Friday, February 29, 2008

McCain and Hagee

The Catholic League's Bill Donohue has pointed out an interesting difference between John McCain and the two Democratic candidates. Whereas Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama have both rejected any support they may receive from bigot Louis Farrakhan, John McCain has not only not rejected, but he has warmly welcomed, the support he is receiving from bigot John Hagee. When asked about Hagee's support, according to a report at the Catholic League website, McCain said
he was “very proud” of Hagee’s “spiritual leadership,” noting, however, “That does not mean that I support or endorse or agree with some of the things that Pastor Hagee might have said or positions that he may have taken on other issues.”
I think it's worth quoting Donohue's comments in full:
McCain’s latest response is helpful, if disappointing. I expected more from the self-described ‘Straight Talk’ presidential candidate. Why couldn’t he have spoken specifically to the Catholic-bashing record of John Hagee?

Contrast McCain’s tepid response to what George W. Bush said in a letter to Cardinal John O’Connor regarding his 2000 appearance at Bob Jones University. Bush said he did not approve of ‘the anti-Catholic and racially divisive views associated with that school.’ He added, ‘Such opinions are personally offensive to me, and I want to erase any doubt about my views and values.’ Moreover, Bush opined that ‘I reject religious intolerance—because faith is defined by grace and hope, not fear and division.’ Right after Bush sent his letter, Cardinal O’Connor sought my response. I appeared on the ‘Today Show’ to say I was satisfied; this effectively put an end to this issue.

McCain will have other opportunities to address this issue. He would be well advised to model himself on Bush’s Bob Jones response if he wants to bury it altogether. Meanwhile, it would be even better if Hagee would cease and desist from demonizing my religion. And we would really appreciate it if McCain gave Hagee some ‘Straight Talk’ and told him to zip it.
Clearly McCain hopes to gain the support of evangelical (read: conservative) Christians in order to weaken Huckabee and strengthen his own position, but possibly he does not fully agree with Bush's low opinion of religious bigots. He seems willing enough to say that he does not support everything that Hagee stands for (oh, I'm sorry, "Pastor" Hagee), but he does not specifically mention anti-Catholic bigotry or other forms of noxious ignorance and anti-intellectualism. If Hagee were a racist, I think any candidate would be quick to say the guy's a nutjob, and they would say it in no uncertain terms. But anti-Catholicism appears to be one of those issues that many folks think "Hey, reasonable people can disagree on issues like this." But that's a very dangerous attitude, I think: I'm not convinced that hatred and ignorance deserve the same sort of forum that the First Amendment guarantees to rational (if not always thoughtful) political discourse.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The New York F***ing Philharmonic

When the Naked Gun series of movies wanted to get a laugh, they really knew how to do it. In one movie there is a gangster whose speech patterns include the frequent (as in, every other word) use of a certain Anglo Saxon bilabial fricative denoting sexual intercourse, who learns to play the guitar and becomes an extremely sensitive ex-gangster. At the end of the movie there is a voice over describing what happened later to the various characters from the movie, and we are told that the gangster had gotten a job with "the New York fucking Philharmonic Orchestra." It's a cultural reference that helps the joke, because the New York Philharmonic is not just any orchestra, it is arguably one of the very best orchestras in the world.

Which just goes to show you that musical expertise and moral expertise are two very different things, because no morally sensitive person would have agreed to do what they have done: to be wined and dined by the power elite in North Korea while millions of the citizens of North Korea are starving and oppressed at the hands of those very same elite is nothing short of obscene. During the letter-reading part of NPR's Morning Edition the other day a letter was read complaining that the Philharmonic had let us all down by performing a schedule that was "timid and tepid", by which the writer apparently meant that they had played music that even people living in North Korea had a decent chance of having heard of, works by Beethoven and Mozart, for example, and not so much Eric Ewazen.

While I agree that they let us all down, the choice of program clearly had nothing to do with it. Someone might suggest that an institution such as the Philharmonic can help people like the poor of North Korea through a kind of "cultural diplomacy", and that the "good will mission" is something that is always worth doing. Forget about the fact that few, if any, of the actually poor people in North Korea got to hear the concert--we are told that this contact between the U.S. and Korea is for the good, and that it will somehow soften the heart of the Dear Little Asshole who runs the country. We are told that Eric Clapton is next on the docket. Maybe he'll play some J. J. Cale.

The reason why this way of thinking is bullshit is that it is never a good idea to cooperate with evil in any way, even in the hope that some good will come of it. To play these concerts in North Korea--at the invitation of the power elite in that country--is to cooperate with that power elite. It would have been preferable to play the concert on an aircraft carrier off the coast and broadcast the music into the country (but of course any such jam session would have been jammed). Even more importantly than this, though, is the mere fact that these musicians have been fiddling while Korea burns: their music will feed no one, liberate no one. They have been used, along with us and the poor and starving of North Korea.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Notes and Asides

In 1968 I was ten years old and living in Kent, Ohio, a typical liberal college town where all of my friends were "faculty brats" espousing the typical liberal ideology of their parents. My family situation was somewhat different: my father had died in 1965, and my mother was neither a member of the Kent faculty nor particularly political. I'm sure she had political views of some sort, but she was working full time trying to make ends meet and we didn't have deep conversations at the dinner table about world affairs. (Now that I've had kids of my own of roughly that age, I'm beginning to see that there might be other reasons for not having "deep conversations" at the dinner table beyond just being wiped out at the end of the day.) As a consequence of her working a lot and being wiped out a lot, I found ways to amuse myself and stay busy. In those days, of course, there were no video games. We barely even had TV, though we did have one of those and, like a lot of boomer kids, I watched a lot of it in the 1960s. I'm sure it messed me up as much as I think the video games are messing up my son, but one aspect of my TV experience, in my opinion, affected me for the better.

In December of 1968 I saw two things on TV that were extremely formative for me. One was the flight of Apollo 8 to the moon and back. From that time on my interest in science was fixed, and to this day I am fascinated by what Bas van Fraassen has called "The Scientific Image", and by the philosophy of science. The other I saw completely by accident. In those days there were really only three channels to watch on TV in a small town like Kent, the three major network channels. In a college town, however, one sometimes was lucky enough to get a PBS channel, and we did, and that December, just by chance, I happened to have the PBS channel on one afternoon and I heard the trumpet part of the Allegro assai movement of Bach's second Brandenburg Concerto. I was a huge fan of Bach even at age ten, and so I went to see what was on. It was Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr.

I was completely enthralled by the man and his style, and I began to watch that show every week. By 1970 I had a subscription to The National Review and was calling myself a conservative. At the time I knew nothing about religion but I was willing to forgive his being a Catholic (my family was mostly Presbyterian and mildly anti-Catholic in a typically WASPy way) on the grounds that he seemed to be right about everything else.

By the time I went to college in the summer of 1975 I was something of a political junkie, with William F. Buckley at the center of my political experience. I read all of his books, and was constantly looking for stuff he had written in unusual venues. I once went to Akron looking for a particular music recording for which he had written the liner notes, and on one occasion I found myself inquiring in the Rare Book Room of the Kent State University library after an interview with Buckley that was listed in the catelogue as being in "magazine format". I couldn't tell from the catalogue why a magazine would be stored in the Rare Book Room, where one must fill out a form explaining what one wants to look at and why, but you can imagine my embarrassment when the librarian came back from the stacks with a copy of Playboy magazine. Those were the days--now of course the thing is probably available online.

In the fall of 1975 I decided to switch from Arts and Sciences to the Honors College, and to do that one must be interviewed by the Dean of the Honors College. She asked me if I had any heroes. I said "William Buckley", and you should have seen the look on her face as she sank back into her chair. I can quote her words verbatim to this day. She said, with a combination of disgust, disdain, and disappointment designed to deflate, "Ohhhh, Scott! He's so...in-humane!"

Well, I don't know from inhumane, but to see who has more class, the Dean of the Honors College or William F. Buckley, I'll tell one last story. I wrote to Buckley twice in my life. Once, when I was in high school, I wrote to him a silly little letter just to get his attention. In those days National Review sent out pleas every so often for money to defray publishing costs. I didn't have any money in those days, but I wrote a check for the amount of first class postage and sent it to Buckley to defray the cost of sending me the plea. Of course I never heard back from him. Years later I wrote him again, and I mentioned that first letter and went on to say that I had only written it to get his attention and that I was now much older and more mature and I thanked him for the influence he had had on my life. By that time I had also converted to Catholicism and I mentioned that the dignity and intelligence with which he had represented his faith had also been influential with me. This time, I did hear back from him. He wrote me a very nice little letter and invited me to come and have lunch with him "next time you're in Stamford". I figured that was just a polite thing to say, but of course I was dying to find some reason to go to Stamford. A few years ago, Buckley came to Ohio University to give a lecture and sell some of his more recent books, and I went, starry-eyed, to see the great man himself, sitting on the stage and answering questions from the audience like Socrates. I was ebullient, and afterwards went into the lobby to buy some of his autographed books. Well, just about everyone else in the audience had had the same idea, and there was a huge line, and I was at the end of it. By the time I got to him I could see that he was very, very tired, and looking for any reason to get the hell out of there. As he was signing my books I got it into my head that I just had to let him know, somehow, who I was, as though he would have any idea. But he had been so formative for me, I felt as though I knew him, in a way. So, like an idiot, I mentioned my last letter and how he had invited me to lunch. I was really just looking for a way to spur his memory, not get a free meal, but he said, without even a nanosecond elapsing, "That invitation still stands."

Now, if you're a well-educated, public person, that is precisely what you would say. And yet. He didn't have to say that. He could have said something like "Oh yes, I remember you," or any number of other pleasantries designed to get this complete stranger out of here before I collapse from fatigue. In my view, though, it was not a mere pleasantry: he was just too classy to say anything else, because he said what he meant and he meant what he said.

When I heard that he had died, I was sad, but only a little. True, I won't get to have lunch with him now, but the Catholicism that I share with him affirms that we are already united in a mysterious way that will only be made more complete when the eschaton is immanent. I won't ever get to have lunch with him, but I will participate with him in the Great Banquet, which is even better.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Kilian Garvey, Super Genius

Some of my readers may remember an announcement I posted from August of 2006 regarding a talk by Kilian Garvey called "A Neuropsychological Explanation of Creationist and Evolutionary Beliefs", in which, along with, I suppose, creationist and evolutionary beliefs, we were to be treated to a discussion of such pressing explananda as handedness, "right-wing authoritarianism", toleration of ambiguity, the need for cognition, the need for cognitive closure, and the emotions, all to be explained, apparently, in a remarkably mechanistic and reductionist way via two neuropsychological attributes: the structure of the corpus callosum (well, in some people, anyway) and an "overactive sympathetic ("fight or flight") nervous system.

Well, the Wile E. Coyote of the New England Institute has struck again, this time with the following talk:
Vomit, Feces and Sin: Disgust Sensitivity and Social Cognition
Kilian Garvey, Ph.D.

St, Francis Room, Ketchum Library
University of New England
11 Hills Beach Road
Biddeford, Maine

Wednesday, February 6th at 6PM

While it is well established that avoidance of disgusting things (maggots, vomit, feces) is strongly correlated with avoidance of immoral thoughts or behaviors (pedophilia, slavery, dishonesty) the mechanism responsible for this connection is not immediately clear. Does a heightened sense of morality lead to a heightened sense of disgust, or do individual differences in disgust sensitivity result in differential perceptions of what is morally acceptable?

An evolutionary analysis of primary and complex disgusts suggests that the mechanisms used to avoid oral incorporation of pathogenic substances have been drafted to help societies avoid behaviors that unhealthy for the group and that political, social, religious, and artistic preferences are partially determined by evolutionarily selected biological dispositions.
I'm sorry to have missed that one but let me say right off the bat here that I'm sure it was every bit as interesting and informative as it looks. I don't want to be misunderstood on that point: not long after posting some rather skeptical remarks about Garvey's earlier talk I received numerous emails explaining to me that I was being unprofessional, including one that contained a thinly veiled threat to reveal my lack of collegiality to officials at Ohio University. If only some neuropsychologist would undertake to study the aetiology of academic insecurity among the self-styled "Brights", we might be able to make some real progress in the area of "reductive-materialist authoritarianism".

Friday, February 08, 2008

Episcopal Follies

Heaven
Heaven is a place
A place where nothing
Nothing ever happens....
David Byrne and the Talking Heads got it wrong, apparently, at least according to an interview with N. T. Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham, England, in Time Online. According to Wright, heaven is really going to be a lot of work, at least for those lucky (?) souls who wind up there.
Never at any point do the Gospels or Paul say Jesus has been raised, therefore we are we are all going to heaven. They all say, Jesus is raised, therefore the new creation has begun, and we have a job to do. It's more exciting than hanging around listening to nice music. In Revelation and Paul's letters we are told that God's people will actually be running the new world on God's behalf. The idea of our participation in the new creation goes back to Genesis, when humans are supposed to be running the Garden and looking after the animals. If you transpose that all the way through, it's a picture like the one that you get at the end of Revelation.
OK, so if I persevere here in this present existence, discussing philosophy, science, and theology with generations of bright young women and men without falling into sin while doing so, I get to milk the cows for all eternity in the next. Sounds great.

Yes, yes, I'm just kidding--of course I believe there really is such a thing as "heaven", if by "heaven" what one means is, roughly speaking, a state of being that corresponds to the final realization of the good for humans ("You, therefore, must be perfect [teleioi], as your heavenly Father is perfect", Our Lord advises us in Matthew 5.48, where the term teleios refers to a state of perfection that is attained by achieving one's telos, or proper good). And, for all I know, that state of being is very much as the Right Reverend Wright has described it. Certainly he is quite correct to bemoan the simplistic and credulous popular notions of heaven as a place of singing psalms before the Lord while enjoying an eternity of heavenly bliss of the sort one often finds in the popular literature on the subject. Such anthropomorphic notions not only play right into the hands of the Brights, who rightly ridicule the preposterous implausibility of it all, but also raise the specter of puzzles about human happiness and the notion of eternality (it seems to be proper to our nature, for example, to derive more pleasure or satisfaction from change or difference than from mere stasis, so it becomes ever more difficult to imagine the popular conception of heaven as a place of happiness rather than mind numbing boredom of the sort celebrated in the Talking Heads song). Having said this, however, I cannot say that I think that Bishop Wright has really improved things all that much. He has, perhaps, moved us farther away from an improper understanding of what role "heaven" ought to play in our theology, but I'm not so sure that he has, in doing so, moved us any closer to a proper understanding of it. I cannot help but feel that any and all attempts to concretize what is essentially a conceptual notion will fall victim to the very same sort, though a lesser degree, of anthropomorphism of the noxious sort one finds in, for example, the Left Behind trash.

This is not to deny that such speculation is not only tempting, but even something of a rush. Especially as one moves beyond the half-century mark, as I will do this year, it seems virtually inevitable that one will begin to wonder "What, exactly, is in store for me?" John Polkinghorne (who will turn 78 this October), for example, is cited by Wright as holding the following view:
John Polkinghorne, a physicist and a priest, has put it this way: "God will download our software onto his hardware until the time he gives us new hardware to run the software again for ourselves." That gets to two things nicely: that the period after death is a period when we are in God's presence but not active in our own bodies, and also that the more important transformation will be when we are again embodied and administering Christ's kingdom.
Now that has got to warm the cockles of the hearts of all those geeks out there who inhabit the software engineer chat rooms and plan to vote for Ron Paul if they can just get their trans-dimensional teleportation devices to beam them to the polling station in time. More prosaic sorts may simply wonder if they will still be hypertensive in paradise or, if they will be, will it matter. Such questions are the materialist present day equivalent of 13th century speculations about the number of angels one might conceivably dance with on the head of a pin. My friend David Romani once remarked to me, while we were discussing the idea of transsubstantiation as an explanation of the Real Presence, that when it comes to the Eucharist it may well be the case that bare acceptance is the best mental attitude. "Don't worry about how it happens," he said. "It happens." Perhaps that is the right sort of attitude to adopt towards "heaven": "Don't worry about what it's like; it just is."

One thing that struck me about Wright's view was the fact that, in spite of clearly aiming at moving us along towards a more sophisticated view of heaven, it is nevertheless bound up in the temporal and ephemeral. In criticizing the Left Behind vision of heaven he says:
If there's going to be an Armageddon, and we'll all be in heaven already or raptured up just in time, it really doesn't matter if you have acid rain or greenhouse gases prior to that. Or, for that matter, whether you bombed civilians in Iraq. All that really matters is saving souls for that disembodied heaven.
Sure, the worst thing about those books is not their heretical theology, it's their lack of concern for the environment. Getting into heaven, it turns out, will be easier for you if you're a member of Greenpeace.

Speaking of which, N. T. Wright is not the only English Bishop with environmental worries on his mind. It turns out that a whole hoard of English Episcopals have come out with a novel plan for Lenten fasting, according to a story broadcast on NPR just the other day:
With the season of Lent upon us, bishops in London and Liverpool have come up with a new kind of 40-day fast. Along with the aid agency Tearfund, the bishops have launched a carbon fast. Instead of giving up chocolate, how about giving up on plastic bags or incandescent light bulbs?
They don't say what we're supposed to do with all the mercury contained in the fluorescent bulbs being used to replace the incandescent ones, but we're probably not supposed to eat it in our sushi.

As usual, though, the wackiest English cleric is no mere Bishop, it's the Archwacko of Canterbury, who looks forward to the day when women will have to have their heads covered in church again--only this time it will be for a very different reason (again from NPR):
The Archbishop of Canterbury says he believes some aspects of Islamic "sharia" law will be introduced into Britain.

In a radio broadcast Thursday, Archbishop Rowan Williams said he was talking only about civil law in areas such as marriage and divorce. He said it was "unavoidable" that British law would have to accommodate Muslim practices.

The archbishop's statement was welcomed by some Muslim groups, but the British government was quick to distance itself from Williams' remarks.
Whew, that was close. It's a good thing the Commonwealth has so many other, much more useless and offensive laws to pursue.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

I'm Gonna Wash Those Sins Right Outta My Life

It will come as blessed relief to many to discover that Fr. Al Kimel is still blogging, if sporadically. Most recently he has completed a series of meditations on the doctrine of Purgatory, and I recommend that everyone who has any interest in Christian theology have a look at them here. Amidst much there that I find congenial there are thoughts on topics that are connected to the doctrine of Purgatory only indirectly, though yet in an important way. One such is the conception of the human person as a temporal being. This is a notion that was already well worked-out in St. Augustine's day, and a complete theology of the temporal human person was already in place by the time of St. Thomas Aquinas. There are important issues connected to our temporality, not the least of which is the puzzle of how we are to relate ourselves to an atemporal deity, a God who is literally without limits in every conceivable sense, but most importantly so in the temporal dimension. Why so important? Because, of course, the great mystery of the Incarnation is precisely this: the mystery of the atemporal becoming temporal and the temporal becoming atemporal. When we celebrate the Mass, one part of the mystery is of course the fact that God himself is present among us; another part is, if possible, even more mysterious: we are present with God at the very moment of his Sacrifice--the One and Only Sacrifice. The Eucharist is no mere re-enacting, no mere remembrance of an act brought to completion 1970 years ago, nor is it a mere celebration of that act. It is that very act, and that is very mysterious.

Too mysterious, it seems, for some, sadly including some of our separated brethren, who ought to know better. I suspect that, were we to contemplate the mystery of the Incarnation more fully and with greater imagination, such mysteries would come to seem, if not less mysterious at least less foreign. The Christian religion is a religion of tangents: if we understand a tangent as a point at which a straight line intersects a circle, then the Christian religion is a religion that holds that the atemporal meets the temporal at a point, the God-Man Jesus of Nazareth, in Whom God himself became Man and thereby made Mankind like God. Just as God dwelt among us and knew temporality, so, we believe, the Christian faithful will find themselves before God one day and know the atemporality of eternal life in him. Does this mean that we will cease to be temporal creatures? Who knows, but we will cease to be one thing that we are now: liable to sin. We believe that those who are chosen will sin no more with the necessity of atemporal eternality, while retaining their imperfect, human free will. Another mystery.

In his meditations on the doctrine of Purgatory Fr. Kimel discuses at some length the work of Jerry Walls, whose book, Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy, explores some of the Protestant objections to Purgatory. Fr. Kimel notes:
Walls finds unconvincing the Protestant claim that death itself effects an immediate movement into immaculate sanctity. Such a radical conversion would seem to violate our nature as temporal beings. Would we even recognize ourselves after such a dramatic change? If I were to wake up tomorrow perfectly and completely holy, would I in fact be the same person? No doubt friends and family would welcome the change, but might I not experience myself as a stranger, given the absence of historical and personal continuity? This does not mean that time after death must work in the same way as time in our world; yet it does seem appropriate that God would provide a way, transcending our present understanding, for the process of sanctification to continue in an intermediate state. Walls is particularly critical of the quasi-gnostic assertion that we are liberated from sin merely by being delivered from our present bodies and given new bodies. The most deadly sins are spiritual, and they are not cured by resurrection alone. Sanctification is never a purely passive affair. There are no short-cuts to holiness.
These are some pressing issues now that Lent is under way. If one thinks of Lent, as I do, as a time of renewed kenosis, there will be two aspects to it. On the one hand, there is all the usual self-denial and renewed application to spiritual exercises--the giving up of various treats, the extended time spent in prayer, almsgiving, and fasting, the sense of wonder and expectation--but on the other hand there is, or at least there ought to be, the trusting belief that God is on his way, not only at Easter but throughout Lent: he is coming to us, and we are not only making ourselves ready for him by our practices but we await what he is bringing us, whatever it is. We open our hearts to him at least in part so that we may receive his gifts, though we have no idea exactly what form they will take. That is part of what kenosis entails, after all, the petition "Thy will be done, whether it be the same as mine or not."

Purgatory is often discussed in ecumenical settings with a kind of sheepish grin: "Oh, that. Yeah, I suppose we believe in it, we just don't talk about it much." And yet it is supposed to be a comfort to us. I think that Fr. Kimel has prinpointed almost exactly why it is a comfort, and it is too bad that more folks--even alleged Catholics--don't seem to get it.