Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Instead of Being President, May I Simply Take a First Lady?

From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key:

Instead of Being President, May I Simply Take a First Lady?

By Santiago Ramos

The Adjustment Bureau
Directed by George Nolfi
Written by George Nolfi (screenplay), Philip K. Dick (short story “Adjustment Team”)
Starring Matt Damon, Emily Blunt and Florence Kastriner

One coherent idea can be wrested from this silly movie, and with it, one fundamental mistake. The Adjustment Bureau claims that the notion of “a calling” is incompatible with free will; it confuses vocation with fatalism. It is a cheap sci-fi flick that will make a lot of money, but its metaphysical statement makes it the anti-King’s Speech, and thus a more significant film than it deserves to be. It requires an explanation so that it may be explained away.

mediapicApr1 The actual Adjustment Bureau is a mysterious organization of intelligent life forms that look just like you and me, but live for much longer. The length of their lives allow them to monitor the progress of human history and to surreptitiously nudge human events towards progress, peace, and the fulfillment of personal talents. But how do they know in which direction to nudge? They carry little electronic books—they look a lot like leather-bound Kindles, actually—which bear self-updating diagrams mapping out the future of every human life. The (always off-screen and reverently referenced) Chairman—who all men call God—writes a plan for each and every human being; the Adjustment Bureau case officers shepherd the most important human beings (politicians, artists, and I would assume, CEOs) to their destiny. Sometimes, the case officers find it necessary to adjust events to make sure that the important people don’t fall off course and mess up the Chairman’s plan.

According to a senior member of the Adjustment Bureau, who is summoned by his inferiors once things get complicated in Act Two, humanity is not truly free. The Bureau guided humanity from its caveman beginnings to the height of Roman imperial greatness; at that point, free will was respected once again and… the Dark Ages persisted for several centuries. Once again the Bureau got to work: they enlivened humanity with the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, allowing us to be free once again in 1910. You know what happened after that. Sometime in the mid-1960s, the Bureau decided that two world wars and one Cuban missile crisis were enough, and they took control once again.

There is not much to be gained by listing the different ways in which the above conceit is ridiculous and stupid. Rome was built by genius, yes, but also by conquest and slavery. The North American slave trade, the Thirty Year’s War, colonialism, the Reign of Terror, all occurred between… No, no. Too much work. There are enough absurdities to be derived from the plot.

The plot consists of a challenge to the Adjustment Bureau orthodoxy. One man falls in love against the Chairman’s plan and…perhaps free will is good after all! Matt Damon plays David Norris, a handsome and smart young politician whose meteoric rise to power has been handicapped by a series of bad decisions—for example, getting arrested in a bar fight on the evening of an election. Nevertheless, he is brilliant and important enough that he merits personal attention by the bureau. His case officer is named Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie).

The Chairman’s original plan for Norris included a lifelong relationship with a talented ballerina named Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), whom Norris meets on the night in which he loses his first election for Senate. It is love at first sight, but this is no good because the Chairman has changed Norris’ plan. According to the new plan, Norris is meant to be a great political leader and save America without Elise; she would ruin that, for some mysterious reason. But Norris is so infatuated, and he comes so close to messing up his own life, that the Bureau has to reveal its own existence to Norris in a radical effort to put things in their right place. Yet Norris is a hopeless romantic and he refuses to accept his fate.

Free will means “I love Elise” and fate means “You are called to be a great leader.” That is the simple dichotomy that the movie offers us, overlooking obvious complicating objections, such as the fact that it was the Chairman (“fate”) which brought Elise to Norris in the first place, and that even if Norris is fated to be a great leader, he has to accept his fate—he has to will it with his own self. No amount of free will could have created Elise, and the Chairman would never actually force Norris to run for office (in fact, even though he has been nudged in one way or another, Norris is always free).

The climax of the movie occurs once Case Officer Harry decides that all of this is just too heartbreaking, and he helps Norris to escape the clutches of the Bureau, whisk Elise away from a rival suitor, and reclaim his free will. But it also means that the Chairman has changed plans once again: there is no more plan for Norris. I’m not sure if that means that rest of us are going to enter into the dark ages again, but perhaps there will be a sequel.

In The King’s Speech, one man attempts to overcome the obstacles that keep him from fulfilling his call to become the leader of his people. In order to overcome those obstacles, he needs and is given a friend. Freedom and a calling. Freedom and companionship as necessary for choosing to heed a calling, and for having strength to do so.

The Adjustment Bureau has the same story: one man called to be a leader and he is given a friend (well, a case officer) to help him overcome the obstacles that get in his way. But now one of those obstacles is a woman who is for some reason incompatible with his calling. (She is “enough”, says Harry, she would extirpate all the emptiness, and fulfill all the desires in Norris’ heart and he would not see any need pursue politics. No pressure, Elise!) So Norris decides he’d rather do his own thing and… screw humanity? Not explicitly. But is humanity screwed? Well, that’s uncertain—the Chairman decides to give Elise and Norris a clean book, complete free will, so that means that America might never get to have its awesome president in the future. But does that mean…?

Nothing. It means nothing. The movie makes no sense. It just says “Free will is cool”, “Chance encounters are weird,” and “A pretty girl is the answer to all questions and wants, ever.” Oh, and, “That’ll be twelve dollars.”

Santiago Ramos is pursuing graduate studies in philosophy at Boston College.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

John Paul II’s Methodist Pilot Recalls ‘Pope of All People’

Kevin Kelly talks with the Kansan who piloted Pope John Paul II during his first U.S. visit in the upcoming edition of the Catholic Key:

kruegercape LAWRENCE, Kan. — Pope John Paul II, fresh from a rain-soaked Mass on the Boston Commons, gave the baby-faced pilot of Shepherd I a bear hug. Then held he held him at arm’s length for a good look, and proclaimed, “You are so young!”

The 32-year-old Nelson Krueger, stunned to be unexpectedly face-to-face with the pontiff in the airliner’s cockpit, replied with the first words that came to his mind: “You are so wet!”

The pope let out a big laugh and looked Krueger straight in the eyes.

“The guy was so warm and friendly,” Kreuger told The Catholic Key. “There I was face-to-face with the Holy Father. Our eyes met, and those millions of bits of information that happen in such a moment were exchanged.”

It was the start of a relationship that would last a week, and, to this day nearly 32 years later, one that the pilot would remember in minute detail for the rest of his life.

Krueger was already one of the top international pilots for Trans World Airlines when he was hand-selected by Capt. Sal Fallucco, the airline’s director of flight operations, to sit in the left seat for Pope John Paul’s first pastoral and state visit to the United States from Oct. 1-7, 1979.

Krueger, now retired and living in Lawrence, was on a layover in St. Louis in mid-September when he got the call from TWA’s chief scheduler to get back to headquarters in Kansas City right away.

R1-05685-0059_1_0424 Krueger’s first thought was that he was in some sort of trouble. But when he asked, the reason stunned him.

“They said, ‘Go to the overhaul base. We are fitting a plane for Pope John Paul II. You are going to oversee that, because you are going to fly it,’” he said.

“I almost died,” Krueger said. “I was speechless. I was stunned.”

As pilot, Krueger and co-pilot Clarence Powell would take the pope from Boston to New York to Philadelphia to Des Moines to Chicago — an itinerary that was always behind schedule because the pontiff could not be pried from the millions who came to see him at every stop.

“He had to meet everybody,” Krueger said.

Krueger had seen the world and would see much more of it before his days as a Boeing 727 pilot would end. He had seen the pyramids of Egypt, the Holy Land, nearly all of Europe, Asia and India.

He had flown the rich, the famous, and the infamous.

But this is the trip that still brings tears to his eyes.

And Krueger is a Methodist.

DSC_0124 As the Roman Catholic Church prepares to beatify Pope John Paul II on May 1, Krueger said his memories are taking on even deeper meaning. He flew not just a pope, but a certain saint.

“It’s taken 32 years to have this sink in,” he said from his home overlooking a golf course in western Lawrence, where he has dedicated a room to his memorabilia of years behind the controls, and much of it dedicated to the flight of Shepherd I, including scores of photographs, newspaper articles, and even copies of Time, Life, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report, all with Pope John Paul II on the cover.

“This beats everything I have done in my life,” Krueger said. “There is no higher peak in my human experience than the time I got to pilot Shepherd I.”

Even for a Christian of another tradition.

“He was the pope of all people,” Krueger said. “I know a lot of Methodists and Presbyterians and Baptists who view him as their pope too. He allowed all of us to revisit and deepen our calling as Christians.

“He just loved people — all people,” he said. “He was just so warm and friendly with everybody he met.”

Pope John Paul II was 59 and just a year from his election when he began to build a reputation for globe-hopping. HeR1-05685-0015_0506 was filled with boundless energy, even after long days in front of crowds that number in the millions.

Earlier that year, he had gone to Mexico, then to a historic pastoral visit to his native Poland, still under communist control, meeting millions at every stop.

His first U.S. visit was preceded by a pastoral visit to Ireland, where nearly a third of the island’s population attended Mass with him, and where his schedule of 16-hour days would kill a mule.

But not the pontiff that Nelson Krueger met, and grew to know better on that six-day tour of the United States. He drew energy from people who came by the hundreds of thousands everywhere he went, including airport tarmacs.

Still, the pope had time for his flight crew.

Pope John Paul II signed Krueger’s family Bible. And he blessed a rosary once owned by the Catholic grandmother of Krueger’s father-in-law. (When he returned it, his father-in-law pressed it back into the pilot’s hand. “This is for you,” he said, as tears filled both men’s eyes.)

Krueger also showed his 12-string Takamine guitar that Pope John Paul II played during a delay in the takeoff from Philadelphia to Des Moines.

R1-05685-0047_1_0446 Hearing that the pope played a guitar for youth in Ireland, Krueger brought his along, just in case.

Waiting for clearance to take off, Krueger unpacked his guitar and strummed a chord. Like a shot, the pontiff raced to the cockpit, a phalanx of cardinals, bishops and reporters right behind.

“He looked at the guitar, so I handed it to him,” Krueger said. “He started strumming it, then he adjusted two strings by ear. Then he strummed a full C chord and belted out ‘Silent Night,’ in a big, full, nice voice.

“Then he looked at me and nodded, like, ‘Aren’t you going to join in?’ so I did. Soon, everybody was singing, ‘Holy night. All is calm, all is bright.’”

By the time the song was finished, the flight had received its clearance. Krueger put the guitar back it its case with a TWA sticker, telling the pope that TWA meant, “This Way America.”

“Oh, no,” said the pope. “It means, ‘Traveling With Angels.’”

“Everybody in the press heard that,” Krueger said.

The skies over Des Moines were overcast, but cleared when Shepherd I broke through the clouds. Then the weather turned picture-perfect for the papal Mass in Joe Hays’ Miracle Farm pasture with 400,000 people.

Pope 10-79jpeg It was a stop that the pope himself added to his U.S. itinerary after Hays personally wrote to him that the backbone of America was its farms. This was in the midst of the worst farm crisis in the nation since the Great Depression, and one the pontiff couldn’t resist expressing his solidarity.

They were supposed to leave Des Moines in time for the pope to arrive in Chicago by 8 p.m. It wasn’t going to happen. The pope spent so much time in Iowa, especially with Hays, that the flight didn’t arrive at O’Hare Airport until past 10 p.m.

Not a soul among the people who waited extra hours for a glimpse of the pope left the Chicago airport. He disembarked to the cheers of a half a million people.

The next day, Krueger and the flight crew were issued press passes to attend the Mass in Grant Park, with a million Chicagoans.

It was at that moment that Krueger began to realize more deeply that he was witnessing something far greater than he could imagine.

“Here he comes with his miter and crozier. He gets to the altar and says, ‘I look up and I see you, the people of God.’ He has no doubt that his presence is enough to bring these people together.”

“For two hours, Grant Park was a gleaming cathedral, with this leader of over a billion people at the center of it all,” Krueger said.

Standing next to Krueger was Jeff Lyons, reporter for The Chicago Tribune.

“Lyons turned to me and said, ‘Isn’t he a great guy?’” Krueger said. “What higher thing can anyone say about you?”

On the final leg of the trip from Chicago to Washington, D.C., Pope John Paul II asked to see his pilot one more time. This time, he presented Krueger with two gifts — one of 99 crystal obelisks he had commissioned with etchings of a monstrance and cross, and a solid platinum medal with Pope John Paul II’s image.

0401_Krueger_now Thirty-two years later, Krueger — the hard-boiled pilot who had done it all, seen it all — still has to wipe his eyes as he takes it from the special case in his special den, dedicated to both airline history and to the flight of Shepherd I, half his lifetime ago.

And he is not ashamed to admit he cried when the pontiff died in 2005, suffering for years with Parkinson’s.

“You knew he was dying, but it still got to me,” he said. “I was thankful in one respect because he had suffered so much. I thought about going to the funeral, but so did a lot of people, and I didn’t.”

He did make one special trip to the Vatican.

Krueger was on a special assignment in the fall and winter of 1991, flying U.S. soldiers to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Operation Desert Storm. On the morning of Christmas Eve, he and his crew had a layover in Rome.

Krueger went to the Vatican with a note he handed to the Swiss Guards for Msgr. Thaddeus Rakoczy, the pope’s personal secretary whom he had met 12 years before, asking if they could attend Midnight Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Before he got back to the hotel, he had a message.

“He remembered me,” Krueger said. “He told us to arrive two hours early in uniform with our identification.”

Krueger and his flight crew were seated in the seventh pew, five seats from the center, as they watched the preparations for the papal Mass.

“I would have sat there for a week,” Krueger said.

When he landed Shepherd I for the last time in 1979 and bid the pontiff farewell, Krueger and his flight crew quietly returned to Kansas City, then to his home in Lawrence.

“I picked up my wife and kids, and we went to a Kansas University football game,” he said. “But I was forever changed.”

(Top pic – 32 year old Krueger dries the papal cape in the cockpit air vent. Bottom – Krueger now with the medal Pope John Paul II gave him. Photos – Courtesy of Nelson Krueger)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Diocese Has Left the Building

Today was the final work day at 300 E. 36th Street in midtown Kansas City, the location of the diocesan chancery for the last 54 years. Bishop Finn led a brief prayer service and we took a final group pic before heading off to our new downtown Catholic Center. Bishop Finn’s column this week reflects on the move:ChanceryClosing_2011

The Diocese Has Left the Building

By Most Rev. Robert W. Finn
Bishop of Kansas City – St. Joseph

For the last two weeks at the Chancery we have been working out of boxes. This week we will have a brief prayer service – perhaps the last as “the Diocese” – in the majestic brick and stone house at Gillham and 36th Street.

The mansion, built more than 100 years ago as a private home - was acquired in the 50’s to serve as the headquarters for the Catholic Church in Northwest Missouri. Within about ten years an annex was added for more office space. In 1999, the Diocese began to lease more room in the Gillham Plaza office building to the North of 300 East 36th Street. Over the years there were several renovations. I cannot even imagine how many people have worked here with great dedication and love for the Church.

I remember coming to the “back door” of the diocesan offices for the very first time in the early evening of March 8, 2004. The next day I was to be introduced to the community as the new Coadjutor Bishop, and my presence at that moment was a secret not yet announced. As far as I was concerned the place was beautiful. It was my new home. As time progressed I have become very familiar with its walls and creaks, stairways and meeting rooms. I have some slight melancholy about turning the key for the last time.

On Thursday, March 24, 2011, the Eve of the Annunciation, we are set to close at noon and vacate the premises. The moving company goes to work, transferring furniture, crates and boxes, each with labels indicating its destination at the Chancery Offices of the Catholic Center at 20 W. 9th Street in downtown Kansas City. The movers will work all weekend.

On Monday, March 28, Chancery staff will gather in the Lobby of the Center for a prayer. We will have a little breakfast together in our cafeteria and begin an orientation meeting. Then, off we will go to our new offices and cubicles to start unpacking. We hope to be up and running by Tuesday morning. Our phone numbers, P.O. Box, and email addresses are exactly the same. I sense that the Chancery staff is pretty excited and eager. Catholic Charities “Caritas Center” has been at work in the Catholic Center since early February. We are looking forward to being closer neighbors and co-workers.

While I have learned that property transactions are never “over til they’re over,” we are cautiously optimistic that the 36th Street building that has served us so well for so long may have a new owner soon. The Diocesan Finance Council and Priests College of Consultors have unanimously given approval for a contract to a non-for-profit entity. If all goes well, 300 East 36th will remain an active workplace.

Join me in giving thanks to God for all He has done in our midst: in every parish and Catholic institution in our diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, and from the Chancery! With joy we look to continue that work with the same faith, hope, and love, but from a new location.

The Blessing, Dedication, and first Open House for the Catholic Center at 20 W 9th will take place on Thursday, April 28, beginning at 3:00 p.m. A weekend Open House will soon be announced.

I commend our efforts to our Blessed Mother and St. Joseph – patrons of our Diocese – that they may keep us on a safe path to Jesus Christ.

The Annunciation and Friday Abstinence

Because so many people have asked, Bishop Finn passes along the following announcement:

I am happy to confirm that:

Because Friday, March 25, 2011, is the Solemnity of the Annunciation, on this particular Friday, Catholics are not obliged to abstain from meat.

Continued blessings to you during this Holy Season of Lent.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Al Jazeera, The King’s Speech, and Seriousness

From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key:

Al Jazeera, The King’s Speech, and Seriousness

By Santiago Ramos

“I REMEMBER your grandfather loved to watch Walter Cronkite at the end of every day,” my mother said to me last Christmas. “He [Cronkite] was a much more serious person than the people you see on TV today.”
My mother is American by birth but she spent her childhood in Asuncion, Paraguay. In the 1970s, while my grandfather pursued advanced studies in psychiatry, she spent her late teens in Kansas. Her perspective includes life in two different nations. She does not dislike MSNBC or CNN or Fox News; in fact, she gets most of her news either from MSNBC or Fox. Moreover, her point was made not in a heated argument but merely as a passive observation, part of a general reminiscence about my grandfather. In other words, her comment was not ideological—it had nothing to do with politics, political bias, or even the practice of journalism. It had to do with seriousness.

FOX NEWS HOST Bill O’Reilly’s illiberal outburst last month over the supposed anti-American bias of Al Jazeera is, on more than one level, a good example of a lack of sense for the importance of seriousness. (I cannot imagine him listening to my mother.) For one thing, O’Reilly has inflated the rhetorical value of the televised fit to such a degree that only the physiologically qualified could ever outdo him in the practice; for another, it is getting harder and harder to discern whether he is really outraged, or playing the part of theAlJazeera outraged person simply because his TV persona is expected to do so. There was nothing atypical about O’Reilly’s tantrum over Al Jazeera: he referred to Sam Donaldson as a “pinhead,” he spoke in sentence fragments, he shouted and forced his interlocutors into shouting as well. On this level, O’Reilly’s tirade was another example of a level of vulgarity and lack of seriousness that we have grown accustomed to watching on television.

There is a second level, though, that is worth exploring. I do not speak Arabic and have never watched Al Jazeera’s Arabic edition. However, during the weeks leading up to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, I did make use of Al Jazeera’s English live online stream, available for free and linked by the not-left wing Drudge Report. Politically, the anchors and correspondents were unanimously biased against Mubarak—most concretely, they were aggressive in their questioning of their guests, reiterating again and again the question, “Why doesn’t Mubarak understand that the people want him to stand down now?” The politics I could discern (on part of the anchors, not guests) was biased in favor of a vaguely internationalist liberalism tempered by a respect for the Islamic faith of the peoples in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, et al., as well as by a general antipathy toward the Obama Administration, because of its perceived passivity during the crisis, as well as toward American foreign policy in general, because of its previous support for Mubarak during past decades.

But politics is not the point. The point is that Al Jazeera English has the tone of a TV channel for adults. Points could be made about the superior quality of its coverage, or about the fact that it covers stories from parts of the world neglected by the American 24 hour networks. One could say that its documentaries are superior to the ones on CNN and MSNBC and Fox (though I have seen good documentaries on all of them). But, before politics and before journalism, let us consider the possibility of TV news without gotcha-isms, without sneering, without Charlie Sheen interviews. Perhaps O’Reilly is concerned as much with looking less professional in comparison to Al-Jazeera English as he is with Al-Jazeera Arabic’s purported anti-Americanism. Should the former ever make it to a significant number of American viewers, he might have a problem. (Though, to keep up my non-political perspective, I should make the bipartisan point that Chris Matthews would have something to worry about as well.)

ANOTHER SIGN OF a desire for greater seriousness is found (I have already argued) in the popularity of the film The King’s Speech. Some have argued that the film is somewhat more “conservative” than its Best Picture rival, The Social Network. It was nostalgia, or something close to it, which inspired the Oscar voters to choose the aristocratic past over the computer geek future. But I think there is a deeper appeal to the film than that. Peter Hitchens of the London Daily Mail has a contrary view which serves as a telling contrast. The “fundamental message” of The King’s Speech, he writes, “is (I sum up loosely) ‘cheeky, hard-up, informal and classless Aussie jackaroo saves stuck-up, repressed, royal snob from stammer probably caused by snobbish repression, largely by making him swear and by mocking the grandeur of his position’.” Both sides miss the point.

We could (for the sake of argument) assume that Hitchens is correct and still ask: why did the informal, classless, irreverent Aussie want a king to begin with? Why did he feel compelled to not only help his patient fulfill his calling—but to implicitly recognize that his patient’s calling was, in some ways, larger than his own? From where did he get this sense of nobility, of rising to an occasion of national crisis, of the crucial importance of words? And why do we like it when he does that? I would argue that the answer to this last question has to do with more than nostalgia, conservatism, or any particular strain of politics—it has to do with the distant appeal of a more serious time.

Seriousness. It is related to attentiveness, against “I am ADD”. It includes a determination to excise from one’s consciousness all frivolous or otherwise distracting concerns (e.g., Charlie Sheen). It is related to adulthood, and necessary for doing anything substantial, from raising a child to training for baseball season to making a TV news talk show to starting a revolution.

Santiago Ramos is currently pursuing doctoral studies in philosophy at Boston College. He has written for First Things, Image Journal, Commonweal and the Pitch.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Number of Abortions Exceeds Total Deaths in New York City

Walter Hoye, an awesomely brave pro-life pastor from Oakland, CA, posted that claim on Facebook last night. I could not believe it, so I looked it up.

Here it is. In 2008, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, there were 55,391 total deaths in New York City. Also in 2008, according to the New York State Department of Health, there were 82,475 induced abortions in New York City.

Let’s break it out with some leading causes of death in New York City in 2008:

Cause of Death Number of Deaths
Heart Disease 21,844
Cancer 13,116
Influenza/Pneumonia 2,578
Diabetes 1,708
Stroke 1,669
Deaths by All Causes (excluding abortion) 55,391
Induced Abortions 82,475

The number of people who died from abortion in 2008 in New York City is 149% of the number of people who died from all other causes. Put another way, abortion accounts for 60 percent of all deaths in New York City. I’m speechless.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Lenten Fare - Five Recommendations for Lent

From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key, by Santiago Ramos:

 large_magician_blu-ray_4A crop of books have been published recently which attempt to demonstrate that Google is making us dumber. A scientific study has declared that Facebook is a proximate cause to 1 in 5 divorces in the United States. Charlie Sheen. There are many reasons for abjuring or curbing the use of media technologies during Lent. But it is also obvious that these technologies are not going to go away, barring an unwelcome disaster of great proportions. So either we become more self-possessed and free, or we spend two hours watching Sheen clips and tell ourselves, “I wish I was more self-possessed and free.”

Then again, cultivating self-possession is hard. What makes it easier, though, is when we have a clearer idea of what we are doing it for. We are doing it for the sake of higher pleasures, more beautiful experiences. Incidentally, New Media can provide many of these higher pleasures and more beautiful experiences if we know where to look—and if we cultivate just a little more patience than usual. So if you are finding it hard to escape the seductions of YouTube and Hulu during your yearly Lenten spiritual rehabilitation, you should try redirecting your captured gaze at one of these marvels.

“Ash Wednesday,” by T.S. Eliot. Immediately, I cheat. This is a poem, not a video or a song or anything intrinsically related to the new media. Yet a quick Google search will turn up many copies of the poem. (Make sure you get one from a reputable site.) The poem is a meditation on renewal: “Because I do not hope to turn again,” the poem begins, somewhat ironically. We do hope to turn again, we always do, but part of the turning involves turning away from certain things. Eliot himself wrote the poem after the axial years of his life when, in 1927, after having cultivated a reputation as the high modernist decrier of the decline and fall of western civilization (this is what “The Waste Land” is partially about), he entered into the Anglican Church and into a new horizon of things to hope for. The speaker in the first section of “Ash Wednesday” begins and ends with a prayer which seems more pertinent now than ever before: “Teach us to care and not to care/Teach us to sit still.”

The Magician, Directed by Ingmar Bergman. This is an underrated classic from the legendary Swedish director famous for making many films which grappled with deep questions. What makes The Magician unique among his more famous films (like The Seventh Seal, Through a Glass Darkly, and Winter Light, all of which are not to be missed) is that for once Bergman’s characters are not facing empty suffering and asking “Why?” but instead actually behold a mysterious, possibly supernatural presence, and ask, “Who are you?” The presence is that of Albert Vogler, the mute and suffering magician played masterfully by Max von Sydow. Vogler travels with a troupe of performers from town to town in 19th century Sweden. One day they are received into a governor’s mansion, where they encounter a group of haughty bourgeois Enlightenment skeptics, bent not only on exposing their “lies,” but humiliating and exploiting them. But it’s the skeptics who will be humiliated, their certainties cast into doubt. The Magician is available on the Hulu Plus Criterion Collection channel (www.hulu.com/criterion. Subscriptions cost $7.99 per month).

Quartet for the End of Time, Olivier Messiaen. Composed in a Nazi prison camp in the south of France, this piece of music premiered before an audience of prisoners, guards, and party officials, and served for them the same function that ashes do for the rest of us on Ash Wednesday: a reminder of mortality and the passage JohnTheBaptist of time. But “end” is not a univocal term: end can also mean purpose, and time has a purpose, for Messiaen. Messiaen’s piece is a meditation on the relationship between time and eternity, but he doesn’t necessarily go into loft levels of abstraction—he was inspired, for example, by birdsong, and many pieces he wrote imitate it. A few recordings and performances of this piece are available on YouTube. See if you can get the recording conducted by Karajan. (If you are a Radiohead fan, compare the fifth movement, “Louange À l'Eternité De Jésus,” with “Pyramid Song.” Guitarist Jonny Greenwood is a fan.)

CharlieRose.com. Whatever you think about his interview style, Charlie Rose’s website is a treasure trove of interviews with scientists, writers, entertainers, politicians, dictators, ballerinas, and religious leaders. Explore it. Spend some time on Rose’s Christmas interview with Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, Reynolds Price, and Gardner Taylor. Big Think (www.bigthink.com) is similarly stocked with interesting interviews, sans a celebrity interviewer.

Google Maps. I cheat again. Use it to find out how to get to the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in midtown Kansas City. Stand before Rodin’s enormous sculpture of Adam in the Sculpture Hall. Contemplate.

Santiago Ramos is currently pursuing doctoral studies in philosophy at Boston College. He has written for First Things, Image Journal, Commonweal and the Pitch.

Pics:

Top – Scene from The Magician
Bottom – It’s not Rodin’s Adam, but it is also housed at the Nelson Atkins Museum. John the Baptist – Caravaggio, c. 1604. If you’d like to know the history of this painting and why it’s in Kansas City, see our Bishop Emeritus Raymond Boland’s article on Kansas City’s Caravaggio.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Benedictine College Launches ‘Catholic Identity’ Publication

It’s called The Gregorian and is edited by my good friend Tom Hoopes. Tom was previously editor of National Catholic Register and now wears several hats at the excellent Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, where you can get “a more well-rounded and complete education than that received at Harvard,” according to Kansas City, Kansas Archbishop Joseph Naumann.

The first issue, described below, comes out Ash Wednesday and is focused on Mother Teresa. I’m subscribing, FREE, today. Here’s the release:

New “Catholic Identity” Publication Launches
The Gregorian from Benedictine College launches Ash Wednesday

You can spend this Lent with Mother Teresa, thanks to Benedictine College’s new free speech digest.

The Atchison, Kan., college is launching the new publication to promote Catholic identity in public life.  The Gregorian speech digest [TheGregorian.com] is edited by Tom Hoopes. The former editor of the National Catholic Register and Faith & Family magazine serves as the college’s writer in residence.

“The crisis of our day is the separation of faith from public life,” Hoopes said. “Our campus regularly features speakers who are courageously living their Catholic identity in the world. Now readers can hear their incredible lessons about how faith and reason can work together in the real world.”

Hoopes says readers can look forward to significant lectures. Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schonborn presented a landmark lecture at Benedictine College last spring semester, “Pope Benedict, Regensburg, and the Controversy of Creation and Evolution.” Last fall,  Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer presented a summary of his book, “New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy.”

Coming to campus soon are speakers such as Dr. Janet Smith, John Allen Jr. and Dr. Robert George of Princeton.

The first issue of The Gregorian focuses on Blessed Teresa of Calcutta in her centennial year. On Mother Teresa’s 100th birthday Aug. 26, Benedictine College dedicated its Mother Teresa Nursing Center and launched its new nursing major, and has spent the academic year focusing students’ attention on the founder of the Missionaries of Charity. The first issue of The Gregorian includes:

· “What Can Mother Teresa Teach the Academy?” by Jim Towey, former counsel to Mother Teresa and former White House aide.

· “As Mother Lay Dying,” by Benedictine College alum Sister Veronica Daniels, OSB, who served as Mother Teresa’s personal nurse in her final year.

· “The Wisdom of Mother Teresa” by Sam Brownback, former Senate pro-life leader and new governor of Kansas.

Benedictine College president Stephen D. Minnis said that The Gregorian is a perfect fit with the college’s emphasis on Catholic identity.

“Benedictine College has seen great success since the publication of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the Holy Father’s document on higher education,” Minnis said. “We have built five new dorms, more than doubled our student body, and built a new Marian grotto that puts love for Mary literally in the heart of our campus. The Gregorian helps teach the lesson we have learned: There is no reason to hide your Catholic identity in public life.”

Dr. Kimberly Shankman, Dean of the College, said she hopes more audiences will hear about Benedictine College’s academic excellence through The Gregorian and the new academic “Gregorian Fellows” program for students.

“Benedictine College’s academic program is already exceptional among Catholic liberal arts universities,” Dr. Shankman said, citing the robust philosophy and theology requirements that make up the heart of the school’s general curriculum. “These new initiatives, we hope, will help expose more people to the unique experience students have here.”

The Gregorian is named for St. Gregory the Great, and hopes to emulate his example of bringing the light of the Catholic faith into his time. As one biography of the saint puts it: “Pope Saint Gregory the Great not only saved the Church in times so frightful that the men who lived in them were sure that the end of the world had come, but he founded the great civilization which has lasted down to our day, Western Civilization.”

Founded in 1858, Benedictine College is a Catholic, Benedictine, residential, liberal arts college located on the bluffs above the Missouri River in Atchison, Kansas. The school is proud to have been named one of America’s Best Colleges by the Cardinal Newman Society, U.S. News & World Report and First Things magazine. Benedictine prides itself on outstanding academics, extraordinary faith life, strong athletic programs, and an exceptional sense of community and belonging. It has a mission to educate men and women within a community of faith and scholarship.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Watson Envy and the Meaning of Life

From the upcoming edition of the Catholic Key, Santiago Ramos’ latest:
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IN THE WAKE of the “Watson” computer’s victory against its human competition in Jeopardy! last week, the Wall Street Journal asked the renowned and septuagenarian philosopher John Searle to repeat an argument he had formulated 31 years earlier, concerning the possibility of creating a computer which could think like a human being. The famous “Chinese Room” argument attempts to demonstrate the simple claim that the formal manipulation of symbols (which is what a computer does) is something different, not merely in degree but in kind, from what we human beings know intimately as “understanding.”

Watson’s hard drive contains several encyclopedias and dictionaries, as well as Wikipedia, and it is able search its memory bank in a flash; but such functions are merely outputs responding to inputs, or symbols responding to other symbols, all dependent upon human-made programming working as the necessary underlying grammar. As Searle puts it, “The reason it [Watson] lacks understanding is that…it has no way to get from symbols to meanings (or from syntax to semantics, in linguistic jargon). The bottom line can be put in the form of a four-word sentence: Symbols are not meanings.”

SUCH AN ARGUMENT will only go so far in calming down those of us who know that, whenever a computer beats a man at anything, we start thinking about more than just our own processing speeds. We start thinking about our self-worth. Not because the presence of the computer poses any sort of existential threat, but because it forces us to re-evaluate the way we see our life as a human being, as opposed to a plastic-covered, unfeeling processing unit.

Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings, one of the two humans bested by Watson, essayed his own re-evaluation in Slate, writing that, in the end, Watson’s victory could be seen as victory not for the machine but for humanity as a whole. Not only did Jennings actually square off pretty respectably in his losing effort against the mammoth computer, but it could also be argued that Watson is in fact a symbol of “human innovation and ingenuity.” Nevertheless, Jennings could see a few advantages to being a machine: “…unlike us, Watson cannot be intimidated. It never gets cocky or discouraged. It plays its game coldly, implacably, always offering a perfectly timed buzz when it's confident about an answer.”

Despite his optimism, however, there are some nagging questions hidden behind Jennings’ observation. Are our feelings—our highs and lows, our doubts and even our states of confident assertion—actually a hindrance rather than a blessing? Is Watson’s artificial sangfroid an advantage that should become a desire?

These are the questions of science fiction, but only because science fiction writers were among the first to understand that the more a culture values calculation and efficiency above all other qualities, the more human beings will have reasons to envy robots. But the answer to Watson envy is obvious enough: It depends on what you want to do. Or to put it in a way which introduces a new term into the discussion: It depends on what life is for. If our primary goals and tasks involve calculation, measurement, or data retrieval and organization (just think about what Watson could do in the stock market!), then certain feelings become hindrances to such activities and we may have some reasons to envy Watson. If life is the indefinite but limited period of time each of us has during which to engage in these activities, then we may as well do them as efficiently as Watson. If this is what we want to do, and this is what we think life is for, then the answer is obvious: Watson is good at doing these sort of things, and at doing them quickly.

WHAT IS INTERESTING is that our immediate instinct tells us that life is about more than calculation, measurement, data retrieval, and efficiency. It could be something loftier and metaphysical, or it may merely have an inessential layer of emotional frosting, but it is still more. There is no point to being efficient if we don’t know that the job we are doing is worth doing efficiently. Efficiency merely gets us to the finish line more quickly, and life itself cannot be lived in that way—who would like to rush to the finish line of life? Somehow, for some reason, the moments in between are necessary—even the loitering and the wandering and the moments when one is lost in the woods. We trust—though sometimes come close to despair—that it will all “add up in the end,” though we don’t often see how. Life is about more than sentience—it is a story which unfolds and which creates us as much as we create it.

If these observations seem banal or poetic, it is only because we have an impoverished sense of what life is. I can only do some much to try to grasp the subject for myself. It is, at least, as much a horizontal whole, which we discover, as it is a vertical phenomenon of discrete, successive moments. In the very least, we can say that there is more than one way in which Watson is not alive.

Santiago Ramos is currently pursuing doctoral studies in philosophy at Boston College. He has written for First Things, Image Journal, Commonweal and the Pitch.