Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Bayesianism Pays...Sort Of

According to Bayes's Theorem, there was no rational reason to watch the Fourth Game of the World Series.
P(h|e) = [P(e|h)P(h)] / [P(e|h)P(h) + P(e|not-h)P(not-h)]
Forgetting about alleged differences between the National League and the American League, assume a prior probability that the Sox will win the series as basically a 50/50 proposition, and let each successive win or loss increase or decrease our confidence by an equal amount:
P(h) = .5
e = +/- .125
Thus, after Game 1:
P(h|e) = (.5)(.625) / (.5)(.625) + (.5)(.375) = .625
After Game 2:
P(h|e) = (.5)(.75) / (.5)(.75) + (.5)(.25) = .75
And after Game 3:
P(h|e) = (.5)(.875) / (.5)(.875) + (.5)(.125) = .875
Now, I submit that when there is virtually a 90% chance of rain in the forecast, one takes one's umbrella to work. Similarly, when you are up by three games, you ought to win the Series.

Unless you are the Cleveland Indians.

Subjective probabilities may give us some insights into the gambling behaviors of "idealized persons", but clearly they are not the same thing as objective probabilities (or propensities). In the present case, the Sox did go on to win Game 4, thus brining the probability of their victory to 1, but of course the model only tells us what we may reasonably expect, not what is going to happen, and they could have gone on to lose it all, just as the Indians lost the ALCS in spite of having a .875 chance of winning it all.

Some probabilistic models, however, do not model our own epistemic limitations, but actually reflect the deep structure of reality. As John Bell's work in the mid-1960s showed, there is no possible "hidden variables" account of Quantum Mechanics that can account for the "mysterious correlations" unless we either assume that QM is incomplete or abandon locality. Neither option seems particularly attractive, so what to make of Bell's work?

There is an alternative, of course: abandon determinism. Why do we assume it in the first place? Because, obviously, without it the idea of science as a predictor rather than a mere describer becomes rather more complex than some folks would like it to be. But abandoning determinism globally does not mean that we must abandon it at the methodological level. Local determinism is certainly true within certain frames of reference, whatever we may want to say about the behaviors of subatomic particles. But must we assume that it is true in every frame of reference above the level of subatomic particles? Evolutionary theory is replete with formulae expressing probabilistic outcomes (fitness is the classic example)--are they merely epistemic probabilities, or do they reflect something fundamentally true about the order of nature? Can fitness, for example, be thought of as an objective probability?

Frankly I don't see why not. The determinist can give no non-question-begging argument to prove that there exist "hidden variables" behind these probabilities. I don't think that the indeterminist can give anything like Bell's proof that "hidden variables" explanations are not possible, but I do think that we have rational warrant for supposing that at least some probabilities in Evolutionary Theory reflect more than just our own epistemic limitations. If so, there is reason to think that at least one variety of scientific realism may be false, and that is a good thing.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Quote of the Day

From Mike Liccione at Sacramentum Vitae:
Conservative Protestantism, of whatever form, is just liberal Protestantism waiting to happen.
Read the whole thing here.

The Eyewitness and the Juror

It turns out that the only argument William Witt has for defending a distinction between the AC and the PAC (for definitions, see this post) is his belief that there is a legitimate epistemological distinction to be drawn between the mental state of an eyewitness to an event and the mental state of someone who was not an eyewitness to an event but who believes the same thing as the eyewitness.

There is a rather famous passage in Plato's dialog Theaetetus that explores this very issue while considering whether or not "knowledge" ought to be defined as "true belief". At 201a-d Plato has Socrates present an argument along the following lines. Imagine an eyewitness who testifies truthfully before a jury, and the lawyers, whom we all assume to be decent, honest folk (just use your imagination a little here folks), do a good job of eliciting the testimony, and the jurors all come to believe the testimony of the witness. So now both the eyewitness and the jurors have mental states that could fairly be described as "true belief", but we are asked whether or not the mental states are the same. It is tempting to say that the eyewitness actually has a different mental state than the jurors, because if either side has "knowledge" of what happened, surely it is the eyewitness, and not the jurors, because the eyewitness actually saw what happened (and therefore "knows" it to be true?) while the jurors have merely been persuaded, by the eyewitness's testimony, to believe that it happened. So, the argument claims, knowledge cannot be the same thing as true belief.

This would be a neat little argument were it not for the fact that Plato has just spend literally half of the dialog proving that knowledge cannot consist in sense perception, and yet the only difference between the mental state of the eyewitness and that of the jurors is that the eyewitness's mental state is "corroborated", in a certain sense, by sense perception. At least in terms of the semantic content. It turns out that Plato's principle objection to defining knowledge as "warranted true belief" is not that "warrant" is ambiguous but that knowledge cannot be a kind of belief, at least not on his accounts of knowledge and belief. Knowledge is something that is already present in the soul, according to Plato, and experience does not constitute it at all, it just brings it to the surface.

So what, then, is supposed to be the difference between the AC and the PAC, according to Witt? The difference is that the AC has a leadership that actually witnessed such events as the Resurrection. This is supposed to give the Apostles greater "authority" to teach what they teach. Witt never considers the rather paradoxical problem of the Canon of Scripture from the point of view of his own claim, since he appears to take the Scriptures rather seriously even though none of the texts contained in the New Testament was actually produced by one of these alleged eyewitnesses. Be that as it may, we may still wonder what, exactly, the Apostles had that they were not capable of "handing on" to their successors.

This is an interesting problem for Witt, who is an Episcopalian and, hence, ought, if he is being a good boy today, to believe in the Apostolic Succession. Perhaps Apostolicae curae makes him nervous, but I doubt it. If the Apostles possess anything that they were not able to pass on to their successors, it seems that the only candidate would be something like the experience itself, since clearly they were capable of, and one hopes successful at, passing on the semantic content of their beliefs about what they had experienced. And yet, anyone who has watched, with even a moderate amount of skepticism, anything like an evangelical revival meeting--you know the kind, the sort where folks are literally "revived" from all sorts of maladies--anyone who has witnessed (if you will pardon my use of the word) such things will know that even large groups of people can be rather grossly deceived about the nature of what they are witnessing. So if the Apostles had any kind of authority deriving from their status as eyewitnesses, it cannot be due to the simple fact of their having experienced certain things, but was due rather to the fact that they were granted a special charism with regard to interpreting their experiences, for example, in determining whether they were real and what they might mean. This task of interpretation, however, is clearly a propositional one, and as such can indeed be handed on to one's successors and, if there is such a thing as a charism at all, it is quite possible for one's Successors to have the same charism of interpretation even independently of whether one's Successor is or is not himself any kind of "eyewitness".

In short, Witt's ecclesiology is grounded in a very naive and, indeed, hopeless, epistemology. He has yet to meet the argument against the distinction he draws, though to judge from appearances he neither cares nor intends to try. That is a pity, even if it is unsurprising.

Monday, October 22, 2007

A Witty Reading of History

Both Dr. Michael Liccione of Sacramentum Vitae and Prof. Brandon Watson of Siris have now weighed in on the question of the alleged "plain meaning of Scripture" and its connection, or lack thereof, to the problem of private judgment. Mike's post is supportive of the argument I made yesterday here, though as usual he expresses himself with greater clarity than do I. Brandon offers an alternative interpretation of the point that William Witt was trying to make in his comments to the citation of my essay on interpreting Scripture as it was reported at TitusONENine. Brandon suggests that in some ways Mike and I are missing a crucial point that William is trying to make, not about the interpretation of Scripture as such, but about the nature of the interpretive community itself, i.e., the Church:
So I think Bill's point is not what Scott and Michael have in mind; it's not an argument for a particular conception of authority in reading, but for a distinction between authority in reading a text and a reading of the text that is authoritative, i.e., between the reading of the text and its meaning. Scott wants to say that the plain meaning of Scripture, as Protestants understand that phrase, goes hand in hand with private judgment as the authoritative act of interpreting; Bill is, in this comment, denying this, not saying anything about the proper view we should have about the authoritative act of interpreting. That would require other considerations than Bill brings up here. So everyone is talking about something different. I think Mike is on the right track, though, in recognizing that the real difference between Catholics like Mike and Scott on the one hand, and what we might (rather loosely and perhaps figuratively) call High Church Protestants like Bill (who place great weight on consensus fidelium, the Church Fathers, and the Rule of Faith), has to do with their views of the Scripture as canon in the Church, and what it means for the Church to take a text as canonical. I know that Bill, for instance, tends to think, or, at least, has indicated something like this in various contexts, that the sort of account that Mike offers involves an equivocation on the term 'Church', a failure to distinguish between the Church insofar as it wrote the Scripture (and thus insofar as it was apostolic) and the Church insofar as it accepts them submissively as canon (and thus insofar as it is post-apostolic). This certainly does suggest a different view of canon.
Some of what Brandon is attributing to William is, in fact, adequately covered by the arguments I have already put forward, so I won't repeat myself on the matter of the formation of the Canon, especially since Mike has now done such an admirable job of putting that point with even greater clarity. But there is an added dimension here, if I am reading it correctly, that does deserve some remarks. But there is always a danger, when responding to an interpretation of some third party's position, of arguing against a straw man, so I will not say that this discussion is any longer a discussion of William Witt's view, since it may not be his view, it is now a discussion of Brandon's suggested interpretation of William Witt's point in the combox at TitusONENine.

As I understand Brandon's interpretation, it has to do with the nature of the interpretive community itself, that is to say, it has to do with that corporate structure that everyone is calling "the Church". According to Brandon, there is a danger of an equivocation on this term, because someone like William Witt may believe there to be a multiplicity of possible referents for the term. In particular, it seems that some people (again, I will not say that this is true of William Witt, since I do not know that it is) think that we can draw a distinction between what we may call, for the purposes of this discussion, "the Apostolic Church" [AC] and "the post-Apostolic Church" [PAC]. These differ in the following sense: AC is what produced the Scriptural texts, PAC is what submits to them. But in order for this distinction to be anything more than a fallacious division of an entity into its various properties, there has to be more to it than this. So I will try to offer fuller definitions that do not beg the question against the Catholic position. Since the crux appears to be the normative grounding of the authoritativeness of the Scriptures as reflecting genuine Apostolic teaching, let us say that these terms (AC and PAC) may be defined roughly as follows:
[AC] That body of orthodox Christian believers who followed the teachings of the Apostles while at least one of the original Apostles was still living and actively leading the Christian community that is AC. [I do not think that the question of the Apostolic status of either Matthias or Paul will be relevant to the present discussion, but let us leave the definition here purposely vague on that count anyway.]

[PAC] That body of Christian believers who follow the teachings of Christ after the death of the last living member of the original Apostles as died.
Now, just for fun, I'd like to point out that further disambiguations are possible:
[PACO] That group of orthodox Christian believers who follow the teachings of Christ as preserved by communities that are in direct communion with a leadership that has been handed down by means of the Apostolic Succession.

[PACP] That group of Christian believers who follow the teachings of Christ as they understand them.
There may be other groups to which the term "the Church" could be claimed to refer, but I will not list any others here, since I believe that AC and PAC will suffice for the purposes of making the point that I wish to make. It will be seen at once that what I have introduced into the mix here is a diachronic criterion for distinguishing "Apostolic" from "post-Apostolic". This is the only way to draw the distinction without begging the question, since precisely what is at issue is the question of what it means to attribute to the Scriptures, which were produced by AC, an authoritativeness that is then submitted to by PAC.

I take it that at least part of the motivation for suggesting that there really is a distinction to be drawn here is the belief, quite common in some quarters, that AC enjoyed at least one charism that PAC do not enjoy, namely, a special protection from error by divine grace as communicated to AC by the Holy Spirit. It is because of this special charism, some have claimed, that AC was able to produce the distinctively Christian Scriptures that it did produce. Once produced the Scriptures themselves become the source of authoritativeness for PAC, and there is no longer any question whether PAC gets to "determine" their meaning--their meaning is fixed by what they literally say and by what AC intended them to say under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This is the authorial intent school version of a nuclear weapon: to claim that the real author of the Scriptures is God himself, and that any mucking about with them is a Very Bad Thing. On this view, AC was acting more or less as a kind of literary agent for the Trinity. Like J. K. Rowling, the author--God himself (perhaps also not unlike J. K. Rowling, at least in her mind)--gets to decide what means what and who is gay and who isn't, not the readers of the text, i.e., PAC. Indeed, like one's left and right hands, PAC need never know what AC was doing, the two distinct things need never share anything, as once AC has produced the Canon, it need no longer exist; it becomes, in effect, PAC, and no longer remembers in any controlling way what it did qua AC.

What evidence is there that this distinction is a real one? How one answers that question may well depend upon what one regards as evidence. In general, though, we may identify two sorts of evidence that might impinge upon this distinction. One is empirical, the other a priori. To begin with the empirical.

There is no empirical evidence to support the view that there is any distinction of this kind. Certainly the Scriptures themselves do not bear it out, since they nowhere refer to the Church as being one kind of ontological structure when producing texts, another when reading them, or one kind of ontological structure while the Apostles live, another after they have died. Instead, we read everywhere that there is One Holy, Catholic, and Apostlic Church, and what matters is that the Church is Apostolic, not that it is composed of Apostles. AC, in producing the Scriptures, is an ontological structure that has certain properties, including the property of being inspired by the Holy Spirit to produce the Scriptures. That property has never disappeared; what has happened is that the Church, by virtue of her power to make such decisions, declared the Canon to be closed and herself to be the reader (that is, the authoritative one) of that Canon. All other readers of the Canon are readers only homonymously. To the extent that a particular reader differs in his reading of the Scriptures from the reading of the Church, he ceases to be a reader or he ceases to be reading the Scriptures. In the former case, he is looking at the Scriptures but not "reading" them in the relevant sense, he is rather twisting them; in the latter case, it is not the Scriptures as such that he is reading, but some version of them that exists only in his own mind.

(It is worth adding here, merely as an aside, that the view that the Scriptures can be assumed to accurately reflect anything like the autograph view of AC is hopelessly naive in the first place, since the text of the New Testament is a notorious mess. Not only do we have no reason to believe that we are genuinely reading the authorial intent of the original writers, we do not even have any reason to believe that we are reading the same texts, since there are thousands of manuscripts exhibiting untold numbers of textual variants, all of which have to be adjudicated to produce the text that we read as a Church or as an individual. It is the Church, by and large, that makes such adjudication possible.)

Since the Scriptures themselves do not warrant the distinction, any empirical evidence for it will have to come from outside of the Scriptures. In this context it pays to remember what I have already pointed out, that the Canon was formed only very slowly over several generations, and even the individual works contained in what we now accept as the Canon were written over a period that extends from roughly 50 to roughly 110, and it is arguably the case that none of the Apostles still lived in the year 110. So it is clear that AC, when defined diachronically as I have done, cannot possibly be the source of the Scriptures. We must understand the difference between AC and PAC as dispositional now, with AC existing only while producing texts, otherwise it is PAC that exists. This would leave us with the rather odd situation of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church shifting precariously back and forth between being AC and being PAC during the years 50 - 110, only to become PAC permanently in 110 (or much later if we make the final acceptance of the Canon our historical criterion). Add to this the fact that the authors of the Scriptural texts were themselves mistaken about the meaning of what they were writing (they clearly thought that Jesus would return for a second time in bodily form during their lifetime, and they said as much in their Holy Writ), and you have a rather compelling case against taking the distinction between AC and PAC to be a real one.

If there is no empirical evidence for the distinction, what sort of a priori evidence could there be? Plenty, obviously. All you need to do is stipulate that there is such a thing as a "plain meaning of Scripture" in the sense intended by our putative AC-PAC defender, and the distinction suddenly becomes not merely warranted, but logically necessary. In short, one can be committed to this view only on the grounds that one antecedently stipulate an ecclesiology that makes this view necessary. As long as begging the question is not counted as a fallacy, this is not a bad way to proceed, but for the rational folks it clearly will not do.

There is but one Church, and she both produced and reads the Scriptural texts. Anyone who worries that "produced" is unclear and ought to give more credit to the Holy Spirit need not worry, since precisely the same inspiration that caused the Church to produce the Scriptures also guides her reading of them, and that is precisely why there can be no such distinction as that between AC and PAC. To assert otherwise is simply to beg the question against the Catholic position.

Of course, there is a sense in which the Catholic position, simply stated, begs the question against any alternative view, too. But as our beloved Pontificator has pointed out, Where Catholics and Orthodox agree, Protestants lose (Pontificator's First Law): the Catholic view is the oldest and most widely held view, and those who would dislodge it have a greater burden of proof than those who defend it; it is, in a sense, innocent until proven guilty, just insofar as it is, well, the view of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Authorial Intent

One of my favorite Anglican blogs is TitusONENine, by the Rev. Canon Dr. Kendall Harmon, who is the Canon Theologian of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. If I read correctly those writings of his that I have perused, the Reverend Canon and I are on the same page on most issues, if not, indeed, all but one issue, namely, where to go to church given what page we're on. Add to that the fact that he has, virtually single handedly, more than doubled my daily traffic simply by quoting from an essay of mine, and I feel not merely obliged, but honored to return the favor and refer my readers to TitusONENine, though I will refer you particularly to the discussion of my essay on the "plain meaning of Scripture", which is raging here.

One comment in particular that can be found there, from William Witt, who holds a PhD in theology from Notre Dame and who has been a quondam commenter at such fine blogs as Fr. Al Kimel's Pontifications as well as TitusONENine (and who has his own web page here), deserves a detailed comment here, as it raises an issue that I sort of expected to be raised but felt that I had already adequately addressed in my original essay, and that is the issue of the so-called "authorial intent" behind the Scriptures. The appeal to "authorial intent" will already be familiar to most, as it was the Shibboleth of scholarship in the humanities, particularly in philology, during the 1970s and early 1980s. It was proposed at that time, a time redolent with the relativisms of the age, that one way to "fix the meaning" of a text, especially those texts that the pesky deconstructionists and other postmodernists were playing around with trying to get tenure, is to lay it down by fiat that any given text means precisely what its author intended it to mean, and basically nothing else, except for the purposes of preaching where, as I think we all know to our sadness that it is possible to make a text meaning just about anything at all and get away with it, at least until Monday morning when folks have sobered up a little.

Here is what William Witt says about my essay on PMS:
Of course, Scripture needs to be read in the Church. That’s what it is for. This does not mean that the Church provides the Scripture with its intelligibility, or that the Church cannot misread the text.

To provide a parallel example, the score of a Mozart symphony has an inherent intelligibility to those who know how to read music, and especially to those who are trained classical musicians. To me, who has a minimal ability to read music, and no musical training whatsoever, it is just notes on a page. However, this does not mean that even my amateur ears cannot pick out a Mozart symphony when I hear it played--at least those pieces with which I am familiar.

The intelligibility, however, is not provided by the listener, nor even by the classically trained symphony. Mozart who was, of course, part of a musical tradition himself, provided the intelligibility, and the trained musician does his best to be faithful to the text. Should a new Mozart score be discovered, trained musicians could play it because of its inherent intelligibility.

None of this has anything to do with “private judgment.” Someone (either with or without the relevant musical skills), who just decides to wing it as he goes along rather than follow the score, is not “playing Mozart.” Someone with amateur skills, who does her best to follow the score, will nonetheless be playing Mozart, even if not with the adequacy of a classically trained musician.

In both cases, the inherent intelligibility is in the text. In the former, it is ignored. In the latter, it is revealed. The question of whether or not the musician correctly interprets the text is not provided either by the private musician, or even by the skilled guild of classical musicians. It is only because the text has an inherent intelligibility that skilled (or even unskilled) musicians can listen to a performance, and respond: “That is (or is not) Mozart.”
It is difficult to tell from this comment whether William has really read my entire essay, since much of his argument, if taken at face value, either ignores my point or else begs the question against the position I have staked out. In an effort to be fair to him, I have left in a rather curious comparison with a musical score, on the grounds that, in spite of the fact that it is irrelevant, it may perhaps help the reader to see what the man is trying to say. Let's assume, just for a moment, that there is no incommensurability between a musical context and a theological one. Let's accept William's point and ask, how would it be possible, then, for you to "pick out a Mozart symphony when [you] hear it played--at least those pieces with which [you are] familiar"? Surely it would not be by virtue of some innate capacity to distinguish early classical from late baroque compositional principles. In fact, the reason one would be able to pick out such a piece as being by Mozart is given in the example itself: it is due to the fact that the listener is "familiar with" the piece. That means that the listener has been brought up in a community in which the piece was played for him, and that he was taught--again, by the community--that this is Mozart that is being played for him, and by listening to it over and over again, he learns to recognize it upon hearing it. There is nothing about the music itself that enables him to recognize it, it is strictly due to the fact that his own cultural community has taught him that that is what it is that he gives it the label that he does. If he were to hear another piece, say, by Schubert, and declare it to be by Mozart because, "to him", it "sounds like Mozart", the community of persons who know better would quickly correct him. Is it due to Schubert that he is corrected? In one sense, yes, because it was Schubert rather than Mozart who wrote the piece. But we are not talking about whether the Church determines who wrote a particular text, or even how we come to have knowledge that a particular person wrote a particular text. We are talking about how we come to know what a particular text means, and that is, sadly, entirely unrelated to how we recognize a particular piece of music as being by this or that composer. None of this has anything to do with the real point at issue, however.

In spite of the fact that this particular analogy falls rather flat, there is still an interesting point buried in William's comment, and it is this. Presumably, when an author produces a text, he means something by what he produces. William relies on this assumption when he writes "the inherent intelligibility [of a text] is in the text". This is certainly true at a grammatical level, and I don't think anybody will deny that we cannot simply take words from a text and give them whatever meaning we like, Humpty Dumpty style. To this, we may add that every text is produced in its own cultural and semantic context, and it would be wrong to try to impute to an author a point of view that he simply could not have held. (This is rather important issue in the interpretation of the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, by the way, and constitutes one of the major areas of scholarship in ancient philosophy.) The point that William wants to make, if I am not completely misreading him, is that it is not "up to us" to construct a meaning for a text and impose it from the outside, as it were, whether we do that as individuals or as the corporate body that is the Church. In his view, then, my own argument is something of an ignoratio elenchi.

If we begin with William's opening remark, however ("Of course, Scripture needs to be read in the Church. That’s what it is for. This does not mean that the Church provides the Scripture with its intelligibility, or that the Church cannot misread the text") we are immediately confronted with a problem. To assert, without argument (beyond a hapless and ineffective analogy) that "the Church cannot misread the text" is to rather baldly beg the question. On the one hand, nobody will deny that the text has a meaning independently of how the Church reads it. It is evident beyond question, however, that disputes over what that meaning is arise with rather alarming frequency, and it is only natural to look for some hermeneutic principle that may be appealed to for the purposes of settling those disputes. In short, in spite of William's rather fatuous claim to the contrary, the question is closely linked to the authoritativeness of the reader to determine what the principal meaning of the text is and, hence, the question is indeed closely connected to the issue of private judgment.

It is tempting to say that the text means what the author of the text intended it to mean, but such a temptation, like the temptation to pick at a scab, ought to be resisted if one wants to avoid further trouble. Granted, the author meant something by his text, but it is unclear why, in this context, we should care very greatly what he meant. What matters far more is why the Church thought that the text ought to be read by other Christians. It is possible that the author of the Gospel of Thomas intended his text to be orthodox, and to be so-regarded by orthodox Christians. But whether he intended that or not, what matters is that the Church thinks that the text fails to be orthodox, and does not recommend it as Christian reading. So the Church's reasons for accepting a text into the Canon of Scriptures are essentially more normative in settling the meaning and significance of a text than either mere surface grammar or authorial intent.

I don't know what William does for a living, but I'll bet you that if he were actively teaching young philosophy majors, he would be more familiar with the problem of students handing in essays in which they intend to refute this or that argument, only to discover upon getting their graded essays back that they said many things that they did not intend to say but that their own surface grammar and logic committed them to. Very recently I had a discussion with a fellow blogger who kept making arguments that he did not intend to make, and when I pointed out to him what followed from the position he was defending, he was rather quick to distance himself from his own words. He complained rather bitterly, too, asking who I thought I was to tell him what he was saying. Well, I'll tell you who I am: I'm a reader, a part of a community of readers that recognizes a certain standard of rationality according to which he was not saying what he thought he was saying, but something else. It's not really up to him to tell the community that the standards are wrong, it's up to him to adhere to the standards. That's why teachers hand out the grades on essays rather than the students.

The case of the Scriptures, of course, is not quite analogous here, since we do not regard the Sacred Writers as being like students whom the Church "grades", as it were. If anything, it's the heretical writers, such as the author of the Gospel of Thomas, to whom we give a grade of F. But the Church does issue grades to other readers of the Scriptures, just as professors grade their students on how well they have understood some assigned reading. The Church will examine your essay on the import of, say, St Paul's letter to the Romans, and if your understanding of it is up to snuff, that is to say, up to the standards that have been established by the Church herself, then you will get a passing grade. But it is up to the Church, not you, to determine whether your reading of the text meets the grade. If you miss the mark, you will get a heretical grade.

How the Church goes about establishing the criteria for evaluating this or that understanding of the genuine import of the Scriptures naturally takes something like authorial intent in view, but it is not limited to that, and this is important, because anybody can come along and claim, on the basis of their own private judgment, that this or that is what a particular text means or what a particular author intended. But no Sacred Writer would be admitted to the Canon if he did not write what the Church thought ought to be said, so we owe to the Church a special deference in determining the meaning of the Scriptures, and whatever that meaning turns out to be it will not be "plain", but a function of the many factors that I described in my earlier post.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Theory-Ladenness: A Case Study

In a post yesterday on "the plain meaning of Scripture" I argued that there can be no such hermeneutical principle as "the plain meaning of Scripture" if that principle is grounded in the judgment of the individual as to the adequacy of his own judgment regarding the "plain meaning" of Scripture. Instead, I argued, every interpretation of the Scriptures must be grounded in the full understanding of the consensus fidelium, since it is that community that establishes the ground rules regarding what meanings are possible for the Scriptures, and which are impossible.

It occurred to me that a good case in point is the doctrine of the Real Presence. The examples I gave yesterday ("I am the Alpha and the Omega", "But of that day and hour, no one knows...") were perhaps rather too straightforward, texts that few Christians, if any, would dispute the meaning of. But the doctrine of the Real Presence is another matter. Christians can, and do, disagree about it, and it illustrates rather nicely just how important the cultural and semantic contexts are for the interpretation of Scripture, including the interpretation grounded in a putative "plain meaning" of Scripture.

Here are some Scriptural texts pertaining to the doctrine of the Real Presence:
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." [Matthew 26.26]

And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, "Take; this is my body." [Mark 14.22]

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." [Luke 22.19]

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." [1 Corinthians 11.23-4]

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. [1 Cor 11.27]

For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. [1 Cor 11.29]

Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. [1 Cor 15.12-14]
The significance of that final quote to the doctrine of the Real Presence will be made clear in a moment. Let's begin by discussing what "the plain meaning" of the other texts is.

Generally speaking, what the defender of PMS means by "plain meaning" is really nothing other than "what the text literally says", but in the present case what the text literally says is a little difficult for some folks to swallow. The texts present Our Lord as telling his disciples that some bread is his body, and few people these days have the philosophical insight or theological imagination to take that literally. So they make a rather curious argument. They say something along the following lines: "Since it is obvious that the Lord's body could not literally be bread, especially seeing as how is intact, pre-crucified body is standing right there holding the bread, this text is clearly metaphorical. The 'plain meaning' here, the 'obvious meaning', is that the bread is only symbolic of his body, and the breaking of it is a metaphor for the breaking of his physical body later on." As we saw in yesterday's post, nobody would seriously suggest that the Lord really is identical to a letter of the Greek alphabet even though the Scripture depicts him as saying "I am the Alpha and the Omega", so the defender of PMS seeks to assert that the Institution Narrative is really no different than the apocalyptic text of Revelation.

Not only does this strategy confuse two very different genres--evangelism and apocalyptic--but it fails to take into account St Paul's own apparent approach to what he says in his texts. In the final passage I quoted St Paul is at pains to explain that the doctrine of the resurrection is not to be understood metaphorical or symbolically or allegorically but literally. Clearly some Christians even in St Paul's time thought that, perhaps, the "plain meaning" of what they were taught had to be what could most easily be made sense of in light of their current understanding of the nature of things, and that understanding clearly did not include anything like bodily resurrection. The Athenians had laughed out loud when Paul had preached the resurrection to them, and one can well imagine other audiences reacting in a similar way. Clearly St Paul's theological imagination was far superior to some of his listeners. Why it should be possible for a man to be risen bodily from the dead, but not possible for his essence to be present not only in his material body but in some other material entity, such as bread, no defender of PMS bothers to say. Instead they merely assert, without argument, that the doctrine of the Real Presence is "contrary" to the "plain meaning" of the Scriptures.

Only it isn't. Of course, it might be, if you adopt as an a priori principle that only those metaphysical principles that are consistent with Enlightenment scientific principles can be regarded as true. If one adopts that principle, then of course bread cannot become the Body of the Lord. But there is no non-arbitrary reason to adopt that metaphysical principle in the first place and, indeed, the Christian has every reason to reject it, since that principle would also eliminate the possibility of bodily resurrection.

If, by contrast, you accept the sort of Neoplatonic metaphysics that we know were at the foundations of the earliest Church Fathers' thinking about the content of the faith, then you also accept the existence of non-material entities such as essences that are not tied by bonds of necessity to any particular material instantiation. Hence, you are committed to a metaphysics that would make such a thing as transubstantiation entirely possible. For this sort of a reader, the "plain meaning" of the Institution Narrative might be the literal reading, but more importantly it might be the reading that is consistent with the doctrine of the Real Presence. In other words, you cannot claim that the doctrine of the Real Presence is incompatible with the "plain meaning" of Scripture unless you antecedently adopt a point of view that makes the Real Presence impossible in principle, regardless of any Scriptural evidence for it, and to do that is to beg the question against the defender of the doctrine of the Real Presence.

In short, PMS is hopelessly theory-laden to begin with, just as every other interpretation is. There can be no such thing as a reading of the Scriptures that is not theory-laden. So in determining what interpretations are most probable, it helps to know the cultural and semantic contexts in which the Scriptures themselves were produced. We know for a fact that Neoplatonism was a part of that context, while Enlightenment materialist and empiricist assumptions were not, and this is why the Fathers accepted the doctrine of the Real Presence, and hence the interpretation that favors the doctrine of the Real Presence is to be preferred to any interpretation that makes the doctrine of the Real Presence impossible.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Scripture, Meaning, and Interpretation

I. Interpretation

It is sometimes said, mostly by Protestants but sometimes by Catholics and Anglicans, that there exists such a thing as "the plain meaning of Scripture" (PMS) and this thing ought to serve as the normative criterion for the acceptance or rejection of any proposed assertion about Christianity in particular but sometimes of any assertion at all. Some Catholics will say that, while there is such a thing as "the plain meaning of Scripture", the "final meaning", that is, the interpretation given to Scripture by the Tradition and the Magisterium, is more important than "the plain meaning". I shall argue that there is no such thing as "the plain meaning of scripture", at least as it is used by most Protestants, and hence, a fortiori, it cannot serve as a normative criterion for the interpretation of scripture.

First of all it must be admitted by all sides that, whatever else one must mean by the expression "the plain meaning of scripture", it means, first and foremost, a certain kind of interpretation of scripture. This is because, in spite of the fact that some passages of Scripture may be taken literally, at their "face-value", so to speak, there are certain very obvious exceptions to this. For example, when we read, in Revelation, "I am the Alpha and the Omega", we cannot take this literally, unless we sincerely believe that God is identical to two letters of the Greek alphabet. No one, including severe literalists (SL) who think that the world was created in six 24-hour periods, will suggest that God is nothing more than a letter of the Greek alphabet. The language is quite obviously metaphorical, and presumably other cases such as this one would be sufficient to show that in at least some passages the Scriptures must be interpreted in light of their metaphorical content, and that to interpret them in a literal way in every instance would be to reduce Christianity to nonsense.

So, if every reading of the Scriptures, including a literal one, is in reality an interpretation of the Scriptures, we must take some pains to distinguish the interpretation of the Scriptures that is called "the plain meaning of the Scriptures" from that set of interpretations that is favored by the Church. The non-Catholic view is essentially connected to the criterion of private judgment that I criticized in this post. According to the non-Catholic view, PMS is something that is equally available to any well-informed, rationally competent reader. No one denies that different well-informed, rationally competent readers often come up with different interpretations of the Scriptures--that is why there are so very many Protestant denominations, after all--but the central idea is that disputes of this sort can be settled by well-intentioned and jointly cooperative searches for the truth, in which rational agents rely on their own rational powers, their own private judgment, and a cooperative examination of all available empirical evidence. The fact that this has rarely, if ever, succeeded, for some reason, gives no one pause, but it is not my intention here to examine the psychological underpinnings of PMS, as interesting as such an inquiry would be.

The Catholic view is rather different. Catholic practice has traditionally been to privilege certain readings of the Scriptures over others. In particular, any interpretation that is inconsistent with the Tradition is regarded as out of bounds. So, for example, suppose someone were to cite Matthew 24.36 ("But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only") as evidence that the Father knows something that the Son does not know, hence the Father is superior in knowledge to the Son and since God is omniscient the Son is not equally God with the Father. This interpretation is arguably consistent with PMS, at least insofar as this interpretation is saying nothing more than what the text itself says, and yet this interpretation is clearly heretical, expressing, as it does, a view about the Son that not even SL would accept. On what grounds would the orthodox Christian reject this interpretation? The defender of PMS will typically argue that there are sufficient other passages in the Scriptures to warrant reading this passage in a certain way. The Catholic will say the same thing, but add that this interpretation is heretical, that is, it contradicts the consensus fidelium that has grown up alongside the Scriptures themselves, grounded in them, of course, but in an important way distinct from them.

What is common to both approaches, then, is the belief that a given passage of Scripture must be interpreted in light of what can be found in the rest of the Scriptures, that is, both sides agree that Scripture nowhere contradicts itself in any meaningful way. (Some defenders of literalism go farther, and assert that the Scriptures do not contradict themselves in any way at all. I think this view is false, but I will not take issue with it in this post.) Where they differ is in the fundamental criterion by which competing interpretations are adjudicated. In the case of the Church, all interpretations must be compatible with the Tradition and the Magisterium; in the case of the non-Catholic defender of PMS, all interpretations must be compatible with his or her own private judgment as to whether the proposed interpretation is consistent with everything else that this particular defender of PMS happens to believe to be contained in the Scriptures. So whereas the Church posits a corporate, diachronic criterion of authoritativeness, the non-Catholic defender of PMS posits an individual, synchronic criterion of authoritativeness.

Closely related to this issue is the question of how best to interpret the Tradition itself and, indeed, the Magisterium. This is not just a passing problem, something tossed into the mix by non-Catholics so as to distract attention away from the "real issue". In fact Catholics themselves argue, sometimes quite heatedly, over whether a particular view really is a part of the "genuine" Tradition of the Church, or whether a particular interpretation of the Tradition really is a part of the "genuine" Magisterium. Some of the instances where these debates are very heated, however, are based on ignorance of what the Tradition and the Magisterium actually are. Catholics who assert, for example, that the Church's teaching on the ordination of woman, or on birth control, or abortion, could conceivably be changed in the future, clearly have no idea of what they are talking about. But there are other cases that are not so clear cut. Allow me to choose a rather personal example to illustrate the kind of difference of opinion that I am talking about. In some recent posts I argued that petitionary prayer has a particular character, and the character that I urged was not the character that many lay Catholics accept. Consequently I was taken to task by some faithful and well-intentioned Catholics regarding my understanding of the nature of petitionary prayer. If there is anything that is discussed with great frequency in the Scriptures, it is prayer, so presumably this difference of opinion could be settled by an appeal to the Scriptures. But, of course, what I was proposing in my posts was a particular interpretation of those very Scriptures, so it would be begging the question to simply point to the very same Scriptures and say, "They don't mean what you say, they mean what I say." Although this line of defense is not uncommon among some defenders of PMS, it is clearly fallacious and I don't think very many of the more thoughtful defenders of PMS use it (at least not very often). Since my proposal had to do with the meaning of prayer in general, it also will not help to try to compare various passages throughout the Scriptures, since in every case it would be begging the question to suggest that my interpretation does not fit the instance. What is needed is something independent of the Scriptures themselves, otherwise the difference of opinion cannot be settled even in principle, and since the distinct interpretations are incompatible with each other then at most only one of them can actually be true.

If you are a non-Catholic defender of PMS, you are out of luck in a case like this: the dispute cannot possibly be settled. But it is not clear that the Catholic is in any better position, since (at least in my opinion) neither the Tradition nor the Magisterium declares my view out of bounds (of course I think that, or I would not have proposed the reading in the first place). But others may disagree with me: someone might assert that the Tradition does indeed declare that my view of prayer is inconsistent with orthodoxy, and then our dispute will have moved from an interpretation of the Scriptures to an interpretation of the Tradition. It is precisely here that the non-Catholic defender of PMS thinks that he has the Catholic by the short hairs, because this, it seems to him, levels the playing field between the Catholic and the non-Catholic, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth, as I hope to show.

II. Context

A number of factors will necessarily influence any interpretation of the Scriptures, including the PMS interpretation. In this section I will briefly review them and explain why the Catholic (and Orthodox and Anglican and, indeed, anyone who accepts that standard Scriptures-Tradition-Magisterium troika of authoritativeness) is on firmer ground in his understanding of the nature of the Scriptures than the non-Catholic defender of PMS because of his more successful integration of these factors into his understanding of the Scriptures.

The first factor that must be taken into consideration is the origin of the Scriptures themselves, and this factor has two aspects. On the one hand, there is the question of the individual texts themselves and their historical origins. By "individual texts" what I mean is, for example, the text of the Gospel of Matthew, or the text of St Paul's letter to the Thessalonians. This aspect can be further divided into two distinct problems: the text of these works as we have them today and the text of these works as they may have existed in the first century. There is not only no reason to suppose that these two things are the same in any particular instance, there is actually every reason to suppose that they are, in fact, quite different. On the other hand, there is the question of the formation of the Canon of Christian Scriptures, by which I mean the formation of a collection of texts that are accepted as constitutive of the Bible as it is read by the Christian community (as opposed to, say, the Jewish community, which obviously does not accept any of the New Testament texts as parts of Scripture). Let us call this first factor the "historical context". I will return to it shortly.

The second factor that must be taken into consideration is the nature of the community that received these texts and made use of them for determining the content of the faith. This community is itself a historical phenomenon and it is vitally important to assess whether this community suddenly ceased to exist in the 16th, or indeed, any other, century. There are two essential elements to this factor that must be taken into consideration: its communal nature and its accepted standards of discourse, including its use of literary genres such as myth, history, biography, and epistolography. Let us call this second factor the "cultural context".

The final factor I will call the "semantic context". By this what I have in mind is the simple fact that meaning and reference are culturally bound concepts, and the plain fact of the matter is that, as similar as we may be in some ways to the peoples of 2000 years ago, we are mostly very different. Cultures, like every other biological category, evolve over time, and when the timespan is great enough cultures may evolve in such a way as to become incommensurate with what they once were. Although I do not think that the Christian community as such has evolved to that degree in 2000 years, nevertheless our capacity to understand the earliest Christian community is a function of our capacity to cognitively grasp the overall cultural milieu of 2000 years ago, and our capacity to do that is severely limited by the vast distance of time and space that separates the contemporary Western intellectual scene from the intellectual scene of the first century in the Mediterranean basin.

I will begin by saying a few things about the historical context that affect the viability of PMS. It is a historical fact that the earliest New Testament document is St Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians, which has been dated by most scholars to the year 50 or 51, though some scholars argue for a date as much as a decade earlier. If we accept a date of around AD 27-30 for the death of Our Lord and the beginning of the Apostolic Age, there is a gap of at least 10 and as many as 20 years before any document was even available to be counted as "Scripture". During this period, the "Scriptures" as such for the new Christian community would have consisted solely of the Septuagint, the translation into Greek of the various holy books circulating at that time among the various Jewish communities in and around Palestine and as far south and west as Alexandria (where the translation was made). It is important to note, as well, that the Septuagint contains more books than what we now think of as the Hebrew Scriptures: not all of the books contained the Septuagint had Hebrew originals, but they were all used in one way or another by one or another local Jewish community. The earliest surviving Gospel account is that of St Mark, which most scholars date to between 60 and 75, with a majority favoring the period between 68-73. Hence there was no written Gospel for a minimum of 30 years after the death of Our Lord and thus no Scriptural account of his life and teachings. It is possible, of course, that the Gospel of Mark is based upon some other, now lost, written account, but there is no empirical evidence to support such a claim. There is some textual evidence that Mark, Matthew, and Luke relied on some common sources, but there is no way of telling whether those common sources were written texts or oral traditions.

There is, then, a rather difficult problem to be overcome by anyone who wants to claim that the only source of authoritative teaching within the Christian community is the "plain meaning of Scripture", since there were no distinctively Christian scriptures for the duration of the first Christian generation. Quite the contrary, what distinctively Christian Scriptures we do possess owe their very existence to the oral traditions of that first generation that were committed to writing only as the Apostolic Age drew to a close and the growing Christian community began to realize that the message would have to be handed on to future generations, given that the Lord was not returning during their lifetime in the way that many of them had originally believed he would. As we will see when we turn to the semantic context, this feature of the surviving Christian Scriptures makes PMS highly implausible.

The lack of distinctively Christian Scriptures during the first generation of the Christian community is a problem in one direction; the proliferation of distinctively Christian writings during the succeeding generations is a problem in the other direction. As time went on more and more texts were produced by Christian writers, whether evangelists, apologists, or theologians, and many of these texts survive but are not counted as "Scriptures" in the technical sense under consideration here. Thus there soon arose a problem regarding which writings were to be regarded as authoritative, and which not. This problem was already quite intense as early as the second century. It is essential to note that nothing in any of the distinctively Christian writings indicates which distinctively Christian writings are to be regarded as authoritative. In the end, it was the Christian community itself, operating independently of the writings themselves, that decided which writings were, and which were not, authoritative. The Canon evolved not only very slowly, but it evolved in different ways in different regions. As Bruce Metzger has shown in his book The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origins, Development, and Significance (Oxford: 1987), the Canon evolved independently in the East and in the West, and there was not always full agreement on which writings were to be regarded as authoritative. If the Christian community cannot decide for itself which writings are to be regarded everywhere and always as authoritative, it is difficult to see what other reason there could be than that they could not agree on which writings were fully consistent with orthodoxy and which were not, which most important for communicating the Gospel and which least, and these are differences of opinion about meaning and interpretation. It simply is not the case, historically, that such issues were settled by appealing to something as clear and unambiguous as "the plain meaning of Scripture". Instead, the criterion was the criterion of orthodoxy, that is, works that cohered with what the Christian community already believed were regarded as authoritative. Works that appeared to conflict with the Christian community's sense of the Gospel message, works such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Peter, were rejected, in spite of the fact that they did not contain any outright contradictions of anything contained in what we now think of as the Canonical Gospels (beyond the sorts of minor contradictions that the Canonical Gospels show among themselves).

In light of this historical context, then, it is implausible to suggest that the "Scriptures", as such, constituted anything like an authoritative source of doctrine for the first generation of Christians, or to suggest that as the Canon was forming there would have been an intuitively obvious reading of the authoritative texts that would have been obvious to any reasonable person. Indeed, heresy was as common then as it is now, if not more so, in spite of the fact that the Christian community was much smaller then than it is now. If there were a simple and obvious "plain meaning of Scripture", it seems that it would have jumped out a little more clearly in a context in which the people were far more homogeneous and fewer in number than today, and yet that didn't happen. Instead, we find the Christian community determining authoritativeness independently of distinctively Christian texts.

At this point the importance of the cultural context should be coming into higher relief. The earliest Christian community made decisions about the content of the Christian faith not by means of appealing to specific texts, but by gathering together as a community to determine the consensus fidelium. Indeed, the very texts that we now look to for authoritative teaching teach us this very fact, as we see the Apostles gathering together in Jerusalem to determine what is to be done about certain beliefs and practices that impact the growing Christian community.

As that community evolved over time, it grew distant from its Jewish origins. We see this, too, in the way that the earliest Christian community interpreted the Scriptural texts that it did have, the Septuagint. On their reading, the book of the Prophet Isaiah foretold that the Messiah would be born of a virgin, a term that is arguably ambiguous in both Hebrew and Greek but that was taken to mean not merely a "young girl" (the meaning of the Greek term used in the Septuagint translation) but a "virgin" in the sense of a young girl who had never had sexual relations with a man. As the young community began to experience persecution at the hands of the Jews, they continued to sing the Psalms at their gatherings, but the words took on new meaning for them, as the enemies being referred to were no longer Babylonians or Philistines, but the Jews, or just sin in general. These sorts of cases are particularly troublesome for the defender of PMS, since the "plain meaning of Scripture" in these cases is really quite different from what the earliest Christian community imputed to the texts. Does this mean that the earliest Christian community, the very community that gave us the New Testament Canon as we have it today, did not itself understand the content of the Gospel that they were to commit to writing? That stretches plausibility to the breaking point.

Some will argue that the Apostolic Age was entrusted with the Gospel by Our Lord himself, and guarded from error by the Holy Spirit, but that after that first generation died out the Christian community slowly began to drift away into error. This is a rather desperate move, since it would be impossible to stipulate any non-question-begging criteria by which to judge the point at which the Christian community first began to err. I suppose that if one dislikes the doctrine of the Real Presence, one would argue that they began to drift away into error by the beginning of the second century, when the apology of Justin Martyr makes clear that the Christian community was already committed to that doctrine. Or perhaps they began to drift away into error in the high middle ages, as Papal power came to be ever more closely associated with temporal power, and the Church lost her moorings as a temporal institution and became nothing more than a political one. Or perhaps they began to err when they began to charge money for indulgences, or even just to believe in the existence of such a thing as an indulgence. Indeed, different groups will all cite different criteria by which to judge that the Christian community is no longer authoritative over the individual, thus licensing the individual to strike out on his own and determine the "plain meaning of Scripture" for himself, but the fact that so many different groups cite so many different "plain meanings of Scripture" seems never to give these folks pause.

Turning finally to the semantic context, it bears repeating that there can be no such thing as a "private language". Language is, by its very nature, a public thing, and our use of language is monitored, not by ourselves, but by the linguistic community in which we use the language. If I refer to a fire hydrant as a "cat", and tell the local firemen, when they come to my burning house, "Quick, connect your hoses to that cat over there," they will rightly stare at me in bewilderment. So I will point to the hydrant, and one of them will say "Oh, you mean the hydrant?" To which I may reply "Call it whatever you like, just put your hose in it and douse my house." But that's not how language works unless you happen to be Humpty Dumpty. In real life, if someone misuses a term, the others correct him. "That's not a cat, by the way," the firemen will tell me later, "it's called a 'fire hydrant'." I can refuse to believe them, but people will think I'm weird if I continue to call fire hydrants "cats".

III. Public and Private Language Games

This is an important feature of language, and it illustrates that in actual human languages terms must be capable of reference if they are to have any meaning, and reference is also public. It connects our terms and concepts to ontological correlates out there in the world, and makes it possible for one person to communicate to another about objective reality. The defender of PMS does not deny this, indeed, he actively relies on it, since he is assuming that the meaning of Scripture, if it is read in a simple and straightforward way, will refer in a perfectly simple and straightforward way that any man can discern for himself. And yet, the very person who endorses this PMS view, denies to the language of Scripture the very element of linguistic usage that underpins his view: i.e., the prerogative of the linguistic community to correct the individual. According to the defender of PMS, there is not only no need to be "corrected" by the community, since every man can "correct" himself, there is some sense in which to be "corrected" by the community is to abandon one's right and duty to determine the "plain meaning of Scripture" for himself. There is, in short, a very serious contradiction in conception at work here. Without a community to determine what any meaning is, let alone a "plain" meaning, there can be no such thing as meaning at all. Hence, the defender of PMS puts himself in the awkward position of saying that the "plain meaning of Scripture" can be determined by every individual for himself, in spite of the fact that all meanings are determined by the community that uses tha language. In the case of the Christian community, it is difficult to see how that community is not a diachronic institution that has existed for nearly 2000 years now and, hence, to determine the meaning of any utterance made within that community, including within that community's writings, one must consult the linguistic practices and rules of that entire community, that is, of the Tradition.

The Catholic, as a matter of practice, always takes the Tradition into consideration in interpreting the Scriptures and, hence, is always treating the language game of Christianity as it ought to be treated: as something public rather than private. This puts the Catholic at a decided advantage over the non-Catholic defender of PMS, who mistakes intellectual independence for doctrinal freedom. This is ironic, because most non-Catholic defenders of PMS are not in any way defenders of doctrinal freedom, indeed, they are often the most vocal defenders of doctrinal orthodoxy, just so long as it is their orthodoxy that they are defending. And yet, by virtue of their claim to have privileged access to "the plain meaning of Scripture" they tacitly claim the power to determine what the doctrinal content of the faith ought to be, just so long as they can give an account of their interpretation of the Scripture that satisfies their own internal intuition regarding what makes the most sense out of the Scripture in question.

Varieties of Scientific Experience

Regular readers know that I defend a version of anti-realism in science that I believe to be absolutely inevitable for the Christian (or indeed any sort of theist). On my view, the Christian must be only locally empiricist and materialist when it comes to the nature of scientific knowledge. On this sort of a view, contemporary scientific theories are assessed not in terms of their literal truth or falsity, but in terms of their instrumental value. Hence it is never a question whether a particular scientific theory excludes or is consistent with any variety of theism.

For a very different, but also very interesting, alternative to my own view, I invite my readers to have a look at Dr. Michael Liccione's latest post on God and Evolution, at his blog Sacramentum Vitae. In addition to outlining his own view, he also give a precis of the views of, among others, Avery Cardinal Dulles and Francis Collins. Very interesting and enjoyable reading.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Richard Dawkins, Mystery Religion

Richard Dawkins has already taken some flak, both from believers and non-believers, about the shoddy philosophical work he tries to do in his book The God Delusion. I was particularly interested, however, in reading a recent review of the book by fellow evolutionary biologist and atheist, David Sloan Wilson, available here. According to Wilson, Dawkins is right that religion is an evolved trait, but he is quite wrong about the mechanisms involved in the evolution of the trait. The disagreement between them ultimately boils down to a disagreement regarding the plausibility of group selection in a variety of cases, but it is interesting to note that, according to Wilson, Dawkins does a remarkably bad job of putting together a plausible just-so story about the development of religious belief. Taken along with the even worse job he does of telling a coherent philosophical story, one begins to wonder just who is buying and enjoying this book so much. Perhaps the reptilian brained Americans living in the north and along the coasts, one might waggishly suggest, thus parodying Dawkins' description of the American south, but apparently his book sales have been doing very well in the south as well, and, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal, Dawkins was received very politely recently when he participated in a debate with mathematician John Lennox in Birmingham, Alabama. I suspect that the interest in Dawkins' book is rather like my own interest in books like Babylon, Mystery Religion Ancient and Modern, by Ralph Woodrow, an amazingly hilarious anti-Catholic screed published in Riverside, California by--surprise!--the Ralph Woodrow Evangelistic Association. It has lots of funny pictures of the Pope wearing his mitre next to picture of ancient priests of some mystery cult also wearing mitre-like hats. If you needed more proof that Roman Catholicism is just warmed over paganism, you must be living on the moon. So I suspect that most folks just want to look at Dawkins' book for the same reason: they need a good belly-laugh every now and then.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Why Privileging Private Judgment Is A Sin Against Unity

When I was a graduate student at Duke I worked a few odd jobs to try to make ends meet. One of those jobs was as a data technician in the Department of Family Psychiatry. I worked for a woman, a specialist in early childhood development, who was raising her child "as a Presbyterian" (I put that in quotation marks because what it meant for her to raise her child "as a Presbyterian" meant nothing more than taking her child to a Presbyterian church service on Sundays) because, she told me, the probability that a child will get into trouble in adolescence is much lower when the child is "raised in a religious household". In short, her motive for raising her child "as a Presbyterian" was totally unconnected with the truth of Presbyterianism, it was directed only at achieving a greater likelihood of an easy adolescence. I was curious, upon hearing her story, why she had chosen Presbyterianism in particular. Her answer was extremely interesting: she said that she found Presbyterianism to be consonant with some of her own beliefs about social norms, and she didn't want to "check her brain at the door", this last being directed at me, since she knew that I was Catholic and it was one of the things she found quaint and amusing about me. Her suggestion was that, as a Presbyterian, one did not have to "check one's brain at the door", one was allowed to "think for oneself".

This is an attitude that I have run across quite often, actually: the idea that Roman Catholics, in recognizing a source of authoritativeness beyond themselves, are either unwilling or unable to think critically about the semantic content emanating from the three great pillars of our faith--Scripture, Tradition, Magisterium. That this attitude is mistaken has been shown, quite ably, by folks such as Dr. Michael Liccione, who has presented a persuasive philosophical argument against the attitude in his many posts on the issue that one can find throughout his blog, Sacramentum Vitae, so I won't attempt to address that issue here. I'm rather more interested in the obverse of this attitude: the idea that "thinking for oneself" is somehow inherently superior to submitting to an external source of authority. That is, the idea that private judgment is to be privileged in some sense.

In the standard sort of scenario, the person who objects to the Catholic understanding of authoritative teaching will present various cases where the Church, as an institution, has been perceived by the objector to err, whether in point of doctrine (usually the examples that are cited in this category are such things as Papal infallibility, the Immaculate Conception, or some other point of doctrine that is not accepted by some small minority of Christians), or in some matter of discipline or doctrinal development (for example, the perceived "change" in understanding regarding usury, chattel slavery, marriage of the clergy, etc.). The objector will often have a firm opinion of what the "correct" view in each of these cases is, and will argue, drawing upon both Scripture and history, that his (i.e., the objector's) own view of the matter is more rational and historically accurate than the Church's view of the matter, hence the Church's view of the matter is clearly mistaken and must be rejected. Often times the objector does not rely entirely on his or her own private judgment to the exclusion of all other rational deliberation; sometimes the objector will cite sources from within the Protestant tradition, such as Calvin or Luther or Barth, that support his view and that provide additional arguments against the traditional understanding of the Church. In the case of this "external" evidence, though, it is essential to note that it never fails to rely upon some element of private judgment, either Luther's or Calvin's or whoever else's own opinion, or their agreement with the opinion of some other person, or their agreement with some synod or other group of divines with whom they happen to agree. Even when the objector relies upon the analysis of another, such as Luther or Calvin, the objector, in the end, is in fact relying upon his own private judgment to the effect that Luther or Calvin got it right, so that his appeal to an authority is really no more than an appeal to his own agreement with some other person or group.

The Roman Catholic who is confronted with an official statement regarding a matter of faith or morals with which he does not agree is, of course, perfectly free to reason about such matters himself, but the point at issue is not really about freedom to engage in thoughtful contemplation about a given judgment, the point at issue that provokes some critics to charge Catholics with "checking their brains at the door" is the alleged "lack of freedom to judge for oneself" whether a particular judgment is true or false. Here there is a difficulty, because of course any Catholic is also free to judge for himself whether the judgments coming from the Church are true or false--it simply is not the case that Catholics are mere automata. The real sticking point for the objector is the fact that the faithful Catholic is willing to acquiesce, that is, submit to, some matter or other with which he may not agree. That is, the Catholic is willing to defer to the authority of the Church in certain matters, matters where it is required by the Church herself. There are, of course, plenty of Catholics who do not so defer; these Catholics are basically Protestants in Roman clothing, but I've griped enough about them already in other places. Here the discussion has to do with how Protestants differ from real Catholics, not how Protestantizing Catholics are like Protestants. The genuine Catholic will grant intellectual assent even to doctrines that he does not fully understand or agree with, provided that said doctrines are authoritative. This is obviously not the same thing as "checking one's brain at the door", it is rather an act of humility, but is it also wise? Is there any reason to think that it is better to defer on certain occasions, or worse to privilege private judgment instead?

Relying on private judgment assumes that one's own judgment is the best guide to what is true or false given the available evidence. Now I would imagine that in just about any other sphere of human affairs it would be widely recognized that it is, in fact, not a good idea to rely on the testimony of a single, perspective-bound witness to establish the facts of a given case, but in the domain of religion it is important to remember that Protestantism was born of the enlightenment, a movement in which every individual act of reasoning by a rational agent was thought to be carried out in a kind of value-free environment. It was the beginning of the privileging of the individual in general, not only in the domain of reasoning but in the domain of law, economics, politics, and many other social structures. This movement reached its zenith, as it were, in the American experiment, where the sanctity of the individual as the principle bearer of rights and duties was actually made a matter of positive law in the Constitution of the United States. It is no surprise, then, that Americans in general tend to assume that every opinion is sacred and that one man's view of things is as good as any other, just so long as he can give a rational account of himself in front of his peers. As a consequence of this, I think, it should come as no surprise either that there are more Protestant denominations in the United States than anywhere else in the world. Here, if you think your neighbor is doing things the wrong way, it is a relatively easy matter to just dash off on your own and start a new church where they do things your way.

Now, I don't think that very many reasonable people are seriously going to suggest that all of these folks who have run off to start their own denominations are equally right in their views of things. Surely most folks will agree that, given a particular judgment p, where p has to do with a matter of faith or morals, either p or ~p is the case, that is, there is some fact of the matter that determines whether p or ~p is true. How is any individual to determine which of this proposition-pair is the true one? According to the person who privileges private judgment, the individual is to determine it by means of his own powers of reasoning and a careful, thorough, and value-free examination of all of the relevant evidence. So it would seem that this has either not occurred, since so many very different groups have arisen as a consequence of approaching matters this way, or else it has occurred only in a very limited number of cases. Indeed, it is possible, of course, that everybody is still completely wrong about everything, but it is not clear why anybody would commit themselves to a denomination in which they thought it quite possible that all of the commitments were as likely to be false as true. I think that, as a general rule, people adopt propositions that they believe to be true, not propositions that they think are likely to be false.

So let us take a couple of proposed teachings and see how matters stand. Here are two teachings:
[1] The Holy Spirit is to be worshiped and glorified with the Father and the Son.

[2] Mary was, by the grace of God, free from all stain of original sin from the moment of her conception.
I have chosen these two teachings in particular because I imagine that few, if any, mainline Protestants would question the truth of [1], while most, if not all (along with some Anglicans and Orthodox), would outright reject the truth of [2]. The Church teaches both as matters that are to be believed de fide, but presumably those mainline Protestants who accept [1] do not accept it because the Church teaches it authoritatively. Some may accept it because it emanates from a Conciliar decree, but I imagine that even among those there will be some who accept it not merely because it is a Conciliar decree, but because something moves them to accept it. Indeed, it seems to be, in some sense, an essential element of the non-Catholic position, that matters of faith are to be believed principally because of a subjective judgment that the matter is worthy of belief.

So in the case of [1], a non-Catholic may believe it because he has investigated the Scriptures and found to his own satisfaction that they largely support the doctrine, or at worst do not outright contradict it, or he may believe it because, after weighing the matter carefully in his heart and examining all the evidence, he feels moved by something--call it the Spirit of truth or whatever--to accept the truth of it, or he may believe it for some other reason, but it seems that if he accepts it as true at all it will not be simply because of some authoritative source external to himself telling him to believe it, but because of a private judgment of his own that it is true.

Similarly in the case of [2], the non-Catholic will say, if he rejects the proposition, that he finds it inconsistent with the Scriptures, or that he finds it contrary to human experience, or that he finds it to be impossible to confirm given the available evidence, or for some other reason, but again it seems that if he rejects it as true it will not be simply because of some authoritative source telling him to reject it, but because his private judgment is simply that it is false.

Now, in each case, there will be an implicit source of authority that is external to the non-Catholic, namely Scripture. This is rather intriguing, because the Scriptures themselves are the product of the Church's teaching authority. As I have shown elsewhere, this is a fatal problem for the sola Scriptura principle, but we may put it aside for the purpose of the present discussion, since there is another matter at stake here that is equally important. So let us assume that all sides agree to the following principle:
[3] Every proposition to which we give our assent must at the very least be logically consistent with the teachings of the Scriptures.
Now, on the one hand, we may probably regard the acceptance of this principle--again, just for the purposes of discussion here--as separate from the question of whether the source of authoritativeness is internal or external to the believing subject. On the other hand, it is possible to render [3] relevant to the current discussion by pointing out that if one is a non-Catholic, it takes an act of private judgment to accept the truth of the Scriptures, hence there is a sense in which the non-Catholic does not even accept the Scriptures themselves as a source of authoritative truth external to themselves.

So then, why would a non-Catholic believe not only that the Scriptures are authoritative, but that they are the only source of authoritative teaching? How is it that the non-Catholic comes to make this judgment? It cannot be simply by reading through the Scriptures, because any fool can do that and come away not only thinking that they are not true, but thinking that they are downright silly. It seems that there are a variety of different answers given to this problem, but two stand out. One of them is simply that the Scriptures "ring true", that is, they cohere pretty well with what the reader already believes to be the case and after an examination of what (very little) historical evidence there is they appear to be more or less reliable accounts. Personally, I don't see how any reasonable person could come to this conclusion, but I accept that there are those who draw the inference. The second answer will tend to invoke some causal principle of belief that they label "faith" in one form or another. Perhaps they have in mind the influence of the Holy Spirit, God's gift of grace to believe in the truths of revelation. If this is what is intended, it is identical to what the Catholic would invoke. Let's examine these two approaches.

The person for whom the Scriptures "ring true", as it were, who accepts them because he feels that he has read them very carefully, checked them against the available evidence, perhaps compared them with the writings from other religious traditions, and then on the basis of this decides that the Scriptures are, in fact, true, is on the most tenuous possible ground. Other, equally if not more intelligent readers have done precisely the same exercise and found the Scriptures to be completely unbelievable. Indeed, there is something of a cottage industry among non-believers in highlighting those instances where the Scriptures contradict themselves, or the historical record, or the archaeological evidence, or the sociological facts. The only way to get around these objections to the veracity of the Scriptures when one is relying on the fact that they appear to one to "ring true" is to engage in a method of interpretation that is so very ad hoc as to be absolutely useless. It amounts to saying something along the lines of "Well, if you just read the Scriptures the way I do they will make more sense to you." This is puerile, and obviously will not do.

The person who claims that faith leads him to accept the truth of the Scriptures is on slightly better grounds, and in fact it is faith that leads the Roman Catholic to accept the truth of the Scriptures, too. The difference between the Catholic and the non-Catholic does not lie in the causal principle that prompts them to accept the truth of the Scriptures. So, both the Catholic and the non-Catholic agree that the Scriptures are true, and that they can be known to be true. So where, in point of fact, to do they differ? Well, the Catholic believes that both [1] and [2] are consistent with, and follow of necessity from, the Scriptures, but the non-Catholic, if he accepts this idea of consistency and entailment at all, will accept it only with regard to [1], not with regard to [2]. Why does the Catholic accept [2] while the non-Catholic rejects it? The oft-heard accusation from the non-Catholic is that the Catholic accepts it because the Church tells him to, and to a certain extent this accusation may be within bounds, because some Catholics may have difficulty understanding why [2] is true, even when they are willing to assent to its truth on the authority of the Church's teaching charism. The typical non-Catholic who rejects [2], however, rejects it because he cannot believe it. As I alluded to above, his reasons for rejecting it may vary but they are reducible to the plain and simple fact that he does not believe it.

Now, a belief may be either true or false, but knowledge is always of what is and, therefore, always true. The non-Catholic believes that [2] is false, but does he know it to be false? I think some non-Catholics do believe that they know it to be false, principally because they are already committed to the principle that all human beings save Jesus of Nazareth bear the guilt of original sin, so Mary can be no exception no matter how clever the exegesis. But I believe that folks such as these are relatively few in number, because the principle that all human beings bear the guilt of original sin is not, in point of fact, to be found in the Scriptures. St. Paul writes that "in Adam all have died", but to turn this into an endorsement of the principle at stake here requires some rather fancy footwork. As it happens, there is no expression anywhere in the Old or New Testaments that could fairly and straightforwardly be translated as "original sin". So an act of interpretation is required to get the relevant principle. So most folks who are intelligent enough to understand this fact about the Scriptures will see that it is at least possible that Mary was born free from the stain of original sin, if we agree that it is possible that God can will such a thing. Those who would deny that it is possible for God to will such a thing need to double check their understanding of omnipotence.

So we find that [2] is at least possibly true, but the non-Catholic denies that it is true. Given that it is at least possibly true, the denial that it is true must be based on a belief that it is false, rather than on certain knowledge that it is false. (This is not a straightforward move; it requires a special sense of "possibly true", but the required sense is present, so the move is warranted.) If one had certain knowledge that [2] is false, it would not be the case that [2] is "possibly true" in the relevant sense of "possibly true" (it could still be logically possible, obviously, even if it is certainly false). The Christian who does not believe [2] has a choice. He can insist that he is right about [2], or he can admit the possibility that he is wrong about [2]. Whoever would insist that he is right about [2] needs to double check on what it means to be certainly right in a case such as this. Even if the person believes that the Holy Spirit himself descended from heaven and revealed to him personally that [2] s false, the person would have to ask himself how he could know that this revelation really happened when confronted with the fact that others claim equally solid foundation for believing [2] to be true. There is a genuine epistemic puzzle here that has no adequate solution, though there are, of course, folks who claim that "they just know" that the Spirit has told them certain things, and there are others who claim that they don't actually know it, they just have faith, etc., but in each case we wind up with one or the other of the two possibilities we've already seen: either the person is trusting in his own powers of reasoning or he is acting from what he believes to be a faith-warranted knowledge claim. The former is useless and the latter does not differ from what the Catholic has, and there is a kind of stalemate.

Only there isn't, really. The non-Catholic who trusts in a causal principle like faith must admit that others who disagree with him also claim to have similar causal principles behind their views and it's not just Catholics who differ with him but other Protestants, and we might as well toss in the Jews and Muslims for good measure. Suppose that our putative non-Catholic were the only person on the planet to arrive at a certain belief about a matter of Christian faith. Suppose that this person, acting in good conscience, found that he could not alter his belief on this matter, even though it was at odds with what every other Christian believed on the matter. While such an outlier is highly unlikely it is perhaps more probable than many people think, given the bizarre state of Americanized religion. Be that as it may, there is a very real question here as to what point there would be to Christ's impassioned prayer for unity among believers in the High Priestly Prayer of the Gospel of John if he really didn't think that it mattered what his followers believed. He wanted them to be one in some sense, but in what sense? Perhaps in the sense that they all love and follow him, but it is difficult to imagine what that would mean if there is constant bickering about the content of the faith that claims to be a manifestation of what it means to love and follow him. In addition, given the possibility of heresy it is clearly important to determine which propositions are true and which false, and historically it has been of tantamount interest to the orthodox Christian community to establish "what must be believed in order to be saved".

The historical record is quite clear that it is the community of Christian believers who determine this, not any single individual. Never in the history of the religion has it been the case that a particular individual, relying on his own private judgment, determined for everybody else what the content of the faith ought to be. Famously, Sts. Peter and Paul disagreed about certain points, and in no case were decisions made by either one or the other fully independently of what the rest of the community thought. Even today, it simply is not the case that [2] was laid down as law by a single man against the overall consensus fidelium: both the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and the dogma of the Assumption of Our Lady were promulgated only after a thorough review of the historical record, the theological arguments, and the opinions of the bishops of the world. To deny the validity of this process of communal establishment of doctrine is to claim that a single individual may determine for himself what the content of the faith is to be, and if he can do that, then there is no reason in principle that he could not lay it down as a law for everyone else as well, on the grounds that his own private and personal authoritativeness establishes the truth of the matter and to deny it would be heresy. And yet none of the non-Catholics who reject the Church's charism to teach authoritatively claim this power for themselves, even though they must have it if they have the authority that they claim they have. They claim only to be able to establish what they themselves ought to believe, and with unintended irony they assert that it is up to each individual to determine for himself what he ought to believe!

To make the claim that the non-Catholic makes is to deny the possibility of the unity that Our Lord prayed for so earnestly and, hence, is a sin against that unity. It is not merely a matter of humility to defer to the consensus fidelium as it is made manifest in the three pillars of our faith, it is a matter of following Our Lord.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


This one, I'm afraid, is going to leave a mark. As usual, Mike Liccione has hit one right out of the stadium while the bases were already loaded. Good job.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Thy Will Be Done

Tom Gnau has been wrestling with me in the combox to my recent post on prayer. In that post, I characterized certain forms of petitionary prayer as simplistic and naive, going so far as to call it "magical thinking". I knew when I wrote that post that some people would be offended by it, and Tom, while he may not exactly be offended, is at the very least a little grumpy about it, since he seems to like precisely the sort of petitionary prayer I was rejecting. His comments prompt me to say something more, if only to clarify my own position and make sure that I offend as many people as humanly possible. But, in all seriousness, I am not claiming that my view is either the most orthodox, the most rational, or the most psychologically appealing. It is simply my view, and it doesn't have much else going for it other than that I have thought about it long and hard and have a few things I can point to in its support, and I am very happy to hear what others think about it, especially those who don't accept it; I would be particularly interested to hear what my regular Protestant readers think of it, though I have no illusions that they will be the only ones who don't like it.

Let me start by quoting from Tom's most recent comment, to "set the stage", as it were, for my further comments.
Speaking of the Lord's Prayer...that prayer readily chips away at your idea that petitionary prayer is somehow "naive," silly or in any way out of court. That prayer is chock full of petitions. "Give us this day our daily bread ..." is best seen in light of the Holy Eucharist, without a doubt. But even Pope Benedict XVI has said that petition can be read and offered in more prosaic ways, as indeed it has for all of Christian history.

My argument here is not that we offer good or commendable petitions. What may arrest our minds and hearts at any moment is all too often trivial, unfortunately. And it is better to intercede for others (a type of petition, no?), to praise, to thank, to seek to glorify, to seek to serve.

My argument is simply that Jesus himself in effect paved the way for our petitions.
I would like to begin by drawing a distinction--again, a distinction that I am sure will not be to everyone's liking--between what is permitted, what is preferable, and what is necessary. I have no doubt that Pope Benedict is quite right that, for many, many generations now, countless Christians have offered up the petitions in the Lord's Prayer in a very literal way. Clearly, that way of "reading" the Lord's Prayer is permitted, that is, it is not crazy or heretical or stupid to understand the Lord's Prayer as a set of petitions on the order of asking for a good parking place at the mall. By the same token, it is clearly not necessary to see the petition "Give us this day our daily bread" either as a request for food, a request to enable one to participate more actively and fully in the Mass, or even in the way that I would suggest we read it, as a petition for the Lord Our God to be our only source of spiritual sustenance. The question is not whether any of these readings are either permitted or necessary, but whether any one of them is preferable to any other. My own view is that they are all permitted, none is necessary, and one is preferable.

OK, so that's my distinction: I think that it's irrelevant that the Pope thinks that the petition "give us this day our daily bread" is about the Eucharist or that it's acceptable in his view to read it as a request for food. It's irrelevant because he's simply stating views that are acceptable to hold, not view that must be held de fide, and, more importantly, he is not excluding any particular views by supporting the ones that he does. Typically, when the Church has something definitive or authoritative to say about matters of faith and morals, she does so by means of the via negativa, i.e., condemnation of error, not mandating of any particular view. The decrees of Ecumenical Councils, for example, typically consist of anathemas, not positive decrees of what must be believed (though of course one does find that as well). So it's important that in saying what he thinks the petition is about he does not say anything about what it is definitively not about. In particular, he does not say that the petition is not about asking the Lord Our God to be our only source of spiritual sustenance.

Now, to the more general question: what's wrong, exactly, with seeing the petitions found in the New Testament as straightforward petitions in the simplistic, naive, magical-thinking sense that I don't like? Tom's prime example, mentioned in a different comment of his, was that of Our Lord in the garden of Gethsemane. How could those petitions not be taken literally? Clearly, he said, Our Lord wanted that Cup taken away, but He added the proviso "thy will be done" (thus saving himself the embarrassment of asking for something that he already knew was not the Father's will, I suppose).

Frankly I can think of no worse way to understand Our Lord's prayer in the garden. If Jesus had really been asking for that Cup to be taken away, that would suggest that he did not understand either the purpose of his own mission or the normative criterion of redemptive suffering in the order of the kosmos. Given that we are to believe that Christ's will was perfectly conformed to the will of the Father, it seems virtually heretical to think that he genuinely willed that the Cup be taken away, though deferring to the Father's will in the final analysis. Consider two different people, each trying to conform their will to the will of a third party. Let's call the normative will, the will to which they are trying to conform, will A, and the two other wills we may call will B and will C. Agent B reasons this way about his will, will B: "I do not want what will A intends, and I do know what will A intends and I actively will something else to occur, but if will A obtains its object I will acquiesce in it." Agent C reasons this way about his will: "I know exactly what will A intends, and I, with will C, intend the exact same thing." Both will B and will C can be said to be "conforming" to an extent with will A insofar as both B and C are content to have will A obtain its object, but clearly will C is more closely conformed to will A than is will B. And given that Christ's will is to be believed to be perfectly conformed to the Father's will, it seems to me that Christ must have willed something like what will C has willed. In short, his petition was not literally that God take the Cup away, it was something else. But what?

My own view is that much of what we find written in the New Testament, but particularly the Gospel accounts, is intended to represent something rather deeper than what we find at the surface. In the case of Our Lord's prayer, for example, it seems rather clear to me that we have little reason to take it as literally as some folks have been tempted to do, and this for two reasons. First, if we were to take it literally, it would raise the question of how the story came to be embedded in the Apostolic tradition in the first place, seeing as how Our Lord was alone in the garden, and Peter, James, and John are represented as being asleep during the prayer. It seems unlikely that Our Lord told them about his prayers on their way back to town, since the Gospels frequently emphasize his wont to remove himself to a very private place for prayer, and his own advice to folks was to go into their rooms alone and pray. In short, Our Lord seems to have frowned on the practice of letting others in on the content of your private conversations with God. Possible we are to imagine one of the three disciples really being awake the whole time and listening in, but that just raises more problems than it settles, since it would not make that particular disciple look too good, and it's also obviously a rather ad hoc explanation. Second, the account of Our Lord's final hours in the Gospel of John portray his affect very differently. He is not afraid of dying there, indeed in the High Priestly Prayer he makes it very clear that he knows exactly what is going to happen, he knows that it is for the best, and he knows that it is the will of the Father, and he is perfectly jiggy with going through with the whole thing. There is no trace of the sweating of blood in chapter 18 of that Gospel, and if there were, it would ring very hollow, following so closely upon the triumphalism of the High Priestly Prayer. I think, therefore, that when Christ is made to pray in the Synoptics that the Cup be taken away, we are not to see it as a literal request by Jesus that the course of history be altered, or that God find some other, less painful way, to accomplish his will for mankind. That would make Our Lord very craven indeed. Instead, I think, it is preferable to see in Our Lord's petition a desire on the part of Jesus of Nazareth to draw ever closer to his heavenly Father, to feel his presence at a time when human nature is most likely to overlook the presence that is, in fact, ever-present. It is, in short, a model for us, not a petition of his, it is a paradeigma, a way of illustrating by way of example the sort of relationship that the Father most desires in his creatures: we are week, we have desires, but when those desires distract us from God's presence, we ought to offer them up by admitting that we have them, admitting our weakness, but we do this not because we want God to satisfy some desire that is itself a manifestation of that weakness, but because we want God to draw closer to us, to replace that desire that comes from that weakness with an abandonment of self to his most holy will, and that is why the "proviso", the "thy will be done", is not a proviso at all but the most essential element of the entire petition.

Regarding the Lord's Prayer, I certainly do not disagree that it is, indeed, literally filled with petitions. But again, my own view is that when Our Lord gave this form of prayer to his disciples, he was not telling them anything at all like "You have things you want? Go ahead and ask for them! Just do it this way!" In my opinion, every one of the petitions in the Lord's Prayer not only can be, but ought to be, interpreted not as a straightforward asking for something, begging the Father to fulfill some earthly desire, but as spiritual requests, petitions for varying aspects of our relationship with the Father to be made manifest in our lives. Because I have this attitude towards petitionary prayer, I am particularly put off by the so-called "prosperity Christians", who ask God for whatever they want and interpret getting what they want as proof that God is listening to and answering their prayers. In their view, the story about the woman pounding on the judge's door at night asking for a hearing is to be taken as practical advice: if you pester God long enough, he will give you what you want just to shut you up. Same with the bit about "ask, and you shall receive, knock, and it shall be opened up to you"--these are all about getting what we want, as far as those folks are concerned. But our relationship with God isn't about getting what we want, it's about wanting what we get, since what we get is either what we need or what we deserve, or else it's just random, in which case it would be well for us to accept it with a certain equanimity. Even in the case of physical suffering, when we pray for an end to pain, whether physical or emotional, my view is that what we are really praying for is God's comfort in the form of closeness to him, a greater awareness of his presence in our lives. We often confuse that desire with a desire for an end to the physical suffering, but we're Christians, people: we don't think that physical suffering means anything in the face of spiritual life! Sickness and death, physical pain, etc., these things are all natural, in a way: part of the physical, material world, they are byproducts of natural forces. But they are also signs of something else, of our separation from God. When we pray for an end to physical pain, it's the animal in us that really wants nothing more than an end to physical pain. The Christian soul in us is really saying, I want to restore a right relationship with my Father. This is true, I think, even when we do not believe that it is true. It is what prayer really is, whether we understand that fact or not.

The Gospel accounts are filled with miracle stories in which Our Lord asks someone, "What do you want me to do for you?" And the person says something like "I want to see" or "I want to walk". Even these stories, in my view, are not about getting something specific from God. Because here again, the disabilities in these stories are not disabilities, but signs of our sinful state. When the person says "I want to see" what he really means is "I want to be free from sin", and Jesus gives that to him under the sacramental sign of the healing of his disability. It's very important, in my opinion, to keep the deep symbolism of the Gospel accounts in mind at all times. This does not mean that I don't think that these miracles "really happened", or that they happened in some ordinary way. I think they really happened, just as the Gospel stories describe them as happening. But I don't think that they mean what a straightforward reading of the text would ordinarily mean. When Our Lord walked the earth, everything that happened had two meanings: the literal meaning, which is unimportant, and the hidden meaning, the theological meaning, which is everything. For Christians, the world is still like that to a certain extent--shot through with meaning in every existing thing--but it will never be quite the same as it was when God was incarnate and walked among us. At that time, when God became Man, Man himself became a sign of something else, and perceptible creation was itself sacramentally used by the GodMan as a bearer of his message. For this reason, I believe that we cannot read the Gospel accounts in a simple and straightforward way; I believe it is necessary to always look beneath the surface, at the historical context, sure, but also at the theological context. The early Fathers read the texts this way as well, and it has harmed us that their approach to these texts was superseded by a dull and banal literalism that lacked imagination and wonder.

So my view is that every prayer, of every sort, no matter what words we say, no matter what semantic content we impute to them, is really just a variation on the theme "thy will be done". We express this theme in very many ways, obviously, and I don't deny that we all ask for very specific things in our prayers from time to time. The Church herself puts very specific petitions into her liturgical prayer, but these, too, I claim, are simply different ways of making explicit the same inner desire: closeness to God. We don't know what the Beatific Vision will be like, obviously, so we try different ways of expressing our inner longing for that one, unified moment, in which we will behold him face to face, when we will have no more desires and no need for petitionary prayer. In a way, petitionary prayer is just practicing for that moment: trying to find some modicum of awareness in this mode of existence of what that mode of existence will be like. Clearly we can get no closer than analogical being, but to the extent that we pray at all times, without ceasing, in every manner that is available to us, we strive for what is, after all, our highest end.

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 [...