Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Week in Review: Aristotle and The Godfather

There were a couple of fun extra-curricular activities this week. What do philosophy and theology students do in their spare time, when they aren’t in class or doing homework for their philosophy and theology classes? Why, get together at discuss philosophy and theology, of course! This last Tuesday featured the first in a series of student-led seminars discussing Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. (The work’s title is derived from Aristotle’s son, Nicomachus, to whom it was dedicated.) It was a highly engaging and entertaining evening. I got to witness a bunch of smart people discussing an important text, and mix it up a bit when they disagreed. I think, though, that rather than going into the details of the discussion, since most of you haven’t read the text before (neither, I confess, have I), I’ll just tell you a bit about this fellow Aristotle, since his name is going to be coming up quite a bit in this blog over the coming months.

Aristotle was born in 384 BC and died in 322 BC. (Yeah, those backward-moving BC dates always get me, too; remember, BC is a countdown to the birth of Christ, and AD are counting forward from that time [AD = Anno Domini, “The Year of Our Lord”].) His father was the physician to the King of Macedon, and Aristotle ending up being the tutor to a future king of Macedon: Alexander the Great. You may have heard of him. Aristotle himself was a student of Plato. Yeah, you may have heard of him, too. Aristotle wrote texts on many different subjects, including logic, rhetoric, physics, metaphysics, ethics, politics, beauty, and even zoology. Aristotle perhaps is best remembered, in one sense, for two things: in his own time, he was the most systematic of the ancient Greek philosophers, categorizing his thought in a way unlike others had before; centuries later, as the Christian West began to become familiar with his writings again after they had been all but lost, Aristotle’s thought had a HUGE influence on theology. This has come to us most remarkably in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose philosophy and theology followed an Aristotelian framework; when you read St. Thomas, he refers to Aristotle simply as “The Philosopher.” High praise. And since St. Thomas is considered to be THE theologian in the Church’s history, Aristotle has indirectly had a huge influence on the development of Catholic theology. And since St. Thomas was a Dominican, and I’m at a Dominican school, I’m going to be reading a lot of Aquinas, and a lot of Aristotle. It’ll be good times.

The second extra-curricular event was a “philosophy movie night” viewing of The Godfather, hosted by one of the DSPT students. [I am continuing my practice of not naming people without their consent. I was going to ask him, but forgot.] This student studied film and worked in the movie industry for a few years before coming to DSPT, so watching a movie with him is quite the informative experience. At times he would pause the movie and simply ask, “What are we feeling right now? Why are we feeling it? What do you think the filmmaker is doing that is making you feel that way?” At other times he would point out various tricks and methods that movie makers use to convey their points. A few examples: “sound design,” the sounds happening within the movie, are a HUGE part of producing emotions in the audience. Think of when Michael Corleone is in the café with The Turk and the police captain, and the L-train is going by, getting louder and louder, making the tension build during that already-tense scene. Think of how often in a scene of loneliness or helplessness you hear a dog barking or a baby crying—standard movie-making technique. Also, next time you watch The Godfather, keep this in mind: when you see fire, it’s a bad omen. It’s a subtle theme they use throughout the movie. Apart from that, we talked about larger themes: about the dark side of the American dream, about doing whatever it takes to protect your family, and perhaps in the process losing them and yourself. (I think only now of Christ’s question: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”) It was an awesome experience. I’m looking forward to the next one!

Highlights from classes during the week:

Intro to New Testament: We’ve been talking about the historical critical method, and some of the ways in which it can be useful in helping us to understand the Bible. The historical critical method pays close attention to the history surrounding the times of the biblical events so as to give the reader a context for the things written in the text. One place where this method is a big help is in the Book of Revelation. Consider Revelation 13, which describes the beast with seven heads, “blasphemous names” written on its heads. What is this beast a symbol of? Consider: the Roman emperor, by the end of the first century AD, had taken to giving himself titles like (get ready for it) “Son of God” and “Savior of the World”—blasphemous names, indeed, to one who acknowledges Jesus Christ with those titles. Knowing that makes you read that passage a little differently, no?

Aristotelian Logic: You know that there are four ways you can oppose things to each other, logically? Contradictory opposition is the simplest and most complete, this opposes a thing to everything else in existence that’s not that thing, e.g. rational and non-rational. Don’t confuse this with privative opposition, which opposes a thing to a lack of that thing when it ought to be present, e.g. rational and irrational. (People can be irrational; a bear is non-rational. It’s not supposed to be rational. It’s a bear. It’s supposed to spear salmon out of the stream and scratch its back on trees, not engage in logical argumentation.) There’s also contrary opposition, which opposes two extremes of the same genus, e.g. black and white. The last is relative opposition, where two things are opposed only in reference to one another, e.g. right and left, whole and part. If nothing else, keep that distinction between non-rational and irrational in mind.

History of Ancient Philosophy: Our professor has said this several times, and it’s worth repeating: “Plato’s dialogues were written in the genre of Greek comedy. If you read Plato too seriously, you’re reading him wrong.”

Philosophy of Nature: We’ve been learning about Aristotle’s theory of change. See, the big problem for the ancient philosophers was to explain how a thing could change. Parmenides put the problem well: if a new thing came to be (i.e. if there was change), then it would either have to come from nothing or non-being, which is impossible, or from being, in which case it would already exist; so, nothing changes. Yeah, read that a couple of times. It might make sense. Aristotle addressed this problem by proposing a different way of looking at it. A thing is what it is, but it also has the potential to be other things. That potential is part of the thing itself. A table is a table, but it has the potential to be a pile of wood if it were to be broken up, or a pile of ashes if it were to be burned. That potential is part of the thing. This avoids Parmenides’ paradox: the new thing, e.g. the pile of ashes, doesn’t already exist, nor does it come from nothing, but rather from the potential of the thing already existing. This will lead you right into all of Aristotle’s distinctions between act and potency, substance and accidents, matter and form, but I’ll let you chew on that for now.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Hidden Prayers of the Mass

Some of my favorite prayers of the Mass are the ones you don’t usually hear. Throughout the Mass, there are many prayers that the priest says inaudibly. Why is this, you might ask? Why should the priest pray prayers in the midst of a communal, public liturgy that no one else can hear? Couldn’t the people whom he’s leading in worship benefit from hearing those prayers? Quite possibly. I know that I have been given ample fodder for reflection on this prayer, as one example, said during the preparation rite:

“By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity."

Here in this one sentence we’ve managed to pack in references to the Incarnation, the dual natures of Christ, transubstantiation, and apotheosis. That’s theological density equivalent to a neutron star. That’s a family fun-pack of divine truths in one convenient carrying case. It’s beautiful and profound (unlike my previous two sentences).

And you’ve probably heard it before. Many a priest will say out loud some or all of these prayers which the priest, according to the rubrics, is meant to say in audibly. Why do they do this? And why does the instruction say to pray the prayers inaudibly in the first place? I think both have to do with liturgical orientation. By that, I mean the direction toward which one is aimed during the liturgy. I mean essentially one’s interior disposition, though it can be expressed outwardly and physically (that’s the nature of sacramental worship—visible signs of invisible realities). One could put it as simply as, “What are you focused on during the Mass?”

A concrete and obvious example: in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass in the Latin Rite, the priest faces in the same direction as the congregation, while in the Ordinary Form, the priest faces the congregation themselves. The relationship between priest and people in these two orientations has a different look to it, and seems to send different messages. One could assign both a negative and a positive meaning to each. With ad orientem worship, one could call it (as people often do) “the priest with his back to the people,” as though he is scorning the lowly non-ordained plebs while he does the real work of worship; or one could call it “facing east,” as the great Advent hymn invites us to do, evoking the patristic notions of worshiping the Lord by facing the direction from which it was thought He would come again, with priest and people together looking at the rising sun as a sign of the Risen Son. With versus populum worship, one could see it as an unhealthy enclosure, the Christian community turning in on itself with the result that they see only themselves, singing, “We are called, we are chosen,” and forgetting who chose them or what they were called for; or one could see it as the appointed shepherd calling out to his flock, inviting them back to their home in the sheepfold—and one doesn’t call out to someone by facing away from them. These different views have the capacity to convey either a beautiful Christian truth or an ugly distortion of it. It’s possible within those two liturgical postures to develop one of the orientations described above: either self-exaltation standing on the backs of the peasants, or being the guide leading his people home; either the self-worshipping community, or the father addressing his spiritual children.

And notice similarities between the two positive and the two negative views: each of the positive views envision the priest doing a service for the people in the quest to commune with God, while each of the negative views envision priest and people losing sight of God and becoming self-obsessed. Whether the priest and people are facing one another or facing liturgical east, they must be focused on God; wherever the eyes of their heads are looking, the eyes of their hearts must be searching to behold the Lord.

So, back to the original question: why does the priest say some prayers inaudibly? Because they are intended to help him focus. These prayers serve as markers which can help the priest to maintain the proper liturgical orientation and stay on course. (Yes, priests’ minds can wander during Mass, too.) When the priest addresses a prayer to God quietly, instead of addressing a prayer to God out loud, the temptation to “play to the crowd,” to become focused on the congregation such that one loses sight of God, is thwarted. Now, obviously, the priest should be focused on the congregation to some degree, since it his duty to lead them in worship during the liturgy. But the relationship at the center of the Mass is not that of the priest with the people, but between the priest and people together with God.

Enough prelude, then. What are some of these “hidden prayers” of the Mass?

When the deacon reads the Gospel at Mass, you may notice that he bows before the priest and receives a blessing before going to the ambo. The priest blesses him, saying:

May the Lord be in your heart and on your lips,
that you may proclaim his Gospel worthily and well,
in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

When the priest reads the Gospel, he bows before the altar on his way to the ambo and prays:

Cleanse my heart and my lips, almighty God,
that I may worthily proclaim your holy Gospel.

After reading the Gospel, he kisses the book and says:

Through the words of the Gospel
may our sins be wiped away.

After the Offertory prayers (the two that begin “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation”), the priest bows to the altar and prays:

With humble spirit and contrite heart
may we be accepted by you, O Lord,
and may our sacrifice in your sight this day
be pleasing to you, Lord God.

When he washes his hands, he prays:

Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.

Just before the Agnus Dei, when the priest breaks a small piece from the host and puts it into the chalice, he prays:

May this mingling of the Body and Blood
of our Lord Jesus Christ
bring eternal life to us who receive it.

Just before saying “Behold the Lamb of God,” the priest prays one of these two prayers:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God,
who, by the will of the Father
and the work of the Holy Spirit,
through your Death gave life to the world,
free me by this, your most holy Body and Blood,
from all my sins and from every evil;
keep me always faithful to your commandments,
and never let me be parted from you.


May the receiving of your Body and Blood,
Lord Jesus Christ,
not bring me to judgment and condemnation,
but through your loving mercy
be for me protection in mind and body
and a healing remedy.

Before he receives Communion, the priest prays:

May the Body of Christ
keep me safe for eternal life.


May the Blood of Christ
keep me safe for eternal life.

While purifying the vessels after Communion, the priest prays:

What has passed our lips as food, O Lord,
may we possess in purity of heart,
that what has been given to us in time
may be our healing for eternity.

I’ve given you these one after another, without comment from me, so that the texts could speak for themselves, and so you’d get a sense of the overall feel of them. These prayers, as with all the prayers of the Mass, are signals and reminders to us that when we are at Mass, we’re not at the meeting of a social club, or a show at a theatre: we are, all of us, participating in the presentation of Christ’s sacrifice to the Father for the forgiveness and healing of our sins, communing with God through the reception of His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, receiving a taste of heaven. It can be hard to keep that in mind, for any of the billions of reasons that we get distracted in anything that we do. So let the prayers of the Mass keep you focused on what is at hand. Pay attention to what is being said and what you are saying. There are profound and beautiful truths there, if only we have the mental presence to realize it.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Week in Review: Mass and Class

This last Thursday I experienced my first Dominican Rite Mass. “What’s a Dominican Rite Mass?” you ask. A little background may be helpful here.

For much of the Church’s history, there were all sorts of officially approved forms of the Mass, called “rites”: rites for different regions, different religious orders, different languages. In the late sixteenth century, at the Council of Trent, the Church decided to try to standardize the form of the Mass for the entire Latin-speaking part of the Church. (When you hear the “old Latin Mass” or what we now call the “extraordinary form” referred to as the “Tridentine Mass,” it’s because it came out of the Council of Trent. Tridentine, Trent… get it?) But the Church allowed some groups to retain their own rites if they were old enough, and the Dominicans were one of them.

The Dominican Rite is very similar to the Tridentine Mass. Well, I’m sure that people more expert than myself on things liturgical would be able to point out all sorts of little differences, but I think I’m safe in saying that it’s much more similar to the Tridentine Mass than to our current form of Mass (often referred to as the “novus ordo” or “new order” of Mass). But here are some of the basic features that might stand out to someone:

--The priest and the congregation face the same direction for most of the Mass. Some folks will refer to this as “the priest with his back to the people,” but that gives the impression he’s snubbing the congregation. One should think of it as the priest leading the people in prayer, and when you’re leading someone, you’re facing the same direction as them. You might argue “A tour guide faces people when leading them,” but a priest is not a tour guide; he’s a trail guide, leading the people to heaven.

--Most of the Mass is in Latin, and much of it is said quietly by the priest. Some people might respond to that by saying, “Well, what’s the point? I don’t speak Latin, how am I supposed to understand him? And even if he were speaking English, he’s whispering for much of it.” This may sound like a rude response, but I say it to make a point: Why do you need to understand him or hear him? He’s not talking to you. Yes, he’s praying to God for us and on our behalf, so it would be nice to understand what he’s saying, which is why hand missals with the translation of the Mass texts are provided. But Latin is a beautiful-sounding language, and that combined with the soft-spoken tone of the Mass produce a very peaceful effect upon the hearer.

--The Mass ends with the reading of the prologue of the Gospel of St. John. (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” or in Latin, In principio erat Verbum, et erat Verbum apud Deum, et Verbum erat Deum.)

An added bonus was that the Mass was celebrated by Fr. Anselm Ramelow, OP, one of the professors at DSPT. Fr. Anselm is from Germany, and let me tell you, if you’ve never heard Latin spoken in a German accent, you’re missing out on a fascinating aural experience.

Anyway, it’s a beautiful way to pray. For those who are interested, you can find a series of YouTube videos detailing and explaining the Dominican Rite Mass beginning here.

Interesting things from classes this last week…

History of Ancient Philosophy: Fr. Eugene stated that Socrates was credited by Aristotle with being the inventor of inductive reasoning. He then gave what I thought was a great explanation of inductive reasoning: Let’s say I have a box on the desk here containing every flea in the world. How many legs does a flea have? How do I find out? Well, I pick up one, let’s see… one, two, three, four, five, six: this one has six… I pick up another… one, two, three, four, five, six: this one has six, too.... Eventually, I find enough fleas with six legs that I can be reasonably certain that it is usually true for all fleas that they have six legs. That’s the inductive method: reasoning from a set of particular instances toward a general conclusion about them. The assumption that sufficiently large sample sizes can give you a high degree of certainty about something is the basis for the scientific method. Be sure to thank Socrates some time for it.

Philosophy of Nature: We’re starting to read about and discuss Aristotle’s theories of change. I think I’m going to hold off for a bit until I have a better grasp on the material before I try to present it here. But it’s fascinating stuff.

Intro to New Testament: There’s a lot that we miss by not knowing the languages in which the biblical texts were originally composed. As one example, in the Book of Genesis it says that Adam and Eve were given clothes made of skins after their fall from grace. It makes you wonder, “What were they clothed in before that?” One answer could be, “Well, nothing, duh,” but another is given by looking at the Hebrew text. If you flip one letter in the Hebrew word for “skin,” you get the Hebrew word for “light.” Adam and Eve were clothed in light: they shone with the glory of God before their fall. Makes you think a little more about the consequences of sin, eh? These sorts of plays on words apparently are quite common in the Bible, if only you know how to look for them.

Aristotelian Logic: Last week we were discussing how words can be used univocally, equivocally, or analogously. To use a word “univocally” in regard to two different things means we mean that word in the same way for both things; so, if I saw of both Nolan Ryan and Greg Maddux “they are pitchers,” I’m using the word “pitcher” univocally. But if I say of both Nolan Ryan and the jug holding water “They are pitchers,” I’m using the word “pitcher” equivocally; the same word is being used to mean different things. There’s a middle way between these two, however. If I refer to both a stone in my garden and St. Peter as a “rock,” I don’t mean it exactly the same way for each, but there is some link between the way I’m using the word in each case; I’m trying to relate some quality in the rock to some quality in St. Peter. This is a case of using a word analogously. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that an awful lot of the problems people have when communicating with each other comes from equivocal or misunderstood analogous usages of words: people using the same word to mean two different things, or someone trying to use a word analogously without the other party grasping it. Keep a look out for these things and see what you find.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Meaning of Reconciliation

(This is a re-print from something I posted on my old blog, but I think folks might enjoy it....)

This might be a bold statement, but I’m going for it: the whole of salvation history is summed up in the word “reconciliation.”

What exactly does this word mean? I heard this from David Fagerberg, one of my former professors at Notre Dame: “cilia” is the Latin word for eyelash. So let’s piece it together: if “re” means “again,” and “con” means “with”, then “re-con-cilia-tion” is “to again be eyelash to eyelash with [someone].”

That’s about as close as you can get to a person; but notice, the emphasis is on regaining the closeness that you once had with someone.

We as human beings once had a great closeness with God, in the beginning. In their innocence, Adam and Eve stood uncovered before God, not needing to hide anything. God walked with them in the garden in the cool of evening, like you might do with an old friend after a big dinner --that’s closeness, being con-cilia. But we, in our forebears, separated ourselves from God by our pride, withdrew from that closeness, that intimacy, by wanting to change the nature of the relationship, by trying to be equal to God. Instead of being docile infants held in our Father’s arms, cheek to cheek, we were squirrely two-year olds who squirmed out. And when we realized what we did, we hid, we covered ourselves, and we couldn’t look God in the face anymore.

But God loved us and wanted us back. So He came among us as one of us, like to us in all things but sin—he had arms and legs, hands and feet, a heart and a mind… and eyelashes. Jesus came to sinners, to the afflicted, to the poor, and stood eye to eye with them and said: “Your sins are forgiven you.” And by His Cross, as man he stood eyelash to eyelash with God on our behalf and said, “Father, forgive them,” and as God could respond, “It is accomplished,” that is, our peace with God was restored.

And this is the Good News that the Apostles were sent to preach, as ambassadors for Christ, that “God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son, has reconciled himself to the world, and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins.” And for the last two thousand years, the Church has brought God’s pardon and peace to us sinners, in the sacrament of baptism where the stain of original sin is washed clean, and in the sacrament of reconciliation, where the priest, speaking as Christ, says to us, “I absolve you of your sins.”

God wants nothing more than to hold us and say, “I love you.” May He grant us the grace not to squirm, but to coo with delight, and nuzzle the nose of our Father.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Week in Review: Links and Logic

Apart from classes, this week featured two events of note.

On Wednesday we had a special Mass of the Holy Spirit for the opening of the school year. There’s a tradition to celebrate yearly Masses invoking the blessing of the Spirit for certain professions, from beginning-of-the-year Masses for schools, to “Red Masses” for lawyers and judges, to “Blue Masses” for police and firefighters. We converted one of the classroom areas into a chapel by bringing in the altar and ambo from our too-small-for-this-event chapel, and had about 50-60 people overall attend (not bad, given that the total student population is about 110). Beautiful music was provided by a schola of the Dominican student brothers. (“Schola” is short for “schola cantorum,” or “school of songs,” a traditional name for a church choir.) The Mass was celebrated by the school’s president, Fr. Michael Sweeney, OP, and the homily was given by the Rev. Br. Dominic David Maichrowicz, OP. You can find a video of his homily here; it’s worth a view.

(Side note: the title “Rev. Br.” is short for “Reverend Brother.” Br. Dominic David is a deacon. The normal form of address for a deacon is “Rev. Mr.,” but since he’s a Dominican brother, he’s styled “Rev. Br.” Once he’s a priest, it’ll simply be “Rev.” I’m considering doing a post on deacons, since a lot of people don’t seem to know much about them. Any interest, dear readers?)

I volunteered beforehand to lector for the first reading. Might as well put some of those seminary skills to use when the opportunity arises.

On Saturday, I participated in a student retreat given at DSPT. It was titled, "Turning Study into Prayer: How can the intellectual life transform and augment our spiritual life?" and was led by Fr. John Marie Bingham, OP. Only about 10 of us attended, but the small numbers simply aided in giving the event an intimate atmosphere. Fr. John Marie gave two presentations from which I derived several good points:

--always keep in mind, “How can what I’m learning bring me closer to God?”

--Knowledge is a good thing in itself, but, since bonum diffusivum est se (“the good spreads itself”), even better than us having knowledge is us sharing that knowledge with others; so always keep an eye toward sharing that knowledge, and in such a way that people without Ph.D.s can understand it. (Readers of this blog know that is one of my objectives in life, and a main reason that I keep this blog.)

--By our knowledge of things, we participate in them in some way. So, when we learn about God by studying theology and philosophy, in some way we come to participate in God. Study is a foretaste of heaven. (…which is easy to remember during a retreat, and hard to remember when you’ve got three papers due and are a month behind in your reading, but still good to keep in mind.)

The retreat also featured adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, daytime prayer and recitation of the rosary, and was capped off by the celebration of Mass. A good day of rest and relaxation, and a good way to get into the proper mindset as the school year begins.

Later that evening my roommate and I caught most of the ND/Michigan State and USC/Stanford games at the apartment of his old roommate and the old roommate’s girlfriend. (I hesitate to use names, because previous experience has shown me that some people don’t like their names popping up in random people’s blog posts, and I would find it too odd of a question to ask them, “Hey, mind if I mention this in my blog?”) If they happen to run across this, please know I enjoyed your hospitality and good company. Oh, and as to the results of the two games mentioned above, I respond with the following: BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!! Bring it, Denard Robinson! We’ve finally got a front seven that will contain you! And for once, the Stanford game might be tougher than the USC game. We’ll see.

Interesting things we talked about in each class this week:

--History of Ancient Philosophy: The ancient Greek philosopher Anaximenes proposed that everything that exists is actually made of air, but that the air takes different forms depending on how condensed it is. This may sound silly, but…

--Philosophy of Nature: …think of the claim of modern physics that matter is simply a condensed form of energy. Perhaps Anaximenes was on to something. And he didn’t even have a Large Hadron Collider at his disposal.

--Introduction to the New Testament: There’s a prominent theme in Scripture that portrays salvation as a re-creation of the world. Consider: in the account of creation in Genesis chapter 1, the waters are separated from each other--the ancients thought there was water above the sky as well as on the earth, and for them water often represented chaos and destruction; when God saves Israel from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 14), He does so by separating the waters of the Red Sea; and in Mark 4, Luke 8, and Matthew 8, Jesus calms the sea during a storm, showing that he has power over the waters. Neat, huh?

--Aristotelian Logic: Did you know that “is” does not always mean the same thing? If you think about it, you know it, but Aristotle separated out five different kinds of “is,” or five predicables. The genus tells us what group out of a larger set of groups that differ in type a thing belongs to, e.g. Man is an animal--apes and elk and elephants are also animals, but they aren’t men. The species tells us what group a thing belongs to, so that all of things in a species differ only in number, not in kind, e.g. Paul is a man, and Nick is a man, and David is a man. A specific difference tells us what sets a thing apart from other things, e.g. Man is rational—no other thing has that quality; it’s what sets man apart from everything else. A property tells us a characteristic that belongs to that thing due to its specific difference, so that only that thing has that characteristic, e.g. Man is able to make jokes (because he is rational). An accident is a characteristic that a thing can have that can be had by other things, i.e. Man is hairy, but so are apes and elk and elephants (a little bit, anyway). It can get a little confusing to apply these, because some of these are used in biology, but they don’t mean quite the same thing as they do in logic. Logic is about relations, how one thing relates to another, not as much about the things themselves. If I haven’t scared you off now, we’ll get into this more another time.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Four Ways of Speaking

Philosophy and theology deal with thick, heavy, dense subjects. It’s hard enough half the time to understand the question being asked, let alone the answer you get: “What is being? What is nature? What is the nature of being? What is essence of nature? What is the essence of God’s nature? Is existence itself God’s nature?” I’m guessing some of you went cross-eyed and passed out briefly mid-way through that series of questions. Hope you didn’t hit your head on anything. Point is: this stuff is hard.

Some people have a talent for engaging these topics in an easy and sensible way… and some do not. In reading different thinkers over the years, I’ve developed a theory:

There are four ways of communicating:

1. Speaking simply on simple matters. This is what most of our speech is like most of the time. Simple declarative statements: “She pushed me,” “God is good,” “That’s my coat,” or “Daniel Tosh isn’t funny.” No brain-busting concepts or unintelligible jargon.

2. Speaking complexly on simple matters. Here, though, we move to a level where we’re still not dealing with brain-busting concepts, but people for some reason feel the need to gussy it up; it’s the linguistic equivalent of wearing a tuxedo to a tailgate party. You’d find this exemplified by college sophomores:

Student: “Professor, can you elucidate for those of us currently present what precisely was the major precipitating factor for the conflict in question?”
Professor: “Do you mean, ‘How did the war start?’”

A more amusing example is found in this video, where Stephen Fry plays a bombastic barber.

3. Speaking complexly on complex matters. Now we reach the level I was initially talking about. We’re dealing with brain-busting concepts, and for many it takes a boatload of special terms, words borrowed from other languages, and circumlocutions (i.e. “my father’s parents’ other son” instead of “my uncle”) to try to get the point across. For example:

“For the very early ancient Israelites, their Weltanschauung entailed a monolatric cosmology in which other deities were recognized while only one was honored with cultic worship.”

Now, there are simpler ways to say this (“The Israelites at first believed in a world where many gods existed, but they worshipped only one”), but they wouldn’t quite capture the content in the same way. It’s no crime to write or speak this way; most of us don’t have the ability to go beyond it. But some do….

4. Speaking simply on complex matters. This level is reserved for those true geniuses who are able to speak about difficult topics in a way that’s easy to understand without leaving out anything essential. Here are some of my favorite examples:
“Our hearts were made for you, O Lord, and they are restless until they rest in thee.” St. Augustine captures the essence of human desire and God as the fulfillment of that desire in one simple and beautiful sentence.

“We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.” C.S. Lewis here deftly points to a truth our politicians would do well to consider.

(I can’t leave out this example from Lewis, since it’s apropos to our subject: “Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say "infinitely" when you mean "very"; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”)

"When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn't believe in nothing. He believes in anything." There are about 10 billion G.K. Chesterton quotes I could have chosen… so, yeah, I think we need a few more:

“To say that everybody is responsible means that nobody is responsible.”

“To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.”

"Why be something to everybody when you can be everything to somebody?" (on motherhood)

Anyway, you get the point, I hope. Be thankful when you come across those gifted people who are able to be so clear. They sure can make life easier.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

First Week of Class & An Invitation

Classes at the DSPT commenced last Tuesday. Because of the way my class schedule shakes out, that meant that all but one of my classes only met once last week. Still, it was enough to get an idea of what the classes will be like this semester.

For starters, class sizes are in the 15-20 person range here: nice and intimate, the kind of setting where the professor has a chance to actually learn your name within a reasonable amount of time, and where something resembling a discussion could potentially take place. I’m a fan of that.

Secondly, being that the school’s classrooms are all in one moderately sized building, one could theoretically take a leisurely pace moving between classes, as opposed to sprinting half a mile to make it to the next class on time. In practice, this works out even better for me, since I have at least an hour and a half between class periods, so I could do a little homework, have a cup of coffee, shoot the breeze with my classmates… and still have 20 minutes to kill before the next class begins. I’m a fan of that, too.

Thirdly, after the first week, I’m even more excited for my classes. To remind you, they are:

Philosophy of Nature
History of Ancient Philosophy
Aristotelian Logic
Introduction to the New Testament

Now, I’m sure that some, if not most, of you will imagine those classes to be slightly less exciting than listening to Ben Stein do a play-by-play of paint drying. Well, good thing I’m here and not you, then! But I do think you’d find many things from these classes interesting. I hereby set out a goal that once a week I will write about one interesting thing I’ve learned in each class period. That’s a little hard to do for this last week, because we haven’t really dived into the material yet. In lieu of that, I’d like to make y’all an offer.

It’s my goal someday to teach theology, so as to help people know their faith better and thereby come to a deeper relationship with God. The way I see it, there’s no reason I can’t start that to some degree now. So, I’m inviting you, dear readers, to submit to me, via the comments section of the blog, any question you’d like me to answer about the Catholic faith, and I’ll do my best to provide an answer that is clear and concise and doesn’t require years of studying theology to be understood. If I’m inundated with questions by all four of you who read this blog, I won’t be able to get to all of them, but I’ll do what I can.

One warning: the option to make comments anonymously is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it provides people who may be sheepish about asking what they’re afraid might be a “dumb question” the opportunity to ask without others knowing who asked it (though I will say that the only dumb question is the unasked question, and that odds are if you’re wondering about it, so are at least five other people); but the anonymous option also provides jerks the opportunity to spout garbage without fear of accountability. Please do make use of the anonymous option for the first use. Don’t use it for the second; the only result will be that I delete your obnoxious post. (This warning is not intended for any of my family or friends, who I know would not do such a thing, but rather for the wandering Internet ruffian who has nothing better to do than post obscenities on the web pages of total strangers.)

On that note… fire away! And do look forward to descriptions of Interesting Things Nick Is Learning Which You May Be Surprised to Find You Also Find Interesting.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

You, Yes You, Are a Philosopher

I think for many people, the entry in their own mental dictionary for the term “philosophy” is something like this:

Philosophy (/fəˈläsəfē/):
1) a relatively useless undergraduate major populated by people who think they’re better than everyone else and whose personal hygiene leaves much to be desired, and who will most likely end up getting me a clean fork at a restaurant someday;
2) a relatively useless intellectual discipline where people use words to try to trick you into thinking whatever they want you to, or to split hairs and argue about things that don’t matter (see: sophistry).

I propose to you that your definition needs adjustment.

I propose that you, dear reader, are a philosopher and don’t realize it.

Have you ever used any of the following phrases:

--That’s not fair!
--How do you know?
--That doesn’t make sense.
--What is that?

Congratulations, you’re doing philosophy!

Each of these represents a different branch of philosophy.

“That’s not fair!” When we feel we’ve been treated unfairly, we’re assuming that we ought to be treated fairly, and that there is such a thing as fairness in the first place. It leads us to ask the question: what is fair? What do I owe other people? What do they owe me? What is justice? This is, in essence, the branch of philosophy known as ethics (from Greek ethos meaning “moral character”). We may not all use phrases like “categorical imperative” or “in medio virtus stat”, but every four-year old who’s had a toy taken from them, every person passed up for a promotion because the other guy golfs with the boss, in that moment becomes an ethicist.

“How do you know?” Every person wants to know the truth about things; not only that, they want to know how they can know the truth. How do we know things with any certainty? This is the branch of philosophy called epistemology (from the Greek episteme meaning “knowledge”). Any time you read the newspaper and try to sort out facts from opinions; any time you read anything from a statement of church doctrine to the results of a scientific study and wonder how we can know that; any time you do this, you’re engaged in epistemology—even if you aren’t using fancy phrases like “logical positivism” or “tabula rasa.”

“That doesn’t make sense.” Human beings are reasoning creatures. We recognize that our reason is governed by certain rules or truisms or axioms that are the very foundation of our ability to think. For example: a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect. If someone told you that they were both alive and not alive at the same time, you’d rightly say to them, “That’s nonsense.” Or, to borrow an example from Monty Python: All fish live in water. The mackerel is a fish. Therefore, the mackerel lives in water. The first two statements lead to the conclusion in the third statement. They do not lead to the conclusion that trout live in trees, or that if you buy sushi it will not rain, or that your wife doesn’t love you anymore. These are some basic uses of logic (from the Greek logos meaning “reason”). We may not all use specific terms like “fallacy of composition,” “major premise,” or “enthymeme,” but EVERBODY uses logic itself, and when they don’t, it only leads to trouble.

“What is that?” To ask this question is to invite the response: “This is X.” To say, “This is X” is to say, “This thing is something which has the nature of X, which can be identified by X.” The answer to the question makes a huge difference. “Oh, it’s a copperhead snake!” vs. “Oh, it’s a huge pile of cash!” This is one of the most basic questions we can ask about anything: what is the nature of this thing, and what is it like? What is it really like, beyond the nature we see? This is metaphysics (from the Greek meta “after, beyond” and physis “nature”), quite possibly the deepest of the philosophical branches because it is the most basic. We may not all use categories like “substance” or “accident,” or make distinctions between a thing’s essence and its existence like the professionals do, but we engage in this sort of thinking every day.

Now, as the fake dictionary entry above pointed out, there are people who abuse the philosophical disciplines. They use them to make arguments to please their listeners, persuade others to do what they want, or to ingratiate themselves to those in power, and not to seek the truth. These people Socrates called Sophists, and he despised them. There are an awful lot of Sophists running around in the world today, and we need to be on our guard against them. We need the right tools to do so.

Philosophy was born out of people making statements like the ones above and thinking about them in greater depth. They wanted to know what was true in life and what wasn't, in the hopes that it might help them to lead a good life and be happy. Philosophy at its linguistic root is “the love of wisdom,” or “wisdom, sought lovingly.” It is the pursuit of truth in its various forms and functions. It is something we all do. And if we’re going to do it well, it helps to be taught about it. If we’re going to be taught about it, it helps to have a teacher. If we want a teacher, someone has to go to school for it. That’s what I’m doing here at DSPT: preparing to make my own infinitesimally small contribution toward helping the world to think clearly.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Charisms, Cinema, and Chant

Thursday and Friday of last week featured a workshop at DSPT called "Gifted and Called to Study" on discerning one's charisms. The workshop was led by Fr. Michael Fones, OP, the student master of the Dominican seminarians at DSPT; and Mr. Ed Hopfner, an employee of the Diocese of Oakland and a DSPT graduate. A charism, from the Greek word for grace or favor, is a gift given by the Holy Spirit to a Christian for the service of others and the upbuilding of the Church. And, as any of you who have endured an untalented choir at your church know, it's useful for both yourself and those around you for you to know what your gifts are, and what they aren't. Though the workshop was titled "Gifted and Called to Study," it wasn't solely aimed at academically related charisms; it had a broader scope--O you who have come here to do graduate study, in what ways do you feel called to serve? What gifts might you have that you can put at the service of others?

The particular program we were using listed 24 different charisms, though it acknowledged there were more. Each participant was given a list of 120 statements, and instructed to rate from 0-3 how often that statement was true of them. Those scores were then used to determine which charisms one might possibly have. On the inventory, I scored highly on wisdom, counsel, knowledge, encouragement, teaching, and writing. It was emphasized to us, though, that scores from the inventory were a tool in discerning one's charisms, not the final say in the matter. We were also encouraged to pay attention to others' comments about us, and to try putting these charisms into practice and see 1) if they were successful, and 2) if they bring us joy and fulfillment in exercising them. I have to say that I do enjoy and get energized by teaching others, by learning things and passing on to others what I know, particularly through writing, and by giving advice or encouragement to others when I feel I have something helpful to say. I hope that others have felt the same way in my attempts to be useful to them.

Friday night I watched a classic film: Sunset Boulevard, from 1950. I encourage any of you who haven't seen it to check it out. Starring the rugged William Holden, a scary Gloria Swanson, and cute-as-a-button Nancy Olson, it's the story of a struggling screen writer who accidentally meets a reclusive former silent film star. She wants him to pen her big comeback movie, and since his career is going nowhere fast, he accepts. It becomes clear quickly, however, that she's a bit delusional about her legacy and her chances at coming back, and he's forced to tiptoe through the situation without upsetting the unstable actress or missing his chance with the script reader he's just, who also happens to be his friend's girl. It's dark and dramatic and funny and tragic. It features an outstanding performance from Gloria Swanson--how hard would it be to play an overly dramatic actress without doing it, you know, overly dramatically? It also has two of the great lines in cinema history: "I am big; it's the pictures that got small!" and "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up." (The last is more connected to the moment in the film.) Good stuff. Check it out if you haven't before.

On Sunday my roommate Rodrigo and I went to St. Albert's Priory in Oakland. There we prayed a combination of Matins and Lauds with the Dominican friars before Mass. A brief explanation: priests and those in religious vows make promises to pray daily a form of prayer known as the Divine Office, or the Liturgy of the Hours. It consists of sets of Psalms, other Scripture readings, readings from the writings of Church Fathers, ecumenical councils, and theologians, and intercessions. You can find examples here.Generally, they'll pray it at five different times or "hours" of the day; by doing this, they sanctify the day through their prayers and come as close as any of us can to following St. Paul's exhortation to "pray without ceasing." The two main "hours" prayed are Lauds, also called Morning Prayer, and Vespers, also called Evening Prayer. Another important hour is Matins, also known as the Office of Readings. There is also Daytime Prayer (split into Terce, Sext, and None, or the third, sixth, and ninth hours--usually the priest or religious prays one of these each day), and Compline, or Night Prayer. Oh, and no, each one does not take a hour to pray--you could pray night prayer in three minutes if you're doing it by yourself.

Anyway, the Dominicans at St. Albert's invite the public to join them in their common recitation of these hours of prayer, so we did. (It seems to be a popular thing for DSPT folks to do, actually.) Different religious orders will have slightly different ways of praying the Office. Some, like the Dominicans, sing it. The Dominicans have beautiful, simple tones for the different components of the Office; for some of them, there were multiple singing parts, and the strong-voiced friars in their beautiful, acoustics-friendly chapel, broke into harmonies that rang out and gave glory to God. I was pleased that one of the multi-part tones was one we used to use at Moreau--I knew the bass part, and got to sing along with the friars! It was beautiful.

This was followed by Mass, celebrated by the prior (e.g. head honcho at the priory), Fr. Reginald Martin, OP. Those of you in the Portland area may remember Fr. Reginald's soft and deep voice reciting the Angelus prayer on KBVM, from his days at Holy Rosary priory in the Rose City. It was a beautiful Mass in a beautiful chapel, and I look forward to going there again.

Tomorrow, boys and girls, is the first day of school. First up: Ancient Philosophy, then Philosophy of Nature. Say a prayer for my fellow students and I that we have a an enlightening school year. Do invoke the intercession of St. Albert the Great, patron of the college, and patrons of students like St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Brigid. Thanks for reading!