instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Another felix typo

In a reflection on the Feast of the Visitation, Fr. Jordan of DC OLV Happenings writes:
Might this Marian feast and what it teaches not also suggest that the graces of Go are waiting to visit you each day ....
Certainly in hastening to visit her cousin, Mary was filled with the graces of Go.

What's holding you back?



Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Happy Feast Day!

Today is the feast of St. Zdislava of Lemberk, if you're in the Czech Republic.

Elsewhere, her feast is January 1, which is the anniversary of her death. It's also the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, so St. Zdislava's feast is not observed liturgically.

Except by her fellow Dominicans, who have moved her feast day to January 4. Which is also the Memorial of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, so St. Zdislava's feast is not observed liturgically by the Dominican Provinces of the U.S.

Which is why I observe it on May 30.

This is also the centenary of her beatification. (And no, I didn't realize my webpage on her was linked on the Press Office of the Czech Bishops' Conference page announcing the commemoration of the centenary.)


When the student is ready

Hey, what do you know!


The Short Shrifts of the Holy Spirit

In an ecclesial "What's Hot/What's Not" list, you'd find "Charisms" in the first column and "The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit" in the second. Evidently, humans can only maintain the heat of a fixed number of things, so as attention on charisms has increased, the Seven Gifts have consequently taken it in the neck.

Whether or not anything in the above paragraph is true, here is what you find in the Catechism's index under "Holy Spirit, gifts of the Holy Spirit":
gifts of the Holy Spirit, 1830-32
charism of healing, 1508
charisms, 799, 951
charity as the fruit of the Holy Spirit and of the fullness of the Law, 1824
chastity, 2345
in Confirmation, 1289, 1303
in episcopal consecration, 1556, 1558
fear of God, 2217
fruits of the Holy Spirit, 736, 1832
grace, 2003
grace of repentance and conversion, 1433
love, 733, 735, 2712
in the power of forgiving sins, 976
in the sacrament of
Anointing of the Sick, 1520
Holy Orders, 1538, 1585-89
Matrimony, 1624
seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, 1831, 1845
what is necessary for receiving, 1310
wisdom, faith, and discernment, 2690
If you check the links (go ahead; this post should still be here when you get back), you'll find that most of these refer to graces generally, or to specific graces other than the Canonical Seven, or to the Holy Spirit Himself, Whose proper name is Gift. About all the Catechism tells us about the seven gifts as listed in Isaiah 11:2-3 is this:
1830. The moral life of Christians is sustained by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These are permanent dispositions which make man docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

1831. The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. They belong in their fullness to Christ, Son of David.[Cf. Isa 11:1-2.] They complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them. They make the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations.
Let your good spirit lead me on a level path. [Ps. 143:10]
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God . . . If children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ. [Rom 8:14,17]
If, then, there's much worth understanding about the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit beyond the above, we'll need to look elsewhere.

But given the profusion of terms that all mean nearly the same thing -- gift, grace, charism ("after the Greek term used by St. Paul and meaning 'favor,' 'gratuitous gift,' 'benefit'") -- we'd want as a guide someone capable of making sound distinctions and clear definitions. At the same time, these being things of God, our guide should be someone close to God, learned by Divine light and not merely human reason.

Where do you suppose such a guide might be found?



Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The St. Peter Principle

"O you of little faith," Jesus said to Peter at the end of his ill-fated walk on the water, "why did you doubt?"

"Impetuous" is the word used when we want to be respectful or kind toward St. Peter; other words are used when we don't.

Still, not many of us have ever walked on water, even for a few steps. We stay in the boat. Not only don't we say, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water," it doesn't even occur to us as a thing we could say.

But, you know, we could.

If we arrive at the other side without once getting in over our heads, that might mean that our faith in Christ never wavered. Or it might mean we just stayed in the boat.


Thursday, May 24, 2007

Noting a felix typo

My favorite remains "the gaols of sex," from a mailing list discussion on sexual morality and the natural law (the person who typed that dissented from Church teaching), but I just came across this at Siris:
issues of pacifism and just wary theory
They are indeed issues that call for caution.



Monday, May 21, 2007

Setting the scene for the happy ending

All good romantic comedies end with a wedding. The story of the cosmos is no exception. (Though it is unusual in that the wedding feast is eternal.)

The Crucifixion and Resurrection are the Hero's final victory, in which He defeats His rival and wins the hand of His Bride. (And what she ever saw in the rival I'll never know*.)

We are now in the time between the betrothal and the wedding. The Groom has given us a job: Get ready for the celebration!

There's a lot to do -- we need to pass out the invitations, and set up the tables, and make sure we've got enough oil for the lamps. But the Groom is doing all the hard work. He writes the invitations, provides the tables, pays for the oil.

The Groom's Father has even sent a Wedding Planner to make sure everything goes right. Best if we listen to the Planner, but either way He will see to it that what the Father wants for His Son's wedding, the Father gets.

And the Groom well knows that setting up for a party is thirsty work, so He's provided Wine (and Bread, too) for us to refresh ourselves as needed. No fear of running out, either.

All for the party when the Groom and His Bride begin to live happily ever after.

*. Clio has a multi-post look at "bad boys" (starting here) that may shed some light on the fascination.


Friday, May 18, 2007

A word to the wise

Since his ordination last year, my parish's parochial vicar has said, "Let all faithful Catholics come receive our Lord," just before distributing Communion at every Mass he's presided over.

This has caused consternation among some who aren't quite sure what it means to be a "faithful" Catholic.

The idea, of course, is to remind people that there are rules about who may receive the Eucharist. As Fr. Greg says:
Yes, when I say "faithful Catholics", I am mainly referring to Catholics who are in a state of Grace. But, it would seem a bit too legalistic to say that at Communion each time. I'd rather it be more of a spiritual invitation than a statement of a rule. And, the latter part of my statement – "come receive our Lord" - is more of the focus than the former part.
Clearly, "faithful Catholics" is a shorthand formula rather than an accurate description. In thinking about it, I quickly came to the realization that it's simply impossible to say who "can and must be admitted to holy communion" in a way that is both accurate and non-legalistic. An accurate statement is necessarily legalistic, since it requires quoting or at least paraphrasing canon law.

Moreover, there's no way of briefly stating all the ways in which one might be "not prohibited by law" from receiving our Lord, nor is there a way of stating all these ways positively (somewhere in there there's got to be a "not conscious of grave sin"-type clause).

Still -- and as harrowing as what I'm about to type is when you stop and think about it -- we Catholic Internet rats are all hep to what Canon Law says in re: participation in the Most Holy Eucharist. My new thought this week on the topic is this:

Participation in the Most Holy Eucharist isn't supposed to be legalistic, complicated, and negative.

That is, the Most Holy Eucharist is intended to be celebrated among a people none of whom is unbaptized (Can. 912), or is excommunicated or interdicted or obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin (Can. 915), or is conscious of grave sin without sacramental confession (Can. 916), or is absent from Mass (Can. 917, 918), or has not fasted (Can. 919).

In short, if everyone in the world were a Catholic who properly prepared -- through confession and fasting -- for every Mass they assisted at, there would be no need for all that legalism, complexity, and negativity. Those things arise only because the premise doesn't hold.

So we have both a contemplative conclusion and an active conclusion. The contemplative conclusion is that Canon Law (of all things) points to the nature of the unity of the Church intended by Christ. The active conclusion is that we should get everyone in the world to be a Catholic who properly prepares for every Mass they assist at.


Thursday, May 17, 2007

Just doing his job

Recently, I heard a talk by Fr. Bill Byrne, Chaplain of the Catholic Student Center at the University of Maryland. (Some of you may have listened to the homily he gave to the 20,000 who attended this year's Youth Mass for Life in January.)

Inspired by (among other things) a slogan he saw at the campus Hillel, Fr. Byrne decided he would operate the CSC by a straightforward rule: the Center would be about Catholic kids doing Catholic things with other Catholic kids. If it wasn't 100% Catholic, he wasn't going to invest time, money, or effort in it.

One good thing about a culture in which tolerance is the only virtue is that it's easy to recognize how radical is the claim, "God loves us, and His Son is here in the tabernacle." Fr. Byrne began with that 100% Catholic claim, and once (but not until) his flock got a firm handle on that, he worked his way out from there.

He says weekly Mass attendance has gone from 350 to 1,000 in the eight years he's served as chaplain; attendance has also increased from 12 at the one daily Mass to 50 across the two daily Masses. Not phenomenal numbers, but very encouraging under the circumstances, I think. (Plus, next year there will be something like 11 men from UM studying for the priesthood.)

What's particularly heartening to me is the means Fr. Byrne has used to accomplish what he's done. He didn't set up a program devised by professional catechists; he didn't invite a New Movement (or even an old Order) in to run things (though the CSC does sponsor some organizations); he didn't find out what Catholic students were interested in and then get interested in that.

He preached Christ present in His Church.


The illusion of your illusion is my reality

Video etc. quotes a National Review article on Philip K. Dick:
His books offer hope, reminding us that, mistake-prone though we are, free will means we have at least the means of making the right decisions. As a character in Palmer Eldritch asks, "Isn't a miserable reality better than the most interesting illusion?"
That's a bit of a poser, isn't it?

On the one hand, we have St. Augustine's well-known observation, "I have had experience with many who wished to deceive, but not one who wished to be deceived."

On the other hand, we have plenty of empirical evidence that suggests many people are more than ready to choose illusion over reality.

Why might reality always be better than illusion? Perhaps because all reality comes from God, and all illusion comes from elsewhere. That makes it always better from God's perspective, but to make it always better from our perspective, we need to make our perspective always be God's perspective.

I can see two ways of attempting that: we can try to annihilate our own will, leaving only the Divine Will; or we can try to align our own will to the Divine Will.

The Christian spiritual tradition includes the language of both annihilation and alignment, though the Third Council of Constantinople makes clear that the theology is properly one of alignment:
And we proclaim equally two natural volitions or wills in [Christ] and two natural principles of action which undergo no division, no change, no partition, no confusion, in accordance with the teaching of the holy fathers. 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.
The plot twist comes when we discover that God loves us. Let me rephrase that:

God loves us!

That means His will for us really is better in every real sense than anything anyone other than God could imagine. Not only are the sufferings of this present time as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us, but the fattest, dumbest, and happiest fantasies of this present time are also as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.

Now, I don't know how you convince someone who doesn't believe God loves him that all that's true, but I am pretty sure that he will at least think the illusion of the glory to be revealed for us is better than his miserable reality.


Thursday, May 10, 2007

The place to be Tuesday is the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, DC.

In honor of the book publication in the United States of
Jesus of Nazareth
His Holiness Benedict XVI

His Excellency, The Most Reverend Pietro Sambi
Apostolic Nuncio to the United States of America


Bill Barry
Publisher, Doubleday Religious Publishing Division

Invite you and a guest to a panel presentation discussing themes from the book

The Most Reverend William E. Lori
John Allen
George Weigel

7:00 pm
Tuesday, May 15th
The Pope John Paul II Cultural Center
3900 Harewood Road, NE
Washington, D.C.


Timely, too

Since so much of my conversation on matters of faith takes place with people who spend a lot of time conversing on matters of faith, it's been helpful (and by that I mean alarming) to get out of the hothouse from time to time and talk to normal people.

With a little practice, I might even learn to talk with normal people.

Anyway, two or three days after Ten Prayers God Always Says Yes To came in the mail, I ran into this exchange elsewhere on the Internet:
Person A: A priest said to me once about such psychics that for every case in which they are right in their "premonitions", they are wrong a hundred times.

Person B: At the same time, for every prayer that is answered, there are thousands that are not.
In my ordinary stomping grounds, what Person B said would be said as an objection to the benevolence of God. The challenger may or may not be hostile to the doctrine of Divine benevolence, but the statement would be intended as part of an argument in a dispute.

In the real world, though, people don't say things like "the doctrine of Divine benevolence," they say things like, "I want to believe in God, but I just can't."

DeStefano's book provides a basis for the conversation people who say things like that want. (It can help with disputations, too, but it was written with normal people in mind.)


The Definite Decalogue

Oh, and the ten prayers God always says yes to, per Anthony DeStefano, are:
  1. God, show me that You exist.
  2. God, make me an instrument.
  3. God, outdo me in generosity.
  4. God, get me through this suffering.
  5. God, forgive me.
  6. Give me peace.
  7. God, give me courage.
  8. God, give me wisdom.
  9. God, bring good out of this bad situation.
  10. God, lead me to my destiny.


One book to say yes to

A number of bloggers have already posted on Anthony DeStefano's new book, Ten Prayers God Always Says Yes To.

There has been some talk on how gimmicky the title is, but I prefer to say that it is precise. The title isn't The Ten Prayers God Always Says Yes To, as though it's supposed to be a complete list. It isn't Ten Prayers God Always Says Yes To Immediately and Just the Way You Expect, as though God were a fast food restaurant. And it's not Ten Prayers God Always Says Yes To Or Your Money Back, as though the prayers are formal contracts with Him.

That there are prayers God always says yes to is indisputable, but He has ways of saying yes that we don't much care for or understand. It's true, for example, that if you ask God to increase your faith, He will, but explaining that in too upbeat or offhand a way (e.g., "...and in no time at all, you'll be sure to feel His grace working in your life to bring about a change!") won't do much good for (and likely will do some harm to) someone whose experience is of asking God to increase their faith without any apparent effect.

I was happy to find that DeStefano works very hard at not explaining things in too upbeat or offhand a way. He comes right out in his introduction and says:
God does say "no" to us an awful lot.
No fair reading of the book will give the impression he is arguing that certain prayers are magical or wish-fulfilling.

The question is, will people who read it -- especially those who think God always says no to them -- give it a fair reading? Will they see that it isn't preaching a Gospel of Spiritual Prosperity in Ten Easy Steps, will they properly weigh the caveats and cautions that accompany each prayer? Perhaps most importantly, will they understand these prayers as prayers, and not as foolproof magical formulas?

So while I think this would be a great book to give to someone who's having problems relating to God in prayer, if you do that I think you're obliged to follow up with them. If someone reads the book, prays to God for peace that night, and the next day says, "Well, that didn't work," then they need someone to talk to them about what they did, what they think it would mean for it to work, and so on. (And, as it happens, there's an official study guide to the book.)

Putting it more briefly, I guess I'd call Ten Prayers God Always Says Yes To a work of instruction and exhortation, rather than a handbook or guide.

I did think there were some weak spots to the book. I think he overstates how much day-to-day comfort belief in the existence of a benevolent God necessarily entails. And I think there are problems with pretty much the whole chapter on generosity, which I may get into in a later post.

On the whole, though, I think it' a fine treatment of an important topic. It's also a very practical treatment, written to and for the people who want to use what they learn from reading it.

And I will admit to being intrigued by the endnotes. DeStefano references dozen of Scriptural verses, but rarely quotes them directly. Often it's pretty obvious what sort of verse he has in mind, but sometimes there's no way to guess short of looking it up. I'd guess it would be a good exercise for a book club to take the time to look them all up and see how he's incorporated Scripture into a sentence or paragraph without simply relying on a direct quotation or allusion to carry all his weight for him.

Oh, and there were also a couple of good images that I intend to steal for my own use. In particular, I liked the one comparing how God talks to us to waking up in the morning. First, there's the faint and gentle scent of bacon and coffee drifting up from the kitchen. Then there's the increasingly bright daylight. If none of that works, there's nothing for it but the sudden jarring buzz of the alarm. (Then we ask ourselves, "How could someone who loves us wake us up with an alarm clock?")

Here's hoping we all learn to wake up to God when He still has time to use gentle means.


"You profess Chalcedon,
Or you take a beatin'"

Deacon Payne -- Seminary Formationator.

(Link via open book.)


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Some of us are looking at the scars

Like an idiot, I keep forgetting that 90% of everybody is an idiot.

Which is to say, I keep forgetting that it's idiotic to tell someone who does something idiotic, "That's idiotic!," because thinking it wasn't idiotic isn't why the idiot did it in the first place. Even if you beat the 9:1 odds against convincing him it was idiotic, you've still got to beat another 9:1 odds against him caring that it was idiotic.

"The heart has its reasons," Pascal said, "which reason knows nothing of." True enough, and so does the eye, and the stomach, and the fist.


Theophysics is bunk

When physicists talk about a Theory of Everything, they basically mean a theory that accounts for both general relativity and quantum mechanics.

Some people, though, want a Theory of Everything that accounts for both general relativity and the Atonement. This is basically what I mean by "theophysics."

The desire for theophysics seems to come from two directions. In my experience, most who have it seem to lack faith in faith; they have a science-shaped hole in their Christian faith.

But there are also those who have an excess of faith in science. They find a science-shaped bung, so to speak, like an extra piece in a jigsaw puzzle, that they want to use to patch up or at least reinforce their faith.

In both cases, people fail to realize that physics and theology are not directly related sciences. Neither is a special case of the other. As the blessed John Paul II wrote, "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth." Rising on two wings is challenge enough; if faith really were a subset of reason, if there were really only a single wing, the human spirit would never get off the ground.

Now, the differences between faith and reason have been recognized for a long time. How they can be unified is just Aquinas 101 -- or, technically, I,1,i:
Sciences are differentiated according to the various means through which knowledge is obtained... Hence theology included in sacred doctrine differs in kind from that theology which is part of philosophy.
But this is a unity of complementarity, not (as with a Theory of Everything) a unity of identity. And it's a complementarity between theology (as included in sacra doctrina) and philosophy, whereas theophysicists want an identity between theology and physics.

The problem is that "no science deals with individual facts," and Christianity deals with nothing if not with the individual facts of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Contrary to the claim of Frank J. Tipler, Christianity is not -- it flat can't be -- "a branch of physics."

On the other hand, plenty of the people with science-shaped holes in their faith seem more than ready to dispose of the individual facts of Christianity. It is within their power to do so, but the resulting theophysics will at best be only accidentally compatible with faith in Christ.

So, whether you start with theology or you start with physics, if you wind up at theophysics you've gone in the wrong direction.


Monday, May 07, 2007

Supplication to Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompeii

To be recited on the 8th of May and the first Sunday in October.

Bl. Bartolo Longo, who wrote the prayer, is an unlikely hero of the Church. Not only was he a lawyer, he was also ordained as a priest in a satanic cult.

Eventually, he lost his wits, regained them enough to reconcile with the Church and become a Dominican tertiary, then handed them over once and for all to the Blessed Virgin and the apostolate of the Holy Rosary. He established the Shrine (now a basilica) of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary in Pompeii, and promoted the Rosary for the last five decades of his life, following the inspiration, "Whoever spreads the Rosary is saved!"

The blessed John Paul II referred to him several times in his Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, even concluding the letter with a quotation from the Supplication:
O Blessed Rosary of Mary,
Sweet chain which unites us to God,
Bond of love which unites us to the angels,
Tower of salvation against the assaults of Hell,
Safe port in our universal shipwreck,
We will never abandon you.
You will be our comfort in the hour of death:
Yours our final kiss as life ebbs away.

And the last word from our lips will be your sweet name,
O Queen of the Rosary of Pompei,
O dearest Mother,
O Refuge of Sinners,
O Sovereign Consoler of the Afflicted.
May you be everywhere blessed,
Today and always,
On earth and in heaven.
(Post prompted by Vultus Christi.)


Saturday, May 05, 2007

It's not a good idea, it's just the law

On the one hand, I have an undergraduate degree in physics and a baptismal certificate in Christianity. I certainly value and accept the truths of both.

On the other hand, I stand by Spong's Law of Theophysical Asininity, which states:
Whenever a person appeals to quantum physics as the basis for a theological or religious principle, he is making an ass of himself.
So what am I to make of a book, sent to me by its publisher, titled The Physics of Christianity, in which Frank J. Tipler argues inter alia that
Jesus could have risen from the dead by making use of the baryon-annihilation process... We must gain control of this process in order to prevent the violation of unitarity in the far future, a violation that would destroy the universe if it occurred. By dying and rising again, Jesus not only paid the price for our sins but also gave us the knowledge to save the entire universe from destruction.
In one sentence: Spong's Law still holds.

Without getting into details, let me propose that there are two major problems with the book: its humorlessness and its intended audience.

I think the problem with most crackpot theories -- and make no mistake, that's what we're dealing with here -- is that they are proposed with too little humor. (I should mention that no one yet has managed to explain modern physics without appealing to a crackpot theory, and of course Christianity is itself based on the absurdity that God loves us enough to die for us, so the problem with this book isn't the mere presence of crackpottedness.)

It's not that Professor Tipler doesn't realize his are fringe ideas, it's that he doesn't account for that fact. Instead of writing, "I will continue to believe in the fundamental laws of physics even if doing so results in my professional death as a physicist," as he does in his conclusion, I think he should write something like, "I know these are some crazy ideas, but what if the universe is crazy?" Instead of a martyrly "here I stand" pose, a jesterly "join me in the fool's corner for a moment" might win a more sympathetic reading.

But then, who is it to whom he would be saying, "Join me for a moment"? His presentation of the physics is too tendentious and dogmatic to be accepted by people who know enough physics, and people who don't know enough physics can't critically evaluate his claims. Those who accept his claims uncritically are likely to wind up thinking they understand quantum mechanics better than professional physicists, when in fact all they understand is that most professional physicists disagree with Professor Tipler. (As for me, I'm in the position of knowing enough not to accept his claims uncritically, but not enough to pronounce definitively on each of them.)

Modern physics tells us the universe is a lot weirder than it appears. Christianity tell us that modern physics doesn't know the half of it. I think a great book could be written about the relationship between them, but The Physics of Christianity isn't it.

[Full disclosure: I only read up to page 27, then the concluding section, and a few bits here and there in between. This post isn't so much a book review as a comment on a book that didn't make it through my reading triage process.]



Friday, May 04, 2007

It's only a model

In a comment below, Gregg the Obscure asks a great question:
Given [the rules of thumb from the Sit on It Model], how can a Christian have a non-toxic discussion about Christ with a non-Christian?
The answer would be, I guess, "Very carefully."

I keep ignoring the other factors that go into how a person regards a particular thing -- what am I up to now? Doubt, humor, charity, and firmness. They all affect how zeal and anti-zeal will interact.

Meanwhile, the rule of thumb in the dynamic post suggests that a zealous Christian may well cause at least temporary anti-Christian zeal by discussing Christ online.

What the model suggests, though, is something like this:
To win someone to his side, a zealot should try to increase both how highly the person regards the particular thing and how deeply the person feels about the subject.
If a zealot (at point Z in the diagram) wants the person he's talking to (at point A) to join him in his opinion and his depth of feeling, he can't just make him feel more deeply, since that might produce anti-zeal (at e.g. point B).

A dispassionate discussion with an honest partner can raise the partner's opinion to the point (e.g., C) where making him feel more deeply will have a good effect. I'd guess it's more natural, though, to increase both opinion and depth of feeling at the same time (shown by the meandering line from A to Z).

Keep in mind, though, that the Sit on It Model was developed to help describe how things go bad (and at that, it does little more than point out the obvious). If you want things to go well, better to refer to the P-F-A Model.


A dynamic post

My first post on [what, after reading a comment about it at Catholic and Enjoying It!, I must now call] the Sit on It Model of Toxic Discussions presented the static view, to look at what happens when people with fixed opinions and depth of feeling regarding a particular thing discuss it.

But of course, people don't always have fixed opinions and depth of feeling regarding a particular thing. As a discussion goes on, depth of feeling is especially likely to change -- in fact, generally speaking people simply don't change their opinion during an on-line discussion about something they enter the discussion with a firm opinion on.1,2

I'll propose the following rule of thumb:
Zealots cause an increased depth of feeling in people who do not agree with them.
If, for example, there is a zealot at point Z in the diagram below involved in a discussion, then the effect of his contributions on a person at point A is likely to be a movement to the right. In other words, the zealot will not change the other person's opinion, but he will make that person feel his own opinion more deeply.

That's just good old-fashioned human contrariness. People respond to strong emotion with strong emotion. If the response is strong enough, it can even turn a person into an anti-zealot (e..g., point B).

Typically, though, emotions will calm down, and the depth of feeling will move back to the left. But it may not return to where it was before. Temporary zeal can affect a person, leaving him feeling more deeply about something than he did before (point C). At other times, it can leave him worn out, feeling less deeply than he did (point D).

Thanks to contrariness, then, you don't even need anti-zealots in a population to turn a discussion toxic. Zeal can produce anti-zeal where none existed before.

1. This is not to say on-line discussion doesn't change firmly held opinions. In my experience, though, the change usually happens afterwards, as someone thinks things through.

2. "Firmness" is yet another dimension of a person's opinion that I'm leaving out of the model. It's basically a measure of how hard it is for how highly a person regards a particular thing to change.


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Zealotry in 2-D

I've come up with a model of how online discussions of perfectly reasonable topics go toxic. It's based on the proposition that how one behaves during a discussion depends both on what one's opinion is and on how deeply the opinion is felt. You can have a very high opinion of something but not hold it very deeply, or a low opinion you don't hold deeply, and so on.

There are other dimensions to one's opinion and behavior -- how much doubt one has of his opinion, for example, and with how much humor he hold his opinion -- but let me keep it two-dimensional for now.

So we have something like this to model attitudes toward some particular thing:

As you can see, there are three zones in this diagram. Someone who has a sufficiently high opinion of a thing, given how deeply he feels it, is a zealot. Someone with a sufficiently low opinion, relative to depth of feeling, is an anti-zealot. And the stronger someone feels, the less highly [or lowly] he has to regard the thing to be a[n anti-]zealot.

By its nature, zeal for a particular thing regards discussion of that particular thing the way a child regards a motel swimming pool: it jumps right in at the first opportunity and won't come out until it's forced to. When zeal and anti-zeal are both present, they ensure that, whatever else might force an end to the discussion, it won't be a lack of things to say. I'll put my first, not particularly original, rule of thumb this way:
When a zealot and an anti-zealot are involved in a discussion of the particular thing they are zealous about, the discussion goes toxic.
If I think of a topic of discussion as a set of related particular things -- that is, of things one can have higher or lower opinions of -- then I can propose this additional rule of thumb:
If a topic includes two particular things such that a zealot of one particular thing is likely to be an anti-zealot of the other particular thing, and if zealots are not too rare, then discussion of the topic is likely to go toxic.
Since zeal is so reactive, it doesn't have to be very concentrated in the general population for it to be expressed in a discussion. And once zeal is expressed, any anti-zeal in the general population will respond.

This, as I say, is just the nature of zeal. Stones, when released, fall; zealots, when capable, express zeal. Non-zealots are fully aware of this, and by their nature are averse to the toxins a discussion between zealots and anti-zealots can produce. So as the topic is revisited within a general population, the concentration of non-zealots involved is likely to decrease. This leads to the third rule of thumb:
Discussion of a topic is more likely to go toxic again if it has already gone toxic before.
Again, nothing revolutionary in Internet sociology. It might offer some insight into the toxicity of discussions on the topic of liturgy, but since discussion of discussion of the topic of liturgy has proved toxic, I'll leave that as an exercise to the reader.