All posts tagged “philosophy

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Departures and Arrivals

Years ago, somewhere during my globetrotting twenties, I read The Art of Travel by the philosopher Alain de Botton. “We are inundated with advice on where to travel to,” he writes, “but we hear little of why and how we should go, even though the art of travel seems naturally to sustain a number of questions neither so simple nor so trivial, and whose study might in modest ways contribute to an understanding of what the Greek philosophers beautifully termed eudaimonia, or ‘human flourishing.’” Instantly it became a favorite. How could it not, chock-full as it was of nuggets like this?

If we find poetry in the service station and motel, if we are drawn to the airport or train carriage, it is perhaps because, in spite of their architectural compromises and discomforts, in spite of their garish colours and harsh lighting, we implicitly feel that these isolated places offer us a material setting for an alternative to the selfish ease, the habits and confinement of the ordinary, rooted world.

These days, truth be told, “the habits and confinement of the ordinary, rooted world” don’t sound quite as suffocating as they did then, and whether the book has resonated in quite the same way with those to whom I’ve since loaned my copy, I can’t say. Regardless, I recall my early readings of the book with fondness.

It was a delight, then, to discover that the author had revisited some of the same themes in a subsequent book called A Week at the Airport, a slim volume featuring stunning full-color photos by Richard Baker and arranged in four sections: Approach, Departures, Airside, and Arrivals.

True to the title, the author spent a week in Terminal Five at Heathrow Airport in London, having been invited to serve as writer-in-residence by a representative of the company that manages Heathrow and other airports. He was given a desk in full view of travelers and was tasked with writing what he saw, felt, and experienced—all while asking questions befitting a philosopher.


The result is a fun, brisk-paced book that nonetheless manages to touch on some of the deeper elements of the human experience, like mortality, self-analysis, and longing—the kinds of things anyone who has spent time in airports and airplanes knows all about. Take this passage for example:

Nowhere was the airport’s charm more concentrated than on the screens placed at intervals across the terminal which announced, in deliberately workmanlike fonts, the itineraries of aircraft about to take to the skies. These screens implied a feeling of infinite and immediate possibility: they suggested the ease with which we might impulsively approach a ticket desk and, within a few hours, embark for a country where the call to prayer rang out over shuttered whitewashed houses, where we understood nothing of the language and where no one knew our identities. The lack of detail about the destinations served only to stir unfocused images of nostalgia and longing: Tel Aviv, Tripoli, St Petersburg, Miami, Muscat via Abu Dhabi, Algiers, Grand Cayman via Nassau … all of these promises of alternative lives, to which we might appeal at moments of claustrophobia and stagnation.

Or how about this reflection spurred by the comings and goings that airports so deeply epitomize:

Out of the millions of people we live among, most of whom we habitually ignore and are ignored by in turn, there are always a few that hold hostage our capacity for happiness, whom we could recognize by their smell alone and whom we would rather die than be without.

If these excerpts stir anything within you, consider picking up A Week at the Airport next time you’re planning for a trip. If you like what you read, you’d do well to follow it up with The Art of Travel.

[Header Photo: Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Five via]

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Repaso: March 8, 2013


1. Hymns jubilee
In celebration of seven years of music-making (specifically, “making hymns accessible and known again”), Page CXVI is giving away its entire catalog of 74 songs throughout the month of March. It’s great stuff.

2. C.S. Lewis on prayer
Scot McKnight shared a rare clip from one of C.S. Lewis’s radio addresses, speaking about prayer. I can’t say I imagined Clive’s voice sounding quite like this.

3. Earning a voice
Ever wonder what it would be like to eavesdrop on a conversation between brilliant philosophers like James K.A. Smith and Nicholas Wolterstorff? Okay, unless you’re a nerd, maybe you haven’t. But in the latest edition of Comment, they discuss how the field of philosophy has changed in recent decades, and how Christians have earned a voice in academia. It’s really interesting:

What happened in my field of philosophy was that positivism collapsed… The big programs in contemporary philosophy had all been gatekeepers: the positivists were saying that one can’t even talk about God, the ordinary language people were worrying whether language is being used improperly when we talk about God, and so forth. The collapse of the big gatekeeper programs meant that there was nobody around anymore who was saying, not with any plausibility, anyway, that it’s impossible to make judgments about God, impossible to talk about God, etc. All of those programs collapsed. They did not collapse because of what they said about the impossibility of religious/theological language; they collapsed for other reasons. What this collapse meant was that religious/theological discourse was now open.

4. Bono at TED
Last fall the U2 frontman made some waves at a tech conference when he admitted his “humbling” discovery that business and entrepreneurship have a crucial role to play in poverty alleviation. “The strongest and loudest voice with moral punch [in Africa] at the moment,” he said, “is a nerd.” He’s now taken his “factivist” tour to TED2013. The video hasn’t been posted yet, apparently, but here’s a snippet from the TED blog:

Bono’s passion: countering what Nelson Mandela refers to as “that most awful offense to humanity, extreme poverty.” His weapon of choice? Facts. “Forget the rock opera, forget the bombast, my usual tricks,” he says. “The only thing singing today will be the facts. I have truly embraced my inner nerd. Exit the rock star.” He removes his trademark sunglasses. “Enter the evidence-based activist.” He puts his glasses back on upside down. Bono is now a “factivist.” And he has the infographic-filled slides to prove it.

5. Folksongs & Ballads


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Nicholas Wolterstorff: Justice in Scripture

I’m slowly but surely plodding my way through a book by philosopher and theologian Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff called Until Justice and Peace Embrace. I’ll post some thoughts on it when I finish, probably in 2014 or so. It’s not that it’s not good; it really is. It’s just a bit weighty, the kind of thing for which you need to pace yourself. In the meantime, here’s Wolterstorff speaking at Antioch Church in Bend, Oregon earlier this year on the biblical basis for doing justice.

Justice in Scripture :: Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff from Antioch Church on Vimeo.

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Justice and the lost art of political debate

For twenty years, a political philosopher named Michael Sandel has taught a course at Harvard simply called “Justice.” It’s been so wildly popular that it became the first Harvard course to be aired on public television and available for free online. I just read the bestseller he wrote, Justice: What’s the Right Thing To Do?, which takes some of the key themes of the course and, presumably, puts the proverbial cookies on a shelf low enough for folks like me to reach them.

Drawing on philosophers both ancient and modern, he wrestles through real life dilemmas that happen all around us, and shows that there are three main ways of thinking about justice: justice as maximizing welfare, justice as respecting freedom, and justice as promoting virtue. We hold our views, in many cases, with unexamined and unarticulated assumptions, which goes a long way in explaining why political and social debates often turn so nasty, even among people who generally like each other.

Of today’s most divisive issues, Sandel says: “Lying just beneath the surface, with passions raging on all sides, are big questions of moral philosophy, big questions of justice. But we too rarely articulate and defend and argue about those big moral questions in our politics.”

Sandel says that most political discourse — in mass media especially — pits the welfare camp against the freedom camp. You probably know with which of the two camps you generally align. But he proposes a version of the third view of justice, that of promoting virtue. I won’t go into detail explaining what he means by that; you’ll need to read the book. Or better yet, take the course!

Here Sandel introduces some of the themes he covers in the book, using a fascinating golf quandary as his case study.