Minute Particulars

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

Thursday, July 31, 2003


This reply from Aquinas,
To a humble mind nothing is more astonishing than to hear its own excellence.
caught my eye from the link in the post below. Sure it makes sense at first glance. As another translation has it, "nothing is stranger to a modest person than to hear about his own excellence." But just think about it for a moment. Are any of us really amazed to hear of our own excellence? How deep does humility have to go for one to be truly astonished that another person might find excellence in us?

While initially intrigued, I sort of dismissed the significance of this since, well, I don't get many opportunities to hear about my own excellence. And, of course, the context of this statement, the Annunciation, is such that really only one person would ever hear about her own excellence in so profound a way, namely, Mary, the Mother of God. But in thinking about it some more, I guess I find the comment interesting because our culture has groomed us in such a way that hearing of our own excellence, while admittedly in a different context and far less profound manner than what Aquinas had in mind above, still, hearing of our own excellence is not something that many of us would find very astonishing. Is it? We might be embarrassed or gratified or . . . but astonished? Maybe I'm way off on this. But if my sense is your sense here, what do you suppose that says about our own humility (and, by extension I suppose, our own excellence)?


Wednesday, July 30, 2003


There is a clear, wide line that few reasonable folks are in danger of crossing between discussing, oh, something like whether a stain on a wall somewhere is an apparition of Our Lady and, um . . . discussing something like the appropriateness of the Annunciation. The line is not kept clear and wide by happy thoughts or positive thinking or well-intended warm notions; it's kept clear, wide, and well-painted because theology is, or ought to be, a rigorous discipline. I mention this because I've had a number of emails about my THIS FAR AND NO FURTHER post below that rightly suggest that there has to be some kind of traction point, some ability to self-arrest with an ice ax while crossing a glacier, so that we don't slip into silliness and pointless sentiment.

Francisco Muniz, OP, writes:
The adequate definition of Theology, according to both objective truth and to the mind of St. Thomas, can be formulated thus: "Discursive wisdom, exercised under the light of divine revelation, on every truth revealed by God either immediately and formally or mediately and virtually." Theology is called, in the first place, "wisdom," which in itself embraces simultaneously the ratio both of science and of understanding, since it both deduces conclusions and concerns itself with the very principles. We say "discursive," that Thelogy may be clearly distinguished from both faith and the gift of wisdom. "Under the light of divine revelation" distinguishes Theology from purely human wisdom, which is called Metaphysics. "Concerning every truth divinely revealed" indicates the two-fold material object of Theology. Briefly, it may be said that Theology is the Metaphysics of Revelation or the Metaphysics of faith.
So when I said that a this-far-and-no-further response isn't proportionate to revealed truths, I wasn't suggesting (and there were only a few emails that indicated concern about this) that we have to entertain every possible harebrained interpretation of Scripture and the Tradition that we encounter. My point is that our resistance shouldn't be a kind of this-far-and-no-further posture so much as a let-me-explain-to-you-why-that's-not-reasonable-or-fitting-or-proportionate-or-found-anywhere-in-any-reasonable-interpretation-of-Scripture-and-Tradition approach.


Tuesday, July 29, 2003


I continue to think about some of the discussions I've observed or participated in that, for lack of a better distinction, hover around the role of candor and profession in theological debates. These discussions inevitably resolve to a "this-far-and-no-further" statement by one or both participants, even when the issue is ostensibly grounded in revealed truths, truths which, while always proportionate to our nature as human beings, don't really lend themselves easily to a "this-far-and-no-further" posture. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that the moment we exclaim "this-far-and-no-further" to a revealed truth which commands us toward a posture we aren't comfortable with is the moment we really see what is being asked of us.

In my post below, I mention the difficult passage from Matthew:
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt. 5:43-48)
The context was whether one ought to pray for the wicked. There are, of course, many distinctions that we have to make to grapple with this kind of issue with any rigor. But I've noticed in this and in many recent issues that there is a tendency to throw up one's hands in frustration and wonder if some revealed truth is now so distorted or taken so literally or not taken literally enough that we're now in a kind of theological la-la land. I'm thinking of comments like:
Okay then, when could there ever be a just war!

So are you suggesting that somehow everyone is saved?

If that's really what the pope said, then I'm jumping ship!
Or my favorite, something I ran across when I started reading blogs over a year ago, a post, I think on . . . well, let's do a search on it since I think it had "neck" in it and I think it was over at relapsed catholic. . . Ah yes, here it is from April of 2002:
Jesus said that some evils could only be driven out by prayer and fasting.

Yup, God help me: I'm a pretty hard-hearted gal. So I can't go along with some of my fellow Catholic bloggers, who support the U.S. Bishop's church-wide Day of Reparation for sex abuse crimes.

The idea that "we are all guilty" is a trendy modern notion, but one I can't square with the words of Christ. It would be better if a millstone were tied around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, he said about anyone who destroyed the innocence of a child.

Implicitly, someone has to stay dry. And do the tying. I'm delighted to volunteer. . .
This is a perfectly understandable opinion and it's clever enough to have stuck in my head from so long ago. But I think most would agree that someone staying in the boat to do the tying of millstones on necks and then shoving the millstone laden folks overboard may not quite be the point of the Gospel passage. I don't think the point is something like, "many are called, few are chosen, and some get to tie millstones around the necks of others."

I certainly understand these kinds of reactions. They're nothing new and probably how many of us have responded to these and similar issues. They're solid, secular opinions about how we ought to react to the wicked and depraved in our world. My concern is not so much that these reactions abound among the faithful; my concern is that they are present even after sober reflection. The crux of the matter is that these "this-far-and-no-further" responses aren't proportionate to revealed truths.

M. D. Molinié, OP, writes:
We must accept the fact that one by one our poor little ideas are gently being splintered in the tender darkness of God.
And elsewhere he points out:
Without revelation, mankind is immersed in a darkness beyond the reach of delivering wisdom. When the Word of God throws light into that darkness, the darkness is not dispelled as might be hoped. Rather, it is intensified, for the obscurity deepens as the light progresses. And so it goes, until man meets his God face to face.
This isn’t a suggestion that we are condemned to be agnostics; it’s not a plea that we should revel in ignorance. Rather, it simply points to the stark truth that
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.
If you believe that Christ is the Word made Flesh, then you must adhere to all of what he’s revealed.

A "this-far-and-no-further" response, it seems to me, prevents the "personal adherence of the whole man to God who reveals himself" mentioned in the Catechism above. It picks through the truths revealed and clings to some while letting others slip away. Rather than "personal adherence of the whole man to God" we find instead a personal adherence to those truths that can be embraced comfortably and easily.




Tom is letting the Turrets of Truth on HMS Disputations go silent for a while to let the barrels cool down after a vigorous campaign in the Sea of Sloppy Sentiment. He pummeled many a vessel in the languid waters and escorted them back to the Sea of Sense.

His lighter, less filling posts (which I think will continue for a few weeks) are well worth a daily visit.


Thursday, July 24, 2003


I haven't had a chance to blog much this week so I'm a bit late on this, but Steven Riddle started a fascinating discussion with this post; here are the opening sentences:
This will not be welcome in many blog-circles, but I feel I must do it and say it for my own sake and the sake of those who might otherwise be led astray. I pray for the repose of the souls of these two men [Saddam Hussein's sons]. The world is a better place without them. But I know that God does not desire that He should lose even one of His beloved children.
Tom of Disputations, who is a better Catholic than I am, had this response, which ends with:
I would like to be able to pray for them, but that would require me to accept what I've called contingent universal salvation -- the belief that everyone happens to be saved -- and, to me, contingent universal salvation makes complete guff out of a great deal of what Scripture says and the Church teaches.
There is also a very good discussion in his comment box, and some fine follow up (scroll up) posts.

There are so many issues here, whom should we pray for, the efficacy of prayer, the mechanics of salvation, the nature of evil, the role of truth, and so on that I won't try to add to the fine thoughts on the above links. But something occurred to me that hasn't been explicitly mentioned. I suppose it has to do with candor and public witness.

There is an important distinction between knowing what I ought to do and knowing what I am doing or likely will do in matters of faith. The former seems more suitable for profession, the latter confession; and while these two kinds of knowing work in tandem and are intimately related because of our incarnate condition, there are appropriate places for both to be expressed.

Surely there are many of us who can't honestly say that we pray for the truly wicked in our world. And probably many of us had a pang of relief when the news of the death of Saddam Hussein's sons was confirmed. But I don't think it's hypocritical or even misplaced to profess that we ought to pray for the truly wicked even if we find it difficult nor do I think a pang of relief at the death of the wicked implies gross failure in our striving to become holy. But, within the Catholic Tradition, I would think these things evidence some dissonance between what we're called to and what we are.

And so, loosely within the context of the discussion reflected in the above links (and I'm not suggesting what follows summarizes anyone's position since there were many follow-up posts and comments; in fact, I'm not sure I know where everyone stands on this anymore), I guess I understand a suggestion that we ought to pray for the wicked more than an admission that one simply cannot or will not, or even a well-crafted explanation for why such prayer is not appropriate or at best a very low priority. The former stems from a truth that we would never discover apart from revelation, the latter stem from what seems a fairly obvious truth: as human beings, we are generally inclined toward despising the wicked and that tends to make it difficult to pray for such folks.

If prayer disposes us to holiness and also reflects our disposition toward others, then, in the context of discussing the Faith, advocating that one ought to pray for the wicked makes more sense to me than pointing out the obstacles to such prayer. It may be that only very few can pray for the wicked and that most of us are simply incapable of such holiness -- if such a thing even implies holiness. But perhaps that's why we are given the extraordinary imperative to "pray for those who persecute you" rather than a more mundane suggestion to "do what common sense dictates":
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt. 5:43-48)


Monday, July 21, 2003


Maggie Gallagher, the editor of MarriageDebate.com which debuts today, recently ended a column with a sentiment that I'm seeing more and more of:
Winning the gay-marriage debate may be hard, but to those of us who witnessed the fall of Communism, despair is inexcusable and irresponsible. Losing this battle means losing the idea that children need mothers and fathers. It means losing the marriage debate. It means losing limited government. It means losing American civilization. It means losing, period.
Maybe I'm just being a bit obtuse here, but doesn't comparing gay marriage to Communism and attributing the end of American civilization to gay marriage seem a bit hyperbolic? Is this kind of discussion really going to help us all distinguish, nuance, and work through this important and difficult issue?

This of course has been sparked by the recent Supreme Court decisions and it got me thinking about God and Country. My concern with much of the sky-is-falling reaction to the recent decision on the Texas sodomy law, actually the reaction to a number of recent decisions, is that it assumes the Supreme Court is
1) an arbiter of morality
2) an institute established to protect the dignity of the human person
While it may seem so on the surface, it is neither of these at any depth and we should take care not to freight it with more significance than it ought to have or can handle.

To put things as baldly as I can and grossly oversimplify, a country, any country, ought to be a clean, well-lighted place: no more, no less. Anything more than this and nationalism becomes an end in itself rather than a means to an end; anything less than this and human nature is affronted. From the perspective of the Catholic Faith (and other traditions that are aligned here), we can put things in perspective in a number of ways. How about recalling these words from the Easter Vigil?
Christ yesterday and today,
the beginning and the end,
Alpha and Omega,
all time belongs to him,
and all the ages,
to him be glory and power through every age for ever.
From this perspective -- and there are obviously many ways to drive this point home -- the highest court in a sovereign state is simply a way to keep a clean, well-lighted place clean and well-lighted. Such a court is an arbiter of law, not morality, though the two are obviously related. And such a court protects the rights of human beings, not the dignity of the human person, though, again, the two are intertwined. That more is expected from our own highest court in our own clean, well-lighted place is understandable and perhaps inevitable in our society or any society.

But I wonder if many of the outcries over the recent Supreme Court decisions are animated by a notion that the Court really is the appropriate moral arbiter of our culture and society? This indeed would be troubling. Even judged from fairly loose and rickety moral scaffolding, the Court over the years has made a number of egregious moral blunders. From the perspective of moral arbitration and the protection of human dignity, the Court is surely a failed institution.

Who or what then ought to be the arbiter of morality? Who or what ought to guide us in our work to ensure that the dignity of every human person is upheld? Here's a good place to start.

Decisions by the Supreme Court ought to be kept in their proper perspective. It's true that such decisions can literally mean life and death, but they stem from an interpretation of a Constitution that, while remarkable, will not and should not be expected to guide us beyond our clean, well-lighted place. Working to counter or even overturn bad Court decisions is important and shouldn't be underestimated. Surely that's not my intent here. But much of the work also resides in individual relationships and on a much smaller scale. My concern is that an overemphasis on the importance of Supreme Court decisions can suggest that individual efforts, personal relationships, family life, and the witness of those joined in Holy Matrimony aren't where the real work is.




Dappled Things has a fine post on civil marriage, religious marriage, validity, sacramentality.


Sunday, July 20, 2003


Still remarkable 34 years later.

You probably already know this, but Armstrong flubbed his famous first words on the Moon. He actually said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” But this doesn’t make much sense with the missing indefinite article. It was supposed to be: "That's one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind."


Friday, July 18, 2003


Neil, in a comment over on Disputations, gives us a nice quote from Edith Stein:
This is what makes the figure of the Savior - as it is depicted in truthful simplicity in the gospels - so mysterious and unfathomable. He is wholly human and precisely for this reason unlike any other human being. He cannot be apprehended and comprehended as a character like Peter or Paul. Any attempt, therefore, to bring us into intimate contact with our Lord by depicting his life and character in the manner of a biographical portrait means really an impoverishment and a narrowing down of his life to some particular aspects, and in some instances it even means a distortion and falsification.
You could probably guess if you haven't clicked over to the comments yet that this involves Mel Gibson's film, The Passion.

While I've enjoyed the back and forth on many blogs about whether the film is any good -- and most of the comments come from folks who've only seen the trailer -- it seems a little silly to get worked into a froth one way or the other. In fact, I wonder if there's something a little Gnostic, to use a worn out term that barely supports any meaning anymore, in all of this speculation about the film's impact. I say "Gnostic" because there's either a desire for (for those who think the film will work wonders) or a fear of (for those who think it should stay in the can) some esoteric sliver of insight, some depiction or vantage point, some "experience" of substance that could only come from viewing the film. Superficially, watching this film, like watching any other film, will be a unique experience. But on a more profound level, on the level that many think the film will work its wonders or evil, the film, as with any work of art, is fragmentary and fleeting.

A sign of Gnosticism is either the desire for or fear of some "truth" that is the "key to everything." Once you know __________, you'll know the truth behind __________.

There is something very seductive about the notion of an esoteric knowledge that will transform you into one of the elect, one of those in the know, one who is wise. But the mistake in any Gnostic approach lies in the idea that truth might not be common for all or that it is, in principle, only available to a few. And this either diminishes "truth" or mistakes it for some kind of personal revelation. While it's possible that only a few people may know some aspect of truth that is difficult to glean, or that personal revelation has illuminated the minds of some, any notion that the truth does not pertain to all and is not, again in principle, accessible to all is usually a sign that the truth is shallow or a feckless piece of esoterica.

When a movie becomes a "must see" or "must avoid" in a manner that hinges on the wellbeing of one's soul, or is assumed to have an impact that is deeply and profoundly unique, I think it's safe to say that someone has mistaken the nature of art and the role art plays in our lives.


Thursday, July 17, 2003


A friend who teaches high school was irate about this article by Daniel C. Dennett. There've been quite a few comments on it in blogland; Camassia posts about it and includes links to Crooked Timber, Charles Murtaugh, and Telford Work among others.

The hubbub is about using the term "bright" to refer to atheists or agnostics or anyone who simply doesn't buy into anything that rises above materialism or any of its skeptical cousins. I guess this means I'm a dim.

But my friend wasn't torqued about Dennett's arrogance and inability to see how silly his suggestions are. What bothered him was this blurb:
I recently took part in a conference in Seattle that brought together leading scientists, artists and authors to talk candidly and informally about their lives to a group of very smart high school students. Toward the end of my allotted 15 minutes, I tried a little experiment. I came out as a bright.

Now, my identity would come as no surprise to anybody with the slightest knowledge of my work. Nevertheless, the result was electrifying.

Many students came up to me afterwards to thank me, with considerable passion, for "liberating" them. I hadn't realized how lonely and insecure these thoughtful teenagers felt. They'd never heard a respected adult say, in an entirely matter of fact way, that he didn't believe in God. I had calmly broken a taboo and shown how easy it was. (emphasis added)
Dennett portrays himself as the Great Messenger of Atheism uttering the Truth to . . . high school students!

What irked my friend, and irks me, is the glibness with which Dennett proceeds. He decides to try "a little experiment." Does he consider the fact that some things may not be appropriate to broach with high school students? I don't mean the question of God's existence, which of course every kid wonders about from early on and into maturity. I mean that he, "a respected adult" (at least according to his own estimation), ought to be a little more careful about presuming that any topic ought to be fair game with . . . teenagers. I think you have to be pretty obtuse to assume that you can raise any issue and say anything you like to some high school kids who are attending a conference about the lives of "leading scientists, artists and authors."

I would hope that if my son were in high school (he's 18-months old so he's got a few years yet) and attended a similar conference where some "respected adult" stated that he didn't believe in God, I would hope that he would feel a bit embarrassed for the "respected adult" and maybe even chuckle a bit and ask the "respected adult" why his beliefs ought to be of any interest to him. I, if I had the chance, would ask the same thing of any "respected adult" who decided that it was important that he let young people know all about his crimped and cramped understanding of the World.

Here's the problem. I find atheism banal. I really do. I have many posts on it and continue to post on it, but it's not the atheism itself that interests me or "threatens" me in some way, it's the fact that someone could really believe such ideas. Dennett's stunt is not inappropriate because it shatters some superstition or torpedoes a taboo or two; it's inappropriate because it's uninteresting, irrelevant, and presumes an intimacy with the students that he doesn't have. He seems to be giddy about his little prank while showing no understanding of common human interaction. Intellectually "experimenting" on young minds, presuming that you're enlightening high school kids by sharing with them your unsolicited and unexpected beliefs about something at the core of our human condition, seems bizarre at best and intrusive at worst.


Wednesday, July 16, 2003


Inspired by Disputations' mascot, Reginald the Tiger Quoll, I've decided that if Minute Particulars can't have the high quality posts that Disputations always musters, it can at least have a mascot that could give a pesky Tiger Quoll a good chase.

"Minnie" is well suited for her (oops, looks like "his" from the undercarriage there) his duties as mascot for MP. While he stumbles a lot and can't leap over any obstacles higher than his stumpy legs extend, he's tenacious and likes to find the little things, the oblique orts, the minute particulars in issues of the day. Sure, folks call him a "Weenie," but he's scrappy and being a weenie has some often overlooked advantages.




Peter Singer awarded ethics award (link via Oblique House):
A controversial professor who advocates killing the disabled up to 28 days after birth, has been honored with an international ethics award. Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University, has been given the 2003 World Technology Award for Ethics by the World Technology Network.
Back in February I did a post that linked to an article on a debate between Singer and a disability rights lawyer (the article is no longer available for free). The article was interesting because it was not the usual debate between someone who thinks infanticide and euthanasia are morally wrong and the cold, calculated thinking that Singer is known for. Rather it was a debate between two people who ostensibly ground their moral views in reason alone: one confined to a wheelchair, the other not; one a disability rights lawyer, the other a philosopher. Harriet McBryde Johnson recalled her encounters with the Princeton philosopher in a remarkably intelligent, sensitive, and sobering article. What most surprised me was her candid assessment of Singer and the manner in which she debates him. Here are some excerpts that I really liked:
He insists he doesn't want to kill me. He simply thinks it would have been better, all things considered, to have given my parents the option of killing the baby I once was, and to let other parents kill similar babies as they come along and thereby avoid the suffering that comes with lives like mine and satisfy the reasonable preferences of parents for a different kind of child. It has nothing to do with me. I should not feel threatened.


In the discussion that follows [on assisted suicide], I argue that choice is illusory in a context of pervasive inequality. Choices are structured by oppression. We shouldn't offer assistance with suicide until we all have the assistance we need to get out of bed in the morning and live a good life. Common causes of suicidality -- dependence, institutional confinement, being a burden -- are entirely curable.


The tragic view comes closest to describing how I now look at Peter Singer. He is a man of unusual gifts, reaching for the heights. He writes that he is trying to create a system of ethics derived from fact and reason, that largely throws off the perspectives of religion, place, family, tribe, community and maybe even species -- to ''take the point of view of the universe.'' His is a grand, heroic undertaking.

But like the protagonist in a classical drama, Singer has his flaw. It is his unexamined assumption that disabled people are inherently ''worse off,'' that we ''suffer,'' that we have lesser ''prospects of a happy life.'' Because of this all-too-common prejudice, and his rare courage in taking it to its logical conclusion, catastrophe looms. Here in the midpoint of the play, I can't look at him without fellow-feeling.


If I define Singer's kind of disability prejudice as an ultimate evil, and him as a monster, then I must so define all who believe disabled lives are inherently worse off or that a life without a certain kind of consciousness lacks value. That definition would make monsters of many of the people with whom I move on the sidewalks, do business, break bread, swap stories and share the grunt work of local politics. It would reach some of my family and most of my nondisabled friends, people who show me personal kindness and who sometimes manage to love me through their ignorance. I can't live with a definition of ultimate evil that encompasses all of them. I can't refuse the monster-majority basic respect and human sympathy. It's not in my heart to deny every single one of them, categorically, my affection and my love.


Friday, July 11, 2003


The Secularist Critique doesn't seem to be posting anymore but occasional comments are still made. The latest is in a post called "Atheist Ethics" and states:
Let me simplify. I am an atheist. I believe that any act which causes another person harm or hardship is immoral. The reason I believe this is not because I fear a being in the sky who says I will go to hell if I don't behave. I believe this because it is for the betterment and the greater good of mankind.
I also noticed a related post over on Summa Contra Mundum which touches on the following problem:
Problem: if there is no God, or if God doesn't matter, why shouldn't I do anything?
This reminded me of a number of posts I did earlier this year on the notion that ethical principles are drained of any substance and purpose if everything eventually blinks out of existence. Since it's summer rerun season I thought I'd plop that post (trimmed a bit) here:

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.

But simply trying to live as long as possible is not the goal I've selected. Once I arrived at atheism, it became clear to me that the best overall goal for life was not length, but happiness. My goal in life is to try to make the people around me happy.
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.
Now, 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.

"Can never be removed" from what? If nothing persists then nothing is around from which to "remove" the significance of my actions.

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.

It's a fine and noble sentiment, but hogwash. Again, what does one stand on to push against the "tide of change"? The "tide of change" itself won't be around forever so how does an impact mean anything? It's a mere swirl in a river that will be gone. And why does any temporal duration matter? How does "for as long as possible" differ from a lesser amount of time?

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.

This strikes me as tautological. If the question is "How can there be any meaning if nothing persists eternally?" and you say "We remember, to the end of our days, what we accomplished and what transpired as a product of our efforts" aren't you confusing "persist eternally" with a lifespan? And if you say the meaning resides in the memory of the person then aren't you admitting that the meaning itself disappears with the person and doesn't that negate the "meaning"?
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.




A dissertation on metaphysics . . . human nature . . . ethics . . . fiber-optic networks has threatened to shake the foundations of society. This article explains how a "tedious and unimportant" dissertation may pose a national security threat:
Tinkering on a laptop, wearing a rumpled T-shirt and a soul patch goatee, this George Mason University graduate student has mapped every business and industrial sector in the American economy, layering on top the fiber-optic network that connects them.
These issues usually arise when the subject is something like instructions for making a nuclear explosive or any other kind of information that terrorists might use. But it did make me wonder, as my silly strikeouts suggest, what it would be like to see news like this about dissertations that delve into the "soft" sciences.

Here are a few headlines that would be fun to see:


As I've pointed out often and in a manner that borders on banality on this blog, the subjects of these mock headlines are old news and are reasonable and solid philosophical points that can be grasped by most folks who take the time to follow the many careful and nuanced demonstrations traditionally available; still, and ironically, I'm guessing such headlines, were they ever to appear, would indeed cause a stir even if they didn't constitute a national security threat.


Wednesday, July 09, 2003


A good friend of mine once told me a story about a guy he knew who was a very accomplished yet humble martial artist. They were at a party and someone overheard some mention of the martial artist's skills and skeptically asked the martial artist to "show him a few moves." The Wiz -- he was called the Wiz by those who worked out with him because he really was amazing -- the Wiz, being humble, refused. But the person continued to ask him and finally, later in the evening when only a few people remained, he agreed.

So the skeptic asked the Wiz, "What would you do if I came at you like this," as he slowly swung a fist toward him. The Wiz parried, swished a few times, and set the startled skeptic gently onto the ground while maintaining a wrist lock on him. The skeptic, a little embarrassed but still doubting that there was anything to this "karate stuff," approached again saying, "How about if I grabbed you like this." As before, the Wiz did some graceful footwork and again gently set the silly skeptic onto the ground. The skeptic still thought these moves were "unrealistic and phony" and "wouldn't really work in a real situation." As he got up and brushed himself off he spotted a baseball bat in the corner of the room. He picked it up and asked, "What if I came at you with this."

"Well," the Wiz said smiling, "then we're not playing anymore."

These words and the smile, according to my friend, stopped the bat wielder in his tracks. He gave a sheepish laugh, set the bat down, and quickly changed the subject.

I've always liked that silly story. There's a time for play and there's a time when "we're not playing anymore." I like it because it has an impetuous, loud, unthinking skeptic who taunts this quiet, humble person of great skill. I like it because the martial artist actually has the skeptic's safety in mind and refuses to hurt him simply because he's impetuous, loud, and unthinking. And I like it because it's a great image for all kinds of scuffles, whether physical or intellectual.

There's something impressive, mature, and wise, about a person who understands that all of us are capable of being impetuous, loud, and unthinking and that sometimes gentleness and solicitude trump a heavy-handed and perhaps embarrassing thrashing. All of us were, and may still be, young in a myriad of ways. We've all benefited from someone's gentle solicitude as we've strutted around in bold ignorance only to realize, perhaps much later, just how silly we were. I know I'll probably cringe at Minute Particulars posts five years from now that turn up in the many search engine caches that even now haunt bloggers. And I think I won't be the only one cringing.

There is a time to play and a time when we're not playing anymore. There is a time to try things on and posture and a time when we need to stop before someone gets hurt. There is a time to treat everything with cynicism and a time to be open to another way, docile to those who are wiser, and even, just imagine, willing to let the Holy Spirit work through us and others.




There was an article in Sunday's NYTimes that used a provocative, and perhaps not very rhetorically helpful, term I hadn't come across before: "coercive patriotism":
As patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, so the coercive patriotism of this historical moment is the last refuge of cynics. In "The Story of American Freedom," the historian Eric Foner observes that a similar phenomenon occurred a little over a century ago, uncoincidentally enough, in tandem with "America's triumphant entry onto the world stage as an imperial power" during the Spanish-American War. It was in the 1890's that "rituals like the Pledge of Allegiance and the practice of standing for the playing of `The Star-Spangled Banner' came into existence," as well as Flag Day. Our leaders were then professing to spread democracy to Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines with the same blithe self-assurance that our current leaders promise to bring the American way to Iraq and its neighbors.
This is the kind of historical fact that is a little too convenient and anachronistic to be taken too much to heart; and yet, it does touch on how loyalty to a sovereign state can swerve very close to becoming an end in itself rather than a means to an end.

Gutless Pacifist recently posted an excerpt from a forum with Stanley Hauerwas. A sign of wisdom is the right ordering of things, and I find that Hauerwas often provokes in a manner that splinters any ordering principles without suggesting something to replace them. Still, I think he scratches and digs in right where it's easy to become complacent, and so I find his insights intriguing. Go see the whole post:
The current identification of God and country is very troubling . . . .

In the past when Christians killed in a just war, it was understood they should be in mourning. They had sacrificed their unwillingness to kill. . . .

The current outpouring of patriotism, I think, is an indication of how lonely we are today. . . . . I try to help myself and others rediscover what it might mean if the church constituted our primary loyalty.


Tuesday, July 08, 2003


See for yourself.

(via Stumbling Tongue)




Hmm . . .

(via Unqualified Offerings)




Amy Welborn recently mentioned her concern about "Respecting modern doubt":
Many people want to believe in God, but "can't," and I don't think believers take this seriously enough, casting unbelievers as nothing but willful, obtuse and prideful. I don't think this is true. I think a lot of people really want to believe. They might even want to believe in the Christian God. But so much - questions of theodicy, the power of the materialist worldview, their experience of content non-believers, the hypocrisy of believers, the incredible, seemingly endless diversity of faith claims...all work against it. What is our answer?
Amy is right that many believers don't take unbelievers seriously enough; but I think the failure is not quite where she focuses it. The key points here are:
1) the distinction between reason and revelation
2) the harmony between reason and revelation
If modern doubt is grounded in the admittedly pervasive though naive notion that reason is silenced when God is broached, then "our answer" is fairly easy to plan, though difficult to execute. The ease in charting out a response comes from the fact that there is much that we can glean about God through reason. We can know that God exists. And if we distinguish between reason and revelation, between what we can know from philosophical principles and what we can know about the interior life of a person, then, while the fact of God's revelation can be gainsaid by unbelievers, the categories of what we can know can still be observed. We can also show how reason and revelation can't contradict each other -- again, this won't convince someone that what is revealed was indeed "revealed," but it can assure an unbeliever of the cogency of what is revealed.

But this leads to the crux of the "modern doubt" issue which I think isn't so much the result of getting tangled in the obstacles Amy mentions above as it is the sheer fact that choosing to believe and even disposing oneself toward belief is simply not enough. Actually, there's not much a believer can do to convince an unbeliever of the truth of Revelation. One can be a witness to the truth, live a life of integrity with regard to the Gospel, and even be deemed a saint, and yet one will still be powerless to convince another of the fact that God has revealed Himself to us:
I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father. It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you. Jn 15:15-16
Perhaps all we are really called to in the mandate to witness the truth of what God has revealed to us is to bring others to a kind of precipice, not so they can leap into the dark, but so they can find the solid yet narrow way into the truth God has spoken:
How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. Mt. 7:14


Monday, July 07, 2003


Most civilized people hesitate to rejoice at the death of another human being. You don't have to be "religious" or "god-fearing" to have a sense that dancing on a grave is wrong. The glib and even gleeful reactions on several blogs to the death of Rachel Corrie, who was "crushed to death by a bulldozer as she tried to prevent the Israeli army destroying homes in the Gaza Strip" back in March, were an appalling example of what many are capable of when their patriotic zeal is radically confronted.

But I recently ran across a "Catholic" blog that rejoiced in the fact that Katherine Hepburn had died. The reason? Hepburn was, according to a statement by Planned Parenthood's Gloria Feldt, a "member of the Planned Parenthood Board of Advocates and Honorary Chair of the National Committee to Keep Abortion Legal." And so, as the blog put it, she was "the enemy."

The problem with such rejoicing, apart from the fact that it wouldn't occur to most people, is that the foundations of any intelligent "pro-life" position are decimated by such stupidity. As I said in a post on abortion last year, most reasonable people would agree that how you respond to evil deeds matters quite a bit. At the very least, your response should not stem from the same distorted understanding of truth the person you’re responding to holds. Dancing on the graves of people who supported Planned Parenthood is a gesture that belies any genuine concern for human life and dignity. This seems obvious to me.

Less obvious is the presumption that the dancing on graves gesture implies. I'm pretty sure such dancing is being done by those who did not know Hepburn personally. Yet, we only come to recognize another person, a recognition essential to any concern for the dignity of a person, in the concrete particulars that arise within a relationship with that person. We mock this ability to recognize another when we insist that we “know” someone by abstractions and apart from relationship to him or her. The clincher is that this is exactly what those who have no compunctions about abortion are doing.

If we claim to respect human life from conception to death, we do this because we acknowledge the dignity of the human person. And whether we acknowledge this by reason or by faith (or both in the Catholic Tradition), surely recognizing another person becomes a paramount concern. As the Church teaches in Evangelium Vitae:
. . . human relations are authentic if they are open to accepting the other person: a person who is recognized and loved because of the dignity which comes from being a person and not from other considerations . . .
Again, from Evangelium Vitae:
If charity is to be realistic and effective, it demands that the Gospel of life be implemented also by means of certain forms of social activity and commitment in the political field, as a way of defending and promoting the value of life in our ever more complex and pluralistic societies. Individuals, families, groups and associations, albeit for different reasons and in different ways, all have a responsibility for shaping society and developing cultural, economic, political and legislative projects which, with respect for all and in keeping with democratic principles, will contribute to the building of a society in which the dignity of each person is recognized and protected and the lives of all are defended and enhanced. (my emphasis)
When I act toward another person in a manner which does not recognize her as a person, when my relationship is one of conjecture, probability, and presumption, even if my action is animated by concern for another person, aren’t my concerns for the unborn drained of any real weight?

Indeed we all “have a responsibility for shaping society and developing cultural, economic, political and legislative projects” which foster respect for human life and each person. But that responsibility is grounded on a foundation of truth that must be applied to all persons from conception to death. If you’re selective here, then are you really acting in a manner that is different from those are selective about granting the rights of a person to the unborn?




Interesting article on what's lacking in Potter:
Ms. Rowling's magic wood . . . is small, and on the school grounds, and dangerous only because she says it is.

In this regard, it is magic for our time. Ms. Rowling, I think, speaks to an adult generation that hasn't known, and doesn't care about, mystery. They are inhabitants of urban jungles, not of the real wild. They don't have the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing, for as children they daily invested the ersatz with what imagination they had.


Wednesday, July 02, 2003


We rented the film, The Hours , the other night. I thought it was quite well done, though depressing. Here's a summary of the story from the website:
THE HOURS is the story of three women searching for more potent, meaningful lives.Each is alive at a different time and place; all are linked by their yearnings and their fears.

Virginia Woolf, in a suburb of London in the early 1920 ’s, is battling insanity as she begins to write her first great novel, “Mrs.Dalloway ”. Laura Brown,a wife and mother in Los Angeles at the end of World War Two, is reading “Mrs.Dalloway”, and finding it so revelatory that she begins to consider making a devastating change in her life. Clarissa Vaughan, a contemporary version of Woolf’s Mrs.Dalloway, lives in New York City today, and is in love with her friend Richard, a brilliant poet who is dying of AIDS.

Their stories intertwine, and finally come together in a surprising, transcendent moment of shared recognition.
From the "more potent, meaningful lives" jargon you can probably predict that the stories are grounded on a kind of ars sine fide, gritty, existentialist approach that may be witty, clever, and poignant at times, but never very substantial or touching our condition very deeply.

Woolf's suicide is woven into the above three stories. I was especially disturbed that three commentators (in the DVD "Special Features") mentioned that Woolf's suicide was "brave" or "courageous." Now, I don't wish to diminish the contribution that brain chemistry plays in mental illness and the desperation that many feel which can lead to suicide. But the fact that suicide can be considered a virtuous act is surely one of the many signs that the time is indeed out of joint. Whether an author silently kills herself by putting stones into her coat and stepping into a river or a terrorist pilots a plane into a building, the act of suicide is contrary to every fiber of virtue and good moral action.




The stories of there being about 400,000 embryos waiting to be destroyed, experimented upon, or adopted continue to amaze and sadden me. Did you know that there is an organization established to assist in the adoption of the frozen embryos? I've noticed that a number of folks find this outrageous in light of the fact that so many who have already been born are never adopted. I understand the concern; my response would be that both situations are tragic and setting one over against the other is silly and usually the result of some unrelated ax grinding.

I would say, though, that a culture that more readily adopted and provided for those already born would probably be a culture that didn't have 400,000 embryos waiting to be destroyed, experimented upon, or adopted; and, conversely, a culture that didn't have 400,000 embryos waiting to be destroyed, experimented upon, or adopted would probably be a culture that didn't have so many children awaiting adoption. The two situations are directly and inextricably related to a disposition toward human life.

Here are a few more articles on this: Researchers ponder best use of 400,000 stored embryos (via The Curt Jester) and 400K and counting (via Sursum Corda)