Wednesday, February 08, 2006

I owe a debt of gratitude to my friend of the last 10 years, Pitt Tomlinson, for recommending to me Albert Borgmann's book Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology. Borgmann is a professor of philosophy at the University of Montana, and, like other philosophers, has the talent, for better or worse, of writing far denser prose than other sorts of writers. This is not a drawback, though, when the writing is clear, nautrally interesting, and not translated from German.

The portion of the book I most enjoyed is his chapter on the virtue of courage in modern society. Beginning with a look at the courage of the rescue workers on Sept 11, 2001, he asks the question of whether courage in modern society reuires an extraordinary crisis. Typically virtues have been said to only develop through practice, so this would seem to be a difficult quandry. Drawing on the analysis of William Miller (The Mystery of Courage, 2000), he talks briefly about Aristotle and Aquinas on courage, noting that for each of them, their primary models for courage (Homeric heroes for Aristotle, the martyrs for Aquinas) lived centuries before their own writing, thus each felt this quandry of how courage was to be relevant in their day.

Certainly one challenge to be courageous in our society is the lack of obvious dangers. We would (should) not consider as virtuous the intentional taking on of easily preventable harms. Borgmann here points to the moral harms provided by the lifestyle encouraged by ou technological culture:

You come home from work, frazzled and spent. You walk into the kitchen and are not surprised that the children have left already and your spouse is not yet home. You find yourself walking to the refrigerator; you take what you like most and put it in the microwave. You stare at the paper on the kitchen table; it's Wednesday, your favorite tv show is on, followed by a game of the home team. Your pulse quickens a little. The show is good, your spouse comes home, you exchange a few words, the game is boring, you move to the den to do an overdue memo on the omputer. But first you check your email, the latest news, you happen on the ESPN web site. They offer you a video game, you play it for a while, your spouse is going to bed. You decide to call it a day.

Has this been an un-Christian evening? You have not coveted your neighbor's spouse, you have not stolen anything, you have not ordered anyone around. What you have done seems unexceptional. There were moments of a pleasant sort of freedom when you were able to eat what you liked at the time you liked, while watching the program you liked. There were moments of mild excitement when you anticipated the game or started to play the video game. Sullennessmay have overtaken you in the end, but at least you id not have to presume on anyone's time or attention.

Borgmann describes this "cocoon of autonomy" as being "incapable of redemption", but then moves to the alternatives which are at hand:

Here on the shelf is the poetry we could read to one another, there in the cornerare the flute and guitar we could play together. Right next to the kitchen is the dining-room table we could gather around. nd not far from our home are the playing fields where we could teach our daughter tennis or join a softball league with our beloved. There is the museum where local painters are showing their work and the concert hall where the citizens' symphony plays.

These are the places where patience is tried and generosity rewarded, where disappointments can't be escaped and grace descends in what Virginia Wolff calls moments of being. Those places are the precincts of faith where redemption comes into view again as the perfection the world cries out for.

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