instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Reputable words

Albertus M comments below:
I suspect there's room here for an interesting discussion of what a person should or should not say in response to an accusation, true or not. A person's reputation is worth preserving, though lying seems like a bad way to protect it.
That's a question I've never thought about before. The Catechism states:
Honor is the social witness given to human dignity, and everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his name and reputation and to respect.
If the honor of one's reputation is a natural right, does that make preserving one's reputation something to be sought for its own sake? If there is an "objectively valid reason" to disclose "another's faults and failings to persons who did not know them" (the Catechism defines detraction as such disclosure when there is no such reason) -- if, in other words, my reputation is justly injured, what natural right to my reputation and to respect do I still possess?

My inclination is to think the Christian's interest in the social witness to his human dignity ought to be selfless. He should defend his reputation not so much for his own sake as for the sake of others.

He has a duty to provide for himself (and his family, if any), and so to that extent should be concerned about how injuries to his reputation affect his ability to provide for himself.

In addition, he should protect and preserve his reputation insofar as doing so helps others who might otherwise be similarly unjustly harmed. If I insist society bears witness to my human dignity, I am also (at least implicitly) insisting witness be borne to everyone's human dignity. How people treat me teaches them how others may be treated.

Finally, Christians are commissioned disciples of Christ. We are to make disciples of all nations, to carry the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to all creatures. As a disciple, I should be concerned with my reputation to the extent it helps me make disciples of others, and only to that extent.

St. Paul can sound a little huffy on the point that he worked for a living while preaching among the churches he founded, even though the churches should have been willing to support him. His concern, though, isn't that the Thessalonians admire him for being such a hard worker, but that they imitate him as a servant of Christ.

So too, I shouldn't care if my reputation suffers but my ability to give witness to Christ does not. We are called to put all of ourselves into the service of Christ, and what cannot be put to such service is of no great value.


Inconsequential wrongs

I'm not much of a baseball fan, and my interest in Pete Rose ended the day he left the Phillies. I don't care whether he returns to baseball, or is made eligible for or elected to the Hall of Fame. I think he's trying one last hustle, but if Major League Baseball lets him pull it off, that's their decision.

That said, I do think it's worth noting something about this story. Rose did what in context was an awful thing (betting on baseball games while managing a baseball team), denied it publically for fifteen years, then admitted it was true. Much of the discussion about what to do now centers on the seriousness of his actions as a manager, and on his waiting so long to admit the truth. What seems of less concern is that, by denying the truth for fifteen years, he was effectively calling those who publically said they knew he was gambling liars.

Again, whether such calumny affects his eligibility for the Hall of Fame isn't for me to decide. But a lot of people seem to accept it as simply par for the denial-of-wrongdoing course.

In other words, many people seem to discount what you might call "consequent wrongs" when judging others. If a person does something wrong, then anything else he does wrong as a consequence -- usually including lying, possibly allowing others to be punished in his place -- somehow doesn't count against him. After all, of course an adulterer is going to lie to his wife, of course a corrupt politician is going to smear his accusers' reputations, of course a misbehaving child will deflect the blame to some other kid at school. It's as though lying, calumnating, and deflecting blame aren't wrong in themselves, and are no more blameworthy if done as a consequence of some initial wrong than is tuning the radio to a different pre-set station in a car you've stolen.

The problem with this, obviously, is that, if we are willing to dismiss the consequent wrongs of other people in relatively big things, we are almost certainly willing to dismiss our own consequent wrongs in relatively little things. Then consequent wrongs become habits, and we become vicious people. People who are vicious in little things will be vicious when big things happen, too.
And lead us not into temptation.
But deliver us from evil. Amen.


Monday, January 05, 2004

Well, there's a real square cat

I like Christmas music and I like rockabilly, so the day I learned Brian Setzer has a Christmas album is the day I bought Brian Setzer's Christmas album.

It met expectations, and the song "Baby It's Cold Outside" (a duet with Ann-Margaret) was gravy. The last two songs, "O Holy Night" and "The Amens" heartfully sung, were icing on the gravy.

Today I find (via Relapsed Catholic) an interview with Brian Setzer in which he admits he's Catholic.

Now, we all know being Catholic doesn't necessarily mean too much, perhaps especially among performers. I'd be surprised if Setzer were sufficiently Thomistic for my tastes, and who can say what he thinks of the various disputed questions our society faces?

Still, being Catholic isn't nothing, especially when a public figure mentions it in an interview without an immediate "but" attached. And Setzer has even gone so far as to include a song called "St. Jude" on his latest album, with the following lyrics:
[Spirituality is] scorned from the left
And abused by the right
It’s something so misunderstood
And ignored in daily life...

If you proclaim the mystery of faith
You’ll be absolved from daily strife
Through Him, in Him, and within Him
Springs our eternal life...
Setzer is quoted as saying:
I hate to say anything about 9/11, because everybody exploits the hell out of that, but we’ve been hearing all kinds of stuff about what we should do: we should beat people up, we shouldn’t beat people up, we should do this, that, and the other thing…but how about prayer? I believe in prayer; I never let that out in a song before, but it’s true. And sometimes it’s the most important thing you can do.
Which, you know, actually is sufficiently Thomistic for my tastes.


Immigrant shepherd and shepherd of immigrants, pray for us!

Today is the feast of St. John Nepomucene Neumann, fourth bishop of Philadelphia and patron saint of short Central Europeans who travel a lot. Of the 1,927 men who have been ordained bishops for dioceses in the United States (a number I made up just now, so don't quote it), St. John is the only one to have been canonized a saint. So far.

It seems to me circumstances today are such that a confraternity of Catholics who promise to pray daily for their bishop and for all the bishops of the United States, under the patronage of St. John Neumann, would be timely and fruitful. Until it gets organized -- and I think the Redemptorists are just the folks to organize it -- we might simply commit ourselves as individuals to reciting every morning a simple prayer, along the following lines:
Almighty God, You called St. John Neumann to a life of service, zeal, and compassion for the guidance of your people in the new world. By the help of his prayers, keep our bishop N., and all the bishops who serve your Church in the United States, strong in faith and love. May they be conformed to the Sacred Heart of your Son, leading their flocks to salvation through Him Who lives and reigns with You for ever and ever. Amen.
No doubt all good Catholics already say similar prayers, but I suspect the Church in the U.S. isn't making full use of the graces of St. John's canonization, which came at a time (1977) when making full use of the graces of canonizations was out of favor.


Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Time 3

Finally, Fr. Dowd writes:
...St. Thomas moved things even closer to the Reductionism end of things away from the Platonism approach. But he was still vexed by the problems inherent in Reductionism. His solution, as presented in the Summa, was to fall back on the "science of vision" explanation:
... Hence all things that are in time are present to God from eternity, not only because He has the types of things present within Him, as some say; but because His glance is carried from eternity over all things as they are in their presentiality....(ST, prima pars, q. 14, a. 13)
It's a remarkable attempt to reconcile the two, in that it doesn't really place God "outside of time" as much as it places all times in God. But it suffers from a lack of precision around the word "presentiality", which in its common understanding drags things right back into the Platonism approach -- because it ultimately means the same thing: God sees the future as present.
Since I don't understand his criticism, my criticism of this is likely to be wrong, but here goes:

Strictly speaking, it's improper to say "God sees the future," since objectively there is no such thing as "the future." There can't be, because all objectivity comes from God, and God has no future, being "outside of space-time" or, equivalently, unchanging. It's not as though, although all of time is somehow "present" to Him, God is tracing the cosmic timeline with His finger to mark what we experience as "the present." There is no, there can be no, temporal moment that demarks past, present, and future in eternity.

Notice how careful St. Thomas is, in the same article quoted above, with the idea of "future contingent things":
Since as was shown above (9), God knows all things; not only things actual but also things possible to Him and creature; and since some of these are future contingent to us, it follows that God knows future contingent things. [emphasis added]
It only makes sense to speak of "future contingent things" relative to us, to temporally bound creatures. When St. Thomas refers to future contingent things relative to God, he says "things are they are in their presentiality."

Fr. Dowd thinks this is a problem because to him "things in their presentiality" means "future things as present things," and for a Reductionist (which both Fr. Dowd and St. Thomas are), future things don't exist. But the one doesn't mean the other, because again there is no future for God. There are no -- there can be no -- future things to God, and if God knows things that are future to us... well, He is, after all, God.


Time 2

Fr. Dowd sees a difficulty in Reductionism:
Where this approach has difficulty is in understanding how God can have knowledge of changing things and himself not be changing -- if the thing known changes, doesn't it imply that God must also change, at least in his knowledge?
It seems to me, though, that this difficulty is illusory. If God is not subject to any change, then He exists outside of space-time. This means God doesn't know the things He knows as changing things; He doesn't observe things while they change, since He experiences no "while."

A common analogy is that we can look at a piece of paper and see an unchanging rectangle, which a sentient point on the paper, traveling around the rectangle, can only see a line segment of varying length (and intensity, if like Flatland, objects are luminous and there's a bit of fog about).

Now, this analogy is in effect one of the "science of vision," whereby God "sees all things in His eternal Present." That may or may not be true of God, although I'm with St. Thomas in thinking it is; the important point is that the existence of changing things is not incompatible with the existence of an unchanging God Who, in one way or another, knows the changing things.


Time 1

Fr. Dowd posts what will probably not develop into his Ash Wednesday homily at Exploring the Nature of God:
... there have historically been two approaches to examining the nature of time: "Reductionism/Relationism with Respect to Time", and "Platonism with Respect to Time". In the first, time does not exist outside of the events (i.e. changes) that occur in time. In the second, time exists independently of whether or not anything actually changes.

So while it is possible to state that God is "outside of time" in either system, the phrase will mean different things depending, not on your view of God, but on your view of time.

If you hold to the "Platonism" approach, then you are stating that God exists outside of space-time, and so he sees all things in his eternal Present, whether those things are past, present, or future... This kind of knowledge is called the "science of vision".

On the other hand, if you hold to the "Reductionism" approach, then to state that God is "outside of time" is the same as stating that God is not subject to any sort of change (as, in this view, time is simply the measure of change).
Notice, though, what the two meanings of "God is outside of time," based on two contrary understandings of time, are. Setting aside what Fr. Dowd writes about the "science of vision," we have:
  1. God exists outside of space-time.
  2. God is not subject to any sort of change.
These two statements, unlike the views of time from which they derive, are not contradictory. In fact, if (as I think everyone agrees) change implies time, then essentially they imply each other.

In short, the Reductionists and the Platonists mean equivalent things when they say, "God is outside of time."


Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Dominican Joy: Live!

See a seven minute video on the remarkable Nashville Dominicans.


Ontological arithmetic

Mark Woodward of CowPi Journal quotes a bit of Anthony de Mello:
"How does one seek union with God?"
"The harder you seek, the more distance you create between Him and you."
"So what does one do about the distance?"
"Understand that it isn’t there."
"Does that mean that God and I are one?"
"Not one. Not two."
"How is that possible?"
"The sun and its light, the ocean and the wave, the singer and his song—not one. Not two."
I'm not sure how literally de Mello intended his vignettes to be read, but I'm not keen on the sun/light and ocean/wave images similes to illustrate the distinction without distance in our relationship with God.

The sun and its light are not one, but they most certainly are two, as anyone who has ever seen the moon at night can attest. The wave is a part of the ocean, or at least the water giving shape to the wave is.

The larger problem, though, is that both similes obscure the implicit equivocation in de Mello's formula, "Not one. Not two." (The singer and his song are also not one, but two, but this simile preserves the equivocation to a much greater extent.)

"Not one" means that, although there is no "distance" between us, God and I are not identical. I am not God; furthermore, (unlike the wave to the ocean) I am not a part of God. (It also means that I am not consubstantial with God, that I cannot say with Jesus, "The Father and I are one," but I don't think that's de Mello's point here.)

I think "Not two," though, properly means that God and I are not additive. The syllogism, "God is one. I am one. Therefore, God plus I are two." is invalid.

And it's not (or not just) that God is infinite, and infinity plus one is infinity. But God and I belong to utterly different orders of being. If I say, "God and I are two," the question is, "Two what?" And there is no "what" that we both are, except by analogy. It would be like saying, "Brer Rabbit and Middle C are two," only more so, since the difference between God and me is greater than the difference between an imaginary folk hero and a musical note.

(This fact, by the way, underscores the infinite and pure grace of Christmas. God is not a man-like spirit who finally got around to creating a body for himself. Rather, he assumed a nature utterly unlike His own (albeit one that is capax Dei, capable of God).)

So I read de Mello's formula as meaning, "God and I are not one being, nor are we two co-measurable beings." Of the three examples he gives, "the singer and his song" comes closest to expressing this distinction.


Monday, December 29, 2003

No space-time like the present

There's some fun stuff on the nature of time at Fr. Dowd's Exploring the Nature of God blog.

Something I don't think is very widely known is that contemporary physics suggests that, in some fundamental ways, that tiresomely unenlightened Aristotle, with his let's pretend deductive science, understood the universe better than History's Greatest Scientist, Sir Isaac Newton. Newton regarded space and time as existing apart from things to fill it (in the case of space) and things to change during it (in the case of time). Aristotle used the idea of "place," which implied an object to define the place, rather than "space," and he regarded time as inseparable from the changes by which we mark its passing.

The most recent cosmological theory I've read about (which, granted, may well have been completely overthrown by the most recent cosmological theory) held that space was effectively created by matter and energy, of which there's a finite amount, so that space itself is finite, contra Newton. Time, too, is meaningless apart from matter and energy -- or, perhaps better, there can be no "privileged clock" measuring an objective universal time.

It should be admitted that we'd never know Aristotle was right (assuming he was) if we hadn't assumed Newton was right. The mathematical abstractions Newtonian physics uses have been essential for developing the models used to interpret the physical observations. Aristotle was big on physical observation, but didn't care for mathematical abstractions.

As long as the sun rises in the morning and things still fall when they're dropped, most people probably aren't too concerned over who was right about what, but I think it's very unfortunate for our culture that Aristotle the philosopher was tossed out along with Aristotle the scientist several hundred years ago.


Friday, December 19, 2003

Reginald the Tiger Quoll, getting in touch with his Ignatian side, says:


Political wisdom

From a response in a Zenit interview with Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl:
I remember speaking with a young aspirant to political life who asked why the Church did not address political issues more directly. I pointed out to him that it is the task of bishops to proclaim the teaching of Christ and the principles that underlie Christian living. It is the task of politicians to translate those principles into action.

His response was, "You have the easier part."


Thursday, December 18, 2003

Lector's block

I've been trying to think of something instructive, enlightening, or entertaining to write about last Sunday's first reading, which contained a striking image I've never noticed before. But nothing has really come to me, beyond, "Gosh, what a striking image."

So I'll just quote the striking image, and leave it to others to flesh it all out:
The LORD, your God, is in your midst,
a mighty Savior;
He will rejoice over you with gladness,
and renew you in His love,
He will sing joyfully because of you,
as one sings at festivals.
It makes a nice blessing, doesn't it?

May the LORD sing joyfully because of you, from eternity to eternity, amen.


Just Returned from The King

A very good movie.

Check that.

A very entertaining movie. A successful translation of the rest of the story to film. I'll leave the detailed discussion of the artistic and structural merits -- as well as its fidelity to Tolkien's work -- to others.

A few random comments:

I thought the opening worked well, a good way to get the audience back into Middle Earth.

Although the character of Denethor was a chump -- does Peter Jackson have something against lines of stewards or something? -- the scene of him eating while Pippin sings and Faramir's men ride to slaughter was extremely effective. (One of the artier bits of the whole series, I think.)

I still don't like slow motion shots. Especially slow motion shots of people smiling.

The battle scenes worked for me. There's nothing else that satisfies in quite the same way as the sight of an orc looking worriedly at six thousand charging horsemen. (Although considering what Legolas, a Wood Elf, does, it's hard to believe every single High Elf archer was killed at Helm's Deep. (And if they weren't killed, where'd they go? The West?))

Generally speaking, I approve of the changes Jackson & Co. made. The original story is better, but dealing with what was left out would have added another hour to the movie.

I'm not sure, though, about having Arwen rescue Frodo from Shelob.

(Oh, and the Dark Lord comes off looking like a big cartoon lighthouse, whose two lines are, "Hmmmm..." and, "Huh?")


Wednesday, December 17, 2003

I agree with the Pope

And with Mark of Minute Particulars, who quoted the Pope as saying the dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception "prescinds from all explanations about how the soul is infused into the body and attributes to the person of Mary, at the first moment of her conception, the fact of her being preserved from every stain of original sin."

Which means I disagree, somewhat, with my previous agreement with the old Catholic Encyclopedia, which stated, "The term conception [in the definition] does not mean the active or generative conception by her parents."

Well before the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception gained much attention, the Church was keeping the Feast of the Conception of Mary. A conception is something people naturally understand, just as they understand a birth and a death. Conception is the beginning of a life made public by birth and ended by death. These are events humans naturally think in terms of.

An infusion of a soul into a body... that's a bit too philosophical to get dressed up and go to church for. If there ever was a Feast of Somebody or Other Attaining the Age of Reason, it hasn't survived in the reason-loving West.

I do still agree with this statement from the Encyclopedia: "The person is truly conceived when the soul is created and infused into the body." So I still don't think the definition of the Immaculate Conception necessarily implies the soul is infused into the body at biological conception (although I think other things do necessarily imply that). Rather, I think it means that there was never any being that could be said to be, or on its way to becoming, Mary that was not preserved from every stain of original sin.

Well, so what? So I'm now formulating a principle to look for and expect a "natural human" expression or development in even the more philosophical and theological aspects of Catholicism.


A beneficent blind eye to the negative

So Barb Nicolosi remains steadfast in her opinion that the Lord of the Rings movies are tedious and confusing, although The Return of the King is the least tedious and confusing of the lot.

Some find this attitude laughable, especially considering the many rave reviews it has received.

Can't we say "both/and", rather than "either/or"?

Tolkien biographer Joseph Pearce doesn't believe "Tolkien [would] have given Peter Jackson's movies the thumbs-up." Why can't Barb consider the movie, not from a purist's point of view, but from a story-telling point of view?

Those of us who love the trilogy are a lot closer to understanding the purist's view than the story-teller's, I'd say. We already know the story, and have little trouble filling in the films' lacunae and wallowing in their excesses. The Two Towers is the only non-family movie I've seen in a theater in half a dozen years, and even as I watched it I was thinking, "I hope everyone else here already knows the story," and, "This really isn't a very good movie." Everyone is sort of moping around, and there's no obvious motivation for a lot of what the characters do. It's like an early rehearsal for the Battle of Helm's Deep, where everyone is more concerned with where to stand and when to walk to their next mark than with why they're standing or walking.

But it's still a hugely entertaining movie, for me at least, and I look forward to seeing the final installment. Not being a fanatic, though, I'm not seeing it on opening day. My pre-ordered ticket is for tomorrow morning.


Tuesday, December 16, 2003

An Advent affirmation

You are Absolutely Wonderful!
How Wonderful Are You?

brought to you by Quizilla


Pope Embarrasses Self, Church
Rambles on ignorantly about the one true economic system

Generally speaking, Catholics seem pretty sound on rejecting the idea that truth can contradict truth. What we're not so good at is rejecting the idea that our own pet economic or social or political theory is the truth against which the Faith is to be judged.


Poetical by nature

I am a strong believer in seeing truth where it's to be found, as well as how it's to be found. The truth to be found in a story or poem is just as valid as the truth to be found in a systematic exposition, even if it can't be systematically exposited.

That's why I worry when a new poetry review leads with its dogmatic hook. These guidelines speak the language of debate, not poetry, and no one wants to read poems written by debaters.

I wonder whether the folks behind St. Linus Review realize how unnecessary their concern for doctrinal purity is. Catholicism is incarnational, which makes it a naturally poetical faith. A good poem, artistically speaking, is likely to be a good poem, morally speaking, because Catholicism teaches that art is good.

If I were to write guidelines for a Catholic poetry magazine, they would look something like this:
Beauty. Mystery. Creation. Transcendence. Immanence. Any length, any style.
Now, I have nothing against supporting poets and editors who are "in full communion with the Pope" because they are in full communion with the Pope. I think, though, we should acknowledge the parallel with choosing the housepainter with the icthus in his ad, whose Christian faith is no guarantee of housepainting skill.

Moreover, I think we should recognize that art is a field in which Catholics who are 100% faithful to the Magisterium can and ought to engage the culture without fear or hesistation. Poetry is a briar patch Catholicism was born and bred in, and I'm afraid trying to fence it in, clear of near occasions of sin, helps neither poetry nor Catholicism.


Reports from Iraq

A couple of American Dominicans are visiting family in Iraq and reporting back. They arrived in Baghdad just in time to learn of Saddam's capture, which had an immediate practical effect I haven't seen reported elsewhere:
...we all knew that there would be gunfire expressing many emotions. This meant that for Sunday we would not leave the hospital or convent.


Because this is a personal blog, not a religious website

Fly, Eagles, fly!


Monday, December 15, 2003


While I think I understand, and even to an extent sympathize with, the motivation behind something like St. Linus Review, I have to wonder about writer's guidelines that include the requirement:
Those submitting works to be considered for publication should be in full communion with the Pope.
I mean, everyone should be in full communion with the Pope, in my judgment, but what does that have to do with the quality of someone's poetry? To me, this requirement sounds like something from the guidelines for Pieties: A Catholic Ghetto.

I have no reason to think the editors have any intention of producing a review of bad Catholic poetry, but I do think wearing your fidelity on your sleeve like that is going to cost you something in quality. It goes back to the side I take in the art vs. prudence discussion, that a work of art can be well-made without being morally good. Not that I would want a poetry magazine to run morally evil poems, but that art (right reasoning about something to be made) is not subservient to prudence (right reasoning about something to be done). It's the job of the editor, not the poet, to be prudent, and I think the guidelines for St. Linus Review push prudence on the contributor too hard. (And doesn't "content which could be considered a near occasion of sin for readers," which "will also not be accepted," cover pretty much every human experience?)

I have a similar reaction to the many websites that proclaim, "We are 100% faithful to the Magisterium," or some such formula. It suggests a certain naivite regarding the relationship between the Church's teaching authority and the Christian faithful. Is anyone 87% faithful to the Magisterium? What does it mean to be "faithful to the Magisterium," anyway, and why should I care how faithful someone is to the Magisterium? If he's repeating what the Magisterium said, I can get that information straight from the Magisterium; if he's not, then his faithfulness is somewhat beside the point.

(Not entirely beside the point; believing what the Church teaches is evidence of wisdom and prudence. But as anyone who has spent much time on the Internet talking Catholicism knows, it's not very strong evidence.)

All that said, we're still months away from the first issue of St. Linus Review. I'm reacting to a paragraph of guidelines for contributors, not the finished product. The final quality of the review will depend on the quality of the submissions.

And I might also admit I know nothing about poetry.


Catholics for Kerry

I have an unhealthy fascination for the "Catholics for Kerry" discussion group, founded by Ono Ekeh as a forum for discussing why Kerry is the candidate Catholics should vote for.

And along comes this helpful post:


In good company

Fr. Dowd riffs on the comment discussion below on purgatory:
The big question is how intercessory prayer fits into this, such as indulgences. Indulgences for ourselves I can is part of the "perfecting of repentence" mentioned before. But indulgences for others? My own theologically unsophisticated view on things goes like this: the soul in purgatory is there precisely because it has lived some degree of hardness of heart, and therefore not been in perfect harmony with the will of God, whether through sin or 'imperfections' (to use St. John[ of the Cross]'s term), and it remains in purgatory until it is. When someone undertakes a penance for the soul, it is somehow exposed to it (especially the love with which the penance was undertaken), and this 'softens' whatever hardness still remains (in whole or in part) so that the soul ceases living its own resistance to grace and is able to repent more perfectly.
On reading this, my first thought was, "I guess he doesn't really understand the mechanics of purgatory either."

But that's okay. We just have to use the system, not operate it. I don't really understand the telephone network, but I know how to use a telephone. (Actually, I'm not sure I could explain how a toaster works without using the term "doohickey.")

And what we know of how to use the purgatorial system, if I may so speak, probably suffices for our needs: We offer prayers for the dead, and these prayers help the souls in purgatory attain heaven.

Now, I would like to know all that can be known about purgatory, and I think Fr. Dowd's idea that the souls in purgatory share "somehow" in our love might have something to it. But I also know that I have not fully appropriated into my spiritual life this dogmatic truth:
My prayers help souls attain heaven.
And that's a truth that, if contemplated, will produce more fruit (if fewer words) than all my speculating about distinctions between punishment and reorientation in purification.


Friday, December 12, 2003

Mea culpa

My apologies for inadvertently slipping into process theology language when I wrote, "In short, we should desire what God desires."

Okay, so saying that God "desires" something isn't exactly process theology. In fact, it's even Scriptural.

Still, I wonder if the impression it gives isn't a little too passive, as though God experiences a desire that subsequently causes Him to act in some way. There are a lot of problems such a theology raises, but I think the fundamental one is that, if God were like that (which is to say, like us), He could experience a desire that subsequently causes Him to break His covenant. Many or most of the Scriptural references to God as unchanging are in the context of His fidelity to His covenant, but if God could change His mind, then either He could change His mind about keeping His covenant -- contrary to Scripture -- or He could change His mind about some stuff but not about His covenant -- which is a tough proposition to make sense out of.

Anyway, if I say "we should desire what God wills," I avoid all this. It doesn't resolve the problem of whether what God wills always happens, of course, but it makes it clearer that such things as the damnation of the reprobate and the salvation of the blessed aren't simply things God wishes for or is hoping to achieve, but rather what God is acting to achieve (and, therefore, will achieve).

St. Thomas, by the way, takes a perversely Pollyannish view of what happens when God's will appears to be thwarted:
...that which seems to depart from the divine will in one order, returns into it in another order; as does the sinner, who by sin falls away from the divine will as much as lies in him, yet falls back into the order of that will, when by its justice he is punished.
After all, that God's will is always done should make us glad.

Even as we tremble.


"The reason for the season... sin." To quote the Curt Jester.

Very Thomistic. Not so very Rankin-Bassistic.


Thursday, December 11, 2003

Semper opifer

Still looking for a Christmas present for your favorite Carmelite? Look no further.

No need to thank me. It's what I do.


What's not to love?

The thing is, as a proposition the devil is pretty much unlovable. And by "unlovable," I don't mean "difficult to love," I mean, "impossible to love, since it's not something for which the good can properly be willed."

You can't love evil as such, properly speaking. It's an oxymoron to desire the negation of something for the sake of that thing.

There is no personal good in the devil -- it is not a creature capable of goodness -- and there is no hope for personal good in the devil in the future.

The one thing about the devil that is good is its existence, because existence is always and everywhere a grace of God, a participation in the being of He Who Is. But the devil's existence is not something from which more good can come, which is why St. Thomas teaches that demons are not fit objects of charity in the way we usually think. No good exists which we can desire for the devil beyond the atomic fact of its continued existence.

Or is there? We should love all things with God's love, and it's possible (as far as I know) that the devil's eternal punishment is somewhat mitigated by God's mercy. We ought to desire for the devil whatever mercy God shows it, no more and no less.

So I might say, "We should desire the devil's continued existence and the precise amount of mitigation of its eternal punishment God has decreed." But "to desire continued existence and the precise amount of mitigation of eternal punishment God has decreed" is a somewhat obscure meaning of "to love" -- try it out on your sweet baboo next time and see what happens -- and as Mark Shea points out it may not be too prudent to go about saying, "We should love the devil."

If any use can be drawn from all this, it might be by making the point in negative terms: We should not desire the end of the devil's existence, nor more or less mercy toward it than God has decreed. In short, we should desire what God desires, even with respect to the devil.


What's love got to do with it?

Mark Shea is dying to see Disputations tackle the question, "Should we love the devil?"

My answer is, of course we should, and a good first start is to stop referring to her as "the devil." She's our mother-in-law and part of our family, whether we like it or not.

Ha, no, I jest.

Love the devil, don't love the devil, but would it kill you to call your mother once in a while?


Patron saints of Advent

There's a nice reflection on the virtue of anticipation at Sancta Sanctis.

Anticipating the coming of the Messiah has a lot to be said for it. It shows faith, and hope, and love. It's a reformative attitude, since true anticipation will lead you to ask again and again, "Is there anything else I could be doing to prepare for this?" It works alongside patience, it innoculates against distraction by paltry things.

It is not at all passive.

As Enbrethiliel mentions, Simeon is an exemplar of the virtue of anticipation, having awaited the consolation of Israel with the hope that he should not see death before he had seen the Messiah of the Lord. Anna, daughter of Phanuel, was no slouch in this department, either.

We might even propose Simeon and Anna as patron saints of Advent, whose attitude toward the first coming of the Messiah can teach us how to dispose ourselves toward His second coming -- and, perhaps more importantly, toward His "third coming" into our lives here and now.

In fact, if we accomodate Simeon's Canticle to support a Eucharistic meaning -- with the Blessed Sacrament the light now carried to all the nations -- we can see the time before each Mass as a sort of mini-Advent, asking ourselves, "Is there anything else I could be doing to prepare for this?"


The numbers weren't all that lucky, either

So I go to a Chinese restaurant for dinner, and I get a fortune cookie at the end, and the fortune says:
For a good cause, wrongdoing may be virtuous.
So of course what I want to do is find someone to say "The end does not justify the means" to, but nobody seems interested.


Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Non probet, sed defendat

In his treatise On Faith, Josef Pieper writes:
The truth of faith cannot be definitively proved by any rational argument. The fact constitutes the believer's predicament. Hence the old rule of thumb: "The Christian who wishes to conduct a disputation on his belief should not attempt to prove his belief but to defend it."
This is a good rule to keep in mind. We don't want to exaggerate what can be proven, or we'll lose credibility when we fail to prove our belief -- and what can be proven, in any case, isn't a belief.

At the same time, we shouldn't feel defensive about defending our faith, as though if we were smarter we'd have irresistable arguments. Being ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks us for a reason for our hope is what we're asked to do, not give a reason for why everything else is demonstrably unreasonable.

And, as Pieper points out, this is true of internal disputations as well. There may be times when the only way to defend your faith against your own arguments against it takes "the form of silent defenselessness, as in the case of the martyr."


Divine naming

When Catholic theologians speak of "divine naming," they mean, roughly, identifying attributes God can be said to possess. "Almighty" and "Omniscient" are two such divine names. (As opposed to the Name of God, obviously, although "I Am Who Am" is also an attribute of God, probably the attribute.)

Traditionally, theologians have favored the "negative theology" of saying what isn't true of God. We think of "omniscient" as meaning "all knowing," but more properly it means "unlimited in knowledge." Similarly, "omnipotent" means "unlimited in power." This "negative" way of putting things is thought to be better, because we as finite creatures don't really know what "all power" is, and God's power is not limited by finite creaturely concepts of power.

Br. Bernhard Blankenhorn, OP, has written a very lucid article, "Balthasar's Method of Divine Naming," which looks at the, er, method Balthasar used for divine naming. As the opening sentence of the paper observes:
One of the most original elements of Hans Urs von Balthasar's theology is his method of predicating attributes of the triune God, combining divine immutability and divine suffering love.
In other words, Balthasar accepts the traditional negative theology, but unapologetically adds a hefty dose of positive theology whose compatibility with traditional understanding is, shall I say, not trivially apparent.

As I've mentioned before, I have some difficulties with Balthasar, or what I've been told is his theology. Often, I don't understand what he writes. Often, when I think I do understand what he writes, I'm not convinced he's written anything intelligible. Often, when I'm convinced he's written something intelligible, I'm not convinced it's true.

This, as any good Balthasarian should be quick to note, says more about me than about Balthasar.

Still, I appreciate Br. Bernhard's paper for at least explaining, in a way I find intelligible, the principles Balthasar used to derive many of his ideas:
Balthasar's method of divine naming can be summarized thus. First, philosophy is indispensable, yet it must be elevated and perhaps radically transformed by grace. Second, negative theology is also necessary, but a philosophical negative theology cannot be allowed to exclude certain characteristics from the process of divine naming, if supernatural revelation points in another direction. This naturally leads to the third point, that only the revelation of Christ can determine the true nature of potentiality and finitude. Fourth, the economic Trinity must be the basis for any description of the immanent Trinity, and so one must look to Christ as the revealer of his relationship to the Father. Fifth, an understanding of true love as communio, as letting the other be, giving the other freedom, a doctrine of love inspired by dialogical philosophy and the visions of Speyr, is a hermeneutical key in the approach to supernatural revelation.
I have no problem with the first two principles. I think the third and fourth are worth keeping in mind, but should not be as absolute as Balthasar seemed to say. The fifth one is where I pretty much slam on the brakes. Nothing against dialogical philosophy or the visions of Speyr, neither of which I'd recognize if we were stuck in an elevator together, but I'm not prepared to hand either of them the keys to Scripture.

Standard disclaimer: My opinions and judgment have no authority, and I am not qualified to comment on these matters. I post stuff like this because I usually wind up learning a lot from the responses.


Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Genuine sources of theology

Barb Nicolosi writes in a comment below:
Mel [Gibson] isn't a theologian. But he is a devout artist. In the Pope's letter to Artists he speaks about art as a "genuine source of theology" because the devout artist in communion with God as beauty becomes a conduit of revelation. Mel doesn't necessarily understand all the nuances of the theology in his work. He is fleshing out an inspiration. It is the job of theologians now to step forward and interpret.
The passage in the Pope's Letter to Artists she refers to says: the end of the [Second Vatican] Council the Fathers addressed a greeting and an appeal to artists: "This world—they said—in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart and is that precious fruit which resists the erosion of time, which unites generations and enables them to be one in admiration!" ... Thanks also to the help of artists "the knowledge of God can be better revealed and the preaching of the Gospel can become clearer to the human mind." In this light, it comes as no surprise when Father Marie Dominique Chenu claims that the work of the historian of theology would be incomplete if he failed to give due attention to works of art, both literary and figurative, which are in their own way "not only aesthetic representations, but genuine 'sources' of theology."
Recognition of the human need for beauty -- and of his paintings as genuine sources of theology -- is why I chose to be known as John of Fiesole (Beato Angelico) in the [Third] Order of Preachers. (Nor does it come as a surprise that it's a Dominican the Pope quotes about the relationship between art and theology.)

Barb writes that Gibson "doesn't necessarily understand all the nuances of the theology in his work," but "is fleshing out an inspiration." I think the same is true, not just of religious artists, but of all artists. Maybe even of all workers.

We are created to communicate God to each other, and while it's dead easy to fail to do that, it's also not that hard to succeed -- since, after all, it's by God's grace that we succeed, which mostly requires us not actively hindering it. We can succeed even when neither we nor those we're communicating with have any explicit idea God is involved. He's sort of irrepressible that way.


Turning Christmas upside down

Ever get the feeling our society looks at Christmas the wrong way around?


Another astonishment

Bill Cork compliments Mel Gibson:
We know that Mel Gibson has been making changes after every showing. We know he went back to Italy for some pick-ups at one point.... The reactionary fringe criticized Gibson for this; I think he is to be commended.
Bill Cork. Mel Gibson.

I think Bill is to be commended for commending Gibson, or at least I should be thwacked on the head for thinking Bill had invested too much passion against the movie's buzz to ever acknowledge anything positive about it.

Incidentally, am I the only one who gets the sense that, by the time Ash Wednesday rolls around, I'll be about the only Roman Catholic who hasn't already seen a screening of the movie?


A passionate review

There is something astonishing in the ZENIT interview with Fr. Augustine Di Noia, OP, about The Passion of the Christ.

Not just when the undersecretary for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith states, "There is absolutely nothing anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish about Mel Gibson's film."

Nor when he raves, "Your heart would have to be made of stone for it to remain unmoved by this extraordinary film and by the unfathomable depth of divine love it endeavors to bring to life on the screen." (So do they use this in the newspaper ads, or something from USA Today?)

I'm thinking in particular of Fr. Di Noia's mention of Mel Gibson's "profound spiritual insight into the theological meaning of the passion and death of Christ."

That's Mel "Mad Lethal Max Weapon" Gibson. With profound spiritual insight. Into the theological meaning of the passion and death of Christ. In the opinion of one of the most prominent theologians of the Catholic Church.

(Link via Church of the Masses.)


Monday, December 08, 2003

By the heart

Okay, so the Immaculate Conception is a good excuse for a feast, but a solemnity? A holy day of obligation?

It's understandable that, when a dogma is solemnly pronounced, the pope might create a holy day of obligation to emphasize it. But is the Immaculate Conception really so central to the Catholic faith that we still need to make everyone come to Mass to hear it mentioned? Is it (and, for that matter, the Assumption) really up there with Christmas and the Annunciation and the Ascension? From a purely pastoral point of view, might it not be better to create a Solemnity of Jesus Wasn't Just a Wise Teacher Like the Buddha or Ghandi?

The hyperdulia, or extreme honor, Catholics show to Mary is a positive virtue. St. Thomas places it among the virtues connected with justice, and writes:
Honor [dulia] denotes a witnessing to a person's excellence... [A]s regards men, one cannot bear witness, save by means of signs, either by words, as when one proclaims another's excellence by word of mouth, or by deeds, for instance by bowing, saluting, and so forth, or by external things, as by offering gifts, erecting statues, and the like. Accordingly honor consists of signs, external and corporal.
To honor the Blessed Virgin, then, is to give due witness to her unique excellence. We might say that making today's solemnity a day of obligation is not just a good idea from a didactic perspective, but an act of justice.

But of course it is much more. It draws us closer to Mary, and therefore to Jesus. It nurtures a Marian habit in us, which encourages us to turn to Mary as our mother -- and as our teacher, as the Pope reminds us with his memorable phrase "the contemplation of Christ at the school of Mary."

This feast in particular also calls to mind a fact of our own conceptions we might prefer to overlook. "In guilt I was born, a sinner was I conceived." There's not much we can do about that, but we can take heart from the example of Mary, who accepted God's troubling gift of grace, triumphed over both original and actual sin through the sacrifice of her Son, and is now glorified in Heaven giving glory to God.

Only through God's grace can we overcome our origin; from the moment of conception, we've been unreliable in choosing the good and avoiding evil. Mary was perfectly reliable, but not because of her own efforts. The graces she received were unique, but the Source of her graces is just as eager to give us each our own unique, if less exalted, graces.

And finally, the Immaculate Conception is all about grace, and grace is all about giving what doesn't need to be given. If we truly understand that we have no more claim today on any gift of God, including our continued existence, than we had claim, at the moment of our conception, to be kept preserved from all stain of original sin, then we might begin to appreciate the thanksgiving we truly owe God for everything; most of all for what he gave us, which didn't need to be given, through Mary on that day we will celebrate this Christmas.


By the head

Does the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception tell us anything about whether God knows "future continguent singulars," that is, things that have not yet happened and need not happen?

If the Blessed Virgin was preserved free of all stain of original sin as a special grace bestowed on her as the Mother of God, although she was not yet the Mother of God, then either God knew, in some fashion, that she would become the Mother of God, or He was somehow betting or hoping or guessing she would.

There are a lot of possible arguments that maintain both the Immaculate Conception and God's ignorance of future contingent singulars. The Immaculate Conception might be such that Mary's fiat would necessarily follow, or it may not have been freely chosen due to some other cause. Some argue, I've heard, that God knows some future contingent events -- the biggies, so to speak -- but not all of them. The idea that God really did such a grace without being sure His love would be returned seems to appeal to a lot of people these days.

The Catholic understanding, or at least my understanding of the Catholic understanding, denies both determinism and divine guesswork.