Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek - Final Synthesis

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, author Annie Dillard explores her own relationship with God and nature, and the associations between the two. Dillard makes plenty of religious references throughout the text as a whole, exploring different facets of God. Among these are many intriguing references to Christian doctrine. Dillard begins the book with a via positiva outlook of God and creation, and eventually slides down into the via negativa - taking a harsher look at nature.
One of the largest themes found while reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was the meta-textual reference to Noah’s Ark.  In Chapter 9, Flood, the reader is introduced to the idea of a God of Wrath in Dillard’s volatile description of the high creek during a flood: “It smashes  under the bridge like a fist, but there is no end to its force; it hurtles down as far as I can see till it lurches round the bend, filling the valley, flattening, mashing, pushed, wider and faster, till it fills my brain” (Dillard 172). This is a fascinating description of the power of water, and in a symbolic way, the power of God.
In the Christian Bible, there are two versions of God: that of Forgiver, and that of Judger. The God of Love versus the God of Wrath. God is believed to be both, leaning more towards one over the other in different scenarios. Noah’s Ark and the Flood as accounted in the Bible would be a prime example of the God of Wrath: God decided to destroy the entire Earth and all of its inhabitants (besides two of every species loaded up on a boat built by his last faithful follower, Noah and his family) in an effort to rid the world of the nastiness it had become overrun with.
Dillards version of this flood is to recount watching the rising creek destroy and conquer.
In previous chapters Dillard does explore the God of Love: she starts Chapter two, Seeing, with a cute childhood story about hiding pennies along the sidewalk and drawing chalk arrows for strangers to follow to find the penny; “I was greatly excited, during all the arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe” (Dillard 16). She’s describing something very close to miracles and blessings in the Christian religion. She connects this story to make the claim that there are many things to be seen, and that there is a gift given to the seer, “regardless of merit,” through this simple process of actively seeing.
This is reminiscent of Matthew 7:7, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Dillard says, “The world is fairly studded and strewn with  pennies cast broadside from a generous hand” (Dillard 17). In my copy of the text, I underlined “generous hand” and wrote in the margin “God?” Her entire argument is so perfectly set up as a Jesus parable I couldn’t help but notice it.
Although I have only drawn parallels between the text and western Christianity, there are plenty of parts of the text that lend themselves to more Eastern connotations. Dillard is not solely teasing out the Christian God. The story of the pennies could easily be read into an example of the Tao, meditation, or could even be used for atheistic interpretations of the text. What I took away most from the text as a whole is the distinction between pretty nature and ugly nature, Wrath versus Love, and Dillard's blatant investigation into both sides.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Knowledge = Sense of Self?

“Knowledge gives us a sense of who we are.” To what extent is this true in the human sciences and one other area of knowledge?

Knowledge offers the knower the unique ability of self-evaluation with the tools given to them in the knowledge they have attained. In the statement “knowledge gives us a sense of who we are,” the pull for a binary opposite is heavy. More knowledge becomes viewed as the positive, and less knowledge viewed as the negative. However, knowledge is not the sole factor, or even the largest factor, that denotes a person’s perception of his or her inner self, but rather can be seen as one of many things working together to shape a person.

The statement “knowledge gives us a sense of who we are” sets itself up to be turned into the positive half of a social binary. From the phrase, it is easy to assume that knowledge equals the ability to understand oneself. Understanding oneself (“sense of who we are”) is a positive thing, and so inherently knowledge is seen as a good thing. From the structuralist point of view, meaning (“a sense of who we are”) is derived from creating opposites, or binaries. In a binary interpretation, anti-knowledge, or the opposite of knowledge, correlates with a negative (or decreasing) sense of who we are. And therefore a lack of knowledge is seen as a bad thing.

The danger of this binary is that it implies that UN-knowledgeable people will be UN-able to develop a sense of who they are. This is not necessarily true. There are many other factors that impact a person’s understanding of him or herself. In The Tao of Pooh, by Benjamin Hoff, Hoff speaks of the members of Western Academia: “Far from reflecting the Taoist ideal of wholeness and independence, this incomplete and unbalanced creature divides all kinds of abstract things into little categories and compartments, while remaining rather helpless and disorganized in his daily life” (Hoff 25). The words “incomplete and unbalanced” suggest a lack of identity with one’s self, or an absence of sense of one’s self. This directly contradicts the binary set up by the prompt. Hoff seems to suggest that the academicians have got it wrong: they are chasing knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and in so doing lose the ability to have a whole life (“a sense of who we are.”)

On the note of knowledge and experience, Hoff writes later in the same chapter: “But sometimes the knowledge of the scholar is a bit hard to understand because it doesn’t seem to match up with our own experience of things. In other words, Knowledge and Experience do not necessarily speak the same language. But isn’t the knowledge that comes from experience more valuable than the knowledge that doesn’t? It seems fairly obvious to some of us that a lot of scholars need to go outside and sniff around - walk through the grass, talk to the animals” (Hoff 29). Knowledge does offer the knower the ability to improve or analyze their position in their world, and Hoff argues here that knowledge gained through experience is more beneficial than knowledge gained for the sake of knowledge. The thing lacking in the academicians knowledge is that he or she is not gleaning it from personal experience, and so therefore it doesn’t carry the same weight. The experience is the conduit that knowledge must use to shape a person’s sense of self. If knowledge does not have experience to assist it, it will not make an impact.

This discovery inhibits the binary created by the statement. Knowledge is not the sole factor, or even the largest factor that denotes our understanding of ourselves. Knowledge alone does not bring about a whole understanding of one’s self. This statement leaves a gap for a dangerous interpretation; it is not safe to simply say that knowledge equals a decent sense of who we are. The development of a person’s understanding of him or herself weighs heavily on many more things than knowledge; faith, emotion, and sociological factors all affect how we perceive ourselves.