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.