Saturday, June 24, 2006

Horse Hockey

Speaking of underdetermination (which I was in my last post, in case you were wondering), I've been thinking quite a bit about the recent discussion by a panel convened by the National Academies regarding global warming. The so-called "hockey stick" data purports to show that the warming trend induced by human activity is clearly more significant than has often been admitted (the data are said to form a "hockey stick" curve because when graphed they show a very steady, level trend for a long time that suddenly curves sharply upwards, like the blade on a hockey stick).

The evidence is supposed to be valid for a period of more than 2000 years, even though actual temperature data are available for less then 500 of those years, but I don't think anyone seriously doubts that human activity has some effect on temperature data. Two things are in serious dispute, however. First, what is the nature and extent of that effect and, second, what normative conclusions follow from our awareness of that effect.

One is tempted to leave the first question to the scientists, but it is because of the way scientists famously mess up questions such as the second one that it is even more tempting to monitor their contributions to the first question as well. Scientists have a notoriously bad sense of what follows from what in a normative context, and very often it is what they think follows from what in a normative context that determines what they think follows from what in a purely empirical context. This is unfortunate, but it is not surprising, since this is probably true for most folks in most contexts: we are, after all, political animals.

In the case of this panel's study, some politicians have argued that the data was selected by the scientists themselves in such a way as to produce the effects that they themselves expected. Their response?
"I saw nothing that spoke to me of any manipulation," said one member, Peter Bloomfield, a statistics professor at North Carolina State University. He added that his impression was that the study was "an honest attempt to construct a data analysis procedure."
What did you expect him to say? "Sure, we cooked the books. Everybody does." He wouldn't have said that even if he had believed it. But of course he didn't believe that--he believed that what he did say was true. However, his mere belief doesn't actually make it true, and the selection and analysis of data in a scientific context is precisely one of those areas where scientists themselves are the least competent to make judgments such as the one this guy made. It is not really clear whether an outside observer could make such judgments either: science is one of those areas of human knowledge that fools us into thinking that there is such a thing as objectivity about observational data and the theories that attempt to explain them, but in this particular instance, Nietzsche was actually right about something--he famously wrote, in Beyond Good and Evil, that science is nothing more than one more interpretation, among many possible interpretations, of the world we observe. All interpretations are open to revision, especially those about which we are so sure as to be unable to see possible alternatives.

So it's worth keeping an eye on these reports--in some cases they may actually come close to the truth, but if the history of science teaches us anything at all, it teaches us that science itself is just a long sequence of theories and explanations being proved false. Why should any of these theories about the climate be exceptions to that long and invariable history?

Friday, June 23, 2006

WSJ on New Mass Translation

Diane at Te Deum laudamus, te Dominum confitemur has posted the text of Michael Foley's OpEd piece in the Wall Street Journal on the new Mass translation. It's worth reading.

Try Asking Martha Nussbaum a Challenging Question

I'm often intrigued by the ways in which folks interpret questions or arguments that challenge their own arguments or assumptions. In the field of philosophy, questions that appear "hostile" to casual observers are actually rather common, not because philosophers are a hostile bunch but because the main task of the philosopher, at least insofar as that task is understood by most Anglo-American philosophers, is precisely to challenge arguments and assumptions. Thus the questions are not intended to be taken personally, as affronts to a person's dignity, but as a professional (and, one hopes, disinterested) examination of a point of view.

So I was further intrigued when I read a story in today's Times Higher Education Supplement about women Lecturers in England, who feel very uncomfortable when they are asked challenging questions--especially when it is men who ask the questions:
Sara Mills, a professor of linguistics at Sheffield Hallam University, studied the attitudes of female and male academics to presenting papers after observing a normally "overbearing" female colleague go to pieces on stage.

She found stark differences in the way the sexes viewed public speaking and in their response to feeling nervous.

Professor Mills stressed that not all women suffered stage fright. But she said: "It is my contention that particular types of gender identity and preconceptions about the masculine nature of public speaking may be activated or challenged in the process of giving academic papers."

She found that women were more likely to freeze because they felt marginal within their university or expected their audience to be hostile in question-and-answer sessions.

She described the experience of one female colleague at a conference: "Male colleagues had aggressively asked her questions in a way that she felt aimed to destroy her argument. She felt personally undermined, and her confidence was so shaken by the experience that she subsequently felt very uneasy about giving papers at all."
I suppose it is entirely possible that some men ask questions for no other reason than to make somebody feel uncomfortable (I'm not all that sure that no women do this), but it strikes me as curious that this colleague of professor Mills felt that the questions she was asked were "aimed to destroy her argument." I'm not really at all clear on what would be wrong with that, if the argument is in need of being destroyed. This is what "hostile" questions are for, after all. Well, it made her feel "personally undermined", and that destroyed her confidence to the extent that she was uneasy about giving more papers.

The inference we are invited to draw, apparently, is that this feeling of having been personally undermined is a function, not of this woman's own psychology, but of the dynamic that exists between men and women in academia. My own experience has been rather different in this regard. I know plenty of women who, if you ask them a challenging question, will pretty quickly show you who is really wearing the pants in an argument. Mills grants that "not all women suffered stage fright", and she does not offer much evidence in support of her own inference other than the mere consistency of the data with her hypothesis, but this is a classic case of underdetermination if I ever saw one. A professor of linguistics (not psychology) offers an interpretation of observed behavior that purports to explain the psychological motivations of hordes of people on both sides of a public interaction. Although the story is not an implausible one, it is merely that: one plausible story among many.

Mills reports that male "respondents" did not feel the same anxieties, but we are not told how representative the sampling of male "respondents" is, or what their experiences had been like, or how they perceive the sexual dynamics in academia. We are offered only another guess: males feel differently "perhaps because public confidence is key to the construction of masculine identity".

Signs of Intelligence in England?

A story in today's Times Higher Education Supplement "reveals" (their term) the rather startling fact that there are some prominent academics in England who appear to subscribe to creationism or intelligent design (I wonder if they have folks like this guy in mind). I say "rather startling" because one of the things we've heard from such folks as Richard Dawkins is that belief in such things is principally an American phenomenon, thanks to the benighted fundamentalism that flourishes here but apparently nowhere else in the world, according to him. But according to THES:
Leeds University plans to incorporate one or two compulsory lectures on creationism and intelligent design into its second-year course for zoology and genetics undergraduates next Christmas.

At Leicester University, academics already devote part of a lecture for third-year genetics undergraduates to creationism and intelligent design.

In both cases, lecturers intend to present the controversial theories as fallacies irreconcilable with scientific evidence. But that these alternatives to evolution have been proposed for formal discussion has sparked concern among the UK science community.

David Read, vice-president of the Royal Society, said: "It would be undesirable for universities to have to spend a lot of precious resources teaching students that creationism and intelligent design are not based on scientific evidence. It is pretty basic stuff."

A Times Higher investigation has also discovered there are at least 14 academics in science departments who consider themselves creationists. They argue the world is thousands not billions of years old and believe Noah's flood explains fossil remains. Several others are proponents of intelligent design, which rejects evolution as a discredited theory.

Some are heads of departments, seven lecture in the life sciences and seven are professors. They work in universities such as Bristol, Leeds, Manchester Metropolitan and Southampton.

They include Jonathan Swingler, head of Southampton University's School of Engineering Sciences, who believes dinosaurs co-existed with humans; and George Marshall, lecturer in neurobiomedicine at Glasgow University, who claims the complexity of the eye makes him "balk at evolutionary theory".
It is not particularly good news to find that Richard Dawkins is wrong about this as well as about everything else--this is one instance in which one might have wished he had been more on target.

It is one thing to discuss these matters in, say, a course on methodology, or in philosophy of science courses, since these views are connected to the demarcation problem, which is a very real and very important problem in its own right but which ought not to be mistaken for a problem of the empirical sciences themselves. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to introduce either creationism or intelligent design into a curriculum in the empirical sciences, since neither is an empirical theory. Intelligent design, in particular, is not a theory at all but an a priori metaphysical committment.

I suspect that, in reality, rather than in the imaginations of such as Richard Dawkins, there are plenty of folks in academic positions everywhere in the world who hold views that are less than rational. The reason is not benighted fundamentalism run rampant, but the sad fact that humans are generally not very rational creatures. It is all too easy for our intellectual inferences to be swayed by passions, desires, and false beliefs grounded in faulty assumptions. So as disappointing as it is to find creationists and intelligent designers teaching science in England, it is not, in the end, all that surprising.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Justice and Mercy

Today we remember, among others, St. Thomas More, martyred along with St. John Fisher by king Henry VIII in 1535 and canonized in the Church 400 years later. That's a long time to wait for justice to be done, but presumably in St. Thomas More's case the justice he received in 1535 at the hands of a bloody tyrant was more than balanced by the divine justice meted out to him in heaven at the hands of Our Lord, whose mercy and compassion we celebrate in a special way tomorrow.

One of my favorite readings from the Office is an optional reading for this day, taken from a letter that purports to be from St. Thomas More to his daughter Margaret (though it may actually have been written by Margaret herself from notes she had made of conversations with her father while in prison):
If her permits me to perish for my faults, then I shall serve as praise for his justice. But in good faith, Meg, I trust that his tender pity shall keep my poor soul safe and make me commend his mercy.
It is, perhaps, only a saint who can take comfort in the thought that even his own deserved mortal damnation is in some sense a good thing, since it is a manifestation of God's own justice. But at the same time the saint recognizes that God will look kindly on a humble and contrite heart, and mercy will conquer justice.

Tomorrow we remember St. Thomas Garnet, another Recusant Catholic martyred during the bloody years of the persection of Catholics in England. Fr. Garnet was falsely accused of complicity in the "Powder Treason", or Gunpowder Plot, that was used as an excuse for unprecedented persecution of Catholics in the century that followed. For three hundred years Catholics had to endure the hatred of their countrymen, but they continued to put their trust in God, and to believe that nothing that harms the mortal body in this world can affect the condition of one's immortal soul, a lesson that St. Thomas More had learned well (from Plato!--see his dialogue Phaedo, which appears to have been a source for the letter from which I quoted above).

It's a valuable lesson for all of us, actually, especially in these debauched times in which we live. Live justly, judge never, forgive ever, and you will be shown mercy and justice.

It Must Have Been the Guy Sitting Next To Me

Last night I played trumpet in a concert for the first time in over thirty years. It was something of a rush. The "Communiversity Band" (the name is dumb; if you Google it you'll find that a lot of universities use it, for some reason) is a summer band here at Ohio University that is made up of faculty, students, and folks from the local community, including some high school students. In spite of the eclectic mix of talents, it sounds really quite good. Well, except maybe for the trumpet section, where I think there may have been a few sour notes sounded last night.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

St. Louis Seminarians

If you enjoyed the Duel of the Seminarians video I linked to in the previous post, you should check out the other web pages available from various St. Louis Seminarians. Some of them have formed a band called the Priesty Boyz (band site here; blog here), and Jeff Geerling has a blog of his own and a website. These are some thoughtful, prayerful guys, and the future of our priesthood looks good to me.

Is Michael Grosch a Sith?

You'll have to watch the video to find out.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

I Guess We Know Which Side She's On

The newsreader for WOUB-FM, my local NPR station, in recounting the story of the warning to the Episcopal General Convention from the more traditional Anglican domains, referred at least four times to the Anglicans as "the Angelicans".

Eternal Protest

Fr. Kimel has an excellent discussion up at Pontifications about the election of a woman as Presiding Bishop in the PECUSA.

I've Got Your Spirit For You Pal, Right Here

Tom expresses his utter lack of interest in the new Mass translations in a post at Disputations. (Zippy notes in a comment there that he doesn't care enough about it even to put up a post about how he doesn't care about it.)

As I have mentioned in many posts, I think that a lot of the whining one hears about "prayerfulness" or "reverence" and the lack thereof at Mass amounts to disputes about matters of aesthetic tastes, and, as they say, de gustibus non disputandum est. Noticing that doesn't stop me, obviously, from pointing out the things that I like best at a Mass. I don't think that makes me a hypocrite: I could be arguing in my spare time, as it were. But I can't help but remember a discussion with Tom, back in the old days of the Free Catholic Mailing List, in which I said much the same thing that Tom is now saying in his post, only to be lectured by him about how, if there is a Form of the Good and a Form of Beauty, and if God is Good, then there must be some connection between Goodness and Beauty--aesthetic matters, in short, are not merely subjective.

A point with which I agree, if it is properly understood. But that certainly does not settle the question of whether it is in some sense--aesthetically, theologically, liturgically--better to say "and with your spirit" rather than "and also with you", one of the changes in the translation that seems to be singled out rather more often than its semantic content would appear to warrant, either for praise among those who think it a good thing, or for ridicule among those who, like Tom, find the issue to be a tempest in a tea pot.

Other changes strike me as far more important and interesting, as I've remarked in other posts. But the general principle involved--the importance of accurately and faithfully reflecting, in translation, the semantic content of the Latin originals--seems to me to be far more important than some folks are willing to admit. In some cases, at least in my opinion, the more literal translation is also the more aesthetically pleasing. For example, consider the prayer for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, which reads, in the banal version of the ICEL:
Father, you show your almighty power in your mercy and forgiveness. Continue to fill us with your gifts of love. Help us to hurry toward the eternal life you promise and come to share in the joys of your kingdom.
The Latin really is much better, more sublime:
Deus, qui omnipotentiam tuam parcendo maxime et miserando manifestas, gratiam tuam super nos indesinenter infunde, ut, ad tua promissa currentes, caelestium bonorum facias esse consortes.
A more literal translation might be something like the following:
God, who make manifest your almighty power most of all in your forgiveness and mercy, pour forth your grace upon us without ceasing, that, as we hurry towards your promises, you might make us to be partakers of your heavenly goods.
Somebody who is actually able to write decent English could probably come up with something much better than that--I offer it merely as a contrast to the ICEL version, which glosses over important elements of the Latin original. John Zuhlsdorf provides other examples of the same problem in his quasi-blog, What Does the Prayer Really Say? The simplified, "dynamic equivalence" examples have a certain utilitarian appeal, I guess, but they just don't cut it, in the end, because they don't aspire to anything, they fail to represent, in words, the grandeur of what they are saying.

We are all of us imagines Dei and, as such, are called to rise above the sinful and the fallen and strive to be more like the divine and perfect ("Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect"). It seems unlikely that such a calling is grounded in merely subjective values. If actions and choices can be more or less noble and good, it seems at least plausible that the linguistic representations of those actions--and the virtues that underlie them--can also be more or less noble and good. Indeed, words are also employed as imagines, and there is no reason why words should not be arrayed in the greatest splendor possible. I like music of all kinds--medieval, baroque, classical, rock, jazz--but I think it goes without saying that a simple tune such as "Jesus Loves Me, This I Know" fails to rise to the same level as, say, Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610--or even "Love Divine." So it does not seem impossible to me that, say, one poem may rise above another in its manner of expression.

The Mass is our greatest theme, and the words we employ in giving expression to it ought to rise above all others in manner of expression, in my opinion. Certainly there will be disputes about whether these wordds really do rise above those--I think there will always be such disputes, because there is indeed an aesthetic component in such matters. There is a kind of grammar to aesthetics, however, and just as we ought to aim to express ourselves clearly and well in ordinary language, we ought also to express our theme of the Mass not only clearly (what seemed to be the goal of dynamic equivalence), but well.

Fort Worth Holds Fast to Tradition

There is a good post at the Shrine of the Holy Whapping on the Fort Worth Diocese's emergency request for alternate Primatial Oversight after yesterday's decision by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church to elect a woman as Presiding Bishop.

Dynamic Equivalence Bites the Dust

From a Catholic News Service story on the new Mass translation:
In 2001 the Vatican issued new rules requiring liturgical translations to follow the original Latin more strictly and completely -- a more literal translation approach called formal equivalence -- and the resulting new translation adheres far more closely to the normative Latin text issued by the Vatican.

In an address to the bishops before they debated and voted on the new text and American adaptations, Bishop Arthur Roche of Leeds, England, president of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, argued that the dynamic equivalence approach has come under increasing criticism from linguists in recent years and said that the more literal translations in many places will restore scriptural references that disappeared or were less evident in the earlier liturgy translations into English done in the dynamic equivalence style.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Naturalism and Eudaimonism

Apollodorus has a good post up at Aporetic Rambling on ethical naturalism. Read it quick before he takes it down!

Women in the Church

It was only a matter of time before the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States elevated a woman to the episcopacy, and then it was just a little hop and a skip to electing one of the women bishops Presiding Bishop.. The only suprise here is that it took so long: women were first admitted to Holy Orders over thirty years ago.

The consecration of Gene Robinson, as scandalous as it was, was not the shocker that the ordination of women was. There have always been bishops who have lived sinful lives, though perhaps not as openly as Robinson. But Robinson is, at least, fit matter for the Sacrament, whatever his attitude towards the other Sacraments, such as matrimony.

Accepting women into the priesthood, though, that's another matter (no pun intended): that's a fairly major theological split from the Tradition. The elevation of a woman to the episcopacy merely underscores that split, it does not make it worse. My old friend and mentor, Fr. Bob Duncan, now bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, summed up what the real problem here is:
"In many ways the election speaks for itself," Bishop Robert W. Duncan Jr. of Pittsburgh said in a statement. Bishop Duncan is the moderator of the Anglican Communion Network, a theologically conservative group of Episcopal dioceses. "For the Anglican Communion worldwide, this election reveals the continuing insensitivity and disregard of the Episcopal Church for the present dynamics of our global fellowship."
It seems that certain communities within the Episcopal Church in the United States are happy to act unilaterally in certain matters (while criticizing the United States itself for acting unilaterally in other matters, one notes in passing). That is, in itself, not a good thing--communion requires some sort of consultation and regard for other points of view, not this "we're right and you're wrong" sort of thing. I suppose from their point of view, they are right and everyone else is wrong; no doubt they view the Roman Catholic Church as the institution that asserts itself to be right and all else wrong--but they have now effectively ended any chance of re-establishing intercommunion with Rome, let alone reunification. Rome must now turn to the East in its ecumenical efforts.

Clearly this is where the greatest tragedy lies--the end of all hope for intercommunion. But there is another element of sadness here, and that is the way in which women are being used for political purposes, usually with their own consent. It is, indeed, very desireable that women take positions in the church the allow them fully express their calling, but I think that there are some fundamental mistakes being made here. First is this idea that the only way fully to express one's calling is through a "leadership" position. Another is the idea that ordained ministry is, in itself, fundamentally a "leadership" position that should be sought principally as a means of fulfilling a perceived calling to "leadership". Ministers are supposed to minister, they are servants. It is an accident of our own political history that such roles are seen as "leadership" roles. The episcopacy, of course, is somewhat different, since it is, inded, literally, a position of "overseer" (< Gr. episkopos), but he who would be first.... Why is it, though, that we live in a time and a place where ordained ministry is viewed as an avenue of power, an office of leadership?

I am reminded, in all of this, of the role that women played among the Recusant Catholics during the 16th and 17th century. During that sad period of English history--already a harbinger of sadder periods to follow!--it was illegal to celebrate the Mass, and priests had to do their work surreptitiously. It was dangerous work, too, since the penalty was usually death, often involving horrible torture and mutilation along the way. The work would have been much more difficult than it was, though, had it not been for the brave help offered by women, particularly widows, who were able to take in the priests and hide them in their homes. These women risked their own lives to help provide service and ministry to their fellow Catholics, and without them it is fair to say that the history of Catholicism in England would have been very different (the Martyrology for tomorrow features one of these women, Blessed Margarite Ball, who was martyred for the help she gave to priests).

It is essential to find roles for women in the Church that recognize their inherent equality in human dignity but that do not transgress the clear teaching of the Church that they are not fit matter for admission to Holy Orders. The challenge here is to see that human dignity does not, in itself, require standing in a particular overseer position in order to be fully expressed, indeed, such dignity has nothing to do with being in one position rather than another.

Friday, June 16, 2006

No Wonder Ohio University is Only the Number Five Party School

With competition like this it's no wonder we're slipping in the ratings.

No Comment

From today's BMCR missive (2006.06.22), a review of G. E. R. Lloyd's book The Delusions of Invulnerability: Wisdom and Morality in Ancient Greece, as reviewed by James Jope, independent scholar, and H. Lyman Miller, Hoover Institute:
In spite of Lloyd's keen understanding of ancient Greek psychology, and the comparison -- telling not only for Greece but also for the West -- with China, the argument of this chapter seems weakened by the digression on Mediaeval Christianity. Few educated readers will disagree with Lloyd's criticism of American hegemonism, but it is oversimplified, precisely because Lloyd contrasts America with Christianity, after discussing the latter only as a mediaeval phenomenon. (Even such a recent doctrine as the nineteenth-century dogma of papal infallibility -- which undoubtedly merits discussion among delusions of invulnerability -- seems to be classed as mediaeval.) Unfortunately, the Republicans' reliance on wealth and power is driven not only by uncritical consumerism but by the serious political ideology of American Christian Fundamentalism, the importance of which Lloyd and many Europeans have not yet apprehended.

And the Rich He Hath Sent Empty Away

As I was strolling through the parking lot of the music building today on my way to my trumpet lesson I happened to notice a shiny new Jaguar parked in one of the prime parking places reserved for folks with either lots of service or lots of clout. It was a beautiful machine and I just had to wander over to admire it, though I was careful to stay far enough away to avoid setting off any alarms.

As I drew nearer, I noticed the license plate: 1GR8TFL, which I assume is supposed to mean something like "I [am] grateful". I suppose I would be, too, if I had the sort of job that would allow me to buy a car like that, pay the taxes on it, and keep it running. I'd be even more grateful if it came with a parking space like that, but I suppose you can't have everything. I've often wondered what I would do if I had that kind of money, because I'm the sort of person who is not very good at having a lot of money around--instead of feeling gr8tfl I just feel gilT, wondering how many starving children I could feed by sending this shiny new trumpet's worth of money to OxFam. You can't save the world, of course, but you're lying to yourself if you think you can't save one or two people here and there. The next time you think about buying a CD for yourself, think about the fact that OxFam could take your $15 and keep five children alive for three months with that money (OxFam is rather famous for having extremely low overhead).

As I was peering inside at the beautiful leather seats and what I assume was a real wood dash and not some plastic fake, I noticed a book lying in the back seat. Now I happen to think that you can learn a lot about folks from the sorts of books they leave lying around in their car. Once, after I was nearly killed by some crazy moron who decided to pass me on the right on a two-lane road, I found myself parking next to the guy at the local Kroger, so I went over to his car to give him a piece of my mind. He had already gone inside, but I noticed a copy of Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them lying on the passenger seat. What a surprise. Anyway, the book in the Jag was the Bible. Given the fact that I was already feeling substantial Christian angst about my seedy covetousness and selfish desire to have a car like that for myself, I found myself wondering what sort of a person owned the car. The presence of a Bible in the back seat of a Jaguar is a conjunction of facts that renders the possibility that the owner of the car is a professor logically impossible, so it had to be either an administrator or some kind or perhaps well-to-do minister or maybe a doctor or a lawyer. I don't know why a doctor or a lawyer would park at the music building (let alone have a Bible in the car--is it in case you forget your black bag, or the judge is feeling grumpy?), and since administrators don't work in offices anywhere near the music building, I drew the rather shaky inference that the car belonged to a minister.

OK, I realize that was a dumb inference; in my own defence I will say that I didn't really draw that inference, it just popped into my head that it might be a minister's car, because when I was living in North Carolina I was often astounded by the kinds of cars driven by evangelical clergy. It was as if they thought of the thing as somehow a part of their job, the way my brother-in-law, who is a real estate broker, always drove a black Lincoln town car on the grounds that it couldn't hurt his reputation with the clients. I imagined these guys (it's always guys who drive penis cars like this; guys and Ann Coulter) driving around town on their pastoral visits wanting folks to feel that, here comes a guy who's got his act together, I can trust him--look at the car he's driving! In North Carolina it was always a BMW, though, or a Porsche. I think I saw a Bentley once, too, in Raleigh. That's where the real money is--you're not going to see a car like that in Durham, even in the parking lot of an evangelical church.

All of this clergy-with-wheels experience came from North Carolina, though, where the desire to tool around town in style at least appeared to have benign motives of impressing little old ladies. But once I moved to Ohio I made a rather startling discovery by the name of Joel Osteen. I had never heard of the guy until I started channel surfing late one night when Lisa was away on business and I happened upon one of Osteen's shows. I was captivated by his pleasant speaking style, his warm and friendly manner, and his gnarly threads. I watched pretty much the whole damn show and I couldn't believe that I was actually finding him interesting to listen to. But something was a little weird about him, and I started to look into his ministry a little. You'll have to forgive me, because I've been a little wary of these TV ministers ever since I saw Dr. Gene "Kill a piss ant for Jesus" Scott sitting in a captain's chair on an otherwise empty stage, wearing a construction-worker's hat, smoking a huge cigar, and explaining "why it is that I hate my ex-wife--because she won't give money to my ministry!" So when I see these guys I usually just assume that they're all like Scott, and the slicker they are the less I trust them, and Joel Osteen is nothing if not slick.

And yet I found that I liked the guy. Don't get me wrong--he's not a Catholic, and so I assumed he would say something heretical eventually, but I never heard him say it, so I kept looking into his ministry to uncover the error that I knew had to be there. Eventually I hit pay dirt: he's one of the "prosperity" Christians, folks who believe that if you are right with God, God will reward you with material prosperity. If it's true, of course, you'd have to think that Joel Osteen is about as right with God as a person can get, since he seems to be prospering more than most. Personally, I don't think he's really in it for base motives, I think he really believes what he says and is a "faithful" Christian to the extent that someone so wrong about Christianity can be, but it may be that I'm just being swayed by his savory clothes--maybe he's a complete charlatan; I just don't think so.

I hadn't given ol' Joel much thought of late, until I was reminded of him simply by virtue of seeing a car in a parking lot and wondering whether it was owned by a minister. Earlier this week I had heard a story on NPR about "prosperity" Christians in Nigeria, of all places, and it occurred to me that this prosperity message is not merely wrong, it is sort of in-your-face-wrong, and it misleads a lot of people. "It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones."

Of course I have no idea whose car that was or what their beliefs are like. That such cars even exist is something of a scandal, since the money could certainly be better spent, but I suppose someone will argue that the existence of such things drives an economy that enables everyone to live just a little better than they would otherwise be able to live.


Don't forget about OxFam, now: it's a great way to avoid cluttering up your living room with more CDs than you really need.

He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.
He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.

Don't get sent away, Joel, or whoever you are: sell your car--sell everything!--and follow Him!

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Why I Will Never Borrow A Bike

If I ever had any qualms about riding my bike naked, the Zombie has dispelled them with this chronicle of the Naked Bike Ride in San Francisco. It's nice to know that all things really are relative, and that, in comparison with some folks, I really do look like Fabio.

Meaning and Music

I'm a huge fan of 13th century liturgical chant--who isn't, after all?--and one of the interesting differences between Catholic and Protestant liturgical music is nicely illustrated by a prominent feature of such composers as Perotin and Leoninus. Listen to some of the clips available at from the collection "Music of the Gothic Era." The very first clip in particular, "Viderunt omnes", nicely illustrates the feature I am talking about. In this kind of music, single words can be drawn out over hundreds of notes, constituting a kind of meditation in itself, independent of the word's function in the overall sentence in which it occurs.

This is in marked contrast with the polyphonic and harmonic music that came to dominate Protestant liturgical music starting in the 16th century, where the emphasis is on the semantics of the whole text. In some ways this is typical of Protestantism, I think: forget about the imagery and sheer beauty of incarnate sound and zero in on meaning meaning meaning. If you're not saying anything then you're not expressing anything worth paying attention to. It's all very logocentric. I don't mean to be too bitchy about this, but it's a point of view that, when taken to an extreme, tends to be exclusivist, denying the authenticity and value of other modes of expression, sometimes to the point of iconoclasm. I don't think that the same is true of the chant tradition, since there are certainly many passages in chant that amount to melodic expressions as direct as any in later polyphony.

I was put in mind of all this by a story I heard on NPR about the musical accompaniment to the movie The Da Vinci Code. It's mostly mood music, obviously, but I was particularly interested in the bit in the interview with the singer, Hila Plitmann, where she talks about trying to communicate feelings and even conceptual matter by singing non-words, that is, she literally vocalizes in the sense that she is articulating phonemes, but for the most part what sounds like language is nothing more than meaningless sounds.

And yet not meaningless, seemingly, if feelings and conceptual content can be "communicated" by articulating these sounds. The interview is quite interesting from the musical point of view: it does, indeed, seem to be true that certain nuances lie in the effects produced by softening a consonant here, blurring a vowel there, and changing the timbre of one's voice from time to time. The 13th century liturgical chant that I love to listen to will sound a lot like meaningless sounds to many people--even to some people who know Latin, I imagine, due to the dramatic melisma employed--and yet, as I remarked above, it is precisely the same here as in Plitmann's work: nuances of meaning are communicated by this very distortion away from the ordinariness of the spoken version of the same sounds.

Is this use of sound texture, tonality, timbre, etc., a kind of language in itself? If it really does "communicate" something, it seems as though it is at least like a language, but it is difficult to see how there could be any grammar to it, rules of syntax, accidence, etc. It all seems very subjective, somehow, and yet not entirely--the old saw about minor keys sounding "sadder" than major keys hits on something that strikes people from all cultures as somehow right. Chomsky's project of trying to uncover a "universal grammar" in the hardwiring of the human brain has borne little fruit, but there appears to be a grain of truth to it; maybe there is something analogous in the case of music, a kind of universal "grammar" governing the modes that we use to express certain kinds of ideas.

Probably not, I'm guessing, and even if there were such a thing it's hard to imagine what sort of confirmataion one could possibly find for guesses about its various features, but it's fun to speculate.

Reviews as Rants

Here's a book that I actually am reading: Aquinas' Theory of Natural Law: An Analytic Reconstruction, by Anthony Lisska (Oxford, 1998). It argues--gasp!--that Thomas Aquinas--prepare yourselves, now!--is an Aristotelian in the foundations of his moral theory!

Tony is a friend of mine, and I know him to be a very serious scholar. Although he is not a religious person (he actually argues that Aquinas' moral theory, grounded in natural law, works better without the notion of God floating around in it like a turd in a cesspool), this book makes for a very good introduction to the scholastic version of natural law theory. I was therefore somewhat amused by one of the reviews of the book available at, written by Stephen Heersink, a gay activist who rejects natural law morality for rather obvious reasons. He completely trashes the book, even going so far as to impugn the editorial process at Oxford University Press ("How this travesty passed its high editorial standards is deeply puzzling"), and yet, when one reads around in his other writings available on the internet, one cannot help but think that he doth protest too much.

Heersink (he has a blog here) claims to have some education in philosophy, and yet he writes the following inexplicable sentence:
A fifth principle [of natural law] requires "truth" as a correspondence theory between mind and things (see, Searle, "Construction of Social Reality" for why this is no longer so).
While it is true that correspondence theory has its difficulties, it is simply ludicrous to "cite" a single book--not a scholarly book but one intended for a general audience and that is now quite dated--as though this somehow "proves" that the whole project has been toppled and is now as unworkable as phlogiston theory. This betrays a rather shallow and banal grasp of the principles of philosophical methodology, and succeeds only at vitiating the entire review.

To see an example of Heersink's capacity for serious philosophical reasoning, check out his blog entry on abortion.

I've written a couple of reviews for myself, but lately I've begun to wonder what the point of such an exercise is. Most of them are completely worthless (well, except for mine, of course). Sometimes you can use them to figure out whether or not you want to read a particular mystery novel, but more often than not they are just rants. Pick some particularly popular or controversial book, for example, and check out the customer reviews. Try it with the Da Vinci Code. There will be hundreds of five-star reviews, all challenged by hundreds of single-star reviews. It's as if the purpose is to drive the overall rating in one direction or another regardless of the means necessary to accomplish that end. Such reviews are basically useless from a critical point of view.

On the other hand, I recently saw a review at that consisted entirely of the sentence "This is the worst book I have ever read", and 13 out of 30 voted it a "helpful" review! And there are dozens of such reviews on makes me wonder about the methods employed at for "clearing" these reviews. Even though I've seen many of these vapid reviews consisting os single sentences, there have been a few times when I've had reviews rejected by, with bizarre reasons being given: "It did not say anything substantive about the book", "it was too negative", etc. Too negative? Since when do you reject a review because it was too negative? Maybe the author himself was checking the reviews. And in light of the millions of illiterate and pointless, single-sentence reviews they do accept, it's hard to make sense of their policy, if they really have one. And in one case, a review I wrote (of Allan Levine's [Pavel Chichikov] Lion Sun) was actually removed after being on the website for nearly a year. So who knows what's going on at

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

More Books I'll Never Read

Well now let's see if I can tick off ol' Apollodorus with another rant about books I haven't read.

Today's email brought me a review from Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews of a new collection of essays out from Duke University Press: Dale B. Martin, Patricia Cox Miller, The Cultural Turn in Late Ancient Studies: Gender, Asceticism, and Historiography. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005. Pp. 364. ISBN 0-8223-3422-4. I imagine the title is based on the title of Richard Rorty's collection of essays The Linguistic Turn: Essays in Philosophical Method (Chicago). The three elements of the subtitle of the newer collection (is it some kind of unwritten rule, by the way, that all academic books must now have subtitles? I can't remember the last time I saw one without one) pick out what have been, arguably, the three biggest areas of emphasis in cultural studies in classics departments since the late 1970s. The element that unites them is what a philosopher might call constructivism, the idea that concepts such as gender, asceticism, and history are in and of themselves cultural constructs and, hence, open to a wide variety of interpretations that are dependent only upon one's cultural milieux. This has the effect of banishing realist normativity from the study of such concepts.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. I suspect that gender really is nothing more than a social construct. Asceticism may be, too, for all I know, and history certainly is. But check out this claim from the review:
...the essays make substantive claims about monastic ideology, Christology, clerical and episcopal authority, heresy, Hellenism, individual characters, and the invention of Christian Rome. The essays admirably apply theoretical models to specific exempla, thereby illuminating methodology while simultaneously advancing our understanding of particular subjects and providing numerous insightful readings.
There is an interesting tension here between the deconstructive critique that is almost always at work in such scholarship and the notion of the possibility of "substantive claims", particularly those that claim to "advance our understanding" of anything. You'd think that if we'd learned nothing else from postmodernism it is that there's no such thing as "understanding" as such when it comes to areas of study such as this. I suspect that what our reviewer really means is that he finds these essays interesting to read and, after reading them, he felt as though he knew more than he did before. That is an admirable effect for any collection of scholarly essays to have, but it should probably be embarrassing for this one to have it. Oh well, shame went out the window during the sexual revolution. I mean during the cultural turn.

This is not to say that these essays do not sound interesting in spite of the difficulties that their own methodologies raise for their own results. Here's a good example:
Starting from the recognition that in the world of the monks women were physically absent, but mentally omnipresent, David Brakke accounts for the anomalous instances of the presence of actual women in a place where "there are no women" (p.25). Such rare instances involve a female pretending to be a male monk, whose true gender is revealed only after her death. Since, however, these instances of real women appear in apophthegmata and sayings attributed to Amma Sarah, the "actual" female must be viewed as a discursive construct, who, according to Brakke, ultimately complicates or reinscribes monastic conceptions of gender. For the monks, manliness is performed by resistance to the female. Such accounts reveal the performative character of the real and rhetorical monastic world because they include the discovery (what Brakke calls "materialization") that a female played the role of male.
There's so much equivocation here in just a few sentences on the words "actual" and "real" that it's difficult to distinguish it from self-parody. Buried in there somewhere is the very interesting idea that men who live together in a community sometimes think about women, but the jargonics are rather thick: "manliness is performed by resistance to the female," for example, is really just a way of saying that some men find it macho to put on a show of not thinking about women. This "reveal[s] the performative character of the real and rhetorical monastic world", that is, those monks weren't fooling anybody--we all know they were thinking about women. The proof lies in the "fact" (whatever that is on this account) that a woman snuck into a monastery now and then and pretended to be a man, or at least some later woman outside the monastery told a story according to which that kind of thing happened, but stories and histories are all interchangeable anyway, so what difference does it make. Oh, and don't forget about Pope Joan.

I was a little more excited by the description of an essay from Dennis Trout, perhaps because I know him from Duke. His essay has an archeological flavor:
The tombs of the martyrs become a national cemetery performing a national Christian ideology: whoever stands at the tomb of the martyr beholds a direct link between heaven and earth.
An interesting idea, and true, to boot. I mean in a realist sense of truth. You've always got to add that in these contexts. But wait--there's more:
Damasus's work provides a specific instance of Henri Lefebvre's general observation "that the impulse to civic 'self-presentation and self-representation' readily lodges in sites where death can be both 'represented and rejected'" (p.305). In this sense then, Damasus is like a new Augustus and new Livy.
Don't go too far, now, he's like a new Augustus and a new Livy. Presumably we're told, somewhere, how Augustus and Livy represented and rejected death and, more importantly, why they're the ones to compare Damasus to.

In short, you gotta love this stuff because it plays on both sides of the street: it champions underdetermination like no other discipline, only without saying so, only to put on a studied ignorance of the phenomenon when drawing inferences. In fact, why draw inferences when mere assertion will do? Inferences are for realist saps; real men, when they're not thinking about women, or just dressing like them, go for heartfelt avowal every time.

Fun fact: the review was written by a Rabbi. Read the whole thing here.

Monday, June 12, 2006

More Thoughts on Trinitarian Property Relations

Now there's a catchy title for you. My wife is always telling me that I need to get an editor for this blog; if anyone is willing to send me some titles I'll be happy to use them. Provided they're in line with my family values, of course. Of course, my wife will still be grumpy whenever I call anyone a moron, but you can't have everything your own way unless you start your own blog!

So anyway, I got to thinking about the property relations I talked about in my previous post: how the Father begets but is unbegotten, the Spirit proceeds but the Father and Son do not, etc. The various Creeds give us all of the relations we need to keep the three Persons straight, and--at least according to the author of the Quicumque vult--those are the only relations we need to know about in order to be saved. But that is not to say that other interesting relations don't follow from the ones that we know about, or that there aren't other, otherwise unstated but interesting facets of the ones that we know about.

The one that got me to thinking (if you want to call it thinking: it popped into my head while I was in the middle of a 10 mile bike ride this afternoon) is the relation of God the Father as arkhé, source or principal. In (Eastern) Orthodox theology is there great stress laid upon the principle of monarchy, the idea that the Father alone (monos) is the source or beginning (arché) of all things. An interesting example of this principle, I think, can be found in the passage in Mark 13.32 where Jesus tells his disciples that even the Son does not know the hour at which the Father will bring an end to this fallen world. If the Son is one with the Father, as Jesus also says (see, for example, John 10.30), how is it that the Father knows things that the Son does not know?

One way to approach this problem that I find particularly fascinating is the discussion of the nature of the Trinity is St. Augustine's treatise De Trinitate (On the Trinity). There he compares the Trinity to the relationship that exists between mind, object of thought, and content of thought. When I love someone, we may speak of three things. First, there is my mind, my self, that does the loving; second, there is the act of loving itself; third, there is the object of my love as conceived in my mind. In one sense these three things are clearly distinct; in another sense, they are also clearly simultaneous in their existence and ontologically bound to one another. Without a cognitive self to do the loving, no loving takes place; without an act of loving for the cognitive self to engage in, no loving takes place; without an object of (transitive) love, no loving takes place. The cognitive self is, in a sense, in charge here, since it is therein that the act of the will to love itself takes place. This means that in the case of the human cognitive agent there is a one-way ontological dependency that is not present in the case of the Trinity. I can choose not to love and, if I do so choose, there is no act of loving. But God is love, so although God the Father is the source of the Son and of the Spirit, we do not say that the Father could exist without the Son or the Spirit: all three necessarily exist precisely because love is the very nature of God Himself--God cannot be God without loving, and the Son and the Holy Spirit are the manifestations of God's love--as is also the Father, of course, as the great Cosmic arkhé of love.
But the Father is still the source, the origin, of all things, and in some sense this serves to remind us that God is totally free--nothing about him is constrained in any way by the will of any other being. The fact that the Son does not know the hour of the end is a sign to us that nothing constrains the Father's will--it will happen whenever He chooses, and nothing--not even the human will of Jesus of Nazareth--can direct the will of the Father (though Jesus' human will always willed in unity with the Divine Will, so although there were two wills and two acts of willing there was always only one object, one will willed).

But the Divine Will of the Second Person is numerically one with the Father's Will, since the Son and the Father are one. This seems to suggest that, if it is really true that the Son does not know the hour when the Father will consummate the world, then there is a distinct difference between the content of a will and the cognitive content of an epistemic subject. The Son can will that the end come when the Father wills it, but the Son cannot know the "when" of that object of willing, even though the Father can. This is a function, I suppose, of the three different First Person Perspectives that are present in the Persons of the Trinity. The Freedom and Sovereignty of the Father is underscored by this cognitive difference between Him and His Son.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Substantial Being

Speaking of knowing God's Trinitarian nature, one element of the new Mass translation that is not changing is that part of the Creed where we say "one in being with the Father." Or at least that part of the translation will stay the same in the United States--other English speaking countries will use the new (older) "consubstantial with the Father."

What is the difference supposed to be, you may ask yourself. The motivation for keeping the wording the same may be nothing more than the same old banalization of American liturgical English that we've all grown accostomed to since the 1970s. "One in being" is a little easier to grasp, let alone say, than "consubstantial", and our Bishops are rather notorious for thinking that we're all a bunch of morons when it comes to participating in the Mass. But I'm not so sure that there's no difference in meaning between the two phrases.

To say that two things are one in being suggests a kind of identity relation. Hesperus and Phosphorus are one in being because they are really the same thing--the Morning Star is the Evening Star just because the expressions are nothing more than different semantic signs for the same entity, the planet Venus. The expressions have slightly different meanings, of course, since the Morning Star is what we call Venus when we see it in the morning, and the Evening Star is what we call it when we see it in the evening, but they refer to the same object.

But the Son and the Father are not the same object in quite the way that the Morning Star is exactly the same object as the Evening Star. Insofar as the two names pick out objects, those objects have all qualities in common save for the referring expression that we use to name them. That is not the case with the Son and the Father--although they are, in some sense, one, they do not share all the same properties. The Son is begotten, but the Father is not. So they do not participate in the same sort of identity relation that the Morning Star and the Evening Star participate in.

Yet they are one in some sense. The sense in which they are one is that they have the same essential nature. In old-fashioned philosophical jargon the word for an "essential nature" is "substance". I say "old fashioned" because in ordinary modern English usage the word "substance" tends to refer to some material stuff: "What is this substance on my shoe?" "Please fill my glass with some more of that delicious substance!" etc. But in the old scholastic tradition a substance is simply a kind of being, and if you're a scholastic then kinds of beings do not need to be material things. God is a substance, angels are substances, and so on. In the case of substances that are material objects then it is precisely the matter that differentiates one instantiation of the substance from another. One human being and another are idential in terms of their essential nature, humanity, but they differ in respect of the particular matter that they are made out of. Matter is thus the principle of individuation in the case of material objects. Since non-material objects cannot be differentiated in this way they must be differentiated in some other way. Angels, for example, differ from each other in their essential natures--each one has its own specific essence. Angels are, thus, indivudally sui generis, one of a kind.

God also is a non-material substance, and so, if God were like the angels, he would be sui generis, one of a kind; and so he is. And yet we speak of him under three aspects: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These are names of the "persons" of the Trinity, and they--strangely--differ from each other not in respect of some material principle but in respect of the relations that exist among them. The Father begets but is not begotten; the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, but the Father does not proceed from anything, etc. And yet, because all three Persons are non-material substances, and there is only the one substance common to all three--the one essential nature--they are not like the angels, who differ from one another and are not one. The three Persons of the Godhead are, by virtue of this rather unusual metaphysics, literally one in being in just the way that humanity itself--as opposed to the individual humans who share in it--is one single thing.

But it is a very unusual metaphysics that draws distinctions regarding a sui generis, one of a kind entity in this way. In fact, the Godhead is the only entity of which any of this could possibly be true, otherwise metaphysics itself wouldn't make any sense. The Godhead is a kind of exception to a general metaphysical principle. The Latin term, consubstantialis, used in the traditional Latin translation of the Nicene Creed, probably should be translated as "consubstantial", rather than "one in being", if only to preserve the fact of this truly bizarre feature of our theology. "One in being" is a phrase that is true of lots of things; but "consubstantial" is a word that has always been reserved, so far as I am aware, to this one specific theological usage.

Populus Trinitatis

Writing in the 12th century about the Battle of Hittin on 4 July 1187, the scribe Imad ad-Din al-Isfani described the defeat of the Crusaders this way:
Victory occurred on that day, Saturday 4 July 1187. Tormented by thirst, the Franks succumbed to defeat, impotent to recover their fall. The breeze was in their direction, and beneath their feet was grass. Some of our holy warriors set fire to the grass. Its flame bore down on them, and its heat became intense. They, the people of the Trinity, were consumed by a worldly fire of three types, each invincible and obliterating: the fire of flames, the fire of thirst, and the fire of arrows.
I've always been struck by that description of the Christians: The People of the Trinity. The joke, obviously, is that these people who believe that God is Three in One were consumed by three kinds of "fire", but the real joke is on our scribe: the Jews were blessed by God to know His name, but Christians are blessed to know His Nature. Saladin and his army, alas, knew neither.

The Christians on that day "were consumed by a worldly fire", but Christians of all times are continually consumed by the Divine Fire that is the Holy Spirit, who teaches us wisdom and truth. In that sense we never shall be, we cannot ever be, defeated.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Ontology of Moral Culpability

Adam Gopnik has a review in the 5 June number of The New Yorker of two recent titles, The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France, by David Andress, and Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution, by Ruth Scurr. Both books sound very interesting, and Gopnik does an excellent job of piquing one's interest in both the books and the period. One passage of his struck me as particularly insightful:
It is often said that terror of this kind is possible only when one has first "dehumanized" some group of people--aristocrats, Jews, the bourgeoisie. In fact, what motivated the spectacle was exactly the knowledge that the victims were people, and capable of feeling pain and fear as people do. We don't humiliate vermin, or put them through show trials, or make them watch their fellow-vermin die first. The myth of mechanical murder is almost always that.
This strikes me as very true, and it emphasizes, for me at least, the personal nature of evil. It is too tempting to dehumanize the "dehumanizers" by labelling them "evil" or making them a part of some group that is then said to be acting according to the dictates of some mechanistic plan to "exterminate" some other group. (I have complained about this reification of groups and institutions in previous posts.) In general it is safe to say that evil acts are perpetrated by individual persons who have their own passions, desires, and motivations lying behind what they do. They are not robots who "just follow orders"--that is precisely why we may hold them morally culpable for the evil acts that they commit. If they really were just robots then they would have no moral responsibility for their crimes.

This thought makes me wonder about one element of--well, either Gopnik's review, or of the books under review, or perhaps the mindset of Gopnik's editors--it's difficult to tell who is ultimately responsible for this element. As is often the case, there is one of those full-page cartoonish illustrations accompanying Gopnik's review. It is a drawing of Robespierre, who is depicted holding the rope of a guillotine (fully loaded with a moderately corpulent representative of the enemy class) and calmly holding a book with a cross on the cover. The caption of this illustration reads: "The Terror wasn't secular reason run amok. It was a faith-based initiative, and the guillotine was another kind of auto-da-fé". I confess that it was this illustration with caption that first prompted me to read the review: I thought perhaps that Gopnik was going to claim that religion was ultimately responsible for the Terror. The caption is indeed taken directly from the review, but it is not in the least bit representative of the tone taken by Gopnik in his review. His comments on the contrast between Enlightenment rationalism, as personified by Voltaire, and "faith-based initiatives" are contained in less than two paragraphs near the end of the review. Some editor, I suppose, thought it the most interesting--or perhaps the most controversial?--element of the review and solicited the illustration with that in mind.

Whatever--there are no sweeping claims about the ills of religion, not even of Robespierre's vaguely deistic kind (Gopnik does not distinguish between deism and theism in his review, and one does not know whether to blame this on him or on the books he is reviewing). Which is a very good thing: even if one were to grant that Robespierre was himself motivated by religious sentiments (and it is not clear from the review whether this is a claim made by Scurr herself or is merely Gopnik's own extrapolation from the claims that are made in the book), it by no means follows that the massive outpouring of sectarian violence over which he presided was in every case motivated by similar sentiments. People do what they do for their own peculiar reasons, never because they are mere automata following the programming of a Robespierre.

One often hears secular humanists complain of the violent impulses of the religiously inclined. Even in a university setting one find folks clinging to the myth that "more people have died because of religious extremism or persecution than for any other cause" etc. etc. Granted, it is usually students--most often freshmen--who make this claim, but I can't say that I've never heard it leaking from a professor's lips. It may actually be true that a lot of carnage has been due to mistaken application of religious principles, but it is no more interesting a claim than the fact that people have also fought and died and killed in defense of liberty, equality, and brotherhood, not to mention all sorts of other political ideals that have no connection to religion at all other than to be opposed to it (Communism, for example). To say that sectarian violence, or the sort of tribalism that would drive one to eliminate, even by violent means, other tribes, is a characteristic of "religious sentiment" per se is banal and simplistic. In every case of hatred, violence, oppression, and killing of innocents, what is to blame is not religion or atheism or any political ideal, but some individual human being who has made a mistaken decision to hate, harm, oppress or kill an innocent. All such decisions are in themselves mistaken, and they would be as mistaken if they were made by an atheist for atheistic reasons as they would be if they were made by a religious person for religious reasons.

State Interference in Matters of Conscience

Here is a news story about Rod Blagojevich, governor of Illinois, who demands that everyone conform to his own personal vision of morality.
The department's head will be in Edwardsville on Friday to seek public comment on the sign proposal.
I wonder where the rest of him will be.

Hat tip: Mirror of Justice.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Life in the Ivory Tower

Many a blogger has inwardly groaned upon reading such as the following:
Many a liturgical theologian has inwardly groaned on Holy Thursday upon hearing the assembly sing "At That First Eucharist..." or upon hearing the homilist proclaim that we are "doing what the Lord did at the Last Supper."
These are the words of Robert J. Daly, S.J., writing in the quasi-scholarly Jesuit journal Theological Studies, published four times a year from Marquette University. The reason why I, at least, groan upon reading such things is not so much because they are manifestly pompous but rather because I can see no point to starting off an article "reviewing 20th-century research into the origins of the Eucharist" with the subjective complaint of a man who really needs to get a clue about what it means to go to Church during Holy Week.

There, now that I've been laughably pompous myself I can back off a little and try to explain why this article was so irritating to me. The article itself is actually quite good: it explores in some detail the chronological development of the Church's understanding of the theology of the Eucharist, and much of it is very informative. What I found irritating was not the scholarship itself, but the self-consciously deconstructive attitude towards popular piety. So what if Jesus did not do exactly the same things that the priest and congregation now do at a Mass? The point of calling Holy Thursday the First Eucharist is not to make a historical claim about the origins of our practices in the Eucharist, rather the way creationists want to make a historical claim about the literal meaning of the first chapters of Genesis; the point is rather that we recognize in the story of the Lord's Supper the beginnings of what has come to be, in Daly's own words, "the high point of both the expression of and the inchoative realization of the Church's marital covenant relationship with God." In making his little dig at how simplistic and naive popular piety is, Daly falls into the same fundamentalist trap himself, taking way too literally the things that are often said and done in popular contexts, as though we must assume that everyone in the Church on Holy Thursday is some kind of uneducated simpleton.

This is what comes of having too much time on your hands or, to say the same thing in a different way, of being an academic. And academic Jesuits seem to have a little more time on their hands than most. I've been perusing Theological Studies with some care lately as part of my own time wasting--er, I mean, research, and I find myself wondering, sometimes, what's up with some of these people. Here are a few items that have managed to catch my eye:
"The Indissolubility of Marriage: Reasons to Reconsider," by Kenneth Himes, O.F.M., and James A. Coriden, who argue that the Church's constant teaching on the indissolubility of marriage is not, after all, irreformable, in spite of having been unanimously believed and taught by the Magisterium for nearly 2000 years.

"Homosexuality and the Counsel of the Cross," by Paul G. Crowley, S.J., who complains that "papal" advice to homosexuals to join their sufferings to those of Christ on the Cross betrays a simplistic and inadequate understanding of the complexities of homosexuality.

"The Magisterium's Arguments Against 'Same-Sex Marriage': An Ethical Analysis and Critique," by Stephen J. Pope [!], which claims that the traditional, natural law approach to the rejection of homosexuality makes the mistake of "casting gay people in a negative light."

"Cohabitation: Past and Present Reality: A Response to Lisa Sowle Cahill," by Michael G. Lawler, who argues that "the Catholic Church needs to pay attention to [recent social scientific research] data so as to develop a more discriminating pastoral approach to the phenomenon of cohabitation."

"Feminism and the Vatican," by Edward Collins Vacek, S.J., who avers as to how he thinks the Vatican has a simplitic understanding of contemporary feminism that makes its pronouncements on social matters embarrassing to the more enlightened Jesuits of the West.
These articles are all from 2004-2005, and of course there are many other articles appearing during that time that are not only scholarly but sound, interesting, and well worth reading. But as I browsed through the journal I couldn't help but groan inwardly at the manifestation of intellectual pride that boosts itself up by tearing down what has already been established by cleverer, more thoughtful people. I suppose I'm in that same camp myself, as most of these writers are probably cleverer and more thoughtful than I am about most things, but in matters of faith I'm not altogether sure that being cleverer and more (academically) thoughtful is going to be enough to get the job of turning towards God done. How important is it, in the final analysis, to roll your eyes heavenward in condescension when a homilist talks about "doing what the Lord did"? Do I need to have, in the back of my mind, all of the conclusions of all of these scholarly articles in order to have a lively and saving faith when I am present at the Eucharist? When I am working at a soup kitchen, or at Habitat, does it matter if I remember which Council defined which of my beliefs, or if I fully understand the social and political background that probably influenced the development of those definitions?

It seems unlikely, somehow, as interesting and important as such knowledge is, that it would be necessary for everyone to have it. It's enough that the scholars have it--they can discuss these things at their leisure, since that's what they get paid to do. But I'm still a little irritated, in my own intellectually proud way, that the principal Jesuit journal in America is playing this game. I've been reading Antonia Fraser's The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605, and I see a very different sort of person serving in the Jesuits in Elizabethan England. These are men who died for the faith--the traditional faith--in particular they died for the faith of the earlier generations of English Catholics for whom orthodoxy was as much a matter of praxis as of doctrine. When you have to assemble secretly for Mass at 2:00 in the morning in the basement of a country house for fear of being arrested, tortured, and killed, there's little time to worry about whether what you are doing is really literally "what our Lord did".

One hopes that it is close enough.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Proper Hermeneutics

I find myself in substantial agreement with Tom Kreitzberg at Disputations when he attributes a certain kind of theological sentiment to "the willingness of lay Catholics to study the writings of the Church", but I'm not so sure that I agree with his assessment of the source of the sentiment.

Citing a speech of Pope Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia in which two methods of "reading" the Second Vatican Council are limned, Tom notes that
as Catholics (particularly layfolk) became more adept at arguing from source documents, they became more dependent on source documents for their arguments, which gave rise (or at least vigor) to the whole "my source document is more authoritative than your source document" style of debate. With the Second Vatican Council, you suddenly get a whacking great load of highly authoritative source documents, a fact that in itself makes the 1960s a decade unlike most any other in the history of the Church.
I think, on the one hand, that it is true that one does, indeed, find arguments of this sort going on in certain circles. It has been my experience, however, that most of these circles are confined to the Internet--discussion lists, online forums (fora?), blogs, etc. The participants tend to be college educated folks with an intense interest in the Church. To a certain lesser extent you find some of this sort of activity in the MSM as well, though such venues seem to me to be on the wane in this particular regard.

On the other hand, I find few folks in the pews getting as deeply involved in these sorts of things as do the online participants, and in general the more distinct one's professional life is from academia the less likely is it that one will engage in the sort of polemics that Tom describes. Or at least that is what my own personal experience has been after two decades of living in and around academia in various cities east of the Mississippi.

This leads me to suggest that the problem lies not so much in the allegedly newfangled phenomenon of laymen reading Church documents (the historical record suggests that there have always been plenty of people doing that, though obviously if one searches through certain historical periods when literacy rates were different one can substantiate a variety of hypotheses; but I'm not aware of any other than anecdotal evidence that the proportion is now greater than ever before) but rather in an attitude that is endemic among academics, especially American and Western European ones (this particular phenomenon does not strike me as being much of an issue outside of those regions). The attitude is that of intellectual pride; I am tempted to characterize it as a particularly American one, but really it is an Enlightenment one, an attitude that regards all subjective sentiments as somehow on an equal footing. "Here I stand", we all say, and our subjective conscience--whether or not well-formed--rules the day. Sure it all began with Luther, but nowhere else will you find the extensive explosion of Protestant denominations that you find here in the United States, the World Headquarters of the Democracy of Ideas. Here, if you don't like the way your local church is being run, you just run out and start your own.

The American love affair with freethinking naturally subsidizes this tendency to prop up whatever views one happens antecedently to hold with pseudo-arguments grounded in sophomoric readings of history and theology. Ironically it is by virtue of working in academia myself that I can see that the foundations for this attitude are already in place when students come to college. So perhaps I should not attribute this attitude to those features of the academic lifestyle that collectively tend to make college professors rather tiresome people; it really is something fundamentally part of American life itself, it seems.

In the papal speech that Tom cites we hear of two "readings" of Vatican II, one the Holy Father calls the "hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture", the other he calls the "hermeneutics of reform". According to the former, Vatican II represents a fundamental break from the past, with the opening windows of aggiornamento representing a chance for us to escape from the fetters of the past that had everyone's mind "checked at the door" for so many centuries. According to the latter, the Council is rather a renewal of the continuity that is the development of the doctrine of the Magisterium that is always one with Our Lord. In the teaching of young people it is easy to see why the hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture would be the more appealing, at least in this American culture of ours. The young are often attracted to change for its own sake, and there is also a tendencey among some to want to experience the excitement of rebellion and the rejection of what was widely accepted by earlier generations. The hermeneutics of reform are, in a sense, more conservative in nature, and conservatism is not popular among the young or at universities these days, if it ever was.

Which hermeneutics one believes to be the "correct" will be a function of one's attitude towards hermeneutics generally. If one is a devotee of the hermeneutics of discontinuity it is probably because one is already committed to a kind of postmodern rejection of the notion of objective truth. Simili modo those to whom the hermeneutics of reform is attractive will be those folks for whom the Magisterium represents the last vestige of moral and theological realism. Only the former, however, could ever endorse the intellectual egalitarianism that Free Speech Americans have enthroned above the Gospels, and they would think and argue that way whether or not they engaged in more reading and arguing about Church documents.

Happy Birthday Darwins!

No, not Charles, but Mr. and Mrs.: today is the anniversary of the blog DarwinCatholic, one of my favorites for sanity and sanctity.

One of the great things about the Darwins, in my view, is the way in which they combine sound, orthodox Catholicism, clear and concise conservatism, and healthy, objective scientific skepticism. They illustrate quite nicely how one can be a successful Christian humanist without sacrificing the norms of truth in this time of fundamentalist dogmatic ideology.

Here's to many more years of happy reading!

Show Me That You Mean It

In a comment on my post of yesterday on the anti-intellectualism of Peter Berkowitz and John Derbyshire, an old student of mine remarks that there is a non-cognitive aspect to moral reasoning that naturally makes most of us a little nervous about the sorts of “bright line” arguments against abortion offered by Ramesh Ponnuru and Hadley Arkes, among others.

I'm inclined to agree with Apollodorus that arguments--even pretty good ones--can be constructed to fit just about any purpose. In particular, I agree that the "reasons" that are often given for permitting a certain degree of latitude in moral arguments are sometimes very attractive from a subjective point of view. The trouble I have with this sort of approach, though, is the very arbitrariness that it introduces. One person feels sympathetic to one set of circumstances, another feels sympathetic to another. Why ought we to honor the sympathies of one person rather than another, particularly when such sympathies are always a function of that particular individual's own passions and desires?

This is a particularly pressing problem, I think, when the issue involves harm to others. It's one thing, for example, to say that some folks can handle polygamy, others can't, that some societies can tolerate the pressures introduced by such a system while others can't (though there is a fairly interesting article in The Weekly Standard that argues that polygamy is not conducive to democracy). But to suggest that there are some circumstances that warrant the intentional killing of an innocent human being is to stray quite far from moral reality.

Clearly there are cases in which it is justifiable to take a human life--if only in self-defense. Those cases are at least arguably not instances of the taking of an innocent human life. When we kill in self-defense, it must always be as a last resort, when the intentions of our assailant are crystal clear (if that is ever possible) and our options limited to just the one response: kill or be killed.

This is clearly not the case with the vast majority--if not the sum total--of abortions, including very early ones and very late ones. There are almost always alternatives available to the killing of the innocent human being in the womb, and it is a curious irony that very often it is the same folks who demand extraordinary precautions in such things as the use of the death penalty, the prosecution of war, and the use of lethal means of self-defense who suddenly become like marshmallows when it comes to allowing an abortion.

The fact that we feel sympathy for a particular person's situation does not entail that we ought to permit that person to do whatever s/he feels must be done; we are still capable of looking at the situation from the point of view of the other, equally innocent, human being involved and asking: if I were in that fetus's baby slippers, would I want my mother to hire a doctor to kill me?

Let those who can unequivocally answer "yes" to that question check themselves into the nearest mental hospital.

Having said all of that, I must agree with Apollodorus when he writes
I find myself frankly overwhelmed by the number of obstacles that stand in the way of a good solution to the problems that drive people towards abortion in the first place, and usually give up in face of the complexity.
This is a temptation for virtually everyone who engages the anti-abortion argument with any vehemence. It is too easy to get involved in the argument itself, working inexorably towards that conclusion that we see must follow from the logic of morals, and to forget about what must be done out there in the real world once we have proven our point to the satisfaction of most people. On an Aristotelian account of morality, of course, this would not need to be said, since for the Aristotelian virtue is not merely made manifest by action, it is made complete therein. It is not enough to combat anti-intellectualism by merely being an intellectual. One must also do something.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Ann Coulter, Suuuuuuper Geeeeenius

If anyone was operating under the assumption that Ann Coulter is a Deep Thinker, she has kindly provided them with proof to the contrary:
Cybercast News Service: Most people consider evolution to be a branch of science, or at least a scientific theory, yet in "Godless," you refer to it as a "cult" and a "fetish." What is your basis for calling it that?

Ann Coulter: There is no evidence that it is true. The fossil record contradicts it, and it is a theory that cannot be disproved. Whatever happens is said to "prove" evolution. This is the very definition of a pseudoscience, like astrology. (Of course, I would say that. I'm just a Capricorn, aren't I?)

Cybercast News Service: Creationism is not considered a science because it can't be observed or empirically tested. You assert in your book that the theory of evolution has the same problems. Why then has the U.S. public school system been willing to accept the theory of evolution, but snubbed creationism?

Ann Coulter: Because evolution is the official state religion. Although it is possible to believe in God and evolution, it is not possible to not believe in God without believing in evolution -- otherwise, atheists have no explanation for why we are here. Thus, it's very important for the liberal clergy to force small school children to believe in a discredited mystery religion from the 19th century -- evolution -- in order to prepare them to believe in the nonexistence of God, one of the main goals of the American public education system.
I'm actually a big fan of self-parody, but to be really successful it has to be done knowingly. She probably thinks she's being smart and provocative, rather than embarrassing for the rest of us. This is what happens when you learn your "science" from golden tablets inscribed by space aliens.

We Are All Sinners

That's a common enough platitude in the Church these days, but Bishop Brown of Orange, California, seems to take it a little more seriously than most, because on his account just about every single person in this country is in a state of mortal sin every time they recite the Creed at Mass.

Whhhaaaahhh? you might reasonably wonder. Well, Bishop Brown supported Fr. Tran in his determination that those who refuse to continue standing after the Agnus Dei, in clear violation of the liturgical norms of USCCB Region XI, are in a state of mortal sin simply by virtue of their refusal to conform to the liturgical norm. Since just about every Catholic I know of fails to bow his or her head at the appropriate moment in the Creed (at the words "by the power of the Holy Spirit...") at Mass, in clear violation of the liturgical norms, which require said bowing of the head...well, you get the picture, cartoonish as it is. (See the Curt Jester for a summary of the merriment.)

When I was first received into the Church in 1983 the pastor of the parish in which I was received was one of these liturgical Nazis who insisted on forcing everyone to do things his way even when his way was very different from some very old traditions that have substantial and powerful rationales. Some of these old traditions, abandoned by the banal liturgical planners of the 1970s, have since been re-introduced into the GIRM, and rightfully so.

Liturgy, of course, is not necessarily about the continuance of every and all traditional practices--it is first and foremost about the unity of doctrine as expressed in the unity of practice, and certainly things would be much better if we all did them the same way. What one bridles at here is not the mere fact that kneeling has been abolished, but that it has been abolished in such an uncharitable manner, apparently without any regard for local practices or the feelings and sentiments of the faithful. If the feelings and sentiments of the faithful happen to be heretical, then it's not so clear that one must make allowances for them; but when the feelings and sentiments of the faithful are perfectly in keeping with what the Church herself has sometimes required, then it may be appropriate to make allowances, if only under certain conditions.

Next thing you know they'll be making it virtually impossible to hear a Latin Mass...oh, uh...hmmm...never mind.


There's an interesting item, with thoughtful comment, at Darwin Catholic regarding Ramesh Ponnuru's new book, Party of Death. Apparently, Peter Berkowitz and John Derbyshire have found the pro-life argument too logically coherent, grounded in some sort of inappropriate rationalism. Feelings can be reasons, too, they say: if I feel that a fetus is important, then it is important; but if I don't feel that it's important, then it isn't.

You can get an idea of what a deep thinker Peter Berkowitz is from this excerpt:
Mr. Ponnuru insists that the embryo's unique genetic structure creates a bright line separating a "party of life" from a "party of death," that the right to abortion is indistinguishable from a license to infanticide. (On this last point, as Mr. Ponnuru notes, the famously extreme Princeton ethicist Peter Singer agrees, while defending both.) But bright lines do not always exist--in law, ethics or politics. That doesn't mean that lines cannot be drawn; they can indeed, carefully, responsibly and defensibly. But they may be neither brightly obvious nor rigidly predictable. They may even shift over time, affected by the kind of debate to which Mr. Ponnuru has made such a forceful contribution.
One can see why Mr. Berkowitz is not a huge fan of logical lines. But at least he's mildly sympathetic. Well, maybe. But whatever--Mr. Derbyshire's sympathies can be inferred from the title of his piece: "A Frigid and Pitiless Dogma." Why avail oneself of reason when sensationalism will do? His first sentence:
Can Right to Life (hereinafter RTL) fairly be called a cult?
Happily, he allows as how we don't actually have a "Führerprinzip" here in the pro-life movement, but that does not take the edge off of our committment to "a structure of perfect logical integrity." If sensationalism won't do the job, there's always condescension:
With polemical skills and intellectual firepower of this order, it is possible that RTL might break out from its natural habitat in student chapters of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception to attain real influence in the land.
Well, he's a writer, not a thinker. We must be patient with him. When he thinks of the so-called "Party of Death", he is moved by compassion:
I see a woman who, having missed her period and found herself pregnant, has an abortion, comes home, downs a stiff drink, and gets on with her life. With her life. Here I meet a man whose loved wife has gone, never to return, yet her personless body still twitches and grunts randomly on its plastic sheet, defying years of care and therapy. Let her go, everyone begs him, and his own conscience cries; and at last he does, whichever way the law will permit. Here I find a couple who want a lively, healthy child, but who know their genes carry dark possibilities of a lifetime’s misery and an early death. They permit multiple embryos to be created, select the one free from the dread traits, and give over the rest to the use of science, or authorize their destruction.
Nothing wrong with his moral sentiments, but one does wonder where this idea that subjective experience ought to dictate the rules by which everyone else ought to live their lives. The irony, of course, is that folks such as Derbyshire appear to think that they are the ones who are being reasonable, and that it is the "pro-life cult" that is trying to "legislate morality". But just insofar as folks like Derbyshire are willing to let folks be killed simply because they "see a woman" who wants an abortion--well, the mind boggles. If one has a mind: it is not so clear that everyone does these days, at least not a functioning one.

There are some who appear to think that laws against abortion are somehow an interfering with someone else's life ("with her life"), rather than a protection of an innocent human's life. It's almost as if they would argue that laws against slavery are an interference with property-holders' lives ("with their lives") rather than a protection of oppressed humans' lives. And the only explanation that they can come up with for why they think this, is that this is how "it appears" to them, this is what "seems best"--to whom? To them. In short, we must conform to their way of viewing the world rather than to our own, and yet we are somehow the ones who want to legislate morality. There is no appeal to the harm principle or any other rational criterion to get them off the hook: even the bogus appeal to "liberty" falls flat insofar as their way of viewing the world sacrifices the lives of innocent humans who never get to enjoy any of this alleged "liberty" that comes from letting people do whatever they like.

This kind of anti-intellectualism is not at all uncommon these days, but it is a little more perplexing when it comes from those who like to pose as intellectuals. You'd think they would at least be able to put on a good show.