Cape Cod, MA. I am, as mentioned several weeks back when reporting on my retreat, entering upon a year’s sabbatical. I am thinking that perhaps it will be of interest to some readers of In All Things if I report in now and then on my year (including, later on, my trip to India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.)
I am staying right now on Cape Cod – a beautiful place, peaceful in the off-season that is now upon us, and yet close enough to Cambridge that I can get back to see students, use the library, check my mail, and say hi to my Jesuit housemates and the staff in my office. As some of you will know well, the Cape is beautiful in so many ways, and it is a blessing to be able to spend some time near the ocean, and I am grateful for this rare opportunity.
Among other tasks (for smaller and larger academic duties and commitments never really go away), I am starting a new book. The other day I wrote what I hope is a fairly intelligible description to a friend in India: “I am starting a new project that takes me back to my early work in Mimamsa (Hindu liturgical theology), looking at what one might say is the intersection of legal and theological reasoning. Mimamsa theologians in the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries attempted to reduce and codify a vast body of case studies and commentarial literature, in order to at the bare, minimal essence of each of the 900+ case studies in Jaimini's first century (or earlier) Mimamsa Sutras (a work of 2700 short statements, arguments). To make sense of the Sutras and the vast body of commentary, I am reading the fourteenth century Garland of Jaimini’s Insights (Jaiminiya Nyaya Mala) by Madhava, itself a work of about 2000 verses. (Hindu theologians think in verse.) Strikingly, perhaps improbably, the Hindu thinkers call this vast array of case studies and writings about it ‘introductory’ – a way into the field for true beginners, the way to learn how to think ritually.” The comparative angle, as I saw it when writing to my friend, “links back to the development of law and theology together in the Christian Middle Ages, in the era before Thomas Aquinas, when lawyers, canonists, and theologians sought to distill the vast older traditions into concise and useful summations. I am interested in all this because of the importance of the law-religion connection as a deep interreligious reality (often deeper than theologizing-about-religions) where we can meet in a truly introductory way, and because it will help answer my old questions, Do Hindus Do Theology? and, Why Is Hindu Theology So Different from Christian Theology? I am, finally, also thinking that Wittgenstein is useful for this project, his insights into rules in his Philosophical Investigations.”
Thus my project. I can already see that my sabbatical will be too short. But to the point: it also odd and uncomfortable, to be so apart and quiet in a beautiful place, so concentrated on “pure research” when the world is afire. I did observe moments of prayer and quiet the other day (September 7) in unity with people around the country and world praying for a peaceful resolution to the short-term and long-term violence in Syria; but still, I am far from the immediate and urgent needs of today’s world. How to justify this luxury of thinking and writing? I will reflect more on this as the year goes on, but one thought for today.
We can’t move ahead and get out of the difficulties in which we find ourselves unless religious people find deeper ways to connect with one another. The other day I called your attention to the fine inter-monastic journal, Dilatato Corde. Another level of deeper interaction occurs when we learn from one another’s traditions deeply and seriously, with as much attention as we learn from our own. It is not enough for Christian theologians, for instance, to read Thomas Aquinas or John Calvin or Karl Barth; we must learn deeply from the other traditions (as they must learn from us). And this takes time and patience – on the part of the scholar, but also on the part of the community which may ask, “What are you doing? When will you be done?”
I will stop here for now, but I cannot resisting adding an insight from the New York Review of Books (August 15, pp. 18-19) review by Freeman Dyson, himself a distinguished physicist, of philosopher Ray Monk’s new book on Robert Oppenheimer, the famous physicist, leader of the team that “invented” the atomic bomb, and who later, because he had grave doubts about the hydrogen bomb, lost his security clearance. Dyson has great respect for his friend Oppenheimer, but with the honesty of a good reviewer (and drawing on Monk) points out that Oppenheimer, for all his brilliance, was a man of action who, despite talking about the importance of pure research, made just one contribution to pure physics: a 4-page (!) co-authored (!!) paper that in essence invented the concept of black holes, so important in the physics and astronomy of today. “Only” that one paper, in a long life seemingly dedicated to scholarship. Dyson asks why this was so, and explains the situation gently but with candor: “The real tragedy of Oppenheimer’s life was… his failure to be a great scientist. For forty years he put his heart and soul into thinking about deep scientific problems. With the single exception of [his essay on black holes], he did not solve any of these problems. Why did he not succeed in scientific research as brilliantly as he succeeded in soldiering and administration? I believe the main reason why he failed was a lack of Sitzfleisch. Sitzfleisch is a German word with no equivalent in English… It means the ability to sit still and work quietly. He could never sit still long enough to do a difficult calculation…” Dyson cites a letter of his own that Monk cites in the book: Oppenheimer “is moving around nervously all the time, never stops smoking, and I believe that his impatience is largely beyond his control.” Learning to sit still and read and think is absolute necessary, if intellectual work is to get anywhere.
We know that thinking with the Church — a Catholic and Jesuit virtue — requires thinking for the Church. But both mean nothing without actual thinking, focused and extended, free ranging and unexpected enough that it goes its own way, without a sure sense of where it might lead. Like standing on a beach at water's edge, the horizon unbroken, but the depths hidden and cold. If I can glean something useful for us all by my reading of Jaimini and Madhava and the Christian medievals, then my time on the Cape will have its purpose.
But enough for now – back to work! I will report in on my sabbatical, and other things I notice, as the year proceeds.