Saturday, December 31, 2005

My Kinda Town

I suppose there may be one or two people who noticed that I was away for a week--I noticed it, for example, and that's one person right there. And given one's views about personal identity, since I am now a full week older than I was last time I blogged, I may be a different person today, and that makes two persons who've noticed. I doubt that anybody else did, though.

I was away attending the annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in New York, and, yes, it was indeed every bit as exciting as it sounds. The main reason I went was because my department is trying to hire a new professor this year, someone who specializes in the philosophy of the social sciences, and I was on the team of interviewers who went to have a look at our candidates before inviting some of them to campus for more detailed interviews. But there were a couple of ancillary reasons for going.

First of all, the APA is a good place to run into old friends, folks you may have met in graduate school, other professors you may have met at other conferences, etc. Sadly, I didn't run into anyone I knew because I spent almost the whole time I was there interviewing people. We had nearly a hundred applications for the job, and we interviewed ten people at the convention, spending about an hour with each one. Given that we only arrived there on Tuesday afternoon and had to leave on Friday morning, that didn't leave a lot of time for schmoozing. Actually, it's not quite accurate to say that I didn't run into anyone that I know--I did run into a guy who was in graduate school with me, but he clearly did not have any idea who I was.

Another great reason to go was simply: it was in New York. What a great city! Every time I go there, I regret that I didn't grow up there. It's always fun, there's tons to do, and the people are unbelievably cool. The convention, of course, was in Manhattan, and of course there's no way I could afford to live there, but when I was teaching at Rutgers back in 1988-89 (what a nightmare that was--I think there may be some juicy blog topics there) I used to go into the city quite often just for the fun of it.

On this particular occasion there was an extra treat: the Metropolitan Museum has a once-in-a-lifetime installation of works by Fra Angelico. Now, Fra Angelico happens to be one of my very favorite artists, and for me this was like finding out that, although I had been exiled from my homeland, I was to spend my exile in Paris, or perhaps on Cheerleader Island. I did have a little time on Tuesday to go to the museum, so I hustled on up there and wiggled my way in--it was litterally jammed to the rafters with people who, I suppose, were in town in anticipation of New Year's celebrations. The Angelico exhibit was just as jammed as everything else which, in one sense is a good thing--it's nice to know that people are still excited by his work--but in another sense it's clearly a bad thing: his works are pretty small, and it's difficult to get a good view of them when there are a dozen people standing around in front of each painting. Nevertheless, the sense of excitement I had while viewing each one was not something that comes along very often. The only time, in fact, that I remember being that excited was the first time I went to Paris. I had been in London with my wife, and we took a train from London to the channel, then a hovercraft over the channel (this was before the tunnel existed), then another train into Paris. At some point our train merged into the metro system and we were underground. When we got off the train I had yet to actually see any of Paris itself. Well, as we went up the stair to the outside, I noticed a largish building dawning over the edge of the top step. As I got to the top I realized with something of a rush just what that building was: it was the Cathedral of Notre Dame! I had never seen it "in person" before, and here it was! It's that building that you've seen in pictures, movies--all sorts of places--and here it was in the flesh, or stone, or whatever. I suppose that would be a rush for any tourist, but for a believer, let me tell you, it was just amazing: a place of pilgrimage and worship that had been standing there for nearly a thousand years, with generation upon generation of fellow Christians coming there to worship God in his Sacraments in just the same places and in very nearly the same ways that I, myself, intended to do inside that very building.

And now, to see these works of Fra angelico, which have delighted I don't know how many other Christians, not only in museums but in their original places, to see them in their actual detail, with the vibrant colors, the delicate finesse of the lines, and, of course, the other people standing around gawking--I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

But then I had to walk back to my hotel. Not quite heaven any more. Along the way I passed by the now-(in)famous Menorah and Creche installations at the southern end of Central Park. Both looked rather tacky, but there were lots and lots of people standing around waiting for the lighting of one of the Menorah lights and I was happy that faith is alive and well in New York. And it was interesting to contrast that crowd, standing around singing Jewish songs in the cold night air, with the crowd of folks I saw two days later when I walked down to Times Square. Preparations were well under way for New Year's Rockin' Eve, and things were a bit more sordid at that end of town. (One thing I'll never understand: taking flash-pictures of huge neon signs with a cell-phone camera. But I must have seen a hundred people do just that.)

All in all a good trip. And to top it off, somebody is going to get a nice new job out of all of this, and I am happy to have helped them to get it. The last time I was in New York was in December of 1995, when I was myself on the job market, and I was interviewed by Ohio University for the job I have now.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Thou Shalt Not Kill

Well, here's a puzzle. Jamie over at Ad Limina Apostolorum has a post up on Joseph Bottum's First Things article on the death penalty from a couple months back. Jamie strongly endorses Bottum's conclusion, but he also endorses Bottum's argument for that conclusion.

It is not necessary to do both, of course. I fully agree with John Paul the Great, Benedict XVI, and others, that the death penalty is not a penalty that we ought to use. There is no doubt, however, that the Church does not deny the moral licitness of the penalty in principle. What John Paul the Great and Benedict XVI, among others, have denied, is the necessity of the use of the death penalty as a means for defending the common good. This is a prudential judgment, and the faithful are free, within certain very strict limitations, to think otherwise. And since it is permissible to think otherwise, it is, presumably, permissible to think the same thing but for different reasons, provided that those reasons are consistent with the Magisterium.

And therein lies the puzzle, or the worry, if you will. What if you think the same thing, but for different reasons that are not consistent with the Magisterium? Here's how Jamie concludes his essay:
Cardinal Ratzinger in 1996 described the Pope's teaching on the death penalty as a 'development of doctrine'. Part of this development, if Bottum is right, may be a subtle but definitive rejection of the 'argument from justice'.
It is difficult to see how the "argument from justice", as Jamie puts it, can be "rejected" by the Magisterium since the argument from justice is, as a matter of fact, the only argument the Magisterium has ever used to defend the moral licitness of a particular form of punishment. To put it another way: the only possible justification for punishing a wrongdoer is that the wrongdoer deserves the punishment meted out to him. For example, if we were to apply the death penalty on the grounds that it deters crime (which it most certainly does do, regardless of what many studies appear to indicate, since it deters the person executed from committing any further crimes) then we would be acting prudentially, not morally, and our act would be done in the absence of any argument that the wrongdoer actually deserves to be executed rather than, say, locked up for life.

So while it is clearly the case that the Church's position with regard to the death penalty has, as a matter of fact, developed, it is quite impossible that the Church's teaching regarding any argument from justice is being changed in any way. To make that kind of an argument in support of John Paul's view would be to throw out any possible justification for punishment of any kind. And yet clearly we are required to punish, if only as a matter of fraternal correction.

Jamie's view is particularly puzzling since he bills himself as an "Augustinian"; but St. Augustine was a Platonist, and every Platonist knows that a wrongdoer needs his punishment as much as a sick person needs his medicine. To say that there can be any sense in which a punishment is not "deserved" as a matter of justice is quite out of step with any Augustinianism I am aware of. The question is not whether or not it is a matter of justice that the wrongdoer is to be punished; the question is rather what sort of punishment the wrongdoer deserves, just as the doctor's question is not whether or not to administer medicine to a sick person, but rather what sort of medicine is needed in this particular kind of case.

So the question at issue here should not be, what argument vindicates capital punishment, since we already know the answer to that question: the argument from justice (which ought not to be confused, as it appears to be in Jamie's post, with the notion of a lex talionis). The question ought rather to be, what manner of punishment is it, then, that the capital offender needs/deserves if we have decided that he does not necessarily need/deserve death?

It is tempting here to make a certain kind of mistake---the mistake of thinking that if death is not now necessary as a punishment, it never was. The Church clearly endorses the possibility, at least in principle, that death can be the punishment that is deserved, but of course the necessary and sufficient conditions for deserving death rather than some other punishment have never been codified or established de fide (we know only one of the necessary conditions: death may only be administered in order to protect the common good; but that is a hopelessly vague condition). So it is possible, at least, that death has never been deserved by any wrongdoer. But it is equally possible that some wrongdoers have, in fact, deserved death. And since John Paul's argument was grounded in an empirical matter, it is also at least possible that there are still some wrongdoers who deserve death, since it is possible that John Paul was mistaken in his prudential judgment about the present conditions for defending the common good (though, as I have said, I do not think that he was mistaken).

In reading Bottum's essay, it is tempting to find his argument congenial precisely because one finds his conclusion congenial. But that is a mistake that must be avoided, if we are to remain morally clear. If the conclusion is true, then there must be a sound argument for it; the task is not to rest content with whatever argument happens to stir our hearts, but to look for the argument that compels our assent.

Sinta Claus

Since today is the winter solstice, I got to thinking about some of the wackiness by which I am surrounded in these here hills of Athens County. There tends to be a rather good-sized population of folks in these parts who think of themselves as "neo-pagans" or something like that, people who appear to believe in all sincerity that certain "pagan" practices and cult-like activities in which they like to partake actually have a history of more than about 150 years. In particular, there be "druids" here, or people who like to think that climbing one of the local hills on 21 December and 20 June for some wicked partying is a sufficient condition for counting oneself a member of a cult that hasn't really existed in over a thousand years. In some years the attendance at these shindigs has gotten rather extensive, usually due to rumors--sadly, always unfounded--that there will be much nakedness up on that hill in the wee hours of the morning.

It's far too cold here for me to trek out to Mount Nebo this year, either naked or fully clothed, so I'll just try to have a surreptitious look out my window (my house is situated on a hill that looks out over the mighty Hocking River Valley, and Mount Nebo--epicenter of all such lunacy--is directly across the valley from my house). As I do, I will think fondly of another place of much pagan wackiness, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. When I lived there I found it difficult to go into any commercial establishment, whether bookstore, coffee shop, or grocery store, without finding a plethora of paganism (no Christian stuff, of course--that would be gross). The activities available in that area almost always included the mandatory nudity and frolicking, but I'm afraid I never attended there, either. I was in better shape, then, too. What a waste.

In one of the many bookshops in Chapel Hill (here's an interesting aside--in Chapel Hill, a city with a university about the same size as Ohio University, there were dozens of bookstores, but no tatoo parlors; here in Athens there are three tatoo parlors but no real bookstores to speak of) I ran across a book--it was about this time of year--called, if I remember correctly, The True Story of Sinta Claus. I very much regret not buying it, because it was one of the most politically, ecologically, and culturally correct book I have ever seen. Sinta Claus, the protagonist, is not the Dutch companion of Black Peter but is, rather, a pagan version of Santa Claus, who delivers--not toys, but, I kid you not--snack items made of entirely organic ingredients. I don't remember whether the snacks were macrobiotic. But I do remember that Sinta Claus started off as a traditional Santa Claus figure, bringing toys to children, but she (yes, "she") got tired of bringing toy guns, toy soldiers, toy action figures, and other violence-teaching toys to children because she began to notice that boys and girls everywhere were becoming far too materialistic and fascinated by violence. Hence her change in product. She was also feeling guilty for all the work that her elves did for her making these massive numbers of weapons of destruction, so she let them all go and started baking the organic munchies herself. This was offered as an explanation as to why women traditionally bake cookies--it's not supposed to be a sexist stereotype, folks, it's part of our wymynly roots! It's time for us to own that sucker: get back into the kitchens and bake our way to a more perfectly Gaia-friendly world!

Enough. It is nearly sunset here, almost time to bring a close to this pagan year and start looking forward to the next one. I'm certainly looking forward to the end of the materialism surrounding Christmas: the author of Sinta hit that one on the head, as far as I'm concerned. But I would also like to see an end to wacky spiritualisms that have more to do with being self-righteous and self-indulgent than anything else.

I do like a macrobiotic cookie now and again, though.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Must Reading from Mike Liccione

Wow. Another home run as far as I'm concerned. Have a look at Mike Liccione's discussion of "God the Killer" over at Pontifications.

Courage and Faith; Doubt and Fear

The Gospel reading for Mass yesterday is one of those texts that simultaneously comforts and discomfits. On the one hand, it tells a story about the precise sort of self-abandonment that is required of the Christian disciple: Our Lady's fiat is the model for all Christian prayer and every proper response to God's presence in our lives. When I hear such a story, I am reminded of God's promise, and I find strength in knowing that I am not called to do something unattainable. On the other hand, however, I sometimes find myself acting a little like, well, the Harold Bloom of my post of 16 December. The exegetical scholar in Bloom is not something that is entirely foreign to me, having spent the last 30 years as a classical scholar of one stripe or another, and I am not immune to the allurements of that line of work. In particular, I suffer from a disease that I suspect many scholars suffer from, a potentially dangerous combination of intellectual pride and skeptical doubt. In short, when I hear a story like the one from Luke about the Annunciation, I find myself wondering whether it is meant to be taken as literally true.

I put the phrase "meant to be taken" in there deliberately: in antiquity it was not uncommon for authors to make use of certain literary forms as vehicles for telling stories that were never meant to be taken literally even if the chosen vehicle looks remarkably like what we would call "history". I have absolutely no doubt, for example, that whoever it was who first compiled the stories that make up the first few chapters of Genesis would be amazed to find that there are folks walking around today who both (a) have opposable thumbs and (b) think that Genesis is intended as literal history. So at least a part of my doubt has to do with what this text from Luke was originally intended to be. Perhaps it was intended as history; but perhaps not.

If it was intended as literal history, that raises several questions. How did Luke come to know the details that he records in his history? Did Our Lady pass on an account of these events to others during the course of her lifetime? It would seem that she was the only person there capable of such a thing, unless we are to speculate that Gabriel himself, or God, passed on the knowledge to others. If Our Lady preserved the account, how reliable was it thirty or forty years after the fact? And how reliable could Luke's account be, since even if the story ultimately had its origins with Our Lady, Luke's account is probably no earlier than 85, give or take a few years--half a century after the death of Our Lord. Even if such a thing as Q ever really existed, the account of the Annunciation does not appear to come from such an early source.

If it was not intended as literal history, then what, precisely, is its value as a Gospel text? Certainly it illustrates some central Christian principles (obedience to God's will, as I remarked above, for example), but just as surely one wants to know the veridicality of some of the claims, since among the things that Gabriel announces is that Jesus is going to be the Son of God. If that is a claim that was only manufactured later by a nascent Christian community vying with competing interpretations of the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth, then the overall value of the account, it seems to me, is somewhat less: why believe Luke's extravagant claim rather than someone else who claims only that Jesus was a remarkable prophet?

I do not raise these issues for the sake of discussion, but rather to illustrate what I take to be a flaw in my own character as a Christian: as a scholar, I tend to have the doubts that are typical of the scholar, and I wonder--sometimes to the point of worry--whether my doubts are an impediment to my faith.

Our Lady, according to the story, appeared to have only rudimentary doubts. She wondered how it would be possible to accomplish what Gabriel announced, since she had not yet been with a man. Once he explained things to her, she simply acquiesced. If she went off and suffered from reductive materialist puzzlement over the precise mechanics involved in impregnating a fully material human being without the aid of either another member of the species or indeed even of another material being, we are not told about it by Luke or anyone else. And I have known--perhaps we have all known, at one time or another--folks of various Christian stripes who claim to have no doubts at all about their faith. In my own personal experience, which is somewhat limited, the folks who most commonly talk this way out loud tend to be fundamentalist protestants, but I have known plenty of Catholics who also appear to have few, if any doubts, and who are quite positivistic and indeed triumphalistic about their faith. So perhaps my own doubts are pathological.

So I began to wonder about the nature of the relation between faith and doubt. "Faith" as it is used in connection with Christian belief is a translation of the Greek word pistis, which can also be translated as "trust". To have faith in God, as I have learned only very slowly over time, is not merely to commit oneself to believing that this or that doctrine is true, nor is it merely to commit oneself to believing that, say, God exists; it is to have trust in his promise, the promise of redemption that is the Good News of the Gospel. Can this mental state co-exist with a mental state of doubt?

In thinking about this problem I was reminded of Aristotle's account of the virtues in his Nicomachean Ethics. In particular, he says of the courageous person that he is not without fear. To be confronted with a dangerous situation in which your life may be at risk and feel no fear is not the mark of a courageous person, but of a foolish person. The courageous person differs from both a fool and a coward precisely in the fact that he knows enough about the situation to see that it is, indeed, a fearful one, but at the same time he knows how to control and subdue his fear, so that he can act in the right way, as circumstances require. Perhaps, in this regard, it would not be unfair to say that the faithful person is not someone who has no doubts whatsoever, but rather a person who understands that what he is committing himself to is difficult, if not impossible, to prove, but who is willing to trust in the authority of someone, or something, else when it comes to granting intellectual assent. Someone who has absolutely no doubts whatsoever may not fully understand the nature of the doctrine on offer; someone who doubts too much is someone who has lost his faith. Like Aristotle's virtues, the correct attitude may, I hope, be something of a mean between two extremes.

If I am right, then most Christians not only will, but they certainly ought to have at least somedoubts, though I suppose much work needs to be done to establish what things are, and what things are not, open to what sorts of doubts. I commit myself to believing that God is Trinitarian in nature, for example, but I confess that I have little notion of what that actually means. Is that a doubt that goes too far? I doubt it (if you will pardon the expression), since it would be the mark of a fool to claim to understand the Trinity perfectly. But suppose I were to doubt that Jesus really rose from the dead, and my doubts were grounded in a reductive materialism according to which such a thing is quite simply impossible. In short, if I were to doubt it to the point of trying to demythologize it (that is, explain it away), then it seems to me that I have gone too far. I certainly find myself wondering, sometimes, how such a thing could happen. But when, in my darker moments, I find myself wondering whether it ever really did happen, I make a conscious effort to snap out of it.

The question of how one snaps out of such things is also one that is often on my mind, because these doubts are. Sometimes it requires precisely the attitude of Our Lady: abandonment of self. I cannot understand, right now, how this could be so--but perhaps it does not matter whether I understand it perfectly, or even at all. Trust that it is so, and leave it for now. Perhaps at some later time I will understand it better; perhaps I will never understand it at all--why get all worked up about it? Perhaps this perplexity is part of the cross that I have to bear, and to accept a teaching at face value in spite of nagging doubts is to deny myself one of those little creature comforts that is really just a manifestation of my own pride. In this way I try to be faithful rather than foolish.

Friday, December 16, 2005

The Consolation of Philosophy?

There's an interesting interview with Harold Bloom now available from the archives of NPR. He doesn't say anything that hasn't already been said by many others of his ilk. He talks in a general and superficial way about the texts of the Old and New Testament and the ways in which modernist textual criticism has demythologized the stories of Jesus and Yahweh. He paraphrases Nietzsche several times during the course of the interview with a curious use of the phrase "human, all too human", and indeed his reading of the biblical texts appears to have been influenced by some of the same intellectual impulses that motivated Nietzsche. So there's not much in the interview that will be very surprising or informative to anyone interested in a new take on the scriptural texts.

What is fascinating about the interview, however, and what makes it far and away very much worth listening to, is the strange sense of despair and abandonment that runs throughout the interview. At the very beginning of the piece, and then again in the closing moments, we hear a Bloom that we don't often get to hear--a real, live, personal Bloom. Unless he is being ironic (always a possibility with a mind like Bloom's) these parts of the interview reveal a great deal about the rest of the interview. If we take what he says at face value, then it becomes clear that Harold Bloom is not a happy man, and that his unhappiness is due primarily to his inability to believe in--to trust in, in his words--the God of the Old Testament. Forget questions about the historicity of the Gospel accounts of Jesus (in fact he trusts only Mark, when it comes to that): for Bloom the worry is that the God of Moses has never been available in the Covenant with his People. He chastises Israel again and again for abandoning Him, but He has abandoned Israel utterly. This makes him untrustworthy.

Now, it's easy to hear something like that and think to yourself, well here's one more instance of someone falling victim to the so-called Problem of Evil. But it isn't that simple--Bloom's despondency sounds to me as though it goes much deeper than that, though certainly the Problem of Evil is playing a role here. But in some ways the gloom of Bloom sounds much more personal, as though he has done his best to make sense of his religion (he is a nominal Jew) in a spirit of genuine enquiry, and has found it impossible to get out of it what he seems to think somebody, somewhere, is expecting him to get out of it. And he is unhappy about that. I can't tell whether he is angry about it, but he is clearly unhappy, if we are to take his words seriously--he complains at the end of the interview that (I paraphrase him here, but it is virtually a quotation) Yahweh will not "leave him alone", Yahweh comes to him in dreams and wakes him up at night.

For the life of me I cannot make light of that, even though I don't believe for a minute that Yahweh is coming to him in his dreams and waking him up. This is a very sad man, and as much as I find his sort of textual exegesis execrable, I listened to this interview with a profound sense of sadness--sadness for all those like Bloom, who are unhappy about God, the very thing that ought to make a person happy if he understands Him correctly.

And therein lies an irony. Bloom's sort of exegesis is very scholarly, of course, and he approaches the biblical texts the way many scholars would approach any other literary text. For him this is the only way to approach a text--as a scholar. For him, as, I suspect, for many scholars like him, it is simply not possible to approach a written source in any other way. Folks who work professionally on Plato have first hand experience of the tension that can sometimes exist between a text and what the text is "about", because Plato's philosophical writings are almost all (there are one or two exceptions) in the form of literary dialogues, where it is impossible to extricate the philosophical arguments from the philological entanglements. Anyone who wants to work on Plato will have to be able to engage in textual criticism as well as logical analysis. This is not true in quite the same way for an author like Aristotle, for instance, or Aquinas. Aquinas holds, at the very outset of his Summa theologiae, that philosophy cannot give you what revelation can, that is, infallible truths about God--so naturally Bloom will not find any comfort in scholarship alone. But sadly for him that is the only path he knows. He is like the reductive materialist, who cuts himself off from the real truths of nature by adopting, a priori a method and a view of nature that is as incapable of discovering the truth about nature as a blind man is of discovering the difference between blue and red.

Boethius, famously, wrote that philosophy is supposed to be a consolation. But in the testimony of Harold Bloom we see that it cannot be so, at least not always, not with any sort of guarantee. Together with revelation, philosophy can be a comfort, as Aquinas also held in the first Article of the Summa. But human understanding, all on its own, cannot see what is hidden from it. Indeed, as many of Bloom's remarks in the interview show, human understanding is easily mislead by its own proclivities. It is not at all hard to see why Bloom is so sad, nor is it at all hard to feel great compassion for him. One can only hope that he finds some kind of peace eventually.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Last Battle

The November 21 issue of The New Yorker has an interesting essay on C. S. Lewis by Adam Gopnik (pp. 88-93, available online here). In light of the intense interest that Christians take in Lewis, it is interesting to read the impressions of somebody who appears to be an outsider. The most salutary element of the essay, I think, is its sense of detachment and objectivity. There is no hero worship here, though his treatment of Lewis is entirely fair minded.

There are limitations to fairness and objectivity, however--strange though that may sound. This is especially apparent when one is reading the comments of what I have called an "outsider" (the more traditional term, "pagan", is fast becoming one of my favorites, but it is too often misconstrued as suggesting allegiance to some sort of weird earth religion; the word itself is of Latin origin--it was the term used by Roman soldiers for civilians, folks who were "outsiders" to the military community. The word was later adopted by the beseiged Christians who saw themselves as the Church Militant in a world of non-believing "civilians", outsiders to the faith). One gets the sense that, as my students sometimes put it, the outsider just doesn't "get it":
In fact, it seems much easier to believe in the power of the Romantic numinous if you do not take a controversial incident in Jewish religious history as the pivot point of all existence, and a still more controversial one in British royal history as the pivot point of your daily practice. Converted to faith as the means of joy, however, Lewis never stops to ask very hard why this faith rather than some other. His favorite argument for the truth of Christianity is that either Jesus had to be crazy to say the things he did or what he said must be true, and since he doesn’t sound like someone who is crazy, he must be right. (He liked this argument so much that he repeats it in allegorical form in the Narnia books; either Lucy is lying about Narnia, or mad, or she must have seen what she claimed to see.) Lewis insists that the Anglican creed isn’t one spiritual path among others but the single cosmic truth that extends from the farthest reach of the universe to the house next door. He is never troubled by the funny coincidence that this one staggering cosmic truth also happens to be the established religion of his own tribe, supported by every institution of the state, and reinforced by the university he works in, the “God-fearing and God-sustaining University of Oxford,” as Gladstone called it.
Gopnik has a point here: it does look rather convenient, in some sense, this religion that appears to explain things in just the way we would most like them to be explained. But of course the convenience does not alter the possibility that it may, in fact, be true. This is a very subtle point, but one that ought not be allowed to slip by unnoticed. What we have here is a fallacious suggestion that precisely because this religious outlook fits in with certain presuppositions and expectations of the believers themselves we are justified in even greater skepticism regarding its truth than if it taught something truly outlanding and bizarre. That is very much akin to a scientist saying something like, "Gee, this experiment gave us results corresponding exactly to the hypothesis that we were working with, so of course we have no reason to believe this hypothesis! Now, if our results had been totally unexpected and completely different from what our hypothesis predicted, then we would have reason to believe it!"

This is reminiscent of a fallacy committed very often in the postmodern tradition, the so-called "genetic fallacy", the mistake of claiming that because we can show the historical origins of a certain belief to have been such-and-such the belief itself must be false. For example, Freud, famously, argued that we need not believe in God because he thought he could show that the only reason that people believe in God at all is because they have certain psychological needs that are met by the belief, and Nietzsche argued that traditional morality is totally arbitrary and without rational support because it had its origins in a will to power rather than in something objectively true for everyone. And of course we still see this fallacy being committed, as when Daniel Dennett or Richard Dawkins fallaciously argue that, now that we know how life really came about, there is no rational reason to believe in any religion at all. All of these fallacies take any kind of striking coincidence between what people want to believe and what they do, in fact, believe to be proof positive that the belief itself is false. I'm sure it's a very comforting thought to the likes of Dennett and Dawkins to believe that they've put the issue to rest permanently--indeed, I would bet that it's just what they want to believe.

There is an aspect to Gopnik's assessment, though, that I think is about right: Lewis is a much better storyteller when he's not preaching. That is, the Narnia books are much more exciting when they are simply telling a good story--The Horse and His Boy, for example, or The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, or The Silver Chair. These installments in the Chronicles have little "theology" in them, and they are arguably much better books than, say The Last Battle, which tries way too hard to cram Christian symbolism into an account of the end of Narnia. And Gopnik also takes a moment out of his narrative to put away, in a single paragraph, what many books and articles have asserted about one of the other Inklings:
Tolkien hated the Narnia books, despite Lewis’s avid sponsorship of Tolkien’s own mythology, because he hated to see an imagination constrained by the allegorical impulse. Though Tolkien was certainly a devout Catholic, there is no way in which “The Lord of the Rings” is a Christian book, much less a Catholic allegory. The Blessed Land across the sea is a retreat for the already immortal, not, except for Frodo, a reward for the afflicted; dead is dead. The pathos of Aragorn and Arwen’s marriage is that, after Aragorn’s death, they will never meet again, in Valinor or elsewhere. It is the modernity of the existential arrangement, in tension with the archaicism of the material culture, that makes Tolkien’s myth haunting.
"No way in which LOTR is a Christian book'! Them's fightin' words over at Ignatius Press! But I am tempted to agree--I've had many conversations with friends over alleged Christian themes in Tolkien including, I kid you not, a claim made by a very good friend and excellent classical scholar (and evangelical protestant) that Galadriel is the Blessed Virgin in disguise, and I've always had a hard time swallowing it.

Predictably, however, Gopnik goes where everyone goes these days, claiming that Lewis finally became a great writer when he started having sex with Joy Davidman (who, he says, "Yokoishly insinuated herself into Lewis's life". How did the talentless and forgettable Yoko Ono wind up being such a cultural icon? Nobody remembers the name of Brian Wilson's psychiatrist, after all). When will it be OK to have intellectual and artistic interests that are not merely hedonistic in their orientation? In particular, Gopnik is only satisfied with Lewis' faith when it is most fragile:
When Joy died, of bone cancer, a few years later, he was abject with sadness, and it produced “A Grief Portrayed,” one of the finest books written about mourning. Lewis, without abandoning his God, begins to treat him as something other than a dispenser of vacuous bromides. “Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think,” he wrote, and his faith becomes less joblike and more Job-like: questioning, unsure—a dangerous quest rather than a querulous dogma. Lewis ended up in a state of uncertain personal faith that seems to the unbeliever comfortingly like doubt.
But of course. Anyone who has no doubts is just a moron. Shades of Anthony Grafton. Sure enough, only an outsider could have written those lines. Like the perplexed child who thinks his parents are unfair because they don't see things his way, the outsider cannot abide a believer who is not at least tempted by unbelief. The less tempted you are to abandon your faith, the more irrational your faith is. It has to be, to the outsider, because he hsa abandoned faith and he does not want to seem, well, like he is the irrational one. And if you can turn it around and say that it is the believer who believes what he wants to believe, rather than the unbeliever who rejects what he wants to reject, then so much the better.

At the end of The Last Battle, as the dwarves are sitting in the dark stable, uncomprehending of all that is going on around them, everything said by the people in the stable with them and by Aslan himself sounds like gibberish to them. The Last Battle is my least favorite Narnia book, but in that image I think Lewis hit upon the attitude of the outsider with deadly accuracy.

Again with the Science and Design!

As I mentioned just the other day, I'm a huge fan of First Things, and so I was standing at my mailbox like a kid or a puppy yesterday when the January issue was delivered into my hot little hands. Alexander McCall Smith has a series of books about a German philologist, Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld of the Institute of Romance Philology, and in one scene we find him sitting down at the end of a tough day to enjoy the pages of his favorite academic journal over a glass of port wine. I am very much like that when First Things is delivered, though I'm happy to say that I have yet to have the experience that Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld had when he glanced through the academic journal only to find his own best scholarly publication had been thoroughly trashed by one of his colleagues. Well, perhaps I should say that I have yet to have that experience upon looking into the latest issue of First Things: people trash my academic work all the time in other venues, but let's not talk about that.

Instead, let's talk about the rich fare available in First Things. First off, there is an essay by our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI, "Europe and its Discontents". I am very much looking forward to reading that. Then there is quite a nice exchange between Stephen Barr and his critics in the Correspondence section.

But what caught my eye right away was an essay by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn called "The Designs of Science". The Cardinal claims that his New York Times Op-Ed piece has been widely misunderstood, that he did not intend to offer either a theological or a philosophical argument in favor of Intelligent Design, but rather
my argument was based on the natural ability of the human intellect to grasp the intelligible realities that populate the natural world, including most clearly and evidently the world of living substances, living beings. Nothing is intelligible--nothing can be grasped in its essence by our intellects--without first being ordered by a creative intellect. The possibility of modern science is fundamentally grounded on teh the reality of an underlying creative intellect that makes the natural world what it is. The natural world is nothing less than a mediation betwen minds: the unlimited mind of the Creator and our limited human minds.
Well. The first part of that is certainly compatible with Aristotelianism--indeed, it is Aristotelianism. The latter part is not Aristotelianism, but Thomism. Neither, however, can be regarded as an "argument", both parts are, rather, assertions, a priori statements of how the Cardinal reads the world.

Not that there's anything wrong with that--I certainly do not disagree with his reading of the world. Far from it: it is precisely the same as my own reading of the world. But it is important to see that it is not an argument about how the world must be. In particular, although I believe it is true, it simply does not follow that if the world must be ordered in a certain way in order to be intelligible that there must, by logical necessity, be an intelligent designer responsible for putting that order in place. This is precisely the error caught by Hume--like effects do not entail like causes.

It's a little dated now, but Stuart Kauffman's The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution (Oxford, 1993) does a pretty good job of demonstrating the invalidity of the Cardinal's inference (he has given a less technical version of his account in the slightly more recent Investigations [Oxford, 2000])--if, that is, he really intends it to be an inference. I rather doubt that he does so intend it, but that's the danger of using a word like "argument" to describe what you're doing--you leave people with the impression that your position has, in some sense, been "demonstrated", even "proved".

There is a sense in which at least a portion of the Cardinal's position can be proved--Aristotle, most famously, offered quite extensive arguments in favor of his view of an ordered kosmos in such places as his Physics, Metaphysics, and De generatione et corruptione. To accept Aristotle's argument, however--or indeed any arguments about anything--one must be prepared to accept the truth of certain first principles. Aristotle gave an extensive account of how and why this is supposed to work in his treatise called Posterior Analytics (don't get me started--I had my first colonoscopy last week, but I promise not to blog about it). First principles, pretty much by definition, cannot themselves be proved by means of logical inference. in some cases, we must simply rely on first principles that are intuitively obvious. But this will not always be possible: a position such as the one that Cardinal Schöborn is defending relies on first principles that are very much open to doubt.

For the Christian this is one very important reason to remain a global anti-realist about science. By rejecting reductive materialism a priori we commit ourselves to a certain view of the world that cannot, of course, be proved to the satisfaction of the reductive materialist, but that does cohere with science and its methods in a way that it could not otherwise do, and we accomplish this by means of a theoretical maneuver that has the rather nice side-effect of reducing any reductive materialist objection to our worldview--such as those on offer from the likes of Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and their ilk--to fallacious question begging.

In the end, I must agree with Cardinal Schönborn, now that he has explained himself a little better, that he is, indeed, talking about something that may be called "science", science in the "natural philosophy" sense that he calls upon in his essay, science in an ultimately epistemological, an Aristotelian, sense. But that is rarely what real scientists are talking about these days, working scientists in the laboratory are never going to be able to accept an Aristotelian, let alone a Thomist, view of what they are doing. Unforunately for them!

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Where Else Shall We Go?

A story at CNS about women who question Church teachings yet remain in the fold reminds me of a conversation I had last night with a colleague in the history department who is also a member of my parish. According to the story, which is reporting on a study conducted by Michele Dillon, a professor at the University of New Hampshire,
Dillon said polls show many Catholics disagree with church teachings on birth control, divorce, abortion, the ordination of women to the priesthood and priestly celibacy. But those who remain Catholic consider those stands "ultimately irrelevant" to their identity as Catholics, she said.
In short, all the Usually Suspect Teachings. To these we may add, perhaps, the issue that my colleague was primarily worked up about: the recent Vatican instruction on admission of homosexuals to Holy Orders. But check this out:
Citing her own survey in the mid-1990s of members of the Women's Ordination Conference, which works to change church teaching on the ordination of women as priests, Dillon said most argue in favor of women's ordination "as Catholics, not as Americans."

She found that 88 percent approached the matter using arguments from Catholic doctrine, while only 4 percent called for women's ordination from an "individual rights" perspective.
Since it is, in fact, a point of Catholic doctrine that women may not be admitted to Holy Orders, one wonders how any argument in favor of the ordination of women could proceed "from Catholic doctrine". One begins to suspect--and rightly so--that these folks have crossed a line of some kind. A line that demarcates the boundary between Catholic and non-Catholic.

Personally I find demarcation problems philosophically very interesting. The boundary between science and non-science is one of the topics that I always address in my elementary philosophy of science courses, and I have even had disagreements with my colleagues about the boundary between philosophy and non-philosophy. (For example, I had a rather extended--and fruitless--discussion recently regarding whether Daniel Dennett is a philosopher rather than, well, something else.) The present question has to do with the boundary between Catholicism and non-Catholicism, whether the "non" part here refers to Protestantism, atheism, or some non-Christian religion being unimportant. Surely there is a point beyond which one cannot go in rejecting doctrine if one is truly to count as still Catholic.

Clearly this can be a touchy subject. I have had similar discussions with Jewish friends--people whom I like a great deal but who, in my own opinon, aren't really Jewish at all. Three of my colleagues are Jewish in the sense of coming from Jewish families, but as far as I'm concerned that's the only sense in which they're Jewish, and it is not a very interesting or important sense. To be Jewish in any real sense carries the necessary condition of believing in the God of Israel, but all three of my "Jewish" colleagues are atheists, two of them militantly so. To suggest such a thing to one of these folks, however, can be rather dangerous--it often results in dirty looks, at the very least, and sometimes verbal tongue lashings. They will ironically claim that you have to be Jewish in order to know what being a Jew is--certainly no Christian has any standing to be telling a Jew what is required for being Jewish. But of course that begs the question, since what is at issue is precisely the question of whether they are really Jewish or not.

I find that just about the same thing happens with cafeteria Catholics. The difference is that it's harder to tell someone like me that my opinon doesn't count because I'm an outsider. However, they sometimes still find a way to say just that: they say things like "Oh, you're a convert! Well of course you would think that, then!" They then go on to explain how, since they are cradle Catholics, they know a lot better than I what it means to be a Catholic. What it usually means to them, it turns out, is that their parents forced them to go to Mass, usually against their will. Why this would count as a sufficient condition for belonging to any centuries-old institution is beyond me, but there you have it. I guess we're all ancient Greeks because we vote in democratic elections. I guess we're all Romans because there are still elements of the Roman law in our own civil code. I guess we're all Republicans because our president is, and we haven't yet left the country in protest.

There is a kind of argument that one often hears about in philosophy classes called a sorites (soar-EYE-tease) argument. The name "sorites" is just the Greek word for a heap, as in a heap of sand grains or pebbles piled on top of each other. Sorites arguments have to do with the difficulty of establishing boundaries. Consider the following example.

Suppose there is just one grain of sand on a tabletop. Surely a single grain of sand cannot be called a "heap". So whatever we may want to call that grain of sand, we ought not to call it "a heap of sand". Now, surely, if you were to add just one more single grain of sand to that first grain, it still would not be a "heap" of sand. Indeed, add just one more single grain of sand to those two grains of sand, and you still won't have a "heap" of sand. So now we have a kind of algorithm here: adding one more element to something that is not a heap will not give you a heap. But clearly this can't go on indefinitely, because if you keep adding one grain of sand over and over again, eventually you will have a heap of sand, even though the general principle--adding one thing to something that is not a heap does not give you a heap--seems intuitively right.

And we can work this from the other direction, too. Take a man with a full head of hair. Surely he is not bald if he has a full head of hair. And surely pulling one hair out of his head will not make him bald. And if we pull one more hair out, he still will not be bald. So our algorithm here is, subtracting one hair from someone who is not bald will not make him bald. But again this can't go on indefinitely, because eventually you're going to be looking at a cue ball.

So where do we draw the line? At what point do the sand grains on the tabletop cross the boundary from non-heap to heap? At what point does the man cross the boundary from "thinning" to "bald"? And with Catholic doctrine? How many teachings of the Church may I reject and remain Catholic? At what point do I cross the line and become just another Protestant?

Sorites arguments apply primarily to cases where the demarcation problem is largely unsettled, or the boundary itself is vague (for example, where is the boundary between clear, empty sky and a cloud?). I don't think that the boundary between Catholic and non-Catholic is either unsettled or vague, however, and this is where I would differ not only with my colleague from the history department but from many self-styled "cradle Catholics" such as the ones described in the CNS story.

This is partly a media problem. We often hear in news reports that "American Catholics" don't accept this or that teaching of the Church, whether it be the teaching on contraception, or abortion, or the ordination of women, or what have you, and this tends to suggest to the non-specialist that there's nothing unusual about people calling themselves "Catholics" of one kind or another and yet not believing what Catholics are supposed to believe. But the idea is ludicrous on its face. What would we be expected to make of a story that said something along the lines of "Democrats in this precinct always vote Republican, always talk like Republicans, always have all the same opinions as Republicans"? These people are Republicans, even if they like to call themselves "Democrats". When I was living in North Carolina I once toyed with the idea of registering as a Democrat so that I could vote in the Democratic primaries. Not because I liked the Democratic candidates--far from it. I was planning to vote only for candidates that I thought had no chance of winning in a general election. I was no Democrat, but a mole.

So who are these Protestant moles who are doing such a lousy job of disguising their identities in the Catholic Church? Why not just leave? Well, of course it's not that simple. As in the case of my Jewish friends who are not really Jewish, there is an emotional bond of some sort, whether folks like me are able to understand it or not, and that bond is difficult, if not impossible, to break. There are plenty of "ecclesial communities" out there that subscribe to exactly the beliefs that my colleague subscribes to, but it would break her heart to leave the one she's already in, even though staying in the Church is also just as clearly breaking her heart. I have no idea what the solution to such a difficult problem might be.

The problem is a psychological one, not a doctrinal one. It has to do with the psychology of belief, and the capacity of a person to give intellectual assent to something that s/he either does not believe or that s/he has great difficulty in imagining the plausibility of. The teaching on contraception is fully consistent with Church doctrine, and perfectly in keeping with the natural law perspective adopted by Humanae Vitae, but I can see why it would be difficult for people to believe that it is really a grave matter. Even more so with the teaching on masturbation. These are issues that our culture has deemed to be purely subjective, with no real moral content at all. One reason, of course, is that our culture is predominantly hedonistic in its orientation, but that is a topic for another day. Suffice it to say that plenty of "American Catholics" are "Americans" first and "Catholics" second, at least in the sense that they have absorbed the values of the culture at large, one of which has to do with the goodness of pleasure. And of course, pleasure is good--but it is not the good, that is, it is not an end in itself. But because it is so enjoyable it is difficult to imagine anything wrong with the unbridled pursuit of it.

In the case of the ordination of homosexuals the problem is different but not unrelated. If a man is chaste, but attracted to men rather than women, it can be difficult to see why he ought not to be ordained when another man, who is chaste but attracted to women, at least in principle (but expected not to think too much about that, if at all), may be ordained. Because few intellectuals accept either natural law or Aristotelian essentialism any more, it is virtually impossible for an instruction like this to get any purchase in the mind of the dissenting scholar. It just seems like one more case of "old men in dresses telling us how to have sex", as I once heard it put. And since, again, "American Catholics" are also byproducts of a culture that is, at least in principle, egalitarian in orientation, as well as a culture that tends to understand human relations in terms of rights and duties, it is easy to make the mistake of understanding this instruction as a violation of some secular principle of justice.

There is, then, a war between disparate values going on here. On the one hand are the spiritual values, inculcated by family, friends, and perhaps practice; and on the other hand are the secular values, inculcated for the most part by academia and the media. Both tug at the heart--the spiritual perhaps more strongly, but the secular no less effectively because just as attractive in their own way to the educated.

And I think that by and large the folks we are talking about here are educated folks, people who have been taught that every "educated opinion" ought to be given equal status in the marketplace of ideas, and that any institution that claims to have a monopoly on "the truth" is just a cult to be scorned. There is a car that parks in my lot with a bumper sticker that says "Don't pray in my school and I won't think in your church", and of course this idea that Catholics "park their brains at the door" is part of the endemic anti-Catholic bigotry of our culture. The notion of intellectual obedience is completely foreign to our culture. In politics that is probably a very salutary fact; but in the domain of religion it has been disastrous for the "American Church".

How will the spiritual values win out, in the end? Perhaps by being patient--a virtue that is also alien to our culture. As difficult as it may be for the rest of us to put up with them, it may be just what they need for the dissenters to stay in the fold. Perhaps a life lived in dissent is still a life lived in obedience, if one stays put. If you leave the Church, then you have certainly put yourself first. But if you stay, then even if you complain about staying you are at least still acknowledging that there is something worth staying for, something that comes before self and complacency.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Allegorical Aslan

I have not seen the new Narnia movie, nor will I: I'm one of those freaks for whom the reading of books is too special to ruin by going to see how some other putz has imagined what I've already determined looks like this. I did make an exception for The Lord of the Rings, which luckily for me turned out pretty much as I had imagined it, but I've decided that I was tempting fate on that occasion, and I'm not going to push my luck.

I have been very intrigued, however, by the kerfuffle a-brewin' over the thing among Christian bloggers. I can't really imagine getting my knickers into a twist about how "Christian" the film is, or whether it's all that faithful to the original, etc., but I was struck by something posted by my friend Tom Kreitzberg at Disputations. He claims that the Narnia books can't count as allegories because Aslan is not a "Christ figure" but rather he is Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity. Hence the books are not allegorical, they are full-blown theology.

The claim that interests me the most is not the claim that the books are theological rather than allegorical, but rather the claim that because they are not allegorical they fail more than they otherwise would. Tom puts it this way:
It also follows that certain defenses of Aslan, Narnia, and Lewis are non-starters. You can't defend it by saying Lewis was trying to write literature, not theology; that's a false dilemma, and including a character who is supposed to be God is doing theology.

You can't fully defend it by saying Narnia's theology is speculative. Speculative theology must still be consistent with fundamental theology; the fact Lewis is making stuff up doesn't mean what he makes up can't be wrong. Pointing out that it's a speculative work defends it against charges that what happens did not or isn't going to happen; it doesn't defend against charges that what happens couldn't or wouldn't happen.
In typical Kreitzbergian fashion that is both well-thought and well-said. What I am having trouble getting my mind around, though, is this idea that the thing must somehow be a theological treatise because it has the Second Person of the Trinity in it. If that is the case, then every Christian blogger, including Tom Kreitzberg, is doing theology every time s/he sits down to say something about Jesus; and I would be willing to bet that nine times out of ten it would be true to say that however badly Lewis did theology, most of the "theology" that gets done in the blogosphere is probably done much more badly.

I'm willing to grant that the "theology" of Narnia, if that's really what one wants to call it, is pretty bad theology, as Christian theology goes. And Lewis himself insisted that the Narnia stories were not intended as allegory. I'm not sure I understand, though, why the Narnia stories can't be thought of as nothing more than stories or, to put it into more typically Lewisian terms, as muthos. Tom writes
And of course you can't defend the theology of Narnia by pointing out it's intended to be, and succeeds at being, an entertaining story of imagination and wonder. That's a defense of Narnia, saving the work by sacrificing the theology. I'm quite happy to join in that defense, but it doesn't change the fact that a lot of people are still giving ill-thought defenses of the theology.
I think this collapses all of the categories much too quickly. The suggestion appears to be that the Narnia stories are both bad theology and great fiction, but I just don't see why we mustn't say that the Chronicles of Narnia are an attempt to create something that tells, not a children's story or, at any rate, not a story that is just for children, but a story that is much more complex and universal than any children's story--a mythic representation of some of the themes from "the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before."

Clearly Narnia is not Gospel; but we know from our experience of the Gospels that different communities experience the Good News in different ways, and the manner of expressing that encounter with Goodness Itself can range from simple stories about humble fishermen to extraordinary poetry about the Divine Logos coming to dwell among us. Tom has pointed out some of the worries he has about the "theology" of Narnia--the most important, I think, being those having to do with the business about the Stone Table. If Lewis was writing theology, he was writing heretical theology. But that may be beside the point. In the Gospels the sacrifice of Calvary is the climax of the whole story, the end-point towards which all previous plot devices had been aimed; but in Narnia the sacrifice at the Stone Table is just one element among many that seems designed to put us in mind of something else, namely, the Christian themes being expressed throughout the work. This becomes much clearer as one reads other installments in the Chronicles: once we are beyond The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe we find very little that could be intgerpreted as direct allusion to Gospel texts. Instead we find very typical Christian themes expressed in very typical ways--ways explored in some detail, of course, by Lewis himself in his magisterial English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Oxford, 1954).

So I agree with Lewis that his works are not allegory; but I cannot agree with Tom that they are theology. They are, rather, muthopoiêsis--not on a par, obviously, with what Tolkien was able to accomplish in The Lord of the Rings, but ripping good yarns nonetheless, and worth skipping the movie version in order to enjoy the full impact of Lewis' own craft.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Getting It Backwards

Just the other day I was listening to the Diane Rehm Show on my local public radio station, WOUB FM. The guest that day was Bart Ehrman, the chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at one of my many almae matres, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Among other things, he discussed his study of the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament--a subject that is near and dear to my own heart, having studied much the same thing when I was a graduate student there in Classics.

He mentioned that when he began his studies he was something of a Bible-believin' Christian, for whom the factual accuracy, in particular, of the Scriptural texts was very important. As he studied the Greek manuscripts, however, he found out what many of us already knew: virtually no two of them are alike, and none of them is older than about the second or third century. (There are some papyrus scraps that are earlier, but no significant texts until quite late.) From his studies he drew an interesting inference: what we have in the New Testament does not capture the real, historical Jesus. This may have been the beginning of his falling-away from the Bible-based faith to which he once subscribed. Whether he is now a Christian of any sort is, I suppose, not something about which the rest of us can legitimately speculate.

There are so many scholars who fall into this category that it's not really worth commenting on when one discovers yet another, but this particular case does illustrate something that seems to me to be rather interesting: the direction of the inference from textual "integrity" to doctrinal surety is backwards. This is what happens when you start off from a sola scriptura point of view, after all: you put all your eggs into the textual basket, and when that basket turns out to be made of very loosely woven straw, everything falls apart all at once, and all of your eggs are broken. If you think of the New Testament texts in the proper way, however, as documents of the teaching Church, then this will not happen, because the authority for what you believe derives not from the putative authority of these texts alone, but from the authority that these texts have by virtue of having been produced by the real source of authority, the Magisterium.

Having been raised an atheist, I was never particularly tempted by the fundamentalist approach to Scriptural texts. By the time I began graduate school in classics, I was beginning to get interested in religion, but I was still a long way from thinking of the texts of Scripture as the sole source of authority in the religion. For me, the possibility that certain texts in the New Testament might be difficult to reconcile with each other was never a stumbling block to accepting the fundamental message of the Church. It doesn't strike me as any different from the texts of Plato: if it weren't for the dialogues of Plato, a single play of Aristophanes, a couple of texts from Xenophon, and a few other sources, we would have no reason to believe that there was ever such a person as Socrates. The dialogues of Plato, in particular, suggest that Socrates is just a name that Plato invented, and it would not be all that difficult to come away thinking that "Socrates" was just a placeholder in antiquity for some paradigmatic wisdom figure. But I don't know of any scholars who suggest any such thing: they all agree that Socrates was a real, historical figure, and they even agree that he was a philosopher who engaged in most of the activities that Plato and Xenophon describe him as engaging in.

But of course, few deny that Jesus was a real person, or that he was a teacher of some kind. What they dispute is the content of his teaching and, of course, the (historical) veracity of his "miracles". Folks also argue about the teachings of Socrates--many believe that most of what Plato wrote about Socrates reflects his own, rather than Socrates', philosophical views, or that they don't reflect anybody's views in particular, they're just views being put forward for discussion. There is, indeed, a danger in taking any ancient text too literally, or assuming too much about what its intentions and audience are. The more one knows about ancient texts, the less troubled one is going to be by textual problems in the New Testament.

If you're a fundamentalist, it's possible that, for you, the whole basket will unweave itself, and you will lose your faith (unless you're one of those weirdos who bend over backwards trying to show how everything comes out right in the end--arguing, for example, that the accounts of the Last Supper in John really can be harmonized with those in the Synoptics, if we just understand these words this way, those words this other way, etc.). If you're a Catholic, however, you will find that the doctrinal consistency of the Magisterium trumps these worries. Since the Magisterium produced the New Testament texts, but produced them within different cultures, different times and places, for different audiences, one is not surprised to find different emphases, different accounts, and different sorts of elaborations on the same, unified and consistent theme. You really can gain a world of expertise in textual exegesis and not lose your immortal soul.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

It's a Start, but...

CNS announces a new magazine for girls that's supposed to be radically different from all the crap one finds in supermarkets. This one is is supposed to be "a faith-based publication." What does that mean, exactly? Well, no beefcake, for one thing. (I wondered why my phone calls had been tailing off of late.) But upon closer inspection I find that that's about the only difference. It's still pretty mindless stuff. Why not a magazine that tells girls that there's nothing unfeminine about a career in academia, or medicine, or science? Why are all kids' magazines so banal? I'm not saying that we need to have serialized Henry James or that all kids should switch to Scientific American, but our culture isn't going to improve as long as we continue to feed this kind of pablum to our kids.

It is partly a problem of economics, I suppose: the industry provides what there is a market for. But it seems to me that an allegedly "faith-based" publication is, almost by definition, a chance to deviate from so-called "market forces". What better venue for literary and artistic contributions from young writers and artists, or instead of "advice" columns, brief lives of the saints or historical vignettes? The publisher can't seriously expect this thing to compete with the standard fare? It must find a very different niche, so why not set the bar for that niche as high as it will go?

Subsistit in

Yet another clarification of the traditional teaching, this time from Jesuit Father Karl Josef Becker. Clarifications are only required for those who keep forgetting that dogmatic truths don't change over time.

I'm often puzzled by the readiness with which certain folks seem to accept the possibility that truths of this nature could change over time. An ecclesiological teaching such as this is of the highest significance, so even though it can clearly develop over time, it would be absurd to claim that its substance could change over time (by "change" we must understand something fairly strong: let p be the teaching prior to Vatican II and q the teaching after; to say that the teaching has "changed" in the sense that I am rejecting would be to say that p and q cannot be true at the same time).

I take it that these folks would not want to claim that, say, the teaching that God is Three in One can change over time. If anyone were to assert the unitarian thesis, clearly that person would be rejected as a heretic right off the bat: we would not be looking for ways of incorporating this "new understanding" of God's nature into the Church's Magisterium. Or if someone were to say that Jesus was not the Second Person of the Trinity, again, that thesis would be rejected as heretical.

But for some reason, some folks find it easier to say that this teaching, on the nature of the Church, not only can change, but has changed, and they say so without the least fear of being thought heretical. What's the difference? It seems to me that the difference is largely political. If you re-interpret the teaching on the nature of the Church in the way these folks want to, the importance of the Church's Magisterium is drastically lessened, and that appears to be more "inclusive" in the politically correct way that is so popular among those most deeply affected by the pluralism of our culture. To re-interpret the meaning of the Trinitarian formula or Jesus' identity would not have the effect of bringing more folks to the fold--indeed, it would probably drive people away in droves.

If truth is open to change (or interpretation) in the sense that these folks want, then there is no compelling reason to believe anything the Church teaches. That would be bad: it would mean that there's no particular reason to be religious at all, certainly no reason to be a Catholic, or a Christian of any stripe. Relativized truth has no place in a religion grounded in the person of a man who said "I am the Truth and the Life."

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Natural Ends

In a recent post I described the Church's traditional view of what I called the "causal structure of the world". Some of what I had to say there attracted the attention of one of my former students, who wrote a lengthy response in the comments section of a subsequent post. He raises a question about my claim that the world is causally structured that cuts to the heart of the difference between the essentialist of a Christian stripe (the Christian Humanist) and the naturalist. Although he expresses some sympathy with a moral scheme grounded in a teleological view of man's end, he finds the Neodarwinian argument against essentialism compelling. If there is no such thing as "human nature" as such, then any moral view that attempts to show that there is an end-based norm for human behavior will fail.

I will try to put forward the beginning of an answer to this worry, but a full-blown defense of the view that I find most attractive will need, obviously, much more detailed argument than I can give in a forum like this. The full text of my student's objection can be found here.

The heart of my student's objection is this:
The basic sort of objection I have in mind runs something like this: Darwinian theory shows that species develop through the mechanisms of random mutation and natural selection, and in the case of human beings perhaps 'cultural selection' has played some role. Because the functions of the parts of animals (granting for the sake of argument that they have real functions, which not all biologists and metaphysicians of biology will concede) are the products of random genetic mutation and natural selection, with the individuals of a species inheriting genetic traits from their ancestors, what we have in a species is not the sort of determinate thing that the natural-law appeal to nature assumes they are. A species is, rather, a group of individuals with a common ancestry and a capacity, derived from their shared genetics, to produce offspring. What human beings share, then, is a range of genetically-determined dispositions to behave in certain ways, and not some essential nature which they can complete to a greater or lesser degree. Thus, what individual members of the human species seek by nature may differ from individual to individual and from population to population, and in the strictest sense the only criterion of membership in the human species is a sufficiently similar collection of traits. If, then, any moral theory can be grounded in what all human beings share, it will only be grounded in what we share accidentally, because there is nothing essential to the human species.
To paraphrase very briefly: different human beings have different preferences, that is, they seek out different things depending on their own sets of values. Biological science does not provide a framework to support the view that any one set of values is superior to any other. In particular, biology does not support the idea that there is any such thing as a human "essence". So biology cannot support the view that there is anything common to all humans. So both in terms of human preferences and in terms of human biology there is nothing that can be held to be normatively the same for all and hence determinative of the end for man.

The objection here, if I understand it correctly, is grounded in a certain sort of assumption, namely a reductionist sort of assumption that appears to hold that if we can render an explanation of some aspect of human existence in materialistic terms, as the adaptationist explanation of human phenotypes aims to explain why we exhibit the traits that we do, then this fact in itself renders otiose--and thereby disproves--competing explanations of the sort that I'm offering.

Let me start by addressing the notion of function. It is true that not all biologists or philosophers of biology mean the same thing when they speak of "function" in organisms, but there is certainly a theoretically neutral notion of function that seems hard to deny, one which says only that certain structures appear to have certain capacities (this has been called the notion "service functions"). The eye, for example, responds to photons striking the retina and in that sense is capable, in conjunction with the visual cortex of the brain, of detecting light and color. We may say, in a limited way, that this is one of the "functions" of the eye, and as long as we make this claim very limited I don't think that there are any biologists or even philosophers of biology that are going to worry too much about the use of the word "function". The worry arises more often because of Aristotelians who want "function" to mean something like a "final cause" in the sense I described in my post of the other day. It would be possible to claim that that kind of worry borders on begging the question against the Aristotelian.

But a better answer goes this way. What is at stake, clearly, is not the question of whether certain structures have functions in some sense of the word "function." Rather, the worry is over whether organisms as a whole have functions in the Aristotelian sense, the sense grounded in the notion of nature. Only if humans as such have a single nature can there be such a thing as a "final cause" of mankind.

Biologically speaking, I'm not so sure I would be as quick as some to dismiss the notion that there is such a thing as a single human nature. It is an objective fact of biology that humans cannot interbreed with other species, for example. In fact, on one view, this breeding barrier is the sufficient condition for counting as a species. As with everything else, however, there is a fair amount of controversy--at least among philosophers of biology--as to what the necessary and sufficient conditions for biological species might be. But it does not strike me as plausible to say that it is literally impossible to tell the difference between a human being and, say, a snake. When we look at a human and recognize it as such, is this nothing more than a social construct? If so, it would be grounded in some sort of similarity conditions: that thing over there seems to me to be sufficiently similar to me to count as the same kind of thing as I. I suppose that kind of view is logically possible, but I think that, given the wide latitude of organisms that are able to "recognize their own kind" compared to the relativelly narrow latitude of organisms that are capable of social construction, it seems to me relatively implausible as an account of what it is we're doing when we recognize a member of our own species.

At this point I don't see what difference it makes where we locate "human nature", that is, the "what-it-is-to-be-human", whether in some set of phenotypic traits, some section of the genome, some set of dispositional properties, or what have you. We don't need to be Aristotelian essentialists in order to be essentialists. Just so long as there is something that we can say is present in instantiations of human beings most of the time, then it seems to me that we are in a position to say that there is something that we can call a "human nature".

Apart from the details of how one would go about establishing such a thing, however, I don't think there's much controversy in such a notion. To borrow an argument that Aristotle himself often used (see, for example, Metaphysics Gamma), we may note that even the most stalwart defender of materialistic reduction still acts as though there is a real difference between a human being and a dog. To put it another way: you don't see many of these folks trying to have children with their dogs, even though they claim to "love" them. In short, the people who deny that there is such a thing as a human essence usually only make the denial because they have an impoverished notion of what sorts of things might be countable as essences.

Philosophically--historically, anyway--the prime candidate for what it is that separates human beings from other organisms has been our capacity for a certain kind of rational activity. I'm not all that sure what is supposed to be wrong with this candidate, but it is true to say that in recent times the idea that human beings are "rational animals" has come under relatively heavy skeptical fire. Sometimes the objection to it is rather banal: chimps, crows, dolphins, etc. are all very "intelligent" animals, so "intelligence" per se cannot count as the differentia of the human species. But there are more sophisticated objections: what, exactly, is rationality itself? Is it not a social construct in its own right? What reasons do we have for thinking of it as an objective feature of reality?

The nature of rationality is a very difficult topic. My own view, to put it bluntly, is that human rationality is constrained by things that are external to us, viz., the laws of logic and mathematics. These laws determine what is and what is not a valid inference. To the extent that our reasons are compatible with these laws, our reasons are good; otherwise they are bad. One builds from there. The building is, of course, difficult, but it can be done. For what I take to be a particularly good example of how the building should go, one may consult Hadley Arkes' fine book, First Things: An Inquiry Into the First Principles of Morals and Justice (Princeton, 1986).

Apollodorus (my student's nom-de-login) closes his post with:
What I want, I guess, is to understand why it is that Darwinian theory does not compel us in this direction [sc. towards nominalism and anti-essentialism]. Do we have to reject the theory, or accept it in some anti-realist way? Or is the theory perfectly compatible with a more essentialist view of species?
My own view is that all of science can only be acceptable in an anti-realist way, but that, too, is a very large topic for discussion. But since I am a global anti-realist about science, I am a fortiori an anti-realist about evolutionary theory. In my opinion, all Christians must be global anti-realists about science, as I've argued in most of my posts about science. But you don't have to be a Christian to be an anti-realist about science. One of my colleagues, who specializes in philosophy of science and who is a militant atheist, has said that you'd have to be a moron to be a realist about science these days (I wish he would say what he really thinks one of these days). In short, I don't think that evolutionary theory, either in its Darwinian or neo-synthesis form, compels us to either nominalism or anti-essentialism unless we presuppose materialist reductionism. If you make that a priori assumption then, sure, lots of things will follow that are not very congenial to the view I'm defending. Like Aristotle, however, I am an anti-reductionist.

There will be time in the coming weeks to debate this matter more deeply. It is a matter of some interest to me and, I suspect, to a few of my readers (well, to one of them at least). For the Christian, much hangs on this, but to judge from my student's post I suspect that much hangs on it for the non-believer, as well, since it is possible to build a moral theory out of this kind of stuff. If one is serious about morality, then one wants to know that one's moral theory is well-grounded. This appears to be of interest even to the Humeans out there like Simon Blackburn. So the arguments need to be well-crafted, and the objections well met.

On at least one account, crafting the arguments and meeting the objections constitute a major part of our natural end, so it would be wrong to take this too lightly.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Last Things

First Things is far and away my favorite print-medium, non-technical journal. I always have a copy in my backpack, whether I'm just heading in to the office or flying off to a conference somewhere, because I know that I can always find something worth a careful read in there. In particular, I've been a fan of Neuhaus since he was the religion editor for National Review, back when he was still a Lutheran, and like many others I always turn first to his Public Square.

But now there is a controversy a-brewing over Jonathan Last's article on blogging, God on the Internet. As usual, Chris Blosser (Against the Grain) has an excellent discussion of what's going on. In particular Chris points out the hatchet job that was done on poor old Steve Ray, a hard-working apologist who comes under fire for--gasp!--advertising his own books and videos on his website! Why I'm shocked--shocked!--to hear of such a thing! You won't see any advertisements at the First Things website for--oh, wait a minute, let me just check that out....oops! Um...never mind!

Apparently I'm not the only one to have noticed that Last criticizes Ray for something that is actually a fairly widespread and, ethically speaking, perfectly acceptable, practice which appears to be condoned even by the venue in which Last airs his outrage. When you look at the other complaints registered by Chris it begins to look as though a little more editing was needed, though perhaps we needn't go so far as the speculation offered by Ray.

If this had happened anywhere other than the print edition of First Things I would say that it's just a tempest in a teapot, but this one may not go away. Now that First Things has gotten its own blog up and running it has become part of an even broader community that it is probably better not to alienate. I would imagine that most Catholic bloggers like First Things, and this won't change that--but it will make most folks a little more circumspect. That's a good thing, too, obviously--people should always practice critical reading skills. But you don't want to call into question the whole editorial policy.

I'm Always the Last to Know

I've only just discovered John Heard's blog Dreadnought--it's wonderful. I guess it's been around for a long time, but nobody ever tells me anything. It's not a family friendly site, if you know what I mean, but it is a very important site, and I think anyone who is willing to be courageously compassionate and intellectually challenged ought to frequent it every day. I know I will.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Science and Scientism

Science is arguably among the greatest achievements of the human intellect. The collective body of knowledge that has been slowly brought to light through the centuries by generations of philosophers, mathematicians, physicists, biologists, chemists, etc., has done much to improve not only our material existence but the state of our souls. Any genuine Christian humanist (a fine tradition that extends farther back than Erasmus and More--certainly one would want to count Albert the Great, Anselm, Boethius, and Augustine among the ranks of Christian humanists) cannot help but feel the call so eloquently described by Aristotle in the opening passages of his Metaphysics:
All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight....

It is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, e.g. about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun and of the stars, and about the genesis of the universe. And a man who is puzzled and wonders thinks himself ignorant; therefore since they philosophized in order to escape from ignorance, evidently they were pursuing science in order to know, and not for any utilitarian end. And this is confirmed by the facts; for it was when almost all the necessities of life and the things that make for comfort and recreation had been secured, that such knowledge began to be sought. Evidently then we do not seek it for the sake of any other advantage; but as the man is free, we say, who exists for his own sake and not for another's, so we pursue this as the only free science, for it alone exists for its own sake.
But there is genuine science in this Aristotelian tradition, and then there is a kind of banal and vacuous scientism that looks to materialism as such, or empiricism as such, or reductionism as such, not so much as a tool for the discovery of knowledge but as a psychological crutch to be used both for the support of one's own impoverished worldview and for the whacking of one's intellectual opponents on the head.

This latter phenomenon is something that we find in such writers as Neil Mackay, the yob who is being kept off the streets by being asked to write for the Sunday Herald of Scotland. Here is an example of the sorts of things that an "intellect" such as his is capable of producing. You can read more about his stuff here--the man is obviously something of a paranoid conspiracy theorist, but even so, reading his stuff makes me feel much better than I used to about the comparative values of an American as opposed to an English education, since very few, if any, of my own students are capable of lowering themselves into the belly of incoherence to quite that extent. Steve at Speculative Catholic does an excellent job of debunking this crap here.

I have remarked before that it is not just the yobs who appeal to what they think of as "science" in an attempt to win what really amounts to a culture war. This is something that one can find among allegedly educated persons as well. Daniel Dennett comes to mind, Mr. Brighter-Than-Thou, who has spawned such silliness as this, the closest thing I've seen yet to a Cathedral of Nerdity. If the founders of the site are older than 16 or 17 I'll eat my hat. And I don't mean chronologically older, since Dennett himself is something of a dinosaur on the outside--it's only on the inside that he's still an adolescent.

Well, once people stop believing in God they don't start believing in nothing, they start believing in everything, as has already been remarked by brighter folks than I. One is tempted to compare scientism to fundamentalism, but in some ways it seems more dangerous, since it proceeds from a kind of ignorance dressed up as learning. Both depend on the arrogance of the adherents, of course, so they have that in common, but only scientism can sneek into a culture under the radar, passing itself off as somehow opposed to various fundamentalisms, even while it represents one of the most stiff-necked varieties around. Our culture is wide-open to such forces, sadly, because much of it is so vapid and uncritical. This is not true only of certain parts of our culture--you find it in just about every stratum of society. There are some very intelligent folks out there, of course, but there are morons everywhere, and unfortunately many of them, like Mr. Bright and Mr. Yob, have managed to secure for themselves a level of respect that they don't deserve. The man in the street, of course, doens't have any idea who Daniel Dennett is, a fact that Mr. Dennett no doubt regards as confirmation of his Theory of Luminosity. The respect that he gets comes from others of his own kind, a fact that is rather scary in its own right: he is a professor at Tufts. As Steve Allen used to say: "These are the jokes, folks!" Or was it Mike Wazowski?

Of course, when he said it, he wasn't talking about people and their ideas.

Dancing the Limbo

The concept of limbo has never been a de fide element of the Catholic faith, though there have been times and places where it was taught more forcefully than others. Aquinas was quite sure of its existence, but his version of limbo is basically heaven without conscious awareness of being in heaven--something that seems somewhat apt given the souls that are supposed to populate the place.

But now the Vatican is trying to put limbo deeper into limbo, and this will seem a golden opportunity to those who claim that the Magisterial teachings of the Church are not so magisterial as some of us like to believe. There are those who point to practical teachings on things such as usury, slavery, and the like, note how these practical teachings have developed through time, and used this information to draw the erroneous inference that the Magisterial teachings themselves are open to rather drastic change.

Although this inference is false, it is dangerous to the Church because not only do many folks outside the Church believe it to be true, but the belief outside the Church is so strong that it has begun to affect the beliefs of folks within the Church as well. We already live in times when folks who call themselves Catholic feel that there is no big deal to rejecting Magisterial teachings on matters like birth control and abortion, so it's not much of a stretch for minds like that to read the development of doctrine as changes in teachings.

The concept of limbo was never more than a theological tool for exploring certain sorts of important themes, such as the necessity of baptism for salvation, the nature of God's love, and the extent of God's mercy. Similar sorts of theological themes have taken its place, and will probably also wax and wane. In Aquinas' day infant mortality was much higher than it is today, at least in those areas where this kind of theological speculation takes place, and some sort of examination of what happens to the children who die before baptism was probably motivated by much more than a worry about the necessity of the sacrament for salvation. If nothing else it reassured a population that lived in constant fear of death that those who die in infancy are not necessarily consigned to the flames of hell--they are in fact, Aquinas says, among the elect, but they are not capable of achieving the Beatific Vision because, in his view, their intellects are not developed enough for that. This is not much of a starter these days, but in the 13th century a comfort such as that was comfort indeed.

It is tempting to suggest that, once out of their bodies, the souls of infants who die before baptism will continue to develop and will eventually see God along with the rest of us. But to think this way is to forget about the doctrine of the resurrection, according to which we will be raised bodily, not just spiritually. That teaching is a de fide element of the Magisterium, and it is not going to go away, however much heretical folks like John Spong think that it must. Of course it is quite impossible to know what sorts of bodies we will have at the Resurrection, but we cannot assume that they will all be endowed with the same capacities, or even capacities of the sort that we have now.

I'm not sorry to see the doctrine of limbo put onto a shelf, though I'm not convinced that it is really all that bad of an idea. What worries me more is what our debauched culture and under-catechized Church will make of it all. Perhaps not much will be made of it--perhaps few are even paying attention. That would probably be a good thing.

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 [...