Tag Archives: Philosophy

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Ron’s #34: Candide by Voltaire

I reread this novel before teaching it again in my 10th grade class. I love this unit, as it allows for discussions on the problem of evil and the nature of God. Here’s my past review.

In a satire against the optimism of Leibniz, Candide has its young philosopher traveling the world searching for his love and attempting to see if his tutor Pangloss is correct in that this world is the best of all possible worlds that God could have created.

The story begins as Candide is expelled from the Edenic castle in Westphalia for his scandalous kiss to the baroness, the fair Cunegonde. He travels across continents meeting a variety of common people and royalty; priests and sinners; wealthy and poor. Candide continues to struggle with the question of whether Pangloss (and ultimately Leibniz) is correct that this world, the one filled with greed and murder and hypocrisy and cruelty, is the best possible one out of the mind of God. He fights with what he believes and what he sees, and cannot justify the two. Candide is left to “cultivate his garden” rather than waste any more time thinking through these issues.

For the Christian, this book explores one of the key objections to a theistic faith: how can a good God allow suffering in this world? While that question is not specifically addressed, is it at the heart of Candide’s uneasiness. What happens when our world is filled with pain, disappointment, and horror? Can we reconcile a God with our life experience? This is a topic that Christians must not only address to those around who question the claims of Christianity, but we must also have an answer for ourselves when the horrors come.

It would be the height of hubris to state a simple answer to this issue, but we must begin our search for one in the gospel itself. We must remember that God the Father knows suffering and murder, as his Son hung on the cross to die for the sins of the world. He watched as Jesus was tortured and killed to become the payment for sins that we not his own. When we are trying to justify a good God with suffering, our question must begin with God himself. Candide met a cast of characters spewed from the bowels of humanity, but never discussed sin.

Christian doctrine teaches that Adam’s sin brought this world from perfection to the wastelands with people corrupted in the downward spiral. Leibniz’s optimism is wrong: this world is depraved and men have the capability to act like animals to one another. Candide’s observations should bring us back to the God who has provided his Son as a sacrifice to restore humanity to our true image-bearer state. The murderers, the rapists, the thieves in Candide’s journey point us back to a God, one who is perfect because we see that man is not. Corrupt men in the world show a moral structure beyond us that defines what corrupt men act like.

Candide’s decision to focus only on his own garden shows a hopelessness that Christians ought not have. Even in the light of pain and difficulty, we should see our “gardens” in light of the larger garden, the only that has the Tree of Life swaying. Because of this, we can have hope in that other world that is the best of all possible worlds.

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Ron’s #25: A Mind for God by James Emery White

A Mind for God by James Emery White is a book that I wished I could write. It makes a solid case for the active life of the Christian mind. Christians are often (and sometimes fairly) caricatured as backwoods simpletons who eschew logical thought in exchange for the ease of lazy faith. White describes the need for Christians to crave to develop our minds for the glory of Christ. We ought to seek to deeply understand our faith, our culture, our world. Living passively, whether a Christian or non-believer, is a wasted life.

The first step to engage our minds is simply to read. White makes a passionate plea to read often and read broadly. He tells an interesting story about a family trip to Disney World when, during a calm period between visits to the park, his family sat in the lobby reading books for an hour or so. A passerby commented that she wishes her family would do this ritual. His solution is simply to create the habit of reading. How often do we carve out time to intentionally read? I think of all the distractions and responsibilities that vie for my attention which take away my reading time. I need to heed White’s advice to make reading a priority in my life over television, the Internet, and other trifles. My favorite chapter in this book is titled, “The Library as Armory.” This puts reading and books in their proper perspective in our lives. Too often, we arm ourselves with pop-culture foolishness, and those weapons will never win a war. Reading hard books provides the proper training needed to interact with our culture today.

Another aspect of this book that I appreciated is the chapter titled, “Sacred Thinking.” In it, he describes the art of self-reflection between what we read and other areas of our life. It is incorrect to think that our thinking is compartmentalized. What we watch on television, what we read for pleasure, what we discuss over coffee, and what we hear in the Sunday sermon are not distinct areas of study. Do we allow ourselves time to contemplate how these areas fit together or how they are incongruent? This self-reflection is important in all circles, Christian or non-Christian. It’s an aspect that I want my students to do in a variety of readings in class, and I should do it with what I read as well.

The appendices are worth the price of the book alone. White offers three book lists to begin our quest toward a mind for God. The first list is “Ten to Start,” books that offer a basic overview to reading and to the Christian faith. Adler, Lewis, Packer, etc. The next is called “Twenty-Five Books Toward a Christian Worldview.” The third is “Entering the Great Conversation,” a compendium of great books that offer a broad education in world literature. These three provide readers of all levels to begin their diet of important texts to develop their minds for God.

I recommended many of the books on this list, but A Mind for God is really one of the best for an introduction to the importance of reading, learning, and thinking. If you are like me, you’ll appreciate the reminder to read and think more.

 

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Ron’s #24: Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Before you judge the inclusion of a graphic novel here, know that this is over 400 pages of powerful, unique storytelling that happens to be in the graphic novel format. When it came out in 1985, it was one of the first stories that took a different look at superheroes and comic books. Without Watchmen, there would be no Dark Knight.

The story takes place in an alternate 1985 America, where we won the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon is still president. There are no humans with super powers, only masked crime fighters—adventurers—who help clean up the streets. After the Keene Act, vigilantism is declared illegal, and the heroes retire or go to work with the government. One of these is Edward Blake (the Comedian), whose less-than-honorable ways have made him a successful soldier-for-hire. Another is Dr. Manhattan, the only person with real super powers. Dr. Manhattan works for the U.S. government, and keeps a check on the approaching Soviets by tipping the balance of power in America’s favor.

The story opens with Rorschach, an illegal crime fighter with an heightened sense of justice, searching for answers in the murder of Edward Blake. He uncovers a plot to kill the former adventurers in an attempt to remove Dr. Manhattan, and perhaps to have world-conquering implications.

There are many layers to this excellent story: the comparison to this America to the actual 1985’s America; the story-within-a-story about the Black Freighter; the question on what heroes do when they are done saving the world; and, the most interesting to me, Rorschach’s moral justice versus the other characters. The character is perhaps one of the most compelling characters, both good and depraved in the same man. His mask is Rorschach inkblots, black and white with no place for gray.

If you are interested in the graphic novel format, I’d suggest giving this a go. It is a real page-turner.

Here’s a trailer for the movie version that came out in 2009. It’s a pretty good movie, albeit quite violent.

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Ron’s #13: Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Animals. Religion. India. Philosophy. Shipwreck. Friendship. Stories. Survival. Canada.

Life of Pi tells the story of sixteen-year-old Pi Patel, a unique young man growing up at a family zoo in India. As an act of faith, Pi takes on Hinduism, Islam, and Catholicism without any problems of contradiction. Soon, his faith is tested as he is shipwrecked in the Pacific with a strange companion to share a lifeboat.

There is much to this book. It’s an easy read in terms of story, but there are many aspects that require reflection and discussion. While I disagree with some of the notions of Yann’s religion and his worldview, I do feel like it is an excellent portrayal of struggling to live and struggling to believe.

Yann Martel is a formidable writer who created a wonderful story that you’ll think about long after you close the book. In fact, you’ll even question whether the story you just read really is the story you just read.

The movie version is coming out 12/2012. I’m eager to see how it will work considering much of the novel is philosophical musing. I’m also eager to see how Tobey Maguire can play a teenaged Indian boy.

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Mark’s #2 – Life of Pi (A Novel) by Yann Martel

 Piscine Molitor Patel, known as “Pi” tells his life story and epic adventure as an adult looking back at both his childhood in Pondicherry, India, and his survival on a life boat in the Pacific Ocean for 227 days with a Bengal tiger.   As the son of a zookeeper and owner, Pi is forced to use all of his knowledge about animals (which is quite extensive) in order for him and his tiger to survive.

As a story of survival, Yann Martel, does a great job of writing and engaging the reader.   From this perspective, the story was thoroughly enjoyable.  However, toward the end, an already bizarre adventure took some even more bizarre and unbelievable twists… such as encountering yet another (at this time blind) castaway (a Frenchman) on the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.  Hours before what seemed the inevitable death for Pi, the Frenchman, and the tiger, both castaways decide to join in one lifeboat as ‘brothers’ in their death.  Yet, the Frenchman decides instead to try to murder Pi and eat him, but first he is eaten by the Tiger instead.

The other plot twist toward the end, which still leaves me scratching my head, was when Pi and the tiger land on a floating island of algae, trees, and docile meerkats… here Pi is able to eat his fill of juicy algae, drink from freshwater ponds, and eat fish who apparently swim in from the ocean and die… Oh, by the way, as it turns out, the Island also consumes humans at night??? So, inspite of some weeks of luxury and comfort, Pi decides to take his tiger and once again head out to sea.  It was at this point, though late in the book, that I began to realize that much more of the story had to do with metaphor and allegory than I had previously taken it.  Perhaps, or more likely, probably this whole scene has some sort of metaphysical and religious symbolism that I can’t quite place.

Speaking of religious things, Pi is a very religious boy.  Here is where the author was clearly trying to put forth a worldview for his readers to embrace.  Pi is what theologians would call a religious pluralist or syncretist.  As an Indian boy, he grew up for a love of all things Hindu.  During one family vacation, he stumbles into a Roman Catholic church, and subsequently becomes a Chrsitian (I use the term loosely here).  It’s not that he rejects Hinduism, but rather he adds Christianity.  Later he does the same with Islam, and in his mind there is no contradiction.  In fact, this seems to be what the author would have the reader himself do… don’t worry about the nature of truth or the law of contradiction… that, in his mind, is besides the point.  One can worship the god of Islam which fiercely claims that there is only one God, and at the same time worship the multitudes of gods and goddesses within the Hindu pantheon.

While this view of reality certainly will appeal to the postmodern mind, it turns out to be both philosophically untenable, and also religiously ignorant and offensive to those who hold dearly to each one of the faiths Pi embraces.  How can Pi embrace the Bible and ignore the first commandment – “You shall have no other gods before me”?  How can Pi be a devout follower of Islam and yet burn incense to the god Vishnu?  How can Pi embrace the pantheism of Hinduism AND the transcendent God of both Islam and Christianity? How can Pi acknowledge pain and suffering from the perspective of both a Hindu (it is an illusion) and Christian (it is very real, and God’s own Son suffered under it)?  Simply put, he can’t do this.   The syncretistic, postmodern view of ultimate reality that Yann Martel puts fourth may make for an element to a good story, but as a philosophy it is a shoddy bucket that can’t hold water.

Conclusion: Enjoy the story, but don’t turn your brain off to the philosophical implications of Martel’s worldview.

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