evangelical/fundamentalist corner of the Church of the Nazarene. I could never figure out why I as a Gentile ever needed to be released from the burden of the Jewish Law, why “works righteousness” was such an appalling thing, why getting baptized or going to the altar to ask forgiveness wasn’t a “work,” etc., etc. Ultimately I tried to square the circle by joining the Catholic Church, which at least seemed to offer me some objectivity.

That objectivity no longer appeals to me in the same way, but I still can’t get my mind around the Protestant problematic of faith and works and justification. On a practical level, raising children within the Protestant problematic seems like a recipe for neurosis at best (me and all my closest friends) and moral nihilism at worst (all the evangelical Trump supporters, the most prominent of which are precisely the sons of the first wave of leaders).

The reading of Romans I find in Ted Jennings, Neil Elliott, and others presents me with problems that make sense. What do we do when law seems impotent to produce the justice it aims for? How can we maintain integrity while living in a corrupt system that coerces us into complicity with injustice? What would it mean if we really didn’t have to be afraid of death anymore? I find it hard to believe in the resurrection of the dead, but it at least means something in a way that finagling your immortal soul into heaven simply does not in my view.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I am sure that the wrath of God is revealed against the American Empire, as sure as Paul was that the wrath of God was revealed against the Rome of Caligula and Nero. We are living in Romans 1 every time we turn on the TV news. It doesn’t take divine revelation to know that things can’t go on like this forever. But we go along with it, for the most part, because we’re afraid — more and more afraid as we become more and more precarious. All our politics, our collective life has to offer us is fear.

The resurrection may be a fantasy, but it’s a fantasy that does something, that opens up a space for transformation and hope. A man was subjected to torture and a shameful, painful death, but through some divine power he was able to overcome literally the worst the world could dish out to him — and so we don’t need to be afraid anymore. He is starting a team that we can join so that we don’t have to be afraid. And when we look at the style of thought that something like the resurrection might make possible, then we can look for other things that might fulfill a similar role. Could we arrange a society where we didn’t need to coerce each other with the threat of death, exclusion, starvation, and shame? What would have to happen to make that possible?

Constructing a tradition

As most readers of this blog know, I teach at a school in the Great Books tradition. While Shimer is more liberal and open to contemporary sources than most schools in that tradition, our curriculum remains pretty firmly within the classics of the “Western tradition.” I think it’s fair to say that the current faculty are all pretty convinced of the need to add further diversity to our curriculum, though there are disagreements on how best to go about it. For classes with a modern focus, it’s a little easier, because there are more texts and other materials reflecting diverse gender, sexuality, race, class, etc., backgrounds available — “diversity” in the sense it is normally used in contemporary discussions. For classes with a pre-modern focus, the problem is often harder. Read the rest of this entry »

Curriculum brainstorm: Ancient and Medieval survey

Next year, I’m going to be teaching Shimer’s senior capstone, which is purportedly an overview of the broad Western tradition (ancient and medieval in the fall, modern in the spring) with an emphasis on the concept of “history.” That narrative is becoming less and less compelling to most students, and the through-line of the focus on history tends to get a little lost amid a very crowded reading list (my list will seem crowded, but it’s nothing compared to the existing version!). So I’m going to have a chance to make some changes, to lighten the load somewhat and to incorporate more contemporary perspectives.

I don’t know how much flexibility I’ll actually have, but my mind has started to churn about what I would do with the concept if I had a totally free hand. Accepting the “ancient and medieval” frame for the fall, and taking into account that we have a 13-week semester and that the capstone class meets four times per week (and we generally do 20-30 pages of reading most days), this is what I’ve come up with so far. (Note that most of these books will be read in selections.)
Read the rest of this entry »

Thoughts after spending a year with The Phenomenology of Spirit

As I’ve often mentioned, I’ve spent the last year working through Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit in an independent study with a student who is a committed Marxist and thus very highly motivated to understand Hegel. To weigh in on a recent online controversy, I’m going to say that we shouldn’t ban independent studies, because this has been incredibly rewarding for both of us. I am increasingly committed to doing a reading group on Hegel’s Logic this summer, mainly for the sake of striking when the iron is hot — and because I think I have grasped the inner necessity of the project of the Logic in terms of what Hegel is doing.

I read the Phenomenology as an attempt to cure individualism. We see a variety of attempts by the subject to grasp the world purely individually, punctuated by abortive intersubjective encounters (the master-slave dialectic, most famously). A basso continuo throughout is the recurrence to language — already in “Sense-Certainty,” language is the crucial lever for undermining the pretenses of immediate knowledge (“here,” “now,” “I”), and it comes back at all the most important turning points in the argument. The main narrative culminates in an intersubjective encounter that, through the mediation of language, provides both the beautiful soul and the man of action with access to a dimension that exceeds the individual (both individual moral judgment and individual action and intention), that dimension that Hegel calls Spirit. Finally, the subject has become substance — the bare self-assertion and self-reference of the individual is given its genuine content in the social reality that shapes the subject and confers meaning on the subject’s action.

Once the existence of Spirit has been phenomenologically adduced from the perspective of the subject — through twists and turns that, shall we say, vary in their persuasiveness and apparent necessity — we then turn, in the “Religion” section, to the phenomenology of Spirit, the appearance of Spirit to itself. This section recapitulates the previous development in a certain way — which makes sense, since the overarching thesis governing every development was “it was Spirit all along!” — but from a new perspective. We learn that Spirit first becomes self-aware through the “picture-thinking” (Vorstellung) of religion, paving the way for Hegel’s remarkable interpretation of Greek culture in terms of “religion as art.” Christian theology begins to overcome that mere “picture-thinking,” but Hegel believes we must carry it forward in conceptual form, because only thereby can Spirit become fully conscious of itself. While “picture-thinking” is a necessary and legitimate mode of thought, it necessarily obscures the movement of thought itself, insofar as it presents the object as though it were something foreign to the thought of it. Only the concept (Begriff) allows thought to simultaneously grasp the object and the fact that it’s grasping it.

And that, apparently, is the project of the Logic — a conceptual-discursive account of what religion was trying to do via “picture-thinking.” I’ll believe it when I see it.

Classics and Class Aspiration


There’s something about “the classics” that seems to appeal to working class aspirations. When lending libraries were established, records tend to show that working class people mainly checked out the classics. In the Soviet Union, the Russian classics were prioritized even though they were obviously aristocratic and bourgeois in character, and classical music and ballet training was extremely robust. That effort found its echo in America in the Penguin Classics and the postwar efforts to popularize classical music, both of which were important in establishing the new “middle class” largely made up of workers.

My own life shows a similar trajectory. I was classically trained on piano, at the prompting of parents who — as I have slowly figured out as an adult — aren’t personally very interested in classical music, and I always seized upon any list of “classics” that I could find. During my naive and ineffectual college search, where I wound up defaulting to Olivet Nazarene University because (a) I knew about it and (b) I knew I could get a scholarship, the only college brochures that actually jumped out at me were from St. John’s. Reading a list of big books — that’s how you do it. I joke that teaching at Shimer College, a Great Books school, is my chance to finally get educated.

To be “educated” — as though it can be attained, as though there’s a list you can check off. It’s a seductive idea, at least to me, and I still catch myself thinking in those terms. For instance, I mostly don’t find opera intuitively appealling — it’s too long and the plots are often ridiculous — and yet I have this sense that I “should” go, simply for the sake of familiarizing myself with opera and filling out that part of my “education.”

This drive to be “educated” in some objectively verifiable way is of course naive. Read the rest of this entry »

Teaching music

I have frequently been called upon to teach the intro to fine arts course at Shimer College. It is a challenging course because it falls outside the “read books and talk about them” model that professors and students alike are most comfortable with. Talking about art and music in an intelligent and collaborative way requires a different set of skills than talking about texts, a problem that is compounded by the fact that many people believe those skills are an occult discipline that is unattainable by most — especially in the context of music, with its complex theoretical apparatus. In the worst case, you get some students making up narratives to go with a classical piece, other students (those with some musical performance training) trying unsuccessfully to explain basically what the sheet music probably looks like, and a critical mass sitting in sullen silence because they don’t know what they’re supposed to say.

My approach has been to sidestep the technical terminology to the extent possible and focus instead on giving them obvious things to listen for. Read the rest of this entry »

Teaching the Phenomenology of Spirit

This semester I’ve had ideal circumstances for teaching Hegel: a very motivated student and a one-on-one setting. My ultimate goal, however, would be to teach a proper course, and I imagine (based on my experience teaching Heidegger) that such a course would be pretty full at Shimer. Here are some of my thoughts on how to organize that.

First, I think it’s absolutely necessary to pair it with Hyppolite’s Genesis and Structure. Hegel infamously refuses to cite his sources, and simply providing that context (which includes many texts that Shimer students would have actually read) is invaluable. Hyppolite has his own reading, of course, but so far it seems that he has kept his axes relatively unground. For any given day, then, I’d assign a certain segment of the Phenomenology and the parallel text in Hyppolite.

Second, I don’t think they need to do everything. For the segment on “Observing Reason” (which I had us go through much too slowly this semester, due to my relative unfamiliarity with those sections), I might assign Hyppolite and tell them to scan over the actual Hegel — they should know what goes on and how it recapitulates previous movements from a new perspective, etc., but they can probably get by with just a description. I would also omit “Religion” and — perhaps more controversially — both “Absolute Knowledge” and the Preface. (In any event, I would save the Preface for last if there turned out to be room.) By my math, this would make it possible to do less than 10 pages of Hegel per session on average (assuming three days a week). Even paired with the Hyppolite, the reading load would still be light compared to the Shimer average (30 pages per sesion).

Finally, I think this approach would leave me room for some further secondary essays, where I could incorporate a range of perspectives (particularly feminist and black perspectives) on one of the ultimate Dead White Males.