instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, November 30, 2009

Science and data, i

A lot of people are spun up over the material stolen from the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia. Some are spun up over the material, some are spun up over the stealing, some are spun up over others being improperly or inadequately spun up themselves.

I don't know from the CRU, and I've forgotten pretty much everything I learned in the numerical weather prediction class I took in grad school. So I'll just offer a few thoughts as data for reasoning about all this.

First, climate science differs from the kind of science most people have experience with from high school (or even most undergrad science labs). The scientific experiments conducted by students tend to be done more or less directly on the physical system of interest. If you want to see how inelastic collisions work, you make things collide; if you want to see what K + H2O ->, you drop some potassium in some water and take notes. A hundred years later, someone else can do the same experiment and compare their notes with yours.

For the most part, though, climate science experiments aren't experiments on the climate itself; the subject of the experiments is a particular climate model. The question the experiment is designed to answer is whether the model can be used to correctly answer questions about the real-world climate.

And if the questions we want correctly answered are about the real-world climate fifty years from now, there's really no way of knowing for sure today that a model is adequate.

What can be known, though, is whether a model is adequate to answer questions about the future if certain assumptions are true. Then the work is to determine whether those assumptions are true (even better is to change the model to reduce the amount of assuming that has to be done).


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Through grief to grace

As its subtitle suggests, Jantsen's Gift: A True Story of Grief, Rescue, and Grace is a book in three movements.

The first movement is the life of Pam Cope, a middle-class Midwestern housewife, from her childhood through the loss of her son Jantsen when he was fifteen. I say "through the loss" although, of course, that's not a loss anyone ever gets through.

The chapters on Jantsen's death and Pam's subsequent depression are not easy to read. But along with the sorrow and pain, there were moments of growth, as when Pam comes to a new understanding of God:
But the more I engaged in these quiet conversations [with God], the more I began to realize that maybe he wasn't the scary, judgmental, punishing force I had thought. Maybe, in fact, what I was coming to find was what I had spent so long searching for: grace.
The second movement is the beginning of Pam's work with Vietnamese orphans, and the establishment of the Touch a Life Foundation, which grew out of the $25,000 dollars people donated in Jantsen's memory.

While on her first trip to Viet Nam, traveling with a friend who was already involved in charity work there, Pam learned of the desperate plight of so many poor children in that country. She was reminded of a passage about a boy who had died alone, from the book The Dream Giver by Bruce Wilkinson:
It certainly cannot be God's will that any child die alone and abandoned. Surely God placed a particular set of interests and abilities in one person, somewhere in this world, and put that person in a time and place where great things could happen -- should have happened -- for that boy.
This experience unsettled some of Pam's long-held beliefs:
I had always believed that the only children I had been assigned to care for were my own. But that idea, and so many others I had about my place in the world, had begun to shift, and I was coming to understand my responsibilities as much larger.
This eventually came to mean not only adopting two Vietnamese children herself, and helping a number of friends to adopt other children, but running a charity to support a safe home for Vietnamese orphans.

Fundraising in her home town of Neosho, Missouri, was not easy:
Why Vietnam? Why not Neosho, or Newton County, or somewhere in America? We certainly have our fair share of problems, Pam. It's not that I didn't expect this question, or understand why people felt drawn to ask it; it just didn't make sense to me anymore. Because, that's why. Because a child is a child regardless of where they live....
Because is also why Pam got involved in supporting The Place of Rescue in Cambodia.

The final movement of Jantsen's Gift tells how, prompted by nothing more exceptional than a newspaper article, Pam expanded her work to include caring for Ghanian children who had been sold into slavery by their parents. She had read the article in The New York Times, on a trip to New York she took just after her family moved into a smaller house in part to save money for her work. She writes:
Randy [her husband] had recently read a quote to me by the author and poet John Ruskin: Every increased possession loads us with a new weariness....

And I know... I know... that it is only because I had unburdened myself -- financially, emotionally, spiritually -- that everything that happened [in Ghana] was able to, well, happen.
Jantsen's Gift, then, really is a story of grief, rescue, and grace. It's also something of a public service announcement regarding the plight of children in three very distant countries, and an effective introduction to the work of the Touch a Life Foundation.

More than that, though, the book is an invitation to readers to open themselves to the opportunities for rescue and grace that God has placed in their own lives. As Fr. Philip Powell, OP, writes in a comment below, "God gives me X, but X is not a gift until I receive it as one." Whether the reader receives this message of Jantsen's Gift as a gift is the reader's own choice.

(And just for the record, I received Jantsen's Gift as a review copy.)


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Salvation by works

I don't understand Mark Shea's hostility toward diagrams.

Be that as it may, a recent commenter at Catholic and Enjoying It! wrote:
I remember very well the time when I, the recovering Calvinist, went deep into the night attempting to create a nice flow-chart of how salvation "worked" in the Catholic system. I wish I still had it. I remember getting frustrated at how messy it seemed. Kinda like life.
I think this fellow's mistake was to attempt a flowchart, where a state diagram is clearly called for:


Monday, November 23, 2009

Humble service

Last week, Fr. Philip Powell, OP, wrote a good post on discerning whether your service to others is sacrificial in the Christian sense. He proposes asking these three quesitons:
1). Why am I doing this work?

2). Is this work good?

3). Am I perfecting my gifts?
The post was in response to the many women who have asked him how they could tell whether they were being good Christians in giving of themselves or merely "being a doormat."

Ever helpful, I left a comment referring to Bl. Henry Suso's embrace of a doormat as metaphor for his own spirituality of service. You can be both a good Christian servant and a doormat!

Or, well, maybe you can. At any rate, Bl. Henry could. As a religious mendicant, he was free to think nothing of himself to a degree we'd probably consider irresponsible of someone living in the world. And, as a personally holy man, he wasn't likely to do the wrong thing very often (which isn't to say he was prudent in worldly terms).

Maybe the distinction is between not wanting to be taken advantage of and not wanting to be taken for granted. Being taken advantage of is bad because it implies there are other things you could be doing that will use your time and effort to better advantage. This is the problem Fr. Philip addresses in his post.

Being taken for granted, though, is the expected consequence of being a servant:
"When you have done all you have been commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.'"
Of course, it's not good to take someone else for granted, but correcting that fault in another may not always belong to the one being taken for granted.

Fr. Philip had incidentally mentioned that it is always women who ask about whether they're being taken advantage of. My guess at an explanation, in thirty words or less, is that the greater fear for a woman is to refuse to help when she should, while the greater fear for a man is to be taken advantage of.


A mite hard to see

Today's Gospel is the story of the Widow's Mite, in which Jesus says:
"I tell you truly, this poor widow put in more than all the rest; for those others have all made offerings from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has offered her whole livelihood."
What can be missed, just going by the Lectionary, is that both Luke and Mark put this story immediately after Jesus gives this warning to His disciples:
"Be on guard against the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and love greetings in marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very severe condemnation."
I usually think of this story as a straightforward (if difficult) lesson in heroic virtue. But Jesus doesn't call attention to the widow merely to point out her faith, hope, and love; He points out her virtue in comparison with the virtue shown by "all the rest."

There is a lesson here in the hiddenness of the ways of God. Sure, if we noticed what the widow was doing, we would recognize her virtue. For the most part, though, we don't recognize such things. What is there in her appearance or actions that would draw our attention to her?

What we notice are long robes and seats of honor; if we didn't, then the scribes of our day wouldn't care about them. We may take such things at face value, thinking that whoever sits in a place of honor must be honorable. We may be cynical about such things, cynicism being the besetting virtue of the adolescent.

Odds are, though, we won't be seeing things as God sees them. Maybe this scribe isn't far from the Kingdom of God; maybe this widow is a miser. Even when they saw the same thing, the disciples needed Jesus to interpret it for them.

In addition to the good example of the widow herself, then, we might gain from this very brief story a little humility regarding our own understanding and judgment of the events and people around us.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A short story

Today's Gospel reading is the story of Zacchaeus, the wealthy chief tax collector. Which means it's also the story of the crowd around Zacchaeus.

The best that can be said about the crowd around Zacchaeus is that, unlike the crowd around the blind man, they didn't tell him to get down from the sycamore and stop trying to see Jesus.

What they did, after Jesus invited Himself to Zacchaeus's home and Zacchaeus quickly received Him with joy, was this:
...they began to grumble, saying, "He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner."
Such grumbling in the Gospels is usually understood as a knock against Jesus' own morals.

Note, though, that it also implies Jesus has not gone to stay at the house of any of the grumblers. They, after all, came out to see Jesus, too, and they weren't (we may presume) infamous for their crimes against Israel.

So their grumbling may not be purely idle scandal at the actions of a purported prophet. They're good people; why can't they be graced with the prophet's presence? Or, if not them, then why not someone even better than they?

Jesus has an answer, though I'm not sure how satisfying it was to those who heard it: "For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost."

To those in the crowd who would be His disciples, the message was clear: You, too, have to seek and save what was lost. You have to go to the descendants of Abraham I won't get to, and tell them that salvation has come to their house today. Don't keep Me in your houses for us to admire each other. Bring My word out to the people who haven't already heard it.

The grumbling of Zacchaeus's neighbors is similar to the grumbling of the Prodigal Son's brother. All that God has is theirs, if they but knew it, and that includes His joy in Zacchaeus's return to life.


Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Don't know much about art

Kathy Shaidle defines "social justice" as "the stubborn application of unworkable solutions to imaginary problems."

There's some truth to that; any fool can claim they're "working for social justice," and many of them do.

This is a shame, as I've said before. It keeps good Christians from learning about and supporting workable solutions to real problems of social justice.

I was reminded of this when I came across this prayer service proposed by some Dominican Sisters for use (inter alia) in celebrating the Feast of St. Martin de Porres, Patron of Social Justice.

To me, it reads more like a fundraising letter for a pacifist political action committee than a prayer service, but what really stood out for me was the interpretation of the Lord's Prayer:
Our Mother and Father, who art in heaven...
I guess this has been going on for as long as people have been daft enough to think calling God the Father "Mother and Father" is a good idea, but I just noticed it now:

Is there a less happy conjunction than the neologism of "Mother and Father" with the archaism of "art" (with, no doubt, all the "thy"s that follow)?

If you're going to rewrite a prayer to make it sound like 1989, why would you keep the parts that make it sound like... well, every other year since Modern English emerged?


Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Happy St. Martin Day!

Today is the Feast of St. Martin de Porres, a Peruvian lay friar of the Order of Preachers and patron saint of, among other things, social justice and barbers.

His patronage of barbers follows from his time as a barber. His patronage of social justice follows from his personal experiences; his mother was a former slave, his father a Spanish nobleman who ignobly abandoned her and their two young children, and within his Dominican convent he also experienced class- and race-based bigotry.

St. Martin is also the patron saint of the Southern U.S. Dominican Province, which runs the St. Martin de Porres Shrine & Institute in Memphis.

St. Martin himself, from what I've been told, wasn't particularly occupied with issues of social justice as such. The virtue that consumed his life was charity. He sought out lowly positions from which he could serve others in love, and spent thirty-five years as infirmarian, caring for (and often miraculously healing) the sick of his convent and his city.

One story is told of a time when an epidemic was raging through Lima. Brother Martin brought those he met who were sick to the convent, until his prior ordered him to stop, lest all the friars in the place get sick. When he then found a man on the street bleeding from a knife wound, though, Br. Martin brought him to his own room to treat him. The prior scolded him for disobeying his order, and Br. Martin apologized, saying, "I did not know the precept of obedience took precedence over that of charity."

The prior then commanded him to do as he saw fit in caring for those he met.