Barack Obama on Doubt

Damn, President Barack Obama is good.

This from him today at Notre Dame:

In this world of competing claims about what is right and what is true, have confidence in the values with which you’ve been raised and educated. Be unafraid to speak your mind when those values are at stake. Hold firm to your faith and allow it to guide you on your journey. Stand as a lighthouse.

But remember too that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It is the belief in things not seen. It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us, and those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own.

This doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, and cause us to be wary of self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open, and curious, and eager to continue the moral and spiritual debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame. And within our vast democracy, this doubt should remind us to persuade through reason, through an appeal whenever we can to universal rather than parochial principles, and most of all through an abiding example of good works, charity, kindness, and service that moves hearts and minds.

After eight years of “W,” it’s hard to get used to such a cadanced and mature voice in the presidency. Be unafraid to speak your mind? Faith is ironic? Doubt instructs us to humility? Persuade through reason? Think about universal, as well as parochial, principles?

Do most Americans even know the definition of a word like parochial? What manner of man is this? American politicians aren’t supposed to talk this way, are they?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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13 Responses to Barack Obama on Doubt

  1. Mike Beidler says:

    Santi,

    Found your blog via Coyne’s “Why Evolution Is True” blog. Appreciate your accomodationist stance and sympathy for Gould’s NOMA principle. But I devolve. 😉

    What manner of man is this? American politicians aren’t supposed to talk this way, are they?

    As one who has written a number of speeches and knows how the political speech writing process goes, the President didn’t write it, although he certainly approved the language of the speech. (W had some inspiration speeches as well, although the delivery was nowhere near as charismatic as those of President Obama.) Of course, President Obama could read from the phone book and still inspire a nation with it. He’s an outstanding speaker (when his teleprompter is working) and he certainly knows inspired speech when he sees it.

    That being said, those are wonderful words you’ve quoted. I’ll have to check out the entire speech.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Mike,

    If I wasn’t on my way to work, I’d leave you a more verbose reply, but for now let me say that I hope to hear more from you on NOMA down the road. I don’t find many agnostics or atheists agreeing with me on that in threads. And I’m also curious to ask you a question about speeches. Do you think that speeches would function as good role models for student essay writing, or do you see the two practices as fundamentally different from one another (I’m thinking in terms of possibly assigning a book of speeches to English 101 students, as opposed to the traditional essays).

    —Santi

  3. santitafarella says:

    Mike,

    I’m asking about speeches because I find that the typical Eng. textbook is full of flowery meandering professionals of the essay genre (like, say, Susan Sontag or Annie Dillard) who are difficult to translate back into the meat and potato college essays that students try to write. In other words, as models for student writing, they are not terribly helpful. But classic speeches might introduce students more directly to the rhetorical moves typically made in undergraduate papers (making claims and offering supports).

    Do you have an opinion?

    —Santi

  4. Mike Beidler says:

    It may surprise you, but I’m neither agnostic nor an atheist. On the contrary, I’m quite the theist. As for NOMA, here’s a brief post from my blog discussing my intersection with Gould’s ideas. (I’ve read more Gould since I originally wrote the post last year.)

    Regardless of my religious persuasion, I very much respect the logic of the atheistic paradigm. (In fact, I’d probably adopt atheism if it were not for a lifetime of spiritual experiences that I cannot ignore.) I am, of course, a methodological naturalist who prefers to leave the question of divine causation out of the domain of scientific inquiry. In addition to being a full member of the American Scientific Affiliation (www.asa3.org), I’m also on the verge of joining the NCSE as a lifetime member.

    To address your other question, I think studying political speeches, such as presidential inaugural addresses or even Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream,” is a great idea! While less specific than, say, a State of the Union address, they are perfect in painting visionary concepts and ideas in as broad a brush as possible while still utilizing key words and phrases that resonate in the audience’s “soul” in a very precise manner; as you say, there is power in rhetoric. And since they are usually targeted to the “everyman,” there should be no worries about flowery speech. However, you should supplement those types of prose with State of the Union addresses, which “make claims and offer support” for those claims.

  5. Scarlet Letter says:

    Santi

    Re: Speeches

    I teach an English and Communications course which is designed to prepare students for College English. Although the textbook I use has readings, as well as grammar and paragraph/essay instruction, I usually supplement the textbook readings with handouts.

    I have used speeches, Mark Antony’s speech to the Romans from Julius Caesar was well received and is fun to teach.

    I have also used songs. One edition of the textbook I use included a short poem/song by Leonard Cohen, so I also introduced Cohen’s “Suzanne” and had the students read it and listen to the lyrics. I paired Cohen’s “Suzanne” with Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May.” The major assignment was an essay comparing and contrasting “Suzanne” and “Maggie May.”

    One semester, a student was very angry at Cohen for calling Jesus a sailor; the student maintained that Jesus was a carpenter. The words to Cohen’s “Suzanne” can be found at http://allspirit.co.uk/suzanne.html and the music at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=30egIKHT-pM.

    VLA

    PS Have you visited http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/ yet?

  6. Scarlet Letter says:

    Santi

    My comment at 5:34 on May 18 is still awaiting moderation. Is there a problem with my comment?

    VLA

  7. santitafarella says:

    Scarlet Letter:

    No, I just had a very long work day yesterday, and haven’t had a chance to look at my dashboard.

    —Santi

  8. santitafarella says:

    Scarlet Letter:

    That was a very literalist student you had there! My favorite version of the Suzanne song is Neil Diamond’s.

    I like your Mark Antony idea—I’ve decided it would not work to use just a speech text for the whole semester, but would, instead, fish for a few good speeches that make most of the moves a student essay might make (short of research references) and photocopy them.

    Your compare and contrast essay on two songs idea sounds good. I’ve actually never tried that.

    —Santi

  9. santitafarella says:

    Mike,

    I haven’t looked at your blog post yet, but as for Gould, I remember reading his “Ever Since Darwin” as a teenager and never quite getting over it. I wasn’t a teen “Werewolf,” but I was a teen “Young Earth Creationist”—and Gould rather disoriented me. He was so smart and clear in the way he explained evolution. He was my evolutionary “god” to my Duane Gish “satyr.”

    —Santi

  10. Mike Beidler says:

    Just read Ever Since Darwin last summer! Then I went out and bought his recently published anthology, The Richness of Life.

    BTW, I’m friends with the Gish family. I’m not sure, however, if they realize how far from the tree I’ve fallen. 😉

  11. santitafarella says:

    Mike,

    I read Gould’s “Ever Since Darwin” in a Del Taco in Palmdale, California. I never forgot that experience. It was so, well, sane. Something that I was not entirely used to at that age.

    When I was about fifteen, my dad took me for a long weekend seminar at the Institute for Creation Research in San Diego. I remember the little creation museum that they had there, and I was already having my doubts about young earth creationism. During one of the seminar lunch hours, I actually sat alone with Gish at a table (I seem to remember it as a kind of cafeteria) and asked him some pretty direct questions, which I felt he answered in ways that were unsatisfactory, but soothing. I also remember how he functioned as a father figure who could absorb any question I asked with perfect calm. That’s the key thing I took from him. He had this flat affect that could hear the hardest questions I could pose to him without emotional disturbance or surprise, and that, at the time, impressed me about him. I actually, as I’ve thought about apologetics over the years, think that this ability to absorb the sternest blows of the opposition is why a lot of religious people go to debates. If just one father figure in your movement can withstand with calm the most withering critiques of the opposition, or the arguments of a secular professor, then maybe it’s not so crazy to be a fundamentalist afterall! In other words, you can draw confidence from a father figure’s display of confidence (if that makes sense). Talking to Gish that day calmed my doubts for a short time, but in retrospect it was a confidence game—a kind of trick one uses, like going to the doctor to calm a bout of hypochondria.

    And here’s something ironic. It was creationist books (and as a kid we had a bookshelf with ALL of them) mocking Gould’s “Hopeful Monsters” and punctuated equilibrium that led me to seek out Gould and read him directly.

    One reason I’m sanguine about creationism is that I think that at least some young people find themselves drawn deeper into scientific reflection by it, and actually use it as a foil to get into science more deeply. By making science an existential, rather than simply an instrumental, question, I think it might have the paradoxical effect of drawing curious young people to explore science more deeply than they might otherwise do. At any rate, that’s how it functioned for me—and now I’m a fricken’ agnostic evolutionist who’s been a science reader all my life!

    Go figure.

    Since you know the family, I wonder if your impression of Gish squares with my lunch encounter with him.

    By the way, I didn’t know about Gould’s new anthology. I’ll take a look. Thanks for the tip on that.

    —Santi

  12. Mike Beidler says:

    Santi,

    You are too kind to special creationism, my friend! LOL! Certainly “some young people find themselves drawn deeper into scientific reflection,” but I would venture to guess that “some” is really more like “few.” I’ve always had a strong interest in science, but as a YEC, I was always suspicious of anything that contradicted the Bible’s “true science,” e.g., evolution, an old earth, etc. It took a new understanding of the nature of the Bible for me to accept the findings of modern science.

    I’ve met Duane Gish only once and can’t really say whether your characterization of him is accurate. I’m friends with one of his sons, with whom I attended church in San Diego.

    Now go get that Gould anthology!

  13. santitafarella says:

    Mike,

    “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” (Nietzsche).

    It didn’t kill ME intellectually, so I think that you are right that I’m probably too sanguine about it.

    Just because I seem to have survived it (not entirely unscathed, by the way), may not mean that I’m representative of more than a few.

    It is an inane way of looking at the world, I admit. Aesthetically, I liked the cheezy anti-evolution Chick tracts, though.

    One of them had an ape on the cover and was titled (as I recall): Who’s your daddy!?!

    —Santi

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