Thursday, June 14, 2007

Lee Faber's Scotus Blog

Lee Faber writes a blog called The Smithy, which is dedicated to scholastic philosophy in a general sort of way but principally to the thought of Blessed Duns Scotus. I've just finished a term working with through the philosophy of Scotus and Ockham with one of the best students I've ever had in 25 years of teaching, and the whole experience was remarkably rewarding, not only because it is always a joy to have the challenge and stimulation of working with a truly bright student but because it gave me the chance (indeed, the rigors of the situation demanded it of me) to work through these great medieval thinkers with much greater care than I ever had done before.

Of particular interest to readers of this crappy blog will be a series of posts at The Smithy having to do with certain Trinitarian issues, such as Procession. You can read them here, here, and here, just for starters. Joe Bob says check it out.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Again With the "He's Catholic but..."

In a comment that he later erased himself (and a good thing he did, too, or I would have had to taunt him and unplug my nose in his general direction) Apollodorus took me to task for the way I treated Homeschooling Mom in my post As Opposed to An Open Heretic? (he also disapproved of my use of the expression "invincible ignorance", but what can you expect from a pagan?). Although I thought that I had been rather kind, given what had already been put on the table about Catholics, I think I also admitted that folks who are not Catholic are not likely to see it the same way as Catholics. As for the tone of me post...well, dear reader, as I have often been told by journal editors after submitting articles for publication, if you don't like rejection and ridicule you've come to the wrong place.

So here's another tidbit for the Catholic-bashers out there. A law student at Liberty University, discussing my post Fixing the Mass, introduces his discussion of my position by saying:
Scott Carson is Roman Catholic. Now, don't discount his views immediately, I agree with Carson on a number of levels and I find it difficult to argue with him on levels in which I desire to disagree.
Gee, uh, thanks, I guess. The writer goes on to disagree with me anyway, though he does say that it is only "an attempt".

If I could make any sense out of the writer's objection to my position, I would try to muster up a defense of myself, but I can't, so I won't. Instead, I will merely point out that my recommendation was restricted to a particular domain of discourse, namely, liturgy. I'm not recommending that everyone do all of their theological study, or even private prayer, in Latin, Greek, Aramaic, or Esperanto. I suppose it's possible that for some Protestants church is about the only time and place they think about God, so I could see why, for such people, having your church service conducted in Latin would constitute something of a stumbling block to gettin' right with the Lord. But even when I was an Episcopalian I had the impression that many Christian communities, including Protestant ones, were rather widely read in the subject of their religion, and many of them were also quite familiar with English translations of the Bible and did not need to find out everything from their pastor on Sunday morning, so I confess that I'm mystified by the idea that spending roughly an hour a week listening to the Language of the Martyrs praising God for his great mercy and compassion could be somehow detracting from my religious experience.

It is, in my view, rather ironic that certain sorts of Protestants would object to the use of Latin in a liturgical setting, because at least some of them go so far as to insist that church services, and even the Bible, itself ought (and here the "ought" has more than the usual normative force) to be available only in "King James' English", that is, that weird hybrid of Elizabethan popular and scholarly diction employed in the so-called "Authorized Version" of the Bible. Granted, that form of English (which, like Homeric Greek, represents a dialect that no real person ever spoke) is not as foreign to most people as Latin is, but it is still quite clearly "artificial" in some sense to read one's Bible in that language and to hear one's church services conducted in that language. Which is not to say that said language is not aesthetically pleasing. In a post from February of last year, in fact, I endorsed the Authorized Version (with Apocrypha, of course) as my own favorite for reading purposes. But aesthetics, while important, do not convey meaning all by themselves. Indeed, consider the word "Thou". This is a word that many people use in their "prayer language", if you will, when they converse with their Maker, precisely because they think it more "polite", somehow, than the more conventional "you". And yet "thou" is itself the familiar form, "you" the polite form; indeed, it's because "thou" is the familiar form that the English Divines elected to use it in discourse with God: God has declared himself our friend in His Son, and we are to address him as a friend. But for many people these days, this meaning of the word "thou" is not merely lost, it is outright reversed.

Misunderstanding a language that one ordinarily understands is, of course, quite different from not understanding a language at all, which is going to be the case for most folks when it comes to Latin. But I don't think it will kill people to learn to follow the Mass in Latin, nor do I think it will be damaging to anyone if they have to learn how to do that independently of understanding the Latin language. Some parts of the Mass are still said silently by the priest, and in the older form of the Mass many parts were; this is evidence enough that the Church herself does not require every lay person in the pew to follow every word said at a Mass in order for the Mass to be both meaningful and fully orthodox. Of course, whether the priest himself understand Latin is, sadly, not itself a settled question. But I'll leave that rant for another day.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Things Could Be a Lot Worse

I no longer have to attend "churches" like this one, and if I go to Confession frequently and faithfully and sincerely do all of my Penances, perhaps I never will again.

As Opposed to An Open Heretic?

People often use words in ways that they don't exactly mean. Sometimes this is due to mere carelessness, other times it is due to not understanding completely the full ramifications of what they are saying. I'm certainly guilty of both of these sorts of misstatements, and I'm also guilty of saying things that later, upon more careful consideration, I've come to regret. Or, to put that last one another way, I've said some things in haste that later on I realized were better left unsaid, or said in a more circumspect way if at all.

I wonder whether the following comes under any of these headings, or if it's something else entirely. A recent post of mine, Music and the Form of the Good, came to the attention of a writer at the blog Life As It Is, and this writer, in a post entitled Closet Catholic? expresses a certain sympathy for my position regarding the relation of truth to beauty. But note the question mark in that post title, and have a gander at this:
So, at the risk of yet again being accused of being a closet Catholic, I refer you to this post. It pretty much says everything I think about the necessity of good music as a part of good liturgy. Do read the post that is referenced there. It is overtly Catholic but there is so much good said about the importance of music that should be applied, not only to liturgy or worship, but to every sound that goes into our heads.
Referring to my post the writer says that "it is overtly Catholic BUT there is so much good said..." etc. Now there's a surprise for you: a Catholic saying something good for a change. I thought I'd never see the day. Maybe I'm a closet Catholic myself if I can find anything of value in something one of those losers has to say.

Now, don't get me wrong. After perusing the blog for a while it occurs to me that Life As It Is is written by a home-schooling mom in the reformed tradition who's got lots of really cute kids and who is pretty clearly a lot more like me in certain key respects than many of my co-religionists. And yet. There's something about a protestant, saying of a Roman Catholic, "He's a Catholic, but sometimes he says things that are true" that really galls. It's a little like a flat-earther saying of an astrophysicist, "Oh, he thinks the earth is spherical, but other than that he's a pretty smart guy". (I was going to say, it's a little like a creationist saying of a molecular biologist, "Oh, he believes in evolution, but other than that he's a pretty smart guy", but given the way things are these days in protestantdom I think I'll stay away from that one.)

This phenomenon is widespread here in Appalachia. Last summer when I took my son out into the boonies for his Boy Scout camping week I stopped to get directions to the camp (which was actually more in the hinterland of the boonies than in the main boonies themselves). The man I asked was quite friendly, but instead of telling me how to get to the camp the first thing he said to me was "You go to church?" Well, I couldn't lie to the guy, so I said "Yes" but he immediately asked "Where at?" Sensing a trap, I just said "In Athens" but in these parts that's a little like answering the question "Where did you grow up" by saying "In the loony bin", so the guy said "I mean what church you go to in Athens?" So I said "St. Paul's Church." He said "What kinda church is that?" So I said the magic words: "Roman Catholic". He looked at me with a glint in his eye. "Oh," he said. "I guess that's better 'n nuthin'" and then he told me how to get to the camp. The directions were excellent, and did not take me over any waterfalls. In North Carolina, where things are, if anything, worse, one would often here folks say things along the lines of "Well, I'm a Christian but my friend here is a Catholic" or "I knew some folks as was Catholic but I never seen 'em sacrificin' no babies so maybe they ain't so bad after all."

What is sadly missing here is the background knowledge, the awareness that the Catholic Church is the Christian Church, and that other Christian communities are parasitic upon it. Of course, when I was not a Roman Catholic I doubt that I would have had that awareness either: one must make allowances for the sad facts of history that have led to the (in most cases) invincible ignorance that is now all around those of us who live in predominantly protestant areas. There's not much we can do other than bear witness as best we can, and hope that, as the Scripture reading for today's Mass said, sic luceat lux vestra coram hominibus, ut videant vestra bona opera et glorificent Patrem vestrum, qui in caelis est.

Oh, and for all you heretics out there, the vernacular for that can be found at Matthew 5.16.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Fixing the Mass

Most people who read my blog regularly already know my own liturgical tastes, but for an interesting statement of them by somebody else, there is an excellent post by Fr. Al Kimel at Pontifications. He's right about everything except the normative language of the Mass being in the "language of the people". I hate that expression. The normative language of the Mass is, and ought to be, Latin. Should it also be the normative "liturgical" language, that is, the language that actually gets used, regardless of what the normative textual language is?

I've gone back and forth on this for years. Personally, I prefer Latin, but then I can understand Latin and I'm certainly sympathetic to those who claim that they can't understand it and who prefer to hear the Mass in a language they can understand. But this preference should not go unexamined. What is it, exactly, that is at issue in this case, and why should the one preference (for a language I can understand) trump the other (for a language that is normative, ancient, traditional, etc.)?

One way of thinking about this issue is a decidedly Protestant way. According to this way of thinking, it is necessary to understand every word being said by the priest and the ministers because hey, who knows what they're really saying up there! They might be literally uttering words of hocus pocus for all we know, and to guard against heresy it is absolutely essential that the people understand every word being spoken. In addition to this worry there is the guy in the pew next to me: I don't know what he's saying, either, and he probably doesn't know what he's saying any more than I do, so who knows what in the world is the content of his mental state when he "participates" in a liturgy that he can't even understand. He might be thinking utterly heretical things while saying words he has no idea the meaning of.

These worries are misplaced. For one thing, I know for an absolute fact that people think heretical things about the Mass even when it's said in the vernacular in words they understand very well and even after having been educated about the Mass in a perfectly orthodox way. There simply is no necessary connection between heresy and understandability. A much more interesting worry is that folks in the pews will use classical instead of Italianate pronunciation for the Latin. I mean, let's get real here. People travel a great deal more these days than they did in the days of St. Pius V, so when I'm in France or Germany or China or wherever and I need to fulfill my Mass obligation I'm not going to hear the Mass in my vernacular just because I'm hearing it in somebody's vernacular, and it's in cases like these that the appeal of Latin really begins to be felt, because even if I did not understand Latin at all I bet I would understand the Mass better in Latin than if it were being said in Chinese. But even if I were deaf and could not hear the words at all, people who do understand the Mass (as opposed to the folks I mentioned at the start of this paragraph who don't seem to understand the meaning of the action even when they understand the words) will understand it even if the words are a total loss. One knows what is happening in the Mass by what is going on: where the priest is standing, what he's doing, what is happening on the altar. You do not need to understand the language to know what's happening in the Mass, so why not retain the traditional and normative Language?

Normativity is also important in this context. By sticking with the Latin text we avoid the many ICEL banalities that have become so ensconced in our culture that it's difficult to get even modest textual changes past the bishops on the grounds that it will "confuse the people", stupid morons that they are in this backwards, benighted country where everyone drops out of school in the fourth grade.

I think the vernacular becomes much more important as a consideration if we just drop all the intellectual pretense and admit that it's just a matter of preference. Once we admit that, then it does seem difficult to justify one preference over another, a preference for tradition and normativity over a preference for understandability. One way to approach this worry, however, is to consider the aesthetic side of the thing. As just about every commentator in the last twenty-five years has noted (with the exception of a few professional "liturgists", who obdurately stick to their guns in defending the beauty of such songs as "Rain Down" and other pieces of crap floating in the Glory and Praise cesspool), the vernacularistas have failed in the last forty years to produce anything like the beauty of the Latin traditional chant and song, whether congregational or choral.

Some professional "liturgists" insist that "traditional" is a relative term, that some folks think of, say, "Amazing Grace" or "Love Divine" as "traditional" songs simply because such things seem old to people who are in their 20s or 30s. On this kind of a calculus, the argument in favor of "traditional Latin" chant and hymnody appears to fall to the commonly heard objection "But at least I can understand the words to hymns like 'Love Divine'!" I say "appears" because, of course, this is just another version of the argument "We should do it in the vernacular because that's what I like better." But some people might "like" the apparently incomprehensible words of Latin chant better, and why should their preference be slighted? Indeed, before I knew any Latin at all I was listening to the great sacred music of composers such as Byrd, Bach, Mozart, and others, all of it in Latin and all of it magnificently, unsurpassedly beautiful. I didn't need to understand it to grasp its beauty, and grasping its beauty was just the first step for me on the way to grasping its truth. Of course, this can happen in vernacular settings as well. Once, in New York City, I attended a Mass said in Croation, and understood not a word of it, but it was quite beautiful nonetheless. But this is not so much an argument in favor of the use of the vernacular, but an argument in favor of the non-necessity of understandability as a condition on truth and beauty.

Participation is the great rallying cry of the post Vatican II generation, and a final worry to address is the question whether people will really be able to "participate" in the Mass if they can't understand its language. I note with some interest here that Fr. Kimel endorses, as do I, the ad orientem priestly orientation at the Mass. Once upon a time folks thought it would help the laity to "participate more fully and meaningfully" if they were to envision the Mass as a kind of conversation between them and Christ, or if they were to envision the Congregation, including the priest, as "gathered around" the alter, or if they were to envision the Mass as a kind of "banquet", with Christ as the "presider". In short, "participation" is like any other shibboleth: I can make it jibe with just about anything. Hearing the Mass in the vernacular enables you to "participate" more because you can understand what's happening? On the contrary, it give you opportunity to question the truth of every word you hear, thus destroying whatever "participation" you thought you had. Hearing the Mass in the vernacular enables you to "participate" more because you can understand what's happening? On the contrary, hearing it in Latin forces you to "participate" even more, because you have to be very alert to every little thing that is happening in order to know where you are in the Mass and what's going on. Hearing the Mass in the vernacular enables you to "participate" more because you can understand what's happening? Hearing it in Latin makes you part of a greater multitude of saints stretching back from today to the second century, when Latin was already itself the "vernacular", the "vulgate" or language of the vulgus (Latin for "crowd"). By participating along with this great multitude of faith and tradition by becoming one with them in language you "participate" in a much more important and meaningful way than merely by "understanding" the language in words for your own, private purposes. Our faith is one of symbols, indeed, we ourselves are imagines Dei, images of God; the use of Latin is far more symbolic than the vernacular could ever be in this sense.

One could go on and on with the demolition of the "participation" hoax, but there is no need: we won't see a return to Latin across the so-called Latin Rite any time soon, even if BXVI approves a general indult for the Mass of St. Pius V. Too many people have been swayed by their own indolence: it's certainly a lot easier to attend a Mass in the vernacular, and I think, dear reader, that you know as well as I do that it's not about "active participation" for most people, it's about getting in and out in less than 50 minutes without paying any more attention than one has to. For folks like that, folks that Fr. Al has rightly dubbed the "baptized pagans" of our parishes, it doesn't matter whether the Mass is in the vernacular or Latin or ASL or liturgical dance. Just get it over with.

But for the rest of us, for the folks for whom the Mass is the center of a life well lived here on earth, I see no reason not to reclaim the great glory of the Latin Rite: the Latin language and its liturgical trappings, including music, prayers, and much else. Like it would kill you to learn how to say a few words in Latin? Give me a break.

The Continuing Crisis

There is a rather poignant passage early on in Aristotle's treatise on moral theory, the Nicomachean Ethics. It was Aristotle's custom, in his philosophical treatises, to survey the opinions of other philosophers before launching into an exposition of his own views. This element of his philosophical style is often called the "endoxic method", after the Greek word endoxon, meaning an established or reputable opinion. Naturally he often includes an accounting of the views of Plato in these surveys, since that greatest of all predecessors had been his own teacher. Writing about Plato's account of the Form of the Good, Aristotle begins by saying the following (1096a11-16):
We had perhaps better consider the universal good and discuss thoroughly what is meant by it, although such an inquiry is made an uphill one by the fact that the Forms have been introduced by friends of our own. Yet it would perhaps be thought to be better, indeed to be our duty, for the sake of maintaining the truth even to destroy what touches us closely, especially as we are philosophers: for, while both are dear, piety requires us to honor truth above our friends.
Now, in my previous post I mentioned The Other Episcopal Parish in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the Not-the-Chapel-of-the-Cross parish (known by some as the Church of the Holy Family). It seems that there is yet another Episcopal parish there (you can never have too many Episcopal parishes in a town, you know, to contain the ever increasing influx of new members), this one called the Episcopal Church of the Advocate.

Now, believe me, dear reader, following upon the heels of my father in philosophy Aristotle and after browsing through the web site for this new parish, I resolved that I would like nothing better on this sultry spring afternoon than to poke fun at the many many distressing signs of crappitudinosity I found there, from the doctrinally suspect to the liturgically banal, but just as I was about to start my collection of cuttings and pastings, I noticed that the vicar at the parish is a good friend of mine from the days when I was myself a member of the ranks.

How right Aristotle was, my friends, that an inquiry into the religiously ridiculous can be made an uphill one when the silliness has been introduced by friends of our own, and yet how true it remains that it is better to honor truth above our friends (especially friends we haven't seen in a while and who maybe don't remember us all that well anyway and whom we in all likelihood will not run into in the hall and have to suffer through an embarrassing silence with or questions about "so what made you write all that crap about me anyway"). So without further ado, let me begin by commencing.

Among my first questions about this new "parish" was: cui bono? (Well, OK, I didn't literally think "cui bono" in my mind, you know, those very two Latin words; it was probably something more along the lines of "What the hell is this shit?" but you can't put that into a family-rated blog like this one.) Well, I didn't have to wonder about that one for long:
Chairs generally face each other or go in a horseshoe around the altar, giving a sense of the people gathered around. At the beginning of the liturgy each Sunday afternoon, a member of our congregation greets the people assembled with these words:
Our liturgy today will be what it will be because each of us is here today. So when you sing, sing boldly; when you pray, pray loudly; and when you are quiet, be present and aware of God and others around you.
In short, the liturgy isn't something we come to watch; it is something we gather to do together as the People of God.
There's no way they'd allow that kind of crap at the Chapel of the Cross, so I suppose for people who like that sort of thing you just do what Protestants have always done: go off and start your own damn church and do it your own damn way. A quick look at the "core values" section of the web site quickly confirms the suspicion that this is just another social-justice program masquerading as ministry and spirituality:
The Episcopal Church of the Advocate is a Christian community, seeking to hear and answer God's call to us to practice Compassion, to do Justice, and to experience the Transformative Power of God in Christ as continually revealed in Word, Sacrament, and life.

Compassion … because the Greatest Commandments are to love God and love our neighbor. We strive to demonstrate this love through our compassion towards one another and the world in which we live by:

* Engaging with those in need in our local community as well as the members of our own worshipping community.
* Practicing radical hospitality and inclusiveness, and building a worshipping community of comfort and challenge for people for people of every kind of household andall ages and stages of life and faith and doubt.

Justice … because all that is required of us is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. We work for justice and peace in the community and the world through:

* Advocacy, service and prayer for the poor, the oppressed, and those in any need or trouble.
* Understanding the causes of violence, and working to bring about a society in which conflict is resolved through peaceful, nonviolent means.

Transformation … because we as Christians are called to continual renewal of our hearts and minds to better discern God's will and help restore God's kingdom. We seek to experience and share the transformative power of God by creating:

* Worship that brings us into a direct and intimate relationship with God and each other through innovative, sacramental, participatory and celebratory liturgy.
* Ministries that explore the ways in which we as Christians may better discern and live God's will for our lives and our world, that we may be transformed, and through our actions we may serve as instruments of change and transformation in our community.

With our name, Church of the Advocate, we honor and serve God, through Christ who is our mediator and advocate before God, and through the Holy Spirit who is the advocate and comforter at work within and among us to bring about the love and will of God incarnate in the world.
While I'm quite sure that what is meant here by "radical inclusiveness" is something quite far from anything that I myself would endorse as compatible with Christianity (I'm sure it's no accident that the name "Church of the Advocate" was chosen for this parish: I think the real explanation is rather different than what is indicated here), I can't really say, beyond that, that these are not good values to have. Whether they ought to be the core values of a parish, however, is another question. I don't see any reference to God here, other than the passing reference to him as a source of power for the rest of us non-Gods who are gathering together as community.

What I found most informative about the place, however, was not something available right on the site itself, but linked to by the site: a blog called "Alternative" that appears to be written by a member of the Church of the Advocate. In an entry called "Prayer" Redefined" we read:
In our group discussion the question arose whether it is necessary first to "know what you believe" about transcendence in order to engage in liturgical practice. We all seemed to agree that there is a certain value in being open to the benefits of ritual and practice while remaining uncertain as to how or whether they correspond to definitive cosmic realities. We recalled with humor the concluding line from Jim Holt's review of Richard Dawkins' recent book:
[Those] ranging from agnostics to "spiritual" types for whom religion is not so much a metaphysical proposition as it is a way of life, illustrated by stories and enhanced by rituals —might take consolation in the wise words of the Rev. Andrew Mackerel, the hero of Peter De Vries’s 1958 comic novel “The Mackerel Plaza”: “It is the final proof of God’s omnipotence that he need not exist in order to save us.”
Ah yes, the old "is it really necessary to make all of those silly old ontological commitments first before I get my ticket to see that beautiful liturgy?" line.

I'm sorry, my bad: I described this parish at the outset as a new Episcopalian one. I didn't realize until just now that it is actually a new Unitarian one. My apologies for the confusion.

Well, for that part of the confusion that is due to me, anyway, which from the looks of things isn't anywhere near as much as is due to these folks.

Anglican Communion in Crisis

About a week ago I got an email from Princeton University Press announcing the publication of Anglican Communion in Crisis:
How Episcopal Dissidents and Their African Allies Are Reshaping Anglicanism
by Miranda K. Hassett, a student in the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I find the thesis of the book itself interesting enough, but add to that the fact that Ms. Hassett earned a doctoral degree in anthropology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and there's a real possibility that she was a regular communicant at the Chapel of the Cross. (There is another Episcopal parish in Chapel Hill, the Church of the Holy Family, but when I lived there I knew almost no one from the university community who attended Holy Family.)

The press release describes the book this way:
The sign outside the conservative, white church in the small southern U.S. town announces that the church is part of the Episcopal Church--of Rwanda. In Anglican Communion in Crisis, Miranda Hassett tells the fascinating story of how a new alliance between conservative American Episcopalians and African Anglicans is transforming conflicts between American Episcopalians--especially over homosexuality--into global conflicts within the Anglican church.

In the mid-1990s, conservative American Episcopalians and Anglican leaders from Africa and other parts of the Southern Hemisphere began to forge ties in opposition to the American Episcopal Church's perceived liberalism and growing toleration of homosexuality. This resulted in dozens of American Episcopal churches submitting to the authority of African bishops.

Based on wide research, interviews with key participants and observers, and months Hassett spent in a southern U.S. parish of the Episcopal Church of Rwanda and in Anglican communities in Uganda, Anglican Communion in Crisis is the first anthropological examination of the coalition between American Episcopalians and African Anglicans. The book challenges common views--that the relationship between the Americans and Africans is merely one of convenience or even that the Americans bought the support of the Africans. Instead, Hassett argues that their partnership is a deliberate and committed movement that has tapped the power and language of globalization in an effort to move both the American Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion to the right.
It's rather interesting, isn't it, that the movement towards orthodoxy in the Episcopal church is described as "conservative" and on the "right", while the more heterodox elements are described only as manifesting a "perceived liberalism", guilty of nothing other than a "growing toleration of homosexuality".

Sounds like a great book. Well, authors rarely write their own promotional material: Princeton wants to sell this book, of course (though academic imprints usually don't care that much about sales, as long as all the major libraries have subscriptions). No doubt at the Episcopal Divinity School the divine Ms. Hassett will learn to think for herself.

New URL for Pontifications

Fr. Al Kimel's blog has been up and running at a new URL for Pontifications for a while now. I'm always the last to find out about these things.

There is a rather interesting set of photos from Fr. Al's recent trip abroad titled "The Mysterious Pagans of Newgrange." It's not at all mysterious to me to discover that the pagans of however many centuries ago had the same aesthetic sense as some of today's kitchier Catholics.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Music and the Form of the Good

To be perfectly honest, dear reader, I begin this post in the hope of allowing myself the luxury, at some point herein, to trash the liturgical tastes of my co-religionists at great length, because verily I say unto you that I have suffered through too many banal liturgies with too much banal music and I am about ready to puke. But because this ambition is clearly self-indulgent I'm going to try to dignify the proceedings just a little by talking about something else, thereby trying to disguise my obvious narcissism.

So let me start with a quotation from Plato's Laws. Quoting from Plato is always a good way to mesmerize the masses. In discussing the moral education of the youngest citizens of the ideal state, Plato has the Athenian Visitor say the following (812bc):
We said, I think, that the sixty-year-old singers of Dionysus should be persons who are particularly sensitive to rhythm and the way in which "harmonies" are constructed, so that when faced with good or vicious musical representations, and the emotions aroused by them, they may be able to select the works based on good representation and reject those based on bad. The former they should present and sing to the community at large, so as to charm the souls of the young people, encouraging each and every one of them to let these representations guide them along the path that leads to virtue.
Plato is here expressing the view that art, particularly music, in the form of rhythm and harmony, can have an effect on the human soul. This effect takes the form of eliciting in us emotional reactions to the rhythms and harmonies that we hear, and these emotional reactions are in some sense homologous to the emotional reactions we have in our souls when being virtuous or vicious. So Plato is recommending that the state poets (the "sixty-year-old singers of Dionysus) present only those musical forms that will prompt in young people the proper sorts of emotional reactions, that is, the sorts of emotions that get evoked ought to be the ones that are compatible with virtuous states rather than vicious states.

That might remind you a little of certain court cases in the United States where heavy metal musicians were put on trial by misguided folks who wanted to prosecute them for writing songs that drove their children to commit suicide. In my opinion anybody who had to listen to that music would naturally want to commit suicide, but that's just me. Well, except for Metallica. I really like Metallica. But that's just me.

Plato's sentiments were shared by Aristotle, who wrote in the eighth book of the Politics that music has an effect on our soul, principally through rhythm and melody, and again the context is that of moral education (1340a19ff):
Rhythm and melody supply imitations of anger and gentleness, and also of courage and temperance, and of all the qualities contrary to these, and of the other qualities of character, which hardly fall short of the actual affectations, as we know from our own experience, for in listening to such strains our souls undergo a change. The habit of feeling pleasure or pain at mere representations is not far removed from the same feeling about realities; for example, if any one delights in the sight of a statue for its beauty only, it necessarily follows that the sight of the original will be pleasant to him. The objects of no other sense, such as taste or touch, have any resemblance to moral qualities; in visible objects there is only a little, for there are figures which are of a moral character, but only to a slight extent, and all do not participate in the feeling about them....On the other hand, even in mere melodies there is an imitation of character, for the musical modes differ essentially from one another, and those who hear them are differently affected by each....Enough has been said to show that music has a power of forming the character, and should therefore be introduced into the education of the young.
Ah, Aristotle, a man after my own heart. At least that part of my heart that finds music pleasing. So you must bear in mind that I am simply that sort of person: when it comes to music, I think some kinds are better than others, and I am very much tempted to the view that some kinds are objectively better than others from the point of view of moral education.

This is very much a Platonic viewpoint, I confess: you have to believe that there is such a thing as an objective good before you can believe that some kinds of music possess it. I don't expect everyone to agree with me about this, but I think that Christians, Thomists, Aristotelians, Platonists, Kantians, and others will at least be tempted by the view.

So now, let me get down to the my main item of business, griping about the objectively bad qualities of the liturgies, and in particular the musical aspects of the liturgies, to which I have been subjected. Before I begin I will say that, before I converted in 1983, I had the great pleasure of enjoying many fine and beautiful liturgies at the Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the Episcopalian parish to which I belonged for a short time before my conversion. However, looking back on those liturgies now, I am saddened by the realization that, as beautiful as they were, they were celebrated around an empty altar, and that fact necessarily has consequences for the objective beauty of the proceedings. True beauty can only exist where there is true goodness, and though the liturgies of Churches not in communion with Rome are not all of them fully bad, they are none of them fully good.

Having said all of that, I must now point out that mere conformity with doctrinal purity is not the same thing as perfect goodness, because just as true beauty cannot exist without true goodness, so, too, true goodness cannot exist independently of true beauty, since The Good and The Beautiful always go together, like the convex and the concave. So when a liturgy is celebrated that is objectively ugly, it is not as fully good as it could be, any more than a beautiful Episcopalian liturgy celebrated around an empty altar is as good as it could be. Truth and Beauty are both of them necessary conditions on Goodness. In many Episcopalian churches you often have Beauty, but you never have Truth; in Roman Churches you always have Truth but you rarely have Beauty. This is a problem.

The problem is quite complex, because it involves different components of the celebration. Music, according to the documents of the Second Vatican Council, is an essential element in all liturgy, especially in the Mass and the Office. But the congregational music one finds in most parishes is abysmal. Language, too, is a necessary component of all liturgy, and thanks to the ICEL the vernacular versions of our liturgies have been banalized beyond belief. I am not one of those folks who believes, erroneously, that the Mass mandated by the Second Vatican Council falls short of that mandated by the Council of Trent in terms of orthodoxy. The new texts and rubrics are perfectly orthodox. But even in the normative Latin they often fall short of the true beauty that the Latin rite has managed to achieve in other contexts, so we should hardly be surprised when a bunch of aging hippies were given the task of rendering these texts into popular English during a time, the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the intrinsic beauty of popular culture itself was already at an all-time low. We should probably be grateful that it has not been mandated that all vestments be made of polyester and sport wide lapels with giant, pointy collars, or that all clergy wear white patent leather shoes, but things are bad enough without all that.

I love liturgical Latin, and I pray the Office in Latin, but I do not insist that publicly offered Masses be in Latin (though I wouldn't object if they were, either); I would be happy just to see a Mass done with care and reverence in a dignified and beautiful setting. One way to achieve this, in my opinion, would be to completely discard most, if not all, of the music that has been in use since the late 1970s in American parishes and replace it with the great sacred music of our tradition. Gregorian chant, of course, but also the great sacred music of the Renaissance and Classical periods. The difficulty, of course, is that few small parishes can afford the musical talent to produce such music in a way that is genuinely fitting to the context and to the music. The university town is an exception, I think, because often there is a music department with at least a few Catholics who are willing to donate their time and talent to such things, but even here, at Ohio University, where there is a sizable and talented School of Music, there are few musicians who seem to have the motivation to volunteer to help put together a truly beautiful musical experience at our liturgies. This seems to be compounded by the fact that some music directors do not understand the nature of The Beautiful. Some of them actually like the contemporary pop crap that gets sung at our liturgies. The University of North Carolina's school of music was not bigger than the one here, but the Chapel of the Cross always had very fine classical music at its liturgies, and the music director would have exploded into millions of tiny little bits if anyone had even suggested a "guitar mass" to him, so I think that at least part of the problem lies in the way in which Catholic musicians see their opportunities for integrating their talents with their calling as Christians.

Perhaps more Catholic music directors need to be required to read Plato and Aristotle before taking on the task of running the musical side of a Catholic liturgy, but I would settle for just getting them to agree to try something different every now and then. Why must every Mass be equally banal? Why not offer at least one Mass where there is fine, classical music, with Gregorian chant for the texts? Why not restore the tradition of the sung Gospel with procession? Why not sing the Our Father? To the old chant tune, not the new, crappy tune. Why not re-orient the altar to the east, for that matter? Or restore the use of altar rails with kneelers? One can think of many little ways in which the beauty and dignity of the Mass can be restored to some of its former glory. But none of that can happen until Catholics generally are taught again to first recognize, and then to desire, what is truly, objectively beautiful.

Given that so many American Catholics already either don't recognize, or else outright reject, what is objectively true (think about: abortion, contraception, sex outside of matrimony, material wealth, etc.), perhaps I shouldn't be surprised to find that so many of them also cannot recognize or else outright reject what is objectively beautiful as well. As I said above, Truth and Beauty go together, and American Catholics appear to be the closest thing there is to Catholics who have lost the Truth along with the Beauty in their pursuit of material well being. The road back will be difficult, but let's hope it isn't impassable.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Populus Trinitatis

In just a few weeks, on 4 July, it will be the 820th anniversary of the defeat of the Crusaders in the Battle of Hittin. I was reminded of this the other day while reading a review in the Wall Street Journal of Robert Laqueur's new book, The Last Days of Europe. Laqueur is not one of those simplistic doom-and-gloomers one often sees on CNN or Fox, but his story is nevertheless one of doom and gloom. Europe is being out-reproduced by non-Europeans living in Europe, and it raises real questions about the prognosis for European ideals and institutions, such as individual liberty, democracy, and, of course, Christianity. In one way it's a depressing tale: the home of the world's greatest places of Christian worship, the Gothic cathedrals, has, to a large degree, given up the use of those cathedrals as places of worship, turning them instead into museums and gift shops. The last time I was in Notre Dame there were signs in the aisles asking visitors to exercise some discretion, because there just might be some people there who had come to pray. When I visited Chartres there was no evidence that anybody went there to worship at all. Indeed, it seemed the majority of visitors came to look at the stained glass windows or the labyrinth. I'll pass over in silence what I saw in England, where the churches were largely empty, devoid even of tourists and new agers.

In another way, however, the story is not so depressing, if only because it is not a story that we are hearing for the first time. There have often been such challenges to the truth and the common good, and we worry about the present ones perhaps a bit more than we need to simply because we are not always the best historians. Sure, we don't want to stand idly by and watch our institutions crumble around us, but on the other hand it is extremely unlikely that Christianity itself will suffer the fate of the pagan religions that it drove out of existence. One has only to study very carefully the history and anthropology of these religions and to compare them with the history and anthropology of Christianity to see that this is true: Christianity is qualitatively different from any other religion that has preceded or followed it, and its truths are rather more compelling.

Writing in the 12th century about the Battle of Hittin, the scribe Imad ad-Din al-Isfani described the defeat of the Crusaders this way:
Victory occurred on that day, Saturday 4 July 1187. Tormented by thirst, the Franks succumbed to defeat, impotent to recover their fall. The breeze was in their direction, and beneath their feet was grass. Some of our holy warriors set fire to the grass. Its flame bore down on them, and its heat became intense. They, the people of the Trinity, were consumed by a worldly fire of three types, each invincible and obliterating: the fire of flames, the fire of thirst, and the fire of arrows.
I've always been struck by that description of the Christians: The People of the Trinity. The scribe's joke, obviously, is that these people who believe that God is Three in One were consumed by three kinds of "fire", but the real joke is on our scribe: the Jews were blessed by God to know His name, but Christians are blessed to know His Nature. Saladin and his army, alas, knew neither.

The Franks on that day "were consumed by a worldly fire", but Christians of all times are continually consumed by the Divine Fire that is the Holy Spirit, who teaches us wisdom and truth. In that sense we never shall be, we cannot ever be, defeated. We wear the name "People of the Trinity" with pride, because we are his people in a way that no one else is, though everyone is invited to be. And therein lies another difference between us and Saladin's army. Saladin spread his faith with his sword, but Christianity, even though some have tried Saladin's approach, spreads more naturally without the use of force. It is a religion of love and communion, and this too is what it means to belong to the Trinity.

There will come a time when Saladin's religion experiences the same historical fate that Julius Caesar's did. Nobody knows when that will happen, but we do know that it will happen. It will not happen violently, but with love, compassion, and mercy. That is the mark of the Trinity, it is the mark that all of us bear upon our very being, for we are his.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Cretin Museum

John Farrell of Farrell Media had some fun yesterday with Evolution News, and I recommend perusing his comments. Indeed, John is a great science writer who also takes his religion very seriously, and he's worth reading in general (some folks may be familiar with him from stuff he's had published in First Things).

I'm sorry to say, however, that his witty and intelligent piece was overshadowed in the news somewhat by the opening, in Kentucky, of the so-called "Creation Museum", a rather expensive little monument to the density of the narrow-minded and unimaginative. The museum itself will probably attract about as many folks looking for a laugh as it will genuine adherents of the bizarre, unscriptural, and generally unchristian world-view that it endorses, but it is a sad little testament anyway, and no less so for the fact that among its principal proponents can be counted a real live university-employed physicist.

For people with a morbid fascination for the moronic, there is a commercial available at the Creation Museum website that features funky 1950s-style art (pretty much right out of the era from which most of these ideas themselves emanate) and melodramatic music. Although the museum's designers manifest a rather fundamentalist perspective on things, the staff apparently aren't allowed to, since the museum is open on both Saturday and Sunday, requiring its workers to violate the third commandment (well, I guess for the fundamentalists it's really the fourth commandment) no matter which day they count as the Sabbath. Maybe they view working for the museum as itself a kind of mitzvah.

Among the items available in the online bookstore are guides to the local aquarium and zoo written from a "biblical" perspective.
With aquariums around the world using God’s amazing creatures to teach evolution, Christians need information that gives them biblical truth. From the odd-shaped hammerhead shark and the powerful killer whale, to the colorful angelfish and the deadly lionfish, the Aquarium Guide covers more than 100 of God’s sea creatures and gives information about their features, their design, and much more. This spiral-bound book makes finding the truth about these animals easy.
God's creatures are amazing, but apparently God's methods of creation via natural selection are a lot less amazing. What kind of a God would "create" things just by bringing into existence a natural order in which God himself stands as the cause of all natural processes within that created order? Any old "god" could do that. The real "biblical" God would only create things ex nihilo, since that's the only way to impress the heathen.

One of the things you will learn if you study these guides is that plants aren't really alive. The bible says that there was no suffering or death before the Fall, and yet it also says that humans and other animals had things to eat. What did they eat, if not each other? According to these guides, they ate plants. If you're worried that the plants therefore died upon being eaten, don't worry, that didn't happen because plants aren't alive. They can't be alive, because if they were that would mean that they died by being eaten, and we all no that there was no death before the Fall. QED.

This reminds me of a passage from Aristotle, who was created just a few short thousand years after the universe itself. He notes that when a menstruating woman looks into a mirror it will stain the mirror with a red color, because there is more red blood in the woman's eyes during the time of her menstruation. Although this appears to contradict the empirical evidence, it must be true, because it follows logically from the theory of vision to which Aristotle subscribed. These two cases, the non-livingness of plants, the stained mirrors, are examples of what happens when you put the saving of an a priori theory ahead of empirical evidence and logical coherence, and it shows again why creationism is not genuine science.

It's worth pointing out, just for fun, that the book of Genesis says quite clearly that humans were given some of the animals to eat for food even before the Fall, even though, according to the museum, animals are just as "alive" as human beings. So much for that part of the theory.

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 [...