instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Sunday, April 29, 2012

A priest forever

My pastor made one of the points in his homily today in what I thought was a particularly effective way.

He read a list of adjectives the parish men's group offered when asked how they would describe the sort of parish priest they'd want. They were what you'd expect: holy, compassionate, dedicated, caring, and so forth.

I was expecting him to follow this with something like, "If these are the things you want from your priest, are you praying for your priest, that he may have them?"

But he went in a different direction: "You are all priests by your baptism. Are you holy? Are you compassionate?"

Layfolk know -- or at least have strong opinions about -- what a Catholic priest should be like. The implications of that knowledge (or at least judgment) on what all Christians should be like are not often traced.


Saturday, April 28, 2012

Acting Classes

At a very high level, actions and movements may be classified according to the answers to these two questions:
  1. Is the thing acting or moving itself in order to achieve some end?
  2. If so, is the end known by reason?
These questions partition actions and movements into three classes, each of which has its own appetite: the involuntary, when the thing moves due to a natural appetite that has no knowledge of the end; the imperfect voluntary, when the thing moves due to a sensitive appetite that desires some concrete good in response to something the thing apprehends through the senses; and the perfect voluntary or chosen, when the thing moves due to a rational appetite that desires some good understood as a good to be desired and obtained.

There are a couple of ways to contrast the classes with each other. The first question above makes the distinction between a thing moving knowing the end for which it moves -- in which case, the movement is voluntary and we say the thing is moving itself -- and not knowing -- involuntary, the thing isn't moving itself.

Another contrast is between necessary motion and free motion. According to St. Thomas, only the rational appetite -- better known as the will -- is free.

This, as you may know, is a contentious claim. In what sense is the human will free? And why isn't the sensitive appetite also free?


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

In a dispute between a wise man and a fool,

progress is much easier if they both agree on which one's the fool.


A fiendish paradox

In my previous post, I wrote that "even the sinner finds God beautiful to the extent he can perceive Him." Even the sinner? Even the demons!
And, as for the demons, what they are is both from the Good, and good. But their evil is from the declension from their own proper goods, and a change—the weakness, as regards their identity and condition, of the angelic perfection befitting them. And they aspire to the Good, in so far as they aspire to be and to live and to think. And in so far as they do not aspire to the Good, they aspire to the non-existent; and this is not aspiration, but a missing of the true aspiration.
This is a fine how-do-you-do. Confirmed for all eternity in their rejection of God, demons nevertheless cannot do anything -- anything, including merely existing -- without thereby glorifying God. Everything they choose, they regard as good, yet all goodness comes from God. The very choice to reject God forever is a celebration of God as Sovereign.

Which means that God is present, in a certain way, in every act of a demon. (God is not present in the evil of the act, you understand, since evil is a lack of existence; evil has no place, so to speak, for God to be present in.) And where God, in Whom nothing is passive, is present, God is at work:
... if no single thing is without participation in the Good, but the lack of the Good is an evil, and no existing thing is deprived absolutely of the Good, the Divine Providence is in all existing things, and no single thing is without Providence.
When Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden, the LORD provided them with leather garments. Even in Hell, the LORD provides for His creatures. Even in Hell, God is at work.


Sunday, April 22, 2012

A beautiful paradox

In the previous post, I proposed the following paradox:
  1. Revelation and theology teach that God is necessarily beautiful to all men.
  2. Empirical experience shows us that God is not regarded as beautiful to all men.
Using the per effectum definition of beauty as "that which, being apprehended, pleases," #1 means that we  always and necessarily find it pleasurable to apprehend God. We can't look at God and find Him not beautiful.

On the other hand, #2 means that we do, in fact, look at God and find Him not beautiful. We can go all the way back to Adam in the Garden: "I heard thy voice in paradise; and I was afraid."

Some might say, "God isn't beautiful to a sinner because sin implies desiring something other than God more than God. Anyone who does find God beautiful wouldn't desire something else more than God, and therefore wouldn't be a sinner."

The problem with this is that it resolves the paradox by denying tenet #1. If God is necessarily beautiful to all men, then God is necessarily beautiful to all sinners.

I think a better resolution is to say that sin impairs the ability to apprehend God. Sin darkens the eye of reason, and we can't see in the dark. It's not God that we don't find beautiful, but a partial, darkened, distorted image of Him, which is all we can see with those logs in our eyes. Adam wasn't afraid of God's voice, he was afraid of what he heard, and what he heard wasn't God's voice. No longer clearly hearing God's voice was one consequence of sin Adam learned first by experience.

Still, even the sinner finds God beautiful to the extent he can perceive Him. The sinner desires what he perceives as beautiful, and all that is beautiful comes from, and returns to, God. As Pseudo-Dionysius puts it:
...the licentious man, even if he have been deprived of the Good, as regards his irrational lust, in this respect he neither is, nor desires realities, but nevertheless he participates in the Good, in his very obscure echo of union and friendship.*
 You'll note that I used a quotation about the Good to bolster an argument about the Beautiful, but then, as you know, the Good and the Beautiful are the same thing.

* Thereby showing that the old wheeze, that the man who knocks on a brothel door is seeking God, is a very old wheeze indeed.


Saturday, April 21, 2012

The superessential Beauty

If you're familiar with the works of Pseudo-Dionysius, then you're way ahead of me. I'm just reading Chapter 4, "Concerning Good, Light, Beauty, Love, Ecstasy, Jealousy, and that the Evil is neither existent, nor from existent, nor in things being," of his On Divine Names, from which I'd quoted in my previous post. There's some good stuff in there.

He writes, for example, that God is called
Beautiful, as being at once beautiful and super-beautiful, and always being under the same conditions and in the same manner beautiful, and neither coming into being nor perishing, neither waxing nor waning; neither in this beautiful, nor in that ugly, nor at one time beautiful, and at another not; nor in relation to one thing beautiful, and in relation to another ugly, nor here, and not there, as being beautiful to some, and not beautiful to others; but as Itself, in Itself, with Itself, uniform, always being beautiful, and as having beforehand in Itself pre-eminently the fontal beauty of everything beautiful.
 Not epigrammatic, but you get his point.

For me, what stuck out in the above passage was the idea that God is not "beautiful to some, and not beautiful to others." I am just Platonist enough to agree that this must be true, but it raises a paradox, since, empirically, a lot of people don't find God to be beautiful.

Come to think of it, I have no idea what the results would be if folks were polled on the question
Q. Do you find God to be beautiful?

A. Certainly not.
B. Huh? Er, no, I suppose I don't.
C. Huh? Er, yes, I suppose so.
D. Absolutely!
E. That's an impious question!
F. Don't be silly. God doesn't have a body!
G. Etc.
My guess (extrapolating from myself) is that more people would be brought up short by the question, having never considered it before, than would readily and truthfully answer yes. ("Truthfully" as distinguished from "correctly," though I'm not sure how a poller could tell the difference between "'Beautiful' certainly sounds like something we should say about God, so yes," and "Contemplation of the One True God is my highest joy, so yes.")


Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Yes, yes, I know. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Dionysius the Aeropagite*, among others, teaches that, for all things that exist, "whatever they do, they do for the sake of that which seems good."

A lot of people might regard that as a perfect example of why no one takes philosophers seriously. Once normal people understand that he means that the most evil man who ever lived always and only did what he did for the sake of some good, they'll put Dionysius firmly on the "Utter Guff Totally Contrary to the Actual World" shelf, next to Parmenides and his "change is impossible" grift.

To dismiss Dionysius's teaching in this way, as either outright hogwash or as irrelevant to everyday life, is regrettable. Thinking philosophically about what goodness is -- rather than not thinking about goodness at all, say, or thinking of goodness only in terms of a list of Things Determined to be Good -- is a good thing to do. And if we don't realize that people who do evil are still choosing to do "that which seems good," then we won't really understand people who do evil.

But who are these "people who do evil"? All of us, right? Sometimes I do evil. Sometimes you do evil. If we don't understand goodness -- and, I submit, if we don't agree with Dionysius on this point then we don't understand goodness -- then we certainly don't understand evil.

And it doesn't stop with not understanding ourselves when we do evil -- when, that is, we do evil and realize it. Because if in doing evil people are still choosing to do that which seems good, it follows that, sometimes, when people choose to do that which seems good, they are still doing evil.

And I always choose to do that which seems good.

If everything I choose, I choose because it seems good, and if some things I choose to do are nevertheless not good, then "it seems good" is not proof that it is good.

How often do I look for stronger proof that my choice is good than "it seems good"?

* Not, that is to say, Dionysius the Areopagite, but another man of the same name.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The enemy of my enemy

It is the final proof of the need for renewal in the Church today that she is producing such an unimpressive crop of atheists.


Receive ye the Holy Ghost

St. Thomas (the name means "Twin")
Was out when he should have been in.
It would have been best
If he'd stayed with the rest.
The homilist on Sunday asked the age-old question: How could Thomas have doubted, when he'd lived with Jesus, spoken with Him, and watched Him at work for three years?

And I thought: Ah, but was Thomas doubting Jesus, or was he doubting his fellow disciples -- whom he'd lived with, spoken with, and watched at work for three years (or more)?

Peter, James, Moe, John, Larry: What is there in the Gospels that makes them seem like people anyone would trust to get something like the Resurrection right?

It's healthy, I think, to ponder from time to time just how radically we depend on God, on God alone, for our faith. We talk about the Apostles as pillars of the Church, and of Peter in particular as the rock upon which the Church is founded, but the foundation of Peter is Jesus. It's Jesus all the way down.

We look to the Apostles and their successors for teachings, for the whatness of the Faith, and we look to the saints for the credibility of the Faith. But to actually have faith, to get the thatness of faith, we need the Spirit of Christ.


Sunday, April 15, 2012

Judgmental gymnastics

Commenting on a video of an Englishwoman unable to bestir the good old English virtue of Not Doing What Isn't Done in the bosom of vocal Muslims who live in her old neighborhood, Mark Shea writes:
Yes: Christians commit the sins of pride and judgmentalism. And the reason pride and judgmentalism is a sin and not a virtue in both Christian and post-Christian tradition is that Jesus preached humility said, "Do not judge".... Watery post-Christian secular moralism is parasitic on the Christian moral sense and assumes it in its bullied Christian victims.
Let me offer a contrary diagnosis:

Judgmentalism as such is neither a sin nor a virtue in post-Christian secularism. Specifically, Christian judgmentalism -- that is, judgmentalism that condemns those who oppose Christian morality -- is a vice, while post-Christian secularist judgmentalism -- which condemns those who oppose post-Christian secularisim -- is a positive virtue, according to post-Christian secularist morality (though "vice" and "virtue" don't mean quite the same things to a secularist as to a Christian -- to say nothing of the differences of the tribunals in which judgments are pronounced).

Post-Christian secularist opposition to judgmentalism -- limited as it is to opposition to religious-based judgmentalism -- has little to do with the Christan view of judgmentalism as a vice, and nothing to do with humility. In fact, in their adoption of "judgmentalism for me but not for thee," the post-Christian secularists are more similar to their Islamic fundamentalist neighbors than to their cowed Christian neighbors. Secular judgmentalists, though, have the usual secularist problem of deriving an ought from an is, and a secular judgmentalist who isn't prepared to at least sketch how that's done is going to be reduced to saying, "Don't you dare speak to me like that!" when debating a religious judgmentalist.


Friday, April 13, 2012

Millstone prayers

Jeff Miller rightly identifies as Moloch the god whose clergy are behind the parasitic "40 Days of Prayer [for Enough Abortions to Sustain the Cash Flow]."

Particular prayers are appropriate, I think, for the members of Clergy for Choice, that the God they claim to serve will be the One Who claims them in the end.


Monday, April 09, 2012

Easter groaning

I wouldn't say I had a happy Easter, despite all the people who wished that I would.

I suppose parts of it were excellent, as the curate said of his egg, and I am not suggesting my day was in any way remarkable for misery, even by my own relatively cushy standards.

Still, I like St. Augustine's definition of happiness as the state of having all you want and wanting all you have, and there was plenty I wanted on April 8, 2012, that I didn't get, and plenty I got that I didn't want.

That, as you know, is the human condition. St. Augustine knew it, too, which is why he taught that no one really achieves happiness in this life.

There is a definite tension between the unbounded joy of Easter and the sorrows -- or even outright miseries -- of any given first Sunday after the first full moon of Spring. That tension is what gives weight to Christian hope. St. Paul writes:
We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.
If we were not groaning within ourselves as we wait for adoption, we wouldn't be hoping for redemption, we would be passing the time until redemption. I wouldn't have objected to groan-free waiting myself, but that's not part of God's plan of salvation.

The trick, I think, is to bring the day's groanings into direct contact with the joy of Easter. Not to forget them or minimize them, but to transform our perceptions of them in the light of the Risen Christ. However large and heavy the crosses we carry, the Resurrection shows us that suffering and death do not have the last word.

In turn, our perceptions of the joy of Easter may be transformed, as we see it working in our lives. Neither a warm, fuzzy, chocolate-flavored feeling, nor a magic eraser of all bad things, but a foretaste of eternal life that can work in our lives to keep us on the road -- a road that passes through Good Friday, and yet goes on to the garden of Easter morning.


Saturday, April 07, 2012

What is truth?

I can imagine Jesus' speech reminding a practical-minded procurator of the tiresome philosophers who tried to educate him in the ways of Socratic dialogue. Still, it's a shame Pilate wasn't interested in the answer to his own question, because truth is kind of a big deal, and the better we understand what truth is the better we can understand He Who was born and came into the world to give testimony to the truth.

Truth can be spoken of in several different contexts. There's propositional truth, in which what is is asserted to be, and what is not is asserted to not be. There's the truth that is opposed to deception or lying. There is the truth that is a quality of a thing, that makes it proper or correct or right (e.g., "true north," "the true heir to the throne").

St. Thomas's concept of truth is one of correspondence:
Truth is found in the intellect according as it apprehends a thing as it is; and in things according as they have being conformable to an intellect.
This idea poses problems for the philosopher that the theologian believes are resolved by God, to Whose intellect all things conform. As for the truth of God Himself, He is infinitely intelligible, and therefore can be identified with Truth. As St. Thomas puts it,
His being is not only conformed to His intellect, but it is the very act of His intellect; and His act of understanding is the measure and cause of every other being and of every other intellect, and He Himself is His own existence and act of understanding. Whence it follows not only that truth is in Him, but that He is truth itself, and the sovereign and first truth.
Along these lines, we can [somewhat] understand Jesus' teaching, "I am the truth," as implying that He fully apprehends the Father and fully conforms to Him. For Jesus to give testimony to the truth, then, would be to make His apprehension of the Father known to man. And that, we believe, is precisely what He did most perfectly on the cross.

When we look at a crucifix, we might think, "This is a sign of God's love for us." But we might go even further and think, "This is a sign of God Himself."

How can an image of a human corpse be a sign of the Living and True God? By being a sign to those who live in death. The Cross is the truth of God translated into fallen mankind's language. Since fallen mankind will not have the last word, we know by faith that the Cross is not the final sign of the Living and True God. Death on a cross tells us the truth about God, but the full truth cannot be told without the Resurrection.


Friday, April 06, 2012

The Good Fridays of our years are threescore years and ten

Was ever a man less prepared for what the day would bring than Pontius Pilate on the day the chief priests brought him Jesus?

Political scheming he could deal with. Though they forced his hand, he did manage to get the chief priests to swear fealty to Caesar publicly. As a bonus, he used the opportunity to befriend Herod.

But you cannot scheme with both God and mammon. It was Pilate's political habits that made it so difficult for him to deal with the non-political Jesus. He wondered, and was afraid, and was warned by his wife... but a dream's a dream and a riot's a riot, and the Empire doesn't rate its procurators based on their openness to theophany.

We should be better prepared than Pilate for the day when we must declare what we make of Jesus of Nazareth. But then, Caiaphas should have been better prepared, too, and he had the greater sin than Pilate. Our habits -- political, cultural, even religious -- can make it difficult for us to deal with Jesus.

Jesus tells Pilate, "Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice." In turn, we must hear His voice in order to give right judgment about Him before the people. 1 John 3:16-19 shows how our being "of the truth" relates to Good Friday:
In this we have known the charity of God, because he hath laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. He that hath the substance of this world, and shall see his brother in need, and shall shut up his bowels from him: how doth the charity of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word, nor in tongue, but in deed, and in truth. In this we know that we are of the truth: and in his sight shall persuade our hearts.
I do not understand Good Friday if I do not understand that Jesus laid down His life out of love for me. But my response can't be gratitude alone; it has to grow into a life-giving love that reflects Jesus' love. The faith that Jesus died for me is dead if it doesn't lead to concrete acts of love.

Penance and self-denial, prayer and fasting and almsgiving, these should prepare us to hear Jesus, standing before us and calling us to our vocation as His disciples: to lay down our lives through acts of love in deed and in truth.

And when, like Pilate, we fail to love those the day has brought to us, we should be prepared to ask forgiveness and listen all the more to His voice.


Tuesday, April 03, 2012

More piercing than any two edged sword

To pull the thread at the end of the last post: If, to remain alive in Christ, we need in some sense to respire, to (ahem) re-spirit ourselves, to have the Holy Spirit move in and through us (in the way, to borrow from St. Catherine of Siena, that the sea moves through the fish while the fish moves through the sea), then our relationship with Christ is one of movement and exchange. If it is a living relationship, it is an active relationship.

If we have an active, non-static relationship with Christ -- or should I say with Jesus, to use His name rather than His title? -- then, let me suggest, not only will He be alive and active in our hearts, but His teachings will, too. To the one with whom Jesus lives, His teachings are not static facts or mere rules, they are living truth.

It takes work, both to bring Jesus' teachings to life in our hearts and to keep them alive. The Holy Spirit Himself does the work of bringing and sustaining life; our task is to pray, "Not what I will but what you will." Sounds easy, but the record shows three out of four men fall asleep when they should be praying.

If we can do the work, though, then God's word will be alive in our hearts. And who's to say what might happen then? The blind might see, the prisoners might be freed, those who live in darkness might come out into the light.


Monday, April 02, 2012

He makes all things new

The form of a thing determines what the thing is. When God formed man from the slime of the earth, the thing formed was man. When He formed His people Israel, the thing formed was His people Israel. When He formed Jeremiah the prophet in his mother's womb, the thing formed was Jeremiah the prophet.

All things have a form, and many things can become deformed. God's people Israel, for example, deformed so predictably you could infer a Second Law of Theodynamics from it: Absent Divine work, fallen man acts to maximize his own will.1 And indeed, periodically God went to work to re-form His people.

The Catholic Church calls herself the People of God, which gives rise to the question, is the Church subject to the same process of deformation the nation of Israel cycled through so often?

A loyal son of the Church might answer, "No. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus promises that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church."2

But Matthew 16:18 doesn't contradict the principle of deformation absent Divine work. In fact, combining the two leads yields the promise of Matthew 28:20: "Behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world."

Jesus is always at work in His Church, not least in the Liturgy and sacraments. So His Church stays holy, even as her holiest members on earth fall seven times each day.

Which brings me to this oracle from today's first reading:
Thus says God, the LORD,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spreads out the earth with its crops,
Who gives breath to its people
and spirit to those who walk on it:

I, the LORD, have called you for the victory of justice,
I have grasped you by the hand;
I formed you, and set you
as a covenant of the people,
a light for the nations,
To open the eyes of the blind,
to bring out prisoners from confinement,
and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.
This is the oracle Jesus applies to Himself in the synagogue at the beginning of His public ministry. By extension, it can be applied to Jesus' Mystical Body, His Church. Let me now apply (less authoritatively) the introductory lines, "Who gives breath to its people and spirit to those who walk on it," to that very work by which Jesus sanctifies His Church, giving His Spirit to His people and those who walk with Him.

Just as, physically speaking, breathing is a process of continually taking in fresh air, so the Spirit of Christ is to be continually brought anew into our souls. If we stop breathing air, we die a physical death; if we stop receiving Christ's Spirit, we die a spiritual death. There is, if you will, a holy respiration that keeps the Spirit moving in our hearts, and thereby through our lives. If we carry the Holy Spirit in ourselves, then we carry Him to those we meet, including the blind, the prisoners, and those who live in darkness.

1. Note that such a law of "Theodynamics" doesn't trip over Spong's Law of Theophysical Asininity because, while it reads like a physical law, it doesn't actually invoke the science of physics. Of course, "reading like a physical law" doesn't popularize a concept, so let's just let the expression "Second Law of Theodynamics" die on the vine of this post, shall we?

2. Matthew 16:18 is one of the handful of chapter-and-verse citations a loyal son of the Church may make without smacking of Protestantism.