Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Atheist Fallacies

The atheist/agnostic camp usually lays claim to the title of “the rational ones” (occasionally nicknaming themselves “brights”), asserting that belief in God is inherently irrational and that their disbelief is thus an act of reason. This is, of course, nonsense, as I’ve discussed here. It is quite reasonable to believe in God, and the definition of “reason” that these folks give is often stunted and anemic, withered down to and often conflated with some form of empiricism (as I discuss here—please pardon the self-promotion, but it’s relevant!).

Reason is a pre-requisite for empirical science, not a nickname for it. And the first building-block of rational thinking and discourse is logic. Thus I’m thoroughly amused when folks who claim sole proprietorship of reason make the most basic of logical errors in their arguments. Let’s examine one.

I’m sure you’ve come across this nugget before: “We don’t believe in Zeus or Thor or Aman-Ra anymore. Why should we believe in the God of the Bible?” The argument underlying this rhetorical question is that if one or several of the category of “supernatural beings” is not worthy of belief, then the entire category must equally be unworthy of belief. God, Apollo, Quetzlcoatl… no real difference between them. Each must be as fictitious as the next, because they’re all “gods.”

The fallacy of composition is committed when one assumes that what is true for a part of a group must be true of the whole of the group. If a characteristic is essential to being a part of the group, then the assumption is valid, e.g. it is reasonable to assume that all cats have four legs because it is part of the definition of a cat that it is a four-legged creature (accidental exceptions not withstanding), just as it’s part of the definition of a cow to be an herbivore and part of the definition of Craig from Parks and Recreation to not be funny. Seriously, what were they thinking? I’ve had hangnails that were funnier than he is.

But if a characteristic or aspect is not part of the definition of a thing, then that aspect cannot be reasonably expected to be present in every member of the category or species. Just because some cows are brown does not mean that all cows are brown. Just because some cats are not evil does not mean that all cats are not evil. (All cats are evil, but that’s a topic for a separate post.) And just because some of those characters we categorize as “supernatural beings” do not in fact exist does not mean that everything we categorize as a “supernatural being” does not in fact exist. If this were true, it would mean that “not existing” would be part of the definition of a “supernatural being.” But whether supernatural beings, or more specifically God, exist is precisely the point of contention!

This is another logical fallacy, called “begging the question.” To “beg the question” is to assume the very thing that one is trying to prove. (Note: When people say “that begs the question” and mean “that brings up another point,” they are using the term incorrectly, or at least ambiguously, differently from how it is meant technically, philosophically.) In this case, the atheist/agnostic begs the question by essentially arguing “We know that gods do not exist because we know that gods do not exist.” That’s a tad silly, isn’t it?

There’s one more fallacy in play here, which I discussed in a previous post: the category mistake. This is known more colloquially as an “apples to oranges” comparison. A category mistake is a comparison of two things that are incomparable because they have no common point of reference, like “This flower smells better than the color blue,” or “This cake is sweeter than justice” (which I suppose could mean something poetically, but is nonsense literally). Just so, to compare the God of the Bible to the pagan gods is to compare completely unlike things. No offense to any remaining practitioners of Norse or Greek religion, but these gods are really more like super-powered human beings (which may be why Marvel saw fit to turn one into a superhero), with human emotions and physical bodies and the like. There are firmly ensconced within the world of nature, even if they have some extra degree of power over it when compared with humans.

The God of Christianity, on the other hand, as Christian philosophical and theological reflection understands Him to be, utterly transcends nature as its creator. He is the Uncaused Cause, the Unmoved Mover, the one whose essence it is to exist, having no beginning or end (eternal), in need of nothing (perfect), existing necessarily (existing essentially). That is completely different from the pagan gods, who do have beginnings in time, who do seem to be in need of various things (judging from their activities), who need not exist at all. Comparing Zeus and God is like comparing Jason Alexander’s early portrayal of George on Seinfeld with Woody Allen: the former is clearly a very poor imitation of the latter. (I doubt Woody Allen ever thought he’d find himself compared to God in any analogy. It’s a very, very loose analogy. And I guess Jason’s Alexander’s Woody impression isn’t that bad.)

The point is, while the Bill Mahers of the world may claim such arguments to be “rational,” in fact a different befits them more befittingly: sophistry. Sophistry is argumentation that has the appearance of wisdom and reason; it is seductive but false. The Sophists were the enemies of Socrates, the father of philosophy. When they employ such arguments, these self-professed “brights” are the enemies of reason

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Links and Things: December 29, 2015

I will dispense with the usual "sorry for being away so long" apologies and move straight on to new business. Presenting a new feature to the blog! I was going to call it "Stuff I've Read and Stuff" (maybe I'll still go with that... what says the readership?), but we'll go with "Links and Things" for now. A smattering and sampling of the interesting this and that I've come across of late...

First, Shameless Self Promotion: my article at Crisis Magazine identifying the real threat to the humanities in the university.

I would also recommend from that fine publication this piece from Prof. Anthony Esolen on our society's current penchant for denying the bleedin' obvious.

I'm a language nerd. I'm sorry. No, I'm not, actually. But this is completely interesting. Did you know that when you say the children's rhyme "hickory dickory dock," you're basically counting in Celtic? More like this here, in which the author tells us that English is not normal.

Lastly: the German Bishops' Conference website recently featured a post claiming that African Catholics are staunch defenders of orthodoxy only because, basically, they're poor and stupid. No, I'm not kidding. That's what they said. Bishop Robert Barron gives an alternate explanation as to why the Church in Africa is growing at an explosive rate.


Monday, November 2, 2015

"I Feel" Instead Of "I Think" And Its Consequences

I've noticed for a while the growing tendency for people to use "I feel" interchangeably with "I think." Now, these two words should each express a different mode of perception: one having to do with reason, intellect, and the mind, the other to do with senses, appetites, and various organic metaphors, be it your "gut," your "heart," or your "spleen" in certain times and places. When we replace "I think" with "I feel," we're forfeiting the place of reason in our public discourse and placing in its stead whims and wills. This is, to put it simply, not good.

I had planned to write an extensive and exhaustive treatise on the subject, but as usual, I discovered that someone had beat me to it, and I couldn't be happier to recommend to you this post by a fine Catholic author, Michael Flynn (aka The O'Floinn, or TOF), who writes science, philosophy, history, theology, and, when time permits, award-winning science fiction. (I especially recommend his novel Eifelheim.) Do, then, go here to read more on what happens to a society when feelings replace thoughts.

As a preview, the opening salvo:

"It is said by some, though not by TOF, that the ancient Egyptians used dirt for money. They were wealthy because a plenitude of mud was imported on a sedimental journey and deposited in the Banks of the Nile.

Now you know why TOF would not say this. Actually, he read it many years ago in one of those humorous history-of-the-world books whose contents were even funnier than the actual history. He would hesitate to suggest that the dirt was coined in a sedi-mint or that a penny so-coined would be a centiment.

Let alone that Egyptians parking their donkey carts would insert the coins into a sedimeter.

Ho ho! Enough! Today's topic du jour is not sediment, but sentiment, on which we are prepared to dish the dirt.

"There is no greater intellectual crime than rejecting the gooey grey homogeneity of thought espoused unwaveringly by the members of  the herd of open-minded free thinkers" -- Joseph Moore

Already in the 1950s, Jacques Barzun pointed out in his House of Intellect,people were beginning to say "I feel that..." instead of "I think that..." in common discourse. This terminological ferment marked a change in how people were engaging the world as the Modern Ages passed away. Reason, which had been enjoying a free pass and a table close to the orchestra ever since the Middle Ages (when it was virtually the only kind of thing taught in the universities), and which even later modestly named a time period after itself, butted heads with sentiment... and lost. This "triumph of the will" gave us Romanticism, Nietzsche's philosophy, impressionist paintings, and self-esteem classes like "Me Studies." The heart wants what it wants...."

Thursday, September 24, 2015

My Thesis In A Nutshell

Since I started this blog just over three years ago, my life has been fundamentally transformed, all for the better, from that of a single fellow working part-time gigs hither and yon to a husband and father with a big-boy job. Getting married and having a baby have been the two biggest blessings of my life, by far, and I thank God every day for my wife and son. I wouldn't have met my wife, and our son would not be here today, if I hadn't followed my brother's suggestion to check out this small graduate school in the Bay Area with an intriguing dual degree program. So, in an indirect way, I have the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology to thank for my wife and son. Thanks, DSPT!

My activity in this space has been rather sporadic in the last year-plus, though, as my non-working/husbanding/fathering time has gone into the last stage of my graduate studies: the thesis. There were points in the last year, even in the last month or two, where I was unsure if I would be able to see it through, but Deo gratias, I finished writing it by the end of August, and last week I successfully defended it. So, as soon as the last things are filed and the paperwork clears, I will be the proud new owner of master's degrees in both philosophy and theology. Thanks, DSPT!

As my work proceeded over the last year, many of you asked, "So, what's your thesis about?" and I often stumbled and stammered--partially because I was unsure how much philosophical background would be required to explain it, partially because I wasn't entirely sure myself at certain points. I have something of an idea now that I'm done with it, though, and I wrote a summary of it as an introduction to my oral thesis defense. For the curious, here, in a nutshell, is my master's thesis:

The mission of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology is centered on the intersection between faith and reason, theology and philosophy. Often these disciplines will approach the same subject each in its own way, according to its own mode. When we put the two in conversation with each other, we find (in the ideal) a mutually beneficial exchange whereby reason provides clarity to man's experience and faith provides an illumination to reason, revealing a further dimension to that experience that was always present even if invisibly so, and a strengthening and support of reason's own operation. While we would want to avoid a fideism that would claim that truth can be found only in or through revelation, we should not hesitate to affirm the title of theology as "queen of the sciences," the summit and summation of human knowledge that binds together the other disciplines and sits at their head as the discipline studying that truth from which all truths are derived: that is, God.
The particular corner of this intersection that I have written upon is hermeneutics, the study of interpretation, and specifically the place of tradition within the hermeneutical account of the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, the grand master of the subject. Gadamer's account of the way in which human beings interpret their experiences, especially texts, and the fundamental role that traditions, considered under the aliases of "forestructures" and "prejudices," have to play, provides much insight into the way in which people make meaning. Yet these insights take us only so far, and leave many important questions unanswered. The French Dominican priest Yves Congar treats of many of the same topics, yet he approaches them armed with an understanding strengthened by the support of Christian revelation. We see how this plays out. 
Gadamer emphasizes that history is the way in which human beings are in the world. We live and experience and think in a historical mode, characterized by finitude and fleetingness. Our understanding is likewise shaped by this particularity, and the products of our own historical situation, our texts, reflect this--as Fr. Eugene Ludwig says, "The project of an age is the project of an age." Congar, too, acknowledges this fundamental historical aspect of man, but sees within history a deeper significance, an economy at work that imbues seemingly random events, from the movement westward of a man from Ur of the Chaldees to the execution of a Jewish carpenter, with a greater importance. Man lives in history and God enters history to meet him, preeminently in the Incarnation, and thus history is sacred history. This history is recorded in a unique way in Scripture.
Texts like Scripture are key for Gadamer--indeed, he acknowledges that hermeneutics was born out of scriptural interpretation. If texts are the products of historical circumstances, then the text of one age will necessarily have a foreign air when read in another. There will be a disconnect, and the text will confront the reader as a question. The truly classic texts are able to appear relevant in any age, for in their particularity they still reach out to the universal and express something of it. Congar's concept of Scripture is not dissimilar: a text confronts us with its message, challenging us because it is the word of God and we are sinners in need of its Good News. Just as God reveals Himself in Christ, so Christ reveals and communicates Himself in Scripture.
But texts and contexts do not exist and are not formed in vacuums, but rather in communities and cultures. And cultures, Gadamer says, have languages as a constitutive element. Communities compose texts to express their inner unity, which is itself strengthened by the adherence to classical texts. Congar sees that this is true in the Church, but adds an extra element: the Church composes Scripture as an expression of what it is, but both Scripture and the Church are constituted what they are by the action of God appropriated to or predicated of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit descends upon a group and makes it a communion, organized under the visible leadership of the Apostles, who preserve the essential aspects of Christian identity and hand on to their successors that same responsibility. This is the essence of tradition, a key concept for both our authors.
For Gadamer, tradition is that which forms our worldview, that received knowledge which organizes our mental experience and allows us to assess situations without having to acquire (or reacquire) all the facts--thus, a forestructure or prejudice. Tradition is that by which we interpret the world, yet new experiences will affect our perceptions and cause us to adjust or even abandon traditions. And since tradition is primarily handed on through language, the interpretation of language is critical--thus, hermeneutics, and its omnipresence. It comes to the most basic level, for "being that can be understood is language." The person who is fluent in the language (broadly understood) of the tradition is thus authoritative, for they know of what they speak. The tradition is authoritative because it has endured over time, and the representative of tradition is authoritative because he represents it.
For Congar, obviously, Tradition is authoritative, because it is the handing on of Christianity itself--not just a set of propositions, but a way of being in the world, one that is centered in Christ and effected through the Spirit. The authorities have different competencies: the Fathers are recognized retrospectively as authorities because they clearly preserved and developed the deposit of faith, while the bishops successively guide this continuous process by virtue of their office. This notion of development is key for both authors, and is directly connected to the question of truth--for if our ideas and their formulations change, how can we say that truth is enduring/
Such change is the essence of the hermeneutical process for Gadamer: a text confronts a reader, who gives an interpretation that is a synthesis between his own fore-understanding and that of the text. This is what Gadamer famously calls "the fusion of horizons." Thus every act of interpretation produces something new--truth is made, until is is remade in the next act of interpretation, a process that goes on infinitely. Is Gadamer then a relativist? We might qualify our answer by saying that he is a "sophisticated relativist" or a "perspectival realist," the kind that puts severe limits on our ability to know but still allows that we can know some truth. Truth is mediated by language, such that things reveal themselves to us through language. Still, the process is infinite.
Congar, as a loyal son of St. Thomas, certainly holds that truths can be known, yet also that they can be developed. The prime example of this is typology in Scripture, the key of course being Christ: events in the Old Testament are seen to have a new significance in view of the events of Christ's life. Christ is the light that enlightens every man; Christ reveals man to himself. The Spirit of Christ over the course of time, through the course of sacred history, leads the Church into new understanding as it encounters new questions--always responsive, yet always faithful to its origins. It grows into what it always has been, as the acorn becomes the oak. It is rooted in the apostolic doctrine, nourished by the same Spirit who constitutes it and teaches it, guiding it into all truth, as Christ promised.
Thus we find what Gadamer mentioned but could not himself locate: the "legitimate prejudice," the true forestructure. The Catholic faith provides the lens through which we are able to see the world as it truly is, not as a replacement or alternative to reason, but as the necessary complement to reason, the salve that heals reason's wounds and allows it to function fully properly; not as a necessity to understand anything or everything, as is evidenced by the many non-Catholics who understand plenty of things, but as that which enables man not just to find the meaning of a text, but the meaning of life, of existence. Grace perfects nature. Faith illumines reason.
Clear as mud? Do ask questions if you like!

I do plan to post more often henceforth, as well as continuing my presence at Catholic Stand as a contributor and managing editor, and trying to expand my digital (and paper) footprint and be published elsewhere. I want this blog to be not just another place for commentating or opining on the latest fad, happening, or utterance. I want to share the fruits of my study with all y'all, to help you to come to know your faith better, and to share some of the things I've come across that have deepened my own faith. Please do send along topics you'd like me to address, questions you'd like to have answered, or any other subject matter you'd like to see here. See you soon!

Saturday, July 25, 2015

On Hulk Hogan and the Definition of Morality

Hey folks! Pardon the repetition of the same refrain from the last several months, but "Pardon my recent absence...." I've been attending to a variety of other things in life, including my new duties as a Managing Editor at Catholic Stand. Go check out that site! Right now!

Back? OK, good.

I return to this platform with the intention of sharing briefer thoughts, until I reach a point where I can again expand and expound at length on subjects that alternate between incredibly fascinating and mind-numbing-ly boring. And what better topic to begin with than professional wrestling?

It is known to some that I have a penchant for pro wrestling that has been re-awakened in the past few years. Say what you want about it being "fake," etc. (though ask Mick Foley just how you "fake" a 20-foot fall off the top of a steel cage), but the athleticism and story-telling in this genre of entertainment is exciting and amusing when its at its best. And everyone and their mum paid attention to the squared circle in the 80s, when the likes of Randy Savage and Hulk Hogan popped out of our screens with their larger-than-life personalities and physiques. Everybody knows Hulk Hogan. Heretofore undiscovered tribes in the Amazon will probably be discovered to be ripping their shirts in half and asking "Whatcha gonna do, brother?" of the anthropologists who encounter them. And the Hulkster is back in the news, though not for the best of reasons.

Hulk Hogan's contract with the WWE was terminated and his likeness scrubbed from the WWE website after video of Hogan making racist remarks was released to the press. As a further fun fact, this video clip came from that most quintessentially 21st-century American genre of film: a sex tape. Apparently Hogan made these comments during an evening in which he cheated with his friend's wife, and the two thought it would be a good idea to film their adultery, because creating visual evidence of something most people have the decency and shame to try to hide is all the rage these days.

OK, enough preamble; here's the interesting bit. I was listening to some reaction commentary from two wrestling podcasters, and their position was fascinating to me: they were very upset over the use of racist language; but the adultery did not seem to bother them too much. In fact, one of them said at one point, "This is awful... I mean, not the sex tape... you know, I mean, morality--it's so subjective, everybody has their own opinion...."

Do you notice the disconnect here? When discussing Hogan's racist remarks, the podcasters use strongly objective language: what he said was "wrong," "reprehensible," "disgusting." When discussing Hogan's adultery, their hard language melts into "morality is subjective."

Is the question of racial hatred not a moral one? Is there no moral quality or element to prejudice and animus based on a person's skin color or ethnic background? What kind of definition of morality are we working with? What kind of world has formed around us where a man can be filmed cheating on his wife with another man's wife, and the part most objected to is some salty language used to refer to his daughter's boyfriend? Really? The last is absolute and objective, but sleeping with another man's wife and filming it is "whatever"?

A classical definition of morality would be something like "evaluation of actions and motives in relation to human nature and the promotion of human flourishing," or perhaps more simply, "what makes us good." In our common parlance "morality" has been separated from any notion of a comprehensive framework for evaluating the goodness of actions. In many people's minds, "morality" has been whittled down to "opinions on sexual matters," while "wrong" or "evil" is applied only to the offenses against secular society, e.g. intolerance, judgmentalism, and not recycling your soda can.

I still can't figure out the principle behind the modern conception of good and bad. The main pillar seems to be tolerance, but it is applied unevenly. In their minds, when a woman wants to end the life of a biologically distinct person presently residing in her uterus, it's "My body, my choice, don't legislate your morality." When a person wants to purchase and ingest sugary drinks or fatty foods, it's "Ban them, tax them, shame those who buy them, don't let people hurt themselves!" In their minds, promoting ideas based in biblical principles is offensive and should be restricted, but pornography is constitutionally protected speech. In their minds, the Constitution should be interpreted strictly, as when they say that the Second Amendment is to be deemed null and in desuetude because there appears to be a conditional clause attached to the right to bear arms; yet this stricture opens and loosens in other matters until a torrent of heretofore unknown constitutionally protected rights to things like birth control, abortion, and same-sex marriage come flooding out. In their minds, Christianity (and Catholicism in particular) can be mocked and derided, but other religions (especially Islam) are to be treated "with respect, and honor, and tolerance." I don't get it.

As our society continues to wander way from its Christian roots, it maintains some of its rightful prejudices against bad things, but has lost its principles, so that it often can no longer distinguish good from bad. To borrow Chesterton's line, “They have the prejudice; and long may they retain it! We have the principle, and they are welcome to it when they want it.”

Thursday, June 4, 2015

To Whom Shall We Go? Why I Remain Catholic

The estimable Elizabeth Scalia has called on Catholics to share why they remain in the Church. The subject isn't so flashy as the more popular "why I left," but it's far more interesting, I think. If you want to know more about a school, why only listen to the people who transferred out?

So, why do I remain a Catholic? The question presumes that the alternative is the expected choice, as "What are you doing here?" implies that one's presence is a surprise. But in an age increasingly divorced from the mind of the Church, a Catholic could expect this question as much as a man wearing a toga who isn't in a frat house could expect to be asked "Why are you wearing that?"

But when anyone leaves the Church, I imagine Christ turns to each of us and asks us as he did his apostles in John 6: "Will you leave also?" And I answer with Peter: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."

If I am asked why I remain Catholic, I ask in response, what's the alternative? A version of Protestantism that has unmoored itself from the anchor of Tradition and splintered on the rocks of private judgment? An Eastern religion that is philosophically unsatisfying? A vague religiosity that chooses randomly from different traditions and results in spiritual stomach ache? A scientific materialism that cannot answer the most fundamental questions? A hedonistic secularism that simply moves from one sense pleasure to another in between periods of existential doubt? No thanks. 

But it's not simply that the alternatives leave something to be desired. It's that what I have in the Catholic faith is satisfying in the deepest sense. Aristotle says that all men by nature desire to know, and in the Catholic faith we have the fullness of truth. St. Augustine says are restless hearts rest only in God, and in the Catholic Church I am united with God in the Eucharist. I have the beauty of cathedrals and the soundness of moral teaching and the true charity of service to others. I have the forgiveness of my sins and the gift of God's friendship communicated in tangible, human signs. What more could I ask for? What more could I want? Where else would I go?

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Greatest Mystery in All Existence, Explained (Kind Of)

Today is Trinity Sunday, or the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity if you're not into the whole brevity thing. The doctrine of the Trinity is the greatest and most central mystery of our faith--you can't build up anything else if you can't answer the question, "Who is God?" Of course, answering this question is a bit trickier than answering "Who is Richard Nixon?" or "Who is this person who keeps calling me and hanging up?" The biblical and traditional data we have presents us with quite the puzzle:

We know that God is one. There is only one God. We know that.
We know that the Father is God. Obvi. No one disputes that.
We know that Jesus is God. God became man in Jesus Christ. Got it.
We know that the Spirit of God is God. God is the Spirit. Check.

But, wait a tic... doesn't that give us three gods? No, as St. Athanasius affirms for us: "The Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God. Yet there are not three gods, but one God." And as the early centuries went on with their disputations and divisions, the ecumenical councils decreed that this indeed is the belief of the Church? But one could not be blamed for looking at the above and asking, "Are you sure there, St. A?" It's not easy to wrap your head around.

Many have wrestled with this and tried to formulate a theory that accounts for all the data while not sounding so contradictory-y. And many have failed. Which is good, on the hand, since it helps us to narrow things down by saying, "No, that's not it.... No, not that either.... Hmm, well... no."

I can't think off the top of my head of anyone who tried to say that God the Father isn't God. He's always been the sort of baseline, starting point, "Well, we can say at least this much." So we've got that goin' for us. Some denied the divinity of Christ, such as the Arians, who said he was almost, nearly, but-not-quite good, and super-swell creature but a creature all the same. Some denied the divinity of the Spirit, like the people whose names escape me right now, but who said that the Spirit was merely the force or power or energy of God. Some said that the one God was really truly only one but merely manifested Himself in different "modes," Father Mode, Son Mode, and Spirit Mode. (For you video gamers out there, this really complicates the secret "God Mode" status in some games.) These, and many other positions, were tried and tested and found insufficient by the early Church.

Basically, the false conceptions of the Trinity tend to waver between this modalism (God is really one, but looks like three) and tritheism (God is really three, but looks like one). And even most of the "helpful" explanations you hear in Sunday school or from the pulpit tend toward these: God is like an egg, with its shell, whites, and yolk (tritheism); like a shamrock, with its stem and three leaves (tritheism); like water, which can be liquid, ice, or steam (modalism). All analogies limp, as they say. They go as far as they go, but they're never perfect. These can be helpful in some ways, but they don't quite do the trick.

The orthodox doctrine is that there is one God, one divine nature, in which there are three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, all co-equal, all co-eternal, each as much God as the others. These three Persons are not three distinct substances or thingies, but they are one in every way apart from their relation to each other: The Father is not the Son nor the Spirit, the Son is not the Father nor the Spirit, the Spirit is not the Father nor the Son. The Father eternally begets the Son, the Father and Spirit eternally generate the Spirit, yet not in any sort of linear, sequential, "Oh, so the Father is really God, and then He produces the Son," etc., but rather in the way that as soon as a flame is lit, you already have with it its light and its heat, generated from the flame but inseparable from it. (Thank you, St. Hildegaard of Bingen... even though that one has its problems, too. Analogies limp.)

For a fantastic exposition of the doctrine of the Trinity, check out this excerpt from Frank Sheed's classic "Theology for Beginners."

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, both now and forever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

My (Least) Favorite Protestant (Non) Replies to Catholic Questions

Our Protestant brothers and sisters tend to be somewhat more familiar with the texts of Scripture than we Catholics are. There aren't a few of them who are able to recite any chapter and verse asked of them, a skill both impressive and jealousy-inducing. It's as though they have every tool in the hardware store in their own garage.

But here's the thing: just because you have all the tools at hand doesn't mean you'll use them correctly. You might have a socket wrench in your collection, but if you use it to pound a nail into the wall, your possession of the tool is less impressive.

The battle cry of the Protestant Reformation/Revolution was sola Scriptura, Scripture alone! It is the only (or some prefer to say "final") authority they acknowledge in matters of faith, and the only source they will appeal to. Their operating assumption is that any question related to the Christian faith has an answer in Scripture. This belief, however, does not hold up to scrutiny, and it often leads to Protestants appealing to Scripture verses that have tangential relations at best to the issue at hand. Here are some of my favorite examples, to illustrate what I mean.

One key divisive point between Protestants and Catholics is the question of the communion of saints, the spiritual relation of the members of the Body of Christ to one another, with the sticking point usually being the dearly departed members. When a Catholic asks why a Protestant objects to the practice of asking for the intercession of the saints, a very common Protestant response is to quote 1 Timothy 2:5, "There is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ." The Protestant smiles and says, "Your argument is with the Word of God, not with me. ONE mediator, my friend, not many."

Yet the Protestant should be careful, for this argument proves too much. If the passage here meant what they believed it does, that there is one and only one person, Jesus, who can mediate between any of us and God, then this passage rules out the mediation not only of the deceased saints in heaven, but mediation by any living Christian as well. If you ask your friend to pray for you that you pass your exam, the proposed Protestant reading of this passage would have them respond to you, "No, I won't! You can go to God yourself! ONE mediator! Don't make an idol of me!" I have yet to meet a Protestant who holds this position. Now, they might press on with other objections to the practice, which can be dealt with elsewhere, but this is enough to show that the appeal to this passage does not work.

My go-to question to our Protestant friends is to question the premise of sola Scriptura itself: "You appeal to the Bible because it is the Word of God. But how do you know that this book in your hand, this collection of books, is the definitive collection, is the entirety of the Word of God, that you haven't included too much, or--as I would say--left anything out?" The common Protestant counter is 2 Timothy 3:16 (Timothy's getting a workout today!), which says, "All Scripture is inspired by God, and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness." The Protestant looks at you and says, "See? I know the Bible is the Word of God because it says itself that all Scripture is inspired, 'God-breathed.'"

Do you catch the problem here? Scripture says that all Scripture is inspired, but that wasn't the question. There is no dispute that Scripture is inspired--that's a tautology: that which is inspired is Scripture, that which is Scripture is inspired. The question is: how do we know which writings are inspired, and thus are Scripture? The Bible did not drop from the sky shrink-wrapped in silver with an inspired table of contents chiseled into its golden pages. Where did it come from, then? If you're going to claim a text is the Word of God, the first question anyone would ask is, "Who says?" And the quest to answer to that question will lead the Protestant in a non-Protestant direction.

OK, I think that's enough for now, but you get the picture. Just because a verse comes from Scripture doesn't mean that it applies, or applies well, to the question at hand.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

"Pastoral": The Magic Word That Makes Truth Disappear

If there's one phrase in the life of the Church the misuse and abuse of which really chaps my hide more than any other, it's "pastoral application." Yes, even more than "liturgical dancing" or "the spirit of Vatican II." In the case of each of these, how the term is used is so far removed from what the term is supposed to mean that the use and the meaning have lost sight of each other and are wandering about, bewildered and hopeless.

Take "liturgical dancing." (Please!) In its proper use, this phrase means refers to "dancing that takes place in the liturgy in those cultures for which dance is an integral form of worship." In its twisted and misappropriated sense, often invoked by Western folk today, it means "children hopping about with streamers because isn't that cute," or occasionally "stealing someone else's proper form of cultural expression and shoe-horning it in where it doesn't fit, like a Ming vase in a log cabin."

Or consider the "spirit of Vatican II," which ought to mean "the intentions, principles, and presuppositions that inform and animate the texts of the Council," but which is usually used to mean "an attitude of revolution and rupture having little to no reference to the actual content of the Council."

So, too, with "pastoral application." This phrase, when found in canon law or the teaching documents of the Church (or when it's like appears), refers to the application of the abstract truths of the faith or the general laws of the Church to the concrete situations of the faithful with the good of the faithful in mind. It's much more readily understood how this term applies to canon law, as the entire notion of law centers on the application of generic formulations to particular incidents or situations (e.g. does this or that event match the definition of murder, or fraud, or jaywalking). And the law consists much more of disciplines than doctrines, of prudential choices for good order rather than eternal and immutable truths, which is why the law is filled with exceptions "for a just reason, for a grave reason, according to the judgment of the local ordinary," etc. The pastoral application of the law consists in applying these laws and their exceptions (where the law allows) for the benefit of the flock of Christ. If St. Patrick's Day falls on a Friday in Lent, and your diocese has St. Patrick as a patron, it's proper for your diocese to celebrate its patron with due joy and solemnity, and thus just for your bishop to grant an indult from the obligation to abstain from eating meet that Friday. It's for the good of the people, and it's within the bishop's competence to do so.

But when people talk about a "pastoral application" of the Church's teachings on matters of faith and morals (usually morals), what can that mean? Do these truths sometimes not apply--are they occasionally not true? Or can any ecclesial authority grant an exception to the moral law? "In honor of St. Augustine, I'm granting an indult on stealing--but only stealing pears!" Of course not. That's absurd.

And yet when the topic of certain sinful acts arises--say, divorce, or contraception, or homosexual acts (why is it always about sex?)--some people get pained looks on their faces and close their eyes and ask in that whispery, NPR interviewer-type tone, "But how can we approach this pastorally?"

Now, I'm all for a pastoral approach, if by "pastoral" we mean "with the good of the faithful in mind." I would advocate for a kind and charitable discussion in which we assure them of our love for them and our concern for their well-being, and listen to their thoughts and about their experiences, and acknowledge the difficulties that they face, and explain how those actions are not in accord with how God made us to act and with what will bring us true happiness, and encourage them to not despair or give up.

But too often, what happens under the auspices of "pastoral care" is a granting of license to sin. "Oh, it's OK, life is messy, you have to do what's best for you, follow your heart, God just wants you to be happy, we don't want to upset you, please don't get mad at me, can we still be Facebook friends" usually followed by "the Church is behind the times, it'll come around eventually." To quote Kaiser Soyze: "And just like that *poof*: he's gone!" Here comes the magic word "pastoral," and the truth has disappeared. This "pastoral" approach sets truth on a shelf, like a decorative plate that one looks at and admires but which of course is entirely impractical and would never work for use in real life. 

It is not a pastoral approach to tell people it's OK to do what the Church knows to be wrong and to be harmful for people. In doing that you give people permission to live outside the truth and put their souls in jeopardy of being sundered from God forever. This is looking out for the good of others? This is shepherding the sheep?

This false use of "pastoral" is not an application of the truth, but a dismissal of it. Truth is left at home while the kids head out to a party at their friend's when the parents aren't home and they found the key to the liquor cabinet. You might think truth is getting in the way of you living your life, but really truth is just trying to stop you from ending up with a hangover and a missing wallet. 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Old Revealed in the New: Reading the Old Testament in the Light of Christ

This Sunday's Gospel reading presents us with a potentially surprising saying from our Risen Lord. Jesus appears to his apostles and, after demonstrating that it is truly him and that he has truly risen, he tells them that "all that was written about me in Moses and the prophets and psalms has been fulfilled" (Luke 24:44). This phrase merits close consideration. In what sense did these Old Testsment texts speak about Jesus?

I imagine that many Catholics, when they open the Old Testament and read the Books of Moses and the prophetic words of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the like, expect them to be line after line of detailed description of what they were to expect of the Messiah: height, weight, shoe size, preferred method of dispatching Israel's enemies (that's what many expected his main occupation to be). They may be surprised, as I was, to find huge swaths of material that don't seem to refer to the Messiah at all. I mean, yeah, we get Isaiah 6 (the virgin shall conceive) and Wisdom 2 (the innocent man betrayed and murdered) and Exodus 34 (Moses' promise of a future prophet like himself), but what about all that other stuff? Israel's conquest of Canaan, their exile in Babylon, their fights against the Persians; all those words calling Israel to repentance so that God will restore them to the land? There's an awful lot of politics and battle statistics. And the psalms have some lovely bits of praise, and some rather depressing stuff, too, but not much in the way of presaging or predicting. What's it all got to do with Jesus dying and rising for our sins?

Christians learned to read their Scriptures in a new light, the Light of the World. Words and events were seen to have new meaning when viewed through the new lens of Jesus' Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Jesus himself began to make such connections for his disciples: "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up" (John 3:14). This story of the ancient Israelites in retrospect can be seen to prefigure the death of Christ. The apostles continued this line of figurative interpretation, as when St. Peter wrote that as Noah was saved through water in the ark, so baptism now saves us (1 Peter 3:20-21). All of these events are no longer just Israel's history; they are part of the great drama of salvation history. 

The Church Fathers and other early Christian writers continued to find such connections. Origen saw in the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 a figure of God sacrificing his own Son (when it could most truly be said that God provided the sacrifice). St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote an entire book tying every detail of the life of Moses to the mystery of Christ. Many of the Fathers, such as St. Hilary of Poitiers, saw Christ as the true speaker of the psalms, the ultimate heir of the promises to David. Examples abound, but all is summed up in St. Augustine's wonderful phrase: "The new is hidden in the old, the old revealed in the new." 

Every letter of the Bible communicates something of Christ, for the Bible communicates the Word of God, who is Christ. All that was hidden is revealed in Christ. He is the light that enlightens everyone, and the darkness has not overcome it. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Responding to "The Truth About Communion In The Hand While Standing"

In the past few days this article has crossed my path several times, enough that it seemed to merit a viewing. "The Truth About Communion In The Hand While Standing," it's called, a priest's homily published as an article on the site Roman Catholic Man. I had a sneaking suspicion that the "truth" revealed in the article would not be something along the lines of "It's great!" and I was not proven wrong. The author is not at all in favor of the practice. But I think the reasons he presents for his objection are faulty. Let me explain.

First, though, let me say that I am all in favor of the practice of receiving communion on the tongue, and while kneeling. If I had my preference, there'd be altar rails in every church. I think it is a beautiful posture of reverence and humility in the presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist. But the beauty of this posture does not make all other postures ugly, or irreverent, or lacking in humility. This is a point I will return to repeatedly, and is my main criticism of this article: the better is not the enemy of the good. One thing being preferable does not make other things unacceptable. With that in mind, let's look at the article.

The article begins with the priest noting that his parish had just restored the communion rails to their church, and that their removal in the first place was not called for by the documents of Vatican II, just as another "innovation" was not: the reception of communion in the hand.

Stop. Learnin' time.

Something can be an innovation only if it is new; and not in the sense of "new to me," as is the case when something is restored (thus the "new" altar rails in the priest's church would not be an "innovation") but "new" in the sense of "never before seen under the sun." The reception of Holy Communion in the hand, then, is not an "innovation," because, while it may have been new to the Church in the last several hundred years, it was in fact a restoration of an ancient practice, just as the re-installation of the altar rails in his church, or the re-introduction of the permanent diaconate, was a restoration: the return of something that had been there before.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia,
That, in the early Church, the faithful stood when receiving into their hands the consecrated particle can hardly be questioned.... The custom of placing the Sacred Particle in the mouth, rather than in the hand of the communicant, dates in Rome from the sixth, and in Gaul from the ninth century (Van der Stappen, IV, 227; cf. St. Gregory, Dial., I, III, c. iii). 
We have quotations from the works of Sts. Cyril of Jerusalem, Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, Augustine, John Damascene, and the Venerable Bede, all attesting to the common and accepted practice in ancient times of the faithful receiving communion in the hand. If something is ancient, it cannot, ipso facto, be an innovation, as the term has been defined above.

But the arguments the author focuses on are from much more recent history. The present allowance of the reception of Holy Communion in the hand by the faithful, he says, is "an indult born out of disobedience," and he details how Pope Paul VI came to a "compromise" with bishops in certain countries where communion was being distributed in the hand in violation of present liturgical law: the law would not change, the pope said, but an exception would be granted provided that certain conditions were met. He then alleges some shady practices of the US bishops in the 1970s to have the indult applied to the United States as well. (I say "allege" because he provides no sources. I realize that a homily is not an academic paper nor a newspaper article, but a source citation, a book or a witness, would be appreciated, just so we could check things out ourselves--perhaps he innocently left out some detail which he deemed irrelevant but which might indeed be germane to the situation, for example.)

The implication here is that reception of Holy Communion in the hand by the faithful is illegitimate in and of itself because it was re-introduced into the Church initially through illegitimate means, i.e. through the violation of liturgical law. But this is a confusion, a conflation of two separate issues. The question of whether reception of Holy Communion in the hand by the faithful is inherently and by its very nature disrespectful, sacrilegious, or irreverent is separate from the question of whether its introduction into the liturgy against the present liturgical law was disrespectful or illegitimate.

To the latter question, the answer is, of course, yes: it is disrespectful to the Church's authority and illegitimate to contravene the Church's law. But that has no bearing on the former question. If an 18-year old is caught buying alcohol, he has violated the law that says only those over 21 may buy alcohol; but that fact does not answer for us whether it ought to be allowed for 18-year olds to buy and drink alcohol, or whether their drinking is in and of itself wrong or undesirable. You might think it better to put the limit at 21, but one being better does not make the other unacceptable. The author here, then, is trying to make reception of Holy Communion in the hand by the faithful guilty by association.

Next the author names three of the conditions set by Pope Paul VI for the indult to be granted, and evaluates whether those conditions are currently met: first, that the reception of the Eucharist on the tongue while kneeling be respected; second, that the laity maintain a proper respect for the Eucharist; and third, that the laity's faith in the Real Presence be strengthened. The author then uses anecdotal evidence to argue that these conditions are not being met: that communicants are scolded for receiving on the tongue and on the knees; that people have been frivolous, careless, and blasphemous with the received Host, discarding it, playing with it, even using it in Black Masses; and that belief in the Real Presence has plummeted in the years since the indult was granted.

Three points must be raised here. First, the question of whether the legitimacy of this practice is still contingent upon these conditions; second, the relation between abuse and proper use; and third, the cause of decreased belief in the Real Presence.

Are the conditions set by Pope Paul VI still in effect, such that if they are not met, the practice is illegitimate? What does the present liturgical law say on the matter? The 2004 instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, paragraph 92, quoting the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, says the following:
Although each of the faithful always has the right to receive Holy Communion on the tongue, at his choice, if any communicant should wish to receive the Sacrament in the hand, in areas where the Bishops’ Conference with the recognitio of the Apostolic See has given permission, the sacred host is to be administered to him or her. However, special care should be taken to ensure that the host is consumed by the communicant in the presence of the minister, so that no one goes away carrying the Eucharistic species in his hand. If there is a risk of profanation, then Holy Communion should not be given in the hand to the faithful.
According to the Church's present law, then, reception on the tongue is considered the norm, but a Bishops' Conference may apply for permission from the Holy See to have reception in the hand be a normal option in their jurisdiction, the sole condition listed that the Sacred Host not risk being profaned. The other conditions listed by Pope Paul VI are not listed in the present liturgical law. So, the legitimacy of reception of Holy Communion in the hand by the faithful is not contingent upon all of those conditions.

What of the risk of profanation? The stories the author tells would suggest that such a risk indeed does exist, and thus that reception in the hand should not be allowed. And while these stories are disturbing, I do not think they merit the permission being rescinded. While they are sensational, they are not necessarily frequent, or frequent enough to warrant such a change in practice.

One might object that the instruction does not say that the profanation itself be frequently present, but only that the risk of profanation be present at all. But surely that cannot be the case, or we simply would not distribute Holy Communion. A person receiving Holy Communion on the tongue could still profane it by spitting it out, or clenching it between their teeth and preserving it for later abuse. There is some risk in profanation under any form of distribution. But I do not think the instruction envisions risk simpliciter, but rather a substantial risk based on experience. One might argue that there is less risk involved in distribution on the tongue versus distribution in the hand, but just because one thing is better than another does not make the other bad--this is to make a false dichotomy--and the abuse of something does not negate its proper use.

Third, what about the decrease in belief in the Real Presence? It seems to coincide with and correlate to the practice of receiving Holy Communion in the hand. Shouldn't this be a cause for concern?

Well, for starters, the author gives us an irrelevant statistical comparison. "In 1950, 87% believed in the Real Presence. Today, that number has plummeted to a mere 34%." That certainly is a significant and worrying decrease. But the practice did not become widespread until almost 20 years after the time of the initial percentage; I wonder, what was the percentage of those who believed in the Real Presence in 1968, or in 1975? I would wager the decrease had already begun by that point.

And what is the alleged connection between receiving in the hand and a lack of belief in the Real Presence? Why would the former cause the latter? It was certainly no issue for the early Christians for whom such reception was common.

The argument often is that receiving in the hand while standing is too casual a posture, one that does not encourage one to think that what one is receiving is special in any way. But receiving something in your hands while standing is not a posture that has a naturally frivolous or ridiculous feel to it, as standing on your head and receiving with your feet might. We receive respectfully many things in our hands while standing: awards, presents, handshakes, babies, food; things we value and are grateful for. There's nothing inherently inappropriate about the posture. It does not automatically generate in one a disrespectful mindset.

I think the issue is larger than the method of receiving Holy Communion, and it is twofold: the manner in which the liturgy is celebrated, and the degree to which the faithful are well-catechized. I've personally heard some real whoppers being taught in RCIA and sacramental preparation classes--that baptism doesn't do anything but is just a celebration of our already being children of God; that we can and should create some new sacraments; that belief in Mary as Co-Redemptorix is heresy (!); that Catholics actually do believe in salvation by faith alone--and I've heard not a few stories of such classes teaching Catholics and catechumens that the Eucharist is a mere reminder of Christ's sacrifice but is not the real Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Our Lord. How can Catholics be expected to believe that when they're not taught it?

Likewise, I, like many of you, have been to some liturgies that were ridiculous, profane, and occasionally even invalid, featuring all sorts of nonsense that is prohibited by the Church's liturgical law and that creates the opposite of the sacred and solemn atmosphere that the event merits and requires: priests cracking jokes in the middle of the reading of the Gospel; or introducing the Sign of Peace by saying, "Smooch time"; or giving homilies that consist of readings of Dr. Seuss's Oh, the Places You Will Go; or generally conducting themselves as though they were game show hosts instead of sacred ministers; and so on. Why should anyone take anything seriously that happens in such circumstances? But reception of Holy Communion in the hand by the faithful does not belong in this category, which is why the Church allows it.

The author then cites St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John Paul II (seemingly) saying that the Eucharist, and even the sacred vessels, ought only to be touched by the hands of the ordained, whose hands have been consecrated for that purpose. Here the author also would seem to render illegitimate the practice of using Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, or of having anyone apart from a bishop, priest, or deacon touch the sacred vessels, both practices which are approved by the Church (under certain circumstances, yes, but the author's quotations and the conclusions he would have us draw from them would ban the practices outright).

Quite irresponsibly, the author cites "reported" sayings of Mother Teresa and St. John Paul II against the practice of receiving Holy Communion in the hand. The Mother Teresa Center website states the following:
You quoted "Wherever I go in the whole world, the thing that makes me the saddest is watching people receive Communion in the hand." This statement does not seem authentic to us. We have never heard Mother Teresa saying these words nor read them in her writings. One thing that Mother Teresa used to repeat very often was: “…The greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child, a direct killing of the innocent child, murder by the mother herself… the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion.”
A simple Google search would have shown the author this. And while I could find no reference for St. John Paul II saying what the author says he did on receiving in the hand, I did find this, in the very same document of St. John Paul II which the author cites.While referencing the abuses seen with reception in the hand, St. John Paul II says,
This is in no way meant to refer to those who, receiving the Lord Jesus in the hand, do so with profound reverence and devotion, in those countries where this practice has been authorized. (Dominicae Cenae 11)

Far from denigrating the practice, the Holy Father acknowledges that reception in the hand can indeed be done with "profound reverence and devotion." And the very sentence after that stating the "privilege of the ordained" to touch the sacred things with their hands says,
It is obvious that the Church can grant this faculty to those who are neither priests nor deacons, as is the case with acolytes in the exercise of their ministry, especially if they are destined for future ordination, or with other lay people who are chosen for this to meet a just need, but always after an adequate preparation. (Dominicae Cenae 11)
The sainted Holy Father's documented words, then, give a quite different impression of his thoughts from what the author would have us think.

There is throughout the article a suggestion that because the practice is exceptional it is or should be at best tolerated with a barely hidden disgust for such weakness and hardness of heart. But the Church allows a myriad of exceptions to her liturgical law to accommodate the cultural norms, practical concerns, and compatible desires of the faithful. Just look at the two dozen different rites within the Catholic Church. The Church even allows the use of an ancient Eucharistic Prayer in one Eastern rite that doesn't even have an institution narrative! (That is, the recounting of Christ's words at the Last Supper, "This is my body," "This is my blood," which we consider essential in the Latin rite.) If such variation is acceptable in those instances, why not in this?

The author ends his piece noting again the humbling effect receiving on one's tongue while kneeling has on the individual, and I make no argument against that. I am not here arguing against the reception of Holy Communion on the tongue while kneeling. It is the norm in the Church's liturgical vision, and I think it a worthy and laudable practice that promotes reverence for the sacrament. But the goodness of reception on the tongue does not render reception in the hand bad. They are not logical contraries that cannot exist at the same time. You might argue the former is better in some respects, but, again, the better is not the enemy of the good. If you want to promote your position, tell us why it's good; don't focus on why you think the other position is bad, and certainly don't give us spurious arguments and fake quotations in doing so. If you want to advocate for the reception of communion on the tongue while kneeling, please do so. But in doing so do not denigrate an ancient practice which is permitted by the Church.

The truth about communion in the hand is that it is not an innovation, but an ancient practice; that the circumstances of its coming into common use in some places do not render the practice itself illegitimate; that it is not necessarily the culprit for decreased belief in the Real Presence; that its abuse does not mean it has no proper use; and that certain people may not have said about it what you think they did. The truth about communion in the hand is that the Church allows it, and that it is perfectly possible to receive Holy Communion in the hand while standing with reverence, devotion, and ardent charity.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Catholic Both/And, or, The Deion Sanders Principle in Theology

Many of my readers may know I'm currently in the thesis-writing phase of a dual master's program in philosophy and theology; fewer readers may know my topic, and may they consider themselves blessed for it. For the curious, though, I will say that, generally, I'm writing on the subject of tradition, specifically as it appears in the writings of the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer and the theologian Yves Cardinal Congar, as there is some overlap in their thought. I have refrained from discussing the subject of my master's thesis in this space, both because I'm not quite far along enough to share succinctly any blog-sized bites of it, and because many things I might share would require several posts' worth of introduction in order to be appreciated. So I have spared you.

But, I just ran across a paragraph in Congar's master work Tradition and Traditions that touches upon the perpetually vexing subject of the relationship between Scripture and Tradition which I thought was worth sharing and briefly reflecting upon. Congar notes
           “a consistent pattern in God’s actions: namely, the proceeding by means of pairs or doublets. The more I think of this, the more I am persuaded that there is in this recurrent pattern something very profound, a kind of rule of the divine Poetics, of which the antiphonal form of the inspired poetry of the Hebrew Bible appears as a kind of reflection. Why are there man and woman, father and mother, why two sides of the body, two eyes, two hands, etc.? Why two Testaments, Law and Grace, and communion under two kinds? Why are there in the physical world, a negative and a positive pole? Could this not be a sign that, according to the structure of God’s plan, one reality must always be complemented in another, and by another? God is Communion in unity, Unity in plurality. Must plenitude be realized in his creation only in a fusion of the one and the many? Why had there to be two witnesses to assure the validity of a testimony, and why was this testimony, as a result, decisive? Is it not because there exists at the heart of reality a kind of structure of things based on duality in unity, agreement and completeness in difference? I think so, and I believe also that this is an element of tradition which is rarely noticed, but everywhere presupposed, and that it is a fact which could explain much in the monuments of this same tradition. The Reformation kept, or re-established, eucharistic communion under both kinds; it was not wrong in doing that. But there exists also a communion with the Gospel under the two kinds—of the text, and of life in the Church. That communion, too, needs to be kept or re-established.” (374-75)
This is a beautiful and deep exposition of something I've heard from many a Catholic apologist: the "both/and" principle. One could say that virtually every heresy in the Church's history has been a result of isolating some part of the truth away from the whole. Christ's humanity alone! Christ's divinity alone! God is really one! God is really three! Scripture alone! Faith alone! And so on. But the truth is found when we discover that these are not mutually exclusive contraries, but halves of a whole. Both divinity and humanity are present in their fullness in Christ. Both Scripture and Tradition present us with God's revelation. Both faith and works are required for salvation. Both nature and grace persist in the individual. Both Trinity and Unity are necessary ways of describing God. We need both.

Call it the Deion Sanders principle of theology.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Welcome to the World, Little Man!

I am sitting in the glider rocker I bought my wife for Christmas, typing this on my phone with one hand and holding my newborn baby boy in the other. 

He was born the evening of Palm Sunday, and in keeping with the liturgical color for the day, he was wearing red when he made his appearance. A birth during Holy Week is profoundly fitting, for what could be more Christ-like than someone going through pain and blood out of love for another to give new life to that person? A love having the depth and magnitude of that of a parent for a child could only be of God, who is himself Love. 

He is a little miracle, as we all are--a "great might-not-have-been," as Chesterton said--and the miracle is no less miraculous for being numerous, as with the feeding of the 5,000. At the moment of conception, God created life by infusing this newly-formed being with a rational soul, capable of knowing and loving him. It was a deeply sacred instant. 

And now, after months of preparation for his public debut, here he is, a perfect little man, with his mother's cheekbones, my nose, and Kirk Douglas's chin. He has so much to experience and to learn: basketball and Latin and meal times that aren't 3am. 

And soon he will be baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ and become a new man--not bad for one so little! God bless you, baby boy. Daddy and Mommy love you. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Atheists and Their Errors

Our Nameless Friend is back, continuing with his running commentary on my posts about the existence of God. Normally I wouldn't continue to feature such comments within their own post, but his questions (and errors) are so common among the atheistic folk that I thought it would be useful to the readership to see them addressed.

Our friend's first comment:
From the Christian point of view their God is super special the one and only, unique, one of a kind etc 
From an atheist point of view he's one of the crowd. It would seem that in the case of Dawkins you're critiquing an atheist for speaking from an atheists perspective. 
If we're talking about whether or not the Christian God exists, shouldn't Christians be the ones who get to define just who this God is that they believe in? If an atheist says, "I don't believe in your god," and the Christian says, "What god is that?" and the atheist replies, "You know, the old man in the sky that arbitrarily condemns people to eternal punishment and forces his rules on everyone," then the Christian is quite right in responding, "I don't believe in that god, either. So we agree there." It gets us nowhere to set up straw men.

I argue that the Christian (or at the very least Abrahamaic) concept of God is unique because it is, and I've laid out some of the key features of that concept that make it different from other concepts of other "gods"--that God is the ground of all Being, that God has no physical body, that God can create out of nothing, etc., whereas other "gods" can't. You say that atheists don't see any distinguishing features, that God is just "one in a crowd." My point was precisely to say that that was a mistaken position, and I gave reasons why that is the case. I didn't just claim that God was unique; I showed how. You didn't address that. To simply reply with "Well, that's the atheist point of view" is to duck the question.

Our friend then says:
As to God not being a physical being then Exodus 33 would disagree with you there.Firstly at 20 where God tells Moses 20 “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” and at 23 "Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”
So you can see God's back and be ok but if you saw his face you'd die. Sure sounds like a physical presence to me. 
Ezekiel 1 also describes the physical appearance of God.
So it would seem that the god of the Christian bible is physically observable and has been observed.
Our friend argues that because Exodus 33 and Ezekiel 1 give descriptions of manifestations of God, therefore God must be a physical being. Exodus 33 says God has a hand, back, and face; and Ezekiel 1 says God has, not only these features and appendages, but feet as well!

This is a common tactic of the armchair atheist: cherry-pick a passage of the Bible, read it as literalistically as possible, in a way in which no Christian has ever even considered interpreting it, and submit that as a proof-text.

But to say this means that the "god of the Christian Bible is physically observable and has been observed" is to betray a lack of familiarity with the Christian tradition, with the basics of biblical hermeneutics, and even with the content of the rest of the Bible. 1 John 4:12 says that "no one has ever seen God," and Jesus says in the Gospel of John "God is spirit" (John 4:24). Now, the apostle John and Our Blessed Lord, being Jewish men, would have been steeped in the tradition of the Law and the Prophets and would have known these passages forward and backward. So, if someone holding these Old Testament passages to be inspired can still say "No one has seen God," and Jesus himself tells us "God is Spirit" (which I think we can all agree is the opposite of physical matter) then we can be fairly confident that the proper reading of these passages is not a naively literalistic one, but an obviously sensible one: when God appears in these passages, He does not appear as He is in His essential nature, but in a manifestation capable of being apprehended by finite, physical creatures such as ourselves. God is not physical and not observable as He is in His essence, and, pace our atheist friend, the Bible says so.

Our friend takes another stab, bringing up his old pal Mbombo:
So what's that conclusion that you were drawing earlier about Mbombo? Maybe they are both just really good at hiding, that's possible. Wikipedia does tell us that "Once the creation was complete and peaceful, Mbombo delivered it to mankind and retreated into the heavens, " 
So that might be why he hasn't been observed for a long while - just like your god. 
But the more likely explanation is that he doesn't exist - just like your god. 
If God is hiding, He's doing a very poor job of it. He really should stop revealing Himself through His prophets, Scriptures, Son, and Church--they'll blow his cover! This is the old Bertrand Russell line; when asked what he would say to God if he were to die and find out God existed, the atheist Russell responded, "I would say, 'Not enough evidence, God!'" The list of types of evidence admissible in an atheist court of judgment is very short, essentially reduced to forms of empirical observation, not allowing the eyewitness testimony of billions of believers, nor the cogent arguments of philosophy. The atheist presumes that the physically observable is all there is, so that if something can't be observed, it can't exist; where he gets support for this premise, he can't say. But if God is not physical, and you'll only look for Him by physical means, then of course you'll never find him. It would be like saying the color yellow doesn't exist because it can't be felt by touch, or that a landscape view wasn't really there because you couldn't taste it. Though we could look at the whole of physical reality and ask what its cause is, but that is a more philosophical question--an atheist who rejected this line of thinking would, by that same logic, reject the notion of a painter having made the picture because he couldn't see the painter anywhere in it.

As his parting shot, our friend writes:
As a PS in terms of accuracy a better title for this article might have been "Avoiding Anonymous African-themed Asks" 
Your initial gripe with the likes of Thor seemed to be that he wasn't a creator god therefore not comparable with the upper-case God. Thor photogenic as he may be wasn't the "first cause" and thus not comparable with the big G. 
When it was pointed out that there are other gods which are also creator gods - such as Mbombo - the argument now seems to have segued into the physical for (or otherwise of the god) 
I can't wait to see what the next segue will be. 
I will accept his description of my post as a segue, because segue means "uninterrupted transition" and derives from the Latin sequor, sequi meaning "to follow (in order)" (as in "sequence"), and the contents of my post certainly did follow from what was said. So, if my comments followed, or segued, from yours, they could not have avoided them.

I argued that no little-G god could fit the bill of First Cause/ground of all being as God does, and in answer you gave me an example of a little-G god that was not a First Cause/ground of all being as God is. Well done. The point about physicality was directly related: Mbombo and others like him cannot be the ground of the physical universe if they are themselves part of it, if they merely form pre-existing matter rather than causing all matter to be in the first place. God, on the other hand, is not a physical being, and is wholly distinct from His creation, and thus He can be and is the source of its being. My response was not an avoidance, but an illustration.

I hope this has been instructive to the reader, Anonymous included. I invite Anonymous to go online and find the Summa Theologica, Part One, Question Two, Article Three, read St. Thomas Aquinas' Five Proofs for the existence of God, as a starter. I'd be happy to hear your thoughts.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Answering Anonymous African-themed Asks

Since this blog receives so few comments, those who do comment have the great fortune of having their comment responded to in a post unto itself, their witticisms and polemics placed in the cold spotlight, their words dead in my sights and receiving my full attention. You lucky so-and-sos.

Recently I was honored to receive not one but two comments from the world's most prolific commenter by far: the legendary Anonymous. This mysterious entity, seemingly possessing both omnipresence by commenting on every forum out there and omniscience by always being right, is clearly the most superior being out there. If only he'd run for office, the world would surely be a better place. I can only hope there are no imposters out there abusing his august name. 

Or maybe it's from that hacker group Anonymous. If my blog is shut down minutes after posting this, we'll have our answer.

In a post about a year ago, I wrote about how pagan "gods" are fundamentally and categorically different from the Christian concept of God--super powered beings vs. the ground of Being itself--so that the scientifically-based criticisms of those like Richard Dawkins would be quite cutting toward the pagan deities but wouldn't be able to touch God with a ten-meter cattle prod.

Our friend Anonymous commented on this with the following:
"In the mainstream orthodox Christian tradition, when we speak of 'God'..."
Isn't at all where Richard Dawkins is coming from. 
On the other hand the great god Bumba (try Google) seems to be an immortal creator god. But I'll bet you don't believe in him. 
Atheists just go one god better. 
Dawkins is not "coming from" the Christian tradition in his argument, but he is "moving toward" it, as a knight approaches his adversary on the lists. The trouble is, instead of facing his opponent and approaching him head-on, he's at a 45-degree angle, and is liable to crash into the grandstands and make a bleedin' fool of himself. That was my point, which Anonymous seemed to miss: the concept of "God" that Dawkins attacks is not the concept held by Christians.

As to his invitation to a Google search: Wikipedia tells us: "Mbombo, also called Bumba, is the creator god in the religion and mythology of the Kuba of Central Africa. In the Mbombo creation myth, Mbombo was a giant in form and white in color." Right away, Anonymous once again shows that he has missed a key point. If Bumba is giant in form and white in color (and if he vomits out all of creation, as the myth goes on to say), then Bumba has physical attributes, and has a relation to the rest of existence of the Biggest Thing Among All the Things. He has size and color, and apparently an irritable stomach. If this is the case, then he is physically observable. Yet he has not been observed. Thus, we are quite within our rights not to assent to the proposition that he exists.

God, on the other hand, does not have size or color, or any discernible stomach; He has no physical traits, because he is not a physical, material being, and thus is not observable. Now, if God is not observable, and someone states that we can't observe God, this is not an argument against His existence, any more than saying that you doubt the existence of third basemen because you have never seen one on the football field. (It's not an exact analogy, but you get the point.)

Well, that's probably enough for now. We'll save the other comment for another day.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Good Thing Alanis Morissette Isn't God

I'd like to build upon a point I made in my last post over at Catholic Stand. There, I talked about the significance of the fact that the risen Christ still has his wounds. Among other things, this shows the respect that God has for our free will: He respects our free will by allowing the consequences of our actions to have effect in the world, even as He redeems us from their effect on our souls. Allow me to illustrate that in another way.

The Kevin Smith film Dogma is seemingly intended to shock Catholic sensibilities, from the assertion "Jesus wasn't white, Jesus was black" (neither is true, and more importantly, what would it matter?), to the suggestion that the Blessed Virgin Mary was not ever-virgin (which is put crudely and betrays a low estimate of the human capacity for chaste living), to a depiction of God by a woman (the more offensive part is that God is played by Alanis Morissette). But one of the most offensive things in the film is not one that might jump out at you right away.

At the end of the film, after the villanous fallen angels have caused their havoc and the scene is strewn with their victims, God(dess) shows up and annihilates the offenders. Then, with a sad look on her face as she surveys the scene, God(issette) waves her hand and restores all that was: buildings rebuilt, pavement repaved, people brought back to life, none the worse for wear. God-lanis simply hits the rewind button and puts everything back where it was. A big pink bow on a happy ending.

Except this is not how God works, and thank God for it.

What is at stake in this scene is nothing less than the free will of God's intellectual creatures, the ability for us to choose either good or evil. In this story, the fallen angels made certain choices, and those choices had consequences--tragic, horrific consequences, to be sure. But that is the great power and the great gift that God has given us: the ability to choose to fulfill our good and be united with Him in contented joy, or to choose our own willfulness and be united with ourselves, caught in a loop of selfish misery. This is the choice before us in our freedom. But imagine if our negative choices had no negative consequences.

Suppose you were the sort of person who liked to club other people over the head with blunt instruments, and suppose God consistently acted like the Celestial Mr. Fix-It that Dogma portrays at the end. Imagine that every time you exercised your head-clubbing proclivities, God prevented that head from feeling the club's effects. You could drum on that cranium like Keith Moon playing on "The Ox," and your victim wouldn't be bothered. Or suppose that God caught your arm and prevented you from following through, so that, try as you might, you couldn't bludgeon anyone for anything. You would shrivel into a bitter, inert lump, full of impulses you were physically incapable of enacting. Nothing would have changed your desire to bash in skulls; it would still be there, lurking beneath the surface like a shark trapped beneath ice. 

Or suppose that God did indeed remove your skull-bashing desires: one moment you were all ready to Hulk-smash, the next you're whistling "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah," unaware of the 180 your will had just done. You'd be something between a dog on a leash and a puppet being made to do or say whatever the Master of Puppets directed.

Or suppose that God allowed the head-cracking to take place, then wiped away the event with some spatial-temporal Oxi-Clean and erased it from history. 

If God were to obliterate our wrong-doing and its effects from existence, to hit the metaphysical reset button and call a mulligan, it would not soothe our pain so much as insult it. Such an act would rob our suffering of any meaning. It did happen! It did! That should mean something! There should be consequences! There should be justice for perpetrator and victim. We feel this at the deepest level. And we feel this because God made us according to His own nature, in His image and likeness, and part of that image is God's justice.

Part of justice is to restore what has been lost, when possible. And with God, all things are possible. So, when we lost our friendship with God in the Fall, God restored this friendship. But He did not wave away the offense, or pretend it didn't happen. God took upon Himself the necessary steps to make things right while still acknowledging the seriousness of the offense. As St. Anselm explained in his Cur Deus Homo: in order to pay the infinite debt owed, the one paying it would have to be able to make an act of infinite worth; and in order to pay the debt on humanity's behalf, the one would have to be human. So, for friendship to be restored between God and man, God became man--the infinite Being taking on a human nature, thus able to pay the debt on our behalf. 

That's justice. That's love. That's how God does things. Thank God that He didn't take the Kevin Smith approach.