instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

A dangerous thing

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
So wrote Alexander Pope in "An Essay on Criticism."

In popular use, though, the quotation has become, "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Google returns 23,800 hits on the changed version, and only 9,400 on the original.

The substitution of "knowledge" for "learning" is innocent enough, I suppose, but the two words can refer to distinct concepts that should not be confused.

For example, I might know that a certain cake batter has to be beaten until smooth, but I won't actually learn what "beaten until smooth" really means until I've done it, or at least seen it done. The difference between knowing a ton weighs 2,000 pounds and learning how much a ton weighs lies in carrying forty sacks of gravel round back to the ditch.

What I have in mind is the difference between knowledge acquired through intelligible concepts and knowledge acquired through experience. I have found that experiential knowledge, what I've learned, affects me more than conceptual knowledge, what I've been told.

My hypothesis is that the fact that experiential knowledge is in a sense richer and more affective than conceptual knowledge is part of the reason suffering can have value for us.

No greater love has a man, I happen to know, than that he lay down his life for his friends. But I have only learned this to the extent that I have experienced it. It can be a shared experience; I can learn of this greatest love from someone who has, or is, laying down his life for his friends. But the most profound knowledge will come from direct experience.

So, in this sense, to know Christ is insufficient. We are to learn from Him, which we can only do by spending time in close communion with Him, and then we are to pick up our crosses and follow Him. It's in enduring our own crosses that we learn the greatness of Christ's love for us.


Monday, January 03, 2005

Bad language

I made the mistake of reading half a dozen books by Thomas Merton before it occurred to me to ask whether he died an apostate syncretist or whether the very mention of his name smacks of heresy.

The matter of Merton's legacy is in the news again, for reasons described at Against the Grain.

I don't have anything to add about Merton, but something written of him by two of his friends, which was quoted in that post, struck me as remarkable:
He was a real person, not a saint....
I suppose we all understand what they meant by that: "a plastic saint[,] a contemporary Little Flower, a sweet, sinless individual who has a direct line to God."

But though it's a common enough observation, let me point out again that we must resist the urge to distinguish between "real persons" and saints. Saints are real persons (well, most of them are), and real persons are saints (at least, some of them are). The real persons who are saints living among us are not, generally speaking, sinless, nor are they necessarily sweet.

The reason we must resist thinking of saints as static and impeccable is that we must resist thinking of ourselves as called to anything less than sanctity, and we know we will never in this life be static and impeccable.

St. Paul was famously prodigal in his use of the term "saints." If it's too much for us nowadays to speak of ourselves as saints, we might at least manage to see the implications, the responsibilities, and the expectations, of calling ourselves "Christians."


A new resolution

A suggestion from a homily on Epiphany: Don't resolve, in 2005, to make the Mass more a part of your life. Resolve to make your life more a part of the Mass.

That's a clever turn of phrase, I think, but does it actually mean anything?

Well, consider how the Catechism begins its discussion of the Sacrament of the Eucharist: "The inexhaustible richness of this sacrament is expressed in the different names we give it." are:
  • "Eucharist" (i.e., "thanksgiving" or "gratitude").
  • "The Lord's Supper."
  • "The Breaking of Bread."
  • "The memorial of the Lord's Passion."
  • "The Holy Sacrifice."
  • "The Holy and Divine Liturgy."
  • "Holy Communion."
  • "Holy Mass."
To make your life a part of the Mass means, then, to live with these aspects of the Eucharist manifested in your life, always present to you and always alight (like the Star of Bethlehem) before others.

In the end, I think, this is really all the Church has to give the world. Not ethical arguments, not a moral system, but Christ Himself, offered to the Father for our salvation. If you don't know the Eucharist, you don't know the Church. A Catholic who doesn't give witness to the Eucharist doesn't give witness to Christ.


Thursday, December 30, 2004

Keep warm this winter

And if you were to add half a cup of bourbon or port just before serving, I would not stop you.


Per se cruelty

In the Dialogue, St. Catherine offers an interesting perspective on the sinner:
... he has befouled his mind and body with such impurity and misery, and has been so cruel to himself and his neighbor. He has used cruelty to himself, depriving himself of grace, trampling under the feet of his affection the fruit of the Blood which he had received in Holy Baptism....
Three points:

First, sin is essentially cruel. Each and every sinful act is an act of cruelty. There is no such thing as a harmless little sin.

Second, the sinner is primarily cruel to himself. Sin is always an offense against oneself, and therefore can never be an act of self-love, properly speaking. True self-love is the desire of the true good for oneself. Sin is, though, often (always?) an act of selfish love (or self-love-ish, improperly speaking). Selfishness and self-love are incompatible.

Third, for St. Catherine failing to act for the good of your neighbor is as bad as acting against his good. In an earlier passage, she writes:
To whom
does [the sinner do] evil? First of all to himself, and then to his neighbor.... [His neighbor] he injures in not paying him the debt, which he owes him, of love, with which he ought to help him by means of prayer and holy desire offered to Me for him... he (a man not loving God) does not do this, because he has no love towards his neighbor; and, by not doing it, he does him, as you see, a special injury.
Every moment that goes by when you are not offering to God prayer and holy desire for the salvation and care of your neighbor is a moment that goes by when you are not gaining the graces such an offering would gain you.

How much unthought cruelty we visit upon those we tell ourselves we love -- including ourselves!


Monday, December 27, 2004

A Christmas jumble

Here's a simple puzzle for your holiday pleasure. Rearrange the letters, spaces, and punctuation within each column to reveal the answer.

BE  C I S IAE A   DD    O  AF    





Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Advent Rosary

There's something that seems a bit... disjointed about praying the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary in the week before Christmas. You get to that third mystery, and it's like unwrapping a present a few days early.

It occurs to me that a set of Anticipatory Mysteries might be substituted for the Joyful ones between December 17 and 24. Maybe something like:
  1. The annunciation of John's conception to Zachariah.
  2. The Annunciation.
  3. The Visitation.
  4. The annunciation of Jesus' conception to Joseph.
  5. The birth of John the Baptist.
Or, if you want a broader perspective on Advent:
  1. The protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15.
  2. The covenant with Abraham.
  3. The canticle of Hannah.
  4. The founding of the line of David.
  5. The messianic prophecies of Isaiah.
Something like that.


Monday, December 20, 2004

A Christmastide cooking tip

Add booze. If that doesn't help the taste, you can always set it on fire. If there's one thing people think is fancier than cooking with booze, it's setting food on fire on purpose.


A crooked man plays the straight man

Ahaz son of Jotham was, as you know, the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of Jesus. He may be best known from this passage in the Lectionary:
The LORD spoke to Ahaz:
Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God;
let it be deep as the nether world, or high as the sky!
But Ahaz answered,
"I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!"
Then Isaiah said:
Listen, O house of David!
Is it not enough for you to weary men,
must you also weary my God?
Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign:
the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel.
At first, and knowing what Jesus has to say about asking for signs and tempting the LORD, Ahaz's answer seems pretty sound.

But there's something in Isaiah's reply that suggests the LORD wasn't happy with Ahaz's prudence. God didn't ask Ahaz to ask for a sign; He commanded him. Like the servant who buried his talent, Ahaz came down with an ill-timed case of fear of the LORD.

The more you learn about Ahaz, the clearer it becomes that his wasn't a pious fear. He was an opportunist and a coward; a bit of a sniveller, too, perhaps, who rushed to worship the gods of whichever neighboring kingdom was stomping on his head at any given moment.

Face to face with a true prophet, he wasn't concerned with offending the Lord so much as with not getting it in the neck. Isaiah wasn't fooled, though, and went on to make a glorious double prophecy, of both the near term delivery of Judah from its enemies and the long term delivery of all men from their bondage of sin. Sure, the same prophecy might have been made if Ahaz had asked for dew to appear underneath a woolen fleece, but as it is this is a clear example of good being brought out of evil.

And, though I speak for none but myself, I don't think the habit of self-interested piety died out entirely with Ahaz.


Sunday, December 19, 2004

Leo sub specie aeternitas

In the comments on the post below, the question of interpreting Isaiah 11:6-8 has been raised. After several exchanges with me, Neil writes:
The Pontifical Biblical Commission has written, "... one must reject as unauthentic every interpretation alien to the meaning expressed by the human authors in their written text. To admit the possibility of such alien meanings would be equivalent to cutting off the biblical message from its root, which is the word of God in its historical communication; it would also mean opening the door to interpretations of a wildly subjective nature." I think this compels us to accept Isaiah 11 as a "description of life after the Second Coming."

But, the Pontifical Biblical Commission also writes, "Exegesis is truly faithful to proper intention of biblical texts when it goes not only to the heart of their formulation to find the reality of faith there expressed but also seeks to link this reality to the experience of faith in our present world." We have to be faithful to both the literal sense of the text and "the experience of faith in our present world."

Thus, we should avoid being dogmatic about the details of the description, extraneous to the "reality of faith there", but remain accountable to an underlying meaning expressed by Isaiah himself. So, concerning Isaiah 11, perhaps the description of the Euphrates is not a photographic anticipation, but we must retain the Exodus as our symbol of final salvation in a way that gives Jerusalem an eschatological significance. Likewise, we must imagine the Kingdom of God to include a cosmic reconciliation. There is no escape, I think, from the ecological ramifications.

Regarding our bodies and animal bodies, here is a quote from the Pope's Dominum et Vivificantem:

"The Incarnation of God the Son signifies the taking up into unity with God not only of human nature, but in this human nature, in a sense, of everything that is 'flesh': the whole of humanity, the entire visible and material world. The Incarnation, then, also has a cosmic significance, a cosmic dimension. The 'first-born of all creation,' becoming incarnate in the individual humanity of Christ, unites himself in some way with the entire reality of man, which is also 'flesh' - and in this reality with all 'flesh,' with the whole of creation."

My question is, then, whether we can suggest with consistency that our "flesh" has eschatological significance without suggesting that other "flesh" somehow shares in this. If we do, I fear that we risk suggesting that our "flesh" is strangely undefined by its nature and history.
You can read the whole thread for more context. I'll try to post my response later.


Friday, December 17, 2004

Prelapsarian lions

"Creation," St. Paul teaches us, "was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God."

Which means what?

Everyone knows that creation is subject to corruption; things fall apart, die, cease to exist. Our Christian hope, however, is for a time when creation will be freed from corruption; that which exists will not fade or wear away, much less die.

That fact by itself is worth repeating, considering the apparent popularity of the belief that, after the Second Coming, we will all "go to heaven" and sort of float around.

Looking backward in time, though, the idea that creation was made subject to futility raises the question of whether creation was not subject to futility before the Fall. The question sometimes takes the form, "Did lions eat sheep before Adam's first sin?"

The correct answer is, "Whenever they could."

The only reason to even consider the other possibility is because a handful of Scriptural verses, including those quoted above, can be interpreted that way. But such an interpretation neither required by the texts nor particularly tenable in its own right.

If vegetarianism were a part of unfallen lion nature, then plants -- which are as much a part of creation as lambs -- would have still been eaten, which means that part of creation, at least, would have been corruptible. We might also wonder at the current physiology of lions; are those teeth a consequence of Adam's sin, or did God plan ahead in His designs?

Then, too, fossils and other ancient evidence demonstrate for all but young Earthers that corruption has been a feature of this world a lot longer than man.


Thursday, December 16, 2004

There's no such thing as a bad dog

Camassia's blogging like a fish on fire this week. I recommend reading everything you have time to read, and don't miss the comments.

Here I'll just comment on one part of one post on how a theology of nature can be combined with a doctrine of original sin:
I think one popular way of resolving the problem of natural evil is to say it isn't really evil; the word properly applies only when a free choice is made, and thus necessitates the human will...
But this seems to be mostly making a semantic distinction that is not terribly meaningful. For one thing, when we talk about the problem of evil we're generally talking about the problem of suffering, and natural evil creates plenty of suffering by itself. I don't think it hurts a parent less to lose a child to a bear than to lose it to a drunk driver.
Secondly, as I implied, the whole distinction between what is human and what is nature gets blurred in a Darwinian context... Is what we call "moral evil" really just a non-resistance to natural evil? Why does it suddenly become evil when it's within us?
St. Thomas regards evil as the privation of good, the lack of a good that ought to exist. The "that ought to exist" part is important, since everything lacks all kinds of goods: rocks lack sight, for example, and trees lack mobility. For men, death (the privation of life) is evil, but earthboundedness (the absence of flight) is not.

I don't think this perspective allows for the popular "natural vs. moral" distinction Camassia writes of. The evil of the death of a child is not of one type or another depending on whether it was caused by a free choice. Different circumstances might contribute different evils -- the lack of charity implicit in drunk driving, for example -- but these are all in addition to the evil of death.

I think for St. Thomas "moral evil" resides within the sinner; the good that is lacking ought to exist in the sinner's soul, I suppose in his will in particular.

This way of thinking doesn't seem to me to blur the distinction between "human" and "nature." A dog biting me can be analyzed in the same way as a man biting me. If the dog made the right decision for a dog, then there is no moral evil in the dog; if the dog made the wrong decision for a dog, then the dog has committed moral evil. The same can be said for the man making the right or wrong decision for a man.

Now, St. Thomas (if I may speak for him) would say that dogs by nature cannot make wrong decisions, that they are incapable of moral evil, and I would agree with him. I think his association of the distinction between human and animal with rationality needs patching up (if I understand him correctly, he straightforwardly accepts that animals are irrational), but I think it can be done without turning animals into moral agents. (And, for that matter, without denying "that what it means to be human is to possess some unique capacity that distinguishes humankind from that which is non-human," as Stanley Hauerwas and John Berkman do.)


Wednesday, December 15, 2004

It's not simony... give money to the Church in expectation of food, is it? Though you might be charged with receiving good stollens.

The ingredient list includes "the ubiquitous SECRET INGREDIENT!" If it really is ubiquitous, it would have to be something like nitrogen, or maybe quartz. Though in a convent of Dominican nuns, ice cream might count as ubiquitous.

It could also be love, which is both ubiquitous and often used in cooking. At least, I'm told my wife's pancakes are light and fluffy (rather than charred and leaden, like mine) because they're made with love (mine are made with cursing, though I haven't tried to make them since we got rid of the electric stove that only had "on" and "off" settings).

Of course, God Himself is ubiquitous, so it's possible the Trinity is the secret ingredient. Although I can't see that onion, celery, and green bell pepper would work in a stollen.

Update: Yum.


Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Snow job

How did the snowman get to his girlfriend's house for their date?

On a bicicle.

What did he give her when he picked her up?

A dozen frozes.

Where did they go on their date?

To see The Blizzard of Oz.

How did they get there?

They hailed a cab.

What did they get for dessert afterwards?

Hot frost buns.

Did they like their dessert?

Yes, they scarfed it right down.

What was their favorite part?

The icing.

What did the snowman give his girlfriend when he took her home?

A one carrot ring.

Where did he get the money for it?

From his slush fund.

How did he know she liked it?

It melted her heart.


Monday, December 13, 2004

The charge

Yesterday's Gospel reading is one of those benchmark passages in Catholic theology. The Fathers, generally speaking, saw John's question to Jesus as for the benefit of his disciples, that they may come to believe in Jesus after John's death. A lot of contemporary theologians seem to think John himself was unsure of Jesus, even though the same Gospel records him as saying to Jesus, "I need to be baptized by You, and yet You are coming to me?"

Be that as it may, why was John imprisoned to begin with? According to Mark,
Herod was the one who had John arrested and bound in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, whom he had married. John had said to Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife."
And yet,
Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody. When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed, yet he liked to listen to him.
Not many of us would marry a woman named Herodias, perhaps, but otherwise Herod sounds like he would fit right in today: He liked to listen to the words of a righteous and holy man, although he found them perplexing.

What sort of words did John speak? Old Testament prophet-type words:
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance....

Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I... His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
Why would anyone like to listen to words like these? Maybe because they're kind of exciting and challenging and bold.

Ah, but as soon as the challenge gets too personal, the message too bold -- "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife" -- the challenge is rejected and the messenger imprisoned.

Who isn't willing to listen to generalities about improvement? Who is willing to listen to specifics?


Thursday, December 09, 2004

More on suffering

On the subject of saints and suffering, St. Catherine of Siena made it clear in the opening pages of The Dialogue that the reason she desired to suffer was to atone for the offenses committed against God, by herself and others. God replies:
True contrition satisfies for sin and its penalty not by virtue of any finite suffering you may bear, but by virtue of your infinite desire.
So it isn't suffering as such that St. Catherine desired, but satisfaction for sin and its penalty (always understanding that all satisfaction occurs through and by Christ's sacrifice), and the ordinary way, if you will, of satisfying for sin is through sacrifice in general and suffering in particular.

For St. Catherine, suffering was simply the means to her double end of proper worship of God and of saving others -- or, more briefly, of loving God and her neighbors.

From this, it seems to me that for someone to desire to suffer would be imprudent if suffering would lead to a different end -- say, of becoming a perpetual whiner.

At the same time, St. Catherine's example might serve as a challenge to our own love for God and neighbor, if we realize we aren't prepared to suffer for them.


Now we're cooking

This reminds me: the Sancti Thomas et Hieronymus, for all your Christmastide entertaining.


Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Word association

If you were to ask me to list pairs of words that shouldn't go together, I might include "dancing" and "nun." I'm not saying they don't ever belong together, but for every St. Teresa there's going to be three Brumby's Bakeries commercials.

But if you're going to have a dancing nun, I think this is the way to do it. Dance shoes, a simple costume, and a fifteen decade rosary tied to the belt.


Mere human strength?

Steven Riddle speculates:
The suffering of the saints may, in some odd way, help to alleviate the suffering on the cross. That is not to say that it makes it more pleasant, but rather that the offering of suffering throughout all of time even made it possible. We all know the story--the scourging, the crowning with thorns, carrying the Cross to Golgotha, and three hours upon the Cross. Christ was fully human and fully divine. Being fully human, it is unlikely that he could have survived even the scourging much less the rest of the ordeal on mere human strength. That goes without saying. He was strengthened by supernatural grace. But perhaps the channels of that grace were tapped into the suffering of Saints throughout the ages and this served in some way to be allied to the sufferings on the cross and allow Jesus to run the entire course.

But I'm not sure where the idea, which Steven thinks "goes without saying," that it is unlikely Jesus could have survived even the scourging much less the rest of the ordeal on mere human strength comes from. "Pilate was amazed" that Jesus had died so soon, and the Jews (and perhaps even the Roman soldiers, one of whom used a lance to make sure) assumed His legs would need breaking for Him to die before the Sabbath began. Crucifixion alone wouldn't kill a man very quickly; that was one reason the Romans used it.

It's possible that the scourging Jesus received would have ordinarily killed any man within three hours. It's even possible, as some mystics have reported, that the crown of thorns by itself delivered mortal wounds when thrust on His head. But these possibilities aren't evident, or even hinted at, in the Gospel accounts, so I don't think they quite go without saying.

I'm not arguing that "the suffering of Saints throughout the ages" didn't or couldn't have "served in some way to be allied to the sufferings on the cross." I'm only suggesting that Jesus didn't necessarily require supernatural grace to be physically able to run the entire course.


Sign of the timeless

For those who were wondering about manualism and rule-based morality, Dappled Things provides a link to an article featuring an advocate for virtue-based traffic flow.
The result: slower traffic, fewer accidents, shorter trip times.
I don’t say Aquinas has all the answers (certainly not on this of all days), but he’s a good place to start, whatever the question.



Tuesday, December 07, 2004

But is contentment a gift of the Spirit?

Commenting on an earlier post that bugged him, Zippy writes:
See, the thing is, when I pray for a virtue I inevitably end up in ample - I would say far more than ample - circumstances that require its exercise. No pain, no gain, as the saying goes.

The voice of experience tells me - or I should say screams to high heaven with a voice of thunder, echoing across the universe - not to pray for virtues. Especially, in my own case, humility and chastity.

Better to pray for contentment and peace in whatever station one finds oneself.

If I could revisit my youth I would spend every spare moment praying for contentment in my ignorance, not praying for wisdom.
I want to think some more about this, but I'm posting it here for others to comment on it -- and also so I don't lose track of it.

I will say now that, at my last Third Order Dominican chapter meeting, the truth of the old line, "Never pray for humility. It's the one prayer God always answers yes to," was generally acknowledged.