A Summary of One of CS Lewis' Less Read Books on the Psalms

11.29.2019 / Culture

Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms (1958) is one of his last theological works. It is a collection of short essays revolving around single themes arising from the Psalms. He addresses the most difficult puzzles that might confront a modern Christian reader: the cursing in the Psalms, the self-righteousness, the fawning over God’s laws. How, Lewis asks, can we draw spiritual nourishment from the Psalms? What do we need to know to overcome obstacles to such nourishment?

He completed the Reflections just after Till We Have Faces and just before Studies in Words. [See a timeline of his complete works here.]

In content, it most resembles Letters to Malcom (Reflections is addressed humbly to the reader “as one amateur to another” and not a fictional friend). In style, it perhaps resembles most Studies in Words. One can also hear echoes of Till We Have Faces in chapter XII on the pain of “graduating” from a lower station to a higher station whether on the natural level (as when a young girl marries a powerful monarch) or the supernatural level (as when a human being becomes adopted by God).

Readers enjoy Lewis’ most mature theological reflections in this book, reflections which blessedly don’t restrict themselves only to the Psalms but rove around the Old and New Testaments and also outside Scripture. The only theological essays published later than this one are Letters to Malcom, which, again, are “about” prayer but move comfortably through a range of other topics.

Should you read it?

Lewisophiles should read Reflections on the Psalms for the same reason mountaineers simply must climb Everest: “because it’s there.”

Casual readers may be a bit confused at the abundance of literary references. Lewis’s intended reader seems sometimes to be a “theological amateur”, other times a fellow well-read classics aficionado familiar with the myth of Osiris, the Greek plays of Sophocles, and the philosophical writings of Plato.

That said, any sufficiently curious theological reader will learn much from reading the Psalms over Lewis’s shoulder.

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Re-thinking the Parable of the Lost Sheep

11.14.2019 / Culture

I’m re-thinking the parable of the Lost Sheep.

As you recall, Matthew (in chapter 18) talks that “IIf a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.”

In context, it sounds like Jesus’ comment at the end means something like, “God welcomes lost sinners.”

Luke is a bit more clear: “I tell you that even so there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.”

Fair enough.

But consider that Matthew’s gospel is built around five “discourses” or long speeches/conversations between Jesus and various audiences. Each discourse, in a way, revolves around the Kingdom of God.

Indeed, Matthew’s gospel is about the kingdom of God:

  1. The first line references Jesus’ descending from David, the first good King of Israel, highlighting Jesus’ royal lineage.
  2. Jesus first words (not spoken to the devil in the Garden) are “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand,” (4:17). This message echos John’s message (3:2). Jesus is announcing inviting repentance and announcing the kingdom.
  3. The first discourse is the Sermon on the Mount and begins with the beatitudes, which state that certain people are “blessed” (divinely happy) – why? Because “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” So the first sermon opens with a description of who the kingdom belongs to: the mournful, the poor in spirit, the unjustly persecuted, the hungry after righteousness, etc.
  4. The second discourse is Jesus sending out the disciples to “conquer” Israel (like Joshua sent out armies to conquer the promised land!) by – you guessed it – preaching the kingdom. He tells them what to say (10:7): “proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
  5. The third discourse shows Jesus keen understanding that not all will welcome the kingdom nor enter it. The parables of the Sower and others show how some will reject the kingdom.
  6. Now we come to the fourth discourse. It begins with the disciples “getting it” that the kingdom is here. They know it, and they have accepted it. They are the “good soil” from the Sower parable. But now they have questions: who is the greatest? Again, Jesus defies expectations: it’s people like children who are greatest in the kingdom of heaven – because children are humble. (18:4).
  7. Then then, after a discussion of receiving of temptation, he pivots immediately to talk about the Parable of Lost Sheep, followed by what to do if your brother sins against you; the parable of the unforgiving servant, What’s the transition? How do these connect? Obviously, the interpretation that God welcomes sinners makes sense. But is there more? This is what I’m re-thinking.
  8. Perhaps the fourth discourse is all about how to live in the kingdom: not only be humble, but be forgiving (like God is forgiving). Go seek lost sheep. Forgive your brothers 490 times. Doing these things makes one great in the kingdom.

That’s my hypothesis. Perhaps it’s obvious that the parable of Lost Sheep isn’t just about God’s relationship to sinners, but a kingdom subject’s relationship to fellow subjects in the kingdom, but I never saw it before.

Your thoughts? Know of any Patristic commentary on this matter? What’s Augustine and Chrysostom and Aquinas and Maximos and Lewis say? I haven’t checked these yet.






The Use/Mention Distinction in Sinatra

11.09.2019 / Culture

The stars get red and oh, the night’s so blue And then I go and spoil it all By saying something stupid like [mention] “I love you” [mention] I love you [mention] I love you [use] I love you.”

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For non-philosophy friends, what is the use-mention distinction? Paraphrasing the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: One of the dangers of quoting terms is that a confusion might arise between their mere mention (quoting) and their use.

Since the time of philosopher Frege (d. 1925), the semantics of quotations have been studied thoroughly. (Semantics is the science of meaning.)

How do these things called quotations work? What is going on when we mention words or phrases without using them? How do we avoid confusion?

Donald Davidson says, ‘When I was initiated into the mysteries of logic and semantics, quotation was usually introduced as a somewhat shady device, and the introduction was accompanied by a stern sermon on the sin of confusing the use and mention of expressions’ (Davidson 1979, p. 79)

A silly example: Asserting that the ‘Bachelor’ has eight letters is different from asserting that the latest Bachelor (John, say) owns some letters, eight to be exact. Catching many use/mention differences are easy. Others are harder.

I think the above song (which I love) plays on the distinction by including the quotation “I love you” at the end of each stanza, then repeating it at the end (with both voices!) until the ‘mentioning’ fades and the ‘use’ arises to replace it.






The Wheel of Time Journey

10.10.2019 / Culture

I just finished reading the Wheel of Time.

At a staggering total of 11,308 pages, Robert Jordan’s masterpiece is longest continuous narrative about a single hero ever written by a human being.

It’s 11x the size of Lord of the Rings (1,000 pages); almost 4 Bibles (3,000 pages) and almost 3 Harry Potters (all seven books combined are about 4,200 pages).

It’s 4 million words.

Robert Jordan (and, after his death, Brandon Sanderson) wrote 4 million words about how Rand al’Thor, the Dragon Reborn, and his friends save the world.

I enjoyed the series, with some serious disclaimers. But this post is not about my review of the content. It’s about the sheer magnitude of the project of writing (and reading!) this beast of a series.

A whole bunch of statistics can be run on this series. For example, from Reddit: “There are 4.41 million words in WoT. The average adult reading rate is 250 words per minute. Thus, the average adult would require 17640 minutes (294 hours) to read it all.” That’s only 48 minutes a day, without fail, for a whole year.

Here’s my statistics. Which books I read when:


1994: Read Book 1, 2, 3. (age 12)
1995: Read Book 4, 5, 6.
1996: Re-read Books 1-6, read Book 7.
1997: N/A
1998: N/A
1999: N/A
2000: N/A (starting college)
2001: N/A
2002: N/A
2003: N/A
2004: N/A (finished college)
2005: N/A
2006: N/A
2007: N/A
2008: N/A
2009: N/A
2010: N/A
2011: N/A
2012: N/A (starting grad school)
2013: Re-read Book 7. Read Book 8.
2014: Read Book 9.
2015: N/A
2016: N/A
2017: N/A (finished grad school)
2018: Read Book 10, 11, 12, 13.
2019: Read Book 14. (age 36)


In a real way, I grew up with Robert Jordan and his characters.

I began the book in my teens and didn’t really pick it up again until a few years ago. (You can see quite the hiatus from 1996-2012.) In 2013 I resolved to read more fiction as a counterpoint to all the academic reading I had to do for school and hence read a few more of the series. Then, in 2018, I resolved to finish the series even if it killed me.

The only thing I will say by way of review is this:

Sanderson’s writing is far superior to Jordan’s, which helped the ending to be satisfying, after all those years.

Fans of the Wheel of Time should be excited for Amazon’s adaptation.

What fantasy or sci-fi series do you recommend for my reading list?






Are we morally obliged to give the poor?

07.05.2019 / Philosophy

Yesterday, I received an email from a reader that asks a question about moral obligation and giving to the poor:

Hi Keith, I came across an argument that I’d like your opinions on in terms of its premises and conclusions. I have my own but I don’t have a lot of experience in philosophy and so I wanted to hear the thoughts of a professional.

“It is sad that some people live in poverty in our country, but what is there to be done? Some people, such as highly educated doctors or visionary business leaders, contribute more to society, and so reap richer rewards. Why should they be under any obligation to give away some of their hard-earned wealth? If the government were to force them to do so in order to help people who contribute less, that would clearly be unfair”

This is the argument that I was hoping to hear your thoughts on. Thank you in advance and hope to hear from you soon.

A summary

As I understand it, the argument quoted includes the following reasonable assumptions:

  • Everyone has a right to the rewards they earn through contributing to society (Assumption 1)
  • Poverty is sad – unfortunate, undesirable, etc. (Assumption 2)
  • It is good and morally praiseworthy for the rich to give some to the poor (Assumption 3)
  • It is bad and morally impermissible for the government to force the rich to give to the poor (Assumption 4).
  • (A fifth, and unstated assumption, is this one) It is morally obligatory to do what is good (Assumption 5)

The paragraph is responding to an argument that might have gone like this:

Premise #1. It is morally obligatory to do what is good (Assumption 5) Premise #2. It is morally good for the rich to give some to the poor (Assumption 3) Conclusion #1. It is morally obligatory for the rich to give some to the poor (from 1-2).

The paragraph responds by questioning the conclusion. Why should the rich be forced to give to the poor? There are two kinds of force: moral force and legal force. Moral necessity arises from people having a conscience and binding themselves to just behavior. Legal necessity arises from a government or ruler enforcing laws. The paragraph argues that neither type of necessity forces the rich to share with the poor because everyone has a right to the rewards they earn through contributing to society.

A response

Here’s my response:

Assumptions 1-4 are all true.

Assumption 5 is false: Not all morally good actions are morally obligatory actions.

For example, it would be noble or honorable for me to quit my job and serve in a non-profit. However, it is morally permissible for me to stay at my day job. It would be honorable and praiseworthy for me to volunteer every evening at the local homeless shelter, but I am morally within my rights not to do so.

The scale or spectrum of moral value has four sections:

  1. morally necessary,
  2. morally forbidden,
  3. morally permissible (but not beneficial); and
  4. morally permissible (beneficial but not obligatory).

For example, it is morally necessary that I raise my kids well and love them; it is forbidden that I beat and abuse my children; it is permissible but not beneficial to yell and scream at them; it is permissible and beneficial but not necessary that I tell them every day, “I love you.” How much affection and unconditional love a parent shows to the child is up to them – obviously, the more the better but each has to do what they can.

So the conclusion the paragraph is refuting is indeed false: it is not morally obligatory for the rich to give away all their money (or even much) to the poor. However, there is a moral necessity that we share some amount with the poor and tithe or donate some amount to God and his workers. The amount is not defined exactly by morality nor by law. It is up to the individual to decide how much of their own hard-earned money to give away – obviously, the more the better but each has to do what they can.






Reflections on HP Lovecraft

03.05.2019 / Culture

Do you read any HP Lovecraft?

My step-brother Judd was wearing a Miskatonic T-shirt at Christmas. He said HP Lovecraft was his favorite author, so I renewed a decade old resolution to check out some Lovecraft. (I read “Memory”, a short story reproduced below in its entirety, about a decade ago and loved it.)

In the last month, I’ve read:

  • Dagon
  • Colour out of Space
  • White Ape
  • The Outsider
  • Nyarlathotep
  • Call of Cthulhu
  • The Alchemist
  • White Ship
  • Shunned House
  • The Tomb

Right now, I’m working on: Dunwich Horror. Then eventually, Shadow over Innsmouth. (Open to recommendations.)

Lovecraft is deliciously written. Every line is poetry. He uses words with perfect skill. He’s a better prose writer than Poe, in his way – and in ways that (for me, subjectively), count more. I can’t quite come up with a name to compare him too. He’s a dreadfully competent story teller and writer, but I wouldn’t compare him to Shakespeare, or Dickens, or Stephen King. He’s in a class of his own, perhaps. Superior to Poe, I would say, as a storyteller and world builder and philosophical thinker. Inferior to few English writers as a poet and wordsmith. I don’t want to compare him to Keats, or Eliot, so I’ll just say that he’s in a class of his own. What he aims to achieve he achieves with shocking precision and expertise that I wouldn’t have thought possible if you described it.

So much for style. The stories, how good are they? In a word, very good. Original themes, chilling, and all too believable. Each one has satisfying characters, plots, settings, and conceits.

My favorite so far overall is the Shunned House, for pure thrill, horror, terror, and deliciousness of the historical conceit.

My favorite so far for its beauty of imagery and language is The White Ship.

Scariest overall so far is The Colour out of Space. Completely bone chilling for the entire story, from the first lines, but it gets steadily worse and worse until the ending which I had to finish in the day time.

Scariest climax was The Shunned House.

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David Bradshaw on Kant's view of Religious Experience

01.13.2019 / Philosophy

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In the recent volume on Kant’s views about God and religion edited by Nathan Jacobs et al., David Bradshaw discusses Kant’s claim that there can be no direct experience of God. In this post, I’ll briefly summarize that discussion and share my reactions to it.

Bradshaw’s thesis is that “Kant seriously misunderstands the relationship between experience of and conceptual beliefs about God.” Once this misunderstanding is cleared up, Kant’s skeptical claims about the possibility of experiencing an infinite, good God, lose their force.”

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Restoring the Liberal Arts -- Part I

11.17.2018 / Classical education

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For the past twenty years or so, I’ve been trying to understand this concept of “Liberal Arts.” I don’t think I fully understand it yet. And I don’t think you do either.

One would hope that any college-educated person steeped in liberal arts institutions would have a clear idea just what those things are. But we don’t.

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16 Year Olds Agree -- Philosophy is Practical

10.12.2018 / Philosophy · classical education

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Overheard last week: A 16 year old said to her peers, “So, we all agree – metaphysics is practical. Does anyone disagree? No? Let’s move on to the next question.”

Wow.

A bit of context: In my discussion classes, I have to use tricks to get myself to stop speaking and leave room for the students to talk. My thoughtful, attentive silence gives them an opportunity take responsibility for themselves, to shoulder some of the responsibility for directing the class, and simply gives them a chance to speak.

Last week, we were discussing whether philosophy in general – and metaphysics in particular – is practical. After setting up the question, I set a timer for 15 minutes and shut my mouth, pulling out some modeling clay which occupied my hands during my self-imposed vow of silence.

Using Peter Kreeft’s masterful “Summation of Philosophy”, students were able to consider both sides of this question of the practicality of philosophy. They came – without my prompting remember! – to a consensus that indeed philosophy is practical.

How could this be?

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Decluttering

09.15.2018 / Life coaching

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One of the most painful things we can do in life is sort through past emotions. Big emotions do not “go away” with time. They only go away with attention. They have a life cycle, like the weather. Emotions evaporate when we feel them. Children do this instinctually – they cry as long (and as hard) as they need to to feel the feeling, then they are done.

This post is not about emotions – not directly. This post is about clutter. It’s about “stuff.” One of the most painful things I have ever done is sorting through past stuff. In my childhood, I saw a lot of people crippled by the inability to throw things away, give them away, make them useful, or get rid of them. My adult life has been a slow, painful, process of unclenching my fist and getting rid of things: artwork, clothes, batteries, papers, bills, knick-knacks, picture frames, books, notes from college, journals, shoes, hats, food, boxes, computer files, videos, CDs.

These two – sorting through feelings and sorting through stuff – are related.

“Clutter is unmade decisions.” (paraphrasing Christina Scalize*) I would add that clutter is unprocessed emotion.

A stubborn pile that refused to be organized, put away, thrown away represents a pile of emotion that has to be felt. The same probably goes for stubborn pounds that refuse to go away. Extra weight on the body and extra stuff around the house are spiritually identical.

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