instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Comfort and security: the promises of Christ

Let's see where we wind up starting with Rob's comment:
Jesus instructs us to *take up our cross* and follow Him. Certainly, by "take up your cross" He did not mean that we should pursue comfort and security as the greatest goods of life on earth.
We'll start with categorical agreement.

And let's continue by calling to mind some of the things Jesus did say about comfort and security:
Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal, for where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.

Do not worry and say, "What are we to eat?" or "What are we to drink?" or "What are we to wear?" All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread, or a snake when he asks for a fish? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.

Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock.

Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.
And so on.

I suppose the usual way of putting it is that the comfort and security Jesus promises His disciples refers, not to life on earth, but life in the world to come. And in fact, passages like Luke 6:20-26 ("Blessed are you who are poor.... But woe to you who are rich....") actively contrast comfort and security in this life with comfort and security in the life to come.

But let's not be too hasty. There's a difference between comfort and security in this life and the comfort and security of this life. Faith in Christ brings comfort even amidst the discomforts of life. Hope in Christ brings security even amidst insecurity.

We shouldn't be too quick to separate this life from eternal life, since through Baptism our eternal life has already begun. Jesus does promise us comfort and security, not as a reward after we die, but as a gift right now, right here. It's not the material comfort and security we might want, but it is no less real, no less present in our fallen world, for being spiritual.

In fact, to the extent comfort and security are subjective measurements of how we perceive ourselves, it doesn't make much difference whether they are based on material or spiritual reasons.

The question, then, is to what extent material comfort and security can be sought without interfering with spiritual comfort and security. And the answer, I suppose, was given by Jesus: "Seek first the kingdom of God...."


Monday, June 12, 2006

The first precept

It is the universal experience of mankind that, sometimes, things turn out lousy.

Faced with this prospect, we turn to our practical reason in order to devise means by which things might turn out copacetic. Sometimes, though, the best we can do is devise means by which things might turn out slightly less lousy than they would have anyway.

Now, practical reason is "the reason that deals with things to be done for an end." It is contrasted with "speculative" reason -- which "judges and delivers its sentence about intelligible matters" -- not with "impractical," "ivory tower," or "pie-in-the-sky" reason.

As St. Thomas explains, the first precept of the natural law, from which the practical reason derives human law, is "good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided." When practical reason is working properly, then, it will avoid proposing evil means, even when evil means are the only means to a copacetic end.

All that said, there's still something attractive about the idea that a copacetic end is always morally achievable. It's a special case of the ends justifying the means, where the appeal is made, not so much to the copacetic end the means would achieve, but to the lousy end that will occur without those means. And it's not an explicit, "These bad means become good since we're using them to achieve this end," but more like, "These ends must be good! Just look at what the end will be if we don't employ them!"

Alas, the natural law is not suspended in case of emergency.


Not a puzzle

There's a good meditation for Trinity Sunday at Sacramentum Vitae, which concludes:
Properly appreciated, therefore, the doctrine of the Trinity tells us what life is for. The doctrines of the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ tells us how God made it possible for us to attain the goal. For motivation's sake, it's always best to keep that big picture in view.
The homilist I heard yesterday, an old-fashioned Dominican who gives a six-minute homily week in and week out, made the distinction between knowing that God is a Trinity and knowing how God is a Trinity. Knowing the former is for this life, knowing the latter for the life to come.

That's a distinction that can be lost, to our detriment. We shouldn't treat the Trinity as a puzzle, but as our God. It is, after all, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, not the Solemnity of the Dogma of the Most Holy Trinity. We pray and worship the One God Who is Three, not the fact that the One God is Three.

And while "functional unitarianism" is a common enough phenomenon, it's not a difficult habit to break. In much the same way we learn to say "please" and "thank you," we can learn to think and to pray in a Trinitarian manner, simply by doing it.


Friday, June 09, 2006

Continuing on discontinuity

I see by the discussion my last post sparked that others have given the matter at least as much thought as I had.

Chris Sullivan responds to my hypothesis (which was "that the willingness of lay Catholics to study the writings of the Church has contributed significantly to the popularity of the hermeneutic-of-discontinuity interpretation."):
On the contrary I'd assert the opposite.
The problem isn't Catholics reading the documents but Catholics not reading them enough and not reading all the documents in question.
But Chris's assertion isn't contrary or opposite to my hypothesis, unless he means the problem he identifies is literally the problem, that it alone explains the discontinuity interpretation entirely. My hypothesis may even be viewed as a special case of his assertion, focusing on one way of misreading the documents.

At An Examined Life, Scott Carson takes the discussion to a point far broader than anything I had in mind:
If one is a devotee of the hermeneutics of discontinuity it is probably because one is already committed to a kind of postmodern rejection of the notion of objective truth. Simili modo those to whom the hermeneutics of reform is attractive will be those folks for whom the Magisterium represents the last vestige of moral and theological realism. Only the former, however, could ever endorse the intellectual egalitarianism that Free Speech Americans have enthroned above the Gospels, and they would think and argue that way whether or not they engaged in more reading and arguing about Church documents.
Scott is writing of those who say, "Vatican II is a discontinuity, and that's a good thing," while I'd written thinking more of those who say, "Vatican II is a discontinuity, and that's a bad thing."

Maybe all the above can be synthesized this way: I suggest some Catholics favor the discontinuity interpretation because the style of argument they use inherently discounts evidence that favors the reform interpretation. Chris suggests some Catholics favor the discontinuity interpretation because they misread the evidence, if they read it at all. Scott suggests some Catholics favor the discontinuity interpretation because they want there to be a discontinuity. Of the three suggestions, I find mine the least probable.


Thursday, June 08, 2006

Autodidactic discontinuity

In a comment below, Jeff uses the expression "hermeneutics of discontinuity," which comes from a speech Pope Benedict XVI gave last December to the Roman Curia:
Why has the implementation of the Council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult?

Well, it all depends on the correct interpretation of the Council or - as we would say today - on its proper hermeneutics, the correct key to its interpretation and application. The problems in its implementation arose from the fact that two contrary hermeneutics came face to face and quarrelled with each other. One caused confusion, the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.

On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call "a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture"; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the "hermeneutic of reform", of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.
My hypothesis for this week is that the willingness of lay Catholics to study the writings of the Church has contributed significantly to the popularity of the hermeneutic-of-discontinuity interpretation.

The idea is that, as Catholics (particularly layfolk) became more adept at arguing from source documents, they became more dependent on source documents for their arguments, which gave rise (or at least vigor) to the whole "my source document is more authoritative than your source document" style of debate. With the Second Vatican Council, you suddenly get a whacking great load of highly authoritative source documents, a fact that in itself makes the 1960s a decade unlike most any other in the history of the Church.

In the Church, though, such highly authoritative source documents are, literally, extraordinary. The ordinary way the Church teaches, and even if we may say learns through development of doctrine, is far more plodding and far harder to trace. A treatise isn't condemned, a canon law goes unenforced, a new idea is well received among the Curia.

But most or all of this is invisible to the self-taught reader of encyclicals and conciliar documents. You might say that, to some extent, the Church doesn't show her work between ecumenical councils and encyclicals. For that matter, doesn't the expectation that the Pope would write frequent doctrinal letters to the whole Church really only go back to Bl. Pius IX?

If as a matter of procedure you only consider doctrinal statements above a certain level of authority, that's sort of like only looking at mountaintops that poke above a cloud layer at a certain altitude. There's no way to see how, or if, they might be connected.

(There do seem to be those who insist that the connections must be perfectly straightforward without concern for what lies below, but that's not quite my understanding of the Catholic understanding of how the teaching office of the Church works.)


Here comes everybody

Since our Apostolic Administrator is more catholic than the Pope, the annual archdiocesan Pentecost Mass for New Movements and Ecclesial Communities has for several years included an invitation to those of us in Old Movements like the Dominican Third Order and the Secular Franciscan Order.

This year, there was a reception beforehand, featuring presentations from the various new movements and communities. (The old orders seem to be on the invitation list but not on the Archdiocesan Council on Ecclesial Communities and New Movements.)

I was struck by both the new movements' similarity to and their difference from the Dominican Third Order as I understand it ("as I understand it" because my understanding of the Dominican Third Order isn't necessarily the only or best one).

The similarity is straightforward enough; you might say the formal causes of all these associations are variations on Christ's call to perfection and evangelization.

The difference, though, is a subtler matter, harder to state without having to take most of it right back, and I probably shouldn't even try. I'll just say that the terms "movement" and "order," calling attention to activity and structure respectively, do seem to reflect something of the difference. Even, in a sense, the difference between "new" (as it connotes energy and activity) and "old" (as it connotes "stable" and "enduring").

Also, "movement" might suggest "mass movement," and I certainly got the sense that a lot of the new movements see themselves as something everyone could, in principle, join. Dominicans are very aware of the fact that most Catholics would not enjoy being Dominicans, and we have no real degrees of involvement or association.

True, for purposes of chapter governance, there's a distinction between the various stages of formation and the commitments that have been made to date, but basically you're either on track for final, lifelong profession, or you're not a Third Order Dominican. (Many congregations of Dominican sisters do have associates, and there are a variety of confraternities whose members share in the spiritual works of the Dominican Order, but these aren't tied directly to the Third Order.)


Tuesday, June 06, 2006

A provoking contention

It was disappointing (though not surprising) to read this contention regarding Just War theory by Joseph Bottum at On the Square:
For the application of all this to the contemporary struggle over American intervention in Iraq, George Weigel's recent essay in First Things is the most provocative and serious analysis available.
I just got around to reading Weigel's essay this past weekend, and it left me thinking that the pro-war argument had better have a better defense than that.

Or at least a more serious one. The essay vacillates between an attempt to apply "classic just war thinking" to the Iraq War and an attempt to score cheap points against various opponents.

I'll grant that (largely due to the point-scoring efforts) the essay is provocative, although since I'm not a magazine editor I don't think provocativeness is much of a virtue. If I want snarks about "the vapors of Anglican bishops," I'll read a blog. If I want a serious look at the moral principles involved, without 600-word asides about how lousy the U.N. is, I'll read... well, I'm not sure, but it won't be Weigel's essay.

Without getting too far into it, it seems to me the chief unexamined assumption in the essay is that what Weigel calls "classic just war thinking" is normative. He uses the word "classic" nearly twenty times in this way, without once (that I noticed) troubling to explain why "classic" thought should be preferred over "contemporary" thought. And if it hadn't been proposed as a "serious analysis," I wouldn't even point out Weigel's suggestion that a find-and-replace operation on the U.S. government's National Security Strategy "might have helped accelerate needed fresh thinking among just war analysts and churchmen."


Monday, June 05, 2006

Cause the Bible tells me so
WARNING: This post contains violence against basic philosophical concepts that may be too intense for some Aristotelians. Reader discretion is advised.
The previous post is by way of introducing something not quite entirely unlike the Four Causes into the discussion of Jesus' four promises that whatever His disciples ask will be given.

If we look at the first promise -- "And whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son." -- we find it mentions two things that might come to be: a request from a disciple; and an action from Jesus. We could then ask what would cause these two things?

And if we're writing informally on a blog, we might get away with suggesting that the material cause of the request -- what the request is made out of, if we can speak of requests being made out of something -- is a desire on the part of the disciple. This desire is turned into a request, so to speak.

What produces the request? The disciple, of course, who makes the request to Jesus. I think, though, we need to recognize that making a request to Jesus isn't exactly like making a request to a hot dog vendor. Jesus gives examples of asking -- the widow before the unjust judge, the neighbor knocking in the middle of the night -- that suggest there's more to it than simply asking once and immediately receiving.

The form of the request also involves more than the form of any common or garden request. Specifically, the form is a participation in the Son's dependence on the Father. "If you remain in me and my words remain in you" is the pre-condition Jesus attaches to His promise in John 15:7. The request that will be answered is the request of a heart that has been formed in the image of Christ (which also impacts the material cause, since such a heart will be constrained in what it desires).

Finally, why does the request exist? In order to obtain what is requested. (See, I can give a simple answer to a simple question.)

Now briefly to the response of Jesus, Who will do what His disciples ask. His response can be said to come from His love, its form is of love (agape, even), it is caused by His sovereign power, and it is done "so that the Father may be glorified in the Son."

As the warning suggests, this is a speculative post, and even as I'm writing it I can see all sorts of ways it could be tidied up or counter-argued. Of the eight causes proposed, there are really only three I'm interested in developing: the formal cause of a request being Christ's presence in the disciple's heart; the efficient cause of a request being determined prayer; and the final cause of the response being the glory of God. Those three together seem to me to contain the whole meaning of the promise.

But let me just add this bit of wordplay: If the stuff out of which God responds to a request is His love (which is to say, Himself), then this means there is potential in Him, "stuff" lying around ready to be made into something else. Since this isn't possible, it follows that God responds to such requests from eternity, making them a part of His eternal will. Which brings us right back to the idea that a disciple of Jesus will not ask for anything God won't grant anyway.


The beginning of philosophy

Remember the "Calvin and Hobbes" strip where Calvin shows Hobbes how a toaster works? After the toast pops up, they both wonder where the bread went.

Aristotle could have told them the bread was the material cause of the toast, and through the efficient cause of the toaster, which effected the formal cause of toast, ceased to be bread and became toast, with the final cause of... well, maybe to be eaten, or perhaps to be used to build a fort on the living room floor. With Calvin, the final cause isn't always straightforward.

In short, the material cause of a thing is what it is made out of; the formal cause of a thing is what it is to be that thing (i.e., its form); the efficient cause of a thing is what produces that thing; and the final cause of a thing is what it is for.


Recipe for Franciscan Potato Soup
A volunteer entered the kitchen and asked, "What are you making, Brother Xavier?"

Brother Xavier answered, "Potato soup."

The volunteer looked around the small, cramped kitchen and didn't see any potatoes. And so he asked, "Where are the potatoes, Brother?"

Brother Xavier answered, "We have no potatoes."

The volunteer asked, "Then how are you making potato soup?"

Brother Xavier said, "The Lord will supply."

Well, you can imagine the volunteer rolling his eyes and thinking…what a sweet, pious thought... but the people are lining up in the yard and we need to serve them in an hour.

A few minutes later, there is a knock at the side door.
More Light posts selections from Gerry Straub's commencement address at St. Francis University in Loreto, PA. It's Straub's conversion story, one of those rich-and-unhappy to poor-and-happy stories -- in his case, he went from soap opera producer to Franciscan filmmaker -- that make people feel good about others and uncomfortable about themselves.


Sunday, June 04, 2006

Just what we needed

A few days ago, I suggested in no great seriousness that the Visitation could be considered the birthday of the Church. I was surprised both by the energy with which this suggestion was resisted and by the persuasiveness with which Pentecost as Church's Birthday was argued. My surprise was mostly due to the fact that the statement, "Pentecost is the birthday of the Church," always struck me as too twee to be particularly meaningful.

Well, I know a little better now, thanks to those who responded, and was able to listen to the homily today (by a permanent deacon, one of fifteen, ordained yesterday for the Archdiocese of Washington) without disengaging when it opened with a proclamation that we were celebrating our birthday today.

"No birthday is complete without a gift," the deacon preached, and of course on Pentecost the gift was the Holy Spirit. A comfortably Thomistic notion from one so newly ordained; St. Thomas taught that "Gift, taken personally in God, is the proper name of the Holy Ghost."

It's also interesting (to me) that Pentecost is a birthday because, and only because, a birthday gift was given. And God said, "Happy Birthday!," and it was a birthday. God is sovereign that way.


Friday, June 02, 2006

How did Achilles know which of his slave girls stole his golden cup?

Rosie fingered Dawn.

Sancta Sanctis offers an insightful post on the enduring relevance of the Iliad, in particular to Christians. Worth reading for this line alone:
If the heroes of the classics were punished for their hubris, then our God was punished for His humility.


Ad verecundiam

A baffling argument from credentials has led me to think about theological arguments from authority in general. (That baffling argument can be found here, but the background and resolution are too tedious to revisit.)

St. Thomas, as you may know, dealt with arguments from authority in an article of the very first question in the Summa Theologica:
Objection 2. Further, if [theology] is a matter of argument, the argument is either from authority or from reason. If it is from authority, it seems unbefitting its dignity, for the proof from authority is the weakest form of proof. But if it is from reason, this is unbefitting its end, because, according to Gregory (Hom. 26), "faith has no merit in those things of which human reason brings its own experience." Therefore sacred doctrine is not a matter of argument....

Reply to Objection 2. This doctrine is especially based upon arguments from authority, inasmuch as its principles are obtained by revelation: thus we ought to believe on the authority of those to whom the revelation has been made. Nor does this take away from the dignity of this doctrine, for although the argument from authority based on human reason is the weakest, yet the argument from authority based on divine revelation is the strongest.
An argument from authority based on human reason takes the form, "X is true because Y, having given it some thought, says X is true." Generally speaking, that's not a very strong argument, even if it suffices for a particular practical matter (as when X is "My keys are on the table downstairs" and Y is "my wife").

But an argument from authority based on divine revelation takes the form, "X is true because God says X is true," and you only have to read three verses into the Bible before you find that this argument confers absolute conviction (assuming you believe God says X is true).

Well and good. But in practice, Christian theology makes heavy use of arguments from authority based on human reason, a practice St. Thomas justifies thusly:
Hence sacred doctrine makes use also of the authority of philosophers in those questions in which they were able to know the truth by natural reason, as Paul quotes a saying of Aratus: "As some also of your own poets said: For we are also His offspring" (Acts 17:28). Nevertheless, sacred doctrine makes use of these authorities as extrinsic and probable arguments; but properly uses the authority of the canonical Scriptures as an incontrovertible proof, and the authority of the doctors of the Church as one that may properly be used, yet merely as probable. For our faith rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books, and not on the revelations (if any such there are) made to other doctors.
St. Thomas, then, identifies three authorities, each conferring a different level of conviction:
AuthorityAccepted As
Divine Revelationincontrovertible
Church Fathers
and Doctors
proper but
merely probable
Philosophersextrinsic and probable

Remember, these are cases of arguments from authority: Y says X, therefore X. Any particular authority can also offer an argument, which can then be considered on its own merits.


Thursday, June 01, 2006

Whatever you ask of God

A couple of weeks ago, I quoted the four times in the Last Supper Discourse Jesus told His disciples that anything they asked for would be given.

There's a fifth time in St. John's Gospel that the "anything you ask for" construct is used, and it may shed some light on what Jesus was getting at:
Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you."
And of course, what Jesus asked is that Lazarus would come forth from his tomb.

So that's the sort of thing that will be given if asked for.

St. John takes great care to recount the deliberation with which Jesus acts -- beginning with His decision to not act, to remain where He was for two days. Contrast this with the miracle at Cana, which Jesus seems to perform rather casually. Yet in both cases what is asked for is given.

I'm not sure which is the more astonishing sign. I mean, raising someone from the dead is just the sort of thing you'd expect God to do. But a hundred and fifty gallons of the best wine? For a party that had already gone through all the wine they had? Isn't that a bit... frivolous? Yes, it's different in important ways from giving a bicycle or a pony, but it's certainly looking in that direction.

I'll suggest, then, that Jesus' promise of whatever is asked for does not depend on the magnitude or the necessity of the thing asked for.


Integral to our faith

This comment by Jonathan Prejean has been rolling around in my head for a week:
All creatures have God as the ground of their being, but only rational creatures can participate in this active side of Trinitarian life.

Blessed Jan van Ruusbroec (John Ruysbroeck) is, IMHO, the theologian par excellence on this subject, even addressing the issue of how an unchanging, perfect, and simple God is simultaneously by nature personal and active (in which motion, creatures finitely participate).
The insightful post this comment was going to be a springboard to is not forthcoming; in the meantime, this will have to do:

There's something about the doctrine of an unchanging, perfect, and simple God that many people find offputting. Even the idea of God as a bearded old man condemning sinners to eternal flames might seem more welcoming; at least it gives the imagination something to work with. All that "God of the philosophers" stuff makes Him seem about as loving and lovable as Pluto's moon -- and Pluto's moon at least moves!

Not only is there little about absolute simplicity, immutableness, and so forth that appeals to the human heart, it all seems completely incompatible with what we read in the Bible, what we hear at Mass, and what we do as Catholics. Tell the pagan philosophers God is immutable, and they'll say, "Yes, quite right!" Tell the psalmists He's immutable, and they'll say, "What world do you live in?" And between Athens and Jerusalem, shouldn't we be choosing Jerusalem?

Well, of course Athens and Jerusalem aren't mutually exclusive choices for the orthodox Christian, and the various non-intuitive dogmas on the Divine Nature shouldn't be rejected simply because they're non-intuitive. But the difficulty of resolving the apparent conflicts -- or better, perhaps, of integrating two very different ways of thinking about God -- remains, and is not at all helped by the fact that so many people first encounter the theological doctrines in the words of others who have themselves barely understood them.

These would-be teachers may know the content of the doctrines; they may even be able to derive them from Revelation and reason. But I suggest that too many don't really know what the doctrines mean, or how to integrate them (i.e., to make one complete whole) with the rest of the Christian faith. The result is a bifurcated faith: when you pray, God is love; when you think, God is goodness.

Sophomoric stages like that are common when humans learn difficult subjects, but it's important to recognize that this is just a stage to be passed through. Some people find it hard to read St. Thomas's article explaining how God is the same as His essence. Harder still, I suggest, is to read a biography of St. Thomas and believe his experience of God was as sterile and dispassionate as the statement, "God is the same as His essence." And St. Thomas was as Pluto's moon compared to many of the Church Fathers who taught the same doctrine!

Ah, but then St. Thomas and the Church Fathers were saints. Their faith and reason were both enriched by their experience of God in their lives, by their closeness to the impassive, passionately loving Father and His unchanging, incarnate Son.

So there is a way to integrate Athens and Jerusalem: by drawing them both into and out of a life joined to the Trinity. And even those of us who are not yet close enough to God to do this properly can at least see that it can be done properly, and perhaps be given the occasional glimpse into what that's like. At the very least, we should be aware that bifurcating the faith is doing it improperly, and treat these matters with at least a dash of humility.


Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Happy Birthday

Pentecost is often called the Church's birthday, but a case can be made for the Feast of the Visitation, too.

At Pentecost, the disciples "were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim." It is this combination of the presence of the Holy Spirit and the public proclamation of the Gospel that marks the public beginning of the Church.

A few decades before, "Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice," proclaiming as blessed she "who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled." The presence of the Holy Spirit, and a proclamation of the Gospel -- though, admittedly, not in public.

But what did happen for the first time at the Visitation is the coming together of a community united by the Spirit of Christ, Emmanuel, Who was present among them.

The Monastery of the Visitation posted a wonderful reflection on how the sisters there experience this feast -- for them, a solemnity -- as a community of Marys and Elizabeths.


Friday, May 26, 2006

Beati immaculati

Rob's mention of Psalm 119 [118] got me thinking about how much I like that psalm.

If it's true that every human experience is contained in the Psalter, then the human experience contained by Psalm 119 is a writing assignment for a religious poetry class: "Write a poem consisting of 22 stanzas, each stanza comprising eight lines that all begin with the same letter, a different letter for each stanza, and include in each line a word meaning God's instruction to man."

Which makes it an odd psalm to like, and in fact I didn't think much of it when I first looked at it. There's not much movement to it -- or you could say there's far too much, each verse thrashing around in a tight little circle. With the loss of the acrostic key in English translation, the verses could be randomly composed without losing too much, e.g.:
Thy justifications I will never forget: for by them thou hast given me life.
O how have I loved thy law, O Lord! it is my meditation all the day.
They that persecute me have drawn nigh to iniquity; but they are gone far off from the law.
My eyes have failed for thy word, saying: When wilt thou comfort me?
Thou art my helper and my protector: and in thy word I have greatly hoped.
Let thy mercy also come upon me, O Lord: thy salvation according to thy word.
I have had understanding above ancients: because I have sought thy commandments.
I have gone astray like a sheep that is lost: seek thy servant, because I have not forgotten thy commandments.
(This page will randomly order the verse numbers for you.)

All this makes it a rather dull psalm to read.

But to proclaim it! Or chant it, or pray it! Then it becomes an entirely different thing, as different as a stained glass window seen from the outside on a gray afternoon and from the inside on a sunny morning.

To find yourself praying for the grace to know and love God's law, edicts, commands, precepts, words, utterances, ways, decrees, and teachings is a remarkable experience. It is to recognize, insist upon, and celebrate your creatureliness, your dependency on God. It is to say, "Lord, You have something I need to be happy, and You will give it to me, and I will use it, and I will be happy, and You will be happy with me."

Then the repetitions aren't so repetitive. They're variations, riffs on this most basic realization that God is He Who Is and this most astonishing revelation that He loves you who are not. His love takes the form of commandments, and in taking these commandments we find joy:
Your decrees are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.
Easily said, easier read, but when we pray this psalm, the real truth of it can be, if not always grasped, at least sometimes sighted.


Tuesday, May 23, 2006

202 Questions and Answers

Paulist Press has come out with two books by Dominican friars of the [Eastern USA] Province of St. Joseph:
  • 101 Questions & Answers on The Da Vinci Code and the Catholic Tradition, by Nancy de Flon and Fr. John Vidmar, OP. "De Flon and Vidmar not only show where Brown went wrong, but they also unlock the doors (that Brown ignored) to the treasure rooms of the Catholic tradition and they display for the reader the wealth of people, customs, and events that comprise Catholic identity. Far more than a mere Da Vinci Code 'debunker,' 101 Question and Answers on The Da Vinci Code and the Catholic Tradition serves as celebration of Catholic culture that uses The Da Vinci Code as its springboard."
  • 101 Questions & Answers on the Eucharist, by Fr. Giles Dimock, OP. "He starts off with questions on the Jewish background of Eucharist and then examines the Last Supper and its theology in the light of the Paschal Mystery. Some of the other questions deal with transubstantiation, sacrifice, Real Presence, communion, and intercommunion. Fr. Dimock's answers are both practical and ecumenical."
(Via Order of Preachers Vocations.)


Monday, May 22, 2006

Breathless homilizing

So how many people heard a homily on Deus Caritas Est Sunday?

The homilist I heard worked it in briefly at the end, illuminating the Pope's statement, "God loves, and his love may certainly be called eros, yet it is also totally agape." I'll riff on it this way:

First, we understand Divine agape as the, if you will, ordinary "descending love" of unearned benevolence God has for His creatures. Divine eros, on the other hand, is, in Scriptural terms, God's jealous desire for us, whole and entire, spirit, soul, and body. So how can these two loves, expressed in terms that suggest they operate in opposite directions, be "totally" the same?

Let's try some wordplay. The Holy Spirit is said to be Love, the love of the Father for the Son and of the Son for the Father. That in itself suggests how eros and agape are totally the same in the life of the Trinity.

The Holy Spirit is also the "breath" of God. So we can think of breathing out as sending the Holy Spirit forth as agape, and of breathing in as the Holy Spirit returning to the Godhead as eros. Out, in: it's all breathing.

I'm also reminded of Isaiah 55:10-11:
For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down And do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, Giving seed to him who sows and bread to him who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; It shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.
What was God's will in sending the Word to earth? "And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself." Drawing to yourself is an erotic act.

What remains to be explained is how an unchanging, perfect, and simple God can love His creatures in this way. The short answer (if you'll pardon the presumption) is that, having received the Son and the Holy Spirit, we share in their lovableness. The Trinity doesn't say from eternity, "We love Each Other... ooh, and hey, We also love these creatures here!" It's all the same love. (It has to be. Otherwise, it's not the same Spirit, and that's a Bad Thing.)


Chuckleheaded Donatists

Dan Jasmin knows my methods:
Whenever I read posts such as this on your blog, I am always thinking, "OK, who screwed up this time?"
My attempt to throw him off the scent --
I do try, you know, to abstract from the concrete to reach some general principle that rises above gossip and tale-bearing, but since you ask, it was chuckleheaded Donatists.
-- was not fully successful:
Abstracts and general principles are all well and good, but give me a concrete example.
There are several reasons I like to avoid concrete examples (not that I always do, but I've gotten better at it than I used to be).

The tactical reasons, so to speak, take into account the direct effects of using concrete examples. In general terms, the discussion gets stuck in concrete. Is that what he really meant? Wouldn't this be a more charitable interpretation? What's the full relevant context in which to read that? Didn't I do the same thing, or worse? People tend to respond to the thing that is easiest to respond to (qv the Law of the Stupidest Argument), and concrete examples are usually easier to respond to than general principles.

Moreover, strategically speaking, I don't much care about concrete examples. Whether or not this particular person acted in this particular manner in this particular instance, acting in that manner is something we can talk about, and possibly benefit from talking about. Introducing a concrete (rather than hypothetical) example bears a real risk of introducing a sin against justice (particularly rash judgment or detraction), and it's usually an unnecessary risk.

On the down side, writing in generalities runs the risk of coyness, as though those in the know will put two and two together and see who I have in mind. That's a failure on my part to write clearly enough. If I don't show my work frankly, from concrete example through general principle, I shouldn't leave hints or clues for people to guess at.

There's also the risk of describing a phenomenon that doesn't actually occur in the real world, or at least that doesn't occur nearly as often as or to the extent that I think. But if I weren't willing to risk being an idiot, I wouldn't blog.

More seriously, and what I suspect Dan may have had in mind, is that, without a concrete example, it can be hard for others to know what I'm really getting at, and therefore whether I'm right about it. Abstractions that aren't understood in the concrete may be easy to reason with, but they aren't always easy to reason about.


Sunday, May 21, 2006

Tasting notes

Things I learned while serving Scotch:
  1. People who say, "I never got into Scotch," will never get into Scotch. For them, bring a jug of rum punch and some ice.
  2. If someone asks what you recommend, and seems nervous, they want an inoffensive blend like Dewars 12. If they seem brash, they want Laphroaig.
  3. When someone says, "What do you have that's very mild?," pour them a Maker's Mark.
  4. Some people act as though they believe that Step 1 in all the How to Taste Scotch guides is, "Sip it like you're trying a friend's huckleberry daquiri at Bennigans," and that terms like "volatile," "astringent," and "nose burn" are all associated only with rotgut. These errors will self-correct a few moments after they are provided with a wee dram.
  5. Some people believe that adding water to a single malt Scotch is a bad thing to do, while others believe they should apologize as they drop in an ice cube. They will all believe the same thing tomorrow, no matter what you tell them today.
  6. Nobody cares how many regions Scotland's distilleries are divided into.


Friday, May 19, 2006

They who are

Solipsism, as you know, is the belief that nothing actually exists except a single being, which conveniently and necessarily is the solipsist himself. Asolipsism, on the other hand, is a word I just made up that means the belief that solipsists do not exist, at least not outside freshmen dorms and other madhouses.

I am an asolipsist, more or less; I think solipsism, not just as a held belief but as an idea that needs to be taken seriously, is something everyone should outgrow by the age of nineteen. Certainly you don't run into many self-declared solipsists. (Ironically, solipsism doesn't even have to be false for every solipsist to be wrong.)

Still, there are various weaker forms of solipsism that -- though no more valid than the strict, "Mysterious Stranger" version -- do thrive today.

Perhaps the most common form is selfishness. Many people don't believe they are the only existent being, but do believe they are the only existent being that counts, that "what matters" ≡ "what matters to them." ("&equiv.;" is the "identically equals" symbol, which basically means you can freely substitute the one expression for the other in any statement without changing the meaning of the statement.)

Others have a way of projecting themselves in a way that makes them normative of everyone. In their minds, society ought to conform to them, not as the selfish would have it because they are personally so wonderful, but because their own tastes and opinions happen to be an objective improvement over everything else. Such people think others ought to be like them, even if they aren't.

I'm coming to see that habitual hasty generalizers are also solipsists of a sort. The hasty generalization is of course the logical fallacy of "generalizing about a population based upon a sample which is too small to be representative." Committing this fallacy habitually is a sort of solipsism because it acts upon a habitual belief that the sample of one's own experiences is representative of the whole.

In the wild, this often takes the form of thinking one can form a sound judgment on a complex matter based on one or two bits of knowledge (which aren't necessarily true).

Now, judgment almost always has to be reached without knowing everything that might affect it, but prudence dictates that the firmness with which any judgment reached be held is conditioned by both the need to reach judgment and the relative amount of information used to reach the judgment. In other words, how strenuously I defend my judgment should depend on how necessary it is that I reach a judgment and on how much evidence (of all possible evidence) I use to reach it.

The hastily generalizing solipsist will think -- or at least act as though -- the evidence he has is all the evidence required to reach a firm judgment; he may also think that it is important if not absolutely necessary that his judgment be declared. Both are exaltations of self.


Thursday, May 18, 2006

It has come to my attention

In the last twenty-four hours, I have encountered the following:
  • A statement of The Law of the Stupidest Argument: "In a discussion among strangers, the least thoughtful controversial position stated will dominate the argument." True enough, in a descriptive sort of way, and still pretty true even without the "among strangers."
  • A warning on the back of an incense packet for sale at a gas station: "Beware of incense made with sawdust, dried pig stool, or pork rind and cheap synthetic compound oils." Can there possibly be a less necessary admonition than to beware of something made with dried pig stool? (Though "pork rind and cheap synthetic compound oils" sounds like what I had for dinner most nights in college.)
  • The statement, "PayPal makes it easy to send Dominican Nuns money." Yes, I suppose it does, and while we're discussing facts no one denies and no one has ever really thought about, 2,713 * 411 = 1,115,043.
I look forward, in the next twenty-four hours, to seeing how many people visit Disputations after Googling for "dried pig stool." (Hey, I take what I can get. I still get at least one visitor a day from Happy Catholic's "If Jack Bauer was gay, his name would be Chuck Norris." page. (Dried pig stool visitors, Julie. Julie, dried pig stool visitors.))


Scoping out the term

Disputations has something of a reputation for artless diagrams that add little but visual distraction to the discussion. This post shall, perhaps, shake up that reputation somewhat, since it features, not a diagram, but an HTML table.

What scope should we understand Jesus to have had in mind when He spoke in terms of "whatever you ask"?

Some have proposed a tautological scope along the lines of "requests that God will grant," the idea being that Jesus' promise is given only to those who remain in Him, and by definition those who remain in Jesus wouldn't ask for anything God wouldn't want to give them. But while that may be true -- as I've mentioned, tautologies do tend to be true -- it's not particularly helpful in understanding what Jesus means.

Another approach is by using this set of increasingly-limited scopes:

     All Requests     
    Moral Requests    
  Pious Requests  
"Thy Will
Be Done"

"All Requests" is everything that can be asked for: the grace of final perseverance, a pony, the head of John the Baptist. "Moral Requests" is everything good in and of itself that can be desired, including ponies but excluding severed heads of enemies. "Pious Requests" is the subset of moral requests that relate directly to personal sanctification, so ponies are out but spiritual gifts are in. "P.O.D. Requests" [for "pious and overly devotional"] is the set of pious requests only a saint or a showoff would make, things like suffering and humiliation. "Thy Will Be Done" is that single request, with all personal volition removed; note that this isn't a personal request with "but Thy will be done" added at the end, there is nothing being asked for in this specific case.

It's safe to say "All Requests" is not the proper scope. To ask for something evil in Jesus' name is blasphemy, and not something anyone who remains in Him will do.

Let me propose two reasons "Thy Will Be Done" is too limited. First, it would imply that by, "If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it," Jesus means, "You won't ask anything of me." That's an unnatural interpretation (in English translation, at least), and it's an unnatural interpretation that would need to be applied all four times Jesus makes this promise in John 14-16. While it's certainly true that God will always answer that prayer, the words Jesus uses do not mean God will always answer only that prayer.

Second, the suggestion that "Thy Will Be Done" -- again, in the completely passive sense I'm using it here -- is the one thing that will always be granted if asked also implies that asking for particular things isn't something a good Christian would do. But that implication is certainly untrue, contrary to both Scripture and the lived experience of the Church.

Moreover, the model of a Christian as a passive instrument in the hands of God -- which I'd say is equivalent to the proposal that a Christian ought to pray only "Thy Will Be Done" -- conflicts with the reality that we are called to be, not God's tools, but His children. We are subjects of His love, not merely useful goods but (by His grace) good in ourselves. If we lack all personal will, we lack all eros; God's agape will find nothing to adhere to in us.

This again leads us into the promised participation in the Divine Life of the Trinity, since in a mysterious way the Son is both a subject of the Father's love while sharing in the one Divine will (if I've got it right). They are one, yet remain distinct Persons. In a similar way, we are called to unite our own will to the Divine will, yet in such a way that we remain distinct persons.

Maybe it's not so unsearchable a mystery, if we look to a loving human family rather than directly into the Divine. A loving human family tends to a single will, conceptually speaking. The whole family knows the father personally enjoys an afternoon nap, say, so the whole family wills that the father take an afternoon nap.

Note the trinitarian language that naturally arises: the whole family knows (knowledge is attributed to the Son); the whole family wills (will is attributed to the Holy Spirit). Certainly it's not an exact representation -- the individual human wills are distinct, and the "single will" of the family doesn't actually exist -- but I think it does suggest that a complete self-emptying on the part of any one person isn't the end of the story, either within the Trinity or within the Church united to the Trinity.


Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Family news

The Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception -- or the Dominican House of Studies, when it's at home -- held its 2006 graduation ceremony last Friday. Among the graduates were eight Dominican friars, two of whom -- Fr. Dominic Langevin, OP, and Br. Thomas Petri, OP -- received the Licence in Sacred Theology (STL).

Fr. Reginald Whitt, OP, President of the Pontifical Faculty, with the 2006 graduates

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus of First Things fame was the commencement speaker; his speech can be listened to on line. He also writes a bit today about the Liturgy of the Hours and Magnificat magazine at On the Square:
A student at Columbia told me a couple of weeks ago that his life had been a shambles, to the point of being terrified by serious thoughts of suicide. He dragged himself back to Mass. A friend loaned him her copy of Magnificat. He started to pray. "I wish I could say everything has changed," he said. "But everything is changing." Exactly. Pray as you can, not as you can't. And discover that you can, more and more.


The man who suddenly got everything he'd always wanted

Did you ever know someone whose parents gave them everything they asked for? Didn't you hate them?

The second question probably makes more sense if you were thinking of someone who asked for pretty much everything they wanted. I hadn't thought about it before, but there's something very on point in calling someone who get everything they want "spoiled;" in such circumstances, fallen human nature does tend to go soft and rotten.

But what would it mean if someone really could get literally anything they might ask for from their parents? It wouldn't be enough for their parents to be rich -- just ask Veruca Salt. They'd need to be magical, like genies granting wish after wish. Or supernatural.

In fact, technically, they'd need to be divine. And not merely lesser gods in a pantheon, but that which all men speak of as God. Why? Because, by assumption, the child will be given literally anything asked for, and that can only be true if the parents are omnipotent, and omnipotence is a characteristic of God.

Moreover, the child himself participates in that omnipotence. He can cause literally anything he desires, not by his own sufficient power, but by directing the sufficient power of his parents. This may also apply to the parents; their omnipotence may be by participation as well, and even based on another's participation. It all works as long as the chain of participation terminates in God. And every link in the chain is in some sense divinized through participating in God's omnipotence.

So it seems when Jesus says, "Whatever you ask the Father in My Name He will give you," it's not merely a promise of answered supplications, but of divinization. The Father is the Father of those who remain in Jesus in a very real and direct and non-metaphorical sense, in a sense that is not true for those who do not remain in Jesus.

If I may extend the cultural reference, Jesus' promise means we get, not just the chocolate, but the chocolate factory. And that -- or rather, the promise of participation in the One Life whose word, "Let there be light," causes light to be is certainly something that bears repeating.


Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The view from the tank

A few more observations on the appointment in Washington:
  • -Designate. It's "Archbishop-Designate." Not "-Elect." I have corrected my error.
  • A-D Wuerl has degrees from the Gregorian and the Angelicum. That's four decades of experience in ecumenism.
  • Want a hint about how well Cardinal McCarrick gets along with the local media? The Washington Post reports he "became eligible for retirement last July." None of this New York Timesy "submitted his resignation ... as church policy requires" guff.
  • Blog response has been milder than I expected. A few chuckleheaded Donatists have nodded in grim satisfaction, and the hardcore among them shook their heads in satisfied grimness, but on the whole St. Blog's is treating this more as just another change in episcopal leadership than the Bright New Dawn of the Catholic Church some seemed to think Cardinal McCarrick's retirement would mark. Early days yet, I realize.
  • As one informal and anecdotal datapoint, I last saw Cardinal McCarrick at a Mass last December, and he looked markedly older and more tired than the [handful of] other times I'd seen him. I was not at all surprised to read subsequent interviews in which he expressed a desire to retire. Even before then, he was telling reporters, "Most people my age are dead."
  • I made a joke in a comment below that the one question by which our new archbishop will be measured is, will he let my parish build a parish hall? For all the kibbitzing St. Blog's does while watching the American episcopate, for all the gossip about who is in favor in Rome and whose opinions are sufficiently orthodox to allow them to be repeated to children, I strongly suspect that for the vast majority of Catholics all that really matters is what happens in, and to, their parish. And, on this point, I strongly suspect the vast majority of Catholics have it more right than those of us who use words like "episcopate" and "orthodox."
  • Just as an FYI, the proper term is "boot-licking Vatican toady." This should not be confused with a boot-licking Vatican toad:

    A comparatively reclusive member of the family Bufonidae, of which the common toad (Bufo bufo) is perhaps best-known, the boot-licking Vatican toad, B. caligae vaticanensis delingeriscus, is shown above in this rare photograph.
(Idea and caption for final bullet shamelessly stolen from Marion.)


Repetitive learning

The Gospel reading Saturday included this statement from Jesus' Last Supper Discourse:
And whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it.
Sunday's Gospel included this, from later in the same discourse:
If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.
A few verses later, Jesus says, "It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you." In Chapter 16 comes:
Amen, amen, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you. Until now you have not asked anything in my name; ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.
When a saying of Jesus is recorded four times in three chapters, it's probably something important.

And yet, don't we sort of have to explain it away? "Ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you" is, as it stands, about as demonstrably false a statement as can be made. And I don't just mean the canonical example of asking for a new bicycle for your birthday. I mean asking for healing, or for a loved one to return to the Faith.

It's been said God answers every prayer of supplication in one of three ways: "Yes"; "Yes, but not yet"; and, "I've got something even better for you!" A careful reader, though, will notice that two of those three answers are not, "Yes," which seems to be the answer Jesus promises those who remain in Him and ask for something in His name.

So we handwave. "Oh, you didn't ask, you didn't ask the Father, you didn't ask in Jesus' name, you didn't recognize that in some unrecognizable sense you were given what you asked for."

But maybe in this case, we should put off the most natural question -- "Why doesn't it work?" -- until we've explored some other questions, like, "Why does Jesus really want us to know it?"


Yay for Washington!

Yay for Archbishop-Designate Wuerl!

Yay for Cardinal McCarrick!

June 22 is a most auspicious day for an installation.