Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Shriving about Shrove Tuesday

I confess that I hate Mardi Gras--please don't hate me. I woke up this morning to a story on NPR about the goings-on in New Orleans, and the so-called "Rex" was on-air declaring that this is a time "given over to pleasure". That sounds about right: for most people Mardi Gras is all about hedonistic self-indulgence rather than preparation for Lent. I suspect that many who head to warmer climes this time of year to celebrate Mardi Gras don't even know what Lent is, or why this Mardi in particular should be known as Gras.

Soon after hearing that story, I took my daughter to her preschool, where the Kiwanis had set up a huge tent--they were busy making thousands of pancakes for the annual Shrove Tuesday pancake fest. For them it's all about the pleasure of syrup, I guess, and fundraising.

I had a rather nice time in my Plato seminar this afternoon, where pleasure didn't come up a single time--though it wouldn't have hurt if it had, since I trust Plato's judgment when it comes to the place of pleasure in the grand scheme of things.

But this evening, when I went to pick up my children at their "religious education" class at my parish, I was a little surprised to find them in the middle of their own Mardi Gras party. All the kids had tons of stringed beads around their necks, and they were eating some kind of weird bread with prizes baked into it. I'm not sure this is on the syllabus for religious education, but I decided it was OK in the end since the theme seemed to be not so much the decadence of Mardi Gras generally but education about the need to help the folks in New Orleans in particular. But still.

What happens to the value of a season like Lent, if the point becomes the size and success of the party you have right before it? It's not unlike the secular commercial hype that has ruined Christmas. There used to be a nice period of preparation for Lent--what the Church called Septuagesimatide, the two weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday. Septuagesima Sunday was not a time for partying and getting fat on pancakes, but of prayerful preparation.

I'm not one of those folks who thinks that Lent is all about being sullen, giving up your favorite candy treats, and putting pennies into a cardboard box every day. Lent is, in some ways, a very joyful time--but joyful in an expectant, preparatory way, not a debauched, hedonistic way (obviously). But I do think that our debauched materialist culture has, in its typical way, taken over something that it doesn't fully understand. When that happens, things are always polluted and debased. It's inevitable, I suppose, but it's still too bad.

Don't even get me started on Easter eggs, bunnies, and peeps.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Dangerous Fiction

There's an interesting interview with Mark Shea available from Zenit. The topic of the interview is Mark's book, The Da Vinci Deception, co-authored with Edward (Ted) Sri (published by Ascension Press; when it's released on 28 February it will be available from Amazon.com). Mark is a great apologist (Sri, an assistant professor at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, may be a great theologian, for all I know, but he seems to have published only three things, all of them popular and two co-authored by Scott Hahn, so I'm not in any position to judge one way or the other), and I very much enjoy reading his blog. I don't doubt that there is room for one more anti-Brown book, and I'm certain that if there's room for one more of these, then Mark is more than qualified to write it. Like most anti-Brownies, Mark gives a litany of errors and inaccuracies in The Da Vinci Code, but the question that really fascinated me was this one:
Q: How do these inaccuracies challenge the Church, her teachings and the person of Jesus Christ?

Shea: Brown is attempting to establish a neo-pagan feminist creation myth. The basic myth is: Jesus was actually a feminist, agog for neo-paganism. The Church supposedly covered up all this with lies about his divinity. Brown's point here is: Let's get back to goddess worship as Jesus intended.

This laughably baseless claim is, of course, utterly contrary to the facts about Jesus. But many in our overly credulous and historically illiterate culture believe it. So Catholics must undertake to catechize not just themselves but their families, friends and neighbors, or they can expect this dangerous myth to continue spreading.
I think I can agree rather readily with the characterization of our culture as overly credulous and historically illiterate. We live in debauched times. The characterization of Brown's intent, however, also seems, well, somewhat credulous, though in a different way.

First, I'm not at all certain that Dan Brown is really up to what he is credited with here. He may be an OK writer--The Da Vinci Code, for all its blasphemous error, is not a terrible story--but he's not the sharpest tool in the shed, and it's hard to see how somebody with his limited capacity for research and scholarly inference (let alone literary talent) could pull off the great call to paganism that Mark imagines. Second--and this is, in some ways, the more important worry--it's particularly hard to see why one is supposed to read this book as a deliberate attempt "to establish a neo-pagan feminist creation myth." That is certainly not an aim that is overtly stated anywhere by the author, so foisting it upon him is somewhat risky.

Tolkien, famously, disavowed having ever had any intentions of creating any sort of allegory, let alone a specifically Christian one, in his writings, but that never stopped anyone from finding all sorts of allegorical parallels on every page of LOTR anyway. After all, it was argued, the man was a Catholic, and you can't keep that sort of thing out of your mental apparatus even if you try to. Brown, I suppose the argument is supposed to go, appears to believe much of the stuff he writes, and even if he didn't, why would you write stuff like this when you know perfectly well that it's going to upset orthodox Christians everywhere? In other words, cui bono, unless you hope to accomplish something by it. And what else could you hope to accomplish other than "to establish a neo-pagan feminist creation myth", since that is what the text of the book seems to be about?

Textual interpretation is a notoriously vexed business, of course, and probably the most vexed aspect of all is that hobgoblin of the postmodernist crowd, authorial intent. One of the most important results to come out of disciplines such as the philosophy of science is the phenomenon of underdetermination. In science it's a very useful notion: it basically means that no scientific hypothesis can be regarded as immune from criticism, since there are always alternative hyptheses that are equally compatible with all the data. In the case of literary interpretation things are obviously even more underdetermined than in the sciences. The observable data--in this case, the text of a particular book--are obviously insufficient to fully determine the only correct interpretation of those data. In science what one looks for is the best hypothesis, not the only correct one, since we can never know with certainty that we do, in fact, possess the only correct explanation of any set of observable phenomena. In the case of literary interpretation it seems somewhat silly to hope that there could even be such a thing as a "best" hypothesis, since some authors may be deliberately ambiguous, intending multiple interpretations to apply.

Authorial intent is arguably not always among the data present in a particular text to begin with, so it becomes even more bogus to claim to have discovered it there. This is not to say that it cannot be discovered there by indirect methods, or that it is never explicitly in there, this is just to say that it is not present in every text in the same way that, well, the text itself, is. Given the implausibility of trying "to establish a neo-pagan feminist creation myth" in the first place, in light of both the nebulous nature of such an enterprise and the dubious abilities of the alleged perp, I think this particular shibboleth is going to have to be a non-starter.

This benign interpretation of the book is not shared by Mark Shea, however:
Q: Why is there a concern about Catholics -- and everyone else, for that matter -- viewing "The Da Vinci Code" movie without a discerning eye and solid background information?

Shea: Because it's written with the express intention of destroying faith in Jesus Christ and replacing it with neo-pagan goddess worship.

The problem is the average reader does not know "The Da Vinci Code" actually makes you more stupid about art, history, theology and comparative religion.

"The Da Vinci Deception" and Da Vinci Outreach are there to educate readers on the quite deliberate falsehoods -- as well as ignorant blunders -- that fill the story. We are also including a resource aimed at educating high school students and helping them to tune their "bunk detectors" to Brown's wavelength.
This alleged "express intention" (I wonder whether he means the "expressed intention"?) may or may not be the author's actual intention. It seems to me that there are two possibilities here. On the one hand, Brown may have come right out and said, verbatim, "I intend to destroy faith in Jesus and replace it with neo-pagan goddess worship" (I don't think that he did say that, by the way, in which case it can hardly be said to have been his "expressed intention"), in which case it might be his intention, or it might just be a joke, or a ruse to attract attention. On the other hand, Brown may have said nothing of the sort but have written a book that is not inconsistent with the hypothesis that what he intends to do is destroy faith in Jesus and replace it with neo-pagan goddess worship (I take this to be much closer to the actual facts), in which case his intentions have not been expressed and we don't really have any grounds for expressing them for him, even though we might be right in our suspicions.

Let us assume the latter--that he did not declare his intentions but the book is not inconsistent with what we suspect his intentions to have been. What, exactly, is the danger here supposed to be? Well, in the excerpt above we were told:
The problem is the average reader does not know "The Da Vinci Code" actually makes you more stupid about art, history, theology and comparative religion.
This, it seems to me, raises more questions than it answer. I'm not sure, for example, just what to make of the claim that reading the book might actually make an average reader "more stupid". There certainly seems to be a suggestion here that the average reader is already at some level of stupidity that reading the book only serves to exacerbate, but it's not exactly clear how reading a book can accomplish such a thing. Is the claim supposed to be that the average reader is actually going to believe the erroneous claims in the book? Is the claim supposed to be that stupidity is simply a matter of having false beliefs? Many of the claims made in the book are not merely erroneous, they are downright fraudulent. Is the claim here supposed to be that someone who has been tricked by fraud has been made "more stupid" by having been tricked? None of these putative claims is going to hold any water, and yet I can't see any other way to read the statement. I think what he must have meant was really something along the lines of "The trouble with a book like this is that some folks are going to believe the things it says, even though some of those things are demonstrably false."

Or take this bit from the earlier excerpt I quoted:
But many in our overly credulous and historically illiterate culture believe it. So Catholics must undertake to catechize not just themselves but their families, friends and neighbors, or they can expect this dangerous myth to continue spreading.
If we're talking about people who are overly credulous, then what kind of sense does it make to say that "Catholics must undertake to catechize...themselves"? Catechesis is supposed to come from an expert and be imparted to the neophyte. It doesn't make any sense to say that an expert should impart knowledge to himself, or that a neophyte should turn himself into an expert without the aid of some other expert. The task at hand begins to seem somewhat misconceived.

In spite of my worries about some of what Mark has said in this interview, I don't doubt that his book will be useful. He is a fine apologist, and the work that he does is extremely valuable. Whether or not Brown's "express purpose" is as sinister as some in our credulous culture may be tempted to believe, he certainly seems arrogant enough and hubristic enough to warrant a little attention from those who would debunk him, demythologize him, and parody him. I'm sure it couldn't happen to a more deserving fellow, even though I seriously doubt that he is really all that dangerous. He's just not clever enough. Or, to put it another way: if merely reading his book can make you "more stupid", imagine what it would mean to have written the thing in the first place.

Who Are These People?

I listened with some (morbid) fascination to the exchange of words between London Mayor Ken Livingstone and Evening Standard reporter Oliver Finegold. I suppose it's safe to say that Jews around the world are not going to start bombing British embassies or rioting in the streets, even though the Mayor's remarks are arguably as offensive as any political cartoon. Even so, it's a little hard to understand what defect in prudential reasoning would lead someone to think that saying those sorts of things is ever a good idea. Free speech is one thing, but self-control is another. Just because I have the right to think or say whatever I like, it doesn't follow that I ought to do so, or that I am free from all moral blame when I do. Sometimes legal rights assure us, not of our moral rights, but of mere freedom of behavior, and in order to be genuinely free, we must be free to sin.

If Ken Livingstone believes the things he said, which he claims he does, then he is legally permitted to say them out loud (and, perhaps, ought not to be legally punished for having done so), but interestingly his moral culpability lies not so much in saying what he thinks, but in thinking what he thinks. The positive law does not always track the moral law, so he ought not to be punished by the law for either of those things, but he ought to be an outcast for the despicable state of his character.

Red (Hat) China

The Catholic News Service reports today on the appointment of Hong Kong Bishop Joseph Zen Ze-kiun as cardinal. This is good news in two ways. First it is good that the Chinese Catholic population--now over 12 million strong--has better representation in the Curia (the only other Chinese Cardinal, Paul Shan Kuo-hsi, is 82 years old and, hence, cannot vote in a Conclave). Second, it keeps the Chinese Catholic Church in view--reminding the rest of the world that there is, in fact, a struggling Church in China, and reminding the Chinese government who, in fact, is in charge of that Church.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Logos en Logois

I've posted on English versions of the Scriptures, and on Latin versions. I suppose it was inevitable that I would eventually decide that I had to say something about Greek, since I'm nothing if not anal-retentive.

The text of the Greek New Testament that I think is the best while also being readily available and affordable, is the 27th edition of the Novum Testamentum Graece, edited by Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo Martini, and Bruce Metzger, published by the Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft (1993; ISBN 3-438-05100-1; for leather binding, ISBN 3-438-05101-7). The text of this edition is identical to that used in the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament. The only difference is that the Aland edition (usually called the Nestle-Aland, since Eberhard and Erwin Nestle produced the first edition in 1898) has a much fuller apparatus criticus, the detailed explanation of alternate readings printed at the foot of each page. Also, if you're interested, there are nice bi-lingual editions that print the Greek text on pages facing the Latin text of the Nova Vulgata (ISBN 3-438-05401-9) or the English text of the Revised Standard Version.

A rather nice supplementary text is the Synopsis of the Four Gospels, available from the United Bible Societies, which prints the texts of parallel passages of the Gospels next to each other on a page, with the Greek on the left-hand page and the Revised Standard Version on the right-hand page (ISBN 3-438-054051). The apparatus for the Greek side prints variant readings for the Greek text; the apparatus for the English side prints variant readings from other translations.

If you don't know Greek but would like to learn it--even if your purpose is only to read the New Testament--then you can't go wrong with Introduction to Greek by Donald J. Mastronarde, published by the University of California Press (1993, ISBN 0-520-07844-6). It does not contain answers to the exercises, so you may want to go through it with someone who already knows Greek, but I don't think that you would have to do that to profit from using the book. There are, of course, "self-teaching" books available, but none of them will be as good as Mastronarde's text in terms of getting you up to speed in the right sort of way to be able to read the New Testament with real fluency, even if they do give you the answers to their exercises.

Once you've gotten into reading the Greek of the New Testament, it won't be long before you start getting into the technical details. At that point you will want to get Manuscripts of the Greek Bible : An Introduction to Palaeography by Bruce Metzger, published by Oxford University Press (1981, ISBN 0195029240). It will show you how to read and date the various papyri, parchment, and other hand-written texts of the New Testament that our present edited texts are derived from. You will also learn a great deal about how manuscripts got copied, transmitted, and, in some cases, tainted.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Sideshow Bob

It looks like there's a chance that there will be another actively gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. Robert Taylor, dean of St. Marks Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle, is one of five finalists for bishop in the Diocese of California, according to a story in the Seattle Times. Although some would say that such a consecration in the wake of all the troubles stirred up by the consecration of Gene Robinson would be somewhat impolitic, ol' Bob Taylor sees it somewhat differently:
I would say that the major global issue for the Anglican Communion is not the discussion of human sexuality. That's a side show. It's about the ministry we should be engaged in in ending global poverty.
Sure, Bob, go ahead and end global poverty. You could probably do it just by redistributing the resources of the members of the Episcopal church. This kind of statement says something about the person who made it. Either he's completely out of touch with reality, or he's desperately hoping that nobody will notice the elephant in the room. That one over there, defecating on the carpet.
The announcement of the finalists was made Monday morning at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, home of the Diocese of California, which has about 27,000 members in the Bay Area.
No, not at Grace Cathedral! Surely you're joking! What a coincidence!

Also among the finalists is Bonnie Perry, rector of All Saints' Church in Chicago, who is also openly gay (kills two birds with one stone).
That's not meant to be a political statement, said the Rev. Jack Eastwood, an adviser to Bishop Swing.
Bishop Swing. This just gets better and better.
Becoming embroiled in his denomination's battle over gay clergy "is not a role that I've certainly sought in any way," [Taylor] said. "It is my hope that if I were to be elected, we would be putting energy — and I want to put energy — into much more vital, pressing, interesting conversations."
Sure, let's just ignore the whole thing. Folks who think that Christianity is about following Christ and his teachings are not vital, they're boring, and we don't want to have any uninteresting conversations with them.

That would just be a sideshow, Bob.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Ars Gratia Artis

Mark Shea needs a new hobby.

Why We May Lose Still

The story in today's New York Times about the upcoming partial-birth abortion case in the SCOTUS may seem to some a hopeful sign--at least cases like this are still getting that far. But one reason for worry has less to do with who's sitting on the bench than with who's sitting in the classroom. In spite of over thirty years of arguing about this, there are still folks out there who have absolutely no clue about the fundamental biological issues here.

Today I listened patiently to a student explain to the rest of the class that the term "living" does not apply to fetuses. They aren't "living" because they are still in the womb, where they need "life-support" from their mother. Their mother is the one who is "living". They are most definitely "not alive", he averred.

I have been listening to students say this, and similar things, for the twenty years I have been teaching. These kids aren't stupid--some of them are really quite bright. Today's student, for example, got a very good grade on a recent mid-term examination that, in my opinion, was very hard. The conceptual muddle that kids have gotten into is, I think, partly an artefact of the culture in which abortion is viewed as a sine qua non. They cannot imagine a world without abortion any more than we can imagine going back to legalized slavery. Not all that long ago, when my department was looking to hire an ethicist, a candidate was asked a question about a moral principle. The answer that came back was telling: "You can't endorse that kind of moral principle, because it would endanger abortion rights."

Think about that reasoning for a second: a moral principle that threatens the right to an abortion is ipso facto an unacceptable moral principle. It's not a matter of whether the moral principle is, in itself, intellectually justifiable--it's a matter of whether it coheres with results that we have already endorsed. So much for the Socratic attitude of self-criticism and introspection. Sorry, Mr. Lincoln, we can't endorse the concept of equality before the law, since that would endanger the institution of slavery.

As these students grow into citizens one can only hope that our polity does not deteriorate further than it already has.

Power to the People

I would like to thank the Arts and Sciences Faculty of Harvard University for giving hope to those of us in the College of Arts and Sciences here at Ohio University.

Let's Hope Abortionists Are Next

Apparently The American Society of Anesthesiologists is considering sanctions for members who participate in state-sponsored executions. (The jury is still out, apparently, on voluntary self-executions.) Since I oppose the death penalty myself, I am not unsympathetic to the two anesthesiologists in California who refused to participate in an execution there today, but the enforcement of this principle by the ASA by means of expulsion is interesting. The reasons given were that doctors ought not to voluntarily cause the deaths of healthy human beings.

That's what the Pro-Life movement has been arguing for over thirty years. I look forward to the expulsion of abortionists from the American Medical Association.

And Still No Reference to An Examined Life

There may not be a Catholic Blog Award for biggest sidebar, but if there were I. Shawn McElhinney would win it hands down for the sidebar at Rerum Novarum. That has got to be the longest sidebar list on the planet. Not that I'm jealous, mind you: I've always heard that it's not the length of your sidebar that matters, but how well you use it. That's why Rerum Novarum is proudly listed in my blogroll.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Real Life

I keep popping back over to Jennifer's blog, Confessions of a Wayward Catholic, filled with wonder and awe at God's grace and her courage. Her blog first came to my attention last September, when this crappy little blog was just getting under way and I needed a little inspiration. I noticed that she was contemplating conventual life, so I posted the Latin text of Psalm 132 (133) in her honor--it's all about "How fine and good it is when brothers (I changed the text to "sisters") live together in unity." I had no idea at the time what her struggle consisted in, but I wanted to say something positive to her, something that I found uplifting myself and that I hoped would lift her up. Over the intervening months I have watched her reveal her life and her faith. It has been difficult reading at times: her life has had challenges that my faith could never have survived, but hers did--and to spare.

Jennifer, if you happen to read this--thanks. I was looking for blogging inspiration, but you gave me an entirely different kind. Thank you for being that other kind of inspiration, for lifting me up by the example of your witness. You're the real deal.

Verbum in Verbis

In a post not too long ago I discussed some of my preferences regarding English translations of the Scriptures. If you thought that post was painfully pedantic, wait until you read this one (if anyone actually reads it). This post is about my preferences regarding Latin translations of the Scriptures and, yes, I do have some. Preferences, I mean.

Some Catholics--primarily those who do not really read much Latin--confuse the Sixto-Clementine version of the Vulgate (1592), which was the official Latin text of the Scriptures in the Catholic Church until the 1970s, with the translation of the Scriptures made by Saint Jerome in the 4th century and also commonly refered to as the Vulgate. My own preference is for Jerome's version. The later edition, promulgated by order of the Council of Trent and lightly revised over the years, makes certain improvements based on the texts that were available at the time (particularly the textus receptus of the New Testament), but Jerome's version has many virtues, in my opinion. First, I am attracted to its prose style: it is written in the crisp and vivid common Latin of the 4th century that, while clearly different from the classical prose of Cicero or the sublime poetry of Virgil, nevertheless has a freshness and clarity that brings these texts alive for the reader. Jerome was a master of style--he was quite capable of writing either Ciceronian or common Latin, and his translations of the Scriptures represent one of the truly great artistic accomplishments in history. Never before had the entire text of the Scriptures been rendered into the common tongue by a single hand.

Second, I am attracted to the antiquity of Jerome's text. I mentioned in my post on English translations that the accuracy of the text is, for me, a secondary matter. I can read Greek fluently, so when I am interested in important textual questions I use the Greek text. My Hebrew is less good but eventually I hope to achieve something like a useful knowledge of it that will enable me to study the Old Testament in Hebrew when the need arises. So I am not particularly worried that Jerome's text may contain errors of translation or interpretation. It has been an approved document of the Church so it contains no doctrinal error, and that is enough for me still to enjoy reading it. Given its antiquity, I can count myself among many thousands of others who have enjoyed reading it before me, and given its status as a classic i can count myself among many more thousands of others who will enjoy reading it in the future. For the conservative, this is the place to be: in the midst of a massive throng stretching into the future as well as into the past and feeling one's obligations to both directions of that throng in maintaing and handing on the Tradition. It is a foretaste of heaven, where the Tradition is no longer something to be taken from others and passed on like a baton in a relay race, but enjoyed like the prize at the end of the race.

One place where the use of Latin can be particularly enjoyable, if you are able to understand it, is in the Liturgy. If, like me, you live in the middle of Nowhere, you are not likely to be within easy distance of a Mass in Latin, either under the rubrics of 1962 or the more recent rubrics. That is a shame, because the Latin language has available to it cadences, rhythms, and melodies that are not available in English translations, and many of these cadences, rhythms, and melodies are part of an ancient tradition that is well worth maintaining and handing on. However, that does not mean that your Liturgies must be devoid of Latin. The Liturgy of the Hours in Latin is fully within the domain of any layman. You can get the Latin text from the Vatican Press--I ordered mine via the website Paxbooks.com. Two editions are available: one bound in a kind of vinyl, another bound in leather. The leather is much more expensive but, in my opinion, having owned both, well worth it. Like the English Liturgy of the Hours, the Latin Liturgia Horarum is in four volumes, so whether you order it in vinyl or leather you are looking at a hefty chunk of change. But these volumes, treated well, will last you a lifetime, and they will enable you to share in a devotional practice that is many centuries old and continues to be the official prayer of the Church outside of Mass.

The new Liturgia Horarum differs from older breviaries in the use of the Nova vulgata (the text of this "new vulgate" is available on the Vatican's website here). I'm not altogether sure which edition of the vulgate was used by the breviaries produced during the 20th century--different editions appear to have used different texts. During the 1950s the Psalter in most breviaries was an entirely new translation of the Psalms done by Cardinal Bea. This Psalter, sometimes called the Pius XII Psalter, is actually quite beautiful, with delightfully classical Latin vocabulary and phrasing, but it was widely criticized as not being very "traditional". (Those were the good old days, when a Latin translation could be so criticized. Today any Latin version would, simply by virtue of being in Latin, be criticized as being too traditional.)

Jerome's Vulgate actually contains two Psalters, one of which is a translation from the Greek Septuagint, the other from the Hebrew. The reason why there are two is interesting from a modern point of view, because it illustrates how certain kinds of disputes never go away. The Psalter that was in use liturgically in Jerome's day was an older Latin translation from the Septuagint, but Jerome felt that the Old Latin texts did not adequately reflect the original Hebrew, so he made a new translation of his own and had it inserted into his text side-by-side along the Old Latin version. The Old Latin was the more "traditional" version, and so it was widely favored in spite of its differences from the Hebrew.

In order to see how some of these Latin Psalters differ, let me illustrate them with one or two of my favorite Psalms. Here are the opening lines of Psalm 41, first in the Old Latin, then in Jerome's translation of the Hebrew (alternative readings are indicated by putting a "|" between two possible words):

Quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum
ita desiderat anima mea ad te Deus
sitivit anima mea ad Deum fortem|vivum
quando veniam et parebo ante faciem Dei

Sicut areola praeparata ad inrigationes aquarum
sic anima mea praeparata est ad te Deus
sitivit anima mea Deum fortem viventem
quando veniam et parebo ante faciem tuam

Here is the version from Cardinal Bea's Psalter:
Quemadmodum desiderat cerva rivos aquarum
ita desiderat anima mea te, Deus.
Sitit anima mea Deum, Deum vivum:
quando veniam et videbo faciem Dei?

The Nova vulgata follows the Old Latin rather closely:
Quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum,
ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus.
Sitivit anima mea ad Deum, Deum vivum;
quando veniam et apparebo ante faciem Dei?

Here are verses 4-6 of Psalm 90:

in scapulis suis obumbrabit te
et sub pinnis eius sperabis
scuto circumdabit te veritas eius
non timebis a timore nocturno
a sagitta volante in die
a negotio perambulante in tenebris
ab incursu et daemonio meridiano

in scapulis suis obumbrabit tibi
et sub alis eius sperabis
scutum et protectio veritas eius
non timebis a timore nocturno
a sagitta volante per diem
a peste in tenebris ambulante
a morsu insanientis meridie

From Cardinal Bea:
Pennis suis proteget te, et sub alas eius confugies:
scutum et clipeus est fidelitas eius.
Non timebis a terrore nocturno,
a sagitta volante in die,
a peste quae vagatur in tenebris,
a pernicie quae vastat meridie

The Nova vulgata:
Alis suis obumbrabit tibi,
et sub pennas eius confugies;
scutum et lorica veritas eius.
Non timebis a timore nocturno,
a sagitta volante in die,
a peste perambulante in tenebris,
ab exterminio vastante in meridie.

What to do with this rich banquet? The new vulgate represents a return to the "traditional", but Bea's translation is sublime. Jerome's Latin is arguably the most authentic, but it simply isn't in most breviaries. I suppose one could take a helping of each, but that would require carrying too many books around. With the internet things are a little different, of course. You can get Jerome's text here, and the Sixto-Clementine is available here. But bibliophiles like me prefer to have something, well, a little more "traditional". Something you can use when you're hiking in the mountains or waiting for a plane, something you can carry in your backpack and that doesn't run out of batteries.

There are lots of websites out there that deal in old liturgical books, but the best one I've found is LoomeBooks. The actual store itself is amazing--it's located in an old church, and I've never seen so many cool old books in one place in my life. Take a lot of money and an empty suitcase with you if you go there--you won't be able to leave empty handed.

Scientism Takes a Hit

There is a very nice review in today's New York Times of Daniel Dennett's recent book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Leon Wieseltier is very smart--it's not all that often that a reviewer proves himself to be much smarter than the author he's reviewing, but when it happens it can be delicious. He makes explicit what we regular readers of Dennett have known for years:
In his own opinion, Dennett is a hero. He is in the business of emancipation, and he reveres himself for it. "By asking for an accounting of the pros and cons of religion, I risk getting poked in the nose or worse," he declares, "and yet I persist." Giordano Bruno, with tenure at Tufts!
You really have to wonder who, precisely, Dennett imagines it is going to be who is going to poke him in the nose. There are two sorts of people who read his works: those who already agree with him, and those of us who have to read what he writes in order to keep up with a certain literature but who know better than to take anything he has to say seriously. Neither group is likely to think poking him in the nose worth the effort.

Although I often disagree with Dennett, and I believe him to be something of an intellectual joke--a kind of charlatan, an academic snake oil salesman--nevertheless he, like many useful idiots, has had some useful ideas. Like the man he emulates, David Hume, he will be remembered in the discipline as a man who had one or two insights, and some folks will regard those insights as very important, in some sense, to philosophy. I suggest that the one he will be most remembered for is what he has called the "fantasy-generation process". In his own work, of course, this is a feature of our mental architecture that is supposed to explain the persistence of religious belief. Because of a "hyperactive agent detection device, or HADD", module in our minds, we look for--and usually find, whether they exist or not--other minds out there, sources of intelligence to which we may impute causal powers. The fantasy-generation process then kicks in and fills out the details without necessarily relying on empirical data. This happens most often when we can't find "rational" explanations for things--we are, in a sense, biologically "hard wired" to attribute agency to things that frighten or perplex us. Hence we invented the gods.

It would be a brilliant idea, if Nietzsche hadn't had it first. It's too bad that Dennett's own ideas have to wind up being recycled versions of ideas from Hume and Nietzsche, but there you have it--the perils of the publish or perish lifestyle. First you have to publish whatever pops into your head in order to get tenure; then you have to publish whatever pops into your head to keep people thinking and talking about you. It's at times like these that a "fantasy-generation process" can be particularly useful, and it is in this context, I suggest, that it will prove to have genuine adaptive value, at least for folks like Dennett. In an ideal world, books like Dennett's wouldn't get anybody tenure, and the only thinking or talking to get done about them would be negative. But Dennett is clever enough to know that adolescent posturing is a good way to get attention, and he has made a cottage industry out of it. So his fantasy-generating process works overtime to come up with just-so stories about everything under the sun that he finds distasteful. For some reason he particularly enjoys poking religion in the nose.

Indeed, one is tempted to wonder what sort of a kid he was on the playground, and why he thinks it is so important to discredit religous belief--indeed, so important that he says things that he knows perfectly well are inconsistent with his own reductive materialism just in order to mix things up with the not-so-brights. For all of his interest in originalism, he shows remarkably little interest in the origins of his own atheistic thinking. Perhaps, like many scientists, he rejects Freudian explanations as unscientific, but one cannot help but wonder whether he would be willing to submit his own beliefs to the same sort of test he wants to submit others to. If we are allowed to commit the genetic fallacy with impunity, then the reasonableness of his own views will dissolve with every fact that we discover about the motivations behind his own beliefs.

Maybe his next book should be on the evolution of the desire for intellectual consistency and honesty. I'm sure we have fully biological reasons for carrying that baggage around with us, too, but apparently some outliers have managed to survive without it, and Dennett does a remarkable job of showing how an otherwise valuable trait can be driven to extinction in a certain sort of population simply by calling attention to another trait in a different population.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Best Non-Catholic Blog

Brian Leiter, Academic Thug. You have to know Leiter to appreciate what a fabulous blog this really is. If you don't know Leiter, count yourself lucky.

Tending the Garden

A thoughtful, and thought-provoking, post at Flos Carmeli on the modalities affected by the pursuits in which we engage. I was particularly drawn to this bit:
Being Christian means that all of our actions are drawn into the Christian realm. Everything we do affects the community of the body of Christ. Our sinfulness, our oversights, affect the entire body--that is part of the need for and meaning of reconciliation or penance. It is not only a private act between penitent and priest, but also a public act which seeks to redress and repair the breeches we have created in the body of Christ through our sinful actions. Our focus is often on ourselves, but the effect of grace is such as to touch both us and the body as a whole. As we are repaired and restored, so the body is healed. We cannot compartmentalize--we cannot separate out certain things and separate them from our Christian vocation.
This is a topic that has much occupied me of late. For so long it was not thoroughly true of me that every waking moment was infused with an awareness of the reality of God, yet surely it is precisely such a state that the Christian ought to long for. Every turning away from Him is an opportunity for metanoia, a change of heart and a Sacramental turning-back.

Thanks to Steven for the effect he has on all of us through his blog and in other ways.

Also Not Nominated

I was a little surprised to find that Cardinal Schönborn has a website and blog now, just as the quondam Cardinal Ratzinger had/has one. The difference is that Chris Blosser's monument to our Holy Father was initiated years ago, while this one appears to have been started only last December. Right around the time that Cardinal Schönborn began hitting the popular press with his views on what he calls "neo-Darwinism".

It would be churlish to suggest that starting a blog is akin to starting a campaign, but on the other hand one can think of worse candidates; and I'm not talking about the Catholic Blog Awards this time.

Out of the Loop

You know your blog has a small readership when a moribund one (Ad Limina Apostolorum) gets nominated for a Catholic Blog Award but yours doesn't. I didn't even make it into the "Most Bizarre Blog" category, where I would have thought I had a major advantage, given my general overall bizarreness.

On the other hand, I did get noticed by Fr. Neuhaus, which is already the highest award I can think of, even if he did make fun of my use of exclamation points.

I'll try to be more sedate in the future.

On Mischaracterizations

Michael Gazzaniga has written extensively on the neurosciences, and for those of us who study philosophy of mind and cognitive science his is a well-known and widely respected voice. That's why his recent OpEd piece in the New York Times comes as something of a disappointment. There he writes that President Bush's statement in the State of the Union address that human cloning is an "egregious abuse" is a "serious mischaracterization". Why is it a mischaracterization? Because
This makes it sound as if the medical community is out there cloning people, which is simply not true. The phrase "in all of its forms" is code, a way of conflating very different things: reproductive cloning and biomedical cloning.
Here are a couple of things to note right off the bat. First, it is something of a stretch to claim that what the president said carries any implicature at all to the effect that he thinks that the medical community is "out there cloning people", or that he wants the rest of us to think that they are. Second, to say that something is a "code" is to impute motive where none can be known. To make such an imputation, however, warrants us in imputing a political motive to Gazzaniga.

What political motive is that? Check it out.
The president's view is consistent with the reductive idea that there is an equivalence between a bunch of molecules in a lab and a beautifully nurtured and loved human who has been shaped by a lifetime of experiences and discovery.
So much for the benighted souls who believe that human life begins at conception, or who think, even more benightedly, that the value of human life begins at conception. And talk about "code": characterizing this view as "reductive" has got to be the most sophistic maneuvre to hit the pages of the New York Times in, well, days. What is reductive is rather the view that "a bunch of molecules" are not equivalent to a "loved human" simply because they do not look very, well, human. In short, for Gazzaniga, biological analysis is a matter of reducing entities to their properties--specifically their material properties.

This will come as no surprise to those who have read his more technical works in the neurosciences, where materialist reduction is the norm and the sort of essentialism that regards human beings as instantiations of a natural kind (in a Thomistic sense) is viewed as a quaint relic of the middle ages (often referred to by materialists, significantly, as the "dark" ages).

Gazzaniga goes on to lament the usual litany of scientific woes that have followed upon this president's "intervention" in the scientific domain. If the good-hearted scientific community could just get about doing its work, free from the malevolent interfering of bone-headed politicians, just imagine the utopian paradise we could be living in. Just in case you might be thinking that the recent news out of Korea ought to keep any sensible person from thinking that the unrestrained work of scientists in the field will always result in good, Gazzaniga has a hilarious spin for that story:
In the scientific community there have obviously been strains. When the sad and pathetic story of the fraud in South Korea came to light, I couldn't help but wonder if the entire process — from the overly ambitious laboratory scientist to the overly eager editors of scientific journals — was compromised by a conscious or unconscious sense that something must keep stem cell research alive in the face of the American administration's unwavering opposition.
There you go: it's never the scientist's fault, for goodness sake, get real America! Stop blaming the victim and go after those right-wing nuts in the White House!

It would be a lot funnier if it hadn't been written with such unintentional irony. True, the guy's a scientist, not a moral philosopher, and there's no reason to suppose that because he's good at the one thing he ought to be good at the other. But he definitely has a case of what I call SAS: Scientific American Syndrome. This is a malady that afflicts scientists and science-writers who think they know more about ethics, morality, and politics than most people precisely because they know (or think they know) a lot about science. Scientific American used to be a very interesting magazine to read for the layman, because it made a lot of recent scientific news accessible to a general public. But for the last 15 years or so they have spilled as much ink pontificating about political issues as they have informing the public about science, and it can get extremely tiresome. Gazzaniga's OpEd piece is just one more episode in the ongoing saga of hubris among working scientists.

Clearly Gazzaniga is entitled to his opinions--we all are, regardless off how poorly thought out they might be--and this is an OpEd piece after all, precisely the forum where one editorializes about one's opinion. And I suppose they simply must put his name at the top of the story--but of course they also put "Michael Gazzaniga, the director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Dartmouth, is a member of the President's Council on Bioethics" at the end of the story, and that can only be read as a credentialing statement. You would never expect to find anything like "Michael Gazzaniga is a househusband living in central New Jersey" at the footer of one of these things, because nobody would care what such a person thought about the president's policy regarding human cloning.

In an ideal world, nobody would care what Michael Gazzaniga thinks about it either.

Science and Education Redux

As usual, the Vatican agrees with me on intelligent design. The original story was in the 17 January edition of L'Osservatore Romano, but it's hard to read if you don't know Italian. So listen to the related story at NPR.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Science and Education

The Ohio Board of Education has rejected language that would have required science teachers to consider evidence that is not consistent with evolutionary theory when teaching biology.

Now, I'm already on record, in a number of posts from late last year, as opposing the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in biology classes. My view is, in a nutshell: creationism is not science, science is not religion, and intelligent design is an a priori metaphysical hypothesis that is not necessarily related to either science or religion.

Having said that, though, surely it is the case that any working scientist ought to know that one must always consider evidence that is not consistent with one's working hypothesis or with the presently dominant scientific theory. That is what it means for a theory to be a scientific one: it is testable in the sense that we can imagine conditions that would falsify it. Indeed, this is precisely why creationism is not science: it is not falsifiable. There is no empirical evidence that could possibly show that God did not create the kosmos in a special act of creation at some particular point of time in the past.

This is not to say that intelligent design is any more testable. It is not a testable hypothesis either, and so it cannot count as a scientific hypothesis. But it doesn't claim to be. It is a metaphysical hypothesis about structure and order as a first principle and an explanatory cause.

But if there were any empirical evidence that was inconsistent with evolutionary theory, of course it ought to be mentioned in any science class deserving the name. That is precisely what science is: the testing of hypotheses in the face of empirical evidence.

And the history of science shows quite clearly that the shelf-life of any given scientific hypothesis is finite.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!

The February 6 issue of The New Yorker has a rather strange essay by Timothy Ryback on Pope Benedict's visit, as Cardinal Ratzinger, to the cemetery at La Cambe in Normandy where, along with many other German soldiers, hundreds of S.S. are buried. The upshot of the essay, which runs from page 66 to page 73 with only one large photo and a few cartoons to break the pace, appears to be that Ratzinger/Benedict was morally amiss to say as little as he did about, not Nazi attrocities, but the guilt of the entire German people for allowing those Nazi attrocities.

Many are perhaps familiar with the arguments of Daniel Goldhagen, first in Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust and then in Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair, to the effect that the German "race" as a whole bears full moral responsibility for the Nazi holocaust and the Roman Catholic Church, in particular, bears full moral responsibility--to the extent of owing reparations--for not merely standing by while it happened, but actively promoting its ends. Ryback's rant does not foam at the mouth as Goldhagen does, but it labors mighty hard to work up a lather over statements and actions that, upon reflection, seem perfectly harmless and, upon closer inspection still, are evidently benign.

Eventually one must wonder where all this animus against the German "race" comes from, if not from a noxious racism of the very sort deemed unacceptable in others, especially Germans. Another explanation is on offer, however, and I suppose it may even apply to Goldhagen. There is a tendency in some writers--more than a tendency in Ryback, as it turns out--to conflate individuals and institutions. It is ironic in a day and age in which Platonism is far from the minds of most of the self-styled "Brights" who criticism religion as an institution that moral responsibility should so often and so easily be transferred from the culpable individuals who commit great crimes to the institutions to which these individuals claim allegiance. This reification of institutional structures cannot be taken as a hopeful sign that Aristotelian essentialism is again on the rise: rather it is a sign of the incredibly sloppy moral reasoning to which we are subjected on an almost daily basis.

It would seem to be so obvious as to be a truism: individual persons engage in moral reasoning and make moral choices, therefore individual persons are the sole bearers of moral responsibility, the sole objects of praise and blame. Institutions become objects of praise or blame only indirectly, as blanket-terms covering a multitude of individuals. When John Paul the Great offered his "apology" for the actions of the Church, it is important to read the text of the apology very carefully, because it is quite clear that it is not the Church itself, qua Body of Christ, that has acted sinfully in the past, but only certain individuals claiming to act on behalf of the Church who have sinned. It should come as a surprise to no one that the Church contains sinners, but it apparently can still surprise some that the Church is not itself a sinner.
  • Here is a box. It contains diamonds. Therefore the box is a diamond.
Surely only a moron would affirm that last inference, but it is certainly the very inference being made by those who claim that the Church itself has sinned and must make "reparations" for the sins of its members. There is another irony here, to go with the first, and it leads to more fallacies. Consider the case of those who believe both that the Church sins and that the war in Iraq is unjust. Surely there must be some such people. (I suspect there are many.) Of these, some oppose that war very strongly, and would vehemently deny that they want to have anything to do with what the United States is doing in Iraq. Somehow, though, their innocence vis-a-vis the morality of the war does not "percolate up" to the moral status of the United States, even though the guilt of individual Christians, for these people, has percolated up to the moral status of the Church itself. Some of these folks may be willing to say that they bear some responsibility for what goes on in the war insofar as they are citizens of the United States. But others want none of that--and rightly so. If a soldier in Iraq does something morally illicit and against the orders of his superiors, then a person in this country, someone who voted, say, against George Bush in both elections, and who opposed the war on every front, writing letters to his representative and doing whatever he could to make his opposition known--such a person cannot rationally be held morally responsible for what some individual soldier has done.

There are really two fallacies at work here. The first is the reification of something that cannot be a moral being; the second is to treat the "parts" of that reified whole as having all the same properties as the whole.
  • Here is a BMW. The BMW costs thousands of dollars. Here is a bolt from the BMW. The bolt costs thousands of dollars.
Again, few would be foolish enough to agree with that inference. Well, maybe a Pentagon contractor, but it would have to be Hummer, not a BMW.
  • Here is a BMW. Here is a bolt from the BMW. The bolt is very cheap. Therefore the BMW is very cheap.
Invalid inferences from whole to part and from part to whole are not uncommon, but they are no more rational for being popular. Individual persons sin and commit crimes. Institutions and "races" do not--they cannot, since they are not sentient and hence cannot have mens rea.

It really grates, though, when the responsible individuals are dead and gone and the rest of us are still pissed off about what they did. That's why it's so tempting to hold their tribe responsible for what they did. Hatred is always more tempting than forgiveness. For one thing, it's a lot easier. My son, who is twelve, is often irritated by his sister, who is four. She pesters him constantly to play with her, but he often refuses on the grounds that she has done this or that to him to make him angry. Last night, as I listened to yet another one of these squabbles, I decided to have a "teaching moment". I hauled out the Bible and made Michael read to me from Matthew 18.21-22: forgive your brother (or sister) seventy times seven times. As quickly as he finished reading it he was piping up: "But dad, I've already forgiven her more than seventy times seven times, and she keeps on doing the same things!" So after explaining to him about numbers in the Bible, I talked to him at some length about forgiveness, and how it is difficult to do, yet necessary, since those who do wrong are in need of something other than anger and hatred, ortherwise they would not be doing wrong. He actually caught on to this immediately: when I asked him why parents ought not to react in anger to children who do wrong he said "Because they're just stupid little kids--they don't know any better." But he understood that such children need some sort of discipline, otherwise they might wind up being seriously hurt. You do not beat up a sick person: you give him medicine. Forgiveness doesn't seem like medicine to us because we're too accustomed to desiring vengeance rather than rehabilitation. Hopefully, though, a parent who disciplines a child is not seeking the retributive suffering of that child, but his betterment.

For the Goldhagens, and perhpas the Rybacks, of the world, forgiveness as a principle is something one rolls ones eyes at:
John Pawlikowski, a professor of social ethics and the director of the Catholic-Jewish studies program at the Catholic Theological Union, in Chicago, took a somewhat different view [from that of Avery Cardinal Dulles, who explained that Christians ought to pray for their enemies and those who persecute them]. "I think there is a strong tendency, not only in the bone marrow of the average Christian but in the DNA of Christian ethicists and theologians, to emphasize forgiveness and reconciliation," he told me. He has worked with Holocause survivors and has spent years on the Holocaust Memorial Council, and these activities have tempered this instinct for forgiveness. Pawlikowski said that Ratzinger was right in leaving the fate of La Combe's war dead "in the hands of God," but he faulted him for not condemning that which should have been condemned: Catholic, if not German, culpability. "Many of the S.S. men were certainly raised as Catholics," Pawlikowski said. "They were part of this Church that we remain part of as well. They were catechized by that Church and may also have had the anti-Jewish attitudes that were so prevalent in the Church. We need to acknowledge that we catechized them in the wrong direction, and commit ourselves today to not repeating that sort of catechesis."
It's a little scary to think that this Pawlikowski is a professor of any kind of ethics, in spite of the fact that he makes at least one true claim here--that we ought not to repeat any kind of shoddy catechesis that may have occurred. The glaring errors in his other claims, however, outweigh whatever truths he has hit upon accidentally. Consider the effortless slide he made, for example, from the claim that those S.S. men who were raised Catholic "were catechized by [the] Church" to the claim that "We need to acknowledge that we catechized them in the wrong direction." Who's "we", white man? Somebody catechized them in the wrong direction, that's for sure--but it was not "we" (I, for one, would have opposed it), and it wasn't the Church, either, since the Church explicitly condemns the very thing he's accusing it of teaching. Some particular idiotic individuals did the catechizing, and they are the morally culpable ones. We need to do what we can, again as individuals, to see to it that this sort of thing never happens again, but we won't be doing anybody any favors if we perpetuate moronic moral inferences of this sort.

Ryback clearly endorses this attitude towards forgiveness. He wants more retributive suffering, and he wants it from whomever he can extract it. The Germans as a "race", if that's all he can get, but ideally from the Catholic Church, which apparantly ought to have known better. Silly old Church--why can't you keep closer tabs on what your parts are doing? The Pope, of course, stands for the Church in ways that the rest of us can never hope to, but he is not identical to it, and Popes may err. When that happens--when a Pope sins--the Church itself remains sinless. The Pope is the vicar of Christ, and we do hold him to a higher standard because of that special role. But we ought not to act surprised when Popes do what Christ would have done: forgive even their bitterest enemies, even while hanging on the cross.

The title of Ryback's essay?


Sunday, February 12, 2006

Twice the Fun

My lovely wife Lisa has joined me as a "team member" on this blog. Since she's always complaining about all the time I waste blogging it occurred to me that perhaps the best way to avoid her reproachful glances would be to turn the tables on her and make her my partner in crime. Misery loves company after all, and now I can be the one doling out the reproachful glances.

Lisa will be the political arm of our operation--although I love to talk politics I confess my interest is often more theoretical than is to most folks' tastes, so Lisa, whose eyes glaze over whenever I start talking philosophy, will be able to keep the political posts from becoming too boring.

Sadly, the other posts will be just as boring as ever, if not more so, now that the pressure to be less boring is off.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Meme Me Up, Scottie

Mike Liccione memed me. I can't tell whether this is a good or a bad thing, but here goes.

4 jobs you have had in your life
  • Clerk in a Logos bookstore
  • Computer programmer
  • Professor of classics
  • Professor of philosophy
4 movies you could watch over and over
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • Beetlejuice
  • Jesus of Nazareth
  • Pather Panchali
4 places you have lived
  • Kent, Ohio
  • Chapel Hill, North Carolina
  • New Brunswick, New Jersey
  • Athens, Ohio
4 TV shows you love to watch
  • Seinfeld
  • Law and Order
  • Curb Your Enthusiasm
  • Nature
4 places you have been on vacation
  • London, England
  • Paris, France
  • West Palm Beach, Florida
  • Ann Arbor, Michigan
4 websites you visit daily
  • Sacramentum Vitae
  • On The Square
  • Mark Steyn
  • Best of the Web
4 of your favorite foods
  • sushi
  • Anything Thai
  • QPC
  • Maple syrup, straight up, with a twist
4 places you'd rather be right now
  • Paris, France
  • Anyplace warm
  • Southern California
  • Paris, France
4 bloggers you are tagging
I think I will pass over in silence the fact that the term "meme" was introduced by my good friend Richard Dawkins.

Olivia Day

It was four years ago today that Lisa and I drove to Columbus to pick up Olivia Grace, our newly adopted daughter. Her birthday is not until April, but we've made it a point to celebrate "Olivia Day" every year. Soon she will turn five, and already it's getting hard to believe how quickly she's growing up.

The picture says it all--she's cast her spell over the whole family.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Plateau

According to a CNS report, Cormac Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, of Westminster, England, sees ecumenism achieving a plateau with the threatened (if that is the right word) consecration of a woman as a bishop in the Anglican Communion. For those of us who have longed for a greater union with the Anglican Communion but for whom the traditional teaching of the Magisterium is the final arbiter with respect to what is Good, Just, and True, the plateau has, perhaps, already been crossed with the consecration of a bishop who rejects the traditional teaching on the Sacrament of Matrimony and the willfull ignoring of another bishop who rejects the teachings on the Real Presence and the Resurrection. For us, we are already more than half-way down the other side of the mountain.

I'm not altogether sure why the plateau wasn't reached when the first women were ordained to the priesthood. The Cardinal notes that "a bishop is in a particular way a figure of unity," but he also admits that once you've admitted women to the priesthood "it's probably inevitable that in due course there will be the ordination of women as bishops." In any case, the teaching has to do with the admission of women to Holy Orders simpliciter, not the admission of women to any particular grade of Holy Orders. But his point is taken: if things were bad before, they are beyond worse now, what with traditional morality under attack and the last vestiges of doctrinal slowly dissolving in the acid of contemporary secular values.

A possible complication to this mess, however, of particular interest to folks like me, is the question it raises about the status of folks in the more traditional dioceses in this country who now style themselves as the Anglican Communion Network (see, for example, the website for the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh). Most of them, so far as I know, have no objection to the ordination of women to the priesthood--their decision to mark themselves off somehow from the rest of the Episcopal Church was grounded not in the ordination of women, but rather in the consecration of Gene Robinson. One way to view that consecration, one might have thought, is as a camel-back breaking straw, but apparently it was something rather different. After all, if there is nothing wrong with the admission of women to Holy Orders, then the only reasons for excluding them from the episcopacy are purely prudential rather than moral, and it would be a matter of considerable injustice to prevent them from holding that position. No: if they may not be bishops, the only reason that is morally permissible is that they may not be admitted Holy Orders at all. But most members of the Anglican Communion Network appear to accept the legitimacy of admitting women to Holy Orders, so presumably they will have no objection to the consecration of women as bishops.

These things are mysterious for now, however, since I, for one, haven't seen any statements from members of the ACN on this particular question. In the end, one must trust in God and pray that His will be done.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Multiculturalism vs Liberalism

In an interesting post Sunday about the Present Prophetic Cartoon Kerfuffle columnist Mark Steyn notes that
Very few societies are genuinely multicultural. Most are bicultural: On the one hand, there are folks who are black, white, gay, straight, pre-op transsexual, Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, worshippers of global-warming doom-mongers, and they rub along as best they can. And on the other hand are folks who do not accept the give-and-take, the rough-and-tumble of a "diverse" "tolerant" society, and, when one gently raises the matter of their intolerance, they threaten to kill you, which makes the question somewhat moot.
This is a very important point. Personally, I would never dream of portraying the Prophet in a cartoon--not because I'm afraid my house would be fire bombed but simply as a matter of respect for my Muslim brethren to whom such a depiction would be blasphemous. I am always heartened when I hear of Muslims who are indignant about negative depictions of Jesus, and I am happy to return them the favor when it comes to their own religion. Like many, I was outraged by the "Cruci-fixin's" that was to have been one of the main anti-Christian jokes on an upcoming episode of "Will and Grace" (since pulled by the network), so I think I can understand how faithful Muslims feel about the way their Prophet is sometimes used for political or social purposes. But there is obviously a difference between feeling outraged or, perhaps more consistently, saddened by such things and going down to the nearest Consulate and throwing stones at people.

I think it's important to remember that for every weirdo throwing a Molotov cocktail there are many thousands of devout Muslims who would never dream of acting violently towards even the worst of sinners. Islam, like Christianity, worships the God of Mercy and Compassion. The violent folks are not acting qua Muslim when they act violently. There are Christians who sometimes act that way too, though you don't hear about them very often, and they are not acting qua Christian when they act that way, either. These people are not religious fanatics, they are simply fanatics.

For people like that, democracy is actually a Bad Thing, since it tolerates dissident views. In this sense these fanatics are no different from the Communists or the Fascists, for whom the elimination of opposing views by whatever means necessary is licit if done in service to The Cause. When I was in college there used to be these student groups who set up tables in the Student Union to display their literature, and I used to like to go to the Young Spartacus League table, because those guys were off the scale in terms of political wackiness. They were always willing to argue with people stopping by, however, so I often took the liberty. I asked one of them once why he advocated revolution and violence to bring about his Workers' Paradise--why not use democratic methods instead. His answer, given in all sincerity, was quite simple: probably the majority of folks wouldn't approve of the programs they would put in place, so you have to force it on them. Shouldn't the majority rule, I asked. No, only the workers should have any say. But a lot of workers--at least in this country--don't support communism either, I said. That doesn't matter, he said, they will once we've re-educated them to support it.

Well, it's a point of view. I hope you will forgive my sense of Schadenfreude when I report that this conversation took place in 1976--not long before a very different Revolution took place that my Young Spartacan could not have felt very happy about, the Reagan Revolution, followed by the fall of European Communism. I hope he's been re-educated sufficiently to appreciate how much better off he is now than he would have been after his own revolution.

Folks who insist that everything be their way or the highway (to hell) are not thoughtful people. This is true not only of pseudo-Muslim fanatics throwing bombs at people but also of the intolerant Left in our own political culture. One reason why a joke like "Cruci-fixin's" is acceptable in (some parts of) our culture is because Christianity itself is growing ever less acceptable to the folks on the left for whom Christianity represents sexual repression and anti-materialist zealotry. A TV show that makes a blasphemous joke about an innocent person's cruel, tortured death throes is quite different from a riot, of course, but both are about as inappropriate as you can get. I imagine that some of the same people responsible for making jokes about the unimagineably cruel death by crucifixion, which usually involved six or seven hours of horrendous pain and agony, are also very much opposed to the death penalty in our country, which usually takes all of 10 minutes--but consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, I suppose.

I am not a Muslim, and there are aspects of Muslim culture that do not appeal to me. I might be tempted to write about those aspects someday, but I would never make derogatory remarks about the Prophet himself, simply out of deference to the idea that intelligent people can differ about the nature of the True and the Good. It is precisely this deference that makes genuine dialogue possible, and it is dialogue that makes Liberalism--the only kind of multiculturalism that matters--possible. This is a fact that is lost on the likes of the writers for "Will and Grace", as it is lost on many of the self-styled "Brights" who ridicule Christianity and its contributions to Western civilization. For such people, the elimination of religion is not too much to hope for, even if it means re-educating the millions of persons for whom religion is our only contact with what Plato called "the really real." For these fanatics, it's their way or the highway. They are the intellectual fascists of our time.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

I'm Shocked--Shocked!--to Find Love Being Praised Here!

I've just been perusing Chris Blosser's survey of the conventional wisdom regarding Deus Caritas Est, here and here. As usual, Chris is to be congratulated for doing us all the service of bringing this material together and commenting on it with such perspicacity. What struck me about the various voices heard from in the excerpts was not so much how little these people appear to understand Benedict XVI, but how very badly they understand Roman Catholicism. Take, for example, this Bright Light (Ruth Gledhill, writing in the Times of London):
I started reading Deus Caritas Est expecting to be disappointed, chastised and generally laid low. An encyclical on love from a right-wing pope could only contain more damning condemnations of our materialistic, westernised society, more evocations of the “intrinsic evil” of contraception, married priests, homosexuality. It would surely continue the Church’s grand tradition of contempt for the erotic, a tradition that ensures a guilty hangover in any Roman Catholic who dares to indulge in lovemaking for any reason other than the primary one of reproduction. How wonderful it is to be proven wrong.
Quite. I expect she's used to it by now, though. Here is a woman who appears to know absolutely nothing about the Church's moral theory or theology informing us that she's surprised to find that the Church does not teach what she, in her ignorance, assumed that it did teach. When she finds out that it never did teach what she assumed that it did, I expect she will find it even more wonderful, because the surprise will be greater.

Also of interest to me was the fact that Stephen Crittenden, religion correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, quoted from DCE the passage where the Holy Father refers to Nietzsche's infamous claim that Christianity had poisoned eros, causing it to degenerate into a vice, in order to support his approving claim that "this document dialogues with everybody." This is interesting for two reasons. First, and most importantly, it is quite clear to anybody who reads the encyclical with even minimal care that Benedict XVI is not quoting Nietzsche with anything like approval. In the section immediately following the quotation Benedict compares the role of eros in the pre-Christian world with the treatment it got from the Church, and then draws the conclusion that, as far as Christian teachings go:
Far from rejecting or "poisoning" eros, they heal it and restore its true grandeur.
That's the kind of dialoguing with error that I like, but it shouldn't come as such a shock to the likes of Stephen Crittenden that one should quote one's opponent before shredding him. Or maybe it should--he is just a journalist, after all.

As I ponder the encyclical I am struck, over and over again, by the consistency of its message with John Paul's Theology of the Body and, indeed, with the whole of the Church's Tradition. I'll never cease to be amused by the hopeless pundits of the left, those dinosaurs who continue to play football as though Knute Rockne had never existed, running and running their pointless, old fashioned arguments about this or that changing while the rest of us are watching the spectacular passes by means of which the Church moves forward in Her own way, with logical consistency and historical continuity.

Thanks again to Chris Blosser for all of his hard work.

Friday, February 03, 2006

The Word in Words

I was somewhat startled not too long ago (29 December, to be exact) to read Richard John Neuhaus' comments in the First Things blog On the Square regarding the remarks made at Hirhurim Musings about reading the Old Testament in Hebrew, rather than some English translation, however literary. The poster there had written:
Thankfully, not being personally burdened by a long (in Neuhaus’ case, very long) ritual and scholarly bond with an English translation, I’m not invested in any particular English translation. I actually rarely use one. To me, the original Hebrew text is for the sophisticated reader and any English translation is directed to the unlearned and, therefore, should use the ‘vulgar,’ common language. Those who want poetry should go to the original.
This seemed all very well and good to me, not having yet read Neuhaus' essay in the print version of First Things on English versions of the Bible. So I was taken aback to read Neuhaus' comment:
A word to the unlearned: We’re Scripture scholars and you’re not. Get used to it.
Ouch! That's going to leave a mark! Maybe they should change the name of the blog from On the Square to No Squares Allowed.

Looking back over the original post at Hirhurim, however, I came to agree (as I usually do) with Fr. Neuhaus--there did seem to be something, well, rather pompous, at least in the tone, floating around in there, and I got to thinking about this problem a little more carefully.

I can't read Hebrew very well--I'm working on it but I'm certainly not at the point yet where I can pick up the Hebrew text of the Old Testament and just start breezing through it, the way I can with the Greek New Testament or the Septuagint or the Vulgate. So I have absolutely no grounds for disputing the claim that Hebrew poetry is better read in Hebrew than in translation. But after years and years of reading things like the New Testament, ancient Greek philosophy, medieval Latin philosophy and theology, and other similar texts in the original languages, I can honestly say that, whether anything gets lost in the translation depends almost entirely on what you hope to get out of your reading experience.

Clearly, if what you want to engage in is a scholarly exegesis of the meaning of the text, you absolutely must read it in its original form--that's a principle that I subscribe to not only with Biblical exegesis but with the exegesis of any text, whether Plato or Aristotle or Virgil or Dante or Beowulf or Shakespeare. But not everyone--indeed, arguably only a very few--read either the Old Testament or the New for that purpose. There are, I think, a lot of folks who believe that is what they are doing on certain occasions but I don't think it actually happens as often as some people think. It is really the domain of the specialist, the scholar, and few folks who think they are engaging in Biblical exegesis are really "Scripture scholars" of the sort that Neuhaus mentions.

Most of us, I think, read the Scriptures primarily as a means of encountering God as he has manifested himself to his Church, and for that purpose I don't really see why reading the Scriptures in translation has any necessarily deleterious effect on our experience. The main reason for seeing it this way is my belief that the interpretation of God's revelation of himself to us is always properly the domain of the Church rather than the individual, hence if the translation is recognized by the Church as accurate in a doctrinal sense then there is usually no grave harm involved in relying on it.

If you have doubts about this, you might ask yourself how feel, then, about the restrictions that were imposed, in certain places at certain times, on reading the Bible in the vernacular. The thinking of some was that precisely because the interpretation of these texts was extremely difficult, and something easily manipulated by the educated for the purpose of swaying the uneducated, such texts should be carefully regulated. In particular, the thinking went, translations of the texts--which are always, by their very nature, acts of interpretation--ought to be very closely monitored by the Church. Since the people were supposedly being instructed on the genuine meaning of the texts at the liturgies, it was thought, what need for uneducated folks to read the things themselves?

Then there were the restrictions imposed during the 16th century on reading the New Testament in Greek. Now that was a bizarre move, but not one that I find to be per se wrong, since what the New Testament teaches was still being made available by the Church in her ministry. It was certainly wrong from a utilitarian point of view, since it had rather unfortunate consequences, but there is nothing wrong, in principle, with the Church reserving the right to explain Christ's teaching to His people in Her own way. This is, after all, the way things were perforce during the first century, when the New Testament did not even exist but there was Good News to be preached nevertheless. That News was preached by the Church through the efforts of her ministers, and there was no question of letting folks sit around and examine the sayings of the Apostles, who were summarizing the teachings of Our Lord, with a view towards finding out what those sayings really meant. If there had been any question, they could ask the ministers themselves, who could then explain the meaning more fully, after which it would have been absurd to say "Oh no, that's not what you meant at all--I heard you say XYZ and XYZ doesn't mean what you just told me you meant by it." Things were no different, really, under the restrictions of the 16th century.

Since most folks are not Scripture scholars, then, most folks will read the Scriptures in translation. In fact, even pedantic weirdoes like me read them in translation from time to time. My own tastes in translation have varied over the years. When I first became a Christian in the spring of 1979 I was still living an aesthetic principle that had its origins in the 1970s, and so I found the New International Version somewhat appealing in its folksy, cozy way. But that appeal was quickly lost when I discovered the anal-retentive accuracy of the New American Standard Bible. Remember, I was a young grad student in classics at the time, and the NASB is a godsend to anyone trying to work through the original texts because the translation is so literal as to be almost unreadable. But that was precisely what I liked about it--I guess I thought it was the next best thing to being able to read Hebrew. Even if you know Greek, it's kind of nice to have a trot sitting nearby to give you a sense of security in case things go badly wrong ("Gee, I've never seen that form before! Does Koine have some kind of hemidemisemiquavery apodictic aorist optative?") Remember, too, that I was a young Episcopalian. So of course the pedestrian prose of the NASB quickly wore thin with me and I needed to move on. My friend in the Episcopal church (about whom I have blogged before and who, if you will believe it, has entered the Roman Catholic Church, Deo maximas gratias) introduced me to the Revised Standard Version with Apocrypha, which quickly became my favorite.

It is the Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition that Fr. Richard Neuhaus favors, and that edition is not all that different from the RSV with Apocrypha, though the differences that do exist are not to be ignored. But clearly I was on the right track by this time. Where Fr. Neuhaus and I have begun to diverge, though, is in this very strange phenomenon: I have begun to favor--the Authorized Version!!! Yes, that's right folks, the very version that was "authorized" for use in the liturgies of the Church of England by King James I and, hence, also known as the "King James Version". Editions with the Apocrypha do exist, so it is just possible to use this version without losing too much in the way of Inspired Scriptures. But the Inquiring Mind wants to know: what is the appeal in this version? The English is antiquated, the texts have been superseded, and gee whiz it was subsidized by schismatics!

I suppose that, in the end, what has drawn me to it after all this time is a combination of (a) coming to peace within myself about my own Episcopalian past (=I don't care any more that they were schismatic), (b) an appreciation for the prose style employed, and (c) a desire to stay as far away as possible from the contemporary political considerations that seem to me to be driving most of the revisions upon revisions that come out, sometimes yearly, of already overly-revised translations whose initial value as "keepers" was already somewhat suspect. Let me address the three points from the last paragraph in order.

It is true that the language of the AV is somewhat antiquated, but certainly no more so than Shakespeare and surely no one would argue that it's not worth taking a little trouble to read Shakespeare, and it would be ridiculous to suggest that you should only read Shakespeare in some contemporary "translation", though such things do exist. For texts produced just a century earlier than Shakespeare (the letters of Saint Thomas More, for example) a translation is sometimes necessary, but there's no reason why an educated person these days ought to have trouble with the English being written at the start of the 17th century. Moreover, as I read more and more about Shakespeare and his times, the period comes to be ever more alive for me, and if only on a personal level I find it something of a satisfaction to read this version as an artifact from a time and a place with which I feel a humanistic connection. It is remarkably beautiful prose even in its directness and simplicity, and it was clearly produced by people who were both scholars and artists--a rare combination these days.

More worrisome is the fact that in the New Testament the AV is a translation of the so-called textus receptus, the Greek text as established by Humanists such as Elzevir, Beza, Erasmus, and Stephanus and deriving ultimately from Byzantine manuscripts. This was the scholarly text up until the end of the 19th century but it has long since been superseded by very much improved editions. (The very best edition of the Greek New Testament in an affordable format, for those who are interested, is the 27th edition of Nestle and Aland, available from the Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, ISBN 3-438-05101-7; there is an editio maior but it consists of multiple very-expensive volumes.) Those who would refuse to read the AV for this reason are, I suppose, the same folks who see themselves as engaging in textual exegesis when they read the Scriptures. These are the folks who should be learning Koine, not going around comparing translations to each other without having any independent grounds for distinguishing among them. Church doctrine managed to survive for 19 centuries under the texts that comprise the TR, and I very much doubt that any radical changes are about to be introduced on the basis of new papyrus findings. Some folks try to make too much of what is possible with textual criticism anyway. In 1945, when the Nag Hamadi findings were in the news, folks were all a-twitter with talk of the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, etc. etc., and we find similar controversies today, from the totally silly kind (The Da Vinci Code) to the (slightly) more serious (Elaine Pagels, Elizabeth Clark). For a thorough debunking of these controversies and others, check out Philip Jenkins, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. The long and the short of it, as far as I'm concerned, is that few textual shortcomings in the AV are going to lead me into heresy--it's substantially the text used by the church for the vast majority of its history, and I don't rely on the authority of texts anyway for my doctrine, I rely on the teaching authority of the Church, which produces the very texts themselves and gives them their authority.

It's true that the AV was produced by some folks who had it in for the Papists, and that is probably more troubling to some than to others. The online version of the Catholic Encyclopedia (produced in the early years of the 20th century) articulated only one explicit complaint about partisanship in the AV:
Nevertheless, there remained in the Authorized Version here and there traces of controversial prejudice, as for example, in the angel's salutation to the Blessed Vergin mary, the words "highly favoured" being a very imperfect rendering of the original.
That doesn't strike me as a particularly volatile issue, but I suppose at the back of it is a whole shipload of Marian baggage that pushed a lot of buttons back in the day. The Greek text in question, from Luke 1.28, reads
khaire, kekharitômenê, ho kurios meta sou.
Probably the best translation of this is something along the lines of "Greetings, highly favored one, the lord is with you." The verb kharitoô, as it is used in the NT, refers to the great favor God bestows by his divine grace, and the form we find in our passage is the perfect passive participle, so it's hard to see why "highly favoured" is "a very imperfect rendering of the original." The Douay-Rheims Bible renders the passage as "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee." Is there a huge difference between "highly favoured" and "full of grace"? Not if you know what "highly favoured" means in this context--it means "favored by the bestowal of God's grace". If this is the best that the First Edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia can come up with I'm not going to worry too much--I'm certainly not going to be too concerned about passages that may try to persuade me to be a Royalist, if there really are any, as has sometimes been alleged.

Given the great beauty, ancestry, and overall maiestas of the AV I am happy with my current preference. I can't pretend to be a real "Scripture scholar" in Neuhaus' sense, but when I want to be I'll read the Greek anyway, and try to figure out the Hebrew. Failing that, I'll rejoice in a text that has delighted generation upon generation of English speaking Christians, and I'll give thanks that I find myself a part of that great Company that still gives praise to God after a fashion that is worthy of Him.

A Straussian Waltz

Let me tell you a little secret. It's actually a very, very little secret, so don't get all excited. My secret is this: I don't like Straussianism, in spite of those aspects of it that strike me as rather congenial. The main reason I don't like it is because of some of the claims the Straussians make about Plato and his philosophy. I think some of them--Seth Benardete, for example--understand Plato fairly well, but by and large I find it very difficult to sail very far with them. So I was rather delighted by the essay at The Weekly Standard by Robert Kagan called "I am Not a Straussian." Kagan is often accused of being one, and his explanation of why he can't be one is worth a read.

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 [...