instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

It really is sweeping the nation

Or at least the Maryland-National Capital Park system.

The Potomac Curling Club had an open house over the weekend. It was well attended.

I attended an open house there when the curling rink opened shortly after the 2002 Winter Olympics. There were a respectable number of visitors, but no lines out the door and down the sidewalk.


The penitential is personal

PAT: And what will you be giving up for Lent then?

MIKE: Sure and begob, I won't drink whiskey and beer until after the Easter Vigil.

PAT: Not drink whiskey and beer? Faith and begorrah! How will you manage?

MIKE: Well, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I'll drink whiskey without beer, and the rest of the week it's beer without whiskey.


Monday, February 27, 2006

Facing a dilemma

Yesterday's homily began with a question most Catholics (particularly in places where the Church is well established) should ask themselves from time to time:

Do you think of yourself primarily as a disciple of Christ, or as a Catholic? As a follower of a Person, or as a member of an institution?

Obviously, "disciple of Christ" and "Catholic" aren't contrary labels. "Catholic" ought to imply "disciple of Christ," and "disciple of Christ" ought to imply at least "in communion with the Catholic Church."

But ten thousand oughts do not make one is. There are unquestionably people who call themselves Catholics who would never call themselves disciples of Christ. You can follow good discipline -- in terms of receiving sacraments and following precepts -- without ever asking yourself if you're practicing good discipleship.

The key word in the question, though -- the one that prevents it from being a false dilemma -- is "primarily." You can understand yourself as both a follower and as a member, but at any given time one will take priority, one will be the way by which you understand yourself as the other.

The homilist proposed that those who understand themselves primarily as Catholics will tend to understand Lent primarily as a time of special rules. They fast during Lent because Catholics are to fast during Lent. The Church says Lent is a time for reform and repentance, so they reform and repent. They follow a program of rule-based growth in virtue.

The readings point to a new way of sanctification. As St. Paul writes, "the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life." To live in the Spirit is to imitate Christ, to follow Him on His path to Golgotha and beyond. What Jesus did, the new wine He poured into new wineskins, was to preach the coming of the Kingdom of God, to bring Divine Mercy to those who called out for it (including those who thought they were just calling out for a medical cure), and to pray.

Jesus prayed. He stayed up late, He got up early, He went off by Himself to pray.

He fasted as well, of course, forty days in the wilderness, an act which in the Divine Economy prepared not only Jesus for His ministry, but the Church for her ministry, refreshed each year during Lent.

A disciple imitates his master. Perhaps we can't perform miraculous medical cures (do we even try?). We might not even be prepared to volunteer as preachers. But we can pray, and we can fast, and we can give spiritual alms by testifying to God's mercy at work in our own lives. And if our testimony is stammering and vague, we might at least (as we pray for the Spirit to speak through us) be thankful that no one will take us for glib snake oil salesmen, or agree with us merely because our words tickle their ears.

And we can do these things, not because the Church tells us to, but because Christ did them first.


An observed pattern

Most every group in which membership is voluntary is susceptible to a pattern of behavior that goes like this:
  1. Someone whose attitudes, preferences, or inclinations are, by the standards of the group, iffy or fringe, joins the group.
  2. Having joined, he puts a lot of effort into demonstrating that his attitudes, preferences, or inclinations are perfectly legitimate by group standards.
  3. Having demonstrated this to his satisfaction, he goes on to insist that his attitudes, preferences, or inclinations are not merely legitimate, but positively normative.
  4. Having talked himself into believing his views are normative, he begins decrying the standards of the group as iffy or fringe.
From there, all sorts of interesting things can happen. The group might accommodate him, allowing contradictory understandings of the nature of the group to co-exist. The group might kick him out, at which point he might repeat the pattern with another group, or become a professional embittered ex-group member, or find a group more suited to him. The group might split, with those sympathetic to the fringe member joining him in a new group.

Then again, the pattern might terminate at any point in the process. The fringe member might recognize that he is fringe; he might allow that his views are not normative; he might not think contrary views are beyond the pale.

The only thing that is always a safe bet is Step 1. Any organization that people can choose to join that is not exceptionally careful about who is allowed in (assuming membership can be formally denied) is going to wind up with fringe members.


Friday, February 24, 2006


We're Number 3! We're Number 3!

A bronze medal in curling! An American Olympic team that exceeded expectations! How cool is that?


Orthodoxy is twice as nice

In a comment below, Jonathan Prejean (formerly of Crimson Catholic) refers to the Third Council of Constantinople, which condemned Monotheletism, the heresy that Jesus possessed only one will.

Monotheletism is one of those heresies -- or if you prefer, ditheletism is one of those doctrines -- that's hard to get overly worked up about. Granted that we're perfectly willing to assent to the belief that Christ possessed both a human and the Divine will, the question remains, what are we supposed to do with this belief?

The Fathers of Constantinople III saw Monotheletism, not as a dry error on an obscure matter, but as
a heresy ... intent on removing the perfection of the becoming man of the same one lord Jesus Christ our God, through a certain guileful device, leading from there to the blasphemous conclusion that his rationally animate flesh is without a will and a principle of action.
As with so many heresies, Monotheletism strikes at the Incarnation, without which we're all pretty much just Shriners. The Council defines the orthodox dogma in these words:
Believing our lord Jesus Christ, even after his incarnation, to be one of the holy Trinity and our true God, we say that he has two natures shining forth in his one subsistence in which he demonstrated the miracles and the sufferings throughout his entire providential dwelling here, not in appearance but in truth, the difference of the natures being made known in the same one subsistence in that each nature wills and performs the things that are proper to it in a communion with the other; then in accord with this reasoning we hold that two natural wills and principles of action meet in correspondence for the salvation of the human race.
Moreover, as they explain just before this definition:
And the two natural wills not in opposition, as the impious heretics said, far from it, but his human will following, and not resisting or struggling, rather in fact subject to his divine and all powerful will. For the will of the flesh had to be moved, and yet to be subjected to the divine will, according to the most wise Athanasius.
So Jesus' human will, even in Gethsemane, did not resist or struggle against His Divine will.

And yet: He ... began to feel sorrow and distress. Then he said to them, "My soul is sorrowful even to death... My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me...." He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground.

We know, then, that having a human will perfectly subject to God's will doesn't mean never feeling distress. It doesn't even mean always desiring, of one's own volition, what God desires, though of course it does mean always choosing what He desires. We are not called to agree with God, but to obey Him. But obedience is the road to perfection, and the more we obey God, the more our human wills become, not merely subject to His, but genuinely like His. I speculate.


Thursday, February 23, 2006

On balance, more pro than con

I've never been very sure that "Crunchy Conservatism" was much more than an example of how prejudices can be wrong, with the strong emotional relief of self-described Crunchy Cons at learning that there were others like them an indication, not of a significant but inchoate subspecies of conservatism, but of how hurtful prejudice can be.

However, Rod Dreher has seen his initial observation through to a book -- and as a bibliophile and erstwhile writer, I congratulate him on that -- and provided what he calls "A Crunchy Con Manifesto". And if neither granola nor political conservatism hold much interest for me, I find enumerated sets of principles irresistible.

The italicized statements are the manifesto; the rest are my comments:
1. We are conservatives who stand outside the conservative mainstream; therefore, we can see things that matter more clearly.

Right away, it's clear he's not talking about me, since I'm not a conservative. As Amy Welborn puts it, "It's not my identification, it's not my circle, as if I even have a 'circle', and while there is a lot about modern political conservatism that just drives me batty, much of which Rod touches the end, my self-identification and loyalties are elsewhere."

But the "standing outside the mainstream implies clearer vision" is tendentious, to say the least. It may well be that Rod sees things that matter more clearly than mainstream conservatives; if so, though, it's not because he's standing outside the mainstream, but because of where, specifically, he stands.

2. Modern conservatism has become too focused on money, power, and the accumulation of stuff, and insufficiently concerned with the content of our individual and social character.

I suspect this is true, though I don't know whether it's a characteristic of conservatism per se, or of the fact that conservatives are human beings. It does seem fair to say that conservatism has a much more positive view of wealth and wealth creation than does liberalism.

3. Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.

I'll buy that, though I'd phrase it, "Big business deserves skepticism as much as big government," since I'm not interested in figuring out exactly how much skepticism big government deserves.

4. Culture is more important than politics and economics.

Amen! (Recognizing that "more important than" sets the ordering of these interrelated things, and that "less important" doesn't mean "unimportant.")

5. A conservatism that does not practice restraint, humility, and good stewardship -- especially of the natural world -- is not fundamentally conservative.

Well, okay, that's for people who debate what "conservative" means.

6. Small, Local, Old, and Particular are almost always better than Big, Global, New, and Abstract.

While I'm sympathetic to the spirit expressed here -- it's sort of a Principle of Cultural Subsidiarity -- that "almost always" makes it an empirical statement I don't know how to even begin to determine the truth of.

I think I'd want to change it to, "to the extent that Small, Local, Old, and Particular are more personal than Big, Global, New, and Abstract, they are more human," and then kick that around some to see a) whether it's true, and b) whether it means anything.

7. Beauty is more important than efficiency.

Absolutely, in an absolute sense. When you're trying to solve a problem -- like, say, evacuating houses as a wildfire approaches -- you might not define success in terms of aesthetics.

8. The relentlessness of media-driven pop culture deadens our senses to authentic truth, beauty, and wisdom.

I agree.

9. We share Russell Kirk's conviction that "the institution most essential to conserve is the family."

Okay (in what I take to be the political context Kirk had in mind).

10. Politics and economics won't save us; if our culture is to be saved at all, it will be by faithfully living by the Permanent Things, conserving these ancient moral truths in the choices we make in our everyday lives.

Not much to dispute there. (There might be a hint that saving our culture is a good to be sought for its own sake, but if it's saved by faithfully living by the Permanent Things, then it would be something worth saving for its own sake (though not, of course, as the final end we seek).
That makes me, though certainly not a Crunchy Con, generally sympathetic to the manifesto. Whether it represents a real movement or bloc or phenomenon -- whether, in fact, it's really any more than political conservatives who think there are more important things than politics -- is for others to hash out, but I'd say it has to be a good thing for conservatism to order itself according to the Permanent Things.


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Quid est pax?

It would seem that how much at peace a man is with himself is not a necessary test of whether he possesses spiritual wisdom, since many saints in Christendom knew little peace within them (but trusted God nevertheless).

I respond, using St. Augustine's definition of peace as "the tranquility of order," we start by noting that wisdom (of the kind that comes from above, which is the only kind we're considering here) is right judgment in light of the Divine Will. To be wise is to know things as they are, and to act accordingly.

Now, to act according to the way things are is to accord each thing its proper place. In other words, it is to act so as to bring about, restore, or preserve the "order" in St. Augustine's definition of peace. It is, as I suggested before, almost literally to make peace.

There's no denying that a saint who trusts God is a peacemaker in this sense, acting to bring about, restore, or preserve the order willed by God both within his heart and between himself and others. What I guess is denied is that acting to create this order necessarily results in tranquility. Ordermakers, so to speak, aren't necessarily peacemakers; in fact, merely acting with wisdom may even fail to result in order, much less peace.

To take the last argument first, acting with wisdom does necessarily result in order: specifically, the order within one's will by which the wise thing is done and the foolish thing avoided. True, this isn't the only order the wise man seeks, but it is virtuous in itself and apart from any question of the success of his actions.

If acting with wisdom necessarily creates an order of some sort, does this order necessarily create a tranquility of some sort?

In distinguishing peace from concord, St. Thomas writes that
man's heart is not at peace, so long as he has not what he wants, or if, having what he wants, there still remains something for him to want, and which he cannot have at the same time.
Tranquility, then, can be understood as the absence of contradictory desires. (This tranquility is true peace when the complimentary desires are all ordered to the Eternal Law.)

So the question can be rephrased: If someone acts with wisdom, is he in some way necessarily free of contradictory desires?

I'll tentatively say yes in a limited sense, and no in a more general sense.

Consider Jesus in agony in Gethsemane. Was His heart at peace? I think most of us would say no. People at peace don't sweat blood. St. Matthew writes that He felt "sorrow and distress." He could not do the Father's will and have the cup passed Him by at the same time.

In a narrow sense, though, there was a kind peace in His heart. "Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will." His desires were ordered to the Father's will, so much so that the desire to be spared -- which superficially conflicts with the desire to do the Father's will -- was actually conditional. His desire wasn't simply "to be spared," but "to be spared if the Father willed it."

From this perspective, then, even in His agony Jesus did not have contradictory desires, and in this sense He had peace in His heart. Not a very satisfying peace, from a natural perspective, but then, as He says in the Gospel of John (which, of course, does not record the Agony), "my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you."

Perhaps this peace of God -- which, as you know, surpasses understanding -- isn't so easy to detect in another's heart, after all. (Or maybe it takes a saint to know a saint.)

Still, Jesus immediately adds, "Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid." The gift of heavenly wisdom does seem to guarantee a certain spot of peace, even in an otherwise roiled heart, just as it does in an otherwise roiled world.


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

You're nobody in this town

... until you've made the Google Doodle.


The gladness of spiritual desire

Summa Minutiae quotes St. Benedict on Lent:
Let us devote ourselves to tearful prayers, to reading and compunction of heart, and to abstinence.

During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual amount of our service, special prayers, abstinence from food and drink, that each one offer to God "with the joy of the Holy Ghost" (1 Thes 1:6), of his own accord, something above his prescribed measure; namely, let him withdraw from his body somewhat of food, drink, sleep, speech, merriment, and with the gladness of spiritual desire await holy Easter.
Compunction of heart with the joy of the Holy Spirit. Withdrawal from merriment with gladness.

The canonical story is that the fast of Lent is followed by the feast of Easter. St. Benedict shows that Lent itself can be a time of feasting, if you do it right.


Wise are the peacemakers

St. James describes two kinds of wisdom, the first of which might better be called cunning:
Wisdom of this kind does not come down from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice.

But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity.
St. Thomas quotes this last verse, describing the wisdom from above, as an objection to associating the gift of wisdom with the beatitude of peacemaking. If wisdom is first pure, and also gentle, compliant, and so forth, how can it be said to correspond particularly to peacemaking?

Well, first, why associate wisdom with peacemaking at all?
Now a peacemaker is one who makes peace, either in himself, or in others: and in both cases this is the result of setting in due order those things in which peace is established, for "peace is the tranquility of order," according to Augustine. Now it belongs to wisdom to set things in order, as the Philosopher declares, wherefore peaceableness is fittingly ascribed to wisdom.
According to St. Augustine's insight on the true nature of peace, "peacemaking" can pretty much be defined as "wisdom at work."

And the rest of the characteristics St. James lists? Well, Rule #1 for doing right is, "Don't do wrong":
... the first thing, to be effected in this direction of human acts [by wisdom] is the removal of evils opposed to wisdom: wherefore fear is said to be "the beginning of wisdom," because it makes us shun evil....

Hence James said with reason that "the wisdom that is from above" (and this is the gift of the Holy Ghost) "first indeed is chaste," because it avoids the corruption of sin....
The rest of the list -- "gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity" -- St. Thomas sees as "the means whereby wisdom leads to peace." Gentleness (which moderates desire) and compliance (to the true wisdom of others) "are conditions required that man may be at peace with himself." The other characteristics are, of course, requirements that man may be at peace with others; being full of mercy and good fruits brings right order to a neighbor's deficiencies.

The Biblical text St. Thomas was working with read that wisdom involves "judging without dissimulation," where the Vulgate reads "without judging, without dissimulation." He understood "judging without dissimulation" to refer to correcting a neighbor's faults in charity, which is certainly a condition of true peace between neighbors.

It seems to me that being "without inconstancy or insincerity" is also a requirement of true peace between neighbors. As long as we don't insist on James 3:17 being a unique and complete enumeration of such requirements, I think we can preserve St. Thomas's idea of the descriptions referring to conditions for peace both within and between men.

All of this suggests that one test of someone's wisdom, a test that doesn't require much soul-reading, is how much at peace he is with himself and with others. (Whether others are at peace with him is less relevant.) Passing the test doesn't suffice to prove wisdom -- fools may well be perfectly tranquil amidst great disorder -- but failing it might just disprove wisdom.


Monday, February 20, 2006

A word from Balaam's ass

The Letter of St. James is perhaps best known nowadays for verse 2:17, "So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead." (Odd, though perhaps a sign of hope, that verse 2:20 isn't the standard apologetical proof text.)

There's a less celebrated parallel between St. James's notions of faith and wisdom:
Indeed someone might say, "You have faith and I have works." Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works. [2:18b]

Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show his works by a good life in the humility that comes from wisdom. [3:13]
Just as faith without works is dead, so too is wisdom without works.

And wisdom is what, exactly?

I remember reading the Book of Wisdom, in particular the extended praise of Wisdom in chapters 7-10, and thinking, "It's nice that Wisdom is wonderful and all, but the fellow neglected to mention what it is." Looking again, I find that I was not quite right about that:
[Wisdom] is an aura of the might of God and a pure effusion of the glory of the Almighty; therefore naught that is sullied enters into her. For she is the refulgence of eternal light, the spotless mirror of the power of God, the image of his goodness.
I suspect the first time I read this I took it as more of the poetical praise of Wisdom that comes earlier in the chapter. Now, I suspect, this is about as good a definition as you're likely to get.

There is the Wisdom that is God Himself, the Wisdom that is Love that is Justice that is Truth that is Goodness that is Beauty. From the Godhead comes the divine Wisdom that is the aura of the might of God, the spotless mirror of His power. This image of God's goodness is to God as sunlight is to the sun; it's what we see when we look toward God. We might say this divine Wisdom is the sight of God at work.

When we receive this sight into our hearts, we receive the gift of wisdom; St. Thomas defines this gift in a way analogous to natural wisdom:
...wisdom denotes a certain rectitude of judgment according to the Eternal Law.
The Eternal Law is divine Wisdom; perceiving this Wisdom, the wise act according to it, like a dancer following her partner's lead.

I don't think we need to settle for the tautology that acting according to divine Wisdom is wise. Divine Wisdom itself is acting according to God's love for us. To be wise, then, to employ the gift of wisdom, is to turn to face God and receive that love, and that -- quite apart from commandments and legalities -- is always the right and good thing.


Sunday, February 19, 2006

From "The Illustrated Dictionary of Curling Terms"

sweep: v., to brush the ice in front of a stone with a broom. Sweeping melts the surface of the ice, causing moving objects to travel faster and straighter.


Friday, February 17, 2006

Divine comedy

In the early 1950s, when the TV ratings for Bishop Fulton Sheen's Life is Worth Living were beating his own show, Milton Berle is said to have explained it this way: "He has better writers." Of course, he didn't mean he had better comedy writers... but maybe he could have.

Here's an interesting reflection on the relationship between humor and faith Donald Casadonte sent me:
Faith is an assent to truths in possible worlds which we cannot see, which do not seem possible to the naked eye, but cannot be dismissed because of the authority of the one making the claim (God). Thus, an atheist can make jokes about death in which death is all there is, but for the Christian, there is a real heaven, even though we cannot see it. Thus, we too, have restrictions on what we see to be funny.

If you remember that the purpose of a joke is to resolve an apparent contradiction by projecting the answer into another possible world, then the possible worlds which Christians have access to, but non-Christians do not, forms the deposit of Faith. These other realizable possible worlds are given access to us at Baptism. Thus, Christians have access to "ways out" which non-Christians do not.

Who gives us these accesses, these permissions to enter: Jesus, by his death and Resurrection. When he said, "In the world you will have troubles, but BE OF GOOD CHEER, I have overcome the world," Jesus was letting us in on the joke. More than that, he was telling us that he was the head writer. The situation may be unbearable, but the way out has already been provided for and so, a Christian can always look forward to Heaven and see the resolution to his problems which only Jesus can provide.

This is why Jesus gives his followers permission to laugh at hopeless situations. Jesus is the Way and has given us that hope that the apparent contradiction is, after all, not so real as the world would have us believe because this is not the real world, after all. That "imaginary" heaven of the pagans or atheists is the real one.

So, just as humor involves moving between a real and an imaginary world, just so, the Christian moves also between a real and an imaginary world, except, "this" vale of tears, the atheist's real world is, in fact, the imaginary, transient one. And Jesus says to every Christian at Baptism, "Surprise". This is why Christians should be of good cheer.

The first words he said to the disciples on Easter was, "Shalom." Peace is the tranquility that flows from God's right order (to paraphrase Augustine). Jesus said, "Peace," meaning, "Don't worry any longer, it is finished -- the right order has been re-established." The apparent reality of Adam's post-sin world has been relegated to the imaginary nightmare it was always meant to be. The joke is on the Devil.

Thus, in a sense, Jesus is the Divine Comedian and we Christians are his Court Jesters!


Just an observation

Because of the strategy involved (honest), curling is sometimes called "chess on ice" (honest).

Visually, though, it reminds me more of another sometime-enthusiasm of mine, the game of go. Both involve the thoughtful placement of stones according to very general patterns.

In go, such patterns are called joseki. They're sort of locally optimal ways for both players to prepare a corner of the go board for the battle for territory that will come later in the game.

In curling, the battle for placement comes a lot sooner, and the choice of viable patterns is restricted by many more factors, a major one being that you can't just lean over a block of cherrywood and pop the curling rock on the exact spot you want it. On the other hand, you are allowed to take out your opponents' stone, if you can.


Thursday, February 16, 2006

From "The Illustrated Dictionary of Curling Terms"

takeout: n., a shot that knocks one or more opponent stones out of play.


Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Word to the would-be wise

One of the cool things about reading exhortative books of the Bible like James is that you almost can't help but run into other things that remind you of some verse. A passage about how a Christian should act is going to be relevant to how Christians (and others) actually do act.

For example I read these verses in James recently enough to remember them:
But if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and he will be given it. But he should ask in faith, not doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed about by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord, since he is a man of two minds, unstable in all his ways.
And you might think, "Well, of course I want wisdom, and I certainly don't doubt that God will give it to me generously and ungrudgingly. It's not like He wants men to be foolish." If anyone is wise enough to ask God for wisdom, how can he be of two minds in wanting that wisdom?

And then Zadok draws attention to this observation by St. Bernard:
Clearly, you pour forth wisdom or understanding from your lips in three ways: if on your lips there is the admission of your own sinfulness, thanksgiving and the voice of praise, and words that encourage.
So the question becomes: are you of two minds about keeping the words that pour forth from your lips to those of confession, thanksgiving, and encouragement? If so, then if you ask God for wisdom, you aren't really asking for wisdom itself, but for some half measure that allows you to persist in your preferred foolishness. And God, not one for half measures, will give you what you ask for, which is what you already have.


And now for something complete

So now let me give you one complete email Donald has written in response to the comments previous excerpts have generated:
Dear Tom,

Thank your comboxers on Disputations for some interesting comments. It is useful to know how well one is expressing oneself in trying to discuss matters that pertain to Christ's consciousness and humor (apparently, I'm not doing so well). I did not realize that I would start a fight over what Christ knew, although the matter of humor does involve what one modern theory calls, "knowledge states," in interpreting or creating a joke, and so, Christ's knowledge is a legitimate question.
It's almost impossible to know what is going to start which fight. Who woke up last Friday expecting a clerihew fight?
What does it mean to "get the joke" or to "make a funny"? Humor researchers call this a matter of "joke competence," and it depends on several factors, such as the knowledge that the listener has of the matter under discussion, the interaction (and cueing) from the audience as to what is funny, etc. For example, I once reviewed a book of mathematical humor (yes, there is one, called, Comic Sections, by the Irish mathematician, Desmond Machale) where the punchline to one joke in the book was, "Okay, assume a Borel space..." Now, unless you happen to know some topology or advanced statistics, you might not find this joke funny (except as an example of absurdity). You would have no joke competence for this joke. In order to "get a joke" one has to be able to access the knowledge necessary and actually imagine (at least as an observer) that one is in the possible worlds of the joke.

As I pointed out in my original e-mail, there are some knowledge areas (such as sin) that Christ is not able to access in a direct fashion (although he does know evil by its lack) and there are some knowledge areas which the pre-resurrection apostles did not appreciate (such as walking on water). Jesus can see sin in front of him (such as the woman caught in adultery or the hypocrisy of the Pharisees), but he cannot participate in sin, nor cause another person to sin. We have God's word on it:
Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am tempted by God"; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
Those desires that we have that lead to sin (and form the possible worlds of dirty jokes), Christ cannot have.

The problem here with Chris Sullivan's argument that I have limited Christ's humanity is not that it proves too little, but that it proves too much (by the way, Basil Hall is a colleague and humor research I know from New Zealand, in case Chris want to try to track him down). Christ is fully God and fully man, but Christ is not just fully man, he is The Man (Ecce Homo), the perfect moral man -- he has no moral flaws or imperfections. This must be the case, otherwise, he could not be the "new Adam." He is a man like us, except for sin (as Adam was, originally). Jesus could not tell dirty jokes; I can. My range of possible worlds includes sinful worlds.

Christ cannot have access to those without degrading his human perfection. Christ is excluded from telling dirty jokes. Period. Is this a limitation on his humanity or does our ability to tell dirt jokes reveal a degradation of ours? The problem is not one of his limitations, but of his perfections.

Perfection is itself a limiting process. We hone and strip away all that is not perfect. Jesus is the best of moral men, not the most average. That is the meaning of the sentence, "A MAN like us in all things, but sin. He is the best of us in all things that pertain to the moral life (it is an open question whether or not Christ would be the world's best speed skater if he tried). Jesus is not limited in his ability to tell jokes; rather, his ability to tell jokes is in the nature of that perfection which should belong to all men. That perfection seems like it imposes limitations to a fallen man, who can also sin, but it is the sinful man who has too much room, not Jesus who has too little room to maneuver.

The inability to tell dirty jokes or misjudge people is not just a choice on Christ's part as a man, but it is a necessity of his two natures because of a theological doctrine which comes from the Eastern churches called, perichorisis (or circumincision or co-inherence). Perichorisis is a doctrine which is used to explain the inner life of the Trinity. It says that there is such a loving bond between each member of the Trinity that they share all knowledge and all will. The only thing they do not share is that particular aspect which we would call relationship. Thus, there can never be a disagreement within the Trinity. The term is also used to explain the relationship within the inner life of Christ. He is one person, but two natures, but just as in the Trinity the will of three persons is united, in the hypostatic union the will of Christ's two natures (and to the extent possible in the distinction between finite and infinite beings, the knowledge) are so united in love as to form a perichorisis between Christ's human and divine natures. Thus, whatever will Christ's divine will has, his human reasonable will exactly conforms to it. There are two wills in Christ (to say otherwise is a form of the monothelitism heresy), a divine and a human will, but we may also say that there are sub-categories to that human will and it is only the rational part which necessarily shares a perichoretic nature with divine part.

St. Thomas says in the Summa:
I answer that, As was said (Articles [2],3), in Christ according to His human nature there is a twofold will, viz. the will of sensuality, which is called will by participation, and the rational will, whether considered after the manner of nature, or after the manner of reason. Now it was said above (Question [13], Article [3], ad 1; Question [14], Article [1], ad 2) that by a certain dispensation the Son of God before His Passion "allowed His flesh to do and suffer what belonged to it." And in like manner He allowed all the powers of His soul to do what belonged to them. Now it is clear that the will of sensuality naturally shrinks from sensible pains and bodily hurt. In like manner, the will as nature turns from what is against nature and what is evil in itself, as death and the like; yet the will as reason may at time choose these things in relation to an end, as in a mere man the sensuality and the will absolutely considered shrink from burning, which, nevertheless, the will as reason may choose for the sake of health. Now it was the will of God that Christ should undergo pain, suffering, and death, not that these of themselves were willed by God, but for the sake of man's salvation. Hence it is plain that in His will of sensuality and in His rational will considered as nature, Christ could will what God did not; but in His will as reason He always willed the same as God, which appears from what He says (Mt. 26:39): "Not as I will, but as Thou wilt." For He willed in His reason that the Divine will should be fulfilled although He said that He willed something else by another will.
The distinction between the sensual will and the rational will answers another question beyond humor. Although Christ is a man like us in all things, but sin, this does not mean that he is a man like me in all particulars. This is one of the flaws in using the Evangelical formulation of, "What would Jesus do," to solve problems in life. The question only applies in the moral (reasoning) sphere, not the sensual sphere. Whatever kind of car Jesus would buy would be the perfectly prudent car for him, but not necessarily for me (I might be too short to reach the gas petal or I might not like the color he choses). I might (say) be allergic to wheat; Jesus was not. Jesus could eat the Passover bread; me, it might kill. A woman might be pregnant; Jesus could not be. Christ can will to let suffering touch him, but that will is contingent on his humanity. Unless Jesus were willing to be all manner (i.e., have all possible attributes) of men simultaneously (which would then make him something other than simply man), then we have to say that Christ's suffering in his humanity was his own suffering and not mine, in a unique sense. Christ's sensitivity to sunlight as he was when he walked the earth was probably not what mine is. My (say) easy ability to get a sunburn did not exist in the set of things that Christ suffered in his humanity qua humanity (i.e., in his sensual appetites). Christ does will to understand and share all human pain, including those he had no sensual experience of, such as the pain of pregnancy, but he understands and participates in those suffering that are not uniquely his because he has all knowledge as a direct apprehension in his state of perfection. In fact, due to the way in which he obtains this knowledge, his knowledge of the pain of pregnancy is more direct and clear than that of even the pregnant woman, herself. I don't know if I have stated this clearly enough. In other words, Christ can have particular preferences, even in humor, where the rational will can allow the sensual will some latitude. It cannot in the case of dirty jokes. It can in other forms of wordplay. Thus, Christ's humor is limited more than ours because it runs into the barrier of a perfect rational will which must conform with the divine will.

Thus, my point is that in understanding the range of Christ's humor, we have a tool for probing what it means to be holy.

Donald Casadonte

P.S. On the subject of Christ's consciousness, beyond the link to the Catholic Encyclopedia article already cited in the combox, I would recommend an article at EWTN's website:

The Double Consciousness of Christ

as well as the book by Fr. William Most, The Consciousness of Christ Arlington, VA: Christendom College Press, 1980 . In addition, Ott's, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, has some good articles on the beatific vision and Christ's development. Tom, please thank everyone on the comboxes. These "disputations" have helped to clarify my own thinking. I hope I have given people who read the blog something to think about. I am sorry that I could not give a detailed discussion about how humor operates (there are several theories). Perhaps that would have helped explain what philosophers mean by the use of possible world logic and counterfactual reasoning which is so essential in at least one theory of humor and forms part of my discussion in earlier posts.


The philosophy behind the punchline

I'm not sure I'm doing Donald Casadonte any favors by posting small chunks of some lengthy emails he's written. Humor is one of those subjects everyone has an opinion on, and it's the nature of blogging (and particularly blog commenting) to give your opinion immediately upon reading something. When the something you've read is one seventh of a complete thought from someone who's been thinking about the matter systematically and rigorously for years, there's likely to be miscommunication.

In any case, Donald informs me:
If anyone wants to know about possible worlds and counterfactual logic, there are excellent articles by real "experts" at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and not bad articles from Wikipedia.

The links:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Possible Objects

Possible world
Counterfactual conditional


Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Dissecting the frog

Judging by some of the comments, I may have over-edited Donald's email in this post. He wasn't speaking of humor in general so much as of telling jokes. (Telling jokes and laughing at them is a big part of humor, but far from all there is to it.)

More from Donald's email:
Let me explain how jokes work (simply and some of this is controversial, as there are different theories of humor): essentially, a set-up establishes a context with a system of belief points. The punchline states a word or phrase which is consistent with the possible belief points in one sense, but not another. The statement of the punchline causes a "crisis in belief" in that two, apparently contradictory truth claims must be believed. Obviously, the rational mind cannot handle this and would, ordinarily, reject one of the claims or deny the communicative structure of the story (i.e., it is non sequitur). There is, however, a very large class of such dual belief activators (punchlines) in which it is possible to "project out" one of the beliefs into an alternate possible universe (a counterfactual universe) which could exist, "just in case". I am using terms like, "belief points", rather than, "attribute sets," because I want to, eventually, link the discussion to issues of Faith and Hope. For instance:

Did you hear the one about the guy who fell into a vat of gum at work? The boss chewed him out...

Now, the belief points are: 1)boss = traditional human being, and, 2)chew out = to yell at. The punchline, however, presents a case where, apparently, the boss actually could have extricated the worker or yelled at him. One has therefore, a chimerical boss: one who, apparently, has a normal set of teeth, and one where the boss has a very strong, large set of teeth. Both cannot be simultaneously right in the same possible world, but they can exist in two different worlds that the imagination is able to cross between. Thus, the mind oscillates between:

chew out (world 1) = to yell at
chew out (world 2) = to extricate by mastication

We accept world 1 as the correct world matching our world of experience, but we cannot completely discard world 2 because the context will not allow us to exclude it. Thus, we have an oscillation between a "real" world and an "imaginary" world as a way of circumventing the Law of Non-Contradiction by projecting out the incongruity into an alternate possible world which accepts a truth claim from the original context of the joke. Humor theorists call this, "script switching as a way of resolving an incongruity."
To the extent this is "how jokes work," there are jokes that Jesus would not find funny that His disciples would -- and vice versa, I suspect -- because, being Divine and sharing in His Father's power, He has a different set of "belief points."

I don't know, though, whether not finding it funny is a moral impediment to telling a joke the audience would find funny. I tell unfunny jokes to my children, expecting they will laugh. Sometimes I tell unfunny jokes to my children, expecting them to laugh at how unfunny the jokes are. I suppose that moves the incongruity to be resolved from the joke itself to the telling of it.


Capturing the excitement of curling

Some people just can't picture it.

Some people can:

(Photo credit: Marion.)


A gap-truthed simile

Zippy offers the sort of argument I thought he was alluding to in earlier comments here.

It seems to me that this depends on a specific and highly technical definition of "gap" -- one that uses the expression "complete and consistent" in the mathematical sense -- and it's far from clear to me that it is the only reasonable definition.

Consider a certain curling rock, traveling across the ice. Is there a "gap" in our knowledge of what caused it to move?

My contention is that whether there is a "gap" depends on what class of "knowledge" we're speaking of. If the class is kinematics, then no, there really isn't a gap: we know that when one rock smacks into another at a given point with a given velocity, it causes the smacked rock to travel in a predictable direction at a predictable speed.

If you keep asking "Why," as in, "Why does a moving rock cause a stationary rock to move?," you soon move out of the sphere of kinematic knowledge. Much the way a parent soon moves out of the sphere of parental knowledge when faced with an inquisitive child and says, "Because it just does, okay?"

But that is a gap in the knowledge of the individual, not in the set of knowledge of the given science. (Analogically, there is a gap of an infinite number of numbers between 0 and 1, but there is no gap between them in the ordered sequence of whole numbers).

Without thinking too much about it, I'm guessing this would make a particular body of scientific knowledge incomplete. But being incomplete needn't mean there are "gaps." A gap, to me, suggests a missing piece between two pieces that I have, and the sort of questions kinematics can't answer don't have kinematic answers beyond them. Scientific knowledge need not have gaps, even if it must (per Goedel) leave some questions unanswered.

Now, whether this notion of "gap" has any relevance to anything is a separate question.

And let me again insist that God is God of everything: of what we know, of what we don't know, of what we can't know. Knowledge and mystery are not contradictory. We know the laws of motion, but that doesn't mean there is no mystery to motion, or to objects capable of motion. Trying to separate knowledge and mystery -- not within a science, but within a person -- is what gives rise to the "God of the gaps" fallacies.


Sunday, February 12, 2006

No, seriously, what would He laugh about?

My throw-away title for this post turns out to be a question Donald Casadonte has given a lot of thought:
There are really two questions that one could ask: at what did Jesus laugh, and did Jesus ever cause anyone else to laugh. To answer the second question, first (and the topic of your blog), for instance, in the exchange with the Sadducees on the subject of marriage...

Why did Jesus not gently mock his accusers? The probable reason was the context. Jesus had the perfection of virtues and, as such, would not have mocked his accusers because it would have been imprudent in the context. It would have made the crowds laugh, but it would have infuriated the people he was trying to correct. Thus, on the matter of Jesus making jokes, he could have made them, but his range would have been more restricted than ours because his vision was unlimited (at least in his divinity)...

There are different classes of possible worlds: physically possible worlds, logically possible worlds, morally possible worlds, semantically possible worlds, etc. Because of Jesus's divinity, he is able to access certain worlds which to us are only possible. For instance, we can imagine a possible world where we can walk on water, but Jesus can realize such a world.

Thus, the class of jokes where walking on water is the imaginary world would be non-accessible for Jesus, because to him, it would be an realizable world...

In fact, because Jesus can do anything which does not violate his divine attributes, he has access to a restricted number of possible worlds, and thus, his joke set is much smaller than mere mortals. He can, however, access some.

Which? Well, possible worlds depend on the imagination and imagination lends itself to the formation of metaphors and Jesus did use metaphors in the form of parables. This gives us a clues as to his set of possible worlds and how closely they match our range of possible worlds. Thus, a possible world where men's souls are like wheat (as in weeds among the wheat) could be an imaginary world which Jesus could use to form a joke. He could also make jokes from possible worlds which, to us, would be imaginary, but not to him. In that case, what we would perceive as a joke, he would see as a truth revealed by a subsidiary truth.

Jesus, as we are, would be restricted from accessing possible world where the moral virtues are not as they are in this universe. He could consider such universes, but he could not hold them as contingent and possible with this universe, because then he would have to imagine the case where he, as a Unitary God, would contradict himself in his divinity and *this* application of the Law of Non-contradiction, cannot be projected out In other words, Jesus could not make jokes about God being both just and unjust. He could not make jokes involving pornography (imprudence prevents this). Mere mortals can make sinful jokes which access immoral possible worlds (although we should not). Jesus cannot do this because he cannot sin. Thus, although we are restricted to certain morally "clean" possible worlds, but can violate this restriction, Jesus cannot and thus, he is more restricted than we are in terms of morally accessible worlds.

As for logic or semantics, Jesus has full access to all logically/ semantically possible worlds where they do not violate the restrictions from the physical or moral possible worlds. We see, in fact, a prime candidate for a joke in the saying: "Come with me and I will make you fishers of men". This would be classified as a mild semantic joke.

Does Jesus respect jokes? The non-sinful ones would, I suspect, be appreciated where the possible worlds could be accessed. Walking on water jokes would be truth statements, not incongruities for Jesus, but the statement of the Syrophoenician woman about, "Even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the Master's table," impressed Jesus so much as a type of desperate play on words (if I may use the term, although the woman was not in a playful mood), that he said: "For making that response, go home, the demon has left your daughter." Why did it impress Jesus, beyond being a play on words? It is because the woman was willing to accept the impossible world where she could be reduced to a dog and still ask for a dog's rights. She treated Jesus as if she were the dog and he were her master. It was a profound statement of faith. Humor depends on the switching between a real world and an imaginary possible world which isn't right in the original context, but cannot be dismissed.


Saturday, February 11, 2006

How cool is this?

True, a lot of American universities have Olympic athletes. But not many of them have Olympic athletes who are 47 years old electrical engineering professors. And only one university in the world, my alma mater, has an Olympic athlete representing Thailand.

Which is pretty cool.

And then I see the name of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati in the sports section of the Washington Post. A native of Turin and a Dominican tertiary, Bl. Pier Giorgio is the patron saint of USA cross country skier Rebecca Dussault.
"I think it's impossible" to win, Dussault said. "That's why I say, 'If I win, it will be a Frassati miracle.'"
I don't know what the Congregation for the Causes of Saints would have to say about that, though perhaps they should check with the bookies. lists bets for 27 skiers, with odds of up to 100-to-1, and her name isn't on the list.

And though it would be super awesome cool if Rebecca Dussault did win, or even medal, it's still pretty cool that such a longshot is given such a nice write-up in the Post, and that her devotion to Bl. Pier Giorgio is handled so respectfully.


Friday, February 10, 2006

What Would Jesus Laugh About?

I've received a few fascinating emails on the theology of humor from Donald Casadonte, a chemist and secular Carmelite who also studies humor. He's given me permission to post them, and I'll do so in a series of hopefully bite-size (and lightly edited) posts.
As someone who studies humor (yes, there are a few of us), I think this is a very interesting topic because there is very little written about religion and humor. There is a lot written about religious humor (if you see the difference), but very little written on why God created man with the faculty of humor. I know of only one article of any substance by a Catholic writer: Archbishop Sheen, in a book entitled, Science, Psychology, and Religion, if memory serves on the title. He writes that humor in man is a sign that man has a rational soul. I do not know that St. Thomas has any discussion on humor, per se (mirth is not exactly humor, but is related), but I suspect that he might have agreed.
I love the distinctions. Religious humor is not the same topic as religion and humor. Humor is not the same as mirth. And the existence of the International Society for Humor Studies, with its upcoming conference in Copenhagen... well, I think the world is a better place just knowing that the ISHS exists.
There is a book written by the philosopher, John Morreall called, Taking Laughter Seriously, which has a section on God. He asks the questions: if humor involves surprise, and God cannot be surprised, can God find anything funny.

I wrote back a long letter explaining that God could, indeed find things funny, in that Christ was a man in all things but sin, and that includes laughter. It is simply impossible to believe that the Christ who wept would be a Christ who could not laugh. Christ's laughter, however, would have been within the bounds of discretion or discretio, as the Benedictines would say: a proper use.

I realize that there is a difference in ontological objects between Christ in his humanity and Christ in his divinity, but it can be said that God understands laughter at the very least from having lived among us. Christ in his divinity is the author of humor; Christ in his humanity appreciates its expression. This is essentially the argument that St. Thomas makes regarding God as the efficient cause of humor relating to God's simplicity, but we must not forget the humanity of Christ, as well. Christ is both utterly simple and utterly human. He is the only example of such and therefore, holds a unique spot in humor.
Chesterton ended Orthodoxy with the speculation, "There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth." I have sometimes fancied that Chesterton's fancy got the better of him, but now I wonder whether any details of Christ's laughter would be too much for us. I mean, what if He laughed at a joke we didn't laugh at?


Of course you realize...

I note -- not gladly, nor with surprise -- that St. Blogs has been eerily silent about the War on the Memorial of Sts. Cyril and Methodius.

And yet, not one major retailer respects Catholics enough to pander for our dollars. It's all Valentine this and Valentine that. Hallmark, which makes a bazillion dollars off February 14, doesn't even offer a single Happy Sts. Cyril and Methodius Day card. Search Google for "Cyril and Methodius Day jewelry", and the result tells you all you need to know.

Are we to just lie down and be stepped on like this? Or ought we rather to resist, to boycott this anti-Catholic "Valentine's Day" festival, this poke in the eye to our Church?


Thursday, February 09, 2006

Heads up

To help plan your week:

DayNetworkTime, ESTEvent
February 13USA3 a.m. - 11 a.m.Women, USA vs. Norway (LIVE)
February 13CNBC5 p.m. - 8 p.m.Men, USA vs. Finland
February 14USA3 a.m. - 11 a.m.Men, USA vs. New Zealand (LIVE)
February 14CNBC5 p.m. - 8 p.m.Women, USA vs. Japan
February 15USA8 a.m. - 11 a.m.Women, USA vs. Denmark (LIVE)
February 15CNBC5 p.m. - 8 p.m.Men, USA vs. Italy
February 16USA6 a.m. - 11 a.m.Men, USA vs. Sweden(LIVE)
February 16CNBC5 p.m. - 8 p.m.Men, USA vs. Sweden
February 17USA4 a.m. - 1:30 p.m.Women, USA vs. Russia(LIVE)
February 17CNBC5 p.m. - 8 p.m.Men, USA vs. Switzerland
February 18USA8 a.m. - 11 a.m.Men, USA vs. Germany(LIVE)
February 18MSNBC5 p.m. - 8 p.m.Women, USA vs. Italy
February 19USA8 a.m. - 11 a.m.Women, USA vs. Switzerland (LIVE)
February 19MSNBC4 p.m. - 7 p.m.Men, USA vs. Great Britain
February 20USA8 a.m. - 11 a.m.Men, USA vs. Canada (LIVE)
February 20CNBC5 p.m. - 8 p.m.Women, USA vs. Great Britain
February 21CNBC5 p.m. - 8 p.m.Tiebreaker
February 22USA8 a.m. – 2 p.m.Women’s Semifinal (LIVE)
February 22CNBC5 p.m. - 8 p.m.Men’s Semifinal
February 23USA11 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.Women’s Gold Medal Final (LIVE)
February 23MSNBC7 a.m. – 10 a.m.Women’s Bronze Medal Final (LIVE)
February 23CNBC5 p.m. - 8 p.m.Women’s Gold Medal Final
February 24USA11 a.m. – 6 p.m.Men’s Gold Medal Final (LIVE)
February 24MSNBC7 a.m. – 1 p.m.Men’s Bronze Medal Final (LIVE)
February 24CNBC5 p.m. - 8 p.m.Men’s Gold Medal Final

Check with for updates.


It would seem not

Are there any objectively real gaps? Not just gaps in what we know or can demonstrate, but scientifically perceivable, natural effects that truly do not have natural causes?

Well, creation ex nihilo certainly involves supernatural causes and natural effects. But I tend to doubt God's initial act of creation is a scientifically perceivable cause (if only because there's no "before" against which to measure the change from non-being to being), and I'm not at all sanguine there will turn out to be any other acts of creation any more perceivable to science.

By faith, we know that God immediately creates each human soul, but try getting an NSF grant to study that. And the other gaps, in cosmology and evolutionary biology and so forth?

Obviously, no one knows what there is to know about what we don't know about. But I see two trends that suggest our current gaps in knowledge do not include any real gaps in natural causes.

First, the more dramatic but less telling trend that our gaps in knowledge are constantly shrinking. It's dramatic because of the effects it has had on people who made confident but false assumptions about the way things are based on everyday observation or a literal reading of Scripture. It's not as telling a trend and some would have it, though, since it is also the trend predicted by the hypothesis that some of our gaps in knowledge do contain real gaps in natural causes.

The second trend is harder to define. I'll call it what we've learned about the way things work -- which, in a word, is "very well indeed." There is an elegance to nature that all can recognize, even those who do not recognize the intelligence that created it. When materialistic scientists say there is "no need for God" in whatever mechanism they're studying, we should consider that a compliment. After all, there's no need for a watchmaker inside a well-made watch; the fact that it works without the watchmaker constantly tinkering with it is what we mean when we say it's "well-made." As created by God, you might say, Nature comes well stocked with natural causes.

These two trends suggest two things to me: First, don't bet on any particular gap in knowledge to contain a gap in natural causes. Second, God generally seems to work through natural causes, so he may well always work through them.


Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Forcing God into the gaps

While I'm thinking of it, I want to briefly explain (I want to explain briefly, but it doesn't look like it will be all that brief) one way I see that what I'll call "theistic scientism" can cause bad theology.

First to define "theistic scientism." Scientism proper, in the words of the blessed John Paul II,
is the philosophical notion which refuses to admit the validity of forms of knowledge other than those of the positive sciences; and it relegates religious, theological, ethical and aesthetic knowledge to the realm of mere fantasy. [Fides et Ratio, n. 88]
Theistic scientism, as I'm using the term, backs off from the "realm of mere fantasy" bit, but privileges positive scientific knowledge far above all other forms of knowledge.

The process I have in mind, by which this attitude leads to bad theology, goes like this:

Positive science is, in very rough terms, the search for natural causes of natural effects. Supernatural causes and effects are explicitly outside its scope. If a physicist were trying to measure the dielectric constant of a synthetic crystal, and his guardian angel appeared in the middle of one experiment and made the dielectric constant vary over three orders of magnitude, as a physicist he would have to throw out the data from that experiment. True or false, "Angels can change the physical properties of matter" is not a statement of scientific knowledge.

Scientists assume, for the purposes of physics, that angels aren't messing around with their experiments. More precisely, they assume that, if repeating a test yields the same result, they're observing the same physical cause; if the results are different, they assume there's some variation in physical causes they haven't accounted for. Science is only interested in the part of reality that is scientifically perceivable.

So far so good; this insistence on limiting the scope of science has proven very useful.

But what I think happens next in this process is not so good. It is that people forget that the assumptions required for the scientific method to work are assumptions; they forget its limited scope, and take the part of reality that science studies for the whole.

Under scientism, what is scientifically perceivable exists; what is not scientifically perceivable does not. Theistic scientism modifies this somewhat, in that what is not scientifically perceivable may exist, but it does not act on what is scientifically perceivable (else it would itself be perceivable).

But wait: What is scientifically perceivable? By construction, by assumption, science looks at only natural causes and effects (actually, only repeatable, natural causes and effects). Is it any wonder, then, that supernatural causes and effects aren't scientifically perceivable? But it doesn't follow that, because they aren't -- practically by definition -- scientifically perceivable, they don't exist. If you purposely don't include something, the fact that you don't wind up including it isn't evidence that it isn't there. It's like saying, "Not counting me, there are no humans in this room. Therefore, there are no humans in this room."

Such theistic scientism results in both a false dualism and a false fideism. The dualism opposes the natural and supernatural on the basis of science's exclusion of the supernatural. It holds that natural causes are absolutely sufficient to explain natural effects, to the degree that if a natural cause is found, there is no supernatural cause.

The fideism is the medium in which the tensions between theism and scientism are resolved: We believe in all sorts of things that aren't scientifically perceivable. Why? Well, we just do. Such belief is not true (i.e., scientific) knowledge, and must be prepared to adapt itself to whatever new natural causes science might uncover. Still, a belief can be true without us really knowing that it's true.

Theistic scientism uses physics as its metaphysics, then allows for religious faith to fit around it as best it can. This basic error of taking the part for the whole, one perspective for the objectively normative perspective, can lead to all sorts of nonsense, from the functional Deism of certain Catholic scientists to the suggestion that the immediate creation of the human soul is "crude creationism" to the whacked-out neopaganism of the New Universe Story and similar idiocies that fall afoul of Spong's Law of Theophysical Asininity.


Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Expert advice

Thanks to Elaine, I found a passage in St. Jerome (Letter 107, 12) in which he suggests a (rather detailed) course of instruction in the Holy Scriptures for the daughter of Laeta, who had written him asking how to bring her up as a consecrated virgin:
Let her treasures be not silks or gems but manuscripts of the holy scriptures; and in these let her think less of gilding, and Babylonian parchment, and arabesque patterns, than of correctness and accurate punctuation.

Let her begin by learning the psalter, and then let her gather rules of life out of the proverbs of Solomon. From the Preacher let her gain the habit of despising the world and its vanities. Let her follow the example set in Job of virtue and of patience.

Then let her pass on to the gospels never to be laid aside when once they have been taken in hand.

Let her also drink in with a willing heart the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles.

As soon as she has enriched the storehouse of her mind with these treasures, let her commit to memory the prophets, the heptateuch [Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges], the books of Kings and of Chronicles, the rolls also of Ezra and Esther.

When she has done all these she may safely read the Song of Songs but not before: for, were she to read it at the beginning, she would fail to perceive that, though it is written in fleshly words, it is a marriage song of a spiritual bridal. And not understanding this she would suffer hurt from it.

Let her avoid all apocryphal writings, and if she is led to read such not by the truth of the doctrines which they contain but out of respect for the miracles contained in them; let her understand that they are not really written by those to whom they are ascribed, that many faulty elements have been introduced into them, and that it requires infinite discretion to look for gold in the midst of dirt.

Cyprian's writings let her have always in her hands. The letters of Athanasius and the treatises of Hilary she may go through without fear of stumbling. Let her take pleasure in the works and wits of all in whose books a due regard for the faith is not neglected. But if she reads the works of others let it be rather to judge them than to follow them.


Getting the Word out

There is, if you'll pardon me saying it, an excellent -- and terrifically important -- discussion going on in the comments of the post below. Well, this particular instantiation of the discussion may not be terrifically important, but the topic of discussion is, and some very good things are being said.

I suspect most Catholics who say that reading the Bible is hard are reading it wrong. That's understandable. The Church is still trying to get the word out (ha!) that it is right and good to read the Bible. How to read the Bible is a follow-on question.

So a good Catholic is likely to read the Bible in much the same way he would read War and Peace, or any other Improving Book: find a quiet spot, open to Page One, and begin. How far is a good Catholic likely to get? We might take a poll; pious little keener that I was, when I started at Page One as a twelve-year-old I made it to the middle of one of the Chronicles before crying, "Enough!" (But then, I was reading the Living Bible, an empty-calorie paraphrase that goes down a lot easier than any of the real translations.)

American Catholics are also likely to read the Bible in much the same way he imagines his Evangelical neighbor would read it, as a sort of textbook or Divine FAQ. This leads to all sorts of difficulties. I recall a man once telling me (I'm not sure why he thought I should know; I think I was helping out with the parish library's book sale at the time) that he had satisfied himself regarding the Biblical basis for every sacrament but Reconciliation. It just doesn't work well Catholic to have a fundamentally different understanding of Scripture than the Church has.


Monday, February 06, 2006

Dei Verbum

Discussion on a post below has turned to the traditional Catholic disinclination to read the Bible. Brandon Field makes what I think is a key point:
But, it is not necessary for Salvation for the faithful to own and read their Bible.
In Europe and North America, and perhaps wherever most Catholics are baptized as infants, there is a great emphasis on the bare necessities of salvation. Folks are perfectly willing to be Catholic, but they'd as soon leave holiness to others. As long as not reading the Bible doesn't make someone a bad Catholic, Catholics in large numbers aren't going to read the Bible.

The excerpt from Fr. Pinckaers I quoted offers a different, and likely more fruitful, tack than the "Rules for Not Being a Bad Catholic" approach.

Do you know anyone who, if God called them on the telephone, wouldn't take the call? Oh, a woman giving birth might say, "Take a message!", but in ordinary circumstances who would not knock down his grandmother to get to the phone?

And yet, things are such that the traditional Catholic ritual for reading Scripture includes the step of blowing the dust off the Bible (Old Calendarists do it after thrice crossing themselves; everyone else does it before crossing themselves once).

Which suggests to me that Catholics don't believe God is waiting to speak to them in the Scriptures. How come that?


"Women are irrational, that's all there is to that"

An odd story of the human heart:

A woman we'll call K is scandalized by the apparent indifference, not merely to Church law, but to basic human decency in a well-publicized, Church-blessed marriage. The news hurts her, because her own hoped-for Church-blessed marriage would require an annulment as well as a year of "marriage prep with a celibate single guy," which she sees as "one of the kinks we still haven't quite ironed out of the system." She decides she'll be "getting married in City Hall after all," and worry about a Church blessing later if at all.

The response to her "Bite me"? An "incredible outpouring of emails" expressing sympathy, while generally urging her to do the right thing according to the Church.

Her response? She immediately contacted her diocesan tribunal to begin the process of obtaining the Sacrament of Marriage.

Now, I may be reading too much into this particular story. K had been planning on the sacrament previously, and may well have returned to that plan on her own. But if I were to abstract a moral, it would be something like this:

People can be loved to the truth.

It's not a new or startling moral, I realize, but it's worth keeping in mind, as is its corollary: People can be hated to falsehood.

You hate someone to falsehood when your hatred of them causes them to reject the truth you represent to them. It's the old, "If you're the product of Catholicism, I'm not having any." When you hear yourself saying, "Don't let the door hit you on your way out," it's a good bet you're not loving them. And when you say, "Take it or leave it," that may well be the choice they're faced with, but you may not be the one to make them face it.


Sunday, February 05, 2006

Just a reminder

From Servias Pinckaers, OP:
Actually, Scripture, especially the Gospels, is addressed to believers rather than to scholars. This means that every Christian possesses the capacity to grasp the kernel of the Gospel, the nourishing meat within the shell of words, the Word that will touch him, convert him, lead him along the road to God. Better still, this means that God can speak directly to the heart of everyone who reads and listens to the Gospel with faith. He reveals Himself to him with the help of this text, as one person reveals himself little by little to another during conversation.

In light of this, I should like to ask you: if God has truly spoken to us in His Scripture, do you think it is enough to listen distractedly to the two or three readings at Sunday Mass? If the Lord has spoken to us, is it not because He has something essential to tell us that will interest us personally? ...

Take the Gospel in hand. Here is a letter God sends you in friendship today. Let no person, no pretext, stop you from listening to this Word, from joining in this intimate conversation.


Thursday, February 02, 2006

Divided loyalties

Well, why not? If it's good for the sport. (The Washington Post provides a little context and background.)


Caritas Splendor

In his speech last week to the Pontifical Council "Cor Unum," Pope Benedict said:
Today, the word "love" is so spoiled, worn out and abused that one almost fears to pronounce it. And yet, it is a fundamental word, an expression of the primordial reality. We cannot simply abandon it, but we must take it up again, purify it and bring it to its original splendour so that it can illumine our life and guide it on the right path.
This is certainly true, and "love" isn't the only word that has become spoiled, worn out and abused.

In advertising, "sinful" and "decadent" are used to mean "pleasurable, good tasting, and unhealthful." "Marriage" signifies a best efforts contract between (if we're lucky) two consenting adults. "Heaven" and "hell" mean "a time and place of pleasure" and "a time and place of discomfort."

Some of this is, I guess, just the natural entropy of language; over time terms become less specific in meaning. (Was it C.S. Lewis who wrote that eventually every word means either "good" or "bad"?) Some of it is the adolescent rejection and inversion of adult values. But all of it should be resisted, if Christians are to be able to proclaim their faith.

Maybe we can regard the abuse of such terms as a good sign, insofar as it shows that people are still somehow close to such ideas as love, sin, and heaven. Everyone has what he needs inside him to respond to Christ; it just wants straightening out.

It seems to me, as well, that what the Pope is inviting us to do is not so much to discard the abuses, not to say, "No! There is nothing of love in what you've been calling 'love,'" but rather to correct the abuses, to say something like, "Love is so much more than you think, and when you see how much more it is, you will see that some of the elements of your concept of love are contrary to love."

I need to reread the encyclical to be more confident, but as of now I sense a strong grace-perfecting-nature vibe in the statement, "Fundamentally, 'love' is a single reality."


Wednesday, February 01, 2006

As a theologian, he's a great astronomer

Fr. George V. Coyne, SJ, Director of the Vatican Observatory, reportedly gave a talk titled "Science Does Not Need God, or Does It? A Catholic Scientist Looks at Evolution" last night at a university in Florida. If that link does indeed "represent[] the essentials" of his presentation (I don't know why it wouldn't be, but I wasn't there), then my reservations regarding him as an authority on the intersection of science and faith are only strengthened.

A post at Cosmos-Liturgy-Sex raises several detailed objections to that text. Let me add two or three others.

After mentioning a few historical incidents showing "the ups and downs of the view ... of the Catholic Church, with respect to Darwinian evolution," Fr. Coyne proceeds:
The most recent episode in the relationship of the Catholic Church to science, a tragic one as I see it, is the affirmation by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn in his article in the New York Times, 7 July 2005, that neo-Darwinian evolution is not compatible with Catholic doctrine and he opts for Intelligent Design.
This is one of those "Only Genuine Pre-War American and British Whiskeys Served Here" statements, remarkable for the number of inaccuracies it contains. I count three.

The first and most forgivable is the assertion that the Cardinal's July 7 op-ed piece is the "most recent episode." Since then, Cardinal Schönborn has begun a series of public lectures on creation and evolution; the third has just been translated into English. In addition, he published a substantial article in last month's First Things, in which he summed up his clarification of his op-ed piece and responded to his critics. Events have moved far past July 7.

As I say, though, this is forgivable. The speech may have been written several months ago and the provided text not revised to account for what has happened since.

What is less forgivable -- not even entirely understandable, to my mind -- are the other two errors. Fr. Coyne claims Cardinal Schönborn made a double affirmation, but he is wrong about both prongs. The Cardinal did not affirm that "that neo-Darwinian evolution is not compatible with Catholic doctrine," nor did he affirm that "he opts for Intelligent Design." That Fr. Coyne would say otherwise, even without the benefit of the Cardinal's subsequent elaborations, suggests that he was reading into the Cardinal's op-ed piece opinions he expected to find, rather than what was actually there.

When Fr. Coyne turns "to interpret the scientific picture of lifeÂ?s origins in terms of religious belief," I think he demonstrates he would be better off sticking to the scientific picture. He writes:
Do we need God to explain this [scientific picture]? Very succinctly my answer is no. In fact, to need God would be a very denial of God. God is not the response to a need... We should not need God; we should accept her/him when he comes to us.
Without further development, this is simply guff. It depends on an equivocation on "need," using it first in a scientific sense of something required to explain something, then in a psychological sense of something stoutly desired.

Even leaving out the scientific part, though, it strikes me as underbaked theology. How do you square, "We should not need God," with the empirically observable fact that we do actually happen to need God? Why the false dilemma between needing God and accepting Him when he comes to us? How does needing God imply God is a need?

Fr. Coyne goes on to write:
If they respect the results of modern science, religious believers must move away from the notion of a dictator God, a Newtonian God who made the universe as a watch that ticks along regularly. Perhaps God should be seen more as a parent or as one who speaks encouraging and sustaining words.
This I would call a straw man argument. "Perhaps God should be smoremroe as a parent" than "a dictator God"? In blog lingo, ya think?
God lets the world be what it will be in its continuous evolution. He does not intervene, but rather allows, participates, loves.
I agree with David that this sort of language suggests "that Fr. Coyne seems to fall into a sort of scientism." He wants religious belief to stop sticking its nose into modern science, yet he insists that modern science -- which operates only by assuming axioms that are not true -- gives a true picture of God. The argument looks like this:
  1. Modern science assumes God does not intervene.
  2. Modern science does not observe God intervening.
  3. Therefore, God does not intervene.
Even setting aside the tendentiousness of implying that "God intervenes" makes any theological sense, the argument is question-begging as structured.

There is a sort of milquetoast theology in claiming that God deals with the universe like a parent allowing a child to grow up, but to properly engage it (which I suspect would involve shredding it, with all parties involved agreeing not to mention it ever again) it would need to be disentangled from the scientism which, in Fr. Coyne's case at least, gave it birth.


With non-rapt attention

A post at Flos Carmeli suggests that I am puzzled, when in fact I am merely correct.

What that post's author misses -- I say this imputing no blame; pious convention refers to such Carmelite inattentiveness in terms of contemplative rapture, a circumlocution I can work with -- is that the part of my post he refers to was written from the perspective of a[n imagined] disappointed reader who wants the Pope to insist on concrete and dramatic changes within the Church now, in proof-text-worthy terms.

There may be some irony, for those who look for such things, in that where the encyclical calls for concrete and dramatic action, it does so in markedly un-proof-text-worthy terms.

Well, it does have this sort of thing:
People who pray are not wasting their time, even though the situation appears desperate and seems to call for action alone.
But it's a pretty sad conversation that requires a participant to say, "Wait a minute! Didn't you read what the Pope wrote? 'People who pray are not wasting their time'!"

Be that as it may, most of the call-to-actionable stuff in the encyclical is more along these lines:
Interior openness to the Catholic dimension of the Church cannot fail to dispose charity workers to work in harmony with other organizations in serving various forms of need, but in a way that respects what is distinctive about the service which Christ requested of his disciples.
Asking yourself whether your charitable work serves in a way that respects what is distinctive about the service which Christ requested of His disciples is an action the Pope calls us to, but it's not a particularly dramatic or percussive act. It ought to effect some change in the Church, but I don't think it will cause anyone to say, "Non serviam! I don't need to serve in a way that respects what is distinctive about the service Christ requested!" It is, so to speak, a "soft" action, something a person can claim to have done without having done it.

Maybe the distinction I'm looking for is that this is a teaching letter, not the disciplinary letter I suspect a lot of people were hoping for (and not a few fearing). And I mean "disciplinary" in a broad sense, including not only correction and punishment, but a program of training and formation.