Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Never Forget

Christopher Blosser has a fine post up at the Ratzinger Fan Club blog site about Pope Benedict's visit to Auschwitz.

Take That, Danny Goldhagen

Ahh...those were the days....

A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

A recent editorial in the local independent newspaper The Athens News made the mistake of referring to the Ohio University administration as the "bosses" and the faculty as the "employees" of the university. This bizarre miscontrual of the structure of a university has become ever more common, especially here in the United States, since the 1980s, when virtually everything was interpreted along the lines of the so-called "corporate model." My wife, the brilliant but usually reticent and reclusive Lisa, immediately wrote the following response, which the editor of the A-News was kind enough to print in yesterday's print edition:
Terry Smith’s editorial column “Can’t they all just get along at OU?” (5/25/2006) is based on a faulty—and damaging—premise. He describes the OU administration as “the boss” and faculty as “employees”; he also calls it a “management-labor relationship.”

Mr. Smith needs to rethink this subject and inform himself about its history. Professors are professionals, not laborers. Once upon a time, administrative posts such as deanships were filled by professors who returned to full-time teaching after a period of service. In recent decades, university administration has become increasingly professionalized, and administrators have been brought in from outside the university to do their worst before they move on to their next position. The “business model” in higher education followed this development, a model that has profited no one except highly-compensated administrators.

It confounds and saddens me to see the question posed by Mr. Smith: “How much influence should faculty have in how the university is run?” Who else, pray, is more fit for this responsibility? The students, perhaps? Mr. Smith argues,“Students, after all, are the ultimate purpose and focus of the university.” Indeed they are. But they are here to be taught, not to run the place. And they are here for a few years before embarking on their own professional lives. Is Mr. Smith seriously suggesting that students are in a position to evaluate the administration and make policy decisions? The administrators, then? This group is increasingly made up of careerists who want to make their mark before moving on. They come into an entirely new community and impose—from without and from above—their “vision” of what should be happening at whatever university they happen to be “managing” at the moment. This is absurd and insulting, one of those things that makes one wonder how we arrived at such a state of affairs.

The group of people best situated, and best qualified, to run a university are its faculty. This is how things used to be done. Sadly, over a period of time American faculties found that they had better things to do, and into the vacuum created by their negligence the professional administrator appeared to fill the gap. This is the situation in which college and university faculties find themselves today, and this is the situation the OU faculty is determined to change. It is the faculty who remain year after year at institutions of higher education, while students and administrators come and go. It is the faculty who are truly cognizant of the character of the institution where they teach, of the peculiar needs of their students, and of the best way to serve these needs. Their vision is sufficient when it comes to determining the priorities of the institution.

It is clear, however, that much ground has been lost, if terms such as “management” and “employees” come so trippingly off the tongues of our newspaper editors. The OU faculty is in the process of regaining ground, and it is to be hoped that Terry Smith and all others who are unaware of the sad history of power-grabbing in higher education will become better-informed, and approach these questions more thoughtfully, than is evidenced by his editorial.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Hope For the Future

Peer pressure can be a very powerful motivator, especially for the young. That's why it's encouraging to find young people with the courage to speak the truth in the face of very negative peer pressure. Dawn Eden has a post up about Ben Kessler, a student at St. Thomas University, who spoke about traditional (Catholic!) values at his graduation and was arrogantly mocked by morons in the audience.

See also the story at Bettnet, which adds the rather unfortunate detail that the president of the university, Dennis Dease, criticized Kessler for using Commencement as a forum to air his "opinions". (This is the same Dennis Dease who criticized Ann Coulter last year for being, well, a conservative.)

I've managed to sit through a ton of Commencements in my day, and at every single one of the them the speaker gave us his or her "opinions". What are they supposed to do? Regurgitate the usual platitudes? If the teachings of the Catholic Church are nothing more than the "opinions" of a graduating senior, then we're all in trouble; but if they are timeless truths, then a graduate senior is perfectly within his rights to offer them up at his own Commencement exercises.

But instead of being honored for saying what needs to be said, Kessler was goaded into offering an apology!

Dennis Dease, who happens to be a priest of the Church, ought to be ashamed of himself. It seems that St. Thomas is well on its way towards losing its Catholic identity.

Kessler was a philosophy major, with a 4.0 grade point average. He also wants to be a priest. I am confident he will turn out to be a better one than Dennis Dease.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Ben Shaffer, MMME

I just got back from a recital by my trumpet teacher, Ben Shaffer, a graduate student in music education here at Ohio University. It was his graduate recital, which he performed in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Music in Music Education. I mentioned in an earlier post that he has been an inspiring teacher for me, giving me a chance to experience the student-teacher relationship from the other side for the first time in over a dozen years. Tonight I was reminded of how that relationship can cut in different directions: I was terrified every second that he was going to make a mistake. I was like some kind of worried parent, or a fanatical fan at a sporting event. What I failed to realize is that real musicians, unlike aged hacks like me, actually know what they're doing when they go out on stage. If he made any egregious mistakes I didn't notice them--quite the contrary, I was blown away (non-intentional trumpet metaphor) by the quality of his playing. It gives me something to aspire to.

His program was very good, including baroque, late classical, and modern compositions. The final piece was a quintet that included my son's trombone teacher, which was kind of a rush since my son spends most of his time trying to avoid the guy. I almost felt like I should hide.

After the recital I went backstage to congratulate everyone, but I wish that there were some way to convey to them--especially the music education students--just how valuable their efforts are to folks like me. Good teachers are a treasure, and they are an inspiration because they are artists who love what they do enough to excel at it.

I mentioned that Ben's playing tonight gives me something to aspire to. That, too, is a gift of the student-teacher relationship. A good teacher gives his student something to aim for. Perhaps the best way to pay them back (other than literally paying them, which I'm sure they also appreciate) is to take our lessons seriously enough to excel at it ourselves, at least to the best of our ability. I doubt that I'll ever play as well as my teacher, Ben Shaffer, but because of his inspiring work as a teacher I will try my hardest to get better and better, and my motivation to get better will not be just so that I can entertain others or so that I can please myself by performing well--a substantial element of my motivation will be so that if someday I perform in a recital myself, and someone comes back stage to tell me how much they enjoyed my performance, I can say with great satisfaction, "Don't thank me, thank Ben Shaffer: he got me here."

Friday, May 26, 2006

Requiem

Last night I heard the Ohio University Symphony Orchestra and Choir perform Mozart's Requiem (K626). They did a fairly decent job of it, and I was impressed in particular by the trombone solo in the Tuba mirum. The vocal soloists were also quite good, though they were somewhat engulfed by the largest choir I have ever seen. There may have been as many folks in the choir as in the audience. Something tells me that was not the practice in Mozart's time. At any rate the soloists were fine, and the soprano, in particular, was very expressive and was able to project out over the orchestra in a way that is often difficult for non-professionals. Somewhat less successful, in my opinion, was the male counter-tenor who sang in place of an alto.

The version that I heard last night was the Levin completion, which is not my favorite, though it seems to be one of the most popular these days. I prefer the version by Maunder that was recorded by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music back in 1984, but that version is very sparse, utilizing only those parts that are genuine or have substantially genuine content, and it would not be as satisfying a performance in some ways, since it lasts only about 45 minutes. The fact that Emma Kirkby sings soprano in that version doesn't hurt, either!

This year marks the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, and I suppose the chances are that I'll be able to hear some more Mozart during the course of the year. That will make this year unusual, because the Ohio University Program Council seems to think that classical music is not worth listening to: they almost never schedule any. When we complained about the fact that the schedule is unrelentingly late 20th century in its orientation, we were told that "part of a college education is being exposed to something different." I agree completely--that's why I think they should schedule more classical music: it would be markedly different from what they ordinarily have, and the students could actually get to hear some for a change. Do the programmers really thing that the millions of iPods on campus are all fully loaded with classical music? Right. Will students attend classical concerts? I've been to both classical and modern programs, and I have to say that the attendance is always much better at the classical ones--at least in my own limited experience. The hall was not exactly packed last night, but it was very well attended, and the audience was almost entirely student-aged folks. I saw some faculty colleagues but they were few and far between. There seems to me to be a real market for this kind of thing among the students themselves. They seem to understand what it is that they really need to be exposed to.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

New Mass Translation Coming

Forget the Five Ways--the real proof that God exists lies in the fact that folks are finally beginning to see what a banal translation of the Mass we've been saddled with for so long. In spite of the inexplicable opposition of some bishops, it looks like a new translation is in the offing (see the story at Catholic News Service). The new translation is, I'm happy to say, not so very new--many of the expressions are just revivals of traditional expressions that have been used in English for generations. For example, the greeting "Dominus vobiscum", which literally means "The Lord [be] with you", is supposed to be answered with "Et cum spiritu tuo", which means literally "And with your spirit" but which was translated in the Mass as "And also with you." The more literal version will be familiar to Episcopalians, since it is what they have traditionally said in their own liturgies. Considering how ubiquitous the greeting is, not only in the Mass but in the other liturgies of the Church, including the Daily Office, this change will be felt right away, as minor as it is.

One change that I particularly like is in the Sanctus, which used to start off with the insipid "Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might" but which will now begin with the sonorous "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Hosts."

I don't fully understand the reasons for changing the beginning of the Nicene Creed away from the Greek "We belive" to the Latin "I believe". The original Greek text stresses the communal nature of confessing the Creed within the setting of the Mass; I'm not sure what the point would be of personalizing the thing with the change to the first person singular, other than that is more traditional in the sense of translating the Latin rather than the Greek text.

The emphasis, clearly, is on literalness without a sacrifice of clarity or meaning, and that, in my opinion, is a very salutary goal. Too often translators assume an audience of imbeciles and, in our increasingly literate culture, that is a foolish assumption to make. The old slogan lex orandi lex credendi is worth remembering--we learn from our liturgies, and it seems plausible to me that improving the aesthetic value of what we do communally in our worship could have a positive effect down the line in terms of spiritual growth and holiness of life. Such things cannot be guaranteed, obviously, but I doubt very much that the proposed changes will actually make things worse. To what extent is it true that to get more literal (that is, faithful to the Latin original) is also to get higher aesthetic value? Often, I think, it will vary, because it will obviously depend upon the aesthetic value of the original. But the Latin text of the Mass is grounded in a much older tradition than the ICEL translations, and the closer we get to that older tradition the better off we will be doctrinally, even if we make no progress aesthetically. But as long as we assume a literate participant in the Mass we ought to strive for aesthetic progress as well.

Small changes can make a big difference. For this reason I often find myself irritated by apparently small things like changes in the calendar. Today should be Ascension Thursday, but in many dioceses Ascension is moved to the following Sunday. Although this has ostensibly been done to make it easier for Catholics to fulfill their obligation, it has the effect of ruining the symbolism of the period between Ascension and Pentecost--the First Novena is now nothing more than an ordinary octave. Maybe that is a small loss, but it is a loss nonetheless, and every loss costs us something. Given the fact that some Sollemnities are not moved it is very difficult for me to believe that moving the others really is all that necessary.

One way to avoid the banalities of translations, of course, is to say the Mass in Latin (and here I'm just talking about the use of the Latin language, not a return to the form of the Mass of the 1962 missal). I'm still hoping for the day when that becomes the norm again, though I doubt that my hopes will be realized in my lifetime. It would be nice, though, if it were at least an option in every parish.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Code of Dishonor

I've been quite perplexed by all the fuss over the Da Vinci Code. My perplexity began with the book, which some lay Catholics regarded as the worst thing to happen to the Catholic Church since the elimination of Index Bibliorum Interdictorum. As books go it's not a particularly bad mystery, but of course it is just a novel and to worry that it is going to lead folks astray is rather like worrying that Life of Brian is going to create a new version of Christianity to compete with the older one. My feelings about the book were nicely summed up by a Jesuit (mirabile dictu) whom I heard in an interview say in response to some bizarre question about the effect of all of this on the Church, "I don't mean to sound obtuse, but are you asking me whether a novel is true?"

And now my perplexity continues with the movie version of this stormy little teacup. The reaction has not been quite so apoplectic as some had predicted it would be (perhaps to the consternation of some in the mass media), but around the blogosphere it is not difficult to discern folks who are foaming at the mouth about it. Poor Opie must be wondering what all the fuss is about--he doesn't seem to be the sharpest tool in the shed. In a sense, though, I have to wonder as well. The movie is certainly no worse than the book, and the book is nothing to be afraid of. Neither the book nor the movie is a unique phenomenon in the history of the Church, and whether or not Dan Brown takes seriously his own novelization of his fantasy life there is little that can be done about the credulity of some people, who are eager to believe whatever is congenial to them.

As for polemics and the activity in the blogosphere, there is literally no point whatsoever to engaging with the folks who think that either the book or the movie is a representation of reality. The task is simply to say what is true, without bothering to tailor the truth to a specific audience or, more importantly, get oneself all worked up about answering some specific claim or perceived threat. Especially when the "threat" is just a story.

Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times had a particularly salutary point to make about the process of engagement in these debauched times:
Brown's claims for his book and, by extension, the film adaptation belong to a strong new current in American life--the culture of assertion, which increasingly pushes logical argument out of our public conversation. According to this schema, things are true because I believe they are true and you have to respect that, because it's what I believe.
This is a phenomenon that anyone who teaches in a high school or university encounters every day. I went to college in the 1970s, when you couldn't turn around without bumping into somebody chanting some slogan along the lines of "Question Authority", but for all of that, if I was sitting in a chemistry class and found myself not quite believing that a particular reaction was going to go the way the instructor suggested that it would go, I understood well enough the notion of expertise to know that, ceteris paribus, the instructor probably knew more about it than I, and I did not push for my view too strenuously for fear of making a fool of myself. These days, I find that students have no shame whatsoever when it comes to openly questioning the expertise of their instructors. I once engaged in a rather lengthy argument--why I didn't just shut the thing down immediately now escapes me--with an entire class of students in a philosophy of science course, all of whom were disputing my claim that an object that falls from a moving airplane will fall, not straight down, but downwards and also in the direction of the movement of the plane. They were all insisting that it would fall straight down. These kids were, for the most part, science education majors. And some people are surprised to find educators willing to teach intelligent design in science classes. Of course they're willing to do it: they don't know anything about science themselves, and one of the main reasons for that is that they don't really regard going to school themselves as obtaining an education. For some students it is rather the obtaining of a set of credentials that will then permit them to teach what they've always believed all along, in spite of what they were taught in school.

Soon the whole Da Vinci Code kerfuffle will go the way of all kerfuffles, and the sum total of all heresies will be neither greater nor less because of Dan Brown and Sony Pictures. But a lot of bloggers will have wasted a lot of their time, time that could have been spent discussing more interesting topics.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

My 2006 Tour

Today I played in my first trumpet recital. The recital was a function of the Athens Community Music School, a service branch of the Ohio University School of Music. I would say that, on average, I was about 35 years older than the other performers, most of whom played either piano or violin. A flautist was scheduled but he was a no-show. The piano was a regular grand piano, but those were some of the tiniest little violins I had ever seen. One little boy was accompanied by a strange, plinking little piano sound coming from a boom box they had set next to him on the stage. The boom box was almost as big as he.

My trumpet was of an ordinary size, but my performance was tiny, lasting all of two minutes. Since I've been learning out of Arban, the method book of 1864 that I mentioned not too long ago, the pieces that I played were not exactly taken from contemporary culture. I played one called "The Song of Master Adam" and one called "Noel Ancien" (one of several pieces of the same name in Arban). I'm sure they were huge hits during the Gilded Age. Some folks in the audience clapped politely, and Olivia yelled out "Yay daddy!"

Afterwards I walked across campus to the main auditorium to listen to Ohio University's slightly older Jazz bands. They were absolutely fantastic, and it gave me something to work towards.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Trolls

I've only just noticed a Blogworld phenomenon that I suppose everyone else noticed months ago. Technorati provides a service whereby you can quickly see who is linking to your blog entries (see the "Blogs that link here" link in the right sidebar). For a long time I just ignored that function, since the vanishingly small readership of this blog virtually ensures that there will be no links to it. Out of vanity, er, I mean, curiosity, I happened to check it recently and found that advertisers are trolling through blogs all over the net, excerpting little snippets of posts from these other blogs, and posting them to their own, robotically controlled advertising blog, with links back to the original source of the excerpt but also with links to a central advertising site.

For an example of what I mean, Check out this link to a "blog" called Aol, which excerpts my post Giving Up the Ghost. Or maybe it's just me. I clicked on the "Blogs that link here" link on Mike Liccione's blog, Sacramentum Vitae, and his list of crosslinkers is meticulously clean of any robotic trolling. That's what I get, I suppose, for writing a much junkier blog than Mike.

And speaking of advertising, I was a little shocked recently when I ordered my Mary, Exterminatrix of Heresies coffee mug from CafePress.com, to find that, in addition to plenty of Catholic merchandise, they also carry plenty of anti-Catholic and bigotted merchandise, including some that is sexually explicit. I'm all for free trade, but a lot of Catholic bloggers include links on their blogs to CafePress.com, and I think that's a bad idea. True, one could go there to buy just the Catholic stuff, but by buying the Catholic stuff from them you enable them to stay in business, which enables them to continue selling their anti-Catholic crap, which enables those who buy and are amused by such scum to continue sinning against the Church. I love my Exterminatrix mug, but if I had known, prior to purchase, what I know now, I would have tried to buy it somewhere else, and if it was not available anywhere else, I would not have bought it at all. It just isn't worth it.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Outliving Dad

I try not to be too neurotic, but sometimes it can be a little difficult. I just finished reading a novel by Carl Hiassen called Basket Case, in which the protagonist is a newspaper writer roughly my age who is obsessed with the ages at which famous persons have died because his own father died young but he does not know any of the details--how his father died, at what exact age, where, etc. So as he grows older, with each birthday he notes whom he has outlived among the famous, but is always worried about his own fate, and whether he will outlive his father.

This story struck a nerve with me, because even though I am not quite as neurotic as the protagonist of that story, I am a little neurotic about my own health because I know exactly when and where and why my father died, and it makes me nervous. In fact, as of today, 17 May 2006, I have officially outlived my dad, who died just two weeks after his 48th birthday in November of 1965. He died quite suddenly of a heart attack, even though he was, to all appearances, anyway, fit as a fiddle.

He had one of those high-pressure jobs that were somewhat notorious during the 1950s and 1960s for killing the folks who held them: he was the manager of the truck tire engineering division at Goodyear in Akron, Ohio, and he often worked weekends and was often flying off to meetings all over the globe. I don't recall ever feeling like he was away too much--he seems to me to have spent plenty of time with the family--but I'm certain that his job was very stressful. He also smoked a pack of Chesterfields every day and that probably didn't help much either. My job and lifestyle, by comparison, should get me well into my 80s.

My mother also died at a relatively young age, though she made it to 62. She died of esophageal cancer in 1984. Her sister May died in 1988; then her sister Jeanie died in 1998; then her sister Patricia died earlier this year; then her sister Grace died just this past Saturday. She was 91. My mother's generation of her family is now gone, and it puts me in mind of my own mortality, especially today.

"Be not afraid" was John Paul the Great's unofficial motto, and it's a good one. There isn't really anything that a Christian should be afraid of, other than turning away from God. But even an unbeliever ought to get a grip on things when it comes to the End Time, since there's literally nothing that can be done about it, and, hey, how bad could it be if there is no God? If there is no God, then we cease to exist at death, and things will be no different after we die than they were before we were born, and we aren't afraid of the time prior to our birth, so why fear the time after our death?

For Christians, the death of our physical body is just a prelude to something new and different. It is easy to be afraid of that which is new and different, but unless you have willingly turned away from God there is no reason to fear the new and different existence that will follow your physical death.

But we're like any other biological organism: natural selection has given us a rather powerful survival instinct, which manifests itself (sometimes) as fear of death, and our rational faculty insures that we are ever more aware of death's approach with age. When I was a kid, death didn't seem all that real somehow. Even though I was sad about my father's death, especially right after the fact, like most kids I was quite resilient and did not spend my childhood mourning his loss. As soon as the fall of 1968, when I was a new student in the 5th grade at the Kent State University School, and kids were teasing each other--as was rather more common, I think, in those days than it is now--about what other fathers did for a living, I was not all that distressed when kids began to make jokes about what my father did for a living. I merely said "My dad's dead," and that was usually that. In fact, the knowledge that my father was dead seemed to affect the other kids more than me. There was a kid in my class named Kevin Veon of whom I was rather afraid at first because I saw him as the class bully. He certainly knew how to take care of himself, anyway, and he was a tough talker. But after he found out that my dad was dead, he would intervene whenever any kid made jokes about my family. "His dad's dead, you moron" he would say with great vigor, sometimes bringing his point home with a punch to the upper arm. Recently I learned that Kevin's own dad had died, and I was very tempted to get in touch with him and try to say something comforting--but it's been nearly 40 years since I knew him, and what would be weirder than that? I chickened out. I wish I hadn't, but now it seems too late.

No, I did not mourn my father's death much as a child. That has come much more recently. Since the birth of my son, in fact. Ever since Michael was born I have thought and thought about what it means to be a dad, and what life would have been like if I had had one myself for a little while longer. It's also a little hard to know how to be a dad without having had a model to work from, but I guess it's not so bad to wing it. At least Michael's not a serial killer. Yet. As far as I know. Olivia on the other hand....

So here I am today, one day older than my own father ever got, and feeling pretty healthy to boot. I was seven and a half, roughly, when my dad died, and when Michael turned seven and a half I began to think about my time with him as rather special, time that he gets to have with me that I never got to have with my dad. Now I am living a life that my father never had a chance to live, and every day is special in every way because of that. All time is precious to me now, a special gift of life and being that is not to be thought of lightly or regarded as ordinary and mundane. Life is never really ordinary and mundane, of course, but there is a great temptation in this materialist, youth-oriented culture to think of such things as getting up in the morning as nothing if not ordinary and mundane. But I begin each day with this prayer: "Thank you, Lord God, for the gift of another day of life in your presence".

I never prayed that when I was a kid. But this is not like writing to Kevin Veon: it is never too late to be grateful.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Big Apple II

Just got back from another trip to New York City, one of my favorite places to spend a little time and lots of money. Sadly, more money than usual got spent this time because the whole family went. When it's just me there on business it's bad enough, but when it's four of us--whoo boy.

One of the largest outlays of funds was a trip up the Empire State Building, which, believe me, would never have taken place if it hadn't been for the mewlings of the youngsters. What a colossal rip off! On the bright side, the lines were so long that I figure it came out to only about $1.00 per minute, even if most of those minutes were spent standing in poorly lit, swelteringly hot corridors.

The Museum of Natural History was a major hit, of course, because Olivia basically thinks of herself as a close relative of Tyrannosaurus Rex. At least she behaves as though she thinks of herself that way. However, she won many fans in the Big Apple with her cute antics and capers. On the subway, for example, she would grab onto one of the poles and do what amounted to an exotic dance for the delectation of the other passengers. She would do this with ever greater demonstrative zeal the more we tried to get her to stop.

Michael, by contrast, was rather reserved, spending most of his time taking pictures of the sorts of things one never sees in Athens--or anywhere else in Ohio--like gigantic bronze bulls (our hotel was on Wall Street). Man, that thing had some monster cajones. He (Michael, not the bull) was very sad that we didn't make it out to the Statue of Liberty, and he was disappointed that it was way too early for the strawberries in Strawberry Fields, but he loved riding on the subway. Who wouldn't, after all, what with all the free exotic dancing.

I think the highlight of the trip, for me, was dinner at the Odeon, a fabulous restaurant on the corner of Thomas and West Broadway that has just about the best (and most expensive) food in the city. Well, my sample is obviously rather small, as I've only been to the city a few dozen times in my life, but I can certainly recommend this place.

As usual, a splendid time was had in New York--and I continue to be impressed by the friendliness and courtesy of everyone I meet there, whether it's someone working in a museum, a man on the subway giving directions, or the various friendly folks who pass on the street with a smile and a nod.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Stanley Fish on Heavenly Discourse

Here's an interesting excerpt from an interview with Stanley Fish regarding freedom of speech:
Q : You have written that speech is never a value in and of itself but is always produced within the precincts of some assumed conception of the good to which it must yield in the event of conflict. Could you elaborate on this notion?

A : That's a wordy way of simply saying that when you talk you're talking in the service of something. In any normal situation you speak for a reason: to inform, to command, to acquiesce, to ask a question, to further an agenda, to close an agenda down. Another way to put this is to say that speech and communication are the signs of our distance from the condition we would most like to inhabit.

In paradise or in heaven (I speak here only through report and not direct experience), discursive speech is unnecessary because everyone is already in the place he or she would desire to be, allied in a perfect and an indistinguishable way with the good. Therefore there is no reason to say anything to anyone; because again the only reason to say something to someone else is to advance both of you in the direction you desire. But in heaven, everyone is at the place of optimal desire so it is imagined in great literature like Milton's Paradise Lost not as a scene of communication, but as a scene of celebration. Heaven's inhabitants express themselves as a chorus all of whose members sing the same song, and sound a note that is repetitive, ritual and ceremonial -- in short a long endless amen or hallelujah. It is only in Heaven that speech is free and spontaneous, because it doesn't mean anything; it doesn't have to mean anything. In this vale of tears, speech means, has a purpose and when we feel this purpose threatened by some of speech's forms, we will always curtail it.
Read the whole interview here.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Giving Up the Ghost

I got to thinking the other day about this sequence of words in the Creed:
He was crucified, died, and was buried.
Note that it says that he was both crucified and he died. This is not just pleonastic style, I think, but says something important about Our Lord, and about sin and death.

There is a passage in Aristotle's Posterior Analytics where he discusses different types of necessity, and one type he illustrates with an interesting example. He notes that to slaughter an animal just is to kill it, but we draw a linguistic distinction between the actual slaughtering, the slitting of the animal's throat, and the animal dying. But, Aristotle points out, once that throat is slit, the animal is as good as dead--death follows upon slaughtering as a matter of inescapable necessity, even though it is not, strictly speaking, identical to the act of slaughtering itself.

In most cases, then it would be enough to say merely "the animal was slaughtered" to know that the animal was dead, because to say that the animal was slaughtered is to say that the animal underwent an experience that literally entails death as a necessary consequence. You could say "the animal was slaughtered, and then it died," but people would look at you funny.

The words of the Creed are interesting because they include both the statement that Christ was crucified and the statement that he died. Ordinarily one might think that being crucified is a lot like being slaughtered--it seems almost to entail death as a necessary consequence, so why add the statement that he died? One reason might be to forestall possible objections to the later claim that he "rose again from the dead". If he never died as a consequence of his crucifixion, then his "rising again" would be neither "from the dead" nor, indeed, all that perplexing (though it would still be rather surprising).

But I don't think that this is the reason why the Creed is so careful in its wording. I think the reason goes deeper, and has to do with the meaning of sin and death in human experience. We believe, though the Creed does not say so, that death and decay are the physical manifestations of the sin that has pervaded creation since the Fall. They are like a sign to us that our nature has been corrupted by something for which we ourselves are responsible, and which we ourselves cannot correct on our own. When we get old, or if we get sick enough, we die, and there's no stopping that. Our souls may live on, if we are right with God, and our bodies, too, will be resurrected on the last day, if we so merit it, but we cannot control whether we physically die or not. We all do, saints and sinners alike.

Jesus of Nazareth, however, was conceived by the Holy Spirit and was entirely free from sin, both Original Sin and all subsequent sin. Thus he was immune to decay and death, as the Scriptures say. Jesus could not die of "natural" causes, because it was not in his nature to decay and die. Even crucifixion did not kill him, as slaughtering kills an animal. Each of the Gospels makes this quite clear: he did not merely "die", but in all four Gospels he is said to "give up the spirit" (Matthew: aphEken to pneuma; Mark and Luke: exepneusen; John: paredOken to pneuma). In other words, his body died as a consequence of an act of his own free will, not because decay and death had mastered it.
For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father.
Since Our Lady was also born free from Original Sin and also did not sin during her lifetime, it is tempting to see references to the "Dormition" of Our Lady in the Eastern tradition as attributing a similar sort of passage to glory to her, but this is open to some debate. "Falling asleep in the Lord" was a very common euphemism for dying, after all. But the connection betweeen sin and death seems a very important one, and it is interesting to speculate about just how seriously folks are willing to take it all. Is it just a metaphor, or do we really, genuinely make an ontological commitment to the reality of this connection?

In any case, with Jesus we are on firmer theological grounds: he only died when he himself laid down his own life, not because he was crucified. He could have hung on that cross forever if he had wanted to. Instead he chose to hang there a relatively short time (some victims lingered for many, many more hours than he did, suffering excruciating pain). He was in charge the whole time. For that we can be very grateful.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Open Borders

There's an article at National Review Online in which congressman Tom Tancredo tries to imagine what it would be like if illegal immigrants were really to refuse to do anything today. Not legal immigrants, mind you, just the illegal ones. He tries to paint a picture in which life for the rest of us would be palpably better if the illegals were to just disappear for a day.

I realize that illegal immigration presents some problems, particularly economic ones, but I don't think that the argument against open borders is moved forward any by the sort of sophistry and hand-waving that Tancredo indulges in at NRO. One hopes that there are more intelligent and articulate arguments to be had out there. Morally, however, the situation is really quite different. I'm not sure why so many conservatives confuse economic with moral issues (one often hears that this is a problem that is endemic among so-called "Neoconservatives", but that is hardly an explanation)--perhaps there is some echo here of the libertarian view that all rights are derived from property rights. In any case, it is difficult to justify, from a moral point of view, closing the borders in a place that is arguably the best place to live in the hemisphere, if not in the world.

It's worth remembering that the borders were not closed when Europeans first arrived here, and that they would not have cared if they had been. I suspect that much of the animus against illegal aliens is really a thinly veiled bigotry. And it's not just racial bigotry, either. Tancredo makes it a point to remark, regarding what would happen if there were to be a Day Without Illegal Immigrants:
If it fell on a Sunday, Catholic Churches in the southwestern states might have 20-percent fewer parishioners at Mass if all illegals stayed home, but they would be back next Sunday, so the bishop’s job is not in danger. The religious leaders who send people to the marches and rallies will never fear for their jobs, because illegal aliens need their special “human-rights” advocacy and some priests and nuns seem especially devoted to that cause. The fact that most Catholics disagree with the bishops’ radicalism doesn’t seem to affect their dedication to undermining the rule of law.
It's too bad about those swarthy Catholics and their pesky moral values regarding human dignity. We don't have to worry about all of that, though, if we just re-describe religious leaders as folks doing a certain kind of "job". There's nothing like the corporate model for dispensing with actual arguments about ethics. Oh, don't forget to put the phrase "human-rights" in quotation marks. We wouldn't want anyone to imagine that we actually believe that such things really exist. That's just a tool that lefty "priests" use when they're doing their "job" of ruining our economy. Let's trumpet the fact, too, that "most Catholics" don't see things the way their "leaders" do--well, we'll trumpet it when it comes to this issue; when it comes to things like abortion rights or birth control, we'll just claim that those folks aren't "really" Catholics in the first place, or that that American Church is out of control, or something like that.

In short, let's just say whatever we have to say to stir up ire among our constituents and get them to think that we're tough leaders.