Minute Particulars

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

Wednesday, March 31, 2004


Last August I mentioned my "Yeah-But Test":

The Yeah-But Test works like this: whenever I read or hear someone who seems really insightful in areas I don't know much about (it happens often), I look for or elicit comments on something I do know something about.
Yeah, you say:
We can either decide that (i) nonliteral contraposition is sometimes though not typically deductively valid in the logic of ordinary language; or (ii) nonliteral contraposition is never deductively valid. If nonliteral contraposition is sometimes even if not typically deductively valid in ordinary language, then, contrary to the assumption of modern symbolic logic, contraposition, insofar as it is supposed to apply to everyday discourse, cannot be correctly defined as a purely syntactical transformation.
But do you know . . . uh . . . how to potty train a child?
If they really don't know about potty training and still spew on incoherently in the same manner and with the same confident tone they do with other subjects then I assume that they're blowhards; I then look elsewhere for comments on things I don't know much about.

The precocious Matthew Yglesias (via Open Book), who's failed my Yeah-But Test the few times I've read a post of his where he swerves into some aspect of the Catholic Church, fails again. He writes:
Atrios and Kevin Drum both discuss the increasing politicization of the American Catholic Church. As Atrios says, there have always been politically active bishops in America. What's new now is that Karol Wojtyla's . . .
Sorry, let me interrupt to ask, What's with the "Karol Wojtyla" bit? When I see people refer to Pope John Paul II this way I always think of a teenager calling his parents by their first names when he's around his friends to show he's cool. It's kind of cute. Anyway . . .
. . . long reign has created a church that's increasingly homogenous and centralized around the world. Hence, the hierarchy in America is shifting toward becoming hardcore allies of the political right.
Matthew adds an update to this silliness that ends with this
At any rate, I regard this as all quite sinister. The Vatican is not an admirable organization, much major media commentary to the contrary, and its growing influence, first over the American Church and now through the Church over the Republican Party is a rather unfortunate development. One should note that over the past 300-400 years or so, various enthusiasms have waxed and waned on the right (monarchy, racism, the gold standard, homophobia) but the Vatican is the tenacious foe that the left can never quite seem to kill off.
This is ludicrous. And it's not just puerile punditry gone awry; it's offensive and I'm a little surprised that more of his readers haven't explained this to him in the comments.

Suggesting killing off the Vatican and reducing the Vatican to just one more evil on a list of "various enthusiasms" is the kind of thing I find hard to take seriously. But the bigotry implied by these remarks is disturbing; hence I mention the post and let readers decide for themselves.

Dale Price had a sensible response in the comments which ended with:
Curl up with any Catholic social encyclical, such as Rerum Novarum or Centesimus Annus, and you'll find consistent criticism of capitalist economies (the latter was written by that corporatist Wojtyla). As others have mentioned, on everything from welfare reform to immigration to the environment, Catholic bishops are opponents of the right, not their allies.

Yglesias is not alone in his callow understanding of the Catholic Church. The pundits he mentions in his post above, while more sober in their words, suffer from similar misunderstandings about the Catholic Church. Atrios writes:
In this country, Catholicism no longer seems to be something completely distinct from Protestantism, but rather simply yet another flavor of Christianity. Papal authority, iconography, etc... - all the prior divisions - seem to have been replaced mostly by the standard issues in the culture wars. The overall divide seems to less be between different denominations and more between liberals and conservatives.
Huh?! It's as if these pundits collapse everything into political categories and forget that, while man is indeed a political animal, politics is not the end of man. Catholicism is a faith, not a political statement. Perhaps that's where some of the unpacking needs to begin.

Kevin Drum (who's moved his blog to Washington Monthly ), also mentioned above, writes:
In an odd twist, at the same time that Americans have gotten over their anti-Catholic bigotry of days past the Catholic Church itself has become far more politicized. If Kerry ends up having any problems because of his faith, it's less likely to be caused by lingering prejudice than by the church itself turning on one of its own.
Hmm . . . again, political categories are mashed into categories of faith. That the Church might turn on "one of its own" suggests that a profession of faith is a mere flatus vocis and that sacramental realities have nothing to do with that faith. The Church can't turn on "one of its own" unless we empty those words of all meaning. Comments like these seem to stem from a kind of Nominalism, we might say in this case a kind of cultural Nominalism, where distinctions that are real and intelligible are denied or suppressed.

Now, as I've mentioned before, I don't expect non-Catholics to "try on the Catholic faith" before writing about it. In fact, I don't think that's possible. But I do think pundits who suggest certain political implications about Catholics at least ought to be knowledgeable about what Catholics profess.




My two-year-old son and I were feeding the ducks at the park when he decided to give some duck food to some flowers and a couple of trees nearby. He gently placed the grains in each flower and at the base of the trees. Why not?

The incident reminded me of one of my favorite passages from Chesteron . . . okay, it reminded me of something Chesterton once said that had "marvellous facts" and "one incomprehensible thing following another incomprehensible thing" in it. It wasn't until I actually got home and checked that I remembered the exact passage :
Here is the peculiar perfection of tone and truth in the nursery tales. The man of science says, "Cut the stalk, and the apple will fall"; but he says it calmly, as if the one idea really led up to the other. The witch in the fairy tale says, "Blow the horn, and the ogre's castle will fall"; but she does not say it as if it were something in which the effect obviously arose out of the cause. Doubtless she has given the advice to many champions, and has seen many castles fall, but she does not lose either her wonder or her reason. She does not muddle her head until it imagines a necessary mental connection between a horn and a falling tower. But the scientific men do muddle their heads, until they imagine a necessary mental connection between an apple leaving the tree and an apple reaching the ground. They do really talk as if they had found not only a set of marvellous facts, but a truth connecting those facts. They do talk as if the connection of two strange things physically connected them philosophically.They feel that because one incomprehensible thing constantly follows another incomprehensible thing the two together somehow make up a comprehensible thing.


Monday, March 29, 2004


I am, like Ivan Karamazov of The Brothers Karamazov,
[F]ond of collecting certain facts, and, would you believe, I even copy anecdotes of a certain sort from newspapers and books, and I've already got a fine collection.
I don't really have a "fine collection," but every once in a while a story grabs hold of me and I can't shake it. Probably this happens to all of us.

One of the fairly well-known images from the novel is the following:
"This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty . . . . Can you understand why a little creature, who can't even understand what's done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child's prayer to dear, kind God'! I say nothing of the sufferings of grown-up people, they have eaten the apple, damn them, and the devil take them all! But these little ones!
Now, when I say above that "every once in a while a story grabs hold of me and I can't shake it," I don't mean Dostoevsky's masterpiece; I mean the story below. I wonder if literature like The Brothers Karamazov is, unbelievably, at a disadvantage in our day, in a culture of death, in a society where children slip through the cracks again and again and again.

This is one of those stories that can ruin your day, or week, or . . . :
When the 5-year-old told a state child protective services worker he wanted to be someone else, she thought "it was kind of funny coming from a kid" but never asked why.

It soon became clear.

By the time the kindergartner reached an emergency room in The Dalles 10 days later, he was dead. He had 72 blue and yellow bruises and scrapes on his 35-pound body. His left arm had been broken five times, old and new breaks. His right collarbone was cracked.




There was something about this article by Sallie Tisdale, an article I happened to read on the Feast of St. Joseph (why that's relevant will be evident shortly), that seemed out of place, that didn't quite work in the midst of such moving prose. The article starts out like this:
Four years ago he was born and every--thing changed. Daily we leave jobs, friends, lovers, but the child always comes along. When the going gets rough, my son and I can’t call it quits and cut our losses. I can’t pack a bag, make a break for it, find a more compatible child. The contract cannot be broken.

We are strangely entangled. When I wake from a bad dream without a sound, he wakes in the next room and cries for me. Between us there is no shame, no holding back. I take risks with him I wouldn’t dare take with anyone else. I treat him with rough impatience, with all the bile I hide from friends and lovers for fear of losing them.
A major point seemed to be that one's relationship to "jobs, friends, lovers," is different than one's relationship to one's child. Okay. But there was something so narrow in this contrast, something a bit constrained in the author's perspective of her relationship to her child, that I thought these notions got a bit banged up when placed next to each other.

Perhaps it's the clank of leaving "jobs, friends, lovers" when it's contrasted with, well, what?, the notion of leaving a child in the phrase "the child always comes along"? Perhaps it's the clatter of "hiding [rough impatience and bile] from friends and lovers" when placed next to, well, again what?, not hiding anything from one's child because there's no fear of losing him?

As I said, I ran across this on the Feast of St. Joseph, a day when there were many discussions about fathers, family, and faith, a day when, in 2002, Pope John Paul II delivered this meditation on the role of fathers, one of the first things I linked to in one of the first posts of Minute Particulars:
Faith nourished by prayer: this is the most precious treasure that St Joseph transmits to us. Generations of fathers have followed in his footsteps who, with the example of a simple and laborious life, imprinted on their children's souls the inestimable value of faith, without which every other good runs the risk of being in vain. So even now, I am happy to assure all fathers of a special prayer, on the day dedicated to them: I ask God that they be men of a robust interior life, in order to fulfill their mission in the family and society in an exemplary way.
It's not that Tisdale's above reflection (you need to click over and read the whole thing) is missing something, but that there doesn't seem to be any room for what's missing.


Saturday, March 27, 2004


Have you ever, pre-coffee, stumbled into the shower and been greeted with something like the above mad scrawling? Swiftly your mind races for clues to this bizarre scene. Why does the scrawling only reach up to about three feet or so and then stop as if prevented by some invisible force? While the spelling is pretty good, and the color coordination very nice, why the odd mixture of uppercase and lowercase? What subtle message is implied? You mentally step back a bit further to get the big picture.

You know that,
From effects not proportionate to the cause no perfect knowledge of that cause can be obtained . . . . (ST Ia 2 2 ad 3)
But you also know that from effects proportionate to the cause you can glean some knowledge of that cause. More to the point, you remember that there was a two-year-old boy who loves bath crayons in the tub last night.




Interesting little article on punctuation:
Those of us who work on magazines – writers and editors and designers alike – are compelled to grapple with big stories and big pictures that depend for their impact on attention to minute detail. Professionally, if not temperamentally, we subscribe to the "for-want-of-a-nail" school of history; we believe that kingdoms are lost, not so much by failures and screwups on a grand scale as by carelessness in small matters. It's not hard to understand that a tiny electrical short-circuit can cause a jumbo jet to plunge into the ocean. It's less obvious, though probably no less true, that inattention to the proper use of puncutation can inconspicuously help to undermine a civilization, because it weakens the mortar – language – that holds our civilization together. Sticklers such as Lynne Truss offer hope that the trend can be reversed, by reminding us, in the most entertaining way, how important it is that the words, sentences, and paragraphs we use to talk to each other be stitched together with the right stuff.
This same article also mentions this story of a semicolon that was recently in the news:
It all came down to a semicolon, the judge said.

"I am not trying to be petty here, but it is a big deal ... That semicolon is a big deal," said San Francisco Superior Court Judge James Warren.

The Proposition 22 Legal Defense and Education Fund had asked the judge to issue an order commanding the city to "cease and desist issuing marriage licenses to and/or solemnizing marriages of same-sex couples; to show cause before this court."

"The way you've written this it has a semicolon where it should have the word 'or'," the judge told them. "I don't have the authority to issue it under these circumstances."


Thursday, March 25, 2004

HOW SHALL THIS BE? (originally posted March 25, 2003)

Happy Solemnity of the Annunciation. Mary's response to the angel Gabriel provides us with a profound insight into the nature and inner workings of faith. I once heard a very smart priest compare Mary's response with Zechariah's response to the same angel. We get a glimpse of the integrity of each response from the reaction of God's messenger to each. One human's response is of deep trust, the other of wary hesitation.

The Annunciation is a richly textured description of the human assent of faith. And contrasting it to the response of Zechariah is illuminating:
[T]he angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right of the altar of incense. Zechariah was troubled by what he saw, and fear came upon him. But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of (the) Lord. He will drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will be filled with the holy Spirit even from his mother's womb, and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord." Then Zechariah said to the angel, "How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years." And the angel said to him in reply, "I am Gabriel, who stand before God. I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news. But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time."
Perhaps the first question which grips a human being regarding the Revelation of God is simply, "How shall I know this is true?" It seems a natural enough question. And this is the question of Zechariah, a devout and reverent man who followed "all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord" (Lk. 1:6). When the angel Gabriel, who stands "before God," tells Zechariah that Elizabeth will bear him a son, he responds by asking "How shall I know this?" And what is the reaction of the angel to this question, a question we all would probably ask as well? Zechariah is struck dumb by the angel because he did not believe the angel's words. His question is apparently one of "unbelief" and it seems, given the angel's reaction, that such a question is inappropriate. It does seem the angel might have been a little rough on poor old Zechariah on first glance.

But I think we get a sense of just what is wrong with Zechariah's question by looking at our own response to the revelation of another person. This is an important point, for the claim of the Catholic Tradition is that if I am truly to receive the Revelation of God, in the Sacraments, the proclamation of the Word, the teachings of the Church, and so on, it will be similar to my receiving the word of someone whom I love and trust.

And so, when someone I love reveals something to me, why is it that I never ask the same question as Zechariah, "How shall I know this is true?" It seems an inappropriate thing to ask and something you really only find in soap operas or between strangers. But if it is inappropriate to ask "How shall I know this is true?" when someone reveals something to me, for example that they love me, so too, and in a far greater way (because God is infinitely more loving and trusting than we can ever be), it is inappropriate to ask "How shall I know this is true?" regarding God's Revelation.

But what would be an appropriate response? We find it in the very next section of Luke, the response of Mary:
In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin's name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, "Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, 11 and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." But Mary said to the angel, "How can this be (RSV has "How shall this be" which seems better given the original Greek future tense used), since I have no relations with a man?" And the angel said to her in reply, "The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God." Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word." (Luke 1:26-38)
The same angel Gabriel visits Mary, a virgin, and tells her that she will bear a son whom she shall call Jesus. And what is Mary's response? She asks the question "How can (shall) this be?" (Lk. 1:34). There is a wide chasm between the response of Zechariah and Mary; but there is, too, as wide a gap between one I love and trust, and one I do not. Mary does not ask how she will know that this will be, but only how it will occur, how it will be. As one commentary has it:
How, &c.--not the unbelief of Zacharias, "Whereby shall I know this?" but, taking the fact for granted, "How is it to be, so contrary to the unbroken law of human birth?" Instead of reproof, therefore, her question is answered in mysterious detail.
Mary's completely faithful response to God is why the Church (CCC) holds that she is its archetype:
By her complete adherence to the Father's will, to his Son's redemptive work, and to every prompting of the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary is the Church's model of faith and charity.
Mary is the model of the perfect response to the Word of God:
[A]t the Annunciation Mary entrusted herself to God completely, with the "full submission of intellect and will," manifesting "the obedience of faith" to hm who spoke to her through his messenger. She responded, therefore, with all her human and feminine "I," and this response of faith included both perfect cooperation with "the grace of God that precedes and assists "a perfect openness to the action of the Holy Spirit, who "constantly brings faith to completion by his gifts." Redemptoris Mater, 13
When we consider our own response to the Revelation, it may be useful to reflect on both Zechariah's and Mary's response to Gabriel. Why is Zechariah's a question of unbelief? After all, he simply wanted to know how he could be sure that what the angel described was going to happen. And isn't this precisely the question I may be inclined to ask of God myself? Surely I know this feeling from my experience with other people. I do not trust the word of everyone whom I meet. In fact, it seems I have a rather small handful of persons in my life whom I would trust completely.

But, I do have a sense of how someone who is trustworthy will be. And I can say this not because I know their every motive and deepest felt conviction, or why they love me; clearly I do not. But I can say this because I recognize somehow that this person is trustworthy. I believe him or her.

If you think about it, in our own lives the question isn't, How do I know this is my friend? Rather, the question is, How shall my friend be? And it follows that when we consider God revealing Himself to us through the prophets, and finally through the Word made flesh, our question should be that of Mary's, an attentive response to the Truth, a response of recognition, an asking of how this will be? How will God manifest Himself in my life? How will the Truth of God touch me? How will friendship with God be?

C. S. Lewis suggests such questions in his remarkable description of deep friendship:
Are not lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for? You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been hints of it -- tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest -- if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself -- you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say "Here at last is the thing I was made for.


Wednesday, March 24, 2004


As always, How Appealing has an unbelievable roundup of opinions and reports on the "Under God" Supreme Court Case. I might add my meager musings on this case a bit later.


Tuesday, March 23, 2004


There's something in Flannery O'Connor's statement about adult baptisms:
All voluntary baptisms are a miracle to me and stop my mouth as much as if I had just seen Lazarus walk out of the tomb. I suppose it's because I know that it had to be given to me before the age of reason, or I wouldn't have used any reason to find it.
that seems in some way applicable on some level to all of the Sacraments. The fact of people gathering in community to celebrate publicly a sacrament is indeed a miracle that ought to stun us "as much as if [we'd] just seen Lazarus walk out of the tomb."

So, as I've said before, grousing about the liturgy surrounding a sacrament, while it may in certain contexts be a fine and noble thing to do, for must of us ought to be something we get around to after we've ticked off the very long list of things to do, pray for, and contemplate which are far weightier than our little liturgical concerns.

And so, while I understand her outrage, I'm not sure I completely agree with Barbara of Church of the Masses about the implications of her experience (link via Open Book) at Mass recently. I don't know . . . I wasn't at the Mass and I don't know anyone involved, but her comments seemed a tad over the top to my ear. For example:
One young friend, who was visiting from Washington, DC last week - where apparently the GIRM has not been applied with all the pastoral delicacy of a fleet of surging Mack trucks - didn't know that to kneel during Communion was a sign of the most dreadful and dangerous heinousness. We tried to whisper to her that she should stand up when she was kneeling before Communion, but she looked at us like we were crazed and insane. Then, she went up to Communion, and, as is her practice, made a quick genuflection when she was next in line to receive.

Oh, the inhumanity!

Our pastor, holding Eucharistic Jesus in front of his face says in a loud voice, "No! We don't do that kind of thing here any more! No more!" Everybody froze in horror. He then angrily handed off God into our friend's stunned, and thoroughly mortified face. As she made her way back to the pew, it was like she was a waiter in a restaurant who had just dropped a plate. Everybody stared at the evil woman.
Isn't "froze in horror" a bit much? Granted, no pastor should ever try to humiliate anyone; but I also presume that if he really shouted at the visiting woman as described that many would confront him about it. If this was really what transpired then it was out of line. But the pastor's rudeness and even insane response doesn't mean that quirky little private gestures like genuflection before receiving Holy Communion are really okay.

I'll be blunt. Private gestures and rituals at Mass are inappropriate theologically and liturgically. They're a little weird. Let's say the woman above genuflects before receiving Holy Communion, let's say the next person bows deeply, let's say the next person genuflects and bows deeply, let's say the next person shouts out "Amen!" and arches in ecstasy, let's say I spin around three times to gesture my belief in the Trinity in front of the priest before I receive? Where does it end? Sure, I'm exaggerating, but not by much. Come to my parish sometime. Not only are there lots of little private routines going on, but the priest has some of his own as well.

In fact, the fact that the priest in Barbara's story is actually taking the General Instruction of the Roman Missal seriously ought to be applauded. My pastor has summarily dismissed some stipulations of the GIRM because he thinks what he does is not disruptive and better demonstrates "community." Give me a pastor who tries to follow his bishop and the norms of liturgy over personal interpretation and ritual any day.

Now, I've done my share of grousing about these kinds of things. Forced greetings before mass, poor lectors, bad music, holding hands, some people standing while others kneel, some people talking while others are attentive, really stupid homilies, dancing, dramatizations, really stupid homilies, some people saying "Him" while others say "God," really stupid homilies, etc. But you know, when you step back a bit, this stuff is just silly stuff done by silly people who likely don't have any idea why what they're doing is theologically unsound, liturgically loopy, or just plain unthinking.

Lately, whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. Oops, that's Melville, not me.

Lately, whenever I find myself growing grim about my pastor's personal touches on the Mass, whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing at someone's private little routine at Mass, whenever it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping over a pew and methodically knocking people's hats off (can't do that anymore!) methodically shaking people back to their senses, then I account it high time to step back and remember the simple, striking, sober fact of people gathering in community and celebrating a sacrament, an event that is indeed a miracle that ought to stun us "as much as if [we'd] just seen Lazarus walk out of the tomb."




Speaking of Disputations, there's an interesting discussion in the Comments between Rob and Tom about, well, quite a few things. One thing that caught my eye is the definition of “belief” as a “participation in the knowledge of a knower,” a description that I first ran across in Josef Pieper's works, though I think it's implied throughout the Tradition. To understand what Pieper means by this definition you have to understand his use of "knower." Pieper quotes Newman, who wrote:
Faith, then, must necessarily be resolvable at last into Sight and Reason; unless, indeed, we agree with enthusiasts in thinking that faculties altogether new are implanted in our minds . . . .
Quite a while ago, I posted a tangled mess that touched on this. I said the following about the "knower":

Regarding the Catholic Faith, the first “knower” was the Word Incarnate: Jesus had to know who the Father is, else his revelation of Him to the apostles would not be possible. The apostles had to know who Jesus Christ was, in order to believe what He revealed of the Father. And the community of believers nearly two millennia later must know that the succession of witnesses from the apostles on down has an integrity to it. We as believers are participating in the knowledge the Son revealed of the Father to those He “dwelt among” by knowing the testimony of the apostles and the believing communities (hence Councils, etc.) that has persisted through history.




I finally received my copy of A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist from Zaccheus Press, the text, you'll recall, that's recommended for the Lenten program offered at Disputations. It's deep and dense and so far seems well worth the effort it takes to follow Abbott Vonier. My favorite line so far:
I do not apologize to my readers for making this appeal to their highest reasoning powers in order to establish a truth which will be such a gain to them. (p. 26)




I noticed this from Crooked Timber a while back and forgot to post it. It's a discussion about
. . . using religious reasons that one doesn’t believe to convince people who do believe them to change their political views.
I don't think it's really possible via a "thought experiment" for a nonbeliever to "try on" a belief. To admit this seems to water down "belief" and turn faith into an act of imagination rather than will. Josef Pieper puts it this way:
The experiences of a believer, for example, cannot as a rule be imparted to a nonbeliever. It is an essential characteristic of faith to effect a total identification of the believer with what is believed, to such an extent that it becomes impossible to assume, even theoretically and hypothetically, that what is believed is untrue. For the same reason a nonbeliever is unable to reproduce the conviction, be it only as a thought experiment and "pure theory," that what is believed is true. ("Let's assume the Christians are right, and let's see how far we get with it.") Faith is not something like an observatory tower or a telescope, which can be used for experiments by everyone. Only the believer with full existential commitments is capable of perceiving the light that the truth of faith sheds on all reality.


Monday, March 22, 2004


If the first thing that occurs to you when you see "Styx" is "a mythical river of Hades that the souls of the dead had to cross on their journey from the realm of the living," best move on to the next post.

I turned on PBS the other night and was greeted by someone who looked like Burt Bacharach singing "Mr. Roboto":
Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto, domo...domo
Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto, domo...domo
Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto, domo...domo . . . .
I thought, "Hey, not bad. He does a very good Dennis DeYoung."

After a few more Styx songs, "Lady," "Come Sail Away" (which is for beginning rock pianists what "Stairway to Heaven" is for beginning rock guitarists), I realized that ol' Burt must be doing some kind of Styx tribute. Quite good really. Sure he's, uh, a bit more mature than I'd expect anyone belting out these songs to be; but, really, his rhythm and intonation were perfect. He must have listened to a lot of Styx songs to sound so authentic.

It was only after a break (it was PBS after all) that I realized the guy singing was in fact Dennis DeYoung of Styx fame.

Good Lord! When last I saw him he looked like this:

Here he is as I saw him on the PBS special:

If you do the math, he actually looks pretty good. It's just a bit jarring to have a memory from so long ago cracked open and updated.


Sunday, March 21, 2004


I've plopped a few posts below from this time last year in light of the one-year anniversary of our invasion of Iraq. Much of what I discuss, I think, remains relevant and in urgent need of sober debate. Some of us continue to protest the decision to go to war; some are dazed by the massive failures of the past year; and some remain firmly resolved that going to war was necessary. But perhaps all of us ought to keep in mind what has been called "the leitmotiv in the Vatican's response to the use of force, repeated again and again in papal statements and other Vatican declarations":
No, never again war, which destroys the lives of innocent people, teaches how to kill, throws into upheaval even the lives of those who do the killing and leaves behind a trail of resentment and hatred, thus making it all the more difficult to find a just solution of the very problems which provoked the war. Just as the time has finally come when in individual States a system of private vendetta and reprisal has given way to the rule of law, so too a similar step forward is now urgently needed in the international community. Furthermore, it must not be forgotten that at the root of war there are usually real and serious grievances: injustices suffered, legitimate aspirations frustrated, poverty, and the exploitation of multitudes of desperate people who see no real possibility of improving their lot by peaceful means. (Centesimus Annus)


Saturday, March 20, 2004

A STRAIGHTFORWARD MANNER (originally from March 2003)

Flannery O'Connor tells an amusing anecdote about Henry James:
It's said that when Henry James received a manuscript that he didn't like, he would return it with the comment, "You have chosen a good subject and are treating it in a straightforward manner." This usually pleased the person getting the manuscript back, but it was the worst thing that James could think of to say, for he knew, better than anybody else, that the straightforward manner is seldom equal to the complications of the good subject.
Now, frankly, and with all due respect, it does seem to me that many of the bloggers who have disagreed with or outright dismissed the statements on Iraq from the USCCB and the pope have treated these statements "in a straightforward manner." And, in my humble opinion, I really think many of their explanations are not "equal to the complications" of the deep and long standing tradition of how Catholics are to receive official statements that are a prudential judgment on a current situation by bishops and the pope. . . . MORE



"DISAGREEMENT IS NOT AN EASY THING TO REACH" (originally from March 2003)

This wonderfully counterintuitive statement from John Courtney Murray has been highlighted again by recent debate; this time it's the debate on exactly how Catholics ought to react to a statement on a current situation by bishops or the pope. I'm amazed at some of the negative responses my recent post, COLD COMFORT, received. I'm not amazed because they're negative responses, of course not; I get lots of those. I'm amazed because I'm still not quite sure what it is we're disagreeing upon. I know it must be hidden somewhere in all the "isms" that are being used to describe my position and others who have approached the issue in a similar manner. . . . MORE



COLD COMFORT (originally from March 2003)

It's interesting that one of the most cited texts from the USCCB on Iraq by those who disagree with the bishops is the following:
People of good will may differ on how traditional norms apply in this situation. The gravity of the threat and whether force would be preemptive are matters of debate, as are the potential consequences of using or failing to use military force.
I wonder if those taking comfort in the fact that a judgment doesn't require assent, in this case a judgment by bishops or the pope about the current Iraqi situation, might be dismissing the opinion in part because it doesn't require assent. I've read suggestions that the opinion of bishops and the pope on Iraq doesn't touch on faith and morals; but surely it's an application of these. I've also sensed that some think a prudential judgment is a kind of personal opinion about a matter that "people of good will may differ on" and thus, because they consider themselves people of good will, they implicitly or explicitly hold that their opinion is necessarily equal to the opinion of the bishops and pope. I'd like to suggest that there might be a bit more to disagreeing with bishops and the pope on prudential issues than the doesn't require assent mantra might suggest. But to do this we need to consider again the nature of a prudential judgment. . . . MORE




Here's a disturbing story:
The scene at the Wilds of Africa exhibit was wilder than anything most zookeepers have witnessed in the jungle: A 340-pound gorilla breaks out of its enclosure and goes on a 40-minute rampage through a forest, snatching up a toddler with his teeth and attacking three other people before being shot by officers.

Federal regulators are investigating the Dallas Zoo over Thursday's escape, zoo officials are trying to figure out how the gorilla managed to break out, and animal welfare advocates are questioning whether officers had to kill the beast (emphasis added).


Thursday, March 18, 2004


Redwood Dragon has one of the better images of Plato's Allegory of the Cave that I've come across. Here's the pertinent text; below is an excerpt from that pertinent text; here's another image of what is described in the pertinent text.
[Socrates is speaking with Glaucon]
And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: --Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.


Wednesday, March 17, 2004


The above is a bumper sticker mentioned in this article (via Relapsed Catholic). The author points out that,
The message of the sticker brings up, of course, an old charge that is used by atheists and agnostics against those who subscribe to a particular religion -- namely, that people of faith cannot at the same time be people of reason.
But his rebuttal seems to suggest that this isn't so without really explaining the nuts and bolts of why faith and reason aren't contradictory notions. I attempted to explain this a while ago and thought it was worth revisiting. It's a little yanked from its context, but I think it touches on the above.

Truth, whether derived from reason or believing what someone has testified, whether obtained first, second, or 2000th hand, is one, a unity derived from the most fundamental unity possible.

Etienne Gilson described “the unity of the philosophical experience” to be the fact that all philosophical inquiries share a common characteristic, a fundamental posture toward existence.
In each instance of philosophical thinking, both the philosopher and his particular doctrine are ruled from above by an impersonal necessity.
This “impersonal necessity” is at the core of our ability to understand. And I use "to understand" here in the sense of a movement of the intellect which starts with first principles known by all, discourses from these to what is not immediately known, and comes to rest again when one indeed understands something new.

Gilson’s point is that, in any intellectual endeavor, the fundamental fact of existence, our own and that of all things, whether or not it is explicitly described as such, is the source and measure of any knowledge we can acquire about anything. When we make a judgment, when we say "A is ___________," that "is" you see there is a reference to existence. All notions we have, whether we are composing or dividing in our minds, all thoughts, all propositions, all judgments are inextricably immersed in an "is-ness." All of our understanding requires an implicit or explicit "is" or "is not." There is no "kindofisbutnotreally" or "kindofisnotbutnotreally" -- to deny this means, and one can't really say this about too many things, to deny this means you don't understand the terms of the argument. To deny this is to deny that "A is A" or that a thing cannot both be A and not be A at the same time in the same respect.

So, when folks say that science presents truths about the world that contradict truths presented by religion they are using "truth" equivocally, using "truth" to mean more than one thing. When folks say that they will continue to believe in something that reason has demonstrated to be impossible, they are being foolish, or rather, they aren't really saying anything intelligible because they are in essence saying "A is A and A is not A at the same time in the same respect." They might as well say "mambo dogface in the banana patch" (the ol' Steve Martin routine).

A thing either is or is not. There's no other option. Don't get confused with "modes of being." A sign of this is saying, "Well, can't something be imaginary and only kindofsortof exist"? Even imaginary beings either are (in someone's mind) or are not (nobody has thought of them). Things either are or are not. And thus, whenever we say something "is" some color, or shape, or property, or just "something is," we are making an assertion, an enunciation that is linked to all things that "are," that exist. Truth is one, truth is a unity, because existence is one, existence is a unity.




TS O'Rama has some expected nice links in honor of St. Patrick's Day. While I still think the best blog motto I've come across is found on this blog:
an interesting idea every three months; a posting every day
I think the motto of this blog (uh, the blog started to get a little vulgar when I last checked so I've de-linked it) that TS links to is pretty good:
fabulous since '73 : blogging since '03 : drinking since noon




Another provocative excerpt from this essay by Frederick D. Wilhelmsen. As I said previously, I'm not convinced that all his points come together successfully or that his approach is fully responsive to the issues of the day, but there are some really pithy passages:
A sacral society appeals not only to the intellect and to the will but to man's sensibility and emotions. We might recall here with benefit St. Thomas Aquinas' insistence that the human person is the , the totality of any man in existence. Not even my soul is my person argued The Common Doctor: my soul is , personal, and although the resurrection of the body cannot be demonstrated by natural reason, that resurrection is suggested by the very unity of the human person, body and soul, emotions and will, intellect and senses. It is the whole man standing on the soil of this earth who is the person. To dissect one part of him—the religious—from the whole—the political from the religious, man as worker from man as player: from : the economic from the familial; the aesthetic from the social, is to sunder into smithereens he who is a unity in existence. . . . [I]f man's integral life is severed into slivers that man's unity is gone. So too with a social and political order. Secularism in the west has divorced man's religious affirmations from his political life. The sacral unity which once covered Christendom is now gone -- except, as I pointed out earlier, in the visual reminders of what Christendom once was.

I take it as evident that something is awry in a man who is a Catholic and who has to forget that truth when he becomes a politician or a professor or anything else. Such a man is harmed psychologically because he is harmed ontologically. He has to wear two or three masks at once, shifting from one to the other as he moves through life. We have become so accustomed to this masked ball, this charade, that often enough we are not even aware of the damage being wrought in the depths of our being. We have become "Sunday Catholics" and we behave ourselves at work, in our parliaments and congresses, in our daily walk through life, as though what we most deeply believe must not be articulated publicly for fear of offending secularist sensibilities.


Sunday, March 14, 2004


I'm no Scripture scholar, though I play one here from time to time. Sunday's First Reading has the well-known burning-bush scene with Moses and the equally well-known Divine utterance. Not, "I am what I am"; that's Popeye, who I think said it more like "I yam what I yam." Rather,
Moses said to God, "But when I go to the Israelites
and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,'
if they ask me, 'What is his name?' what am I to tell them?"
God replied, "I am who am."
You might be surprised, though, at the variations in translation of this statement:
New American Standard: I AM WHO I AM.
New International VersionI am who I am.
King James: I AM THAT I AM.
American Standard Version: I AM THAT I AM.
Revised Standard Version: I AM WHO I AM.
New Revised Standard Version: I AM WHO I AM.
Latin Vulgate: ego sum qui sum
Other than the Latin above, which is more flexible because more inflected, all of these translations seem Popeye-like; while the difference between "what I am" and "who I am" might further distinguish most of the above from the salty sailor's yammering, eliminating the second "I" seems to make a qualitative and substantial difference in meaning. To my tin ear and meager understanding, "I am who am," as the New American Bible has it, seems the more intelligible translation. "I am who I am" (or the variations above) not only changes the meaning, but shakes the foundations of metaphysics, or perhaps more accurately, a metaphysics enlightened by Revelation,* by distorting the notion that God is He whose essence is existence itself.

St. Thomas Aquinas, in his famous five demonstrations for the existence of God , cites Exodus 3:14: ego sum qui sum, in the Sed Contra, a place typically reserved for the finest authoritative statement that occurs to him on the question at hand. I note that the Benziger edition happily translates the Latin as "I am who am," though that of course doesn't mean it's the most accurate. Still, when Aquinas states that "Therefore [God's] essence is His existence" [Sua igitur essentia est suum esse], in the very next Question of the Summa, I think he must have in mind the "I am who am" sense and not "I am who I am."

* - there is a lot of grumbling about whether "a metaphysics enlightened by Revelation" or a "Christian Philosophy" are terms that have any real meaning. More later. After all, I'm no metaphysician, but I play one here from time to time.




I'm not one to make public the various deprivations I'm enduring during Lent. I am, though, always happy when it's Sunday.


Saturday, March 13, 2004


Jesus Gil of Santificarnos continues to provide news from Madrid.




While I eagerly enrolled in the Lenten program offered at Disputations, I foolishly procrastinated and only recently ordered my copy of A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist from Zaccheus Press. And so, like showing up for class without the required book, I'm following the the discussion but sitting quietly in the back with my head down hoping the teacher won't call on me.

Tom's recent post and the ensuing discussion center on the notion that, in Vonier's words, every sacrament
recalls the past, it is the voice of the present, it reveals the future.
Tom explains that,
A sacrament can do these things because it is a sign.
This reminded me of something I posted last year that I'll recast here. Surely there are more apt quotes, but I'm more inclined to paste than type this morning.

My post was a response to this section of Providentissimus Deus:
For the saving and for the perfection of ourselves and of others there is at hand the very best of help in the Holy Scriptures, as the Book of Psalms, among others, so constantly insists; but those only will find it who bring to this divine reading not only docility and attention, but also piety and an innocent life. For the Sacred Scripture is not like other books. (emphasis added)
Why it's not like other books is, at least for me, a very profound question. And in light of the above discussion, we might suggest, for similar reasons, that the Sacraments are not like other signs.

Aquinas makes a fairly telegraphic remark in his well-known yet inexhaustible Question on Sacred Doctrine, that I think is quite relevant here::
The author of Holy Writ is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves. So, whereas in every other science things are signified by words, this science has the property, that the things signified by the words have themselves also a signification. Therefore that first signification whereby words signify things belongs to the first sense, the historical or literal. That signification whereby things signified by words have themselves also a signification is called the spiritual sense, which is based on the literal, and presupposes it. (Summa Theologica Ia 1 10)
This is a tough concept to drag into one's musings about the nature of Scripture and the Sacraments. Because God is the "author" of all that is, words inspired by Him that signify things created by Him have a richness that human words and artifacts lack. And of course, the purest form of the words and actions of God is the Word Incarnate, where every utterance and action of Jesus is the Word of God -- hence the importance the Catholic Faith places on the Sacraments, which manifest the words and actions of Jesus, and the Gospels, which have the words and actions of Jesus at their core.

Aquinas explains what is meant by the "literal sense" of Scripture in ST Ia 1 10 ad 3, where he writes:
. . . by words things are signified properly and figuratively. Nor is the figure itself, but that which is figured, the literal sense. When Scripture speaks of God's arm, the literal sense is not that God has such a member, but only what is signified by this member, namely operative power. Hence it is plain that nothing false can ever underlie the literal sense of Holy Writ. (emphasis added)
He broaches this issue again in his lesser-known Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians (Super Gal., cap. 4, l. 7), which is only online in Latin. Here's a translation by F. R. Larcher, O.P., of a key passage:
[S]ignification is twofold: one is through words; the other through the things signified by the words. And this is peculiar to the sacred writings and no others, since their author is God in Whose power it lies not only to employ words to signify (which man can also do), but things as well. Consequently, in the other sciences handed down by men, in which only words can be employed to signify, the words alone signify. But it is peculiar to Scripture that words and the very things signified by them signify something. Consequently this science can have many senses. For that signification by which the words signify something pertains to the literal or historical sense. But the signification whereby the things signified by the words further signify other things pertains to the mystical sense. (emphasis added)
If you consider "words and actions" where only "words" is used in the above passage on the twofold nature of signs, I think you'll have a profound meditation on the nature of sacraments. God can employ not only words, but the very things themselves. Here the most profound sense of "employ" (the Latin is accommodet) is invoked. For God doesn't come upon the world and choose various things to use for Revelation. He creates the world ex nihilo and so has Revelation "in mind" as He creates (or, perhaps more accurately, Revelation involves creating human beings and therefore the universe). But even more profound than the fact that water and oil and wheat and grapes are all created with the Sacraments "in mind," human beings were created with the Incarnation "in mind" and the Sacraments which derive from it. Surely this is the central aspect of our professing, "Through him all things were made."


Friday, March 12, 2004


Here's a follow-up to the case I mentioned in a post, SIMILAR REMARKS, DIFFERENT REACTIONS, from last month. Let me state again that, at least from the few stories I've read, the parents of the murdered girl are impressive. They continue to insist calmly and with dignity that their daughter's death should not be the cause of another death. While I very much agree with their concerns, I'm not sure I could muster the courage to do the same were it my daughter.

I've never served as a juror in a murder trial. I don't doubt that it's a difficult and exhausting experience. And frankly, most of us should refrain from second guessing jurors when our only input is a few fragmented newspaper stories. That said, taking some of the comments in the above story at face value should cause all of us to cringe. Can this really be an accurate picture of what some of the jurors were thinking and discussing during the penalty phase of the trial? Again, the story is partial and surely out of context -- but I still find it troubling:
"I threw a bit of a temper tantrum," [one juror] recalled Wednesday, as six of the 12 jurors spoke for the first time about their draining experience. . . .

"I screamed that I couldn't believe this was happening, that we were possibly going to be a hung jury when in my mind, the case was so obvious. Everything was there, DNA evidence, witness testimony. There was no room for interpretation," [she] said. "I was angry. There were a few words of profanity that came out of my mouth."
Uh, okay. I'm not sure a "temper tantrum" ought to ever occur in a death-penalty deliberation. This same juror remarked further on that:
. . . she was aware that [the] parents supported a true-life sentence, having watched them on television after the guilty verdict was announced [but, apparently, before the sentencing phase of the trial], coupled with the defense's veiled reference to their wishes during closing arguments. "Technically I cheated," she said. "But that didn't influence me."
"Technically I cheated"!?

Here's another disturbing aspect:
One juror, according to others, had questions about the legal wording and theories underlying some of the nine aggravated murder charges [the murderer] faced . . . . One of the theories, for example, was that [he] killed [the girl], 14, to conceal his identity in the course of committing other crimes, such as rape, sodomy and kidnapping. . . . The presiding juror worked one on one with the holdout juror to explain the legal terminology of each count. . . .

"The length of the deliberation was in part due to a lack of understanding of the terminology of some of the counts," [one juror] said.
Perhaps most people would find the "legal wording" confusing. But shouldn't the judge ensure that the jurors understand the terms used before deliberations begin? That a death-penalty case might turn on the explanatory skills of one of the jurors is disconcerting.

There were a couple of promising statements. I take some comfort that one juror was
. . . swayed by the attachment [the murderer] had to his family members, and the effect a death sentence would have on his loved ones, who he said came across as "quality people."
Unfortunately, this same juror followed this with:
"I didn't think vindication or revenge would gain anything," [he] said. [He] also said he thought that [the murderer's] life term in prison as a convicted child killer and rapist would not be easy.

"Given the perception in prison of sex offenders who assault children, I felt that would do a lot toward punishing him," [he] said. "But I didn't want to punish his family."
The juror's concern for the murderer's family strikes me as mature and sober; surely it's an important aspect in a death-penalty case. And yet, while this juror doesn't think "vindication or revenge would gain anything," he then states that a life sentence would do "a lot toward punishing him." Why? Uh, well, it's because of "the perception in prison of sex offenders who assault children."

I'm starting to think that juror incompetence might be an effective argument against the death-penalty. Again, my information is based on a poorly written, somewhat sensationalized story that weaves various quotes from jurors together. And I've done my own weaving of the quotes to make my point. Still, I wonder.




This is stunning:
An estimated 10,000 galaxies are revealed in humankind's deepest portrait of the visible universe ever.
The vastness of the "visible universe" has been mind numbing for so long that I wonder how any image could really make a deeper impression on us. Still, this glimpse is remarkable.

It's an interesting exercise to "flip the telescope around" and realize that at the far end are the creatures for whom the "visible world" was created. From Redemptor Hominis:
The Redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, is the centre of the universe and of history. . . . In him has been revealed in a new and more wonderful way the fundamental truth concerning creation to which the Book of Genesis gives witness when it repeats several times: "God saw that it was good". The good has its source in Wisdom and Love. In Jesus Christ the visible world which God created for man . . . *




After the recent revelation that somebody was selling body parts that had been donated to UCLA, apparently some at UCLA thought the offense was so grave that, according to this report, they
. . . will hold off on accepting additional bodies for medical research until the completion of an investigation into claims that body parts were sold for profit.
This will sound strange, but I'm amazed at the outrage I've heard or read about over the treatment of dead bodies. Not because it's misplaced; but because I suspect many of these same outraged folks don't get nearly as worked up about the treatment of living bodies.

It would be wonderful to hear the same urgency and concern expressed by guests on a recent Talk of the Nation show, entitled The Cadaver Trade, on a show which discussed, for example, embryonic stem cell research.




St. Blog's own Madrid Blogger (via Sursum Corda), Jesus Gil, has been posting on the horrific events.


Wednesday, March 10, 2004


Dr. Seuss would have been 100 years old this week. Here's a nice peek at how things are going:
But the spirit of his work and its genius--the wild invention, the meaningfully meaningless patter of the words, the quiet truths of the characters (however odd they may otherwise be), the subtle mix of their motives--lose their logic and force when, say, Rosie O'Donnell turns Dr. Seuss into a Broadway star-turn or when the Cat in the Hat becomes a theme-park goofball. A similar sort of travesty can be seen in the mounting pile of licensed tchotchkes--excuse me, merchandise: "One Fish Two Fish" switchplate covers, Horton trash cans, "Green Eggs and Ham Pinball," "Cat in the Hat-opoly," a board game fusing Dr. Seuss and Monopoly.
If you think there isn't a whole lot more to squeeze out of The Cat in the Hat than "the wild invention, the meaningfully meaningless patter of the words, the quiet truths of the characters," check out Louis Menand's essay on it from a few months ago:
Every reader of "The Cat in the Hat" will feel that the story revolves around a piece of withheld information: what private demons or desires compelled this mother to leave two young children at home all day, with the front door unlocked, under the supervision of a fish? Terrible as the cat is, the woman is lucky that her children do not fall prey to some more insidious intruder. The mother's abandonment is the psychic wound for which the antics of the cat make so useless a palliative. The children hate the cat. They take no joy in his stupid pet tricks, and they resent his attempt to distract them from what they really want to be doing, which is staring out the window for a sign of their mother's return. Next to that consummation, a cake on a rake is a pretty feeble entertainment. . . .

The cat's improvisations with the objets trouvés in the home he has invaded are obviously an allegory for his creator's performance with the two hundred and twenty arbitrary words he has been assigned by his publisher. The cat is a bricoleur. He has no system—or, rather, his system is to have no system. He is compelled to make meaning from whatever is there. He fails, the bricolage topples, the fish ends up in a teapot; and this hint of semantic instability is expanded on in Dr. Seuss's most difficult work (No. 26 all-time), "The Cat in the Hat Comes Back," published in 1958.
Sheesh! And I just thought it was a fun little story. When I come across an essay like this I start to wonder if I've got a critical -- as in literary criticism -- bone in my body.


Tuesday, March 09, 2004


I recently stumbled upon a little book, Being and Knowing, that is a collection of essays by Frederick Wilhelmsen. I'd seen his name before, but I hadn't really read anything of his. I'm finding the book refreshingly insightful. I hope to share what I found so insightful about the book once I've finished it and feel I've unpacked the often dense text enough to be comfortable commenting on it.

Meanwhile, I thought I'd see if Wilhelmsen had anything available online and I found this interesting essay. I'm not convinced that all his points come together successfully or that his approach is fully responsive to the issues of the day, but there are some really pithy passages. I thought I'd post a few.

Here's the first passage that caught my eye:
Man by his very nature is a social being, created always by a direct act producing him out of nothing, but created within a social fabric surrounding him, nourishing him, influencing him, buoying him up in the innumerable crisis each man confronts in his life, or oppressing him. For the political philosopher and for the theologian of politics it is by no means difficult to arrive at the conclusion that man is saved by God or damned by himself within some society in which he is born, nurtured, raised.

Epistemologically, this proposition is perhaps best validated when we take account of the truth that in man to understand is to communicate: intelligere est communicare. Receiving its highest articulation in the thought of both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, intellection is completed or terminated only in some verbum—a word of the spirit—in which each man says to himself what it is that he understands. Symbolized in our country in older cartoon strips in which a light bulb goes off in the head of someone who has now gotten the point, seen the light, because he can say to himself what he understands, St. Thomas insists that nobody understands anything until and unless he can "say it" to himself. Knowledge at its point of perfection is self-knowledge but this communicative structure of the act of knowing in man is distended in that he says to himself what he knows through the instrumentality of signs, and symbols, which gesture to the world what he has come to understand. It follows that self-communication is consubstantial with communicating to "the other," the other man, the human world surrounding us, the content of our understanding. (italics added in place of "< >" in the original)




I've just noticed that an interesting article, Columbia's Last Flight, that I read back in the November issue of The Atlantic Monthly is now online.
Space flight is known to be a risky business, but during the minutes before dawn last February 1, as the doomed shuttle Columbia began to descend into the upper atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean, only a handful of people—a few engineers deep inside of NASA—worried that the vehicle and its seven souls might actually come to grief. It was the responsibility of NASA's managers to hear those suspicions, and from top to bottom they failed. After the fact, that's easy to see. But in fairness to those whose reputations have now been sacrificed, seventeen years and eighty-nine shuttle flights had passed since the Challenger explosion, and within the agency a new generation had risen that was smart, perhaps, but also unwise—confined by NASA's walls and routines, and vulnerable to the self-satisfaction that inevitably had set in.


Monday, March 08, 2004


At face value, it would be hard to overstate the irony of the recent decision (PDF!) by the Supreme Court to uphold the stipulation of a state scholarship that students can't use the scholarship money for theological studies.

Here's part of the decision:
Washington’s exclusion of the pursuit of a devotional theology degree from its otherwise-inclusive scholarship aid program does not violate the Free Exercise Clause. This case involves the “play in the joints” between the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses. That is, it concerns state action that is permitted by the former but not required by the latter.
I hadn't seen the term "play in the joints" before in the context of a Supreme Court decision. Interesting. Anyway, in light of my understanding of the First Amendment, I don't necessarily disagree with the ruling. But I found the use of the term "theology" to be distressingly sloppy. In fact, a dissenting opinion points out that the statute in question "itself does not define 'theology.'" That same opinion, though, fails to distinguish metaphysics and theology.

The irony of the decision comes from the fact that theology, properly, or at least traditionally, understood, is the highest science humans can aspire to; it's the pinnacle of human intellectual achievement. Why?

Francisco Muniz, OP, has an especially nuanced and comprehensive definition of theology that covers the crucial points:
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 Theology 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.
Look also at what St. Thomas Aquinas points out in the very first Question of his Beginner's Guide to Theology*:
Since this science is partly speculative and partly practical, it transcends all others speculative and practical. Now one speculative science is said to be nobler than another, either by reason of its greater certitude, or by reason of the higher worth of its subject-matter. In both these respects this science surpasses other speculative sciences; in point of greater certitude, because other sciences derive their certitude from the natural light of human reason, which can err; whereas this derives its certitude from the light of divine knowledge, which cannot be misled: in point of the higher worth of its subject-matter because this science treats chiefly of those things which by their sublimity transcend human reason; while other sciences consider only those things which are within reason's grasp. Of the practical sciences, that one is nobler which is ordained to a further purpose, as political science is nobler than military science; for the good of the army is directed to the good of the State. But the purpose of this science, in so far as it is practical, is eternal bliss; to which as to an ultimate end the purposes of every practical science are directed. Hence it is clear that from every standpoint, it is nobler than other sciences.
I don't expect the Supreme Court to refer to Muniz or Aquinas when making a ruling about "theology." And as I said, I found the Court's concerns convincing in many ways. But I do wonder what such a decision says about the perception of theology today. I don't expect that many will see the irony of the above decision largely because "theology" is defined so loosely, if at all; I don't doubt that many think theology is about as rigorous a science as astrology. Nonetheless, theology was once the crown jewel of universities and widely considered to be the highest intellectual discipline possible.

Here's my real concern: Surely many folks could articulate the silliness of considering astrology an intellectually rigorous discipline; but I'm not sure many could articulate the reasons why theology shouldn't still be considered the highest intellectual pursuit possible. There's a difference between someone saying theology is a pseudoscience of silliness and someone explaining why it's not a science or why it's silly.

* From the Prologue of the Summa Theologica:
Because the doctor of Catholic truth ought not only to teach the proficient, but also to instruct beginners (according to the Apostle: As unto little ones in Christ, I gave you milk to drink, not meat -- 1 Cor. 3:1-2), we purpose in this book to treat of whatever belongs to the Christian religion, in such a way as may tend to the instruction of beginners. (emphasis added)


Sunday, March 07, 2004


I thought this interview (via A&L Daily) with Jonathan Miller on his current staging of Shakespeare's King Lear was quite good. Here's a sample:
Would you say it has a spiritual dimension? No. That's modern, New Age drivel. Every play has a spiritual dimension by simply having human beings in it. Humans are filled with all sorts of compunctions and ideas and tendencies, which one might loosely call spiritual. Lear's about man's place in the social order. . . .

People tend to rank these plays. Lear is supposedly the final Himalayan peak, which you need to approach with great reverence and care because it's the most cloud-packed and remote. Actually, it's the most interesting foothills, and it's the foothills where most people live. No human being lives on Everest. We all live on the foothills. That's where the civilization occurs, where the villages are, where social existence takes place. Human beings are not up against the cosmos. We live amongst ourselves, and what interests me are the relationships that human beings have with one another and the institutions through which they achieve order and cooperation and friction. Lear is arguably one of the greatest achievements of the mind of man. But once this entity called "the mind of man" gets invoked, you know you're in deep sh*t.
(Note: I've replaced "i" with "*" above to avoid search returns that have "Minute Particulars" and "sh*t" in close proximity -- I mean, I know the words are often brought together in readers' minds, but I'd prefer that a search engine not also be making the connection.)


Thursday, March 04, 2004


I've only now had a chance to read an article (PDF!) (via Disputations a few months ago) which attempts to unpack some aspects of Hans Urs von Balthasar's theology around the question of what we can predicate of the triune God. I simply haven't read enough of Balthasar to know if the article presents his case well and moves the debate forward.

I did, though, find this passage intriguing:
Not everything about Jesus' humanity can be taken as a direct revelation of God. To argue so would be to miss the crucial distinction between the form and the content of form, the distinction between form and the truth communicated by the form.
And later on there's this related passage:
Jesus himself did not teach us in his earthly life how to distinguish between the manifestation of his humanity as humanity and the manifestation of his humanity as a revelation of God and the divine perfections. Rather, he presumed knowledge gained from the created order, an order that was instituted through the eternal Logos himself.
I not sure I'm following the context of these statements, but my initial reaction is reticence and even disagreement with what is proposed. The statement, "Not everything about Jesus' humanity can be taken as a direct revelation of God" just seems wrong. I know there's a concern to avoid Monophysitism, the "doctrine that emphasized the single nature (the term means literally 'of one nature') of Christ, as a wholly divine being rather than part-divine and part-human." But I think one can say that "everything about Jesus' humanity can be taken as a direct revelation of God" and not deny Christ's human nature.

Surely the very presence of God Incarnate, of God in our midst, is a "direct revelation of God." What then about Jesus Christ would not be? Probably someone asserting this has in mind the fact that the human nature Jesus took on was indistinguishable from our own human nature and therefore not a "direct revelation of God" since every human would then have to be a "direct revelation of God" in some way.

But when we attempt to tweeze out what is revealed from what is not in the Incarnation, we, I think, inevitably begin to drift away from any notion that human beings are divine in their source and end. And more to the point, human beings become a kind of afterthought for God. God didn't create the World and then think, "Hmm, I guess I ought to go visit my creatures; which one is best suited for me?" God created the World solely for human beings.

Perhaps I'm balking at "the crucial distinction between the form and the content of form, the distinction between form and the truth communicated by the form"? Can we really make such a distinction with substantial forms? Don't we slip into a dualistic understanding of human nature if we insist that form and content, form and the truth communicated by the form can and must be distinguished with regard to the Incarnation?

I don't know. Better "choke me in the shallow water before I get too deep."


Tuesday, March 02, 2004


I'm intrigued by the term "teaching moment," a term recently applied to the evangelical opportunities provided by the release of The Passion of the Christ. I don't know . . . like "graced moment," the term "teaching moment" seems, well, a little inattentive to the possibilities already crammed into every moment of our existence. I suppose it's possible that a movie, like any work of art, might allow us momentarily to poke our heads through the tough outer shell of our daily lives and offer enlightenment, a vision, a glimpse, an insight that we might never have had, but I'm a little skeptical.

It seems to me that art highlights or pinpoints or exaggerates or illuminates some aspect of our world for us; but it will always and obviously be an aspect and incomplete; and it will always and even more obviously depend upon our deeper and immediate experiences of being in the world. Add to this the fact that art is forever in danger of skewing the truth as it aims for it. Top this off with the fact that the meaning of any art must come from our ability to interpret it against the backdrop of our own experience, and I think it becomes clear that we need to be careful we don't expect fundamentally new experiences from art that plunge to such depths that they bump against, replace, or transform the fundamental experiences we all have because we're living, incarnate, rational, free beings.

And so I do wonder about some of the expectations placed upon The Passion of the Christ. Some of these expectations seem to derive from a notion that something fundamentally new will indeed be gleaned from the movie, something so deep and profound that it will be a "teaching moment," a "graced moment," a moment believers shouldn't squander. Here's my problem with this posed in a simple question: What moments aren't teachable or graced or in danger of being squandered?

There is heft and meaning in every chunk of time we're alive. Each moment we live is freighted with the possibility that we will move toward or away from God. But some moments seem more urgent than others, more loaded with potential for good or evil. I'm not really suggesting that this is a bad way to manage our lives and prioritize things; in fact, it likely keeps us sane. Rather, I'm suggesting that we shouldn't forget that our placing a privilege or urgency upon certain moments is a bit artificial, we might even say "artistic," and it's a comment on our own understanding of such moments more than the objective, rock-ribbed reality of them.

Still, let's concede that some moments are juicier and loaded with more existential significance than others; if we are going to privilege such moments, perceive them as "teaching" or "graced" above the merely mundane moments in our lives, do we really want to insist that viewing staged images on the silver screen can really be such a moment? Can a movie, can any artifact made by human beings really temper a moment's importance and profundity more than the simple act of getting up in the morning, or tousling your child's hair as he giggles, or letting the morning coffee dissolve the cobwebs, or kissing your wife goodbye for the day? Can such art-filled moments really come close to moments filled with loving intimacy, or the death of a loved one, or the suffering of friends, our own various trials that result in hope or despair, joy or sadness? If we're going to use terms like "teaching moment," shouldn't we reserve them for these kinds of gritty, fundamental moments, for real moments?


Monday, March 01, 2004


Charles Murtaugh has an interesting and link-filled post (via Redwood Dragon) on dualism. He includes a link to this article which describes
. . . a recent Australian study of 204 people with lung cancer found that those who were optimistic before and after treatment did not live longer; they did not fare better (or worse) than their less hopeful counterparts.
Murtaugh comments:
I'm filing his article away in the corner of my brain (my mind?) devoted to the lonely fight in favor of de facto dualism. Yes, yes, I know that the brain is the seat of the mind, I remain committed to scientific materialism, but I've never been completely comfortable with the idea that the mind and body are of the same substance. The problem is in the term "substance," of course, since again I am obliged to concede that the molecules of the brain are not different from those of the body.
I think there are two common initial mistakes evident here, mistakes that then swell into clumsy conclusions:
Mistake 1: dualism and materialism are quite different
Mistake 2: "substance" is equivalent to "quantity" or "quality" or both
It's not quite fair to yank remarks that are ostensibly scientific (in the contemporary notion of the term) and cast them into a philosophical context that was likely not anticipated. But Murtaugh links to some philosophical discussions on dualism that suggest his remarks had some philosophical concerns in mind.

Dualism and materialism are, contrary to what many think, really very similar. Back in December, I wrote a post, DUALISTIC PATTERNS, which pointed out the often overlooked similarity between these two isms. I quoted philosopher David Braine (yes, the irony of his name is hard to ignore):
It is vital to be absolutely clear about this sameness of structure between contemporary materialism and the dualism which precedes it. It is not just that both involve regarding the human being as a composite or aggregate of parts in certain relations, material parts or material parts plus a supposed immaterial part (the mind or soul). Rather what needs to be grasped is the sameness of the analysis of mind-involving states and goings-on in general -- even where these seem to involve the body -- the sameness in the analysis which for both materialist and dualist goes before the reduction of human being and animal to the supposed parts.
The crux of the issue seems to be, in Braine's words,
. . . before mental states and events can be identified with brain-states or events, or regarded as "realized in the brain," these mental states and events have to be conceived in a way which makes them purely "inner," logically segregated from the "outer world" and the "outer man" with his behaviour in the way which is characterized of dualism. But it is precisely this dualistic analysis which is open to philosophical objection.
If you want an example of how this dualistic understanding might manifest itself in morality, see my ACTUAL FINAL CONSENT TO THE ACTION post. My point here is not the obvious wrongness of dualism (though I do think it is obviously wrong, perhaps another post?), but the failure of many to see how contemporary "scientific materialism" and dualism are grounded in similar approaches. What's interesting is that Murtaugh (and surely many others as well), when he writes
Yes, yes, I know that the brain is the seat of the mind, I remain committed to scientific materialism, but I've never been completely comfortable with the idea that the mind and body are of the same substance.
senses that "scientific materialism" doesn't quite explain how the mind and body differ; meanwhile, dualism doesn't quite explain how the mind and body are of the same "substance." Yet, the problem isn't that one should stick to one or the other ism to avoid apparent contradictions, the problem is that both isms are fatally flawed by the same fundamental error, the proposal of an"'inner,' logically segregated from the 'outer world' and the 'outer man.'"

The second mistake is a confusion with the term "substance," or rather, a lack of precision in distinguishing between "what does not exist in another and is not said of another" and "what exists in and is said of another," Aristotle's "substance" and "accident." Here's a fine explanation of the distinction. I hope to write more on how this pertains to the above a bit later.