Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Great and Holy Sabbath

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all his work which he had done in creation.
Genesis 2.1-3
Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Genesis 3.17b-19

I was not raised religious, so when I became a Christian in my mid-twenties I was not familiar with very many of the traditional interpretations of scriptural passages and religious practices. An example that comes to mind today is the saying of Our Lord, which can be found in all four Gospels, that "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." When I first heard this text proclaimed I'm pretty sure I thought that it meant that God gave us the Sabbath day as a day of rest, that it was "ours" in that sense. But of course that sense doesn't make any sense of the context in which Our Lord said that the Sabbath was made for us, because, of course, he and his disciples weren't resting when they were accused of violating the Sabbath, they were picking grains of wheat as they walked along. Perhaps someone raised in the Church would have known what I only figured out over time, that the text refers to God's mercy. Our labors are a result of our Fall, and God gave us a day on which we must not labor, so that in our resting state we may stand as a sign to all the world that our Fall is not irreversible, thanks to God's great mercy.

Today is the Sabbath day par excellence, since it is the central point of the sacred Triduum in which God poured himself out for us on the Cross and rose again from the dead. The old creation, with all its labors and passions, passed away on Good Friday, and our state of condemnation with it, and on the Sunday of the Resurrection a new creation, a re-creation of our primordial state, takes its place. Between the two is a day of rest, commemorating the great mercy and love that is the bridge between the old creation and the new. In the Office of Readings for today we read the traditional account of Christ's descent into Hell on this day, to bring the Good News of the new creation to Adam, Eve, and all the rest who passed from the old creation before the coming of the kingdom. This story is a very old one; more recently Holy Saturday has been portrayed as a "waiting day", the so-called "Vigil" day, or "Easter Even", in which creation sits expectantly at the tomb awaiting the coming forth of her Lord in glory. Both of these things, the old tradition and the new interpretation, reflect, in my view, an attempt to "do something" with Holy Saturday. It's so obvious, after all, what the Friday of Our Lord's Passion and the Sunday of his Resurrection are all about, but what are we to do with that day in between?

Coming to Christianity as a convert who is all too keenly aware of his need for mercy, I look on Holy Saturday somewhat differently. The Passion is done, the Price has been paid, so there is no "waiting" involved in this "Easter Even". The Resurrection is coming, but before it does I am bidden by the Commandment to bask for a time in God's great mercy, before I turn to the joyous celebration of the start of a new creation. Have you ever taken a great deal of trouble to wrap a Christmas or birthday gift for someone whom you love deeply? Maybe you selected special paper, perhaps you took some time to make a bow and to curl some ribbon, maybe you worked hard to get those corners folded over just right. Whenever I get a gift like that, a gift that was obviously hand wrapped with such great care, I make it a point to take in the labor of love that is the wrapping before I start ripping into it. Indeed, such gifts I do not "rip into", but instead I usually undo the wrapping very carefully, and sometimes I save it. To this day, 20 years later, I still have the wrapping in which the woman who was to become my wife gave me the first gift she ever gave me, which turned out to be a very nice Rosary. God's infinite mercy and love is the finest of papers in which our gift of redemption has been wrapped, and once one realizes that, one no longer takes the Sabbath for granted as a mere "day of rest". We rest not so that we may begin laboring again the next day, but so that we may breath deeply of God's mercy, take it in, enjoy the wrapping and exult in the great work of love that God has accomplished for us, because He loves us.

He loves us. Don't rip into that paper and toss it aside, but drink it in with your soul and savor it. Most weekends Christians are content to regard Sunday itself as the "Sabbath day", because it is the "Lord's Day". But this weekend is different: this weekend the Sabbath day and the Lord's day are two different days, and we have a chance to experience God's entire Sacramental message to us in a way that it is very difficult to capture on other days. Spend this Great and Holy Sabbath basking in God's mercy, so that tonight, when you celebrate your recreation, you will have that sense of loving gratitude and Eucharistic joy that will draw you closer to God.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Quantum Textual Differences

Some of you may remember that I have been reading through the Greek NT as part of my "Lenten exercises." Although I've done this every Lent for nearly 15 years, I think I benefited from doing this more this year than I have in a long time; in the near future I plan to post some on why I think this is so, but before I do that I'd like to remark on a few textual curiosities that popped up in the course of the reading. If you've ever browsed around in various translations of the Gospel of St. John, you may have noticed that there is some difference of opinion as to how best to punctuate verses 3 and 4 of the first chapter. In the King James Version, for example, the two verses read
(3) All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. (4) In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
This punctuation was maintained in the Revised Standard Version, which reads
(3) all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. (4) In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
In the Revised New Testament of the New American Bible, however, the verses are punctuated this way:
(3) All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be (4) through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race.
I will pass over in silence the inconcinnity of that "the light of the human race", but if you look into this matter further you will find that the majority of translations made before the 1980s favor the punctuation adopted by the King James Version and retained in the Revised Standard Version, but that there is a growing preference for the punctuation adopted in the New American Bible. What difference, exactly, could any of this possibly make?

Punctuation as such was not something that was in widespread use in antiquity. Indeed, one is hard pressed to find it much in evidence anywhere in the 1st century, when the Gospel texts were first being committed to writing. In fact, putting spaces between words was not exactly a common practice, let alone putting in little marks to indicate new sentences or breaks in thought. The text of these two verses on most manuscripts would have looked vaguely like this (I'm attempting to imitate the look of uncials here--it's only an approximation):
ΠANTA∆IAYTOYEGENETOKAIXΩPICAUTOYEGENETOOY∆EEN
OGEGONENENAYTΩIZΩHHNKAIHZΩHHNTOΦΩCTΩNANΘPΩΠΩN
If it's hard to imagine reading a text like that for very long you needn't worry: not many folks in those days could read anyway. These manuscripts weren't for the idle middle classes lounging around after an eight hour day down at the office. The market for these texts was primarily a scholarly one (the word "scholar" is derived from the Greek word skholê, which means "leisure time"). The scholarly set was familiar enough with the writing conventions of the day to be able to read such texts with (relative) ease. I suppose we could get used to it, too, if we had nothing else to compare it with. To see some samples of manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, check out the website for the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts.

In the case of John 1.3-4 the problem of breaking up the text into sense units is an interesting one. We have evidence that St. Jerome punctuated these two verses differently at different stages of his career. In his commentary on Habbakuk, dating from around 391-392, he cites the verses in the form employed in the New American Bible. But in many of his works dating from the period 401-416, including his Homily on the Gospel of John (401-410), he cites these verses in the form employed by the King James Version and the Revised Standard Version. So within a period of about 10 years, it seems, St. Jerome changed his mind about the best way to read these verses. What may have prompted the change?

The Macedonians were given their name from the fact that it was thought that they were followers of Macedonius, Bishop of Constantinople from around 342 until he was deposed in 360 by the Arian Council of Constantinople. Although the association with Macedonius is doubtful, the Macedonian heresy, for better or for worse, was attributed by St. Jerome to him. The fundamental feature of this heresy is the denial of the divinity of the Holy Spirit (hence the Macedonians are also known as the Pneumatomakhoi). In his Homily on the Gospel of John St. Jerome notes that there are many who read these verses "badly" (male legunt), and he goes on to explain their error this way. The heretics appeal to the punctuation that we find nowadays in the New American Bible, and that St. Jerome himself had used in his commentary on Habbakuk. Since it is the Holy Spirit that gives life through Christ, the heretics argued, we must read the Gospel as telling us that the Holy Spirit is a creature of the Word, since the Gospel itself tells us that "what came-into-existence through him was life, and that life was the light of men." In other words, the Gospel itself clearly tells us that the life that was the light of men, i.e., the Holy Spirit, was one of the things that came-into-existence through the Word. So St. Jerome, in his Homily on the Gospel of John, recommended reading the verses differently--in particular, he recommended the punctuation that we find in the King James Version--in order to avoid the possibility of reading the Gospel in the Macedonian, Pneumatikomakhoi way. Subsequent Fathers relied on St. Jerome's recommendation, changing the punctuation of the verses so that they say rather explicitly that only those things that came-into-existence (i.e., not the Holy Spirit) came into existence through the Word. Period. New Sentence. "In Him was life," etc.

It is worth pointing out, I think, that the older reading, the punctuation adopted by St. Jerome in his Commentary on Habbakuk, is preferable to the later, anti-Macedonian reading. First, the anti-Macedonian reading is extremely ad hoc, and has the Gospel telling us something rather banal, namely, that the things that came into existence came into existence through the thing that brought them into existence. That's like saying that all paintings are painted by painters. It's true, but trivially so. Second, it has the Gospel informing us that there was life in the Word, and that life was the light of men. Taken with the previous verse, this is just a restatement of the same thought: the Word is what brings things into existence and, in the case of living things, causes them to be living things. None of this is very interesting, but of course trivial truths are certainly truths, so we cannot accuse St. Jerome of perverting the meaning of the Gospel for purely polemical purposes.

However, the older punctuation tells us something quite extraordinary and remarkable. It tells us about something specific that came about through the agency of the Word, namely, the renewal of that eternal life that was lost by men at the Beginning. It is worth pointing out that this was the reading favored by St. Jerome when he was translating the Scriptures into the version that we now know as the Vulgate. This means, in my opinion, that it is arguably a more authentic reading of the tradition, since it was not influenced by a polemical purpose, namely, the combatting of a semi-arian heresy.

Little differences can add up to big ones, and the ways in which we read our texts are not always matters of easy and unambiguous decisions. In the present case the placement of a single comma can make an enormous difference. Imagine having to sort things out without any punctuation marks at all!

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Magical Thinking

Imagine an educational environment in which something like the following scenarios would be possible.

First, imagine a class in elementary mathematics where the teacher is required, by state law, to allow his students to define mathematical functions any way they like. Generally speaking, for example, the "addition" function takes numbers as inputs and gives other numbers as outputs and the outputs follow the pattern with which we are all familiar: 1 + 1 = 2; 1 + 2 = 3; 1 + 3 = 4; etc. Suppose, however, a student wants to define the "addition" function differently, so that, for example, 1 + 1 = 17; 1 + 2 = 36; 1 + 3 = 2; etc. (here "et cetera" cannot mean what it did above; it must mean, rather, something like "in a continuously random manner"). It should be possible, of course, for a student to define the "addition" function in such a way that 1 + 1 yields a different number each time it is "calculated", that is, it can have as its answer anything the student likes.

Before we get into a discussion of how the teacher would grade our student's math homework under this sort of regime, let's imagine another scenario. This time, imagine a medical school, where, alongside tradition "Western Medicine", a "spiritual medicine" is also taught, again by state mandate. According to the "spiritual medicine", illness and disease is not caused by pathogens of the sort we're all familiar with, but by evil spirits. The "medical students" at this "medical school" may choose to specialize in either traditional "Western Medicine" or they may specialize in "spiritual medicine". Some students may want to study both, but that is difficult because they are two very different curricula: neither one overlaps with the other in any way. In particular, "spiritual medicine" requires that they know how to perform various dances and sing certain sorts of incantations, while "Western Medicine" requires them to know anatomy, biology, chemistry, you know, that kind of stuff.

Do these scenarios seem workable to you? I suppose they are workable in the sense that they could, indeed, be mandated by law if we were so inclined to mandate things, but are they workable in a more pragmatic sense? If students could learn mathematics they way I described it above, how far would they get in the general "marketplace of ideas"? Could they manage, for example, to keep their own checkbook balanced? Could they get elected to national office and have power over the U.S. budget, or trade relations? What about medicine? Which sort of "doctor" would you choose to go to?

In short, these scenarios seem very silly indeed, and yet it is something very like one of these scenarios that Christoph Cardinal Schönborn regards as the natural state of affairs in what he calls "a truly liberal society". Such a society is one in which
students [are allowed] to hear of the debate between anti-teleological theories and those scientists and philosophers who defend teleology in nature. And this, in turn, requires considerable freedom in the discussion of open questions in evolutionary theory. Commonly in the scientific community, every inquiry into the scientific weaknesses of the theory is blocked off at the outset, and there prevails a type of censorship similar to that for which the Church is frequently reproached.
This is from Cardinal Schönborn's recent essay, "Reasonable Science, Reasonable Faith", in the April issue of First Things, an essay adapted from his address given at the pontifical colloquium on creation and evolution in September of last year. What is the purpose of "allowing students to hear" of the "scientific weaknesses" of evolutionary theory? If it is merely a matter of letting students know that there are biblical literalists out there who think that evolutionary theory is incompatible with Christian belief, a class in evolutionary biology hardly seems the proper venue for the dissemination of that information. The only possible scientific purpose for "allowing students to hear" about the "scientific weaknesses" would be in order to test, scientifically, they theory of evolution itself. It turns out, however, that the "test" that Cardinal Schönborn has in mind is not a test of evolutionary theory itself, but of materialism. Students in science classes should be allowed to question the very foundations of the discipline in which the theory is being proposed. It is not enough, Schönborn claims, for the scientist to endorse a merely methodological materialism, since, according to Schönborn, even to "endorse" a view is to presuppose something other than materialism: you cannot "endorse" a view or "propose" a scientific theory if materialism is true, because to "endorse" or "propose" presupposes the existence of immaterial things: spirit, reason, and freedom. These things, he claims, cannot be "reduced" to the material.

Regular readers of this blog already know that I am, myself, an anti-materialist, but of the arguments against materialism that I have seen this is probably among the weakest. Indeed, it begs the question, since Schönborn nowhere shows that these could not be reduced to materialist processes in principle, he simply assumes that they cannot be, and uses this assumption as a proof that materialism is false. Eliminative materialists like the Churchlands have long since shown arguments such as this to fail.

This is not to say that I don't have a certain degree of sympathy for Cardinal Schönborn's own methodological stance. He says that
Scientism - - by which I mean the philosophy (usually implicit and unrecognized) that modern science is the only way of gaining objective knowledge of reality - - must be overcome.
I believe that is true, but it is not a very important truth. For example, what ought we to call the adherents of "scientism"? To form a word in the usual way would give us "scientist", and yet I don't think we want to call the advocates of "scientism" "scientists", because most working scientists are not advocates of "scientism", indeed, very few deeply thoughtful people would advocate it at all, since it is virtually self-contradictory (let the letter "S" denote the view of "scientism" that the only way of gaining objective knowledge of reality is through modern science: can modern science, then, tell us that "S" is true?). There are, of course, advocates of "scientism" as Schönborn defines it floating around out there, but they are mostly dyspeptic outliers like Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins. These people, actually, are not exactly idiots, but they are ideologues, which is why scientism appeals to them.

The editors of First Things are not idiots, either, and yet they seem to fall victim to a kind of ideology of their own at times, especially when it comes to this issue of the connection between global materialism and the defense of evolution. Schönborn's essay is neither convincing nor philosophically sophisticated, and yet it has managed to find more than one eager audience of yes-men. Reading it is like watching a theocon version of The View, with Schönborn filling in for Rosie O'Donnell with his vapid pseudo-aristotelian inanities carelessly cribbed from Copleston's History of Philosophy and Fr. Neuhaus doing time as Barbara Walters, silently egging on the Schönborns in the While We're At It section while pretending that the Stephen Barrs don't exist. I suspect that the reason has less to do with anyone's commitment to scientific methodology and more to do with thumbing one's nose at the advocates of scientism. Not that it isn't fun to thumb one's nose at such people, but still. Cardinal Schönborn is quite right when he says
If [George C.] Simpson had said merely that no plan according to which mankind came about may be discerned using the purely quantitative-mechanical methods of scientific inquiry, then this assertion could be correct. But this way of looking at things - - this "self-limitation of reason," in the words of Benedict XVI's Regensburg address - - is not "given by nature" but is a deliberate, methodological, and eminently goal-oriented choice.
He is right, but it is a straw man, because few, if any, reasonable scientists would say otherwise. Nor does it help that this particular quotation comes immediately after this howler:
The existence of a ship leads to the question "Who constructed it?" - - and so the self-evidence experience of nature (as being directed toward an end, as ordered, and as beautiful) leads to the question "Where do these marks of intelligence come from?"
It's difficult to imagine a more naive approach to this particular problem. Even Cicero had deeper thoughts than this. It's ironic, in a way, that those who are ordinarily the strongest defenders of the idea that there is such a thing as objective truth are suddenly driven to scientific anti-realism when science has something to say that they don't find congenial. Of course, the position being defended by Schönborn has a certain advantage to it: being a priori it will have the advantage of necessity, a feature that no scientific hypothesis can share. Talk about fightin' dirty!

There was a movement afoot in the first half of the twentieth century to make philosophy more like science. The Positivists, Logical Positivists, Verificationists, and others shared a vision of empiricist philosophical method that took nearly thirty years to send off to the ash heap of philosophical history. It would be too bad if we traded a movement to turn philosophy into science for a movement to turn science into philosophy. But there seems to be a new movement afoot - - what to call it? Illogical Positivism? - - that appears to aim to do just that. The demarcation problem is not really that much of a problem, and the sooner folks on both sides of this issue realize that, the better off all subsequent discussion will be.