Well, actually, it was not really a vacation. I have just spent a couple of weeks in England, mainly talking to contributors to a couple of encyclopedia projects I have in hand. I used to think that doing these collections was easy and not very intellectually challenging. Several projects later, I am a lot wiser although I would not say less happy. I have come to see that done properly they can really make a contribution, either for students or the general reader or even for scholars. The help I have gotten from various Cambridge Companions, for instance, has been immeasurable. Good quality work, written at a level that the outsider to the topic can follow, and reliable in a way that other sources of information like Wikipedia are often not.
Although let me stress again that for a first cut on things I think Wikipedia is terrific. At the very least it gives me all sorts of references through which I can follow up on a topic. When I wrote my piece on Waldorf education, I got more on Rudolf Steiner than I need for this lifetime; although since, as Steiner points out, this is only one of many lives through which I am going to be recycled, I will undoubtedly make use of it in the future. If one of the younger readers of this blog at some point in the future has a kid whose first words are “Dr. Steiner got it all right,” that is probably me.
One thing that I am working on with a young English academic is a handbook on atheism. It hasn’t been officially accepted yet, but since Oxford University Press approached us, I expect it will be. It is one of those ideas—and I confess it was not mine—that as soon as you think about, is a natural. Thanks to the so-called “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, there is at the moment a huge amount of discussion—violent and often hostile disagreement actually—about the existence of God, often wrapped in more general attacks on organized religion. But the level of scholarship, frankly, is not high—which is a euphemism for “truly dreadful.” Dawkins and company are flamboyant in their Philistine disregard for anything resembling a serious argument and contemptuous of every thoughtful philosophical move that has been made in the past. I have mentioned before, after reading Dawkins on necessary existence (aseity), it was the first time in my life that I have felt sorry for the Ontological Argument. The defenders are not much better because they rarely lift their heads above the parapet of controversy and look at the issues in any philosophical or theological or historical depth.
But there is in fact a huge body of literature and discussion on negative responses to the existence-of-God question, going back to the Greeks, covering many different religions and societies, getting us into the different challenges of different branches of science, not to mention areas like literature and music—think of the Russian composers of the last century—and the fine arts. Generally in such projects as these I don’t commit myself to a topic and like, if possible, simply to write the introduction, but really I am holding myself in reserve—ready to step in either to plug a gap that becomes apparent down the road or (more likely) to write on something that is simply not coming from an intended contributors. I once found myself writing on East German Marxism—and that was the days before Wikipedia so my efforts were truly heroic. As Dr. Johnson said about similar efforts, it was not that it was done well but that it was done at all. (I know what Dr. Johnson was talking about, but neither my wife Lizzie nor the politically correct minders of this blog would let me actually mention it.)
As it happens, I am thinking of doing the entry on atheism and the film. It is fascinating how much there is in cinema positive to religion, from the blockbusters of the 50s about Moses to those presenting the religious life in glowing colors. Think about those nauseating Bing Crosby movies that come up every Christmas. But the movies about doubt and disbelief are few and far between. The Seventh Seal comes to mind of course, as do movies like Inherit the Wind and Planet of the Apes. (Interesting that the image of God made flesh, Charlton Heston, should feature in both the Old Testament Epics and Planet of the Apes, which seems to me to explore the issues of authority and belief in ways far more subtle than Inherit the Wind—although that has the best line in the whole of cinema when the H. L. Mencken character, played by Gene Kelley, says to the girlfriend of the John Thomas Scopes character, worried as she is by the Mencken cynicism: “I do hateful things for which people love me, and I do loveable things for which they hate me. I’m admired for my detestability. Now don’t worry, Little Eva. I may be rancid butter, but I’m on your side of the bread.”)
Anyway, if any of my commentators and critics can find themselves inclined to take a break from public and private chastisement for my meanness to anthroposophy in general and Rudolf Steiner in particular—Here’s a good joke: Question: “How many anthroposophists does it take to change a lightbulb?” Answer: “Nobody knows because Dr. Steiner never told us.”—and give me some good advice on movies on or about atheism (or religious doubt in general) worth discussing, I would welcome it and the suggestions.
Well, I have a lot more things to tell you about but I seem to have run out of space, so they will have to wait until the next time. I don’t know about you, but I find that the summers are more filled with work than at any other time in the school year. I think it is mainly thanks to email. It is so easy for people to fire off requests, for readings, or blurbs, or evaluations, or whatever. And deeply conservative, Protestant non-believer that I am, I find it impossible to leave food on my plate or to say no to requests for help. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away. The Internet has brought me Wikipedia and it has also brought me 451 emails that need answering right now. Blessed be the name of the Lord.