Thursday, September 29, 2005

I Wish I'd Said That

I should have known that Mike Liccione would have far more interesting and eloquent things to say about the meeting between Küng and Pope Benedict XVI than I. Better late than never to acknowledge it, I suppose. Among much other thoughtful stuff, this caught my eye in particular:
That's not to deny that theologians of Küng's stripe and generation have performed a signal service to the Church. A peritus at Vatican II along with Ratzinger, whom he had headhunted from the University of Münster's theological faculty for that of Tübingen a few years earlier, Küng is probably the best-known of the "progressive" theologians who dominated, if not the Council's deliberations themselves, at least its interpretation in the two or three decades that followed. Books of Küng's such as The Doctrine of Justification; Infallible? An Inquiry; and On Being a Christian, though not of the very first rank, were trenchant enough to force the orthodox to rethink their approaches and get creative. I rather doubt that authentically Catholic theology today would be anything more than a relic if it hadn't been for troublemakers like Küng and others. Though Ratzinger was right back in 1979 to help engineer Küng's de-certification as a Catholic theologian, he and John Paul the Great were also right not to excommunicate him.

Küng, along with the others of his ilk, are largely irrelevant dinosaurs today, but they did play an interesting role, it seems. If I may play the "Darwinian" game just one more time here, Küng's ideas were like a virus infecting the Church, and Mike is right that genuinely Catholic theology had to either sink or swim. That it not only swam, but drowned out its dissident opposition, should reassure us all that orthodoxy is stronger now than ever, having survived a dangerous threat and adapted to the conditions that gave rise to that threat. When the next wave of dissent comes along--and it is bound to happen (we're only human, after all)--we may at least take comfort in the fact that orthodoxy grows ever better adapted to such threats, helping to insure that the gates of hell will not prevail.

Ratzinger and Küng

Chris Blosser (Ratzinger Fan Club) has some words of wisdom regarding the recent meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and Hans Küng, particularly this, regarding a possible reason why Küng could not get an audience with John Paul the Great:
I have to wonder if Pope John Paul II might have been more considerate of Küng's request to meet if Küng weren't so vehement in his polemics. Openly ridiculing the Holy Father as a third-rate theologian with "a very thin theological foundation -- not to mention a lack of modern exegesis, the history of dogmas and the church" and accusing him of betraying Vatican II" by "rigorous moral encyclicals [and] traditionalist-imperialist world catechism" (as he did in his biography ) doesn't exactly cultivate an amicable relationship. If anything, this week's conciliatory meeting is a testament to Pope Benedict's patience, forgiveness and goodwill.

I agree with Chris' assessment, and I would add that this gesture by His Holiness will perhaps confirm the statements made by some, early in this pontificate, that Benedict XVI would be a "surprise" to some, but I think he may surprise others as well when they find that he sticks to his orthodox treatment of dissident theologians like Küng. I'm all for love and forgiveness and all that, but there's no reason why theologians should not be held to the same standards as the rest of us--namely, the fact that a necessary condition on forgiveness is repentance.

Who knows what the future will bring in cases like Küng et al. One hopes it will be a future of well-deserved forgiveness.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The Grass is Always Greener...

I wouldn't mind having him in one of my classes. It would beat the vapid stares I usually encounter.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Bibliophile Alert

The LibraryThing is totally cool. It's free for catalogues of up to 200 books but if, like me, you have well over 5000 books in your house, you will need to pay a one-time fee of $10. Well worth it, I'd say, for all the information it will put at your fingertips quickly and easily! Entering books is easy: all you need is the ISBN, and it fills in everything else for you (except for tags, which are user-defined).

It's not just for the anally-retentive, either: the information could be quite valuable in case of theft, fire, or other damage to your collection.

Friday, September 23, 2005


When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish lying on it, and bread.

Call me old fashioned, but I don't eat meat on Friday. Although Catholics in the United States were excused from the age-old restriction on eating flesh meat on Fridays as long ago as 1967, and the 1983 Code of Canon Law (can. 1251) requires only that some kind of food be given up on Fridays, for me it is a sign of connectedness to the millions who have gone before me in the faith to try to do what they did--to belong to their Communion. So I stick to the old rule of abstinence.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

The outward sign of unity with earlier generations is only one of the merits of this kind of abstinence--a happy side effect is that it encourages folks to eat more fish, which is good for their health. But therein lies a tale of woe for your humble, but gluttonous, narrator. Last year a Japanese restaurant opened here in Athens, the Happy Kobe, and they specialize in sushi. I've always been a fan of sushi, but this was the best sushi I'd ever tasted. I've never been to Japan, so maybe I would have a different opinion of the Happy Kobe's sushi if I'd ever had the real thing, but I have eaten sushi in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, London, and Paris, so come on, toss me a freakin' bone.

No one can serve two masters.

The sad news was that the Happy Kobe closed for the summer months, making for an Unhappy Scottie. I waited patiently for the doors to re-open on the advertised date, September 15. When the fall term here began I was almost literally drooling as I counted the days. On the 15th I almost ran from my office over to the Happy Kobe, only to see a sign announcing that the opening had been delayed until the next day. Oh well, I thought, better late than never. So I went back the next day. I had a faculty meeting at noon on the 16th, so I didn't get to the Happy Kobe until 1:15. But the Happy Kobe is only open until 2, and when I went in I was told that they were so swamped that they weren't taking any more order. Angry Scottie, but Patient Scottie, walked over to a coffee shop and had a cookie for lunch instead. Malnurished Scottie then spent the weekend waiting for another chance at bliss on the following Monday (no Happy Koby on the weekend).

Esau came in from the field and he was famished.

But on Monday a thought occurred to me. The daily Mass at my parish is at 12:15. Because of the serving hours of the Happy Kobe (11-2), there was really no way I could observe the Eucharistic fast, go to Mass, and then go to lunch at Happy Kobe with any sense of security that I would be enjoying sushi that day. I decided to skip Mass, even though I had originally planned to go. Immediately I was reminded of a passage of St. Thomas Aquinas that I had read just two days earlier, from the Disputed Question De malo. There Aquinas discusses the choice of Esau to give away his birthright for a meal, classifying the act as an instance of gluttony. And there I was, passing over a chance to participate at Mass in order to eat raw fish. I was going to be a glutton. I was doing it deliberately, too, so there wasn't to be any of that "Oh, was there a Mass today? Fancy that!" stuff.

He went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

Of course, we are not obligated to assist at Mass on most Mondays, last Monday being one of them. So at least my skipping Mass in order to stuff my face was not a case of neglect of religious duty--irreverence. We face choices all the time, and it is not always the case that we are choosing between one course of action that is clearly and unambiguously good, the other clearly and unambiguously bad. Sometimes the choices we make are between things that are each of them good, and our choice reflects only the inclination of our heart towards one good rather than another.

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

This week my heart was inclined more towards the satisfaction of a physical desire than towards a chance to be with my Lord in the Sacrament, and that is very troubling to me, in retrospect. If only it had been more troubling to me in beforespect. I used to have a colleague who would not eat pork. I asked him if he was Jewish or a Muslim, and he said "No, I just think that everybody should deny themselves just one thing that they know they really like." Perhaps it would be worth denying myself the pleasure of eating sushi, as an exchange for the spiritual benefit of looking for satisfaction elsewhere.

While he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion.

Giving up sushi will be difficult for me--I may not be able to do it. I suppose another solution is to simply re-order my values, so that what happened on Monday doesn't happen again: to exercise the virtue called sôphrosunê by the Greeks--self-control. It's a start. I often think of the story of the prodigal son at times like this, and I contemplate the fact that the boy's father would not have seen him "while he was yet at a distance" unless the father had already been looking for him in that direction. It is a great comfort. It's worth a Mass.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

O Felix Culpa! O necessarium peccatum Adae!

There is an excellent post at DarwinCatholic on the connection between sin and suffering that is due to natural disasters (such as the one about to be visited upon the Gulf coast). Mr. Darwin (I hope he doesn't mind if I call him that--I don't know whether he wants his real name bandied about) notes that, if we are to take our own physical sciences seriously, we must believe that catastrophic natural events have been a part of history since Day 1, and would have been regardless of whether Adam--or anyone else--had sinned. He begins with a remark strikingly similar to my own thoughts:
In the past, I've toyed with questions about how perhaps natural disasters would have occurred, but man's reaction to them would have been radically different, because man would not have had the inherent fear of death and lack of trust in God that fallen man has. (Aquinas also thought that man would still have physically died had there not been a fall, and that 'death' in Romans 5:12 indicates spiritual death rather than physical.)

After some interesting further thoughts, he concludes with a reference to Tolkien:
I think one of Tolkein's brilliant insights, and one of the ways in which he is thoroughly un-modern, is that he saw clearly in his theological vision of the world that the fallen nature of man and of creation in general was not just a defect to be lamented, but had been incorporated by God into his plan so that even greater examples of virtue and sacrifice might be achieved.

A huge fan of Tolkien myself, I find this view congenial. But I am something of a Christian humanist, too, and the story that reconciles natural disasters with human suffering by reference to the Thomistic analysis also strikes a chord with me. In my view, a natural disaster is really only a "disaster" when viewed from the perspective of human suffering. Volcanoes erupt, hurricanes blow, and tsunamis rise all as a part of the orderly, deterministic physical world in which we find ourselves. Nothing about such things is puzzling. What is worrisome is the fact that human suffering, sometimes ineffably vast amounts of it, is often caused by such things. I've touched on this subject briefly before, in my post on the so-called "Problem of Evil." There I argued that what really troubles people about natural disasters is the fact that God appears to be letting them happen when He has the power to prevent them. What they want, I think, is not so much that God prevent natural disasters, but that he prevent human suffering. There's nothing to worry about from a tsunami that heads of towards the South Pole and affects no one and nothing, so why bother to prevent that? We want human suffering to be prevented, and it appears as though the only way to prevent that is to prevent its proximate cause, the natural disaster.

But what if there is an avenue open to us to prevent, not the proximate cause, but the ultimate cause of the suffering? Such an avenue is open to us. We may abandon our very selves to God. If we do that, we may find that we continue to suffer physically, but in God's love none of us is lost eternally. It is a distinction that Plato also recognized in such dialogues as his Gorgias and Republic: it is the state of one's soul that determines whether one is blessed or not--the fate of one's physical remains is entirely accidental.

Physical suffering is, of course, intensely unpleasant. But so was the Cross--it can be borne by someone who is willing to bear it. I'm not at all sure that I am such a person, mind you. I'm not known for my patience, though in recent years I've worked ever harder to look at my own suffering in a new way, a way that confesses "Thy will be done--whatever it is." It doesn't always make the physical suffering itself any easier to bear, but it makes it easier to deal with spiritually, and I find that I am happier as a consequence.

Part of the problem in this, I think, is a latent utilitarianism that sometimes creeps into our way of looking at things. We ought not to be thinking to ourselves, if I look at the situation in this way, I will be happier, and that is the reason why I should look at the situation in this way. We should rather think: This is the way God wants me to look at this situation, and so that is how I will look at it. Oh, by the way--I seem to be happier now. What do you know about that?

Even my 11 year old son sees the wisdom in this. We were talking the other day about sins that involve pleasure. I was trying to explain to him that pleasure in itself is not sinful, only the ways in which we make use of pleasure. I tried to get this across by saying that God gave pleasure to us as a way of being closer to him here and now, of knowing a little something of what it will be like to be with him forever. My son said "But doesn't that turn pleasure into a reward for acting right?" I thought that was pretty insightful of him--we're not supposed to love God and follow the commandments in order to get a reward for doing so--we're supposed to act out of love, out of a genuine desire to be Godlike for its own sake, whatever the consequences. St. Thomas More once said, "Even if he should condemn me for my sins, at least his justice will be praised in me." In other words, I care less about what will happen to me than I do about seeing to it that God's will be done. If I have done something contrary to God's will, then it is only right and fitting that I shall be lost--but a greater good will be served: God will be praised, and his will exalted. To find such a thought comforting is, perhaps, the line of demarcation between sainthood and ordinarihood.

In the end I think I still see the place of disasters in nature the way I always have: stuff happens, and sometimes it happens to human beings. It is a necessary feature of the world that volcanoes erupt, the earth shakes, tsunamis rise, etc., but what these events wind up meaning to the rest of us is entirely up to us and our reception of God's call to hear his word and open our hearts to his will.

Get Ready for the Storm

No, not Rita. The storm of letters to ABC Radio. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights reports that Kim Serafin of KABC radio in Los Angeles slandered the Catholic Church and was not disciplined in any meaningful way by her supervisors. This in spite of the fact that ABC radio talk-show host Michael Graham was fired over the summer after making an offensive remark about Islam.

There is a very clear double-standard at work here: it is not politically correct to make insulting remarks about some groups of people, but Catholics are on their own. The usual reasoning behind this approach to "free" speech is to say that Catholics are part of a larger group (Christians) that has enjoyed cultural hegemony for a long time and hence making offensive remarks about it is not as threatening as making offensive remarks about groups that have traditionally been in the minority and have lacked any real power in the culture. In short, the reasoning says that it is not offensive remarks per se that are objectionable, but rather belittling folks who have not enjoyed positions of power. Once Islam becomes the dominant religion in this country, then it will be open season on them at ABC Radio. (One wonders whether, if that should ever come to pass, the members of the group in question will be as apt to roll over for ABC Radio.)

The mistake in the reasoning is clear. It is slanderous speech itself that is harmful, not the nature of the target of the slander. If slanderous speech is not wrong in itself then there cannot be anything wrong with slandering anybody any time, including Islam, so Michael Graham should not have been fired. But if there is something wrong with slanderous speech, then it is wrong to use it against anyone any time, including the Catholic Church. So if there is any justice at all at ABC Radio either Kim Serafin will have to be fired or Michael Graham will have to be re-hired. I wonder which it will be. Probably neither, proving that there is no justice at ABC Radio.

Bill Donohue of the Catholic League has promised a letter-writing campaign of biblical proportions if ABC Radio does not take steps to discipline Kim Serafin. Since she thinks that the Catholic Church is corrupt, the best discipline I can think of is to make a contribution in her name to Catholic Charities, but I think I'll also write one of those letters to ABC Radio.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Catholic Scientists/Philosophers of Science

Steve over at Speculative Catholic (a great blog) has a bunch of bubble-shaped icons over on the left side-bar that lead you to nice links like "Catholicism in Science Fiction", "Catholic Astronaut List" and "Steve's Photoshops." One of them, "Catholic Scientists", however, does not link to anything! I keep clicking on it, hoping to find out who these marvelous people are, but--nothing.

It's frustrating for me, because if you work in a philosophy department and make your religious faith known you soon find out who your real friends are. Nobody. Well, that's not exactly fair--it's not that anybody is your enemy, but they don't do a very good job of hiding their scorn for religious faith. I suppose there wouldn't be a problem if I were working in a philosophy department at a Catholic School (there the problem would arise only if you were orthodox and working in the theology department), but things are tough here. So I'm always interested when I learn of other scholars, either scientists or philosophers of science, who are devout Catholics.

Two very well-known philosophers of science come to mind right away: Bas van Fraassen and Ernan McMullin. Van Fraassen is at Princeton; McMullin (who just happens to be a priest) is emeritus at Notre Dame. I doubt that either one has to put up with much scorn from his colleagues, because both are internationally respected in their fields and they're both obviously very smart. But I look forward to Steve compiling his list and activating the link--I think it would be a great resource, not just for folks like me but also for apologists and others to know who's out there.

Viva fides et ratio!

Is Life Elsewhere?

That title is supposed to be one of my exceedingly clever and erudite puns, this time on the title of Milan Kundera's Life is Elsewhere, but I confess that, as puns go, it is neither clever nor erudite, since the only connection between what I'm going to write about and the contents of that brilliant novel is the presence of the words "life", "elsewhere", and "is" in the title.


But there life elsewhere? There are at least three ways of looking at this question. One way, defended by such popularizers of science as Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov, says that the odds are that there is life elsewhere, and on the following grounds. The sun is just one of "billions and billions" of stars of its kind in the Milky Way galaxy. The Milky Way galaxy, in turn, is just one of "billions and billions" of galaxies of its kind in the observable universe. If life arose on Earth (which is probably just one of "billions and billions" of planets of its kind") then we know that it is possible for life to arise in such a place, and given the sheer number of such places out there "the odds are" that it has arisen in other such places.

The argument, in other words, is one grounded in probability.

Another view, defended by biologists such as Ernst Mayr, holds that the conditions necessary for the origins of life on earth are already so very complex as to make such origins extremely unlikely in the first place. That life arose on this planet at all, according to this view, is already something of a naturalistic miracle, and given the astronomical odds against precisely these initial conditions arising anywhere else in the universe in tandem, we are not warranted in believing that it has arisen anywhere else. For example, if the probability of there being the right mix of O2, CO2, and whatever elements in the atmosphere is, say, n, where n < 1; and the odds of the planet being a certain distance from its sun is x, where x < 1; and all the other odds for all the other components are also less than 1; well, to calculate the overall probability of such a state of affairs you must multiply all those numbers together, and since all those numbers are less than 1, the final product is going to be very, very, very small. That is, it will represent a very tiny probability.

So this argument, too, is grounded in probability, but it draws the opposite conclusion.

The third way of looking at this is a version of the second way. About six or seven years ago a mathematician argued that not only do the conditions on the planet have to be just right for life, but the position of the putative planet must be just like the earth's position in the Milky Way (about two-thirds of the way out from the center), because if you get too close to the center of the galaxy the radiation levels will be too great for life, and if you get too far away from the center of the galaxy there won't be a sufficient mix of molecular constituents for life. So we must reduce the number of "candidate" planets from "billions and billions" to--I don't know what, actually, maybe "millions of billions" or something like that. But it means that the odds are even worse for life arising elsewhere.

So much for the scientific view. My experience has been that certain scientists talk about life "out there" as though it is virtually certain that there is intelligent life out there somewhere, and I suspect that at least half of that is just wishful thinking, seeing as how there is absolutely no empirical evidence whatsoever that there is any life anywhere else, and most of the scientists we're talking about are supposed to be empiricists. But whatever. How about from a religious point of view? Is there any theological reason for endorsing one view rather than the other?

I myself am inclined to think that there is no other intelligent life out there, but I admit that there's no scientifically compelling reason to think that--but then neither is there any scientifically compelling reason to think otherwise. I can't really think of any theologically compelling reason to think that there's no intelligent life out there, either--my main problem with it is purely of my own making: how to make sense of the Incarnation. Our faith is a decidedly historical one, and a very physical one, in the sense that it appeals to facts about the created order of things in its explanation of the meaning of that created order. I can't help but wonder what the meaning of Jesus' birth in 4 BC in Bethlehem would be--would have been?--if there is--was?--intelligent life elsewhere in the kosmos. Would they have a revelation of their own? A Messiah? What of our Messiah's suffering and death? Were they not, in the end, once and for all? Or did God create other beings "in His Image" such that Jesus only came to save us because only we were fallen? That last thought, though, crosses the line into heresy. All of creation is redeemed by Christ's sacrifice, not just the human part of it. That means that the historical, factual, actual suffering, death and resurrection of a real live fully human being is an essential, necessary, and sufficient condition for the redemption of all of creation.

Perhaps humanity serves for the universe the role that the Jews serve for humanity: we are the "chosen species", as it were, representing all of the creatures created in His image. The Jews serve as an imago Dei for the rest of mankind, but mankind is the imago Dei for the whole universe. Now that's what I call real anthropocentrism! If it's true, though, one has to wonder how the rest of the universe is supposed to know about it.

It seems more likely, somehow, that it's just us. And what would be wrong with that? Why do we want (some of us, anyway), so very desperately, for there to be intelligent life out there somewhere? I sometimes wonder if the folks who long for extraterrestrial contact aren't somehow a little disappointed with what we've got here--perhaps there is more than a little misanthropy involved, or just a bit of dissatisfaction with one's lot in life. Sure, it would be really cool to run into Mr. Spock or something even ickier out there, but I'm not sure that I share the feeling that it would be so cool as to be positively disappointing if it turned out that we were the only ones here. Because even if we turn out to be the only ones here, we would not be alone. The folks who hope for alien contact probably don't even believe in angels, let alone the Communion of Saints. Or God. We are a community of human persons because God is a community of persons. There is no need to feel "alone", even if human beings turn out to be the only intelligent creatures (other than God and the angels) in the whole universe.

Pure speculation, of course--there may very well be billions and billions of intelligent species out there; maybe they all know about God or maybe none of them do or maybe a few do and a few don't. For me, though, whatever the case is with respect to extraterrestrial life, I know that I am not alone.

Two Sides to Every Story

In the interest of fairness, here are links to the Troglodyte's (Scott Warmka) responses to my post on ID from a few days ago. He responds in three parts here, here, and here.

It will be clear to anyone who has followed the arguments that he and I have advanced that we are not really all that far apart in some ways, but clearly there are areas where we disagree. This is not helped much by the fact that there have been some occasions of confusion (for example, I did not attribute to Scott Warmke the error of assuming that like effects entail like causes--I attributed that view to Mark Shea [correctly, I think], but Scott seems to think I was talking about him [Scott Warmke] at that point, so his third installment is at least in part a case of ignoratio elenchi, though he does have some interesting and valuable things to say in that installment).

Although I am somewhat played-out on this topic, there is one point that does deserve at least a mention here, and that is the bit about Kuhn's conception of normal science as offering demarcation criteria for the boundary of science. There are two things to note in this regard. First, Thomas Kuhn would have been among the first to reject ID as an example of a "scientific" hypothesis, though Scott mentions only Kuhn's early book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions--perhaps he hasn't had a look yet at Kuhn's later work in The Essential Tension. But of course appealing to Kuhn in that way is tantamount to an appeal to authority (though a rather good authority, not an unqualified one).

Of more interest (at least to me) is the idea that Kuhn's conception of "normal science" would offer an answer to the question "what are the demarcation criteria for counting something as an instantiation of 'science'?". It is important to see that Kuhn's "normal science" is not a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for understanding the nature of science, but is rather a description of what scientists do during a certain phase of the development of a certain scientific discipline. In other words, to call the historical phase "normal science" a set of demarcation criteria would be hopelessly question-begging. It rather tells you what it is you should be doing once you have decided that what you are doing is 'science'. It does not tell you what science is.

This is not an uncontroversial point, however, since Kuhn and others, in talking about "normal science", have talked about the "constitutive values" that are at play during that phase of the development of a scientific program. But to see how this can be problematic if one reads it carelessly, consider this quotation from Kuhn that Scott has in one of his installments:
"[N]ormal science" means research firmly based upon one or more past scientific achievements, achievements that some particular scientific community acknowledges for a time as supplying the foundation for its further practice.

Note that the definition of "normal science" on offer here places it in the context of "past scientific achievements". If this were intended as a definition of science (a list of necessary and sufficient demarcation criteria), then it would be a circular definition: one still needs to know what a "scientific achievement" is, what it is that makes a particular achievement scientific rather than, say, theological in nature. I take it as obvious, for example, that we Christians believe de fide that God created the kosmos ex nihilo--the discovery of that fact is indeed an achievement of some kind, but it is an achievement of the discipline of theology, not of any empirical scientific discipline.

None of this is to downplay the interest and importance of the viewpoint that Scott Warmke so ably defends in his posts. I recommend them--and indeed his whole blog--very highly.

Monday, September 19, 2005

A Benedictine Resource

I've been working my way through Benedict's Rule: A Translation and Commentary by Terrence G. Kardong. Since there are lots of folks out there either already commited to the Benedictine Order or who are contemplating such a move, I thought I'd mention this book since it is so very good. It has the full Latin text, an English translation, and a very scholarly, thoughtful, and orthodox running commentary. It's a hefty tome (641 pages), but worth it. It's available from The Liturgical Press.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Meaning of Meaning

I haven't read any Herodotus in years. I took a course on him in graduate school, and of course he was on my reading list for the PhD in classics, but I confess that, when it came to getting him under my belt, I did the bare minimum that was required. It's a shame, not only because I seem to have lacked that intellectual curiosity that I so bemoan the absence of in my own students, but also because I was depriving myself of some great reading:
Once the whole Persion army had crossed over into Europe, they were just setting off on their journey when a really extraordinary thing happened: a horse gave birth to a hare. Xerxes dismissed it as insignificant, though its meaning was transparent. It meant that although Xerxes would walk tall and proud on his way to attack Greece, he would return to his starting point running for his life. (7.57; translated by Robin Waterfield)

When it comes to insightful analysis, it just doesn't get any better than that, not even in The Nation or Mother Jones. In particular, I like the idea that the "meaning" of this event "was transparent." That foolish old Xerxes! What a moron! Why, anybody could see what that meant!

We no longer live in a culture that finds that sort of meaning in the apparently random events of daily life. (We don't see horses giving birth to hares, either--or at least I've never seen it happen. But if I did, at least now I would know what it meant.) We chuckle at passages like this because we view the natural world in a completely different way. The forces of nature are governed by regularities that are themselves part of nature, that is, the world operates in a strictly naturalistic way. We no longer have any room for the supernatural. In some potted courses on the history of philosophy and science, one is often told that this is precisely what constitutes the line of demarcation between proto-science or proto-philosophy and the non-scientific and non-philosophical literature that preceded it: reductionistic and naturalistic, as opposed to supernaturalistic, explanations of natural events. Herodotus was born in 485 B.C., well after the rise of naturalism in the sixth century, but of course it can take a while for these things to catch on. After all, there are still folks who read their horoscope every day. I know I do.

Our view of what's natural, however, has been shaped by forces that are not always benign. We've all heard the pseudo-distinction between what's "natural" and what's "man-made", as though human beings are not themselves a part of nature. A man-made object is no less "natural" than a bird-made object like a nest, but we like to forget about that when we want to either (a) congratulate ourselves on how much smarter we are than birds or (b) complain about how human beings are messing up an environment that really belongs to birds, or that they somehow aren't really a part of at all, or are taking up too much of, or something equally incoherent. So on one misuse of the concept of "the natural" human beings are excluded in a bizarre and arbitrary way from the natural order. Going in the other direction we're told (as I've discussed in many other posts) that everything in nature--including human beings, this time--is reducible to nothing other than the material building blocks of the natural world. That is, on this misuse of "nature" we are required to be materialists and, if we are materialists, the only sensible epistemology to adopt is an empiricist one.

According to both of these misuses of "nature" there can be no real "meaning" in anything "natural". In the first case, where human beings are somehow not really a part of the rest of nature, there can be no real meaning because all meaning is nothing more than human convention, and anything that looks like meaning in nature is nothing more than the projection of human sentimentality onto otherwise meaningless objects. In the second, reductionistis case, there can be no meaning in nature because there's no real meaning anywhere--even human beings are ultimately deterministically driven automatons who enjoy only an illusion of free will.

There are, of course, variations on these themes, and one finds all sorts of positions staked out in between the extremes that I've limned. One position that is less well-staked out than it might be is a roughly Aristotelian one, where "the natural" is understood to include anything and everything that has "a nature." Unlike the full-blown materialistic naturalism of the sciences, on this view not everything in nature need be understood to have a nature. The particular members of a natural kind may be so understood on two grounds. First, they develop in certain predictable ways, growing from early to later forms in accordance with well-understood principles of ontology. Second, they are able to produce new instantiations of their own kind in a way that mere artifacts and other "natural" material entities cannot. If I take a few skin cells from my arm and clone them up, I will get a new Mini Me, but sadly I cannot scrape some paint from my colleague's BMW and try to grow myself a nice new car in my garage. In Aristotle's lingo, there is something of my form that is literally present in my matter in a way that is quite different from the way in which a BMW, or a television set, or a desk, has a kind of form in its matter.

What one is to make of this conception of form is a matter of interpretation. I have suggested in other posts that, for the Christian, there is a certain kind of interpretation that is more congenial than others--an interpretation that sees the created order as itself manifesting something of God's design in one way or another. This interpretation does not admit of clandestine messages being passed on by means of equine parturition, but it does admit of finding a deeper meaning in the structure of nature itself than the bare materialist can possibly perceive. When discussing this kind of interpretation with a non-believer one runs up against a kind of inability to see, something that is impossible to overcome simply by means of dialectic alone and, hence, something that cannot be addressed adequately by philosophy. I'm sometimes reminded, in these contexts, of a "debate" shown on Nightline many years ago between William F. Buckley, who had just written a book about sailing, and a blind man, who was going to try to circumnavigate the world on his own in a sailboat. Buckley claimed that it simply isn't possible for the blind man to experience sailing in the way that a sighted man can experience it, and the blind man objected on the grounds--quite common back then--that Buckley was somehow trying to "discriminate" against the blind. It seems that the beauty of a sunset over the ocean was not the only thing he couldn't see. So, to, when trying to put the ineffable into words one finds that a non-believer must shake his head at you, because he cannot grasp what you're talking about. Talking about God with the unbeliever is like talking about color with a man born blind. He may be able to form some sort of conceptual content that he believes can be correlated with the idea, but he will never be able to know what the believer knows. Nor can he grasp the meaning that the believer can grasp, and that is why, for him, the universe is a meaningless and purposeless place.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

At Least We've Got Frank


Zip. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Rien. Nichts.

Something tells me that this week there will be a different crowd of people partying in the streets of Athens. The serious scholars.

Herding Cats

Today I took my daughter Olivia to her first dance class. She's all of four years old, but she already shows signs of talent in the music and dance categories, so this seemed like the natural thing to do. We arrived a little late, so there were already millions of little kids running around at full tilt. It didn't take very long to sort them into groups, and Olivia was soon lining up along a rail with about 20 other kids roughly her age. Mostly they were girls, but there was at least one boy. I say "at least one" because I am one of those out-of-it dads who can't always tell a little girl apart from a little boy--I sometimes have to rely on social cues, such as manner of dress, length of hair, name, etc. When those cues are absent or markedly different from what I'm used to, as they sometimes are in this multi-cultural town, I run the risk of being more than a little clueless.

There was much running back-and-forth across a wooden floor, lots of arm-waving, leg-stretching, and giggling. The giggling was just as exuberant as the running, waving, and stretching, if not more so. There was also stuff called by the instructor "skipping" and "leaping", but it was difficult to distinguish from the running and jumping. The instructor seemed to know what she was doing. Having no expertise myself, though, there is a genuine epistemological question here regarding whether I'm in any position to judge whether someone seems to know what they're doing in such a situation. When she told them to sit on the floor and point their toes at the ceiling and then at the floor, I imagined that she was introducing them to stretching exercsies but just calling it "pointing", and when she told them to stand up and imaging that they were big bubbles by moving their arms gracefully in circles around their bodies, I again imagined that it had something to do with introducing them to some rudimentary warm-up exercises and dance movements. But of course it could have been all about bubbles, for all I know.

One thing I know for sure, though, is that the whole affair was just about the cutest thing I've ever seen. Milan Kundera wrote about the unbearable lightness of being, but all I could think about was the unbearable sweetness of children, and how the whole process of growing from infancy to adulthood is, in Tolkien's phrase, a kind of "eucatastrophe". It is good, and indeed a necessary good, to become an adult, but it is a radical change, a turning away from something else, also good, which then seems to be lost forever. There is room for regret, so long as we don't dwell on it.

After the class we went to a local place called the Village Café for a root beer. (They also stock a fine collection of microbrewed regular beer, but I thought it better to share in the sweetness with Olivia while I had the chance.) The root beer she chose was called, I kid you not, "Hand-crafted Microbrewed Root Beer." Catchy brand name, that. I wonder if they have a jingle to go along with it, something from, say, Philip Glass. When I was a kid, A&W was a popular root beer, as was Hines and Barq's. They were all sickly sweet, but this one was made with a long and exotic list of ingredients, many of which were decidedly more like Bark than like Barq. Indeed, it really was a root beer, with sasparilla, vanilla, licorice, etc. It was good, though--just somewhat unexpected and, perhaps because of that, something of a challenge to one's view of what a root beer should be like.

When we sat down at a little table for two, with a vase of flowers to brighten the mood, I poured a serving for each of us into an ice-filled glass. She lifted hers to mine and said "Cheers!" It's difficult not to dwell on the fact that this moment in time is precious precisely because it is ephemeral. Not only will this moment disappear in the currents of time, but this little person sitting across from me will soon be gone, replaced by a larger, more mature version. My friend will not vanish into thin air, of course, but she will be transformed into something different, and perhaps a different friend. What makes her so sweet right now are precisely those properties that she will lose over time: her innocence, her silliness, her view of the world. (Aren't you glad I didn't say Weltanschauung?) But those properties will be replaced by other, more complex and presumably more interesting properties. Out with the sugar, in with the sasparilla.

Next week music--and more structure--will be added to the orderd chaos of today's workout. And parents are not invited to subsequent lessons (there will be a show for us at the end of the year). She'll be on her own--the begining of the long process of letting her go, to be herself, to be different from me. A beautiful process, to be sure, but filled with unexpected turns and challenges to what we have come to expect. As bittersweet as a microbrewed root beer.

Friday, September 16, 2005

My Sentiments Exactly

Michael Pakaluk on one reason for studying ancient philosophy.

Maybe We're Just Picking the Wrong Peers

The other day I lamented, in my roundabout way, Ohio University's fall in the academic rankings, and I suggested that we are not helped any by the fact that we've chosen some rather stiff competition to count among our peer institutions (such as UNC). Maybe we should just pick other institutions to compare ourselves to. Like the University of Arizona, for example. One of my colleagues went to graduate school there.

Now, the University of Arizona is a fine institution, and it has one of the best philosophy departments in the country. (Or so my colleague keeps telling me.) Among other things, they are particularly well known for their program in social and political philosophy, as is evident here. It's good to see that the future of analaytic philosophy is in good hands:
YAY! for beautiful mornings. These last couple of mornings have been gorgeous. Deliriously gorgeous. Blue skies with perhaps a smidgen of clouds, weather in the mid-70’s.

BOO! to Bush. Just because he sucks.

YAY! for a cute little green jacket I bought on sale today. Now it just needs to get cooler outside so I can wear it.

Personally I prefer sunsets, but the green jacket sounds great. Another one of my colleagues--not the one from Arizona--wears one often. I think he wears it because it is the Ohio University color, but every time I see him in it I make it a point to say "George! You won the Masters!"

He's not a golf fan.

Some people have no sense of humor.

For the Cause

Speaking of Mark Shea, if you value the apologetics that he does for rock solid orthodoxy in the Catholic faith, please consider helping him out with a monetary donation. Folks like him--intelligent, articulate, orthodox--are hard to come by, and few are able to devote their full attention to apologetics the way he does. He is a witness not only to the content of our faith, but also to its appeal since, as a convert, he serves as a beacon to those are are struggling in other denominations. As a convert myself, I find his voice often to have a comforting ring to it.

I don't know Mark Shea from any context other than his blog, and I don't think he knows me at all--I don't think he even reads my blog, so I'm not doing this at his request or out of some sense of loyalty or payback. I just think he, and the cause, deserve it.

Fraternae concordiae iucunditas

This one is for Jennifer at Wayward Catholic. I hope she won't mind that I changed one word, since I changed it for her!

Ecce quam bonum et quam iucundum *
   habitare sorores in unum:
sicut unguentum optimum in capite, +
   quod descendit in barbam, barbam Aaron, *
   quod descendit in oram vestimenti eius;
sicut ros Hermon, *
   qui descendit in montes Sion,
quoniam illic mandavit Dominus benedictionem, *
   vitam usque in saeculum.

Pax tecum, Jennifer!

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, and Eternity in an hour

DarwinCatholic has a fascinating post about St. Augustine's treatment of the relationship between our atemporal God and his temporal creation. This is a subject that is a matter of perennial fascination for me. Take, for example, this line from Darwin's post:
Picture two events that took place two thousands years apart (say today and Jesus' fifth birthday). Now, remember that since God is eternal he experienced infinite periods of time both before Jesus' fifth birthday and after today.

Doesn't this already raise some questions? For example, what would it mean to say that "God experienced infinite periods of time"? If God is atemporal (outside of time), he doesn't experience anything (since to experience something is to have subjective awareness of it through some temporal span), let alone anything infintely long--but suppose we grant that he does (or at least can) experience things--how can anyone, whether or not he is God, experience something that is infinite in duration? It seems to me that to "experience" something is to have finished it. I can't really say that I've "experienced" Beethoven's Fifth Symphony until I've heard all of it, can I? If I fall asleep in the middle of the first movement, I have at best partly experienced it. But I have not experienced "the (entire) symphony" itself, and if the symphony is infinitely long then I don't see how I can ever claim to have experienced it.

In some sense, though, the temporal order is all eternally present to God all at once--not in a moment, but in something less than a moment, a point, if you will, or a singularity. He knows everything about the created order not as we know, say, the plot of a movie, but in the way that we know what the color red is like when someone utters the word "red"--it is automatic, total, and instantaneous. It's difficult--at least for me--to get one's mind around that kind of awareness, and more difficult still to imagine what it must be like to be in an atemporal state. It's tempting to wonder about it, though, because we believe that when we die we will enter into Eternity. Life may seem short to us now (especially if, like me, it's already half over for you), but we are all semi-atemporal beings in the sense that our souls are immortal--they had a beginning, but they have no end (unless you think that damnation consists in the obliteration of your soul, but that is not the orthodox view).

Does this mean that there will come a time, when we experience the Beatific Vision, in which all things will be present to our awareness all at once--or at least those things that are proper objects of our (as opposed to God's infinite) intelligence? It makes my head hurt just to think about it. But it's something to look forward to, if only because I'll finally understand why mayonnaise jars are made so deep yet with such narrow openings.

(The title, by the way, is from Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience.)

Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude

If you're like me, books like Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code can be infuriating in spite of being a good read. What people like me need to do is get some perspective on life. I once went to Confession and admitted to being really angry--to the point of hating--certain folks who slander the Church and distort her magisterium, and the priest said to me, in effect, get a life. People have attacked the Church before, indeed all through her history, and, just as we were told, the Gates of Hell have not, nor will they ever, prevail against Her. And he was certainly right--one ought not to give in to the temptation to think that one's own epoch will somehow wind up being the most important, or influential, or eschatological. Things weren't too great in Western Civ at the end of the 20th century, but that was, after all, just one part of one of twenty centuries of the Church's history.

That we ought not be overly concerned when folks attack our institutions is brought home in a very forceful way when you hear about books like this, as reviewed by my pal Steve over at Speculative Catholic (a fine blog). I have not read the book myself, but judging from Steve's thorough trashing of it it sounds like a hoot, and one is reminded that, generally, the reason why people hate the Church, or her magisterium, is because they don't really know anything about it.

This is obviously true in the case of someone like the author of The Omega Scroll, but it is also true of someone like Dan Brown, who, in spite of his obvious book learnin' has not taken the time to examine carefully his own presuppositions or the inferences that he draws from them. His work has the appearance of something thoughtful and scholarly, but in fact it is just a supermarket novel with a fancy theme and no picture of Fabio on the cover.

There are other enemies of the Church, of course, who are not the poseurs that Dan Brown is. Daniel Goldhagen comes to mind: a serious scholar, a historian, whose hatred of the Catholic Church is pathological. He is, quite simply, unable to write anything true, useful, or scholarly about the Catholic Church simply because he is not able to think rationally when the subject comes up. But because he is someone who has genuine academic credentials (including a tenured position at a major American university--it is interesting to note, however, that some scholars have begun to question his academic credentials) what he writes tends to get taken more seriously in some circles. But his views are so outlandish that people are beginning to see through him. A more serious threat is someone like Garry Wills, who pretends to love the Church while trashing her magisterium. As you may be able to guess, all such persons are sources of irritation to me.

But patience, they say, is a virtue worth cultivating, and I promise you I am trying to cultivate it. I have learned to accept that such people exist, that they always will exist, and that they don't matter. Nothing they say, or write, will ever have any long-term effect on what the Church is or what she teaches. If anything we ought to pray very hard for such people, since they give every appearance of being in the grip of invincible ignorance.

On the other hand, if you can change your attitude towards what they claim to be doing, they can become great sources of amusement, rather like Homer Simpson. He says outlandish and ignorant things, too, and we all laugh. The difference, I guess, is that Homer is at least a decent person who means well.

I Thought You Said Intelligent Design!

The ID controversy seems unwilling to go away. The Troglodyte, Scott Warmke, has this to say on the matter, and although I ordinarily find his blog very good, this is a case where he really falls on his face. One of my favorite lines in there is this one:
Curiously, or perhaps not, all three groups gravitate to the same stock phrases, albethey [sic] for different reasons. "ID is not science!" "ID is creationism!" "ID is not testable!" "ID teaches religion in the classroom!" yada yada yada.

You've especially got to love the "yada yada yada" comment. You just can't argue with logic like that! I'm reminded of a line from Plato's Republic, where Socrates has been asked to say what he thinks justice is, but his interlocutor, Thrasymachus, has told him that he may not say that it is "what's beneficial" or "what's necessary" or "what's profitable" or any of the other popular definitions floating about. As it happens, Socrates doesn't happen to think that justice is any of the things that Thrasymachus has mentioned, but the constraint put upon him prompts him to say
Clever of you, Thrasymachus. Clever enough to know what would happen if you were to ask someone what twelve was, but then give him a warning before he answered: "Now look here, don't go telling us that twelve is twice six, or three times four, or six times two, or four times three. I'm not going to take any nonsense of that sort from you."

"I'm not going to take any nonsense of that sort from you" here = "yada yada yada."

In other words, what if the demarcation criterion for science (not a phrase one will find in Warmke's essay, by the way) just happens to be testability? Apparently we're not allowed to mention that, since it would preclude Warmke's favored candidate from the field of the scientific. Now that's the way to win arguments!

Things are a little better, but not much, over at Mark Shea's blog, where he has this contribution to make. I agree with some of what he has to say, but he continues to make the central error that sets ID apart from genuine science: he continues to think that like effects entail like causes, a non-sequitur of biblical proportions.

Tom Kreitzberg, a favorite blogger of mine for a variety of very different reasons, has this to say on his blog Disputations. (You simply must admire the charity of a man who calls Mark Shea "nuanced and cautious". Don't get me wrong--I love Mark Shea, I respect Mark Shea and his work/calling. But "nuanced and cautious"? Come on.) Of the three contributions I've mentioned here, this last one is by far the best.

In particular I agree so strongly with Tom's final paragraph, that I'm just going to lift it, with apologies to him:
Another point of those objections is how scientific they sound today. The first objection offers a hypothesis ("God exists"), determines what should be observed if the hypothesis is true (no evil in creation), makes an observation (evil exists), and corrects the hypothesis ("God doesn't exist"). The second objection is Occam's Razor avant Occam, and Occam's Razor is forever being wielded by acolytes of modern science who think it can carve God clean out of His creation. (These same acolytes look down on medieval thinkers like St. Thomas and their backward notions of science.) A culture that values scientific-sounding arguments as much as ours is one particularly susceptible to atheism.

There is a genuine danger of atheism, in my opinion, only if you wed the "value" of "scientific-sounding arguments" to realism about science. If you remain an anti-realist, then "scientific-sounding" arguments really are valuable not just because they sound scientific, but because they are scientific.

If you look at the so-called "Five Ways" of the Summa Theologiae, you will see that they are, in essence, a posteriori arguments. That is significant, I think. Others had made a priori arguments that failed, but St. Thomas attempts to appeal to human reason and the powers of human observation to make his proof of God's existence. He is all for the utilization of the entire, integrated, human person, body and soul, reason and observation, because that is the sort of faculty of knowledge that is peculiarly human, though directed at objects that are the objects of any kind of knowledge.

I have stressed, in my own meagre contributions to this debate (you can check the archives for them), my own sense that the defenders of ID have lost sight of the place of knowledge and exploration in human experience--in spite of the fact that they are claiming that it is the evolutionists who want to "stifle" the "debate". When I was in graduate school I often went running with a friend who was a very strict creationist (not the same thing as ID, but close enough in some important ways) who claimed that the fossil record is deceptive: those dinosaur bones may look like they're millions of years old, but God made them to look that way in order to test our faith. That's a pretty good example of what Karl Popper had in mind when he proposed falsifiability as the demarcation criterion for science. I'm not sure Popper was entirely correct, but when I think about what my friend was willing to say in order to save his hypothesis from falsification, I think I know what Popper was worried about.

I, for my part, can't for the life of me imagine what the motivation behind ID is supposed to be. If one is an evolutionist who believes in God, and who believes that evolutionary processes are themselves examples of the design that God built into the kosmos, on what grounds are we supposed to then reject evolution in favor of a hypothesis that says, in effect, everything you already believe is true, except for the evolution part. In short, ID is antecedently denying that certain examples of design can really be counted as examples of design. But no reason is given for thinking that these forces ought not to count as proof of God's design.

No reason. That's a rather pithy saying, now that I think about it.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Eh-Oh Way To Go Ohio

I mentioned in a recent post the fact that Ohio University has lowered admission standards in order to admit the largest freshman class in its history (ACT and SAT scores are down 10% from last year). I also mentioned that we hired Frank Solich to coach our football team, in the hopes that big money will win big games, drawing big attention.

As it happens, Ohio University did not win its first football game of the season against Northwestern. But it did win its first home game of the season against Pittsburgh, and it managed to do it while 25,000 locals and who knows how many viewers of ESPN2 were watching. Forget about the fact that the offense was basically on vacation and the game was won almost entirely by the defense, and forget about the fact that Pittsburgh seems not to be the team it was hyped up to be--it was an exciting moment for the followers of one of the worst college football teams in the country.

So exciting, in fact, that it seems that some revellers were not content with merely cheering in the stands or at the sports bars uptown--they decided to take their party to the streets. Literally: police reported many street fires, much property damage, and a rather embarrassing number of arrests considering that this is neither Halloween, Spring Break, Palmerfest, or any of the other dozen or so "regularly scheduled street parties" during which rioting appears to be regarded as much more acceptable.

Our football team may wind up doing better in the rankings this year, but it's beginning to look like the University itself will not fare so well. We were already red-faced about the fact that we moved up in the Princeton Review's "Party School" rankings from number 5 to number 2 when what should happen but we moved down in the U. S. News and World Report rankings from number 49 to number 52 in the bargain category and out of the top 100 in the best public schools category. Dude, that is, like, so bogus!

We are not helped any by the fact that we jettisoned our old peer-institutions for some newer, better ones. If we were still comparing ourselves to Miami of Ohio, slipping to number 52 may not look so bad; but our new peer institution, UNC, is number 5. Ouch. We managed to go from mediocrity to suckiness just by redefining ourselves.

All of this has got to be a major embarrassment for President Roderick McDavis, who wants Ohio University to be a contender: he wants to build the graduate and hard science research programs while maintaining an excellent undergraduate base, all in the face of raging alcoholism, riots, and sports-mania that now spills out into the streets. I say it "has got to be", but of course it isn't. It was McDavis' idea, fully supported by the Board of Trustees, to make the sports programs at Ohio University more competitive.

I have nothing against sports per se. In fact, I love football. I do think, however, that a University is primarily a place of education and research, and it is my opinion that the best universities (like, you know, UNC, for example) make it a point to have very strong liberal arts programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. This is not a committment that the Board of Trustees or Roderick McDavis are willing to make, and it's going to start showing more and more as the rankings come in and the parties get wild.

But at least we've got Frank.


Take the Wojtyla-Ratzinger quiz over at Speculative Catholic. I appear to be closer to Ratzinger than Wojtyla, which is a good thing considering my fondness for German beer and Latin liturgy.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Southern Discomfort

I lived in North Carolina for eighteen years, beginning in the fall of 1978 when I moved to Chapel Hill to study classics at the University of North Carolina, and ending in the fall of 1996 when I moved here to Athens to take a job at Ohio University. I was 20 years old when I moved down there--a very formative age. In spite of having spent nearly half of my life there by the time I left, however, I think I was always primarily a sojourner rather than a southerner in spirit. I loved North Carolina: it is a very beautiful place, and from Chapel Hill one can travel easily either to the mountains or the beach in just two or three hours of comfortable driving. My favorite spots were the Snowbird Mountains deep in the westernmost part of the state and the Outer Banks, but Chapel Hill itself is surrounded by beautiful country, and I have fond memories of many a long bike ride through farmland, forests, and hill country.

The real beauty of North Carolina, however, is not so much in the scenery as in the people. Of course, when you're in graduate school at a place like UNC, a lot of the people you meet are actually from out of town. Usually pretty far out of town. My teachers and fellow graduate students were mostly Damn Yankees. The same was true when, in the fall of 1990, I decided to start graduate school all over again at Duke University over in Durham. One of my teachers at Duke, Robert Brandon, was a native North Carolinian, but he did his own graduate work at Harvard and it showed. But I wasn't in school all the time, and from 1986 until 1990 I was actually a working stiff, and I got to meet plenty of natives, and I was always impressed by their kindness, their charm, and their basic decency.

I also met my wife in North Carolina, though she, too, was not a native. She grew up in the People's Republic of Ann Arbor, and may, to this day, be the only conservative to escape from that nut house. While we were both still in grad school she got involved with tutoring adults in reading, and I used to tag along with her sometimes because, well, I had a car and she didn't. So I guess I wasn't exactly tagging along, but, well, whatever. Anyway, one day while she was tutoring a woman who was working towards her GED I started playing with the woman's grandson, and eventually I became an unofficial Big Brother to him. As he grew up I would take him around to the local playgrounds, museums, libraries, movies, restaurants, and in general we had a good time. His father lived in Durham but he didn't see him very often. When he was very little we all called him BJ, but when he got to high school he changed his name--legally--to Christopher because of his serious committment to Christianity. Next year he will graduate from high school, and I'm planning to go down to North Carolina for the commencement activities.

In light of this rather boring and potted history of my time in North Carolina the title of today's entry might appear somewhat strange. After all, my time in North Carolina was actually quite comfortable. The discomfort has more to do with going back. Since moving to Ohio I have adopted an African American daughter, who is now four years old. She will come with me next summer, but I'm a little nervous about it. Race is a very complicated issue, and although I know that I cannot protect her forever I am still sad about some of the things that I imagine are in her future. Here in Ohio we are not immune to stares from folks who wonder what she is doing with us. (This is particularly uncomfortable when she's having a tantrum, and I am trying to lead her out of a store while she's screaming, at the top of her lungs: "Mommy mommy mommy! I want my mommy!" On the other hand, when is that ever comfortable?) In North Carolina, though, there is a little more baggage involved. Way back in 1979 I stopped at a gas station right in the heart of Chapel Hill. In those days the attendants came out and filled your tank for you and the whole thing cost about eight bucks. I got out of my car while the attendant was filling the tank, and we both watched as an African American walked past the station carrying one of those great icons of the 1970s, a gigantic boom-box, which was blaring some loud music. The attendant looked at me and shook his head, and then he said something I will never forget: "F&*%ing animals." It was only then, after having lived in Chapel Hill for almost a year, that I thought to myself, hey, this is the South-with-a-capital-S. The Civil Rights Act had been passed only 15 years before.

There are racists everywhere, of course--the south has no monopoly. I believe that I even have some close family members who are racists, and we were all raised in Ohio. It's not where you're from, it's what you're taught, what you learn to believe about human dignity and worth and about tribalism. I think that tribalism is probably the most important factor. A lot of people are happy to say that everyone has the same worth, the same dignity, but they still think of themselves as belonging to a particular group, and in their heart of hearts they are just plain more comfortable with folks from their own group. This can be a very innocuous attitude most of the time, but when it gets out of control it manifests itself in the form of racism: a judgment that someone who is different from me in some way is somehow deserving of something different precisely because he does not belong to my tribe. If he is not one of us, we don't owe him anything.

Tribalism is everywhere, too, but one of the things that makes me uncomfortable about the south is that some southerners have practically institutionalized it. It gets expressed in many ways. Some are seemingly harmless, for example, Confederate battle flags plastered on pickup trucks. Some are political, for example, referring to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression. Some are rather nasty, for example, the Ku Klux Klan. All tribes have their own equivalents of these, I think, so I don't mean to single out southerners as the only ones who practice this sort of thing. But Southern Pride is an unmistakeable phenomenon, and I don't think there is anything quite like it among northerners per se. There are the Irish, of course, and the Italians, the Germans, and who knows how many other groups who celebrate their national heritage; but I've never heard of "northern pride" and when you see an American Flag plastered on a pickup truck it's usually an expression of 21st century patriotism rather than 19th century Union Federalism.

So I love the south, but I confess that I also fear some aspects of southern culture, of southern tribalism. Although it is often couched in terms of independence and states' rights, it is difficult to forget the fact that most southern states, in their declarations of secession, did not give states' rights but the preservation of slavery as their reason for seceeding. The emphasis varied from state to state, but even in those states where states' rights was given as the main reason for seceeding, we find that it is offered as a negative reason: South Carolina, for example, was angry at northern states because they were exercising independence in not enforcing the federal laws demanding the return of escaped slaves. It comes as no surprise to me, then, that this is the sort of thing that many African Americans think of when they see a Confederate battle flag. Some southerners have said (indeed, I have heard a southern Catholic priest say) that this is not what the flag stands for, and it is folks' own fault if they misinterpet it so badly as to be upset by it. But the nagging question remains: well then, what exactly does it stand for? Southern culture? Which southern culture? The one that oppressed and enslaved blacks? No, the answer is supposed to be, the culture of independence and states' rights, the culture of antebellum grace and charm. But this culture only existed at the expense of the enslaved. What was truly noble about the antebellum south has far better symbols than the battle flag: Thomas Jefferson comes to mind.

When my daughter sees one of those flags and asks me what it stands for, what am I going to say? That it is a "Confederate battle flag"? What battle were the Confederates fighting, daddy? They wanted their independence. Independence from what? The United States. Why didn't they want to be part of the United States? Because they felt that the northern states had broken the Constitutional agreement. What agreement? To allow the expansion of slavery into new territories, and to return escaped slaves. What's a slave, daddy?

But all of that is just theoretical disputation. I'm sure that plenty of defenders of southern pride are not really racists. The problem is not being proud of your region or your heritage, but failing to see how tribalism can harm, failing to have empathy and compassion for differing points of view about the nature of your heritage and region. No culture can exist in a vacuum--southern culture is no exception. The icons we employ reflect the background of our beliefs, and that is as good a reason as any to do away with battle flags and Klansmen.

I'm sure my family will have a great time in North Carolina next summer--we always do. In my mind, as the song says, I often go to Carolina, especially the mountains. But I'm always mindful of what took place in this country and why, and how it will impact future generations. Including, now, my own family. It is somewhat discomforting.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

A Little Knowledge Can Be A Deadly Thing

The word "sophomore" is usually used to denote a student in his or her second year of college-level education (it is also applied, in some places, to students in the 10th grade). It is a compound of two combining forms with Greek roots: sopho- comes from the Greek sophos, wise, and the -more comes from the Greek moros, fool. A sophomore is a "wise fool" because s/he has, on the one hand, a full year of college education under the belt, but, on the other hand--that's not much to go on. It often makes one cocky, in fact: I can't tell you how many sophomores in my classes have a tendency to launch into a critique of a philosophical argument originating with, say, Plato, or Aristotle, or Kant, or Quine, by saying something like "this argument is ridiculously invalid". Oh, to have balls like that again! My own shrivelled cajones have learned to be a little more circumspect.

But some folks never get past the sophomoric stage of analysis. I recently came across an astounding example of it here. It is a philosophical paper, written by a learned lady at the number-one rated philosophy department in the United States, the one at New York University. The thesis is that we can save the case for abortion rights if we accept the fact that fetuses less than one week old do not have any moral status. It is one of the oldest, and worst, arguments in the book, but that doesn't stop otherwise intelligent folks from trotting it out time and time again.

The reason smart people do things like this is because lots of smart people are smart enough to construct arguments to prove whatever it is that they want to prove. They lack the "philosophical spirit" that Plato claimed Socrates had, the impulse to discover the truth by means of a cooperative search rather than merely persuading folks that some antecedently accepted idea is the truth. This occurs in the abortion debate all the time. The pro-choicers approach the problem this way: we must save the case for abortion rights, so the question is not "Is abortion right or wrong," but rather "Given that I already believe abortion is OK, how can I prove it, or else prove that my opponents are neanderthals?"

The paper at the other end of the link above is a case in point. The author has antecedently decided that abortion is OK, and the case for it must be defended at any cost. So she is not embarrassed to trot out vapid and banal arguments in its defense on the off chance that someone will be fooled. Of course she does not say that this is what she is doing--who would, after all, confess to such sophistry--but I have actually heard colleagues in the academy say that this is what they are doing. Only a couple of years ago a colleague of mine said "But if we say that the case for abortion will be weakened" and this was offered as a Very Good Reason for not saying the thing in question.

This attitude is rather shocking, not just because it has to do with abortion but because it is anti-intellectual and anti-philosophical. It is not something done in a genuine spirit of inquiry, but is rather mere rhetoric, mere sophistry, mere persuasion. It is also sophomoric, since if people knew better they wouldn't do it. But they know enough to sound smart when they make their arguments, at least to some ears. In many cases this attitude does not have very interesting or important consequencs. But when this kind of intellectual drool is applied to the defense of abortion, lives are at stake, and ignorance, in this case, really is death.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus

Over the summer I had a student come by my office to get some documentation for fall registration. It was a purely ordinary, businesslike affair--he is one of my advisees, and I see him every term. This summer, however, for the first time, I learned something new and rather startling about him. He is a Neo-Feeneyite. I write "Neo-Feeneyite" because he told me that he rejects Fr. Feeney's view as having been condemned. But he then went on to insist to me that Fr. Feeney was still right about the old "Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus" controversy. (For those who may be unfamiliar with this arcane little controversy, Fr. Feeney held that we must strictly interpret "Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus" as meaning that anyone who is not a card-carrying member in good standing of the Roman Catholic Church is going to go to hell. This is not the Church's understanding of the phrase, but the phrase does, indeed, capture a de fide teaching of the Church--it must be believed by the faithful.) When I mentioned to him the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on the matter, he told me that Vatican II was "merely a pastoral council", as though that meant that what it taught was somehow not infallible. We wrestled with the matter for a little while, but I soon tired of it and let it go.

The reason I mention all of this is because Michael Liccione has posted some wonderful stuff on all of this--not just "Extra Ecclesiam" but the whole question of the development of doctrine--over on Pontifications. Michael is both a fine philosopher and an admirable apologist, and I cannot recommend his posts highly enough. The comments (over 30 so far) are also very good, making for a fine dialogue.

I've already discussed my view of the development of doctrine in the thread on Just War Theory. The long and the short of it is that I think Michael is exactly right, while my student, though he is a smart fellow, is basically just a different kind of protestant.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Sanity In Der Spiegel

It's good to see that not everyone is being a moron about Katrina and global warming: Claus Christian Malzahn sets the record straight, and gets the perspective right.

Requiescat In Pace

Chief Justice William Renquist has died. See the story at the New York Times.

What Are You Laughing At?

In a story from the Times (of London) last month we are told about efforts to determine which jokes are the most offensive to Christians and other religious folks. I take it that the idea was to test the British government's Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, which had its third reading in July. A vote was taken to determine winners in such categories as Most Offensive Joke, Funniest Joke, etc.

I'm of two minds about religious jokes. I must confess that I sometimes think they're pretty funny. One of my favorites concerns a Jesuit, a Dominican, and a Baptist riding in a train together. The Baptist notices that he's riding with clergy, but he's unfamiliar with the Orders, so he asks the Jesuit and the Dominican why their habits are different. "My brother here is a member of the Jesuit Order," says the Dominican, "while I am a member of the Dominican Order." "What's the difference?" The Baptist asks. "The Jesuit Order was established to combat the Protestant heresies," says the Jesuit, "while the Dominican was established to combat the Albigensian heresy." The Baptist looks confused. "I'm still not sure I see the difference," he says. The Dominican pipes up immediately: "When was the last time you saw an Albigensian?"

Other religious jokes I find more irritating than funny. The "Vatican Rag" by Tom Lehrer, for example, strikes me as in very bad taste. I mentioned the other day that I became a Roman Catholic in 1983. Well, as it happens, I converted to Christianity before that--in 1979 I left my abject atheism behind and became an Episcopalian. Tom Lehrer was very popular among the Episcopalians that I used to hang out with, and the Vatican Rag was a particular favorite. I think the main reason was because my friends were mostly "high church" Episcopalians who had Rome Envy, so jokes about Rosaries and Communion Wafers struck them as funny because it was a vicarious way of saying "Yeah, we're members of that club, too." These same folks thought that Monty Python's Life of Brian was hilarious, but I still think it falls somewhere between blasphemy and anti-Semitism.

Am I just a killjoy? Why do I think some religious jokes are funny but others are offensive? For the life of me I can't see why I should laugh at a joke about a man hanging on a cross. Even if I did not believe that man to be the Son of God I would not think it funny, but given who that Man was and what He was doing the joke is not only not funny, it is downright blasphemous. Even something as seemingly innocuous as the lines "Get down on your knees/Fiddle with your Rosaries/Bow your head with great respect and/Genuflect genuflect genuflect" (from the Vatican Rag) seems to me to make light of something that is infused with sublimity and importance. To think it funny, it seems to me, is a little like thinking that the Mona Lisa is funny because she has no eyebrows--it says more about the folks who are laughing than about the object of laughter. I think some people may think it is somehow "with it" to find things like the Vatican Rag or Life of Brian funny--they appear to think that laughing at these things shows that they are in the know, members of the club. But really it just shows how banal their faith is. In my opinion.

OK, so maybe I'm a dork. "Blessed are the cheesemakers" isn't funny to me. But that joke about the Jesuits cracks me up every time.

De gustibus non disputandum est.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Assent, Dissent, and Disagreement

J oe Cecil over at LiberalCatholicNews (technically known as In Today's News) says that he remains "frustrated because a point I am trying to make is not understood by the very people with whom I am raising the issue." I don't think I am the only one he has in mind, but since he mentions me by name I think I must be at least one of the folks contributing to his frustration.

His claim appears to be not that the war in Iraq is manifestly unjust, and that those of us who do not think so are dissenting from Church teaching because two Popes and who knows how many other theologians have said, several times, that "unilateral" and "preventative" or "pre-emptive" warfare is contrary to Just War Theory. Rather, he claims only that, whether or not the war in Iraq is objectively just or unjust, faithful Roman Catholics are bound to accept the judgments of Pope John Paul the Great, Pope Benedict XVI, and the many other worthies of the hierarchy who have decided that the war is, in fact, unjust according to the necessary and sufficient conditions of Just War Theory. For Joe, then, the requirement to give intellectual assent applies not just to magisterial Church teachings, but to the prudential judgments of certain prelates and theologians. Whether or not Joe intends this argument to be a mere tu quoque (he avers as how many "conservative" Catholics are just as much cafeteria Catholics as anybody else when it comes to issues such as this one) is, I suppose, beside the point--it is a claim seriously made and must be seriously addressed.

In all fairness I must point out that this may not, in the end, be the most accurate statement of Joe's position--it is entirely possible that I still do not fully understand him, so I strongly recommend that folks have a look at his argument for themselves. His posts are long, and thoughtfully argued, so I cannot pretend to be doing justice to them by giving a quick summary.

As for my position, I have no illusions that my views about the war in Iraq are shared by Pope Benedict XVI, or indeed by many in the episcopacy. I am an American, and many of them are Europeans, and, to be blunt, I attribute much of our disagreement to that. Nor will all American conservatives agree--there is a fair amount of isolationism among certain quarters of the conservative domain. My view is not a fully theological view--it is partly a moral claim. In my opinion the war is not merely a just war, it is a war that we are morally obliged to fight and to win. I believe this because I believe that we have a moral obligation to vindicate the rights of those who are not capable of vindicating their own rights. This vindication may take many forms, but in some cases only military intervention will be effective.

Whether this in itself will make the war justifiable from the point of view of Just War Theory is an open question, in my view. I do not take it as obvious that the war in Iraq does not meet the criteria of Just War Theory, but I am certainly open to the possibility that it does not, even though at present I believe that it does. But it is certainly worth noting, whatever else one might think about Just War Theory, that doctrine does, indeed, undergo development over time, and our understanding of Just War Theory is not something that we can regard as definitively settled even while we do believe that it is definitively settled that all warfare must be just. One of the criteria of a Just War, according to the classical formulation that we find in such authors as Aquinas, is that the cause be just. Just think about that criterion for a second. If you were to ask yourself, Is this war just? you would apparently have to also ask yourself Is my cause just? If that's not a question that is bound to lead to some question begging down the line somewhere, then I don't know what would count as question begging. The situation is fraught with difficulty, as they say.

Much of this, however, is irrelevant to the question of whether the Church requires assent to the prudential judgments of Popes and other Bishops. History is littered with manifestly bad prudential judgments of Popes and other Bishops, though, so one would think that a self-proclaimed "progressive Catholic" would be somewhat circumspect in this matter. It was the prudential judgment of several Popes that being a slave does not harm human dignity, but Vatican II taught otherwise. This is a clear case of the development of doctrine. We do not want to say that the Church's magisterial teachings are open to change, otherwise there can never be any assurance that what the Church teaches is definitively true. The truth is irreformable. But our understanding of the truth is not irreformable. We are now in a position to draw an important distinction--to say that, with regard to being a slave, there is one sense in which it does not harm human dignity, but another sense in which it does. From the point of view of the human essence, nothing temporal or corporal can change the fact that we are all, fully and equally, human beings, created by God out of love. Even the most abject slave under the worst conditions is no better or worse, qua human essence, than any other human being. But from the point of view of our capacity to pursue our divinely ordained end as humans, it is equally clear that slavery is an impediment and, as such, it is per se wrong to keep any human being as a slave. Did the Popes who said that serving as a slave is not harmful to human dignity mean it in the sense that I have outlined here? Probably not. The sense in which they intended it was probably false (though it is difficult to know for sure just what their innermost thoughts were), though in the end there is a sense in which the claim is true. A sense that must be balanced against the sense of Vatican II, which also must be regarded as true.

Some folks will complain that this is a kind of "backwards engineering", trying to force truth upon opinions that we no longer regard as true under ordinary conditions. There is a tension here. On the one hand, we do tend to think that our own views about morality are somehow benefitting from generations of hard work by moralists and theologians (not to mention historians, scientists, and all the others who contribute to the body of human knowledge). On the other hand, we must guard against the temptation to be overly positivistic about this fact--we must be careful not fall into the hubris of thinking that because we have come along at this moment in history therefore we must always be right and the moralists and theologians of the past, whenever they disagree with us, must be wrong. But we must also guard against the temptation to think that truth is relative. If we really do believe that the Church's magisterium is guided by the Holy Spirit, and if we really do believe that truth is not relative, then we are not "backwards engineering" the truth when we try to find ways of understanding just how the Holy Spirit has worked in the Church through centuries of temporal and contingent human history. If you don't accept the indefectibility of the Church and her magisterium, none of this is a problem. But then you're not a Catholic. Indeed, if you reject the indefectibility of the Church's magisterium, you don't have any reason to believe anything with any confidence. There will be no reason to believe that Jesus was the Son of God, or even that God exists--both of these claims are taught by the Church through her Scriptures and her Tradition. If the Church is not indefectible, then she may very well be wrong about the existence of God and there is no compelling reason why we ought to believe these things.

One of John Henry Cardinal Newman's most important works, in my opinion, is also one of his least read: An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, published in 1870. In this work Cardinal Newman explores the epistemology of intellectual assent of the sort required by the Church, and he notes that giving intellectual assent does not always entail fully agreeing with or even understanding what one is giving assent to. A favorite example of mine is what he has to say about the Athanasian Creed. He reminds us that it is also known as the "Psalmus Quicunque" and that
It is not a mere collection of notions, however momentous. It is a psalm or hymn of praise, of confession, and of profound, self-prostrating homage, parallel to the canticles of the elect in the Apocalypse. It appeals to the imagination quite as much as to the intellect. It is the war-song of faith, with which we warn first ourselves, then each other, and then all those who are within its hearing, and the hearing of the Truth, who our God is, and how we must worship Him, and how vast our responsibility will be, if we know what to believe and yet believe not.
Newman isolates two kinds of assent in his Essay. One form he calls "real assent", the other "notional assent". The latter is the sort that we give to demonstrative proofs; the former is the sort that we give to "realities", things that we have experienced in a more vivid way than by merely having them proved to us by a formally valid deduction. I can give notional assent without giving real assent, simply because the two kinds of assent are given to two very different kinds of object. This does not mean that they ought not always to be given together: clearly they ought to be if they can be. But it is not always possible that they come at the same time.

This is all a very long way of suggesting that it may be possible for folks who do not agree with Popes about slavery or the war in Iraq to still be operating within the confines of intellectual assent. We may assent without fully agreeing, and this does not entail dissent, especially if the form our disagreement takes turns out to be misunderstanding. Popes have a certain authority in matters of faith and morals that ordinary lay people do not have. If this were an argument about what follows, logically, from certain theological first principles, or which theological first principles are to be believed de fide, I would be a fool to say that the Pope has no more authority than I to make a determination of justice. But Pope Benedict XVI, for all his theological training and expertise in matters of morality and theology, may not, in the end, have all of the facts required for making the sort of judgment he is out to make. Of course, I may not have all the facts either. But given that it is a disagreement about matters of contingent fact, about empirical evidence in support of a claim of moral licitness, then Pope Benedict XVI has no more authority than I or anyone else to make the final call.

A similar case can be made about the death penalty. Although I am, myself, in agreement with John Paul the Great on this matter, I do not think that those who favor the death penalty are actually in a state of dissent. The Church has never taught, it never will teach, and JPII was not teaching, that the death penalty is per se wrong. Whether there are, or ever could be, conditions under which capital punishment would be required to protect the common good is not a moral judgment, but a prudential one, and JPII may very well have been mistaken in making the judgment that such conditions no longer obtain. I happen to think he was not mistaken, but of course, I could be mistaken. Those who disagree with me, I take it, do not do so as a matter of intentionally rejecting what they believe to be a teaching of the magisterium. Presumably they would say that they do not think that they are dissenting from what the Church teaches, but that they intend to be faithful and submissive to what they believe the Church does teach. There is disagreement, not dissent.

More Thoughts on Liturgical Latin

David Meadows over at Rogueclassicism mentions that Vatican Radio offers daily Latin prayers in audio format. I mentioned in a post the other day that I also like to pray the Daily Office in Latin, and I thought that those who might like to do likewise would be interested in this link to, the stateside supplier of books from the Libreria Editrice Vaticana. You can order your very own copy of the Liturgia Horarum (in Latin). There are two versions: an economy model that is bound in a not-so-very-ugly vinyl cover, and a very nice leather bound version. I used the vinyl covered version for nearly 15 years and then decided that it was worth shelling out for the leather. Neither version is exactly cheap--the leather bound versions are about US$170 each, and the vinyl ones are roughly half that. But the books are sturdy, fun to use, and absolutely worth the price in terms of the spiritual payoff that comes from committing oneself to the Office on a daily basis.

For those who either don't know or don't like Latin, I can also recommend this resource. It is a translation into beautiful Anglican English of the Roman Breviary of 1911. It comes in a single volume and is only $65 even though it's bound in leather. Well worth it, even though it is not the form of the Office in use now. Even if you are bound to the Office, don't forget that you are permitted to use older breviaries if you get permission; the rest of us, presumably, may use whatever we like, but I'm a fan of the new Breviary.

Homily for Requiem Mass of Michael Carson, 20 November 2021

  Readings OT: Wisdom 3:1-6, 9 [2, short form] Ps: 25 [2] NT: Romans 8:31b-35, 37-39 [6] Alleluia verse: John 6:39 [...