More Dappled Thought

I once had a good friend, a fellow Episcopalian (at the time I was still an Episcopalian), with whom I often discussed interesting philosophical and theological questions. We were just amateurs, of course, a couple of graduate students in classics who thought that knowing Latin and Greek was a sufficient condition for knowing just about anything at all of any value (I, at least, remain both an amateur and an obnoxious know-it-all, but my friend has moved on to bigger and better things), but we had a good time and surely having a good time is at least part of what good conversation is for.

We had both toyed with the idea of converting to Roman Catholicism, though in the end I did and he did not. He often mentioned to me another friend of his who had converted and who prayed for his (my friend's) conversion daily, and I sometimes wonder whether I ought not to do the same, but I don't. I suppose one reason is because I respect his intellect and I believe that he is smart enough to figure out for himself what the right thing for him to do is, though I realize that isn't a particularly good reason for not praying for his conversion. I suspect sloth plays a rather major role in most of my failings, this one included, but God's will is somewhat mysterious, at least to me, and I can't claim to have a better idea of what's best for him than God does, so my prayer is always at most "God's will be done."

One thing that he said to me has stuck with me now for over 20 years. We were talking about transsubstantiation, and he said to me what a lot of Episcopalians and other Anglicans--not to mention Eastern Christians--have thought: the Real Presence is a Mystery. "It happens," he said; "don't worry about how it happens."

OK. Some things are mysterious. I suppose that one way of conceiving of the mysterious is as the set of things that either have no explanation or that have explanations that contradict either experience or each other. In the case of the Real Presence, I suspect that my friend was suggesting that there simply is no explanation for how it happens, though one might also say that any explanation of how it happens will contradict empirical evidence. My own view is that transsubstantiation, as a doctrine, is not actually an attempt to explain how the Real Presence is brought about--it is rather a re-description of what the Real Presence is, a description in metaphysical rather than theological language. At any rate, I have no trouble accepting both that the Real Presence "happens", as my friend put it, and that we may say what is happening by appealing to the doctrine of transsubstantiation, and that we do not thereby diminish the mysteriousness of the Real Presence. Transsubstantiation is pretty mysterious too, when you get right down to it.

There are some things, however, that are mysterious in a much more mundane way. It is a mystery to me, for example, why there are eight hot dog buns in a package of buns but 12 hot dogs in a package of hot dogs. I suppose it may have something to do with getting us to buy more of one or the other of these useless commodities, but I'm not interested in speculating about what the actual reason might be.

In between the Great Mysteries like the Real Presence and the uselessly mundane mysteries of the hot dog bun to hot dog ratios, there are some mysteries that seem rather mundane but that may actually be obscuring something more important. The thing that has prompted me to think that there might be such a category of mysteriousness, and indeed to write this entry, is this entry in Jim Tucker's blog Dappled Things. Tucker cites, apparently with some approval, a paper on the topic of tyrannicide in the 13th century. Now, Tucker basically describes himself as a libertarian of sorts, and tyrannicide has always been a popular topic among certain branches of libertarianism, so it should come as no surprise to find that this paper would seem interesting to a libertarian. But when that libertarian is also a priest who has not only come out against the death penalty but who also has criticized Pat Robertson for calling for a "hit" against a Central American, ummm, tyrant, well, that presents something of a mystery.

I must confess to a rather guilty pleasure, since I have something of a love-hate relationship with Tucker's blog: I love to hate it. I do feel rather guilty about hating it, because many of the folks whose opinions I value very highly, such decent and intelligent folks as Tom Kreitzberg of Disputations and Kathy Hutchins of Gathering Goat Eggs and the Reform Club, seem to like Dappled Things enough to blogroll it.

Blogrolling, obviously, does not always entail an endorsement. My own blogroll reflects only those blogs that I read and at least enjoy but often admire, but others put just about anything into their blogrolls. De gustibus non disputandum est. When I first started blogging, I noticed Dappled Things because my favorite blogs linked to it, and at first I did like it, and I blogrolled it--at least for a while. But over time I found the mysteriousness a little too, well, mysterious. My first discomfort came with Tucker's mysterious love for the Confederacy. There are lots of folks who mistakenly romanticize the culture of the Confederacy, but some do so more than others, and in some cases the romanticization borders on the pathological. I have a colleage here in the philosophy department at Ohio University, for example--who is also a self-proclaimed libertarian--who argued with me at great length over whether it was really morally right to bring an end to slavery by force. I agreed with him that the use of force was problematic, "But," I said, "At least, in the end, there was a positive outcome." His reply: "Well, for the blacks, anyway."

His view, apparently, is that the means that were employed to bring an end to slavery brought about a significant loss of "liberty" (whose? I imagine he means the propertied classes) that was simply not worth it. For me, the attitude that says giving up habeas corpus temporarily during time of war is too high a price to pay for freeing the slaves, is, in a word, mysterious. I can't even imagine having that kind of value system. In fact, the President is actually granted the right to temporarily suspend habeas corpus by the pre-war Constitution, so I'm not really even sure what the beef is supposed to be. But surely there can be no doubt that the South, in resorting to war, was endorsing a might-makes-right criterion that is thoroughly inimical not merely to republican government but to Christian moral theory.

This is just one example, of course, and I'm not trying to suggest that Tucker has the same attitude towards that issue that my colleague has, though from what he writes in his blog I have every reason to believe that he does. But if we combine this misplaced nostalgia for the Bad Old Days with an attitude towards the Jews that is, well, very mysterious indeed, then one begins to see why I continue to read DT with something like a morbid fascination, always wondering what new mystery will greet me there.

Some mysteries, like the Real Presence, are extremely Good Things. Others, like the ratios of buns to dogs, are trivial and meaningless. Others, like the dappled patterns of moral reasoning that one finds in some blogs, are probably more matters for amusement than concern, but the problem is that one just can't know whether what is going on is just due to the typical sort of goofiness that comes from Generation X's inablility to think things through in chunks more complex than an MTV video, or due to some more sinister cause. Fortunately, I've always enjoyed a good mystery. Perhaps if I keep reading, the answer to this one will become apparent. Or maybe I should just content myself with the fact that mysteriousness happens, and stop worrying about how it happens.


Anonymous said…
I think you're reading too much into the tyrannicide link. He said it looked 'interesting'.

I'm made a little uneasy by his references to the confederacy, but I can't recall offhand anything about the Jewish people/religion.
Scott Carson said…
I suppose it's possible that I've overinterpreted the word "interesting", though that word has stronger as well as weaker implications. In a post last August his remarks about the Chavez affair were either very sloppy, or else they were consistent with what I took them to mean in my own blog. But that's my point: one doesn't know whether his thinking is really scary or just plain sloppy. Either way it's rather discomfitting.

Now, I'm obviously no model for clear and unadled thought, and I can't claim never to have been caught with my intellectual pants down. But it's not mysterious when things like that happen every once in a while. It's only mysterious when there's a predictable pattern.

I don't know Tucker at all, and obviously it's possible that he's a very nice guy who's also very smart, so my finding his blog mysterious can't be taken too seriously--clearly it's just one possible reading among many.
Kathy Hutchins said…
Scott: the only think you should read into my blogrolling of Jim Tucker is that I like to give props to local people. I don't agree with half of what Bill over in InDC Journal writes, but he stays on the roll because he writes on local issues and he's not a complete loon. Kinda like Fr. Jim.

I'm kind of surprised that, having lived as long as you did in the South, you haven't just learned to take the antebellum culture nostalgia in stride. Do you get freaked out at an Oktoberfest because they might be Nazis?
Scott Carson said…

No, not at all--but it's a good question. If I were to be at an Oktoberfest where there was a man with a Charlie Chaplin mustache who went on and on about how Hitler got the trains to run on time, though, I'd begin to find him rather mysterious.

I should also say that 18 years in North Carolina certainly taught me that there is plenty to like about the South nowadays--that was a point I tried to stress in my post of 9 September, but I don't think I made it very clear. It's also true that there are weirdos and racists everywhere, not just in the South. Nobody has a monopoly on unsavory ideas (though I think I might be getting close).

As I said, there is probably nothing to be worried about here, it's just that one doesn't know for sure whether it's worrisome or just, well, the kind of stuff one writes in one's blog. I'm certainly well aware that stuff gets written in blogs that isn't carefully thought out, since I'm the president of the Shoot From the Hip Club.

I'm obviously just jealous that he hasn't blogrolled me! (Though at this point I might ask to be removed if I were!)
Tom said…
Well, I'm not a priest, and I don't remember if I bothered to write anything about Robertson and Chavez, and I haven't read the whole tyrannicide paper yet, but it does look interesting to me.

Not, I hasten to add, in terms of direct, immediate, practical application, but in terms of the proposed link between developments in political arrangements and developments in theological argumentation. If Kopel's thesis is correct, I think it has implications on the relationship between American democracy and Catholicism, which I find an interesting topic for reasons that have nothing to do with tyrannicide.

This indicates one of the reasons I link to Dappled Things: he has interesting links. I ignore Fr. Tucker's libertarianism; I don't find his comments about Israel and Judaism as troubling as you do; and the Confederacy... well, as Kathy suggests, there are some mental illnesses one needs to learn to take in stride.
Anonymous said…
Ditto: I link to Dappled Things for its interesting links too.
Scott Carson said…
I've had a rather close look at Kopel's paper; in addition to being very poorly written, it is very poorly argued and contains many historical and interpretative errors.

There may be a "link between developments in political arrangements and developments in theological argumentation", but I wouldn't look to Kopel to find out what it is.
Tom said…
I'm pretty much at the mercy of others when it comes to the interpretation of history. I was surprised by his use of "Dark Ages," and it seemed to depend an awful lot on just a couple of books, but what do I know?

Would you say that there was no development of teaching on tyrannicide, as Kopel presents it?
webmaster said…
As I repeat ad nauseam to impressionable children, "God became man in Palestine/And lives
today in Bread and Wine." (John Betjeman) I enjoy your prose style and the self-confessed hubris of your Classics-loving friend, who is a good friend of mine.

If watching my hopelessly quixotic,Oxford adoring,smells-and-bells Episcopal priesthood crash into modernity hasn't turned him, nothing will. Preferring to fight rather than switch (an old Tareyton ad), I take regular black eyes. The Moravians have an interesting take on the "Hoc-us Pocus" of the Real Presence, but I cannot eat sugar cake. Tout de suite.

I have been visited by the ghost of Priesthood Future who takes me back to watch Newman weep in the darkness outside his old vicarage.

Thus, I stick to pseudonymous blogging and snigger openly up my cuffs.

Happy Armistice, btw. I hope to find an Episcopal 'pax' some 11/11 @11. But not this annis horribilis. From the proverbial church porch I wave Good-Bye To All That. Cheers!

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