Saturday, October 15

Literature and Spirituality: Boethius, Donne, and Asimov

It's been about a month since my last post. It's been a crazy month for many reasons, and only one of which is this course. When I last wrote, we were about to get started with Boethius.

I keep going back to the spirituality religion Venn diagram though I've distilled our focus to these four questions: 1) Where and how does the writer find meaning, and how do we know?; 2) What makes the writer feel connected, and with whom or what does the writer want a connection, and how do we know?; 3) What does the writer value, and how do we know?; and 4) How does where and how the writer find meaning, with whom and/or what the writer wants connection, and what the writer values inform how that writer chooses to live?

We started trying to answer some of those questions with Boethius, which was a challenge since so few of the students actually read the text. The discussion the students claimed they preferred becomes a discussion between me and a few students, which is fine for me. They make some great observations, I get to ask some follow-up questions, and we go from there.

Boethius was a bit of a challenge even for the students who read the text. Fortunately, they've started asking questions to clarify the text as they're finally learning that reading such texts often means they have to discuss what they think it could mean. Many are finally learning I'm not asking for the answer because there might not be, probably isn't, a single answer.

I am slowly realizing (again) that I have to unteach what many have been taught their entire academic careers--that a teacher, a professor is looking for one right answer, whatever might be in that professor's head.

What was a gratifying moment was when a student slapped her hand on the table and said, "Oh, I've got it!" and she shared a really illuminating idea and could back it up from her reading of the text. It was near the end of class so was, for me, a good way to end.

What they all struggle with is trying to read these texts through whatever they understand to be a "Christian" lens. They don't have the same denominational background and I have a student who comes from a Buddhist family and why he is at Judson seems as much a puzzle to him as it is to me. And I think many want to try to give me what they think is a biblical response even though I've often said I don't think that's possible, and that we have to remember that Boethius's experience with Christianity has been suspect for centuries and that even if he was a Christian, what he understood as Christianity would be unrecognizable to us.

For those who haven't delved into Consolation of Philosophy (and there are some very good translations available that make the text quite readable), Boethius did all the "right" things and live a comfortable life in a lovely villa in Rome. He rose in positions of leadership and power, and got involved in politics. He was tasked with rooting out corruption by the ruler in Italy, Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoth. But then his fortune ran out and he was charged, quite falsely, with treason. He wrote Consolation of Philosophy while in his prison cell awaiting execution.

Now, a few things occurred to me before we got into the text itself and I raised those as I gave students some background before they started reading. I suggested they might think about some historical political prisoners: Socrates, Nelson Mandela, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Aung San Suu Kyi, and, of course, Peter, Paul, and Silas. What I should have done is assigned some of those individuals to students so they could have done research to better understand the potential correlation of the thinking and reactions of those prisoners.

Why? Because Boethius found himself trying to understand how what happened to him happened. And so in the first book he is visited by Lady Philosophy who reminds him of the importance of philosophy and reason and suggests that thinking through these things will help bring about the healing of his mind. Lady Fortune visits him in Book II and reminds him that she is not to be trusted and that she sees everything as a game. As Boethius works through these two books, he compares the value of reason vs. emotion or passion and why only reason can be trusted.

Dr StClaire from
As he progresses in his thinking, he has a dialogue (in his writing) with Lady Philosophy about good and evil and why those who are evil get away with evil. He believes that there were those he was trying to expose who went to Theodoric and spun some other story that led the king to believe it was Boethius who was corrupt. Again, questions humanity is still trying to answer and one we see in books, movies,  and TV shows all the time. At the end of most stories, the "good guy" wins, but there are some, like The Matrix trilogy that leave us to wonder who were the good guys and who were the bad guys.

I made a mental observation that we live in difficult times when students in a Christian college are unwilling to speak their minds about some things. And when I said that there are some who might believe there are strong correlations to the world today, no one said a thing. It was as though they were afraid to even acknowledge that such might be true. 

And so we moved on through Boethius as he addressed God's foreknowledge vs man's free will, and I pondered aloud how that has been a question asked throughout time just as the question about how evil people get away with things while the good seem to be punished. And then I pontificated about how we each see evil. That Boethius saw the corrupt men who told lies to an "increasingly paranoid and vengeful king" (, and that some of us might not see lying about someone as "evil" compared to other acts or behavior. Then I looped back to Augustine and his behaviors and his attitudes towards his sin as well as how Augustine saw God's hand in his life. I noted some of the differences in language and then went back to the four questions. There were nods. I didn't and don't know what that means.

I've not yet read the Boethius papers. I'm anxious for a couple of reasons. Oh, I should also note that I gave students links to five YouTube videos, each a summary of a book in Consolation of Philosophy. None of the videos is more than five minutes. None of the students watched the videos on their own.
Then we moved on to John Donne because I really like John Donne and I think his story is a powerful one. We read mostly from the holy sonnets and "Hymne to God the Father," but I talked about the other elements of his life and why those might inform how we might answer the four questions with regard to Donne. 

They had not read the four sonnets I'd assigned, but I brought hard copies for students. Then I read a sonnet aloud and attempted to elicit discussion. We finished with Donne by revisiting "Holy Sonnet X" because I'd found a great video of someone reading the sonnet and he did a much better job than I, and then a lovely musical rendition of the sonnet by a young woman. When a student asked why she put the sonnet to music, I was a bit dumbfounded, but just shrugged and said she must have been moved by the sonnet and so decided to create that music. I also showed an excerpt from Wit, but I know they weren't interested. 

They weren't much interested in "Hymne to God the Father" either although one student did see a connection to Augustine. I wondered aloud if some people aren't interested in such poems because they are old and hard to read in the original or if the poems somehow speak too loudly to their own hearts. I say such things because I believe some are listening even if they aren't speaking.

And so we are taking a giant step in a very different direction by reading I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. We start that work on Tuesday, October 18. My hope is that they have read the two articles, they have watched the interview, and they have read the first four stories. The stories may take less time to read than the other stuff. And because we did not have class last week, they should have had time even though it was midterms. 

I don't give a midterm for many reasons. I canceled class on Tuesday because I had to be out of town and then had to cancel class on Thursday because I had return flight challenges.

Anyway, Asimov takes us far away from anything "Christian" to a writer who believes in rationality and humanism. How we might discuss the four questions with Asimov could be more lively than past discussions.

One of the things that is so interesting to me about this book is that Asimov wrote it in 1950. He coined the word "robotics," developed his Three Laws of Robotics, and added a whole new vocabulary through his robots including "positronic." The first story, "Robbie," takes place in 1998. The robot is huge and cannot speak. The next few stories take place over a period of time but begin in 2015 and by then robots are quite advanced and continue to become more, well, lifelike.

"Liar!" is like a story out of The Twilight Zone, for those of us old enough to remember the original television show. That story takes place in 2021 and what is so intriguing to me is how chatbots are not yet like Herbie, on many levels, and yet Asimov imagined a sort of empathy, but also the limitations of coding. Those are the sorts of ideas in later stories: that robots must obey the Three Laws of Robotics,  human beings have to be careful how they issue commands--think how often Alexa or Siri "misunderstand" what you're saying, and there are limits to what human beings can code a robot or robotic form to do. Or can they?

The last story set in 2052 poses that very question about the Machines.
It will be important for me to remind students when these stories were written and to think about what Asimov might have been trying to convey in these stories given how he valued rational thinking and humanism, and also how we might think about what we experience today through AI and have seen in movies and television since these stories were published. Think not only The Matrix trilogy, but Star Wars and Star Trek (first air date of the original in 1966), The Minority Report, The Twilight Zone (1959), and dozens of others including the Will Smith version of I. Robot (2004), loosely based on the stories in the book.

It will be more important for me to toss questions for them to think about and give them time to process and respond, although it will all be moot if they haven't read the stories. And therein lies the big challenge.

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