instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, December 30, 2013

Trust and the brain

Trust and distrust are not straightforward contraries.

I have read that the human brain processes experiences of distrust in the amygdala, which NIMH [somewhat informally] describes as "[t]he brain's 'fear hub,' which activates our natural 'fight-or-flight' response to confront or escape from a dangerous situation." Experiences of trust, on the other hand, are processed in the prefrontal cortex, the "[s]eat of the brain's executive functions, such as judgment, decision making, and problem solving."

Amygdala Oakshott, impervious butler of Cortex Hall.

When we disagree with someone we trust, as long as we don't perceive that disagreement as somehow dangerous to ourselves, we can still reason our way through that disagreement using our prefrontal cortex. But if we distrust someone outright, then our amygdala is likely to intercept whatever they say as a threat that demands an immediate response, in effect short circuiting our reason.

Hence the value of building trust with (and the absolute necessity of dispelling distrust from) someone with whom you have something to communicate.


Explanations aren't required, forthcoming, or sufficient

At yesterday's RCIA class, we talked a bit about the problem of evil (we didn't quite polish it up to The Problem of Evil), in the context of Pope Francis's statement in his recent interview with La Stampa:
One man who has been a life mentor for me is Dostoevsky and his explicit and implicit question, “Why do children suffer?” has always gone round in my heart. There is no explanation.

This image comes to mind: at a particular point of his or her life, a child “wakes up”, doesn’t understand much and feels threatened, he or she starts asking their mum or dad questions. This is the “why” age. But when the child asks a question, he or she doesn’t wait to hear the full answer, they immediately start bombarding you with more “whys”.

What they are really looking for, more than an explanation, is a reassuring look on their parent’s face. When I come across a suffering child, the only prayer that comes to mind is the “why” prayer. Why Lord? He doesn’t explain anything to me. But I can feel Him looking at me. So I can say: "You know why, I don’t and You won’t tell me, but You’re looking at me and I trust You, Lord, I trust your gaze.”
We learn from Job that we are not owed an explanation of human suffering, we learn from experience not to expect one, we learn from faith that God is nevertheless with us.

I am not sure, though, that, faced with the suffering of children, we are really looking for either an explanation or a reassuring look from the Father. I think what we are looking for is for the Father to knock it off and make it stop.

Suppose you were actually given an explanation. Suppose when you cried out, "Why?," God sat down with you and laid out His plan before you, giving you the knowledge and wisdom to comprehend it. Suppose you had full and perfect understanding of how this child came to suffer, and of what good God will draw from it, and of the otherwise unimaginable love He demonstrates in permitting all this to occur. Suppose He answered all your objections, walked through all the possible alternatives, and proved to you that His wisdom really does surpass human wisdom.

What then? Would you say, "Capital plan, LORD, capital plan! I shall follow its future unfolding with considerable interest"?

Or would you say, "Yes, yes, I see, yes... but my Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass"?

What we really want, I think, is for the suffering to stop now -- or even better, to have never begun. Which means we want it to be possible for God to make that happen, and then we want Him to do it. An explanation, if one were given, would only explain why God isn't going to do what we want Him to do, and that explanation won't make us stop wanting Him to do it.


Thursday, December 26, 2013

Warming up to evangelization

How did the young trainer teach the experienced obstetrics nurse to save more lives?
“She was nice.”
“She was nice?”
“She smiled a lot.”
“That was it?”
“It wasn’t like talking to someone who was trying to find mistakes... It was like talking to a friend.”
 There may be something to this smiling business after all, if the object is to save lives.


Coincident qualities

Never assume people who disagree with you disagree because they are stupid or evil.

Remember: correlation doesn't imply causation.



Tuesday, December 17, 2013

On "US vs. THEM" thinking

There aren't enough of US for US to declare US enemies of THEM. And there won't ever be enough of US as long as there's a THEM that isn't US.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Why we blog

It's been a long time since I was particularly interested in the idea of a blog as a medium of communication, and how it differs from other media, and all that sort of thing. But I've seen a couple of conversations on other blogs this week that reminded me of those days of my youth when I cared about blogging qua blogging, and that reminded me of a bit from an ancient Simpsons episode that may say more about the subject than anything I ever thought up on my own:
Homer: If I catch this fish, I'll be a hero, respected and admired for years!
Marge: By whom?
Homer: Those weirdos down at the worm store!


A lamp does not shine for itself

St. John Chrysostom on the New Evangelization:
How am I distressed, think you, when I call to mind that on the festival days the multitudes assembled resemble the broad expanse of the sea, but now not even the smallest part of that multitude is gathered together here? Where are they now who oppress us with their presence on the feast days? I look for them, and am grieved on their account when I mark what a multitude are perishing of those who are in the way of salvation, how large a loss of brethren I sustain, how few are reached by the things which concern salvation, and how the greater part of the body of the Church is like a dead and motionless carcass.

"And what concern is that to us?" you say. The greatest possible concern if you pay no attention to your brethren, if you do not exhort and advise, if you put no constraint on them, and do not forcibly drag them hither, and lead them away out of their deep indolence. For that one ought not to be useful to himself alone, but also to many others, Christ declared plainly, when He called us salt, and leaven, and light: for these things are useful and profitable to others.

For a lamp does not shine for itself, but for those who are sitting in darkness: and you are a lamp not that you may enjoy the light by yourself, but that you may bring back yonder man who has gone astray. For what profit is a lamp if it does not give light to him who sits in darkness? And what profit is a Christian when he benefits no one, neither leads any one back to virtue?

Again salt is not an astringent to itself but braces up those parts of the body which have decayed, and prevents them from falling to pieces and perishing. Even so do thou, since God has appointed you to be spiritual salt, bind and brace up the decayed members, that is the indolent and sordid brethren, and having rescued them from their indolence as from some form of corruption, unite them to the rest of the body of the Church.

And this is the reason why He called you leaven: for leaven also does not leaven itself, but, little though it is, it affects the whole lump however big it may be. So also do ye: although you are few in number, yet be ye many and powerful in faith, and in zeal towards God. As then the leaven is not weak on account of its littleness, but prevails owing to its inherent heat, and the force of its natural quality, so ye also will be able to bring back a far larger number than yourselves, if you will, to the same degree of zeal as your own.


Monday, December 09, 2013

Modern Prometheuses

I tease about Evangelii Gaudium's phrase "self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism" because... well, look at it.

But criticism of Promethean attitudes are found in both Evangelium Vitae --
On a more general level, there exists in contemporary culture a certain Promethean attitude which leads people to think that they can control life and death by taking the decisions about them into their own hands. What really happens in this case is that the individual is overcome and crushed by a death deprived of any prospect of meaning or hope.
-- and in Caritas in Veritate:
A person's development is compromised, if he claims to be solely responsible for producing what he becomes. By analogy, the development of peoples goes awry if humanity thinks it can re-create itself through the “wonders” of technology, just as economic development is exposed as a destructive sham if it relies on the “wonders” of finance in order to sustain unnatural and consumerist growth. In the face of such Promethean presumption, we must fortify our love for a freedom that is not merely arbitrary, but is rendered truly human by acknowledgment of the good that underlies it. To this end, man needs to look inside himself in order to recognize the fundamental norms of the natural moral law which God has written on our hearts.
The modern Prometheus claims to be able to define his own nature and to create his own good, and in doing so he creates a monster. He doesn't just fail to do God's will, he fails to do his own will, because man isn't able to define his own nature and create his own good.

Pope Francis sees such a spirit at work in
those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying.
AN ASIDE: Note that Pope Francis doesn't say a Promethean spirit is at work in those who remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. He is criticizing only those who, due to such a faithfulness, trust in their own powers and feel superior to others. Such people do exist, and such attitudes are worthy of criticism.

The neopelagianism comes in, I suppose, in the de facto reliance on human actions -- the right prayers, said on the right day in the right language -- for salvation, rather than on Divine mercy. This reliance on human actions may perhaps be more clearly be seen in attitudes towards those who don't follow their prescribed orthopraxis. (As an extreme example, I once came across a condemnation of the Divine Mercy Chaplet as a ruse of the devil to trick Catholics into not praying the Rosary.)

I'll go so far as to suggest the possibility of a neopelagian orthodoxy -- placing one's hope for salvation in believing the right doctrines, according to the right formulas, rather than in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit promised to those who live according to those doctrines, and Whose presence is a guarantee of salvific grace.

The problem, obviously, isn't the "soundness of doctrine or discipline." It's the detachment of both from the living God, the reduction of God's Self-revelation of His presence -- "Behold, I am with you always" -- to a set of rules: "Do this. Think that."

If I wanted a fancy term for this, I'd go with "cargo-cult Catholicism," to acknowledge that the doctrine and discipline are, in fact, from the Church. They aren't inventions of the neopelagians Pope Francis is criticizing, but they are being grossly misunderstood and misused.

To this characterization, the adjective "Promethean" adds, I suppose, a note of self-creation. While the doctrine and discipline are from the Church, the construction of an allegedly necessary and sufficient orthopraxis and orthodoxy has occurred independent of, and in some cases contrary to, her magisterial office.


Saturday, December 07, 2013

Need alone is the poor man's worthiness

A commenter at Catholic and Enjoying It! provided a link to testimony from the North Dakota Catholic Conference last winter on North Dakota House Bill 1385, Drug Testing for TANF and SNAP Recipients.

The testimony includes this statement, which I think is an excellent summary of Catholic teaching:
Asking why a person is poor has its value, but not for the purpose of determining whether the person deserves help.
A footnote on the preceding paragraph puts the following statements from St. John Chrysostom into the public record:
“For if you wish to show kindness, you must not require an accounting of a person's life, but merely correct his poverty and fill his need.”
“The poor man has one plea, his want and his standing in need: do not require anything else from him; but even if he is the most wicked of all men and is at a loss for his necessary sustenance, let us free him from hunger.”
“When you see on earth the man who has encountered the shipwreck of poverty, do not judge him, do not seek an account of his life, but free him from his misfortune.”
“Need alone is the poor man's worthiness . . .”
“We do not provide for the manners, but for the man.”
“We show mercy on him not because of his virtue but because of his misfortune, in order that we ourselves may receive from the Master His great mercy . . .”
Of course, the question of whether a person deserves help is different from the question of how to help him. Someone could argue that yes, a poor drug addict needs help, but that giving him TANF benefits doesn't help him in practice, because he will use that money for drugs instead of food. Such an argument can be judged on its own merits -- although I'd be curious to hear the follow-up proposal for how then society does help hungry families of drug addicts.


Thursday, December 05, 2013

I do not think he means what you think he means

The other day I read a comment to the effect that Pope Francis is making the Church relevant in the world again.

We'll take what we can get, I guess, but it made me think that the world will not at all care for the Church if it becomes relevant along the lines of Evangelii Gaudium.