Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Week in Review: Angelic Research

Dear Readers (both of you),

I'm afraid there isn't too terribly much to report this week. No classes met this week, as it was what the school has termed Reading Week, ostensibly intended to give students a wee bit of time and space to do research for big end-of-semester projects, or perhaps to just catch up on reading for classes. 

I was able to get a good deal of work done on two of my impending projects. In Introduction to New Testament, I'm doing a bibliography project (meaning I have to research and find twenty or so books and/or academic articles concerning my topic and write a brief paper on how I would proceed were I to be writing a full paper) on the way in which angels serve as models for human behavior in the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. That is, in Luke and Acts there are many instances in which angels appear and do or say things, then people go and do likewise. Consider things like: the angelic host praising and adoring God that appears to the shepherds, followed by the shepherds going to the Christ-child and... praising and adoring God; or the angel who ministers to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, followed by... Mary standing by Jesus at the cross; or the two angels appearing to the women at the tomb telling them that Jesus had risen, followed by the women... going to the Apostles and telling them that Jesus had risen; or Stephen preaching God's word, God's message (making Stephen a messenger, or angelos), and the text of Acts saying, "His face appeared like an angel's." There's a lot there, I think, as did my professor, apparently, who suggested the idea. I have to keep digging.

My other project is a long research paper for Philosophy of Nature. I'm writing on the development between the time of Aristotle and Aquinas of the idea that the celestial bodies (i.e. planets and stars) were moved by some sort of "intelligent substances," which Aquinas deemed to be angels. This wasn't just some poetic notion, "Oh, the stars are pushed along by fat baby cherubs." Not at all. It actually begins with a very sensible principle. Aristotle believed that all motion was for reaching some end or purpose; in essence, motion is for getting somewhere. Seems reasonable enough, right? He thought that things had their natural places toward which they would tend when set in motion. So, cannonballs, being made of "earthy" substances, would tend toward the earth, while fire or heat would rise toward the heavens, toward the eternal fires burning up there. But this presented a problem when dealing with the movements of the heavens, because they just seemed to keep going round and round, not reaching any sort of destination. If natural motion always goes towards some destination, and the heavens weren't moving toward a destination, then their motion couldn't be natural motion; something had to be pushing them, something that had its own purpose, so it had to be intelligent. Aquinas, with no sound scientific reason to reject Aristotle's physics, saw this notion of "intelligent substances" moving the heavens, took the Christian notion that God governs creation via the angels, and put two and two together: these "intelligent substances" moving the spheres must be the angels! Now fast-forward 800 years, with the advances in astronomy and physics made by Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, and we're pretty sure that the planets and stars move due to their following the paths shaped by the way in which space-time is warped by the mass of other bodies, that is, gravitation. Angels aren't needed as agents of motion in the heavens... but that doesn't mean they don't still exercise some governance over them. There's a great depiction of this idea in C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Check them out some time.

The attentive reader may have noticed that both of my research topics involve angels in some way. They suggest here that one use their papers and projects to develop potential thesis topics. I'm considering doing something or other on angels, but I've still got a few years before I have to nail anything down definitively. I could research my roommates contention that "Every time the San Francisco Giants lose, an angel gets its wings" (he's a big Dodgers fan), which I find to be theologically problematic in a number of ways, but there may not be too much scholarship on the subject. (For the sarcasm-detection-impaired, I clarify that that was a joke.) We'll see.

Well, I managed to crank out more than I anticipated. Hope it makes some sense to you.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Three Methods of Persuasion

Aristotle, he of such nicknames as “The Stagirite” (which refers to his birthplace, Stagira), “The Philosopher” (which St. Thomas Aquinas calls him in his works, but only when he agrees with him), or “Ari” or “Telly” to his friends, wrote on nearly every topic one could imagine: ethics, physics, metaphysics, biology, zoology, poetry… I’m surprised he didn’t release a cookbook. Today’s focus will be on another area, rhetoric, and specifically on the three ways or “proofs” into which Aristotle classified all persuasive speech. Then you’ll be able not only to use these yourself, but to defend yourself against the persuasive attempts of others, be they politicians or used car salesmen (but I repeat myself).

Aristotle said that all persuasive speech can be divided into three categories:

Logos, “the appeal to reason”: We could perhaps also call this, “Use your head!” In this sort of appeal, the speaker uses facts, figures, arguments, graphs, charts, principles, axioms, and any other method aimed at the gray matter between your ears to persuade you to adopt the speaker’s viewpoint.

Pathos, “the appeal to emotion”: We could call this, “Have a heart!” Here the speaker’s objective is to tug at your heartstrings, to incite an emotional response in you, to make you feel what they feel (or, more cynically, what they want you to feel). The aim is not to induce your head to make a calculation, but rather to put you in the emotional state the speaker thinks will compel you to adopt the speaker’s viewpoint.

Ethos, “the appeal to the integrity of the speaker”: We could perhaps call this, “Listen to your gut.” Strangely, this method often has little to do with the subject matter at hand, but instead adduces the speaker’s own trustworthiness as the criterion of persuasion. “Trust me,” “You know who I am,” “We’ve been through a lot together,” and other such phrases are typical of this type of appeal. Aristotle says that this appeal is the most powerful method of persuasion.

Let’s use a concrete example to illustrate these: taxes! Who doesn’t love a good ol’ debate on tax policy, right? It has all the excitement of a root canal and all the clarity of Gabby Johnson’s speech from Blazing Saddles. But let’s examine some typical persuasive speech on tax policy and see what we can see.

Logos: “If we keep taxes low, it will encourage businesses to grow, which means hiring more workers, which means more incomes to tax, which actually means more revenue for the government. After all, what’s a larger number: 45% of 100, or 36% of 200?” (The speaker argues that, granted his premise that low taxes means more hiring and thus more income to be taxed, that a smaller percentage of a higher number produces a greater result than a higher percentage of a lower number.)

OR: “My opponent’s numbers don’t add up. Besides, it is not guaranteed that lower taxes will necessarily make businesses hire more people, so we ought not to rely on that.” (The speaker counter-argues by challenging that premise, saying that there is no logically necessary connection between low taxes and increased revenue.)

Pathos: “The middle class is suffering in this country, while the rich take advantage of loopholes to pay less. Companies make higher profits than ever before, while you struggle to put food on the table, or send your kids to college. Enough is enough! The wealthy need to pay their fair share!” (The speaker is appealing to the listener’s desire for justice, or the speaker is trying to stir up feelings of envy.)

OR: “The government is trying to take away your hard-earned money to feed the bureaucratic fat cats in Washington! Your money belongs to, not to the federal government! What’s fair is for you to be able to keep as much of your earnings as possible.” (The speaker is appealing to the listener’s desire for security, or the speaker is trying to stir up feelings of fear.)

Ethos: “I’m a businessman with 30 years of experience, and I’ve successfully run a state, a hospital, a prison, and in one case, a state prison hospital. I know what it takes to be successful, to balance a budget.” (Here the speaker, appealing to his past success, asks you to trust him in making decisions.)

OR: “According to the non-partisan Institute for the Advanced Study of Things and Stuff, my opponent’s plan will increase the debt by eleventy-gajillion dollars by next Thursday.” (Here the speaker appeals to the prestige of an institution as a reason to trust what he says.)

After looking at these examples, can you tell why is ethos the most persuasive type of argument? Logos relies on the audience’s ability or willingness to follow a complex argument, or apprehend a large amount of data, or accept the premises of your argument as true: many times an audience is unwilling or unable to do this, or they get lost in the attempt. With pathos, one must realize how slippery it can be to try to manipulate someone’s emotions: you may not produce the effect you intended. With ethos, the task is somewhat simpler: all you have to do is get the audience to trust you. They don’t have to wade through a morass of syllogisms and propositions; they don’t have to be carefully led to the proper emotional state; they simply have to believe that you would tell them the truth. And when people trust you enough, they’ll go along with what you say, whether or not they totally understand it, as a child with a parent, a student with a teacher, a novice with a mentor. And because it is so powerful, when it backfires, things can go horribly, horribly wrong. If the audience finds that the speaker was lying to them, that betrayal can diminish the audience’s ability to trust anyone. If the an immoral speaker uses that trust to manipulate people, we can see evil on the scale of Nazi Germany, the genocide in Rwanda, or that of Charles Manson or Jim Jones, all of whom led people to do the unthinkable.

To quote Father Christmas in the film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, “These are tools, not toys. Bear them well.” You can appeal to someone’s reason validly, or you can use fallacious arguments to trick them. You can appeal to their emotions to make them feel the true weight of the matter at hand, or you can manipulate them into a malleable state, ready to do your bidding. You can appeal to someone’s trust in you to make them see when they wouldn’t otherwise understand, or you can use it to stab them in the back. Be careful how you use them.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Week in Review: The Russians are Coming with Sandwiches

This last week I started a part-time job at a deli not too far from the DSPT. Zarri’s Delicatessen in Albany, CA features sandwiches, sliced meats, and a variety of products such as pastas, sauces, wines, olive oils, etc. It’s owned by an upstanding Catholic family, and the owner likes to hire DSPT students so he can talk philosophy with them. After a few conversations with him, I’d say he qualifies as what Fr. Ludwig (my ancient philosophy professor) would call “a philosopher with a day job.” The other employees are a fun bunch, given to making smart-aleck remarks to each other as they make sandwiches or slice up some dry salami. I’m sure that once they get me trained on everything, you could walk in there and hear me singing “O sole mio” as I carve up some porchetta. The extra cash will most definitely help: try as I do to live simply, the Bay Area is an expensive place, and on top of that my car received some needed repairs, which were spendy—I went in for an oil change and ended up with five or six other things which I knew needed to be handled at some point, but didn’t realize were so urgent as they were. You’re probably thinking, “Oh Nick, you got taken by some seedy mechanic into paying for fake repairs’—sed contra, I could tell in the three-mile drive home how much better the car was performing. Still… I would have preferred to save that money, but c’est la vie.

Just yesterday for Mass I attended the Divine Liturgy at Our Lady of Fatima Russian Byzantine Catholic Church in San Francisco. Allow me to anticipate your questions: “Nick, what in the Samuel F. Hill is a Russian Byzantine Catholic Church, and why would a Russian church name itself after a Portuguese apparition?” As to the second question, no idea. As to the first, let me introduce a fact that may surprise you: technically speaking, the “Roman Catholic Church” is just one of twenty-two “Catholic Churches”, all of which are in communion with the Holy See and recognize the Pope as their head. See, the word “church” can mean different things: it can refer to your local parish; it can refer to the diocese, what’s usually called the “local church” in canon law, headed by the bishop; it can refer to the universal church, that is, the worldwide communion of “local churches” under the headship and authority of the Pope; or it can refer to a particular group of local churches which share a common historical and liturgical heritage, and are thus organized as their own sui iuris or “self-governing” churches, while still in communion with Rome. These sui iuris churches are the products of historical circumstances which caused them to develop differently from the Latin or Roman churches (i.e. most of the Catholic Church, numerically speaking). They are usually grouped under the name “Eastern Catholic Churches” because they all have their historical roots in parts east of Rome, from India to the Holy Land to the Ukraine and Russia, Greece and Albania. In most cases these churches were at one time part of the communion of the Orthodox Church, but later came into communion with Rome and were allowed to keep their own liturgical and cultural heritage. So: the “Russian Byzantine Catholic Church” is a Catholic Church which was at one time part of the Russian Orthodox Church, but broke away and came into communion with Rome. The “Byzantine” part of the name means that it follows the Greek liturgical tradition. Byzantine Catholic Churches refer to the Mass as the “Divine Liturgy” and will celebrate it in some of the different forms they’ve used through the centuries, such as the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, or of St. Basil the Great, or of St. James.

I went there because I have a great love for liturgy, and for Eastern Catholics liturgy is one of their defining attributes; their liturgy is one of the things that makes them who they are. As such, they tend to celebrate it with great care, which results in great beauty. This particular parish had recently moved into the downstairs area of a Roman Catholic church, but it’s small space was beautifully decorated with icons and ornamentation. Incense permeated the air, accompanied by the tinkling of the bells attached to the thurible (i.e. the thing what you incense with). Most of the liturgy was chanted, some parts by the deacon or priest, some parts by the choir with its mellifluous harmonies. (Sorry, “mellifluous” is one of my favorite words, and I couldn’t resist the chance to use it.) The only part of the liturgy in Russian was the first reading, read first in English, then in Russian. The rest was in English, apart from the typical Hebrew (amen, alleluia, hosanna) or Greek (kyrie eleison) words we always use in our English renditions. The prayers of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom are ornate and poetic; I think that the new translation of the Latin-rite Mass recaptures much of this quality in our own liturgy. The whole thing is a very sensate experience. It moves body and soul closer to God. The Second Vatican Council called the liturgy “the source and summit of the Christian life,” and celebrating it in a way that captures the entire person, body and soul, helps one to realize that: you are at the wellspring of grace, the apex of the spiritual life here on earth. The Latin rite liturgy (whether done in English or Latin), when done well, can be just as beautiful and moving as the Eastern liturgy I’ve described. I think more people would come to know the truth of the faith if they were to see it so beautifully enacted. It’s always there, but it’s sometimes hard to see.

I seem to be on a Russian kick of late: I was drinking White Russians a few weeks ago; I went to the Russian Catholic Church yesterday; and on Saturday I watched the classic film The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming (nominated for three Oscars when released back in the 1960s). Purely coincidence, I assure you.

A round-up from classes:

Intro to New Testament: We’ve been talking about narrative criticism, that is, using the structure of the Gospels as stories to interpret them. For example, by noticing certain elements of the structure of Matthew’s gospel, you can see how much it draws from and connects to Judaism. It seems to be divided, by a series of narratives and dialogues, into five sections… like the Torah and its five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). As he begins his gospel with the genealogy of Jesus, the very first words are, in Greek, “biblios geneseos,” which we usually translate “The book of the generations,” but could just as easily be translated “book of Genesis.” And where does Matthew’s Gospel end? With Jesus on a mountaintop. Where does the Torah end? With Moses on a mountaintop. The whole point is that Jesus is the new Moses, the fulfillment of God’s promise to the patriarchs, the true Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. Neat, eh?

Aristotelian Logic: Have you ever gotten tangled up in reading a sentence with lots of negations in it? Something like “He is not a non-factor.” Huh? We learned a way to clear up such phrases, through a technique called obversion. To get the obverse of a phrase, you change the verb and the predicate, reversing the negations so that they mean the same thing, but are stated positively: “He is not a non factor” becomes “He is a factor.” Or “All men are non-women” becomes “No men are women.” It may seem trivial, but it can be useful if someone tries to trick you with multiple negations in a sentence: “Did you take my sandwich?” “Uh… I didn’t not take your sandwich.” “So you took my sandwich?” “Uh… yeah.”

History of Ancient Philosophy: Funny how Aristotle keeps coming up in different classes. You’d think he was important or something. One interesting thing learned from discussing him in this class: Whether he’s discussing the nature of poetry, or rhetoric, or physics, or ethics, he goes about it all in the same way. He identifies the four causes of a thing, and thereby comes to know it. See, I told you that the four causes were useful!

Philosophy of Nature: Oh, poor Philosophy of Nature… I think you’ll get your own post later this week.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Hypocrisy: What It Is and What It Ain't

You sometimes see something like the following in public life: Person A speaks against a certain practice or policy as somewhere between being detrimental to national interests and being morally wrong; Person A is then found to be engaging in the very practice or policy he was condemning; Person A is declared a hypocrite for doing one thing and saying another. Whether it’s a pro-traditional marriage politician who’s been divorced three times, or an environmentalist being called out for flying all over the world in a private jet to speak to groups about how people shouldn’t fly all over the world in private jets, or public education advocates sending their own children to private schools, or an anti-drunk driving crusader getting popped for a DUI, society is quick to jump on the offender as an lying, two-faced hypocrite… and that’s if they’re feeling charitable.

But is that what hypocrisy is? Simply doing one thing and saying another?

No. I think there’s another piece that’s needed to complete the definition.

A hypocrite is someone who preaches against something BUT believes that it’s wrong when you do it, but OK when they do it. If they admit their mistake, then they are shown to be a sinner, or inconsistent, or capable of having a moment of weakness; but that’s not the same as hypocrisy. Hypocrisy lies in holding others to a standard different from oneself.

Let’s look at our examples. Take the anti-drunk driving crusader who’s charged with drunk driving. If they respond to the situation with a sincere admission to the effect of “I am so sorry, this was so wrong of me, I lost control of myself, it’s my fault,” that’s inconsistency between principle and action, a moment of imperfection (albeit a serious one, certainly). If they respond with a “Well, it was just once, I thought I was fine, nobody got hurt, what’s the big deal?” that’s hypocrisy. In the latter case, they’ve revealed the different standard to which they hold themselves: “Well, it’s not so bad if I do it, but if they do it….”

Or take the example of the pro-traditional marriage politician who’s been divorced three times. If he responds to criticisms by saying, “Yes, I’ve made some mistakes in my life, including not taking marriage seriously enough at times, and I regret that, which is why I’m all the more committed to this cause, as I see the importance of strong marriages and strong families for society,” he shows himself to be committed to the principle even if his practice has not always matched. If he were to respond by saying, “Look, that’s my life, I’m free to do as I please, I’m just one person, what’s it hurting you?” that’s hypocrisy. He’s holding himself to a different standard.

Notice, too, how often the hypocrite will play the “no harm, no foul” card. When they speak about the principle of their position, the underlying premise is that the thing is wrong in itself; but when they’re caught, suddenly it’s only wrong if somebody gets hurt. It’s a double-standard of morality. The hypocrite tries to get the principle to bridge the gap between the two standards, but the principle can’t support the weight of the act crossing over that chasm, and the principle snaps. The hypocrite has lost the principle.

When we see someone not practicing what they preach, we should first determine their attitude toward their lapse before we decide how to approach them. For the sinner who knows he has sinned needs encouragement to follow through on his penitence and firm purpose of amendment; the hypocrite needs to be shaken and jarred and made to realize his sin so that he may take that next step toward healing and integrity. If the sinner who has acknowledged his sin is chastised too vehemently, he may fall into despair; if the hypocrite is gently encouraged to get onto the right track, he may laugh as he would at a doctor who told him to keep up the good work on the physical therapy he was meant to be doing on his perfectly good knee.

Not all inconsistencies are hypocrisies. Properly distinguishing between the two could make the difference in saving someone’s soul.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Four Causes

The Four Causes One of the most important pillars of Aristotle’s philosophy was his theory of the four causes.

Whenever you want to know what something is, there are, basically, four questions you can ask about it:

What is it made of?
Where did it come from, or what produced it?
What kind of thing is it?
What is it for?

The answer to each of these Aristotle would call a cause of that thing. It’s a “cause” in the sense that it contributes to the existence of that thing as the sort of thing it is. The first question deals with the “formal cause,” the second the “material cause,” the third the “efficient cause,” and the fourth the “final cause.”

That’s a little abstract. Let’s use a concrete example. Take my guitar.

(Not literally.)

What is this thing made of? That is, what is its material cause? It’s made of wood, some metal and plastic, and metal strings. It would not be the thing it is if it weren’t made of these materials. In that sense, the materials are one of the causes of the existence of the thing.

What produced this thing? What is its efficient cause? If it were a hand-crafted guitar, the answer would be “a luthier” (that’s the technical name for a maker of guitars), but since it’s a big brand name, it probably was a combination of machines and people. Knowing what made it tells us something about the kind of thing it is.

What is it? What is its formal cause? It’s a guitar. Its arrangement of the various components into this particular shape and structure make it a guitar. You could have the different parts (neck, body, strings, headstock, etc.) all glued together in the wrong configuration, but that wouldn’t make it a guitar. The very form of “guitar-ness,” in that sense, is one of the causes of its existence: if not for the form of guitar, this thing would not be a guitar.

What is it for? What is its final cause? A guitar is for playing music. It is not for chopping down trees or brushing your teeth. If it weren’t for the purpose of playing music, the guitar would not be a guitar.

It may sound a little foreign to you that a thing’s purpose or its materials could be the cause of its being in any way. Modern science has reduced “cause” to the “efficient cause”: what brings it about? This is because the efficient cause is the only one that falls within the scope of empirical science’s method of investigation. You can’t test for the final cause or formal cause of a thing in a lab. You could determine a thing’s component materials in a lab, but from science’s point of view they would be mere building blocks, inactive and manipulated. The other three causes are philosophical principles, not scientifically verifiable phenomena. But that doesn’t make them any less real. The four causes are extremely useful for defining things. By identifying the four causes for a thing, you can get a pretty good picture of what it is. So, if I say, “A table is a piece of furniture made by a carpenter or machine out of a sturdy material for the purpose of holding other items at a certain height.” Now, if you’d never encountered a table before, you’d have a fairly good idea of what it was.

Aristotle’s four causes come up A LOT, not only in his philosophy, but in the later philosophy and theology of those, like St. Thomas Aquinas, who used Aristotle’s philosophy as a framework. Even in Aristotle’s work on poetics he uses them to define literary art! Point is: it’s super useful. Give it a try.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Week in Review: Goldilocks and the 2,000 Pigs

(If you haven't noticed yet, the titles for these "Week in Review" posts are composed by my slapping together two words from unrelated sections. I'm amused by it, even if no one else is. But, even if you don't laugh, I don't want you to be confused.)

This last Tuesday featured Round Two of our seminar on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. We discussed Books III and IV, where Aristotle, among other things, described the nature of the various virtues. Instead of describing our discussion, which centered on Aristotle’s description of the “great-souled” man (usually translated into English by “magnanimous”) as the pinnacle of virtue, I think it would be more beneficial to set out Aristotle’s basic understanding of virtue. It’s summed up in the Latin phrase in medio virtus stat, “Virtue stands in the middle.” Every virtue has a vice on either side of it, one of excess and one of deficiency. For example, the virtue of courage is the quality of facing danger or fear bravely, or as Aristotle more precisely put it, “The man, then, who faces and who fears the right things and from the right motive, in the right way and from the right time, and who feels confidence under the corresponding conditions, is brave; for the brave man feels and acts according to the merits of the case and in whatever way the rule directs.” When one doesn’t react in this proper way in these situations, he is not brave. But the type of error one commits will depend on whether one has too much courage or too little. The excess of courage is rashness or foolhardiness, rushing into a dangerous situation with no concern for one’s life; a knight charging 500 spearmen by himself is not brave, but rash. He has lost the right motive and is not sensing the right time for his action. The deficiency of courage is cowardice. 500 knights running away from one spearman is not brave, because they ought not fear in that situation. It’s a matter of too much, too little, and just right. Think of it as the Goldilocks method of discerning right action. The key, though, is to correctly identify what that middle is. You could set up two false ends and wind up with an erroneous middle, like sticking one goalpost at the back of one endzone and another goalpost at the 30-yard line, and calling the 10-yard line “midfield.” Or like saying, “Well, 10 shots of tequila is too much, but really anything less than 6 shots of tequila is too little, so clearly the right amount of tequila is 8 shots!” That ain’t virtue.

Apart from that….

This week also featured another Dominican Rite Mass at the DSPT. It was well-attended and beautifully celebrated. The Dominican friars are hoping to round up some students to volunteer to do chant for the liturgy so we can have a real “missa cantata” (sung Mass); I told them that if the chant parts weren’t all written for eunuchs, I’d be happy to participate. They pointed out that the parts are easily transposed. I may still help out if they need. After Mass, several of us headed to Luval’s, a local pizza place, to watch what ended up being the final game of the Oakland A’s’ memorable season. The game’s result was disappointing, but a good time was had by all.

On Saturday the DSPT hosted a lecture by Fr. Robert Spitzer, SJ, a former president of Gonzaga University and current head of several centers and institutes, on the topic of “The Evidence of Creation and Supernatural Design in Contemporary Big Bang Cosmology.” That sounds like quite a mouthful, but his basic point, which he made in quite an intelligent, engaging, and animated way, was: many discoveries being made in physics today indicate that the universe must have had a beginning, that suddenly there was nothing, and then there was something—and what does that suggest? If the universe had a beginning, there must have been something what beginned it (to put it colloquially), something not part of the universe itself. And what could that be? The religious person knows. The physicist will hopefully catch up soon. The lecture was followed by two responses from two DSPT faculty members, Fr. Michael Dodds, OP, and Fr. Anselm Ramelow, OP. I did not get to hear their responses, as I was helping to set up for the reception which was to take place after the lecture, but do look up the video of the lecture on the DSPT website. (It’s not posted yet, but it should be soon.)

Today the friars at St. Albert’s Priory invited students from the DSPT to join them for prayer and Mass and brunch. Unfortunately, the flu was sweeping through the priory like the plague (or should we say that the plague used to sweep through Europe like the flu?), so many of the friars were not to be seen. Nevertheless, we enjoyed their hospitality, which included a book sale of the duplicates from their library, with DSPT students getting a “100% discount” (i.e. free books!), meaning many a student left the priory with their arms fully extended and books up to their chins. I should also mention that between Mass and brunch they exposed the Blessed Sacrament and we recited the rosary together, with benediction afterward. What better way to spend a Sunday than free books, free food, and the Real Presence?

Notes from class:

Introduction to New Testament: Our professor mentioned to us a little while back a possible interpretation of a biblical passage based on a little historical knowledge. You may remember the account from the Gospels where Jesus encounters a possessed man, and the demons, who call themselves Legion, recognize him as “Son of the Most High God” and ask him not to send them back to the abyss of hell, but into a herd of 2,000 pigs; he permits it, and the demons go into the pigs, who then run into the sea and drown themselves. That always struck me as a little bit random. But consider this: the particular Roman army stationed in Jerusalem at that time was the Tenth Legion. That legion was quite active in suppressing revolts in Judaea throughout the first century AD. Guess what the legion’s mascot was? A boar. A pig. So, one could perhaps see, symbolically, Jesus driving the Tenth Roman Legion back into the sea, where they came from. Is this an overt political statement? Is it one more subtle way of saying, “God is King, not Caesar”? Interesting, isn’t it?

Aristotelian Logic: “The Square of Opposition.” No, it’s not a nerdy name for a boxing ring, it’s a visual tool used in logic to help one understand the implications of propositions. For example: if all we know is that it is true that “All men are mortal,” then it must also be true that “Some men are mortal” (since “some” is part of “all”), and false that “Some men are not mortal” and “No men are mortal.” BUT let’s say all we know is that it’s false that “No man is mortal.” It must be the case that “Some men are mortal,” but we don’t know whether that also means that “All men are mortal,” or “Some men are not mortal.” Kinda tricky to follow, eh? That’s why the Square of Opposition is handy. It can help you to sort things out quickly.

History of Ancient Philosophy: We’ve been reading Plato’s dialogues on the subject of love, the Symposium and the Phaedrus. Our professor emphasized that these texts were key in understanding the work of those Christian theologians who followed in the Platonic philosophical tradition: “Understand this, and you’ll understand Augustine, and Dionysius, and Bonaventure.” Once again: if you want to understand theology, it helps to read philosophy.

Philosophy of Nature: I really should do this one first next time, because when I leave it for last, I run out of steam, and can’t work up the energy to describe hylomorphic theory as it applies to contemporary scientific models. Yeah, I’m not sure what I just said there, either. Next time.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Three Most Important Questions

The ancient Greek philosopher Gorgias (each G is a hard G, like in “great,” not soft like in “gem,” and it’s definitely not pronounced like “gorgeous”) was a bit of an extreme fellow. He came along during a time when philosophers had been debating what the nature of reality was. First Thales said that everything was made of water, and that the water changed its form to make different things. Other philosophers suggested other substances. Then Heraclitus suggested that, really, everything is constantly changing, but things only appear to stay the same sometimes. Parmenides one-upped him and said just the opposite, that nothing ever changes, but things only appear to change sometimes. Gorgias then played the ultimate trump card and laid out his vision of reality: that it doesn’t exist at all.

He made the following four propositions:

Nothing exists. If it did exist, it could not be known. If it could be known, it could not be communicated. If it could be communicated, it could not be understood.

That, ladies and gents, is complete and total skepticism.

Now, when it’s put that bluntly, it seems ridiculous. And it is ridiculous. Gorgias’ second statement is a paradox: he claims to know that nothing can be known. And if he really believed it was impossible to communicate about anything, he wouldn’t have written a book attempting to communicate how it’s impossible to communicate anything. He wouldn’t have spent time carefully crafting the section on how nothing can be understood in the hopes that people would understand it. And I’m sure that when his book failed to sell and the repo man came to take his house, it would not have sufficed to tell the repo man “Sorry, nothing exists, including this house, and you, so you can’t take my house from me, because you’re not here, and there’s no house to take.” Then after the repo man punched him in the face, he could console himself with the knowledge that the repo man didn’t really exist, so he hadn’t been punched in the face… and come to think of it, he himself didn’t exist either, so he couldn’t be in pain.

The “nothing exists” one is a little hard to swallow, and you won’t find many people who go along with him on that. But Gorgias’ skepticism does leave us with important questions:

Is there truth? If there is truth, how can we know it? If we can know it, how can we express it?

These are perhaps the three most important questions we can ask about any subject. Any conversation on an issue or topic or problem, be it a debate on the floor of the US Senate or a chat over coffee between two friends, should start with these three questions. Is what we’re talking about a matter of opinion, or taste, or preference, or prudential judgment, or is there some principle, some question of right and wrong, some matter of “it is the case or it isn’t the case” about it? If it’s about the truth, how can we know the truth about the subject in question? Philosophy? Theology? Science? Some combination? Once we come to know this truth, how can we express it in a way others can understand? Description? Jargon? Analogy?

It seems that a lot of our current contentious political issues are so heated precisely because we can’t agree on the answers to these questions. Think about it. The question of same-sex marriage is essentially the first question: “Is marriage something with its own nature that should be preserved and respected, or is it an institution of entirely human construct, malleable at will?” That is, “Is marriage really something, or is it just whatever we call it?” Slapping each other with epithets and accusing people of hate doesn’t address that question, and thus it side-steps the crux of the whole issue. The abortion debate seems to be largely about the second question: One side says, “Who knows when life begins or when a human being becomes a person?” The other side says, “It’s obvious, isn’t it? It begins at the beginning.” (Of course, there is also the simple and sensible response to that first side: “If you say you don’t know, then don’t act. If you’re unsure whether it’s your son or a deer rustling the bushes, are you going to shoot?”) The third question seems to relate to the debate over “enhanced interrogation techniques vs. torture”: “Well, is it really easy to say what the distinction is between those two? Can we express that distinction?” “YES. Stop doing X, Y, and Z, it’s torture!” “Yeah, but… is it REALLY? I mean, can we say that for sure? Does that REALLY paint an accurate picture?” And you go in circles ad infinitum.

There are many, many, many, many, many, many, many other examples; I just grabbed what to me seemed to be the obvious ones. But they illustrate well the importance of first and foremost seeking the truth.

Of course, the most essential place to ask these questions is on the subject of religion, since it deals with the nature of ultimate reality. What is the truth? How do we know the truth? How can that truth be expressed? For a Christian, the answer to all three questions is the same: Jesus. Perhaps you don't agree with this just now. That's a subject for another post.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Week in Review: Relaxing with Russians

I wonder if I give the impression that my life here consists of study, study, study, with occasional eating and sleeping thrown in. While I do study a lot, that wouldn’t be an entirely accurate picture. This last week, for example, on Tuesday, just as I was gearing up to start studying after a little dinner, my roommate’s buddy stopped by and asked if we wanted to go check out a barbeque place in town. I wasn’t hungry, but I did want to scout out this place as a potential future destination for tasty eats, so I tagged along. A sample or two of a few items cemented me as a future customer. We then went a few doors down from the barbeque joint to a bar, where we drank White Russians, talked theology, and watched the A’s and Giants games. So, as you can see, I do relax on occasion.

I also make sure to watch my beloved Fighting Irish each weekend that they play. Yesterday my roommate, another friend and I watched the game at the home of a pleasant acquaintance of ours, an architect and friend of several DSPT folks who also happens to be a Notre Dame grad, and a big fan of Holy Cross religious; naturally, she and I found common cause there. It’s nice to find people around here who know about Holy Cross and have an appreciation for them. My poor roommate, though, had to put up with the two of us giving him grief as his Miami Hurricanes failed to breach the levies of the Notre Dame defense. I nearly felt bad for him. But not quite. Up to #7 in the nation!

On Friday I stopped by the cathedral church in Oakland, the Cathedral of Christ the Light. While it wasn’t my cup of tea in terms of the architecture (something between a bomb shelter and the glass pyramid at the Louvre), they did have the Blessed Sacrament exposed for adoration, and had a priest available for confessions in the middle of the day. It was a good reminder that, while having a beautiful church can be a great aid to worship, the more important thing is what takes place inside.

Highlights from classes during the week:

Intro to New Testament: Our professor has mentioned in class a few times a curious sort of phrasing that one sees in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament but also in the New: “the divine passive.” “Passive” here refers to the passive voice, such as saying “The ball was kicked” instead of “He kicked the ball”—the passive voice puts the emphasis on the recipient of the action, not on the doer. Some grammarians will tell you to NEVER use the passive voice, saying that it’s somehow weaker than the active voice; I personally consider that to be a silly directive. Sometimes your emphasis is precisely on the fact that something else was acted on. The “divine passive” is a great illustrator of that. You see it most especially in phrases like, “God was seen by them.” The passive voice is used when speaking of God (hence the “divine passive”) to emphasize that He is always the initiator of action, always the one revealing Himself to us; when people see God, it is because He allows Himself to be seen. The “divine passive” emphasizes that nothing can happen to God against His will.

Aristotelian Logic: We’ve been discussing various things concerning terms and propositions, but I’m not sure any of them would be of particular interest to you, or perhaps rather that I could make them interesting to you. But I think soon enough several of these elements will come together, and I’ll have something for you.

History of Ancient Philosophy: We discussed Plato’s Republic this last week, in which Plato, via the medium of a dialogue featuring Socrates, sets out his vision of how a proper society would be structured and function. A large part of it concerned the proper education of the youth to make them good citizens. Our professor contended that this work “is, at its base, a justification of philosophy, and the vocation of philosophy.” It seems that, for Plato, philosophy was not just a way of thinking, or a set of propositions one might assent to, but a way of life; the way he talks, philosophy is more like something you’re converted to than something you’re convinced of. St. Justin Martyr would definitely take that stance about 500 years after Plato when Justin called Christianity “the true philosophy.” Interesting to see how these things develop over time.

Philosophy of Nature: Still discussing that relationship between matter and form, that is, the potential to become something and the principle that makes a particular thing what it is. Again, not sure I can make this of interest to you yet, but soon enough, I think I will. Until then….

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Divine Go-Between: A Reflection on 1 Timothy 2:1-8

(The following is 1 Timothy 2:1-8, and then a reflection that I gave on that reading a few years back. Hope you enjoy.)

First of all, then, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth. For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as ransom for all. This was the testimony 2 at the proper time. For this I was appointed preacher and apostle (I am speaking the truth, I am not lying), teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. It is my wish, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands, without anger or argument.

Folks, before we begin our reflection on the reading, there’s something you should know about me: I love language. I love the way that a word can hold an ocean of meaning in a syllable or two. I love how two words like “silver” and “argent” can have the same referent, but have a totally different feel and weight to them—no one would say we have an argent Chevy Caravan out in the parking lot. I like to play with words like toys, and reverence them as symbols that can effect grace in people’s lives, like “I absolve you,” or “This is my body.” Words are neat. All of that is to let you know why I’m going to focus so much on two words from this passage. I’ll magnify them, pull them apart, and glue them back together.

Those two words are “intercede” and “mediator”. Now, intercession itself is not in here, but it’s a good word to encapsulate the other words used for what Paul asks us to do: supplication, prayer, petition. Intercede, from the Latin intercedere, “to go between”: that’s what prayer for someone else is essentially doing, right? We act as a go-between, bringing the concerns of one party to another party, between our fellows and God. Paul says that we are to intercede for others, and this will contribute to their salvation. Paul juxtaposes this call to intercede with God’s salvific will, suggesting that our prayers will have an effect on the salvation of others. So, our intercession is important.

Then we have this other word, “mediator.” Paul says that Christ is “the one mediator” between God and humanity, the one given “as ransom for all.” But wait—if Christ is the one mediator, the one standing in the middle, in medio, of God and humanity, and we’re also going between God and humanity, aren’t we going to collide with each other? Get in each other’s way? If Christ is the one mediator whose work alone ransomed us, how is it that we can make intercession that contributes to the salvation of others? Isn’t there a contradiction here? A redundancy?

Nope. On the contrary, one depends on the other. It is because Christ stands in the middle that we can go between. It is because Christ is mediator that we can intercede. Before Christ’s saving sacrifice on the Cross, the chasm of sin between God and humanity was infinite. Christ has reconciled the two, brought them together, enabling us to go between. Christ can fill that gap between the divine and the human because he is a citizen of both those countries, because he has stretched out his arms between Heaven and Earth and done the biggest butterfly press in history to bring them together. It is because Christ is in the middle (in medio) that we can go between (intercedere). It is because Christ is the mediator that we can intercede for one another. He is the greatest of bridge-makers, the pontifex maximus.

Now before we simply say, “Thanks for the bridge, Jesus!” like a company of ungrateful infantry to a company of engineers and go to fight the battle on our own, let’s remember one other thing: Christ doesn’t only give us the bridge for our prayer, he gives us the prayer as well. The only reason we can even find this bridge is because of Christ who has led us there. And Christ has led us there, not externally, bribing us with a carrot or threatening us with a stick, but internally, tugging at our restless heart strings, conforming our will to his own, preparing a home for himself inside of us through the outpouring of his grace, until we say with St. Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” And it is the Spirit of Christ who prays in us, “with sighs too deep for words.” Christ not only builds the bridge, he gives us the strength to cross it, and the inspiration for the message we carry.

Now before we say, “Great, just carry me across, Jesus, let me know when we get there; I’ll be asleep in the back seat,” we must remember that we have our own responsibilities, too. God gives us the desire to pray, but we compose the prayer; it’s like Lennon and McCartney: no matter who does the majority of the work in a given instance, it’s always credited to both. God builds the bridge, and gives us the strength and desire to cross it, but we must choose to go. The Holy Cross Constitutions describe this relationship well: “Our mission is the Lord’s, and so is the strength for it.” And Christ’s mission is to save souls, to bring humanity back into friendship with God. So when I pray for my friend who has fallen away from the Church, or for my relative whose faith has been shaken, I am participating in the salvific work of Christ, because it’s Christ who lives in me, and prays in me, and gives me the strength to lift my brother or sister onto my shoulders and help them along the way. We do this first and foremost by prayer, supplication, intercession. Let us pray for one another that we may persevere. Let us intercede with our one mediator, Jesus Christ, Our Lord.