High noon

If the sun reached its climax above the North Pole

And sired a second sun, then left him to be raised beneath the South Pole by old snow wolves,

Or if the Earth finally warmed up to the sun, and they contrived a moonlit tryst at Venus’s, starting with drinks

And if the Earth sailed home before sunrise so tipsy that the Tropic of Cancer pitched to the Arctic Circle,

Or if the Doomsday Clock finally reached high noon

And we partied, spiking our drinks with the last shriveling icebergs,

Would it matter?

Thinking about the current New Yorker‘s cover and this old tweet:


On Space. Architects are Taoists. As proof, juxtapose the following quotes:

Solid-void theory . . . holds that the volumetric spaces shaped or implied by the placement of solid objects are as important as, or more important than, the objects themselves.

— Matthew Frederick, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School (thing #5)

Thirty spokes are united around the hub to make a wheel,
But it is on its non-being that the utility of the carriage depends.
Clay is molded to form a utensil,
But it is on its non-being that the utility of the utensil depends.
Doors and windows are cut out to make a room,
But it is on its non-being that the utility of the room depends.
Therefore turn being into advantage, and turn non-being into utility.

— Lao Tzu, Tao-te ching, chapter 11 (translated by Wing-Tsit Chan)

Chan, Lao Tzu’s translator in the philosophically and historically rigorous The Way of Lao Tzu (Tao-te-ching), states in a comment that “this chapter alone should dispel any idea that Taoism is negativistic, for non-being — the hole in the hub, the hollowness of a utensil, the empty space in the room — is here conceived not as nothingness but as something useful and advantageous. . . . It was because of the Taoist insistence on the positive value of non-being that empty space has been utilized as a constructive factor in Chinese landscape painting. In this greatest art of China, space is used to combine the various elements into an organic whole and to provide a setting in which the onlooker’s imagination may work. By the same token, much is left unsaid in Chinese poetry, for the reader must lay a creative role to bring the poetic idea into full realization.”

It seems to me that Lao Tzu is using non-being in these three examples in a physical sense as a way to predispose his reader to a more abstract understanding of non-being. But I guess the little I know about the Buddhist idea of Emptiness, which came a bit later to China, predisposes me to think that the Taoist notion of non-being is surprisingly utilitarian. Of course, the Tao-te ching can come across like Machiavelli’s The Prince sometimes with its seemingly cynical advice to rulers. But I do like how Lao Tzu’s notion of non-being works in architecture, painting, poetry, and spoons.

Paul Ryan & the missing commandment

Yesterday’s devotional puts it another way. Why is Paul Ryan’s idea of the idea America was founded on inadequate? During his first speech as the presumptive Republican nominee for vice president, Paul Ryan stated that America was founded on an idea:

But America is more than just a place…it’s an idea.  It’s the only country founded on an idea.  Our rights come from nature and God, not government.

The inadequacy is reflected in the August 15 entry in Henri Nouwen’s Bread for the Journey:

The two most important ways to protect our hiddenness are found in solitude and poverty. Solitude allows us to be alone with God. There we experience that we belong not to people, not even to those who love us and care for us, but to God and God alone.

Nouwen’s solitude and Locke’s state of nature are founded on the same idea: we are ourselves before God prior to becoming someone else’s someone — someone’s nephew, someone’s consumer, someone’s constituency, someone’s enemy, someone’s lifeline. Because the idea of unalienable rights comes from this existential notion, Ryan is on firm ground asserting that our rights come from God and not government.

But Locke’s state of nature is a necessary but not sufficient philosophical foundation for America. Nouwen’s entry continues:

Poverty is where we experience our own and other people’s weaknesses, limitations, and need for support. To be poor is to be without success, without fame, and without power. But there God chooses to show us God’s love.

Both solitude and poverty protect the hiddenness of our lives.

If solitude is akin to Locke’s state of nature, then poverty is akin to Jefferson and Lincoln’s notion that all men are created equal. The work of poverty, in whatever form it takes, brings us into solidarity with our neighbors. If we are not weak, we cannot relate to the weakness of others, and community is not possible.

Continue reading

Paul Ryan’s improvement on Abraham Lincoln

During his first speech as the presumptive Republican nominee for vice president, Paul Ryan stated that America was founded on an idea:

But America is more than just a place…it’s an idea.  It’s the only country founded on an idea.  Our rights come from nature and God, not government.

Ryan here states the essence of natural law’s distinction with positive law. (“Positive” law is law posited by government.) Natural law has been most helpful when a government has sought to circumscribe a people’s rights. Under John Locke’s version of natural law, if a ruler denies his people’s inalienable rights and refuses his people’s appeals, the people may “appeal to heaven” — i.e., recognize the state of war that exists between the ruler and his people. We did that in 1776.

Ryan is correct when he states that our rights come from natural law. He and others who have recently made this assertion imply, though, that the government cannot create rights, such as a “right” to health insurance despite preexisting conditions. This limited notion of rights makes a mockery of natural law. Many positive laws create rights — rights of action (i.e., the right to access courts to enforce legislative remedies), if nothing else. Locke and the Founders never said or implied that natural law precludes positive law. Positive law must not be inconsistent with natural law, to be sure, but our early Supreme Court cases, some of which considered positive law in light of natural law, rarely found them to be in conflict.

Continue reading

John field notes 12(b)(2): What the thunder said

‘Now my soul is in turmoil, and what am I to say? “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it was for this that I came to this hour.  Father, glorify your name.’ A voice came from heaven: ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd standing by said it was thunder they heard, while others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ Jesus replied, ‘This voice spoke for your sake, not mine.’ (John 12:27 – 30, REB)

Jesus looks over his audience. Philip and Andrew have just introduced him to the first large contingent of Greeks he has run into during his three-year ministry. These pilgrims have come for Passover but also to see Jesus. There they are, standing together.

Just behind them in the west, the sky begins to darken.

Jesus draws his audience in, as a hen might her chicks from an approaching storm, with his confidential reflections. “What am I to say?” he booms. Looking straight into the darkening sky, he concludes: “Father, glorify your name.” He stares upwards for a minute, then he climbs off the rock, which was serving as an informal dais.

Continue reading