Saturday, December 27, 2014

Does God Exist? Answering a Few Common Objections

A blessed and Merry Christmas to one and all!

I apologize for my latest period of absence, and for the string of absences which have necessitated apologies. Life keeps happening: in our latest episode, mold was discovered in our apartment, forcing us to find a new place and move, just before Christmas. It was a tad hectic, to say the least. But life is starting to calm down a bit, Deo gratias.

Recently I received an invitation to dialogue from a reader named Gil:
Since you appear to be quite perspicacious, I would like to engage you in dialogue in the hope that a fertile brain such as yours could be rescued from the tyranny of religious dogma (I stole that idea from Thomas Paine); "All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit."
Thanks for the compliment, and I'm happy to oblige. Let's address that quote from ol' Tommy Pain if you don't mind (that was purposely misspelled--it would make a good name for a pro wrestler from the 80s, no? "Here comes Tommy Pain, with his manager Jimmy "Mouth of the South" Hart....") What is enslaving or terrifying or tyrannical about religious dogma? Please do expand upon that so I can address it properly.

Gil has commented on several of my posts, so I'll provide a little context for his comments quoted here. In reference to my post "Is believing in God Like Believing in Zeus or Thor?" in which I said that many of the pagan gods were more like super-powered humans than anything that could properly be called "god" or "God," Gil wrote:
How about Allah or the Hindu and Buddhist Gods? Or the Native American God? Or the Gods of many South American traditions? They are more in the category of your Judeo-Christian God, so if you do not believe in Allah, then you are an atheist in that regard. Or is your God better than their Gods?
Gil wants me to expand my search parameters because he thinks some of these will provide a stronger challenge to my contention that non-Abrahamic concepts of God do not fit the bill. Let's look at these. Allah is simply the Arabic name for God, the same God that Jews and Christians worship. Christian liturgies in Arabic or Aramaic refer to Allah. You might as well say, "Ah, you believe in God, but what about Dios, or Dieux, or Theos, or Deus?" We may believe some different things about Him, but all parties agree that they worship the God who called Abraham to the Promised Land. The "gods of many South American traditions" and the Hindu gods, rather than challenging the categories I set up, fit neatly into them--none of them could be described as omnipotent, immutable, or immortal, and their very multiplicity means none of them fulfill the criterion of unity. Most forms of Buddhism are disinterested in the question of God, and the Buddhist cosmologies that include super-powered beings definitely do not describe anything that could fit the definition of God I laid out.

When Gil starts to imply the "we're only atheists about one more god than you are" argument, or when he uses the "is your God better than their Gods" rhetorical question, he shows again that he has missed the point: to call both the God of Abraham and the gods of these other religions by the same name, "god," is an equivocation, forced on us by limits in our language. They are categorically different. I laid out my definition for what would qualify an entity to be called "God"; what's your definition, Gil?

Here Gil references the statement he's responding to:
Now this is a pretty grandiose statement (even for a theologian), "I've never heard of anyone in the last 3,000 years being healed of a deadly disease thanks to their supplications to Apollo." So presumably, you have roamed the entire earth for "the last 3,000 years" and observed all the billions of intercessory supplications and their results. Er, did you say your name was . . . Yahweh?
Passing over the crack on theologians (honored as I am by being gifted that title by Gil), let me briefly say that I did not claim to have observed every intercession and result for the last 3,000 years; my statement was clearly limited to my own observation. If you know of some datum that would apply to this case, please introduce it into evidence, and we can discuss it.

Here again Gil is kind enough to quote me before responding:
"But to believe in the Triune God as described above is eminently reasonable," you say, Nick. Well tell me how reasonable it is that a Father sent His Son to be killed, but the Son turned out to be God who while He was dying (if a God of this unimaginable potency can die) spoke to His Father as if He was being abandoned and apparently the Father ignored Him, because He did die (although God could have saved Him, or saved Himself) and now the Son is God who also created the Earth 4,000 years before He died. No fair using the water, ice, fog analogy.
It appears Gil is having difficulty seeing the reasonability... reasonableness... reasonabilitude... it appears Gil thinks the relation between the Father and the Son within the Trinity is not reasonable, that it is fraught with contradictions and confusions. Certainly, the Trinity is the greatest mystery of the Christian faith, something we could not arrive at only by rational speculation and which, even when revealed, we cannot understand fully; but at the same time, it is not irrational or inconsistent in itself. Actually, the way that Gil describes the relation between the Father and the Son, and his reference to a "water, ice, fog analogy" with which I am unfamiliar, sounds like the heresy of modalism, and not the traditional Christian understanding of the Trinity.

Modalism says that there is really only one God, but this God appears or acts in different modes (aren't italicized letters so much fun?)--He appears to the Israelites in "Father Mode" and incarnates in "Son Mode" and energizes the Church in "Spirit Mode." Basically, Modalism thinks of God like Peter Sellers or Eddie Murphy playing several roles in the same film. When Jesus addresses the Father in prayer, Modalism would say that we'd need some split-screen camera work to get them in the same scene, since it's really just one person. Gil finds this ridiculous. And I agree. But that's not the Christian concept of God.

The Holy Trinity is one God in three persons, one act of existence shared by three hypostases, in which the three persons are distinct in relation to each other, but they are one in their existence. "The Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God; yet there are not three gods, but one God," to quote the Creed of St. Athanasius. I would encourage Gil to dive into this subject and understand it on its own terms. It's a fascinating field of theology, though difficult. But, to anticipate an objection, just because something is difficult to understand doesn't make it "convoluted" or "nonsense," any more than particle physics or organic chemistry is nonsense by virtue of being difficult.

Gil, I look forward to your responses.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Does God Exist? The Argument from Wonder and Gratitude

Before we get back to logical or rational arguments for the existence of God, let's take a brief detour into an argument that is not so much an argument as an attempt to put a name to an intuition, an innate feeling or experience that we all seem to have and that occurs in us as naturally as a breath or a heartbeat.

There are certain moments in life that leave us speechless and breathless, our mouths gaped open but unable either to take in the profound experience before us nor to find the proper expression to mark the occasion. A pastel sunset over green fields and blue seas. The Hallelujah chorus from Handel's Messiah. The birth of your child. The sight of a sparkling, swirling galaxy, coupled with the knowledge that it's thousands of light-years across and millions of light-years away. Such moments stir up in us a sense of awe and wonder--"I didn't know life could be this good."

And when we're given something good, it's our natural inclination to say, "Thank you."

And when we say "Thank you," to whom are we speaking?

We are grateful when we are given something by someone who has chosen to bestow the gift upon us. Persons give gifts. Persons are thanked. Not forces or aggregates, but persons, who have willed our good and acted to achieve it.

We all know this, intuitively, instinctively, deep down in our bones. But some don't know to what or whom it should be attributed. I suggest it is the only one capable of giving sunsets and symphonies and everything in between. It's God.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Does God Exist? It All Must Start Somewhere

We said last time that we could know that God exists if we were able to identify some effects the cause of which could only be God. We use this sort of reasoning all the time. If I see smoke, I conclude there is fire. If I see a maple leaf, I conclude there is somewhere a maple tree. Only a maple tree can cause a maple leaf.

This is an important point, because it's double-edged: I know that in order for there to be a maple leaf, there needs to be something which can bring about the maple leaf and adequately explain its existence--that is, something to cause the maple leaf; likewise, I know that a maple leaf cannot be the cause of itself, that maple leaves "just happen," any more than people or planets or platypuses do. Each needs a cause sufficient to explain its existence. I know that everything needs a cause, and I know that nothing is the cause of itself.

So, what's the cause of the maple leaf? A maple tree. But what's the cause of the maple tree? Another maple tree, I suppose; and sunlight, and water, and nutrients from the soil, and so forth. But what is the cause of the sunlight and water and nutrients and soil? Well, they're all made from elementary particles, if that's what you're asking. But what is the cause of those particles? If we keep going backward with these questions and addressing them in a scientific way, drilling down into increasingly smaller components of matter, we will eventually hit a question that is not scientific, but philosophical: why do they exist at all?

This is a philosophical question rather than a scientific one because it deals not with empirical observation but with logical necessity--we float along in the boat of our empirical observations until we come upon the hard ground of logical questions, and the boat can't carry us anymore. Logically, there is nothing about the nature of anything we observe in reality that says the existence of that thing is necessary. The maple leaf does not necessarily need to exist, evidenced by the fact that at one time it didn't exist. If its existence were logically necessary, it would always have existed. What we find in reality, then, is a series of beings the existence of which is not necessary, might-not-have-been, always lingering on the brink of nothingness; such beings are called contingent beings.

When we try to explain the existence of one contingent being by the causal power of another contingent being--that is, when we say one thing exists because of another thing's bringing it about--we find that we still must explain the existence of that other contingent being by the existence of yet another contingent being that brought it about, and so on, and so forth... until we realize that trying to explain the existence of the universe by contingent beings traps us on a train going backward infinitely, forever, with no stopping... and, in this case, no beginning. No starting point. No source. No explanation.

What is required, then, to stop this infinite regress, this never-ending recession from one insufficient cause to another, is a being that is not contingent, but is necessary. What is needed is a being that absolutely must exist, by its nature, and therefore always has existed. A being whose essence is to exist. Only such a being would be able to bring anything else into being out of nothing, to start from scratch, to make the first link in the chain. An eternal, necessary being that brings everything else into existence--what does that sound like? Who does that sound like?

This is a much less eloquent and less pithy version of the argument from contingency that St. Thomas Aquinas makes in question 2, article three of the first part of the Summa when he asks the question, "Does God exist?" (You can find it here about 5 paragraphs down, the one that starts with "The third way....") It is one of five ways that St. Thomas proposes to prove the existence of God, and all of them more or less cover this same sort of ground: we see motion, motion is caused by another, so for any motion to start, there must be an mover who is himself unmoved; we see causes, every cause is the effect of another cause, so for any cause-and-effect relation to start, there must be an uncaused cause; and so forth. And each proof ends with, "this we call God."

Notice there is no reference to or reliance on Scripture, or any special revelation, or any article of faith, or anything special or particular to a Christian or a person of faith. You can argue with the arguments if you like, but they present themselves on the bases of empirical observation and logical analysis--that is, on science and reason. These are arguments accessible to any person, no matter what their background.

Notice, too, that these arguments only get you so far. Such arguments will tell you that there is an eternal creator of the universe, and they'll tell you one other important thing about this creator, the rebuttal to a mistake commonly made by those who profess not to believe in God: God is not the biggest being in a universe of other beings more or less like him, different only in degree rather than in kind; no, God is the very ground of being itself. God is the cause of nature, and thus beyond nature. The usual objection to these sorts of arguments is, "If everything needs a cause, what caused God?" But surely you can see within the argument itself that this objection has missed the point. Every contingent, that is, non-necessary thing, needs a cause for its existence. But the point of the exercise is precisely that there must be something that exists that exists necessarily, that is the source of existence for everything else. God is not a thing among other things; rather, God is the root of all things, their source, their foundation. God is not the biggest object in the painting of reality, or even the whole painting itself; God is the artist, painting the picture.

But this won't tell you much else about God, that He's loving or wise or kind or has created you in His image and likeness with the intention that you should live forever with Him in perfect happiness and glory. But this sort of argument does at least have the potential to open up the possibility to the mind of the atheist or agnostic or skeptic that the existence of God as Christians understand Him is not irrational or silly or a fairy-tale, but rather, that it's quite reasonable to assent to the proposition that God exists. There are other arguments, though. On these, more next time.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Does God Exist? Two Important Prequel Questions

For the next several posts, I will roughly be following the lead of a rather clever fellow who's covered this ground before. He was Italian, of considerable physical stature, and had absolute chicken scratch for handwriting, but we'll let that pass. It's often a good idea to walk in the footsteps of St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest minds of the history of thinking things, and this case is no exception.

First a brief explanation of St. Thomas' style. Academic texts from his time took the shape of the public debates, the disputatio, that the students and teachers would have on various topics. A question would be posed, objections to the position would be raised, and the master (teacher) would give his own view of the question and answer the objections. The questions were arranged within the texts in a logical, systematic scheme of organization, with general questions and sub-articles within each question. Now, you might expect the first question addressed in St. Thomas' Summa Theologica (Summary of Theology) to be "Does God exist?" But you'd be, as the French say, le wrong. The first question St. Thomas asks is on the nature of sacred doctrine--whether it's knowable, rational, etc. Only after establishing that theology is truly a science, an object of human knowing, does St. Thomas come to the most fundamental issue for theology: the existence of God.

And yet, the question "Does God exist?" is not even the first question asked here! It is preceded by two other questions, and once you've read through Question 1, articles 1 and 2 of Question 2 shouldn't surprise you: "Is the proposition 'God exists' self-evident?" and "Is it demonstrable?"

So, first, is it self-evident that God exists? Is it so obviously true that it is impossible to deny? This is a relevant question; if the answer is "yes," then we need not ask "Does God exist?" for the question would be as trivial as "Are circles round?" "A circle is round" is a self-evident proposition, because the predicate is contained in the subject; that is, it's part of the definition of a circle to be round, and if you know what a circle is, then you know it has to be round, and anyone who would say a circle isn't round clearly doesn't know either what a circle or roundness is (or maybe both).

If "God exists" were a self-evident proposition--that is, if it were obviously true--then the predicate would have to be contained in the subject--in this case, existence would have to be part of the definition of God, and anyone who would deny it either wouldn't know what existence is or wouldn't know what God is, that is, God's essence.

Now, we would say that in fact it is God's essence to exist, that existence is part of what it means to be God, just as roundness is part of what it means to be a circle. But it wouldn't be obvious to you that a circle is round if you don't know what a circle is. Likewise, it wouldn't be obvious to you that God exists if you don't know who or what God is. It's possible to deny that God exists if you don't know God's essence; and, as St. Thomas says, we do not know God's essence directly, as we do the essences of circles and trees and squirrels and such, and thus we must come to know God by things that are more known to us. (We'll cover such ways of knowing in later posts.)

The second question St. Thomas asks is: "Is God's existence demonstrable?" That is, can we know through reason that God exists? If we can't, then there's not much point in continuing the intellectual exercise, is there? In answer to this, St. Thomas reminds us that there are two ways of demonstrating: you can either reason from the cause of something to its effect, or from the effect to its cause. If I see a fire, and I know that fires produce heat, I can reason from the presence of a fire that heat will result. Likewise, if I see a handprint in cement, and I know that handprints in cement are caused by hands, I can reason from the presence of the handprint that a hand was the cause of it. So, St. Thomas says, if God's existence is not self-evident to us, we can still reason to God's existence if we see effects for which only God could be the cause. That is, if we can observe effects that could only be caused by God, then we can know that God exists. More on this next time.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Does God Exist? A Prelude

The question "Does God exist?" is answered simply enough. There are three choices: "yes," "no," or "I don't know." Thus, no matter what your answers is, it immediately prompts the question "How could we know that God exists?" If your answer to the first question was "Yes," then of course the questioner will want some sort of proof or reasoning or sign. If your answer was "No," then the questioner may well respond, "What makes you sure?" If your answer was "I don't know," the questioner will ask, "How come?" The first question is never the last on this subject.

My answer, as you might guess, is yes. God does exist. Naturally, you will ask, "How do you know? What makes you say that? Can you prove it?"

Well, yes and no.

The question "Can you prove it?" always has an additional two words implied at the end: "Can you prove it to me?" This is a bit of a different task. Believing or not, assenting to an argument or not, is ultimately not an act of the intellect, but an act of the will: you can have all the evidence before you, you can have the proof laid out systematically in front of you, and you can still choose not to believe. As evidence of this phenomenon, I give you Holocaust deniers, moon landing hoaxers, and people who think Elvis is still alive. If we have some vested interest in maintaining a certain position, we can go to great mental lengths to hold our ground, even if that means keeping ourselves blind to the bleedin' obvious.

You may respond, "You're saying others might not believe in God because, for some reason, they don't want to. Well, couldn't we say the same of you? Maybe you believe in God because it suits you in some way."

Maybe. Maybe not. Let's see. Next time, we'll look at some of the evidence, arguments, and proofs for the existence of God.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Back to Basics

Please excuse my absence from this space over the last several weeks. My new job and my thesis research have taken up the bulk of my time. With my having so little free time, I thought I might have to give up blogging here for the foreseeable future. But I want to at least make an attempt to make the occasional appearance here with a word or two. I enjoy it, you enjoy it, and if I can post irregularly and briefly without enraging the masses, why put a stop to it?

Now, given those constraints and conditions, what should my subject matter be? When your time to speak is short, you get to the point. So, in future posts, expect less content on fine philosophical points or commentary on episcopal appointments, and more on the most basic--and most important--aspects of the Catholic faith: who is God? How do we know about God? What does God want of us? Who is Jesus? Why should we believe in Him? Hardly topics that lend themselves to cursory conversation, true, but if we break them up into small bites, I think we can chew through them without getting theological indigestion.

Of course, I am always happy to field questions from the readership, too. It's always best to write about what your readers want to read about. So please, feel free!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

By Him We See Everything Else

I had a birthday recently (the epochal, defining, occasionally dreaded 30th), and in response to my telling my parents I could use some more decoration for my study/office/man-cave, they sent me a framed quotation from C.S. Lewis:
I believe in Christ like I believe in the sun... not because I can see it, but because by it I can see everything else.
As is typical of a product of Lewis' poetic and profound mind, this line is rich with meaning. It's worth digging into a bit.

Light has always been a symbol for God. God's first line in Scripture is, "Let there be light." Opposed to this light is the darkness of chaos and evil and ignorance; light is associated with order and goodness and rationality. With light you can see what you're doing and put things in their place. With light the good is given strength, for the wicked avoid the light to hide their evil deeds (John 3:20).

And with light we see and know the world better, and thus light has long been fittingly used as a symbol for understanding. You can see this in many an ancient writer; you can see it in modern terms like "the Enlightenment." You can see it in the jazz standard "I'm Beginning to See the Light." You can see it in every cartoon where a character has an idea and has a light bulb appear over his head. Since God is the source of this order and goodness and rationality, God is associated with light.

And as God, so Christ. The Gospel of John says that Christ is "the light that gives light to every man coming into the world." Christ is the Logos. He is reason and intelligibility. He is the reason for everything that is. He is the source and the means and the goal of all understanding. All true knowledge leads us eventually to the knowledge and love of God. It is by Him that we understand anything. He is the light by which we see everything else.

Man, that Lewis was economical in his words. It took me three paragraphs to say what he said in one line. He's good. Definitely worth reading.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Let's Not Fight, Let's Argue

Anyone who knows me knows that I love a good debate, a healthy discussion, a friendly intellectual exchange. I thoroughly enjoy exchanging views with others, especially when we disagree. During my time in seminary, I was told by my rector, "You can be very direct with people, almost challenging; but eventually people learn that you aren't attacking them--it's just the way you interact" (or something to that effect). No sense in beating around the bush, right, as long as you're respectful?

During my novitiate year, my classmates and I served once a week as volunteer chaplains at a local hospital, and at the end of the day we would have discussion sessions with our supervisor to talk about general issues related to being a chaplain. One day we were talking about conflict and dealing with difficult patients, and I said, "I think I'd be most uncomfortable being in a room with two people who are fighting with each other." One of my classmates said, "I find that surprising; you love a good argument."

Here I find a perfect example of a distinction which seems to be getting lost in our present-day discourse of tweets and posts and status updates, not to mention the more traditional modes of editorials and essays: there is a difference between an argument and a fight.

I like argument. To argue is to set out a connected series of propositions leading to a conclusion, and to engage the propositions and conclusion set out by another on the same topic, with each party analyzing the soundness of the other's argumentation: the definition of terms, the relation between the premises, and the relation between the premises and the conclusion. Each person implicitly agrees that these are the standards to be used, like two men in a duel who have agreed fight for first blood and not attempt any serious wounds, low blows, or dirty tricks.

If we were going to have an argument about, say, whether the death penalty should be abolished in this country, then we would discuss the relevant factors: the purpose of such a punishment, the nature of justice, whether the act is intrinsically evil or potentially moral depending on the circumstances, the question of necessity, and so on. That could be an enlightening and fruitful discussion.

I don't like fights. To fight is to leave the field of rational discourse where the weapons and the rules are agreed upon and honored, and descend to the level of a no-holds-barred broo-ha-ha. In a fight we have dropped our reason as a hockey player drops his gloves: at this point, we have exited the game with its rules and restrictions, and stepped into a moment where the only objective is to impose your will upon the other party, by whatever means necessary. You might knee him in the gut, or pull his jersey over his head, or grab his hair--whatever you need to do to get him down and get him out of your way.

So, if we were going to have a fight about whether the death penalty should be abolished, we wouldn't discuss the purpose of punishments or the nature of justice; instead, we'd call each other names like "bleeding heart" or "blood-lusting savage," and we'd accuse of each other of bad motives with terrible outcomes, like endangering our children or perpetuating the cycle of violence. We would seethe and boil and doubt each other's humanity, and in the end we would consider ourselves victorious if we had shouted the loudest or made the most scathing remark.

Just go to any message board or discussion forum or comments page on the Internet. It doesn't matter if we're talking about abortion or redefining marriage or whether Jack White is actually a good guitar player: within five posts, people are calling each other vile names, and comparing each other to dead dictators, and using language that would embarrass a longshoreman.

This is stupid. This is counter-productive. This doesn't get us anywhere. No, it does get us somewhere: it gets us farther apart than when we started. When we fight, we ignore what's really relevant to the situation. We put ourselves and our feelings first, and not the truth. Let's not do this anymore. Let's not fight. Can't we just argue?

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

"No One Can Baptize Himself": Pope Benedict on Faith and the Sacraments

I have been slowly making my way through the catecheses of Pope Benedict XVI on St. Paul, published in book form by Ignatius Press. As you might expect from such a formidable mind and holy soul, these texts are filled with many powerful and beautiful and enlightening passages. Here I've chosen a few to share with you on the connection between faith and the sacraments. First, on faith itself.
"Faith is not a product of our thought or our reflection; it is something new that we cannot invent but only receive as a gift, as a new thing produced by God."
You don't sit down and squint your eyes and furrow your brow and attempt to arrange your neurons in the correct pattern to produce faith. Faith, as in the theological virtue of faith by which we believe in God and trust what He has revealed to us, and in His Church and Her teachings, is something placed before you for your acceptance or rejection, for your cooperation or denial. It is not a product of inner effort, but a present given by God.
"Moreover, faith does not come from reading but from listening. It is not only something interior but also a relationship with Someone. It implies an encounter with the proclamation; it implies the existence of the Other, whom it proclaims, and creates communion."
Again Pope Benedict emphasizes that faith is not something we stir up in ourselves through our own activity or reflection, but comes to us from the outside from someone, or as he puts it, Someone, other than ourselves. We are confronted with it, with the opportunity for a relationship with the Other, the one who is wholly Other, God; and through God, with the community of those who have likewise encountered God and have acceptance his invitation to relationship.
"No one can baptize himself, he needs the other.... Only by another can we be made Christians, and this 'other' who makes us Christians, who gives us the gift of faith, is in the first instance the community of believers, the Church." 
Here Pope Benedict brings out the role of the community of bringing people to faith, to that relationship with God. The Church preaches God's word of redemption, and those who hear it and believe are brought into the Church to join in that communion with God and His People. We are made Christians by other Christians--not by reading the Bible in a room by ourselves and saying a private prayer, but by publicly entering into the gathering of believers and being given the Baptism of Christ by those who have themselves died and risen with Him in that sacrament. Yet, lest we fall into ecclesiolatry (worship of the Church) and put too much emphasis on the Church and its part in salvation, Pope Benedict reminds us of the Church's own source.
"Christ alone can constitute the Church. Christ is the true giver of the sacraments."
The Church brings us the sacraments, but it is Christ's Church, and Christ's sacraments. He, both the Spotless Lamb and the Eternal High Priest, consecrates His people in His Precious Blood and bestows upon them the gift of life in His sacraments. May God increase our faith and grant that we gain his sacramental grace frequently.

Friday, July 18, 2014

There's Believing, And There's Believing

"I'm not really religious, but I do believe in God."

I've heard this sort of thing from many people, but I'm not entirely sure what it means; or rather, I'm not sure what it means for them.

When someone says, "I'm not religious," they are saying that they do not hold themselves bound by any particular set of dogmas, ritual obligations, or ethical principles that are rooted in any kind of divine revelation. (I think that's a fair way to put it.) They wouldn't consider themselves Catholic or Methodist or Non-Denominational* or Buddhist or Muslim or Sikh or Hindu or anything else one could capitalize.

*(Yes, I know, "non-denominational" Christians are not exactly an organized group, but they have so multiplied and seem to share so many traits, they really have become an identifiable subset of Christianity.)

So, these folks do not believe in any set of religious beliefs or specific divine revelation. Yet they will then profess that they "believe in God." What does this mean? If this belief in God does not include any belief in anything God may have revealed about Himself, what is left for this "belief in God"? Only the barest minimum.

When people say "I believe in God" in this way, what they mean is: "I assent to the intellectual proposition that 'God exists.'"

This, to my mind, prompts all sorts of questions: who or what is this God whose existence you affirm? How did you come to know God? What do you know about God? Have you met God in some way? Or is God not a "meet-able" thing? That is: when you say "God," what are you referring to? I don't know how far simply affirming God's existence can get you in addressing these questions.

When Christians say "I believe in God" (as Catholics do every Sunday when they pray the Creed), they mean much more than "I assent to the proposition that God exists." They mean something more akin to what is meant when a wife says to her husband: "I believe in you." She isn't just saying, "I affirm that you exist." She is saying: "I trust you. I have confidence in you. I know you and I know what you're about and I know what you can do, and I know that you will do what needs to be done." There's believing, and there's believing.

I sometimes get the impression that some people have the impression that God sits upon his heavenly throne with a huge ledger in his hand, ticking off boxes for each one of us to see if we meet the bare minimum requirements to not merit being cast into the fiery pit of eternal despair, and that the barest of minimums is "Acknowledge my existence," as if God were the geeky kid at school who would let you come swim in his pool if you only would say hi to him. But God wants more from us than a passing greeting in the hallway, and God wants to give more to us than an afternoon pool party, and we need more for our fulfillment than sunshine and chlorinated water.

We were made for communion with God, loving friendship, a participation in God's own life through his gift of grace--to be "partakers in the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). This participation is brought about through our union with Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, through whom we become adopted sons of God. In Baptism we die and rise with Him; through Confirmation we are sealed with His Spirit; through the Eucharist we are fed with his Body and Blood and filled with his grace as the sap of the vine fills the branches. That's what we aim for. Not just nod of the head to an acquaintance, but the embrace of a lover.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Finding the New Hidden in the Old

I had been contemplating writing that "Reflections on Married Life" post, but then our lives were surprised and blessed beyond words with the most joyous news of a baby on the way! I can hardly believe it! And I can barely comprehend it. I'll need time for further reflection on both points. So, in the mean time, check out this fantastic tidbit I heard from Fr. Mitch Pacwa on the radio today....

As St. Augustine said, the grace of God is hidden in the Old Testament and revealed in the New Testament. We find one such example in Genesis 3. Adam and Eve have just eaten the forbidden fruit. God asks Adam why he has done this, and Adam, setting a poor precedent for many future men, blames his wife. (He blames God, too--"the woman whom you put here with me"--as in, "I wouldn't have done it if you hadn't brought her along!) God then turns to Eve, who blames the serpent for tricking her--the very first instance of the "devil made me do it" defense. God then turns to the serpent. Here's the interesting part, prophetic in a way you might not catch.

God curses the serpent to crawl on its belly and eat dirt. Then God says, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers." That's the NAB translation, the one we use at Mass. But the Hebrew and Greek words there which are translated "offspring" are better translated as "seed." The Greek word for seed is "spermatos," or σπέρματος, if we want to have fun with it. This is the word usually used for what a man provides in the process of procreation. It is the only place in Scripture which speaks of the seed/σπέρματος of a woman, so it's unlikely to be some special turn of phrase that has a non-procreational meaning. What does this term "the seed of a woman" refer to?

The key is in what this seed of the woman will do. "He will strike at [the serpent's] head, and [the serpent] will strike at his heel." The serpent is Satan, as the Church has traditionally interpreted this text. Who strikes at Satan's head? Who defeats Satan? The one who was born from a woman, without the cooperation of a man; the one who can be said to be the "seed of a woman." It is Christ. Christ is the offspring of Mary, who is the New Eve (as St. Irenaeus calls her). Here, moments after the Fall of humanity into sin, God announces His plan of salvation, and hints at how it will happen. In Christ's Incarnation, we see that plan begin to come to fruition. That's the best bit of foreshadowing I've ever read.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Praying to the Saints: Why Wouldn't You?

(My apologies for my silence over the last several weeks, but as excuses go I think I have a good one: I got married! Last Saturday, I took the hand of my beloved and pledged my lifelong love and fidelity to her before God and His Church, and the ensuing days have been the happiest of my life. The preceding days were filled with errands and shopping trips and picking things up and dropping things off and, oh yeah, moving into a new apartment. So, I was a wee bit occupied, and I appreciate your understanding.

I ought to write a post on the joys and wonders of married life, but I feel that would be better left to a time a bit farther in the future, when I've gone far enough down the road to be able to describe it... you know, like a week or two.

Instead, as a brief warm-up exercise to get myself back into the swing of blogging things, I offer this thought.)

I cannot understand why many Christians cannot understand why Catholics pray to the saints. I do not see their objection, or why they find the practice so objectionable.

Let me amend that: I can understand their difficulties if they equate prayer with worship, so that the phrase "praying to the saints" is no different from the phrase "worshiping the saints"; this I can understand as objectionable, because God alone is to be worshiped.

But it is not the case that prayer is an act of worship, or it is not necessarily so. It would depend on the content of the prayer. If I prayed, "O Divine Joseph, you are all-powerful and all-knowing, you are worthy of all honor and glory and praise," yeah, that would be worship, and that would be wrong, for such things can only be truly said of God. I get that.

That isn't what happens when Catholics pray to the saints, though. Such prayer is not filled with such worship language. Look at the text of any established or approved prayer to a saint. It's not worshiping. It's asking, just as if I were to say, "Prithee, open the door." (Prithee = I pray thee) To pray to a saint is to ask for their intercession before God for a particular petition.

Why do Protestants find this repugnant? They ask other Christians to pray for them all the time. What's the difference between my asking my friend to pray for me and my asking St. Irenaeus to pray for me?

The standard objection I hear is, "The saints you pray to are dead. If you try to invoke them, that's like necromancy or conjuring spirits, and that's forbidden by the Old Testament."


First off, the saints ain't dead. Not totally. Their souls are separated from their bodies, yes, but their souls, which include their intellects and their wills, are still, well, awake, and active in the presence of God. The saints are those who have died in Christ, in the friendship of God. Anyone in the friendship of God, in the state of grace, is part of Christ's Body, be it a saint in heaven or a pilgrim on earth. We're all part of Christ's Body; His Sacred Heart pumps a flow of grace throughout his whole Body, connecting every part. We are not divided from the saints!

Also, the Book of Revelation tells us that the saints in heaven are praying for the Church on earth, and that they carry to God the prayers of the Church (Revelation 5:8). If they're carrying our prayers, wouldn't it make sense that our prayers be directed to them first? "To: God, c/o: St. Athanasius."

Any good Christian cares for his fellow Christians and prays for their good, and desires to know what they need so that they can pray for it. Why would that stop after death? Don't prevent the saints from praying for us. You make them into bad Christians!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

This Tremendous Lover

I've been reading a book given to me by my fiancee, a beautiful work of sound teaching and deep spirituality: This Tremendous Lover by Dom Eugene Boylan, OCR. Dom Boylan was an Irish monk of the Trappist order, and in 1946 he published this book, which would be held to be a masterpiece.

I've been working through it slowly, as one savors a flavorful steak or sips a sweet wine, and have found many a thought-provoking, challenging, or uplifting point or passage; my copy is filled with underlining and starred sections and marginal notes. I thought I'd share a few of my favorites with you, to give you a taste so that you might want to order this spiritual delicacy yourselves.
Mercy is the attitude of goodness confronted with misery. (22)
The love of our hearts is something unique, something no one else can give Him. True, He could create other hearts to love Him, but once He has created us and given us free will, the love of our particular heart is something unique and in a way irreplaceable. (70-71)
It must be remembered that although the spiritual life is a life of love, it is not a life of sentiment. On the contrary, love is based on knowledge give by faith and reason. In a word, devotion is founded on dogma. (112) 
In prayer, it is the movements of the heart that matter. Words are good insofar as they help the movements of the heart. But words for the sake of words, or repetition for the mere sake of repetition, should be avoided. There is no need to keep talking all the time. (131) 
If we remember that the most fruitful life of any human being was that lived by our Lady, and that her life was essentially ordinary, obscure, and laborious, we shall, perhaps, find a new value in the ordinary things in the day's round when done for God. (195)
The whole trouble is that--literally--we do not know what is good for us; and what makes the trouble still worse is that we think we do. (200)
Our own notions of perfection are often full of error. We imagine holiness as the perfecting of our own life; whereas, in fact, it is the perfecting of the life of Christ within us. We imagine that the really important part of a life of holiness is the good works we perform and the fruit we produce; whereas the thing that primarily matters is the love, the supernatural love, with which they are performed. (260)
I'm fast approaching the chapter on the married life. My fiancee has read passages from this chapter to me before, which merely whet my appetite. And since we're getting married in 17 days, it seems appropriate!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Two Myths and the Great Catholic Both/And

It's been said that Catholicism is a both/and kind of faith. (I don't know who first said that, but as Mark Shea has said, "The beautiful thing about being Catholic is that you can plagiarize people and call it 'Being faithful to the tradition.'" I wonder who he took that line from?) Rather than choosing between one thing or another, we can often affirm the good found in each. Scripture or Tradition? Both! Fast days or feast days? Both! Latin or vernacular Mass? Both! Why pick one when you can have both?

We can apply this method, too, when considering different ways of looking at history, especially history within the Church. Too often people fall into one of two systems of thought regarding history: one subscribes to the Myth of the Golden Past, the other to the Myth of Human Progress. These two camps line up against each other, frequently throw spears at the other side, and occasionally make full-frontal assaults. What do their battle standards say?

The Myth of the Golden Past says that once upon a time, before the corrupting influences of [insert bogeyman here] ruined everything, the Church and every single one of its members was perfectly pure and holy and orthodox. Everyone spoke Latin fluently, everyone went to Mass every day of the week and twice on Sunday, and everyone knew the contents of the Summa Theologica by heart. Heresy and dissent were virtually unheard of, and when such flames of error began to smolder, they were quickly snuffed out... well, that one fire in Germany got a little out of control, but they were always suspect anyway, so good riddance. Then along came the modern world, with its Enlightenment thinkers and its Modernist popes and its sham of an ecumenical council, and everything fell apart. Ah, for the good ol' days! If only we'd abolish communion in the hand, we'd have our seminaries brimming with young men in no time!

The Myth of Human Progress echoes the Beatles' mantra, "It's getting better all the time." The Church has progressed and grown and matured through its 2,000 year history, becoming more open and tolerant and accepting, and no doubt some time soon it will enter a true Age of the Spirit where we will all become one in consciousness or something. If only these ultra-conservative popes would implement all the goals the Council really wanted to achieve, we would soon reach that great and glorious day. We have nowhere to go but up, as long as we follow the great four Fathers of the Modern Church: Curran, Kueng, Schillebeeckx, and... oh, actually, I should probably toss in a female theologian--we can't appear to be patriarchal! The four great.. uh... Parents of the Church, then! Someday we'll be perfected. Someday we'll realize that all religions are just different paths to the same mountaintop. Someday we'll celebrate our communal ecclesial celebration in a celebratory fashion with Protestants... and Muslims... and Buddhists... and atheists... and Scientologists!

OK, these are caricatures. But you get the point. There are those who think the Church's true self lies in the past, while others think it waits for us in the future. Which is it? Both/and!

The Holy Spirit has imbued the Church with God's grace and truth and love and holiness since Pentecost, so that perfection has always been there. But at the same time we are constantly seeking its perfect manifestation, in ourselves, in our structures, in our teaching. The Church is always perfectly what She is, and yet, as St. Augustine says, She is always semper reformanda, "always needing to be reformed." Doctrine can develop while still maintaining its substantial integrity. Liturgy can alter its outward form organically while still maintaining its essence. We can hold fast to the tradition while we advance on our pilgrim journey. Indeed, the two need each other: if we lose the truth of our destination, our journey is likely to wander off. You can't progress unless you know where you're going. Many aspects of the past were great and glorious; and many needed to be renewed. Pope St. John XXIII understood this, which was why he set ressourcement ("return to the sources") and aggiornamento ("opening up") the two guide rails of the Second Vatican Council: to proclaim the Gospel to the modern world, both are needed. Both. Both/and.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Keepin' It Venial

A friend of mine has a saying: "Just tryin' to keep it venial, bro." He'll break out this gem when he's trying to say that his actions might not be perfect, but they aren't that bad. Maybe he used some profanities, but at least he didn't take the Lord's name in vain; or maybe he said something less than charitable to someone, but he didn't tell them to go to Hell or anything; or maybe he bent the truth, but, well, he didn't really lie, per se, did he? It wasn't so bad. He kept it venial.

"Venial" refers to the distinction between venial sin and mortal sin. St. John makes this distinction between sin that is "deadly" and sin that isn't (1 John 5:16), and in the course of time we've come to refer to these two categories as venial and mortal sin. A venial sin wounds your relationship with God, while a mortal sin severs it; that is, while a venial sin hurts you spiritually, it doesn't kill you.

Let's not leap to a false conclusion, though. Let's not be tempted to think, "Well, as long as it doesn't snuff out my spiritual life completely, there's no real harm done, right? So I shouldn't get too worked up about such little sins. I mean, whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger. It's not so bad. It's no big deal. It's fine. I'm not even going to worry about it."

One day my friend voiced such a notion when he said about something or other, "It's only venial, so it's all good, right?" I responded, "Those do not mean the same thing." (He was joking, but the quotation is illustrative.)

Let's be clear: venial does not equal "okay to do." "Not deadly" does not equal "morally permissible." Venial sin may not break your connection with God, but it's certainly going to weaken it. If you keep weakening it, it will eventually be too feeble to survive. If you take a small branch on a tree and bend it back and forth repeatedly, you will be able to bend it a little more each time, and it will eventually break off. Likewise, when we commit less serious sins, we make it easier for ourselves to push a little further next time, to do something a little more serious. If we don't turn away from that sin, if we keep going in the direction we're headed, we can find ourselves faced with the temptation to commit serious sin, and we'll have made ourselves to weak to resist. Our branch will snap off.

I am not suggesting that we all become super-scrupulous (that's a fun word to say) and run to the confessional in sackcloth and ashes at the slightest of offenses. Prayer and contrition and receiving the Eucharist can help to heal us of these wounds. But let's not fall into complacency and let ourselves begin to slip down the treacherous slope that leads to places we don't want to be. Do try to keep it venial, but don't ignore those spiritual paper cuts. They can get infected.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

What Makes Someone Do This?

Yesterday, a 22-year old man killed six people, then himself, in Santa Barbara, targeting one of the sororities at UC-Santa Barbara as being representative of the women whom he thought had mistreated him and wrongly deprived him of "their sex, their love, my pleasure" (details found here). We know this because he wrote a 141-page "manifesto" and made a video for YouTube detailing his perceived slights and outlining his plan to seek "retribution."

My boss showed me part of the video, but before finishing it we both said, "I can't watch any more of this." Hearing someone announce they're going to kill random strangers while knowing they've done it is a stomach-turning experience; but hearing this man's smug self-righteousness and pathetic whining was maddening.

Basically, the guy had never had a girlfriend, and he just couldn't understand why women went out with so many jerks when he was "the perfect gentleman"--you know, a gentleman, as in the sort of man who plans to torture and kill innocent people for the crime of being female and the apparently most hideous crime of not being attracted to him. That kind of "gentleman." The entire female sex was guilty of withholding from him something he thought rightfully his--sex, love, pleasure. He always mentions them in that order; he always puts sex first. As much as the guy complained of loneliness, he doesn't seem too concerned with companionship or emotional intimacy; he just wants physical pleasure. And he thinks he's owed it. And since he hasn't gotten it, someone has to pay.

Bashing on a murderer is easy, though. Let's do the difficult thing: let's try to understand what would lead him to such an action. My boss said, "I just can't understand what would make a person do this." I said, "His sense of justice is warped." Here's what I mean:

All evil is at its root a perversion, a twisting, an inflation out of proportion of a good thing. Everything that God has created is good, so anything that exists must be good; but things can get themselves aimed in the wrong direction so that they don't come to their proper end. An arrow aimed at even a sliver of a wrong angle can miss the target completely. A car can take the wrong exit and not reach its destination, or even head off the road completely. If your vision gets blurry, you might think you're headed the right way, but you may well not be; and you can't tell anymore for sure, because you can't see properly.

The good thing in question here is the virtue of justice, the virtue by which people are given what is proper and due to them. To deprive someone of something owed to them is injustice, and in a just society, injustice is met with punishment and restitution.

Now take this young man. He believes that love and sexual pleasure are owed to him, that he has a right to them. His warped sense of justice tells him that any female that does not give him this gratification is committing an injustice against him. Since no one else sees this, he decides to turn vigilante and mete out punishment against those who have harmed him. He feels that what he's doing is justified. That's how he can do something like this.

There's a reason we call such a person "sick and twisted": he's twisted because his notion of the good has been wrenched out of shape, left bent and broken. His car took a wrong turn, right into a group of pedestrians just trying to cross the street. God rest their souls.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Philosophical Units of Measurement

As the physical sciences have their various units of weight and measurement with which they carry out their inquiries, so philosophy and theology ought to have such units by which we might measure the depth of thought in a given work. My thanks to Rodrigo Berrios, Alexander Ferrant, Michael Onofre, and the other person who was standing there whose face now escapes me, for contributing to this system.

Hegelgraph: A unit for measuring the density of writing. The writing of the 19th-century philosopher G.W.F. Hegel is known for its impenetrability; one could easily pour over a page of Hegel for a day (or a lifetime) and still be confused. The conversion rate of normal, everyday writing to the writing of Hegel is approximately ten pages of regular writing for every paragraph of Hegel's writing, or one Hegelgraph. Example: "How long is your reading assignment for class?" "About 20 pages, but that's only like 2 Hegelgraphs."

Hume-idity: This unit is named for the 18th-century philosopher David Hume, who once wrote: 
“When men are most sure and arrogant they are commonly most mistaken, giving views to passion without that proper deliberation which alone can secure them from the grossest absurdities.” So, Hume-idity refers to the level to which a piece of writing is confident in itself in inverse proportion to the degree to which that piece of writing reflects something to true--in other words, when someone is really sure but really wrong, that person is exhibiting Hume-idity. Example: "Check out this post by the atheist who thinks he's disproved God with the old 'If everything needs a creator, who created God?' line. Man, the Hume-idity is through the roof!"
Thomogram: A unit for measuring the weight or gravity of writing. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote beautifully and concisely on the highest of matters: the existence of God, the nature of virtue, and so forth. One article in the Summa contains more intellectual weight than most authors can put into several books, or dozens of blog posts, or thousands of blog post comments. Thus, it would take about 3,000 comments to equal one Thomogram. Example: "This guy's been running his blog for ten years, and I think he's got about half a Thomogram to show for it."

Folks: help me think of more!

Friday, May 16, 2014

Marvel Comics Actors Do A Good Deed For A Catholic Writer

Stratford Caldecott is an English Catholic scholar and writer who has produced many fine works (including one of the best books I've ever read on the works of Tolkien), served many distinguished boards and organizations, and has one of the best names ever. Sadly, this good man is dying from prostate cancer, which is in its final stages. Please pray for the intercession of St. Joseph that he has a good death.

Caldecott has long been a fan of Marvel Comics. His condition did not allow him to see the latest Captain America movie in the theaters. So, his daughter took to social media, asking Marvel Studios to allow them an advanced copy of the film on DVD so that Caldecott can see it. Then she went a step further: she asked the actors involved in the Marvel movies to post pictures of themselves holding a "[Insert Character] for Strat" sign, showing their support for Caldecott. And they have.

How fantastic! Good on these folks! Such stories restore one's faith in humanity. God bless them!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Hearing the Still Voice in a Noisy World

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once wrote:
If I could prescribe just one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, I would prescribe silence. For even if the word of God were proclaimed in the modern world, no one would hear it; there is too much noise. Therefore, create silence.
And to think he wrote that in the nineteenth century, when the world was not flooded with the cacophony of radio and television and Web streaming; when the telephone did not yet sit on a stand in the hallway, let alone in your pocket or around your wrist; when your home at eventide might have no other sound within it than the crackle of a fire, the clack of knitting needles, and the gentle rustle of a turned page. Even in that comparatively irenic period, Kierkegaard thought the world too noisy for the Gospel message to penetrate the hearts of men.

Such an attitude on the part of the Dane should indicate to us that this challenge is not unique to our own age, for the problem at hand is not simply one of physical noise that would drown out the preacher; it is the problem of our restless hearts distracting themselves from their sinfulness and selfishness through every means of momentary exhilaration and mental occupation available to us. Each time and place has its own distractions, be they steam engines or six-lane highways or Twitter feeds or twenty-four hour cable news or gladiator games or chariot races or booze or drugs or the latest version of the XBox or Playstation. We much prefer these things to examining our hearts, or to lending our ears to those who would encourage us to do so, because they're easier.

We are unlikely to find God in these things because such thrills and agitations are not part of the divine modus operandi. God doesn't speak to us in a voice that echoes across the mountains, for that would overwhelm our wills, bringing us before Him in servile fear instead of filial love. God speaks to us, as He did to Elijah, in the tiny whispering sound, barely audible except to the pure heart who seeks it. God presents Himself, not in the guise of a mighty king enrobed in scarlet and riding atop a war elephant for all to see, but rather as a wandering carpenter who heals the sick and commands them not to tell anyone about it.

This is not to say that the love of God and the Spirit of holiness do not also fill one with energy and enthusiasm for spreading the Gospel message. Certainly they do; we saw that with those very people whom Jesus healed and who could not contained their joy and gratitude and ran through the streets shouting it. But that enthusiasm is a means, not an end. We are not made enthusiastic for the sake of being enthusiastic. That enthusiasm is intended to bring people to that peace the world cannot give.

The world is noisy. Our hearts are noisy. Let's quiet them down and leave some room for God to speak to us. We have such a bad habit of interrupting him.

Friday, May 2, 2014

A Brief History of Ancient Greek Philosophy

Before attempting to describe Greek philosophy, we must begin by answering a preliminary objection: is it even proper to speak of such a thing as “Greek philosophy,” or is this merely a conventional category created by academics to make their own work easier? These Greek philosophers lived hundreds of years and thousands of miles apart. They wrote on seemingly disparate topics ranging from cosmology to ethics. Eleatics and Ionians, Platonists and Pythagoreans, Stoics and Cynics faced off, haranguing one another; would we lump these groups under one designation? It would seem that the only thing tying them together is their common use of the Greek language.

Such a view would be mistaken. (Let us hope that it is a straw man and that no one actually holds to this position.) Though they lived in different times, their ideas endured. Though they lived in various places around the Mediterranean, travel was frequent. Though many focused on particular topics, all were concerned with answering the most fundamental questions of existence. Though they aligned themselves into opposing groups, they all engaged in the Great Conversation.

This term perhaps best describes what is at the heart of the philosophical enterprise that took place in the ancient Greek-speaking world. All of these men, in some form or facet, took up the question: “What is reality like, and how can I bring myself in line with it so as to have a happy life?” This question contains three key suppositions common to Greek thinkers of the period. All assumed that there was an order to the cosmos; reality was a coherent, unified whole. All assumed that this reality was intelligible, to some degree, by human reason (few outliers such as Gorgias notwithstanding). And all assumed that being in sync with reality was necessary for living a good life. While philosophers had different answers to this question, they were all fundamentally engaging it, and thus were engaged in the same conversation.

This belief in the power of reason to apprehend the nature of things is of particular importance. It creates a space separate from mythology in which to contend with the questions of existence. The philosopher is one who seeks an account of reality distinct from that which the storyteller or oracle can provide. The philosopher uses rational investigation to attempt to answer the great question.

(Note: "Mythology" and "philosophy" are not exhaustive categories; it's not the case that whatever is not philosophy is "mythology." Apart from mythology (storytelling) and philosophy (analytical reasoning), there are other categories, like "science," (empirical reasoning) or "divine revelation" (given knowledge), which, along with philosophy, are ways of gaining true knowledge about reality. But as these are not categories of thought for the Greeks--what we would call "science" they would call "natural philosophy"--I do not discuss them here.

Philosophers in different times and places were interested in different aspects of the question. For the Ionians and Eleatics, the first concern was the nature of reality as concerns its composition: what is everything made of? Behind this question was the assumption that, since we perceive the world to be a unified whole, it must thus be composed, at its base, of a single substance. Various substances were proposed: Thales said water; Anaximenes said air (in various states of condensation); Heraclitus said fire, in its constant flux; Anaximander suggested “the unlimited.” But all maintained that there must be substantial unity, even if this prime substance changes into different things.

The Eleatics heard this speculation and focused on the question of how such changes could occur. For Parmenides and his disciple Zeno, the answer was simple: they don’t. Though things appear to change, in principle they could not, for where would the new thing come from? How could what is come from what is not? They concluded that change was illusory. Though opposed to one another, the two schools at least agreed on one point: things were not precisely as they seemed.

It should be remembered that these thinkers, apart from their cosmological speculations, were concerned with ethical questions as well; it is not as though Thales was consigned to the natural philosophy department, away from the ethicists, forbidden to tackle their topics. But they did tend to be preoccupied with cosmological questions, just as many later thinkers, particularly in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, primarily addressed ethical questions. Some, like Pythagoras, Plato and Socrates, and Aristotle, did a little of everything, yet always in conversation with those who had gone before them.

Socrates occupies the place that he does in the history of philosophy because his thought has been the catalyst for so much of the conversation that has followed. Indeed, in Plato’s Socratic dialogues, we see precisely that: a conversation! The Socratic dialogue is a microcosm, a snapshot, of the whole of Greek philosophy: a conversation in which the thought of various people is engaged, questioned, expounded, examined, and cross-examined. This is best seen in those dialogues which feature other great philosophers, such as Gorgias, Parmenides, and Protagoras; here, we most literally see the Great Conversation happening before our eyes.

In these dialogues, Plato and Socrates wrestle with many of the most profound sub-questions which are part of that main question, “What is reality and how can I conform myself to it so as to have a happy life?” They addressed questions such as: what is knowledge? What is virtue? What is the relationship between the two? What is the nature of the cosmos? Of love? How is the polis best ordered so as to lead people to the good life? In Plato’s dialogues we see the interconnectedness of the varied facets of the conversation. Knowledge leads to virtue; knowledge requires education and formation of the soul; education requires a well-ordered society; yet a well-ordered society will not come about without virtuous inhabitants. Plato and Socrates show the unity of the philosophical enterprise, the unity of wisdom.

Aristotle took up this view and expanded it. Any subject, be it poetics, rhetoric, biology, physics, metaphysics, or ethics, was susceptible to philosophical inquiry, for all were part of the same cosmic order. Anything, from plays to porcupines, from substances to souls, from happiness to the heavens, could be analyzed according to four causes: what is it? What is it made of? What brought it to be? What is its end or purpose? And always, before presenting his conclusion, Aristotle would give due consideration to the theories of predecessors and contemporaries; he did not dismiss them with a wave of the hand, but took the time to attempt refuting them. He was engaged in the conversation.

Over time, the conversation shifted according to the predilections of those involved in it. Plato the geometer approached things one way, Aristotle the biologist another. Thales the engineer had one viewpoint, Pythagoras the near-mystic another. Likewise, circumstances in society had an effect. A citizen of an independent city-state will have different concerns from a subject of a king or emperor. After the Macedonian conquest of Greece, and later during the Roman period, a shift takes place: the philosopher becomes less concerned with the form of society than the ethical status of the individual. Yet even so, the conversation continued. The Epicureans and Stoics still looked back to Socrates as an inspiration of sorts, and engaged his ideas on the nature of the good.

One thought leads to another. One idea sparks a response, and that response prompts a counter-response. This is the nature of conversation, and it is the nature of Greek philosophy as it developed over hundreds of years, through all parts of the Greek-speaking world. That conversation continued on, through the Late Antique period, the Middle Ages, the Enlightenment, even today; as Alfred North Whitehead said, "All philosophy is but a footnote to Plato"--or rather, the whole Western philosophical tradition is the child of these Greeks.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Doing a Little Latin

Part of my problem in producing blog posts is my feeling that every post must be the definitive and exhaustive piece on whatever topic I've taken up. I always fear I'll leave out something important: some critical context omitted, some counterargument left unaddressed, some authority left unquoted. That's a lot of pressure to put on oneself!

It's foolish, too. Is it likely I'll be able to summarize a complex point of philosophy or theology in a thousand words? Maybe if I were St. Thomas I'd be able to, but, as you were probably already aware, I am not. Perhaps it's best to stick to smaller points and simpler questions. Perhaps it's not so bad to use a post simply to introduce a tidbit or nugget of interest. It's better to take small bites than to get too ambitious and end up choking.

As an example: do you know that we get an awful lot of words in English from Latin present participles? A participle is one of those -ing words: doing, eating, skipping, ignoring. A present participle is a word conveying the sense that the action is happening right--like "is happening." In Latin, present participles have an -ns ending in the nominative case, like "agens" for "doing," and that form changes slightly for other cases, e.g. "agentis" for the genitive case, "agenti" for the dative case, etc.. Say... "agentis" and "agenti" bear a striking resemblance to "agent," don't they? That's because that -nt- form for Latin participles is the great-great-great-etc. grandfather of a lot of English words. An "agent" is "someone doing something." A "docent" is "someone teaching something." A "patient" is "someone enduring something." A "postulant" is "something claiming/asking for something." See?

Come on, that's interesting! Right? Isn't it? I'm not the only one, am I?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Is Believing in God Like Believing in Zeus or Thor? Nope.

The famed atheist Richard Dawkins has often said (as here) that he does not consider it any different to not believe in the Christian God than to not believe in Zeus or Thor or Mithras or any other non-Christian deity. "Everyone's in atheist concerning some gods; we've just got one god further," he says. Now, being the Anglophile I am, I'm always so tempted to treat seriously any words spoken in a refined English accent--I just love the way Dawkins says "Zyoos" for Zeus--but in this case I'm afraid that even his silky Oxonian tones can't salvage Dawkins' rather silly statement.

The problem here is one of equivocation; that is, the same word, "god," is being applied to Zeus and Thor and Mithras and YHWH, but what being a "god" means in each case is radically different.

In the mainstream orthodox Christian tradition, when we speak of "God" (even prescinding from the whole question of Christ and the Trinity and any personal attributes), we mean the very ground of existence, the first cause of all things who is Himself uncaused, the source of all goodness and love, that than which nothing greater can be conceived, eternal, omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent. We are making claims that matter to our entire worldview, that reach down to the deepest metaphysical questions. One can conclude the existence of such a God purely through reason, as in Aquinas' Five Ways, as Socrates did when he said there was only one god, as many a former atheist who has thought about it a bit has done.

When we speak of Zeus or Thor or Mithras or any other "god" of this sort, we are not dealing with anything quite so philosophically serious. None of these are eternal, having existed always. None is the uncaused first cause of all things--each of this has his own birth, and none can be said to have created all. None are all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good: they may know a lot, and be able to do a lot, and do some good things, but they are occasionally ignorant, and often limited, and quite frequently immoral. One could conceive of a universe without the god of the sky or of thunder or of justice, or of this particular god of those things; someone else in the pantheon could take up the role. One would never and could never reason to the existence of Zeus or Thor or Mithras.

These pagan "gods" are high-octane versions of humans, like people with the volume turned up. The Christian God is something fundamentally different. It's comparing apples and oranges... not even apples and oranges. More like apples and wrenches. I don't believe in Zeus or Thor or Mithras because it's unreasonable to, and because they have never revealed themselves, and do not continue to reveal themselves throughout history--I've never heard of anyone in the last 3,000 years being healed of a deadly disease thanks to their supplications to Apollo. But to believe in the Triune God as described above is eminently reasonable, and that reason is supported and confirmed by revelation, by miracles, by personal experience, by faith. These other three poseurs cannot compare. Nice try, Dick Dawkins.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The View Beyond the Frame

Recently the subject of relics came up between me and a Protestant classmate. The whole concept seemed strange to him. He knew that Catholics made use of the relics of the saints, of the belongings or portions of the bodies of the saints, in their devotions and worship, but he personally couldn't see the appeal or the reasoning for it. What's the deal, he asked? Where did it come from?

Thinking that my Protestant friend would likely respond well to a passage from the Bible supporting this practice, I referred to Acts 19:11-12, which says that "So extraordinary were the mighty deeds God accomplished at the hands of Paul that when face cloths or aprons that touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them." The current Catholic practice is nothing different, I said. He responded with skepticism in his voice: "That's your scriptural warrant for relics?"

For a while I had been attempting to think of a pithy and illustrative way to describe the different approaches of Catholics and Protestants to Scripture; I think this encounter was a perfect exemplar. For our Protestant brethren, the Bible is the sole source for the faith. If some notion or practice cannot be explicitly (and usually repeatedly) found in the pages of Scripture, then that notion or practice, they conclude, has no basis for being believed. One almost gets the sense that the point in question must be spelled out in a divine command, or in the form of a proposition, in order to be accepted. So, even if the Protestant reads this passage, or Acts 5:15 (where Peter's shadow heals the sick), or Luke 8:44-47 (where the woman touches Jesus's garment and is healed), or all of them together, it seems he is not likely to conclude from them that the presence of a holy person, or a holy person's things, or a deceased holy person's body, can have positive spiritual effect. It's not explicit enough, it's not clear enough, it's not sure enough.

Of course, this attitude ignores an entire dimension of evidence: practice, or tradition. Surely if we would like to determine whether this use of relics is congruent with Christianity, it would be useful to ask whether Christians have always and everywhere made such use? Would that not be a strong indication that the practice is indeed Christian?

In this conception, the Scriptural stories are like snapshots of moments within the life of the Church; they are best understood and interpreted by those who witnessed them and were present, and by those to whom those witnesses gave their testimony. If you were to find pictures of some of your relatives on a beach trip, your aunt who was on the trip would be able to give you the context and significance of the events captured in the photos--who else was there, why a certain person wasn't there, what everyone was laughing about--much more accurately and precisely than a stranger who came along and began inspecting the photos, no matter how good the stranger's detective work and methods of analysis were.

For the Catholic, Scripture is like those snapshots, and the Tradition is like those family stories that give you the context for the pictures. The Catholic, having the rest of the story, is able to see beyond the picture's frame. The Protestant looks only at the picture, and misses the rest of the story.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

If You Want to Learn Something, Don't Read Newspapers

Perhaps you've heard some of the hubbub over a document being called "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife." Well, I say "document," when it's a scrap of parchment showing fragments of sentences, one of which contains the phrase "Jesus said, 'My wife....'" But from the dramatic news headlines and the sheer volume of attention this find has received, you'd think someone had found an autographed picture of the Messiah and the Mrs. on vacation. You'd think we'd have learned before, from reports on comments made by the pope to pretty much everything blogged about at GetReligion, that newspapers aren't the best source for clarity and insight when it comes to things religious, but it appears we have one more lesson. Let's take a look at an example article and strain out the assumptions, hyperbole, and leaps of logic so that we can get something of a clear idea of just what it is we're dealing with.

This article from the Boston Globe is headlined "No evidence of modern forgery in ancient text mentioning 'Jesus' wife.'" The lead reads:

New scientific tests have turned up no evidence of modern forgery in a text written on ancient Egyptian papyrus that refers to Jesus as being married, according to a long-awaited article to be published Thursday in the Harvard Theological Review.

Already in the headline, and here in the first sentence, we have a problem. The smidgeon of text we have does not posit that Jesus had a wife. Jesus begins a sentence saying, "My wife...." How does that sentence end? It very well could end, "My wife is the one who follows my teaching." Think of Matthew 12:50: "Whoever does the will of my Father is my brother and my sister and my mother." So, first problem: people are inferring too much from these four words.

Second problem: the article calls the text "ancient." But dating the text precisely is difficult, and very problematic. One carbon-dating test put it in the 4th century BC, leading to the apparently miraculous conclusion that a text recording Jesus' words was written 300 years before he lived; another carbon-dating test placed its origins in the 8th century AD, 800 years after Christ lived. You could just as well call the 700s AD "medieval" as "ancient"--it's right on the borderline. So calling it "ancient" (or assigning any time value to it at all) is a tad misleading.

Third problem: the article calls the text "authentic." If by "authentic" they mean it isn't a modern forgery, that may be an acceptable usage of the term, provided that's true. But many people will read "authentic" to mean "telling us something really true about Jesus." I may have an "authentic" (meaning "not forged") text of Harry Turtledove's book The Guns of the South, which imagines a time traveler coming to the Confederacy and giving Robert E. Lee automatic weapons; but that doesn't mean that the text has any relation to reality. There were all kinds of false gospels written in the early centuries, like the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Judas, that made up all sorts of stories about Jesus--think of them as "Jesus fan fiction." And those false gospels were a lot older than this thing appears to be. This text, even if it's not forged, could just as well be one of them.

"Ah," you say, "but it's an ancient text. It was written close to the time of Jesus! It must be telling us something true!"

You mean "ancient" as in 700 years after Christ lived? That's like saying I have an "ancient" copy of St. Thomas' Summa Theologica because my copy was printed last week--it's only 700 years older than the original!

And even assuming that this text was written much closer to the time of Jesus, that just makes it old fan fiction. There's no attestation to this idea from any other authority or tradition in Christianity. You would think if this were true, and since it would be a fairly important or interesting piece of information about the life of Our Lord, somebody somewhere, and indeed, everybody everywhere, would have remembered it. If your cousin says, "Hey, wasn't Uncle Jack married?" and everybody said, "I never heard anything mentioned about a wife of his," you'd conclude, "Oh, then he must not have been, because surely someone would remember that Uncle Jack had a spouse."

Don't let the headlines and the hype mislead you. There's no reason to believe that this bit of paper tells us anything actual factual about the life of Jesus. It's probably the equivalent of stories written in online forums in which fans write that Han Solo is really the secret eldest son of Anakin Skywalker--it may have been written down somewhere by someone, but it's not canon.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

God Is Not A Vending Machine

Check out my latest post on Catholic Stand!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Where Was Adam?

I remember once discussing the Fall of Adam and Eve with my boss's wife (because who doesn't talk about such things with their boss's wife?), and she posed a question I'd never thought of that really struck me:

"When the serpent tempted Eve, where was Adam? He should have been there to protect her."

Wow. That's a great question. (Which, as my cousin Joe has pointed out, is a euphemism that means, "I don't know.")

Just where was Adam? Tending the garden? Picking (other) fruit? Milking the cows? Did he know there was anything dangerous in the garden that he might need to be on the lookout for? Would he have left his wife by herself if he'd known there were cunning talking serpents slithering around the place?

What I most appreciated about her question, though, was the assumption that it was Adam's duty to protect his wife from harm. Not that Eve was too weak or dim or otherwise incapable of looking after herself, but simply meaning that Adam had a responsibility to look out for her. St. Paul says that a man should love his wife as Christ loves the Church: he should be willing to give his life for her. Adam should have been willing to take that snake bite rather than let his wife come to harm.

My boss posed a question of his own: why did Adam eat the fruit when Eve gave it to him, when he knew God had told him not to? And my boss had a theory which I found moving: when Adam saw that Eve had eaten the fruit, and knew she was going to be in trouble, he ate it, too, out of solidarity, so that whatever happened, they'd face it together.

I'm not sure if this is the proper answer, but there's something beautiful in it: that Adam was so bound to his wife he would face God's judgment with her. Not that we should necessarily follow others into sin, but there is a sound principle there of wanting to be with the beloved other where they are in their time of trouble.

What would have happened if Eve had eaten the fruit but not Adam? How would that affect the transmission of original sin? St. Paul contrasts Christ's obedience and Adam's disobedience; well, what if Adam hadn't been disobedient, only Eve? Or what if Adam had been the one to eat the fruit but not Eve? How would things have been different if there'd be an "obedience gap" between our first parents? Would only the one have been punished and died? Would God have created a new spouse for the other and started the human race over again, free from the stains of its past members?

I have absolutely no idea what the answers are to these questions. But they're interesting to think about.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

What Do They Teach In Schools These Days?

Through the miracles of the Internet age, you can find eight-grade graduation exams from over 100 years ago. Could you pass this exam? I'm not sure I could. But how could this be? We have so many more people today who are not only eighth-grade educated or high school educated but college educated than were in yesteryear. Shouldn't we be able to surpass their abilities? Shouldn't we be 100 years smarter than these guys?

It would seem we are not. And while there are many culprits, I'd like to point the bony finger of blame at one man in particular: John Dewey.

Yes, the philosopher and psychologist and purported-all-around-smarty-pants, that John Dewey. Dewey's theories on education revolutionized our school system. What were those theories?

Dewey advocated for an educational approach that emphasized critical thinking over rote memorization. Rather than being able to repeat facts and figures and dates and names, young students, Dewey thought, should be able to engage big ideas and work collectively to learn new material. And many schools followed his suggestions and altered their curricula, downplaying content-building.

Now, there's some merit to his focus. Knowing the bare facts is not sufficient for being a thinking person; one must be able to move beyond them, analyze them, assess them, evaluate them, in order to reach considered conclusions about them. This is necessary for an informed a thoughtful society.

But here's the rub, Johnny: in focusing on critical thinking, you've skipped a step. Critical thinking is step two in the thinking process. Before you can think, you need something to think about. Before you can reflect on knowledge, you must have knowledge.

This was the whole point of memorization to begin with! By memorizing the facts in a particular discipline, you then having the building blocks to construct a historical narrative, or a political argument, or a scientific theory. The facts that are imprinted on your brain through rote are the very material upon which your critical thinking skills operate.

Look at how this worked out in the Church. At two least generations of Catholics have been so poorly catechized that most, according to surveys, can't correctly identify the Church's teaching on the Eucharist, or salvation, or the Trinity. People of my grandparents' age can still rattle off the sentences from the Baltimore Catechism that they learned as children, and would have no trouble with such questions. Some would say that the contents of the Baltimore Catechism were too rudimentary, not "critical" enough, but I say: better something than nothing.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Atheists: Here's How to Not Argue

I've listened to a few debates recently between Christians and atheists: Dinesh D'Souza vs. Christopher Hitchens and William Lane Craig vs. Sam Harris. One thing that struck me was the gap between speech and action on the side of the atheists. That is, the atheists said that they desired to settle the important questions of human life based on reason and evidence, but when it came to actually discussing the issues and trying to settle the questions, the atheists were piling up logical fallacies left and right, and often not actually making arguments at all.

Perhaps the worst offense was the continuous use of straw man arguments. A "straw man" argument is an argument in which you present a weak and/or inaccurate version of your opponent's argument, then easily knock it down (as easily as one could knock over a figure made of straw). Examples abound: Hitchens repeatedly claimed that his opponents believed that anyone who does not believe in their version of God is automatically going to Hell (not true, as least from a Catholic viewpoint); or that God will only answer your requests "if you make the right propitiation and sacrifices" (nope). Indeed, most of his characterizations of basic Christian belief were grossly distorted and misunderstood. But it's much easier to knock down a scarecrow than it is to knock down a soldier.

Other popular non-arguments employed by the atheists included:

Argument by Scoff -- Rather than addressing the reasoning employed by your opponent, you mock their position and insult them. Thus, even in the setting of a formal debate, atheists call belief in God "primitive," "barbaric," "childish," "degrading," "insulting," "irrational," "insane," and the like. This is not an argument. This is playground name-calling.

Argument by Declaration -- Your opponent gives a proof or an argument, and you respond, not by analyzing the argument's premises or logic, but by simply declaring, "The argument doesn't work," or by stating categorically, "There is no convincing argument for the existence of God." It's a circular argument: "There is no convincing argument for the existence of God. Why is that? Because there isn't!" How do I know I am right? Because I just said so!

Bait and Switch -- The atheist begins by saying we must look at reason and scientific observation to determine the question of God's existence. Yet what do they so often appeal to? Crimes of believers, the innocent suffering of children, sad puppy dogs or something. Whoa whoa whoa... what happened to reason and evidence? What happened to debating the logical consistency of the idea itself? To argue "There is no God because some people who believe in God did bad things" is a non sequitur: the one does not follow from the other.

Perhaps I should stop looking to these sorts of debates for anything fruitful, interesting, or thought-provoking. Too often they're just a let-down.