Minute Particulars

"...minute and particular." -- Enormous Generalities

Friday, August 30, 2002


(image via Gerard Serafin)

The new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. John of Disputations may be right about why it looks as it does. I know there was concern about earthquakes, but is “Bunker” the only architectural style available to avoid temblor damage?



FRIDAY FUNNIES (from The Edge)

I was walking down fifth avenue today and I found a wallet. I was gonna keep it, rather than return it, but I thought, well, if I lost $150, how would I feel? And I realized I would want to be taught a lesson. - Emo Phillips

My girlfriend is weird. She asked me, "If you could know how and when you were going to die, would you want to know?" I said, "No." She said, "OK, then forget it." - Steven Wright

What a day, eh Milhouse? The sun is out, birds are singing, bees are trying to have sex with them- as is my understanding. - Bart Simpson

The most unfair thing about life is the way it ends. I think the life-cycle is all backwards. You should die first and get it all over with. Then you live in an old age home. You get kicked out when you're too young. You get a gold watch. You go to work. You work 40 years until you're young enough to enjoy your retirement. You do drugs, alcohol and party. You get ready for high school. You go to grade school and become a kid. You play. You have no responsibilities. You become a little baby and go back into the womb. You spend your last nine months floating. - George Carlin




The Good Captain of the USS Clueless, Steven Den Beste, (link via Dave Trowbridge) has a long post on treasuring your past but not letting it confine your future:
Your future is not dictated by your past. Your future is not dictated by what has happened to others who look like you, or by what those others think now. You share much with them, and that is a gift. But don't let it be a shackle. Knowledge of the past and present will help explain the burdens you bear and the many barriers that stand in your way, but with understanding comes new power to shed the burdens and surmount those barriers.

You are free. You live in a free nation. You don't have to become what someone else tells you to become, whether that someone is a white bigot or a black activist, or just the person living next door, or even your parents. You can make your own decisions. You can become what you want. It may be harder for you to pursue some paths than it might be for others from other backgrounds, but with that comes greater satisfaction when you win anyway, and everyone who surmounts a barrier also helps to tear that barrier down.
Being your own person and making your own choices isn't treason to your heritage. It's a fulfillment of it.
I want to be careful here. I know many think the post is very good and even profound. I don’t know Steven personally and I’m not suggesting he necessarily implies what follows; but this is what I came away with.

The post, frankly, struck me as a bit, well, jejune and thin on substance. Now right away you might ask, If you think it’s lacking in wisdom then why the heck would you even link to it? Just to criticize it with negative adjectives? No, or at least that’s not what I intend. Rather, and this is obviously just my personal opinion, I find this kind of stuff a bit insidious because I think it’s built on sand and lures many to its sandy shores. I use the strong word “insidious” advisedly, recognizing what it denotes and connotes, because I speak from experience. I’ve kind of “been there, done that.”

There was a time when I was awfully intrigued by the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps philosophy portrayed here. I was young. The notion that we are radically free and that any meaning in our lives comes from what we make of ourselves seemed terribly romantic and made me bristle with excitement about all of the possibilities. “I can do anything I set my mind and heart on.” “I can chisel meaning into the black wall of absurdity and meaninglessness.” “I am whatever I make of myself.” Like I said, I was young.

I eventually learned that such an approach will always disappoint in the end. It will disappoint because it can really only be embraced within a very narrow comfort zone, though one could dwell in that comfort zone for a long time. Generally, advocates of this kind of philosophy of life are comfortable: not in the superficial sense of having money, though that helps, but in the sense that no serious angst ever gnaws at them, no stomach acid about health, loved ones, or happiness. But the moment anyone is physically or mentally incapacitated, maybe from a car accident or a bad roll of the genetic dice, the moment anyone loses a loved one, the moment anyone experiences soul-shattering despair or encounters real evil in the world, in that moment this approach has nothing to offer. Then it’s seen for what it really is, a collection of platitudes that might remind one of the “Good Ol’ Days” when he or she had youth and health and energy and not a care in the world.

Now it’s not a requirement that someone’s approach to life should be accessible or applicable to all; but it does seem to diminish the objectivity of the approach or at least its resonance with the human condition. The problem with advocating that everyone should strive to become what they want is that it treats life like a fairytale. I don’t mean the silly examples like “I’d like to have the athletic abilities of Michael Jordan” though this is obliquely relevant. No, I mean someone, for example, who was born into poverty surely wants to be a person who is not impoverished, yet often this is just not possible. Someone who has terminal cancer probably wants to be a person without cancer, yet often this is just not possible. Someone in prison probably wants to be a person not in prison, yet this may never happen. Someone who suffers from depression probably wants to be a person free from such an ailment, yet often this is simply not going to occur. Someone who has been a victim of violent crime and is incapacitated for life probably wants to be a person who is whole again, and yet this, again, is often not possible.

The problem with such breezy notions of freedom (“You are free. You live in a free nation”), the problem with such simplistic approaches to the human condition (“Your future is not dictated by what has happened to others who look like you, or by what those others think now. You share much with them, and that is a gift. But don't let it be a shackle.”), is that it’s demeaning to those who are poor, sick, hungry, alone, depressed, mentally ill, oppressed, abused or just plain less fortunate than those who espouse such philosophies of self-reliance. The inevitable conclusion is that everyone should be able to dig themselves out of any situation they find themselves in. Ironically, since Den Beste’s post discussed the evils of bigotry, this kind of thinking likely contributes to such bigotry because it implies that anyone in poverty, sickness, or other misfortune ought to be able to lift themselves out of it; and if they don’t it must be because they’re lazy or evil or some other epithet.

When Christ said "Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners," he was, I think it’s safe to say, being ironic and addressing the fact that apart from God’s grace we’re all impoverished in some way and to think otherwise is a sin of pride. Advocating this pure self-reliance in light of mysteries like human freedom and the human condition in general is a kind of “righteousness” that might seems harmless enough. But it surely doesn’t encourage compassion or empathy for those in unfortunate predicaments. And, I think it’s not a genuine response to our condition.

Such condescension toward those whose life is not brimming with wondrous opportunities always smacks of a kind of forgetting: forgetting that you did not cause your existence; forgetting that your very existence is a gift; forgetting that human freedom is not your ability to do whatever you want, but the gift of having an intellect which can judge on a means to an end; forgetting that the end we’re all made for is the goodness of God, not our own little notions of what might be best; forgetting that living according to God’s will for us is not tyranny, but genuine freedom because it is only then that we are most ourselves. It’s a forgetting that is rooted in a lack of gratitude, a dismissal of the “substance of gratitude” that Chesterton mentions here:
There is at the back of all our lives an abyss of light, more blinding and unfathomable than any abyss of darkness; and it is the abyss of actuality, of existence, of the fact that things truly are, and that we ourselves are incredibly and sometimes almost incredulously real. It is the fundamental fact of being, as against not being; it is unthinkable, yet we cannot unthink it, though we may sometimes be unthinking about it; unthinking and especially unthanking. For he who has realized this reality knows that it does outweigh, literally to infinity, all lesser regrets or arguments for negation, and that under all our grumblings there is a subconscious substance of gratitude.
I guess, finally, this kind of approach to things is a sort of fair-weather philosophy that addresses a small sliver of the depth and mystery of human nature and the predicaments we find ourselves in. It will eventually disappoint.


Thursday, August 29, 2002


Tim Drake muses about a new blogging protocol:
“I feel that it is time to establish a new blogging protocol so that no blog may be posted before its time.
Nota Bene has some nice insights on this as well. If this kind of thing interests you, you might want to look over Rebecca Blood’s post on weblog ethics.

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.

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.

The “screed” blogs provide a great service by taking the daily pulse of an issue and offering insight. But speed shouldn’t eliminate the concern for accuracy and the whole truth. Such blogs should be an accumulation of solid judgments based on sound facts, not loose opinions based on fragments and hearsay. Folks want screed not scree.




Mark Shea has a nice post on the difference between asking “why” God chose to do things a certain way versus “that” God did them:
Instead, I'm going to point out something else. Folks trying to deal with some point of revelation need to remember that theories about *why* God chose to do X and not Y are different than the revelation that God has, in fact, done X and not Y. C.S. Lewis referred to this in Mere Christianity when he spoke of vitamin theories. He said that people ate their dinners for centuries without ever knowing what vitamins were. They just ate and felt better. Then somebody came up with vitamin theories to explain why dinners make you feel better when you are hungry. If, tomorrow, somebody proves that vitamins don't exist, people will go on eating their dinners and feeling better.
Indeed. When we speculate on why God has done things a certain way, why create us, why reveal Himself to us, why become a human being, why the Immaculate Conception, and Assumption, and Ascension, and Resurrection and . . . you get the picture, when we speculate on such things, we should always, and this, I think was Mark’s point, keep in mind that
Admittedly, in speaking about God like this, our language is using human modes of expression; nevertheless it really does attain to God himself, though unable to express him in his infinite simplicity. Likewise, we must recall that "between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude";and that "concerning God, we cannot grasp what he is, but only what he is not, and how other beings stand in relation to him."*
Still, this doesn’t mean we must be silent on the matter or that we can’t glean the “fittingness” of some of these notions. There are two aspects of God’s actions we might want to keep in mind when asking “Why?”:
- What is possible for God to do
- The fittingness of anything God does
One way to examine what is possible for God to do is to ask what is impossible for Him to do. Even then, we could really only answer the speculative form of the question, the question about what is theoretically impossible for God to do. Answering this involves speculation about the intrinsic or logical possibility of things, which we can only know abstractly from first principles. So, we can say with certainty that God cannot create a square circle because it would require that something be (“square”) and not be (“not square” or “circle”) at the same time in the same respect. In fact, such a thing can’t even be thought since you can’t think of a square and not think of a square at the same time in the same respect. Inquiring about physical possibility, like whether God could make a “gold mountain” or a “unicorn” can be fun, but we can never arrive at any conclusion with the certainty of the “square-circle” example. It seems God could do such things, but unless we’ve actually seen a real “gold mountain” or “unicorn” we can’t say for sure.

This last point might seem a little counterintuitive until you realize that we really know very little about what makes something a certain kind of thing. Take the unicorn. It seems that a horse with a horn should be pretty easy for God to whip up. But this assumes that such a creature could exist in this universe, the universe as made. And because we don’t know this universe at its most fundamental level, at the level in which one would know all there is to know about it (i.e. God’s knowledge of it) we can’t speculate about what other kinds of things could exist unless we have empirical evidence for them, unless we actually encounter them ourselves or perhaps with tools which enhance our senses (telescopes, microscopes, etc.).

Again keeping in mind that “between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude” – which is about as stern a caveat as you can encounter in this kind of speculation – there are some things we can know about what is traditionally called the “fittingness” of what God does. Obviously this “fittingness” is from our perspective; after all, everything God does is “fitting” since He is all good and all powerful.

So, what can we say about the fittingness of a central mystery like the Incarnation. That God would become human and dwell among us is an event that will forever escape our complete understanding. But that it was fitting for God to become human seems to be a statement we can utter, perhaps feebly, as we grope in the dark. After all, the most profound manner in which we can receive the revelation of another person is in personal relationship to that person. God’s becoming a human being and dwelling among us was appropriate because we are human beings. And what do we glean from this? Well, it says something rather remarkable about the human being. We are creatures whom God has not only made, but become. Our human nature, our flesh and bones, our senses and intellect, all were deemed “fitting” for God to become. That in itself is an amazing revelation.

What about the fittingness of Christ’s crucifixion, death, and resurrection? Again, here is a mystery that slips from any solid understanding. But if God meant to speak to everyone of us whatever our state, to experience all that we could experience and more, then it seems that his undergoing suffering and death was necessary for us to ever see him in our own suffering, in the depths even of despair.

I have a friend who knew someone inflicted with a painful and debilitating ailment that kept him in pain, in bed, and in depression nearly all of his life. He once said something that struck my friend as both blasphemous and somehow right all at the same time. The suffering man, when discussing the crucifixion of Christ, said, “He better have suffered.” Startling. But the point was that his own suffering and despair were such that if Christ had not endured such a thing Christ would not have been able to reach this man in the depths of his misery. I don’t know . . . that just seems to make sense even though I’d probably not want to put it quite that way.

French Dominican Fr. Jean Corbon, whom I’ve quoted before, makes the point nicely when he asks:
What then, does it mean to say that our God saves human beings? Does it mean that he gives them a course in theology? That he gives them a moral law, or even that he gives them the commandment of love? That he lets them know in the smallest detail the kind of worship agreeable to their creator? That he reveals to them that God is a Father, and kind and merciful? But then what? -- Even after all this the basic question that holds the human being in its grip and has found no real answer--still remains. I exist, but I exist for death at every moment and in the final moment. Of what use to me are models of morality and fine promises of life as long as the root of death has not been pulled up. This is the only really important question. Everything else is just a passing episode and a distraction . . . . If the coming of God into a human person did not reach to these depths we would be left with the failure found in all the religions and ideologies: being unable to do away with death, they simply suggest that we not think of it anymore.


Wednesday, August 28, 2002


You won’t get a crisper statement of the relationship between science and theology than this from Providentissimus Deus (link via Old Oligarch), an encyclical written in 1893:
There can never, indeed, be any real discrepancy between the theologian and the physicist, as long as each confines himself within his own lines, and both are careful, as St. Augustine warns us, "not to make rash assertions, or to assert what is not known as known." If dissension should arise between them, here is the rule also laid down by St. Augustine, for the theologian: "Whatever they can really demonstrate to be true of physical nature, we must show to be capable of reconciliation with our Scriptures; and whatever they assert in their treatises which is contrary to these Scriptures of ours, that is to Catholic faith, we must either prove it as well as we can to be entirely false, or at all events we must, without the smallest hesitation, believe it to be so." To understand how just is the rule here formulated we must remember, first, that the sacred writers, or to speak more accurately, the Holy Ghost "Who spoke by them, did not intend to teach men these things (that is to say, the essential nature of the things of the visible universe), things in no way profitable unto salvation." Hence they did not seek to penetrate the secrets of nature, but rather described and dealt with things in more or less figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time, and which in many instances are in daily use at this day, even by the most eminent men of science. Ordinary speech primarily and properly describes what comes under the senses; and somewhat in the same way the sacred writers-as the Angelic Doctor also reminds us - `went by what sensibly appeared," or put down what God, speaking to men, signified, in the way men could understand and were accustomed to.



HMM . . . A SMARTER ANDREW SULLIVAN (link via The Rittenhouse Review)

I suppose I’ll know I’ve made it when there’s a “Smarter Minute Particulars” blog. Some might claim that’s not hard to do. (Uh, here was my reply to that link in case you found yourself nodding your head in agreement).




Words, profound but so often misunderstood, for the Feast of St. Augustine today:
dilige, et quod uis fac: siue taceas, dilectione taceas; siue clames, dilectione clames; siue emendes, dilectione emendes; siue parcas, dilectione parcas: radix sit intus dilectionis, non potest de ista radice nisi bonum existere.
[Love, and do what you will. If you are silent, do it out of love. If you cry out, do it out of love. If you correct, do it out of love. If you show mercy, do it out of love. Let the root of love be within. From this root nothing can come but good.] *
Oh, and don’t forget the St. Augustine quote that inevitably ends up on T-shirts at college campuses that offer Latin:
da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo [Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.] *


Tuesday, August 27, 2002


From Sunday’s Gospel
He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"
Simon Peter said in reply,
"You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
Jesus said to him in reply,
"Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.
Our priest, in his homily, paraphrased the question as “Who do you think that I am?” Harmless enough given his point, but it got me thinking about the difference between asking:
“But who do you say that I am?”
“But who do you think that I am?”
What we “think” and what we “say” are often quite different. In fact, the distance between what we think what we say can be a kind of loose measure of civility. The little fibs we tell are often done to be polite. When someone whom you find really difficult to be around says, “We’ll have to get together again soon,” do you say “I’d rather stick needles into my eyes” or “Yeah, I’ll give you a call next week”?

And yet, I once heard someone say that holy people are different from you and me, or maybe just me, because there's very little difference between what they think and what they say. There’s probably something to this and it’s probably related to the fact that many holy men and women have been persecuted. I’m not suggesting we should all “say” what we really “think” to the obnoxious person we work with, the nosy neighbor, or the unbearable relative we must endure. But where does one draw the line? When, if ever, should what we think match what we say?

Last week I read one of the most interesting articles that I’ve seen in the New Yorker in quite some time. The article, The Naked Face by Malcolm Gladwell, explores the science of facial expression. Here’s an excerpt:
All of us, a thousand times a day, read faces. When someone says "I love you," we look into that person's eyes to judge his or her sincerity. When we meet someone new, we often pick up on subtle signals, so that, even though he or she may have talked in a normal and friendly manner, afterward we say, "I don't think he liked me," or "I don't think she's very happy." We easily parse complex distinctions in facial expression. If you saw me grinning, for example, with my eyes twinkling, you'd say I was amused. But that's not the only way we interpret a smile. If you saw me nod and smile exaggeratedly, with the corners of my lips tightened, you would take it that I had been teased and was responding sarcastically. If I made eye contact with someone, gave a small smile and then looked down and averted my gaze, you would think I was flirting. If I followed a remark with an abrupt smile and then nodded, or tilted my head sideways, you might conclude that I had just said something a little harsh, and wanted to take the edge off it. You wouldn't need to hear anything I was saying in order to reach these conclusions. The face is such an extraordinarily efficient instrument of communication that there must be rules that govern the way we interpret facial expressions. But what are those rules? And are they the same for everyone?
It seems there are rules and they are instinctively the same for everyone. And some folks are better, a lot better, at reading faces than others. After years of meticulous research, psychologist Paul Ekman and his colleagues have come up with a way of documenting all possible facial expressions and even claim that the science of reading faces can be learned:
[It] takes weeks to master in its entirety, and only five hundred people around the world have been certified to use it in research. But for those who have, the experience of looking at others is forever changed. They learn to read the face the way that people like John Yarbrough did intuitively. Ekman compares it to the way you start to hear a symphony once you've been trained to read music: an experience that used to wash over you becomes particularized and nuanced.
The idea that our interior life is expressed in our facial expressions is nothing new or startling. But that there are people who either intuitively or through training can learn how to watch for and interpret our expressions is intriguing. And that such facial expressions are initially and momentarily out of our control, flashing across our face before we can override them with something more polite or artificial, is really intriguing. We get away with it for the most part because, according to the article, "We are such creatures of language that what we hear takes precedence over what is supposed to be our primary channel of communication, the visual channel."

Upon reflection, though, this all kind of makes sense. If we really are incarnate beings, then the divide between our interior life and exterior countenance is something artificial and not natural to us. Our condition is such that everything we do is an expression of us. This is why the common notion that human beings are souls in a body crumbles under close scrutiny. We are our bodies, though we are not just a body. This is also why words and actions, language and gestures, the fullness of human expression, are so important in the Catholic Tradition.

In the Gospels, it’s not just the words of Christ, but his words and actions that are important. In the Sacraments, it’s not just the words uttered by the minister of the sacrament, but the actions as well that are important.

Perhaps it’s just a glitch in the translation or an idiom being used, but I wonder if Christ’s question to Peter was meant to elicit the fullness of human expression from Peter. Not what he mused about who Christ was, but what he was willing to face his Lord and say. I wonder if such a question suggests Peter’s betrayal and later repentance? In the end, Peter emerges as a formidable person, a holy man who seemed to have little need to maintain any distance between what he thought and what he said.


Sunday, August 25, 2002


Okay, unlike the apocryphal tombstone ATM of Mr. Grover Chestnut, this seems to be for real (snopes.com is on the case, however):
What is a LifeGem?

A LifeGem is a certified, high quality diamond created from the carbon of your loved one as a memorial to their unique and wonderful life.

The LifeGem diamond is more than a memorial to visit on the weekends or place on a shelf… it is a way to embrace your loved one's memory day by day. The LifeGem is the most unique and timeless memorial available for creating a testimony to their unique life.

We hope and believe that your LifeGem memorial will offer comfort and support when and where you need it, and provide a lasting memory that endures just as a diamond does. Forever.

(link via Cruel Site of the Day)




I’m considering using Movable Type for this blog for added flexibility. That means looking into a different hosting arrangement as well. I’d be grateful for any suggestions from Movable Type users or anyone really happy with their hosting plan.



Interesting article about blogs in Newsweek. The article mentions Rebecca Blood, author of The Weblog Handbook, whose blog is Rebecca’s Pocket; I clicked over to take a look thinking that anyone who writes a book on weblogs will probably have a pretty interesting blog. She does and it is.


Friday, August 23, 2002


A security heavyweight has some concrete suggestions (link via Blogs4God).




Justin Katz has this response to Jody’s post on atheism over at Naked Writing. I think one key misunderstanding between those who claim to “believe” and those who don’t is the simple matter of what the term “believe” means, at least in the Catholic Tradition. That was the point of my recent “FAITH AND HORSE RACES” post, if you’re interested. I think Justin would disagree, but I’ve found Jody to be, um, of good faith when we’ve had discussions via blog posts or emails. I tend to think we talk past each other on many points, but he always links to my posts when he mentions them, as I do his, and so folks are always free to click on over and decide for themselves.




I ran across this post on an interesting blog called Max Speak (link via this post over on Shadow of the Hegemon). Here’s the part that caught my eye:
Which brings us to the conservative narrative of moral equivalence. Often a radical's response to the allegation of a crime by someone deemed unsavory is to respond with some parallel deed for which the U.S. government bears responsibility. Conservatives say this is an error of moral equivalence because the USG are the good guys and the other guys are not. It is wrong to evaluate actors in light of actions because the actors are fundamentally different.

The logic here is precisely backwards, albeit ingenious. Ordinarily we would infer morality from actions. If two parties each commit murder, they are equally wrong. The moral equivalence narrative says we must begin with the implicit assumption that the USG represents the greater good, hence one may not evaluate our enemies by the same standards by which we evaluate ourselves. If we each commit murder, the USG murder deserves at least the benefit of the doubt, if not automatic approval. If the U.S. indulges the use of WMD by Saddam Hussein, our motives are honorable while his are despicable (my emphasis).
The sentences in bold are what I wanted to unpack a bit.

In traditional moral philosophy the morality of an action is governed by three things:
the nature of the act
the intention of the one acting
the circumstances of the action
The nature of the act or its “form” is the action and its natural end apart from any consideration of who is acting, what he or she intends, and the circumstances of the action. This is what Max Speak focuses on and, in the case of murder, it pretty much covers the morality of the act if we assume that “murder” is not used equivocally when applied to the “two parties” being compared. So, in both cases, murder must refer to the act of killing an innocent human being. Still, watch how things can creep in that require further distinction of the intention of the one acting and the circumstances of the action.

Let’s say I’m hunting; I shoot at a deer, miss, and hit a person whom I did not see. Compare this with a cold-blooded, first-degree murder and you’ll see that the intention of the one acting needs to be considered. And of course our laws account for this when they distinguish manslaughter from first-degree murder.

Notice that it’s the further distinctions of intention and circumstance that contribute not only to justice, but to much heated controversy. They contribute to justice by insuring that someone who kills an innocent human being by accident will not be punished to the extent that someone who commits premeditated murder will be. And this is reasonable. But allowing these distinctions introduces a whole new set of considerations that muddy the waters in issues ranging from the extremes of terrorism – where you’d think there’d be very little wiggle room until you read Sontag or Chomsky – to issues like research cloning, the death penalty, abortion, euthanasia, military intervention, etc.

I suppose it’s nice to realize that we get into heated debates on these issues in part because we’re interpreting moral actions in a manner that seeks the most just outcome. After all, we could live in a society that simply interprets the action itself, apart from intention and circumstance.

I’m not sure Max Speak and I are disagreeing. I just wanted to point out that different actors will usually imply different intentions and different circumstances. Judging the morality of an action by the act alone works in very limited circumstances and is generally not the best way to make judgments about whether an action is right or wrong.


Thursday, August 22, 2002


(photo via Gerard Serafin)

The Rittenhouse Review (link via Demosthenes) has a nice post on Pope John Paul II. Here’s a snippet, but be sure to read the whole post:
A man of faith, love, hope, and conviction tirelessly supervises his flock, the largest single organized religious body in the world, for nearly a quarter-century.
He is the first non-Italian pope in more than 450 years.
He overcomes a dramatic assassination attempt three years into his pontificate and later meets with the deranged gunman to express his forgiveness.
He authorizes the first catechism in English since the 16th century.
He authors numerous profound encyclicals and groundbreaking documents . . . .
He plays a critical role in undermining communism in Poland.
He works closely with western leaders to help facilitate the demise of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European empire.
He displays a consistent, unwavering, and heart-felt concern for the poor, and unequivocally and vociferously supports social justice not only in the Third World but in the developed world, in the heart of Europe and even in the United States, where he chastises greed, selfishness, intolerance, and the indignity of the lives of the poor. . . .
He holds a doctorate in philosophy.
He is fluent in eight different languages . . . .
Indeed, there is a depth to this great man that boggles the mind.

Contrast this with recent concerns, concerns even of faithful Catholics, about the pope’s handling of the American Church scandal and something seems amiss. I’ve finally been able to read the latest criticism of the pope, Rod Dreher’s, now famous or infamous depending on your perspective, WSJ article “The Pope Has Let Us Down.” I hope to have an intelligible response soon. In the meantime, Thrown Back has responded and posted a lengthy response from Rod – and the Comments section is heating up as well. Also Gerard Serafin has responded with interesting quotes from Henri de Lubac and John Henry Newman.




I’ve had some nice exchanges with readers on the “CHILDREN’S QUESTIONS OR CHILDISH QUESTIONS” post below.

One comment was that I was dismissing other’s experience outright. The irony of this is that this was the complete opposite of what I intended; I was trying to point out something that I think everyone experiences. Children are obviously very diverse in personalities and abilities and it’s always dangerous to make general claims; still, I think children do grapple with the world in very similar ways. This shouldn’t be too surprising. They pop out into the world and babble and react in ways that are very similar until culture, custom, and language are inculcated. My seven-month old boy seems sui generis when it’s just the two of us, but then I go shopping with him and hear another baby his age babble or cry. If he weren’t in my arms I’d think he was in the next aisle. Of course variables in the nurture end of things begin from day one, but I still think there’s a common thread of inquiring about the world that we all experience as human beings.

Obviously adults continue to inquire about God and human nature, but I would submit that this has a different character, or rather ought to have a different character, than the early and frequent questions of children. Questions like “Is there a God?” or “Are humans unique?” are questions that are asked and answered early in life. And further, though I don’t think I was as clear on this in my previous post, these questions are generally answered in the affirmative.

In the case of the question on human uniqueness, I think our recognizing very early on that we humans are unique is a given and it seems required in some way if we’re to have any sense of human community. What can it mean for an adult to continue to wonder if humans are unique? I guess it just escapes me how this can ever seriously be a question for anyone living in human society. Does it mean that such a person thinks humans are just smart primates and that the difference between humans and other animals is simply a matter of quantity rather than quality? Does it mean that such a person thinks friendship with humans and “friendship” with animals is just a matter of degree rather than a completely different notion? What kind of relationships has such a person experienced to still be wondering such a thing?

When an adult continues to grapple with such fundamental questions I think it’s a bit childish because it’s what children do. Continuing to ask such questions – again I mean these fundamental questions – is not fitting for most adults. This has nothing to do with continued curiosity or wonder, which everyone ought to embrace, and everything to do with maturity of mind and living in human society.


Wednesday, August 21, 2002


Having just returned from Jury Duty, a discussion on jury nullification caught my eye. I first noticed it on Instapundit in this post with links to Howard Bashman and a recent Ninth Circuit (PDF file) case. TalkLeft and The Volokh Conspiracy provide interesting comments as well.

Instapundit maven Glenn Reynolds also links to an interesting book review he did on Jury Nullification: The Evolution of a Doctrine, by Clay S. Conrad – which is probably as close as I’ll get to reading the book, though it’s a fascinating topic.

Whether jury nullification can occur is not the issue since jurors always have the ability to nullify a law they think is wrong by simply voting to acquit. Rather, the issue is in how much of this should be discussed explicitly in the judge’s instructions prior to deliberations.

I think the concerns raised at The Volokh Conspiracy about practicality and how you risk an infinite regress of justifying each law in a specific case make encouraging jury nullification a tough sell. Still, there is something about the unique circumstances of any crime that casts a different light on jury nullification and makes it seem an indispensable tool for justice.

In traditional moral philosophy, the difficulty in determining whether an act is good or evil is not the moral law itself, which is an abstraction and fairly easy to grasp, but the application of the law to the particular act. As Aquinas pointed out:
Disquisitions on general morality are not entirely trustworthy, and the ground becomes more uncertain when one wishes to descend to individual cases in detail. That factors are infinitely variable, and cannot be settled either by art or precedent. Judgment should be left to the people concerned. Each must set himself to act according to the immediate situation and the circumstances involved. (In Eth.2.2.).
The statement in bold summarizes the concerns of those who would like to encourage judges to instruct jurors about the option of nullifying a particular application of a law. But how you do this without overburdening the jurors or creating gridlock is a tough question.

On a side note, Glenn’s review article starts with a sentence that yanks the reader by the lapels and drags him in: “They tried to kill my brother.” I was reminded of Camus’ famous “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know” from The Stranger. Hmm, maybe I should start combing through law review articles for interesting prose?




There’s a show on public radio that presents three stories, two fake and one real, and asks contestants to identify which one is the real story. The three stories are usually fairly bizarre so that it’s not always easy to spot the real one from the fakes. Still, if this disturbing story (link via Mark Shea) were one of the three, I would be convinced that it was not a real story:
Voluntary euthanasia campaigners in Australia are preparing to distribute specially-designed plastic bags to help terminally ill people take their own lives. The bags have an elasticised opening to provide an airtight seal around the neck, suffocating users, who take a sleeping tablet beforehand. Proponents believe the bags will provide a way for elderly people suffering terminal illnesses to end their lives peacefully.
It seems too contrived, too grotesque, too exaggerated. And yet, it’s apparently true.

“The time is out of joint.” It’s as if a deep, dark chasm that was never crossed before, never really even noticed, were suddenly so commonly leapt across that it now seems a mere crack in the road. The story is so numbingly outrageous that a response would seem weak and pallid and without any conviction. Where would you start?


Sunday, August 18, 2002


Here’s (link via Dave Trowbridge) one way to get visitors while you rest in peace:
A deceased cattle rancher in Bozeman, Montana, took care of his heirs by installing an automatic teller machine in his tombstone. Cattle rancher Grover Chestnut died earlier this year at the age of 79. However, before he cashed in, he installed an ATM at his tombstone and gave ten heirs debit cards, and told them were allowed to withdraw $300 per week from the grave. Chestnut apparently figured the tombstone ATM was the best way to make sure his grave had regular visitors.


Saturday, August 17, 2002


If you believe that God can create ex nihilo, then anything else is chump change. In other words, the power to create something from nothing is the power to do anything that is possible (note to square-circle enthusiasts, “do anything that is possible” not “do anything”). I’ve always thought this is a good thing to keep in mind when discussing doctrine, miracles, or any other notions that imply something extraordinary.

So, discussions about whether Mary died in the sense that her soul separated from her body shouldn’t revolve around what God can do - He’s certainly capable of bringing the dead back to life and assuming them into everlasting life - but around what the tradition asserts and implies.

For what it asserts, there’s always the old Catholic Encyclopedia if you want a quick summary and the papal encyclical if you want the pinpoint of the doctrine. And you should note that the doctrine of the Assumption is a lynchpin for Catholics:
44. For which reason, after we have poured forth prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth, for the glory of Almighty God who has lavished his special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.
45. Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith.
46. In order that this, our definition of the bodily Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven may be brought to the attention of the universal Church, we desire that this, our Apostolic Letter, should stand for perpetual remembrance, commanding that written copies of it, or even printed copies, signed by the hand of any public notary and bearing the seal of a person constituted in ecclesiastical dignity, should be accorded by all men the same reception they would give to this present letter, were it tendered or shown.
47. It is forbidden to any man to change this, our declaration, pronouncement, and definition or, by rash attempt, to oppose and counter it. If any man should presume to make such an attempt, let him know that he will incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul.
Needless to say, for Catholics, what Church Teaching asserts about the Assumption is pretty clear. What it implies, though, is where the fun begins.

Karen Marie Knapp got the blogfest rolling by pointing out that
There is a pious disagreement among believers about the details, which is part of why this feast has two names. Some say that Mary died, and was resurrected from death to be taken into heaven by her Son; others say that she was just taken when her time came, like Enoch and Elijah (and, some say, Moses) were. The Church has refused to define this part, since it truly makes no difference; both opinions are legitimate.
Disputations quickly stepped in with
Yes, both opinions are legitimate. And yet...
The opinion that Mary did not die is wrong.
I think John is right to be concerned that denying that Mary died can unravel or just ravel many other facets of the Tradition and so it should be done with great trepidation. But what was pronounced, declared, and defined as a divinely revealed dogma was fairly narrow: “that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” And so, saying that “The opinion that Mary did not die is wrong” is more an opinion about the opinion than a judgment based on what in fact was pronounced, declared, and defined as a divinely revealed dogma.

My take on this, as I’ve mentioned above, is that what is asserted is pretty ironclad; what is implied is not as clear. But the purpose of divinely revealed dogma is simply this, to lead us to the Way, the Truth, and the Life. So, which implication reveals more about who we are and what we seek? And that question can only be answered by contemplating the doctrine, the Tradition (per John’s concern), and the mystery of the event of the Assumption, tasks worthy of a lifetime of reflection.

I do think there’s been some equivocation of the word “death” in much of the “pious disagreement.” “Death” seems to mean the separation of the soul from the matter it informed and thus a complete corruption of the human being in some uses. At other times it seems to mean a suspension of temporal life that may not include bodily corruption.

There’s a related dispute with the death of Christ. The dispute is not about whether Christ died, versions of most creeds through the centuries squelch any such notions, but about whether his body corrupted at his death. This is important because it must be the same Christ who suffered, died, was buried, and rose. If Christ’s body corrupted then it would not be Christ in the tomb prior to the Resurrection, but decomposed matter. This actually created some difficulty for the notion that death was a substantial change where the soul no longer informs matter to form a composite that is the human being.

Aquinas acknowledges this problem and explains in ST 3, 51, 3 that “Divine Power” prevented the corruption of Christ’s body. And elsewhere in his Commentary on the Sentences he explains that it is because of this divine intervention that it is accurate to say that it is the same Christ who suffered, died, was buried, and rose again.

So, it is possible that divine intervention prevented the corruption of Mary’s body at death or “apparent death” prior to being assumed, though it seems her lack of Original Sin would already prevent this. It's also possible that divine intervention caused the corruption of Mary’s body at death or “apparent death” prior to being assumed, in order that she undergo death. Further, it's possible there was no divine intervention and that she died in the sense of her soul separating from the matter it informed and that there was indeed a substantial change that occurred at her death and prior to her assumption. We simply can't know for sure.

Still, I think the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (the other fairly recent doctrine declared here with the authority of papal infallibility):
We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful
throws a wrench into having Mary die in the manner that we are subject to from Original Sin. Perhaps the theological equivalent of Occam’s Razor which states that “Plurality should not be posited without necessity” is the way to approach the implications? One who is “preserved free from all stain of original sin” it seems to me is not subject to death because the integrity of human nature prior to The Fall is preserved in such a person. And to prelapsarian humans, death was unnatural, something that was not in the natural course of events.

So, Mary dying seems to entail an extra requirement at the completion of “the course of her earthly life,” namely to have Mary undergo death which is not required for assumption. Obviously it’s within God’s power to have Mary conceived without original sin and to have her still undergo death in the manner that we are subject to, but I wonder if this posits an unnecessary requirement and, more importantly, lessens the impact of what it means to be without Original Sin and, perhaps more importantly still for us, lessens the impact of death, which is a sundering of our natural condition as incarnate beings. Mary, it must be remembered, represents our natural condition and is thus the paradigm of human response to God. Why?
Because God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living. For he fashioned all things that they might have being; and the creatures of the world are wholesome,
And there is not a destructive drug among them nor any domain of the nether world on earth,
For justice is undying.
It was the wicked who with hands and words invited death, considered it a friend, and pined for it, and made a covenant with it,
Because they deserve to be in its possession . . . (Wisdom 1:13-16)
Death is unnatural. It entered the world when humans turned from God. To insist that Mary undergoes death seems, to my mind, to undermine this important point and attenuate the significance of Mary’s life.

But, as I said, this is not the assertion of the doctrine, just some musings on its implications.


Disputations has this additional post with links to Flos Carmeli and T.S. O'Rama who again ask what can properly be assumed in all of these assumptions about the Assumption.

Also, Blogger permalinks seem to be broken again so I've trimmed the links to the main page, you'll need to scroll to find what's referenced above.


Thursday, August 15, 2002


I once thought Andrew Sullivan was a pretty interesting read. But months ago I discovered he’s a bit of a “One-Note Johnny” on the Catholic Church. As I’ve mentioned before, in my “KNOWING A LITTLE ABOUT A LOT OR A LOT ABOUT A LITTLE” post, there comes a time when descriptions of the Church that sound, at best, like a grade-school book report indicate a deep misunderstanding or at least inability to convey a deep understanding. Look at the latest from a book report, er, a book review by Sullivan of George Wills’ recent work:
Wills is so right that there is something simply bizarre about a church committing suicide because there can be no compromise over such a minor, administrative matter as priestly celibacy, while the vast majority of its faithful disagree on nothing substantive in its actual creed. This is a skewing of priorities which is in itself a function of a doctrine of papal authority gone bad. And one of the oddest things about the most ferociously orthodox of today's Catholics is how close they are to the view of many ignorant non-Catholics: that the church is (in historian Paul Johnson's words) "a divine autocracy," that the pope is the infallible dictator, that he cannot err, that unthinking obedience and silence is the correct posture of any believing Catholic, that disagreeing on minor matters is indistinguishable from differing on major issues and so on. This is not merely philistine and anti-intellectual. Properly speaking, as Wills powerfully argues, it is anti-Catholic.
Andrew may be a very holy and righteous man. I’m not critiquing the integrity of his or anyone’s faith. But he seems unable to grasp or at least convey aspects of the Church that are fairly fundamental.

I wonder if Sullivan’s approach might be a case of what Cardinal Newman, described as persuading “the world of what is false by urging upon it what is true”? To see what this means, you need to see Newman’s phrase in context:
Lord Bacon has set down the abuse, of which I am speaking, among the impediments to the Advancement of the Sciences, when he observes that "men have used to infect their meditations, opinions, and doctrines, with some conceits which they have most admired, or some Sciences which they have most applied; and give all things else a tincture according to them utterly untrue and improper ... So have the alchemists made a philosophy out of a few experiments of the furnace; and Gilbertus, our countryman, hath made a philosophy out of the observations of a lodestone. So Cicero, when, reciting the several opinions of the nature of the soul, he found a musician that held the soul was but a harmony, saith pleasantly, 'hic ab arte suâ non recessit,' 'he was true to his art.' But of these conceits Aristotle speaketh seriously and wisely when he saith, 'Qui respiciunt ad pauca, de facili pronunciant,' 'they who contemplate a few things have no difficulty in deciding.'"

And now I have said enough to explain the inconvenience which I conceive necessarily to result from a refusal to recognize theological truth in a course of Universal Knowledge;—it is not only the loss of Theology, it is the perversion of other sciences. What it unjustly forfeits, others unjustly seize. They have their own department, and, in going out of it, attempt to do what they really cannot do; and that the more mischievously, because they do teach what in its place is true, though when out of its place, perverted or carried to excess, it is not true. And, as every man has not the capacity of separating truth from falsehood, they persuade the world of what is false by urging upon it what is true.
Newman’s eloquent prose resists being yanked too far out of context, but I think this provides enough to see his point.

Sullivan often focuses on teaching that, “in its place is true, though when out of its place, perverted or carried to excess, it is not true.” There are lots of examples of this if you peruse the archives of his blog. To stay with his comments above, notice how he takes the tradition of celibacy, an ancient and holy tradition, and trivializes it by hauling it “out of its place” and calling it “a minor, administrative matter.” And it’s true that priestly celibacy no longer ensconced in the rich tradition from which it arose would be a strange notion that seemed false in light of human nature. He then takes this perceived falsehood and attempts to persuade readers that papal authority is corrupt and not valid. It works, though this is oversimplifying it, like this:
Church Teaching includes a tradition of priestly celibacy
But priestly celibacy is a minor, administrative matter
Therefore, Church Teaching includes minor, administrative matters
But teaching which includes minor, administrative matters is flawed teaching
Flawed teaching has no real authority
Therefore some Church Teaching has no real authority
This isn’t, and it isn’t intended to be, an airtight set of syllogisms; rather, it’s meant to outline how this tactic works.

It’s a successful tactic that has endured from Newman’s time to our own. And, as Newman wrote, it’s mischievous because it requires knowledge of “what is true” and a willingness to distort it. In other words, if Sullivan knew nothing of Church Teaching, he wouldn’t be able to distort it so easily. But he is obviously familiar with the content of what is taught, familiar enough to pull off this kind of sleight of hand. And I don’t think it’s a case of “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” I think, rather, it’s a case of willing distortion and tweaking of what is taught to make it seem petty and trivial in order to make inroads undermining other teaching.


Wednesday, August 14, 2002

UNIQUE NEW YORK (say that fast 3 times) and PIFFLES

My post, CHILDREN’S QUESTIONS OR CHILDISH QUESTIONS, generated lots of email. And there were a few posts in response. Mark Butterworth disagreed somewhat that human beings are unique. To Mark’s objections, I have just one word: Incarnation. But you can look at my post and his response and decided for yourself.

Jody, of Naked Writing fame, thought my post came across with, take your pick, smugness, superiority, or self-satisfaction:
There is victory, no superiority, no achievement in holding fast to an unexamined "insight" gained at six years of age. Dismissing others under a convenient rubric that they just aren't as discerning, honest, or knowledgeable as you says little about the illumination your ideals have provided and much about the darkness those dogmas have fostered.

Dismiss with a piff, a piffle, a sigh, or exclamation if you so choose. Just don't for a moment believe that dismissal entitles you to smugness, superiority or self satisfaction.
There are a number of clever, ironic, or both clever and ironic aspects to his post. And I’d respond, but I’d just be repeating my previous post. Again, read my post, read his response, and decide for yourself. That’s the beauty of weblogs.




Only a fool would question the usefulness and value of modern science. But there’s a corollary to this: only a fool would hold that the techniques of modern science present us with the rock-ribbed truth or our world. This is a point I’ve made in a number of different posts, the most recent being EVOLUTION, RELIGION, AND RIGHT REASON. I’ve just discovered two excellent posts that touch on this. Shadow of the Hegemon makes some nice distinctions between induction and deduction and kicks around the interesting, though obscure, verb “satisfice.”

Beauty of Gray has this to say (be sure to read the whole post):
Science, by its own admission, is not an attempt to arrive at Truth. It’s an attempt to arrive at a valid explanation which has predictive power. That is, I want to come up with a theory that explains existing data and will allow me to predict the result of experiments in the future. A scientific theory only gains acceptance if it works, in this sense. Any alternative hypothesis which equally fit the data is, by definition, equivalent to the accepted theory. They produce the same predictions, and hence are interchangeable. So even if there were infinite alternate hypotheses, they’d all be equally good explanations of the world, rather than being equally bad.
The only quibble I have is the line, “Science, by its own admission, is not an attempt to arrive at Truth.” I agree that science is not an attempt to arrive at Truth, but I think many wouldn’t agree with this. In fact, I think many would hold that this is exactly what science provides.

As I pointed out in my previous link, while science as we know it didn’t exist in the 13th century, the tools modern science uses and their limitations were well documented:
As Aquinas points out, reason can be used in two ways with regard to some phenomenon. One way is by sufficiently proving some principle; another way is by not sufficiently proving a principle, but showing that a suggested principle is now in agreement with the effects which follow from it. And he points out that this latter reason is not a sufficient proof as in the first case, since perhaps another position could be introduced to explain these effects. Aquinas gives astronomical examples for each type of reasoning which are now obsolete, but the principles behind his examples still pertain.

The first kind of reasoning, which derives from a principle (the Latin word used is radix, literally “the root of the matter”) is the procedure of demonstration. It is an argument from necessity, from necessary principles to necessary conclusions. It can provide fixed and final answers to problems by pointing out the principles involved and demonstrating a conclusion. Aquinas concludes that the celestial movements are of constant speed from principles involving act and potency, perfection and imperfection, and circular and linear motion. We, of course, would not hold to this as a valid demonstration of celestial motion; we discard it not from any intrinsic lack of coherence, however, but from the fact that celestial bodies and movement do not have the properties required for the argument’s premise, i.e. perfection and circular motion.

The second kind of reasoning, from a proposed principle to a tentative conclusion is not demonstration but conjecture or a probable reason. Contemporary science may appear to derive “final answers” by demonstration, but a close look will uncover a reliance upon a premise that is a model rather than reality and a conclusion that is the result of conjecture or probability. Certainly the emphasis of contemporary science on mathematics creates a remarkable air of certitude, and because of this it can resemble this first kind of reasoning outlined by Aquinas. But whenever there is a model rather than a principle underlying a conclusion, the conclusion will not be demonstrative in the manner Aquinas has described.


Tuesday, August 13, 2002


A blog, The Fathers of the Christian Church: A Weblog (link via Amy Welborn via Eve Tushnet), with excerpts from the Church Fathers; it's a great way to get a taste of some of the gems that have typically languished in dusty volumes. Wayne Olson, who runs it, also has a personal weblog that's nicely done.




“Onymous,” now there’s a word you don’t see much. There’s been quite a linkfest about anonymous blogging. I first noticed it over on InstaPundit. Hasn’t this issue been beaten thoroughly over the head and shoulders by now? If you want more, here are a few posts pro and con in no particular order:
N.Z. Bear
Redwood Dragon
Armed Liberal
I agree with points on both sides. Yes you should be willing to stand up for your convictions. Yes an anonymous blogger can libel folks with relative impunity and that’s not good. But yes also to the fact that there are legitimate reasons someone might wish to remain anonymous. Yes also to the fact that ideas can be judged apart from any information about their author – we do it all the time when we read a book by an author we know nothing about.

I frankly don’t think it’s a very important issue. Blogs stand and fall on their content. Personally, I fail to see how the identity of anyone writing a blog adds one iota of additional substance to the content of most posts. Certainly my posts wouldn’t change if I provided my full name. I just wouldn’t be able to blog. No, I’m not in prison or on the lam. I simply choose to remain anonymous.

There is, though, a related issue that piques my curiosity. It’s the question of how biography shapes ideas and therefore our understanding of those ideas. For example, if we learn more biographical information about Plato, do we glean additional points about his philosophy? More later.




"I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn't know."

I often feel the above quip from Twain would be a great motto for me. I regularly feel I don’t know the latest nuance in some political issue, the many details about some foreign policy, the complex illegal transactions that have made Enron a household name, and other such things. I’m sure I could find an article each day in the NY Times that had a word I didn’t know, a place I couldn’t point to on an unmarked map, or an issue I know nothing about.

That’s why I’m quite impressed when I read some of the political comments over at USS Clueless. Steven Den Beste, who apparently is not a professional political pundit, can crack out paragraph after paragraph of pretty sensible stuff.

But then I read a blurb on the Catholic Church and my faith in his acumen gets shaky. I wonder if maybe some of the other stuff he pontificates about is riddled with such imprecision:
The Catholic Church presents itself in the United States as a source of moral guidance to its parishioners, through the person of the priest who serves at each church. Members of the parish visit the priest and confess their sins to him; and they listen to his sermons as he tries to teach them how the Church thinks they should live their lives. He speaks on behalf of God; he informs them of how God wants them to think and act.
Huh?! That sounds like an excerpt from a fifth-grade book report. I really can’t believe someone who seems fairly knowledgeable could really think that (imagine this being read in a fifth grader’s voice) Catholics listen to a priest’s “sermons as he tries to teach them how the Church thinks they should live their lives. He [the priest] speaks on behalf of God; he informs them of how God wants them to think and act.” Wow! No wonder Den Beste never fires a photon my way when I take on some of his posts on atheism. He must think I’m a complete idjit who eagerly awaits each Sunday so that a priest can tell me “how God wants me to think and act.”

Perhaps the best way to respond to this is to provide a link to an official document on the Church. While Den Beste will likely balk at the document from the very first line,
Christ is the light of humanity; and it is, accordingly, the heart- felt desire of this sacred Council, being gathered together in the Holy Spirit, that by proclaiming his Gospel to every creature (cf. Mk. 16:15), it may bring to all men that light of Christ which shines out visibly from the Church.
at least it’s an accurate rendering of Church Teaching and lifts the discussion out of the elementary school classroom.


Thursday, August 08, 2002


Disputations, of course, has some nice links for today, the Feast of St. Dominic. My seven-month old son, Dominic, seems quite happy today. He must know it’s a big day for him.




Veritas, in commenting on my recent posts on the philosophical implications of cryonics and the soul, provides two nice links on “scientific materialism” here and here. Chris also mentions that Sacra Doctrina has had some fine posts on some of the philosophical principles I, perhaps a bit clumsily, hauled into the discussion. Obviously I think it’s a useful exercise to debate with folks who claim to adhere to materialism or atheism or any other “ism” that doesn’t leave a little room for philosophical principles like the soul or theological concepts like the Holy Spirit. Many of my not so minute posts have been a response to proponents of a godless, soulless world, so I’m quite interested in such things.

Still, and I’m sure this is an inclination toward despair or sloth on my part, questions like “Does God exist?” and “Is there such a thing as a soul?” strike me as a bit childish. I don’t mean that in a condescending or insulting way. Rather, I really think that most folks work through these kinds of questions early and often as children. By the time they’re adults, they’ve long ago formed a sense of God and a notion that human beings are unique in Creation. They’ve long ago left the questions perhaps not “answered,” but certainly in such a state that the answers would precipitate into solid, tangible leverage points in a crisis. I don’t mean to invoke the cliché that “there are no atheists in foxholes” or that “everyone believes in “god” they just don’t admit it,” or some such thing. But as I’ve suggested before – and I got surprisingly little disagreement email-wise – if by God you mean the one whose nature is “to be,” “to exist,” then you can’t be a rational creature and not recognize that God exists. If you deny this then you’re denying God as just defined. I admit you’re free to do that or, perhaps more accurately, to think you’re doing that. But even denying that requires an assertion that requires existence that requires one whose nature is not contingent and therefore one whose nature is “to be,” “to exist.” You get the point so I’ll stop.

All of this, however, and as I’ve pointed out in the above link is not very interesting because if you say “Ah, yes, I see what you mean,” the God we would have arrived at is very bland, a sort of a backdrop to existence that remains dark to our senses and speculation.

So, back to my distinction of children’s versus childish questions. Questions about God and the soul that children ask are the “wonder” questions that are urgent and fascinating and delightful for children to ask. And I guess there’s something out of joint when an intelligent adult is still grappling with such things and that’s why I’m suggesting such questions are a bit childish. A valid objection here would be, “Well, aren’t these questions coming up now because adults disagree on the answers?” Yes, though I find that many materialists and atheists seem to have gotten stuck at some point in grappling with these wonder questions and never gotten unstuck. There are two signs of this:
1) Arguments for strict materialism and atheism are, well, frankly they’re a bit simplistic and silly, e.g. “Show me a machine that will indicate that a soul exists.” “If there is a God why is there evil in the world?” and so on. Notice simplistic or silly arguments aren’t necessarily easy to respond to. If I say “Prove that you’re not just a dream of mine, that this whole universe isn’t just a dream of mine,” short of beating me with a stick, you’d have to delve into some fairly complex metaphysical arguments to get the reasons why that would be a silly position for me to hold.

2) Materialistic or atheistic positions can’t really be held because, well, because they can’t really be held. They're not "real" in the most profound sense of that word. Espousing these positions is equivalent to standing on a soapbox and preaching that the soapbox can’t possibly exist. You can say “square-circle,” but you can’t conceive of it or manipulate it in your mind in any meaningful way. And that’s basically what you’re attempting in these positions.
What’s amiss when adults ask these questions is not that the arguments for or against aren’t capable of being spun into some very “adult” language and filling thick, fat books on the subject. No, what’s wrong is that such questions are disproportionate to the questioner. They’re not fitting for an adult. They’re for children and rightly so. If you’re an adult, shouldn’t you have already wrestled with these kinds of things? And, aren’t the more interesting and adult questions those that address the more interesting and mature aspects of God? Has God revealed Himself to us? If so, how? If not, why not? Does God love His creation? What would that mean?

Those are the kinds of questions someone who’s lived a bit, someone who’s loved and been loved, someone who’s lost loved ones and found life-long friendship asks. Not, “Um, Gee, I wonder if there is a God?” Not, “Hmm, I wonder if there’s something unique about human beings?”


rather than the usual fusillade of minute and not so minute particulars.


Friday, August 02, 2002

Here's an article on St. Blog's from the Chicago Tribune.




Epicurious is a great site for usually pretty good recipes. Here's one my wife found recently that is a beauty – be sure to read the many reviews (click on the “More Reviews” link)!




over on GKC's Blog. Here's a bit from it:
Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea.


Thursday, August 01, 2002


Peggy Noonan’s description about meeting the pope in this recent column (link via Amy Welborn):
When you see the pope something happens. You expect to be moved but it's bigger than that and more surprising. It feels like a gaiety brought by goodness. It feels like a bubbling up. I think some people feel humbled by some unseen gravity and others lifted by some unknown lightness.

It's like some great white dove flutters from your chest, emerges and flies upward. And you didn't even know it was there. And all this leaves you reaching outward, toward one who is broken, ungainly, without grace. And it fills you with tears. Or so it seems to me. At least that was my experience.
is a bit of a contrast to her description of the pope a few months back:
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.
I wonder if “the great mammal risen from the deep” has surprised her a bit?




This Dilbert is priceless. So, our son just turned seven months old and my wife and I can count on one hand the number of times he’s slept through the night. I wonder how Sean’s holding up?




This article (link via Mark Shea), by Fr. Michael Sweeney, OP, of the Catherine of Siena Institute, is simply one of the finest responses to the Church scandal I’ve read.




If you’ve never run across The Underground Grammarian, you’re in for a treat. Here’s a sample issue. The opening quote should tip you off that much wisdom will follow.




Dave Trowbridge has another fine post today, this time about what we can glean about the time in which a historical work is composed. Dave writes
Sometimes we learn as much about a historian's time as about the time he writes of. Such is the case in this excerpt (the peroration of the book) from John Buchan's biography of Augustus, which was published in 1937.
Dave then provides a summary of what was going on in 1934-36 and a wonderful excerpt from Buchan’s biography. Here’s a small taste, but click to the full post:
History does not repeat itself except with variations, and it is idle to look for exact parallels, but we can trace a resemblance between the conditions of his time and those of to-day. Once again the crust of civilization has worn thin, and beneath can be heard the muttering of primeval fires. Once again many accepted principles of government have been overthrown, and the world has become a laboratory where immature and feverish minds experiment with unknown forces. Once again problems cannot be comfortably limited, for science has brought the nations into an uneasy bondage to each other. In the actual business of administration there is no question of today which Augustus had not to face and answer.




Disputations has the usual sage and sound comment about how a quick jab of criticism and jape of contempt in a crimped and cramped little “Comments” section can fester and gain unwarranted momentum when left uncontested. The reason it shouldn’t be left to stink up the place isn’t because a proper response can’t be found; it’s because a proper response would require that one have the necessary time, energy, and patience to craft it. John calls these comments “cheap to offer, dear to counter.” Very apt.

I suppose one of the dangers of grappling with tough issues in blog posts is the plain fact that there’s simply not enough real estate to get any well-developed points across to readers with itchy mouse fingers. That’s just the nature of the thing and a quick, coherent post is perhaps better than nothing; but I do wonder if a quick, coherent post gives the impression that that’s all there is to say on the matter. I hope not. There’s always the possibility of providing links to longer treatments of an issue – a good idea with posts that deal with matters of consequence – but that means you have to know where those links are and have, well, the necessary time, energy, and patience to include them.