Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Thomas Merton and Rowan Williams: Thoughts on Trust, Desire, and the Finding of an Orientation

I have recently found myself ruminating over a thought-passage from the always inexhaustible writings of the great American Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-68).  The following text comes from his slim but classic Thoughts in Solitude, first published in 1956.  Indeed, another scholar-priest and poet-mystic, the current Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (b. 1950), has called this text "one of [Merton's] most profound and abidingly impressive books."
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.  I do not see the road ahead of me.  I cannot know for certain where it will end.  Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that  am actually doing so.  But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.  And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.  I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.  And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.  Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.  I will no fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone (p. 79).
What I've called a thought-passage is more traditionally labeled a prayer.  What I find so resonate in these words is Merton's brutal honesty: he has no idea where he is headed but rather than despair he emplots his anxiety within a horizon of hopefulness.  His self-doubt and trepidation finds its only security in complementary intuitions about the Divine and a life lived in relation to that fundamental principle: "I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.  And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing.  I  hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire."  To comport oneself according to such an eros is to make trust one's most fundamental orienting desire.

Rowan Williams, in his January 29th concluding remarks to the gathering "Building an Ethical Economy" at Trinity Wall Street in New York City, took up the question of trust in a way I find remarkably resonant with Merton, since both men use trust as the horizon of hopefulness to frame an otherwise unclear and perhaps motivationally paralyzing set of experiences (Williams's remarks on trust start in at about 26mins).  Trust, says Williams, is "not only about mutual belief"; rather, at a "slightly deeper level, it's about having some confidence that you are not completely indifferent to my interests.  I trust you to tell me the truth because I believe you have a sufficient concern for my interests not to be misleading me....Trust is a belief that the Other shares something of my interest."  This means that the "charge and challenge" is to ask, "Whose interests do I recognize?"  In the Archbishop's estimation, faith can play a larger part in society and culture by helping individuals "to imagine more deeply and broadly the interests of the Other."  A deficit of trust goes hand in hand with a deficit in relationships.  The "most basic of questions," then, is, "Why should I be trusted, and how do I set my life on a course that makes it trustworthy?"  For Williams, the answer to that question of the form of our relating is necessarily bound up with the theological question of "why we trust God." Admittedly "boiling down" a great deal of theological reflection, Williams concludes:
Christian theology, at its best, has always said we can trust God because God has made us when God didn't need to.  God has created what is other to the Divine Life so that it may be loved.  Because nothing we can do can make God happier, safer, richer, or anything of that kind.  God, as Clement of Alexandria said many centuries ago, is distinctive in that God loves what he has no natural communion with.  Because God is God.  And the miracle is that God has created a world to be in communion with the Divine love.  God, in short, recognizes our interest by the sheer fact of creating us.  We know that God is not in the business of creation and redemption because of God's interest, but because of ours.  And so, because of that selfless outpouring at the root of our very being, we trust God.  And the challenge for any believer in a God of that kind is whether we can, in some small measure, so reflect that selfless outpouring that we may be trustworthy and trust, in turn, neighbor and stranger.
Clearly, Williams is sketching a theology of God as impassible and a doctrine of creation ex nihilo -- positions that have both, and I think rightly, been challenged across a range of theological positions, most especially in Catherine Keller's The Face of the Deep and John Caputo's Weakness of God.  But setting such metaphysical matters aside, what Merton and Williams share, I suggest, is a profound recognition of how peripatetic modern life can be, which they wed to an image of the Divine as that in which one might place one's full trust when all else seems precarious and overwhelming.  The God in whom this trust is placed is said to be a God on whom the believer can lean.  Against the despair prompted by the falling away of worldly security, Merton and Williams offer the outpouring of sheer gift.  Belief, far from being mere propositional content, thus becomes a modality of action: to believe is to abide in the Other.  Our trustworthiness is thus a product of our having already trusted another.  Or, as Merton elsewhere writes in Thoughts in Solitude: "Your life is shaped by the ends you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire" (p. 49).

Other Links of Interest:

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Life of Toils & Vigils: Innocent III and the Phenomenality of Research

Brevis sit et vana huius seculi fallax gloria 
Brief and empty is the deceptive glory of this world
-- Jacques de Vitry.

We are never what we are; something different is always possible.
-- John D. Caputo

One of the most popular texts during the medieval period was Pope Innocent III's (d. 1216) On the Misery of the Human Condition (De miseria humanae conditionis), which dates to the 1190s.  The text repeatedly confronts its readers with the absolute and, for Innocent, abject mortality of earthly existence.  For Innocent, "man was formed out of earth, conceived in guilt, born to punishment. What he does is depraved and illicit, is shameful and improper, vain and unprofitable. He will become fuel for the eternal fires, food for worms, a mass of rottenness."  In an effort "to make [his] explanation clearer and ... fuller," Innocent elaborates with apparent relish:
Man was formed of dust, slime, and ashes; what is even more vile, of the filthiest seed. He was conceived from the itch of the flesh, in the heat of passion and the stench of lust, and worse yet, with the stain of sin. He was born to toil, dread, and trouble; and more wretched still, was born only to die. He commits depraved acts by which he offends God, his neighbor, and himself, shameful acts by which he defiles his name, his person, and his conscience; and vain acts by which he ignores all things important, useful, and necessary. He will become fuel for those fires which are forever hot and burn forever bright; food for the worm which forever nibbles and digests; a mass of rottenness which will forever stink and reek….
But before we write Innocent off as a hater of all things fleshly, before, that is, we issue against him some dualist insult, we might pause and reflect on what it is that Innocent''s apparent "misery" at human life targets.  Here the corruptible nature of the human body serves to frame a more general concern for the proper comportment of earthly life.  Like the slightly later tradition of the ars moriendi and even to some extent the mid-twentieth-century theological notion of a "fundamental option" (most commonly associated with the German Jesuit Karl Rahner) or for that matter certain Heideggerian and Gadamarian ideas about facticity and situatedness,  to be acutely aware of our finitude allows us, at least potentially, to live with a greater sense of the importance and weightiness of what we do now.  But also its absolute contingency, for things can be otherwise.  Our place on the Wheel of Fortune will be altered.

But one passage in particular strikes me as remarkable resonant.  Here Innocent calls his readers to remember what might called a constitutive non-knowability characterizing the factical life of scholarship: 
For although a researcher must toil through many vigils and keep vigils over his toils, there is hardly anything so cheap and easy that a man can understand it fully and clearly, unless perhaps he knows for sure that nothing is known for sure.  This may seem an unresolvable contradiction.  But why?  "For the corruptible body is a load upon the soul, and the earthly habitation presses down upon the mind that muses on many things" [Ecclesiastes 8:16-17].  Hear what Solomon says about this: "All things are hard; man cannot explain them by word" [Ps. 63:7-8].
What I find so remarkable about this brief passage is how it powerfully articulates the difficulties of a scholarly life.  These are not merely or only existential difficulties, but are somehow structural -- perhaps even ontological.  Innocent writes about how "a researcher must toil through many vigils and keep vigils over his toils."  This chiasmus between toiling and vigiling is so necessary because our ability to know is so constitutively flawed, impotent.  From a theological position, this inability to know -- whether fully or accurately -- might, following Augustine, be declared a necessary condition of postlapsarian existence.  Original Sin, in an Augustinian frame, has inescapably cognitive consequences.  (I think this is a feature that Milton deftly weaves into his Paradise Lost.)  But still we press on, still we toil in our vigils, still we keep vigil over our toils.  Innocent here sounds to my ears remarkably like John Caputo in More Radical Hermeneutics: On Not Knowing Who We Are: "We are driven by the passion of non-knowing" (p. 3).  But in that same passion -- brimming with its unique difficulties, replete with its own anxieties and calamities -- we are able to hear a certain tonality of hope and expectation.  Caputo again, from his still beautiful essay on Foucault: "For our being human spins off into an idefinite future about which we know little or nothing, which fills us with a little hope and not a little anxiety, a future to come for which there is no program, no preparation, no prognostication" (p. 36).

With Innocent, we see that, in whatever else it might consist, the phenomenality of scholarship rests precisely in its hylomorphic qualities.  Life is hard, and we have to work hard to get it right: so Aristotle wrote, Solomon confessed, and Caputo channeled.  But the life about which we speak is a life which unfolds in unseen directions, and it is this Deleuzian impersonality that might enable us to think our lives otherwise.  As Amy Hollywood writes in the close pages of Sensible Ecstasy: "What is required is a resolute attempt to think the body otherwise, as the site of possibility and limitation, pleasure and suffering, natality and death, for all human beings in all our multiplicity and diversity" (p. 186). 

For the texts from Innocent, I have used the translation by Margaret M. Dietz (Indianapolis: Library of Liberal Arts/Bobbs-Merrill, 1969).

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Works of Friendship

updated Tuesday, April 6, 2010: additions to Ben Dunning and Diane Davis; NEW listings on Samuel Baker and two of my fellow Yale alums, Michael Milton and Tyler Wigg-Stevenson.

It seems altogether fitting that my first real post of 2010 should be one that reflects on the accomplishments achieved by others during the last year.  This post, which was mostly composed back in early January but has remained buried because of more pressing personal matters, chronicles the works of friends that have appeared in print.  Because the theme of friendship has once again proven to be so existentially poignant for me, I will save the unpacking of my titular terms for another post.

  • Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski, a medievalist and church historian, has published Christian Memories of the Maccabean Martyrs, based on his Boston College dissertation (see here for an extended preview).  Among other virtues, Daniel's study employs a postcolonial analysis keyed to an historian's sensitivity to the particular and contingent so as to illuminate more deeply certain patterns of medieval Christian identity- and culture-making.
  • Benjamin Dunning, a specialist in New Testament and Early Christian literatures, published Aliens and Sojourners: Self as Other in Early Christianity in UPenn's magnificent series Divinations, along with two articles in the Journal of Early Christian Studies and the Journal of Religion related to his next book project on, as he describes it, the "theological significance of sexual difference and gendered embodiment in second- and third-century Christian thought." The articles are: "What Sort of Thing Is This Luminous Woman? Thinking Sexual Difference in On the Origin of the World," Journal of Early Christian Studies 17.1 (2009): 55-84; and "Virgin Earth, Virgin Birth: Creation, Sexual Difference, and Recapitulation in Irenaeus of Lyons," Journal of Religion 89.1 (2009): 57-88.
  • Nathan Mitchell, a scholar of longstanding note in the history and theology of Christian liturgy, published The Mystery of the Rosary: Marian Devotion and the Reinvention of Catholicism (excerpts available via the link and here on Google books).  Nathan seeks to "account for the rosary's ubiquity, durability, and resilience" as a popular devotion that cuts across a diversity of spectra and historical continua.  But his aim is not to offer a "positivist history" of the devotion; rather, his a hermeneuetical enterprise, seeking "to understand how what happened continues to shape human experience."  He states his argument clearly: "to understand the rosary's adaptability and survival across chronological periods, cultures, and continents one must examine more closely the changes Catholicism itself began to experience after the Reformation...and the Council of Trent."  Importantly, he demonstrates how, contrary to certain popular historiographies, "Catholicism after Trent did not become a fossilized, monolithic institution immune to change."  For Nathan, "the rosary survived and flourished because it was able to absorb the reframings of reform, representation, ritual, religious identity, and devotion tha came to characterize early modern Catholicism and that have continued to shape Catholic piety and practice to the present day."   From the outset, Nathan whispers what I take to be two axioms that ought to govern any inquiry into historical Catholicism: (a) "a reform of church life is inevitably a reform of its images as these are framed in its icons, its rites, and its written narratives"; and (b) "Catholics have maintained traditions of belief and behavior not through single-minded intransigence but by embracing flexibility and change."  See here for a brief video excerpt of Nathan discussing the sacramental theology of Vatican II, the sacraments of faith more generally, and how through sacrament Christians are committed to social justice. Nathan also continues to write his extraordinary column, the "Amen Corner," for the liturgical studies journal Worship.
  • As its editor, Nicola Masciandaro successfully shepherded the inaugural issue of the new journal Glossator into existence. The issue was replete with outstanding contributions, but I especially draw attention (given the rubric under which I am writing) to Daniel C. Remein's exquisite essay in what I would have to call a combinatorial poetics (i.e., combining his scholarly work with his poetry and creative writing -- although I am well aware that the distinction I'm making between the two is utterly arbitrary), and the collaborative piece by Nicola and Anna Klosowska, who also collaborated with Bryan Reynolds on a chapter in the latter's new book, Transversal Subjects. See here for Dan's blog. And Nicola's essay "Becoming Spice: Commentary as Geophilosophy" has now appeared in Collapse VI: Geo/Philosophy .
  • It is impossible to chart the many scholarly iterations of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (there are, in fact, no less than three webpages [see here and here for the other two] for him as well as the group blog In the Middle) but I will note that he contributed a chapter on lithic memory to the already well-received collection, The Post-Historical Middle Ages [see below]. Ever the active blogger, JJC has also listed what he considers to be his top 20 posts of 2009, a year that also marks the end of his run as department chair [see also here and here].
  • In addition to his many book reviews, Aaron Klink authored the chapter "Knowledge Seeking Wisdom: Medical Professionals, Religion and End of Life Care" in volume 1 of Religion, Death, and Dying, ed., Lucy Bregman (Praeger Press). Aaron also delivered a subtle but riotously funny paper on the queer theological work of James Alison at the American Academy of Religion's annual meeting in Montreal. My favorite moment in the talk -- alongside Aaron's various Lutheran testimonials -- was when he reminded the audience that, while the American Lutherans were discussing the issue of blessing same-sex unions at their annual synod back in June, a tornado hit. For the "conservatives," this was clearly an act of Divine judgment against those who would wish to bless such unions. Meanwhile, the "liberal" faction, upon their victory, claimed hermeneutical superiority by retrospectively interpreting the tornado as the presence of the Holy Spirit!
  • Two individuals with ties to  the UT Austin English Department graduate program have also been active. Bradley J. Irish, who specializes in Tudor literature and history, published "'The Secret Chamber and the Other Suspect Places': Materiality, Space, and the Fall of Catherine Howard" in Early Modern Women: An Interdisciplinary Journal 4 (2009), pp. 169-74. Brad also gave papers at several important conferences, including one entitled "Surrey, Richmond and the Poetics of Ambivalence," at Hampton Court Palace for an international gathering on "Henry VIII and the Tudor Court, 1509-2009." He closed out the year by delivering an MLA paper.   Sebastian Langdell's "‘What world is this? How vndirstande am I?’A reappraisal of poetic authority in Thomas Hoccleve’s Series" appeared in Medium Aevum 78.2 (2009).
  • The year also closed with Brian P. Flanagan receiving his first book contract for what is surely to be an impressive systematic treatment of the ecclesiology of the Dominican theologian Jean-Marie Tillard (1927-2000); the volume is forthcoming in 2010 from Continuum/T&T Clark.  See here for an abstract of Brian's 2007 Boston College dissertation.  Brian, who now teaches at Marymount University (Arlington, VA), has also authored an essay on the use ecclesial metaphors in the College Theology Society's journal Horizons.  A member of that wonderful Society since 2002, he was just elected to a term on its board as Treasurer.  In his bid for that position, Brian wrote that his "research and experience have confirmed...the fundamental importance of opening spaces for community among all of us in our otherness to each other, and [his desire] the Society’s tradition of openness to our sometimes cacophonous, sometimes harmonious, voices."   In addition to Brian's above mentioned work on Tillard, those interested might also consult Christopher Ruddy's recent book length study, The Local Church: Tillard and the Future of Catholic Ecclesiology.
  • Finally, two former colleagues of mine (among the very many who have gone off to do interesting and much needs things) from Yale Divinity School have been doing very noteworthy work.  The Rev. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson '04 M.Div, who recently founded the Two Futures Project for the abolition of all nuclear weapons, was interviewed in October 2009 for the PBS show "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly" (see here and here).  Tyler is also the author of the provocative 2007 book Brand Jesus: Christianity in a Consumerist Age, the germination for which, he notes, was a term paper in a YDS exegesis course on Paul's Letter to the Romans.  Mr. Michael Milton '03 MAR, who now resides in Austin, TX, and has spent much of his professional career in nonprofit fundraising and development, published Head First Data Analysis in August 2009.  For more on this, check out his blog.  Michael also has a forthcoming book on Excel.  I'm excited to hear about his several other writing projects, too.
Writing in his preface to Gilles Deleuze's ABCs: The Folds of Friendship, Charles Stivale observes how "friendship is not, and indeed cannot be, one single type of practice in all instances" (p. ix). Through a series of carefully executed readings of Deleuze's writings, Stivale produces a "zig-zag methodology" imminent to the work itself. Most important for the purposes of this post is what Stivale says about how the "different tonalities and diverse forms of affect [that] are precipitated within the teaching exchange" can fold into friendship (p. 35). In Stivale's ex-pli-cation of Deleuze, we learn that "what is interesting in a course is much less its subject than its emotion....[that] it's not a question of following everything or of listening to everything, but of keeping watch so that one grasps what suits him or her at the right moment" (p. 40). To be studious in this Deleuzian sense is to be watchful, which is a pensively productive vector of desire. The pedagogical charge, Stivale later remarks, isn't to found (or to find "false security" within) so-called 'schools of thoughts'; rather, it is for students to "seize...[particular] notions in movement, twist them in their own way, and use these concepts and notions as needed" (p. 42). Just as Deleuze practiced in his own pedagogy, a teacher's task is "that of a mediator to the students' varied movements of comprehension and experimentation as a relay in the capacities of affect" (p. 42). It is in keeping with the force of this thinking that I wish also to make mention of and celebrate the work of some teachers, past and present:

  • Appearing late in 2009 was David H. Kelsey's decades-in-the-making magnum opus, Eccentric Existence, which is a highly anticipated two-volume, 1100-page constructive account of Christian theological anthropology. See here to listen to a 30-minute radio conversation with David about the book. While the interviewers can be a bit annoying, what comes through clearly here is how amazingly subtle a thinker David is. One thing David speaks about in the interview is his own transition from writing about theology to doing theology, and, although he values both operations, this is a transition that he has consistently encouraged his students to pursue. On a personal note, I had the immense pleasure of taking several seminars with David, now retired, while I attended Yale Divinity School, and he also served as my adviser for a period. He remains for me a model scholar not only in his erudition, but, most importantly, in the care, generosity, and humility that exudes from his person. (David also wrote a detailed review essay on "Theology in the University: Once More, with Feeling," that appeared in Modern Theology 25.2, and which examines the recent books by Gavin D'Costa, Andrew Shanks, and Stanley Hauerwas on theology and the modern university. Theological education is also a topic dear to David's heart, one on which he has previously written thoughtful and widely praised ruminations.)
  • One of my undergraduate professors, moral and systematic theologian David Matzko McCarthy (who has also produced creative essays on sexuality and queer theology), edited a remarkable volume, The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching: Its Origins and Contemporary Significance, all of whose contributors are faculty of my alma mater, Mount St. Mary's University (Emmitsburg, MD). It is a collection that arises from the "collaborative habits of a real community of teacher-scholars, philosophers and theologians who live in the same place and talk to each other about the general education program in which they all work." That back-cover endorsement is from the pen of another of my early teachers, William Portier, who, after nearly 30 years of teaching at The Mount (as we call it) took up a position at the University of Dayton.
  • Palgrave published Elizabeth Scala's co-edited volume, The Post-Historical Middle Ages. The book and its many amazing essays (including one on lithic memory by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen) has been already been referenced several times with great interest by the folks over at ITM, and there was quite the buzz surrounding it at last May's Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo -- a buzz connected with phrases like "paradigm-changing" despite Palgrave only having one copy on display and no promotional materials of speak to speak. Wordisms offers a few nice thoughts on the book, especially a series of provocative remarks on Liz's chapter, "The Gender of Historicism." Liz also published an article on Chaucer's Wife's and Clerk's Tales in the 2009 volume of the annual Studies in the Age of Chaucer.
  • Another UT Austin medievalist, Daniel Birkholz, contributed a chapter on "Biography After Historicism" to the above volume, The Post-Historical Middle Ages, and his latest article on the Harley Lyrics appeared in the 2009 annual volume of Studies in the Age of Chaucer. He was also awarded a Solmsen Post-Doctoral Fellowship for the 2009-2010 academic year.
  • A specialist in Romanticism, Samuel Baker has "Scott’s Stoic Characters: Ethics, Sentiment, and Irony in The Antiquary, Guy Mannering, and ‘the Author of Waverly’" in a special issue of MLQ 70:4, pp. 443-71.  In this essay, Baker revisits the claims to a "split [Walter] Scott," or that "picture of him as an author who, torn apart, knits himself back together in a powerful (if perhaps inflexible) corpus."  Aiming "less to add details to this picture than to bring its central figure into sharper focus," Baker sets out asking "[b]y what virtue did Scott, who seems to us so contradictory, project a meaningful character."  For Baker, the answer presents itself in a particular form of stoic philosophizing in which the self was "virtuous enough to be sentimental."  Not only does this article offer a compelling portrait of Scott’s "character types," but signals a more explicit concern on its author’s part with the affective dimensions of literary culture-making.  This essay is part of a series that Baker is publishing on what he describes in his faculty bio as "ethical dispositions in the Romantic novel, , tracking how stoicism and skepticism, among other attitudes, ceased to refer to specific philosophical schools and began to be seen as general psychological orientations."  Baker, who previously worked as a journalist and book reviewer prior to taking his PhD, has also written a lengthy piece on the “maritime georgic” (see ELH 75 [2008], pp. 531-63), and this previews some of the ideas in his forthcoming book, Written on the Water: British Romanticism and the Maritime Empire of Culture.  He has been involved with  Harrington Fellow program at UT’s Harry Ransom Center, where is was one of the coordinators of the symposium, "Seaborne Renaissance: Global Exchanges and Religion in Early Modernity."
  • Diane Davis published Reading Ronell, an excellent edited collection on the work of Avital Ronell, featuring contributions by Judith Butler, Jean-Luc Nancy, Sam Weber, and Hent de Vries, among several others.  In her introduction, Diane describes any project with the "mission" announced in this book's title as an "arduous task": "How might one approach an oeuvre explicitly designed to 'resist you,' to get 'you' to question what it means to read anything at all? To open a work by Avital Ronell is, in a sense, to eavesdrop on a fundamentally dissymetrical Conversation in which 'your' addresser is first of all an addressee occupying a space of troubled reception."  Ronell's work palpably thematizes the call of the Other, where writing itself is always already (in me quoting Diane quoting Ronell) "at the behest of another."  That volume's aim is, tropologically speaking, to enable us to "perk up our ears" and hone our auditory abilities in order to meet the demands of "Ronell's exquisitely (and excruciatingly) meticulous readings [that] orchestrate, each time, a depropriating encounter with the inassimilable....Reading at the extreme limits of responsibility (response-ability), Ronell enacts an ethics of reading that responds to the trace of the other while tirelessly demonstrating that there is no way, ultimately, to have understood (completely)." Both Diane and her contributors thus attempt to respond through an "expansive and diverse assemblage of essays" to the "singular provocation of Ronell's 'remarkable critical oeurve' -- the devastating insights, the unprecedented writing style, the relentless destabilizations -- [that] is a function of her ethics and practice of reading."   The volume, moreover, is itself described as a somewhat belated response of the editor (a calling in on a self-made promissory note) to a 1994 special fifty page section on Ronell (edited by Jonathan Culler) in the journal diacritics.  Unlike that issue, which Diane nicely observes "fascinatingly display[s]" the "sort of competitive mimesis" that the Ronellian style apparently inspires, this volume sets out to be "an assemblage...les given to mimetic impulses and more interested in reading with Ronell: by reading Ronell reading, or by examining the ethico-political implications of her radical dislocations, or by carefully explicating, extending, and exploring the paraconcepts addressed in her works."  It is equally worth mentioning, as Diane herself does near the close of her introduction, "one profound regret": that Ronell's great teacher, Derrida, who expressed his eagerness to participate," passed before he was able to complete his contribution to the volume. As Diane recalls, "At his home in Rise-Orangis one afternoon in late 2005, when he was already quite ill, he again expressed to me his enthusiasm for this collection and his sincere hope to complete his contribution to it.  I am extremely grateful to Derrida for his unwavering encouragement, and I want to mark his disseminated presence in these pages: though he could not complete his essay, he did contribute a great deal to this collection."
  • I'm also happy to report that, while visiting him with him in April, Dale B. Martin, a noted scholar of New Testament and ancient Christianity, awoke to find himself elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Interested parties can also watch Dale's lectures from his Spring 2009 Yale undergraduate introductory course on the New Testament. Technically speaking, of course, I was never a student of Dale's while I attended Yale, since I never enrolled in any of his courses. But in other, more important respects, I remain indebted to him for not only his many kindnesses but especially the consistently provocative nature of his challenges. One of the first memories I have getting to know Dale entails the both of us walking in a late night rain after a choral rehearsal. We were discussing his book, The Corinthian Body, which I had just started reading; I was communicating to him my then frustrations about what he meant by the social construction of identity, informing him that I was (at that stage) too committed to some kind of post-Heideggerian notion a substantial self (however hermeneutically ridden) to make the leap into social construction. In his typically Texan way, Dale declared me "too damn conservative" before hopping in his car. I was, to say the least, dumbstruck, since I had never thought of myself as conservative in nearly any way (nor had I been considered conservative while attending my college). Although nothing is ever predictable with Dale, I say "typical" only because of his continual ability to compel -- very often with a single, well placed remark/rejoinder -- an entire rethinking of one's position. In my case, that rethinking lead far behind a simple position on some academic issue; it brought about an entirely new relation to the world and my place in it. Because of his influence, I can point to the exact moment (some time later, in a course on martyrdom and traditions of noble death with Adela Collins) when I became a self-consciously aware postmodernist. Of course, some might lament such influence, but I revel in its devilishness.
I am also eagerly anticipating the continuing unfolding of this new year as it will bring into print the work of Douglas R. Boin (a specialist in classical Latin and the literatures and material cultures of Christian late antiquity), whose UT Ph.D. is still so newly minted that it shines. He will publish articles in the Journal of Roman Studies and the American Journal of Archaeology. Doug also presented papers on late antique Ostia, the principle site of his research, at international gatherings in Rome and Philadelphia. See here for more on his activities and global sojourns.