Ingested Words PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Wednesday, 14 October 2009 20:23

soldierEver since seeing Ben Stein’s Expelled earlier this year, I’ve wanted to be David Berlinski. The man oozes intellectual intensity.

After reading The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scien­tific Pretensions (Crown Forum, 2008), I decided that if I can’t be David Berlinski, at least I can aspire to write like him. The Devil’s Delusion is a defense of religion and a critique of the hubris of modern science. A theistic but non-practicing Jew, Berlinski doesn’t know if religions are true, or what religion is true, but he is certain that science has not proven them false. On the positive side, he revives a sophisticated form of the cosmological argument. He writes, “Western science is above all the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

In Berlinski, the new atheists have a formidable oppo­nent, a mathematician and philosopher who combines wide knowledge of science and Western culture with sharp analy­sis, and who entertains with a cutting wit. Some examples of the latter: Materialists have always hoped that they can reduce matter to its most basic particles, but Berlinski says “This is a matter of faith. It is entirely possible that there may be as many elementary particles as there is funding available to investigate them.”

My favorite moment in the book concerns Christo­pher Hitchens, who, Berlinski says, comes close to saying an educated person is someone who is aware of his ignorance: “This seems very much as if Hitchens were in awe of his own ignorance, in which case he has surely found an object worthy of his veneration.”

Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, et. al. will be smarting for some time.

° ° ° ° °

The title of Robert Hanson’s 1983 historical novel (reis­sued in a Harper paperback edition in 2007 to coincide with the release of the film), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, doesn’t give the author much room to surprise us with his story. But the book does surprise and enchant because of the precision of Hanson’s prose and the bounty of his imagination. He recovers a period of American history when the celebrity outlaw Jesse James was more widely known around the world than the President of the United States and when many were still fighting the Civil War by other means.

Hanson’s James is a living, breathing tall tale. From the first pages, he springs to life, part criminal and part mystic clairvoyant, a cruel murderer who enjoyed playing with his children on picnics, a health nut who exercised in­cessantly, twisted horseshoes with his bare hands, and drank “vegetable juices and potions,” the son of a preacher who spent a month directing a church choir under an assumed name, memorized Psalms, and pored over the pages of his leather-bound Bible.

The novel is also a study of a classic Girardian rivalry. Robert Ford was fanatic for Jesse James. He knew all the trivia and legends, and could recount the details of every bank and train robbery in which the James gang was impli­cated. Ford goes from fanatic through disillusionment to the Holy Week assassination when Ford shot James in the back as he stood on a stool in his sitting room, dusting a picture.

Hanson follows Ford’s story past the assassination proper. Ford was initially hailed as a hero and had the wit to leverage his notoriety into an acting career (during which he endlessly reenacted a dramatized version of the assas­sination) and ownership of several Western brothels. Soon enough, he was branded a Judas and eventually died a pitiful death. James has always been fascinating, but Hanson is able to give the cowardly, disagreeable Robert Ford a nearly tragic stature.

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What is the source of the thrill basketball fans feel when they see a perfectly executed give-and-go, or an arcing lob pass that ends in a dunk? Why do we flinch when the linebacker takes out the unsuspecting wide receiver, about to catch a pass? What accounts for the fascination we have for the bodies of athletes, a fascination that is not sexual, or at least not entirely sexual?

Philosophers who write about sports are often writing about sociology, or semiotics, or gender, rather than sports. The assumption seems to be that sports themselves are beneath notice, unless elevated into something worthy.

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, a Professor of German literature at Stanford, is an unabashed sports fan, and he meditates thoughtfully on his obsession in his elegant essay In Praise of Athletic Beauty (Belknap, 2006).

Sports are a species of performance, in the mode of what Gumbrecht calls “presence.” Presence assumes an anti-Cartesian conception of life. When we think of our­selves as mainly minds, the world, including our own bod­ies, stands at a distance from us, and we try to make sense of it. Meaning is paramount. In sports, what the body knows is as important as what the mind knows, and the objects in the world are not “out there” to be understood but are part of ourselves.

Gumbrecht sees arête, the pursuit of excellence, as a more central value in sports than agon, competition. He explores our fascination with sports by focusing on factors such as bodies, tragic suffering, grace, the use of tools (race cars, for instance), and good timing.

In how many books do Nietzsche and Kant jostle around with Jack Dempsey, the Red Sox, Roger Bannister, and Wayne Gretzky?

° ° ° ° °

Douglas Knight’s Eschatological Economy (Eerdmans, 2006) is extremely difficult to summarize. This isn’t because Knight is obscure or possessed by the demons of jargon. He writes cleanly, in straightforward declarative sentences without a great deal of technical vocabulary. But there is so much going on that you want to stop after every sentence and think for an hour or a month.

Knight discusses Trinitarian theology and develops a relational ontology that, in a wholly original way, links being with public recognition and honor. He aims to rehabilitate the category of “law” in modern theology, and sacrifice too, which he describes as a renewal of personhood. Knight is writing political theology: “Christian thought is political,” he declares in the preface. “It contradicts other systems of ideas and creates a real encounter and contest of world­views.”

And “economy” means economy. He is interested in the meaning of Israel’s paedeia under the law, and how that prepares the way for the coming of Jesus. But work is a central theme of the book, not only God’s work and Christ’s work, but our work, our actual labor.

Christianity is not about ideas but about practice; Knight is also writing practical theology.

I understated my case. The book is impossible to sum­marize. It must simply be read.

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