Thursday, August 30, 2007

Notes on Substance

Jonathan Prejean, one of the most intelligent Catholic apologists on the block, posted some correspondence with Ramond Maxwell Spiotta at Crimson Catholic yesterday, and I found all of it fascinating but the discussion of hypostasis, being, and substance particularly so. The word "substance" has taken on a rather restricted, ahistorical meaning, principally due to the historical accident of the rise of a new form of empiricism in the 16th and 17th centuries that led to the final dominance of materialism in Western intellectual history.

These days when one hears the term "substance" one thinks almost automatically of something material. "What is the substance in that beaker?" "What is this substance on my shoe?" "The surface of the water was coated with an oily substance." But the identification of "substance" with "matter" is an accident of history, dating from the Scientific Revolution when the dominant materialism assumed that everything that exists is material. The word "substance", philosophically, just means "something that exists as a metaphysical unity", and if you're not a materialist you might be willing to endorse the idea that non-material things exist as metaphysical unities, things like God, or one's own soul, or numbers. But if you're a materialist, obviously, only material things can exist as metaphysical unities (indeed, most materialists also chuck the notion of a metaphysical unity) and so only material things can be substances and so when one says "substance" one means "some kind of material thing."

The English word "substance" is derived from the Latin term substantia, which in turn is derived from sub, "under", and stare, "to stand". A substance, then, is something that "stands under" something else. This becomes clearer, if only a little so, when we note that the Latin term is itself a translation of a Greek word with the same meaning, hupokeimenon, from hupo, "under", and keimenai, "to lie" or "be situated". That which lies under something else, according to Greek metaphysics, is the thing in itself, and that which it underlies are the thing's accidental properties. The Greeks, particularly Plato and Aristotle, were interested in giving a metaphysical explanation of change, particularly the problem of how it is that objects, principally objects like human beings but also things like tables, rocks, bodies of water, etc., can at one and the same time be in a process of change, that is, becoming different, and yet remain the same thing through time. For example, a human being is conceived as a single cell, grows into a fetus, is born an infant, grows into a toddler, a child, an adolescent, an adult, and then dies. At each of these various times the human is both very different than it was before and will be in the future but also the same thing that it was right from the beginning and will remain right until the end.

Early Greek philosophers had been fascinated by this state of affairs. Heraclitus, a Greek speaking philosopher living in Ephesus (on the west coast of what is today Turkey) found the process of change itself to be the most fundamental phenomenon in the kosmos, and he argued, in effect, that to be anything at all just is to be some sort of process or other. By contrast, the Eleatic philosopher Parmenides (Elea is in southern Italy) maintained that being implies stasis: how can something be said to be if it is engaged in some sort of process of changing? To change is to go, for example, from one state, call it S, to a different state that we may call not-S, and that latter state, not-S, is inherently a kind of non being, that is, it is the non-being-of-S. Since it is, on this account, a kind of non-being rather than a kind of being, Parmenides held that it is meaningless to talk about it, hence we can never speak meaningfully about the sorts of processes that Heraclitus held were the fundamental constituents of the world. Instead there are only beings. Or rather, there is only Being: Parmenides also held that all being is one, since if we were to differentiate one being from another we would thereby be admitting again the possibility of non-being. For example, to say that being A is a different being than being B is to say that B is the-non-being-of-A, which Parmenides holds is meaningless. So everything is one.

Into this mix came the Platonists (we may include Aristotle and his school under this rubric). Plato, famously, held, with Parmenides, that the beings (in Greek, ta onta) of the world do not change: they are eternally what they are, and they are what they are without reference to the being of any other thing. Hence they are ontologically prior. These beings Plato often refers to as ousiai, a noun form derived from the Greek verb to be. They are literally "the beings", then, but the word ousia is usually translated as "substance", so the ousiai are what Plato holds to be the substances of the kosmos, the things that are the metaphysical unities.

What are these beings, according to Plato? We get some indications of what he thinks they are in dialogs such as Phaedo, Republic, Symposium, Parmenides, and Sophist, but Plato nowhere argues for their existence directly and nowhere lays out a formal theory of being. Instead we must garner what little information we can from these sources and cobble together a theory for him. One clue comes from the fact that Plato speaks of these beings as paradeigmata, paradigms or examples, and as eidĂȘ, images or forms (the word eidos comes from a Greek verb meaning "to see" or "to look"--the beings literally are the shape, or form, of things, what they "look like"). What this seems to mean to him is that in spite of the fact that things like human beings and chairs and dogs and oak trees undergo many observable changes, there is still something that they continue to be like. A particular human, for example, whether she is tall or short, light or dark, blond or brunette, is a thing that is derived from a kind of blue print, the paradeigma of all human beings, what we may call The Human Itself. All other particular human beings are also derived from this example, and according to Plato it is the example, the paradeigma or eidos, form, that is the genuine being in this picture. The particular human being is not a being in this most important, Platonic sense, but a derivative thing, a shadow or an image of a being.

Plato was not a materialist, so for him it was not puzzling to say that the most real beings of the kosmos are non-material entities that serve as blueprints for the material entities that we observe all around us. Indeed, on his view, the things that we call beings, the particular humans, horses, plants, etc., are in some sense not really beings at all, and that is extremely puzzling to modern sensibilities, hence there are few Platonists out there these days other than among professional philosophers (and perhaps some mathematicians).

Platonism was among the dominant philosophical schools during the early centuries of the Christian era, and as Christians became better educated and started thinking and writing about their religion, they naturally turned to the language of the philosophical schools for their theological language. Indeed, much early Christian theology is clearly influenced by Platonism in its metaphysics and moral theory. This fact is not always congenial to all Christians these days, but it is undeniable, and has come about as close as anything can come to being a proven fact in the scholarship bearing on the Patristic period. In particular, the Greek Fathers borrowed much of the terminology of Neoplatonism (which, in spite of its name, is really an attempt to return to the original form of Platonism of Plato's own school) in their writings, where we find such terms as ta onta, ousia, hupokeimenon, and eidos deployed in pretty much the same way that any ordinary Platonist would deploy them. Some Christians are willing to admit the borrowing of terms from Neoplatonism but deny that Christian metaphysics are in any way Platonic, but that is mostly ideological posturing: the similarities are striking and very real, even though there are also some obvious differences.

Central to any Platonic theory of substance, from Plato through Aristotle to Plotinus and beyond, is the notion of substance as cause, a notion that has disappeared entirely from 21st century materialist theories of substance (to the extent that there are such theories). On Plato's account, a substance causes particular things to be the things that they are: the form of The Human Itself, which is an immaterial entity, stands in a causal relation to all the particular humans out there such as Socrates or Gregory or Thomas. Each of them is human by virtue of "participating" somehow in the Form, having a "share" of it, to use Plato's term (methexis). Plato nowhere explicates this notion sufficiently to suit most philosophers, and I confess I find it rather mysterious. I think Aristotle may have agreed with me, because in his hands the notion of substance as cause is rather straightforwardly explanatory: we can explain a substance by talking about its formal, final, efficient, and material causes, all of which are nothing more than ways of explaining where the substance in question comes from (for example, the "efficient cause" of a substance is simply who or what brought it into existence; the "material cause" is what matter it is made out of, etc.). If I were to categorize myself in this way, I would have to say that I am more of an Aristotelian Platonist than a Platonic Platonist, but perhaps things are confusing enough around here already without getting into that.

One of the most important importations (phew) into Christianity from Neoplatonism is the notion of a hupostasis. This is a rather interesting word, because it is quite close, etymologically, to the Latin word substantia: it comes from the Greek hupo, meaning "under", and stasis, "standing", and yet it was not used by the earliest Platonists to mean "that which stands (or lies) under processes of change". As we have seen, the word hupokeimenon was used for that. Instead it referred to the more classically Platonic idea of that which stands under the outer appearance, that is, it refers to the inner, objective reality of some entity. The use of the term developed over time; in some writers it is used interchangeably with ousia, in others it develops a more technical sense: Person; but there is often disagreement about how best to employ it. John Philoponus, a sixth century Christian philosopher and commentator on Aristotle, famously argued that the word basically means the same thing as "nature" and so it doesn't make any sense to say that the Son, being one Person, also has two natures. (It's worth noting that Philoponus makes this argument by appealing to an ambiguity in the term "nature", but I will not enter into that debate here.)

I can't lay claim to being any kind of expert metaphysician, but I am quite impressed by folks like Jonathan Prejean who have such admirable talents at making these difficult and obscure matters seem clear and obvious, and who, in addition, often do so in the context of apologetics, a valuable ministry in itself.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

You Will Know Them By Their Love

Mike Liccione has posted a nice reaction to my essay on his meditation on the narrow gate. I suspect that he and I are basically on the same page regarding the broader issues, but it seems to me that there are some finial points on which we do not quite see eye to eye. In particular, he questions my language when I referred to those who carry signs that read "God hates fags" as exhibiting the most distasteful sort of fundamentalism. He notes my terms, and then retorts by proof-texting me from St. Paul:
I find that [use of the expression "distasteful fundamentalism"] rather odd. St. Paul says [emphasis added]:
Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.
Is this a "particularly distasteful" form of "fundamentalism," no better than that exhibited by people "wearing placards that read God hates fags?" Is it really incompatible with Jesus' message of love?
I suspect that Mike is just playing coy here, because with his education and, indeed, pastoral background, he is surely aware of the difference between the sort of language that St. Paul is using (which, though not strictly technical in nature is certainly very different from the sorts of terms one finds in, say, Aristophanes, who refers to homosexuals with terms that could well be translated into English with phrases like "wide-ass" or "fudge-packer") and that deployed by the aforementioned placard-bearers.

We may begin by noting that the two contexts are very different. St. Paul is addressing his own converts, people who, one assumes, were confident of his love and concern for them, even when they happened to stumble, and even in that context he uses language that is simply descriptive, not abusive. The placard-bearers are addressing strangers who are the very people against whom they are carrying their placards, and they are addressing them in the vilest of terms, expressing thoughts that no civilized person ought to express (God does not "hate fags", even if he does hate homosexual activity). It will do no good to say, But the sin of which they are guilty is more vile than the terms used to describe it, for that is just a sophistic excuse for heaping abuse on someone whom one doesn't like or approve of. Our Lord did not say to the adulterous woman, "You whore, don't you know God hates people like you?" Indeed, of all the sinners with whom he had dealings, the only ones he treated roughly were those selling items in the Temple, and the only ones to whom he addressed deliberately abusive words were the hypocrites who deemed themselves holier than the common faithful Jew by virtue of their adherence to the letter of the Law. I think it's fair to say that your average homosexual person who is just on his way to school or work can hardly be assumed to fit into either one of those categories.

Basically, there are two ways to tell a person who engages in homosexual sex that what he is doing is wrong. You can say to him, Look, God wants what's best for you, and by virtue of the way he established the created order, what's best for you is to live your life in this way, the way described by Our Lord, and the way you're living now is not consistent with that sort of life, so whether you realize it or not you are turning away from God, almost as if a heliotropic flower were to turn away from the sun and die. Or you can say, You despicable fornicating fag, God hates you and you're going to burn in hell forever.

Perhaps there is an underlying commonality to these two messages, but I doubt it. Doctrinally, perhaps, they have a common point of reference in the moral wrongness of homosexual activity. But Mike asks whether these two ways of talking to the homosexual are really all that different. I ask the same question, but I will leave it to my reader to discern what I think the answer is.

It has become trite, perhaps, to engage in such sloganeering as "Hate the sin, love the sinner." Probably a lot of the folks at the receiving end of such dicta find them tiresome, condescending, or both. But there is a certain amount of truth to it nonetheless. It seems as plain to me as a Quaker on his day off that St. Paul does not hate homosexuals, he hates their sin, but the placard carriers give every reason to think that they hate the sinners themselves at least as much, if not more than, the sin. Given what I am about to say just below I will bracket that and admit that it is just an assumption, not something I know for sure; but my work in the philosophy of language has, perhaps, predisposed me to think of speech acts as meaningful at more than just one level. BTAIM, for all the language of wailing and gnashing of teeth one finds in the more alarmist Gospels of Mark and Matthew it is hard to escape the conclusion that the overall message is supposed to be one of good news, not bad, and that talk of being cast outside into the never ending fire is not intended to frighten or convey God's hatred of you but is merely a description of what happens when a heliotrope fails to trope towards the helios.

Someone might object at this point, Whoah there, cowboy, what are you doing? You know perfectly well that you agree with what Mike says about just about everything, this included, so why the hand-wringing bleeding heart stuff all of a sudden? In particular, you're going to make me ROTFLMAO if you try to say that you don't agree 100% with Mike about Catholics who knowingly and obstinately refuse to assent to DMT!

Well of course I agree with him about that. But again there is a tension between what he and I both assent to regarding DMT--the talking the talk part--and the pastoral side of how we go about walking the walk. On the one hand, Mike seems to have in mind especially those educated Catholics who, in some sense, "ought to know" what the teachings of the Church are, to what degree they are authoritative, and what all the ramifications are of assenting to them:
One kind [of dissenting Catholic] is the sophisticated cleric or theologian who produces finely wrought rationalizations for rejecting DMT despite having been given every tool and reason for knowing better. Such a person sets themselves up as part of a magisterium opposed to the Magisterium. It is just such people for whom the classic formula "let him be anathema" (Galatians 1:9) is meant. They are heretics; if unrepentant, they will be severely judged. And they need to hear that in one way or another.
I'm not all that sure what's supposed to happen to the other 99.999999% of dissenting Catholics, but even regarding this 0.0000001% it seems somewhat tendentious to assert, in such a broad fashion, that their reasons for rejecting DMT "despite having been given every tool and reason for knowing better" are mere rationalizations. This presupposes that they are not in earnest in their beliefs, which strikes me as a particularly hubristic presupposition to make about anyone, but especially about someone who's brain one does not personally inhabit. Granted, it is fair to assume that an intelligent person, given p and if p then q, will infer q, but it is a well known fact that plenty of really smart people fail to make even the most obvious of logical inferences for perfectly benign reasons that have nothing to do with rationalization. While it is true that such persons are duty bound to submit themselves to the teaching authority of the authentic Magisterium, I doubt very much that they see themselves as setting up the para-magisterium that Mike is talking about, even if that is, de facto, what they are doing. But the canonical definition of "mortal sin" posits three conditions that are individually necessary and jointly sufficient (CCC 1857):
For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: "Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent."
This is usually interpreted to mean that the sinner must know that his act is sinful and at the same time will said sinful act. I doubt very much that the clerics and theologians Mike has in mind see their actions in that light, hence their sin is probably only venial.

As for the remaining vast majority of folks who reject DMT for whatever reason, usually ignorance but sometimes weakness of will, all I can say is that Mike Liccione of all people ought to know that he treads on thin ice here. He has written at length and with great knowledge and insight about the Church's teaching nulla salus extra ecclesiam, and he knows better than most of us that mere ignorance of the truth of any particular DMT is not a sufficient condition for exclusion from heaven. Can ignorance explain ("explain" is different from "excuse" but in the present case it is fair to say that if genuine ignorance is the correct explanation then it is also the beginning of an excuse) the behavior of those homosexuals who steadfastly refuse to accept the Church's teaching about homosexual sex? According to Plato it can. In fact, according to Plato ignorance explains every moral failing. One can, of course, refuse to be a Platonist about morality, but to do so here would be to beg the question against the Platonist who wants to assert something about the eschaton. I don't see how a defender of the Church's position regarding sin, free will, and all the rest is automatically committed to anti-Platonism, but perhaps he is. I'll wait to see what Mike has to say on this--perhaps he will convince me to chuck the Republic and all it's lies and empty promises.

To my mind, much of the present discussion is actually a tempest in a teapot. I don't disagree with Mike that folks who openly flout DMT are irritating, but I really doubt that the central point of the narrow gate passage for the present day Church, whatever the authorial intent may have been, has much to do with such issues--which is really why I wrote as I did in the first place. Of course, writing that way from a perspective like mine is bound to let you in for some heavy teasing. John Farrell has already remarked in a comment that he suspects me of crypto-Balthasarian universalism, and I don't doubt that some of my other regular readers are snickering up their sleeves at me. But I guess where Mike and I finally part company is not so much in the doctrinal or even methodological areas, but in the pastoral. He seems to think that it's a good idea to tell people that they might burn in hell if they don't change their ways, and perhaps, in a utilitarian sense, he's right. If someone dies in a state of mortal sin, they will not attain the Beatific Vision, and for them that would be a Very Bad Thing. Personally, I wonder to what extent such a person is going to be affected by threats of burning in hell, but who knows--if that's the only way to reach them, then maybe it couldn't hurt to try it. What worries me more, however, than the prospects of saving some very tiny percentage of the sinful population by scaring the bejesus out of them with medieval stories of the torments of the various Circles of Hell, is the pastoral damage that could be done to those more thoughtful souls who will rightly see this kind of talk for what it is: coercion. Coercion is in itself immoral, and I doubt very much that Our Lord had coercion in mind when he told the parable of the narrow gate, though it is possible that some of his earliest followers (including the redactors of Mark and Matthew) were not above that sort of thing, so it is, perhaps, not wrong to say that the text can be so interpreted. Whether it ought to be so interpreted, however, is another matter.

So I'm not a crypto-Balthasarian universalist: for all I know, Hell is very crowded. But I'm not going to go around telling people that it is as a matter of pastoral policy and, quite frankly, the question of how many souls are in hell, who's going there, and why, strike me as questions that ought to be the furthest thing from the mind of a Christian. It's far better, I think, to tell them the story of the narrow gate in the context of the story of the prodigal son. The gate is narrow because it is difficult to walk the walk, not because a lot of people have failed to go through it or are in imminent danger of going through the wide gate. It is possible, after all, for an entire population to get through a gate that is only wide enough for one person, it's just a matter of time, and the forgiving father is waiting on the other side, looking for each one of us. But however many persons wind up going through the narrow gate, that is the one that we must point at, not the other one, and I really wonder what the interest in the other one is for some people. If we're allowed to speculate about the motives of certain doubting clerics and theologians, after all, why not speculate about the motives of the gate pointers, too? Justice is one thing, but it's in the hands of Our Lord, in the end, and we must trust his judgment, not our own. As a practical matter, it just seems more sensible to talk about salvation rather than damnation, hope rather than fear, love rather than hate. As Aristotle was fond of remarking, there are many ways to act viciously, but only one way to act virtuously--virtuous behavior, he said, is like the bulls-eye on a target in that it is what one ought to aim at, though it is easy to miss. Still, when the archery instructor is telling you what to do, he says "aim for the bulls-eye", he does not say "don't hit any of those circular rings, whatever you do!" A golf instructor will tell you to "get it in the hole", not "keep it from going anywhere but in the hole!" It's a matter of focus, emphasis, and direction. If the Good News is to be news about what is Good, then the "utility" of accentuating the negative is highly questionable, in my view.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

How Narrow is Narrow?

Mike Liccione of Sacramentum Vitae has an interesting and thought provoking meditation on Sunday's Gospel. It was so thought provoking for me that I tried to post a comment on it at Sacramentum Vitae, but Haloscan worked against me, cutting my comment in half and leaving out the most interesting part. So rather than try to post a comment again over there I'm just going to try to reconstruct here what I wrote. I'll start by copying what did get through over there.

To begin with, I think there's much to agree with in Mike's post--for example, I agree that for some Catholics accepting or rejecting certain Church teachings appears to be more a matter of convenience than anything else, and it also seems to be true to say that religious belief has become something of a pro forma matter for some. But taking note of such social phenomena is, I think, a dangerous background for the interpretation of passages such as the one on offer, which was clearly aimed at Jews who assumed that adherence to the letter of the law was a sufficient condition for the virtue of piety. There is a sense in which it would be "easy" to just do what the Commandments command in a kind of knee-jerk, thoughtless way, like an automaton, and clearly the gates of heaven are "narrower" than that. But while admitting that the gate is narrower than that, just what are we committing ourselves to? Just how narrow do we want to say that gate really is?

It seems to me that there is often a danger, in attempting to explicate passages such as this Gospel or other passages having to do with "getting into heaven" or "avoiding hell", of treading too closely to what amounts to a kind of spiritual utilitarianism. It seems that analyses such as the one Mike offers make out heaven as a kind of reward for good behavior, hell a kind of punishment for bad, when in fact it seems to me that a more sophisticated analysis would see both in terms of standing in a certain sort of relationship with God, that is, a state in which a particular soul can be more or less in communion with God.

On this view, there's nothing to prevent everyone from being "saved" if what one means by "saved" is "not turning away entirely from God". While Mike worries that this leads to a false universalism, it seems clear to me that some people turn away more completely from God than others, and so it seems at least possible that there will be differing degrees of beatitude. Sure, it is just as obviously possible that some people will, in the end, turn away completely from God and hence not get through that narrow gate at all, but to suggest that the narrow gate passages in the Scriptures are intended to warn some folks that they just aren't going to get in at all unless they toe the line in a certain way, while it may have some connection to the underlying historical background of the texts in question, seems to me to be a rather useless reading for this day and age, when everyone struggles on a daily basis with matters of faith and morals, and it is just plain silly to suggest that the principal emphasis here is that there is a certain, clearly drawn line at which the bar is set and if you don't make it over that line you aren't getting through that gate. One has only to consider the spiritual tribulations of Mother Teresa and others who experience the "dark night of the soul" in an intense way to realize that, when you get right down to it, in the end it really is only the objective standards that anybody has any business worrying about. As Saint Augustine said, love God and do as you please--the subtext being, apparently, that if you genuinely love God then doing what you please will also be pleasing to God, but I note that Augustine says a lot less about what "genuinely" loving God is in explicit terms and a lot more about his own struggles to love God in that way. Worries about particular acts of self-sacrifice or specific degrees of commitment are misplaced.

This is not to deny the truth of Mike's complaint that "it is common to assume that if you more-or-less will be saved in the end", but I think it is also too common, at least in certain quarters, to use passages such as the narrow gate passage to frighten or even coerce those more-or-less believers into "accepting" things that they may not be quite ready to absorb fully into their hearts. I'm not sure what that kind of acceptance really amounts to in the end, and as long as we're approaching the matter in such a utilitarian way I'm not so sure I see the utility of scaring people into "belief" by threatening them with hellfire. For one thing, it reeks of a variety of fundamentalism that is particularly distasteful, the kind that walks around wearing placards that read "God hates fags".

Mike is surely right about two things: "none of us [is] strong enough to" to enter through the narrow gate on our own, without grace, and "some people who are formally in the Church, the household of God, are not followers of Christ in their hearts, despite claiming to be and having a velleity, as distinct from a will, to do so. And they show that by how they live." But there is a tension in Mike's post between these two ideas. On the one hand, he, like me, is irritated by folks who claim to be Catholic (or even just Christian), who talk the talk, but who don't really walk the walk. This is where the narrowness of the gate seems particularly noticeable. On the other hand, however, it is just as clear that none of us can get through that gate without grace. We must strive to live in accordance with grace, but grace would not be grace if its efficacy were contingent on the degree of our effort to live in accordance with it. We don't want to go all semi-pelagian here.

The passage about the narrow gate must be balanced against the passage where Our Lord says that his yoke is easy, his burden light. In his day there were religious authorities who heaped all sorts of requirements upon the faithful, making so many things necessary for piety as to make piety impossible. Christ declared that a loving relationship with God is all that is necessary for salvation, and that such love is light and easy, because it is natural to us. While I may agree that the Church's teachings are all of them true, I cannot agree that the acceptance of every single one of them is a necessary condition for getting through that gate, no matter how narrow it is. Mike is right to complain that too many Catholics who ought to know better express doubts about which pronouncements of the Church are and which are not to be regarded as binding or even infallible; but to emphasize such a fact in the context of the narrow gate passage is dangerously misleading, in my view. I'm as irritated as the next conservative Catholic that too many folks, Americans in particular, make too many excuses as to why they can't accept, for example, the Church's teaching on artificial contraception, or divorce, or what have you. But I would not want to connect the acceptance of such things to the passage about the narrow gate, since I think it falsely suggests that "gaining heaven" is some sort of game of rule-following, to be won or lost by the persons who follow best the greatest number of most important rules, thus turning our religion away from the pursuit of God's presence in our hearts and in our lives and into the merely intellectual pastime of trying to figure out what all the rules are. The very thing that Jesus disliked about the Pharisees of his own day. While it may very well be the case that having God in your heart and in your life is not unrelated to knowing what all the rules are, the two cannot be co-extensive, otherwise Christ's burden would be neither easy nor light. What does it mean to say that a burden is easy and light if in fact nobody is able to shoulder it? Ought implies can, and can implies understanding of human nature.

So while I agree with the substance of Mike's complaints about lackadaisical religious belief and slipshod catechesis leading to bankrupt theology in many self-styled believers, especially in the materialistic West, I'm less comfortable with the connection he seems to want to draw between outward manifestations of piety or even intellectual assent to particular doctrines and the Gospel passage from last Sunday. This means that I also agree with Mike that getting through that narrow gate is a matter of having your heart in the right place, a matter, as Augustine said, of loving God and doing what you please, and that doing that might, indeed, be very difficult. Difficult, but not impossible, and not necessarily rule-bound. First century thinking about piety was eudaimonistic, not utilitarian.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Textbook Spirituality

Another book review came my way today from Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, this time it was James Wetzel's review of John Peter Kenney's recent book The Mysticism of Saint Augustine: Rereading the Confessions (Routledge, 2005). I almost let this one go unnoticed, since Routledge is principally a student textbooky sort of publisher, not typically a source of really high level scholarship they way Oxford or Cambridge often are, but James Wetzel is a noted authority on Augustine (presently he's at Villanova) so I thought it would be worth reading just to get his take on things. As usual, Wetzel is interesting and incisive, but I did a double-take when I read this bit:
The most famous of the three episodes -- the tolle, lege experience -- is badly book-ended by the other two, or at least it is if we are bent on thinking of extraordinary religious apprehension on the model of supersensible sensation. Kenney credits William James with having made this model so seductive to modern theorists. In the mysticism chapters of The Varieties of Religious Experience, James definitively associates mysticism with mystical experience and offers four defining criteria for the requisite experience: it is knowledge-conveying, rightly authoritative for the person experiencing it, short-lived, and passively received. Probably what is most important about mystical experience thus construed is that it sustains an experiential gulf between haves and have-nots; either one has the experience and so knows what it conveys or one is hopelessly in the dark. This model, which admits of great refinement (I think of William Alston on the logic of perceptual experience), risks making the experience of the divine akin to getting a first taste of ice cream or, dare I say it, having an orgasm, but being a supersensible matter, the experience of the divine bears a logical, not a qualitative, analogy to ordinary sense experience. In other words, to experience the divine is, on this model of mysticism, to be transported to a world apart from the ordinary, a place of unlikeness.
I'll pass over in silence the reference to orgasms, as sponge-worthy as it is for commenting purposes. Instead I'll draw attention to the notion of mystical experience as experience. Probably most folks interested in the debate between materialist empiricism and religion would like to agree that something about the mystical, or indeed even the spiritual, is "knowledge-conveying" and "rightly authoritative for the person experiencing it", but there seems to be an ambiguity here, an equivocation on the word "experience" such that it wavers between the generic and the specific. Generic in the sense of being "knowledge-conveying" but specific in the sense of verging on the empirical. I don't think the problem is cleared up much by talk of being "transported to a world apart from the ordinary, a place of unlikeness". If ever there were a more meaningless string of words, I would like to see it.

Of course, the notion of a place of unlikeness is a thoroughly Augustinian one, but it is very difficult to see how it can by anything other than a metaphor of the analogy of being. According to Wetzel, Kenney argues for a reading of Augustine through a Plotinian lens, but specifically a Plotinus who has been stripped of certain 20th century misinterpretations and restored to a more authentic (read, late antique) Neoplatonism. On Kenney's view, the traditional notion that Plotinus was the source of Augustine's concept of transcendence fails to take into account the fact that Augustine sees himself as free to think of the body as a principle of individuation, hence he can reject the Plotinian idea of God as essentially not a body. As Wetzel puts it in his review:
It is not that Augustine still harbors some lingering attachment to Manichean materialism; the point is more that his incarnational theology is inescapably a part of his theology of creation (his monotheism). If we allow that point its play, then it makes sense to pair the ascent to God in book VII with the descent to the flesh in book VIII; the two are aspects of a single contemplation. It also becomes evident what makes the vision at Ostia in book IX so singular and important: the conjunction of seeing God and being aware of the presence of another person.
In the end this book looks like it goes well beyond what I expected of a typical textbook from Routledge, and I look forward to reading the whole thing with a view to judging it on its own merits.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Evolution of Christianity

If, like me, you have an interest in the developmental patterns that structured the Christian religion during the first century, you are probably most familiar with those elements of the patterns that have been popularized in the mass media, elements such as the work of the Jesus Seminar, the publication of various Gnostic texts, and the like. Less familiar to most folk theologians such as myself, I imagine, are the internecine struggles that shaped the earliest Christianity of all, the Church of the Apostolic age. So I was quite interested in an essay published in the July, 2007 issue of New Testament Studies called "Matthew 7.21-23: Further Evidence of its Anti-Pauline Perspective" (53:325-343). Here is the abstract:
The redactional pericope in Matt 7.21-23, in which Jesus the final judge condemns certain false Christians, can and should be viewed as an anti-Pauline text. Those rejected by the Matthean Jesus are none other than Paul and those of his circle. This identification is indicated not only by their description as workers of lawlessness, but also by their defense that they are true Christians because they prophesy, work miracles and perform exorcisms in the name of Jesus. These charismatic activities were clearly associated with Paul and/or his churches.
I am not an expert in this field, so it is beyond the scope of my training to evaluate adequately the evidential claims made in this article, but I must say that the thesis strikes me as very interesting. It seems clear to me that the gospels of Mark and Matthew in particular show evidence of that patchwork composition that can be taken as evidence of having been cobbled together from a variety of sources with a variety of ends, audiences, and methods. That the gospel of Matthew in particular should have anti-Pauline elements does not strike me as implausible at all, given the nature of the various factions at work within the Church at that time.

It would be fascinating to know more about the earliest history of the Church but, as is often pointed out, the history of conflict is mostly written by the victors, so it seems unlikely that we will ever find the sort of evidence that would be necessary for a genuine reconstruction of the period in question.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Same Old Same Old

A new book by Philip Kitcher has been reviewed by James Kreuger for Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. The book, Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith, is published by Oxford University Press. The book, which I have not read, appears to be a little different from recent books by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett to the extent that it does not say that religion is for morons, but it is rather like them, and like a recent book by philosopher Owen Flanagan, in arguing that if religion has any value at all it is in the myths that it passes on to us for our comfort. Here is an extract from the review.
Kitcher argues that the reason so many find evolutionary theory so disturbing is that it truly is incompatible with a certain kind of religion, what he calls providentialist religion, which involves "belief that the universe has been created by a Being who has a great design, a Being who cares for his creatures, who observes the fall of every sparrow and who is especially concerned with humanity" (122-123). Evolution presents two problems for such religious views. First, it makes suffering an essential part of the world. It forces us to suppose that "a providential Creator . . . has constructed a shaggy-dog story, a history of life that consists of a three-billion-year curtain raiser to the main event, in which millions of sentient beings suffer, often acutely, and that the suffering is not a by-product but constitutive of the script the Creator has chosen to write" (124). Second, all providentialist religions accept certain truths about the supernatural (for example, asserting the existence of some god). Such claims, the argument goes, are simply not subject to rational evaluation and as such there can be no reason to prefer one supernaturalist story to another. Thus the basis for accepting any particular religion disappears. Kitcher contends that these kinds of arguments are at the heart of the enlightenment critique of religion, a broader set of arguments that the debate over evolution must be situated within, and that this critique is devastating for providentialist religions.

Nonetheless, Kitcher tries to look beyond a simple rejection of religion to see what it is that religion provides for believers. He writes, "the benefits religion promises to the faithful are obvious, and obviously important, perhaps most plainly when people experience deep distress" (155). Drawing on the writings of Elaine Pagels, he argues that it is this desire for comfort, particularly in the face of death, that is so important to the faithful. The fear of losing this, of being cast free in an uncaring universe, is what leads to such strong commitment to providentialist beliefs and thus what drives the debate over evolution. This is the source of commitment to the anti-evolution cause.

Thus the way forward, Kitcher suggests, is to meet this need without having to accept dubious providentialist claims. He argues a "spiritualist" religion, a religion that gives up "the literal truth of the stories contested by the enlightenment case" (152), can do this. So, for example, a spiritualist Christianity would keep "the teachings, the precepts, the parables, and the eventual journey to Jerusalem and the culminating moment of the Crucifixion" (152), but these stories would be transformed from stories about the literal Son of God to "a symbolic presentation of the importance of compassion and love without limits" (152). Such spiritualist Christianity, he claims, could still provide the basis for a community of believers that provides genuine comfort without coming into conflict with modern science or enlightenment rationality.

The problems with such a position, however, are not hard to recognize. From the point of view of the religious believer, such a spiritualist religion looks much too thin to count as genuine religious belief. Could one really be called a Christian if he or she didn't believe that God exists, that Jesus is the Son of God, and so on? Can being a Christian simply mean reading the Bible to find parables one finds useful in illustrating certain general ethical precepts? On the other hand, the secularist is going to immediately ask why it should be that one should focus on one set of stories over another. The same enlightenment critique that was pressed against the providentialist can be pressed again. Some reason for accepting one set of stories must be provided. But, if such a justification can be offered (offered, as it must, in a way that relies on no supernaturalist claims), then why isn't the position really just a secular humanism dressed up in some fancy stories? Why go through the charade of faith at all?
Kitcher is a better writer than Dawkins and Dennett, and a better philosopher than Flanagan, so I am looking forward to reading this book in spite of the rather bizarre claims it makes about the compatibility of science and religion. It's beginning to look as though Dawkins has made good his boast of a few years ago that the self-styled "Brights" of the world will come together in their attempts to bring religion down, because we're starting to hear the same old song being covered by a rather wide variety of bands. One thing seems clear to me, however. Flanagan and Kitcher are wimps. There's absolutely no point in tolerating religion at all if it is false, and on that point I actually agree with Dawkins and Dennett. It's either real religion or no religion, as far as I'm concerned, and I can't really take seriously even for a moment suggestions such as Flanagan's, that an intelligent person can go around calling himself a "Catholic" while rejecting the ontology and theology of the Catholic religion. That sort of thing might satisfy a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, but it will never do for an adult.

So what is needed is a broader discussion of the grounds for asserting that religion simply cannot be taken seriously by an intelligent person. So far the argument, such as it is, always boils down to nothing more than "we materialist empiricists can't make sense of religious claims, therefore they don't make sense". A ballsy claim, to be sure, but useless as far as this discussion is concerned. A better contribution would focus on the merits of empiricism and materialism as such, and would attempt to answer the objections raised by rationalists and anti-realists. But that is a rather herculean task, as I suspect these one-hit-wonder bands already know, else they would have written new and different songs.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Sands of Time

They've been a-blowin' at me all day, as I sit here enjoying the beach at Lake Michigan on a beautiful, if windy, late summer afternoon. We've been hanging out here all week, somewhere in the vicinity of Holland, Michigan, but tomorrow we head on home. The kids will be back in school in a week, and then Ohio University will start its fall term the week after that. I'll be teaching philosophy of science and ancient Greek philosophy--a great combination of fantasy and reality.

In Holland there are more Reformed churches than you can burn a stake at, but as far as I could tell there was only one Catholic Church, which I wasn't able to find (it did not appear to be visible at the address where Mapquest said it would be, but maybe they have to keep a particularly low profile in these parts). The tourist dollars appear to keep the area well funded in terms of public monies: there is beautiful sodded grass in every lawn, the sidewalks are clean and tidy, the buildings are all well-kept, and everywhere you look there are happy smiling faces. Living here during the off season might be just a little bit like living in River City in 1912, except for the whole reformedness of the place. Lots of Dutch names everywhere, too, and I'm not sure I'd be very comfortable living in a place where I had to pronounce lots of "oe" and "eevvff" combinations. It's also rather difficult to get over the feeling that one is rather insulated in places like this. Back in Athens there are reminders everywhere that Appalachia is not an economically thriving area, and there are many opportunities to get involved with helping people out. I'm sure that there are plenty of similar opportunities here, but there's this nagging feeling that much of the information about such opportunities gets swept under the rug or at least put into the back broom closet during the tourist season, and for some reason I find that a little disquieting.

Which is particularly weird in this particular place. These people are all Calvinists, after all, and who's more prone to dismality than Calvinists? When on vacation it can be easy to forget that things are not all that great in many parts of the world, that people are suffering while you're sitting in the sand watching your daughter play on a boogie board. So what's with all the white-washed anti-Calvinism of this place very Calvinist locale? Maybe this is what happens when money trumps religion.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Comfortable With the Size of My Muskens

According to a story at the Washington Post, there really is a bishop in the Netherlands named Tiny Muskens. This is the same bishop who advocated the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS. Now he's going around saying that everyone ought to refer to God as "Allah". I suppose if I lived in the Netherlands I might be worried about losing my Muskens to rabid religious fanatics too, but let's get real.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Aristotle Vindicated Again

The latest issue of Nature (08/16/2007) has an interesting cover headline: "Form Finds Function" introduces an article by Johannes Hermann called "Structure-based activity prediction for an enzyme of unknown function" that argues, in effect, that the function of a certain enzyme can be predicted on the basis of its underlying structure. This is an interesting finding to Aristotelians, who think that there are such things as essences in nature that do, in fact, determine the functions of things.

It also reminds me of a rather interesting factoid that I only learned about because my wife is a crime-novel buff. It seems that there is a certain compound that is often used in cough-syrups called dextromethorphan. This compound is identical to another, called levomethorphan, in every way except one: dextromethorphan twists to the right (hence the "dextro" part of its name) but levomethorphan twists to the left. Apart from the direction of their twisting they are indiscernible. Oh, actually, there is one other difference between them: dextromethorphan relieves your cough, but levomethorphan can kill you if you take too much of it. One is antitussive at low doses and dissociative at high doses, the other is an opiate that relieves pain at low doses and kills at high doses. That's why these compounds figure in crime novels: because they are chemically identical they cannot be distinguished when they are in your body doing things to you, so somebody who had access the the left-leaning molecule could kill you without being caught. I told you leftists were dangerous.

To make a long story short, it seems that we have some grounds here for thinking that strictly reductive, materialist accounts of systems are insufficiently explanatory of mechanism: form is also a necessary component of a full explanation.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Human Families

The most recent archaeological evidence (published last week in Nature, 08/09/2007, p. 688) suggests more trouble on the horizon for Biblical "literalists", the pinheads who think that it's not enough for the Bible to be "true", it has to be "literally, word for word, jot and tittle true", otherwise it's all just a pack of lies. According to these folks, God created the entire material and spiritual universe in six twenty-four hour periods, and then rested for twenty four hours (maybe he wanted to watch himself on 24 Hours). Since this all happened nearly 6000 years ago it's a rather difficult hypothesis to test, but since it sez so in the Bible who needs to test it? It's proven science, folks. Anyway, on this view of things, all of humanity is descended from an original pair of humans, Adam and Eve, who had no navels since they themselves were directly created by God, not born from other animals.

The latest archaeological evidence suggests that Homo habilis and Homo erectus were living broadly sympatrically in the same lake basin for nearly half a million years. If this is so, then it is at least possible that present day homines sapientes are descended from more than one genetic lineage. There is genetic evidence supporting the hypothesis that we are all descended from a single lineage, but this most recent evidence may complicate that somewhat. The possibility of more than one lineage has always existed, of course, but it is interesting to contemplate the further possibilities opened up by this work.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Evolution of Affluence

Cultural evolution can be a controversial topic. When one thinks about evolution it is natural to think about variation and change in the rather straightforward anatomical traits that one can visually assess or the more complex and discrete traits found at the level of the genome. But behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, and the like are no less phenotypes than one's hair or eye color, and they are, for the most part, heritable (there are some curious exceptions, such as celibacy). For some reason the academic interest in the evolution of behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, sometimes classified under the rubric of "cultural evolution", has tended to center in the field of philosophy of biology: one finds few working biologists who specialize in it, and only a handful of sociologists and anthropologists, historians, and economists. This is unfortunate, because it is an empirical discipline in the end, and it needs some folks besides philosophers doing some work if it is to really take off.

The field took a hit in the early days that has not helped it much since. When Edward Osborne Wilson published his Sociobiology: A New Synthesis in 1975 it caused something of a stir among both philosophers, biologists, and sociologists, some of whom saw his interpretation of the interaction between biological traits and human behavior as a thinly-veiled neo-fascism on the rise. That was, of course, a silly idea, but the damage was done, and sociobiology was often viewed with some suspicion during the late 1970s and the 1980s.

Now Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California, Davis, has a new book forthcoming from Princeton University Press (A Farewell to Alms, due out next month) that seems situated to cause a similar stir, though thankfully without the charges of neo-fascism. According to Clark, the growth in affluence that was witnessed by countries where the Industrial Revolution had its greatest impact was a consequence of cultural evolution. That is, whereas historians and economists ordinarily trace the effects of such things as the Industrial Revolution to the institutions and practices that underlie them, Clark wants to trace the whole kit and caboodle to fundamental changes in human behavior that he thinks were consequences of cultural evolution.

In particular, he notes that technological change often increases the capacity of humans to feed and take care of themselves, but often the technological advantage is soon swamped by a "Malthusian trap" in which the population expands in such a way that the overall affluence of the people is not increased in any tangible way. What happened on the eve of the Industrial Revolution was quite interesting. From 1200 to 1800 in England the population went through several evolutionary bottlenecks, such as the Black Death, where the population was suddenly and severely reduced. Casualties were mostly in the cities, and so immigration from the countryside was required to replenish the inhabitants of the large, industrial centers. These people, in turn, came to be better off than they had been when living in the country, and as they grew richer and better able to care for themselves and their children, it was their offspring that mostly survived the various bottlenecks. By the late 1700s the population of England was largely derived from the economic upper classes of the Medieval period. By studying documents from the period from 1200-1800, Clark shows how work hours steadily increased, literacy and numeracy levels rose, and the rate of interpersonal violence dropped. More importantly came a concomitant preference for saving over consumption. These behavioral traits slowly became embedded in the English population, and they stoked the furnace of the Industrial Revolution.

According to Clark, the peoples of industrialized nations such as England are substantially different from the peoples of hunter-gatherer societies as a consequence of this behavioral evolution in which the more affluent out reproduce their poorer neighbors, thus insuring the survival of the behavioral traits that gave rise to their affluence in the first place and, as a result, helping future generations to survive population bottlenecks. It is a fascinating hypothesis, and I am eagerly awaiting the publication of the book. Those who would like to learn more should check out this story at the New York Times.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Sungenis Gets (Real) Religion?

According to a post at Pertinacious Papist, Robert Sungenis has removed some of the anti-semitic materials from his CAI website. I suppose that's good news of some kind, though it is interesting that it took brute force rather than intellectual dialogue to get him to see the error of his ways, if indeed he does see it. As Our Lord said, it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but what comes from the heart.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Dark Material Indeed

Brandon Watson of Siris posted a nice essay on Friday about the Rowling and Pullman books. His comments on both were interesting and enlightening, and they got me to thinking. I confess that I have not been as swept away by these sets of books as others have, though I did read them, and in the case of the Potter books I also enjoyed watching some of the movies. But I can't say that I have any dogs in the race over whether these books are any of the good or bad things that their friends and enemies are saying that they are.

The Pullman books, obviously, are hostile to religion in general and Christianity in particular, but their "attack" on religion, such as it is, is so inept as to be easily ignored in favor of just enjoying what is otherwise a ripping good yarn (well, until the last book, anyway, where it suddenly and irrevocably becomes the tedious celebration of adolescent hormonal activity that seems to be the cri de coeur of our age). I think Brandon is right that Pullman is the better stylist, but because the movie version of his oeuvre is not due out until December he has garnered nearly the attention, either positive or negative, that Rowling has.

The Rowling books, by contrast, have managed to attract massive amounts of attention, both good and bad, in spite of the fact that the books are simplistic, episodic, plot-driven vignettes that read like--surprise!--screenplays. In light of the intensity with which both fans and detractors have at it with one another I suppose it should come as no surprise that both sides would start looking around for authoritative endorsements of one kind or another. In my view the most embarrassing of these attempts was the one undertaken a few years ago to get then Cardinal Ratzinger to condemn the books as unchristian. You can still find in the blogosphere links to a letter he wrote in reply to a query from some hand-wringing moron in which he makes it about as clear as clear could be that he has never read any of the books and knows nothing about them beyond what one could learn from tendentious sources such as the meanderings of hand-wringing morons. This is actually a good thing in a way, because it would be a frightening prospect to learn that the future Pontiff thought that he had the kind of time to waste that would allow him to read literally thousands of pages of second-rate children's' literature. The downside, however, is that we now have many other hand-wringing morons out there who think that this worthless document constitutes some kind of valid moral advice about the Rowling books.

The principle complaint seems to focus on what these people regard as the glorification of witchcraft in the Rowling books. In making this complaint they simultaneously make a number of very different but very ignorant mistakes.

First, they confuse the sort of "witchcraft" portrayed in the Potter stories with the sort of "witchcraft" that people in the middle ages believed to exist out there in the world as a kind of assault on objective goodness. Even if the latter sort ever existed (it didn't) it is clearly not the same thing as what is portrayed in the Potter stories, which is magic indeed but magic employed in the service of the good, not as an assault against objective goodness itself. Writers have compared the magic of the Potter stories to the magic that is condemned in the Bible, but that is the sloppiest sort of literary criticism; it's like saying that the Ancient Greeks were opposed to birth control because they fought against the Trojans.

Second, they mistake literary portrayal for didactic purposes with literal endorsement. This is a particularly annoying mistake, since some of the people who attack the Rowling books are, at the same time, huge fans of Tolkien, Lewis, and other Christian writers who fill their stories with magic of all kinds, good and bad, as a device for portraying in a metaphorical way such concepts as power, submission to authority, control over natural processes, order amidst chaos, and plenty of other themes that are no more hostile as such to Christianity than the stories of exorcism in the New Testament are.

Third, these sorts of readers seem incapable of understanding the overarching theme of the Potter stories, which has nothing at all to do with Wicca, medieval assaults on goodness, glorification of the material, or any of the other things that are pointed to as "dangerous", and everything to do with friendship, loyalty, courage, compassion, and the triumph of good over evil. In short, most of the folks who attack the Potter stories as "dangerous" appear to be incapable of reading literature to begin with, let alone critiquing it.

Finally, consider the following charge. One writer has said that "from a Christian perspective, children immersing themselves in Harry Potter are being desensitized to the dangers of spiritual practices explicitly condemned and forbidden by Holy Scripture." This is the sort of magical thinking that one ordinarily finds only among the most ignorant literalist fundamentalists, and yet I've seen this very idea endorsed by intelligent, well-educated Roman Catholics. Are we supposed to imagine our children running out into the woodshed to draw pentagrams on the floor and start conjuring up Voldemort only to find that they have accidentally conjured up Ol' Scratch himself by mistake, and that they are now doomed for all eternity? If I may borrow from my fine pagan friend, Cicero, O tempora! O mores! In qua urbe vivimus? You would have to know virtually nothing about Christianity to believe such a thing possible.

With folks such as this standing at the front of the queue in the Culture Wars it's no wonder that people like Philip Pullman look at organized religion and shake their heads. The only dark materials we need to worry about are the ignorance and superstitions of a bygone era that Christian intellectuals such as Erasmus, Thomas More, Newman, and others worked so hard to eradicate. Why go back?

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Principles vs. Practices

Being the sucker for popular culture that I am, I've been playing around with Facebook. Lisa has been very scornful of me for this, pointing out that Facebook is the playground of high school kids and their middle aged predators, not a savory place for an ordinary guy like me. Add to this the fact that I only have thirteen friends in my networks (as compared with one of my students, who has nearly 400), and one begins to wonder where the fascination really lies.

Well OK, mister, I'll tell you where. There are lots of cool "applications" you can install on your Facebook profile, and you can do loads of fun stuff with these applications, like "poke" your friends or "compare" them with each other to see who is "nicest" or "most fun to go shopping with". What could be more fun than that? But one such application has really got me to thinking.

This particular application, called "The Compass", is produced, allegedly, by The Washington Post, and its stated purpose is to graphically locate your political proclivities on a graphic representation of a compass ranging from liberal through moderate to conservative. The application seeks to determine where you lie along this spectrum by asking you ten questions to which you answer things like "strongly agree", "agree", "somewhat disagree", and the like. Here are some sample questions:
The federal government should raise taxes so it can provide more help for people who need it.

A same-sex couple should have access to the same marital benefits as those given to heterosexual couples.
And so on. I installed the application on my profile after answer the questions.

Now, longtime readers of this blog (all thirteen of them) will already know where I think I fall on that political spectrum. Whenever asked to rate myself politically (such as in the profile section of Facebook!) I always put "very conservative" (at they didn't have that as a choice, and I had to put "ultra conservative". I have even fewer friends at But The Compass application rates me to the left of moderate. This is curious because I've answered the questionnaire twice now and the first time I was exactly moderate, so I appear to be moving leftwards as I get older, which will probably please my old "militant marxist atheist" college advisor.

The difficulty with the application lies in the sorts of questions it asks and the sorts of answers it expects "liberals" and "conservatives" to give. Here is one example. One of the questions is worded this way:
Except in rare instances, such as when a woman's life is threatened, abortion should be illegal.
This is tricky, because I had to say that I agree with the wording even though I don't. I agree that abortion should be illegal, but I think it should be illegal even in instances in which the woman's life is in danger, and the question has no way to get at a view like that.

But more importantly the questions presuppose that a liberal or a conservative will answer these questions in a certain, fixed way. "Conservatives" are expected to favor the death penalty, but I don't. "Conservatives" are expected to be against amnesty for illegal immigrants, even though I'm not. In short, the quiz defines liberal and conservative in terms of specific positions adopted, not in terms of principled reasons and starting points.

But I define "conservative" for my own purposes in terms of principles, not practices. A conservative, on this account, is a person who is committed to the value of certain sorts of ideas and institutions, such as democratic government, free markets, common law, the Church, etc. On this understanding of the term, a "conservative" does not automatically support capital punishment as some sort of knee-jerk commitment to the sort of practices that other self-styled "conservatives" think is a good idea. I oppose capital punishment precisely because I am a conservative: a conservative committed to the inherent value of all human life and the Christian principles of mercy and compassion. Needless to say, this sort of reasoning often comes under attack from people who are best described as "folk conservatives", people who think that a commitment to "law and order" and "justice" makes decided to kill another human being a relatively simple matter. Of course we are at liberty to draw distinctions between humans who have committed no crimes and those who have committed very grave crimes, and such distinctions do entitle us to treat the latter differently from the former in defense of the common good, but the decision to end a human life does not follow by logical necessity from such distinctions. I'm not sure what I would call someone who thinks that capital punishment is a necessary consequence of certain political commitments, but "conservative" is certainly not the term I would choose.

Similarly with illegal immigrants. Again, the popoular culture and the mass media tend to assume, on the basis of a cartoonish caricature of the folk conservative, that conservatives tend to be jingoistic xenophobes who want all people from foreign lands lacking the proper papers quickly shown to the border. Some conservatives may, indeed, want that, but the assumption on the part of some appears to be that they want it because they "don't like foreigners". I'm certainly sympathetic to those who worry that public monies collected from tax-paying citizens might become ever more attenuated if they are being distributed among illegals who have made no contribution to the system, but among the principle I am committed to is the idea that the institutions and cultural aspects of this country represent something that is objectively good for anyone. This means that it would be wrong to withhold it from someone who seeks it out. Now, we are reminded that thousands of foreigners enter the country legally every day and seek citizenship through the proper channels, and such persons certainly ought to be given some sort of precedence over those who seek to milk our system for all it's worth without making any contribution at all. But consider a doctor who is on his way to work at the local hospital. At the hospital he will find many sick persons who checked themselves in using their insurance cards or Medicare cards or what have you, all of them seeking help from the staff in a perfectly legal and ordinary way. These people are certainly deserving of the help fo the staff. But suppose, on his way to work, the doctor finds a man crawling on his hands and knees to the hospital. He asks the man what he's doing, and the man explains that he's very sick, that he may die without medical treatment, so he's crawling to the emergency room hoping that they'll help him. The doctor points out that they will help anybody, but the man says that he's worried that they won't help him because he has no money and no insurance. Will the doctor leave him there to die? Of course not. In fact, most hospitals have a policy to help anyone who comes to their emergency rooms regardless of ability to pay, and that is as it should be. It would be terribly wrong for a doctor who could help someone to refuse to help anyone simply on the grounds that he would not gain anything from helping a person who cannot pay. The idea that we offer help to the helpless, or indeed to anyone, on a quid pro quo basis is a seriously disordered view of morality.

Our institutions and culture is the intellectual and social equivalent of good medicine, and we ought to be much freer with it than we are, and that is why I favor amnesty. To grant amnesty is not to say that anybody at all can come here and start soaking up our public monies any time they like without making any contribution of their own, it is rather a first step towards immigration reform, a reform that seeks to make what we have to offer as widely available as possible in pursuit of the common good. Conservatives can, and do, disagree about how to handle this thing, obviously, but the position that I have staked out is a conservative ideal, not a liberal one. The principle difference between the conservative and the liberal on this particular score, in my view, hinges not on the actual practice at the end of the deliberation, but on where the help is expected to come from. The conservative wants individuals to do the helping, the liberal will tend to expect governmental or publicly funded institutions to do the work. But however else we view the situation, we ought to avoid saying things like "conservatives don't like/trust foreigners or people who are different from them and that's why they will always be against amnesty".

You can see a similar pattern in many other debates about how best to pursue the common good. One of my favorite examples is the way in which help was sent to the victims of the 2005 tsunami. One often heard, at the time, that the United States, one of the richest countries in the world, had contributed the least amount of support. It turns out, if you look carefully at such reports, that "support" was being calculated in terms of official, federal-governmental contributions to the relief fund. In terms of total support, the United States was one of the leaders, but the money came mostly from private sources and, hence, was not counted as "support" for some reason. Again, the conservative will argue that private help is the best kind, since it is not coercive, or it tends to be the least coercive. Freedom is a very important principle in conservative reasoning, and the freedom to be wrong about one's moral reasoning (for example, whether I ought to help out in a certain situation), while it can sometimes have unfortunate consequences, is central to the conservative Weltanschauung. Some conservatives are troubled by this, since there are some conservatives who are also utilitarians. But a good conservative will reject utilitarianism, and such consequentialist worries will disappear.

I'm going to keep The Compass application on my Facebook profile, and not just to trick people into being my friends. I'll keep it as an object lesson in the banality of folk politics.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Loving Jesus

I'm ashamed to say that I've only just now noticed that I was tagged over a week ago by Mike Liccione of Sacramentum Vitae in the "Why I love Jesus" meme. I'm ashamed because I read Sacramentum Vitae every day and I can't for the life of me imagine how I missed being tagged, other than by not reading the post all the way to the end, which just goes to demonstrate what a shallow reader I am. But I suppose anyone who's read my analyses of things I've read already knew that about me.

The meme is one about which I have mixed feelings. I hope I'm not offending anybody when I say that one of things about the meme that makes me uncomfortable is that it sounds kind of like a fundamentalist or evangelical sort of thing to ponder. On the other hand, of course I do love Jesus, as I imagine any genuine Christian would, and I don't mind saying so. Maybe it's just a matter of discourse: I probably wouldn't say "I love Jesus", any more than I would say "I'm born again" or "I like country music". I might say "Iesum Christum Dominum nostrum amo" or something like that, especially if I was drunk enough.

So what five reasons would I give for loving Jesus? I'm not going to deny looking around at the other folks in the meme to try to cheat on this one, but as much as I admire Mike Liccione and Jonathan Prejean and the other great Catholic bloggers in this meme I'm too much of a chicken to try to steal anything from them, so what follows is the best I can do, I'm afraid.

1. First, it seems to me that to love Jesus is at least in part to have a desire for him, principally a desire to be like him but also a desire to be with him in some sense, to have him present in one's life in such a way that one is constantly aware of his presence. To me, this is what the created order is all about: trying to find God in everything the way one tries to find the meaning of a code. Jesus is our key to the code--without him everything else really would be meaningless.

2. In addition to being the key to the meaning of everything, Jesus is quite literally an image of God the Father and, as such, we love him as we love the source of all goodness and truth simply because it is good and true. That is our end, the reason why #1 is true: we need to find the meaning in the created order because that meaning is also our meaning, it gives our own existence purpose.

3. One ought also to love Jesus because it is natural to love a person who so unreservedly and unconditionally loves us. Indeed, it would be literally perverse not not love Jesus. Even non-Christians, for the most part, think of Jesus as a good person and to be admired; some of them may even love him, because they understand that, if nothing else, he stands for such love. I think that even some folks who don't believe he existed at least love the idea of him. What's not to love?

4. As an act of love Jesus died for us, and so it is fitting to love him as an act of gratitude for his sacrifice.

5. Because he loved us enough to leave us at Calvary, he also loved us enough to remain with us in the Eucharist. So it is fitting to love him in thanksgiving for this great gift of eternal presence, making our closer communion with him possible.

So there you have it. I'm pretty free with my love I guess. I'm not very good at memes, either, and in fact I think it's fair to say that I don't love them at all, but I'm willing to play along. If only I had five friends to tag! But I'll tag the following: Tom Kreitzberg, the Darwins, Fr. Fox, Fr. X, and John Farrell. Since Fr. X would rather die than reply to anything I've written, we can count the Darwins separately.

Liturgia Horarum

I've been perusing of late some of the literature regarding the reform of the liturgies of the Church. In discussions/rants about the reforms of the last half century the focus tends to be on the Mass, since that tends to be the liturgy that most folks attend from week to week. It is sometimes forgotten that the Church's communal prayer life is also a work of leitourgia and that it, too, has not been unaffected by the craziness of the zealots for liturgical reform.

That there has been some craziness, it now seems, cannot reasonably be denied even by the zealots. How else to explain Annibale Bugnini's desperate, 975-page apologia pro labore suo that is his The Reform of the Liturgy 1948-1975 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990)? It is a fascinating document, providing more information than most readers will know what to do with but in the process telling a story that is still playing out as the rubrics continue to be debated, revised, and republished. Part IV, dealing with "The Liturgy of the Hours", runs from page 491 to page 576 is somewhat more perfunctory in its treatment than the corresponding part dealing with the missal, but it is fascinating reading none the less, and it incites one to rush to right away to order Stanislaus Campbell's From Breviary to Liturgy of the Hours: The Structural Reform of the Roman Office, 1964-1971 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1995). Campbell's book provides considerably more detail than Bugnini's (at 358 pages he has considerably more room to provide commentary and documentation) but, sadly, there is little in the way of genuine discussion of the merits and demerits of the reform itself. Campbell does provide one chapter (the last chapter, chapter 6) of "Evaluation of the Reform", but there is little of interest there--it amounts virtually to a summary of what was said in the first five chapters.

Much more meaty is Robert Taft's The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West: The Origins of the Divine Office and its Meaning for Today (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, Second Revised Edition, 1993). Taft writes with that peculiar combination of arrogance and presumption that seems almost proprietary among the Jesuits, but I have to say that it is a little reassuring to discover that there is at least one person out there in the world with an ego even larger than my own. (Just for fun, I highly recommend reading this interview with him by John Allen.) Though the subtitle says that this book will treat of the meaning of the Office "for Today", after reading through it one draws the conclusion that "today" has a rather restricted extension for Taft and the meaning of the Office as far as he is concerned is the meaning it had for a certain group of persons who came of age, like Taft himself (born in 1932), in the 1940s and 1950s. Some of these people are positively dinosaurs when it comes to theology and ecclesiology, and Taft is no exception, living in a dream world of house churches and bad liturgies, but he is quite the scholar, and if you can get past his remarkably pompous yet stilted prose and formidable sense of self-importance this book is well worth reading.

One comes away from books like these with a strange feeling in which regret and hope mingle. On the one hand, one learns that, as usual, committees can't be trusted to produce anything brilliant, innovative, or truly beautiful, and the present structure of the Roman Office is nothing if not the product of committee after committee. On the other hand, the sale of prayer books modeled on the Roman Office has been growing since the 1980s and one dares to hope that perhaps, just perhaps, some Christians are beginning to realize the happy burden that is our "official" prayer life.

The difficulties with the Office appear to derive from its rather byzantine history, arising from a variety of sources, most of the earliest now lost to us, but including both monastic and cathedral practices. These latter two were quite different in many ways, with the monastic practice including the continuous recitation of the entire psalter in a week while the cathedral practice was to select psalms and canticles fitting to the time of day or year. When Trent standardized the "Roman Use" in the 16th century a balance had to be struck between these two practices as well as between the sanctoral and temporal cycles. When, in 1911, the Tridentine Breviary was revised, attempts were made to adjust the balance in these and other tensions, but it seems inevitable that whenever there are multiple interests at play it will be impossible, perhaps even in principle, to come up with something that both pleases the largest number of people and adequately balances all of the competing components derived from multiple sources. The history of liturgical reform in the 20th century certainly bears this out, as the debate over liturgical structures raged from the 20s to through the 60s and folks are still pretty pissed off about what the outcome was. The only people who seem to be even the least bit happy with the status quo are the folk liturgists. By "folk liturgists" I don't mean the people who put together guitar masses but rather those people who are generally responsible for putting together liturgies of any kind and who may even have some sort of training in "liturgics" or some equally silly discipline but who manifestly have no conception of the nature of what it is they are putting together. These are the people who have bequeathed to us that abomination of taste and sensibility that is the standard Sunday morning Mass of most average size parishes in the United States and Western Europe. There is a special circle of Hell reserved for them, just below the usurers.

As both Campbell and Taft note, we have less to worry about when it comes to messing up the Liturgy of the Hours, because it is rare indeed to find any "average size" parish where that liturgy is celebrated at all, let alone celebrated as badly as the Mass is celebrated. Taft, unsurprisingly, believes that the hybrid monstrosity celebrated at Notre Dame is a good example of ways to "improve" upon the official Roman Office, and he also points to the practices of Anglicans and Orthodox, especially at Vespers, as paradigm cases of successful liturgical engineering, but it is difficult to see how such things could serve as anything other than examples of the typically bad sort of liturgics that folks like Taft have always preferred to the genuinely beautiful.

There is a curious claim in Taft's book that is worth examining. Taft is one of these people who scorns the idea of daily reception of the Eucharist, on the grounds that it has a tendency to teach people that the Eucharist is all there is to life as a Christian. As old fashioned as this kind of thinking is (it reminds one of the present day struggles to get the Bishops to make changes in the language of the Mass, with seemingly well-intentioned bishops making the rather mysterious argument that even simple changes, such as changing "And also with you" to "And with your spirit", will confuse and befuddle the simple-minded college graduates sitting in the pews), it nevertheless indirectly makes the very good point that, yes, there is more to being a full-bore Christian than just attending Mass every day, and it is worth learning a great deal about the history and theology of Christian practices to find out what else there might be. In this sense it seems to me that Catholics and Orthodox Christians have quite an advantage over the Protestant sects, most of which have a downright hostile attitude towards the role of history in the understanding of their own religion. Add this to the fact that they do not have a valid Eucharist even when they go so far as to celebrate one, and it grows ever clearer why one ought to stay away from such sects the way one stays away from people who play with guns or who drink absinthe.

Those of us not bound to say the "official" Roman Office are at liberty to say whatever form of prayer suits us, but in my opinion it is worth making the effort to pray with the Church. This may not entail prayer identical to that found in the Office, but I think that it does entail an effort to "pray without ceasing", and this can be marked symbolically by a special effort to pray at the canonical hours. If you are one of those remarkable people who is able to make every act of every day an offering of praise and thanksgiving, then perhaps further formalism is not necessary, but one begins to see the advantage of formal prayer when one engages in public, communal prayer. This communal act appears to be what Taft regards as the ideal, and I think it is probably true that there is much less of it than one could wish. The breviaries of bygone ages did tend to have something of a quasi-private, devotional character to them, even though the "monastic" elements they tended to privilege were communal by their very nature.

So more work needs to be done, in my opinion, in the domain of the Church's liturgy of prayer outside of the Mass. Given ever greater lay education in the history, theology, and liturgy of the Church, one may dare to hope for some progress in this area. One may also dare to hope to avoid guitar Vespers and dance at lauds, but perhaps it's better not get one's hopes up too high.