instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, December 21, 2009

It has to be said

In comments below, folks are riffing on Fr. Richard Rohr's timely claim that, "Bethlehem was more important than Calvary." Was Calvary necessary, and if so in what sense? Was Bethlehem necessary, and if so in what sense?

Absolute necessity is a tough concept, and even tougher when a creature tries to apply it to the Creator.

Even our basis for declaring the necessity of His existence seems to be contingent upon the existence of His contingent creation. If only God existed, would it follow that He necessarily exists?

I suppose logical necessity as applied to God is chiefly a matter of making sure we aren't talking nonsense. It's not God Who is bound by human logic, it's human reasoning that is bound; if I assert something about God that is contrary to logic -- something that is both true and not true at the same time in the same way, for example -- I've said something nonsensical. To say that God can't break the law of non-contradiction isn't to proscribe God's power, it's to recognize that the contrary claim -- that God can break the law of non-contradiction -- is meaningless.

When it comes to the specifics of God's revelation, and particularly the life, death, and resurrection of His Son, I think we're better off leaving the word "necessary" out of the discussion. These are the means by which God has chosen to offer us eternal life with Him; being chosen by God, they are (by logical necessity) the best means to achieve His will.

But we don't know God's will in full. We know it in part: the part that has been revealed to us. And we can, hesitatingly and humbly, infer more of it from the means chosen to fulfill it -- free will, for example, seems key.

So to say this or that event was "necessary" is to risk proscribing God's will in a way that God has not revealed it to be proscribed. That's a risky thing to do, not least because God's will can sometimes be identified with the Holy Spirit (St. Catherine of Siena did this often, the reasoning being that what one wills, one loves, and the love of God is the Holy Spirit even as the knowledge of God is the Son and the power of God is the Father). And we don't want to set limits on the Holy Spirit.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Here's an image you can copy and turn into a festive button in honor of the Nativity of Our Lord:

The colors -- red, green, and gold -- are traditionally associated with Christmas.

The design represents the fact that 70% of the world's population lives in countries that have a high or very high restriction on religion.

Feliz Navidad!

(Link via Reckshow.)


Friday, December 18, 2009

You just might find you get what you need

I am of the "the more the merrier" school of canonization. If we know someone's a saint, let's make it official, says I. So I'm all for the canonization of Bl. Mary MacKillop.

What I'm not for is the "patron saint of troublemakers" angle suggested by Fr. James Martin, SJ.

We've already got St. Jerome as the patron saint of jerks and St. Catherine of Siena as the patron saint of loudmouths -- meaning that jerks and loudmouths often justify being jerks and loudmouths by invoking those two saints (though not, you'll notice, the bits about him living in a cave or her living in a closet).

One thing the Church most definitely does not need are troublemakers justifying being troublemakers by invoking St. Mary MacKillop (while skipping the bit about her life of poverty teaching in converted stables).

What I can see being useful, though, is troublemakers praying to St. Mary MacKillop for help, since prayers for help tend to result in the help needed, which isn't always the help prayed for.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Same old story

It's a failure on my part -- of imagination if nothing else -- but I simply do not get it when adult Catholics say things like this:
At Christmas Eve Mass in my parish every year I hear the proclamation of the genealogy of Jesus, Christianity's central figure, stating that all of creation is only a few thousand years old. I wince when I hear it because of the update we got that is the cosmological story science has been telling us for the last hundred years.
Is "The Gospels are not scientific treatises" really such a difficult concept to grasp? Can anyone pay enough attention to wince without bothering to look into the matter enough to discover that the Gospel genealogies, if read literally, contradict each other and the Old Testament, so maybe they shouldn't be read literally enough to wince over them?

The curiosity of specifying which Jesus has His genealogy proclaimed at Christmas Eve Mass every year -- "Jesus, Christianity's central figure," not Jesus Gonzales the boxer -- might tip you off that this is an excerpt from the National Catholic Reporter. Specifically, it's the opening of an interview with Fr. Richard Rohr on "the eternal christ in the cosmic story."

Rather than responding with a terse, "What are you, seven?," Fr. Rohr answers in part:
Christian scripture, in fact, gives us Jesus' place in that history counted in billions of years if you look for it -- in the prologue to John's Gospel, for example, or in the Pauline hymns of the letters to the Colossians and Ephesians, or in the opening of John's first letter. All speak of Christ existing from all eternity. We just don't see those references. They've never been unpacked for the majority of Christians, and we don't have theology to know how to see it.
There's so much that is so foreign to me here, I'm not sure I even understand what he's saying. The majority of Christians don't know that Christ is eternal? We don't have... theology...?

Granted, "Chalcedon" may not be an everyday word among most Christians. But criminy, Catholics have been saying the Creed in the vernacular for a while now. Doesn't anyone ever hear themselves say "eternally begotten of the Father"?

I'd say a major problem with this whole "new universe story" nonsense is the pretense that it's new. If it didn't have to be new, if it weren't being sold as an improvement over that cramped embarrassment known as pre-the-century-of-your-birth Christianity, then purveyors like Fr. Rohr could spare us the bad history and insults to the benighted fools who lived before our day.

They might also be less likely to try to stuff Christ into last Tuesday's cosmology, while thinking they were giving Him more room. "'From the beginning' means from the time of the Big Bang 14 billion to 15 billion years ago" is bad doctrine, both theologically and scientifically.

Sure, we'd still be left with a dodgy pre-Chalcedonian Christology:
The Gospels are about the historical Jesus. Paul, however, whose writings make up a third of the New Testament, never talks about that Jesus. He is talking about the Christ. Jesus is the microcosm; Christ is the macrocosm....

Jesus died, Christ arose.
But at least the ensuing argument would be about the Faith, not about potted history or anecdotal sociology.

We might even, occasionally, find interesting things to say to each other:
The real trump card of Christianity is not just that we believe in God. The mystery we are about is much more than that: It's that the material and the spiritual coexist. It's the mystery of the Incarnation...

Incarnation is already redemption. Bethlehem was more important than Calvary.
It is, after all, in resistance to a contradiction, not in merely contradicting, that true and false will be revealed and uncovered.


Monday, December 14, 2009

The branch theory

I was recently reminded of a physicist, an adult convert to Catholicism, who says he considers Christianity to be a branch of physics. Even more recently, I realized the problem I have with a certain Catholic blogger could be put in these terms: he considers Christianity to be a branch of politics.

From there, I figured I could branch out. Do some Christians consider Christianity to be a branch of psychiatry? Of military science? Of social work?

I wouldn't think many do this sort of thing consciously. But it's easy enough to interpret and even tailor your religious faith according to some other reference that comes to you more naturally (due to temperament or habit, say).

The physicist (something of an anomaly, since he's explicit in his perspective) evidences his own branch theory by trying to find cosmological answers to theological questions. The political branch theorist speaks of Church matters only in political terms (often as not drawing explicit parallels between the Church and the U.S. Congress).

Do I see the Christian Faith as a part, or as a whole?


Sunday, December 13, 2009

The personal is the political

Through a fortuitous Twitter exchange, it was discovered that I -- a nondenominational subsidiaritist -- and Rodak -- a hippie liberal -- share at least one principle of good government.

We both believe in taxing into extinction whatever we personally don't like.

Now if we can just find something neither of us likes, we can get the political action committee up and running.

I'll start by suggesting we tax into extinction commercials that:
  1. advertise products and services the nature of which cannot be explicitly described in the commercial;
  2. feature people happier to be in fast food restaurants than anyone has ever been to be anywhere;
  3. teach the lesson, "If you're a complete moron like me, you need this product";
  4. are selling dolls that secrete; and/or
  5. tell you whom to vote for... if you lived in a different state! Maryland political ads are bad enough; why are you telling me about what a[n awful/ wonderful] person Clown X For Virginia Governor is?
Oh, and the USC Marching Band.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Felix typo alert

I just received an email asking me to use the link given to log into my PayPal account because "We have reason to believe that your account was accessed by a third party."

Curious, since the email address in question is unassociated with a PayPal account.

Who is the email from?




Don't haste

We all know about the fallacy of "hasty generalization," which can be defined as "draw[ing] a conclusion about a population based on a sample that is not large enough."

Could we distinguish a related phenomenon -- call it "hasty moralizing" -- defined as "drawing a moral from a story that doesn't teach that moral"?

Here's how it might happen: Something happens to which I have a strong but unremarkable reaction. Someone insults my reindeer necktie, for example, and I am angered and embarrassed. Because my reaction is strong, I want to communicate something about it, but because my reaction is unremarkable (and possibly unflattering to me) I don't want to communicate the basic facts. "Someone insulted my reindeer necktie, and I am angered and embarrassed," is the sort of communication Twitter is rightly mocked for promoting.

So what do I do? I invent a moral. (Invention is necessary, you see, because the actual moral of the story -- "insults can hurt people's feelings" -- is far too insipid to match the strength of my feelings about this.)
It is quite clear, when you think about it, that whimsy -- or no, we needn't even go that far -- that simple good humor in casual fashion is nowadays looked upon as a heresy everywhere to be stamped out.
And hey presto, I've turned my hurt feelings into a critique of modern culture.

Except it isn't, really, right? I mean, it may be the case that simple good humor in casual fashion is nowadays looked upon as a heresy everywhere to be stamped out, but if so then it's just a coincidence. I wasn't engaging in any real social criticism, I was just making stuff up so I would feel better. Not only am I standing firm against the tide of unreason, but I've put the person who insulted me in the vanguard of the... of the tide.

And having hastily moralized, I am subsequently safe from any sort of "quit whining" dart, because it's not about me, you see, but about the cultural meaning of fashion, and if you can't see that, well then, really.


Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Bernoulli's Wager

In a comment below, Rodak proposes thinking of the problem of anthropogenic global warming as a "classic Pascal's Wager situation," with a 2-by-2 payoff matrix something like this::

AGW is realAGW isn't real
Take action against AGWBillions of lives savedcleaner environment; sustainable energy
Don't take action against AGWBillions die; civilization collapsesA lot of bother avoided

I see two fundamental problems with this proposal.

First, neither "whether AGW is real" nor "whether to take action against AGW" is a binary variable. AGW can be "real" in an infinite variety of ways, and action against it can also be as varied as you like. Even if we discretize the variables over regions of small variability, we will wind up with far more than four possible outcomes. The above 2-by-2 matrix is merely an extract from a much larger (arguably infinite) table of possibilities. [1]

And how they are extracted brings me to the other problem: The payoffs are unknown.

Climate and society are both chaotic systems -- in fact, since they affect each other, they're chaotic subsystems of a larger chaotic system with a vast number of variables. The best climate models in the world have not been validated, the uncertainty of economic models is empirically established and recognized in law... and these models all produce input for the even sketchier models of what we really care about, which is the common good (of which I won't attempt a definition here).

On top of which, whatever is done will affect the system, and whatever is left undone will leave resources free to affect the system in yet other ways.

In brief, we don't have much of a handle on the real costs of any particular plan to combat AGW, nor do we have a handle on the real benefits. ("Real" here meaning "net effect on the common good," rather than "units of emissions" or "tax dollars over the next five years.") This makes casting the problem as a cost-benefit game a far thornier matter than living a moral life in the hope of an eternal reward.

1. Note that this criticism is also often, and validly, levelled at the classic Pascal's Wager. The variables there -- "whether God exists" and "whether to live as though God exists" -- are only binary when there's only a single authority defining what "God exists" and "live as though God exists" entail. In a religiously pluralistic society, you have a number of different "possible Gods," so to speak, and an even greater variety in living. (And even within, say, confessional Christianity, what is required for salvation varies depending on whom you ask.)


Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The story in full

One advantage to having the days of the week and the days of the month running on separate cycles is that, over the years, you wind up praying different mysteries of the Rosary for the same liturgical feast. And that can open up the feast in ways you might not expect.

The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, for example, strikes me as a natural for the Joyful Mysteries. It's the preface of the Annunciation (which, of course, is the Gospel reading for today), and the reflection of the Nativity (with which it's often confused), and it calls to mind the pious traditions regarding Mary's childhood that prefigure Jesus' youthful visits to the Temple.

Tuesday, though, is the traditional day for praying the Sorrowful Mysteries. Nothing quite rubs the gilt off the frame of a picture of the infant Immaculata like the thought of a sword piercing her heart as a lance pierces her Son's side.

It's all the same story, though. A story of unbelievable extravagance -- too many find it literally unbelievable -- but not a story with extraneous threads. The whole thing is gratuitous and unnecessary, but no one part of it is unneeded to tell the story as God wants it told.

The iconography of the Church -- especially, I suppose, the iconography of Lourdes -- seems to express this. The Immaculate Conception is represented, not as a conception (mercifully), nor even as a newborn (which is about as close to a conception as we'd want to get iconographically), but as Mary herself, perfect in age as well as sinlessness. The expression is not, "This event is the Immaculate Conception," but, "I am the Immaculate Conception."

She who is the Immaculate Conception stands at the foot of the Cross... and, of course, waits in the Upper Room and sits on her throne (as we'll think about next year), and intercedes at Cana and travels the roads of Galilee with her Son (2011).


Sunday, December 06, 2009

Where's the mystery?

Here's another question and answer, in full but with my emphasis, from the U.S. Catholic interview with Fr. Robert Taft, SJ:
Q: What about those who claim that the old liturgy is more "mysterious" or reverent than the new? Are they right?

A: Absolutely not. The mystery we're trying to celebrate in liturgy is the fact that Jesus Christ died and rose for our salvation, and we have died and risen through Baptism to new life in him.

That life is expressed in the liturgy. It is nourished through scripture and the Eucharist and prayer. You don't need Latin for that.

Some people think liturgy is our gift to God. If we go to church on Sunday, we're doing God a real big favor.

But our liturgy is God's gift to us, not ours to him. St. Paul is quite clear that the purpose of the liturgy is not what we do at the celebration itself. That is simply the expression and nourishment of what is supposed to be the "liturgy of life," the way we live in the world.

That's why St. Paul never uses words such as sacrifice, priesthood, or worship except to describe the life we live after the model of Christ. "It is not I who live," he writes, "but Christ who lives in me." That's the mystery the liturgy is all about.
I'd be happier if the question had been, "Say something about mystery in liturgy." As it is, I think it's too easy to dismiss the answer as a declaration of which side of a liturgical dispute Fr. Taft is on.

To do that would be to overlook his theological point, that the key mystery of the Eucharist we should be concerned with is not the Sacrament Itself, but the eternal life lived by those who receive It.

Of course, this says nothing about the relative reverence or aesthetics of different liturgical choices. Note how in his answer Fr. Taft seizes on the "mysterious" of the question but doesn't even mention the "reverent."

There's a "both/and" here, certainly. But we shouldn't focus on the mystery of the Eucharist to the detriment of the mystery of the rest of the Christian life.


Friday, December 04, 2009

I, um...



History lesson

There's an excellent, month-old interview online at U.S. Catholic with the well-known (meaning I've heard of him (pretty sure I own one of his books)) historian of Church liturgy, Fr. Robert Taft, SJ.

Some bits of it:
When I was a kid, pastors did everything they could to get people to go to Communion on Sunday. They had Men's Sunday, Women's Sunday, Family Sunday, Knights of Columbus Sunday-whatever they could do to get people to go to Communion at least once a month.
I hadn't thought that those things were done to get people to receive Communion. Maybe that's one of the reasons they have so completely disappeared now that Catholics have learned to receive at every Mass.
As I've said more than once, I have never understood why people who have never manifested the slightest creativity in any other aspect of their human existence all of the sudden think they're Shakespeare or Mozart when it comes to the liturgy.
This sounds controversial:
The best thing about [the liturgical reform following Vatican II] is that people have come once again to pray the prayer of the church rather than praying during it, which is, without any doubt, the result of celebrating the liturgy in the vernacular.
I do think there's a selection bias at work when Latin advocates say you can follow right along in your missal. Surely the Church should consider not only what can be done, but also what will be done, to include what was done.

Other successes he identifies are the restoration of the Liturgy of the Hours and of RCIA in parishes (the latter, at least, sounds controversial too).

Some more bits, quoted without comment:
What you get out of the liturgy is the privilege of glorifying almighty God. If you think it's about you, stay at home. It's not about you. It is for you, but it's not about you.
Catholics need to stop tinkering with the liturgy. They need to take it the way it is and celebrate it as well as possible. If they do that, the problems will disappear.
The two places that the Church has left to our creativity, the homily and the prayers of intercession following the readings, are the two places where our liturgies are generally irredeemably awful. If you want to be creative, devote your creativity to the places where the liturgy allows it.
(Link via dotCommonweal, which features a comment quoting Fr. Taft's reaction to being called a liturgist: "Don't call me a liturgist -– a liturgist tells somebody when to start playing the guitars. I am a historian.")


Wednesday, December 02, 2009

A quality of redemption

After I finished reading Anne Rice's new novel, Angel Time, my wife asked me, "Is it good?"

"I'm not sure," I answered.

Which isn't a good sign.

The novel tells the story of the redemption of an assassin through the direct intercession of an angel [1]. That in itself poses a problem for me. I'm all for the redemption of assassins through direct angelic intercession, so much so that I can't judge whether Rice's story is believable within the context of spiritual realism or angelic fantasy or whatever name you want to give the genre [2].

A further problem is that the assassin's redemption involves the resolution of a crisis in Thirteenth Century England. In angel time, this is no big deal, but the effect on the novel is that of two very different stories with only a tenuous link between them.

Moreover, I found the primary story -- of the contemporary assassin-turned-angel's assistant -- much more interesting than the secondary, medieval story. The latter's richly drawn characters (if you've read any Anne Rice novels, you know how sensuous her descriptions of people and places are) are let down by a too-thin plot.

On the other hand: lots of Dominicans! [3]

I don't know if the intent is to write more books about this character -- I noticed hooks for future stories, though no loose threads -- but if some of this novel's themes are to be revisited in the future, that might explain the brevity with which they are dealt. I'd read a sequel, if one appears, because I'm interested in where Anne Rice's imagination might take her reformed assassin. But as it stands Angel Time was too disjointed, with parts of it too brief, for me to find it an altogether satisfying read. [4]

1. The character's name is Toby. He goes on a trip with an angel. I almost never notice stuff like that.

2. One name not to give the genre is didactic fiction. Rice writes from her Catholic faith, but she paints a picture that is less sacramental and less Trinitarian than a full-throated "Catholic novel" would have.

3. Which is great, except then I start noticing little things, like how a close student of St. Thomas acts in a manner completely contrary to the Angelic Doctor's teaching, or how a friar is sometimes called a monk, or how a Dominican calls himself a "Friar Minor," or how (in the 13th Century) a lay brother from abroad is afforded the same respect in disputation as the local prior.

4. Oh, and for the record, mine was a free review copy.


Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Science and data, ii

The atmospheric and oceanographic data used in climate modeling have a couple of key characteristics that a lot of other scientific data sets do not have: Sparsity and scarcity.

The sparsity of the data means there are too few measurements to fully determine the global oceanographic and atmospheric state at any point in time, much less over time. Various analytical and numerical techniques are required to fuse disparate data and interpolate between points.

These techniques may or may not be controversial, and they may or may not be sound. Most of them, though, will be chosen over other techniques for the use of which there is at least some justification.

If you want to know what techniques are used, and the justification for using them rather than others, then you have to read the scientific papers describing them. Emails, particularly informal emails of a political rather than scientific nature, don't cut it.

Which brings me to the scarcity of this data. A relatively small number of organizations have ownership of most of it, and there are legitimate reasons for them to control its dissemination. If I own a certain set of raw data, then I am to some extent answerable for any conclusions anyone else draws from that data. The concern some people have expressed over data processing shenanigans on the part of the CRU would apply equally to any other organization that processed the same data.

That said, the processing of the raw data into releasable products has to be done in a manner open to verification by an independent party. If you want to verify my data processing, then I should describe what I'm doing to you at a level of detail such that you could produce the same product given the same raw data. (Ideally, at least one independent party would be given the same raw data, to complete the verification.)

Of course, we want both the data processing to be done right and the right data processing to be done. And the second question, whether the raw data was processed appropriately, is at least as technical a question as the first. We don't emerge from the womb knowing when it would be scientific malpractice to use anything less than cubic splines, so simply pointing out what processing was or wasn't done isn't an argument against it.

To sum up, climate modeling is by its nature substantially different from a lot of other scientific work. There are unconstrained choices to be made of a kind that doesn't apply if, say, you're trying to determine the boiling point of a chemical solution at one atmosphere. This means, on the one hand, that we would expect to find differences of opinion in which choices are made, and on the other hand that the conclusions are not as certain as they were in our high school science labs.

And finally, a hermeneutic of suspicion cuts all ways. That two models produce different results tells us nothing about which model is better; that two scientists disagree tells us nothing about who is more correct. It's not just that most of us don't know enough to form an independent opinion on climate change, but we don't even know enough to form an independent opinion on whose opinion on climate change we should adopt.