All posts by Gerald Ens

Simone Weil on justice and the cross

“At the touch of the iron there must be a feeling of separation from God such as Christ experienced, otherwise it is another God. The martyrs did not feel that they were separated from God, but it was another God, and it was perhaps better not to be a martyr. The God from whom the martyrs drew joy in torture or death is close to him who was officially adopted by the Empire and afterward imposed by means of exterminations.”

“To be just, it is necessary to be naked and dead. Without imagination. That is why the model of justice has to be naked and dead. The cross alone is not open to imaginary imitation.”

Christian civilization and the refugee crisis

To say that I am unsympathetic with the idea, practice, or nostalgia for Christian civilization is an understatement. The coercive nature of such “civilization” strikes me as unavoidable. At worst Christianity collapses into and becomes equated with a particular culture’s norms, which gains further legitimation through Christ’s blessing. Equipped with this blessing such a culture becomes the norm; it defines what it is to be civilized. The step from here to the violent preservation (defending civilization itself!) and expansion (providing enlightenment to the unenlightened) of this norm, at all costs, is a natural one. We’ve seen this played out over and over again by the destructive conquests of western Christianity.

But are there more sympathetic ways to go about the project of Christian civilization? Some may well argue that working the idea of neighbour-love, as articulated by the Christian tradition, into a society’s basic self-identity and organizational principles is a laudable goal. Such people may even go on to say that such efforts have been crucial to the formation of better (more peaceable and compassionate) civilizations and cultures over the years. Even if this is possible for a society (and I’m not sure that it is), I still am unconvinced that it is worth striving for. Continue reading Christian civilization and the refugee crisis

Proust on cars

Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is a work of self through memory. The search is conducted through memory with the aid and hindrance of phenomena and habit, but done for the authentically expressing self. Or at least so I read it from my vantage point, a few hundred pages into The Captive.

One of the more interesting moves Proust makes in this great search of recollection is that time is not neutral: the wager of the search is that time can be lost and regained. In the course of his search the author comes face to face with the different natures of time, and how each of these differently impacts our self, world, and memory.

Part of the reason for this is that Proust is figuring out how to be an authentic self in a world in which time (and our entire being) has been so uprooted from the natural and tradition-based rhythms in the world around us. In a similar vein as Heidegger, Proust observes that modern technology confronts our world in “the character of a setting-upon, in the sense of a challenging forth.” And because this setting upon “expedites in that it unlocks and exposes…driving on to the maximum yield at the minimum expense,” our time and the world’s time changes, taking on different modes depending on which techniques of revealing and bringing forth are at work. Continue reading Proust on cars

Michael Enright on Syrian Refugees

This spoken essay by Michael Enright was worth listening nine months ago when it first aired and is worth listening to again now that Canada has en mass finally woken up to the reality that we’re in the midst of a refugee crisis. If you missed it the first time around, here’s another chance. Be sure to listen to the end to catch his absolutely brilliant conclusion.

I mostly want you to listen to the essay (it will take only four minutes of your time). But there are two points of commentary I feel compelled to add.

  1. Essays such as this give lie to one of the current Conservative narratives: that Canada’s pathetic response to the refugee crisis is due to the media’s failure to raise awareness among Canadians and not at all the fault of the government. The media (particularly the underfunded public media) was there; the government was not. Seventeen months ago, when As It Happens was doing a week long feature on the Syrian refugee crisis, it was Chris Alexander’s office that did not even respond to a request for an interview. When he did appear on the program some weeks later he was not able to say how many Syrian refugees had made it to Canada, nor did he voice a willingness to expand Canada’s commitment beyond taking in 1300 refugees; he stuck to partisan talking points instead. It’s worth noting further that Alexander’s assertion that the media was required so that organizations would be willing to sponsor refugees rang hollow in the face of the fact that many such organizations, after raising large sums of cash and filing onerous paperwork to sponsor refugees, would sometimes wait years before receiving a response that would allow them to merely continue the arduous, bureaucratic process. Humanitarian organizations, including churches and mosques, were there; this government was not. Fund the department (this government hates giving adequate funding to government agencies); cut red-tape; introduce extra-ordinary measure; accept responsibility. The fact that Canada has done it before means that it can be done, and could have been done years ago.
  2. For any who have had no or only limited exposure to Michael Enright, consider this an encouragement to listen to much, much more. Truly one of Canada’s greatest national treasures.

And don’t forget to listen to his essay.

Merleau-Ponty on method

One of the interesting things about reading the working notes from The Invisible and the Invisible is that the reader gets to look inside the philosopher’s head; to see Merleau-Ponty trying to figure out his ideas, holding forth with himself, questioning his own approach, and testing out his own ideas. This is particularly the case with Merleau-Ponty for at least two reasons.

First, it seems that Merleau-Ponty thought on paper, working out his ideas with his pen. As Claude Lefort notes in his editorial introduction “The author was in the habit of jotting down ideas on paper, ordinarily without concerning himself with style nor even obliging himself to compose complete sentences. These notes, which sometimes contain but a few lines and sometimes extend over several pages, constitute drafts for developments that figure in the first part of the work or would have figured in its continuation.”

Second, Merleau-Ponty is a philosopher of work in progress, of the unfinished nature of work. When we close the question of being we lose being. It is rather, in our continued strivings for truthful expressions that we catch glimpses of truth. We often will complete works, and well we should, and we should also hope that they speak truthfully, that they are successful. But our work is never finished; at most it is passed down to those who follow. All this is to say that there is a certain sense in which Merleau-Ponty’s working notes showcase his work at its most truthful. The form of a finished book, with a concluding argument that wraps of the questions asked, cannot distort the fact that here is someone striving for truth and whose truthfulness is found to great degree in such authentic strivings.

This is perhaps no more the case than when Merleau-Ponty comes to questions of method: how will he present this book? There are numerous proposed outlines and various notes questioning where best to put different ideas. Here’s a gem that Merleau-Ponty jotted down in January 1959:

“Indicate from the start of the analysis of Nature that there is circularity: what we say here will be taken up again at the level of the logic (2nd volume). No matter. One does have to begin.”

Merleau-Ponty on “finished” works of art and other matters

My (recently footnoted) series on idolatry owes much to Merleau-Ponty. This is particularly the case in regards to my distinction between ‘finished’ and ‘completed’ works of art. For any interested readers and for further elucidation I’ve provided some of the relevant passages from Merleau-Ponty here. Continue reading Merleau-Ponty on “finished” works of art and other matters

Dylan the icon: a concluding footnote to the idolatry of genius

You never turned around to see the frowns

On the jugglers and the clowns when they all did tricks for you

You never understood that it ain’t no good

You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you

You used to be so amused

At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used

Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse

When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose

You’re invisible now, you’ve got no secrets to conceal

A few years ago at the Winnipeg Folk Festival I was struck when three of my favourite performers on three separate occasions remarked that the only reason they were on the road making music was because of Dylan and the impact he had made on them. To me this announced the clear influence Dylan continues to command in much of the music making world. Even more striking, however, was the fact that those three performers were quite different from each other (different nationalities, genders, and of course musical genres and styles) and none sounded particularly Dylanesque. This impressed me: in an almost singular way it seemed that Dylan inspired musicians and at the same time inspired them to become distinct artists themselves rather than imitators. Continue reading Dylan the icon: a concluding footnote to the idolatry of genius

The straight and narrow

I wish that many of the conversations I have had ended up as my blog posts. But when I try to translate these conversations they tend to fall flat. As Merleau-Ponty observes good conversation creates a shared space between the participants, such that things spoken that make profound sense in that space may only make ordinary sense if not well translated to another space. Still, sometimes statements or realizations will transcend the space of shared conversation and carry similar weightiness in different situations. Such is the case, I claim, for the conclusion to a recent conversation provided my my fellow blogger Joel Peters:

“The easiest way to stay on the straight and narrow is to never ask what the straight or narrow is.”

An observation particularly to be heeded, perhaps, during an election campaign (which we are in the midst of in Canada) when easily offered straight and narrow ideologies are rampant.

Hauerwas on being a forgiven people

Scripture has authority for Christians because they have learned as a forgiven people they must also be able to forgive. But to be a people capable of accepting forgiveness separates them from the world: The world, under the illusion that power and violence rule history, assumes that it has no need to be forgiven. Part of the meaning of the ‘world,’ therefore, is it is that which assumes it needs no scripture, since it lives not by memory made possible by forgiveness, but by power. Being a community of the forgiven is directly connected with being a community sustained by the narratives we find in scripture, as those narratives do nothing less than manifest the God whose very nature is to forgive. To be capable of remembering we must be able to forgive, for without forgiveness we can only forget or repress those histories that prove to be destructive or at least unfruitful. By attending closely to the example of those who have given us our scripture, we learn how to be a people morally capable of foregiveness and thus worthy of continuing to carry the story of God we find authorized by scripture. – Community of Character, 68-69

A Compassion-Formed People

Compassion is a radical critique of the imperial imagination because it announces that the hurt of the people, even of one’s enemies, will not be disregarded but will be taken seriously. To do otherwise is to make pain normative, injustice permissible, and evil god. Empires live in callous disregard to the human pain which they require to sustain themselves. God and God’s people live in compassionate empathy with the broken ones. God and God’s people offer hope to the hopeless. – Harry Huebner

For the past three and a half years I have done a monthly radio broadcast for the Mennonite Church of Manitoba. Because the radio audience and the audience I have (or might one day have, perhaps) in blogging are quite different, I have never shared my programs online. Last Sunday’s program felt like an exception to this – perhaps it is that my program should have been written for the blog not the radio. In any case I think it is fitting here, so here’s an excerpt. Continue reading A Compassion-Formed People