"...minute and particular." -- Enormous Generalities
Friday, January 31, 2003
THE VIRTUE OF HATE
Sursum Corda has a nice quote and comments about an article in First Things entitled The Virtue of Hate by Meir Y. Soloveichik which I hope to read soon. Peter writes:
To call this essay thought-provoking is an understatement. I wish I had had this handy when I was writing my reflection on the atonement a couple of weeks ago, because it goes to the heart of one of the points I was trying to make, namely that the moral "goodness" of Jesus' teachings on forgiveness, reconciliation and love of enemies is by no means self-evident. It does not confirm our expectations, it confounds them.Indeed it does.
The fact that something seems absurd, loopy, or ludicrous is not automatic grounds for dismissal unless it’s an answer on your Logic 101 quiz. If you believe that God has indeed revealed Himself to us, if you believe the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us, then the character of that revelation is likely not going to be on our terms, terms with which we’re comfortable, terms we can handle easily and manipulate into our favorite theories. In fact, the Word of God will grate against or even contradict our naked human expectations just about every time we are touched by it: "Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted" (Luke 2:34). This does NOT mean that our every opinion will be stood on its head when we hear the Liturgy of the Word, read the bible privately, or experience a sacrament. Rather, it means that meditating on what God has revealed to us will, if we let it sink in and take hold, affect us in very unexpected ways.
HEY! I RESEMBLE THAT REMARK
Kairos takes a swing at what's wrong with many American Catholics' beliefs (link via In Between Naps):
The really challenging thing about many American Catholics’ beliefs about their faith is not that those beliefs are false, though they surely are that, but that they are adolescent. A spirit of juvenile contradiction, self-righteousness, and absolute certainty defines the collective mass of dissenters in the US, just as it defines the outward appearance of large numbers of teenagers in high schools and colleges across the country. (Let us not forget too the obsession with sexuality as the locus of so much grievance.) It is not surprising, really, that we have an adolescent Church, after all. The boomers have bequeathed us an adolescent culture, forever lusting after youth, newness, hipness, sexuality. We are focused on “who’s hot, and who’s not,” like the in crowd in the high school cafeteria.I see his point. I just wonder if adolescents are getting a bum rap whenever we use terms like "adolescent Church" or "adolescent culture." As a former adolescent myself, I like to think that it's possible to emerge from that state quite healthily and the emergence is in fact due to adolescence. Kairos, of course, is grousing about those who are stunted and remain adolescents by espousing adolescent notions. Again, I understand the point and position.
Still, I wonder if the "adolescence" referred to is a notion from hindsight that no longer reflects what real adolescents experience. For example, the statement "The boomers have bequeathed us an adolescent culture, forever lusting after youth, newness, hipness, sexuality" suggests that adolescents "lust after youth, newness, hipness, sexuality," which, of course, they don't. They are young, new, hip, and sexual; they don't need to lust for any of these.
Being an adolescent is an authentically human way of being . . . for an adolescent. In fact, you have to be an adolescent and experience adolescence in order to mature and become an adult. The problem with many of the current reform groups or those who are convinced that the Church is repressive, wrong, nasty, and brutish, is that they typically aren't being genuine or mature. I don't see this as being adolescent so much as being narcissistic, arrogant, brazen, and/or prideful. These might seem adolescent qualities, but I think they're not. Rather, they're qualities that manifest or lead to an inordinate self-righteousness. Again, most adolescents may seem self-righteous, but this is usually a front that hides confusion and doubt. Adults who exhibit this massive self-righteousness know better and probably don't have real confusion or doubt; they're not sincere enough to be confused or to doubt.
I think the best and most succinct comment on reform and resistance came from Disputations back in July:
To be fair, if twenty thousand people like me were to form a reform movement, it would probably look and sound a lot like Voice of the Faithful (minus the echoes of liberal Episcopalianism). Which is why I'm not joining a reform movement.Precisely. If I fashioned my faith from my own little world, it would be cramped, crimped, and incoherent. It would make sense to me for a while I suppose, after all, I fashioned it. But it would soon disappoint me and I'd see how glaringly shortsighted and artificial such a construction was.
There are reasons to object, to protest, to confront. But these can only be authentic if our first disposition to the Faith is an openness to the unexpected. The sign of Revelation is not comfort, it's contradiction. The sign that the Faith is genuine, for most of us, is the plain fact that it's the last thing we'd conjure up ourselves.
Thursday, January 30, 2003
SURPRISED BY JOY
Disordered Affections on the joy of Boo Boo. Also, be sure to check out the comment section where you'll find Karl's comment, "non-contraceptive sex rocks," among others. Oh, so now you're interested.
Wednesday, January 29, 2003
GLORIOUS MACHINES OF MEAT
Andy of World Wide Rant comments here on my WHAT'S THE POINT? post below. I've responded in his Comments Section briefly and may follow up in a later post. But the discussion reminded me of something Will Wilkinson of The Fly Bottle (link via Eve Tushnet (I think)) wrote a few weeks ago on the temptation that he as a materialist wrestles with when meaning seems to seep into his life in odd places (be sure to click over and read the whole thing):
I went to church today, and not for a wedding. . . . I hope the Episcopalians will not mind if I was so deeply moved by what is to me a metaphor, or that I had no choice, after the fact, to think of my rush of religious feeling in terms of the sudden activation of well-developed, but lately starved, sets of of neural networks. Consolation is consolation. Neurotransmitters are neurotransmitters. . . .Now this is eloquent yet wondrous strange. I don't mean the apparent inclination toward meaning we seem to have "naturally" and the fact that rejecting meaning is "unnatrual, uncomfortable." I'm sure if I suggested a reason why human beings seem inclined toward meaning that it would be dismissed as merely an evolutionary adaptation of our species for survival or some such thing (which it might very well be, though that, of course is not the end of the story). No, what's strange is, well, as Samuel Johnson once said about a "dog's walking on his hind legs."
It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.I guess I'm surprised that anyone could read that last paragraph in the above post, even with its persuasive, romantic images and sentiment, even in light of the sincerity of the writer, and actually think it makes sense or really captures our condition. I simply don't understand how "going one way rather than the other always makes all the difference." Unless you're talking about a choice between stepping off of the top Half Dome or turning and climbing back down (well, I suppose even that choice can't have any real meaning for a materialist), why, why, why does it make all the difference if we're just glorious machines of meat?
UPDATE: Gene Healy and Julian Sanchez also commented on Wilkinson's post above.
ENTERPRISES OF GREAT PITH AND MOMENT
Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls,Josef Pieper, whom I've quoted before on the virtue of prudence, writes:
The immediate criterion for concrete ethical action is solely the imperative of prudence in the person who has the decision to make. This standard cannot be abstractly construed or even calculated in advance; abstractly here means: outside the particular situation. The imperative of prudence is always and in essence a decision regarding an action to be performed in the "here and now." By their very nature such decisions can be made only by the person confronted with decision. No one can be deputized to make them. No one else can make them in his stead. Similarly, no one can be deputized to take the responsibility which is the inseparable companion of decision. No one else can assume this burden. The strict specificity of ethical action is perceptible only to the living experience of the person required to decide. He alone has access to the totality of concrete realities which surround the concrete action, to the "state" of the person himself and the condition of the here and the now.He is speaking of a decision that we might face in very ordinary times, but his words apply to any action that has moral significance by anyone, whether private or king.
While we talk as if major decisions like committing troops to an invasion of Iraq can "have momentum" and are "made by committees and various processes," it seems to me that at some point there is a lynchpin decision made by one person. With all of the councils and advisors and committees and teams, with all of the machinations and strategy, someone, somewhere will make the critical decision that sets things into motion. It might seem strange to reduce so massive and monumental a decision to one person at one point in time, but morality can't be applied to organizations like physics to a Rube Goldberg machine; morality always involves particular actions by a particular individual at a particular time and place.
Perhaps this is silly and a bit extreme, like the idea of a butterfly flapping its wings causing all the right motions to precipitate a hurricane halfway around the globe, but I don't see how else we can describe such things without appealing to an abstract process or system or institution. While we often speak of the evil of an abstract idea like an empire, country, regime, institution, and so forth, notions of moral good and moral evil are only applicable to human individuals and their actions.
Any scenario, whether it be the United States "deciding" to unilaterally invade Iraq or a U.N. Security Council resolution that "decides," any scenario will have lines and branches of decisions that eventually lead to or require one decision by one person at a particular time without which the whole scenario would collapse.
It occurred to me, assuming this tracing out of human decisions and actions holds true, that if major decisions really do eventually resolve in a person, decisions of unimaginable scope and importance, how is it possible that such a decision can fulfill the traditional requirements of a good moral decision? Surely no one person can personally keep the "totality of concrete realities" in mind to make such decisions. These global issues sprawl out faster and farther than any one person can possibly track and reel in.
And so, the situation requiring a decision ends up getting chunked and packaged into bite-sized pieces by other trusted decision makers who then present the "concrete realities" in manageable pieces to the one who ultimately makes the decision. But these, of course, are no longer "concrete realities" in the sense used by Pieper above, are they? They are artifacts "packaged" and "presented" rather than an understanding of the situation grasped by one present to the events and situation.
We're faced, it seems, with some tough moral issues. How can someone act morally and responsibly in decisions of such scope, and how do we ascribe moral culpability with actions that have such vast implications? And what about those who advocate a decision or help carry it out? Again from King Henry V
WILLIAMS (a soldier)O hard condition indeed.
Tuesday, January 28, 2003
THE TRUTH OF THINGS
Today is the Feast Day of St. Thomas Aquinas. My recent post, IT MAY BE STRAW, BUT IT'S GOOD STRAW, has some nice quotes on Aquinas if you're interested. From the encyclical Aeterni Patris:
[R]eason, 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.There's also a great passage from the more recent Fides et Ratio in the above post.
One of my favorite quotes from St. Thomas, though certainly not the most sublime, is from In Libros De Caelo Et Mundo:
studium philosophiae non est ad hoc quod sciatur quid homines senserint, sed qualiter se habeat veritas rerum.
I had a professor who used to say that working with a translated text instead of the original was a little like working on a fine watch while wearing boxing gloves. How about working on texts in Aquinas's own hand?
Monday, January 27, 2003
GETTING BEHIND EXISTENCE
Every human being has forgotten who he is and where he came from. We are all blasted with one great obliteration of memory. We none of us saw ourselves born; and if we had it would not have cleared up the mystery. Parents are a delight; but they are not an explanation. The one thing that no man, however adventurous, can get behind is his own existence. ~~ G. K. Chesteron
FAMILY PLANNING AT THE FAMILY PLANNING CENTER
Karen of Disordered Affections has a nice idea for a Candid Camera scene:
Me: Hi. We'd like to start planning a family.Read the rest here.
Relapsed Catholic (link via Mark Shea) says she has dibs on Catholic blogs. Um, okay. Now what?
Sunday, January 26, 2003
UPDATE TO WHAT'S THE POINT?
Charles Murtaugh comments here on the Davies article.
Justin Katz adds to the discussion in his weekly column.
If Pi were 3 . . .
-- from Metamagical Themas, D. Hofstadter
Saturday, January 25, 2003
Have you seen this making the rounds on the email circuit yet?
Count the number of F's in the following text:
FINISHED FILES ARE THE
RESULT OF YEARS OF SCIENTIFIC
STUDY COMBINED WITH THE
EXPERIENCE OF YEARS
Now select the space below to read the answer:
What did you come up with? Three?
Count again. There are actually six! Apparently most of us ignore "OF" even when we're told to count the number of F's in a text.
Friday, January 24, 2003
WHAT'S THE POINT?
Paul Davies has an interesting article (link via In Between Naps) about how "scientific discovery does not make the cosmos seem increasingly pointless":
[I]t is obviously wrong to claim that a system with a finite life span cannot have a point. Individual human lives and cultures are subject to the same strictures of the second law of thermodynamics, and are finite as a result. Yet human beings and society have all sorts of goals and purposes. To say there is no point to human life because we each will one day die is clearly ridiculous. So the fact that the stars may not burn forever, or the entire universe may eventually approach a state of thermodynamic equilibrium (or even dark emptiness) has little bearing on whether or not the universe has a point.He makes some good, um, points, but, as I argued in a post back in October called THINGS MATTER BECAUSE THEY END, Davies doesn't seem to realize that the point and purpose he refers to will also evaporate if nothing remains once we and the universe blink out of existence. He has fastened point and purpose to a finite universe and fails to see how this doesn't really say anything about point or purpose that would be of interest to human beings.
As I've asked before,What exactly am I missing here? If life has no eternal consequences, if there is no thread of significance that can touch us once we're dead, if all of us are destined to nothingness, if any "good" thing we do eventually fades as all of those touched by that "good" thing pass into nothingness, how can anyone say that "life is very, very precious" or mean anything by wanting to make "the world a better place" or really have a "worthwhile goal"?
If upon my death there will be absolutely nothing persisting that is “me,” then nothing I do can really matter. Yes, I’ll have friends and loved ones who live on but none of that is “me” in the sense that it can still matter to “me.” And loved ones and friends are in the same boat of having nothing of them remain after death so why would my legacy matter to them or me?
Now one might say, “Well, it matters that I made the world better or helped others.” But I'd reply that the world you made better and those whom you helped will all disappear as well into the dark void of nothingness, so how can it really matter? If an “I” doesn’t persist in some way, then nothing matters.
This misunderstanding pervades many of the blogs that espouse an atheistic and/or materialistic worldview. USS Clueless had this to say back in June:
As an atheist I don't grant any grand overall meaning predetermined for us, since we just happened and weren't designed. Thus we have to make our own goal. And since there's nothing beyond this life, whatever goal we set must be accomplished here.Raving Atheist, while swerving into a few sensible comments on abortion amid what strikes me as a nearly constant vitriolic spew toward the Catholic Church or anything religious, writes:
It is precisely because, as the atheist believes, death is final -- that is there is no afterlife Disneyland where everything is made right -- that this life is so precious.Jody of Naked Writing had this to say back in October:
Things matter because they end. They end for everybody, for everything, for every when. As with any good book, it’s these endings that make our stories so damn remarkable.Kafkaesqui wrote in a comment to Jody's post:
I don't believe I've read a more succinct explanation as to how an Atheist's philosophy can contain a moral code than this:Let me recast my previous post on this to make another attempt at explaining my confusion:
What I simply don't understand is how meaning can arise in a worldview where, in the end, nothing, absolutely nothing, survives its physical existence. Jody's response back in October was eloquent and I thought presented his case well:
While we were here, while we did what we did, and acted as we acted, that is what was important. That can never be removed, even on our passing. That the monuments we created fall down, that the bridges that we build wash away or get replaced, that is just the fact of a thing, the starting point for the opportunity to set ourselves against the tide of change and challenge it so as to impact, as deeply, magnificently and fully as possible, for as long as possible. Nothing can ever change the fact that we did it. Others may forget. Others may never know. We know. We remember, to the end of our days, what we accomplished and what transpired as a product of our efforts.Yet, doesn't this unravel before you even finish reading it? Here's how I responded:(Jody's in bold, I'm in italics):
While we were here, while we did what we did, and acted as we acted, that is what was important. That can never be removed, even on our passing.As I've pointed out before, I'm not pulling some sleight of hand to conjure up an argument for the existence of God -- I'm sure this will be the claim of many. The concern that "There wouldn't be any meaning to life if God didn't exist" is simply NOT a proof for the existence of God. My point is just that many who claim to be strict materialists use words like "life is precious" and make moral statements that seem to lose any force if one truly adheres to materialism.
The dilemma from the well-known passage in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov that without eternal consequence "nothing then would be immoral, everything would be lawful" is a tough nut to crack for an atheist or materialist. But, let me repeat, it's NOT a reason superstitiously to fashion a "sky god" or some fictitious set of rules.
For a believer, God and eternal consequence don't arise from a concern that otherwise "nothing then would be immoral, everything would be lawful"; rather, morality and law arise from the fact that the existence of God implies eternal law which implies natural law which grounds morality and to some degree a legal system (obviously and depending on the system this will never be a perfect reflection of natural law). I really do think this confusion causes many misunderstandings between theists and atheists, and between those who think not all be-ing is material being and those who think all be-ing is material being.
Thursday, January 23, 2003
YOU CAN'T BE ANY POORER THAN DEAD
I wonder if this Letter to the NY Times (link via Mark Shea via Dyspeptic Mutterings) prompted the editors to check and double-check with Ron Weddington, co-counsel in Roe v. Wade, that it wasn't a prank before they printed it:
To the Editor:Good Lord! Is this guy serious?! Dale of Dyspeptic Mutterings responds to each of the above absurdities and makes some good points (points that are unfortunately marred by insults that, ironically, question Weddington's own humanity. I'm not sure saying "An anencephalic pantload of smug protoplasm named 'Ron Weddington' weighs in on Roe" and "Just like 'a collection of cells, without reason or awareness' nicely sums up Weddington himself," is the best way to convince someone that you're concerned about the sanctity of every human life. For example, "anencephalic" may literally mean "without a brain" but it's also a very tragic birth defect and in the context of the abortion debate perhaps not the best insult to hurl.).
HERE'S AN IDEA: READ THE ACTUAL DOCUMENT
The Rittenhouse Review has a nice comment here on the perennial inability of many to go to the original document when getting bent out of shape about what the Church teaches. He mentions Andrew Sullivan's reliance in a recent post (you'll need to scroll) on a news blurb rather than linking to (and reading?) the actual document. Sullivan wrote:
No Catholic publication will henceforth be allowed to publish a variety of viewpoints on such critical matters as church governance, women priests, clerical celibacy or gay priests. Equally, no Catholic politician will be allowed to deviate from Vatican orthodoxy. At least that's the clear inference of this latest 17-page document from Cardinal Ratzinger's department.The link above to the 17-page document is not -- of course not why would it be -- the actual 17-page document in question, nearly 5000 words in length, but rather a blurb from Reuters which boiled the document down to a summary of about 500 words.
I don't read Sullivan much anymore. I posted this a while back which tracked Andrew's refusal to keep the facts straight or at least find the original source when he ludicrously claimed that:
The Pope doesn't want to deal with the profound issues of priestly celibacy, ecclesiastical abuse of power and sexual morality that are wreaking havoc in the American church. He has far more important things to do - like complain about some celebrities wearing crucifixes and tend to his sparse flock in Azerbaijan. There are two priests in Azerbaijan. Two. This papacy is now descending into self-parody. While Rome burns ...But back to the actual 17-page document, "The Participation of Catholics in Political Life," in question, you'll find the following early on:
A kind of cultural relativism exists today, evident in the conceptualization and defence of an ethical pluralism, which sanctions the decadence and disintegration of reason and the principles of the natural moral law. Furthermore, it is not unusual to hear the opinion expressed in the public sphere that such ethical pluralism is the very condition for democracy. As a result, citizens claim complete autonomy with regard to their moral choices, and lawmakers maintain that they are respecting this freedom of choice by enacting laws which ignore the principles of natural ethics and yield to ephemeral cultural and moral trends, as if every possible outlook on life were of equal value. At the same time, the value of tolerance is disingenuously invoked when a large number of citizens, Catholics among them, are asked not to base their contribution to society and political life – through the legitimate means available to everyone in a democracy – on their particular understanding of the human person and the common good. The history of the twentieth century demonstrates that those citizens were right who recognized the falsehood of relativism, and with it, the notion that there is no moral law rooted in the nature of the human person, which must govern our understanding of man, the common good and the state.You'll then find a careful, nuanced unpacking of the implications of this position, examples of which follow:
The Church recognizes that while democracy is the best expression of the direct participation of citizens in political choices, it succeeds only to the extent that it is based on a correct understanding of the human person.Catholic involvement in political life cannot compromise on this principle, for otherwise the witness of the Christian faith in the world, as well as the unity and interior coherence of the faithful, would be non-existent. The democratic structures on which the modern state is based would be quite fragile were its foundation not the centrality of the human person. It is respect for the person that makes democratic participation possible. As the Second Vatican Council teaches, the protection of «the rights of the person is, indeed, a necessary condition for citizens, individually and collectively, to play an active part in public life and administration». . . .That bit in bold seem the crux for me, but more later.
I suppose even a reading of the whole document would not change Sullivan's opinion, but it would be nice to get occasional evidence that he in fact reads the things he rails against.
HINTS, GUESSES, AND THAT LATERAN SHOWSTOPPER
One of the reactions unbelievers often have toward believers -- and I think it's at least initially quite justified -- is a kind of slack-jawed amazement at how believers can speak so freely about riddles wrapped in mysteries inside enigmas like: God, Trinity, Providence, Free Will, Forgiveness of Sins, Incarnation, Eternity, and so on. This astonishment requires a twofold response.
It's true that "God talk" often proceeds with little regard for either God or the limits of language. There is a famous phrase from the Lateran Council IV of the thirteenth century that ought to temper learned pontifications:
Between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude (CCC).And if that doesn't level the theological playing field, try this from Aquinas written in the same century:
Concerning God, we cannot grasp what he is, but only what he is not, and how other beings stand in relation to him (CCC).That ought to cause at least a slight pause between pontifications.
But we miss the point if we think such caveats (from believers by the way: a Church Council and a major theologian) imply that we should be awed or intellectually cowed into silence. On the contrary, our intellects are designed to know and love God and His Creation. Rather, the pause in our pondering ought to be the simple act of framing our speculations, our "faith seeking understanding" in light of the above notions. Bold, relevant, and penetrating theological insight is likely only possible if we first understand our limitations and the small beam of light we can cast into the void. As T. S. Eliot wrote:
These are only hints and guesses,
Wednesday, January 22, 2003
WAR AND THE DEATH PENALTY
At a certain point in the past few decades Catholic Teaching seems to have come to similar conclusions about just war theory and the death penalty. For various reasons, the issues have come into sharper focus and much stricter requirements for moral permissibility have resulted. It now seems that war and the death penalty can only be justified in very few and exceptional circumstances. Pope John Paul II tied these issues together in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae when he wrote:
Among the signs of hope we should also count the spread, at many levels of public opinion, of a new sensitivity ever more opposed to war as an instrument for the resolution of conflicts between peoples, and increasingly oriented to finding effective but "non-violent" means to counter the armed aggressor. In the same perspective there is evidence of a growing public opposition to the death penalty, even when such a penalty is seen as a kind of "legitimate defence" on the part of society. Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform. (emphasis added)Now before I continue, let me quickly dismiss the inevitable though naïve objection that this somehow represents a negation of the right to defend ourselves either personally or as a country. The Church has always insisted that we have the right to defend ourselves and those in our immediate care from harm; and this right extends even to killing the aggressor if that seems the only means of defense. This is neither surprising nor a profound revelation. Only those intent on obfuscation will conclude that restricting the circumstances for administering the death penalty or going to war means a person or country cannot kill as a means of defense. As John Paul II explains in the encyclical quoted above:
Moreover, "legitimate defence can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another's life, the common good of the family or of the State". Unfortunately it happens that the need to render the aggressor incapable of causing harm sometimes involves taking his life. In this case, the fatal outcome is attributable to the aggressor whose action brought it about, even though he may not be morally responsible because of a lack of the use of reason.Still, it's very interesting that the death penalty and war have been yoked together and I suspect there's a reason for this. Pope John XXIII wrote in Pacem In Terris (1963)
Thus, in this age which boasts of its atomic power, it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice. (emphasis added)If you line this up with Pope John Paul II's words from Evangelium Vitae you'll see a pattern of concern emerging:
It is clear that . . . the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent. (emphasis added)The concern is with the means of defense. In the case of war, the threat of nuclear escalation and complete destruction is why "it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice." In the case of the death penalty, a penal system that can reasonably prevent a convicted murderer from killing again is why it no longer makes sense that the electric chair is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice.
Now you might say, well, we're no longer facing a nuclear threat like the former U.S.S.R. And you might also say, well, the death penalty is not just to prevent someone from killing again, but it's also a form of punishment and a deterrent. And these would be good and interesting objections or at least concerns -- perhaps for a later post.
Regardless of your view on war or the death penalty, you can at least acknowledge a consistency in these concerns. It seems, according to the Church, that both war and the death penalty cross a line that we don't necessarily have to cross anymore except in very rare cases. I think this analogy between defending society from murderers and defending society from a hostile attack is fascinating and I wonder if there are other documents than those I mention above that make this analogy explicit.
While not addressing this analogy specifically, it does seem that Pope John Paul II could have been speaking to just this issue when he wrote (again from EV)
[T]o kill a human being, in whom the image of God is present, is a particularly serious sin. Only God is the master of life! Yet from the beginning, faced with the many and often tragic cases which occur in the life of individuals and society, Christian reflection has sought a fuller and deeper understanding of what God's commandment prohibits and prescribes. There are in fact situations in which values proposed by God's Law seem to involve a genuine paradox. This happens for example in the case of legitimate defence, in which the right to protect one's own life and the duty not to harm someone else's life are difficult to reconcile in practice. Certainly, the intrinsic value of life and the duty to love oneself no less than others are the basis of a true right to self-defence. The demanding commandment of love of neighbour, set forth in the Old Testament and confirmed by Jesus, itself presupposes love of oneself as the basis of comparison: "You shall love your neighbour as yourself " (Mk 12:31). Consequently, no one can renounce the right to self-defence out of lack of love for life or for self. This can only be done in virtue of a heroic love which deepens and transfigures the love of self into a radical self-offering, according to the spirit of the Gospel Beatitudes (cf. Mt 5:38-40). The sublime example of this self-offering is the Lord Jesus himself.
Monday, January 20, 2003
THE FETID TRUTH BEHIND THE FLOWERY WORDS
Leonard Pitts Jr. writes in a recent column:
If you ever saw that picture of Emmett Till, you never forgot it.While this happened decades ago, it's a story that ought to sting still today. Just what kind of attitudes could lead two men to torture and murder a teenager for "a schoolboy dare"? Perhaps we don't have the whole story, though it's hard to imagine what story could justify this monstrous action. But, as I pointed out in a post last month, for me, just a glimpse of something like the above story, or perhaps a picture of a lynching, the white faces of the spectators laughing, giddy, oblivious to what they've done or observed, just one sickening, gut-wrenching image is all it takes to remind me that there's simply no excuse for words or actions that might head us back to such backward times. They yield the little hallowed ground we've gained to distance ourselves from such horrific events.
Pitts concludes with:
Consider Trent Lott's first attempt at apology, when he blithely described segregation as ''the discarded policies of the past.'' If you didn't know any better, you might have thought he was talking about farm subsidies or tax codes, so bloodless and opaque was the language.
THEY WOULD LOVE A FARCICAL JOB
Video meliora . . . has a very nice reflection on work (be sure to click over and read the whole post):
The truth is that most work outside the home seems unutterably small, with the exception of ministry work, the professions, and art. Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. Priest, prophet, poet. And yet all work is meaningful, by definition, because work is done by humans and humans are of inestimable value. A shoe-maker’s work is as valuable to God as a CEOs. But I have trouble getting this construct into my head though. I make the linkage intellectually but… Perhaps I’m bastardizing the corporate experience – without ambition to advance it becomes a farce. They can become exercised over minutiae because they are hungry – they want to get to the next level. Strip “the game” from the corporate rat race and you’re left with…what?There's also a link to Nancy Nall who writes:
Just reread what I have so far; am I really the soulless yuppie I appear to be, lusting after $3,000 computers, eating pesto in January and slurping a whole bottle of wine on a Wednesday? God, I hope not. I spent some time this week with some po' folks for a story, and it does correct your thinking a bit. On the other hand, it always helps to be reminded how much hard work and savvy is involved in being poor. When others call poor people lazy they miss the point. Keeping body and soul together on welfare or worse is harder than you think, and requires a certain set of skills; the trick to turning people around is rechanneling their energy and thinking onto different paths, but that, too, is hard work.Work. It does seem difficult to find a point between the one farcical extreme where all of your efforts become a wee shot in the void and nothing you do seems meaningful or helpful to anyone and the other Peace Corp or working in a soup kitchen extreme that you might have done just out of college when you were filled with ideals and didn't have a care in the world. While the "ideal" job won't leap out at you after you read it, the encyclical Laborem Exercens is a good read for anyone contemplating work and its place in our lives:
Through work man must earn his daily bread(1)and contribute to the continual advance of science and technology and, above all, to elevating unceasingly the cultural and moral level of the society within which he lives in community with those who belong to the same family. And work means any activity by man, whether manual or intellectual, whatever its nature or circumstances; it means any human activity that can and must be recognized as work, in the midst of all the many activities of which man is capable and to which he is predisposed by his very nature, by virtue of humanity itself. Man is made to be in the visible universe an image and likeness of God himself, and he is placed in it in order to subdue the earth. From the beginning therefore he is called to work. Work is one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures, whose activity for sustaining their lives cannot be called work. Only man is capable of work, and only man works, at the same time by work occupying his existence on earth. Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons. And this mark decides its interior characteristics; in a sense it constitutes its very nature.
Friday, January 17, 2003
NAKED BEFORE EVERYONE
Interesting as always over at Disputations, this time on body and soul:
The Catholic faith, though, tells us that both of these things go together, that a human by nature is an immortal soul informing a physical body, and that both soul and body count. I think, on the whole, we're leaning too far over the "spiritual" side of the balance beam these days, perhaps in reaction to the [alleged] excesses of outward appearance over inward conversion of a few generations past.T.S. O'Rama mentions in a comment and also on his blog an article by Leon Podles who mentions a really interesting article, "The Naked Face," by Malcolm Gladwell. I read this article back in August and commented on it here. Here's some of my meager, minute musing on this inexhaustable subject:
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."
A SOCIETY OF FREE SOULS
There's been a bit of discussion on the good, the bad, and the ugly in St. Blog's lately and I hope to contribute a blurb or two later. I did want to mention something I blogged back in May that touches on some of the issues quite nicely. C.S. Lewis, in his profound work The Problem of Pain, writes:
The inexorable “laws of Nature” which operate in defiance of human suffering or desert, which are not turned aside by prayer, seem at first sight to furnish a strong argument against the goodness and power of God. I am going to submit that not even Omnipotence could create a society of free souls without at the same time creating a relatively independent and “inexorable” Nature.What he is suggesting is that a free creature must exist in an environment in which it can assert itself against the Will of God and human beings. Because we are incarnate, physical beings, there must be what Lewis calls a “neutral” environment:
If a “world” or material system had only a single inhabitant it might conform at every moment to his wishes – “trees for his sake would crowd into a shade.” But if you were introduced into a world which thus varied at my every whim, you would be quite unable to act in it and would thus lose the exercise of your free will. Nor is it clear that you could make your presence known to me – all the matter by which you attempted to make signs to me being already in my control and therefore no capable of being manipulated by you.While many areas of this kind of argument need to be reinforced, unpacked, or shored up, the gist seems clear. In order for us to be truly free creatures interacting with one another and in relationship to God, there had to be an environment (Nature) which did not conform to our every desire. Still, couldn’t God nullify the harmful effects of such an environment or even prevent a turning away from Him? Lewis has this to say:
We can, perhaps, conceive of a world in which God corrected the results of . . .[an] abuse of free will by His creatures at every moment: so that a wooden beam might become soft as grass when it was used as a weapon . . . . But such a world would be one in which wrong action were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void.Evil is the result of free creatures in a good creation turning from the source of Goodness, and therefore depriving some part of Creation of the Goodwill of God. And so, to take Lewis’s example further, when a person murders someone with a wooden beam, the victim is deprived of the goodness of life, the murderer is deprived of the goodness of doing God’s Will, and the beam is deprived of the goodness intended it by the one who fashioned it (to support something in construction rather than kill someone). This doesn’t make evil any less of a mystery, but I think the notion of the “inexorable ‘laws of Nature’” Lewis offers sheds some light on how evil can occur in a Creation that is Good and how “a society of free souls” can exist in that Creation.
Thursday, January 16, 2003
FALLING FAINTLY THROUGH THE UNIVERSE
Thanks to Flos Carmeli for the link to this fine James Joyce site. Now you're just a click away from what some have claimed to be the finest paragraphs written in the English langauage (hyperbole no doubt, but it's fun to read something that provoked such a comment):
The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover's eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.
MALIGNANT GNOMES AND TONE-DEAF IGNORAMUSES
In case you think scathing, colorful criticism is something modern, my wife came across the Prologue to The Aetia by Greek poet Callimachus (c. 300-240 B.C.) who preferred small poems, one might even say "minute particulars," to long epics:
The malignant gnomes who write reviews in Rhodes
Wednesday, January 15, 2003
LUMP, LUMP, LUMP . . . STUMPED
Can you tell I've been reading Dr. Seuss to my one-year old lately? But I've also been reading posts like this (link via Mark Shea)
So the Raelians -- you know, the religious cult that claims to have created the first human clone -- believe that scientifically advanced extra-terrestrials manipulated DNA in order to create all life in Earth. Wow, that's really crazy. Don't they realize that life, along with everything else in heaven and earth, was actually created in just seven days by an omniscient, omnipotent being, who later had a mortal son, who died, was buried, rose from the dead, and ascended to heaven?InstaPundit thought this was a "nice dig". But I'm stumped as to its appeal and irritated by the lumping together once again of important differences.
I guess I like my humor these days to rise up a little higher than what I enjoyed in third grade. Still, my real objection is that while the reference to Raelians is pretty specific, it's not clear that Glen of Agoraphilia even read the Nicene Creed he linked to and took to be the source of believing that life "was actually created in just seven days by an omniscient, omnipotent being, who later had a mortal son, who died, was buried, rose from the dead, and ascended to heaven." Um, I don't see the "seven days" reference there Glen. Oh, and isn't it supposed to be "six days" anyway?
The joke would still be inane if it linked to some whacky Fundamentalist page that espoused Creationism. But Glen has swerved into what I recently called the Osterizer-set-to-high fallacy in which different things are all tossed together and handled as if they were actually one thing. As Mark Shea commented:
It's amazing how often atheistic critiques of Christianity appear to be based on memories of Vacation Bible School. All very effective for attacking a teenage fundamentalist's understanding of Christianity, but not terribly pertinent for a reasonably educated Catholic's. I don't know how often I've been told I believe in six day Creationism, or that "You think your religion is right and everybody else is totally wrong and going to hell." etc.Why indeed do people consistently fail to distinguish those who profess the Nicene Creed and embrace science when it is properly applied (cf. MUTILATING KNOWLEDGE below) from Fundamentalist zealots who don't understand or make proper distinctions between faith and reason?
I guess I'm a bit disheartened that even InstaPundit, who is usually respectful and intelligent about such things, fails to see that the comparison between Raelians and those who profess the Nicene Creed is either a very pedestrian, puerile attempt at humor or a deliberate attempt to obfuscate.
FAITH AND THE CREDIBILITY OF OTHERS
Peter of Sursum Corda has collected the links to the fine discussion he and Fr. Jim of Dappled Things had a few weeks ago on the sources of faith and the credibility of others. You'll find the links here. They both made excellent points and I highly recommend the thread. I wanted to comment on something that I think follows from their discussion on the role and credibility of others in our faith life.
If you've read many of my posts over the last few months you'll know that I think the "credibility of others" is inseparable from any mature and sober understanding of faith. Of course this "credibility of others" is not the sole object and source of faith. That, as the Tradition clearly teaches, is God.
But I wonder if declaring that the object and source of faith is God lurches into the crisp conclusions of theology a bit too quickly? It seems more of a doctrinal statement in response to some heresy of long ago rather than a response to someone whose faith might have been rattled by the Church scandal. I guess I want to be sure the pristine light of theological hindsight doesn't cause us to miss the details in the shadows of our human condition.
The "credibility of others" is woven so tightly within the human act of faith that practically speaking it's inextricable from any notion of faith in God alone. Our faith is in God alone, but the manner in which we become disposed to such an assent very much involves the dynamic of believing in the testimony of other human beings so that we can, as Pieper puts it, "participate in the knowledge of a knower."
Here's where the shoe pinches a bit for me in the issue of how we might respond to those who have "lost faith" because of the actions of others. Of course faith has God as its object. And indeed faith is ultimately a gift. And yes our genuine assent requires the grace of the Holy Spirit. But all of this is sort of highlighting the end of a very long and nuanced theological argument. It's a response to a denial that God is the Source and End of all that is, was, or will be, including the assent of faith in each of us when it occurs; but I'm not sure it's a response to the despair many find themselves in when they are betrayed by priests and bishops.
When people claim that their faith in Christ has been shaken by the sexual abuse scandal, when they claim that their priests and bishops have betrayed them and left them bitter and abandoned, we need to be careful we don't pull our notion of faith out of the grit and grime of our incarnate condition and flop it antiseptically onto the stainless steel table of creeds and theological statements.
When Christ entered history and dwelt among us, He revealed Himself to us in order that we might know the Father and know our dignity. Christ revealed Himself to us as one of us, as a human being, like us in all things but sin. The credibility of Christ was of vital importance to those who knew Him and believed Him. Everyone who came in contact with Christ did not recognize God incarnate; in fact very few believed Him and even His closest followers abandoned Him in the end. Still, the credibility of the eyewitnesses, the apostles, and those in the early Christian communities is an important aspect of our faith. While the Risen Christ could, I suppose, appear to us in the manner of St. Paul on the road to Damascus (remember that St. Paul, the author of over half of the New Testament, never knew Christ prior to the Resurrection), most of us enter into relationship with Christ by our participation in the Sacraments, our hearing the Word, and our experience of the witness of others. And, I think, most of us have a sense that Christ works through us and this requires that we are credible. But let me make a contrast that I think will make my concern clear.
The mandate (Mk 16:15, Mt 28:19) of Christ to go out into the world and preach the Good News requires that we, well, go out into the world and preach the Good News. We do this perhaps literally, perhaps not so literally, by living in a manner that makes Christ present for others. All of this is very much balanced on our credibility. Could the Risen Christ manifest Himself to each person without us? It would seem so. But we weren't told to go out and wait for others to have an epiphany of some kind; rather, we were told to go out and make Christ present by our words and actions, by our love for others. And these things require credibility and integrity.
Now flip this notion over. Just as we can do real good by our being faithful to Christ and making Him present for others, so too we can do real evil by betraying Christ and obscuring Him. If one who is trusted as a credible witness to Christ betrays that trust -- as has occurred in the Church sexual abuse scandal -- then he or she has placed an obstacle between the one betrayed and Christ. To deny this by saying that it is Christ alone in whom we should have faith and there is nothing anyone can do to diminish such a faith seems in essence to deny the importance of any witness or community of believers.
In theory God can reveal Himself to anyone without our efforts to evangelize. But a corollary to this would seem to be that in theory we can't come between God and another human being. I think these both have to be true lest we distort Creator and creature or limit the power of God. Yet, and I admit this is a strange thing to say, we can't live as if these theoretical notions are true. If we do I think we commit the sin of presumption. We can't presume that God doesn't require our efforts to spread the Good News, even though somehow we know that He doesn't. And we can't presume that our sinfulness won't affect another human being's ability to know God, even though somehow we know that nothing we do could ever finally hinder God.
Our mandate from Christ implies that our words and actions, and therefore our credibility, with others matter; we aren't just going through motions the effect of which God can simply cancel out. How else shall we interpret Christ's mandate to us? Or take the following well-known passage:
whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.(Mt 18:6)Christ acknowledges that we can cause another to stumble. Perhaps our betraying others by betraying Christ affects only us. Perhaps in the end our actions toward others only jeopardize our relationship with God and not anyone else's? Still, we can't know this and I think we presume too much if we live as if our actions toward others will somehow be nullified by God.
The fact that we are mandated in the Gospel to make Christ present in the world through our words and actions suggests that we can somehow make a difference. It's outlandish given God's omnipotence, yet we're told to go out and spread the Good News as if much hangs on it. But if this is true, then the converse must also follow. Our refusal to make Christ present by our words and actions or our outright betrayal of Christ must make a difference as well. Again, it's outlandish to think our actions or lack of actions and the credibility or lack of credibility of our witness could make a difference, could place an obstacle between God and another person. But you can't have one effect without the possibility of the other and you can't deny this without drifting into presuming that God will negate anything bad we do to others or fulfill the tasks we fail to do.
Tuesday, January 14, 2003
Charles Murtaugh has some excellent comments and great quotes in his link to my post on how the object of a science determines the method.
Upon further reflection, I found a superb quote from Regis' Epistemology that provides a really nice image of what can happen when scientific method proceeds without regard to the object of the science or when contemporary science is applied to every possible object and problem of our human condition:
During the last three centuries Western thought has tended constantly toward unifying the meaning of the word knowledge. According to this trend, the word should not have several meanings, and the methods used to achieve this unity have become more and more radical. In philosophy the mutilation of the different meanings of the word knowledge started with Descartes, was continued with Kant, and completed with theorist Leon Brunschvicg, who denies the word every meaning except that of judicative activity, the prototype of which is mathematical judgment. Contemporary science is no less demanding in its requirements for unity; its process of progressive elimination resembles surgical intervention designed to mutilate human nature more than it does methods of thought oriented toward the unification of human knowledge.Regis then mentions a rather grisly analogy from Eddington's New Pathways on the effects of attempting to consider all objects under one unified science:
When we have eliminated all superfluous senses, what have we left? We can do without taste, smell, hearing, and even touch. We must keep our eyes or rather one eye, for there is no need to use our faculty of stereoscopic vision. The eye need not have the power of measuring or graduating light and shade; I think it is sufficient if it can just discriminate two shades so as to detect whether an opaque object is in a certain position or not.Regis then comments:
It would be difficult to discover a more Draconian method of reducing the meanings of the word knowledge than this elimination of the very sources of our knowledge; for if man thus obtains knowledge that has but one meaning, he pays for this unity with his whole natural endowment of sensorial equipment. The ancient philosophers had a much more flexible and human method; instead of surgically mutilating man's cognitive powers, they distinguish in order to unite. The invented theories of formal objects and of analogy, which safeguarded both the diversity of the types of knowledge and the unity of meaning of the word knowledge, a unity without which the word becomes unintelligible.Not much I can add to that!
It occurs to me that a discussion on CRYONICS, SCIENCE, AND PHILOSOPHY I had back in July with Rand of Transterrestrial Musings was really about this attempt to squeeze the diversity of objects in the universe into a one-size-fits-all template.
MATERIALISM: BEEN THERE, DONE THAT A FEW MILLENNIA AGO
Also from Aquinas's Commentary on the Book of Job, the assertion that materialism is something that philosophers worked through a long, long time ago. Also notice the fact that Aquinas was very open to progress "in small degrees" in both the natural world and in our common understanding.
Just as things which are generated naturally reach perfection from imperfection by small degrees, so it is with men in their knowledge of the truth. For in the beginning they attained a very limited understanding of the truth, but later they gradually came to know the truth in fuller measure. Because of this many erred in the beginning about the truth from an imperfect knowledge. Among these, there were some who excluded divine providence and attributed everything to fortune and to chance. Indeed the opinion of these first men was not correct because they held that the world was made by chance. This is evident from the position of the ancient natural philosophers who admitted only the material cause. Even some later men like Democritus and Empedocles attributed things to chance in most things. But by a more profound diligence in their contemplation of the truth later philosophers showed by evident proofs and reasons that natural things are set in motion by providence. For such a sure course in the motion of the heavens and the stars and other effects of nature would not be found unless all these things were governed and ordered by some intellect transcending the things ordered.(emphasis added)
WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE
There's a translation of Aquinas's Commentary on the Book of Job in the works. Here's something from the Prologue that gives evidence that Aquinas was acutely aware of the counterintuitive nature of many of the implications of Divine Providence.
The affliction of just men is what seems especially to impugn divine providence in human affairs. For although it seems irrational and contrary to providence at first glance that good things sometimes happen to evil men, nevertheless this can be excused in one way or another by divine compassion. But that the just are afflicted without cause seems to undermine totally the foundation of providence. Thus the varied and grave afflictions of a specific just man called Job, perfect in every virtue, are proposed as a kind of theme for the question intended for discussion.
Sunday, January 12, 2003
BEING WORTHY TO STOOP
Today's Gospel has much to tell us about knowing our limitations and our true disposition before God. And it does this by giving us a striking contrast: John's worthiness and ours:
This is what he proclaimed:John the Baptist's life is sober and simple. We know his fashion preference was spartan and itchy. We know his dietary preferences were austere though I suppose nutritious. And we know the theme of his preaching: baptism and repentance. But, most importantly, we're told of his disposition toward Jesus when he says:
I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.John the Baptist appears to be the perfect role model for the religious life, for any life. But I think we might miss the point if we hold to this too readily.
If our deepest disposition toward Our Lord is that of John's, that we are not worthy, so to speak, even to stoop and untie Jesus' sandal straps, then I would suggest that we have forgotten a very significant event: our own baptism.
We are not baptized in water alone; we are baptized in the Holy Spirit. And, just as the baptism of Jesus revealed his dignity and destiny, that he is the "beloved son" of the Father, the chosen one, the one with whom the Father is "well pleased"; so too, our baptism reveals our dignity and destiny, for it reveals to us that we are sons and daughters of the Father.
And further, Jesus has assured us that we are no longer slaves or servants; we are friends of his. Through baptism and confirmation we have entered into the life of God, and have received His very Spirit. We share in the intimate life of the trinity.
We are indeed "worthy" to stoop and loosen the strap of Jesus' sandal; for we are fit to feed him, to slake his thirst, to clothe him, to comfort him when ill, and visit him in prison. In fact, we will be held accountable for our disposition and approach to Our Lord -- because now it is manifested in our very approach to one another. John's behavior would be inappropriate for us now. He truly must decrease so that Christ can increase in our hearts.
This is why I think we should take great care when using the words which seem very fashionable these days in describing our human condition: that we are "broken", "vulnerable," and "weak." If we are not careful, such notions may groom us for despair, a sadness of heart, a willingness to settle for too little in our lives, to settle for what is beneath our dignity. Such notions seem a bit archaic and encourage us to remain as disciples of John the Baptist. Our baptism has freed us from such things. John was necessary to prepare the way for the Son of God; but his way is no longer our way.
Our task as a people of God baptized in the Holy Spirit is radically different from John the Baptist; we are to proclaim the Good News of the Risen Lord as his friends, and as sons and daughters of the Father. We will fail in this work if we persistently feel inadequate and not "worthy" of the task at hand.
Saturday, January 11, 2003
LET'S JUST CUT TO THE CHASE, SORT OF
Camassia asks a question that will probably elicit as many unique answers as those responding: What does it mean to say that Jesus died for our sins? Disputations and Sursum Corda have a number of nice posts on this so click on over and scroll.
For me, this kind of question can first seem a bit embarrassing because it's so simple and yet I quickly get into a tangle when I try to answer it. No doubt much of this is due to my own ignorance and lack of wisdom. But I do think this is one of a number of questions that belong to the most basic and profound "Why" questions of our condition:
- Why does God let the drama of the human condition play out from generation to generation?These are some of the many gritty questions that taunt us with their simplicity yet seem to remain forever just out of reach. They are the deepest mysteries we encounter. And, as others have warned, slapping the "mystery" label on doesn't mean "give up!, we'll never know!" Rather it means quite the opposite: "stay and stare, look again, contemplate over and over." This should be no surprise to Catholics since one meaning of the word "sacrament" is "mystery." But it will strike many as a catch word of the ignorant and deluded.
To this I would first respond that "mystery" is something we're surrounded with. As Marcel put it:
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.Our lives are mysteries in this sense. None of us can get the full measure of our lives "completely before" us; none of us sees another person to the fullest extent possible; and so we shouldn't expect the same with the person of Christ.
But more to the point of Camassia's question. I think if you have the answer to such a question "completely before" you, if you know the reason in essence, you would know the mind of God and the answer to the other profound "Why" questions above. We simply don't know why God chose to create each of us immersed in temporal existence, allowing some of us mere moments of life and others long draughts, throwing us into a world we did not make and a condition we did not seek. But God becoming one of us certainly sheds some light on these "mysteries."
For example, we can know that human nature is "fitting" for God since he became one of us like us in everything but sin. That immediately reveals something to us about our own dignity even if we don't know why God chose such a path. If I am a creature whose nature is worthy of the Creator, then I and any other human being have a nature that has at least this going for it: it was sufficient for God to dwell in. And this is just the beginning of what we can know, what was revealed to us by the Incarnation.
But I suppose even these things can seem rather tepid if one assumes by "God" we mean some projection of ours of some eternal entity that does nice things. This, of course is nonsense and such sentimentality will always diminish the significance of the Incarnation. Here I find it's best to state things as baldly as possible.
Our very existence is from God and is actively sustained by God, so much so that Aquinas claims that God could cause us not to exist, could annihilate us, without any prejudice to the goodness of His actions, i.e. He could annihilate us with perfect justice since He owes us, literally, nothing. Think about that for a bit because I think it's a very, very foreign notion. God creates freely and God creates everything that is. Not just all the "stuff" of the world, not just the space-time fabric of the universe, but existence itself if from God. There is no distinction sharper and simpler than that. God could reduce us to nothing with perfect justice.
Now consider that such a God has chosen to create each one of us, has given us free will to turn toward or away from Him, has chosen to send His only Son that we might know Him, has chosen to dwell among us, suffer and die at our hands, descend into Hell, and rise up in defeat of death.
There is no act more staggering in our history, in the history of all of Creation. It is staggering because it is something we could not deserve. It is staggering because every fiber of our being owes its existence to the One who created us and yet we can turn away from Him at any moment. It is staggering because He chose to redeem us from our turning from Him and show us the way back to Him.
So, if I were asked the question "What does it mean to say that Jesus died for our sins?" I think I would probably initially report back with Twain's famous lines:
I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn't know.But if pressed, I suppose I would describe what appears to me as a fragile mesh of "glimpses" that more or less hold together. I say "glimpses" because these truths are mysteries that are never completely before me and always resist my desire to comprehend them fully.
I've glimpsed the fact that I exist and I didn't cause my existence. I've glimpsed my freedom. I've glimpsed my inevitable forgetfulness and ingratitude toward the One who has pulled me out of nothingness. I've glimpsed my failure to see my own dignity and the dignity of others who are in the image of the Creator. I've glimpsed in the Sacraments and Scripture the words and actions of the Creator Incarnate. I've glimpsed that by His being born among us, living with us, suffering, dying, and rising again he has transformed our condition completely by "experiencing it" really and substantially, if that can even mean anything with God. I've glimpsed the various statements in Scripture that "Jesus died for our sins." And I think I've had glimpses of what this might mean.
God has chosen a temporal existence for us. God chose to participate in this temporal existence by becoming one of us, becoming fully human and living as a human being. God chose to endure humiliation, suffering, and death in order that we might know Him more perfectly. How does this illuminate us? Perhaps by allowing us to know, love, and yet eventually crucify Him, God reveals our freedom -- we are so free that we can crucify Our Lord. Perhaps, ironically, recognizing what we've done we recognize our own dignity? Perhaps the staggering fact that God owes us quite literally nothing, and yet has given us everything and more -- for how much further could God have gone for us but to allow us to nail Him on a tree and mock Him? In doing this He reveals who He is to us, but, and here is the closest thing to an answer I can grasp, He reveals to us who we are, capable of sin, capable of so thoroughly turning from a God who is the source of our very existence and ability to turn from Him.
This is not a sufficient answer. It's a long and rambling assembly of glimpses and hints. Many of the glimpses assume belief and so won't be of much help to unbelievers. The implications of the Word becoming a human being and dwelling among us are inexhaustible. As others have suggested, we are called to contemplate such things, to reflect on the deepest of mysteries in order that we might know who we are and, ultimately, know our Maker.