Minute Particulars

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

Tuesday, December 31, 2002


Fr. Jim of Dappled Things, in response to Old Oligarch's post on the bizarre company LifeGem and its service of providing you with the carbon of your loved ones in jewelry, has a very nice post on bones and relics. He mentions something I'd never heard of before, "bone churches":
Americans will freak out at this point. The two I know first hand are the Capuchin Church of S. Maria della Concezione near Piazza Barberini and the lesser-known Church of S. Maria dell'Orazione e della Morte on Via Giulia, both in Rome. Both churches use bones for decorations, arranged into fanciful flower shapes, pieced together into chandeliers, and lovingly put in many other maccabre yet whimsical settings. At the Concezione, the bones belong to about 4000 Capuchin friars "buried" there in the crypt of their church. You can walk through a number of rooms where skeletons are standing around in Franciscan habits, where various bones have been pieced together into many creative arrangements. It's completely bizarre.
Bizarre indeed, but maybe only initially. As Fr. Jim summarizes:
Yes, this is kind of creepy. But it goes together with the relative ease with which Catholicism has always dealt with the dead. Traditional Catholic cultures aren't horrified by dead people.
So, are the bones of the dead something that ought to be reverenced? Well it kind of depends. From a traditional philosophy of nature perspective, when any living thing dies a substantial change occurs, a change to the very substance of what a thing is, and nothing remains of what used to be a living being. From this perspective, the bones of a human being who has died are no longer "human" even though we speak in this way all the time. And so a relic, perhaps a chip of bone from a saint or the carbon preserved in a "LifeGem" from the cremated remains of a loved one are not "human" remains strictly speaking, but are instead, in the case of a bone chip, compounds such as Hydroxyapatite (Ca10(PO4)6(OH)2), which is the principal mineral component of bone, or, if allowed to decompose further, elements such as Calcium, Phosphorus, Oxygen, and Hydrogen. From this it seems to follow that any resemblance to the living person, perhaps bone shape or a fracture incurred while the person was alive, are like footprints in the sand, identifying aspects that have an apparent connection to the living person, but the connection is no longer real and substantial.

From a theological perspective, with regard to Whether any kind of worship is due to the relics of the saints?, Aquinas says the following:
As Augustine says (De Civ. Dei i, 13): "If a father's coat or ring, or anything else of that kind, is so much more cherished by his children, as love for one's parents is greater, in no way are the bodies themselves to be despised, which are much more intimately and closely united to us than any garment; for they belong to man's very nature." It is clear from this that he who has a certain affection for anyone, venerates whatever of his is left after his death, not only his body and the parts thereof, but even external things, such as his clothes, and such like. Now it is manifest that we should show honor to the saints of God, as being members of Christ, the children and friends of God, and our intercessors. Wherefore in memory of them we ought to honor any relics of theirs in a fitting manner: principally their bodies, which were temples, and organs of the Holy Ghost dwelling and operating in them, and are destined to be likened to the body of Christ by the glory of the Resurrection. Hence God Himself fittingly honors such relics by working miracles at their presence.
In this same article, Aquinas tackles the following objection:
Objection 3. Further, a dead body is not of the same species as a living body: consequently it does not seem to be identical with it. Therefore, after a saint's death, it seems that his body should not be worshiped.
This, of course, is the objection about death and substantial change that I mentioned above. Here's his reply:
Reply to Objection 3. The dead body of a saint is not identical with that which the saint had during life, on account of the difference of form, viz. the soul: but it is the same by identity of matter, which is destined to be reunited to its form (est tamen idem identitate materiae, quae est iterum suae formae unienda)*.
That phrase "it is the same by identity of matter" is tricky and might even be problematic given the fact that there shouldn't be any "substantial identity" remaining after a substantial change. Fortunately this is a blog post, not an article for a journal, so I can say, ah well, maybe I'll look into that later on -- or not.




Here's news (link via In Between Naps) of more Tolkien to look forward to:
An assistant professor of English at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, Dr Drout was researching Anglo- Saxon scholarship at the Bodleian, and asked to see a copy of a lecture on Beowulf given by Tolkien in 1936.

It was brought to him in a reading room in a large box. Professor Drout, who reads Anglo-Saxon prose to his two-year-old daughter at bedtime, said: "I was sitting there going through the transcripts when I saw these four bound volumes at the bottom of the box.

"I started looking through, and realised I had found an entire book of material that had never seen the light of day. As I turned the page, there was Tolkien's fingerprint in a smudge of ink."
I think my favorite part is the fact that he reads Anglo-Saxon prose to his two-year-old daughter at bedtime.


Monday, December 30, 2002


There's a cute quiz called Battleground God (link via Light of Reason via Dust in the Light) that asks you questions about your position on the existence of God. If you contradict yourself by answering an earlier question one way and a later question another, you'll take "a hit." If you answer in a way that needs special clarification, you can "bite the bullet." I won't ruin it for you by listing the questions here. But I will say that the creators of the game have made a number of classic errors in their clever game.

First, regarding God's omnipotence, they claim:
You say that God does not have the freedom and power to do impossible things such as create square circles [this is correct, I did answer this way], but in an earlier answer you said that any being which it is right to call God must be free and have the power to do anything [well, I assumed they meant the power to do anything possible]. So, on your view, God is not free and does not have the power to do what is impossible. This requires that you accept - in common with most theologians, but contrary to your earlier answer - that God's freedom and power are not unbounded. He does not have the freedom and power to do literally anything.
As you can see from my inserted remarks, the game is rigged a bit by a mistake on the game makers' part in assuming that one can mean anything when saying "God can make a square circle" or "God can make 1 + 1 = 72." God cannot make a thing both exist (square) and not exist (not square, but circle) at the same time in the same respect. If you don't understand how this follows then you simply don't understand the terms used. When someone asks "Can God make a ______________?" what goes in the blank is a concept of something that doesn't currently exist, e.g. gold mountain, unicorn, and so forth. If "square circle" is in the blank, it's not a concept pointing to some potentially existing thing; rather, it points to a number of concepts that you are toggling back and forth in your mind and you're fooling yourself if you think you've actually got a single concept of something God should be able to make. This is because no one can even think of something existing (square) and not existing (not square) at the same time in the same respect. What happens in this classic error is that folks are assuming they've actually said something meaningful when they've uttered "square circle." They haven't. Nor have they said anything meaningful in saying that God can't make a square circle.

The other classic error in the game is evident from the following:
You claimed earlier that there is no basis for morality if God does not exist [true, but I knew this was going to be another contradiction since this is a very common misunderstanding]. But now you say that if God does exist, she cannot make what is sinful good and vice-versa [again, true]. But if this is true, it means that God cannot be the basis of morality [this doesn't follow]. If God were the basis of morality, then she could decide what is good and what is bad [not quite since this assumes that existence (being), unity, truth, and goodness are intrinsically unrelated]. The fact that you think that God cannot do this shows that things must be right or wrong independently of what God decides. In other words, God chooses what is right because it is right; things are not right just because God chooses them.
Again, you can see that the creators of "Battleground God" adhere to a rather naive and unsophisticated metaphysics -- and by "metaphysics" I'm speaking only about a philosophy of existence, of being, derived from reason. As I suggest in my inserted comments, they've not realized that existence (being), unity, truth, and goodness are intrinsically related; these "concepts," called "transcendentals" in traditional metaphysics are assertions about perfections that "transcend" all classifications and differences. Even if I could, I wouldn't attempt to unpack the deep implications of this in a little blog post; but one thing implied is that goodness and existence while they can sort of be treated as separate categories (hence the transcendentals) aren't separate in any real sense. And like the square circle example, suggesting that God could change what is good and bad, what is right and wrong, given the current existence of all that is, is suggesting that God could make something exist and not exist at the same time in the same respect (by the way, this error is similar to the implications made by those who suggest that God could make a completely different universe; see my previous OF SYSTEMS POSSIBLE post for more on this).

As I said above, the game is cute and it's a very clever way to get people thinking about flaws in their own reasoning about the God. Too bad the game itself is flawed.


Sunday, December 29, 2002


Mr. Riddle of Flos Carmeli has an interesting post and a follow up on the dangers of using St. Thomas Aquinas's Summa for spiritual reading
While I acknowledge Aquinas' remarkable achievement and powerful argument in the Summa (or both Summas) I would say that Aquinas may be one of the single most dangerous influences possible for the intellectually inclined Catholic or Christian. I can say with all truth that approaching Aquinas alone nearly caused me to "lose my faith." (By which I mean, get lost in myself and my own reasoning). Aquinas proposes many questions and provides a great many analogies and answers from nature and scripture. The problem is that a great many of these analogies from nature are simply incorrect. Aquinas simply wasn't in a place to know what we presently know and understand about the natural world. However, what happens as one reads these, unless one quickly slams down the "metaphorical" shield is that one begins to doubt the centrality of Aquinas's arguments.
Interestingly enough, I have a feeling that St. Thomas would agree with Mr. Riddle about some of his reservations. Aquinas was simply unsurpassed in intellectual humility and submitted all of his work to Church Authority and those wiser than he, though I'm not sure who the wiser folks would've been. Surely he would have insisted that there were many other works that ought to be read before his own. And then there's that strange story towards the end of his life about an experience that left him unable or unwilling to write anymore and apparently caused him to describe all of his work as mere straw in comparison to what had been revealed to him in that experience.

There's more to the "it's-all-straw" story (perhaps a later post), but let's just say that if Aquinas's work is straw, it's good straw indeed and fine stuff to chew on this side of heaven. And while I understand and agree that reading Aquinas may not be for everybody, it's important to know what you're giving up if you decide to pass.

It would be hard to overestimate the intellectual feat Aquinas's works represent. Really. Even a complete unbeliever looking over the entire collection of Aquinas's known works would have to admit that the coherence, consistency, depth and breadth are simply unsurpassed in the history of thought. If you want a sense of how deep Aquinas's mind was capable of delving, consider the fact that the Summa of Theology was intended to be an instruction for "beginners." As I think Tennyson once said of Shakespeare, given the incredible volume and breathtaking scope of the work that was actually written down, imagine the thoughts and insights that must have filled his head daily.

But don't take my word for it. The encyclical Aeterni Patris states that
reason, borne on the wings of Thomas to its human height, can scarcely rise higher, while faith could scarcely expect more or stronger aids from reason than those which she has already obtained through Thomas.(emphasis added)
Or look at what the recent encyclical Fides et Ratio has to say:
A quite special place . . . belongs to Saint Thomas, not only because of what he taught but also because of the dialogue which he undertook with the Arab and Jewish thought of his time. In an age when Christian thinkers were rediscovering the treasures of ancient philosophy, and more particularly of Aristotle, Thomas had the great merit of giving pride of place to the harmony which exists between faith and reason. Both the light of reason and the light of faith come from God, he argued; hence there can be no contradiction between them.

More radically, Thomas recognized that nature, philosophy's proper concern, could contribute to the understanding of divine Revelation. Faith therefore has no fear of reason, but seeks it out and has trust in it. Just as grace builds on nature and brings it to fulfilment, so faith builds upon and perfects reason. Illumined by faith, reason is set free from the fragility and limitations deriving from the disobedience of sin and finds the strength required to rise to the knowledge of the Triune God. Although he made much of the supernatural character of faith, the Angelic Doctor did not overlook the importance of its reasonableness; indeed he was able to plumb the depths and explain the meaning of this reasonableness. Faith is in a sense an “exercise of thought”; and human reason is neither annulled nor debased in assenting to the contents of faith, which are in any case attained by way of free and informed choice.
The concern that Aquinas's use of archaic science invalidates much of his philosophical and theological insight is ill-conceived and it would be a real shame if someone avoided him because of this. Aquinas used the best science of his day for his examples. Were he writing today he would surely use the best science of our day for his examples. His examples are important and can't simply be ignored. But they are still ornamentation, a fleshing out of philosophical and theological principles to make them easier to understand, not an example of the principles themselves.

In fact, St. Thomas understood well that the science of his day could likely be wrong and that another explanation might come along that better explains observations. As he pointed out in this section of his bale of straw, reason can be used in two ways with regard to some phenomenon. One way is by sufficiently proving some principle (e.g. metaphysics, natural philosophy); 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 (e.g. proposing a model to explain things as contemporary science does). And he points out that this second use of reason is not a sufficient proof as in the first case, since perhaps another position could be introduced to explain these effects.

And so, I agree that Aquinas is probably not for everyone. But know that in avoiding his works you avoid seeing a philosopher and theologian of the highest caliber and fidelity engage the finest thinkers of the past and his own day in a manner not seen before or since.

UPDATE: Summa Minutiae comments on this here, T.S.O'Rama comments here, and Disputations comments here.


Saturday, December 28, 2002


Only on the Old Oligarch's Painted Stoa (link via Dappled Things) will you find a post praising the Glock 23 handgun followed by an erudite and very funny discussion of pagan silliness:
The point is that the Church has always possessed a spirituality of nature that runs much deeper than the pagans, and frequently trumps paganism at its own game. Catholic liturgy layers together level upon level of allegory to tell a tale symbolically -- a tale that has been millennia in the making, and begins at creation. Thus at Baptism, we can simultaneously recall the vision of Ezekiel 47:1-12, the water flowing from the side of Christ, the Exodus through the Red Sea, and God's primordial transformation of Rahab's waters of chaos into the waters that bring forth life in Genesis. Catholic liturgy rests on the belief that God is both the Author of Nature and the Author of Salvation History. Our Skillful Author has arranged for us to live in a natural and historical world full of symbols which tell the story of our salvation in Christ. It was designed that way on purpose. It is the original acheiropoietos (icon not made by human hands) pointing to Christ, the complete acheiropoietos. Resonance requires attunement. Attunement requires design. If something resonates within the human person at the image of the sun overcoming the darkness and death of winter, that note is struck on a harp tuned for playing the melody of Christ. Of course, one cannot affirm this conclusion without a deep conviction in God's Lordship over nature and history.
I was reminded of Etienne Gilson's assessment of Aquinas:
The central intuition which governs the whole philosophical and theological undertaking of St. Thomas is that it is impossible to do justice to God without doing justice to nature, and that doing justice to nature is, at the same time, the surest way of doing justice to God.


Tuesday, December 24, 2002


Lots of talk about whether parents should tell their children the truth about Santa Claus . . . and that would be?

I guess I don't quite get the musings on this that start with: "When I have kids . . ." or "When our kids come along . . ." It seems well-intended but a bit abstract. Obviously you don't need to have kids to have an intelligent opinion on this; I just wonder why it would even occur to someone without kids.

My son will soon have his first birthday so he's a little young to sit down and have a chat with me about such things. Still, he's saying "Ho, Ho, Hooo" and can pick Santa out in a lineup so it's begun.

For me this is kind of a silly thing to get too worked up about. I don't think one is really "lying" to a child to talk of Santa and live the story a bit. It's no more amazing than fairy tales and a child's sense that the world is one miracle after another. As Chesteron points out:
I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened--dawn and death and so on--as if THEY were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as NECESSARY as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of the imagination. You cannot IMAGINE two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail. These men in spectacles spoke much of a man named Newton, who was hit by an apple, and who discovered a law. But they could not be got to see the distinction between a true law, a law of reason, and the mere fact of apples falling. If the apple hit Newton's nose, Newton's nose hit the apple. That is a true necessity: because we cannot conceive the one occurring without the other. But we can quite well conceive the apple not falling on his nose; we can fancy it flying ardently through the air to hit some other nose, of which it had a more definite dislike. We have always in our fairy tales kept this sharp distinction between the science of mental relations, in which there really are laws, and the science of physical facts, in which there are no laws, but only weird repetitions. We believe in bodily miracles, but not in mental impossibilities. We believe that a Bean-stalk climbed up to Heaven; but that does not at all confuse our convictions on the philosophical question of how many beans make five.
I wonder if parents might be burdening their children at times by only speaking of what is "rational and inevitable," whether it be the "truth" that Santa and elves don't exist, or how Mommy and Daddy really feel about certain relatives, or, darker than all of these, how very bad things can happen to good people.

I'm not advocating superstition, lack of candor, or shielding children from the evils of the world. But part of being a parent is knowing what will enlighten a child and what will burden him or her. There's no formula for this and children will be enlightened by things we couldn't have imagined and burdened by what we thought was totally innocuous. Still, children love the story of Santa, they don't always need to know how you really feel about some in-law of yours, and they don't need to watch the evening news with you.


Monday, December 23, 2002


Rod Dreher, in his column on the Lott situation entitled "Southern Confession," (link via Mark Shea) suggests that we ought to
at least recognize that people are complicated, that most of us are a mixed bag, and that few of us do what we do from pure motives? I find this hunt now for any crypto-racist thing any contemporary politician ever said to be appalling and dangerous. It's more important that we look at what people do, not so much what they say. (emphasis added)
I understand his concern that there not be an eyes-rolled-back furious media frenzy to find other suspect statements by other public officials. But I strongly disagree with his idea that public statements, mere words, mean little in comparison to what someone actually does.

Racism most likely takes root first from words spoken, spoken within families, among friends, among acquaintances and strangers, and usually only later blooms into acts of discrimination and violence.

Rod tells the following story:
In the 1950s, Louisiana Gov. Earl K. Long, who was a greater friend to black Louisianians than just about any politician of his era, stood in the well of the legislature and denounced an arch-segregationist opponent. "Willie," he said, "one of these days you gonna retire and go back home. You'll take off your boots, wash your feet, stare at the moon, and get close to God. Then will you realize that niggers is human beings too."

God knows what they would have done to Uncle Earl if he'd said something like that today. Look, James Carville is right: There has to be a place in our hearts for forgiveness, for allowing people the grace of repentance, and for recognizing the people are more than the sum of a single sin, or all of their sins. That doesn't mean that Sen. Lott should remain as Majority Leader, but it does mean that you can't judge Trent Lott, or any other politician, by a single unwise statement. And you can't judge an entire party based on a single man's unwise statement.
Sorry Rod. Again, I think I understand your concerns here, but they're just plain trivial and trumped by the evil that racism was and continues to be in its many vestiges that try to get firm footing again just like in the "good ol' days." Interpreting history anachronistically does nobody any good and I'm not suggesting that we judge folks who lived thirty, forty, and fifty or more years ago with today's moral temperament. Carville's statement that you quote is wise. I agree that "there has to be a place in our hearts for forgiveness, for allowing people the grace of repentance, and for recognizing that people are more than the sum of a single sin, or all of their sins."

Okay, but forgiveness does not mean ignoring "innocuous" remarks; demonstrative repentance ought to have some temporal component to it, after all, how much time do some folks need to get this kind of thing out of their systems?!; and while we are indeed more than the sum of a single sin or all of our sins, our credibility can in fact hinge on a single statement or action -- we are creatures deeply ensconced in habit: it's what makes virtue possible and vice tragic. When little old ladies and seasoned senators make "innocuous" gaffs that can be construed as racist, it should concern us. My God! It's nearly 2003! How are such statements even anywhere near the slip-of-the-tongue retainer wall, sloshing over in an unguarded moment?

Sorry, I just don't buy this "words are harmless" and a little slip of the tongue doesn't mean anything bit.

For me, all it takes is a glimpse of past evil, one picture of a lynching, one glance at the white faces of the spectators, laughing, giddy, oblivious to what they've done or observed, one sickening, gut-wrenching image to remind me that there's simply no excuse for Lott pining for a different election outcome back when "times were better" or for some little ol' lady in Louisiana saying we "have always been good to our nigras." These sentiments and words are inexcusable. They yield the hallowed ground we've gained to distance us from this horrific time.




Here's (link via An Image of Truth) an excellent introduction to medieval seals.
The phenomenon of seals in medieval art and culture is little studied. As part of this project we would like to highlight the prominent role seals played in medieval manuscript illumination.




According to this article from the NYTimes, we've only got 10 years to get it together and harmonize.
Mr. Argüelles brought the world the Harmonic Convergence, with simultaneous gatherings in 1987 of New Age tribes in places from the pyramids of Giza to Central Park, which aimed to save the world from destruction in 2012. He says it is high time to overthrow the Christian calendar, based on the sun, and to replace it with a 13-month, 28-day calendar, based on the moon and the Maya.

If we harmonize time, "the effect on the human mind and nature will be of unimaginable consequence," Mr. Argüelles said in an e-mail message from his aerie on the slopes of Mount Hood in Oregon. If we do not, Western civilization is "programmed for apocalypse" at the end of the Long Count - Dec. 22 (or 23), 2012. Circle your Calendars.


Friday, December 20, 2002


Here's a short article (link via Brothers Judd) on Tolkien's inspiration for Middle Earth. Pardon my ignorance, but I'd never heard of the Kalevala before:
Nearly all Finns at that time [19th century] were speaking Finnish, Swedish or even Russian, the region's established written languages. But a dialect still existed in this isolated region as it always had—in oral form, passed down through the ages from one generation to the next in songs and verses, or "runes."
A collection of these runes, comparable to India's Ramayana, or the Greek Odyssey, is known in Finland as the Kalevala, and those who sing its lyrical verses from memory are known as "rune-singers." These elders long carried in their minds the entire record of the Finnish language.
Oral traditions are fascinating because they're sort of like an ancient game of "Telephone." Until stories are written down, they're subject to the fluctuations of the storyteller's memory and imagination. Anyway, I thought the similarities with Homer were intriguing. The article then points out that
The Kalevala inspired not only Finnish nationalism, but also a young English scholar and writer named J.R.R. Tolkien, in whose mind was already taking shape a magical universe which was about to be transformed by Finnish language and legend.

In a letter to W.H. Auden, on June 7, 1955, he remembered his excitement upon discovering a Finnish Grammar in Exeter College Library. "It was like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me; and I gave up the attempt to invent an 'unrecorded' Germanic language, and my 'own language'—or series of invented languages—became heavily Finnicized [sic] in phonetic pattern and structure."

The Finnish language that so delighted the young student became the inspiration for the lyrical tongue of Middle-earth's elves. Tolkien taught himself the ancient and newly codified Finnish to develop his elfin language, and so that he could read the Kalevala in its original Finnish. This extraordinary achievement opened the door to many further influences from Finnish mythology. Parallels abound between the Kalevala and Tolkien's own saga, in terms of both the characters themselves and the idea of the hero's journey.


Thursday, December 19, 2002


Louis Menand had a good review of Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate a while ago. More interesting than Pinker, I think, are Menand's asides. Here's how he starts the review:
"The new sciences of human nature." Well, why not? The old sciences of human nature didn't have such a fabulous track record. They gave us segregated drinking fountains, "invented spelling," and the glass ceiling—all consequences of scientific theories about the way human beings really are. Possibly, there is a lesson there, which is that the sciences of human nature tend to validate the practices and preferences of whatever regime happens to be sponsoring them. In totalitarian regimes, dissidence is treated as a mental illness. In apartheid regimes, interracial contact is treated as unnatural. In free-market regimes, self-interest is treated as hardwired. Maybe this is unfair to the new sciences of human nature, though. It could be that the problem with the old sciences was simply that they weren't scientific enough—that they were mostly wishful thinking projected onto dubious data about skull size and the effects of estrogen on the ability to balance a checkbook. Today's scientists might have the capacity to get right down there among the chromosomes and the neurotransmitters, and to send back reports, undistorted by fear, favor, or the prospect of funding, about what's going on. Maybe the new sciences of human nature are really scientific. It's worth a look.
Pinker is interesting because he is, as was Carl Sagan, not afraid to speculate, and speculate wildly, when most might refrain and think more careful nuance is required before pontificating. He's "interesting" like a crazy uncle (or at least my crazy uncle) or the office blowhard who spouts his opinion on anything and is intellectually cowed by absolutely nothing. After an encounter with such a person I always think I must be a little dull and uninteresting because I don't have a witty blurb about every possible topic that could possibly arise. We call such folks "dabblers" or "dilettantes." Fun to be around, the life of the party, and often on top of the bestseller lists.

You might have guessed this about Pinker from his previous book, How the Mind Works. Perhaps Everything About Everything would be a more presumptuous title, but not by much. If you want a nice antidote for his particular brand of materialism (and this works for Dawkins, et al.), take a look at this review of Pinker’s How the Mind Works (HTMW) by two of his peers. Here’s the conclusion, the first half of which is a wonderful caveat for the Faustian aspirations of many scientists and pseudo-scientists of our day:
To be sure, without our tools, metaphors, and simplifications, we are overrun. Without them we are left with awe, a canyon that invites us to ask only the grandest questions and offers only echoes in return. Our response is to embrace the power of tools to manage the unknown. We should be careful to acknowledge the constraints that arrive with each metaphor and model, and avoid the temptation of believing that our theories are somehow indicative of all that can be. The tools are not the world, though we use the tools to explore. Darwinian selection has been a marvelous way to organize and interrogate the complicated and interconnected "tangled bank" of nature. We can celebrate this achievement, while rejecting the inversion that places Darwinism at the center and builds from it a cartoon world of psychological motivation and limp moral theory.

HTMW's difficulties remind us of an old proverb: "button a shirt properly at the bottom, or it won't come out right at the top." Pinker misses too many of the lower buttons. This is exasperating in a book of this length. HTMW contains nothing-literally not one thing-resembling either evolutionary modeling, explicit fitness calculations, or the basics of population or behavioral genetics. It is a grab bag of assertions that could have been made without any appeal to neuroscience, computation, Darwinian psychology, or genetics. To paraphrase Freeland Judson, there is a precept here. More is not always more. Indeed it is sometimes disastrously less. Despite its 600 pages, HTMW's systematic omission of alternatives and detail creates a burden that readers should not have to shoulder.
Pinker strikes me as the kind of person who (like Conchis in The Magus if you know it) might say, "Why should I wade through a two-hundred page novel just to get a couple of notions that could be stated on one page?" There is a refusal to acknowledge that some aspects of the human condition lie just beyond formulation in crisp and concise algorithms.




We can certainly grasp [the act of existing], as we do a butterfly in flight, and hold it living in our existential act of judgment; but once we begin to talk about it we have transformed it into a pathetic object of study, subject to whatever measurements our ingenuity can devise. It is attained, that is to say, not in a concept but in an intellectual act of judgment rooted in an immediate sense experience. ~~ Colman O'Neill, O.P.




NRO has a column (link via Ideas, etc.) by John West about the state of Darwin in classrooms. It's not a backdoor attempt to sneak Creationist ideas into science books (or perhaps I should say that if it is then it's well disguised). Rather, it points out the little known fact that most scientific evolution theory is not presented as, well, "scientific." The theory has become iconic and many who teach it assume many things they ought not.
First, there has been growing public recognition of the shoddy way evolution is actually taught in many schools. Thanks to the book Icons of Evolution by biologist Jonathan Wells, more people know about how biology textbooks perpetuate discredited "icons" of evolution that many biologists no longer accept as good science. Embryo drawings purporting to prove Darwin's theory of common ancestry continue to appear in many textbooks despite the embarrassing fact that they have been exposed as fakes originally concocted by 19th-century German Darwinist Ernst Haeckel. Textbooks likewise continue to showcase microevolution in peppered moths as evidence for Darwin's mechanism of natural selection even though the underlying research is now questioned by many biologists.

When not offering students bogus science, the textbooks ignore real and often heated scientific disagreements over evolutionary theory. Few students ever learn, for example, about vigorous debates generated by the Cambrian Explosion, a huge burst in the complexity of living things more than 500 million years ago that seems to outstrip the known capacity of natural selection to produce biological change.

Teachers who do inform students about some of Darwinism's unresolved problems often face persecution by what can only be termed the Darwinian thought police. In Washington state, a well-respected biology teacher who wanted to tell students about scientific debates over things like Haeckel's embryos and the peppered moth was ultimately driven from his school district by local Darwinists.
Isn't the answer to this dilemma fairly evident? Students need first to understand the methodology of science before they can put evolution theory or any other scientific theory in its proper context. And teachers of science need to understand that science is not properly taught when it is simply a handing on of scientific orthodoxy. It's a bit ironic that evolution theory has become iconic and treated like an article of faith rather than a scientific theory. For students to understand contemporary scientific method, they need to understand how to do science, not just recite conclusions from scientific theories.




Camassia has a nice follow up to her anger and sin comments here and responds to my RUDDY REVERENCE post. She quotes a nice passage from First Things on the subject. Upon rereading my post, I think I should have been a little more careful and said "anger is not necessarily a sin" or some such thing. I got a few emails wondering about that and how that would square with the Seven Deadly Sins, among which is Anger. Pieper, in the passage from The Four Cardinal Virtues that I quoted adds:
It is self-evident that the anger which breaks all bounds and disrupts the order of reason is evil and is sin. Blind wrath, bitterness of spirit, and revengeful resentment, the three basic forms of intemperate anger, are therefore evil and contrary to order


Wednesday, December 18, 2002


Dave of DaveTown has just added G. K. Chesterton's book on St. Thomas Aquinas to his reading list. Great choice!

There is a characteristic story told of G. K. Chesterton by his biographer, Masie Ward, about the writing of the book. Chesterton had dictated nearly half the book to his secretary, Dorothy Collins (to whom the book is dedicated), when he stopped and said to her:
'I want you to go to London and get me some books.'
'What books?' asked Dorothy.
'I don't know,' said G. K. (all quotes from Gilbert Keith Chesterton by Masie Ward)
She then consulted with a friend of theirs and obtained some classic and more recent books on the medieval philosopher. When she gave them to Chesterton, he "flipped them rapidly through" and then continued to dictate the rest of his book never referring to them again. According to Ward, there were no marks in any of the books except for a "sketch of St. Thomas drawn in the margin" of one of the them.

The story is a typical description of Chesterton's antics in composing much of his work. But what is extraordinary about this story are the remarks of the renowned Aquinas scholar Etienne Gilson regarding Chesterton's book:
Chesterton makes one despair. I have been studying St. Thomas all my life and I could never have written such a book.
The book's greatness was not a given at the outset. When the book on Aquinas was proposed to Ward, who published it in 1933, she could not have anticipated its merit. She knew well the climate of the time and the enormous work being done on Aquinas by scholars. And she was concerned that Chesterton was in danger of producing a work that would be perceived as embarrassingly naïve (kind of like my wife with this blog!). She thought his reputation as a literary critic and hers as a publisher were in jeopardy and she wondered:
Was Chesterton for once undertaking a task beyond his knowledge? Such masses of research had recently been done on St. Thomas by experts of such high standing, and he could not possibly have read it all.
Not only had Chesterton not "read it all," but he had "flipped" the few he had read "rapidly through," of which the only mark of scholarly research was a little drawing of St. Thomas in one of the margins!

But Chesterton had accomplished something remarkable with the work, the significance of which is described again by Gilson after Chesterton's death in 1936:
I consider it as being without possible comparison the best book ever written on St. Thomas. Nothing short of genius can account for such an achievement. Everybody will no doubt admit that it is a 'clever' book, but the few readers who have spent twenty or thirty years in studying St. Thomas Aquinas, and who, perhaps, have themselves published two or three volumes on the subject, cannot fail to perceive that the so called 'wit' of Chesterton has put their scholarship to shame. He has guessed all that which they had tried to demonstrate, and he has said all that which they were more or less clumsily attempting to express in academic formulas. Chesterton was one of the deepest thinkers who ever existed . . . .


Tuesday, December 17, 2002


If you've seen the movie The Princess Bride you'll probably remember the following scene:
The two men [Inigo and the Man in Black, each wielding a sword in his left hand] are almost flying across the rocky terrain, never losing balance, never coming close to stumbling; the battle rages with incredible finesse, first one and then the other gaining the advantage, and by now, it's clear that this isn't just two athletes going at it, it's a lot more that that. This is two legendary swashbucklers and they're in their prime, it's Burt Lancaster in "The Crimson Pirate" battling Errol Flynn in "Robin Hood" and then, incredibly, the action begins going even faster than before as we CUT TO: INIGO.
And behind him now, drawing closer all the time, is the deadly edge of the Cliffs of Insanity. Inigo fights and ducks and feints and slashes and it all works, but not for long, as gradually the Man In Black keeps the advantage, keeps forcing Inigo back, closer and closer to death.

INIGO:(happy as a clam)"You are wonderful!"

MAN IN BLACK: "Thank you -- I've worked hard to become so."
The Cliff edge is very close now. Inigo is continually being forced toward it.

INIGO: "I admit it -- you are better than I am."

MAN IN BLACK: "Then why are you smiling?"
Inches from defeat, Inigo is, in fact, all smiles.

INIGO: "Because I know something you don't know."

MAN IN BLACK: "And what is that?"

INIGO: "I am not left-handed."
And he throws the . . . sword into his right hand and immediately, the tide of battle turns. CUT TO: THE MAN IN BLACK, stunned, doing everything be can to keep Inigo by the Cliff edge. But no use. Slowly at first, he begins to retreat. Now faster, Inigo is in control and the Man In Black is desperate. CUT TO: INIGO. And the . . . sword is all but invisible now, as he increases his attack, then suddenly switches styles again. CUT TO: A ROCKY STAIRCASE leading to a turret-shaped plateau, and the Man In Black is retreating like mad up the steps and he can't stop Inigo -- nothing can stop Inigo -- and in a frenzy, the Man In Black makes every feint, tries every thrust, lets go with all he has left. But he fails. Everything fails. He tries one or two final desperate moves but they are nothing.

MAN IN BLACK: "You're amazing!"

INIGO: "I ought to be after twenty years."
And now the Man In Black is smashed into a stone pillar, pinned there under the . . . sword.

MAN IN BLACK: (hollering it out)"There's something I ought to tell you."

INIGO: "Tell me."

MAN IN BLACK: "I am not left-handed either."
And now he changes hands, and at last, the battle is fully joined.
It occurs to me that much of the discussion about important issues tends to suffer from what I'll call the "I'm-Not-Left-Handed Principle." Smart, passionate, informed people either can't or won't use their best "swordsmanship" to make or refute a point.

Perhaps they can't because there are inevitable constraints imposed by the media in which they're debating. Most op-ed pieces and blog posts tend to be short on space and tend to be a tad too telegraphic. In written pieces, what eventually happens is pundits presume a reader is familiar with their previous columns, posts, or whatever; and worse, they presume certain tendencies in certain groups: Republicans will know that ________ can't work, Democrats will know that __________ is ill-conceived, Libertarians will know that ____________ is an affront, etc. Such presumptions may be correct, but they often blunt the coherence of agruments.

The shortcuts require writers to take long strides to get to their point quickly, strides that lurch over subtleties and shades of meaning, oversimplifying or even obscuring the argument. The result is that issues get watered down and you end up with lukewarm, left-handed swashbuckling.

Or perhaps, more interestingly, these same smart, passionate, informed people simply won't bring out their finest points or most compelling arguments. It's a rather strange thing to claim, but I think it's true and I'm not sure why this happens. I don't mean some subsurface bias or prejudice that will undermine a person's credibility if it surfaces (e.g. Lott?). I mean hesitating to bring to bear the aspects of an issue that touch you most deeply and compel you privately. It's a kind of keeping scraps from dogs, a sort of clenching of one's pearls so they don't get trampled by swine. Using biblical imagery here unfortunately suggests canine and porcine attributes to others in the debate and so I'm not sure it's the best image to use; but it does convey the sense that there is a time and place for speaking what you really hold dear and a time to keep silent.

And hence the I'm-Not-Left-Handed Principle almost seems the rule rather than the exception in media; it's clearly evident in the more strident and popular outlets. I don't think the answer is that op-ed's, columns, or blogs are hopelessly hobbled by what pundits both can't and won't put forth, but I do think we ought to acknowledge that there are issues that can only be taken so far in such media.




A Slate article (link via ibidem) on spanking:
Spanking, by contrast, is an equal-opportunity punishment; it works equally well whether you're rich or poor. So simple economics suggests that the very poor, with fewer alternatives available, should spank their kids more—and they do. Professor Bruce Weinberg of Ohio State University has studied this. He found that if you're a kid in a $6,000-a-year household, you probably get spanked every six weeks or so. If your parents' annual income goes up to $17,000, you'll get spanked about once every four months. As income rises above about $17,000, spanking falls off more slowly; $40,000 and $120,000 households are not much different from $17,000 households. That makes sense; in today's America, you don't have to be very wealthy before your kid has a Game Boy, so even a $20,000 household has good non-spanking alternatives.
Hmm . . . so as household income decreases, the number of cans of whoop ass in the house increases? And taking a Game Boy away is a "good non-spanking alternative"? Gosh, now it all seems so simple.


Monday, December 16, 2002


One of these men is Genius to the other;
And so of these. Which is the natural man,
And which the spirit? who deciphers them?
~~ The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare
Here's (link via Arts&Letters via CalPundit via Murtaugh) a review of a recent biography of Darwin, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place by Janet Browne.
Of all the great scientists, Charles Darwin was the least obviously brilliant. He was not at all mathematical, he mastered no foreign languages, and the concepts that he originated and developed are easily graspable by someone of quite moderate intelligence. We know we could never have been Newton or Einstein; but to have been Darwin might have been within our capabilities. Did not T. H. Huxley, a man to all appearances much more brilliant than Darwin, exclaim on reading The Origin of Species, "How stupid of me not to have thought of it!"

In what, then, did Darwin's greatness lie? It is one of the virtues of Janet Browne's majesterial biography of Darwin that it makes plain the extraordinary abilities of a man who at first sight appeared rather ordinary. Chief among these was his ability to concentrate with undeviating intensity upon the study of minutiae that were beneath the notice of lesser men, minutiae that were actually of the greatest biological significance.(emphasis added)
(Wouldn't that bit in bold above be a great slogan for Minute Particulars? "Unearthing minutiae that are beneath the notice of lesser men." Too bad I'm one of the "lesser men" myself!)

I guess I hadn't thought about the fact that most of us could read The Origin of Species and understand it, while Einstein's Relativity: the Special and General Theory would probably take a few passes, a tutor perhaps, or a new brain to grasp what hovers just over the edge of clarity for most.

In the case of Natural Selection, there were actually two "geniuses" who independently arrived at nearly identical conclusions at nearly the same time: Darwin and Wallace. This amazing fact suggests the idea was low hanging fruit by the latter half of the nineteenth century; perhaps it would have occurred to many others in a few more years. There was indeed a confluence of ideas emerging in geology and especially in genetics (Darwin did not have a good model for inheritance and mutation; Mendel's studies weren't widely known until after Darwin's death).

I suppose this "ability to concentrate with undeviating intensity upon the study of minutiae" could explain Darwin's greatness, but I think CalPundit is more accurate when he suggests that what's really at play is the fact that
Practically every act of genius seems obvious after it's been pointed out (even relativity was widely accepted just a few years after its discovery), and the reason is simple: acts of genius rely on making a connection that no one else has made. There may be math behind it or not, but there is always a crucial connection, an unexpected combination of two (or more!) seemingly unrelated concepts, that is the core of all great discoveries. It's the connection that's hard, not necessarily the conclusion that's drawn from it.
This would seem to follow from the simple fact that the number of people who understand the conclusions of a genius is far greater than the number of people making the connections that led to the conclusions. In realms of genius other than math and science, certainly more people can play Mozart than compose like him. More people enjoy Shakespeare than write like him.

It occurred to me that a recent quote I posted from Josef Pieper was referring to this distinction between grasping a conclusion and making original connections:
It is, alas, only too easy for the superficial reader to float along on the unruffled surface of these statements . . .which seem transparent to the very bottom, and take no account of the depths over which their serene clarity lies.
If you've ever floated over really clear water on a sunny day, I'm thinking for example of Lake Tahoe many years ago, and then dove down to touch the bottom only to realize it's much farther than you thought, then I think you know what Pieper means. The "serene clarity" of the water creates the illusion that it's fairly shallow when it is in fact quite deep. Another sign of genius may just be the fact that such thinkers can make connections and insights that hold together so well that we often don't realize how far down the "bottom" of these insights is. Making the connections to see the bottom is the work requiring genius; seeing the bottom once the connections are made is the work of everyone else.

Then, of course, you have to be able to dive deep and worry about decompression on the way up and . . . okay, I know, there's only so much a metaphor can do. I'll stop.


Sunday, December 15, 2002


Camassia wonders about the appropriateness of anger in a recent post. She describes two situations:

1) A story she heard on NPR about the anger of a Jewish deli owner upon seeing Catholic school children forced by nuns to stand in extreme cold without jackets so as not to cover their uniforms as the pope's motorcade drives by

2) The exchange between Peter Nixon and me over appropriate responses to the Cardinal Law situation

She then writes:
But this made me think about the general Christian idea that anger is a sin. I understand anger is highly dangerous, but I also know it does not always lead to evil. I am sure the gesticulating deli owner was angry, and he probably did not say very nice things to the nuns, but his anger led him to give away his own merchandise to help others. I have no doubt who acted most Christlike in that story. And I am sure that Peter's love of his church, so apparent in the rest of his blog, fueled his rage last week. . . . Give me a little passionate anger in the face of child abuse, over bloodless obeisance to authority, any day of the week.
Two quick clarifications before I make my main point. 1) I understand the aim of the stereotypical story of zany nuns doing whacky things, but I find it hard to take such things too seriously. Is there really anyone today who would side with the nuns? I've no doubt the deli owner's anger was appropriate. 2) While I've never met Peter Nixon and I'm sure he'd cringe with embarrassment at my saying this, I feel I would be fortunate to have an iota of the holiness he exhibits in his writing and likely possesses himself. I've never doubted this nor implied otherwise. When I first noticed and linked to his blog I called it, in a rare moment of insight, "firm and compassionate." Indeed it is. Unless I'm mistaken, I don't think he took my concern as a "bloodless obeisance to authority" as Camassia is suggesting. However, my wife would probably agree with Camassia's concern; while not using Camassia's great phrase, my wife thought my response was a bit too clinical and cold. So you're in good company Camassia! But back to wrath and anger.

Actually the Christian, or perhaps I should just say Catholic, position is really NOT that anger is a sin. Let me quote from Josef Pieper's The Four Cardinal Virtues
Wrath is the strength to attack the repugnant; the power of anger is actually the power of resistance in the soul.

Whoever, therefore, stigmatizes the power of wrath as something in itself anti-spiritual and consequently to be "mortified" is committing the same error of one who similarly slights "sensuality," "passion," and "desire." Both contemn the basic forces of our being: both are offending the Creator, who, as the liturgy of the Church says, has "marvelously established the dignity of human nature."

Concerning wrath . . . understood as the passionate desire for just retribution of injustice that has been suffered, St. Thomas, in repudiation of the Stoics, says the following:
Because the nature of man is constructed of soul and body, of spirit and sensuality, it belongs to the good of man to devote himself utterly to virtue, namely with spirit, sensuality, and body alike. And therefore man's virtue requires that the will for just retribution reside not only in the spiritual realm of the soul, but also in sensuality and in the body itself.
This passage is found in the great work of St. Thomas's later life, the De Malo, in an article discussing the question "whether all wrath is evil." Anger is "good" if, in accordance with the order of reason, it is brought into service for the true goals of man; one who does good with passion is more praiseworthy than one who is "not entirely" afire for the good, even to the forces of the sensual realm. Gregory the Great says: "Reason opposes evil the more effectively when anger ministers at her side." And what was said of the power of sexual desire, which overwhelms reason, is likewise true of the obscuring power of anger:
It is not contrary to the nature of virtue that the consideration of reason comes to a stop in the execution of that which reason has already considered; even art would be impeded in its activity if it should wish to consider what was to be done where it was a question of immediate action.
The surprise with which we reflect on these statements makes us aware once again how far we are from considering the whole man in our conception of the moral good. We realize how much we almost unconsciously tend to take the "purely spiritual" for actual humanity; how much, on the other hand, the "ancients" can teach us and make us once again embrace the full created nature of world and man, in its true reality.
So -- and let me first ward off any "if you were a parent you'd think differently" remarks by pointing out, unfortunately de rigueur in this matter, the fact that I'm a parent and as concerned about child abuse as anyone -- I think anger and reverence are not contradictory acts. I'm categorically NOT suggesting "bloodless obeisance to authority" with my recent posts about tempering our responses to bishops. I'm in fact suggesting that a ruddy reverence toward the "episcopal consecration" of a bishop does not preclude anger or outrage. I've explained why in my recent posts and would just be repeating myself if I attempted to explain again now. I hope to ponder things a bit more and make another attempt soon.


Friday, December 13, 2002


Rough day. How about a diversion?

I tried this before but the graphics stopped loading so here's another attempt.

This (assuming the graphic above appeared) is pretty amazing, even if you've seen a million of these things. So, the square marked A is the same color as the square marked B. Not similar shade, not almost, but identical in color. You simply won't believe it until you line them up next to each other by doing some cropping. Here are the two squares, cropped, but otherwise unaltered.

(thanks to Naked Writing for posting this some time ago)

Thursday, December 12, 2002


No I don't mean scotch; you'll see the scotch reference further on. Steve of In Formation has recently decided to go silent. I think I understand and certainly wouldn't suggest anything one way or the other to him. It can happen that we end up writing so much that we don't take the time to just sit in silence or read others who are wiser -- for me finding someone wiser is not hard to do. But there is something about writing that focuses and clarifies things in a way that reading cannot. There's an old saying that I've always found kind of cute: "Writing is Nature's way of showing us how sloppy our thinking is"; sometimes it's sobering to read something I've written and watch the prose swerve into one sloppy turn after another like a bobsled with no driver.

But writing for me, all avenues of writing not just a blog, tends to give me a chance to pull out my thoughts and flop them onto a brightly lit table where I can then see if or how they all fit together. I guess my strategy is to try to maintain a balance between silence, reading, writing, and talking with friends over a fine scotch, with preference to the latter (the scotch doesn't work so well with reading or writing and I suppose drinking scotch in silence wouldn't be such a good thing).




I got a bit bucket of emails on my post about irreverence toward bishops and a number of folks blogged responses. I didn't link the blurbs I found problematic because I was discussing the tone more than the content and it was a fairly quick dip into the blog trough. Still, two of the three blogs quoted responded. (UPDATE:Mark Shea also noticed my post below and kindly linked to it, magnanimously sending his readers on over here to see what the fuss was all about.) Peter over at Sursum Corda responded here with impressive equanimity and the kind of insight that makes his one of my favorite blogs to visit. Greg over at HMS stood his ground in this post and asked for a response. Rather than respond to each concern of his, which would likely mean I'd just be repeating my original post, let me try another approach. There are several things that I think should be kept in mind when responding to allegations of bishops doing terrible things:
1) Our ability to recognize a person
2) The relationship between worship and belief
3) The requirements for prudential judgments
4) The Church's concerns about the Donatist heresy
I think I'll try to tackle these one at a time in separate posts as time permits.

1) The ability to recognize a person is central to every aspect of the Catholic Faith. The Sacraments of the Catholic Church embody the words and actions of a person, Jesus Christ: not laws, not doctrine, but a person. The Truth of the Catholic Faith isn't chiseled in stone or summarized in ponderous tomes; it's the Word made flesh, the second person of the Trinity. When a priest celebrates Mass, his words and actions when he is acting in persona Christi are the same as Christ's. And, we're taught in Lumen Gentium that
bishops in an eminent and visible way sustain the roles of Christ Himself as Teacher, Shepherd and High Priest, and that they act in His person. (in Eius persona agant) *)
Now then, the problem I have with breezy determinations about when a bishop no longer deserves reverential treatment that reflects the fact that he acts in the person of Christ is that such demarcations are artificial and assume that we can separate content from the person making truth visible in "an eminent and visible way." This from the CCC explains why:
Faith is a personal adherence of the whole man to God who reveals himself. It involves an assent of the intellect and will to the self-revelation God has made through his deeds and words. "To believe" has thus a twofold reference: to the person, and to the truth: to the truth, by trust in the person who bears witness to it.
You can't pick and choose the truths to which you want to adhere when they are revealed by a person. With revealed truths, it's all or nothing. The fact that Christ was incapable of sin makes us (or it should) a little more comfortable adhering to all that he has revealed of the Father, of Himself, and of us. The difficulties that arise in our understanding of truths revealed to us by Christ ought to stem from a lack of clarity about what was revealed rather than the trustworthiness of who revealed them.

Where we get into a bind is when those who act in the person of Christ sin. This, of course isn't something rare. We all sin; priests and bishops are not exempt. And the problem then is that a kind of dissonance creeps in when bishops "in an eminent and visible way sustain the roles of Christ Himself as Teacher, Shepherd and High Priest" and "act in His person." If some of the allegations against bishops are true, then this dissonance would become so chaotic that we might be tempted to dismiss the bishop or cast aspersions his way. This, as I've said before, I think would be a mistake.

When we scream for the resignation of a bishop, or call him a moron, or suggest that he is a pimp, we are assuming that we know precisely when he is really acting in Christ's person, exactly when he "in an eminent and visible way" is sustaining "the roles of Christ Himself as Teacher, Shepherd and High Priest" and when he is not.

Now obviously there are extreme instances where it would seem impossible that a bishop is acting in Christ's person. But even in these cases, the moment you identify such instances and no longer believe that a bishop is acting in Christ's person, in that very moment you presume to separate the person from what is revealed and you deny the "twofold reference: to the person, and to the truth" mentioned above.

By now I'm sure Greg, if he's reading this, has steam spewing from his ears in outrage as it now seems that I'm claiming that nothing a bishop could do can justify irreverence. Perhaps there's steam spouting from yours as well? Well, that's not quite what I'm saying. . . but let me make one more attempt at this.

The Gospels are filled with words and actions of Christ that, if we're honest, seem unexpected and even contrary to anything we would ever do. Those closest to Jesus were confused by his motives and constantly misunderstood him. We would surely have been as confused and baffled. The unexpectedness, the signs of contradiction, the challenges that pummel us at every turn in the revelation of the Word no longer speak to us if we decide what to believe and what not to believe. If we believe that Jesus healed the sick (it seems a reasonable thing to believe of a Messiah) then we also have to believe that he said:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword. For I have come to set a man 'against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's enemies will be those of his household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.( Matt 10:34-38)
If it were up to us then we'd probably think,
Geez, why can't we all just get along? Why will my enemies be those of my household? Why do I have to take up some morbid cross? Heck, why do I need to be worthy of Him anyway?
Certainly this is one of the passages I'd keep off of my tray at the Catholic cafeteria, and this is exactly my concern.

When we deny that a bishop "in an eminent and visible way" is sustaining "the roles of Christ Himself as Teacher, Shepherd and High Priest," when we say that he is no longer acting in Christ's person, we are selectively deciding what is true and what is not about what a person reveals to us in his or her words and actions. If you do this in the extreme cases that seem "obvious," what's to stop you from doing it in less clear situations or in situations where you are genuinely challenged by a bishop in the role of "Christ Himself as Teacher, Shepherd and High Priest?" Well, I would suggest there's nothing that would stop you and that's why you shouldn't deny the effects of a bishop's ordination. That's why reverence is called for.

Can we prosecute a bishop for criminal, civil, and/or canonical violations? Of course. Should we? Of course. But Catholics can remain reverent while doing this. And while I suppose it's theoretically possible to do the equivalent of yelling outside a bishop's cathedral that it's time for him to go, or calling him a moron, or suggesting he's a pimp, or clamoring that he's a no good son of a bitch who should be hung up by his thumbs in the public square, I suppose it's theoretically possible to do this and still be reverent, but I just don't see how it can be a sign of reverence in any practical manner.




And Then? may have spotted a slip up in a comment that suggests the identity of the infamous Nihil Obstat; head on over here for details.




Very nice article (link via Disputations via And Then?) on responding to the Church scandal. You should go read the whole thing, but I thought this was really interesting:
The point is, sometimes God's chosen ones betray him. That is a fact that we have to confront. If the early Christians had focused only on the scandal caused by Judas, the Church would have been finished before it even started to grow. Instead they recognized that you don't judge a movement by those who don't live it but by those who do. Rather than focusing on the betrayer, they focused on the other eleven on account of whose work, preaching, miracles, and love for Christ we are here today. It is on account of the other eleven-all of whom except John were martyred for Christ and for the gospel they proclaimed-that we ever heard the saving word of God, that we ever received the sacraments of eternal life.

We are confronted by the same scandalous reality today. We can focus on those who have betrayed the Lord, those who abused rather than loved the people whom they were called to serve. Or we can focus, as did the early Church, on those who have remained faithful, those priests who are still offering their lives to serve Christ and you out of love. The secular media almost never focuses on the good "eleven," the ones whom Jesus has chosen who remain faithful, who live lives of quiet holiness. But we the Church must keep the terrible scandal that we are witnessing in its true and full perspective.




"Disagreement is not an easy thing to reach."

I forget where I ran across that quote but I've always liked it (I believe it was quoted by Jean Bethke Elshtain in her Democracy on Trial). It's the kind of statement that makes you pause about three sentences past it and go back and read it again as you think to yourself,
Huh?! Wait a minute, disagreement is just about the easiest damn thing to reach that there is. In fact, I disagree. It's an easy thing to reach!
I'm not proposing that this is a profound statement that you can toss into most issues to make some progress; you'd probably just confound everyone. But the sentence did occur to me on my recent journey through a number of comment sections of some of the more reasonable and smart atheist blogs.

Over on World Wide Rant a number of us got into a discussion on evolution and a creator when Andy posted the following:
EVOLUTION KEEPS GETTING more scientific validation, this time showing that while mice have tails, we have the genes for them too. Of course, one could make the argument that the Intelligent Designer was just re-using some code when building mice and men - however, that makes absolutely no sense for an all-powerful being, does it?
The comment chain is no longer there (perhaps a glitch in the comment system, a limit that once reached resets it, or plain ol' deletion by the site owner?), but here's a link to the first 16 comments. I don't think my comments were razor sharp or very compelling, but that's not my point here. Rather, what I found intriguing was the fact that I really found it hard to get genuine disagreement. If you read through the comments I think you'll see what I mean.

I point out that I really do think that nothing in biology makes sense apart from evolution theory. I point out that I'm not packing a hidden Creationist agenda since I think such arguments are silly. I point out that we can say some things about what an all-powerful creator can't do (e.g. make a square circle), but there are also some things we can't assume (e.g. that an all-powerful creator could have made a very different universe or excluded evolution from living creatures). And yet, many of the points, it seems to me, weren't so much refuted as simply ignored as if I hadn't even mentioned them.

I know it's a comment chain where thoughts are dashed off and aren't necessarily airtight. Still, what does one have to do to convince some folks that evolution and a creator aren't contradictory, that everyone who believes in God is not a Creationist, that God can be proven to exist from reason alone, that contemporary science and philosophy are different ways of using reason, that the metaphysical principle that something can't be and not be at the same time in the same respect is not a matter of opinion, and so on?

I wonder if the problem is that no one takes anybody seriously anymore in these discussions. For example, I prefaced my first comment with the bald fact that I think nothing in biology makes sense apart from the theory of evolution. I don't think one can put his or her acceptance of the explanatory power of evolution any more plainly than that. And yet "Creationist" still creeps into the responses to me. Perhaps I'm guilty of not taking various atheists' positions seriously? Perhaps they're guilty of not taking me seriously? Perhaps disagreement, true disagreement is only possible when participants in such discussions give each other the benefit of the doubt that they are sincere, that there are no ulterior motives, and that they each seek the truth? Perhaps. I do wonder if genuine disagreement might be the only way a backdrop of commonality can appear in some issues, a backdrop that can then ground authentic discourse.


Wednesday, December 11, 2002


Summa Contra Mundum has some nice quotes here by Gabriel Marcel, a philosopher you don't see mentioned much anymore (if ever). Here's one:
In short, how can I test the initial assurance which somehow is the ground of my fidelity? But this appears to lead to a vicious circle. In principle, to commit myself I must first know myself; the fact is, however, that I really know myself only when I have committed myself. That dilatory attitude which involves sparing myself any trouble, keeping myself aloof (and thereby inwardly dissipating myself), is incompatible with any self-knowledge worthy of the name.
Marcel is a favorite philosopher of mine for many reasons. The title of the first essay in the collection Karl mentions above, "Incarnate Being as the Central Datum of Metaphysical Reflection," gives you a sense of his focus. Here are some fragments from something I wrote some time ago if you want a further sense of Marcel's thought:

Marcel was an ardent advocate for a philosophy of human life which shed light upon the mystery of incarnate being. "Incarnation—the central `given' of metaphysics," for Marcel's thought, "is the situation of a being who appears to himself to be, as it were, bound to a body" (Being and Having). The human being's existence as incarnate has important consequences for his position:
Of this body, I can neither say that it is I, nor that it is not I, nor that it is for me (object). The opposition of subject and object is found to be transcended from the start. (Being and Having)
Much of his work was a defense of the dignity of the human being especially against the oppression of mass movements and ideologies which reduced humans to mere objects, rather than mysterious, incarnate beings which transcend manipulation by abstract theories.

Marcel described his philosophy as "an obstinate and untiring battle against the spirit of abstraction"(Man Against Mass Society). He railed against the distortions which can creep into any system of thought, any assemblage of categories and determinate purposes, if great care is not taken:
As soon as we accord to any category, isolated from all other categories, an arbitrary primacy, we are victims of the spirit of abstraction.(MAMS)
We become "the prisoners of abstraction" by succumbing to a methodology or ideology, rather than to the "urgent inner need to grasp reality in its concreteness." When technique "begins to claim a sort of primacy in relation to modes of thinking," to center on "doing" rather than "being," then, Marcel suggests, it has distorted the manner in which we think and engage the world:
The function of abstract thought is above all the recognition of its own insufficiency and thereby the preparation of new modalities of thought which transcend abstract thinking without repudiating it.(Tragic Wisdom)
Marcel's notion of the task of a philosopher reflects the delicate balance one must seek between the manner in which we function rationally by use of abstraction, and the concrete truth of our being and the world:
I would say that the task or vocation proper to the philosopher consists in preserving in himself a paradoxical equilibrium between the spirit of universality on the one hand, in as much as this is embodied in values which must be recognized as unalterable, and on the other hand his personal experience, which he neither can nor should ignore, for it will be the source of whatever individual contribution he might make.(TW)
To resist this tendency in human thought, he insists on a "concrete" philosophy, a philosophy which returns again and again to the "central datum of metaphysics," the mystery of incarnate being.
The most authentic philosophical thought, it seems to me, situates itself at the meeting point of the self and the other.(Presence and Immortality)
Underpinning Marcel's "concrete" philosophy, is the critical distinction he makes between a problem and a mystery, a distinction that is sorely lacking in many discussions these days:
A problem is something which one runs up against, which bars the way. It is before me in its entirety. A mystery, however, is something in which I find myself involved, whose essence therefore, is not to be completely before me.(Creative Fidelity)
A problem is something which I meet," he once wrote in his journal, "which I find complete before me, but which I can therefore lay siege to and reduce"(BH). He contrasts this with something which transcends any attempt to grasp it, the notion of mystery:
[A] mystery is something in which I am myself involved, and it can therefore only be thought of as a sphere where the distinction between what is in me and what is before me loses its meaning and its initial validity.(BH)
Elsewhere he wrote:
A mystery is a problem which encroaches upon its own data, invading them, as it were, and thereby transcending itself as a simple problem.(Philosophy of Existentialism)
Much of Marcel's oeuvre is in journal format, and his thought resists easy categorization. Often he contrasts two notions to arrive at a further understanding of each: problem and mystery, being and having, the individual and mass society, abstraction and concrete being. One goal he had throughout was a vigorous shaking of the foundations to present things in a crisp new way and force you to reconsider well-worn ideas:
I think I may say without exaggeration, that my whole philosophical career has been devoted to the production -- I dislike using this physical term -- of currents whereby life can be reborn in regions of the mind which have yielded to apathy and are exposed to decomposition.
Freedom and fidelity were central themes as well for Marcel. One central question he grapples with is "How can an active and even militant fidelity towards a lost loved one be reconciled with the laws of life?" And he once wrote,
It recently occurred to me that metaphysics should be defined as the logic of freedom; the formulation is not impeccable but it has the merit of clarifying an essential truth: progress in philosophy consists in the sum of successive steps whereby freedom, aware of itself as a simple capacity of affirmation and denial, incarnates itself, or, if one likes, becomes a real power of conferring a content on itself so as to discover and acknowledge itself for what it is.
One nice little introduction (it's only about 50 pages) to Marcel that I've found very good is Sam Keen's Gabriel Marcel from John Knox Press; it's out of print, but you might still be able to find it.




Hmm . . .
Good sense is mankind's most equitably divided endowment, for everyone thinks he is so abundantly provided with it that even those with the most insatiable appetites and most difficult to please in other ways do not usually want more than they have of this. ~~ Descartes, Discourse on Method


Monday, December 09, 2002


It’s not too surprising that non-Catholics might think “Franco Harris” when hearing the term "Immaculate Conception,” having the derivative “Immaculate Reception” in mind; yet many Catholics think the Immaculate Conception refers to the virgin birth of Jesus; it doesn’t, of course. But I suppose it's not a good sign that there's confusion on this. After all, "Immaculate Conception" is not an obscure term tucked away on long book shelves in theological libraries. It’s central to the Faith and one of the few “infallible” doctrines proclaimed in the last few centuries.

The tradition of Church teaching and the solicitude the Church demonstrates for scripture and its interpretation has been and continues to be one of the few sources of stable, consistent opinion throughout the last two millennia. Perhaps unexpectedly, this consistency often involves vigorous dialogue and debate that can be very animated and involve widely divergent ideas. Look again at the above article on the Immaculate Conception (scroll down to “The Controversy”) and you’ll see a great example of this. Contrary to the old joke of a telegram arriving while Vatican II was in session with the words:
Sorry I won’t be able to make it.

The Holy Spirit
it is a central truth of the Catholic Faith that consistency is ensured by the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Here are the readings for today's solemnity if you're interested.




Here are three statements regarding the Archbishop of Boston, His Eminence Bernard Cardinal Law.

1) Y'know, maybe they should prosecute [Cardinal] Law and the archdiocese under RICO -- It sure as hell looks like organized crime to me. Institutional white slavery, prostitution, drug abuse and child abuse all impeccably documented by the minions of Madam (er, Cardinal) Law.

2) Time to go. Time to go. Time to go . . .

3) Cardinal L[aw], compromised moral idiot though he is . . .

Guess where I found these statements? Perhaps on a blog like Raving Atheist which lists the Catholic Church as a "Hate Group"? Nope. Perhaps on Jody's fine blog Naked Writing which doesn't care much for the Church? Nope. Perhaps over at USS Clueless or Light of Reason or Andy's World Wide Rant which are all reasonable and informative and again don't much care for the Church? Nope.

Actually these comments came from Catholic blogs, and there are many more statements like these on many other Catholic blogs! These are just the result of a quick romp through some of my favorites. I understand the reason for the comments. I understand the disappointment and concern. But still, I'm baffled that Catholics can speak so dismissively and disrespectfully, so irreverently of a bishop of the Church. Does the sacrament of Holy Orders which is most fully manifested in the ordination of a bishop mean so little? As I pointed out a few days ago, a bishop is a person who has "episcopal consecration" which, according to the CCC
" . . . confers, together with the office of sanctifying, also the offices of teaching and ruling. . . . In fact . . . by the imposition of hands and through the words of the consecration, the grace of the Holy Spirit is given, and a sacred character is impressed in such wise that bishops, in an eminent and visible manner, take the place of Christ himself, teacher, shepherd, and priest, and act as his representative (in Eius persona agant)." "By virtue, therefore, of the Holy Spirit who has been given to them, bishops have been constituted true and authentic teachers of the faith and have been made pontiffs and pastors." (emphasis added)
I agree with Ut Unum Sint and The New Gasparian that the tone many Catholics are taking regarding bishops is troubling. These two blogs recently linked to St. Ignatius of Antioch's Letter to the Ephesians, where we find the following:
But inasmuch as love suffers me not to be silent in regard to you, I have therefore taken upon me first to exhort you that ye would all run together in accordance with the will of God. For even Jesus Christ, our inseparable life, is the[manifested] will of the Father; as also bishops, settled everywhere to the utmost bounds[of the earth], are so by the will of Jesus Christ.
Maybe St. Ignatius is just a "compromised moral idiot," but if he's right . . . well, it would certainly make me hesitate to chant "time to go" in reference to a bishop or portray a bishop as a pimp on my blog. Look at that "as also bishops" phrase again. Not some bishops, but all bishops are "so by the will of Jesus Christ."

Now, if that doesn't make you reconsider your tone about clamoring to "throw the bum out" regarding a bishop, I suppose nothing will. If you're Catholic and need further words of warning, you might find this excerpt from St. Ignatius interesting:
For if I in this brief space of time, have enjoyed such fellowship with your bishop--I mean not of a mere human, but of a spiritual nature--how much more do I reckon you happy who are so joined to him as the Church is to Jesus Christ, and as Jesus Christ is to the Father, that so all things may agree in unity! Let no man deceive himself: if any one be not within the altar, he is deprived of the bread of God. For if the prayer of one or two possesses such power, how much more that of the bishop and the whole Church ! He, therefore, that does not assemble with the Church, has even by this manifested his pride, and condemned himself. For it is written, "God resisteth the proud." Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God.
I don't think it's a knee-jerk, ultra-conservative position to reverence a bishop, any bishop, to whom, and I'll quote it again,
by the imposition of hands and through the words of the consecration, the grace of the Holy Spirit is given, and a sacred character is impressed in such wise that bishops, in an eminent and visible manner, take the place of Christ himself, teacher, shepherd, and priest, and act as his representative (in Eius persona agant).
Catholics just can't have it both ways. Either you believe that this happens in the sacrament of Holy Orders or you don't. If you do believe it, and you really think that a bishop has been derelict in his office, then that's obviously a tough bind to be in. It's certainly something I'm wrestling with and I don't think it's an easy matter. I've outlined what I think is required in a previous post: that we remain faithful and reasonable in our response.

Perhaps some of the Catholic bloggers who've called bishops idiots, pimps, morons or any other revilement might kindly let me know what I'm missing here? Please don't tell me that Bishop ________ has committed crimes and should be thrown in jail and therefore deserves to be called a scoundrel and any other invective until he is removed from office, defrocked, and/or thrown in jail. That will miss the point and just convince me that I ought to take a writing class because I'm incapable of coherent written expression. I KNOW that bishops are as capable as any of us of committing utter atrocities. Any bishop who has committed a crime ought to be lawfully held accountable; no bishop is above the law. Any bishop who has violated canon law ought to be lawfully held accountable; no bishop is above canon law. Any bishop who has committed mortal sin ought to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation, do penance, and make amends; no bishop is above divine law.

This is perhaps too melodramatic, but no Catholic should see a contradiction between a person kissing a bishop's ring and that same person legally prosecuting the bishop for a crime. There is no contradiction between reverence toward a person who has received "episcopal consecration" and recognizing that same person's faults. My concern is that the reverence seems to have vanished amid the accusations and disgust. You might say "So what!" Well, again, if you're Catholic, I wonder if the moment you lose sight of the efficacy of a sacrament, of the role of office, of the mechanism and importance of authority, I wonder if at that moment your faith begins to fade and become indistinguishable from the gray world of good intentions that no longer has a person, the Word made Flesh at its center.