instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

A comment from the biship

So the Most Rev. Michael "Clubber" Sheridan hangs out in Jamie's combox. I must put a hulking beast of a man, with shoulders as broad as a gorilla and a frat boy haircut, into one of the Reeves and Booster pastiches.

But Bishop John Manz of Chicago is still the Bishop I'd Most Like to Have a Beer and a Sausage Pizza With.

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Monday, August 29, 2005

The Great Diocese Handicap, cont.

"I should not advise it, your Excellency."

I set down the 'phone. "You interest me strangely, Reeves. Do you mean to say the odds are not with me?"

"An outcome in your favor would require Bishop Legendre to be assigned to Rome, your Excellency."

"Precisely, Reeves. Then all the other reassignments will follow as the night the day. And on Pimples's appointment, I happen to have a gold-embossed tip, laying on velvet. That's what makes the whole proposition such a daisy."

"It is true, your Excellency, that Bishop Legendre's assignation to the Congregation is regarded as a fait accompli by those in the know in the Vatican."

I furrowed the b. "You speak in riddles, Reeves."

"The matter is multilayered, your Excellency."

"What you give with one hand, you take with another."

"This is a situation that illustrates the adage, 'If it 'twere done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly,' your Excellency."

"And where does the cat come in, Reeves?"

"Your Excellency?"

"I thought there was a cat i' the adage."

"That would be a different adage, your Excellency. 'The cat loves fish, but does not like to wet her paws.'"

"I'm not altogether certain I've ever heard that one, Reeves."

"It is alluded to in a monologue by Lady Macbeth, your Excellency, who bemoans that her husband is letting 'I dare not' wait upon 'I would.'"

I chewed on this for a moment, then said, "Bring us back round to Pimples, Reeves."

"Yes, your Excellency. Bishop Legendre's appointment is to be announced the first Tuesday of next month. Prior to that time, however, he will be visited by Cardinal Vittoria."

"Not unexpected, Reeves. Vittoria is something of the power behind the throne in the Congregation."

"An apt observation, your Excellency. His visit is, as it were, the final T to be crossed prior to the announcement of Bishop Legendre's appointment."

"But why should his visit throw off Pimples's appointment? He must already know all about him."

"They have never spent time together socially, your Excellency. In the three days Cardinal Vittoria will be a guest of Bishop Legendre's, it is likely the cardinal will discover something off-putting about him."

"Off-putting about Pimples? Why, he's the soul of geniality!"

"Yes, your Excellency. But, as is common among such open-hearted persons, there is one subject on which he is adamant and humourless, a subject on which Cardinal Vittoria happens to hold an equally adamant, but opposite, position."

"Do you mean to suggest, Reeves, that Vittoria might come away so hot under the collar he'd squash Pimples's appointment?"

"The potential is there, your Excellency."

"This is red hot stuff, Reeves! What's the bone of contention?"

"The superiority of American football to soccer, your Excellency."

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Sunday, August 28, 2005

Parish life in these United States

Seen on the back of a T-shirt at Mass today:
Pain is unavoidable.
Suffering is optional.
An enigmatic saying, particularly given today's Gospel.

Speaking of which, I noticed today that Peter was affected by the Ginger Factor.
What Jesus began to show His disciples: That He must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.

What Peter saw: That Jesus must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed blah blah blah blah blah.
Not only must a Christian disciple not be a satan, he must also listen.

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Saturday, August 27, 2005

The Great Diocese Handicap

"What ho, Berggo! I wasn't expecting to see you till November."

"I was in a neighboring diocese, and I thought I'd pop in," Berggo replied distractedly.

"I'm certainly glad you did, old thing. Let me clear my schedule, and we'll lunch at my club."

"Willie," Berggo said as he absent-mindedly pulled copies of the Patrologia Latina off a shelf and dropping them on the carpet, "what do you think of when you hear the name St. Glaphyra?"

"When I hear the name St. Glaphyra?"

"Yes, the name St. Glaphyra. Do you think of Principalities singing to Dominions in aeviternal beatitude?"

"When I hear the name St. Glaphyra?"

"Yes. Doesn't the very sound of the name St. Glaphyra bring to mind the beauty of morning in Eden before the Fall?"

"To that question, Berggo, I must answer no."

"No?"

"An emphatic no. A no without qualm or doubt."

There was a moment's pause, then Berggo's eyebrows, which normally float harmlessly in the middle of his forehead, fell down upon his eyes like an avalanche on an Alpine village. "No, of course you wouldn't. You always were a fat-headed ass with no soul."

I nodded. "I see that this Saint Whatsit has gotten up your nose. Are you going to tell me about it now, or over lunch?"

The Most Rev. Patrick Berger collapsed in a chair. "Oh, Willie," he sighed, "I've just seen the Cathedral of St. Glaphyra, and I know that we were meant to be together."

"Oh, the Cathedral of St. Glaphyra. I thought the name was familiar. That's old Pimples Legendre's pile."

Berggo looked up eagerly. "You know it, then, Willie? You've seen St. Glaphyra's with your own eyes?"

"Rather. Pimples has me over from time to time to help out with women's sodality pilgrimages and what not. Women's sodalities and I go together like billy-o."

"Then you know what a lovely, exquisite, well-mannered place it is!"

"Er... yes, they've always treated me well there."

"Exactly, Willie! Exactly!" With that, Berggo sank into the chair in a reverie.

Which suited me, if you want to know, because if there was a mot less juste than "lovely" for the concrete monstrosity that served as Pimples's cathedral, it was "exquisite," and I could tell by his manner, and more than half a lifetime dealing with him, that Berggo was in no mood to let pass any slight at his current fancy.

Still, there was the matter of the unexploded mine he had set between us. "I say, Berggo, what was that you said about you and St. Glaphyra's being meant to be together?"

"Isn't it obvious, Willie? I must be transferred to that see."

"But, I mean to say, you silly ass, what about your current see?"

Berggo shot me a look like a duke who had been reminded that his sister had married a street sweeper. "Kindly do not mention my current see in my presence. We are not at present on speaking terms."

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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The good, the bad, and the ugly of the beautiful

Disclaimer: This post is terminologically sloppy.

The human intellect is able to derive a concept from a percept of an object. It makes sense of what we sense. If it does this correctly, the derived concept is true, it corresponds in some way to the object that we perceive.

There are a couple of ways the intellect can use this newly minted concept. It can use it speculatively, to derive further concepts, including ideas about things we do not or even cannot perceive. It can also use it practically, in the process of deciding what we should want to do.

Using this model, then, there are three areas where the intellect can make a mistake: in deriving concepts from precepts; in deriving concepts from concepts; and in directing the will. Mistakes in the first two areas are falsehoods; mistakes in the third area are sins.

In the post below, I proposed that making a certain kind of mistake regarding the beauty of a perceived object -- of deriving a concept of a useful good rather than of a pleasurable good -- is relatively common. I also suggested that, since this sort of mistake generally leads to many other mistakes (especially in directing the will), some people wind up mistrusting perceivable beauty.

But there's nothing in this model of the intellect that requires the concepts to be concepts relating to beauty. They can be concepts related to race, or to risk, or to toxicity. An absolute mistrust of perceivable beauty -- of that which is beautiful -- amounts to an absolute mistrust of perceivable creation, which ought to be unthinkable for a Christian. There is no barb in beauty, unless the Author of Beauty placed it there.

It may be, though, that a mistrust of the human intellect, a recognition of the frequency with which it makes mistakes regarding beauty, is expressed as what might be called a prudential mistrust of beauty. If we can't make the intellect work better, we can at least avoid giving it things it works poorly on.

There's not much to say in general about prudential matters. If someone is sanctifying himself by never looking upon created beauty, more power to him. I do question, though, how common is the temperament that can be sanctified in this way.

Because, returning to the model, the areas where mistakes can be made are also areas where the correct thing can be done. Speculating on beautiful objects can lead us to the concept of divine beauty. Adding concepts of beautiful objects to our prudential reasoning can lead us to choose what is better for us.

The problems of materialism are evident to most of us, but I think we should be careful about the opposite problems of angelism, which in this context arise from thinking created beauty is never to be desired for itself. Creatures are beautiful in themselves, just as they are good in themselves, and taking pleasure in the beauties of creation is one means in which we give glory to God, by enjoying the beauty He in His wondrous love has given us to enjoy.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

See, but the thing is,

when I vowed that I was through buying books for the calendar year, I didn't know about this.

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The eye of the beholder

If all beauty is a participation in the transcendent Beauty of Almighty God, the Author of beauty, then why is it that, so often, encountering beauty not only fails to make us more holy, but actually causes us to turn further away from God? Some people are so scandalized by beauty that they mistrust it entirely, which may contribute to the enduring popularity of Manichaeism.

Of course, encountering goodness and truth can also cause a person to sin, but I don't think it's nearly so common to mistrust goodness or truth entirely.

My thought for today is that, though we know beauty when we see it, too many of us don't know what beauty actually is. So our response to beauty is incorrect, and therefore frequently sinful.

What happens, I propose, is this: Beauty is experienced as a pleasurable good, as something that is pleasant to experience, as something that satisfies the appetite. But we often misapprehend a pleasurable good as a useful good, as something that is good because it lets us acquire some further good. We don't always recognize, for instance, that looking at the physical beauty of another person ought to suffice; the pleasure of apprehending a beautiful human body is itself the good we are apprehending, not the opportunity to use the beauty of the body to obtain some other, carnal good.

This idea is at least consistent with the fact that so many people find the beauty of nature conducive to contemplation in a way the beauty of other people is not. In general, the sight of a green tree against a blue sky is not perceived as the means to some other good. (I saw a science fiction program on TV once, set in a future dystopia, in which someone was trying to get rich by selling trees to people who had never seen one; when asked what good trees were, he would say, "They make a nice sound when the wind blow through them.")

So perhaps we need to educate ourselves and each other about what beauty is, what it isn't, and how we ought to respond to it.

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They're much sweeter, goodness knows

My Honeysuckle Rose of Lima Beans.

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Monday, August 22, 2005

The Plumber Almighty

"Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are His judgments and how unsearchable His ways!" St. Paul rhapsodizes. "'For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been His counselor?'"

But really, with all due respect to the Apostle and to the Prophet whom he quotes, who hasn't been God's counselor?

Who hasn't said words to the effect of, "You know, Lord, what would be great is if," or, "Now all that needs to happen is"? Who hasn't tried, one way or another, to make clear to God that there are unsearchable ways and there are unsearchable ways, and that a little more give and take would be best for everyone? If God has refused all human counsel, it's not for want of offers.

On the other hand, a counselor implies someone who makes the decisions, and I think often enough we don't see God as a king in need of a counselor so much as a contractor in need of a client. God is our divine handyman, whom we call to fix things in our lives. "Straighten her out, fix him up, and see what You can do about that mess in the yard. I'll be back later, You can let Yourself out when You're done."

People even recommend God to each other, just like they recommend plumbers. "Oh, I was going through the same thing you are. Then I learned to let go and let God. You should do the same."

Not everyone is a satisfied customer, though. There is no shortage of people who are unhappy with what God has done to, or not done for, them. Some are vocal and angry, others merely disappointed in Him.

To the extent we have them, we ought to shake from our thoughts all impressions of God as provider of goods and services. The relationship He offers us through Christ is not a contract, but a covenant. He shall be our Father, and we shall be His children. And until we see Him face to face, we for our part must trust that He does not give stones to children who need bread, even when they tell Him what would be great is if He gave them stones.

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Friday, August 12, 2005

First, do no harm

"Don't canonize me yet," St. Francis of Assisi told his admirers. "I'm perfectly capable of fathering a child."

I don't know whether they believed him, but sexual immorality has always been high on the list of things that interfere with an apostolate. My guess is, if you asked people why this is the case, overall they'd overstate the importance of how much humans love sex and understate the importance of how much we love truth.

A Christian apostle is a sign of Christ, the One Who sends the apostle on his mission. This is true whether or not the apostle wants it to be, whether or not he even realizes it's true.

Humans love truth, so we hate falsehood, so we hate someone who represents himself as a sign of Christ but whose life does not signify Him. Christians, perhaps, hate such false signs all the more in that they are false, not merely to someone admirable, but to Truth Himself.

One conversation that seems to occur whenever a new scandal arises involves the charge of hypocrisy. "What a hypocrite!" some say, while others tease at the definition of the term to see whether it applies in this case. Let me suggest that the sincere charges of hypocrisy indicate, not the misapplication of a specific term, but the imprecisely expressed recognition of this failure to signify what one ought to signify. Saying, "But he isn't a hypocrite as such," is really beside the point when no one really means he is a hypocrite as such.

If moral scandal -- the turning away from Christ caused by another's sin -- that comes with the tabloid scandal -- public reports of the sins of a Christian apostle -- is motivated by hatred of falsehood, anyone involved in preaching the Gospel ought to make clear that he himself recognizes he is to some extent a false sign of Christ, that for example he is perfectly capable of fathering a child. The apostle necessarily signifies Christ; his choice is whether to be an imperfect sign or a false sign.

It's often remarked that, the holier a person becomes, the more aware he is of his own sins. Less often is it remarked that we are aware of how aware the saints are of their own sins. We know this because they have told others of their awareness, and telling others serves not only to instruct us on how sinful we must be, but to make of the saints' lives a true, because admittedly imperfect, sign of Christ.

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Thursday, August 11, 2005

Dies Irae

Anger is an ever-present factor of human interaction. If you don't understand anger, you don't understand a lot of what goes on between people, including between Catholics discussing their Church.

Since I don't understand anger, I'm looking at what St. Thomas has to say about it, both as an irascible passion (considered in itself, its causes, and its effects) and as a capital vice.

Anger is a peculiar phenomenon. As St. Thomas puts it, "it is a passion somewhat made up of contrary passions;" it's the one passion that has no contrary passion, but as a vice it does have a contrary, which doesn't have a one-word name but amounts to not being angry when you should be angry (that lacking anger is a vice is explained just after anger is shown to be a capital vice).

What may be immediately useful in all this is the distinction between species of anger made by Aristotle, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. John Damascene. The three species are "choleric," "sullen," and "ill-tempered" -- or equivalently, "wrath," "ill-will" and "rancor." In St. John Damascene's words:
When anger arises and begins to be roused, it is called rage [or choler] .... [Ill-will]implies that the bile endures, that is to say, that the memory of the wrong abides.... Rancor, on the other hand, implies watching for a suitable moment for revenge....
St. Thomas corresponds these three kinds of anger to three things that give increase to anger. The choleric man is easily moved to anger; the passion of anger because of an excess of bile (okay, we can tighten up the biology), the vice in response to any slight cause. The sullen or ill-willed man is moved by an inflicted injury that remains in his memory -- for too long, if his anger is sinful. The ill-tempered or rancorous man has a stubborn desire for vengeance that lasts until they have inflicted punishment.

I think these three kinds of anger can all be discerned and distinguished in the heated arguments that characterize so much of on-line Catholic discussion. Some people are easily moved to anger that quickly dissipates; perhaps most everyone is, if they're having a bad day. Others feed their sense of personal injury with angry words, and still others are clearly aiming to inflict injury on their opponents.

The difference between ill-will and rancor, between anger is turned inward and anger turned outward, may not always be easy to detect, but I think I have encountered people who are clearly rancorous, who are habitually angry and habitually trying to bring down their enemies, yet who show no sign of acting out of memory of some grievance against themselves or others.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

A hermeneutical key to pneumatological hermeneutics

It has become a cliche to complain about this or that action by this or that bishop as being "contrary to the spirit of Vatican II." It has even become a cliche to complain about these complaints. "The spirit of Vatican II" is both a battle cry and a badge of shame.

But it wasn't till I was reading Teófilo's response to a statement by Fr. Joseph O'Leary (whose blog happens to be titled "The Spirit of Vatican II") that the irreducible source of this conflict became apparent to me:
Fr. O'Leary: "John Paul II thus bypassed and reached over the heads of the educated baby boomers, influenced by Vatican II...."

Teófilo: "... and our generation was not influenced by Vatican II? We can't read its documents?"
What I realized -- an obvious insight in hindsight -- is that, for some people, the term "Vatican II" refers to experiences during a fixed period of time, while for others it refers to a set of documents.

So Teófilo is talking past Fr. O'Leary by asking questions about reading documents. For Fr. O'Leary, "Vatican II" isn't only -- and likely enough not even principally -- about what documents say. The "spirit" he speaks of isn't a poor paraphrase of the documents; it's not like the "spirit of the law" contrasted with the "letter of the law." It's a Zeitgeist, not an, um, Wortgeist. The conciliar documents are a record of that Zeitgeist, from this perspective, but not the only record, and in fact, the memories of the Zeitgeist, whether original or transferred to a later generation, are seen as just as authoritative as the documents, indeed the context in which the documents are to be read.

So when anti-"spirit of Vatican II" folks write cuttingly, "Read the documents! You won't find what those 'spirit of Vatican II' folks are saying in the documents!," the "spirit of Vatican II" folks may well reply, "Exactly!"

To make the distinction clear, perhaps we should begin speaking of the Council Event, whose full ecclesio-ontological dimensions cannot be grounded within brute fundamentalist literalism that, taken to its logical conclusions, is itself a denial of the chrono-physio-spiritual reality of Church.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

What interferes with the preaching mission?

In a comment below, TSO makes a suggestion along a line of thought I haven't much considered:
It seems to publically identify oneself with a [political] party or ideology is to some extent compromise the mission, at least if you are a member of a religious order.
I don't publicly identify myself with a party or ideology because I don't privately identify myself with a party of ideology. Now that I think of it, though, I'm not at all confident I'd do well identifying the party affiliation (if any) of the Third Order (much less First Order) Dominicans I know. (The party affiliation of the Second Order seems generally to be Ice Cream.)

If anyone else has any thoughts about what doors open or close with respect to apostolic works as a result of a person belonging to a political party or identifying with an ideological camp, I'd love to hear them.

And here's a question to the Reader: To what extent does the American phenomenon of belonging to a political party without a strong sense of association with that party (e.g., how many members of either major party have ever attended a party meeting?) affect the American perspective on one's religious affiliation?

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Holy hypocrisy

Immediately following the description of St. Dominic's tears for sinners comes a description of a somewhat different habit:
If it chanced that after the fatigues of along journey he had to lodge with secular persons, he would first quench his thirst at some handy spring, fearing to draw attention to any excess in drinking from his intense thirst, due to his wearisome traveling on foot. This he was always most careful to avoid, not only in drinking, but in everything else besides.
I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that if this fellow weren't the canonized founder of my Order, I'd be knocking him as a hypocrite, or at least as no respecter of truth.

Or you may be thinking this is mighty rich, considering how he got his start as a preacher: his bishop, Diego de Acebes, recognized that making headway in preaching against the Albigensian heresy required travel on foot and begging, to match the austerity of the heresiarchs.

But St. Dominic seems to have had a very clear understanding both of the strength of the Truth and the fragility of man. The Order he founded manifests that trust in the power of Truth -- in fact, of faith in He Who is Truth -- to save those who encounter Him.

At the same time, though, St. Dominic was aware of how easily men invent excuses to avoid seeing the truth, and of the consequent necessity for preachers to provide no opportunity for excuses to develop. Anything that might distract a person's attention from the Gospel, even something as natural as a very thirsty traveler, was to be avoided if at all possible.

What serves the preaching mission? What interferes with it? Answer these questions, and you understand St. Dominic and his spiritual children. Live the answers, and you are his spiritual child.

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"We all belong to Iraq"

An interview with Fr. Yousif Thomas Mirkis, OP, who lives in Baghdad. (Link via DomLife.)
We [Christians] are not only 2 to 3 percent of the population. We have between 30 and 40 percent of the high [college] diplomas. Twenty percent of doctors in Iraq are Christian, 30 percent of engineers and architects. And we can have another role in this society....

If you mix religion with our constitution, we will have a headache for 100 years....

What can the American church do? Pray for us. Not only the Church, but all Iraqis who suffer too much. We need to take some rest....

We need wise people who can think not only how to preserve the constitution with Muslim influence, but how to preserve Iraqis from death. From death and despair. We are psychologically in a very bad situation. Every Iraqi needs a psychologist to help him get rid of the trauma. Families are suffering from big traumas. The economic situation makes big traumas.

Don't forget us.... The needs are material and psychological, spiritual....

The man on the street is really poor. He is looking for bread. He is looking out for the life of his family. And he is very tired.
I recently read about a woman who prayed every day that the Pope would have a good night's sleep. Perhaps, for starters, a good night's sleep is what Iraqis need us to pray for on their behalf.

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Babelfish beauty

Hernan Gonzalez has posted a list of 250 beautiful Spanish words. If asked, Babelfish will translate them. An eclectic sampling:

SpanishEnglish
abedulbirch
aguawater
almohadapillow
cuadernonotebook
encrucijadacrossroads
humosmoke
naranjaorange
pincelbrush
remolinoeddy
terciopelovelvet
variopintomany-colored


On a related note, Fray Nelson (who is always worth reading) has been writing (in Spanish) about the Irish Republican Army. Babelfish obligingly translates "IRA" as "WRATH."

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Sufficient unto the day

Oh boy! Oh boy!

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Monday, August 08, 2005

Bred in the bone

It's been years since the last time I read a science fiction novel, and even when I was reading science fiction regularly, I tended toward the lighter entertainments of the genre.

So when a review copy of Robert Charles Wilson's Spin came my way a few weeks ago, I was somewhat surprised to find that it was... well, a novel, about characters and their relationships and how they respond to events, rather than a sixty thousand word "What if?"

Though the "What if?" is pretty cool, from the perspective of someone who doesn't read much science fiction: What if one day Earth were enveloped by some sort of temporal distortion such that, for every second that passed on Earth, 3.7 years passed in the universe at large? So every month as experienced on Earth, the solar system aged about ten million years. And what would happen in forty or fifty years, when the Sun died and took Earth with it, temporal distortion or no?

As a character-driven novel, the real question isn't what happens to mankind as a whole, but what happens to the major characters, how they react to the Spin (the name for whatever it is that happened to Earth) and to each other. That probably makes it a better novel, in terms of its focus and scope.

At the same time, the smaller scope means the novel only incidentally addresses the larger cultural and anthropological questions an end of the world scenario raises, and when it does address them it tends toward superficiality and plot advancement. What makes it a better novel artistically makes it a less important novel culturally.

I am, of course, tuned to look for how religion is treated, but in Spin Wilson is only concerned with how religion directly affects his characters. One of the main characters gets involved in various kooky end-times pseudo-Christian cults, while the rest are either utterly indifferent or actively hostile toward religion. As a result, not a word is written about how non-kooks might have reacted to the Spin.

And again, within the scope of the novel, it makes sense for ordinary, non-plot-advancing religion to be invisible. But again, and even beyond questions of verisimilitude, it makes what Wilson says about humanity in general (rather than the particular characters the novel is mostly concerned with) much less convincing or relevant.

Well, convincing or relevant to us religious people, at least. But suppose he had, for example, written in the Vatican's reaction to the Spin? Would it have been convincing, the sort of thing the Vatican might say in such circumstances? It seems doubtful that anything made up would sound convincing to both those who think the Vatican can say wise things about science and those who think it can't.

And personally, I prefer an author to leave religion out of his book rather than put it in in a dismissive way. (Kooky end-times pseudo-Christian cultists may well really hate this book.) If it's a choice between ignoring religion and turning a novel into a work of apologetics (perhaps for atheism), ignoring religion may well be the way to go.

But no good novel can ignore all religious themes, and of course the end of the world takes on a religious dimension, willy nilly, when it's coming in a few decades rather than a few billion years. Faith -- in God, in science, in others -- is a major theme of Spin, which is good anthropology if not good theology. And in the end, faith is for the most part rewarded. Of course, to say it's "rewarded" is to imply there's Something giving the reward, which may be more than Wilson intends, but there are some things that are true -- such as happy endings -- and what the truth implies can't be false.

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Love and loyalty

Oh, and before this washes back to the ephemeral sea of old comments, Talmida writes about the relationship between love and obedience:
I don't know if I'm too late to contribute to this line of discussion, but it strongly reminds me of trying to understand the Hebrew word hhesed, which is variously translated as lovingkindness, kindness, love, mercy.

I read a Rabbi who said that the true meaning of the word on God's part was loyalty to the Covenant. Not "God will show his love" or "God will be merciful" but rather "God will be faithful to the Covenant, will uphold His end of the deal."

And God's end of the deal is that He will be our God. "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One" (or the Lord is our God, the Lord alone).

This is the reply that Jesus gives in Mark when asked what the greatest commandment is. Before telling us to love God & neighbour, Jesus recites this statement of faith reminding us of the Covenant with Abraham. In essence, the greatest commandment is the Covenant.

The terms of the Covenant with God are the Torah, the Law. And the 2 commandments of Love that Jesus teaches sum up the Law.

When Jesus commands us to Love, could we not substitute Be Faithful to the Covenant (and the obedience to the Law that that implies)?
The point that the Greatest Commandment begins with the Shema Yisrael is worth exploring, I think, even for us presumptive monotheists. And how far does faithfulness to His Covenant get us to God's lovingkindness, or even to "God is Love"?

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What will become of sinners?

In the Legend of Saint Dominic, it is recorded of him that,
So wonderfully tender-hearted was he touching the sins and miseries of men, that when he came near any city or town from where he could overlook it, he would burst into tears at the thought of the miseries of mankind, of the sins committed therein, and of the numbers who were going down into hell.
That's a wonderful mark of piety -- for a saint dead nearly eight centuries. How, though, if it were your Pentecostal neighbor, distracting your backyard nap with loud rooftop cries of, "O Lord, what will become of sinners?"

It's a paradox: holier-than-thou people who are, in fact, holier than thou. Is it possible we like them even less than holier-than-thou people who aren't?

Of course, St. Dominic himself wasn't holier-than-thou in the sense we usually mean. He did his crying and his sighing out of earshot of the sinners over whom he cried and sighed, while still on the road or at night while the other brothers were (usually) asleep.

But our Christian faith enables the fast-knit friend of Christ to worry over the fate of sinners without denying that he himself is a sinner. First, there is genuine cause to worry over their fate; damnation is a real possibility. But also, the more one turns to God, the more one is aware of how far short of human perfection one is; a true friend of Christ necessarily knows he is a sinner. On top of that, though, a true friend of Christ has a sure and certain hope of his own salvation, a hope that rests not in his own actions (that would be presumption) but on Christ's promise of eternal life. And this promise is given to everyone who comes to faith in Christ, which in principle -- and purely through the grace of God -- can be everyone to whom Christ is preached.

St. Dominic's prayer for those sinners, the ones he sees from afar, comes only after his prayer for the sinner he sees in the mirror. And the answer to his prayer for the sinner in the mirror is what both compels him to pray for the sinners far off and gives him hope that what will become of them is what will become of him, that they too will become friends of Christ and children of the Father.

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Friday, August 05, 2005

More things stay the same

If someone went back in time to AD 1273, looked up Friar Thomas Aquinas, and told him all about life in these United States in AD 2005, the good friar might well reply, "Yes, I wrote a book about that."

TSO calls attention to a couple of posts at Crux Magazine. The first one suggests that "we have reached the end of not only shame but the private experience thereof." The second makes "the observation that illegitimate sex also appears to coincide with a desire to eat."

In the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas links gluttony and lust (along with drunkenness) as vices opposed to [the subjective parts of] the virtue of temperance. Little surprise, then, that the intemperate person should be both glutton and lecher, particularly in a society with an overabundance of food and fornication.

Furthermore, shamefacedness is listed as an integral part of temperance (though not, properly speaking, a virtue, since avoiding shame is not particularly difficult for virtuous people). Shamefacedness is not a notable feature of American popular culture. St. Thomas identifies three kinds of people who lack shame: "those who are steeped in sin... the old and the virtuous." Which kind of person American popular culture is by and for is left as an exercise to the reader.

(Sorry, I just gotta like his throwing "the old" in there; his reasoning is that their appetite for intemperance is easily curbed.)

So St. Thomas would likely regard this culture as marked by intemperance. Any particular reason we might be particularly intemperate? Perhaps there is:
...sins of intemperance are said to be childish. For the sin of intemperance is one of unchecked concupiscence, which is likened to a child in three ways.
The three ways are in acting on unreasonable desires; in becoming more self-willed if given free rein; and in the remedy, which is restraint.

A society of childish persons, of persons who don't grow up, is an intemperate society.

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We aren't about us

Die Fledermaus: I love a woman who dresses in stainless steel.

Jet Valkyrie: You make me sick to my stomach.

Die Fledermaus: Oh, it's always about you, isn't it?

-- "The Tick Vs. The Tick"
My conviction is growing that we'd be better off if we put more effort into seeing that it really isn't about us.

I know, I know, it's very difficult. We're so very wonderful, how can it not be about us? Besides, isn't the Christian Gospel that God loved us so much He had to become one of us, and that He died to save us?

What I'm thinking is, no, not really.

I mean, who says the Christian faith is summed up by John 3:16? Might it not be at least as true to say it's summed up by John 17:4-5:
I glorified You on earth by accomplishing the work that You gave Me to do. Now glorify Me, Father, with You, with the glory that I had with You before the world began.
Do we not think of ourselves as the heroes of Divine Revelation? Yes, Jesus is the hero, but He's one of us, and the heroic thing He did was to save us. As the curtain falls, we are settling into the enjoyment of heaven, while God looks on benevolently.

To hear us tell it, the king's wedding feast is being held in honor of the guests.

But eternal life isn't about us. Creation isn't about us. Even our own salvation isn't about us. We aren't about us.

It's about God. About the Triune God, without whose inter-Personal relationships there could be no personal relationship between God and man.

Consider the source and summit of the Christian life. We speak of the Eucharist as a liturgy we participate in, or a sacrament we receive. In fact, though, the Divine Liturgy is Christ's prayer to the Father, specifically His sacrifice on the Cross. Our involvement amounts to being allowed to join in Christ's prayer and sacrifice, and our joining in adds nothing to Christ's actions. To be sure, Christ gives the Blessed Sacrament is given to His Church, but only because He gives Himself to His Father.

We have an understandably anthrocentric perspective on all this, and perhaps it couldn't be otherwise. Scripture is written from that perspective, but then, it was written by men; and if the subject isn't us, we aren't likely to pay much attention, assuming we can understand it at all. Moreover, the Incarnation means that the anthrocentric perspective is not pure illusion; there is a genuine condescension on God's part in the Son becoming man, which produces a genuine truth to the man-eyed view of God's actions in the world.

But that genuine truth remains a derived truth; the primary truth lies not in Christ's humanity, but in His Divinity. I have a growing suspicion that in recognizing this within our hearts, in making God's perspective our own -- in coming to see that, though we are the narrators of our own stories, we are not the central character -- lies tremendous potential for growth in holiness and wisdom.

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Thursday, August 04, 2005

Lousy choices

I hate hate hate discussions like this. I hate the thought of fellow Catholics, not merely blithely endorsing evil when they find the benefits sufficiently appealing, but positively irate that anyone dare suggest consequentialism is immoral when they don't want it to be.

But that's life among American Catholics in early August.

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Whether doubt is a virtue

Objection 1. It would seem that doubt is a virtue. For I have doubts, and I am virtuous. Therefore, doubt is a virtue.

Objection 2. Further, people who don't have doubts are obnoxious. But being obnoxious is contrary to the virtue of charity. Therefore, doubt is a virtue.

Objection 3. Further, by doubting a man comes to accept and understand his faith more deeply. Since the fruits of doubt are good, doubt itself must be a virtue.

On the contrary, the Apostle writes, "For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea, which is moved and carried about by the wind. Therefore let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord." [Jas. 1:6-7] Therefore doubt is not a virtue.

I answer that, doubt is contrary to faith, and whatever is contrary to a virtue cannot itself be a virtue.

But not all forms of doubt are so opposed to faith as to be vices. A man may doubt out of ignorance, as being unsure of something because he does not know that someone trustworthy has affirmed it, and this in itself is not sinful, if he cannot be blamed for his ignorance. Or a man may doubt out of a lack of clarity, as being unsure of the meaning of what a trustworthy person has affirmed, or out of an error in reasoning, as when he fails to see that a particular consequence necessarily follows from what he believes; in neither case is his doubt a sin in itself.

If, however, a man doubts through deliberately turning his will away from attending to the intellectual principle by which an object of faith is to be accepted, this may be accounted blindness of mind and a sin, as the Doctor writes. Further, a man may doubt through obstinately refusing to assent to that which is proposed as an article of faith, which is an act of unbelief and a sin.

Reply to Objection 1. Yeah, and so's my big toe.

Reply to Objection 2. Trust me, they'd be obnoxious even if they doubted.

Reply to Objection 3. The withholding of assent that is the act of doubt can be done in two ways. First, as an exercise of the intellect, whereby the content of faith is examined by asking such questions as, "What if it were not so?" This exercise is done with the purpose of deepening faith, and is not doubt properly so-called.

The second way, which is doubt proper, is to withhold assent unconditionally. This act terminates in a state in which the actor has less faith than before, and can in no way be held to cause an increase in faith. It may be that, subsequently, the man will grow in faith, but such growth requires other causes and cannot be regarded as the end for which the man doubts. If the man winds up with a greater faith than before he doubted, this is to be regarded as God bringing good out of evil, not of a virtuous means producing good fruit.

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Not just a good idea

Hernan Gonzalez has some disquieting words for advocates of sciencism who equate magic and religion:
Nevertheless, in the sense in that these people use the word "magic", they can well say that it is more compatible with modern science than with religion. The affinity can be seen historically (there was more interest in magic in the Renaissance than in the Middle Ages), and in fact, science and magic are two attempts to manipulate, to dominate the world; (and the "rationality" of modern science is very debatable; in the end, as can be shown, its justification resides in only this: it works). Under this aspect, magic is nearer modern science than religion.... The position of the magician is "we see what service the divinity (and its intermediaries, the cosmic forces) can give man", the one of the priest is "we see what service man can give to the divinity". For that reason magic is against religion.
He goes on to quote a scene from Graham Greens's The Aim of the Adventure The End of the Affair, in which a priest allows that a little superstition is good because it gives people the notion that this world is not everything.

So perhaps the state of adventures is not cut and dried. Still, I'm reminded of Clarke's Third Law, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Fans of technology love quoting that, but I doubt they've chased down all that it implies.

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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

A couple of links

The Hagiography Circle is a marvelous site. For supplicants, devotees, sainthood geeks, and those for whom reading about sanctity figures prominently in their practice of it. (Via Moniales OP.)

At last! The Infant Samuel at Prayer, made available to 21st Century mantles everywhere!
I could see that she was looking for something to break as a relief to her surging emotions ... and courteously drew her attention to a terra-cotta figure of the Infant Samuel at Prayer. She thanked me briefly and hurled it against the opposite wall.
P.G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters
The one regret is that the Infant Samuel is not represented as unambiguously possessing golden curls.

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Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Love vs. obedience

In a comment below, Andrew disputes my argument that we can and ought to distinguish between love and obedience as the foundation of the moral order:
It strikes me that, in fact, we ought not make a distinction between love and obedience for this reason. The love to which we are exhorted in the Scriptures is a certain sort of love - agape - which is essentially self-giving love. It is essentially submissive to the will (and needs, when it is directed towards human beings rather than towards God) of the beloved. As St. Paul says, love does not seek its own. Thus we need make no distinction between "love your neighbor" and "serve your neighbor." Just so, we need make no distinction between "Love the Lord your God," and "Obey God," for to love one's neighbor is to seek his good, and to love God is to seek His good. It just so happens that to seek the Good for God is identical with seeking to do His will.
If we make no distinction between "Love God" and "Obey God," then we are incapable of loving God.

We're pretty good, as Catholics, at recognizing that love isn't just an emotion. "'Love' is a verb," as the saying goes.

But love isn't just an action; it's not fundamentally a matter of doing the other's will. It is primarily a matter of being in a relationship of love with the other.

Again, the virtue of charity is friendship with God, friendship in the traditional and profound sense. Friendship can't be commanded. It must be freely given, or it is pretense. A master can't command his servant to be his friend; he can only invite him.

And yet, isn't the first and greatest commandment, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind, and with thy whole strength"?

Yes, and this is further proof that love is the foundation of the moral order! If obedience were the formal cause of this commandment, it would either be impossible to keep or it would refer to some watered-down notion of imperfect love, the kind of love, which is only a matter of doing, that can be commanded. But watered-down, imperfect things don't come from God.

If, on the other hand, love is the formal cause of this commandment, then it is to be understood that our own perfection lies in our perfect love for God. It is love, inviting us to be perfect and instructing us how to become perfect, expressed in the form of a commandment.

Why does God express His invitations as commandments? An incomplete answer: Our relationship with God is one of creature to Creator, of servant to Master, of child to Father. In all of these relationships, when the greater's wish is the lesser's command. When a father says, "I want you to love me," a child ought to hear, "Love me." Not, as I've tried to explain above, as though that is what the father directly commands, but as what their relationship requires of the child, given the father's desire.

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Monday, August 01, 2005

Love and obedience

In the post below, I mentioned parenthetically that a key question is, Do we obey out of love, or love out of obedience?

There are a couple of ways of understanding this question. One is to take it as a question about us, about what you and I and the other people actually do. This is probably the natural interpretation, given the way the question is phrased.

Another way, though, is to understand it as a question about love and obedience, about which (if either) is the foundation of the moral order. It's this understanding that, to my mind, makes it a key question.

It may not seem all that important. After all, we ought to both love and obey God, and the Gospels make it clear that we can't properly do one without the other.

But what we believe about the foundation of the moral order amounts to what we believe about the foundation of our relationship with God, which amounts to what we believe about our fundamental nature -- and God's nature as well.

If obedience were the foundation of the moral order, then our relationship with God would be fundamentally one of lawgiver-lawkeeper. Whatever love there may be between God and ourselves would be a non-essential addition to this fundamental relationship. We would necessarily remain apart from God, kept at a distance by the law that exists between us. God would mediate Himself through His commandments. This mediation, and this distance, would persist after the Last Judgment, since it would be the foundation of our relationship with God. Whatever He is in Himself, He would be Revealed to us as a legislator; we could never draw closer to him than the stone tablets He sends down the mountain to us.

Furthermore, the lawgiver-lawkeeper relationship would be the light by which we understand our relationships with each other. The more commandments I give others, the more God-like I become. Which commandments I should give to become more God-like would be hard to say, since there wouldn't be much in the way of a necessary connection between God's nature and His commandments.

And where commandments are silent? Where they are incomplete or not spelled out or don't give complete guidance? There morality, depending on obedience for its foundation, could not exist.

Now yes, the first and greatest commandment is to love God, so doesn't the case of obedience being the foundation of the moral order turn into the case of love being its foundation in one easy step?

No. You don't have one foundation on top of another; avoiding that is sort of the whole point of talking about foundations.

More substantially, love is fundamentally not a matter of obedience. The Greatest Commandment notwithstanding, you can't command others to love, because love cannot be commanded. In St. Thomas's formulation, the theological virtue of charity is friendship with God, and while God can command us to act like His friends, He cannot command us to be His friends.

Among the other consequences of wrongly believing that obedience is the foundation of the moral order, then, is an inadequate understanding of love as purely a matter of action and not of will, as a matter of doing and not of being.

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