instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Time 3

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

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

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

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


Time 2

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

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

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


Time 1

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Dominican Joy: Live!

See a seven minute video on the remarkable Nashville Dominicans.


Ontological arithmetic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, December 29, 2003

No space-time like the present

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, December 19, 2003

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


Political wisdom

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

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


Thursday, December 18, 2003

Lector's block

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

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

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


Just Returned from The King

A very good movie.

Check that.

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

A few random comments:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, December 17, 2003

I agree with the Pope

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

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

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

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

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

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


A beneficent blind eye to the negative

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, December 16, 2003

An Advent affirmation

You are Absolutely Wonderful!
How Wonderful Are You?

brought to you by Quizilla


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

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


Poetical by nature

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

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

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

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

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


Reports from Iraq

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


Because this is a personal blog, not a religious website

Fly, Eagles, fly!


Monday, December 15, 2003


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

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

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

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

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

And I might also admit I know nothing about poetry.


Catholics for Kerry

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

And along comes this helpful post:


In good company

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

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

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

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


Friday, December 12, 2003

Mea culpa

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

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

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

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

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

Even as we tremble.


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

Very Thomistic. Not so very Rankin-Bassistic.


Thursday, December 11, 2003

Semper opifer

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

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


What's not to love?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What's love got to do with it?

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

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

Ha, no, I jest.

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


Patron saints of Advent

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

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

It is not at all passive.

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

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

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


The numbers weren't all that lucky, either

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


Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Non probet, sed defendat

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

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

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


Divine naming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Genuine sources of theology

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

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

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


Turning Christmas upside down

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


Another astonishment

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

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

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


A passionate review

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

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

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

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

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

(Link via Church of the Masses.)


Monday, December 08, 2003

By the heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By the head

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

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

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

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


Saturday, December 06, 2003

Characters in search of their Author

Fr. Dowd, who gets to eat curry far too often compared to me, is taking advantage of all his slack time this month to continue to explore the nature of God.

He corrects me on a point about potential future being:
Contrary to Tom's statement, I believe that "potential future being" DOES exist. To say that "potential future being doesn't exist" is imprecise: it does not exist per se, but it most certainly does exist per accidens, just as the long quote from Bobik points out. And it fits very nicely with Aristotle (and Aquinas') divisions of Being.
The question, then, is does God know potential future being in a way that He could not know actual future being?

It's not quite enough to say that "actual future being" does not exist either per se or per accidens, so God can't know it. (Also, I think "actual future being" does exist per accidens for future being not dependent on a free will. If I drop a pebble down a well, the actual future being of the pebble in the water exists. But I think we've been discussing everything in terms of future being contingent on free will choices.)

God can't know actual future [contingent] being as actual future being, as I quoted Theodore Kondoleon below. But if He can know it as something else, then I think His omniscience requires that He does know it. Traditional Christian theology explains how He can know it as something else -- by knowing its likeness within Himself as its efficient and exemplary cause, as Kondoleon explains.

Just to keep things interesting, there's a PDF file of "Hans Urs von Balthasar's Method of Divine Naming," by Br. Bernhard Blankenhorn, OP, which looks at Balthasar's ideas of the "super-time" in which God exists and the sense in which He can be said to suffer. It's about as clear an exposition of Balthasarian doctrine I've read (not that I've read all that much), although it suffers as do most such expositions from having to quote Balthasar directly from time to time. (Link via Dominican Life Magazine.)

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Friday, December 05, 2003

Hot dog (of the Lord)

Br. Dismas, a student friar of the Western Dominican Province of the United States -- currently studying theology in that most-Dominican city in the New World, Lima, Peru -- has begun a blog. I recommend you keep an eye on Stealing Heaven... Just don't ask him how he feels about the sight of Karl Malone in a Lakers uniform.



Yesterday I wrote to Mark Shea:
The sentiments [of commenters at his blog who, among other things, would choose damnation over losing a war] make sense if sin is seen as the violation of a rule....

Damnation might even be preferable to an eternity with a god who would damn you for doing the right thing.

So maybe the problem is thinking sins are relative to some arbitrary and ad hoc rulebook, rather than to our very nature and being.
Today I read this, from John Allen's "The Word from Rome":
Nominalism, [Under-Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith fr. Augustine] Di Noia[, OP,] argued, "let loose a catastrophe on the human race" by separating morality from anthropology... Imagine, he said, a mother cooking dinner who spots her child eating cookies. The mother could say, "eating cookies is forbidden in this house," appealing to her authority. Or she could say, "if you eat those cookies, you’ll spoil your appetite," appealing to a truth about human nature. Nominalism proposes the first kind of morality, Di Noia said, while Thomism proposes the second.

Speaking of nominalism, Di Noia said: "The prevalence of this kind of moral theology gave rise to the intolerable tensions experienced by many Catholics in the face of the moral teaching of Humanae Vitae – and eventually the entirety of Christian teaching about human sexuality – which seemed to impose an outdated moral obligation whose connection with the human good was either denied or dismissed, or more commonly, simply not apparent." ...

Di Noia said the aim of John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor was to resuscitate a natural law approach to morality, one that sees obedience of moral commands "not as the suppression of the human person, but its perfection."
I think Bishop-Elect Fr. DiNoia may be onto something. I suspect, though, that the problem doesn't extend only in the direction of National Catholic Reporter stalwarts.


Props for Rob

While I'm at it, I'd like to nominate regular commenter Rob for Righteous Among the Material Heretics consideration. He is, as I try to be, more interested in finding truth than in achieving victory.

He has also shown great wisdom in recognizing the many issues in which the best we're going to get is asymptotic agreement and deciding we're, as the engineers say, "close enough."


A good choice of words

Responding to my post "Does God change His mind?," Rob writes:
But what you're saying now is that God--as presented in the OT scriptures--is a projection of changeable humans.
No, what I'm saying now is that God as presented in the OT scriptures is a description of God's projection on changeable humans.

The same is true of God as presented in the NT scriptures. The difference, of course, is Jesus Christ.

I'm very pleased by Rob's use of the word "projection," because it leads to another of my favorite analogies: a movie screen. Think of the world as a movie screen that gets crumpled up by sin and straightened out by obedience to God. God, in the analogy, is like a slide (I'd say "reel of film," but I might as well make Him unchangeable in the analogy, too). His revelation of Himself is like the projection of the slide onto the screen.

As the screen cumples and straightens, the picture will appear to distort and change.

Jesus as man is like the perfect movie screen, perfectly reflecting the original image. (And, incidentally but importantly, when that image is projected onto the screen corresponding to the fallen world, it invariably looks like a crucified man.)

The New Testament, to the extent it is a record of Jesus as man and what He taught His disciples, corresponds to a much better screen than does the Old Testament. But the image seen is still a projection, not the slide itself.


A little more on God's foreknowlede

I found a good paper on St. Thomas's concept of God's knowledge: "God's Knowledge of Future Contingent Singulars: A Reply," by Theodore Kondoleon, in the January 1992 Thomist. (It's available on-line to subscribers; give yourself an early Christmas gift!)

The paper itself is a merciless fisking of an article that appeared in The Thomist a couple of years earlier, but Kondoleon makes a distinction of general value:
...while it is true that God cannot know what is future and contingent as something future and contingent, it is ... because such a knowledge is simply impossible.... not even God can know what is future and contingent as something future and contingent.
Here, I think is the corresponding principle Father Dowd was looking for between God's omnipotence and His omniscience. Just as "God can't make 2+2=5" doesn't mean He is not omnipotent, so "God can't know future contingent being as future contingent being" doesn't mean He is not omniscient.

At the same time, that it is impossible to know what is future and contingent as something future and contingent doesn't mean what is future and contingent can't be known in some other way. Kondoleon gives what I think is a good explanation of the traditional understanding of the way God knows in Himself what for us is future and contingent:
Indeed, as Aquinas himself says in the Summa Theologiae, "So we say that God sees Himself in Himself, because He sees Himself through His essence; and He sees other things not in themselves, but in Himself; inasmuch as His essence contains the similitude of things other than Himself." And elsewhere, in an article in the De veritate addressing the question of God's knowledge of future contingent singulars, he has this reply to one of the objections: "It is true that God knows nothing outside Himself if the word outside refers to that by which He knows. However, God does know something outside Himself if this refers to what He knows." In other words, by knowing their likenesses within Him, their efficient and exemplary cause, God knows the acts of existence which creatures have outside Him.
The paper also clears up, for me at least, how St. Thomas's teaching avoids fatalism:
...Aquinas would insist that, in the case of free agents, God's causality does not "squeeze out" contingency from their free choice acts since God causes these agents to determine for themselves their objects of choice. Acting on the level of being, what the divine causality does cause, as its proper effect, is the actual existence of the free choice act. In causing (as First Cause) the choice act to be actual, He moves the free agent to its act in a manner consonant with the nature of the agent, viz., freely.
I'd accepted before the idea that God can cause an act to be freely chosen, but not really understood how:
In the case of a free choice act, it is the free agent which determines itself to one particular good (real or apparent) as opposed to another, and God moves it to this determination in accordance with His eternal decree to give existence to this act.
The idea, as I now understand it, is that God is the cause of a person's freely chosen act in a way "parallel," so to speak, with the way the person is the cause. It's not that God causes me to freely choose choice A, like a cue ball knocks the nine ball into the two ball to sink the two. Rather, God causes the act of my being free to choose to exist, then causes the act of my freely choosing A to exist, then causes the acts consequent to my freely choosing A to exist. It's a chain of causality distinct from the natural one we (and, I think, Aristotle) normally think of when thinking of cause and effect.

The paper concludes:
Admittedly, there is an apparent contradiction in saying that God moves the free agent to its act of choice and yet it is a free act on the agent's part. However, the divine concurrence does not determine the agent to choose this good as opposed to that, as though the finite agent were not itself responsible for its choice; rather, in moving the agent to its choice act, it confers the actuality of being upon it in accordance with the free determination of the secondary cause. Some claim that there is mystery here rather than logic, but this ought not to be surprising since it involves God's co-causality of His creatures' actions, including those of His free creatures. Truly without Him we can do nothing (not even sin).
"Some claim there is mystery here, but this ought not to be surprising." My sentiments exactly.


Does God change His mind?


Rob comments:
I wish I had a nickel for every time Yahweh utters the word "forever" in the OT in making some promise the particulars of which turn out to be very much temporary. Either Yahweh can't see the future, or Yahweh frequently changes his mind, based on humans acts. It would seem that Yahweh is neither omniscient nor unchanging.
First, "forever" appears 258 times in the NIV translation of the Old Testament, so if you did have a nickel for every time Yahweh utters it in a particular context, you could have a nice lunch but not a bottle of wine with it.

More to the point, the Old Testament was not written by philosophers. And more importantly, it was not written to philosophers. The idea of God as unchanging is not only misunderstood by a lot of people (including a lot of Catholics, despite their professing a faith which holds that God is unchanging), it is regarded as a positive assault on their faith.

For practical purposes, then, we can get away with saying formally untrue things like "My sins sadden God" or "God responded to my prayer."

Getting back to the Old Testament, it was written from the perspective of Israel, not of God or some disinterested third party. From the perspective of Israel, when Israel flourishes God is rewarding His people; when Israel is led away captive, God is turning His back on them. When Israel is faithful, God seems happy; when Israel is faithless, God seems angry.

Does that mean Israel's faithfulness makes God happy, or her faithlessness makes Him unhappy? No. God's love is unchanging. It is Israel that changes, and when you change your experience of God's unchanging love changes.

The analogy I like is from St. John Fisher. Sunlight is warm and cheery when you're healthy, harsh and bitter when you're sick. Imagine waking up to the sun on your face after a good night's sleep, then to the same sun after a hard night's drinking.

I'm not arguing here that "God and His love are unchanging" is true. I only mean to show that pointing to examples in the Old Testament of the LORD growing angry or changing His mind do not prove it isn't true.


Thursday, December 04, 2003

What is the best attested color of the sky on your planet?

Video meliora, proboque; Deteriora sequor offers a fifty-year-old passage that strikes a chord of sympathy with me:
In my world we say, ‘The first world-war took place in 1914–1918.’ In that world they say, ‘The world-war narrative took shape in the third decade of the twentieth century.’
In my own limited exposure to the world of Bible critics, I haven't sensed much in the way of a thirst for discovering and sharing truth. Especially the sharing part. I haven't heard a lot of, "Hey, everybody! What about this?", but a fair amount of, "Those of us no longer living in the Dark Ages are mature enough to accept this."

Of course, I'm on the down-wind side of what is fundamentally an academic exercise, and academics do run the risk of coming across as pedantic rather than enthusiastic, especially when faced with those who, rightly or wrongly, do not accept the current academic orthodoxies.

But I still have this nagging suspicion that Scripture scholars have a dirty little secret they don't want you to know, to wit: They're just making stuff up.

I mean, sure, they know a whole lot more about what they're making stuff up from than I do, and a whole lot more than Scripture scholars knew in years and centuries past. But their methodologies are, of necessity, made up -- which is not to say arbitrary or unreasonable -- and their conclusions are, in layman's terms, guesses.

Anybody who thinks guesses have no role in understanding Scripture hasn't spent much time reading the Church Fathers, but the words "I am therefore guessing that" have a way of fading away as what's being guessed passes from academia through media and pulpit to the Christian faithful.

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What ho, marjoram!

I got my buttons yesterday.

The writing says (I'm told) "Merry Christmas" in Korean. The Institute for Religion and Democracy (an "ecumenical alliance of U.S. Christians," principally Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian) is distributing them (at one dollar each) as a way to raise awareness of the plight of Christians in North Korea:
Christians continue to be a particular target of the Kim Jong Il regime. When they are discovered, they are executed or sent to prison camp, along with up to four generations of their families. In the prison camps, Christians are constantly pressured to renounce their faith even as they are literally worked to death. Forced to do particularly dangerous work, they are subject to frequent torture and abuse. They are starved to death, as well.
The IRD suggests wearing these buttons is a good way to counter the "the holiday that dare not speak its name" trend in the United States. That may be, but of course their major point isn't about social pressure in America; it's about the execution and imprisonment of Christians in North Korea.

When we read about the various fatheads around the country who won't let Nativity scenes be set up on public property, before we cry, "Help! Help! I'm being oppressed!," perhaps we should say a brief prayer for the North Koreans who are being killed for their Christianity practiced in secret.


Wednesday, December 03, 2003

If anyone is unwilling to work, skip this post

Let me pull some stuff on 2 Thessalonians 3:10 up from the comments.

In one comment thread, I'd written, "Satisfaction of the physical needs of the body is due to everyone," to which Mary replied, "This of course contradicts scripture, which lays down in black and white what those who don't work should also not do."

This led to my post on the verse in question, which Mary did not find very convincing.

In a comment in the original thread, she wrote:
There are people, Paul writes, who are not entitled to food. Therefore, food, the most basic physical need, is not due to everyone. One person would suffice to demonstrate that.
Just as a reminder, what St. Paul wrote can be translated as:
In fact, when we were with you, we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat.
I've already argued that this is not a general economic principle. It is rather a rule imposed by St. Paul on the Christians of Thessalonica, that they might understand the dogma of Christ's Second Coming was no excuse for them to quit working and become idle. He reminds the Thessalonians of this rule in his letter because some had fallen into false belief about how soon they might expect the Parousia. I suspect the rule as originally given also served to keep the Christians from falling into the various vices and disorders of the idle. The preaching of the Gospel would have been ill-served if the Christians had given scandal to the pagans.

So, does this rule imply, as Mary says, that satisfaction of the physical needs of the body is not due to everyone?

I don't think it follows, at least not in the way I think Mary intends.

First, notice that v. 10 is really directed at the ones unwilling to work. St. Paul is telling them, "There is nothing in the Gospel that says you should be eating if you aren't working." He is not, I'd say, telling those who do work to prevent the non-workers from eating, nor is he laying down a moral principle that it is immoral for a non-worker to eat.

He does instruct the Thessalonians "to shun any brother who conducts himself in a disorderly way" (v. 6). In conjunction with v. 10, he is requiring a very specific act. It is not the refusal of food to someone who will die if he is not fed. It is the refusal of food to someone who is presuming upon the hospitality of another due to a false or imperfect understanding of the Gospel.

This refusal of hospitality does not imply that the physical needs of the one refused is not due him at all. It does imply that a meal is not due him from another Christian, but that is a relatively mild implication compared to the one Mary proposes. It is downright insipid compared to the further implication I can't help but think she wants to draw from this half a verse, that if an able-bodied person won't work, the state should let him starve to death.

In my post, I wrote:
That doesn't mean it's not true that whoever will not work should not eat, but it can't be proven from this verse.

And if you do want to prove it from Scripture, you need to deal with such verses as, "Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow."
Mary commented on this:
How does your exegesis on Thessalonians manage to evade this? Your analysis is that it is "deny food to heretics" not "deny food to sluggards." But since "heretics" is not a null set, there is no logic difference between it and "sluggards" when considering "He who does not work shall not eat" and this verse.
I take commandments like "Give to the one who asks of you" to be based on the second great commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself. In other words, giving to the one who asks of you is a matter of charity.

It may so happen, however, that not giving to a particular one who asks a particular thing of you would be more charitable than giving one it. Shunning the disorderly can be a way of instructing the ignorant; you do a person no favors by feeding him if that act confirms him in his error. It may also so happen that there are two competing and irreconcilable claims on your charity -- the non-worker seeking a meal and the local church seeking peace and order -- in which case you act on behalf of the stronger claim.

These things that "may so happen" depend on the circumstances. Among the circumstances of one who will not work asking me for a meal is the reason the one who will not work won't work. If two non-workers have different reasons for not working, I might wind up feeding one but not the other, yet still acting with as much charity as the circumstances allow toward each.

As I wrote, though, this is a matter of charity. It becomes a matter of justice when the person will not survive without my assistance. Then my surplus becomes his property by right, or so the Church teaches.


The problem with problems

Q. You're an Army captain. With you are two men: a sergeant and a private. You are all exactly 6' tall. There is a flag pole 30' tall, and you have one piece of rope, which is 12' long. How do you get a 2'x3.8' flag to the top of the pole?

A. You say, "Sergeant, put this flag at the top of that pole."

I suspect there's at least a touch of positivism in all of us. It's one of the follies of our age.

I think it comes out in the attempt to understand every situation challenging us as a problem to be solved. In fact, not just a problem to be solved, but a problem that can be solved.

The lack of peace in our world, for example, is certainly a situation challenging us. We think of it in terms of problems: "How can we optimize the Israeli-Palestinian sociopolitical situation to minimize the death and destruction?" But...what if lack of world peace isn't really a problem?

Consider poverty. Surely that's a challenging situation that is also a problem. There are even any number of proposed solutions (often involving Party A proposing to give Party B's money to Party C).

And yet we know that the poor will always be with us.

So what to do?

Here's a hint. When the Pope speaks of praying for peace, it's not boilerplate piety sugarcoating practical recommendations. It is the practical recommendation.

That's not to say we can or should do nothing about these situations. Indeed, we should do what we can. But we shouldn't necessarily expect to succeed.

It's also important to recognize that, even if a situation is a problem, it is not necessarily solvable. The lack of any moral solution does not make an immoral solution acceptable.

Christians in particular are apt to mischaracterize a mystery as a problem. God's Revelation is not a code to be deciphered; whatever fits inside my head is finite, and if Revelation is anything, it's not finite. The "depths" of Scriputre is a very apt metaphor; a lake may have a finite surface area, as Scripture has a finite number of words, but that doesn't mean the lake's volume (or the revelation in Scripture) is finite.

So when we speak of "the problem of evil" or "the problem of particularity," we are using "problem" improperly. Evil and particularity are not problems to be solved, they are mysteries to be entered.

There are of course problems in theology, for example, "What does Scripture say about free will?" But the solutions to these problems may well be mysteries, and we need to be prepared to recognize and accept mysteries where they are to be found.

(A failure to accept mystery is, to my mind, one of the primary errors of Open Theism, which seems quite proud of the fact of resolving the "problem" of free will by stripping God of His perfection.)


Believe it or not

What's your take on these two statements?
  1. I had oatmeal for breakfast this morning.
  2. Properly speaking, almost no one reading this believes that I had oatmeal for breakfast this morning.
I know the first statement is true. I am of the opinion the second statement is true -- at least if Josef Pieper is right about what belief is, properly speaking.

[Having been bullied by Kevin Miller into seeking out Pieper's Faith, Hope, Charity, and tricked by Steven Riddle into meeting him in a Catholic bookstore that carried that book, I have now read the first section (it's about "faith") and will proceed to disgorge on this blog such aspects of its contents as have made their way into me. Oh, and don't miss Athanasius's coincident magnum opus on the same topic.]

In Pieper's view, "belief" or "faith" (Glaube, in Pieper's original German) is a little more than "sharing in the knowledge of another." For one thing, it implies certainty. If you truly believe me when I say I had oatmeal for breakfast, then you are as certain about what I had for breakfast as you are about what you had. I'd guess some reading this do not have that level of certainty regarding what I had for breakfast, and so don't really believe me. (Perhaps instead they "accept for practical purposes" that I had oatmeal, which is easy to do since there aren't any practical purposes.)

Furthermore, the primary meaning of belief refers to a person, not a thing. You believe me; the intellectual content of the knowledge I share with you is a secondary thing. Usages like, "I believe I just saw a yellow-bellied sapsucker," are, for Pieper, "improper," meaning they don't reflect any unique meaning of "believe." His method for identifying improper usage is to see whether another word could be used in its place; e.g., "I think I just saw a yellow-bellied sapsucker." Properly speaking, you can't believe you saw something, because there's no other whose knowledge you're sharing.

The last, and strictest, pf Pieper's conditions for belief is that the certainty with which one believes must rest entirely in the person whose knowledge is shared. If, after reading my statement about having oatmeal for breakfast, you considered the reasonableness of someone like me eating something like oatmeal for something like breakfast, perhaps also folding in the time of year and the weather in my part of the world and the lack of apparent benefit to myself of lying about it, and concluded that, apart from any trustworthiness you might assign to me, it could well be true that I had oatmeal for breakfast this morning, then you don't really believe me so much as accept what I've said as conditionally true.

The thing about this last condition is that it makes it all but impossible for one person to believe another person. Your belief is a sharing in my knowledge, not an admixture of common knowledge with an added dash of something I said that affects various odds.

In fact, Pieper goes as far as to suggest there's something inhuman about believing another human in the proper sense. If I told you I had unicorn for breakfast, and you believed me, there would be nothing praiseworthy in that belief.

I think there's something to be said about believing (in the proper sense) someone you love, but I'd agree the vast majority of human relationships do not call for such belief.

Okay, so all this is according to Pieper. Who says Pieper is the authority on what belief means? Heck, he wrote in a language that uses the same word for "belief" and "faith."

The real question, though, isn't about dictionary definitions, but whether the concept Pieper has described has any relevance, in particular relevance to man as a religious being. I think the answer is clearly yes. His concept of belief --which, when attached to another human, is inhuman -- becomes, when attached to God, necessary for the fulfillment of our humanity.


Tuesday, December 02, 2003

A very unpopular post

There's one last distinction about blessings: What it means to say, "I am blessed."

Sometimes, "blessed" is the past participle of the verb "to bless," in which case "am blessed" is a statement using the simple present passive voice. The implied meaning is, "I am blessed by God," or "God [has] blessed me."

Note: To this point, how have you been pronouncing "blessed" to yourself? As "blest," or as "bless-ed"?

But sometimes, "blessed" is an entirely different word. Sometimes it's an adjective rather than an inflected verb, in which case it means "fortunate" or "happy indeed." Think of "the Blessed Virgin Mary," or, "Blessed are you who mourn," which is sometimes translated as "Happy are you who mourn." To be "happy indeed," for a Christian, is to be saved, and so we speak of the blessed saints in heaven.

English fails to distinguish between these two ideas -- being the object of an act of blessing and being in a state of happiness -- to the impoverishment of English speakers. The Greek Scriptures had no such problem; eulogeo was the verb, and makarios the adjective. The distinction was preserved by St. Jerome, who used benedicare and beatus. (The English word "beatitude" is derived from beoare.)

If there are two different-but-similar ideas conveyed by homographs, how do we know which is intended? The context sometimes helps: In Scripture and liturgy, for example, God is almost always the object of an act of blessing by His creatures and almost never described as being in a state of happiness. "Blessed be God forever," then, is an invitation to bless God, not a statement that God will always be happy. (A look at the Latin confirms this: "Benedictus Deus in saecula.")

It's a bit trickier with human persons, though. Consider Elizabeth's greeting to Mary:
When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, "Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.... Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled."
If you check the Latin, you'll find that the blesseds are benedicta, benedictus, and beata, respectively. That is, "Most blessed are you among women" means "God has blessed you the most among women," while "Blessed are you who believe" means "Happy indeed are you who believe." (In Mary's response, the Magnificat, she says that all generations will call her happy indeed ("beatam").)

Okay, so you may go off and ruminate on what difference, if any, this distinction makes, but one question remains: How do you read the above passage aloud?

I'd bet many if not most Catholics would pronounce each "blessed" as "bless-ed." After all, isn't that how we pronounce the first two when we're reciting the "Hail Mary"?

But in the first two instances -- which is to say, in the "Hail Mary" -- "blessed" is a past participle of the verb "to bless." We don't say, "God bless-ed me with good health." Why do we say, "Bless-ed are you among women"?

I don't know, but I suspect it's due to confusion with the adjective "blessed," pronounced "bless-ed." If you can think of another English verb ending in "ss" whose past participle is pronounced with an "-ed" sound, please leave a note.

It's a minor point, I suppose, but most priests and congregations also mispronounce the "Blessed are You, God of all creation..."/"Blessed be God forever," saying "bless-ed" for a word that should to be pronounced "blest."

"Should" can be a strong word to use regarding language, but I think it's justified here. If we did pronounce the past participle as "blest" and the adjective as "bless-ed," we would have the eulogeo/makarios distinction in spoken English, at least, which might help us make the distinction in written English as well.

Not that it will ever happen.


He blesses

What does it mean when I [ask God to] bless you?

God's blessing of a person is usually perceived, not so much as a consecration, but by a more or less identifiable good in the person's life. When we "count our blessings," we include such things as children, good health, freedom from material want, and so forth.

The Catechism puts it this way:
From the beginning until the end of time the whole of God's work is a blessing. From the liturgical poem of the first creation to the canticles of the heavenly Jerusalem, the inspired authors proclaim the plan of salvation as one vast divine blessing.
If the whole of God's work is a blessing, so in particular are those "blessings in digsuise" He sends us, gifts we would just as soon refuse if we had the chance. (There's a tangentially-related discussion at Flos Carmeli on God bringing forth good from evil.)

A suppler mind than mine would be able to show how the two meanings of God's blessing -- making holy and distributing grace -- are two aspects of the same thing: how God's goodness overflows into His creation.


I bless, you bless, he she it blesses

The other day, I wrote:
... there are two meanings of "to bless": a "downward" act, in which God blesses His creatures; and an "upward" act, in which creatures bless their God.
"God blesses His creatures" and "creatures bless their God" aren't the two meanings themselves, but the two usages that reflect the meanings.

So what does it actually mean to bless someone, or something, or God?

Well, what happens when a priest blesses water? It becomes holy water.

To bless something -- more precisely, to ask God to bless something, as the priest does when reciting the blessing of holy water -- is to make it holy, to consecrate it to God that it may be used according to His will.

When we bless God, we obviously aren't making Him holy or consecrating Him to Himself. Rather, we are acknowledging His holiness. In the words of the Catechism, "When applied to man, the word 'blessing' means adoration and surrender to his Creator in thanksgiving."


Monday, December 01, 2003

Busybodies and food

As you probably know, if perhaps not by chapter and verse, in 2 Thessalonians St. Paul wrote:
In fact, when we were with you, we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat. [2 Thes. 3:10]
Some want to claim this as a general economic principle, in particular using it as a basis for welfare programs.

This strikes me as a misreading of the passage.

2 Thessalonians is a very brief letter, written to a well-established church ("we ourselves boast of you in the churches of God" [1:4]) in large part to counter some errors that had emerged since St. Paul was last there:
We ask you, brothers, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling with him, not to be shaken out of your minds suddenly, or to be alarmed either by a "spirit," or by an oral statement, or by a letter allegedly from us to the effect that the day of the Lord is at hand. [2:1-2]
In the verses immediately prior to 3:10, St. Paul reminds the Thessalonian church of what he taught them, by word and by example:
We instruct you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to shun any brother who conducts himself in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us. For you know how one must imitate us. For we did not act in a disorderly way among you, nor did we eat food received free from anyone. On the contrary, in toil and drudgery, night and day we worked, so as not to burden any of you. Not that we do not have the right. Rather, we wanted to present ourselves as a model for you, so that you might imitate us. [3:6-9]
When St. Paul writes "whoever will not work should not eat," he is not enunciating a general moral principle, but a specific means of correcting those in error. The non-working Thessalonians he has in mind are not shirkers looking to grift a meal, but Christians led astray by the false teaching that Jesus' return is imminent, and therefore existing food supplies will suffice. By refusing to feed them, the faithful Christians of Thessalonia would be performing a corrective act of mercy.

It's not laziness St. Paul is concerned with in this letter, but heterodoxy.

That doesn't mean it's not true that whoever will not work should not eat, but it can't be proven from this verse.

And if you do want to prove it from Scripture, you need to deal with such verses as, "Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow."


A great adventure

1. Yes, the contrast between the colors at the top of this page hurt my eyes, too. Offer it up; there's only 24 days left.

2. I assume you've seen the on-line Advent retreat offered by the Precious Blood Family and posted at The New Gasparian.

3. The Pope's Angelus speech on the First Sunday of Advent has a few words we might ponder:
Christ is coming, the Prince of peace! To prepare for his Nativity means to reawaken in ourselves and in the world the hope for peace. First of all, peace in hearts, which is built by putting down the weapons of rancor, of revenge and of every form of egoism.
Forswearing rancor, revenge, and every form of egoism? What does the Pope think this is, Lent?


God's future?

Father Tom of Waiting in Joyful Hope is, alas, inclining away from traditional Christian theology:
On an intellectual level, in my own take on things, I am currently grappling with the question: does God know actual future events, or only all possible potential future events? Most traditional theology would argue the former, but in all honesty I am not so sure....

Traditional doctrine on God holds that God cannot create logically contradictory things (he cannot make 2+2=5, for example), without this reducing his omnipotence. Is there not a parallel also for omniscience? By definition, future being is potential, because the passage of time is that passage from potential to actual. To speak of "actual future being" when all future being is, by definition, potential, seems to be a logical violation. To deny that God knows "actual future being" is no more destructive to God's omniscience, then, than my previous example is to God's omnipotence....

If God in fact does not know "actual future being" (in the strict sense) this solves a lot of problems, most notably the predestination problem (i.e. if God knows the future are we really free?). It gives a lot more room for human free will, and raises interesting speculations regarding the exercise of the divine free will in time. In other words, maybe certain exercises of God's will do depend on the choices we (and the angels & demons) make.
He is harkening to the same siren song of "solving a lot of problems" that has lured the Open Theologians to their doom (in terms of doing good theology, I mean).

Father Tom's specific argument is that, since actual future being does not exist, it is not a limitation of God's knowledge to say God doesn't know actual future being, any more than it is a limitation of God's omnipotence to say He can't make 2+2=5. But potential future being doesn't exist, either, yet God knows that. If God knows the latter but not the former, that suggests that God's knowledge is of a kind similar to ours, only much better. He knows every possible future being in the way a superhuman intelligence might know every possible chess game. To say God's is a superhuman intelligence, though, is to place His intelligence and ours in the same order of being, which is to make God ... well, a super-human.

Simply put, the error of thinking that God does not know "actual future being" is based on the error that there is a future relative to God. For there to be a future, there must be time, and for there to be time, there must be things that change, and God is changeless. God is also simple, so He can't have somehow split off His knowledge to be bound by time "when" He created the world.

Frankly, I'll take the "problem" of predestination (which is actually a mystery) over the problem of a God with limited knowledge any day. (The problem of a God who doesn't know actual future being gets much worse: What can hope possibly mean when God Himself doesn't know what my future holds? Etc.)

Here's a method I think is generally sound for evaluating a theological claim: If it makes God more like us, it's false.


At the Name of Jesus

The custom of bowing the head when the Holy Name of Jesus is spoken derives, of course, from Philippians 2:5-11:
Christ Jesus... though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave... he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.

Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
But come, we are practical people. Let us leave poetry to the poets and ask, "What, as a practical matter, is going to make every knee bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth?"

There are plenty of stubborn people, most likely no shortage of reprobates, and at the least a devil. They aren't going to go around bending their knees at the Name of Jesus through an excess of piety. Will God simply force them to kneel, the way an owner forces a cat to swallow a pill?

That strikes me as unlikely. I think, rather, that St. Paul is referring to a time, or shall we say to eternity, when the mystery of Christ's sacrifice will be unveiled. Now we know what the mystery is, to a certain extent, and we believe it; then we will see it. And in seeing it, its perfect goodness will be undeniable, even to the wicked. To the extent they preserve their natures, they will have no choice but to acknowledge the good they perceive.

In this way, perhaps, the intuition of the saints who said they would be willing to be damned, that God may be praised even in hell, may be satisfied.


Every knee shall bend

I gave a somewhat mechanical reply to a comment below about bowing your head when the Holy Name of Jesus is spoken during Mass:
Now, the bow during the Creed is, of course, profound (i.e., from the waist); at the Holy Name of Jesus (etc.), it's just a bow of the head. It need hardly be noticeable.

It's not that hard to keep track of head bow cues, apart from the readings. The liturgy is surprisingly sparing in its use of the Name of Jesus.
Mechanics are all well and good; I happen to think the body can train the soul to a certain extent.

However, the point of reverencing the Holy Name is not to bow the head well, but to acknowledge and deepen the relationship between the saved and the Savior, the adopted child and the Begotten Son, the least in the Kingdom and the King (casting our minds back to the Feast of Christ the King and all that was said about the differences between the Divine King and human kings).

An occasional Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus might help develop the virtue, rather than simple reflex, of reverencing the Holy Name.

Bl. John of Vercelli, pray for us.


The end of human law

If I were looking for an extended discussion on economics and government, I wouldn't look here first, since everything I know about economics I could have learned from Ebay; but last week's post on distributism has more than a hundred comments (from, admittedly, far fewer than a hundred commenters).

I don't have many opinions about specific government economic policies, and any I may have aren't worth sharing. I'll just mention that I am persuaded by St. Thomas that, ideally, "every law is ordained to the common good." He goes on to refer to St. Isidore of Seville:
Now the end of human law is to be useful to man, as the jurist states. Wherefore Isidore in determining the nature of law, lays down, at first, three conditions; viz. that it "foster religion," inasmuch as it is proportionate to the Divine law; that it be "helpful to discipline," inasmuch as it is proportionate to the nature law; and that it "further the common weal," inasmuch as it is proportionate to the utility of mankind.
I would distinguish between fostering religion and imposing religion. A state may be a Christian state, officially or otherwise, but none is a Christian person, directing its citizens as its hands and feet to act virtuously.

The concern of the state is justice, not charity. Laws based on Gospel calls to perfect charity are not necessarily good laws simply because they're based on the Gospel. There are even aspects of justice -- particularly between family members -- that human laws cannot regulate without damaging the common good.

Or so it seems to me.

Post-script: Zenit has a news analysis piece called, "Capitalism with a Conscience" that may have something to contribute to the discussion.