"...minute and particular." -- Enormous Generalities
Saturday, February 28, 2004
TS O'Rama on being caught tuning out a presentation at work:
Suitably chastized, I listened and became amazed, as I often am in these situations, by his untrammelled enthusiasm. I get a similar feeling when I see a mature man bidding on toy train sets on Ebay. He works eighty hours a week and appears to live for the job. He mentioned he had worked on a key budget issue on Christmas Day. In an emotional moment at the end of the meeting he said how fondly he will look back at his working here. Needless to say, I'm at the other extreme. Surely due to sloth. Hence the fascination.
Thursday, February 26, 2004
POISONING THE WELLS
John Henry Cardinal Newman, in his masterpiece, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, has a wonderful description of rhetorical deception that he calls "poisoning the wells." If you read it, I think you'll agree that this technique is alive and well with all kinds of people behind all kinds of issues. In fact, plug in your favorite antagonist when you come upon a reference to Mr. Kingsley and see how it sounds. It's eerie how fitting Newman's words are today.
. . . I [Newman] scorn and detest lying, and quibbling, and double-tongued practice, and slyness, and cunning, and smoothness, and cant, and pretence . . . and I pray to be kept from the snare of them. . . . [W]hat I insist upon here . . . is this unmanly attempt of his [Mr. Kingsley], in his concluding pages, to cut the ground from under my feet; -- to poison by anticipation the public mind against me, John Henry Newman, and to infuse into the imaginations of my readers, suspicion and mistrust of every thing that I may say in reply to him. This I call poisoning the wells.
SOME USEFUL MEANS TO ADVANCE
From Pope John Paul II's Homily for Ash Wednesday
The Church has always indicated some useful means to advance on this path. First of all, humble and docile adherence to the will of God accompanied by incessant prayer; the penitential forms that are typical of the Christian tradition, such as abstinence, fasting, mortification and self-denial even of goods that are legitimate in themselves; concrete gestures of acceptance in relating to one's neighbor, which today's page of the Gospel evokes with the word "alms." All this is proposed again with greater intensity during the Lenten period, which represents, in this connection, an "intense time" of spiritual training and of generous service to brothers.Incessant prayer, abstinence, fasting, mortification, self-denial, concrete gestures, surely one can't complain that there isn't anything to do over Lent.
Tuesday, February 24, 2004
LOOPHOLES IN YOUR OWN THINKING
The Socratic Method is alive and well according to this article. It's an intriguing idea: engage people today in the manner that Socrates did so long ago; get people interested in the truth; document your discussions with them; write a book.
I guess I wonder, though, if Socrates would have balked a bit at this statement by the author of the above mentioned book:
Through this process you find loopholes in your own thinking.Perhaps the statement is so far out of context that it can't help but come across as contradictory and morally superficial. I've got the book on hold at the library. I'll write more about it when I read it.
SOPHISTICATED THINKING, SEMANTIC AND ANALOGICAL TRICKS
Disputations, of course.
Monday, February 23, 2004
NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH
"Still, living displaces false sentiments"I often wonder if it might be good to say occasionally that the truth of the Gospels is not for the squeamish. This might seem an obvious statement in light of the much anticipated movie about the suffering and horrific death of "The Christ," a movie reviewers seem to be saying is, well, not for the squeamish. But I don't mean that kind of squeamish here; I mean those who get woozy around words and actions that seem embarrassing, or naive, or completely out of touch with the world, words and actions that might even be contrary to what we would normally think and do, what any sane person would normally think and do.
Sunday's Gospel is so well known and commented upon that, for me at least, it's as if it has a tough, thick rind that resists fingernails attempting to dig in and peel it back. It starts with the following:
Jesus said to his disciples:Probably then, as now, Jesus lost folks early on with these words. In fact, I'd guess that if someone had never heard this passage before it would likely come across like this:
Jesus said to his disciples:That first sledge of words would probably send a person reeling and by the time he heard "bless those who curse you" he'd likely begin to dismiss the rest as gibberish. It is, as it likely was, a stunning collection of statements that simply would not occur to us apart from Revelation.
The Gospel is often confused with esoteric knowledge or a glimpse of the cryptic key to a difficult problem. While I understand this confusion, and am guilty of it myself, I'm realizing more and more that Revelation requires our continued openness to its inexhaustible depths, an openness that isn't possible if we're looking for a sliver of knowledge or the key to a problem. And my experience has been that this openness, when I can muster it, results in constant contradiction, contradiction that, I suppose, is in direct proportion to my own sinfulness. I don't mean a contradiction of reason, as if I were constantly confronted by someone exclaiming that A is A and not A; but I mean a contradiction to the manner in which I amble through the world and the shape of my response to others, a contradiction to my little world of clear and distinct ideas about myself and others.
But perhaps more to the point, who really wants to admit publicly that he loves his enemies and prays for those who mistreat him? It's embarrassing! It seems so simplistic in so dangerous a world. It seems unrealistic. It seems a mockery of the very victims of an enemy or a further insult to one mistreated.
In fact, it's pretty easy to spin the rigors of this gospel passage. It doesn't take much to wiggle out of a "too literal" or "unsophisticated" understanding of these words and leave them unexamined and unlived. I do it all the time. And yet, there are rare moments when the Gospel seeps beyond my clever interpretations. And in these moments, living indeed displaces false sentiments and I again find myself contradicted and maybe even ashamed.
Perhaps the heart of the difficulty of Sunday's Gospel is the depth to which it makes its appeal. As seems to happen every time I'm able to be attentive and still during the Liturgy of the Word, I noticed a phrase I hadn't really noticed in this so very well known passage before. It comes right at the end of the reading:
For the measure with which you measureI can't imagine a deeper admonition. It's not simply the manner or amount or quality of our goodwill or consideration that is mentioned here. It's the very fabric of our grasp of our world, our most profound response to it, the deepest act we possess after our own existence, that will in turn be the measure of us. Perhaps it's as if we'll be taken as seriously by God as we take Him; the depth of our response to the world He has immersed us in will in return be the depth of His response to us.
This trite little notion will wobble a bit when we consider the theological implications of God's infinite mercy. I'm not suggesting this is how God's mercy is manifested, a kind of divine tit for tat. But I do find that it's the kind of image that is sobering and keeps me open and docile to see just a little further into the Gospel mysteries.
Looks like I got lucky in a rare political prediction about the California governor. Here's what I said last October
I'm guessing that a lot of people are happy that an Austrian-born actor can come to this country with nothing and become governor of a state that is purported to have the fifth largest economy in the world, an economy, if I remember the report correctly, that comes between France and the UK. I'm also guessing that as many if not more people are grateful for Article 2, Clause 5 of the Constitution:Now look at this recent report (via Dappled Things):No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President . . . .But apart from the fact that many cringe at the thought of a Schwarzenegger presidency which Article 2, Clause 5 prevents, why should a foreign-born citizen not be allowed to be president? In fact, I predict the "natural born Citizen" requirement is going to get some scrutiny now that a tenacious and ambitious foreign-born citizen is governor of California. After all, isn't the prohibition more arbitrary than rational? Why does being born on American soil make a difference? (emphasis added -- I'm not that prescient!)
California's Austrian-born governor says foreign-born citizens should be able to run for president and he supports a constitutional amendment to make it happen.
Friday, February 20, 2004
WHAT IF ROME REALLY DOESN'T CARE?
There is a long and somewhat interesting discussion going on in the comment box of this post over on Mark Shea's blog . I'm intrigued by one point that several are making: that Rome should have intervened long ago and removed numerous bishops who were permitting priests to sexually abuse children and adults. What seems to underpin this kind of assertion in its many variations is the stark fact that the pope knew that bishops were directly involved, that is morally and criminally negligent, in allowing predator priests to flourish. Now, here's what I'm curious about. If you are someone who really -- not a slight suspicion or some sliver of doubt, but someone who really thinks that the pope knew this and simply didn't care enough to do anything, then how is it that you remain faithful?
I don't mean to imply that anyone who thinks this can't be faithful. Of course not. I don't and won't presume something so simplistic and strident. But I'm genuinely curious how the light of faith can continue to shine for someone who thinks this way.
If I really believed, and I mean really believed, that Rome didn't have the dignity of every human being as its central concern, I'd be in complete darkness about my faith. Now, darkness and faith aren't contradictory; many saints describe various kinds of darkness at times in their faith lives. Still, to arrive at the conclusion that Pope John Paul II doesn't have the dignity of every human being as his central concern, a concern that he has exercised vigorously and persistently during his pontificate, seems beyond possibility to me.
I've expressed similar sentiments in the past and received lots of responses. One person, responded with this:
I'm genuinely surprised to hear this. I mean, there have been plenty of times in the past when the occupant of the See of Peter manifestly did not have anything beyond his next orgy in mind. It's precisely because the office is occupied, at best, by a mere man that infallibility is necessary. So why should your faith be in ruins should a Pope (and it's not this one) not care about anything but power? We believe in Christ as the Church's savior, not Peter. Do we only trust Christ's promise to be with the Church during a good papacy?But this response missed my point then and would miss it again now.
By "Rome" I mean the Rome of JPII; by "Rome" I mean papal encyclicals and teaching that have dwelt on the dignity of every human being and railed against anything that denies this dignity in word and act. Obviously I agree that one's faith is in Christ, not the man occupying the Chair of St. Peter. But that's an anemic objection to begin with. For Catholics, faith in Christ is necessarily connected to the Vicar of Christ who has an office and authority that is difficult to dismiss.
But, for the sake of argument, let's assume that the present pope is morally culpable for the sexual abuse of so many people for so many years; let's say that the present pope really doesn't care about it or has bigger fish to fry. Were this true, then I would again say that "I'd be in complete darkness about my faith." And I'd say this because the teaching of this pope over the years has very much provided clarity in the midst of so much chaos in the "culture of death" we're immersed in. But I said "darkness" deliberately in my above comment. I didn't say my faith would be in "ruins" as the respondent paraphrased when I made the same statement before. There's a difference. And it's why I said in the next sentence "darkness and faith aren't contradictory; many saints describe various kinds of darkness at times in their faith lives." Perhaps such darkness occurred for many when bad popes reigned? Perhaps such darkness is occurring now for many who remain faithful while maintaining that Rome simply doesn't care or is morally bankrupt?
The comment box discussion I linked to above contains a number of comments by people who have consistently portrayed JPII as disingenuous and uncaring about the sexual abuse scandal. And to them, on what seems to me a deeper level than much of the current debate, I would simply and without condescension say that I don't know what I would do if I were suddenly convinced of this. I can't imagine how this could be so. It would mean that just about every encyclical and lesser document of his would have to be struck from the record or renounced; that every gesture and stance he has taken on human dignity would have to be negated; that . . . well, that the clarity and force of his pontificate was all a charade, an elaborate ruse, a bizarre mockery of the truth.
Chesterton once wrote about this,
There comes an hour in the afternoon when the child is tired of 'pretending'; when he is weary of being a robber or a Red Indian. It is then that he torments the cat. There comes a time in the routine of an ordered civilisation when the man is tired at playing at mythology and pretending that a tree is a maiden or that the moon made love to a man. The effect of this staleness is the same everywhere; it is seen in all drug-taking and dram-drinking and every form of the tendency to increase the dose. Men seek stranger sins or more startling obscenities as stimulants to their jaded sense. They seek after mad oriental religions for the same reason. They try to stab their nerves to life, if it were with the knives of the priests of Baal. They are walking in their sleep and try to wake themselves up with nightmares.He was, of course, not writing about bad pontificates, but about those who've lost the ability to recognize the truth, who no longer see any coherence in their world. And the result is frightening.
Let me suggest to those Catholics who really think that "Rome doesn't care," that the pope doesn't have the dignity of every human being at the heart of his pontificate, that the pope is morally culpable and has actually aided and abetted the sexual abuse of many children and adults, that you consider the implications of such serious and, quite literally, world shattering assertions. That some individual bishops are morally and criminally responsible seems beyond dispute. That Vatican officials have botched things in various ways seems probable. But to say that Pope John Paul II has "let us down," or simply doesn't care about the victims of sexual abuse, or that he could have clearly and reasonably prevented such abuse and chose not to, well, to borrow again from Chesterton:
It is not sane. It sins against the light; against that broad daylight of proportion which is the principle of all reality. It is reached by stretching a point, by making out a case, by artificially selecting a certain light and shade, by bringing into prominence the lesser or lower things which may happen to be similar. The solid thing standing in the sunlight, the thing we can walk round and see from all sides, is quite different. It is also quite extraordinary, and the more sides we see of it the more extraordinary it seems.
Wednesday, February 18, 2004
IN CONFORMITY WITH ONE'S TRANSCENDENT DIGNITY
While I was rereading Centesimus Annus for a previous post, I came across this interesting list of human rights that are essential to any "democratic ideal":
Among the most important of these rights, mention must be made of1) the right to life, an integral part of which is the right of the child to develop in the mother's womb from the moment of conception;In a certain sense, the source and synthesis of these rights is religious freedom, understood as the right to live in the truth of one's faith and in conformity with one's transcendent dignity as a person. (numbering added)
Tuesday, February 17, 2004
I think grousing about handholding during the recitation of the Our Father at Mass, a gesture that you'd think was in red ink in the Sacramentary, ought to be at the bottom of a very long list of complaints about liturgy. Really. And one shouldn't even think about entertaining such a list until one let's the astounding fact that people gather for Mass in the first place sink in.
But since I'm on the subject, I'll admit that holding a stranger's hand at that particular moment feels odd to me.
And yet, after reading this short reflection (be sure to click over and read the whole thing for context) on one of the most horrific aspects of 9/11, I wonder if I'm missing a possible deeper meaning to so simple a gesture:
I keep coming back to his hand and her hand nestled in each other with such extraordinary ordinary succinct ancient naked stunning perfect simple ferocious love.
Monday, February 16, 2004
A CHAPLAINCY CHURCH?
I've only now noticed this link, from the Agnosticism/Atheism Guide over on About.com (TM), to my CORRUPTED CULTURE post of a few months ago.
In that post, I made reference to the encyclical Centesimus Annus. Here's the relevant passage from that post:
Most of us would probably agree that, in theory, "it is not possible to understand man on the basis of economics alone, nor to define him simply on the basis of class membership" (Centesimus Annus). But I wonder if we as a society are really convinced of this in practice. And I wonder if understanding our condition, as John Paul II writes, "in a more complete way . . . within the sphere of culture" is getting harder to do because the culture itself is getting harder to assess:The Agnosticism/Atheism Guide made some interesting comments in response and then quoted this passage from Christianity Incorporated: How Big Business Is Buying the Church, a book I'm not familiar with:Man is understood in a more complete way when he is situated within the sphere of culture through his language, history, and the position he takes towards the fundamental events of life, such as birth, love, work and death. At the heart of every culture lies the attitude man takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God. Different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence. When this question is eliminated, the culture and moral life of nations are corrupted.
What the pope describes and justifies...throughout Centesimus is a chaplaincy church. In John Paul's view, the function of the church's social teaching is twofold: first, not to responsibly confront concrete problems in all their aspects (presumably because there are other social institutions more expert), but to provide an ideal orientation for these practical practitioners; and second, to try to moderate what he believes are "excessive" outcomes of corrupt institutions and practices. Thus John Paul simultaneously accepts and justifies those institutions and practices - at least in an abstract general sense - as normative, as the way economics, for example, ought to be, and then complains because the results of economics-as-it-outght-to-be are anti-Christian, unjust, and oppressive. ...[T]he church described by John Paul sees itself as subordinated to the social reality of democratic politics and market economics. By accepting that subordination willingly and deferring to the power of the empires, the church relegates itself to the role of loyal cheerleader, commentator, and confessor.Hmm, I guess I just don't see how this follows. I find Centesimus Annus powerful and direct in its statements of the role of the Church in the world. And I find the notions that the Church only provides a feckless "ideal orientation" and that it "relegates itself to the role of loyal cheerleader" a bit preposterous.
But don't take my word for it. Read the whole encyclical. Read the original encyclical that inspired Centesimus Annus, Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum of 1891. Let me just point out two brief texts in response.
In the middle of Centesimus Annus is the following:
The Church respects the legitimate autonomy of the democratic order and is not entitled to express preferences for this or that institutional or constitutional solution. Her contribution to the political order is precisely her vision of the dignity of the person revealed in all its fulness in the mystery of the Incarnate Word.This statement could hardly be more direct or less abstract. It takes a sledgehammer to ideology, to cumbersome systems, and yields the heart of the matter, that the "dignity of the person" must be the central concern of any political endeavor.
Toward the end of the encyclical, Pope John Paul II writes in a manner that hardly seems to suggest an "ideal orientation" or a "cheerleading" role for the Church:
[The Church's] sole purpose has been care and responsibility for man, who has been entrusted to her by Christ himself: for this man, whom, as the Second Vatican Council recalls, is the only creature on earth which God willed for its own sake, and for which God has his plan, that is, a share in eternal salvation. We are not dealing here with man in the "abstract", but with the real, "concrete", "historical" man. We are dealing with each individual, since each one is included in the mystery of Redemption, and through this mystery Christ has united himself with each one for ever. It follows that the Church cannot abandon man, and that "this man is the primary route that the Church must travel in fulfilling her mission ... the way traced out by Christ himself, the way that leads invariably through the mystery of the Incarnation and the Redemption".
Friday, February 13, 2004
SIMILAR REMARKS, DIFFERENT REACTIONS
I recently read a newspaper report about a brutal rape and murder of a teenage girl. The defendant in the case faces the death penalty. Emerging from the courtroom prior to the sentencing of the accused man, the murdered girl's father stated that he didn't believe that she would have wanted the accused put to death.
I find such a statement in the context of so painful a situation simply staggering. I can't explain it. It seems beyond anything that would ever occur to me. I wouldn't, for a moment, presume that I could ever muster such grace were I the father.
This story is really just a sliver of tragedy from the thousands of daily, unbearable stories one reads or hears about in the news. I mention it not to highlight the extraordinary actions of ordinary people, but to comment on something that I've found puzzling. While the above story gave no indication of the religion of those involved, there is no denying that such a response from a grieving father, a response contrary to how many of us might respond, has a Christian feel to it. Surely it seems more in line with recent Church teaching and the Gospels than the more typical, natural, and obvious response that would occur to many of us.
But here's what's puzzling. Most Christians, while perhaps even disagreeing with the father's position, would never say the father was loony or find the remarks embarrassing, naive, or inappropriate. They might even find in them a glimmer of hope. And yet, I suspect many of these same folks reacted quite differently to similar comments made in what I think are similar circumstances, though worlds apart.
I was taking a break from blogging when Cardinal Martino's infamous comments surfaced a while back. His response to the video of Saddam Hussein's dental checkup seems to have stunned many:
Seeing him like this, a man in his tragedy, despite all the heavy blame he bears, I had a sense of compassion for him.Contrary to many Catholic bloggers who were dismayed at these remarks, I was glad for them. The words hit me like a swift uppercut to the chin. They were certainly not my initial sentiments when I saw the clip of Hussein being probed with a tongue depressor. As in the first story, what amazes me, I mean really amazes me, is that such sentiments even occur to someone let alone are mentioned publicly. But there you have it.
I'm wondering, though, why so many Catholics found the cardinal's words inappropriate. And I'm wondering this in light of the fact that many of these same folks would find the father's words enlightened and impressive. If these aren't both moments when we ought to remember the dignity of every human being, even human beings who have committed the most heinous of acts and shown absolutely no contrition, then what can love our enemies really mean? If these are not instances when we ought to be reminded that sin is the deepest of tragedies that we can imagine, then what would be? If these aren't situations when a statement of compassion or pity for a morally depraved and destitute human being ought to be heard, then when?
To insist that every human being has a divine dignity that we can't even begin to comprehend, a dignity that no action can diminish, is going to be tough regardless of the situation. Hence it's good to hear a murmur of compassion and pity in these extreme cases. To maintain that every human being is loved by God and willed into existence by Him is easy when we have in mind our own loved ones. But when we're called to love our enemies, to love even the most evil of men, how can we possibly comply?
Well, I don't know.
But it seems to me that the cardinal's remarks, even if they are a public relations disaster (whatever that silly phrase really means in light of the Faith), are likely closer to the Gospel mandate than my own initial thoughts or the words of those who suggested this is simply going to far. The remarks may not have been rhetorically smart, but surely they suggested something closer to the mark, to the Gospel, to the Truth we're called to, than silence or disgust or contempt or hatred. And surely they were no different than the remarks the grieving father made about his daughter's murderer.
And so, I'm baffled. A man, with no known affiliation to any religious institution makes a staggering statement that seems to be shaped by Gospel truth, and no outcry would likely be heard. A man with a clear affiliation to a religious institution makes a staggering statement that is likely shaped by Gospel truth, and many cry foul.
THAT HARMFUL AND DEPLORABLE PASSION
Here's a fine, brief essay on the Church's Social Teaching. It cites an encyclical, Pope Leo XIII's Immortale Dei, that I hadn't read before. The encyclical is, well, to my ear anyhow, provacative. While one would surely want to work through Vatican II documents before digging into older encyclicals on social issues, it remains, nonetheless, an important and relevant document. Here's a pinch to put in your pipe and ponder:
There was once a time when States were governed by the philosophy of the Gospel. Then it was that the power and divine virtue of Christian wisdom had diffused itself throughout the laws, institutions, and morals of the people, permeating all ranks and relations of civil society. Then, too, the religion instituted by Jesus Christ, established firmly in befitting dignity, flourished everywhere, by the favor of princes and the legitimate protection of magistrates; and Church and State were happily united in concord and friendly interchange of good offices. The State, constituted in this wise, bore fruits important beyond all expectation, whose remembrance is still, and always will be, in renown, witnessed to as they are by countless proofs which can never be blotted out or ever obscured by any craft of any enemies. Christian Europe has subdued barbarous nations, and changed them from a savage to a civilized condition, from superstition to true worship. It victoriously rolled back the tide of Mohammedan conquest; retained the headship of civilization; stood forth in the front rank as the leader and teacher of all, in every branch of national culture; bestowed on the world the gift of true and many-sided liberty; and most wisely founded very numerous institutions for the solace of human suffering. And if we inquire how it was able to bring about so altered a condition of things, the answer is -- beyond all question, in large measure, through religion, under whose auspices so many great undertakings were set on foot, through whose aid they were brought to completion. . . .
ALL OVER AGAIN
Years ago I jotted down this quote from Merleau-Ponty:
Rester fidèle à ce qu'on fut, tout reprendre par le début.It was from a book by William Hill, OP, who understood it to mean:
One must remain faithful to what one has been and at the same time take up everything all over again from the beginning.I recently picked up Harold Bloom's Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human on a remainder table for a few bucks (the thing is about as thick as a big-city phone book). I've always wanted to work through Shakespeare's plays in a relatively continuous manner from start to finish and I thought this book, which provides an introduction for each play and a fairly traditional approach, would be a good companion for the task. While I've probably read about a third of the plays at one time or another, I'd like to get an organic sense of the plays that isn't so thinly spread out from my high school days, to college, to the present. While my grasp of the plays will surely be no better than goop, I'd like it to be a thick layer of goop; the present thin film of understanding I have falls apart the moment I try to pull it over something of relevance.
I've only read the intro to Bloom's work and haven't read any of his essays on the plays. But it is, well, an interesting position he's taking. Judging the book from its cover so far has proved appropriate. Bloom really is suggesting that Shakespeare gives us "the most accepted mode for representing character and personality in the language" and "thereby invented the human as we continue to know it."
According to Bloom:
The plays remain the outward limit of human achievement: aesthetically, cognitively, in certain ways morally, even spiritually. They abide beyond the end of the mind's reach; we cannot catch up to them. Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us, which is the central argument of this book.Clearly Bloom thinks Shakespeare is as deep as it gets. And I would agree, though I would want to restrict the statement to literature. Still, I would much rather read about Shakespeare from someone who has such deep respect for him than from a carping critic who squishes his plays through one agenda or another.
The only real issue I have with Bloom, as I understand his position, is that he's stomping around in the shallow water that results from a refusal to acknowledge the deeper sources of inspiration for Shakespeare, the impact Revelation had on shaping Shakespeare's understanding and "invention" of the human being. Bloom seems to consider the Bible just another work of literature. He's certainly welcome to do that, but Shakespeare certainly didn't.
Monday, February 09, 2004