Learning to Kneel: Etty Hillesum and Simone Weil as Examples of Openness to Reality

Etty Hillesum and Simone Weil can help our understanding of political science through their accounts of participatory experience of the full amplitude of reality. Their reflections on their everyday experiences attest to the truthfulness of Eric Voegelin’s political science. Specifically, they raise the question: Once we open ourselves to the “ultimate purpose toward which we are rationally oriented,” then what? How is human openness to transcendence made manifest in our daily living? Through the diaries and letters of Hillesum and Weil, we can understand the meaning of participation in living within those questions that one cannot ask without some change taking place in the soul of the questioner. Voegelin symbolized these experiences as the opening of the soul to transcendence. This involves the recognition that man is not the source of his existence, so he cannot be the ultimate measure of it. Such insights are not propositional or axiomatic, but are experienced through paradoxical and meditative participation in the turning of the soul toward truth. This is also the fundamental experience of a political theorist who can then begin to analyze society against the standard of divine truth rooted in the nature of the relationship man experiences in his response to God.

I presented this paper at the American Political Science Association annual conference in August 2014. To listen to it, click here:

Satan! Dangerous Person! Neo-Liberal!

Tonight I attended a “Catholic Media Ethics” talk at my church. This was my comment and question during Q&A:

Using abstract nouns like “society”, “community”, and “humanity” seems to disregard the important fact that, in reality, there isn’t some perfect consensus; individual persons are divided on every single political, economic, social, and moral question. Do you think there is a ‘media party’ with a consistent ideological bias because of the idea that there is (or can be) a homogenous, social consensus on things when no “shared story of collective humanity” actually exists?

The speaker (from The Catholic Register) shouted, “Satan!!!” and pointed at me while stepping back to distance himself from me. Then he said, “You are a dangerous person. You are giving us an individualistic, neo-liberal view that I don’t think is at all compatible with the Christian concept of community.”

An audience member said with outrage, “Just like Margaret Thatcher!”

The speaker then argued that the neo-liberal view is mainly an economic one and that its adherents have the wrong anthropology.

“What if the ‘neo-liberal’ anthropology is actually quite truthful and ‘Catholic’? I mused.

He said, “Try to make the case sometime.” Then he noted Father Raymond de Souza as an example of a ‘right wing’ Catholic who gets published in The Register.

Nice to have one token conservative.

Given how relevant economics and politics is to our lives, shouldn’t we be able to discuss these controversial topics in the light of faith and from a plurality of perspectives?

I think this is why Father Sirico founded the Acton Institute. And I’m thankful he did. Acton University is the first place I ever learned the term “philosophical anthropology.” Michael Matheson Miller told us that JPII had said, “The fundamental problem of socialism is anthropological in nature.” What he meant is that socialists give an incorrect account of the human person.

That experience at ActonU was one of the most illuminating and memorable moments of my life and has influenced me personally, academically, and professionally. Who we are and what it fundamentally means to be human persons is a debate that is, of course, not “settled.”

I don’t think that all my fellow Catholics and, more broadly, fellow citizens should think like me. I do hope though that we would be able to think about things together without excommunication from the conversation on the basis of different political and economic perspectives.

It’s the Creed that’s universal among a particular faith community.

Is it not some form of idolatry then to elevate policy opinions (and, dare I add, social doctrine) to the status of dogma?

Totalitarian Elements in Mind/Body Dualism and What this Means for Bioethics

Here is a presentation I gave at the Southern Political Science Association Conference in New Orleans on January 11, 2014.

In The Phenomenon of Life, Hans Jonas identifies the root of contemporary bioethical problems in the incorrect philosophical anthropology of mind-body dualism. What does this modern prejudice have to do with bioethical issues today from in vitro fertilization to euthanasia? Listen here! (20 min.)

I welcome your comments, critiques, responses, and recommended reading.

This post is dedicated with gratitude to Barry Cooper who first introduced me to Hans Jonas and helped me to study and love these questions.

SPSA Panel

Beer and Bureaucracy, Churches and Chocolate, Waffles and Western Civilization

After two years of graduate studies at the university, I felt that I did not have a sufficiently good education to merit the degree of Doctor in Philosophy. I confided my worries to one of the professors, who said: “What would you like to have in education?” I said: “I should like to know two things—first, what the modern world is thinking about; second, how to answer the errors of modern philosophy in the light of the philosophy of St. Thomas.” He said: “You will never get it here, but you will get it at the University of Louvain in Belgium.
                                     — Fulton J. Sheen, Treasure in Clay  

ISI Summer Seminar at Samford in Alabama

ISI Summer Seminar at Samford in Alabama

I arrived to the Brussels airport on Sunday morning. From there, I found my way to the train and purchased a ticket to Leuven where I would meet my friend Dan, who is studying there, and who I met at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute First Principles seminar this past summer at Samford University in Alabama. At the closing picnic, he and I had struck up a conversation, along with Vinny, who was studying at Leuven with Dan, too. We hit it off quickly discussing existentialism, phenomenology, and mysticism. They both encouraged me to consider studying at Leuven and to, at the very least, visit. So the seeds planted during that one conversation in Alabama were now bearing fruit in Belgium.

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Don’t be a Nodder: Painting, Poem, and Periagoge

On Saturday I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City with a group of wonderful students with whom I am currently attending the Witherspoon Institute‘s First Principles seminar.

Although it was my first time to the Met, being there reminded me of attending “Museum School” as a child. For one full week in Grade 3, my class and I had daylong visits to the Glenbow Museum where we explored art, artifacts, exhibits, historical documents, and international collections. We were given journals and encouraged to be curious and careful observers. The goal was to be still and observe with a sense of wonder, reflectively considering the “5Ws” – who, what, when, where, and why. We were encouraged to not try to observe everything, but rather to observe a few things well. We were educated to not race throughout the museum saying superficially, “That’s nice” and “That’s interesting.” In short, the most memorable lesson of Museum School was: “Don’t be a nodder.”

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The Ridiculous Woman: A Public Intellectual Parallels Dostoevsky’s “Ridiculous Man’s” Ability to Love

Capacities to Act and to Love

Recently, Marina Nemat gave participants at Acton University an account of her experiences as a political prisoner in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution of 1979. After an idyllic upbringing in a generally free society, everything changed when Nemat was arrested by Islamists at age sixteen. These perpetrators captured, interrogated, and tortured her relentlessly – almost to the point of death. When men beat the soles of her feet with cables, she wanted to die and says that she would have sold her soul to the devil in order to escape the pain. This thought perpetuated her agony because she was a Catholic who sensed in this moment that she was not fit to be a martyr. Arguing firmly that the purpose of torture is not to gain information nor punish, she insists the true purpose of torture is the destruction of the soul.  Eventually, Nemat was forced to “marry” one of her torturers. She went to his mother’s house and was warmly welcomed by his mother who showed her great hospitality.  Nemat wondered to herself: how can this woman be the mother of a torturer? Soon, this mother told her that her son had been the victim of even more severe torture. This marked a turning point at which Nemat says, “I realized then that he had been tortured – just like me. And I didn’t like that part because it made me recognize that he was a human being.” Briefly she considered revenge, perplexed by the possibility that someone can be the torturer today and the tortured tomorrow. But ultimately she conquered both this appetite for revenge and her desire to be placed in solitary confinement. Instead, Nemat chose to discover how to reaffirm her dignity in spite of the circumstances that made this seem impossible.
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The Letter I Wrote to Ralph Klein When I Was 15

Ralph Klein died on Good Friday 2013. Along with Christ, he knew the importance of sacrifice. It is a great testament to his leadership and character that almost every Albertan has some story about ‘King Ralph.’

The first letter that I ever wrote to a politician was to Premier Klein. Receiving a response encouraged me in my youth to be enthusiastic about the opportunity to participate in politics. Here’s my letter.

June 1, 2006

Office of the Premier
Room 307, Legislature Building
10800 – 97th Avenue
Edmonton, Alberta T5K 2B6

Dear Mr. Ralph Klein:

Thank you for leading our province to where we are today. Your goal towards a debt-free province for the next generation (my generation) was challenging for many as you insisted on a tight budget. However, the fruits of the discipline that you encouraged have rewarded us all with a profit!

It was generous of you to decide to give everyone in our province $400.00 and I find it very interesting and exciting to see, hear, and read how people have chosen or are choosing to spend their money.

I became very interested by the stories that I had heard. Some of the kids at school were excited about buying Ipods, MP3 Players, and other cool toys and electronics. I choose to invest my money in the training that I am required to obtain for a summer work position with the City of Calgary.

It has come to my attention that you have even more money to potentially dispense throughout the province. What a blessing it is to call Alberta home! At first, I thought it that it would be great to get more “Ralphbucks” with my name on it. But, now I think that it is important to put the rest of the money towards education.

I’ve learned that my school is being forced to compromise the values that it stands for and raise money through casinos to provide me with great opportunities such as field trips, option courses, and guest presenters. These programs enhance my learning experiences and make school so much more fun. However, I do believe that the cost is too high when we have to compromise what we believe in to receive a quality Catholic education.

Having to raise money through means that contradict our morals and values can and is influencing all education systems because gambling has so many negative effects on people’s lives. By using the money we are condoning the continuation of this highly addictive activity without even wanting to.

With the financial surplus, I feel strongly that the money should be invested into quality education so that we can continue having special learning experiences without paying the price of compromising our morals and values.

Thank you for your time and consideration and for everything that you have done that has lead our province to this financially responsible place in Canada.

Sincerely,

Amanda Achtman
Grade 9 Student
École Madeleine d’Houet School