Friday, August 19, 2011

Wanting to Follow Rorty

I have never read a book or article by the American philosopher Richard Rorty. The primary reason for avoiding Rorty is because I usually read all things Continental. However, from discussions Rorty had with Gianni Vattimo over belief and truth, I decided to purchase a small book by Rorty (published posthumously from a lecture with excellent introductions and conclusions of the book) on Religion.

What I found from the book is that Rorty writes and thinks like an American. What do I mean by that? Well, because to summarize Rorty is to say he is a pragmatist, who believes the best society is utilitarian based on liberal democracy. In short, liberal democracy creates a "public" space for debate and discussion for the betterment of the greatest amount of happiness for the "we" of the nation. Utilitarianism (from the thought of Mill) is a philosophy that aims at the greatest happiness for the greatest number and American pragmatism (from Pierce, James and Dewey) is based on a thought process that states that one works with a way of life till a better one comes along. So it has an American flavor because it is pragmatic and democratic.

Rorty thus thinks all thought process that has truth or an all-encompassing, essentialist system as its goal as foolhardy. To create systems is to do violence to real life. Philosophy since Plato, according to Rorty, has failed because it seeks after eternal truth or in representing the true world than helping humans enjoy life better.

The American in me really likes Rorty because his thought is so easy to translate to American life. It is to say that democracy in its best egalitarian/pragmatic form is the best politics to push for a better way of life in things like education, health and security. It is to argue about everyday uses than simply about the big ideas we can never have a final answer. So Rorty is quite dismissive of those who try to do philosophy the classical way.

What about those that see Rorty's utilitarianism as denying rights to the minorities in the sense that it aims for the greatest happiness for the majority? Rorty would probably state that its not a perfect system but since its aim is practical and pragmatic, those who believe in the greater good will struggle to see that all are included into the "we" of the majority. That is why the public space is no place for religious dogma, for Rorty. Rorty, on the other hand, would argue that anyone can practice their religion in the private area, yet to argue the truth, for example, of belief versus non-belief in God is unpractical due to the fact that we do not have access to that kind of knowledge. Thus Vattimo's weak thought and Christianity as a deconstruction of metaphysics would be something Rorty would line up with. Again, it is to set up a situation where the goal is the betterment of human life and the monitoring of thought forms that would do violence to this happiness.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Safranski on Barth and Heidegger

A great, short but important summary quote about Barth and Heidegger from Safranski's biography on Heidegger: "Snatching life back from a false Beyond-this is now the most important task for Heidegger and Barth. Martin Heidegger tears life loose from God, Karl Barth tears God loose from life."

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Bear Necessities: Disney's Fox and the Hound and the Scapegoat.

I have been anticipating the release of Disney's Fox and the Hound on Blu Ray. Yes, you can make fun of me; however, it was a favorite of mine growing up. Nevertheless, I always had difficulty with one aspect of the film. What is intriguing about the film is the entrance of the bear. Tod, Copper and Amos Slade are at the apex of their rivalry when all of the sudden this gigantic bear emerges from the woods where Copper thinks Tod is hiding. How does the bear come into the narrative and what is his (or her) significance?

In the book, the bear causes the conflict between Copper (the Chief character in the film) and young Chief (the Copper character in the film)1. Apparently, the Master (the Amos Slade character in the film) goes bear hunting. When they chance upon a bear, Copper cannot act, while Chief attacks the bear. This creates a rivalry between Copper and Chief. However, when Chief dies chasing Tod (by a train like in the film) the Master and Copper turn their attention to Tod who does not have a relationship with Copper. Thus, Tod serves as a surrogate cause for Copper and the Master. The relentless pursuit of Tod takes the place of the initial cause of the bear. Therefore, Copper regains his esteem in the Master's eyes. Instead, the dog eventually pursues the fox until Tod dies from “exhaustion”2. Thus, the old fox simply dies and ends the conflict. The film, of course, changes this completely.

It is certain that Disney would not have such an ending for one of their films. Rather, the bear serves as a scapegoat which personifies the brute rage of the characters involved. Furthermore, all the characters turn their attention to the bear, which they all take turns wounding. Finally, the bear dies extinguishing the enmity between Todd, Slade and Copper. The film partially maintains the rivalry between Chief and Copper, yet alters the story to emphasize the relationship between Copper and Tod.

Tod, then goes against the grain by maintaining that his relationship with Copper is stronger than expected societal roles. Copper too is conflicted. Nevertheless, after Chief is injured while pursuing Tod Copper vows to kill the fox. Therefore, the film revolves around the love/hate relationship of these “natural” enemies. Catching Tod becomes the chief motive of the film.

The character of Tod is an interesting one. He is a wild/domesticated animal. He is like Copper in that he is a pet, but he is also by nature and outsider – one to be hunted. Therefore, his relationship with Copper appears unnatural. Even Big Mama the owl warns Tod about the eventually danger posed by this relationship. René Girard points out that “in the most closed cultures men believe they are free and open to the universal; their differential character makes them the narrowest cultural fields seem inexhaustible from within. Anything that comprises this illusion terrifies us and stirs up the immemorial tendency to persecution.”3 Therefore, someone whose existence calls into question what we deem to be normal and right becomes the object of derision; or as Michael Kirwan puts it: “[Human] beings are by nature mimetic scapegoaters.”4 Of course, this relationship causes the injury to Chief which brings about feud between Tod and Copper. This leads to the bear.

At this point, Tod becomes a scapegoat. Tod's difference/similarity causes him to become the object violence. Tod's entrance into the domestic realm reveals the hidden conflicts and violent tendencies beneath the surface of the society. Tod continually breaks the rules, which leads to his banishment. However, Slade's rage spurs him on to eliminate the intruder. Naturally, Disney could not kill Tod. Rather, a bear comes out of nowhere. The characters transfer their vitriol to the bear. Each character take turns wounding the bear. Tod selflessly saves Copper and Slade by leading the bear away. However, in blind rage the bear eventually does himself in as he and Tod plummet to the water below. Tod, then, emerges as a hero and all three characters are reconciled. This is evidenced by the transformation of the caterpillar into a butterfly.

During the film, the two birds Boomer and Dinky chase Squeaks the caterpillar relentlessly. In fact, their pursuit acts as a parody of Tod and Copper. However, at the end of the film the caterpillar becomes a butterfly ending the chase. The cycle of violence is over and all the characters enjoy a sense of peace. Even Slade and Widow Tweed are getting along. We are then left with a postcard ending with Copper fondly reminiscing about his friendship with Tod, while Tod stands on a hill overlooking the small farm town. All of this due to the intrusion of some poor bear who was at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Matthew Jimenez is currently studying Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA.

1See for more details. The book is hard to find, so that Wikipedia gives some benefits.


3René Girard. The Scapegoat (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1989), p. 22.

4Michael Kirwan. Girard And Theology (New York: T & T Clark, 2009), p. 21.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Context or Transcendence?

I just finished a wonderful paper by fellow Fuller classmate Seth Gaiters on Barth and Cone. He pulls out a couple of real interesting quotes from Barth.

"Christianity exists in Germany and Switzerland and Africa, but there is no such thing as a German or Swiss or African Christianity. There is a church in England, but in the strict sense there is no Church of England."

"How much longer will it be possible in the United States and South Africa to ratify the social distinctions between whites and blacks by a corresponding division in the Church, instead of calling it in question in the social sphere by the contrary practice of the Church."

In one sense, Barth is emphasizing the Pauline line of the universality of the Church irrespective of race, sex or status. However, in doing this he may err in blurring the real differences there are between various expressions of "Christianities." Simply stated, what exactly is this universal paradigm of the Church that Barth desires? Would his interlocutors say it might be too Eurocentric (which incidentally in the quote he is trying to deny)?

Again, this goes back to my last couple of post regarding theology and history. The theologian will oftentimes strive to connect the theological tradition into one complete package whereas the historian will emphasize the particularities in each historical circumstance and say that any time of "universal" is to do violence to the actual, social-empirical phenomenon that we can witness.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Fall History classes and Theology Fail

One of the Fall classes I will be teaching is Historiography. So far I have a few books planned out and a number of essays/journal articles for the class ( a lot of new stuff so I am excited to try it out especially on reading Agamben). The aim of the class is to teach the writing of History and also to help the students prepare their own writing project by doing a historiographical survey.

I think I have been a historian by heart more than a theologian. One of the themes without a solid answer is the tension between concepts (metaphysical, philosophical or theological) and the historical context. Theology has at times rubbed me the wrong way because it seems to deal with a discussion in the clouds totally divorced from history. Now the other side of this coin is that if you go too forward with the historical context then the charge of relativism is leveled at the historicist. But it's that Nietzschean suspicion of concepts that I think are more than ever necessary as we try to work out or at least live within this tension.

On a side note, I just recently had a paper rejected that I wrote on Barth and Zizek on the human subject. This response reminded me of a similar one I had at community college when my essay was read in front of the class as an example of a crappy paper (this was especially enlightening after having my essays from a previous class published). Still, it taught me to write for an audience and to keep working on the craft. So the criticism boiled down to "this is a graduate paper, with all its promises and faults" because it ended up being more of a survey than a critical piece. What I might end up doing with this paper is to see Zizek as radicalizing a Barthian stance especially as I would classify both as part of the Hegelian tradition since Zizek has a pragmatic use for theology.

So one of the issues that I'm having I posted on last week: finding my critical voice. I think the historian in me likes to layout the scholarship but the theologian in me has a hard time saying were I stand in this landscape. For example, I am at the point of figuring out my thesis and the fact that I have to boil it down to its smallest point is a little daunting. I have themes and ideas I have written about in the last 3 years but to completely commit to something is a little scary especially because it has to be new to scholarship. The point is that it is time to put the cards on the table and move away from the somewhat facile comparisons and start to boldly say: "I claim."