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EPS Blog

This is the blog area for the Evangelical Philosophical Society and its journal, Philosophia Christi.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Phantom, Notre Dame, and Fish Eyes

In late May of this year my wife, step-son, and I—along with a group of students and faculty from my school—went on a tour to London and Paris. It was my fourth trip to London. Before my mom died, she and I had gone there and to Oxford twice, and then my wife and I went a year ago, when we were actually able to spend our first anniversary amidst the towering spires of Oxford.

Save for sharing a brief summary of C.S. Lewis as philosopher, I had no official duties as chaperone on this year’s trip, so I could relax and just take in the sights—and sites. From seeing Wicked and (with EPS vice president Mark Foreman) Phantom of the Opera, to attending Evensong at St. Margaret’s next to Westminster Abbey, to visiting Oxford—an embodiment of the nobility of the intellectual tradition, as my buddy Jerry Walls puts it—England was wonderful as always.

Not the food so much, with their penchant for adding beans to every plate for inexplicable reasons and refusing to remove fish heads before serving them—though I suppose even this is one of England’s many charms.

Paris was just breathtaking, its aesthetic eclipsing even that of London, perhaps because Paris was not bombed as London was during WWII. Seeing the Notre Dame Cathedral, my wife’s favorite stop on the trip, was nothing less than transportive. The Gothic structure took 200 years to build, and I couldn’t help but wonder, as I stood mesmerized before it, what sort of worldview could inspire such an accomplishment? Surely nothing as drab and arid as materialism.

David Bentley Hart likes to point out that what is certain is that, to this point, most of the unquestionably sublime achievements of the human intellect and imagination have arisen in worlds shaped by some vision of transcendent truth.

My step-son’s favorite part of the trip was Versailles, especially the Hall of Mirrors, where World War I officially came to an end. As a history major he was practically moved to tears there after having been a bit of a reluctant tourist until then.

My favorite was the Louvre, and recently reading C. S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism proved a great help in developing my appreciation for the experience. It’s a book I should have read much sooner, teaching us not just how to be better and more discriminating readers, but how to appreciate nature more, listen to music, and look at art. Really looking and listening, allowing the literature or scenic beauty or musical performance or artwork to capture us, speak to us, and do its magic: it takes patience to listen and look carefully enough to penetrate appearances and see and hear what’s there beneath the surface.The paintings I looked at spoke about the sublimity of the everyday, the importance of self-examination, the echoes of beauty in the provincial, the intimations of eternity in the temporal. Seemingly ubiquitous nudity in the art led to reflections on the distinction between art and pornography—with some more help from Lewis, this time his “looking at” versus “looking along” distinction, which can help explain the original scandal of the ornate and risqué artwork outside the Paris Opera House.

Whenever I go to places like London or Paris or Rome with their venerable, storied, and protracted histories, I’m always amazed at the mixed bag those stories offer, from the ignoble to the sublime and everything in between. I couldn’t help but think that the process of sifting through history to learn its lessons, to bend our ear to its voices, to celebrate what’s worth commemorating and mourn what’s worth lamenting, requires that we bring more to our examination of history than the sensibility of a faithful chronicler.

Historians have to choose what to accentuate from among the plethora of historical details, but as human beings, all of us have to distinguish between the tragedies and triumphs of the past. And history itself doesn’t provide the tools for such discernment. History records what happened, but the rest of the humanities—most certainly including philosophy—are necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff, the virtuous from the vicious, the beautiful from the ugly, the kind from the cruel.

After seeing the fifth site of a beheading or hanging, reported in perfunctory and sanguine fashion by a tour guide treating it as casually as a gelato stand, I couldn’t help but worry about a creeping callousness of heart. Enjoying the Jack the Ripper walking tour as much as I did exacerbated my fears all the more, I have to confess.

Outside the British Library, where the Magna Carta is on display, I sat down and wrote a bit about this issue, of which this is an excerpt: 
When we study history without including the necessary evaluative components, the problem seems to be not just bland storytelling, but a narrative lacking humanity. Sometimes I think this is what can bother me about certain tours in which abysmal human failures and tragedies are used as punctuation marks, attention-grabbing or even entertaining aspects of the experience. The danger of desensitization looms—only intensified by the historical distances involved. The study of history, then, needs evaluation. Good history needs to retain its humanity, which requires it contain a critical stance whose force comes from beyond the confines of history alone. Good history isn’t possible without the other humanities.
So a wonderful trip overall, and, like everything else, great fodder for a bit of philosophical reflection. One more of which, if I may: Going to France made me regret not keeping up with my French. In general I wish I’d taken my language studies in the past—New Testament Greek and French—more seriously. Learning a language, far from being a mere hoop to jump through, is a great discipline. It requires we conform to it rather than it accommodate us, and going abroad is a poignant reminder that it’s not just an academic matter. Proficiency in a language provides a window into another culture and an opportunity for another real eye opener.

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