"...minute and particular." -- Enormous Generalities
Thursday, May 02, 2002
THROWING AWAY THE BASIC RATIONS
Nice quote by Josef Pieper on QQ today.
CHRISTIAN BLOGGERS, CHRISTIAN BLOGS?
Dispatches from Outland makes a good point by asking
I dunno, Martin, can a blog be "Christian"? I can see calling a blogger Christian, but I have a bit of trouble hanging that label on a thing. Maybe it's just me...I’d take it further and ask if it’s ever useful to say “Christian anything” these days. Don’t get me wrong, I think Martin’s list is a great idea and gives some exposure to many great blogs. But look what happened over at InstaPundit yesterday when the term “Christian Bloggers” was used:
Here’s what I said that Glenn linked to:
I have to say I was quite impressed with Glenn Reynolds’s willingness to link to a long list of “Christian Bloggers,” most of whom disagree with Glenn's position on therapeutic cloning.Here’s what Glenn said in his link:
MINUTE PARTICULARS calls me magnanimous for linking to a list of Christian bloggers even though most of them disagree with me on cloning. I'll take the praise, I guess, but it's not like you have to agree with me to get a link.So far, so good. But look what happened later in the day. A “Christian Blogger” wrote to Glenn to complain. Here’s Glenn’s description:
By the way, in a response to an earlier post of mine Christian blogger Phillip Winn takes issue with the idea that Christian bloggers are necessarily anti-cloning. "I am on that list myself, and I certainly don't support any government-imposed limits on cloning, therapeutic, reproductive, or otherwise."Of course, if you look at what I said you’ll see that Glenn mischaracterized my point – and he emailed to apologize. The mischaracterization is not a big deal since anyone who really cared about what I said could simply click to me via the link Glenn provided. But I really think the introduction of the term “Christian Blogger” confused things. I think Martin’s list is great and I’m happy to be on the list, whether it be “Christian Blogs," "Christian Bloggers” or even “Loonies with a Blog,” since folks will know my thoughts when they click to my blog. Where the term is not so helpful is in a serious debate like cloning. When it’s introduced in such a context it typically splinters into various different interpretations that obscure rather than enlighten.
MULE AND WAGON STALLED
Yesterday, my Site Meter looked like this:
Referring URLWell, you get the idea. Thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the link. I’m reminded of something Flannery O’Connor wrote:
The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.If you’re here because you were riding the InstaPundit Express that roared through, Welcome! I hope you’ll click around a bit and visit some of the fine folks under IL MIGLIOR FABBRO to the right.
Wednesday, May 01, 2002
THE DIGNITY AND RIGHTS OF THOSE WHO WORK
"Sursum Corda" has a very nice reflection on "Labor and the Church" today. An encyclical he cites, Laborem Exercens, was issued in 1981, yet it's as timely as ever and worth careful reading. Here's a taste:
We are celebrating the ninetieth anniversary of the Encyclical Rerum Novarum on the eve of new developments in technological, economic and political conditions which, according to many experts, will influence the world of work and production no less than the industrial revolution of the last century. There are many factors of a general nature: the widespread introduction of automation into many spheres of production, the increase in the cost of energy and raw materials, the growing realization that the heritage of nature is limited and that it is being intolerably polluted, and the emergence on the political scene of peoples who, after centuries of subjection, are demanding their rightful place among the nations and in international decision-making. These new conditions and demands will require a reordering and adjustment of the structures of the modern economy and of the distribution of work. Unfortunately, for millions of skilled workers these changes may perhaps mean unemployment, at least for a time, or the need for retraining. They will very probably involve a reduction or a less rapid increase in material well-being for the more developed countries. But they can also bring relief and hope to the millions who today live in conditions of shameful and unworthy poverty.
Tuesday, April 30, 2002
I have to say I was quite impressed with Glenn Reynolds’s willingness to link to a long list of “Christian Bloggers,” most of whom disagree with Glenn's position on therapeutic cloning. A link from Instapundit can generate thousands of hits, so it was a remarkable gesture of good faith on Glenn’s part and a clear willingness to encourage dialogue. Martin Roth explains,
Yesterday I posted on my site an article about the growing phenomenon of Christian blogging. I thought Glenn Reynolds of InstaPundit might be interested, so I sent him an email about it, at 10:45pm (US time). Now, Glenn wouldn’t know me from a bar of soap. And I presume he’s inundated with emails pointing him to stuff that might be of interest. Yet he obviously read the email and then went to my site and read the article. He then posted a comment about it on his site. At 10:57pm. Brilliant.Yes, brilliant indeed.
"LIST OF CHRISTIAN BLOGGERS"
Martin Roth put together this great list of blogs. And he, along with Amy Welborn, got the Midas Touch of an InstaPundit mention.
Here’s a very funny comparison of working at the office versus working out of . . .er . . .working at home by James Lileks. Compared to Lileks, I fear my keyboard is permanently stuck on LAME!
DON’T JUDGE A BLOG BY ITS DESCRIPTION (OR ORTHOGRAPHY!)
Karl, author of Summa Contra Mundum, graciously responded to my objections to, among other things, his interpretation of a moral dilemma he posed to his students. I won’t rephrase his evenhanded and thoughtful response here since you can just follow the link. He’s right that he knows his students better than I do, so I’m just going to have to believe him when he says they really do think they’d toss the baby instead of the dog. I’m slack-jawed with incredulity and still have my doubts about the heft such hypothetical scenarios really have when applied to concrete actions. But, as a teacher I once had used to always say, these are matters upon which reasonable people can disagree.
Monday, April 29, 2002
NEW LINKS, NEW APPROACHES, NEW IDEAS
I've added to my list of links to those who do this better than I. Give them a click if you haven't already.
THE CONFESSIONS OF ANDREW SULLIVAN
I guess you have to give Andrew Sullivan credit for being candid. The reason I continue to list his link (not that he needs it!) here is not because I agree with him much, but that he seems to grapple genuinely with issues that most of us might not want to touch. I know I am not going to be writing about my past the way he does – maybe I’m just shy, but I also think it’s not relevant to much. But I guess it’s Andrew who is reinforcing this notion I’ve had that it would be irrelevant; and for that I thank him. Somebody needs to try it to demonstrate how ineffective it is! But why are these confessional screeds not very interesting? After all, didn’t St. Augustine do just that? And isn’t the following similar to Sullivan’s confessional posts?
But, wretched youth that I was -- supremely wretched even in the very outset of my youth -- I had entreated chastity of thee and had prayed, "Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet." [The Latin for this, da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo * inevitably ends up on T-shirts on college campuses that offer Latin] For I was afraid lest thou shouldst hear me too soon, and too soon cure me of my disease of lust which I desired to have satisfied rather than extinguished. And I had wandered through perverse ways of godless superstition -- not really sure of it, either, but preferring it to the other, which I did not seek in piety, but opposed in alice. ConfessionsWell, not quite. The obvious reason is that compared to the depth and breadth of St. Augustine’s thought and writings, all of us would find our little blogs and columns and articles and books swamped onto the shores of trite, tepid pabulum. So on the level of Doctor of the Church versus political pundit, it’s not a fair comparison. But I think it’s fair to put things side by side as long as we keep it all in perspective. So, here’s Sullivan:
I was completely celibate until my early twenties. It was a struggle but my faith told me it was what I had to do. But what that meant was not that sex disappeared from my life. In fact, what happened was the opposite. Sex for me became more and more abstract in my head, more fetishized in a way, more elevated, more obsessive in ways that have taken years to try and undo. At the same time, I began to exhibit all the familiar personal tics of the sexually shut down. I had swings of depression, I became neurotic and fixated on maintaining order in my life and others', I was increasingly moody, cranky, awkward and at times miserable beyond words. I looked ahead into the decades that lay before me and was terrified by what might happen to my very soul. Cramped, frightened, neurotic, unpleasant to be around, I increasingly found my faith a source not of liberation but of white-knuckled desperation. In an emotionally and physically empty life, it became the only grim solace I had. . . .Note two things: First, Sullivan apparently attempted to live a life of celibacy, found it cramped and depressing, and found fulfillment only after renouncing celibacy. Augustine lives a raucous life of pleasure, converts, and finds celibacy significant and fulfilling. Second, maybe it’s just the age we live in, but the Sullivan account seems to lean a lot on the jargon of psychology with terms like “personal tics,” “neurotic,” “fixated,” “moody,” “cranky,” and “awkward.” Intrinsically there’s nothing wrong with approaching celibacy this way, but it seems so trivial and there doesn’t seem to be much at stake in such an approach.
And doesn’t this triviality point to the reason that, no matter how you feel about celibacy in the Roman Catholic rite, it’s just not the cause for the sexual abuse of children and adults. Being moody or cranky or full of lust doesn’t explain sexual abuse. I’m not sure anything short of our entering into the mystery of human evil can (cf. this previous post). Celibacy is a valid issue for discussion and even ardent debate. But raising it in the context of priests sexually abusing others just trivializes the tragedy to the victims. There is a deep and profound evil animating these acts of sexual abuse. That’s where we need to look when we respond.
"JUSTICE TO THOSE INTELLIGENCES THAT ARE REALLY BEHIND THE IDEA"
This statement by Chesterton would be quite appropriate in the raging debate on research cloning:
When we have answered the immediate protestation of all these good, shouting, short-sighted people, we can begin to do justice to those intelligences that are really behind the idea.
HERE’S A NOVEL APPROACH: HOLINESS
I know that for some of the more strident commentators on the scandal in the Church striving for “holiness” is just another euphemism for an inept, insufficient, and inadequate response. Still, this is an excellent homily on what I think has to be at the heart of any response. Read the whole thing if you get a chance; it’s good. Here’s a taste:
The only adequate response to this terrible scandal, the only fully Catholic response to this scandal — as St. Francis of Assisi recognized in the 1200s, as St. Francis de Sales recognized in the 1600s, and as countless other saints have recognized in every century — is HOLINESS! Every crisis that the Church faces, every crisis that the world faces, is a crisis of saints. Holiness is crucial, because it is the real face of the Church.
Friday, April 26, 2002
PAINTING YOURSELF INTO A CORNER?
Mark Shea says here
It's moments like this that I understand why "Honor your father" is a commandment. Commandments are given precisely to shore us up when our every natural impulse tells us to do something else. I don't have to be commanded to obey gravity. I'll do it, no matter what. But right now I--we--have to remind ourselves that these men are worthy of honor, not because they are necessarily good shepherds (most are, some are emphatically not), but because they stand in the place of the Father and are due honor simply as fathers.But he then says here, “His name: Paul Shanley (I will not dignify this evil man with the title "father").” I don't mean to pick the pepper out of the fly poop, but aren't these two statements somewhat contradictory? I admit that the reports about Shanley make him seem monstrous and truly evil; but isn't this an example of why we're commanded to “honor your father,” or “love your enemies”? We’re sure not going to do it because we want to with someone evil or capable of acts we simply can't fathom. I am NOT saying that we should honor someone like Shanley. Of course not. But I am saying that if he is an ordained priest then the term "Father" still has some significance for precisely the reasons given above. Sure it's problematic. It's even tougher, maybe impossible, to love our enemies. But that's indeed what we're commanded to do.
While the above heading “Painting yourself into a corner?” might seem a description of the above conflicting words, it’s really not. Rather, it’s a description of how I feel at times when I really try to embrace the Faith and view the world as we’re called to, as we’re commanded to by Christ. At times it seems a stark absurdity. It seems impossible. And it begins to feel like I’ve “painted myself into a corner” by having to love not only saints, but sinners.
THE ROLE OF THE SPECIALIST is today's entry in GKC's Blog.
A “GOOD POSITION” IN OUR DEALINGS WITH GOD?
Simon Tugwell’s book The Beatitudes: Soundings in Christian Traditions has the following wise words,
As we grow older, we inevitably acquire an ever-increasing past. The danger is that we shall see ourselves and present ourselves too much in terms of that past.His concern is with the tendency we all have toward a kind of complacency regarding “how we’re doing” in the presence of God. As he explains,
. . . we develop a sense of how one thing leads to another, and that makes it possible for us to become calculating, “If I do this, then I shall be in a good position for getting or achieving that.” What we have to realize, and it is a difficult point for us to grasp, is that there is no such thing as a “good position” in our dealings with God.This is a profound insight. And it’s the underpinning for genuine reconciliation and prayer that the Church affords us through sacrament and recommends in its teachings. It’s the reason the suggestion from the American cardinals to “set aside a day for prayer and penance throughout the church in the United States, in order to implore reconciliation and the renewal of ecclesial life” makes complete sense. And it’s no coincidence that the pope’s first public mention of the crisis here in the States was introduced by a long reflection on the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I think many folks have forgotten the fact that he stated the following:
My dear Brothers in the Priesthood: in recalling this truth, I feel a pressing need to urge you, as I did last year, to rediscover for yourselves and to help others to rediscover the beauty of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.Note he says “rediscover for yourselves” to all priests. We’re all in this together and none of us can ever know if we’re in a “good position” in the eyes of the Creator. Isn’t this somehow at the heart of the mystery of why the Word made Flesh, who was like us in all things but sin, would suffer and die for us?
This is why I very much agree with the posts here and here over at Fool’s Folly. Emily has been a somewhat lonely voice in blogville regarding the cardinals’ suggestion for “a day for prayer and penance throughout the church in the United States.” Indeed, as she puts it, “The cardinals aren't blame-shifting. They are talking like Catholics. And for some of them, it's about time!”
STAY-AT-HOME DADS AND CARDIAC HEALTH
Great response (scroll down to "Bliss & Vinegar") by James Lileks to this article about stay-at-home dads. Here’s an excerpt:
Today we went to the grocery store for fish. As I staggered out to the car with the bag, exhausted from the day, I got out the keys - and a loose five-dollar bill came out of my pocket and blew away. The winds gusted to 30MPH this afternoon, which can take an Abe note a fair distance. I gave chase. You want cardiac exercise? Chase a five-dollar bill across a parking lot while holding a 30-pound kid in one hand and a bag of groceries in the other.Lileks is masterful. The Bleat is a daily stop for me these days.
SPEED + CREED = SCREED?
I wonder if there’s an inevitable momentum that accompanies some of what I call, respectfully, the “speed + creed” or “screed” blogs. They’re a combination of alacrity and ardent conviction that makes a fascinating mixture. Many are excellent and well worth the time it takes to read their many daily posts. They provide entertainment, journalism, commentary, and sanity in a media milieu that is sorely lacking a sage perspective. But there seems to be a sort of momentum of, well, of facile treatment of serious matters that carries through from one argument to another in many of these blogs. And my concern is that the most influential of these blogs can move opinion in a direction that might be doing more harm than good.
Blogs are supposed to be full of rants and raves and they’re often cranked out on breaks, during lunch, early in the morning, late at night, or whenever the blogger has time. But this speed in deliberation and writing shouldn’t eliminate accuracy or hasten some already hasty generalizations. Here’s an example - and the only reason I pick this is that I already had some of it prepared from a “Where’s the Actual Document?” post I was going to do but, um, my break was over and I never got back to it:
Andrew Sullivan and others pounced on a link (I didn’t link to it here because you’d get a zillion annoying popup ads, but you can find it with a quick search) from New York’s Daily News that had “Priest Blames Gays” on its front page. A Monsignor Eugene Clark apparently delivered a homily that allegedly made statements that blamed homosexual men for the current sexual abuse scandal. I say “allegedly” because I looked everywhere and couldn’t find the actual text of the homily, a text many articles mentioned but failed to include or link to. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution had this headline: “Catholic cleric says homosexuality, immorality caused sex scandal,” but again no inclusion or reference to the entire text. And other links carried similar headlines with a similar failure of inclusion or reference to the text of the homily. Now, I’m not saying I agreed or disagreed with the Monsignor. How could I? All I knew were snippets and hearsay. I would have liked to read the text of the homily myself and drawn my own conclusions rather than letting journalists do it for me. I wonder if anyone actually read the homily? I wonder if the vehement positions were founded on snippets and headlines or the actual homily?
Another example was the Cardinal Francis Arinze story in which many bloggers took the headlines and interpretations of his speech rather than the actual speech when forming their opinions and dashing them off into blogland (Here’s my post on that). And I could list many more examples where bloggers grabbed the edge of a story and tore it loose from its core facts. Many bloggers, and some like The Corner have thousands of readers, took these and other stories and ran with them, either agreeing or disagreeing with an assessment that was provided to them by headlines or blurbs. Is this really how we want to move through issues and find common ground?
The “screed” blogs provide a great service by taking the daily pulse of an issue and offering insight. I just wish they would demonstrate the concern for accuracy and the whole truth that their readers expect and the subjects of their blog praise or wrath deserve. We want an accumulation of solid judgments based on sound facts in a blog, not loose opinions based on fragments and hearsay. We want screed not scree. (Now THAT would be a great way to divide links to blogs!)
Thursday, April 25, 2002
BECAUSE HE CAN'T KEEP HIS BIG MOUTH SHUT
If you haven’t seen Mark Shea’s excellent new blog you should check it out. Man, he can crank it out! Sure the column is narrow, but by 10:40 this morning, he already had three feet of posting for today! And it’s pretty good posting at that. Plus, he recently gave high marks to the Catherine of Siena Institute, whose programs I’m familiar with and like very much. And his recent “Sure Glad I’m Not Old” is very funny.
“AS A FACT, THERE IS NO SHRED OF EVIDENCE TO SHOW THAT THOSE WHO HAVE HAD SAD EXPERIENCES TEND TO HAVE A SAD PHILOSOPHY.”
Today's entry at GKC's blog has some sober words for a sad world.
Wednesday, April 24, 2002
WERE “YOU” ONCE A SINGLE CELL?
Here’s Ramesh Ponnuru’s take on the Krauthammer article I mention below. He makes a good point I missed:
His language doesn't even make sense: He starts the piece by saying, "You were once a single cell." On his account of the matter, that can't be true: "I" only came to be as a person after the single-cell stage of biological development, and thus I never was a single cell.Perhaps Ponnuru leans too hard on Krauthammer’s diction and equivocal use of “you,” but his point is valid.
METAPHYSICS AND THE SECULAR STRAIGHTJACKET
Thanks to Sursum Corda for linking to this fine article by Charles Krauthammer on cloning. Krauthammer is striving for a “secular argument” and he does a great job presenting the issue and his concerns persuasively. But, excellent as it is, I think he concedes too much ground at times. For example, he writes,
For some people, life begins at conception. And not just life--if life is understood to mean a biologically functioning organism, even a single cell is obviously alive--but personhood. If the first zygotic cell is owed all the legal and moral respect due a person, then there is nothing to talk about. Ensoulment starts with Day One and Cell One, and the idea of taking that cell or its successor cells apart to serve someone else's needs is abhorrent.He then explains that,
This is an argument of great moral force but little intellectual interest. Not because it may not be right. But because it is unprovable. It rests on metaphysics. Either you believe it or you don't. The discussion ends there.“Little intellectual interest”?! On the contrary, it is an issue with lots of intellectual handholds. For example, metaphysics, unless you mean that section in the New Age bookstore, is an intellectual pursuit, in fact, it’s the most intellectual pursuit because it’s the study of “being as being,” which is to say it’s the study of existence, of be-ing, in terms of, well, in terms of its existence. From the Pre-Socratics to Heidegger, metaphysics has been of great intellectual interest to many great minds. The concept of “ensoulment” is, again, of great intellectual interest. The principle of life, that which makes something “alive,” can be discussed with reason and without introducing “belief.” The field is called philosophical anthropology or rational psychology and folks from many different religious backgrounds – or complete agnostics – can come to intellectual agreement on many aspects of the soul.
My point? In a debate with so much at stake, let’s keep all of our intellectual tools handy.
Finally, when Krauthammer states,
We could never construct ex nihilo a human embryo. It is an unfolding organism of unimaginable complexity that took nature three billion years to produce. It might take us less time to build it from scratch, but not much less. By that time, we as a species might have acquired enough wisdom to use it wisely.I wonder if he realizes that he’s not using the term ex nihilo consistently (or perhaps I’ve missed his rhetorical point here?). He’s right to say “We could never construct ex nihilo a human embryo,” but then he says, “It might take us less time to build it from scratch, but not much less.” To say something is created ex nihilo means that we can’t in principle “make” such a thing ourselves, we would have to be infinitely powerful to bring into being (there’s that metaphysics again!) something from nothing; in other words, we would have to be God. I pick at this because I think this is a crucial piece of the cloning debate that isn’t mentioned enough – but more on that in another post.
I realize that “any jackass can kick down a barn” and that building one is much more difficult. I don’t mean to imply that Krauthammer’s article is not excellent; it is and you should read it. I’m just concerned that there are points he is not taking far enough even in the seeming straightjacket of a “secular argument.”
HANGING OUT WITH KIDS
This is a nice post on seeing things again for the first time; here's an excerpt:
Hanging out with kids can be a real philosophy class. The conceptual architecture we use to structure our experience is so second nature to us we forget that it is second nature. We weren't born with it; we had to learn it. Sometimes, when you're talking with a child, you get a glimpse of what the world looks like when parts of that interpretive edifice are still missing or under construction. And then you realize, and appreciate, what an absolutely amazing achievement everyday, humdrum rationality really is.
LOVE, AND DO WHAT YOU WILL
Don't miss this thoughtful post at "Fool's Folly" today. "Fr. John Doe's" homily reminded me of Augustine's profound, though often misunderstood, words, "Love, and do what you will."
Tuesday, April 23, 2002
LINKING AND THINKING
There's probably some truth to the notion that the medium in which you express yourself will inevitably shape the content of your expression (let's hope not the content of your character!). Writing thoughts down unpacks them in a way that's different from speaking those thoughts to another or just rolling them around in your head. Writing them in the medium of a blog is a new experience for many of us, and I wonder if it's shaping the content of expression in novel ways? I wonder if it might be contributing to some of the hasty "linking" of effects to their apparent causes in current events?
If you've seen some of the articles on the blogging phenomenon, you'll have come across a description of the duality that is at the heart of blogging: there are "linkers," and there are "thinkers." Linkers provide a portal of links to the news, interesting pages, and other blogs (e.g. Instapundit). Thinkers provide pithy quips or reams of text on an issue, a public event, or an experience they've had (e.g. Andrew Sullivan). With "Minute Particulars," I've tried, like many (see the "Il Miglior Fabbro" links above right), to find a mean between these, a nice balance of interesting "links" mixed in with some "thinks."
But I'm wondering if the propensity to "link" things has shaped the ideas expressed in many blogs regarding the Church scandal. Many are "linking" the sexual abuse of children, adolescents, or adults by Roman Catholic priests with -- and take your pick here -- celibacy, failure in implementing Vatican II, success in implementing Vatican II, the lack of women priests, a suffering pope, poor leadership, poor administration, poor . . . and on and on. In other words, "the past 40 years" have led us to the current crisis.
Now, here's my problem with that kind of linkage. Sexually abusing children, adolescents, or adults is something that can only be described as evil, as deeply sinful, as morally reprehensible, and as a serious crime. What has occurred to the victims is horrific and nearly unbearable to consider. The predatory priests acted with full knowledge of what they were doing and did so because . . . well because they are human beings with free will who are capable of evil, of sin, of gravely harming others. I’m not sure how else anyone can answer the “Why would someone do such a thing?” question. So, linking these dark deeds to misplaced ideas and actions in liturgy, religious education, homilies, retreats, or a "Lavender Mafia," or an interpretation of Church doctrine, or any nonsense of the past 40 years, no matter how ridiculous the antics and how unthinking the goals, linking these to the abuse these priests wreaked just doesn’t work. Worse, it does the one thing we don’t want: it attenuates the evil at the source of the scandal, the evil that these men inflicted on their victims.
You might scream, "It's the Cover Up, stupid! That's what's so disturbing!" But the bishops’ actions, moving these predators around, hiding the facts, and exhibiting, it seems, outright contempt for their flock, while they might seem tangled up in "40 years" of selfishness, or disregard of the Gospel, or peculiar interpretations of Church teaching, or just plain failure to be a good and faithful bishop, are simply not the result of "40 years" of anything. That’s a meaningless abstraction when applied to the concrete action they’re accused of. Their actions are either evil and depict sheer disregard for the well-being of the victims and future victims, or their actions are the result of culpable stupidity and a tragic failure to grasp the gravity of events. If any bishop is guilty of aiding and abetting sexual predators, it is not because he has slipped down the slope of Liberal, Progressive, or Conservative agendas; it's because he has committed a serious personal sin of commission or omission toward those individuals he is responsible for.
Sexually abusing children, adolescents, or adults is an act that has no simple cause. Like any personal evil act where we intentionally and willingly inflict grave harm on another, such acts are complex, morphed by the specifics of each situation, and, finally, a mystery. We hold each other culpable for such sins against another because these acts are freely chosen. Personal responsibility is meaningless apart from this solid fact.
When the pope spoke of the "mystery of evil," he meant it. No matter what our politics, our religion, our sense of our own righteousness, because we are free, because we are fallen, there will always be temptation and sin. Yes virtue is a habit. Yes there are propensities and inclinations and situations that influence behavior. Of course. But acts which are so harmful and smite innocence so thoroughly, acts which most of us would cringe at, are the result of forces we'll never fully comprehend. Yes we protect ourselves and our loved ones. Yes we imprison those who do such things. But we do this because it's all we know how to do in response. If we really understood evil, if we really understood how a creature can turn from God, the source of all goodness and truth and beauty, the Creator, then perhaps we'd respond differently.
James Lileks (The Bleat) makes good points that might describe protests from Right to Left:
Many of the people at the rally are just kids, and they have no idea what they’re talking about. It’s fun to go to Washington and chant. It’s fun to burn a flag, and it shows what a serious person you are. Serious, and brave! (Note how you never find one chap burning a flag outside a VFW hall; it’s the sort of thing you do only when you have police protection.) On one hand, they’re just silly - one story I read described how the same crowd that held up anti-Starbucks banners later queued up 20 deep to use the bathrooms of - you guessed it! Starbucks. (The Man didn’t provide a row of portable toilets for the demonstration, which just shows you how screwed up the system is.) But when the standard, predictable rebellion of pampered college youths becomes compatible with a group that doesn’t just want American changed but wants America dead, then we have a problem.I used to think I had to be pretty wizened and sage to use the phrase "they're just kids," always a rhetorical showstopper. But now that I have a "kid," even though he's just four months old, I wonder if I can start tossing that in every once in a while (the phrase, not the kid!)?
Monday, April 22, 2002
SEAMUS, RENÉ, WHO’S NEXT?
Don’t miss your daily . . . er . . . quotidian dose of the new Quotidian Quotes. These daily quotes with random relevance come from a five-inch stack of index cards I have. I scrawled them down over the years whenever I ran across a nice phrase, a profound maxim, or a funny line from sources that range from books to bumper stickers. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.
A PROBLEM OF CHASTITY
Rod Dreher makes an excellent point about the cause of the current sexual-abuse scandal, but unfortunately his point is couched in statements that are specious. The smart point is this:
. . . it defies common sense to imagine that an ordinary man, having made a vow not to marry, is therefore going to be sexually attracted to boys. Indeed, suppose the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s had admitted married men to the ranks of the Catholic priesthood: Would a single adolescent boy molested over the past 40 years have escaped his fate? Similarly, if women had been ordained, would that somehow have made sexually predatory . . . priests disappear?But notice I had to elide his statement to keep it “smart.” The full phrase was “sexually predatory gay priests,” which I think is not so smart a statement. He’s right that celibacy or the lack of women priests is not the reason some priests have sexually abused children, adolescents, or adults. But why is it so important for him to insert “gay” in the phrase “sexually predatory gay priests”? Would a sexually predatory heterosexual priest somehow be more acceptable? The problem is about “unchaste or criminal” priests “in the Catholic priesthood.” So why can’t he say that rather than “unchaste or criminal homosexuals in the Catholic priesthood”? I think it’s because he’s fallen into the trap of slinging an agenda over his shoulder and hauling it into the debate about the malfeasance, the criminal malfeasance of priests. It’s something I’ve noticed lots of folks doing (I hope to address this in a future entry). Regardless of how you might feel about that tricky adjective “homosexual” when it’s placed in front of “person,” or “woman,” or “man,” or “priest,” it only obfuscates. The word no longer points to anything with a stable meaning in debate. Qualifying “unchaste or criminal” priests with the terms “gay” or “homosexual” only succeeds in exploding your point into splinters of meaning that rarely coalesce into anything common or useful for discourse. The present scandal is not a “homosexual” issue: it’s an issue of unchaste and criminal acts by Roman Catholic priests; it’s an issue of criminal negligence; it’s an issue of abuse of authority; it’s an issue of unclear guidelines and failure to address what most people would consider shocking behavior. But it is not an issue about “homosexual priests,” whatever that might mean. The moment it’s made a “gay” issue is the moment the real seriousness of the crimes committed and the unchaste behavior of the priests involved get diluted in the sea of statistics, politics, and pseudo-convictions.
What would be a good adjective to use? How about “unchaste?” The word “chaste” comes from the Latin adjective castus, which means “pure,” especially in the sense of “morally pure.” Isn’t that what the issue is here? Isn’t it the impure actions, not inclinations, intentions, temptations, but impure actions of priests that are the issue here?
Saturday, April 20, 2002
"THEY WERE CONFUSED BY MY EXCELLENCE."
This entry by Rod Dreher on The Corner was quite funny. I read A Confederacy of Dunces a long time ago and I had forgotten this great line. Here’s a little more about the novel and the Forward to it by Walker Percy.
THE METAPHYSICS OF GRATITUDE
There's a nice entry in GKC's Blog today from his work on Chaucer.
Friday, April 19, 2002
A LITTLE KNOWLEDGE IS A DEPRESSING THING . . .
According to this entry on InstaPundit, “AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL is denounced as intellectually and morally vacuous in this article by Aaron Page.” InstaPundit continues with
I think Page is actually too generous. Amnesty, like any organization, wants to make a difference -- er, especially one it can point to when asking for money. Thus it tends to focus on governments that might listen, meaning that thugocracies get proportionately less attention than they deserve.
I guess there comes a time when I simply want to plop my head into my hands and sigh. I just don’t know what to believe anymore. Sure it may all be political bickering. But that an organization with such lofty goals as Amnesty International can be described as “morally vacuous” or inappropriately pandering for money makes my head spin. Is there nothing that remains above the fray of partisan prattling? Let’s say I didn’t believe this, how could I verify it? Let’s say I did, how could I ever rest easy about organizations that claim to fight the good fight?
A GREAT MAMMAL RISEN FROM THE DEEP?
Forgive me if I seem a bit obtuse about this. But I’m not sure I can square Peggy Noonan’s description of John Paul II in a past article
Mr. Wojtyla was in his late teens when the war started, and after the Nazis invaded Poland he worked manual labor, on the freezing overnight shift at a factory, outdoors, breaking and carrying rocks. He was ill fed, grew thin, suffered. He had only one pair of shoes, and they were wooden. What energy he had after work he gave to art, to help keep Polish drama alive, for he felt that art would help his nation live. He was unusually generous with others, shared what he had, was known for a particular kindness. He helped friends in the Resistance, but he did not join them. Why? Because, as he told a friend, the only resistance that would work was asking God's help. "The only thing that will be effective is prayer." So he quietly and constantly prayed, for the liberation of Poland and the end of Nazism and the safety of his jailed and abused Jewish and Christian friends.
with her current one
The pope is an old man, gravely ill, exhausted by his ascesticism. He is unable to show feeling or emotion through the Parkinsonian mask that freezes his features. When I saw him walk into a room two years ago--bent, moving slowly, his left eye drooping and rimmed red--his face seemed that of a half-submerged whale looking silently at the world, a great mammal risen from the deep.Yes, many years have passed and any description of a young, vigorous Wojtyla and the now old, ailing pope will be strikingly different, but “great mammal risen from the deep”?!. Wasn’t her point, if you look at the context of her past article, subtitled “It's easier to fight than to pray. So let's pray,” that what is called for in any grave crisis is that we dispose ourselves to prayer. Isn’t this how we can then be inclined “to do right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God” Micah 6:8? We should pray for guidance, for integrity, for pureness of heart. But prayer doesn’t absolve us from acting appropriately when appropriate; if we stay metaphorically “seated” or “kneeling” we can’t “walk humbly” with God. And so of course I don’t object to the practical things Noonan suggests. She’s probably right that the Vatican may not know the full extent of the scandal and the depth of betrayal that has occurred here in the U.S. and any manner in which this can be conveyed should be attempted. But “great mammal risen from the deep”?! This makes her rallying call for prayer seem a bit disingenuous. If the Holy Spirit guides the Church, if the pope is the Vicar of Christ, if the cardinals are bishops and therefore participate in Apostolic succession, if the Church is the “Mystical Body of Christ,” then prayer is called for and describing the pope in Melvillean terms is not.
The pope’s obvious suffering is not something that diminishes his ability to be pope; if anything he’s a man living his convictions about the dignity of every human being, including those who are “old,” “gravely ill,” and “exhausted” to use Noonan’s terms. The pain the pope is in does not deprive him of the Grace of his office. Of course it is critical that all members of the Church be heard, especially the victims of the priests. It can’t be stated strongly enough that the victims should be foremost in any response to the scandal. And changes must be made to prevent this from ever happening again. But if these important concerns obscure the true nature of the Church and the papal office in the first place, then despair – already wracking many of the victims of this scandal - will surely deepen and cover all of us in its darkness.
Wednesday, April 17, 2002
OFFERING SOME VALUABLE SUGGESTIONS
Fool’s Folly has a nice response to this article today. The response makes a point that reminded me of a comment by Melville on Emerson that Andrew Sullivan quoted a while back:
I could readily see in Emerson, notwithstanding his merit, a gaping flaw. It was the insinuation that had he lived in those days when the world was made, he might have offered some valuable suggestions.Indeed, fill “Church” in for “world” and you’ve got an apt description of a very prevalent notion that goes something like this: if only we enlightened moderns had “lived in those days” we might offer some valuable suggestions to, um . . . to whom? The Father?, the Son?, the Holy Spirit? If the Church is, as Lumen Gentium states, "a people brought into unity from the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit," it simply won’t fall into contemporary categories like “corporation,” “institution,” and the like. The Church is sui generis and resists being perfectly captured by one image or word. If you read through Lumen Gentium you’ll find many descriptions which provide us a brief and always fleeting glimpse of the mystery that is the Church. It is understandable that a non-believer would think this is gibberish. But I don’t understand comments by believers that suggest the Church is a “corporate institution” that has problems that can be handled in a very corporate manner.
Tuesday, April 16, 2002
FIRE PHASERS MR. SULU!
Bravo to Amy Welborn for an exceptional rebuttal of this broadside from the blog “USS Clueless.” Her comments were ripped out of context and exposed to a fusillade of hasty generalizations from the USS Clueless. But the USS In Between Naps prevailed. The USS Clueless will probably enter the Welbornian sector of Blog-space with greater care next time.
On a more serious note, I do think this kind of interaction is great and I hope “USS Clueless” doesn’t think I’m poking too much fun here. Blogs provide an unprecedented avenue for “walking into a room of strangers” as Amy describes it, and this is exactly the kind of dialogue we can all benefit from.
Peace to the USS Clueless and safe travels.
Evolutionist maven Ernst Mayr made a surprisingly condescending comment in this article from the NY Times. He explains:
I personally refuse to discuss evolution with any religious person, because some of my friends, my closer friends, have been very religious. They got a lot of strength and consolation from their religion. The last thing in the world I would want to do is weaken the faith of these people.Wow! How kind of him to go easy on us poor believers. In response, I’d like to point out that there is simply NO inherent contradiction between
(1) a strong conviction of reason that biological phenomena are best explained by a model where the theory of evolution is pivotal
(2) a strong conviction of faith that God exists, or has revealed Himself to the world, or is the source of dignity for every human being.
One conviction is of reason; it’s the result of empirical observation, experiment, inductive thought, and the fact that, as the geneticist Dobzhansky put it, “nothing in biology makes sense apart from evolution.” This doesn’t mean that evolution won’t in time be replaced by another more unifying theory. It simply means that this is the best we can do within the constraints of science. The other conviction is of faith; it’s situated in personal relationship, it’s the result of believing in the testimony of another person, whether that person be a friend, a loved one, an eyewitness, an apostle, or God Incarnate. Josef Pieper puts it nicely, “to believe means to participate in the knowledge of a knower.” Faith is not a substitute for science. Faith is not a substitute for reason. Faith, properly understood, is not an exclusively religious term. It’s simply the manner in which we can know something that another person reveals to us that would otherwise be hidden from us.
What sort of things would these be? Well, what we hope for, what we hold deep in our hearts, who we love, who we don’t, and so on. These are things we can’t know of another unless he or she tells us. Faith is “religious” when it involves belief in the testimony of another about religious truths and results in our participation in the “knowledge of a knower” of these truths. For Catholics this knowledge comes from Scripture, the tradition, and the Sacraments. We “participate in the knowledge of a knower” by believing what the knower tells us, the knower in this case being the believing community, the authors of scripture, and ultimately, the revelation of the Father through His Son. The mechanism of faith, belief in the testimony of another, participation in the knowledge of a knower, is not obscure or esoteric. It happens all the time in our daily contact with others even if we aren’t “religious.” It’s an act that we take for granted our whole lives. I know how old I am because I believed my parents when they told me when my birthday was. If I were less trusting I could’ve, when old enough, checked county records for my birth certificate, but that would still require that I believe the testimony of those who scrawled a name (there’s another belief!) and date on it. This may seem a silly detour and primitive way to talk about such things. But Mayr, an eminent intellect, and established and influential scientist, doesn’t see this. He assumes that folks who are “religious” treat things that can readily be known through reason as a matter of faith. Perhaps some do. But this indeed would be foolish. “A fact,” Pieper continues, “which everyone knows because it is obvious can no more be the subject of faith than a fact which no one knows – and whose existence, therefore, no one can vouch for.” Mayr’s statement, and he’s got plenty of company, fails to distinguish reason and faith by even the most elementary criteria found in everyday life. And the result is a perceived division of people into the “righteous reasonable” and the “foolish faithful,” a perception that bogs everyone down in the religion/science debate.
Monday, April 15, 2002
SUCH TINY DOTS
I came across this article in a search for more information on cloning. Look at the first few sentences:
THEY WERE SUCH TINY DOTS, YET THEY HELD SUCH immense promise. After months of trying, on October 13, 2001, we came into our laboratory at Advanced Cell Technology to see under the microscope what we’d been striving for—little balls of dividing cells not even visible to the naked eye. Insignificant as they appeared, the specks were precious because they were, to our knowledge, the first human embryos produced using the technique of nuclear transplantation, otherwise known as cloning.Very disturbing language if I’m following the science here. The tiny dots referred to are human embryos and their “immense promise” is that they will supply “human stem cells" from "blastocysts to serve as the starter stock for growing replacement nerve, muscle and other tissues that might one day be used to treat patients with a variety of diseases.” They are “precious,” not because they are human or even potentially human, but because they are a "first," an achievement of “technique" and human ingenuity. I would think this way of speaking, this language of utility applied to human embryos would, regardless of feelings on the cloning debate, trouble folks a bit.
THERAPEUTIC VS. REPRODUCTIVE
Ramesh Ponnuru notes in The Corner, that using the term “therapeutic cloning” rather than “reproductive cloning” in the current debate may be more of a rhetorical device than useful distinction. Regarding “therapeutic cloning,” he writes
It’s the same procedure as “reproductive cloning”: The only differences are what comes afterward and the intention of the cloner. People who want cloning for research and therapeutic purposes invented the phrase to make it sound as though they were talking about something completely different--a fiction that quite a bit of the blog commentary continues.It’s a little disconcerting to think that someone might have introduced the term “therapeutic cloning” to try to slip around most people’s hesitations with human cloning. But I suppose it would be naïve to think it not possible.
WELL, IF IT’S A SYMBOL, TO HELL WITH IT
Nice reflection on the Real Presence in the Eucharist at Sursum Corda today. It reminded me that Flannery O’Connor once responded to the claim that the Eucharist is a symbol by stating, “in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’” She then explained:
That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable. The Habit of Being
Instapundit, Virginia Postrel, et al. are making a puzzling “appeal to authority” by mentioning the fact that many Nobel Laureates support therapeutic cloning. I would think research scientists would generally have a vested interest in preventing any limitations on science, so I’m not sure how this helps the cause of those protesting any ban on therapeutic cloning. It’s like having cattle ranchers sign a petition to prevent a ban on beef. I guess I’m also puzzled because the issue isn’t whether or not therapeutic cloning is feasible or could be beneficial, but whether it’s ethical.
Friday, April 12, 2002
Persuasive points about therapeutic cloning on Sursum Corda yesterday. Peter is right about casting the issues in terms that excoriate the protective core we’ve hollowed (perhaps hallowed is more accurate) out to place our cherished notions. When we contemplate a well-worn, smooth, comfortable notion in a new and extreme way it can be quite jarring. These mental exercises are an effective way to get intellectual juices flowing and heat up conversations. And while taking things to their logical extremes is rhetorically useful and effective – you’ll see how effective when you read his examples – in the final analysis not many hearts will change until there’s an epiphany, a glimpse, or – dare I say it – a minute particular of lived experience that cuts us to the quick and makes us see something again for the first time. Debate is necessary. Well-crafted arguments are essential. But these typically only dispose us toward a genuine conviction of the heart, which is really the only thing that can guide us through a personal situation that has deep moral implications. Once the issues permeate our intellects and percolate through the alembic of reason and emotion, a tiny grain of something concrete in our lives is required to precipitate a solid conviction and give us the strength to stand firm.
What do I have in mind? I was blessed to be present at the birth of my son. Lots of things struck me. I don’t get queasy easily, so none of the stereotypical things occurred, I didn’t get woozy or pass out, etc. But what did occur was the following: I was sledgehammered by the realization of how totally helpless and vulnerable my little boy was as he emerged, purple and pink, wet and cold, eyes closed, arms and legs flailing, hands and toes splayed out. I had the strongest visceral need simply to hold him, to warm him, to protect him, to soothe him. It was a moment of reverence, of awe, of astounding clarity about how sacred and steeped in dignity this little human being was. And I’m sure that experience solidified many of the untested notions I have about issues that touch on the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of life. But, of course, I’m not suggesting that we all need these kinds of momentous epiphanies in order to shore up our convictions. Rather, I’m suggesting that these little moments occur daily and part of the work involved in fostering a “culture of life” is finding these tangible moments, in our own lives and in the lives of others.
NO MORE ON DOWD
I think I won’t bother responding to Maureen Dowd’s columns anymore (see my previous “Dowd’s Long-Repressed Contempt” below) “The Baby Bust” column the other day was just too much. I suspect she’s had a synaptic snap, crackle, or pop of some kind. Sure she’s trying to be cute, but taking bonobo habits as the paradigm for human society is just weird. If she’s being facetious, to what end? Does she really think that interactions between bonobos provide a model of behavior for us? ‘Nuff said, though I sure wish that newspaper real estate were better used. Addendum More Than Zerosum and Virginia Postrel were also puzzled by this Dowd piece.
Thursday, April 11, 2002
KINDNESS OR COMPASSION?
Eve Tushnet , in responding to Mark Byron, regarding the “Culture of Death,” suggests
that pretty much all of the COD trends in the US--abortion, euthanasia, embryo-destructive research and the like--are presented as expressions of compassion. I wouldn't be a good mother right now--we should end his suffering--we can save so many lives. Maybe the better distinction is death-as-argument vs. death-as-compassion? I'm not sure. But there's more going on in this country than simple individualism.I'm not sure I followed her distinction, but I do think that "compassion” needs to be nuanced more carefully in any discussion of the dignity of human life. First, “compassion” these days typically means “kindness,” and has drifted from its etymological moorings of “to suffer with.” To wish another’s suffering to end is not the same as to wish to suffer with another; both, of course, can be noble desires. But look at what C.S. Lewis says, in his The Problem of Pain, and see if you agree with me that “kindness” is really what’s going on much of the time around the issues of human life.
Kindness consents very readily to the removal of its object – we have all met people whose kindness to animals is constantly leading them to kill animals lest they should suffer. Kindness, merely as such, cares not whether its object becomes good or bad, provided only that it escapes suffering . . . . It’s for people whom we care nothing about that we demand happiness on any terms: with our friends, our lovers, our children, we are exacting and would rather see them suffer than be happy in contemptible and estranging modes. If God is Love, He is, by definition, something more than mere kindness. And it appears, from all the records, that though He has often rebuked us and condemned us, He has never regarded us with contempt. He has paid us the intolerable compliment of loving us, in the deepest, most tragic, most inexorable sense.
Wednesday, April 10, 2002
CONTEXT AND COMMON SENSE
Okay folks. Can we all take a deep breath and be a little more careful about taking a media spin as the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Cardinal Francis Arinze did NOT, as Instapundit and numerous other blogs reported, “blame the 9/11 attacks on ‘abortion, euthanasia and genetic experiments on human life itself,’ nor, as one article reported, did he suggest that “the September 11 attacks in the United States were the product of a society that engaged in abortion, euthanasia and genetic experiments on humans.” Let’s look at his actual words – actually, first look at the whole text, it’s short – and you’ll see that the critical words are these:
One of the most important human values is doubtlessly the right to life, to be protected from the moment of conception up to the moment of natural death. However, it must be considered a serious paradox that this right to life is threatened precisely by today’s highly advanced technology. Such a paradox has reached the extent of creating a “culture of death”, in which abortion, euthanasia, and genetic experiments on human life itself have already obtained or are on the way to obtaining legal recognition. How can we not make a correlation between this culture of death in which the most innocent, defenceless, and critically ill human lives are threatened with death, and terrorist attacks, such as those of 11 September, in which thousands of innocent people were slaughtered? We must say that both of these are built on contempt for human life.Am I a moron? Am I unable to parse a few simple sentences and make sense of them? Am I missing something here? Cardinal Arinze obviously means that it is the terrorists’ contempt for human life that results in terrorist attacks. Regardless of your position on abortion, euthanasia, genetic experimentation, or terrorist attacks, you simply can’t twist the Cardinal’s words into the Falwellian notion that “God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.” When Cardinal Arinze says “the most innocent, defenceless, and critically ill human lives are threatened with death,” and when he says “terrorist attacks, such as those of 11 September, in which thousands of innocent people were slaughtered,” the common word in each phrase is “innocent.”
I hope to have some "permalinks" to some of my daily stops soon. Thanks to Amy Welborn who recently included Minute Particulars on her list at In Between Naps, a wonderful Catholic weblog.
And the Word became Flesh
Nice reflection on the meaning of “Incarnate” on Sursum Corda today. The reason Revelation is considered complete in Christ is summed up by the profound phrase, “And the Word became flesh . . .” The fullness of time, the fullness of God’s revealing Himself to us, is accomplished with God becoming human. By this revelation then, the deepest truth about God and the salvation of man shines out for our sake in Christ, who is both the mediator and the fullness of all revelation. But why speak of “fullness”? I think one way to get a sense of this is to ask yourself how you “reveal” yourself to others? We can write a letter or email, we can talk on the phone, or we can speak face to face. We can remember friends fondly or spend time with them. We can hear about someone whom we don’t know from someone we do know, or we can meet the person ourselves. All of these are ways that someone might “reveal” themselves to us. Notice, though, that the “fullest” revelation occurs when we are face to face, when we can take in the words and actions of another person. The deepest relationship we can have with another is when we meet them “in the flesh.” And so, while the Tradition maintains that God could have revealed Himself in a different manner, He chose the manner that would be most fitting for human beings: becoming flesh and dwelling among us.
Tuesday, April 09, 2002
The Time Is Out of Joint
I was hoping by now to have put together a “time capsule” for Dominic: a box of stuff gathered from everyday life and sealed and stored until his 21st birthday or some such time. Anyway, the idea, of course, is that it would be interesting to have a snapshot of things like newspapers, magazines, some music CDs (though that’s risky since a CD player would be hard to find) that are around now. But maybe I’ve hesitated because all of these things could likely be found in 20 years, albeit for a price (even old websites would be available if tools like the WayBack Machine are still around). Such a time capsule would be a novelty, but that's about it. Nothing in it would really be irreplaceable, which is kind of the point of doing a time capsule; after all, it’s not a time capsule if you could, in theory, whip up its contents at anytime. A time capsule really should permit you to “travel in time,” to experience as present what is past or not yet. But, really, the only “time travel” we can accomplish is a sort of ersatz time travel, the capturing of the present for the future. Isn’t this why old photographs are so interesting? And why old newsreels hit us somewhere that movies can’t?
So, I’m now asking myself, What couldn’t be replaced in a little time capsule for my son? What will be lost forever if it’s not captured now? And I’ve realized that this time capsule project is, like most worthwhile things, going to take some effort. Because I think what I could offer him is my sense of the world he’s entered, my impressions of him as he turns his wobbly head around and takes it all in, how I feel when he smiles at me. Sure, I could try to write all that down on a card when his 21st birthday comes. But it’ll be different then. Then, my memories of now will be faded; they’ll be freighted with years of interpretation and reinterpretation, and distorted with the casting and recasting of events. On the other hand, do I really want my son to read something that will likely be bit heavy-handed, probably contrived, and certainly sentimental? That’s the risk. The work is trying to capture something authentic with such an artificial project. It’d be nice if you could simply snap a picture of such feelings and convictions and ideas. How’s that old saying go? “Writing is nature’s way of showing us how sloppy our thinking is” or something like that. Sloppy, yes. But sappy too. My maudlin, misty-eyed words would be hiding in the time capsule waiting to leap into the world 20 years from now for all to see. But I suppose it’s still worth the attempt.
Andrew Sullivan found an interesting essay by University of Chicago English professor Lisa Ruddick entitled The Flight from Knowing: Intuition and Brutality in Academic Life . It’s interesting for many reasons, but I was intrigued by the idea “that any virtue has a bad cousin.”
People can often become ethically confused because of a particular problem inherent in human dealings, namely, that any virtue has a bad cousin, a failing that closely resembles the virtue and can be mistaken for it-what in Tibetan Buddhism is called the near enemy. For example, the near enemy of equanimity is apathy; the near enemy of compassion is a patronizing pity; the near enemy of love is possessive attachment; and so on. For whatever reason, English professors of the last two decades, like the Continental theorists upon whom we draw, have picked up this knot in human affairs and unknowingly worked it in such a way as to create great confusion, a confusion that ends up undermining people's attachment to any domain of ethical being outside the profession itself.When I say intrigued, it’s not so much the theory she’s proposing, which, like most academic pieces these days is similar to a game of Jacks where you scoop up various notions in one pattern and splay them out into a new pattern, and your actions must be finished before the ball (the deadline for your next publication) lands. It’s because I enjoy new ways of describing what is timeless and what would be obvious were it not for the bombardment of theories and ideas, the verities and balderdash that we’re subjected to from all sides. A sure sign of genuine intellectual pursuit is not the desire to come up with a new theory, a wholly original approach, a novelty – these might in fact occur as byproducts; but genuine scholarship should be animated by the desire to grapple with the truth of our human condition and present it anew, in the context and language of the day. Perhaps the “bad cousin” of scholarship is the pursuit of originality rather than the uncovering of and casting new light on old truths.
Monday, April 08, 2002
Dowd’s Long-Repressed Contempt
A while ago, I ran across a witty essay by Robert Wright describing a feud he’d had with the well-known evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould:
At the risk of sounding grandiose, I hereby declare myself to be involved in a bitter feud with no less a personage than Stephen Jay Gould. It all started in 1990, when I reviewed his book Wonderful Life for the New Republic. I argued, basically, that Gould is a fraud. He has convinced the public that he is not merely a great writer, but a great theorist of evolution. Yet, among top-flight evolutionary biologists, Gould is considered a pest--not just a lightweight, but an actively muddled man who has warped the public's understanding of Darwinism.Now, the content of this feud is not as interesting as the description of the tactics, the posturing, and the “long-repressed contempt”. And it occurred to me that this is how I might respond to Maureen Dowd’s outrageous column yesterday. I’d start with, paraphrasing Wright above, “At the risk of sounding grandiose, I hereby declare myself to be involved in a bitter feud with no less a personage than Maureen Dowd.” I would do such a thing with some trepidation. After all, she’s a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and could slice me to pieces with her scathing screeds. She is funny. She is smart. And she must be fearless. But my argument would go something like this. I would claim, again paraphrasing Wright above, “basically, that Dowd is a fraud. She has convinced the public that she is not merely a great writer, but a great theorist of all that is just and good in the world. Yet, among top-flight thinkers, Dowd is considered a pest—not just a lightweight, but an actively muddled woman who has warped the public’s understanding of . . .” and here I would put “the Catholic Church in her recent columns.” Dowd, “alas, would pay me no mind. . . But, savvy alpha female that she is, she would refrain from getting into a gutter brawl with a scrawny, marginal blogger such as myself.” I would then explain that Dowd’s “long-repressed contempt” for the Catholic Church has “burst forth from the reptilian core of her brain and leapt over the fire wall in her frontal lobes, spilling out into her columns these past weeks.”
She makes no sense. Normally an astute political commentator and acerbic wit, she seems only capable of a rather unsophisticated formulation of the problems of religion in the world, specifically of the Catholic Church, that might pass for -- as Amy Welborn puts it -- an essay written by a high school student.
I suppose I’m being too hard on Dowd (though I’m sure she can handle herself!) since there is a pervasive and persistent strain of oversimplification of all things religious these days in much of the popular culture. And I suggest it’s due to an unwillingness to take human beings, human relationships, and human sinfulness seriously. A sign of this is the reaction of many to John Paul II’s mention of
“the mysterium iniquitatis.” This term was mocked by many as somehow sidestepping the current scandal. But most papers simply paraphrased the pope’s words or quoted small snippets of his letter. I don’t understand how anyone could read the following and think the pope was sidestepping the current problems:
At this time too, as priests we are personally and profoundly afflicted by the sins of some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of Ordination in succumbing even to the most grievous forms of the mysterium iniquitatis at work in the world. Grave scandal is caused, with the result that a dark shadow of suspicion is cast over all the other fine priests who perform their ministry with honesty and integrity and often with heroic self-sacrifice. As the Church shows her concern for the victims and strives to respond in truth and justice to each of these painful situations, all of us - conscious of human weakness, but trusting in the healing power of divine grace - are called to embrace the "mysterium Crucis" and to commit ourselves more fully to the search for holiness. We must beg God in his Providence to prompt a whole-hearted reawakening of those ideals of total self-giving to Christ which are the very foundation of the priestly ministry.“Mysterium iniquitatis,” “grave scandal,” “human weakness,” “power of divine grace,” “mysterium Crucis,” “a whole-hearted reawakening of those ideals of total self-giving to Christ,” you don’t run into these words very often. They’re direct and daunting. They’re serious.
When I was much younger, I thought Pascal’s famous quote,
”Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction”somehow explained a lot. I’m sure I was thinking something like, religious conviction seems to be the cause of so much evil in the world so why don’t we just get rid of religious conviction? That’s kind of how you think when you’re young. It’s how Dowd thinks these days: “Abraham was the patriarch of three great monotheisms: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. But now all of Abraham's faiths and Abraham's children are roiling.” Sure, depending on what you mean by “religious conviction,” perhaps there’s something to Pascal’s quote. But if “religious conviction” has anything to do with the mystery of who we are, of why we are, of how we are, then it’s naïve to think that such conviction is a source of evil that we could just as well do without. As the pope states above, evil is a mystery. And it’s been considered a mystery in the Tradition not because we can’t do anything about it, not because we want to play down our sinfulness and culpability; rather, it’s a mystery because it springs from that most mysterious of mysteries, the human heart. Dowd and her ilk remind me of folks who wear platitudes like Pascal’s on T-shirts and take on a tone of simple arrogance. They distance themselves from the grit of our human condition by not taking the mystery of evil seriously. What they’ll discover if they persist at it, is that they’ve distanced themselves from that which makes us who we are, our ability to choose freely, turn freely, and love freely. Dowd’s column attempts to come across as enlightened, but it has about as much insight into the Church and the human condition as Rodney King’s “Can’t we all just get along?” line: it may have been well intentioned, but it’s woefully inadequate to the stormy present.
I liked Andrew Sullivan’s “A GIDDY THING” entry today:
I know this is hardly news - but I know no better way to really absorb and appreciate Shakespeare than actually trying to act, speaking the words he wrote. With each rehearsal, you find something new. As you slowly leave the script behind and let the lines guide you forward, you find yet another - and another! - aspect of this complex, subtle human being coming into relief.I wish I had the chance to “really absorb” Shakespeare's words in the manner that acting must afford. I read Shakespeare to my son Dominic (he’s three months old) sometimes when he’s in a “quiet-alert” phase for the benefit of both of us. For me, it’s the only time I ever get to read Shakespeare aloud without anyone else cringing or laughing; for him, I hope, it’s exposure to language that’s rich and diverse. We came across this line in Sonnet 94, “They are the lords and owners of their faces” and it made me think of how a three-month old little boy is many things, but he’s certainly not the lord and owner of his face. I think his face gives his every feeling away from happiness to crankiness to gas pain to relief. It’s really funny how his face hides nothing that occurs to him. It’s been broadcasting his feelings from day one. I wonder when he’ll begin to guard some of that interior life?