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.