Philosophy as Genre

As we walked along the paved path in Millerton, NY, my father posed to me this question:

“What is the point of all this reading you’re doing? What are you trying to accomplish?”

My father is hardly the type to suggest one ought to read less, and he is without a doubt where I inherited my habit – some might say compulsion – of regular reading.  Yet his reading is often directed by some overarching questions or project. So what he was asking me was not “why are you reading so much,” but “what’s the goal? What’s driving it?”

If I had to answer, I’d have to say: more questions than I can count. More than I know how to formulate.

I started out on the trajectory that ended up shifting my reading habits from being heavily skewed towards popular nonfiction towards being heavily skewed towards academic philosophy with some specific questions and even a specific project, which has been all but abandoned.

What I came to feel was that philosophy could not provide satisfying answers to those questions. Literature and poetry and art in general are, without a doubt, more fertile grounds of exploration.

Yet after concluding this, I continued to read philosophy. If anything, I read more of it.

Hence my father’s question.

The answer is simple: because I love it.

Richard Rorty said that philosophy is a kind of writing, which is not quite right: it is a genre, and like science fiction it can take forms other than writing. To the tradition of thought we could broadly characterize as rationalist, this is a heresy; to them, philosophy is modeled on science, not literature. To model it on literature is simply a sign of the unseriousness of pragmatists like Rorty and postmodernists like Derrida.

But to say so is to presume that science is serious while literature and art are not. This is precisely what I would dispute, with Rorty. Great literature and art have the potential to broaden our horizons, to teach us about life and the human experience. To show us the way to wisdom.

Philosophy, like other genres, can broaden our horizons as well.

Or perhaps I’m simply an unserious person, putting off the literature and poetry I ought to be reading more of, in favor of philosophy, my favorite guilty pleasure.

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The Safety Razor

My friend Adam Gurri (who, if you didn’t know, adds excellent content to this blog on a regular basis) recommended, upon being asked, that I try a safety razor instead of a disposable razor. He recommended a particular style and brand, which I used as a basis to pick one for myself. When it came in the mail, I inserted the razor blade, tightened the nut, lathered up, and became grateful to Adam for the recommendation.

My father taught me how to shave, one of the greatest days of my life, that he should look at me and see that I need to shave, and that he should be the one to teach me. This was thirty years ago, I think, when I was 15 years old (I know without a doubt it was before I was 16). He demonstrated very clearly, using a not-inexpensive disposable razor. These were the days when a wet-shaving disposable razor had only two tiny blades embedded within.

“It’s your face,” my dad said. Now, we were not terribly poor, but neither were we rich. When he died, I discovered that he had basically kited credit card bills from that era unto the next one, which endured, say, fifteen years, just to float the family along in a lower-middle-class lifestyle. The four of us had the opportunity to go to college, in other words. Yet he was buying the expensive disposable razors.

“It’s your face, the first thing you present to people. You want to give them a well-groomed face, something pleasant to look at, not something pock-marked, scraped, and spoiled.” Then he showed me how to shave in the direction of my whiskers, even teaching me that it changes direction at certain spots on my neck. I must say, I had very few shaving-related blemishes throughout the remainder of my adolescence. On one occasion I sneezed and cut myself. I was late for school, bearing the cuts below my mouth, but that is all.

A year or two before he died, I discovered in the back of his station wagon (“Old Woodie” he called it) a sack full of the cheapest disposable razors available. I confronted him. He replied, “Aw, Dave, it’s just a face scrape. One scrape is as good as another.” He had just filed for bankruptcy after incurring some massive expenses due to the mental health issues of his adopted son–along with some other, er, irregularities that life had presented him, shall we say…

I did not believe him. As I have grown into middle-age, I have maintained his original philosophy of a well-groomed face as a presentation to the world. It is, first, love for self, which in turn becomes love for neighbor, and readily so. “Look,” I say when I present a groomed face, “I love myself, and I love you so much that I should care for myself to be in your company inoffensively, as inoffensively as I am lovingly able.”

In the meantime, disposable razors–or the industry thereof–has become risible. Not two blades! No, no longer two, but three! Three? No, four! Five! A million! And with comfort grooves here, flexion there, lubricating strips below! Were you just now comfortable with the last improvement? Now we shall reduce the quality suddenly and precipitously, in order to encourage you to move to the next, more expensive solution to face presentation.

But this is not necessary, is it? Men have been presenting their faces to the world, and in much more expectant societies than ours–for thousands of years! A proper razor is a piece of metal polished properly. That is all. The rest of the presentation is a little skill coupled with a little love.

Now for me, I am not brave enough to put a straight razor to my face, considering the fact that my father taught me with a disposable razor. I do wonder, however, how it is he abandoned the razor of his youth, the safety razor with its easy replaceable blade, a very cheap piece of properly polished metal, for the abomination that is known as the disposable razor. Was it the lure of the “space age”? The call of mid-Century ineluctable advance toward true technological utopia? Was it laziness? Was it loss of love?

I miss seeing his face, and talking to him. I’m grateful to him for teaching me to shave, but I’d like to ask him what it was that set him on a path, beginning with the disposable razor, leading to “one face scrape is as good as another.”

Whatever it was, he certainly traded away quality for it.

 

Reasons for Knowing Knowledge

There are many theories of what knowledge is. That is clear enough from the past 400 years of philosophy, never mind the thousands before that. What has drawn less interest is that there are different reasons we may wish to know what knowledge is.

René Descartes and David Hume were quite clear on why they wanted to know of knowledge. Though they had radically different theories of knowledge, each believed that epistemology was necessary to shore up the foundations of other fields. From this perspective, historians and physicists and linguists need to wait around for philosophers to sort out how they can tell if they actually know anything about their fields. That is the central conceit of the so-called “demarcation problem,” for example.

It is against this sort of epistemology that Richard Rorty framed his pragmatism as anti-authoritarian. Imagine historians thinking they were the authorities on statecraft or politics. It’s laughable. Much has been said about the value of knowing history so one doesn’t repeat past mistakes, but to think of history as primarily a source of practical insights is to seriously misunderstand the field. I have to wonder if anyone who suggests such a thing has ever actually read a history book. Or, on the flipside, perhaps they are a little too well read in history and too short on practical experience. In any event, one needs to be deeply disconnected from either history as it is written, or the practical affairs of the world, to think that the former could be a manual for the latter, or that historians are in a special position to tell practitioners how to do what they do.

To Rorty, the image of philosophers lecturing scientists on when they can know they know anything in their own fields is even more absurd than the image of the historian telling politicians and public officials how to do their jobs. Scholars and scientists did not wait around for the perfect theory of knowledge to be developed before getting to work. And the notion that outsiders to those fields are in a position to dictate the terms of inquiry for insiders is highly questionable. I won’t reconstruct Rorty’s argument here, but suffice it to say that he sees epistemology of the Cartesian and Humean sort as a sort of will-to-tyranny over other disciplines.

His pragmatism is cast as a liberation of the disciplines to pursue their own discourses on the terms negotiated by fellow practitioners, rather than by interfering outsiders. Its value is akin to the counter-punch in boxing; rather than making the first move, it comes as a response. If we imagine historians and physicists minding their own business and pursuing their work, when a interlocutor comes along with an argument drawing on philosophical positivism or related frameworks, pragmatism is the tool to get that interlocutor to back down.  It nullifies the stultifying effects of tyrannical philosophy, rather than offering a substantive alternative.

Because he deflates all of philosophy’s big claims to value, Rorty concludes that there’s little use for philosophy any longer, except as a field of caretakers for a set of classic texts. This is where I must part ways with him.

I look instead to Hans-Georg Gadamer, the pivotal figure in 20th century hermeneutics. Like Rorty, Gadamer didn’t see his theory of interpretation as a guidebook for the social scientists whose fields he discussed in the course of Truth and Method and other works. He had no interest in dictating the terms of inquiry for practitioners. And like Rorty, in as much as it has practical value, it is of the counter-punch variety. Unlike Rorty, however, Gadamer views hermeneutics as discipline itself, as legitimate a field of inquiry as history. Like history, it is a study of human doings. Yet as hinted above, the relationship between these fields and practical insight is a complex one. Gadamer no doubt underplayed the practical value of hermeneutics, but, as mentioned, historians and especially history enthusiasts too often overplay the practical significance of history.

The reasons for knowing knowledge, interpretation, or history that align with the spirit of inquiry in these fields is much more indeterminate than something as simple as generating practical know-how. It is more like satisfying intellectual curiosity, or attempting to deepen your knowledge of the human story, or simply taking pleasure in developing and exercising the skills of inquiry and argument in a specific domain. I would sum up this non-authoritarian (contra Descartes and Hume) but non-eliminative (contra Rorty) sort of reason as seeking wisdom. That is an appropriately vague and indeterminate answer for the question I wished to pose in this post.

Everybody Knows Me Now

“Look up here. I’m in heaven.” When Bowie wrote it, he at least suspected he was going to die. Ostensibly, when he recorded the video, he knew he was going to die. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen. I’ve got drama–can’t be stolen.” Going to heaven is an introvert’s worst nightmare.

Perhaps he wasn’t writing about his own death. Perhaps he was writing about Stephen Hawking’s impending doom. The brainiac Science-worshipers, the moral elites, the dispassionate purveyors of fact-based justice–they demonstrated their chops at the maudlin: “He’s zooming around the cosmos, now,” demonstrating that their maudlin sentimentality is at least on par with the unchurched Presbyterian daughter, whose father just died, and who says, “He’s looking down and smiling, now,” demonstrating their desire for something after a bitter end.

“I’m in heaven!” is greeted by a chorus of guitars tuned to the dirge. We know Stephen Hawking did not believe in heaven. Did Davie Bowie believe in heaven? “Well, David Bowie is looking down on us now, now, our celestial Major Tom.”

Ugh.

He’d built quite a catalogue. Perhaps the near-certain spike in sales would pierce into the heavens themselves, where we might achieve a near-certain nirvana, living in harmony. It was supposed to be here. It was supposed to be in New York, where ordinary men can live like kings, ruling the world with a mere scowl, a sardonic quip, and an encroaching horizon. The encroaching horizon was welcome. The cancer was not.

He’s dead, and now I’ve reviewed his catalogue, and with the wonders of YouTube, I’ve seen every televised or otherwise visually-recorded interview with David Bowie, of whom I am a fan on-again, off-again. I’ve analyzed every tic, probed every Straussian utterance, and scrutinized every single transformation as he sought Transfiguration.

I mean, that androgyny bit was just shtick, wasn’t it? It was shtick to conceal. He wanted us to know him, but he wanted us to know that it was all just a show, and the shtick enabled him to sell more records and more tickets.

I don’t believe that for one second, and that’s what he dreaded in dying. His work becomes static without him. He rots away, and his catalogue lies in state. We’re going to know him now.

We know he was a type, and he was a noble type, though tragic. As for me, I was off-again when he said some particularly nasty things about my God, but, then again, my fellow-Christians did some things to sully the name of my God, so why wouldn’t he say some particularly nasty things about my God? Was he looking for God, but when he saw him, he saw those things which sully? Who will wipe up all David’s filth? “Look up here! I’m in heaven!”

Heaven is no place to be when you are fond of hiding yourself behind a fortress of your own filth. “Oh, no, everybody knows me now.” With knowledge is judgment. With judgment, there is no love, only merit. And merit scratched only reveals the fortress of filth. We all know him now, but we all already knew him. We were hoping he’d find a way for us. Instead, he backed into a casket which embraced him with its doors.

The song is called “Lazarus.” Lazarus was raised from the dead. Lazarus was carried up by the angels to nestle in the bosom of Abraham. “Look up here” is a taunt. From where are we looking? For whom is the dirge? Does everybody know him now?

3, 2, 1…Let’s Jam

The graduate program in economics at George Mason University was a formal community of a very particular sort. As students, we had been granted membership in that community though a selective (or so I tell myself) admissions process, and kept it by paying out tuition and keeping a full course load (without failing out). We learned economics, yes, but we also learned a common language; the language of Hayek, of Ostrom, and above all, of Coase. In social gatherings among classmates, future spouses joked to one another that they were quite tired of hearing about this Coase fellow. Near the end of the program, some of us wondered out loud, “what are we going to do when we have to go out into the world and never be surrounded by so many people like us?”

We have all managed to survive, somehow. My career has had very little to do with what I learned there, and was probably only impacted in ways that (GMU econ professor) Bryan Caplan would appreciate.

But what I really came away from GMU with was a connection to their scene.

In 2008 when I started the Master’s program there, the department was fairly unique in the high number of professors writing on blogs or putting out podcasts. Part of my desire to enter the program stemmed from having followed these professors beforehand. But it wasn’t until after I started that I really dived in deep.

A scene is different from a community, though it is no less “imagined;” that is, the intersubjective product of games played among meaning-making individuals. In the online scene of which the GMU econ professors are still a part, they form a sort of center of gravity; one network cluster among a few, the boundaries of which are ill-defined and ever shifting. Where communities are shaped by membership and belonging, scenes are shaped by audience and participation.

A common audience forms the glue between GMU econ blogs and podcasts, Slate Star Codex, Modeled Behavior, and a constellation of sites and communities that form the scene I used to be an active participant in. This audience participates in shared experiences – in this case, most frequently shared experiences of media consumption. There was frequently a book of the moment, which everyone who was part of the scene either read or read about. Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation was an example that comes to mind, but the book does not necessarily have to be by someone in the scene, or even have much to do with the typical interests of the audience in that scene.

A coworker who follows the comedy scene closely gave me a good example of this recently. He said that a comedian’s wife had passed away and her book would be published posthumously, so the comedian was promoting it on comedy podcasts even though it had nothing to do with comedy. This coworker said that he decided to give the book a shot, if for no other reason than everyone else would be, and he wanted to get the jokes about it and other references to it. You don’t have to keep up with every new text embraced by the scene, but if you stop keeping up with any of them, you’re likely to find yourself falling out of its orbit.

Membership offers a formal boundary for communities, in relationality if not in geography. I don’t want to exaggerate the concreteness of communities; there is churn, there is overlap with other communities, and there’s substantial grey area. But the ebb and flow of scenes is of another order entirely. Participation, either in the audience or as the object of their attention, is more easily withdrawn than membership, which often requires some formal step. More to the point, it is far easier to dip your toes in. You can go to one metal concert without becoming a part of the metal scene. It’s a far bigger hurdle to become even a part time student at a university. And when you do, there is a paper trail to show it; the line between when you go from a casual concert-goer to a part of the metal scene is vague in the extreme.

Scenes are often called “communities” as in “the online economics community”, and that’s fine; that’s one way the word is used. I distinguish between communities and scenes here not to get at the essence of either word, but merely to observe that there is a distinction to be made. Formal community and scenes are two forms of meaningful existence in the modern world, where we have left the primordial village community of the Romantics’ fantasies far behind.

The Really Real

“There is no ‘we’,” was a catchphrase among the GMU econ company I kept when I went to grad school there. The only really real things were individuals, who made choices, had preferences, and had blood running through their veins, by God! Groups are not really real. They are a myth, a superstition, an excuse for the strong to continue the exploitation of the weak that has gone on since the first social hierarchy was established.

Years later, I explored the communitarians. They seemed to say that there could be no individual at all, without community. I talked with Catholic leftists who would spit out the accusation of “Thatcherite!” at the mere mention of the word “individual.”

The communitarians seemed to have some powerful insights, but the community which glued it all together and made these insights work eluded me. Every time I thought I had my hands on it, it melted away and I had to start anew.

I asked, “what is community?” I kidnapped Dave away from his loving wife and children, at any hour of the night or day, to demand an answer of him. I asked and I asked.

Benedict Anderson, a Marxist, made his legacy on the claim that communities are imagined. But this was not the claim of my GMU mentors, who insisted on the unreality of “we.” Anderson’s communities were imagined only in as much as they were so large, we can never meet all of their members, even though we strongly believe that they are there, and that we stand in a meaningful relationship to them. Anderson did not deny groups in order to embrace only the “really real,” and criticized Marxists who did:

With a certain ferocity Gellner makes a comparable point when he rules that ‘Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.’ The drawback to this formulation, however, is that Gellner is so anxious to show that nationalism masquerades under false pretences that he assimilates ‘invention’ to ‘fabrication’ and ‘falsity’, rather than to ‘imagining’ and ‘creation’. In this way he implies that ‘true’ communities exist which can be advantageously juxtaposed to nations. In fact, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.

Examples of these “styles” include vast networks of kinship, Christendom, and Anderson’s primary subject matter, the nation.

By the time I began scratching my itch to understand community until I drew blood, I had already been lead to view things through the lens of intersubjective relationality; or the language-games of Wittgenstein and Gadamer. But a community is not a game. So what is it? The grounds of the game, in some abstract sense?

The metaphor of the game was one way of approaching the question of human relationality. But there are many types of relations. In the wee hours, as I interrogated him for some sign of how I might understand this question of community, Dave modestly suggested that membership might have something to do with it. It took quite some time for me to listen to what he was saying.

One thing that helped crystalize this for me was reading Michaele Ferguson’s book Sharing Democracy, in which she attempted to discuss imagined community as I might have, before my many conversations with Dave. Here is the relevant part of my review:

Intersubjective relations are a useful starting place, but relationality per se is not very informative. There are many types of relations, with different implications in different contexts. One important relation that is absent from Ferguson’s analysis is membership. This relation is not between individuals, but between an individual and an entity—an “imagined” entity, in Anderson’s sense, though this is misleading. When the conditions are right, such entities are no more or less imagined than money. Imagined social entities in which individuals are members are precisely the collective agencies that Ferguson mis-defines.

I could not see the entity for so long. But it’s there, often explicitly acknowledged in the ways we relate to one another. We play various roles in our social games, and these roles relate to our standing as members in some common group – or of rival groups, or of cooperating but nevertheless distinct groups. The way our imagined communities shape our relations to one another as individuals is as real as the way money influences our behavior. Free will is not subsumed; I can choose not to accept money. I can choose to walk away. But the reality of what I’m walking away from is not changed by this; I could have taken that money, and I could have used it to acquire possessions or hire people to render services.

So too with the group – it is precisely because I am a citizen of the United States of America, living within the territory of its sovereign body, that I expect to be able to use dollars and not pounds to acquire my possessions. It is because I am an employee of a company that I expect they will let me enter the building and go into the area outsiders are not allowed to wander through unescorted.

Anderson makes reference to “primordial villages of face-to-face contact” which he excepts, tentatively, from being “imagined.” This is a kernel of the Romantics, who judged modernity as false against the really real of the authentically primitive. In the mouth of a Romantic, just as in the mouth of an economic individualist, “imagined” is spat, much like “Thatcherite” in the mouth of a Catholic leftist. It is an epithet against that which is not really real.

Perhaps it is time we loosened our grip on the really real, and grew more comfortable with the reality of the imagined.

Frameworks, Models, and Math

One could go mad seeking a vocabulary to speak of vocabulary, a language to speak of language.

A framework is a shared semantic web, a range of possible pragmatic moves to make in language-games played with fellow adherents as well as with proponents of alternatives. In short, it is a language.

A model is a much more regimented language; its moves are fewer but more penetrating, the domain of its meanings narrower but, one hopes, more illuminating if kept within those confines. In economics, all they taught us were models. Even at the not-particularly-mathematical George Mason University Department of Economics, there was no substitute for the value of a formal model. Simplicity in the model was pared with sophistication in collecting the larger menu of models; we were taught to be undoctrinaire about models that might add up to an inconsistent whole, so long as the application brought us closer to truth for the matter at hand. Somehow, though, these models all fit comfortably inside of a utilitarian framework, albeit the more qualitatively sensitive and uncertainty-emphasizing Austrian variety.

Models turn out to have an unusual portability. The economic models, as I mentioned, were clearly utilitarian in design. They existed in a hermeneutic circle with utilitarian frameworks; the model as the part and the framework as the whole. The law of supply and the law of demand, perfect competition or price discrimination, are all models that are seemingly incomprehensible without a foundation of utilitarian assumptions.

And yet, these assumptions can be relaxed. Perhaps not entirely eradicated. But a humanist like Deirdre McCloskey can comfortably turn these models into metaphors and integrate the “P(rudence)” values into a framework which includes “S(acred)” ones.

But such an integration has its costs, or at least its impact. McCloskey is no mystic. Integrating the economists’ prudent models transforms the framework they are integrated into, just as the models themselves must be transformed as they enter into a new hermeneutic circle with a different whole.

Of course, Gadamer emphasized that all understanding is a creative act, and transformative. All fusions of horizons leave both horizons forever changed. The utilitarian is transformed merely in the act of applying his model to a specific case, just as certainly as the humanist is transformed by integrating models of utilitarian origin.

As I thought about these things, my mind wandered to the question of math. Math, like models, is quite regimented. So much so that – again, like models – it requires a less regimented language in order to provide the resources to explain it, discuss what is going on in a given example, and so on. Nevertheless, there are few things more portable than math. Mathematicians do their work in a staggering variety of vernaculars. And their work can be understood without too much explanation by mathematicians who do not share a common tongue.

It is no wonder that math so dazzled the Pythagoreans and Platonists, seeming to transcend the contingencies of language as it does. But it does not truly transcend those contingencies. The positivist dream of a perfectly rational language is long dead; mathematics requires the resources of unregimented, highly contingent language in order to be understood and to be maintained (never mind further developed). Math itself is, as I said, a regimented language. But it is not just another language. There truly is something miraculous about it, and about the portability of models and of meanings, across the creative and transformative gulf of fused horizons.

Templates Overlaying Expectations, and Futility

I was trained, I think, to have a lot of kids, a cache, as it were, for the world to consume, or, perhaps, to protect from the world, but who can do that when one is shielding his own face from the ceaseless blows? Maybe I wasn’t trained, but it was modeled for me. I liked the idea of having many children, but I wasn’t particularly enthralled with the idea of it. Nevertheless, when I met a girl who expressed a desire to have many children, a quiver full of arrows, as it were, with which to conquer the world, standing strong in the ceaseless battle, well, who can resist? So I married her.

We snapped into a template quite quickly, into career obligations (we thought they were obligations). The institutions of this present evil age foster themselves as protectors and guides, and they eject a newly married couple of individuals into the fray with promises of further protection and guidance, but when you look back at the fortresses of the institutions of your trust, you see that they are being assailed without cessation, and if you have the will to look closely, you see that the worst of the flames are being set from those whose charge is the maintenance and operation of the institutions. And so you are demoralized. They said “career,” and I with the wife of my youth said, “okay,” then chafed, then fell away, and we found ourselves abandoned. This is a template. It happens predictably to a subset of human beings (oh, how I hate that designation; what are we? Are we human beings? Aren’t we a communion, man and wife?) every single day. And the outcry goes up into outer space, swallowed by the beepings of exploring satellites and the wind of the sun. Will Jupiter turn his eye upon us in mercy? The bloated god will only flatulate and turn away.

We fell when we fell away. “Just desserts!” cried out the men. “You have become to us as rebels.”

“But we are your own flesh and blood!”


We had two children at the time, and circumstances convinced us that two was enough. Those two would help us limp along to the end, whence they, perhaps, according to hope, could bound away. This is also common.

But we were expected to have more children. By whom? Ghosts, I should think. Spirits and unseen powers, bidding us to resume that good work, as it is also enjoyable. Career had failed us (and we certainly failed it) and progress was in ruins, so why not flex ourselves, as man and wife, and shatter the template?

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An Asshole to the End

A few days after Peter died, I got a text from his pastor telling me Peter wanted me to read John 11 at his funeral. “That asshole!” was my reflexive response. The request was true to his character.

John 11, he knows, I cannot read at a funeral whose corpse I do not know, not without being overcome with the emotional force, so for him to make a dying request that I read over his was a coup de grâce upon our friendship, which death ended. That was it. It was over. The text made it plain: Peter is dead.

A thousand people moseyed over to the big Lutheran church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Of the thousand, I knew Angie, his wife. It’s possible some others from the early days of our friendship in the mid-90s were there, but I would only have recognized their faces and known nothing more about them. A thousand people, and never did I feel so alone, not even when my father died, for in that case I had my three sisters and my mother.

That one was also a rather large intrusion of claimants to the corpse. They had to have two separate funerals for my dad: one in southern Louisiana, where he died; another in northern Alabama, where he was raised. I skipped the first one because of the many claimants I would not have known. Besides, I had what they call a “complicated” relationship with my father, a deep and abiding love which was made white hot by long-standing patricidal notions borne of deep-seated philosophical disagreements, which were, at his death, which was sudden, then peppered with anger and guilt, as one would be when one hates how one was raised. I was a pastor’s kid. My dad was a Lutheran pastor. His many surviving brothers and sisters and their families and extended families, along with his childhood friends, were jammed into the Lutheran church in Hanceville, Alabama, where his mother was baptized by a Lutheran pastor from Milwaukee sometime in the 1940s, along with five of her children, including my father, who was five years old at the time. She was an American Indian. It was the Lutheran pastor from Milwaukee who broke down that racial barrier.

His corpse was in the narthex (the common area before you go into the sanctuary (the main room of the church where all the pews are)), a week old already, having sat in refrigeration during a particularly warm August, having been transported within the mysteries of the mortuary crafts from Louisiana to Alabama. We greeted family and friends, and they were seated. As it was, I had not seen the corpse, and I requested to see him with my sisters and mother. The mortician turned the appropriate latches, raised the lid, and there was my father, laid out in sacramental splendor, to be buried in his priestly garments, including a golden chasuble. When I reacted, every head in the sanctuary snapped back to stare. My mother comforted me. Peter was a pastor’s kid, too.

There is an expectation–at least, there was an expectation for a pastor’s kid, especially the pastor’s son, placing him on one of the two paths he can go by. He can either adopt a Pharisee’s mien, the faultless son of the Most High Pastor, who himself is the representative of the Son of God, and can make no error, neither his sons and daughters–a Pharisee’s mien, I say: a hard, cold, exacting, cruelty expected of a sniveling wretch who cloaks himself in an expertise of religiosity. Or he can unleash his anger in a destructive lifestyle, usually in a hedonism akin to that exhibited by the wonderful Sam Kinison. In either case, his identity is not his identity, but that of someone else. To craft an identity is exceedingly difficult, and much discouraged, both by Father and by his disciples.

It can be done, though, if he can navigate that Scylla and Charybdis. Indeed, forgiveness has been known to prevail upon those pastors’ kids who wreck their ships, and they can set sail again. I think Peter and I managed to escape, a pair of Odysseuses in our own right, but not without paying a heavy emotional toll. The tax is high, my friends, for those of us who wish to live free of those peculiar expectations. And, thus impoverished, Peter and I leaned on each other. We developed a shorthand with each other, much as twins do, and we leaned on each other.

Another lonely claimant was there, whose name escapes me. He was flown in from Ghana, where Peter served as a missionary over the course of over 20 years, both formally, and then later on as an emotional supporter of the burgeoning Lutheran Church in Ghana and throughout that stretch of Africa. That is to say, this second lonely claimant was another who had Peter as a close friend and confidant for over two decades, beginning together as young men with babies, enduring the travails of this ephemeral career in the visible futility of the Christian Faith, ending with teen-aged young-adult progeny. Ah! Death! You sting us! Where is your sting?

The funeral was horrible. It was just horrible. Peter wrote it. He wrote the structure of the service, picked the readings to be read, picked the hymns to be sung. Structure? There was no structure. It was a vile Sacramentarian Baptist service with Lutheran trappings. There was no Kyrie, no proclamation of the gifts of the sacrament of baptism, no declaration of the resurrection of the body because there was no Apostles’ Creed, only that godawful John 11, gaping before me like the grave itself. And he had me read it. He did it on purpose. He did the whole despicable thing on purpose because he knew I was the only son-of-a-bitch in that building who would weep while the confrontation of that text was being laid out before us. Do you understand me? He laid out a structure-free funeral service, departing from every form and norm known to our tradition in order that he might have my weakness for reading that particular text in public actually highlight that thing around which his hope revolved.

It’s not the part where Jesus weeps that gets me, nor the many indications of the upwelling of utter despair expressed by a despondent people. Those are, indeed, difficult to read, but where my throat constricts, where my chest heaves, where my mouth clamps into a quivering vise, is the question. “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” At this comes the existential pause, where you stare into the abyss, and it stares back, tearing at your guts, shouting, “WHAT A LOAD OF STUFF AND NONSENSE! RUBBISH! THERE’S NOTHING HERE! DO YOU HEAR ME? NOTHING!”

Do you believe this? Peter’s corpse is within arm’s length. What an asshole. Truly, he was a brother. Peter Kelm, 1972-2017, RIP.

 

It Depends

One important but easily overlooked lesson from hermeneutics is that you must attend to the particulars.

Students who lack experience and have an appetite for abstraction are generally looking for shortcuts. I recall a math teacher who joked that mathematicians would spend enormous amounts of time trying to find the quickest way to solve a lot of problems at once. There’s nothing wrong with that mindset—it’s how we get innovation in general. But there are domains where it is inappropriate.

Understanding texts is one of those domains. It takes patience and consideration to understand a text. Moreover, it is an ongoing task: the more you read beyond that text, the more context you have for understanding it. There is a gulf between an experienced scholar and a newcomer to the field which can only be bridged by a great deal of patient, careful reading. And that takes time—there is no shortcut.

The desire to seek shortcuts where they are inappropriate is common. One man wanted to determine whether the great works of the western canon were really all that great through a very simple probabilistic analysis. Another wants to be able to expand the price system to every facet of life so that he can know what he ought to prioritize. The latter’s impoverished hermeneutical framework makes it literally impossible to conceive that there is concrete knowledge that (say) a dog show judge has about different dog breeds which allows them to have superior judgment over the audience, or that such judgments are qualitative rather than expressed in equations.

Perhaps this is the aspect of hermeneutics that causes those ignorant of it to attribute an anything-goes relativism to it. Unlike the various species of rationalism, or even skepticism, hermeneutics offers no concrete answers. It provides a fairly skeletal outline of how understanding works in general, but offers no constraints on the nature of what might be understood. Intellectual shortcuts are precisely that—constraints on possibilities.

But this isn’t relativism at all. It’s the simple admonition, which we all know on some level but love to deny, that there’s no shortcut to wisdom. It’s very easy to find a reason to be dismissive but much more hard to actually wrestle with what you wish to dismiss, to understand it enough to see if you were correct about its lack of value.

No matter how wise you become, you may have missed something truly crucial. Perhaps you missed a great deal. This is not relativism, but humility.