04 August 2012

CiRCE Report, Part I

I’ve decided rather than posting my CiRCE report all at once, to instead make it a two-parter. So here is Part 1, dealing with the various speakers heard on Thursday, 19 July. 

As I mentioned before, the conference theme was ‘A Contemplation of Creation’. Nine of us set out from OKC, including my wife and me and my terrific boss, Nathan Carr. We arrived Wednesday evening in time to stop by and say hello to Joshua Sturgill and Erin Doom, who were setting up the Eighth Day Books table, before heading to the welcoming reception. There, after reconnecting with Matt Bianco, Buck Holler, and Andrew Kern himself, I finally met the delightful Darren and Kimberly Jahn. Kimberly had recently (?) begun reading Logismoi and had already ingratiated herself by sending me a free copy of David Hicks’s Norms & Nobility. My wife and I decided to crash their dinner plans and get to know them a bit for the rest of the evening. 

Thursday morning began with an opening talk by Andrew Kern called ‘A Contemplation of Creation, Part I’. After an oligatory but meditative look at Genesis 1, Andrew quoted from Dorothy Sayers’s Mind of the Maker: ‘As soon as the mind of the maker has been made manifest in a work, a way of communication is established between other minds and his. That is to say, it is possible for a reader, by reading a book, to discover something about the mind of the writer.’ [1] This established the prevailing theme of the talk—the role of analogy in our understanding of God and creation. I don’t recall whether Andrew quoted it or not, but Wisdom 13:5 is a good statement of the thesis that makes use of the very term he emphasises—‘For by the greatness and beauty of the creatures analogously [ἀναλόγως] the Maker of them is seen.’ According to Andrew, our ‘habit of mind’ vis-a-vis creation should be primarily one of analogy rather than one of analysis.  

Next there was another plenary session, with John Mason Hodges talking about ‘Music & Metaphor: Towards a Sacramental View of Creation’. Hodges opened by emphasising that the Scriptural metaphors used for Christ—the vine, the bread, etc.—use things made by Him in order to describe Him. In other words, Christ is not ‘like’ a vine, the vine is ‘like’ Christ. He then segued into the topic of music by pointing out that metaphors function by bringing two things together in harmony—the sign and the signified. The bulk of the talk however consisted of an analysis of three movements from Holst’s The Planets—Jupiter, Mars, and Venus—and of the Louis Armstrong/Ella Fitzgerald duet, ‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off’. Hodges highlighted the metaphorical meanings in the music of Holst’s suite, and of the lyrics (primarily) of the Gershwin composition (focusing in particular on the lines ‘But oh, if we call the whole thing off / Then we must part / and oh, if we ever part, then that might break my heart’). 

At the first breakout session, I chose to attend a talk by Edward Chandler on ‘Language & Creation: Man, the Image of God’. Chandler began by discussing the imago Dei, arguing that approaches to the subject could be grouped into three categories: the material (entailing an anthropomorphic theology); the psychic/noetic, i.e., the idea that the soul or mind is the image, and is merely housed in a container (Chandler thought that this seemed to be the tendency of St Augustine as well as what he called ‘my beloved Cappadocians’!); and finally, the composite, a psychosomatic emphasis, which he identified with Aquinas (but I associated primarily with St Gregory Palamas and the Philocalic tradition generally). Chandler’s point was that language as a God-given ability was bound up with the imago in part because it is itself a psychosomatic unity (immaterial thought or meaning + material sign), but also because human language is analogous to God, who uses language to create in Genesis. Chandler connected this with liberal studies by pointing out that the inevitable offspring of language is literature, and that we learn classical languages in order to read literatures. In this way, language enables us to know ourselves as human beings. For Chandler, this meant that Latin instruction, for instance, should move as quickly as possible into the reading of texts, and not focus on grammar per se

Lunch on Thursday was spent in the charming company of Dr John Patrick of Augustine College in Ottawa, an abridgement of whose essay, ‘The Myth of Moral Neutrality’, I had just read in Doxa, the newsletter of St Michael’s Skete. Unfortunately, Dr Patrick’s deep well of fascinating stories made me quite late to the next breakout—Earl Nelson’s earnest talk on ‘Contemplating Babel: The Spiritual Dimensions of Learning Latin & Languages’. Nelson discussed the story of Babel as an account of the splitting up, not only of languages, but of cultures and thought-worlds. He sees it as a locus of estrangement on two levels—between different cultures (usually a synchronic estrangement), and between a present culture and its own past (more like a diachronic estrangement). Nelson saw language learning as the process of a becoming part of another culture and overcoming the divisions of Babel. He was quite firm about the importance of gaining fluency in reading the classical languages, and not being content merely to produce translations, whether mental or written. 

Thursday came to an end with a 3-man panel consisting of Martin Cothran, David Hicks, and Gregory Wolfe (of Image Journal) discussing Christian views of creation while in the roles of St Athanasius the Great, St Basil the Great, and St Augustine, respectively. In the spirit of the KU Pearson Integrated Humanities Program, on which this feature of CiRCE conferences is based, I did not take notes. Instead I simply sat and listened, and when Andrew Kern refilled the participants’ wine glasses, managed to procure a swig for myself. It started very slowly and awkwardly (though not without humour), but ended up being an interesting discussion. I was thrilled to hear Hicks (St Basil) tell Cothran (St Athanasius) that his favourite book by him was the Vita Antonii (as I mentioned here). Wolfe repeatedly mentioned ‘hanging out’ with a bunch of no-goodniks who theologically denigrated creation (the Manichaeans), and emphasised that his Confessions highlighted the allegory of Genesis in part to overturn Manichaean ideas. Unfortunately, Hicks seemed to get a bit confused about St Basil’s dates, but I doubt any non-Patristics folks noticed. 

Because the CiRCE prize-giving banquet was scheduled for Friday eve, the PH staff elected to have our traditional dinner out together on Thursday evening. I ate a sickening number of ribs at Ramsi’s Cafe in Louisville, browsed a bookshop, and had a brief conversation with Joshua Sturgill (of Eighth Day), Stacy Shipman (itinerant Orthodox student/teacher), and Nyleen Lacy (of the brand-new Orthodox classical school, Christ the Savior Academy in Wichita) before returning to the hotel to find part of its roof had been ripped off by a tornado. Thanks to God, no one seems to have been injured. 

[1] Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 49.


KimberlyJahn said...


I am so thankful that you and Allison joined Darren and me for dinner—what a joy to get to know you better— in the whole person. And what better way than during a meal together?

I found Logismoi back in March, and through you and Andrew have discovered “the spirit”, which sounds strange but is true so you must see how indebted I am, and how I believed you a friend before we actually met.

Now that I have arrived home, I plan to begin Precious Vessels (thank you!) and to revisit the CiRCE conference, which means starting The Mind of the Maker.

“As soon as the mind of the maker has been made manifest in a work, a way of communication is established between other minds and his. That is to say, it is possible or a reader, by reading a book, to discover something about the mind of the writer.” p. 49

Thank you for sharing this post.

The time has come for me to start looking backword in order that I might begin moving forward (upword). @analogy

Ever thankful,


Aaron Taylor said...

Thank you for your comment, Kim. Brighid and I enjoyed the dinner too (even though we were trying to spend as little as possible to save money for books!).

I hope you enjoyed Hill Abbey and Dante! I look forward to your thoughts on Precious Vessels. It really is a beautiful book.

In Christ,