Thursday, July 26, 2007

Hitchens is not Great, but He Thinks He's God

I love this stuff. From a post at Taki's Top Drawer by Tom Piatak:
The effectiveness of Hitchens’ book is also undermined by the large number of errors it contains, many so glaring that they will be picked up by even a casual reader with some knowledge of history and theology. The Gnostic gospels are not of the “same period and provenance” as the canonical Gospels, but were written several decades later; the “synoptic” Gospels are not synonymous with the “canonical” Gospels; “Q” is an assumed source for the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, but not Mark and John; the process of deciding which books to include in the New Testament was not one in which “many a life was horribly lost;” “the Vulgate” was what the Reformers were trying to get away from, not what they were attempting to translate the Bible into; Luther declared “Here I stand, I can do no other” at Worms, not Wittenberg; John Adams was not a slaveholder, nor was T. S. Eliot a Catholic; the amount of wood from relics of the True Cross would not be sufficient if gathered together to recreate the Cross, much less create a “thousand – foot cross;” Christians have never practiced animal sacrifice, nor did the Arian heresy teach that the Father and the Son were “two incarnations of the same person;” the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption were promulgated in 1854 and 1950, not 1852 and 1951; the Lateran Treaty was signed seven years after Mussolini marched on Rome, not after he “had barely seized power;” Maryland never prohibited Protestants from holding office, and condoms are not a “necessary” condition for preventing the transmission of AIDS, or else celibates would all be infected. Given all these errors (and many more), there is no reason to accept anything Hitchens writes on his own authority, and he offers no authority other than his own for most of what he writes.
Hat tip: John Farrell.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Follies

In 1511 Erasmus wrote a wonderful little treatise called Encomium Morae, literally "Praise of Folly" but also a pun on the name of his friend, St. Thomas More (in medieval Latin, the final -ae of the word morae would have been pronounced the same way the final -e in the name "More" would have been pronounced at that time in English [these days it's silent]). I was reminded of that treatise as I reflected on some of the comments posted here of late. In particular, I found myself wondering, in a couple of cases, what sort of person had left the comment. Usually it's rather difficult to ascertain such things, since the world of blogs, Facebook, Myspace, and other similar fora tends to be a world of alternate identities, where folks either refuse to say entirely who they are or they present a persona to the world that they rather wish were more true to life.

So what I usually go by is the person's blog, if s/he has one--often they don't, but just log in long enough to leave a rude comment and get out, like some rowdy who pops into a room, burps loudly, and then exits with a guffaw. In some cases, though, there are blogs, and some of them are very interesting. Indeed, in a few cases I have been impressed by some of the things I have seen out there, and I sometimes find myself wondering why some of these intelligent folks don't drop in more often to say what they think. This was particularly true in the case of some Orthodox bloggers who left comments on some of my posts on the Trinity, the Filioque controversy, and the distinction between essence and existence. These folks are impressive people, not merely because they are smart and articulate but, to judge from the evidence they have left on the web, they manifest to the world that combination of insight, intelligence, and faithfulness that seems to me to be an impressive witness to the sort of imago Dei that we are all called to be.

In a rather amusing exception to this pattern, however, I recently came across a blog by someone who bills himself as a "Jewish atheist". Like many bloggers, he does not leave many clues as to who he really is, though that, too, can be discerned if one is interested enough in learning such things. I was interested in looking at his blog because the comment he left was articulate and intelligent and, even though it was clear from the start that he and I see the world in very different ways, it seemed equally clear to me that here was a guy I could like: smart, intellectually curious, someone worth talking to, listening to, and, perhaps--hopefully, learning from. Some of what I found at his blog was, indeed, rather interesting, and I won't say that I didn't like any of it. There was a lot of left wing politics, which faithful readers of this blog will know did not particularly appeal to me; there was a lot of "progressive" social thought; but mostly there was a lot of sex. I was reminded of the following passage from Erasmus' Praise of Folly:
I may as well speak frankly to you in my usual way. What is it, I ask you, which begets gods or men--the head, the face, the breast, hand or ear, all thought of as respectable parts of the body? No, it's not. The propagator of the human race is that part which is so foolish and absurd that it can't be named without raising a laugh. There is the true sacred fount from which everything draws its being, not the quarternion of Pythagoras.
Youth. If I had to guess, I would say the guy is probably either fresh out of law school or some sort of computer geek. I remember those days. I'm a little puzzled by his nom de plume, however. "Jewish atheist" strikes me as an oxymoron, but nobody ever asks me for my opinion about such things, and who am I to complain if somebody wants to give an encomium of the oxymoron? I suppose the claim is supposed to be that "Jewish", in addition to referring to a religious culture, refers to a race of people. It's a little surprising to find allegiance to a "race" in a self-styled "progressive" (see my dissing of race-talk here), but some things are hard to put aside. I still have some of my Hot Wheels cars (I particularly like the one called "Red Baron"). There are some folks who call themselves "Catholic", too, for no other reason than that they were "raised Catholic", but that is equally meaningless, if not more so since there is no question of anything like a "race" being involved there. And yet I know some otherwise very intelligent people who call themselves "Catholic" in this purely cultural sense, while making no commitments whatsoever to any of the necessary and sufficient beliefs that actually cause one to be a Catholic. Some of these people are, in fact, self-styled atheists who are quite certain that what the Catholic faith says about itself is incoherent and literally silly. Why anyone who thought such a thing would want to hang on to the moniker in public is beyond me, but, then again, there's that whole "Red Baron" thing....

So some people are just weird, and I guess I ought to know from first hand, personal experience that bloggers are the weirdest of the bunch. I'm learning to deal with it, though. When I was in college, one of the very first classes I attended was taught by a man who introduced himself on the first day of class as "a militant Marxist atheist." Hey man, it was 1975, it was cool to say things like that back then. Although I was not a Marxist, I was pretty much an atheist, so I didn't have any worries. You might think, though, that as I grew less and less of either a Marxist or an atheist, I would look back on those days with a feeling that I somehow dodged a bullet. But in fact I look back fondly on those days, and on that guy in particular. He was my academic adviser, and he was a very good one. During the intervening years I have come to value more and more, rather than less and less, the impact he had on my life. You see, he was intelligent, articulate, and committed to principle, and even though we did and still do disagree an many things, he taught me by his example what it is to be intelligent, articulate, and committed to principle. It's too bad he picked the wrong principles, but some people are just weird.

Not too long ago I quoted from Henry Harding who complained that it is just plain silly to think it possible for different religions to coexist peacefully in the world, given the history of attempts at such things. He seems to think that monoculture is better than variety, but as any student of evolutionary biology knows, without variation, natural selection and, hence, adaptation and evolution, is impossible. Difference is sometimes a good thing, even in politics and religion. To say otherwise strikes me as folly.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Classical Metaphors

Lee T. Pearcy has written a fine little review of Robin Waterfield's recent Xenophon's Retreat: Greece, Persia, and the End of the Golden Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), said review appearing in the online Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews (2007.07.41). He begins with some observations about the intersection between classical scholarship and contemporary culture:
This is a time to be reading and teaching Xenophon, and not simply because of a recent wave of scholarly interest. Xenophon and the rest of the Greeks in the pretender Cyrus's army formed their ranks for the Battle of Cunaxa somewhere near the present location of Baghdad International Airport. Early plans for the current administration's invasion of Iraq included a program of infiltration with the code name "Anabasis." (What on earth were they thinking?) As America and Europe go over old ground in our struggle to keep and clarify core values in conflict with the Islamic world, it is worth remembering that, as Robin Waterfield reminds us, "Orientalism . . . is the child of panhellenism" (p. 198). The Anabasis is a good place to begin understanding the Greek and thus Western way of inventing the East and
defining ourselves through contrast, and sometimes conflict, with it.
The temptation to "compare and contrast", as they say on undergraduate essay exams, the present crisis with troubles from antiquity is very strong. I'm not altogether sure it is a good thing, however, but I suppose it will continue to tempt us because classical antiquity offers us both a mirror in which to see a pale reflection of the values and institutions to which we pay lip service and, more often than not, a harsh light in which to see clearly, if we are willing, how little we have progressed in 2300 years:
Somewhere in the mountains of eastern Turkey, the Cyreans, as Waterfield likes to call them, find their passage opposed by the local inhabitants, who hold a pass against them. Cheirisophus, commanding the van, can see no way through except the obvious road strongly defended by the natives. "Wait," says Xenophon, "I have two prisoners, which we captured for this very purpose!" (Anab. IV.1,22.) They interrogate the prisoners. One refuses to give any useful information, despite every kind of threat. When it becomes clear that he will not talk, he is killed in front of the other (Anab. IV.1,23). The second man then agrees to show the Cyreans a passable track around the pass. He adds that the first man kept silence because he had a daughter living in the direction that the army had to take. Xenophon does not need to spell out what the man feared would happen to his daughter.

It is a nasty story, as Waterfield says--"a barbaric act carried out not by barbarians, but by the Greeks themselves" (p. 133). "Xenophon's dead-pan style," he adds, "which permits no editorial comment, leaves his readers not just to imagine the details, but to appreciate the gap that too often exists between military necessity and moral virtue" (p. 134).
I was struck by this because anyone who reads The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times knows that precisely this scenario was used to illustrate the "usefulness" of certain sorts of torture during times of conflict with unprincipled, morally depraved terrorists. The irony of turning into terrorists ourselves in our dealings with terrorists appears to be lost on some persons, but it is interesting, if not downright amusing, to find that things have changed so little over the centuries, and we ought to find it instructive that our cultural and institutional heroes, the Greeks, were every bit as nasty as we are when they needed to be. We are, perhaps, more like them than even we ourselves would care to admit.

If there is to be anything like "moral progress" in human affairs, it will come only when we see "winning" in a different light, a non-utilitarian light in which to become like our enemies is a worse fate than to be defeated by our enemies. I'm with Socrates on this one--he's that other Greek, who argued that it is worse to do wrong than to suffer wrong. Not a politic point of view these days, but it just might be a Christian one.

Space and Concepts of Space

In his Physics, Aristotle, famously, denies that there can be such a thing as an actually infinite magnitude. That seems plausible enough, but he goes on to deny that anything can be actually infinite, which is a slightly more problematic claim. The most notorious example of the infinite, the continuum, was only potentially infinite for Aristotle. He held that a potentiality is to be understood in terms of the activity that would be required in order for the thing to become the case, so to say that there are infinite number of points on a line segment AB is only to say that the line AB may be arbitrarily bisected at any point. Does the mathematician need the concept of the infinite to do the work of mathematics? Not according to Aristotle:
This reasoning does not deprive the mathematicians of their study, either, in refuting the existence in actual operation of an intransversable infinite in extent. Even as it is they do not need the infinite, for they make no use of it; they need only that there should be a finite line of any size they wish (Physics III.7).
This last claim is clearly false in actual practice, because Euclid, writing not long after Aristotle, made no secret of the fact that he thought that it was necessary to postulate infinitely long lines in certain proofs, and it is not clear how the postulates he had in mind could be proved without making an appeal to a possibly infinite line.

Aristotle's mistake is interesting because it raises an extremely important question in the history of mathematics: how did Aristotle conceive of the relation between space and the science of geometry? Kant, notoriously, held geometry to be the science of space, only to be proven wrong with the advent of non-Euclidean geometries in the 19th century.

Because he thought the cosmos itself to be finite (because there are no infinitely large magnitudes), Aristotle could not countenance the idea that a line might extend beyond the boundary of the cosmos, but why couldn't one imagine a line that theoretically extended beyond the cosmos just for the purposes of constructing a proof of some postulate? Perhaps because such an assumption would raise the question of what sort of "space" there might be "outside" the cosmos, a possibility rather like division by zero as far as Aristotle was concerned, or would have been concerned if he had had a concept of zero.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The God of the Philosophers

Another item from the August/September issue of First Things not only caught my eye but impressed me as being, perhaps, the most interesting and thought-provoking thing I have ever read in that interesting and thought-provoking journal. It will come as no surprise to some of you that the piece can be found in the While We're At It section of Fr. Neuhaus's The Public Square. In noting the passing of Anglican theologian John Macquarrie, Fr. Neuhaus mentions the present infatuation in the mass media with folk atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. I found what Fr. Neuhaus had to say so striking, so important, that I've been thinking about it now for quite some time.
Many critics have pointed out that Hitchens, Dawkins, et al. set up a caricature of religion and then giddily demolish the straw man of their own creation. That is true enough, but more important is the idea of God that they insist upon denying. Let me put it bluntly: I do not believe in the God that Hitchens, Daniel Dennet, et al. do not believe in. We should even be made nervous by talk about "the existence of God," which invites the idea that God is one existent among other existents. The word God refers to the predication of existence itself. This reflects, of course, the traditional language of God as pure Being. In this understanding, to deny God is to deny reality. Macquarrie is right: Faith's name for reality is God. Whether or not one uses the word God, we are all engaged in a discussion about the nature--the ultimate nature--of reality. That discussion involves many disciplines, most notably philosophy and theology. Christians are those who believe that the revelation of God in the history of Israel and the Christ event is true and therefore, as Macquarrie puts it, "creation and its existence are good." Or, as 1 John puts it, "God is love." Hitchens, Harris, et al. are not really making the case for atheism. They are attacking the grab bag of evils and absurdities associated with that amorphous reality called religion, which is an easy thing to do. "Religion" has to do with human beliefs and behaviors that are as riddled with nonsense as any other human enterprise. Christians, qua Christians, have no stake in defending "religion." Much of what is called religion is false and meretricious....Now, if Hitchens and company want to talk about God, i.e., Reality, that would be a most welcome discussion.
There is much to ponder here, not the least of which is the question of what it means to suggest that God is not himself a mere existent like any other existent. I've discussed this notion of God being "beyond being" in other posts, notably back when I was engaged in something of a dialog with some very interesting and intelligent Orthodox bloggers for whom much of this probably seems like old news.

The simplistic and naive god of the "philosophers" is not the God of the Christians, though it is the whipping boy of the atheists, who snicker and slap each other on the back like frat boys at a cornhole party, pointing at what they take to be religious doctrine and spewing forth the intellectual equivalent of rude laughter. To some extent they need no answer, any more than creationists do. And yet, if you look at any textbook in the philosophy of science, you will almost invariably find an entire section devoted to the controversy over "intelligent design", in spite of the fact that there is no real controversy at all. So, too, I suppose, there will always be a felt need, if not a genuine one, to say something about the Dawkins and Dennetts of the world. What Fr. Neuhaus has said strikes me as very well said indeed, but it will not be the end of the story, any more than Michael Ruse's refutation of intelligent design has put an end to that story.

On the other hand, perhaps the Harrises and Hitchenses do serve a useful purpose: they provide a target at which folks like Fr. Neuhaus may shoot--though it is rather like shooting fish in a barrell--thus providing the rest of us with interesting and thought-provoking reading material. O felix culpa!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Restraint and Moderation

The most recent issue of First Things has a nice essay by Henry Luke Orombi called "What is Anglicanism?" (August/September 2007, pp. 23-28). Orombi is the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda, and writes with both clarity and passion about the troubles besetting the worldwide Anglican Communion. Among the virtues of (authentic) Anglicanism that Orombi extols are those of "restraint and moderation". He argues that restraint and moderation in matters of discipline (how one worships) ought not to be confused with restraint and moderation in matters of doctrine (what one believes as a matter of faith). When it comes to doctrine, he suggests, authentic Anglicanism shows no restraint or moderation: Uganda's Anglicans have been martyred for their faith, and to confuse restraint and moderation in matters of discipline with restraint and moderation in matters of doctrine is to make a mockery of their martyrdom.
The various disciplines of the autonomous provincial churches can be contextualized, but doctrine, based on Scripture, transcends all such cultural distinctions.
An important point to be made by a member of the Christian community that seems most likely to implode, at least in the communities outside of African and Asia. If you take the stuffing out of a mattress, it will collapse, and the ECUSA mattress is notoriously lacking in stuffing these days.

There are some, however, who prefer a stuffingless mattress or, indeed, no mattress at all. The most recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement (13 July 2007, p. 27) has a review by John Whale of Kevin Ward's recent book, A History of Global Anglicanism (Cambridge University Press, 2006). You'd think that a book by that title, weighing in at nearly 400 pages, would cover a great deal of material, but to judge by Whale's review you would come away thinking that it was principally about Anglican missionary activity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Be that as it may, Whale contends that Ward's book brings in a four-fold indictment of worldwide Anglicanism on the following charges:
1. Christian missionaries expect people to believe in Christianity, not in other religions.

2. People who become Christians in missionary territory may find themselves in danger from surrounding non-believers.

3. Christian missionaries seem to think that Christianity is not compatible with other religions and, indeed, they can't even agree among themselves what the right form of Christianity is.

4. Christian missionary activity has had the most unfortunate effect of teaching people in missionary lands that homosexuality is wrong.
I suppose it should come as no surprise to find that the climactic claim of this bill of attainder should so prominently feature the Christian teaching on sexuality, but the hostility of folks like John Whale to such things is no longer news. What is more interesting is the rather self-righteous indignation about the possibility that one set of ideas is true to the exclusion of other sets of ideas. With regards to the first charge, for example, Whale writes
missionaries impoverished the unconverted by devaluing local beliefs.
In addition to the banality of this charge, one may legitimately wonder whether it is a matter of necessity that one harms another by devaluing his beliefs. If the missionaries had found themselves in a land where children were sacrificed to non-existent entities, perhaps devaluing their beliefs would not be altogether a bad thing.

As for the second charge, Mr. Whale may do well to read Mr. Orombi's essay. Whale writes:
In the 1978 riots that removed the Shah of Iran, Anglican hospitals and a school for the blind were expropriated; church workers lost their liberty and some their lives.
I suppose it's a good thing that Mr. Whale is not an activist for democracy in a land like China. As we saw in the 1990s, it could be downright dangerous to live one's life in defense of certain principles, even non-religious ones. But what the heck, it would be to devalue the authoritarian beliefs of the local party elite to bring democracy to China. Let's just enjoy it ourselves, and leave them to their own diverse ways.

The third charge is the most bizarre of the bunch. Indeed, it is rather difficult to see what, precisely, Whale is even talking about. Here's what he writes:
Missionaries exported the idea that religion necessarily involved dispute between conflicting certainties.
At first, one might think that what he has in mind is a variation on the theme of the First Charge, but it soon becomes clear that all he really means is that Christians of various persuasions can't agree among themselves about what "The Truth" is. Perhaps he finds this distasteful because he doesn't himself think that there is any such thing as "The Truth" when it comes to matters of religion, but it's hard to get really worked up about the fact that "in the 1950s, one group of revivalists used megaphones to shout down another's services from outside the building." Why this should count as a serious indictment of either Anglicanism in particular or religion in general, but not of virtually every form of human partisanship and tribalism, Whale does not bother to explain, but perhaps it is connected to his irritation regarding the Fourth Charge, which appears to touch rather close to home with him.

This is not the first time Whale has written critically about religion, and it seems fair to imagine that he would agree with one of his recent defenders, Henry Harding, writing in the TLS in February of 2004:
What Kenrick sidesteps but Whale may have spotted is that the whole enterprise of seeking, claiming or accepting transcendental certainties, be it never so instinctively attractive, is permanently flawed and divisive, root and branch. No amount of sophistry can cloak the propensity of organised religion to sponsor beliefs held with an overweening certainty that is always liable to slide into intolerance or violence. What is needed is not the recalibration of institutional religion, but its demise. The absurd circle-squaring of religious leaders who maintain that everyone can retain their beliefs full-bloodedly without risking internecine clashes is long overdue for exposure. When a lion approaches, we do not take it for a peacemaker.
This attitude is quite popular these days among the self-styled "Brights" who think that they have discovered the key to solving the ills of human society in the eradication of all religious belief. The irony of the moniker "Brights" is lost on them, but presumably some of them, at least, are aware that other movements than religious ones have been responsible for human suffering because of some view that is held with "certainty". Worldwide communism has brought about the deaths of over 100 million persons, and with all due respect to the innocent victims of Jihadism around the world, their numbers pale in comparison with that. But when you've got a bee in your bonnet about something, you can forget about being sane and rational, even when you're criticizing others for not being sane and rational because of their religious beliefs.

Restraint and moderation are, indeed, virtues. I can be restrained and moderate in my treatment of a communist dictator whom I have removed from office, and therein I will differ from that very dictator, who may well have treated me very differently had I failed in my attempt to remove him from office. And I may be restrained and moderate in my behavior towards other religions, even while openly rejecting the beliefs of those religions. In this I will undoubtedly differ from other sorts of religious folks, but it hardly follows from the fact that there are those who would treat me differently that my own beliefs are as dangerous as theirs. Surely it matters more what the actual content of one's beliefs happens to be, not so much whether the beliefs are held with a kind of "certainty". I'm not altogether sure what sort of person believes in things about which he has profound doubts, but I suppose most of us hold beliefs about which we have some doubt. But to infer from this that it is madness to think one's beliefs might be true to the exclusion of other beliefs is, well, nutty. Indeed, the certainty with which I hold my beliefs appears to be exceeded only by the certainty with which folks like Whale hold their beliefs about the lunacy of certainty.

But again, the irony is lost on them.

Friday, July 13, 2007


My daughter is African American, and this is something that gets noticed here in Athens County. There are relatively few African Americans here, even though there is a major university in this town whose president is also an African American who has explicitly stated his desire to increase "diversity" on campus, principally in the form of larger numbers of members of various "underrepresented" groups. In spite of some progress in this area, the percentage of students who are African American has grown, in the eleven years that I have been here, only from 4% to about 6%.

Race, as a biological category, is largely meaningless. Indeed, the concept is defined by completely arbitrary groupings of phenotypes. African Americans are, by and large, dark skinned, though there is a continuum here that appears to run all the way from quite pale to quite dark; they tend to have very curly hair, though again there are exceptions; they tend to have broad noses, though again there are exceptions. It's interesting that you always have to add the phrase "there are exceptions", otherwise our definition of the "race" wouldn't work in some of the cases where, apparently, it's supposed to. But the necessity of adding that phrase demonstrates the arbitrariness of the category. We're just making it up to suit our needs.

There is one possible ontological correlate for these categories: it is possible that some definitions of race may come close to capturing something like geographical origin. African Americans are descended from people who came, originally, from Africa; the so-called "white" Americans are descended from people who came, mostly, from Europe and other northern climes. But even this objective trait is misleading, because if you trace these lineages back far enough in evolutionary time, we all come from Africa, no matter what we look like now.

It seems to me that the category of "race" is in some sense an artifact of our desire to be able to distinguish groups of persons, that is, it is a form of tribalism. We are interested in people who are "like" us, and we want to be able to recognize, somehow, the folks who are part of our "tribe", however that concept gets worked out in various social contexts. Visually observable traits are pretty handy in this regard, and so of course to the extent that race is definable at all it is always defined in terms of observable physical traits like skin color, hair type, etc. But to see how arbitrary this is you have only to ask yourself why it is that the dark skinned person is thought to be a member of a different "race" than the light skinned person, but the person with blue eyes is not necessarily thought to be a member of a different "race" than the person with brown eyes. Or why the red haired person is not thought to be a member of a different race than the blond person. Or why the person who is right handed is not thought to be a member of a different race than the person who is left handed. None of these traits is any less real than skin color, non is more arbitrary. And yet, none of them is used in quite the way skin color is to distinguish these "races".

When I was a kid, there were only three "races". There were Negroes, Caucasians, and--I kid you not--"Mongoloids". Yep, that's what they were called. At least, that's what they were called in 1968 when I was told all of this crap in the 5th grade. I don't know how the concept is taught, or even whether it is taught at all, in the schools nowadays. My son, who will start the eighth grade in the fall, never talks about learning such things at school, and for a 13 year old he seems to be rather refreshingly free of the sorts of prejudices that often afflict children at that age. Perhaps, as evolutionary biology comes to be taught in ever more meaningful ways in the schools, children will figure out for themselves how meaningless the category is.

The concept of race is most often deployed these days for political reasons. It would be rather pointless to have a goal of "greater diversity" at a university if it should turn out to be the case that the trait that one is attempting to diversify is meaningless. We want more African Americans to enroll here not because they have different phenotypes, but because they come from backgrounds that are interesting and diverse and they will make a genuinely positive contribution to the social and intellectual climate at the university. We don't try to recruit more redheads for these reasons, however, even though they are represented in the student population at approximately the same level as African Americans. That ought to puzzle people, but it doesn't because, of course, African Americans, as a group, have had a rather unfortunate history of having been unjustly treated, and it is thought by some to be a legitimate step towards righting past wrongs to make a particular effort at recruiting qualified folks from such groups.

The outcome of such recruitment, if it is done properly, is arguably better than the outcome of refusing to make such efforts, but I don't think that it is obviously better. The case for it can be made, but it must be made, not assumed. To assume that it is obviously better is in itself a form of racism, and racism is among the greatest social evils of our time. It will be a very long time, I think, before people stop thinking in racial categories, if only because phenotypic differences are so easily observable. But the sooner people can come to believe that there is no such category, that there really is no qualitative difference at all among human persons, the better.

The HTC Strikes Back!

A few posts back I wrote about the high standards at Ohio University's Honors Tutorial College. Less than twelve hours after publishing that post, two of the best HTC students I ever taught had written thoughtful and intelligent challenges to my position, which are worth reading. (My responses to them are, perhaps, less worth reading, but you might as well read them anyway as long as you're there.) Now, less than twelve hours after publishing yesterday's post about subsistence, one of those same HTC students has written another thoughtful and intelligent response. In this case, I actually recommend reading my response, since the issue he raises about sinfulness in the Church as an institution is a very important one, and needs to be addressed. I tried to answer his question in my response, so I probably won't publish a full-blown post about it, but it's the sort of question that arises again and again these days, so who knows.

Thursday, July 12, 2007


I was going to write a rather brief response to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's recent Letter clarifying the doctrine on the Church, but I see that Mike Liccione has already written a long one, so I will content myself to quote a passage from Mike's post that I find particularly interesting:
When the Magisterium ceased to say that the Catholic Church simply "is" the one true Church of Jesus Christ, and began saying that the one true Church of Christ "subsists in" the Catholic Church, the aim was not, as many trads charged, to negate the older teaching but to clarify the the status of non-Catholic ecclesial bodies. For the fact is that there are countless millions of people who belong to Christ by a form of baptism always recognized as valid by the Catholic Church, but who are not Catholics; thus as individuals, they enjoy an "imperfect" communion with Christ and the Catholic Church; but until Vatican II, there wasn't any clear and widely disseminated answer to the question how the ecclesial bodies to which they belong relate severally to the Catholic Church. Hence Vatican II's and the CDF's use of term 'subsists'.

That term comes from the same Latin root as the noun "substance." In Catholic theology, a substance is ordinarily understood to be a unitary whole of a certain kind that perdures, and thus "subsists," through various activities and changes, which can include the sort of damage that consists in the loss of certain parts. Every human person, e.g., is a substance in that sense; one's bodily organs and cells are only parts that can remain alive (at least for a time, by nature or by artifice) while detached from the whole, but which have their full and proper reality only as parts of the living substance that is the person. Now the one true Church of Christ, as is clear from both Scripture and Tradition, is the universal "body of Christ" and thus, by analogy, a substance in the above-defined sense. Her high-level constituents are like organs or limbs: local churches, as the term 'church' is defined in the CDF document. Her base-level constituents are like cells: those individuals who belong to Christ and the Church by valid baptism but who might or might not belong either to some true, particular church or to an "ecclesial community" that doesn't quite qualify as a church. To say, therefore, that the one true Church of Christ "subsists" in the Catholic Church is to say that the Catholic Church is where the one true Church of Christ exists as a perduring whole, containing all the parts necessary thereto. To refuse to speak thus of other true but particular churches, such as the Orthodox, is logically equivalent to saying that they are properly parts of that subsistent whole which is the Catholic Church but exist to some extent apart from that whole, which is detrimental to both the whole and the parts themselves. It is detrimental to the whole inasmuch the whole, while still functioning as that integral whole which is "the" Church, does not fully embrace some of her proper parts. The whole remains what she is, but wounded. It is detrimental to the parts inasmuch as, while still being true churches and means of sanctification, they are not fully integrated into that subsistent whole of which they are proper parts, and thus can no longer manifest Catholic unity.
While the notion of "subsistence" is clearly a soundly Thomistic one, and represents a genuine advancement in sophistication over the older identity relation expressed by the very "to be", there is a down-side to this particular development of doctrine.

Whenever we speak of a unitary whole that is nonetheless by its very nature composed of parts, we raise the question of the constitutive relation between the whole and the parts. This is a question from an age old area of metaphysics known as mereology, the philosophy of the relations between parts and wholes. Let me illustrate one of the central issues at stake by means of a rather humble example. Consider two things, which we may for our purposes classify as entities, both of which contain parts: a loaf of bread and a television set. The TV clearly consists of parts: it is built out of wires, capacitors, transistors, and things of that sort. The loaf of bread also consists of parts, but their status qua parts is not as immediately evident: it is made out of flour, yeast, and water, and perhaps a few other ingredients depending on what kind of bread it is. Here is one difference between the TV and the loaf of bread: I can disassemble the TV and reassemble it as many times as I like. It is relatively easy to do, provided one knows how to do such things. I cannot, however, "disassemble" the loaf of bread and find, spread out on my kitchen table, a pile of fresh flour, some yeast, and a cup of water. Of both entities, however, we may say something like the following: "A TV is a set of wires, capacitors, transistors, etc.", and "A loaf of bread is flour, yeast, and water."

We may also say that a TV subsists in this particular collection of wires, capacitors, transistors, etc. That is, suppose one of the capacitors wears out, causing the TV to cease functioning as a TV. I can replace that capacitor, restoring functionality to the TV, and we say that it is still the same TV that it was before I made the repair. I think this is probably true in the case of a human being getting a transplant: if my heart were to wear out, I would cease to function as a human being, that is, I would die. However, if I get a heart transplant before my old heart ceases to function, I would presumably go on living and yet still be the same person as I was before the transplant.

I don't know how this would work in the case of the loaf of bread, because for one thing it is difficult to imagine what it would mean to say that there is a need to "replace" the flour that is in it with different flour. Maybe I made a wheat loaf when I was supposed to make an oat loaf or something, and I would like to take out the wheat flour and replace it with oat flour. But of course you can't do that, and even if you could it would not be the same kind of thing it was before, it would cease being a wheat loaf and it would become an oat loaf.

However that may be, the case of the Church seems clearly to be more like the TV than the loaf of bread, because the Church's parts, that is, the people that constitute her, can and do change, but the Church remains the same Church. Here is where a potential down-side to the notion of subsistence comes in. If we think of the Church as consisting of parts, we must think of the People of God as the constitutive parts of the Church. These people, taken as individuals, are very often sinners. This means that some of the Church's parts are sinful. The Church herself, however, according to dogma, is sinless. But this has not stopped some folks from asserting, rather wildly, that "the Church has sinned". What they mean, of course, is that some of the people in the Church have sinned, but because some of these people have been in positions of leadership in the Church, we now have a language of "institutional sin" that attributes sinfulness to the Church herself rather than her parts.

This is clearly a fallacy. In particular, it is the fallacy of combination: attributing to a whole one of the properties of some or all of its parts. For example, it may be that this particular nut or this particular bolt is very inexpensive. Here is a pile of such nuts and bolts, called a Lexus. The nuts and bolts are inexpensive, therefore the Lexus is inexpensive. Here is a sinner; there is a sinner; here is a pile of sinners called "The Church". These sinners are all sinful, therefore "The Church" is sinful. As it happens, the Church herself is not sinful, even though virtually all of her constituent parts are sinful. This is not a paradox: there are plenty of wholes that do not share some particular property with any of their parts. The set of integers is infinite even though each and every one of its members is finite. But even though this situation is not a paradox, some people find it impossible to imagine, and so they deny it. Because the Church is filled with sinful people, the Church herself must be regarded as sinful in some sense.

Now, it must be admitted that Ecclesia Dei semper reformanda est, but this does not mean that it is ever to be reformed because it is ever sinful. Sadly, the introduction of language of subsistence, bringing along with it the complicated mereology that is our ecclesial doctrine, has led to the mistaken notion that the Church is in itself sinful, which is clearly a heresy. The heresy can be avoided if the language of identity is used instead of the language of subsistence, so it remains a live question whether the language of subsistence is "better" in every respect than the language of identity, but I think that in most respects the language of subsistence is better, and for the reasons Mike gives. What one is to do with the boneheads who adopt either the heresy of a sinful Church or the heresy of a traditionalism gone badly awry is a difficult problem, but as long as the Church teaches anything there will be those who either don't understand the teaching or who willfully misrepresent it, so we are not entering frighteningly new territory here.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Why Not Pray for People?

Dr. Michael Liccione has some thoughtful and important things to say about the Pope's new motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum regarding the use of the 1962 rubrics for Mass. I entirely agree with what he has to say there regarding the value of the old rubrics compared to the new when it is remembered that Vatican II did not mandate either the use of the vernacular or the elimination of the ad orientem position of the celebrant or, indeed, any of the other idiocies and banalities that one now commonly finds at Mass.

One item that has caused some controversy, however, is in need of closer examination. The older form of the Mass makes use of a prayer on Good Friday that some people, especially Jews, find objectionable. It is a prayer for the conversion of folks who do not believe in Christ, and specifically mentioned among such people are the Jews:
Oremus et pro Iudaeis: ut Deus et Dominus noster auferat velamen de cordibus eorum; ut et ipsi agnoscant Iesum Christum Dominum nostrum. Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, qui Iudaeos etiam a tua misericordia non repellis: exaudi preces nostras, quas pro illius populi obcaecatione deferimus; ut, agnita veritatis tuae luce, quae Christus est, a suis tenebris eruantur.
The newer Mass has re-worded that prayer considerably:
Oremus et pro Iudaeis, ut, ad quos prius locutus est Dominus Deus noster, eis tribuat in sui nominis amore et in sui foederis fidelitate proficere. Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, qui promissiones tuas Abrahae eiusque semini contulisti, Ecclesiae tuae preces clementer exaudi, ut populus acquisitionis prioris ad redemptionis mereatur plenitudinem pervenire.
From a strictly literary-critical standpoint, it does seem rather difficult to escape the emphasis of the older prayer on the veil that has covered the heart of the Jewish people, preventing them from seeing the truth of Christ and leaving them in the shadows, while the newer prayer emphasizes the role of the Jewish people in the history of salvation, noting their priority of place in God's promise to Abraham and the great hope of fullness of redemption for all who turn to Christ in love. From a more theological standpoint, however, a standpoint devoid of the vitriol of mundane emotivism, the prayers say roughly the same thing: the Jews are God's own chosen people, and we pray for them to gain the full reward that was intended for them from the beginning and that is now in the possession of their heirs, the Christian Church. One can only object to this sentiment if one antecedently rejects the idea that there is such a thing as a Christian Church that is in possession of the fullness of God's promise of salvation. In short, only a non-Christian could really be bothered by what this prayer is asking for, regardless of whether one objects to its precise wording.

That people will feel offended, however, should come as no surprise. Who isn't offended when some self-important cretin says to you, with a sneer, "I'll pray for you", making it rather evident what the person's true feelings towards you are? True prayer isn't uttered as a way of distancing ourselves from the object of our intentions. Christ himself makes an object lesson of precisely this attitude, when he points out the hypocrisy of the man who audibly gave thanks to God by saying "I thank you that I am not like this sinner", contrasting that prayer with the heartfelt contrition of the sinner himself, who prayed "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner", clearly favoring the latter to the former. The difference in the case of the Church's prayer for the conversion of the Jews (along with all the other non-believers), is that the Church is praying from the position of the sinner, not the position of the hypocrite. The prayer is made on Good Friday, the day of all days when Christians everywhere meditate most fully on man's fallen and sinful nature, and beg God's forgiveness not only for themselves but for all mankind. Indeed, to pray for the conversion of the Jews (along with all the other non-believers) is actually an act of hope: it makes clear the Christian belief that it is not in fact pointless to pray for anyone's salvation, because we have been given the right, by Christ's sacrifice on Good Friday, to trust in God's mercy and love. We collectively beat our breasts and say "Lord, have mercy on us all, sinners that we are, and bring us all into your Kingdom: us, the non Catholic Christians, the Jews, the other non-Christian theists, the atheists."

Clearly, anyone who does not accept the Christian creed will find such prayer pointless at best and sanctimonious at worst. It does not occur to such people to examine the motivations of Christian prayer as grounded in genuine belief, that is, they fail to ask themselves, what would I pray for if I believed all of the things that the Christian Church professes to believe? Seen from that perspective, it becomes clear that it would be a major failing not to pray for the Jews and other non-Christians. To fail to pray for them at such a time would be a dereliction of our duty and a sin against charity. It would be the height of arrogance and hardheartedness, as if we were saying "Save us Lord, and let the others fend for themselves." Once we've gotten ourselves into the lifeboat it is our duty to try to pull in as many of the others still in the water that we can manage to get hold of. It would be horrible to say to ourselves "Let's just start rowing, those other folks would be offended if we tried to pull them into the boat, as if we didn't think that their own swimming abilities were sufficient to get them to land."

So we pray for everyone, including the Jews, because it is our duty. Because the Jews remain God's chosen people, we pray for them especially: they are the living Sacrament of God's love and mercy, and we dare not neglect to pray for their welfare, since such neglect would demonstrate our own failure as Sons and Daughters of Abraham.

Sedis Vacans

Fr. Alvin Kimel has finally drawn that epic saga that was Pontifications to a close. He has even gone so far as to remove some of the more recent posts from the site, leaving it looking more like a travelogue than the intellectually stimulating and lively forum that it was for more than two years. Much of Fr. Al's wit and wisdom is still available via the site, and I heartily recommend all of it. Fr. Al is one of the most thoughtful and articulate people I know, and I feel rather lucky to have made his acquaintance, though perhaps I may agree with Aristotle that not all chance encounters are mere matters of luck. To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Higher Standards

One aspect of my job that is particularly satisfying is the opportunity to work with some of the best students at Ohio University. I serve as the Director of Studies in Philosophy for Ohio University's prestigious Honors Tutorial College (HTC), a highly selective institution that accepts roughly 50-60 new students per year (out of a total enrollment at Ohio University of nearly 20,000). These students must score very well on either the SAT or the ACT and they must have very good grades in high school; they must also show significant promise for academic success at the college level. In short, they're a bunch of smartypants.

The incoming freshmen in the Honors Tutorial College are required to take a course called the "Freshman Seminar", which is intended to introduce them to the rigors of life in an academically selective institution like the HTC. Usually a leading instructor from the university community is chosen to lead the seminar; this fall it will be lead by Jeffrey St. John, an associate professor of "communications studies" here at Ohio University and serving next year as "Faculty Fellow" in the HTC. Recently, faculty were contacted by Ann Fidler, Dean of the HTC and St. John, who requested "help" with the freshman seminar. They wrote, in part:
We want to begin the year by persuading our incoming students that college is a new intellectual experience requiring new ways of thinking. In particular, we would like to introduce the idea that many of their professors grapple with certain questions or problems in their respective fields of study for which there are no firm, final answers. (For example, in the field of rhetoric the question "To what extent is public knowledge rhetorically generated?" has been the subject of almost continuous debate since the days of Plato-- with no definite answer anywhere in sight. In legal history, we are always bumping up against the question "to what degree is the law autonomous?"--but are no nearer to any firm conclusions about this than we were when the witenagemot was all the rage.)
Now, I'm all for teaching students about "new intellectual experiences" and helping youngsters to acquire "new ways of thinking". Those kinds of buzz words are just jargonics for "getting a good education". No problem there. But take a closer look at the precise nature of what is being proposed here.

The thesis that is being put forward is:
[R] Certain questions or problems have no firm, final answers.
Now, that seems to me to be almost trivially true. When two people argue over what is "more beautiful", Bach's B minor Mass or Beethoven's Missa Sollemnis, surely each of them will offer all sorts of reasons in defense of the superiority of the one over the other but just as surely neither will be able to persuade the other and, arguably, there is no "correct" answer in a case such as that. Or, to take a more prosaic example, two parents might differ with regard to what is the best name for their new baby girl. Each, for example, might favor naming her after a grandmother, but they might disagree over which grandmother ought to be so commemorated. Each parent will have his or her particular reasons for favoring one over the other, but again, it seems at least plausible that there is no "firm, final answer" to the question: "Who ought to be commemorated by having a granddaughter named after her?"

These are questions, in short, that involve personal, subjective values and preferences, and in many such cases it seems that the notion of a "firm, final answer" is irrelevant. Indeed, it may even be something of a category mistake to suggest that there could be a "firm, final answer" to such questions.

Well, let's return to our Freshman Seminar once again. Fidler wrote that she wants the seminar to "persuad[e] our incoming students" that there may be certain kinds of questions in certain fields of study for which there are no "firm, final answers". OK, what kind of reasoning will she use to "persuade" our new freshman of this thesis, thesis [R] above? Well, let's have a look at her own "examples":
[1] In the field of rhetoric the question "To what extent is public knowledge rhetorically generated?" has been the subject of almost continuous debate since the days of Plato.

[2] In legal history, we are always bumping up against the question "to what degree is the law autonomous?"--but are no nearer to any firm conclusions about this than we were when the witenagemot was all the rage.
In short, we may summarize examples [1] and [2] under the general rubric:
[I] Certain questions appear intractable, because experts have argued long and irreconcilably about them over many years.
Now, let's bear in mind that the freshman who are coming in to this seminar are supposed to be really smart. They are, after all, an elite group, usually in the upper 1% or 2% of their graduating class. What if I were permitted to address this seminar and make the following argument to them:
I have many friends who claim to have been to a place called "Australia". Some of them come back and tell me, "Hey, Australia's a great place: delicious beer, beautiful people, fabulous weather--it's like heaven on earth!" But others of them come back and tell me "Man, Australia sucks: crappy beer, ugly people, insufferably hot, humid weather--it's like hell on earth!" Suppose this goes on for several years: I continually get conflicting reports about Australia from these alleged "experts" who have all "been there", or so they claim. So, quite naturally, I draw the only reasonable inference available: there is no such place as Australia.
I submit to you that if these freshman are as smart as we think they are, they are going to see what a silly argument that is right from the start. Or, to put it another way, if they don't see what a silly argument it is, that in itself ought to be a sufficient reason for excluding them from the HTC.

And yet the Dean of the HTC is proposing to base a fundamental discussion in the Freshman Seminar on just that supposition: the supposition that extended, apparently intractable disagreement among experts is in and of itself some kind of valid evidence in favor of the thesis that no "firm final answer" exists. Possibly all she means is that thoughtful, intelligent people disagree about certain issues even when a great deal of evidence has been amassed, but that point seems too banal to impose on these exceptionally bright, intelligent students in the allegedly elite group that is the HTC. Plus it's not what she said.

And I think there may be additional reasons for thinking that Fidler and St. John intend the thesis in just the sense I have attributed to it. Thesis [R] may be nicknamed the Relativism Thesis, because it is very similar to an argument that sometimes gets made in freshman level philosophy courses about moral relativism:
There are no firm, final answers to questions such as "Is abortion right or wrong", "Is polygamy right or wrong", and other such normative questions, because people have been arguing about such things for millennia and we are no closer to having a consensus about such things now than we were millennia ago.
The Relativism Thesis seems plausible, at least to freshmen, because it really is difficult to imagine there being an answer out there to a question that has been debated for so long. With so many smart and clever people out there looking for the answer, why haven't we been able to find it? Surely the answer is simple: Because the answer doesn't exist!

The similarity of [R] to the music and baby-nomenclature examples, however, is only superficial. In each of those cases, as I explained above, a subjective preference is at the heart of the question, and it seems at least plausible that subjective preferences are entirely private, hence it doesn't even make sense to ask whether one is "correct" relative to some other one. But in the cases of [1] and [2] above, however, the matter is different. Take [1], for example: the question at issue seems to be at least partly empirical: to what extent is public knowledge rhetorically generated. Clearly much will depend here upon such things as: what sort of "measurement" are we talking about when we ask "to what extent"; what is meant by the expression "public knowledge", or by the expression "rhetoric"; and who counts as the appropriate "expert" in this domain of discourse? But in spite of all this vagueness, it still is not a question of subjective preferences, but of what a certain measurable quantity is supposed to be. (Possibly the example is just poorly worded: perhaps all that is really meant by the question is nothing more than "Why do people in the field of "communication studies" argue so much?" But that is another matter.)

In the case of [2] there is the same vagueness as to terms, but the question is still not one of subjective preferences, but of to what degree is the law autonomous? We need to know, among other things, by what "degrees" such things can be measured, what "autonomy" means in this context, and, again, who the "experts" are, but presumably if the question means something more serious and interesting than just "Can you believe what windbags legal scholars are" then the question has some kind of non-arbitrary answer, whether or not anybody has found it yet.

It is easy to confuse methodological uncertainty in such cases with genuine aporia. Take the case of moral relativism. Because most folks tend to be what one might term "folk relativists" about many moral questions, they often simply assume that there are no "firm, final answers" to moral questions, and then interpret the intractability of moral problems as evidence or even proof of what they have already assumed. In other words, there is a very strong temptation to beg the question in this kind of context.

I once gave an example of [R] to a class that substituted the argument about "the beginning of life" in place of morality generally. It went like this:
People have been arguing for years over the question, At what point does human life begin, but they have never been able to come to anything like a consensus on the issue: some say conception, some say "quickening", some say third trimester, some say birth, etc. Hence it follows that there is no point at which human life begins.
Now, you have to be very careful here: the argument does not say that there is such a point; it says that "it follows" from the fact of disagreement that there is no such point. But that does not follow, even if it happens to be true that there is no such point. However, ask yourself whether it makes any sense to say that there is no point at which human life begins, and then ask yourself whether there was ever a time at which you did not exist, and you will quickly see what a stupid thesis we have on our hands.

It is true that people have argued for millennia over what the best moral standards are, but the fact that they have never been able to come to anything like a consensus on the issue does not entail that there are no objective moral standards out there. The history of science teaches us, if it teaches us nothing else, that answers can be elusive even when they are "out there", so to speak. Indeed, the history of science is nothing more than the history of failed, refuted theories about the world. One might as well say "People have been arguing for millennia over whether there is life on other planets, hence, because people can't reach a consensus on the issue, we may infer that there is no answer to this question." Huh? It seems as though there either is, or is not, life on other planets. There is a "firm, final answer" to the question, we just don't know what it is--yet. At the point in time at which Newton proposed his theory of universal gravitation, someone might have remarked "Oh, these physicists are always arguing about such things! Aristotle said that everything moves towards the earth, now Newton says everything with mass moves towards other things with mass! Will it never end? Obviously there is no answer to such a question!"

Science is often seen as somehow the "opposite" of the humanities in its "firm, final answer" finding capacity. Maybe it's just the humanities where there are no "firm, final answers". But science is littered with failed hypotheses and intractable arguments. We can learn from the history of science, however, because one thing that stands out in that history is the fact that what is sometimes needed, when a question appears intractable, is not a throwing up of the hands and a declaration that no answer exists, but rather a new approach, a new methodology, indeed, a new way of looking at the world. Teaching students that they need to abandon their presuppositions, their biases, their a priori certainties and try to see the world in a new way seems to me to be precisely what a good education sets out to do. As Fidler herself put it: "We want to begin the year by persuading our incoming students that college is a new intellectual experience requiring new ways of thinking." It would be an abandoning of that mission to teach them "Whenever you have a hard time finding an answer to a question, you may infer that the answer to your question does not exist."

It seems to me that we run a risk of doing our incoming freshmen a disservice if we pretend to take the mere fact of disagreement as counting in favor of thesis [R]. Logically it is about as bass-ackwards as a methodological principle could be, and we manifestly do not want to "persuade" our freshmen to see the world in that way. Or at least I don't: the moral relativists out there might have other ideas, which, I suspect, is part of the problem to begin with. Many academics are also folk moral relativists, without even realizing it, and this a priori methodological stance informs most of what they do, even in their own domain of discourse. So much for "diversity", but that is old news in academia.

The good news is that, when I told a few of my own HTC students about the proposed seminar topic, they mostly laughed. One of them said "Man, that's pretty stupid", which is maybe not the most articulate response in the world but it sums things up rather nicely. If we want to hold HTC students to higher--indeed, the highest--standards, we'd better start abiding by those standards ourselves. We can begin by putting a little more thought--elementary, coherent thought--into the courses that we design and the questions that we ponder.

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 [...