instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, November 19, 2010

There is no greater priority than this

The second paragraph of the introduction of Verbum Domini is a bite of lettuce many people will skip over in their hunger for something meaty.* But if there's nothing particularly new in it, there's still something particularly important. I think it can be put this way:
The Christian life is a beautiful and joyful encounter with Jesus Christ Himself, an encounter both personal and communal, and this truth must be communicated to the world.**
And, really, whatever doesn't in some way come from this and return to this isn't worth a bent pin.

* "Lettuce": Anodyne filler in a religious text, as in, "Let us come together to recommit anew...."

**Here's the paragraph. Italics in original; bolding (apart from the heading) is mine:
That our joy may be complete

Before all else, I would like to call to mind the beauty and pleasure of the renewed encounter with the Lord Jesus which we experienced during the synodal assembly. In union with with the Synod Fathers, then, I address all the faithful in the words of Saint John in his first letter: "We proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and which was made manifest to us – that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ" (1 Jn 1:2-3). The Apostle speaks to us of hearing, seeing, touching and looking upon (cf. 1 Jn 1:1) the word of life, since life itself was made manifest in Christ. Called to communion with God and among ourselves, we must proclaim this gift. From this kerygmatic standpoint, the synodal assembly was a testimony, before the Church and before the world, to the immense beauty of encountering the word of God in the communion of the Church. For this reason I encourage all the faithful to renew their personal and communal encounter with Christ, the word of life made visible, and to become his heralds, so that the gift of divine life – communion – can spread ever more fully throughout the world. Indeed, sharing in the life of God, a Trinity of love, is complete joy (cf. 1 Jn 1:4). And it is the Church's gift and unescapable duty to communicate that joy, born of an encounter with the person of Christ, the Word of God in our midst. In a world which often feels that God is superfluous or extraneous, we confess with Peter that he alone has "the words of eternal life" (Jn 6:68). There is no greater priority than this: to enable the people of our time once more to encounter God, the God who speaks to us and shares his love so that we might have life in abundance (cf. Jn 10:10).



Friday, November 12, 2010

The word and silence
In their interventions, a good number of Synod Fathers insisted on the importance of silence in relation to the word of God and its reception in the lives of the faithful. The word, in fact, can only be spoken and heard in silence, outward and inward. Ours is not an age which fosters recollection; at times one has the impression that people are afraid of detaching themselves, even for a moment, from the mass media. For this reason, it is necessary nowadays that the People of God be educated in the value of silence. Rediscovering the centrality of God's word in the life of the Church also means rediscovering a sense of recollection and inner repose. The great patristic tradition teaches us that the mysteries of Christ all involve silence. Only in silence can the word of God find a home in us, as it did in Mary, woman of the word and, inseparably, woman of silence. Our liturgies must facilitate this attitude of authentic listening: Verbo crescente, verba deficiunt.
Pope Benedict XVI
Verbum Domini, 66
What I am saying within mine own self I seek to say to you, and words fail. For I wish to speak of the Word of God.
St. Augustine, Sermon 120



Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Word becomes a way of life

In our day the faithful need to be helped to see more clearly the link between Mary of Nazareth and the faith-filled hearing of God's word. I would encourage scholars as well to study the relationship between Mariology and the theology of the word. This could prove most beneficial both for the spiritual life and for theological and biblical studies. Indeed, what the understanding of the faith has enabled us to know about Mary stands at the heart of Christian truth. The incarnation of the word cannot be conceived apart from the freedom of this young woman who by her assent decisively cooperated with the entrance of the eternal into time. Mary is the image of the Church in attentive hearing of the word of God, which took flesh in her. Mary also symbolizes openness to God and others; an active listening which interiorizes and assimilates, one in which the word becomes a way of life.
Pope Benedict XVI
Verbum Domini 27



Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Elliptical language

The expression
"Personally opposed, but..."
is used as disparaging shorthand for, "Personally opposed to abortion, but very supportive of it in my official capacity."

Shouldn't it also be used as disparaging shorthand for, "Personally opposed to abortion, but not going to spend one dime of political capital on opposing it in my official capacity"?


As a for instance

One example I'd propose of Catholics letting sentiment pass as argument is the characterizing of opposition to abortion as being "all about babies."

The problem I have with this is twofold: It's not true; and people know it's not true.

It's not true in the very narrow sense that, properly speaking, embryonic humans aren't "babies." In the abortion debate, we call them babies for rhetorical purposes; in common speech, we call them babies because a happily pregnant woman will stab you with a fork if you ask her about her "fetus." But in its primary meaning, "baby" denotes a born child, and it is sentiment, not physiology or philosophy, that calls a 14-day-old embryo a "baby," just as it is sentiment that calls a two-year-old child a "baby."

Moreover, it's not true that opposition to abortion is "all about babies" in the broader and more important sense that it's about children, and mothers, and fathers, and other members of a society. To focus on "babies" is to ignore, not only that we don't start out as babies, but that we don't remain babies. It's to ignore the role of parents, not just in pregnancy, but in raising children. It's to ignore the role of society in supporting the parents in giving birth to and raising their children.

And, as I said, people know this. People know that they do not feel the same way about the idea of a 14-day-old embryo as they do about, say, a three-month-old baby (by which term everyone understands a baby that was born three months earlier, not one that was conceived three months earlier). If the argument is, "Well, you should! They're both helpless babies!," the counter-argument will be, "Tough."

People also know that, "But it's a baby!" is no answer to a woman who does not feel capable of giving birth to and raising a child. You can't just tell someone to swap out their feelings for yours.

Last week, there was a Twitter campaign to normalize abortion by having women tweet using the "#ihadanabortion" tag. In response, there was a pro-life campaign to tweet using the "iamprolife" tag. Some of the latter tweets include:
  • #Iamprolife because babies cant say mommy please dont kill me, they need big people to say it for them.
  • #Iamprolife because babies make everything better, marriage, family, hugs, laundry(cute little clothes), first steps, toothless grinning....
  • #Iamprolife because babies are super cute!
  • #IAmProLife because I love babies. All babies. Even the "imperfect" ones.
As expressions of sentiment, I can't object to them. If feelings like these are what fuels people to good works, super!

But we should recognize that these sorts of statements aren't arguments against abortion. Some of them infantilize the very real problems many pregnant women face. ("Think of the cute little clothes you'll need but can't afford!") Some of them reinforce the prejudice that pro-life people don't care what happens once a baby is born. (Do we love all teenagers, even the "imperfect" ones?) Some of them are non sequiturs. (You want super cute babies? We got super cute babies.)

Granted, the above tweets were not offered as arguments for opposing abortion.

Granted, some people can be persuaded to oppose abortion by appeals to their feelings about babies.

That said, feelings about babies do not constitute a valid argument against abortion, and those who argue against abortion should know this and be prepared to offer valid arguments.


Monday, November 08, 2010

Sentimental about sentimentalism

Roman Catholics are a sentimental lot; and the more traditionally-minded, the more sentimental. How can we not be sentimental, when we see our faith in terms of family -- our Father in heaven, our Mother Mary, our Mother the Church, our brother Jesus, our brothers and sisters in Christ -- where those family relationships are not metaphorical, but literal and incarnate? And just look at the religious devotions of the past few centuries; not just the Rosary -- in which we pray to Mamma Mary as we meditate on Baby Jesus and Suffering Jesus -- but the Sacred Heart of Jesus (which was a big deal not so long ago) and the Immaculate Heart of Mary (ditto)).

So I suppose it's not too surprising that Roman Catholics are susceptible to committing what I'll call the logical fallacy of sentimentalism -- an invalid appeal to strongly-held emotions. This tendency is a problem not only because the fallacy (since it's invalid) can cause someone to assert a falsehood. Even when it's used to argue for the truth, it can backfire and cause people to resist the truth more than they had before hearing the sentimentalist argument.

For the record, we can distinguish between sentimentalism as a habit -- i.e., habitually feeling strong emotions about things -- and sentimentalism as a fallacy -- i.e., arguing that strongly felt emotions prove something that they don't in fact prove. We could even call the former "sentimentality," and say there's nothing wrong with it as such, though as with all emotions, those held strongly are to be ruled by right reason.


Sunday, November 07, 2010

Art 103: "Does this signify something we value?"

Even I don't think I have anything interesting to say about the question, "Is this a well-made signifier of the artist's reasoning?" So I'll just jump to the payoff with two propositions:

1. The question, "Is it art?," is passionately debated because both sides assume that art as such is valuable, that if a thing is a work of art then it has a place in a gallery or museum, that they all have something important to say to and about the culture.

This, I think, explains why people (like me) who, frankly, don't know very much about art, will get involved in these conversations, where they wouldn't if the question were, say, "Is it engineering?" If the assumption that art as such is valuable is true, then to concede that a signed urinal is "art" is to give it an irrevocable place at the table (as it were).

2. It seems to me, though, that the above assumption is false. Art as such is not valuable. We can say "both"/"and." That urinal is art, and it should be chucked into the nearest dumpster.

Recognizing that art as such is not valuable makes the question, "Is it art?" a lot less interesting to the general public, with two immediate consequences. First, it allows artists and their critics room to create and discuss art without constantly having to defend themselves from attacks from people who don't know much about art but know what they hate. Second, it prevents the culture from being held hostage to jackwagons who put their own feces in tin cans. They can go right ahead making crap, and critics can go right ahead talking about how artistic their crap is, and everyone else can laugh at them.

Granted, acknowledging that something can be both a work of art and worthless doesn't resolve all the tensions between art and society. We still need a way to promote art that serves the common good and demote art that does not. But we can at least cut the legs out from under the claim, "This is art, so we must respect it/fund it/make it public."


Saturday, November 06, 2010

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Ever thus

On the one hand, Pope Benedict XVI tells Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace:
A profound understanding of the social doctrine of the Church is of fundamental importance, in harmony with all her theological heritage and strongly rooted in affirming the transcendent dignity of man, in defending human life from conception to natural death and in religious freedom. ... It is necessary to prepare lay people capable of dedicating themselves to the common good, especially in complex environments such as the world of politics.
On the other hand, somebody signing himself J.R. tells the readership of, that a comment to the effect that "that this pope and his predecessor wrote and spoke against much (most?) of what is on your hero republicans' agenda"
was more about what the modern popes promoted and how their feel-good, WWJD, social justice agenda has pretty much distorted what true Catholicism is all about.
J.R.'s comment has so far earned a net +17 likes from the readership of, which describes itself as
a lay movement, foremost, of committed Catholics who are passionate about living out the truths proclaimed by Christ and His Church in the modern world.
Some truths, at least.

UPDATE: A post on the Pope's statement has since been put up on CatholicVote (post hoc, sed non propter hoc) -- along with an unnecessary paraphrase that for some reason adds to and subtracts from the very simple and straightforward words of the Pope.

To be clear, I'm not accusing the people who run CatholicVote of ignoring, much less rejecting, the Church's social teaching. I'm pointing out that they run a website at which others feel free to ignore, reject, and even ridicule it. We'll see whether they notice the disconnect between what the Pope says and what their readers say.


The trend couldn't be clearer

From Nineteen Sixty-four comes this bar chart of the Catholic vote in recent federal elections:

Indisputable evidence that my non-falsifiable theory of the Catholic vote is correct, while all competing non-falsifiable theories of the Catholic vote are incorrect.

(Link via @LukeCoppen's Morning Catholic must-reads.)


Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Don't vote for the lesser evil

Don't vote for evil, period.

And don't wait until they've printed the ballot to let them know you won't be voting for evil, period.

Labels: ,


Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Art 101: "What is the reasoning of the artist signified by this artifact?"

Broadly speaking, this question may have both a superficial answer -- e.g., "He wanted to make a painting of a vase of flowers" -- and a more substantial answer -- e.g., "He wanted to show the fragility and fleetingness of beauty."

At some point, artifacts started showing up for which the superficial answer was, "Who knows?" Many art critics were delighted, since they could roll up their sleeves and invent whatever "more substantial" answers they felt like.

Artists were delighted too, of course. Not only is portrait painting hard to do well, but once artifacts that signify no particular evident reasoning were accepted as works of art, the artists themselves were free to provide the reasoning themselves. A cipher came to "mean" whatever the artist said it meant, because it certainly didn't mean anything else.

This approach to art offers artists two benefits. First, the actual making of the artifact is no big deal. It doesn't really matter what something intended to occupy space next to a textual description of what it means looks like. The artist can't fail at creating his artifact.

Second, the artist is more important than his artifacts. Critics and writers need to listen to the artist to understand what a piece means. And if people need to listen to the artist, then the artist must really be somebody in the world of ideas.

If I knew what I was talking about, I might distinguish between answering the question, "What is the reasoning of the artist signified by this artifact?" with, "Who knows?," and answering it with, "Nothing in particular." Various schools of abstract art seek to produce artifacts that don't signify anything much beyond, "Say, this is sort of interesting to look at," or, "This is what happens when I do that." Then, rather than an impenetrable paragraph of text, you get something like, "Composition #12."

Eh. It's a living.

No, actually it is, or can be, a perfectly legitimate process of human exploration. "What does this do?" is a fundamental question of natural philosophy.

Note, by the way, that -- despite my editorializing -- this post's titular question really does seek an objective answer. Evaluating an artifact -- determining its artistic or social value -- comes later.


Art goes back to school

At First Thoughts, Joe Carter asks, "Can Christians get the visual arts out of the toilet?"

I always refer back -- via Jacques Maritain's Art and Scholasticism -- to the scholastic definition of art as "right reasoning about a thing to be made." Note that the noun in the definition is "reasoning," not "thing." Art happens, if it happens at all, inside the artist's head -- or, more generally, between his head and his hands.

The "thing to be made" is, under this definition, not "art" itself, but what art produces. It is a "work of art" in the same sense that a school essay written the night before it is due is a "work of desperation." To say of a painting, "This is art," is to speak analogously of something internal to the artist signified by the painting. It's like saying of a fire extinguisher in a kitchen, "This is prudence."

Nobody is obliged to accept that definition of art, but I would submit that it is more useful than, "I know it when I see it." Notice, for example, how it untangles that thorny Twentieth Century question, "But is it art?"

By "untangles," I mean "replaces." We can say:

"But is it art?" is not a well-formed question. A well-formed question is, "What is the reasoning of the artist signified by this artifact?" From there, we can ask two further questions: "Is this a well-made signifier of the artist's reasoning?" and "Does this signify something we value?"

When you consider all of these as distinct through related questions, you've got something to talk about.


Monday, November 01, 2010

A theory of science in three easy letters

We are all natural-born theologians. What is it but faith seeking understanding that children express with their sequences of "Why?"

The faith that question expresses -- particularly when asked iteratively of the answers it receive -- is that there is a reason that something is the way it is. More than that, this reason -- or logos, if we're feeling fancy -- not only exists but is knowable by human intellect.

There's an irony in the fact that, these days, many of the people most devoted to asking why have convinced themselves that it is not a theological question. People who base their entire world-view on the ability of the human intellect to answer the question "Why?" lose their nerve and start doubting -- some even loudly denounce -- their one true method just when the reason gets interesting.

Those without religious faith who say they trust science don't trust science. They may trust physics, or cosmology (though often enough they really just trust certain physicists and cosmologists). But what we call the Scientific Method -- which by construction limits the circumstances under which you may ask why -- could more accurately be called the Engineering Trick. It's a formalized way of bounding the answer you're obliged (or permitted) to provide. This bounding does two helpful things: it keeps you focused on providing answers that might be of some more-or-less practical use to someone; and it lets you actually provide an answer in this lifetime. The unbounded "Why?", as any three-year-old knows, has an unbounded answer.

Now, unbounded logos is that which we call God (and some of us have learned to call unbounded logos, qua logos the Son of God). Bounded logos is that which we call science. (That's probably too glib, but close enough for rhetorical purposes, I think.)

The process of asking why again and again to each successive answer can end in one of three ways: admission of ignorance; voluntarism; or mystery.

Admission of ignorance is perfectly acceptable, and really the only acceptable answer from someone who really is ignorant. This, I'd say, is where properly conducted modern science winds up. We know the causes surrounding the object of study, and if these causes themselves depend on further, unknown causes -- if, to put it starkly, we don't really know the reason -- we can still make use of the relationships we do know about.

The parent who says, "Because I said so!" or the cosmologist who says, "Because that's what Planck's Constant is in this universe," is making a declaration of voluntarism, that fundamentally there is no intelligible reason something is the way it is. Even this can be an acceptable answer, especially at bedtime. But neither the natural scientist nor the theologian ought to wind up as a voluntarist.

"Because God says so!" is voluntarism when it's meant as the final, complete answer to why something is the way it is. Since, however, God has revealed something of His mind -- and, more importantly, something of His heart -- to us, we should never accept that (or really any other statement) as the final, complete answer. Granted that may suffice for purposes of moral reasoning, the understanding of faith leads always into the unbounded mystery of the Holy Trinity.

To the question, "Why?" we might always answer, "I don't know exactly, but I'm working on it."