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A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Armadillo”

In Books, Movies and Television on September 13, 2014 at 5:32 pm

Owen MeanyThe novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany presents a clash of worldviews. Owen sees and understands the world in a much different way than do the young Johnny and the other characters in the novel. The key difference is that Owen is not as strongly influenced by modern secularism as are most.

Modern secularism is the dominant worldview of the West. One of the fundamental features of modern secularism (perhaps the fundamental feature) is the radical separation of the material world from the nonmaterial or spiritual realm. Importantly, modern secularism isn’t just out there in “the world”; it has shaped the church to a large degree.

Modern secularism finds its roots in the Enlightenment. Before the Enlightenment, and in those cultures less affected by the Enlightenment, it is not so easy to separate the spiritual from the material. For the pre-modern mind, a tree or a person or even an act have both spiritual and material dimensions that are inseparable.   Where the modern mind believes this separation is essential, the pre-Modern mind rejects such boundaries. This latter view, because the transcendent indwells the immanent, can be called the incarnational view of reality.

In the novel, it is Owen Meany who sees the world incarnationally.

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor explains the features of the pre-modern understanding of the world that makes it different from that of the modern. Pre-modern societies live in an “enchanted” world when the supernatural is recognized as a very real presence in the world. In the enchanted world, meaning does not come from within our individual minds, but from outside of us–the meaning is already there in the object, person or event. It is not something we give; it is there quite independently of the subject, us, and it would be there even if there were no human mind to engage it. This is not the modern view where meaning is simply an operation of our minds.

The framework in which Owen Meany lives is one where the immanent is infused with the transcendent. He lives in a world of filled with enchanted objects–a world full of meaning. Perhaps this is the reason behind his surname.

The events surrounding the stuffed armadillo illustrates Owen’s vision of the world. The stuffed armadillo is an object, infused with meaning. Johnny loves the thing because it is a gift from Dan, but for Owen the armadillo holds far more significance. The narrator recounts the careful arrangement of the armadillo on the nightstand between their beds when Owen slept over. It is always placed so that its profile was perfect, but in the morning, it is turned more toward Owen. On one occasion, Johnny wakes up and found Owen awake, staring at the armadillo and smiling (62). Eventually Owen would tell John, “IT’S HARD TO GO TO SLEEP WITHOUT IT ONCE YOU GET USED TO IT” (79). It is never articulated what meaning Owen has discovered in the armadillo, but his behavior indicates he has found something

Because of what he sees in the armadillo, Owen uses it in an elaborate ritual of exchange to communicate his feelings for complicity in the death of Johnny’s mother. Owen has “no other way to articulate the way [he] felt” (84) about “the foul ball” than giving Johnny his most prized possession—his baseball card collection (another enchanted object). Johnny does not understand this gesture, but Dan Needham explains and coaches him to give something in return. Johnny chooses to give Owen the armadillo and Owen returns the armadillo with its front claws removed. Johnny is indignant at this act of violence and puzzled, for Owen loved the armadillo more than he did.

Johnny realizes that Owen has connected this act of amputation to Watahantowet’s armless totem. Watahantowet was the Indian leader who sold the Whiteman the land where Gravesend is situated. Both the armless armadillo and the Indian totem speak from a frame of reference where “everything had its own souls, its own spirit” (86). For Watahantowet, the land was full of spirits so that when he sold it to the white men, he understood the terrible cost. According to the narrator, his armless totem said, “Here take my land. There go my arms!” (87). This might be true for Wheelwright who come across as impotent in many ways, but Watahantowet is also associated with Owen Meany who is the opposite of impotent. Owen had already formed the idea that he would later share with Johnny: “GOD HAS TAKEN YOUR MOTHER. MY HANDS WERE THE INSTRUMENT. GOD HAS TAKEN MY HANDS. I AM GOD’S INSTRUMENT” (87). Owen sees his physical hands in the context of divine purpose and armlessness in symbolic of his, indeed all mankind’s, inability to resist the will of God. In this one event, we see that Owen lives out of a world that Charles Taylor calls the enchanted world.

Owen Meany’s world is enchanted, but Johnny Wheelwright lives in a secular world–they function as foils in Irving’s exploration of faith and doubt. Owen represents an incarnational view where the transcendent is within the immanent; Johnny represents the secular view where the transcendent is so far separated from the immanent that it is irrelevant, if it exists at all. In this secular view, says Charles Taylor, “all thought, feeling and purpose, all features we normally can ascribe to agents, must be in minds, which are distinct from the ‘outer’ world” (Taylor 539). As representative of the secular view, Johnny cannot understand a world where objects have meaning in themselves, that events may be meaningfully guided by a higher purpose.

Enjoy chapter 3 and then return to trentdejong.com and read the post on “The Angel.”

 

A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Foul Ball”

In Books, Movies and Television on September 4, 2014 at 4:07 pm

Owen MeanyA Prayer for Owen Meany is narrated by the adult John Wheelwright. As he tells the story of how Owen Meany is responsible for his belief in the Christian God, he regularly breaks into the narrative commenting on his life in the present, often on his current spiritual struggles . The faith that he owes to Owen Meany is a very particular kind of faith; he describes it as a “church-rummage faith–the kind that needs patching up every weekend” (2).

Wheelwright has a fairly low view of his faith, justifiably, I think. When he describes his faith in these first few paragraphs of the novel, his focus is on denominational differences, particularly in how each disposes of their dead.   Death is perhaps it is the best place to start the story of ones conversion. Many are under the misconception that Christianity is all about being good, but it’s not. The problem that all humans face is not, ultimately, that we are ill-behaved, but that we are going to die.   Christianity is very much an answer to this most fundamental concern. The good news is that Christ saves us from death; the Christian life is a grateful response to this truth. On the one hand, it is appropriate that the narrator starts with death, but his focus is not on his salvation from death by faith, but on denominational differences and what passages will be read at his funeral. Not much joy in that. Watch for this pattern in adult John Wheelwright’s comments–when speaking of spiritual matters; he usually misses the essence of faith by focusing on peripheral concerns.

In a novel about Christian faith and doubt, the characters will occupy positions on a continuum between two poles. Owen Meany has a lot of faith and sits at one end of the continuum; the young Johnny Wheelwright is toward the other–He says, “the greatest difference between us: he believed more than I did” (22).

It is important to explore this difference a little. Unlike Owen, Johnny is very much a product of his age; the framework from which he sees the world is modern, which means secular. One of the main characteristics of this view of the world is that there is a radical separation between the material (or immanent) world and the transcendent or spiritual one.   Owen Meany has a pre-modern understanding of transcendence and immanence; he sees a much closer relationship between the two. In essence, where the secular minds of the other characters (as well as Irving and many of his readers) necessarily sees boundaries, Owen Meany’s does not.   In the novel, it is Owen Meany who is the lone adherent to this more integrative, incarnational view of reality where the transcendent and immanent are intertwined.

But Irving has gone further that just giving Owen pre-modern belief; he’s not only open to the supernatural, he embodies the unity of the natural and the supernatural. The transcendent qualities of Owen Meany are apparent in the first pages of the novel. The Sunday school children “thought it a miracle” (2) how little he weighs and so, made a game of lifting him into the air. When the Sunday school teacher returns from her cigarette and finds Owen up in the air she would always command, “Owen Meany . . . . You get down from up there!” (5). The narrator derisively comments on the stupidity of Mrs. Walker to miss the obvious cause of Owen’s levitation. Yet in the final paragraphs, he acknowledges that they did not realize there were “forces that contributed to [their] illusion of Owen’s weightlessness,” suggesting that there was a transcendent tug on Owen that they “didn’t have the faith to feel” (617). Furthermore, Owen Meany had a peculiar voice; it was a “strangled, emphatic falsetto” (5) or a “shout through his nose” (3). In any case, it was a voice that was “not entirely of this world” (5). It was also observed that “light was both absorbed and reflected by his skin, as with a pearl, so that he appeared translucent at times” (3). The overall effect of these elements on others was significant. Hester later says of her first encounter with Owen, “I didn’t think he was human” (69) because he looked like a descending angel . . . a tiny but fiery god” (69).

Irving has not given Owen transcendent qualities, but grounds him is such a way to blur the boundaries between the his materiality and spirituality. Owen is extremely small and light, yet he lives, and later works, in a granite quarry. His name—Meany—suggests his humble origins and his littleness, yet he sees himself as an instrument in the hand of God and acts the part. The cumulative effect of grounding the transcendent Owen Meany is that Irving is attempting to locate transcendence in immanence. By doing so, Irving shows that he understands the importance of the incarnation to Christian faith and in the novel, Owen continues to represent an integrative faith in contrast to other characters.

Where the secular mind sees things in clearly bounded categories, one of the most significant qualities of Owen Meany is his resistance to categories.   The paradoxical nature of Owen Meany is correlative to that of Jesus Christ. The secular mind resists the idea that Jesus was as both fully God and fully Man, transcendence incarnated in immanence. Both Jesus and Owen, in his far more humble way, embody these paradoxes. Irving repeatedly establishes parallels between Owen Meany and Jesus Christ. Owen’s voice is shown in all caps– suggestive of the red letter editions of the Bible. Wheelwright explains his grandmother’s reaction to Owen’s voice.   She said, “‘You’ve seen the mice caught in the mousetraps?’ she asked me. ‘I mean caught–their little necks broken–I mean dead,’ Grandmother said. ‘Well, that boy’s voice, ‘my grandmother told me, ‘that boy’s voice could bring those mice back to life'” (17). This description draws a metaphoric comparison to the voice of Jesus who actually could bring someone back to life.

Two last things that I should mention. In chapter 1 we see the first mention of armlessness (8). Back in Gravesend history, the local chief, Watahantowet, instead of using a signature to sign a deed, signed it with his totem–an armless man. This begins the motif of armlessness that runs through the novel. The meaning of armlessness is clarified, but never defined. Later in this chapter Watahantowet is referred to as “spiritually armless.”

Lastly, this chapter also shows that Johnny Wheelwright’s desire to know who his father is. Owen prophesied that God would identify Johnny’s father for him. “YOUR DAD CAN HIDE FROM YOU, BUT HE CAN’T HIDE FROM GOD” (10). The search for the father is symbolic of every human beings search for the one whose image we bear.   The narrator links the search for his earthly father to finding his heavenly one when he says, regarding Owen’s prophesy, “that was the day that Owen Meany began his lengthy contribution to my belief in God.”

There’s so much more we could talk about, but it’s far better to read Irving’s narrative than my exposition, so enjoy chapter 2 and then return to trentdejong.com and read the post on “The Armadillo.”

Enlightenment Dualism

In False Dichotomies - the lines between on January 2, 2013 at 8:58 am

Publicprivate“No religion should ever be involved with anything other than its own place of worship, where worshippers can believe and practise anything they deem fit, far away from enlightened, logical, reasonable people.”**

Where did this idea come from?

Both Bacon and Descartes trusted in reason to be the arbiter of truth.  Bacon used reason to take him from observation of particular phenomenon to universal principles, and Descartes saw the human mind as the final authority in understanding reality.  Although they approached it from different angles, both trusted reason, rather than faith and tradition,  to lead to the truth.

Because of their influence, by the middle of the 17th century, science was becoming the lens by which reality was viewed.  Importantly, this does not mean that there was a corresponding loss of belief.   Still, as the mysteries of nature that had previously been attributed to the direct intervention of God came to be explained as natural phenomenon, a division developed between science and religion.  God was understood to be the creator, but was no longer thought to be necessary for day to day management of the material world because it was obedient to Natural Law.  Correlative to the division between God and His Creation, was a widening gap between God and human reason; reason was understood to be autonomous.

Enter Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).  Kant saw the movement from reliance on God toward a reliance on reason as analogous to the movement from childhood to adulthood.  This idea was foundational to the period we call the Enlightenment.  The light of the Enlightenment was the realization that it was neither God nor the church which would lead to a better world, but human Reason.  The light, in Enlightenment, is Reason.  This view of is the essence of the modern worldview, and is still with us today.

Kant believed that human beings were also developing morally as we continue to articulate universally recognized moral principles.  All cultures and religions are expressions, to one degree or another, of these principles.   He believed that these Moral Laws could be uncovered by reason.  For Kant, religion was simply a particular expression of universal principles.

It was supposed that we could arrive at universal truth using only reason.  Importantly, it was believed that reason was neutral, unaffected by belief, (or history, tradition, body, etc.).  Because religion is particular, rather than universal, and because it is greatly influenced by belief (history, tradition, etc.) it wasn’t very long before Religion was thought to be the opposite of Reason.

This is where the divide between faith and reason was formalized–this is dualism.  It’s the belief that we can hold to whatever particular beliefs we want, but these are to be kept in the private sphere.  The public sphere is to be ruled by universal reason.  If we keep things in their proper spheres, we can all happily get along (about this site).

Although, this idea is considered passé by many intellectuals–not just the religious ones either–it still dominates public thought.

**(Read more: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/letters/why-we-must-keep-religion-out-of-politics-16206389.html#ixzz2Go32sFDT)

Enlightenment Dualism

In False Dichotomies - the lines between on November 12, 2012 at 10:51 am

Dualism is the Enemy

Have you ever been told that any issue of “faith is a private matter and should be kept to oneself.” Where did this idea come from?

Both Bacon and Descartes trusted in reason to be the arbiter of truth (Read “Fact versus Truth“) albeit from different starting points. Bacon used reason to take him from observation of particular phenomenon to universal principles, and Descartes saw the human mind as the final authority in understanding reality. Although they approached it from different angles, both trusted reason, rather than faith and tradition, to lead to the truth.

Because of their influence, by the middle of the 17th century, science was becoming the lens by which reality was viewed. Importantly, this does not mean that there was a corresponding loss of belief. Still, as the mysteries of nature that had previously been attributed to the direct intervention of God came to be explained as natural phenomenon, a division developed between science and religion. God was understood to be the creator, but was no longer thought to be necessary for day to day management of the material world because it was obedient to Natural Law. Correlative to the division between God and His Creation, was a widening gap between God and human reason; reason was understood to be autonomous.

Enter Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant saw the movement from reliance on God toward a reliance on reason as analogous to the movement from childhood to adulthood. This idea was foundational to the period we call the Enlightenment. The light of the Enlightenment was the realization that it was neither God nor the church which would lead to a better world, but human Reason. This view of is the essence of the modern worldview, and is still with us today.

Kant believed that human beings were also developing morally as we continue to articulate universally recognized moral principles. All cultures and religions are expressions, to one degree or another, of these principles. He believed that these Moral Laws could be uncovered by reason. For Kant, religion was simply a particular expression of universal principles.

The light, in Enlightenment, is Reason.  It was supposed that we could arrive at universal truth using only reason.  Importantly, it was believed that reason was neutral, unaffected by belief,  (or history, tradition, body, etc.).   It wasn’t very long before religion was thought to be its opposite.

This is where the divide between faith and reason was formalized–this is dualism. It’s the belief that we can hold to whatever particular beliefs we want, but these are to be kept in the private sphere. The public sphere is to be ruled by universal reason. If we keep things in their proper spheres, we can all happily get along (This false dichotomy, and others, is the point of this site).

Although, this idea is considered passé by many intellectuals–not just the religious ones either–it still dominates public thought.

Fact versus Truth

In False Dichotomies - the lines between on November 5, 2012 at 4:56 am

The idea that Science and Religion are at odds is a very common misunderstanding.  For instance, I stumbled across a website that argued that Science and Religion are are both concerned with finding out about the truth about the world and our place in it, but they come up with different answers.

So which one are you going to believe?

It offered the following comparison to assist you in making choosing science as your reliable source for truth:

 

 

 

Science Religion
Gather Empirical Facts (the “evidence”) Study an Ancient and Revered Book(believed to be God’s word)
Use Critical Reasoning (based on the evidence) Accept it by Faith (based on instinct, a feeling, intuition?)
Form A Tentative Theory (Either the reasoning or the facts may be wrong, so best if submitted to a jury of one’s peers for their agreement.) Revealed Truth (must not be doubted?)

 

The roots of the perceived conflict between religion and science came out of, not a battle between science and religion, but a battle between science and language (Klassen). The root of this view is in two ideas called empiricism and rationalism. Empiricism comes from the method articulated by Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and rationalism from the fertile mind of René Descartes (1596-1650).

Both empiricism and rationalism were seeking to ground reality in certainty. In the previous centuries, reason and emotions were not antithetical, but part of an integral whole which found expression in language. Language reflected a delight in elaborate patterns and complicated ornamentation. Like the elaborate patterns in gardens, gowns and poetic forms, language was a marriage of wisdom and eloquence, of content and style.

By the time the 17th century arrived there was there began to be more interest the particulars of the physical world that in universal ideas and the world to come. The interest in the things of this world prompted thinkers like Bacon and Descartes to escape the ambiguities of language and emotion (not Christianity) and get at certain knowledge.

Empiricism

Bacon sought to achieve a more direct path to knowledge than one mediated through language. His approach is called empiricism, or the inductive method: through experimentation and observation one might use reason to draw universal conclusions–the truth.  He believed that knowledge could be accumulated through impartial observation of the natural world; this information would be shared publically so that it could be critiqued and verified by others and, through this process, human knowledge would grow.

Rationalism

Like Bacon, René Descartes desired a more certain foundation for knowledge, but rather than using inductive reasoning from experience, Descartes used deductive reasoning that began with the mind. He purposes to seek certainty by setting aside anything “which admits of the slightest doubt” even if the only certainty discovered is that there is no certainty. Since it is possible to doubt the existence of the body, all operations of the body, (and consequently the attributes of the soul which require a body,) are also in doubt. So Descartes looked to the mind and concludes that he does in fact exist because he can conceive in his mind. Even if he is deceived, and everything we perceive is an illusion created by a deceptive God, his existence is still a certainty because one must exist to be deceived.  His conclusion is that truth is deduced using reason.

The influence of these two thinkers on western thought cannot be exaggerated. Reason became the means by which we can understand all reality and intuition, emotion, subjective opinion, and religious beliefs are sent packing.

The Limits of empiricism and rationalism

Do the principles of empiricism and rationalism provide us with a clearer picture of the truth than truth that is mediated through language (and intuition, emotion, subjective opinion, and religious beliefs)?

Here is a list of empirically collected facts about the bald eagle.

  • Color – Both male and female adult bald eagles have a blackish-brown back and breast; a white head, neck, and tail; and yellow feet and bill.
  • Size – The female bald eagle is 35 to 37 inches, slightly larger than the male.
  • Wingspan ranges from 72 to 90 inches.
  • Bald eagles can fly to an altitude of 10,000 feet. During level flight, they can achieve speeds of about 30 to 35 mph.
  • Bald eagles weigh from ten to fourteen pounds.
  • Eagle bones are light, because they are hollow.
  • The beak, talons, and feathers are made of keratin.
  • Bald eagles have 7,000 feathers.
  • Longevity – Wild bald eagles may live as long as thirty years.
  • Lifting power is about 4 pounds.
  • Diet – Mainly fish, but they will take advantage of carrion (dead and decaying flesh).
  • Hunting area varies from 1,700 to 10,000 acres. Home ranges are smaller where food is present in great quantity.
  • All eagles are renowned for their excellent eyesight.
  • Nests are built in large trees near rivers or coasts.
  • An eagle reaches sexual maturity at around four or five years of age.
  • Fidelity – Once paired, bald eagles remain together until one dies.
  • Bald eagles lay from one to three eggs.
  • The 35 days of incubation duties are shared by both male and female.

It’s a pretty long list, and more could be added, but even if we added a million such facts and the entire genetic code, would we still have the whole truth about the eagle?

Of course not.

. . . crossing the line between fact and truth

Some of what is missing is captured in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem.

THE EAGLE
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

The alliteration in the first two lines reinforces the idea that the environment in which we find the eagle is both harsh and vast. Referring to the claws as “crooked hands” equates the eagle with an aged person, not so much weak, as wise. The eagle is “Ringed with the azure world” and figuratively close to the sun; both of these emphasize the loftiness of the king of birds. The comparison of eagle to king dominates the second stanza which begins with the sea prostrating itself before the eagle-king, who watches from the cliff as from the walls of his castle. The thunderbolt is a weapon of power associated with the Thor, and Zeus—kings of Norse and Greek pantheons, respectively.

This poem captures aspects of truth that anyone who has seen an eagle close up understands. It captures something of its … regality? This is a quality that cannot be accurately named, let alone measured, but it is true.

Tennyson’s description of the eagle is not quantitative, like the list of facts, but qualitative. Yes, this sort truth is the very thing Bacon and Descartes were trying to get away from, but were they right to do so?  You will never have the complete truth about an eagle, but if you complement empirical evidence with some very good poems, you will be closer than if you had a list of facts that reached to the sun.