Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Fun with Latin (Yes, Latin is too Fun!)

I've been taking Latin this semester, rejuvenating the dried reeds of that ancient tongue which I had gleaned from the summer fields of Notre Dame years ago. (Whoa, whoa, slow it down there, Shakespeare....) There are all sorts of bits and bots and nuggets and gems to be found in studying this most venerable tongue. A few that I'd like to share:

....Roman names usually had three parts: a first name, a family name, and a sort of "nickname." Take, for example, Marcus Tullius Cicero, famous orator and statesman. "Cicero" is actually the Latin word for "chickpea" or "garbanzo bean." This led our Latin professor to make the morbid joke, "When Cicero was murdered, he had his hands and head chopped off; if his killer would have kept going, he could have made hummus. 'Cause... "Cicero"... chickpea... cut it up... makes hummus." He got a laugh from me, at least.

....A few steps are required for this next one. A participle is a continuous action verb like "doing" or "loving." A passive participle is a phrase like "is being done" or "is being loved." A future passive participle is a phrase like "will be done" or "will be loved," also rendered as "having to be done" or "having to be loved." Do you notice how that takes on a connotation of obligation or necessity? "It will be done," "it has to be done." The future passive participle is characterized by the -nd- in its middle. You know some English words that once upon a time were future passive participles in Latin: agenda are "things having to be done," and Amanda is "she who must be loved." (This may give girls named Amanda an ego problem, so be careful who you tell it to.)

....Have you ever heard the moving of relics from one place to another referred to as "translating" (e.g. "The Venetians translated the relics of St. Mark to their home city in 828 AD") and perhaps thought, "I thought you translated words and languages, not things. What does that mean? Why don't they say something like 'transfer'?" Well, actually, it turns out that "transfer" and "translate" share the same Latin root, a very irregular Latin verb. See, you learn Latin verbs according to their four principal parts: the present active indicative ("I love"), the active infitive ("to love"), the perfect active indicative ("I have loved"), and the perfect passive participle ("having been loved"), which in the case of this word "love" would be amo, amare, amavi, amatus. OK, they all look similar, a little different on the ends, right? Well, the verb for "carry" is super weird: fero, ferre, tuli, latus. Let's slap the prefix for "across" (trans-) on the front of there, and see what that looks like: transfero, transferre, transtuli, translatus. See? Whether you transfer or translate relics, it all amounts to the same thing: they get there in the end.

Now isn't that interesting?

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Charlie Sheen and the Last Rites

Disney's 1993 version of The Three Musketeers is a family favorite. It's not exactly Citizen Kane, but where else can you find Robin, Jack Bauer, and Charlie Sheen matching wits with Pennywise?

One bit in the movie always bugged me, though. After having dispatched their enemies, Aramis is seen praying over the bodies of the slain and making the Sign of the Cross over them. D'Artagnan asks Athos, "What is he doing?" and Athos responds, "Last Rites. Aramis takes death very seriously." Not that I expect theological accuracy from a Disney movie, but there are several problems with this, and it might be a useful segue to a discussion on just what are the "Last Rites" and what they're about.

The so-called "Last Rites" are the three sacraments that are administered to those who are in danger of death (whether actually dying or in a serious medical situation). The three sacraments are Penance, Anointing of the Sick, and the Eucharist, given to cleanse the soul of sin and its effects, to prepare the recipient in case his life should end, or, if it be God's will, to heal his body and restore his life. Penance forgives sin; Anointing heals from the effect of sin and potentially restores health; and the Eucharist brings communion with God.

One common point of confusion is the tendency to conflate the Anointing of the Sick with "the Last Rites." You can receive Anointing apart from these other sacraments, and just because you're receiving Anointing does not mean you're going to die, or that the priest thinks you're going to die. Though there is some dispute over when exactly Anointing may be given (not wanting to give it either too frequently or too seldom), the Church's practice makes clear that those who are suffering from serious chronic medical conditions and those who are about to undergo a potentially risky procedure may receive the sacrament as a a means of comfort in their time of physical and spiritual trial.

So, after all that, we can see several problems in this scene from The Three Musketeers.

First problem: Aramis is not a priest, as far as I can tell. (It seems that he had had some training of that sort at one point, and I think in some of the later stories Aramis does become a cleric, but at this point, I don't believe he is.) Though any person could bring the Eucharist to someone, only a priest can dispense the sacraments of Penance and Anointing.

Second problem: Even if Aramis were a priest/soldier, he didn't appear to have brought the Oil of the Sick with him in his saddlebags, and thus he couldn't be administering the Anointing of the Sick. And since he doesn't appear to be giving the Eucharist to the dead soldier, or hearing his confession (both of which would be rather difficult for a dead man), then what he's doing can't be called "the Last Rites."

Third problem (perhaps the biggest problem of all): the enemy soldiers appear to be already dead. The sacraments are for the living, to put them into contact with God's grace that their wills may be strengthened to choose to love God. Once you're dead, your life's choice is made, and the sacraments are no longer of avail.

Or think of it this way: A living person is a union of soul and body; when that person dies, the soul is separated from the body (such that we don't even call it a body anymore, but a corpse [and yes, I know "corpse" comes from the Latin corpus meaning "body" but don't quibble with me]). So if a sacrament comes into contact with the dead body, it can have no effect on the person, because, with the soul being separated from it, then in a sense, that body is no longer that person's--nobody's home. (Yes, the soul does maintain a certain relationship to the body after death, but that's a conversation for another time.)

Point being: whatever Aramis is doing, it ain't the Last Rites. But Charlie Sheen praying is a good in itself.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

On Comparing and Not Comparing Buddhism and Christianity

I'm taking a class on Buddhism this semester. Specifically, the class concerns the branch of Buddhism known as "Theravada," or "The Elders' View," designated thus because it claims to be that interpretation of the Buddha's teachings that was held and set out by those who were closest to him; after his passing, they gathered and chanted his teachings and agreed among themselves as to the wording of his teachings.

Now, one might read that sentence and say, "Oh, so it's sort of like what the apostles did after Jesus died and rose and ascended." Yes, there may be some similarities, but I've been trying not to make such comparisons while taking this course. Though it may sometimes aid understanding to relate some aspect of Buddhism to Christianity, I think more often it may be a hindrance. Conflating ideas in the two systems makes them lose their distinctiveness; if you translate the Buddhist term arahant (one who has become enlightened) as "saint," you drag all the connotations of that English word into the Buddhist word. Then you're no longer trying to understand Buddhism on its own terms, but instead are engaging it by mapping Christianity onto it. And then you'll go on to say how really similar all the world's religions are, how they're all true in their own way, etc. etc., when in fact you only say that because you're seeing Buddhism (and the rest of the world's religions) through Christian-colored glasses. While it's important to recognize truth wherever it exists, when we re-write other religions in Christian terminology, we're not helping that cause, only muddying the waters. We end up fulfilling the maxim of Msgr. Ronald Knox: "the study of comparative religions is the best way to become comparative religious."

That said, one tiny element of my reading struck me, and I thought a comparison would be beneficial precisely because it is true but likely to be rejected. In his book Theravada Buddhism: The View of the Elders, Asanga Tilakaratne describes the method for meditation. He says quite strongly that the one meditating "needs to find a suitable place for meditation and sit cross-legged with an erect body." Needs to? Needs to? How interesting. Many a Western person would read that and say, "The Buddhist understands the great importance of physical posture in maintaining a certain mindset. If you want to pay attention to something, have your body at attention: sit up, breathe deeply. If you slouch in your chair in class, you won't listen. You need to make your body ready for your mind to work. This makes perfect sense."

BUT if you were to tell many a Western person that there might be a preferred posture for praying or for engaging in that supreme act of communion with God, receiving the Eucharist, i.e. on one's knees, many of the very same Western persons who had just enunciated the universal proposition that there is a link between one's physical posture and one's mental state will suddenly make an about-face, and become indignant, and declare with deep feeling, "I may approach my God however I choose. It makes no difference whether I pray kneeling or sitting or standing on my head! It's all the same! God can hear me just as well! Quit trying to impose your preferences on me, you patriarchal, fascist conformist!"

Hmm. What a stark difference. What seemed an obvious and universal truth of human existence and operation in one context is suddenly objectionable in another context. But that truth can become obfuscated in our own familiar situation by cultural baggage and associations of thought. For some people, the thought of praying or receiving the Eucharist on one's knees conjures up images of a "pre-Vatican II mindset" of alleged rigidity and harshness and every other negative term one can associate with a religion, when it ought to convey reverence and humility and devotion. All that baggage obscures their view of the simple undeniable fact that there's a link between one's physical disposition and one's mental disposition. Anyone can see it; but sometimes your so blinded to your situation at home, you have to look at the neighbor's to see things as they are.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Varia: Belgian Suicides and Unscientific Science

Sorry about the recent silence, but things have been a bit hectic. School started up again. I totaled my car. Various wedding planning-related activities. And lots of inchoate notions that I never gave sufficient nourishment and sunlight to so that they might sprout into fully bloomed blog posts. So, as an exercise to get warmed up again, shall we consider a few brief points on various topics? ...

The Belgian parliament has voted to allow children with terminal illnesses to request that they be assisted in committing suicide, provided they are suffering unbearably, have their parents' consent, and make the request repeatedly. Nominee for understatement of the year: "Some paediatricians [British spelling] have warned vulnerable children could be put at risk and have questioned whether a child can really be expected to make such a difficult choice." No, really? We won't let a kid pick their own shoes, but suddenly they can decide whether they should live or die? I would guess that the motivation behind this is law is some vaguely well-intended but seriously misguided desire to alleviate suffering, with the solution being to eliminate the sufferer rather than the suffering. I thought it significant that "160 Belgian paediatricians signed an open letter against the law, claiming that there was no urgent need for it and that modern medicine is capable of alleviating pain." 160 may not sound like a lot, but Belgium is pretty small; that could be, like, half of them....

I often tell people that "science isn't an exact science." What do I mean by that? Well, the "scientific method," as we call it, employs inductive reasoning, which means that it comes to probable conclusions based on repeated observation of the same outcomes. Scientific conclusions are always provisional: they are sound, provided that the experiment was done properly, and that all the relevant facts were accounted for in the interpretation of the experiment's outcomes. But it's quite possible that reported scientific findings can be in error: some crucial factor was missed; some outcome misinterpreted; some item ignored. And, if one study is to believed, this happens quite frequently, such that the majority of research published in prestigious journals is false, perhaps unable to be reproduced in subsequent experiments or seriously flawed in its methodology. Be wary of reports in the news on scientific findings. Scientists, being human, want attention for their work, and reporters want attention for their stories, and the combination can lead to a whole heap of hasty conclusions....

Hmm, that may be enough to chew on for now. Do feel free to suggest topics or ask questions any time!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Silly Questions

You may occasionally come across the self-assured atheist or agnostic who believes he can prove to you that belief in God is an illogical and untenable position based on one or both of these two questions:

If God is all-powerful, can God make a rock so big even He can't lift it?

If everything needs a creator, who created God?

Briefly, I will show that these are damn silly questions that rely on basic logical errors for their rhetorical potency.

First: If God is all-powerful, can God make a rock so big even He can't lift it?

The argument goes like this: "You say you believe in a God who's omnipotent, who can do anything, who creates the moon and the stars and everything there is. Well, can God make a rock so big even He can't lift it? No? Then He can't do everything. Your 'all-powerful God' doesn't exist!"

Oh, gee, what a good point, you really got me there--NOT!

Here's the problem: the question contradicts itself. It is nonsense. Literally nonsense. It doesn't mean anything.

This seemingly clever question violates the most basic rule of logic, the principle of non-contradiction: "a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect." I cannot both be in the room and not be in the room at the same time and in the way same way. He cannot both be eating a cheeseburger and not eating a cheeseburger at the same time and in the same sense. Everybody and their great aunt Sylvia knows this; it's the foundation of our ability to think.

This question violates that principle in at least two ways. First, it assumes God's omnipotence ("If God is all-powerful") but then denies it by denying that he can do something. Second, the "something" it denies He can do is itself meaningless: there is no such thing as a rock so big that an all-powerful being couldn't lift it. To be all-powerful is to have every power, every ability, which would include the ability to lift anything, right? But it does not include the ability to make something that a being with the ability to lift anything is unable to lift. That's nonsense. There can be no such thing as "the ability to lift an un-lift-able rock." It's a self-contradictory definition. You might as well ask if God can make "a square circle," "a living dead thing," or "a dog that is a cat."

It's not a "gotcha" moment, or an unanswerable argument--well, perhaps it's unanswerable only in the sense that you can't answer a question with no meaning. I'm reminded of a Laurel and Hardy bit where someone asks the boys, "Lovely weather we are having tomorrow, wasn't it?" Ollie tries to answer, but realizes the question is ridiculous: it mixes past, present, and future tenses, and can't refer to any one time. The atheist's/agnostic's question here makes just as much sense.

On to the second question: If everything needs a creator, who created God?

The believer will argue something like, "Look, the world didn't just spring out of nothingness. Everything we see depends on something else outside of itself for its existence: babies come from parents, helium is formed by hydrogen fusing in stars, swords are made by swordsmiths. None of these things can account for its own existence. Everything depends on something else for its existence; everything in the world is contingent on something else. So there must be something that can account for everything existence, something that created it all, which itself is not contingent. And that must be God."

And the atheist/agnostic will smirk and reply, "Oh yeah? If everything needs a creator, then doesn't God, too? So who created God? And who created who created God? Huh?"

And the informed believer will reply: "Ah, I see, either you misunderstood, or I left something out. I said that everything we see in the world is contingent, it doesn't spring out of nowhere or cause itself. I mean by that: it doesn't have within itself the explanation for its existence; it depends on something else; it's contingent. So where did they come from? If we try to explain the existence of one contingent thing by the existence of another--babies come from parents, who come from parents, who come from parents, etc.--we get an infinite regress. We never come to the point where things began. And all things have a beginning, as we see with everything we encounter in the world. The only way to not have that infinite chain backward, the only way to have a starting point from which everything begins, is to have a First Cause, something that exists that doesn't depend on anything else for its existence--not a self-caused being so much as a non-contingent being, a necessary being, a being which has and does and will always exist, because its very nature is to exist. This First Cause or necessary being we call God. Only contingent beings need a creator. A necessary being does not. So God does not need a creator."

The mistake here is to think of God as one just one other existing thing among other existing things, even if He's the biggest and most powerful and way awesome-est thing there is. That's a mistake that will get you in a whole heap of philosophical trouble (as the late medieval nominalists and their modern progeny discovered, but that's for another time). God is not the biggest being among other beings. God is the very foundation of being. If the universe were a drawing on a chalkboard, God wouldn't be the biggest drawing of all, or the sum total of all the drawings: God would be the hand drawing on the board (possibly also the chalk, too, depending on how we take the analogy, but anyway....)

OK, I think I've packed too much into that last bit, but the point is: if ever someone faces you with these questions, give a gentle and charitable chuckle and explain to them the errors in their thinking. Don't let them fool you into thinking your faith is unreasonable or nonsensical. Introduce them to these arguments, and they'll soon discover the depth of logic to be found in the faith. After all, a belief must be logical when it is founded upon the Logos Himself.