instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

More graph theo[log/r]y

Here is another (3D!) model of thinking with assent as the act of faith:

According to this model, faith increases when both thinking and assent increase; it decreases when either thinking or assent decreases; and it remains the same when only one of the two increases.

In other words, if you do a lot more thinking than assenting, the level of your faith is indicated by the level of your assent; if you assent more than you think, your faith is proportional to your thinking.

Thus the whole dark blue region is "little faith," and faith increases up to the red region, which is "great faith."

We might use this model to illustrate the story of Peter walking on the water:
  1. "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." The strangeness of this statement can pass us by in the whole drama of the story, but I'd say it was spoken in a moment when Peter was not engaged in top quality thinking. Still, he seems ready to do whatever Jesus might tell him, so I'd plot this at about an assent of 7 and a thinking of 3, in the lower right light blue.
  2. Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. If you're walking on the water toward Jesus, they can say what they like about you, but you're acting in great faith. This gets plotted up in the orange.
  3. But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Suddenly, Peter is doing way too much thinking and way too little assenting. Dark blue, upper left.
"O you of little faith, why did you doubt?"

There's something sort of Sisyphean about this plot, or at least about plotting Peter's actions on it. We want to keep pushing up toward the red, but if we push too hard in one direction, we might wind up rolling down the opposite slope. Of course, the solution is for us to only push when Christ is pulling.

"Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief."


Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The two-part act of faith, part two

It is St. Thomas's way to speak of mysteries in terms of distinctions, universal notions, the intellectual faculty, and so forth. It is Fr. Farrell's way to speak of mysteries in terms of how a man reads the morning paper. It is Disputations's way to speak of mysteries by taking things a bit too literally and turning them into poorly-rendered graphs.

If, then, we accept that the act of faith is thinking with assent, we might construct a "faith plot," with one axis representing an increase in thinking and the other an increase in assent:

The four corners of the plot represent four extreme states one can be in with respect to faith -- and to this point, it can be faith in pretty much anything.

What the diagram as rendered suggests is that if you get too far from the diagonal in any direction, you're no longer talking about an act of faith. A little thinking with a little assent produces a little faith, but adding a lot more assent doesn't preserve or add to that little faith, it converts it to zealotry. It's sort of like cooking, where mixing two ingredients in different proportions yields completely different results.


The two-part act of faith, part one

To believe, St. Augustine tells us, is to think with assent.

St. Thomas unpacks this definition somewhat, explaining that the kind of thinking involved in belief is what happens when you're deliberating over the truth of something but have not yet reached the "certitude of sight."

As the act of faith, belief is an action, a movement of the mind toward certitude. What makes belief a unique action of the mind is that it is a deliberation toward an answer we already assent to. Fr. Walter Farrell, OP, puts it this way:
It is, of course, paradoxical that our intellect should be restless, pondering, in the face of a truth, yet at the same time assent to that truth firmly. Actually this definition brings out the full nature of the act of faith. We do not suspect this truth, as a man might suspect the presence of burglars from the uneasiness of his dog; we are not doubting it; we have not merely an opinion of it, such as we might gather from the hasty accounts in a morning newspaper; we do not see it clearly, as we might the results of a scientific experiment. We believe it. And we thereby produce an act distinct from all other acts of the mind.


Friday, December 23, 2005

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

In the Library, AD 1385


The Ah Antiphons

Everyone knows about the "O Antiphons," the antiphons for the Magnificat at Vespers from the 17th through the 23rd of December. Several bloggers are posting all week on them.

Okay, but what about the other antiphons, for the Benedictus at Lauds for the 17th through the 23rd of December? Are they chopped liver?

Currently, in the United States, these are they:
December 17: Believe me, the kingdom of God is at hand; I tell you solemnly, your Savior will not delay his coming.

December 18: Let everything within you watch and wait, for the Lord our God draws near.

December 19: Like the sun in the morning sky, the Savior of the world will dawn; like rain on the meadows he will descend to rest in the womb of the Virgin, alleluia.

December 20: The angel Gabriel was sent to the Virgin Mary, who was engaged to be married to Joseph.

December 21: There is no need to be afraid; in five days our Lord will come to us.

December 22: The moment that your greeting reached my ears, the child within my womb leapt for joy.

December 23: All that God promised to the virgin through the message of the angel has been accomplished.
And a special bonus antiphon:
December 24: The time has come for Mary to give birth to her first-born Son.
Okay, not quite up to the evenings' antiphonæ majores, and a bit uneven taken in their own right (December 20th's, however fruitful for meditation, is a bit of a come-down poetically). But it does mark the progression as Advent accelerates into Christmas.


Monday, December 19, 2005

For the Man who has everything

St. Luke recorded a broad hint Jesus dropped about what He'd like for Christmas:
"But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"
And since Christmas is a time to express the Christian faith in painfully lame trendy terms, let me add that Jesus is a committed re-gifter: He gives your faith right back to you, adorning graces both asked for and unexpected.

It's interesting to look at the results of a search for the word "faith" in the Gospels. Here's what I got from the Douay-Rheims Bible:
6:30 And if the grass of the field, which is today, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, God doth so clothe: how much more you, O ye of little faith?
8:10 And Jesus hearing this, marvelled; and said to them that followed him: Amen I say to you, I have not found so great faith in Israel.
8:26 And Jesus saith to them: Why are you fearful, O ye of little faith? Then rising up he commanded the winds, and the sea, and there came a great calm.
9:2 And behold they brought to him one sick of the palsy lying in a bed. And Jesus, seeing their faith, said to the man sick of the palsy: Be of good heart, son, thy sins are forgiven thee.
9:22 But Jesus turning and seeing her, said: Be of good heart, daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole. And the woman was made whole from that hour.
9:29 Then he touched their eyes, saying, According to your faith, be it done unto you.
14:31 And immediately Jesus stretching forth his hand took hold of him, and said to him: O thou of little faith, why didst thou doubt?
15:28 Then Jesus answering, said to her: O woman, great is thy faith: be it done to thee as thou wilt: and her daughter was cured from that hour.
16:8 And Jesus knowing it, said: Why do you think within yourselves, O ye of little faith, for that you have no bread?
17:19 Jesus said to them: Because of your unbelief. For, amen I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, Remove from hence hither, and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible to you.
21:21 And Jesus answering, said to them: Amen, I say to you, if you shall have faith, and stagger not, not only this of the fig tree shall you do, but also if you shall say to this mountain, Take up and cast thyself into the sea, it shall be done.
23:23 Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you tithe mint, and anise, and cummin, and have left the weightier things of the law; judgment, and mercy, and faith. These things you ought to have done, and not to leave those undone.

2:5 And when Jesus had seen their faith, he saith to the sick of the palsy: Son, thy sins are forgiven thee.
4:40 And he said to them: Why are you fearful? have you not faith yet? And they feared exceedingly: and they said one to another: Who is this (thinkest thou) that both wind and sea obey him?
5:34 And he said to her: Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole: go in peace, and be thou whole of thy disease.
10:52 And Jesus saith to him: Go thy way, thy faith hath made thee whole. And immediately he saw, and followed him in the way.
11:22 And Jesus answering, saith to them: Have the faith of God.

5:20 Whose faith when he saw, he said: Man, thy sins are forgiven thee.
7:9 Which Jesus hearing, marvelled: and turning about to the multitude that followed him, he said: Amen I say to you, I have not found so great faith, not even in Israel.
7:50 And he said to the woman: Thy faith hath made thee safe, go in peace.
8:25 And he said to them: Where is your faith? Who being afraid, wondered, saying one to another: Who is this, (think you), that he commandeth both the winds and the sea, and they obey him?
8:48 But he said to her: Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole; go thy way in peace.
12:28 Now if God clothe in this manner the grass that is today in the field, and tomorrow is cast into the oven; how much more you, O ye of little faith?
17:5 And the apostles said to the Lord: Increase our faith.
17:6 And the Lord said: If you had faith like to a grain of mustard seed, you might say to this mulberry tree, Be thou rooted up, and be thou transplanted into the sea: and it would obey you.
17:19 And he said to him: Arise, go thy way; for thy faith hath made thee whole.
18:8 I say to you, that he will quickly revenge them. But yet the Son of man, when he cometh, shall he find, think you, faith on earth?
18:42 And Jesus said to him: Receive thy sight: thy faith hath made thee whole.
22:32 But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren.
A few half-baked observations:
  • In almost every instance, it is Jesus who is speaking of faith. Each synoptic refers once to the faith of the men who lowered the paralytic through the roof (Mt. 9:2, Mk 2.5, Lk. 5:20), and the Apostles do ask that their faith be increased (Lk 17:5). Otherwise, though, it is Jesus who brings up the subject.
  • When He does bring up the subject of faith, it is generally in one of two contexts: "O ye of little faith," usually directed at the men who have given up all they have to follow Him; and "Thy faith hath made thee whole," usually spoken to someone in extremis who has come to Him in a last ditch attempt at being healed. There's something very "God's ways are not man's ways" about great faith being linked to great hope, not great expectations.
  • The absence of any verses from John is surprising, but seems to be an artifact of the translation. For example, the NIV returns seven hits for "faith" in that Gospel, all but one variants of people who "put their faith in" Jesus. The Douay-Rheims seems to prefer "believed in." This may be some sort of hidden indicator (the KJV is also stingier with the word "faith" than the NIV), but if so I have no idea of what.


Sunday, December 18, 2005

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Friday, December 16, 2005

Closer to home

Well, my home, anyway. I have no idea where you live.

Christmas for the Kids of Katrina is a program of the Diocese of Biloxi. It isn't too late. I get the sense it won't be too late this time next year.


Discount livestock

You have probably heard of Heifer International, an organization that provides livestock to needy families throughout the world. Donors indicate which animal their donation should provide, and Heifer International does the rest. Smaller donations buy a "share" of an animal.

It's a brilliant idea, I think, though I've always been a touch concerned about the glossy full color brochures they send. (20% of their expenses go toward fundraising, which isn't outrageous but isn't outstanding.)

For the person who has everything, a goat donated in their name makes a great gift.

Now, though, I see that Food for the Poor is in on this game, too. For what it's worth, their livestock is generally less expensive than Heifer International (best deal: three little pigs for $100). And how cool is this:
Food For The Poor develops tilapia fish ponds in Central America, where droughts in the past have hit the poor the hardest. A fish pond can help feed a village, and surplus fish can be sold to sustain the project. Give the gift that will help end hunger… the gift of a tilapia pond.
A 5,000 square foot tilapia pond, for the low low price of $6,500. (If you prefer to give fish a fighting chance, you can buy a fishing boat for a Jamaican village for $5,750, a sum that would also feed 213 Haitian children for a year.)

And a scant 4% of Food for the Poor's expenses covers its fundraising and management.

Now, I have no idea how well either of these organizations do anything, much less how well their livestock programs actually work. But there's something very human about helping others in such concrete, if indirect, ways, something that the impersonal check to "wherever the need is greatest" doesn't quite offer.


Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Return to Narnia

My apologies for wandering from the subject of Narnia for a couple of posts.

I saw the movie over the weekend. It met my expectations, but didn't exceed them, maybe because what with reading the books and watching the BBC versions with my children and blogging about it I've been over-Narniaed over the past few months.

For Narniaphiles, I don't think there's much to object to, in terms of adaptation, that rises above the level of quibble. I'd say the major quibble is that it turns a fairy tale into a Hollywood movie (not surprising, I suppose, given the director's resume). The Witch is greater and Aslan is lesser than in the book, creating more of a balance than is really required for fairy tales. The opening scenes also weaken the overall air of Faerie; Narnia seems much smaller than England, when in the book the Professor's house is a small and isolated outcrop of this world attached to the sprawling country inside the wardrobe.

If you haven't seen the movie yet, here's a condensed version of the screenplay:
LUCY: Ooh, look! A faun!

EDMUND: This lady makes me feel all funny inside.

LUCY: What have they done with my pet faun?

PETER: We have to go home.

EDMUND: I think, for no particular reason, I’m going to go for a walk in the snow.

LUCY: Ooh, look! A lion!

PETER: We have to go home.

SUSAN: I wish my presence in this movie served some purpose.

LUCY: What have they done with my pet lion?

PETER: We have to go home.

LUCY: Yay! I got my pet lion back!

PETER: Let’s fight! Retreat! Retreat!

LUCY: Yay! I got my pet faun back!

SUSAN: At least I got to kill something.

PETER: We have to go home.

ASLAN: Narnia is now restored to an Edenic paradise which is yours to rule.

PETER: I suppose we can stay. But just for fifteen or twenty years.
There's some hope the forthcoming DVD will have new or expanded scenes to help fill out some of the motivations and characterizations the theatrical release left out.


In the black

Forget Peter's Pence. If the Vatican wants to make pots o' money, they should develop a distance-learning version of this.


There has been none greater

The homilist this past Sunday spent some time talking about the humility of John the Baptist, who denied being the Messiah, Elijah, and the Prophet. I would have said his denials were more a sign of truthfulness than humility. Then again, maybe truthfulness is itself a sign of humility, a recognition that what I wish doesn't trump what actually is.

In any case, the thought occurs that the greatest act of humility St. John ever performed was to submit to his death. Consider: He is the herald of the Messiah, the kinsman and precursor of the Christ, the fulfillment of prophecy whose conception was announced by an angel; no man born of woman is greater than he; people of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem went out to him and were baptized; his protestations notwithstanding, he is Elijah; it was through his ministry that Jesus' own ministry began. The Gospel (in Mark's case, literally) begins with his preaching.

And his death? Could it be any more miserable, ordered by a shabbier man for a more shameful reason, plotted by a more wretched woman out of a pettier anger at the denunciation of a more pathetic sin? What does the contravention of a minor law of pseudo-consanguinity by some barely Jewish Roman puppet have to do with preparing the way of the Lord?

Yet the words John preached weren't his own. He could no more refrain from condemning Herod for his sin than he could take credit for recognizing Jesus as the Lamb of God. To have lived to serve and listen to Jesus; what man could have ever wanted that more, for better reason? In humility, though, he baptized Him by Whom he should have been baptized, he spoke the words and followed the way God gave him, and he died for it far from his Lord, without even being able to complete the task of leading all his followers to Christ.


Monday, December 12, 2005

Aslan isn't Christ, pt. 3

Using the key, "Aslan is Christ," I am even less satisfied now with the implied theology behind Aslan's sacrifice for Edmund than I used to be.

If Aslan were intended to be merely a Christ-figure, it would be just what I think a lot of people take it to be: a fairy tale parallel to Christ's own sacrifice, with Edmund as fallen mankind.

As it is, though, hasn't Christ already died to save Edmund? What does it say about the Cross at Golgotha that it wasn't sufficient to save a particular human being?

In fact, Aslan's death saves, not Edmund's soul, but his natural life. I've already pointed out that Aslan's presence in Narnia has essentially no Trinitarian dimension, that his presence as an incarnate lion has no evident purpose. Now we have Aslan dying –- in a passage some Christians refer to with great reverence, almost as though it were truly about Christ -– merely to save a single life. Does Christ in the Gospel preach so great a concern for the death of the body?

Aslan's sacrifice on the Stone Table may be one of love ("no greater love hath a man than to lay down his life for his friends"), but it is an oddly narrow love for God to have, since there are uncounted numbers of creatures Aslan allows to die (including, a few years later, Edmund himself).

More than love, actually, Aslan's death has the character of utility. It's a means of destroying the Stone Table, which artistically is something of a gimmick anyway, and overthrowing the White Witch by fooling her into a bad bargain. And since both the trickiness of the bargain and the need to overthrow the White Witch were built into the Divine plan for Narnia, the whole thing seems awfully contrived.

Lewis's concern was to write a set of children's stories that suggest elements of the Christian faith, not to develop a rigorous and complete Aslanian faith perfectly consistent with Christianity. Hence Aslan offering his life for a traitor, then coming back to life and overthrowing a principle of evil. Hence too the scene at the end of The Silver Chair, in which we learn it is necessary for a thorn to be driven into Aslan's paw to restore King Caspian to life. We never learn why it is necessary, nor whether Aslan does this for each saved Narnian, nor is it clear whether Caspian is resurrected body and soul. It is enough for Lewis's purpose to suggest that, somehow, Aslan's blood painfully drawn (pain? in Aslan’s country?) brings eternal life. But that is not enough for the implied theology of the Chronicles of Narnia to either be wholly consistent with or to always meaningfully reflect Christian theology.

And this is more than enough for my purposes.


Aslan isn't Christ, pt. 2

Lewis also mangles the Incarnation. Aslan is not a lion like all lions in all things but sin. His lionhood is created ex nihilo prior to the creation of Narnia's world. (No wonder it’s never Christmas.)

Aslan is depicted as a true lion (albeit one with superpowers), but it isn't a union of the Divine nature with a particularly beloved created nature. Aslan does flatter a lion he de-statues at the White Witch's castle by referring to "us lions," but for the most part he's just not that into lionkind.

So why, in the logic of Narnia, did the Second Person of the Trinity become a lion? We know the true reason: Lewis thought, correctly, it would make an interesting and appealing story. But if the artistic reason is evident, and sound, the theological reason is absent. The lion of Judah, yes, and the king of beasts, and not a tame lion; that's good enough reason for a writer make him a lion rather than a gopher or an egret, but it doesn't really touch on why God would become anything at all. Functionally speaking, the purpose of Aslan's incarnation appears to be little more than to provide God with a lion-suit to go about meddling in Narnia's affairs.

Come now, you say, lion-suit? Indeed, I say, lion-suit. In addition to the lack of evident reason for an incarnation in the world of Narnia, there is Aslan's temporary appearance as a lamb at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which some see as a mark of Lewis's theological insight but I see as a sign he doesn't take the Incarnation quite seriously enough. And finally, in the last paragraph of The Last Battle, we have:
And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them.
Now, no doubt the things that begin to happen in heaven are too great and beautiful to be written, but if Aslan ceases to be a lion, then he never was a lion, which as I say is a mangling of the Incarnation.

It can be argued that I'm holding Lewis to an unreasonable standard, that there's no reason an incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity in some other world need be like His incarnation in ours. That may be true, as far as I know, but that leaves me wondering what the point of it is, then. If what happens in Narnia is radically different than what happened in real life, if Lewis does not intend his made up story to be one in which the Divine Nature is hypostatically joined to a created nature, then what did he intend? (Yes, a fairy tale. Then why do some insist that this fairy tale is perfectly sound theologically?)


Aslan isn't Christ, pt. 1

Let me briefly (or not) sketch some of the major theological difficulties C.S. Lewis created for himself in choosing to make Aslan, not merely a Christ-figure, but the very Person of Christ.

First, Who is Christ? He is the Word of God, the only begotten Son of the Father, the image of the invisible God. Christ can only be understood in His relation to the Father.

Jesus, when He was among us in the flesh, talked constantly of His Father. His first recorded words refer to His Father; He spoke to Him on the Cross; He spoke of Him the morning of His resurrection. The Son became man to reveal to us the Father's love -- and to reveal the Father Himself to those who did not know Him. All that Christ has is given Him by the Father, and He refers all glory back to the Father.

Can this be said of Aslan? Yes, he's the son of the Emperor Across the Sea. But he shows no particular interest in this fact. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I'm pretty sure he only mentions the Emperor in connection with the unthinkability of disobeying his father's law. In short, Aslan is in no sense the revelation of his father; if his presence (I've tendentiously called it meddling) in Narnia has anything to do with doing his father's will, he keeps it a complete secret.

Further to this failure to reflect the relationship between Divine persons, what price the Holy Spirit? If the existence of the Father is manifested in an off-hand and unserious way, as a remote giver of obscure laws, the existence of the Holy Spirit is kept (as I recall) a complete secret. Aslan reveals only Aslan; practically speaking, he is a Unitarian.


Friday, December 09, 2005

Strength and weakness

Mark Shea seems nonplussed at my opinion of Narnia, which in ten words is, "As a story, it's great. As speculative theology, it's weak."

In discussing the theology of the Chronicles of Narnia, I would start with the fundamental point that, contrary to what some say, Aslan is not a Christ-figure. In Lewis's stories, Aslan does not represent Christ, he is not an allegorization of the kingly and untame aspects of Christ that were downplayed in 1950's England.

Aslan is Christ. He is meant to be the identical Person Who became man and died for us, the very Word made flesh (albeit different flesh in a different world) we worship, the Son of God present on our altars.

From this free and conscious choice by Lewis, to make Aslan Christ rather than Christ-like, it follows that Lewis can have done this more or less well. In other words, his Aslan is as subject to criticism as Joseph Girzone's Joshua or even the Jesus in various late apocryphal writings.

It also follows that certain defenses of Aslan, Narnia, and Lewis are non-starters. You can't defend it by saying Lewis was trying to write literature, not theology; that's a false dilemma, and including a character who is supposed to be God is doing theology.

You can't fully defend it by saying Narnia's theology is speculative. Speculative theology must still be consistent with fundamental theology; the fact Lewis is making stuff up doesn't mean what he makes up can't be wrong. Pointing out that it's a speculative work defends it against charges that what happens did not or isn't going to happen; it doesn't defend against charges that what happens couldn't or wouldn't happen.

And of course you can't defend the theology of Narnia by pointing out it's intended to be, and succeeds at being, an entertaining story of imagination and wonder. That's a defense of Narnia, saving the work by sacrificing the theology. I'm quite happy to join in that defense, but it doesn't change the fact that a lot of people are still giving ill-thought defenses of the theology.

There's a certain irony that a decision that makes Narnia such a fresh and original story makes it so flawed at the same time, that what excites so many Christians about the story is its weakest part.


Thursday, December 08, 2005

Unbroken news

Ever suspect there are days when headline writers just phone it in?

On the other hand, this:
The Immaculate Conception refers to the Roman Catholic Church's infallible doctrine, proclaimed in 1854, that Mary, the Mother of God, was conceived without the stain of Original Sin.
is a sweet bit of pure, unbiased reporting.


Fired up over purgatory

There's an interesting discussion in the comments on a post on purgatory at Catholic and Enjoying It!

There seems to be a move toward a kinder and gentler vision of purgatory than in centuries past. Where St. Gregory the Great wrote of "a purifying fire," the images used in the discussion at CAEI! include a hospital, a mudroom of a house, missing a loved one, a shower before entering a swimming pool.

Perhaps these are better understood as analogies of one purpose of purgatory, rather than the experience. I think we should be reluctant to move too quickly from the traditional language, though. Even more importantly, we shouldn't lose sight of the dogma that in purgatory a debt of temporal punishment is paid:
If anyone says that after the reception of the grace of justification the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out to every repentant sinner, that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be discharged either in this world or in purgatory before the gates of heaven can be opened, let him be anathema. [Council of Trent, Session 6, Canon 30]
So there seems to be a double character to the experience of purgatory, as St. Gregory's "purifying fire" indicates. There is the fire of punishment along with the purification necessary to see God and live. Not that there are two distinct things going on, but the purification has the character of punishment because it is our own sins that cause the need for purification.


Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Rotten tomatoes

I was going to cull some of the fouler anti-Christian sentiments from mostly positive reviews of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but there's nothing particularly remarkable about foul anti-Christian sentimentalists.

Well, except perhaps that the unremarkable hatred directed at Christianity runs deep. It is not like the casual, fashionable prejudice of hating the French, nor a sort of at-a-distance dislike of generic foreigners. It is more like the hatred of a mean gym teacher you've had three years in a row, or of a neighbor who plays his music too loud and too late. It is a personal hatred that, if not always expressed, is always smoldering. It is Cato preaching our destruction and Kruschev prophesying our burial. It is a hatred to the death, quite likely past death, and if as it hopes and expects it were to survive to see the death of Christianity, it would not merely be satisfied, it would exult and rejoice.

Oh, and the movie sounds good.


Tuesday, December 06, 2005

But on every word

I suppose my fundamental point in the post below is that the desert is not merely the trivial detail of John's ministry I had always taken it for, to the extent I took it for anything. It was part of the unfolding of the Gospel, something important enough to be foretold by the Prophets.

We must always first recognize that something means something, before moving on to what it means. The Church Fathers were a lot better at this recognition than I am, even if they do seem a bit fanciful in their exegesis; e.g., Theophylact on John the Baptist's diet:
The food also of John not only denotes abstinence, but also shows forth the intellectual food, which the people then were eating, without understanding anything lofty, but continually raising themselves on high, and again sinking to the earth. For such is the nature of locusts, leaping on high and again falling.
But to have an open and humble disputation on the significance of locusts and wild honey, we need to first acknowledge that there is a significance.


In the desert

The word that jumped out at me when I heard Sunday's Gospel proclaimed was "desert," specifically in this sentence:
John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
If you want to proclaim a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, why appear in the desert? Wouldn't appearing in the city, or at least a town, make more sense? If a prophet proclaims in the desert, and no one hears him, does God's Word return empty?

Of course, the next sentence in Mark is
People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.
So it's not as though no one heard John. Still, it seems a strange way of beginning the proclamation of the Gospel.

There's no suggestion that John did anything to drum up interest. I doubt he advertised in Jerusalem, or went into a nearby town when things got slow to get people talking about him. As Christ was soon to be, he was led by the Spirit into the desert, and there he stayed, until he was led away to prison by a different spirit.

Proclaiming in the desert puts a lot on the prophet. He has to trust God to supply, not just his words, but also his sustenance -- and his audience. To be wholly dedicated to telling others the word of God, with no guarantee of there being any others to tell, is a call to great humility.

I suspect a few of the Old Testament prophets would have been delighted to preach in the desert, far from the mockeries and pains speaking to a crowd in Jerusalem brought. But John had a happier story than most prophets: the Messiah was coming, was even here!

Proclaiming in the desert also puts a lot on the audience. You can't listen to a desert preacher by pausing for a few minutes on your way home. You need to journey outside your normal life, endure discomforts if not exactly hardships. You must respond to ... to what? The excitement of a neighbor, a brother-in-law who says, "You have to listen to this man," the promptings of your own curiosity or hope.


Monday, December 05, 2005

The annual feud

Happy Catholic calls our attention to all the
worrying and fretting there is in St. Blog's Parish about Advent and Christmas. We can all agree on the timing and that Advent is good and Christmas cause for extreme joy and celebration of the birth of our Savior ... but after that point it all breaks down.
There does seem to be a current of thought that there is a one true way to decorate your house for Christmas; to exaggerate slightly, some give the impression that the closer to the moment on Christmas Eve when a black thread and a white thread can no longer be distinguished that one begins to decorate one's tree, the closer one is to a life of fidelity to Christ.

A while ago, I made my peace with the dual nature of December 25 in our culture, as the last day of a secular season and the first of a religious one. And if the one borrows from the other, I'm okay with that. And I'm okay with people who aren't okay with that, but I'm not okay with people who aren't okay with my being okay with that.


Always helpful

If you're having trouble deciding what to get me for Christmas, here's a hint. If just 475 Disputations readers each chip in just $10, you can surprise and delight me with your thoughtfulness. In return, I'll host an open house every Wednesday evening, and anyone who likes can drop by for some conversation and a wee dram.


Saturday, December 03, 2005

Un cervello stravagantissimo

Q. What do Muhammad, Caravaggio, George Balanchine, and Francis Crick have in common?

A. None of them has ever been in my kitchen.

No, they're all subjects of current or forthcoming volumes in HarperCollins's Eminent Lives Series of "brief biographies by distinguished authors on canonical figures."

I knew basically nothing about the painter when I received a review copy of Francine Prose's book, Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles. Some of his paintings have been commented on in St. Blog's; The Incredulity of St. Thomas and The Calling of St. Matthew are two I remember. "A moving Caravaggio" was the expression used to describe Mel Gibson's vision for The Passion of the Christ. And I just learned Steven Riddle is a fan. But basically Caravaggio was just the name of some Italian painter.

Having now read his Eminent Life, I have learned that Caravaggio was... well, let me quote from the second paragraph of the book:
He was wanted for murder in Rome, for stabbing a man in a duel that was said to have begun over a bet on a tennis game.... He had been sued for libel, arrested for carrying a weapon without a license, prosecuted for tossing a plate of artichokes in a waiter's face, jailed repeatedly. He was [formally] accused of throwing stones at police, insulting two women, harassing a former landlady, and wounding a prison guard.
That may paint too rosy a picture of his character, though. He was basically a nasty piece of work as a human being, however great a genius as a painter.

There isn't all that much known about his life (he died in 1610 at the age of 39), apart from a general idea of which city he lived in when and rumors about which crime may have made it prudent for him to move on. Not much in the way of personal letters or contemporaneous accounts; at least one of his early biographers was also a bitter rival who skewed the already black facts. According to Prose, the transcript of his libel trial is the best source (other than his paintings, of course) of his own opinions about art.

A life of Caravaggio, then, is not going to be very nice and it's not going to be very detailed. Recognizing this, Prose finds her story in his paintings, a subject which can well sustain the 146 pages of the book. Reproductions of 11 paintings are included with the text, and she discusses in some detail several others. (Most or all of them can be found here; you may want to have Google handy if you read the book.)

Prose could be a bit less interested in the pretty and often underdressed boys Caravaggio so often painted, a bit more sympathetic to the Church (granted that the Church figures Caravaggio encountered were not heroically virtuous), a bit less post-everythingly broadminded:
The world needed to mature, to evolve past eighteenth-century decorum and Victorian prudery in order to accept the sexuality of Caravaggio's paintings, a sexuality that is at once bravely unapologetic and furiously private. It's worth noting that the spike in Caravaggio's popularity took place during an era in which our sensitivities were being simultaneously sharpened and dulled by artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, whose passion for formal beauty and stillness... made him as emblematic of his time as Caravaggio was of his. In order to love Caravaggio, we ourselves had to learn to accept the premise that the angelic and the diabolic, that sex and violence and God, could easily if not tranquilly coexist in the same dramatic scene, the same camera, the same painter.
...until very recently, critics were still making a strenuous effort to distinguish the living devil from the angelic, immortal artist.
Only now can we admit that we require both at once. The life of Caravaggio is the closest thing we have to the myth of the sinner-saint... the myth that, in these jaded and secular times, we are almost ashamed to admit that we still long for, and need.
I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that Caravaggio's popularity among Catholic bloggers is not due to the effect of Robert Mapplethorpe on their sensitivities. And I'm not sure that the story of his life ought to move people to love him, nor that we require him to have been a living devil. There are lessons to be learned from Caravaggio's life and work; that genius redeems immorality is not one of them.



Friday, December 02, 2005

Under the usual conditions

You've probably already heard this, but from the Vatican website comes this news:
Proinde Beatissimus Pater, cui maxime in votis est ut christifidelium amor et fiducia erga Deiparam Virginem augeantur et, Eius ductu ac sanctitatis exemplo, vita eorum sapientibus Concilii Oecumenici Vaticani II institutionibus fideliter conformetur in arta hierarchica communione cum Eo et propriis cuiusque Sacrorum Antistitibus, donum plenariae Indulgentiae benigne concedit, suetis condicionibus (sacramentali Confessione, eucharistica Communione et oratione ad mentem eiusdem Summi Pontificis) adimpletis, animo quidem omnino elongato ab affectu erga quodcumque peccatum, christifidelibus consequendum in proxima sollemnitate Immaculatae Conceptionis B. Mariae Virginis, si cui sacro ritui in honorem Eiusdem interfuerint, vel saltem apertum marialis devotionis testimonium reddiderint ante imaginem eiusdem B. Mariae Virginis Immaculatae, publicae venerationi expositam, addita Orationis Dominicae ac Symboli Fidei recitatione et aliqua invocatione ad B. Mariam Virginem sine labe originali conceptam (e. g. «Tota pulchra es, Maria, et macula originalis non est in te», «Regina sine labe originali concepta, ora pro nobis»).
In plain English, a plenary indulgence may be obtained "on the forthcoming solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, by the faithful if they participate in a sacred function in honor of the Virgin, or at least offer open testimony of Marian devotion before an image of Mary Immaculate exposed for public veneration, adding the recitation of the Our Father and of the Creed, and some invocation to the Virgin."


Thursday, December 01, 2005

The fix was in

Fr. Wojciech Giertych, OP, has been named to succeed Cardinal Georges Cottier, OP, as theologian of the papal household. Fr. Giertych is a theology professor at the Angelicum and the Socius (assistant to the Master) for Intellectual Life of the Dominican Order. What are the odds a Dominican would be picked to succeed a Dominican?

I'd think being theologian of Benedict XVI's household would be about like being beer drinker of Homer Simpson's household: you're not going to be asked to do something your boss couldn't do first and probably better.

In any case, there are a few pieces by Fr. Giertych on the Web. He is credited with writing Section 3, "Itinerancy in the Formative and Intellectual Journey," in Master of the Order Carlos Azpiroz Costa's first letter to the Dominican Order. He also gave an interview at last year's general chapter on intellectual life in the Order.