Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Death of Journalism

"Users are seeing the work of traditional news media as system damage and routing around it." Back in high school I thought being a journalist would be really neat. After a couple of semesters in University "Communications" courses I began to think corporate communications was a dirty business I wanted not too much to do with. After a year or so in the field I knew I had been right. Today, I think I'd rather pick up road kill than be road kill. Examples:
  • Relapsed Catholic on Kwanzaa
  • The Curt Jester exposes sensationalism in Quebec
  • My wife points me to a bit of drivel on blogs at the National Post today. I just cancelled my subscription over the holidays because the thing was so darn warmed over, tepid and blah. More of the same here folks, nothing to see.
Vanderleun at the American Digest gets it, but over simplifies. What new tech has done is drive the price of producing copy way down, which is why there is so much of it, and why so much of it is really bad. The price barrier has been lowered, and old school editors still hold their audience in contempt, seeking to reach a mass audience by dumbing down their wares under the mantra of "give the people what they want." Nobody who has to carefully manage their time will put up with this any longer. The cream of the audience has been given new options by the same tech that makes producing text so cheap. This audience - one much sought by advertisers - has the smarts and the tools to go on line as Vanderleun mentions. What Vanderleun misses is that not everyone relishes the control freaky tab jock thing. What the old media needs is a new crop of editors. Editors that get the technology their readers use, and keep on getting it. Getting it is not at all the same thing as merely using it. Getting it means knowing that while the mass audience will always be there, it is shrinking relative to what it has historically been. The niche is the part of the market that is growing. It is also demanding and critical and can sniff out a poseur at ten paces. To serve a niche you have to walk the walk. Want to write about blogging? 30 minutes surfing and 30 minutes writing equals trash that no one who is in that niche needs to read. Being an editor is tough. You need to pick hot stories, see to it they get done well, and then fact check the ever loving %$#@ out of them. Be fearless. Your audience wants to be informed, to stay on top of it. Squashing the Kwanzaa column or wasting column space on a non story like the Globe did is gutless and boring, pandering to the audience rather than challenging it to learn something. It's the kind of thing journalists learn to do through undergrad work in corporate communications. That's hardly an environment renowned for challenging anything. Yer welcome.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Burke updated?

The WSJ is carrying Jeffery Hart's attempt to place Burke in our present context and while I don't agree with everything he suggests, it makes for a worthy read. Here are three of Hart's updated "Burkean" takes that I like:
  • Beauty. Beauty has been clamorously present in the American Conservative Mind through its almost total absence. The tradition of regard for woodland and wildlife was present from the beginnings of the nation and continued through conservative exemplars such as the Republican Theodore Roosevelt, who established the National Parks. Embarrassingly for conservatives (at least one hopes it is embarrassing), stewardship of the environment is now left mostly to liberal Democrats. Not all ideas and initiatives by liberals are bad ones. Burke's unbought beauties are part of civilized life, and therefore ought to occupy much of the Conservative Mind. The absence of this consideration remains a mark of yahooism and is prominent in Republicanism today. As if by an intrinsic law, when the free market becomes a kind of utopianism it maximizes ordinary human imperfection--here, greed, short views and the resulting barbarism.
  • Constitutional government. Depending on English tradition and classical theory, the Founders designed a government by the "deliberate sense" of the people. The "sense" originated with the people, but it was made "deliberate" by the delaying institutions built into the constitutional structure. This system aims at government not by majorities alone but by stable consensus, because under the Constitution major changes almost always require a consensus that lasts over a considerable period of time. Though the Supreme Court stands as constitutional arbiter, it is not a legislature. The correct workings of the system depend upon mutual restraint among the branches. And the court, which is the weakest of the three, should behave with due modesty toward the legislature. The legislature is the closest to "We the people," the basis of legitimacy in a free society. Legislation is more easily revised or repealed than a court ruling, and therefore judicial restraint is necessary.
  • Religion. Religion is an integral part of the distinctive identity of Western civilization. But this recognition is only manifest in traditional forms of religion--repeat, traditional, or intellectually and institutionally developed, not dependent upon spasms of emotion. This meant religion in its magisterial forms. What the time calls for is a recovery of the great structure of metaphysics, with the Resurrection as its fulcrum, established as history, and interpreted through Greek philosophy. The representation of this metaphysics through language and ritual took 10 centuries to perfect. The dome of the sacred, however, has been shattered. The act of reconstruction will require a large effort of intellect, which is never populist and certainly not grounded on emotion, an unreliable guide. Religion not based on a structure of thought always exhibits wild inspired swings and fades in a generation or two.

Aristotle never heard of Jesus

As a way of describing the old church in Europe, Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch relates an old German Easter tradition:
At the Holy Spirit's festival of Whitsuntide in the Bavarian diocese of Eichstadtt, a carved wooden dove of the Spirit was lowered down on the congregation through a hole in the church roof vaulting... the dove was closely followed by bucketfuls of of water, and the member of the congregation most thoroughly soaked became the town's Pfingstvogel for the coming year. Clergy might grumble about some of this excess and try to stop it, but in fact it was proof of a huge stability in the old religion: the apparent irreverence was itself a symptom of how strongly the majority of the people felt faith in the system, and how much they could relax in it. A problem would only arise if the faithful began listening to a question: was the Mass, the linchpin of it all, in fact what it claimed to be?
The question arose because the western Church tried to offer an explanation for the miracle of the mass, and it did so using the best intellectual system available to it, scholasticism.
The dominant philosophical system within scholasticism, and so the best analysis of the Mass in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, adapted the scientific method of the pre Christian philosopher Aristotle for Christian purposes. This adaptation reached its highest level in the works of the thirteenth century Dominican genius, Thomas Aquinas (the basis if the intellectual system known as Thomism). Aquinas was determined to show that human reason was a gift of God designed to give human beings as much understanding of divine mysteries as they needed. He formalized and systematized earlier discussion of the miracle of the Mass, and adopted a term which had become increasingly popular in explanations of what happened in this miracle: transubstantiation.
MacCulloch sketches Aristotle's method and Aquinas' use of it as follows:
Aristotle divided the being of a particular object into substance and accidents. Take a sheep, for instance: its substance, which is its reality, its participation in the universal quality of being a sheep, is manifested in its gambolling on the hills, munching grass, and baaing. Its accidents are things particular to the individual sheep at which we are looking: the statistics of its weight, the curliness of its wool, or the timbre of its baa. When the sheep dies, it ceases to gambol on the hills, munch on grass and baa: its substance, it's 'sheepness' is instantly extinguished, and only the accidents remain - and they will gradually decay... its former sheepness... ended with the extinguishing of its substance in death. It is no longer a sheep. How... might we apply what is true of a sheep to the miracle of the Mass? We start with bread (we could equally start with wine). Bread consists of substance and accidents: its substance is its participation in the universal quality of 'breadness', while its accidents are the particular appearance of this piece of bread (being round, white and wafer like, for instance). In the Mass, the substance changes, accidents do not - why should they? The are not significant for being. Through the grace of God, the substance is replaced by the substance of the body of Christ. It is a satisfyingly reverent analysis: as long, that is, as one accepts Thomas' scientific or philosophical premises of the language of substance and accidents, affirming the conception of universal realities which are greater than individual instances, such as being a sheep or being bread, rather than particular instances of sheep or bread. From the fourteenth century, most philosophers and theologians, particularly in northern Europe, did not in fact believe this. They were nominalists, who rejected Aristotle's categories and thought that words like 'sheep' or 'bread' as simply nomina (names), which we choose in an arbitrary fashion to use as labels for collections of objects that we decided to say are like each other. Nominalists could only say of transubstantiation as a theory of the Mass that it that is was supported by the weight of opinion by many holy men in the church, and therefore it ought not to be approached through the Thomist paths of reason, but must be accepted as a matter of faith. Once that faith in the Church's medieval authorities was challenged, as it was in the sixteenth century, the basis for for belief in transubstantiation was gone, unless one returned to Thomism, the thought of Aquinas. Those who remained in the Roman obedience generally did this, but in the sixteenth century Europe, thousands of Protestants were burned at the stake for denying an idea of Aristotle, who had never heard of Jesus.
As this crucial excerpt shows, MacCulloch has a fine way with words, as well as with getting to the point of the matter. It's fascinating to me how faith is at the root of all of the positions described above, even those who take pains to avoid it. One can believe in the traditional Mass because one believes in Jesus' discourse on 'the bread of life' in the Bible, or one can believe it because one trusts in the teaching authority of the Church, or one can find a way into it through the premises of Aquinas' scholastic study of the matter. What happens in the period just preceding the Reformation is that a lot of ancient books that had been lost begin to find their way back into the hands of scholars in the west. This is a good thing but it is unsettling and it forces people to examine questions that earlier generations had had no reason to question. Improved scholarship proves that the document known as the Donation of Constantine is a forgery, and it also begins to question the Vulgate, Jerome's translation of the Bible that had been the common source for most of Rome's theological deliberations. If your faith had rested on the saintliness of the Vatican hierarchy, or its' scholarly perfection, you now found yourself in bit of a pickle. What's more, you began to have more intellectual options open up before you as the printing press began to ciculate other ancient authors, and even contemporary social critics. These are not bad things provided that you clearly know what you believe and why, but for many it was too much. A faith that rests on pillars like human authority or human holiness is a weak one in any case. It refuses to take full adult responsibility for the choice facing mankind, ie. all knowledge begins with a leap of faith, and seeks instead to pin the decision on some one or something else. We should not be surprised to see that authority be crushed by such a burden. Pope Ratzinger has, instead, described the Church as being centered on the sacraments:
The holiness of the Church consists in that power of sanctification which God exerts in her in spite of human sinfulness.
A sacramental faith stands or falls on faith alone - just as Luther and others would argue faith should. It is not subject to testing - it is subject only to assent. Doubting the sacraments is not synonymous with doubting the ability to reason, but it is the same type of error. It should not therefore surprise us that those lacking a sacramental faith, once the prop of Papal authority was edited into a shape they would not recognize, began to turn their doubt on more and more of what surrounded them. Tellingly, Luther did retain a sacramental outlook to a large degree, enough that later reformers would come to doubt his ability to think. I would describe their attacks on him at that point as doubting his ability to doubt as muscularly as they. Thinking and doubting began to become blurred, where they remain in some circles to this day.

A very limited form of inquiry

Real Clear Politics is carrying commentary on James Q. Wilson's WSJ article on ID (got that?). Wilson, the respected social scientist, gets it mostly right when he says that ID is not science because it can't be tested:
So ID is not science. Does this mean that science, in any way, implies the non-existence of God? No. Does this mean that belief in God is irrational and that we should all be "free thinkers"? No. Does this mean that it is impossible to arbitrate between various theories of the existence/non-existence of God and come to some reasonable conclusions? No. Does this mean that we cannot say that humanity is meant to exist? No. In other words, rationality outside of science is quite possible, and has been around for a long time. How do you think humanity invented science in the first place? We surely did not do it scientifically. Science as we know it is the product of millennia of philosophical debate -- from Aristotle to Lakatos. Science depends upon philosophy, which itself is unfalsifiable and unscientific. The debate about ID has been blown way out of proportion because of the social status that science has acquired in 21st century Western society. For better or for worse, deserved or undeserved, science is a very powerful concept. It is quite coercive. If somebody tells you that you are not being scientific, you will probably take that as a criticism. You should not necessarily, though. The fact of the matter is that, despite the message of our culture about the authority of science, it is not the end-all-be-all of rational thought. Science is a very limited form of inquiry that produces results that are, from a certain perspective and with certain assumptions, reliable. But they also do not tell us all of the things we need, or want, to know about life. Man cannot live by science alone. Neither, for that matter, can science. Do you have a snarky friend who thinks that science is the only legitimate type of inquiry? Tell him to prove that one scientifically!
When I write on this subject (and I probably do it too much) I sometimes get comments to the effect that I'm bashing science because I'm trying to prop up a religious agenda. This is wrong on two counts. I love science and always have, ever since the elementary grades when I was fascinated with dinosaurs and the solar system. As a teen I read a lot of science fiction, always preferring 'hard' SF to fantasy SF, A.C. Clark and Greg Egan to George Lucas and Gene Rodenberry. It was that respect and affection that lead lead me to the philosophy of science after leaving the university, because I wanted to know the thing better, even if I was a 'mere' Arts grad. In this field you can call me a reformer, a scientific Protestant, trying to keep the thing honest and true.
The same can't be said for theology, where I'm thoroughly orthodox, and orthodox for the same reasons I quoted above. Faith comes before thought, and allows it to stand before reasonable criticism. I've been working my way into Diarmaid MacCulloch's history of The Reformation, and it's a really excellent book, one that's hard to put down. I'm trying to better understand the period, the characters and ideas that shaped it. I want to better understand what the reformers were saying, and are saying today. Thus far I've gotten through the description of the old order, of Luther, and now of Zwingli. I must confess that I find it difficult to be sympathetic. The old order had problems, sure. It had always had problems and had always contained waves of reform, as it still does. I plan to except parts of the book here for the next little while (it's a 700 page book) and discuss the ideas presented. I'll be as fair as I can but I will try and show why it is that I think Luther and Zwingli are second rate theologians who were taken advantage of by lay authorities seeking to expand their powers, and by even more radical followers who were even worse thinkers. I can't yet speak to Calvin or later thinkers because I haven't covered that ground yet. I hope my Protestant readers will enjoy the posts and correct me if I misrepresent them. I intend a lively but fair series, not too different from the way I've covered ID except for being more systematic. MacCulloch, in case anyone is wondering, is no Hillaire Belloc. He's an Anglican, of Scottish Episcopalian heritage, and can trace family ties to the clergy back to the 1890's. He does not appear claim to be a firm follower of any branch of the faith. He is a professor of history at Oxford and this book won both the Wolfson prize for history in 2004 and the British Academy Book Prize for the same year.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Idealism and commitment, tempered with warmth

John Cavadini, chairman of theology at the University of Notre Dame, speaking about JPII Catholics:
What they see in him is perhaps something that youth of any age and period admire: idealism and commitment, tempered with warmth. John Paul has the ability to state ideals forthrightly without closing off openness toward the 'other,' regardless of the other's religion or lack thereof. Like our millennial youth, John Paul seems to respect, as something sacred, religious faith and moral commitment wherever he finds it. He sees it as a basis for the building of what he calls the 'civilization of love.' Without wanting to minimize the problems or real inconsistencies in the position of our younger brothers and sisters in Christ, are they not, in some sense, especially the children of this pope in this regard? In their abiding affection for Catholicism, coupled with an openness toward other faiths, could we not see an intuition, not of relativism, but of a religious alternative to the indifferentism of secular culture? In place of the secular ideals of 'tolerance' or 'respect for difference' simply as difference, is there among young Catholics a sense of love or charity founded on and in the Christian faith itself? On the one hand, charity makes no sense apart from the truth of the Catholic faith that proclaims the love revealed in the Incarnation as the absolute and final revelation. And yet it is that very charity that 'bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things' (1 Cor 13:7) and so, in its very absoluteness, intrinsically implies an openness as well. This means that the evangelization of our youth should be aimed, not at undoing the 'inconsistency' that Davidson and Hoge point to, but at making articulate the inarticulate commitments that are implicitly folded in the 'joy and hope' this very striking juxtaposition seems to embody.
Fr. Neuhaus puts it like this:"There is a very big difference between tolerating others because nobody has the truth and being convinced of the truth that we are to love those with whom we disagree about the truth."

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Last minute christmas suggestions

Suggestions fror the coming Christmas season: Loreena McKennit, Songs for the Season. Even though McKennit has not released an album in something like a decade, I've only just discovered her and she's amazing. This little EP has only five songs on it and Canadians can pick it up on iTunes for about $4 and change. Amazon wants ten US bucks... Richard Proulx and the Cathedral Singers, Catholic Latin Classics. It's not a Christmas album per se, but it'll sound terrific. Magnificat. This is a really nice daily missal. Fourteen issues a year include two special editions for Holy week and Christmas. Each issue has all of the masses for each day of the month, and a couple of features about historical artworks, poems, and faith issues. These are really nice and I'm glad my wife has deemed me worthy of one.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

No harm, no foul?

Canada's Supreme farce is carrying on it's merry way, ruling today that swinger's clubs must be allowed to operate legally:
In its 7-2 decision, the court redefined indecency to use harm, rather than community standards, as the key yardstick. The ruling, written by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, said acts must be shown to be harmful to the point where they "interfere with the proper functioning of society" before they can be labelled indecent. "Grounding criminal indecency in harm represents an important advance in this difficult area of law."
McLachlin is attempting to argue that public standards for behavior are and can only be arbitrary, whereas "harm" is supposedly scientifically objective, supposedly a higher threshold to meet, and thereby a guarantor of greater liberty. McLachlin is a Liberal party appointee, btw - remember this during the election if this ruling bothers you (and she looks rather like a dom in that Wikki picture, don't you think?). I don't buy this argument; I don't believe that community standards are arbitrary. Instead they simply point to cause and effect relationships that are hard to quantify. A judge asked to rule based on community standards is not being asked what his personal opinion of the matter is; he's being asked to assess, and represent, his community. Consider what "harm" is. How do we define it? Any choice is going to arbitrary. Words are a currency floated on public opinion. They point to supposedly real things but they are not themselves those things. They are words. Placeholders, if you will, for public consensus. I don't want to get into a discussion of hermenutics here but want to point out that all of this jiggery pokery about "objectivity" and "greater freedom" is simply a power grab. We are being asked to surrender our humanity here, as we are so often when we deal with "Liberal" justice. This is a party that thinks mom and dad can't be trusted to raise their kids, that thinks mom and dad "lack public accountability" and will spend daycare money on cigarettes and popcorn. What they are saying, and this gets clearer all the time, is that only the Liberal Party is fit to decide. That is Liberals mean by objectivity; the elites will decide, not the community. This is a terrible ruling, but like most sexual issues it will take time to make its effects felt. Even then, they may not be easy to see on a sociological or economic sense. Take at this story from the Washington Times about a study linking teen hedonism and depression:
Most medical and mental health professionals would agree that there is a link between depression and sexual and drug using behavior in adolescents. However, it is commonly assumed that depressed teens use sex and drugs to "medicate" their depression. Thus, when faced with a depressed, sexually active teen, adults may overlook sexual or drug using behavior with the hope that the risky behavior will cease once the depression is gone. Although the depression followed by sex and drugs link seems to make sense, a new study, which followed over 13,000 middle and high school students for two years in a row, found that depression did not predict risky sexual or drug using behavior. Instead, the study found that depression often follows risky behavior. Lead author of the study, Dr. Denise Hallfors told me in an interview that her research team found evidence that heavy drug and alcohol use significantly increased the likelihood of depression among boys. For girls, the findings are stunning: Even low levels of alcohol, drug or sexual experimentation increased the probability of depression for girls. ... Girls even experimenting with drugs were slightly more than two times as likely to be depressed (8-10 percent). Those experimenting with sex were three times more likely to be depressed than abstainers (12 percent versus 4 percent). For sexually promiscuous teen girls, the results are staggering: 44 percent of girls with multiple sexual partners during the study period experienced depression.
Causation is admittedly a difficult subject. My sense is that the difficulty in mapping out the relationship means that there is not enough evidence to overturn the community. Since the age of consent in Canada is woefully low - 14, a Tory bill to raise it to 16 was defeated in the last session - this means that girls as young as 14 can be lured into swingers clubs and there is nary anything anyone (even a parent) can do about it. The drinking age here is 18, which might be a reason to keep young teens out, but a savvy club owner could simply opt not to serve alcohol. For the girls it will mean depression, a horribly skewed opinion of the male gender, and possibly STD's that will follow her for the rest of her life, and even make her sterile. She can consent to all of this, but she can't consent to a beer. The mind reels and the heart breaks. And I have not even said anything much about how many unborn kids will face the butchers block because of this ruling. It seems the word "child" is in danger of speaking to nothing but diminutive size.

Emotional investment in ideas

I love the internet. Link-ity link and look what I found:
One of the problems is with our elites. We are wrong to think that the difficulty lies in the uneducated and unsophisticated masses--as if inadequate education, in and of itself, is the problem. As a matter of fact, no one is more prone to illusions than the intellectual. It has been said that philosophy is simply personal error on a grandiose scale. Complicating matters is the fact that intellectuals are hardly immune to a deep emotional investment in their ideas, no less than the religious individual. The word "belief" is etymologically linked to the word "beloved," and it is easy to see how certain ideas, no matter how dysfunctional--for example, some of the undeniably appealing ideas underpinning contemporary liberalism--are beloved by those who believe them. Thus, many liberal ideas are believed not because they are true, but because they are beautiful. Then, the intellectual simply marshals their intelligence in service of legitimizing the beliefs that they already hold. It has long been understood by psychoanalysts that for most people, reason is the slave of the passions. Underneath the intellectual's attachment to the dysfunctional idea is a more insidious fear that their entire intellectual cathedral, carefully constructed over a lifetime, will collapse in ruins. Religious people are not as prone to this same fear, because they accept it that their religion is ultimately based on a leap of faith. One can see how this is playing out, for example, in the intellgent design debate that has philosophical materialists frothing at the mouth. Intellectuals live under the illusion that their system is based solely on facts and logic, which is easily disproved, even with regard to mathematical knowledge (for example, Godel's theorems prove that there is no formal system that does not contain assumptions unwarranted and unproveable by the system). For most intellectuals, understanding actually precedes knowledge... That liberalism is a new pseudo-religion seems quite obvious to me. While it is true that the conservative intellectual movement includes religious groups, it has been my experience that conservatism actually maintains a far clearer separation of religious and political impulses than liberalism, simply because it acknowledges a sharp difference between the two. Since leftism denies the existence of spirit, it ends up conflating politics and gnostic spirituality into a single ideology that is neither politics nor religion, but a monstrous hybrid of the two.
I don't think that the intellectual is more subject to this problem of episteme. He is, instead, more likely to fool himself on this account. To say he's a nattier intellectual dresser would be a truer rendering of the matter. Underneath it all, naked is still naked.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Phillip Pullman, Church of England atheist

" ... after his brothers had gone up to the feast, then [Jesus] also went up, not publicly but in private" The New Yorker takes a look at another Oxford based writer and decides to treat this one with kid gloves. They treated C.S. Lewis a little more roughly not too long ago.
[Phillip] Pullman’s initial encounters with religion were largely benign, owing to his beloved grandfather. Although he became a skeptic early on—“for all the usual reasons”—he kept his thoughts to himself. “I didn’t want to upset him,” he said of his grandfather. “I knew I wouldn’t have changed his mind.” And, for Pullman, his grandfather’s most important quality was his “big soul.” He added, “Although I call myself an atheist, I am a Church of England atheist, and a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist, because that’s the tradition I was brought up in and I cannot escape those early influences.” In “His Dark Materials,” Pullman’s criticisms of organized religion come across as anti-authoritarian and anti-ascetic rather than anti-doctrinal. (Jesus isn’t mentioned in any of the books, although Pullman has hinted that He might figure in a forthcoming sequel, “The Book of Dust.”) His fundamental objection is to ideological tyranny and the rejection of this world in favor of an idealized afterlife, regardless of creed. As one of the novel’s pagan characters puts it, “Every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling.
I haven't read any of Pullman's works and - if I am honest - I have no desire to. Pullman appears to come from the anarchistic side of Christianity, which is not an area of much interest to me. It seems that even the very accommodating Anglican Church is not quite good enough for Pullman, despite it finding him to be of interest (Rowan Williams seems to like him according to the Wikkipedia). One has to be careful about attributing to a writer the words of any of his fictional characters, so I can't say that Pullman thinks all of Christianity - heck, all of monotheism - is tyrannical and necessarily ascetic. Nonetheless, given the tenor of his comments in interviews and much of his work, one could say that this is a view that he flirts with. A lot. I find it hard to see how Pullman can describe the Anglicans (!) as wanting to "obliterate every good feeling." One imagines little child Phillip's hide quivering in a rage after being scolded for eating his cake before diner and the grown man still, inexplicably, thinking that the message was tyrannical asceticism saying "cake is bad!" Most didn't get that message. Perhaps through trial and error when mom and dad were not looking, we concluded that cake really does go down better after diner than before. The cake has not been obliterated, the child Pullman has simply been told about the real world consequences of trying to replace healthy foods with foods that might be more pleasing in the short term. Even if his characterization of the Anglican communion were fair, it is a mistake to leap from that to generalizing about the "inherent" nature of all Christianity and even all of monotheism. For one thing, the number and variety of Protestant sects is so numerous that I find it difficult to generalize about them at all and when I do I'm almost sure to get comments to the effect that what I've said "isn't true of me and my friends." So Pullman is being sloppy. Closer to home, my own Church does not reject this world outright. It is described as God's creation and good, even if it isn't our final resting place. People don't stay in hospitals after they are well; that doesn't mean that hospital's are "rejected." I have recently begun reading a book by another disbelieving Anglican on the subject of the Reformation and Diarmaid MacCullough's Reformation: Europe's House Divided provides a lot of evidence that Christian communities have taken a number of different shapes over the years. If one points to the abuses like the Inquisition, the Bogia Popes, or the Portugese slave trade and says "here is your Christianity. This is what it is", then one has greatly simplified things. One is being a partisan, and can thus be dismissed from serious discussion. People with an interest in the truth know that the real story is more complicated than that. The Portugese slavers faced resistance from various religious orders, and that resistance very often took the form of arguing that slavery was contrary to the Natural Law. What we really have going on is an ongoing fight over who and what can be reasonably considered Christian. That fight continues to this day and when Pullman says he is "a Church of England atheist" he is in a sense saying that that church is not worthy of the title. It's a shame that Pullman resorts to such tactics. Even though my own views are quite different from his, I am not so different that I can't read this passage and agree:
Near the end of “The Golden Compass,” Lord Asriel asks Lyra to bring him a copy of the Bible, and he reads her a passage from Genesis. In Lyra’s world, the Bible isn’t quite the same as ours: when Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, the first thing they see is the adult form of their daemons. “But it en’t true, is it?” Lyra asks of the story. “Not true like chemistry or engineering, not that kind of true? There wasn’t really an Adam and Eve?” Lord Asriel tells her to think of the story as an “imaginary number, like the square root of minus one.” Its truth might not be tangible, but you can use it to calculate “all manner of things that couldn’t be imagined without it.” The metaphor is not just cunning; it helps explain why Pullman, a champion of science, writes in the fantastic mode.
The fantastic mode. Ah, now we are getting somewhere, and science has nothing whatever to do with it. J.R.R. Tolkein, about whom who Pullman has nothing kind to say, would have grasped the Pullman's point immediately. It's a shame Pullman is so closed minded he's never bothered to find out what Tolkien was about. A kinder and more intelligent take on the matter can be read here. Jordan is gnostic, not atheist, and can discuss his interpretations without needlessly running down those who open themselves up to the possibility that incarnation is historical fact. I personally think that divine hiddeness is something that we all wrestle with, and it accounts for the differences of opinion that can occur between reasonable people on these issues. I have been thinking a lot about this passage from John 7:1 since it came up in one of the daily readings last week.
After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He would not go about in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him. Now the Jews' Feast of Booths was at hand. So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” For not even his brothers believed in him. Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil. You go up to the feast. I am not going up to this feast, for my time has not yet fully come.” After saying this, he remained in Galilee. But after his brothers had gone up to the feast, then he also went up, not publicly but in private. The Jews were looking for him at the feast, and saying, “Where is he?” And there was much muttering about him among the people. While some said, “He is a good man,” others said, “No, he is leading the people astray.” Yet for fear of the Jews no one spoke openly of him.
The image of Jesus hiding in the crowd is really striking, and one to think of when you feel that you're losing sight of him. He plainly does not care to be "known openly." Less relevant to this post, but also interesting is that the disciples ask Jesus to go public, something they themselves fear to do.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

What is your model of the Church?

Don't be fooled, this quiz is a lot more thoughful than it sounds.
You scored as Sacrament model. Your model of the church is Sacrament. The church is the effective sign of the revelation that is the person of Jesus Christ. Christians are transformed by Christ and then become a beacon of Christ wherever they go. This model has a remarkable capacity for integrating other models of the church.

Sacrament model


Mystical Communion Model


Institutional Model


Herald Model


Servant Model


What is your model of the church? [Dulles]
created with
Sorry about the lack of posts. I am - there is no other way to say it - feeling mighty lethargic at the moment.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Scott Adams on God

Scott Adams, creator of the popular Dilbert comic strip, has been thinking aloud about God - with very interesting results, not the kind of stuff you might stereotypically associate with an Engineer. I have to applaud Adam's ability to resist needlessly anthropomorphizing God in all of the ways that the typical atheist / agnostic does. Hey, I was one, so I know, OK? Andrew can consider this post my response to his e-mailing me this article from NPR if he wants to. Welcome back to blogging, btw! Adams writes:
What about consciousness? You'd expect God to be conscious as we understand it, right? But that wouldn't make sense for an omnipotent being. Our own consciousness is mostly about imagining what can happen next and comparing it to what does so we can adjust accordingly. That's useful for survival, but only for slow procreating creatures that are made of meat and surrounded by carnivores. God wouldn't need that sort of imagination because omnipotence means your preferences are the same as reality. There's no point in being almighty if you have to sit around imagining what you want and then waiting for it. So God would have no use for consciousness. All that's left of intelligence that is consistent with an omnipotent God is the ability to do complex things. That might not be part of the definition of intelligence in your dictionary, but it should be. Allow me to explain by analogy. A baby is not the same as the adult it later grows into. Yet we consider them to be the same person. Where do you draw the line between the early form of something and what it later becomes? It's mostly a point of view. There's no objective way to decide. I choose to define any process that can create intelligence as the initial phase of that intelligence. That seems perfectly fair to me. [there's no positive evidence for it, but throughout history it has appealed to great numbers of people. There is also the small problem of a lack of positive proof for positivism. - ed.] And here's where it gets interesting, in case you wondered when. Atheists believe that our existence is the result of matter and energy bumping around according to the laws of physics. In other words, the universe has the ability to do complex things. The universe is intelligent in precisely and exclusively the way an omnipotent God would be, according to me, your source of all useful knowledge. But what about design? Atheists say the universe was built without the need for design. I think it's worth noting that if humans could build great things without the need for user specifications and written plans, we'd do it that way too. So when we impose the need for human-like design processes on an omnipotent being, we're selling God short. He'd do it his own way. And that might involve a relatively short list of physical laws, a bunch of matter, and a lot of space-time. If you accept that God's design process wouldn't mean the same as human design processes, and intelligence for God doesn't mean the same as intelligence for humans, then it's hard to argue against Intelligent Design. Rationally defined, both intelligence and design - when applied to an omnipotent being - look exactly like the laws of nature, and no one doubts that those exist. All that's left then is the question of God's existence. Yes, I will be answering that question here. That's why you came to the Dilbert Blog, isn't it? God, by any definition, is not part of our natural world. He's above it, whatever that means. And yet he exerts an all-powerful force upon it. What do we all know from our common experience that meets that test? Concepts. Allow me to explain again by analogy. We believe that love exists, yet it is little more than the sum of the biology and situation that evoke it. Love itself is simply an umbrella concept that contains all of those chemical reactions and environmental happenings. Love is supernatural in that sense, as all concepts are. Even the biggest atheist would agree that God exists as a concept. And that concept is undeniably the most powerful one in existence. It influences virtually every human activity from procreation to war.
As I was saying, Adams gets a lot right, but from my perspective he does not - yet - have all of the pieces. He's using a fine mind to get to this point and if he continues to dwell on the relationship between evolution and intelligence he may get there yet. I don't think there is a clear cut relationship between intelligence and enhanced survival. Ants are dumb but long lived by virtue of niche adaptability and a very high reproductive rate. They have taken a different route on the evolutionary tree and I don't see that their survival rate is any less for that. Then there is the question of how an evolved mind relates to the question of big T truth. There is simply no clear relationship. The evolved mind is a chance creation, selected for by it's adaptability. If mere coherentism is evolutionary cheaper, that's the route it'll take. Consider the following argument:
  1. Our limited minds can discover eternal truths about being.
  2. Truth properly resides in a mind.
  3. The human mind is not eternal.
  4. Therefore, there must exist an eternal mind in which these truths reside.
I don't think anyone would question points two and three very much, so I'll leave them aside. Point one is the most likely bone of contention since it makes a positive statement and we lack the ability to verify it in a positive way. Proofs for point one are of necessity going to be of a logical, metaphysical nature. I accept this argument. Adams' post today comes close to saying the same, but in the end stops short of considering the universe as the product of a divine mind. The resulting ideas are tantalizing but remain flies stuck in amber, unable to explain 1) freedom in a world of material, mechanical necessity, and 2) unable to justify trust in the ability to think real truths. The solution is not that God is a human concept, it is that we are God's concepts. That is where freedom and intelligence comes from, that is why we say 'man is made in the image of God.'

Small birds that land in curiosity

From 30 Days, an interview with Cardinal Godfried Danneels on the subject of the liturgy:
Cardinal Godfried Danneels:Many African and Asian bishops have spoken to me about “threshold proselytes…” Who are they? DANNEELS: They’re the polygamists, the non-baptized, even Moslems who look in through the door of the Church attracted by the beauty of the liturgy. They feel there’s something going on… What else struck you during the Synod? DANNEELS: The underlining of the sacrificial character of the Eucharist, which to tell the truth had never been denied. But that at a certain moment, after the Council, had been confined to the shade, and the stress was put on the Eucharist as banquet. But the Last Supper was not a simple group meal. It was a ceremonial and at the same time sacrificial banquet. The apostles and Jesus did not meet in the cenacle only to eat together like all the other times. But to remember the paschal meal of the Hebrews, and commemorate the work of salvation performed by God in Egypt... Worship is also a very traditional practice. DANNEELS: I notice that many young people discover it as a new thing. One saw that in Cologne also. Or in the silent adoration of the First Communion children, in Saint Peter’s square, on October 15. Young people appreciate a faith announced without packaging, without endless preambles and “trick” of pre-evangelization. They are open to those who witness the Christian faith to them in freedom, without trying to convince them by putting pressure on their freedom. They’re like the small birds that land in curiosity on the windowsill. One shouldn’t try to catch them. The sacraments themselves are a visible fact. DANNEELS: The sacraments are concrete gestures, that make use of materials signs. The sign is always visible, but is always a sign of something of not visible: the res sacramenti that is communicated through the sign. There lies the force of the liturgy. This res is not perceptible when the liturgy becomes theater, self-celebration constructed by us. And precisely when that happens the liturgy becomes something of a burden. There’s no sense in going to the same piece of theater each Sunday... The sacramental signs present themselves with the features of humility. They are simple, ordinary, poor: water, bread, wine, oil. It’s not a matter of making an impression, of staging with special effects. The liturgy with its repeated and discreet gestures suggests, is the suggestion of invisible reality of which the effects are seen. And the subject of the liturgical and sacramental action is Christ himself.

Redemptionis Sacramentum

Thank you to Rick and Kristina and others who commented on my post about our parish's liturgical meeting this past weekend, and to Tony, who sent a very supportive e-mail. Rick and Kristina pointed me towards a document called Redemptionis Sacramentum, which will be quite helpful, I think. Looking back at the Easter mime incident, for example, I can see issues with Chapter 3, sections 58 to 63. A summary of the document can be found here.

Monday, December 12, 2005

What is your style of American Catholicism?

Another quiz? yes, because I'm busy with Christmas preparations today...
You scored as New Catholic. The years following the Second Vatican Council was a time of collapse of the Catholic faith and its traditions. But you are a young person who has rediscovered this lost faith, probably due to the evangelization of Pope John Paul II. You are enthusiastic, refreshing, and somewhat traditional, and you may be considering a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. You reject relativism and the decline in society that you see among your peers. You are seen as being good for the Church. A possible problem is that you may have a too narrow a view of orthodoxy, and anyway, you are still a youth and not yet mature in your faith.

New Catholic


Traditional Catholic


Neo-Conservative Catholic


Radical Catholic


Evangelical Catholic


Lukewarm Catholic


Liberal Catholic

What is your style of American Catholicism? created with

What political stereotype are you?

Republican - You believe that the free market will
take care of most things, but that the
government should be there with moderate
taxation to provide for national defense and
enforcing morality. Your historical role model
is Ronald Reagan.

Which political sterotype are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

Saturday, December 10, 2005


"Our Father, who art in Heaven... " This article from Crisis is speaking my mind today:
Among Lumen Gentium's strongest emphases is the laity's call to "make Christ known to others... by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity." The laity's means of drawing on these virtues are rooted in the closeness of man's relationship to God through the person of Christ. The council Fathers understood that the laity were to find courage enough in this bond to accomplish the work set out for them by it: "Let them not, then, hide this hope in the depths of their hearts, but even in the program of their secular life let them express it by a continual conversion and by wrestling 'against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness' (Eph 6:12)." This is Vatican II at its boldest and truest: The call for aggiornamento does not mean an accommodation to the world but rather a Christ-centered contradiction of it in the immediacy of daily life. John Paul II counseled as much in the signal phrase of his papacy, "Be not afraid!" expressed first during his opening homily as pontiff. Some 27 years later, Benedict XVI offered a profound restatement of his predecessor's hallmark sentence in his own opening homily as pontiff: "Do not be afraid of Christ!" It is this fear that, in part, accounts for post - Vatican II Catholicism's obsessions with what the council may or may not have meant. By focusing on these matters - to the exclusion of the Church's status as the bride and mystical body of Christ - Catholics have let theology degenerate into sociology, politics, and self-interested name-calling. They have thereby ignored the foremost message of the council, encapsulated in Lumen Gentium's opening: "Christ is the light of the nations. Because this is so, this sacred synod gathered together in the Holy Spirit eagerly desires, by proclaiming the Gospel to every creature... to bring the light of Christ to all men, a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church." To bear this light in its Christ-centered fullness is the mission of the Church and of every Catholic, and this has been so from Pentecost through the 21st century. The Second Vatican Council, through John Paul II, told Catholics and the world to fear not because of Christ. This was a message needed in a time of regnant, atheist ideologies. The council, through Benedict XVI, tells Catholics and the world to fear not Christ Himself. This is a challenge that both testifies to weakened convictions about Christianity's particularity in the present age and proposes Christ alone as the only possible point of origin for future renewals of the Church and the world.
Our parish priest has put in his one year of getting settled in and observing how the parish runs and at a meeting for all of us involved in the liturgy he let it be known that he has ideas about "improving things." Last Easter he "improved" the Mass by replacing the reading of the Passion (!) with mime of the crucifixion set to music and performed by school kids of various ages. I was horrified but said nothing. He let us know today that somebody did, in fact, call the Chancery Office to complain and he was reprimanded. He voiced disappointment that we had people so unwilling to "open up." The real kicker came when he mentioned that he has been trying to work in more "inclusive" language but is worried about how things will go if he was to go as far as offering a prayer to 'God the Father, the Mother, and so much more." I knew Father X, who is the only priest in the parish at the moment, was a liberal Jesuit. I didn't think it would go this far, however. I feel like I have been sucker punched in the stomach. I've been miserable since I came home from the meeting, wondering how this is going to play out. I know many people in the parish who were not there who would find all of this objectionable. The only voices at the meeting were in favour, but they made up only about 1/4 of all who were there. I suspect that there were many like myself who were simply too surprised - and of a non combative nature - to say anything at the time. That 1/4 were mostly a few old women (not a majority), so I don't know where he gets the idea that his opposition consists entirely of "culturally bound" old timers. I was one of the youngest people there! Personally I don't know why people who want these things always want to take over the Mass with them. Go to, I say, and respect that the Mass is not mass entertainment. Ignorant people should not go mucking about with something as carefully thought out and evolved as the Mass. This is not a democracy, thank Heaven; expertise counts. In the long term I do not think that Pope Benedict will side with this kind of silliness, which Father X insisted is what he was always taught at seminary and which is already practised in parishes in eastern Canada, where he was based for many years. He also suggested that the Canadian Council of Bishops is okey dokey with this sort of thing too. I'm left with the problem of how to respond in the short term, which could last for many years. I'm a lector, which means that I do Bible readings at Mass about once a month. If am ever handed an "amendment" to a Bible reading I will ignore it or refuse to read. Beyond that, I'm not sure. What I am sure of is that God chose a man's body for the incarnation, and while he was incarnated he always referred to God as Father. Now I know that God has no gender but I respect his revelatory choices as being worthy of remembrance and reflection. I am not afraid of what other's might think about those choices. Changes like the ones Father X raised the possibility of today are always raised a means of reaching out to the modern age, and to young people. I am not afraid of youthful ignorance; they'll outgrow it. I know that young people naturally test and probe things and that they ultimately respect those who stand proud. If they value courage in the face of adversity - and assuredly most of them do, they will secretly despise appeasers. I would very much like advice from those in the know about how conflicts like this play out. Are the Canadian Bishops really as out of touch with Rome as it was made to sound? Can the Parish Council keep Father X at bay?

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Repeat the question, please?

Richard Dawkins is interviewed on and is asked:
You criticize intelligent design, saying that "the theistic answer" - pointing to God as designer" is deeply unsatisfying"--presumably you mean on a logical, scientific level.
His answer is:
Yes, because it doesn't explain where the designer comes from. If they're going to emphasize the statistical improbability of biological organs - "these are so complicated, how could they have evolved?" - well, if they're so complicated, how could they possibly have been designed? Because the designer would have to be even more complicated.
As intelligent as he is - and I don't dispute it - Dawkins is a crummy theologian. His response is an anthropomorphic projection. I can only see, hear, and think just so, and everything must fit into those neat little slots. But those mental slots, by Dawkin's own account, did not evolve with the the pursuit of scientific truth in mind. Is it so hard to see that when we say that God is the source of all that is, that this means that God is a different sort of thing than what he's made? We can go around in circles on this question forever: Who made God? Who made the universe? We both answer "they have always been" and neither answer has positive proof to back it up. The proofs are theoretical and logical and rely on the acceptance of their premises to reach their conclusions. Dawkins has chosen not to accept certain premises. Bully for him. Does he need to mock those who have chosen differently as being illogical? Dawkins in fact reminds me a tad of Lewis in the sense that they are both very much products of their upbringing and social circumstances and it seem that nothing can penetrate that tightly sealed hermetic shell. Lewis retained Ulster in his soul to the end, and Dawkins is the very model of a certain sort of Empiricist Englishman, unchanged and unmoved in his methodology by anything that has happened since, say, 1905. But maybe there is hope. This exchange was better:
Is atheism the logical extension of believing in evolution? They clearly can't be irrevocably linked because a very large number of theologians believe in evolution. In fact, any respectable theologian of the Catholic or Anglican or any other sensible church believes in evolution. Similarly, a very large number of evolutionary scientists are also religious. My personal feeling is that understanding evolution led me to atheism.
Unless, of course, he means that he understands evolution and those who disagree do not. Sadly, in this case the tautology seems more likley. Tautology? See here or here.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Exmas and Chrissmas

How are your Advent preparations going? If you're feeling under the gun, the Bishop of Denver's recent column might be just the thing. In it, he shares from a C.S. Lewis essay on the the festivals of Exmas and Chrissmas. Lewis himself is merely sharing a lost chapter from Herodotus on the customs of a strange land called Niatirb. Of Niatirb, "Herodotus" writes that:
In the middle of winter when fogs and rains most abound, (the Niatirbians) have a great festival called Exmas, and for 50 days they prepare for it (in the manner which is called,) in their barbarian speech, the Exmas Rush. When the day of the festival comes, most of the citizens, being exhausted from the (frenzies of the) Rush, lie in bed till noon. But in the evening they eat five times as much as on other days, and crowning themselves with crowns of paper, they become intoxicated. And on the day after Exmas, they are very grave, being internally disordered by the supper and the drinking and the reckoning of how much they have spent on gifts and on the wine. (Now a) few among the Niatirbians have also a festival, separate and to themselves, called Crissmas, which is on the same day as Exmas...
Niatirb? Lewis is writing about Britain, of course.

Superficial pluralism

Ladies and gentlemen, Notre Dame professor John Haldane, interviewed in
Haldane:There are two kinds of pluralism that we find today in Western countries. One is a lifestyle pluralism, a variety of ways of living. That can be quite superficial, simply like cakes, clothing or furniture or whatever. And there is a deeper diversity or plurality, a pluralism of philosophies or ideologies... So if you take, marriage, for example, Jews, Christians and Muslims tend actually to share, broadly speaking, the same views about this. The diversity comes among people who don’t have an ideology... But these are really not expressions of deep philosophies. These are expressions of consumerism, of the desire to have more choices. Serrano: What would you like to see? Haldane: I think that two things need to be done. One is the need to make a negative critique of superficial pluralism. We should be ready to show that although there is a great deal of diversity there, it doesn’t reveal deep philosophy, it’s rather shallow. That’s the negative side. And then the positive side is that the advocates of deep ideologies —- and these days, the only deep ideologies tend to be religious, because Marxism has gone -- need to work together to think about what exactly they share. ... We have to create a thoroughgoing, extensive and perceptive and rhetorically effective critique of the superficiality of consumer choice in society. And at the same time we have to try to among ourselves to develop a coherent, deeper account of how you might try to think about things like the human life, human reproduction, death and so on. ... It’s not so much that we need to do more philosophy. I think we need to recover a more natural and simpler style of explanation, less scholastic, less technical, more natural. Also we need to promote that in effective rhetorical modes, using imagination, examples, illustrating, rather than just giving people arguments. That’s why I think things like films, journalism, novels, music are much more important in our world. That’s where people are,

New York, New York

New York Magazine features two informative stories about abortion. The first is a history of the procedure in that state and the second is a look at a program for hosting out of staters who come to the city for late term procedures. In the second story, about those who provide a 'haven' for those seeking late term abortion, we read the following:
Most Haven hosts are white, Jewish, well schooled, and political. Some are empty-nesters with beds to spare and memories of the sixties and seventies women's movement; many are young idealists with matchbox apartments and roommates who don't mind an extra body crashing in the living room. Meanwhile, most of the women helped by Haven are black and Latina, with GEDs or less, low literacy skills, and not much civic moxie. The two sides often baffle each other. Guests have been known to giggle at the gay-oriented titles on a host's bookshelves, complain about the the uncool quality of her CDs, and demand to take cabs rather than the subway because, they think, that is what New Yorkers do. Some exhibit a shocking obliviousness to the situation they're in: On the night between the first and second stages of her abortion, one patient told her host that she wanted to go out dancing until 2 a.m. "Plus, they all arrive with huge suitcases," says Haven member Judith Levine. "Before we went back to the clinic, one woman took an hour to do her hair and makeup. She even had a curling iron." Of course, the Haven members have their own preconceptions and idiosyncrasies. New hosts often fear that their houseguests will steal from them. (In the history of Haven, there has never been a reported theft.) And some Havenites insist that their guests eat "healthy" food - fresh fish, for instance, or vegetarian - even if they ask for Big Macs and Ding Dongs. Levine worries that she won't know how to talk to her guests. "I think my nervousness is about the class difference," she says. Katha Pollitt, the poet and Nation columnist, buys People magazine when she knows she's about to be called up for Haven duty. "But then I worry: Maybe that's patronizing. Maybe they'd rather read The Nicomachean Ethics." Sometimes, bridging the divide is just impossible: One patient walked into a volunteer's home, looked around, said she was going out for a smoke, and never came back. ... The worst story is really no story at all. The first woman Levine ever hosted was here having a late-term abortion because she had simply "put off" dealing with her pregnancy until it was almost too late. The delay certainly didn't seem to be for financial reasons: "She had a late-model pickup truck that was better than my car," remembers Levine, "and I wondered, Why am I the one paying for dinner?" Levine rolled out the red carpet anyway. "I had to tell myself, 'Every abortion is the choice of the woman having the abortion. This is about somebody else's body. It's not President Bush's body, but it's not mine, either,' " she says. "Being pro-choice is a morality that takes you morally out of the picture."
The author of the article is a Haven member but she's not at all convincing in making the case that what she and the others are doing is noble. He description of the guests seems to blow up the choicers cry that these decisions are always carefully considered. In fact that assumption seems to be just so much projection. These New Yorkers can't imagine the poor choices that have led to this situation and when they do begin to see it, they "remove themselves from the picture." How do they square this with the common left complaint that "the personal is the political?" Don't ask. There are two more unspoken assumptions and that is that adoption is not an option, and no child could ever overcome a problematic home life. It's not exactly a culture of hope they're offering.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005


Right Reason has an interview with Roger Scruton in two parts, here and here. What are you waiting for? Quote:
The problem for conservatism is to reconcile the many and often conflicting demands that these various forms of life impose on us. The free-market ideologues take one instance of spontaneous order, and erect it into a prescription for all the others. They ask us to believe that the free exchange of commodities is the model for all social interaction. But many of our most important forms of life involve withdrawing what we value from the market: sexual morality is an obvious instance, city planning another. (America has failed abysmally in both those respects, of course.) Looked at from the anthropological point of view religion can be seen as an elaborate (and spontaneous) way in which communities remove what is most precious to them (i.e. all that concerns the creation and reproduction of community) from the erosion of the market. A cultural conservative, such as I am, supports that enterprise. I would put the point in terms that echo Burke and Chesterton: the free market provides the optimal solution to the competition among the living for scarce resources; but when applied to the goods in which the dead and the unborn have an interest (sex, for instance) it wastes what must be saved.

Monday, December 05, 2005

The flickering sign of freedom

vs. The beacon on a hill This is the third in a three part series of posts stemming from a reflection on human nature in light of the Cross. Part one is here and part two is here.
If you got past my wandering introduction in part two and read Pope Ratzinger's description of the Church you might have been surprised by his frank admission that the Church itself is NOT a beacon on a hill:
The thrilling interplay of God's loyalty and man's disloyalty that characterizes the structure of the Church is the dramatic form of grace, so to speak... One could say that precisely in her paradoxical combination of holiness and and unholiness the Church is in fact the shape taken by grace in this world.
The Pope admits that some view such an existence as "sickly" but reflection reveals its promise.
Ratzinger describes a Church that is not a clear instance of the divine in the world. The Church that he describes is a representation of man's relationship to God. Those will be important words here: representation and relationship. Why a representation of a relationship and not the divine thing in itself? Christ himself was not the powerful warrior king that the Jews had expected. His earthly incarnation was instead the perfect, intimate relationship between man and God. He was a model and example of what the Jewish Law pointed to, and not a coercive force policing it. Still, why take that route instead of something befitting his full might - and human expectation? Why make it hard for us to see? The question of Divine Hiddeness cannot be understood without relation to freedom. Freedom, in fact, is predicated on the God and his moral law being elusive to us. Writing about Immanuel Kant's ethics, Roger Scruton writes:
the existence of God and the immortality of the soul cannot be proved as theoretical judgements [ie. positive science] since it lies beyond the power of the human understanding to conceive or conjecture them. Nevertheless, when acting in obedience to the moral law we know these things not as truths, but in some other way... these feelings of familiarity, **forced on us by the very perception of the moral order**, cannot be translated into the language of scientific judgement.
Kant's distinction between the types of knowledge is fair but I recognize that we need to act on what we have, even if fragmentary. The representational nature of God's incarnation and of the Church's struggles show a respect human freedom that can be a model for legislators. The images do not force themselves on us but are only provocative, and evocative. The "freedom" we chose in Genesis, and carry still, is not threatened. There, the serpent said "You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." The word "die" here is used in a literal, minimalist sense and our ancestors buy into the lie. It is their Nature (Platonic essence) that dies, not their physical selves. It is this new Nature, freely chosen, that has the problematic relationship with Divinity and the moral law. God's rescue of us from this situation will likewise need to be freely accepted. It's important that I not be understood to be saying that the incarnation is only myth and only representative. No; Christ is real, and the incarnation is historical, but the choice of a carpenter in Judea is symbolic. The Church, likewise, is symbolic, and symbols are inherently relational ("dialectic"). They are never the thing in itself but pointers to it. As this primer on Immanuel Kant puts it:
description or representation [is] problematic, as it always relies on the absence of what it appears to represent. The paradox of metaphysical philosophies is that they depend upon the possibility of representing Being and claiming to the right to make such representations. Yet, from a logical point of view, the notion of representation cannot be reconciled with an absolute Being. If the absolute exits, it exits absolutely, outside the dialectic of presence and absence.
This describes the nature of representation pretty well but I am not convinced that it is a problem. Of course the images of God that we have are only symbols pointing elsewhere, and that holds true for textual descriptions as well! The ancient Jews were under no mistake about that, forbidding symbols and even the pronunciation of God's name. Christians have fought over how to handle symbols and statues but I see no problem with them provided that we are mindful of their nature as pointers. If, however, the Church is only a pointer to God, and not a beacon of divinity, what is its significance? Why go, and why listen to what it has to say? Because while it is not the divine thing in itself, the thing in itself can be found there. Ratzinger writes:
The essential form of Christian worship is rightly called Eucharista, thanksgiving. In this form of worship human achievements are not placed before God; on the contrary, it consists in man's letting himself be endowed with gifts; we do not glorify God by supposedly giving to him out of our resources - as if they were not his already! - but by letting ourselves be endowed with his own gifts and thus recognizing him as Lord. We worship him by dropping the fiction of a realm in which we could face him as independent business partners, whereas in truth we can only exist at all in him and from him. Christian sacrifice does not consist in giving of what God would not have without us but in our becoming totally receptive and letting ourselves be completely taken over by him.
Unlike a statue or a painting, the Eucharist is not simply a pointer. Like all of the sacraments it IS the thing it represents, and of them all it is the greatest because it takes that moment of revelation with which I started this series (the crucifixion "Behold the man!") and presents it to us here and now. It is THE sign of change and it is as gentle as can be. Reformers, revolutionaries, and legislators take note.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Libertine literalism and Liberals

Biblical Literalism is usually associated with so called "conservative" fundamentalism. There is, however, nothing inherently conservative about literalism. In fact this story about a youth group in Germany producing a sexy calendar is proof that literalism is an extreme and radical reading method that can have results that range from fundamentalism to libertinism.
Anne Rohmer, 21, wearing garters and stockings, posed on a doorstep as the prostitute Rahab. "We wanted to represent the Bible in a different way and to interest young people," she told news agency Reuters. "Anyway, it doesn't say anywhere in the Bible that you are forbidden to show yourself nude."
Miss Rohmer is skirting the following (and there might be more):
Exodus 20:14: "You shall not commit adultery." Mathew 5:17: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven..." Mathew 5:27: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Mathew 22:39: "love your neighbor as yourself." ie. Do not needlessly tempt him to break a commandment.
Rohmer's right in a very simple sense; posing nude is not verboten in black and white letters. It's in the spirit of the thing that any sensible person can see she's mistaken. Mathew 5:27 in particular is a near total contradiction of her claim in the eyes of a reasonable person. My main point however is that literalists are extremist by their very nature. They want to either go above and beyond what is required, or they want to do the bare minimum, quite literally. Most of us rightly reject fundamentalist literalism but few seem to be aware that we live in age of liberal literalism, and this plays itself out in many ways, including in our courts and legislatures. Legal minimalism does not give us more freedom from the law; it simply creates a demand for more law. The recent Knights of Columbus case I've posted about is but one example of this "black and white" minimalist approach to the law creating havoc with people's expectations of the law and what a creative jurist might do with it.

The not so secret agent

This follow up post is a little late. I had hoped to have it up last night, but as usual I underestimated my subject and this will now be the second of a three part series. Part One is here.
Yesterday I posted about the Cross as profound light shed on the nature of humanity, and I wrote that the light it sheds serves as a warning to those who think they can effect a liberation of humanity through reform and expansion of the law. That school of thought is called "positive liberty" and it crashes against man's failure to know in the fullest sense what the good is, and into the consistent failure to adhere to even what he does know. Negative liberty, freedom from unnecessary and unenlightened law, is better but does not entirely escape the need for an Authoritative Criterion for just action either. Negative liberty has the virtue of restricting the damage that government can do by restricting the number and scope of its powers. We are, however, still left with problems that can't be casually dismissed as small stuff. Smaller scale human problems are in no way "small" when they afflict you. The abuse of minor powers, such as those wielded by neighbors, family members, merchants, and so on can cause serious misery. In addition to these "man vs. man" problems we also have problems with nature - natural disasters, disease, and aging among them. There is little doubt that natural disasters are of a scope that we naturally expect governments to deal with them. On how to deal with disease and aging there can be differences of opinion. Where do we turn for the solid ground that we need in order to even begin to discuss our differences, having shown that our human resources are not up to the task? How do we attempt to minimize the abuse of minor powers without being careless in drawing in larger human powers prone to the very same sorts of abuse they were created to rectify? These are questions of Authority. The issue is greatly complicated by the fact that we are social creatures and we must live in close contact with one another. It is not enough to "get right with" the world or with God as an individual. We have to get our relationships right and we need to do it with others who may not reciprocate our efforts. We ourselves can fail to get it right despite good intentions. The excerpt from Pope Ratzinger yesterday said: "In the abyss of human failure is revealed the still more inexhaustible abyss of divine love." So, in the midst of all this human failure, large and small, where is God, the unmoved mover of good and right? Is there no sign of Him that we can turn to? We have the Bible but it seems that no two people can read that and come to the same conclusions about what it means, either symbolically or practically. And the Churches? I can hear the sucking in of breath at the mere mention of that! Nevertheless, I do think the Church is, as it claims, the place to look for an anchor in faith and morality, and that those things are the keys to understanding relationships large and small. Two problems raise themselves up right away. Which church are we talking about, and how can it be THE one church given all the scandal in it (regardless of which one you pick)? Anyone who reads this site regularly knows that I think this Church is the Catholic Church but it's not my intention to dwell on that particular issue. Briefly, John Henry Cardinal Newman, a famous Anglican convert, gives an idea of why I attend where I do:
consider the vast difference between believing in a living authority, unerring because divine, in matters of doctrine, and believing none; - between believing what an external authority defines, and believing what we ourselves happen to define as contained in Scripture and the Fathers, where no two individuals define quite the same set of doctrines; between believing a creed, which, as far as such definitions go, is ever increasing, and believing the letter of Creeds which we may expand and explain for ourselves. In the one case, the living authority, deciding in controversies of faith, is the Church, in the other (whatever men pretend,) it is we ourselves who are the ultimate authority.
This is taken from Pontifications, where they are running a number of Newman excerpts at the moment. All of this so far has merely been an introduction to Pope Ratzinger's exposition of the Creed's "One, Holy, Catholic Church" , taken from his book, Introduction to Christianity. His explanation may not be what you expect:
We are tempted to say, if we are honest with ourselves, that Church is neither holy nor Catholic... The one garment of the Lord is torn between the disputing parties, the one Church divided up into many Churches, every one of which claims more or less insistently to be alone in the right. And so for many people today the Church has become the main obstacle to belief. They can no longer see in her anything but the human struggle for power, the petty spectacle of those who, with their claim to administer official Christianity, seem to stand most in the way of the true spirit of Christianity. There is no theory in existence that could compellingly refute such ideas by mere reason, just as, these ideas themselves do not proceed from reason but from the bitterness of heart that may perhaps have been disappointed in its high hopes and now, in the pain of wronged love, can see only the destruction of its hopes. How, then, are we to reply? Ultimately one can only acknowledge why can still love Church in faith, why one still dares to recognize in the distorted features the countenance of the holy Church. Nevertheless, let us start from the objective elements... The word "holy" does not apply in the first place to the holiness of human person but refers to the divine gift that bestows holiness in the midst of human unholiness. The Church is not called "holy" in the Creed because her members, collectively and individually, are holy, sinless men - this dream, which appears afresh in every century, has no place in the waking world of our text, however movingly it may express a human longing that man will never abandon until a new heaven and a new earth really grant him what this age will never give him. Even at this point we can say that the sharpest critics of the Church in our time secretly live on this dream and, when they find it disappointed, bang the door of the house shut again and denounce it as a deceit. But to return to our argument: The holiness of the Church consists in that power of sanctification which God exerts in her in spite of human sinfulness. We come up here against the real mark of the "New Covenant": in Christ, God has bound himself to men, has let himself be bound by them. The New Covenant no longer rests on the reciprocal keeping of the agreement; it is granted by God as grace that that abides even in the face of man's faithlessness. It is the expression of God's love, which will not let itself be defeated by man's incapacity but always remains well disposed to him, welcomes him again and again precisely because he is sinful, turn to him, sanctifies him, and loves him.... The Lord.. becomes present in her [the Church]... and chooses again and again as the vessel of Its presence - with a paradoxical love - the dirty hands of men... So the paradoxical figure of the Church, in which the divine so often presents itself in such unworthy hands, in which the divine is only ever present in the form of a "nevertheless", is to the faithful the sign of the "nevertheless" of the greater love shown by God. The thrilling interplay of God's loyalty and man's disloyalty that characterizes the structure of the Church is the dramatic form of grace, so to speak... One could say that precisely in her paradoxical combination of holiness and and unholiness the Church is in fact the shape taken by grace in this world. ... [God] has drawn drawn sin to himself, made it his lot, and so revealed what true "holiness" is: not separation, but union; not judgement, but redeeming love... People may well say that such words express a sickly existence - but it is part of being a Christian to accept the impossibility of autonomy and the weakness of one's own resources... rancorous bitterness [against the Church arises when] she is only regarded as a political instrument...
I will have more to say about the strange nature of this open but hidden sign in part three. Francis in his comment on part one of this little series was headed in the right direction and his post (the last part) is worth your time.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Mirror of the just man

Ecce Homo I haven't done a quote from Pope Ratzinger's Introduction to Chistianty in a while and even though I have finished the book there are still one or two passages I want to share, including - perhaps even especially - this one. When I first began to look over what Christianity teaches, to look at the gospel story and to try penetrate why it has been so compelling to so many for so long, this was one of the things that leapt out at me. I was happy to see our Pope confirm it. Expanding on the Apostles Creed where it says "... suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried," Ratzinger writes:
The fact that when the perfectly just man appeared he was crucified, delivered up by justice to death, tells us pitilessly who man is: Thou art such, man, that thou canst not bear the just man - that he who simply loves becomes a fool, a scourged criminal, an outcast. Thou art such because, unjust thyself, thou dost always need the injustice of the next man in order to feel excused and thus cannot tolerate the just man who seems to rob thee of this excuse. Such art thou. St John summarized all this in the Ecce Homo ("Look, this is [the] man!" of Pilate, which means quite fundamentally: this is how it is with man; this is man. The truth of man is his complete lack of truth. The sayings in the Pslam that every man is a liar (Ps 116 [115]: 11) and lives in some way or other against the truth already reveals how it really is with man. The truth about man is that he is continually assailing the truth; the just man crucified is thus a mirror held up to man in which he sees himself unadorned. But the Cross does not reveal only man; it also reveals God. God is such that he identifies himself with man right down into the abyss and that he judges him and saves him. In the abyss of human failure is revealed the still more inexhaustible abyss of divine love. The Cross is thus truly the center of revelation, a revelation that does not reveal any previously unknown principle but reveals us to ourselves by revealing us before God and God in our midst.
I think this is a very profound insight into what it means to be human. The Pope points out just before this passage that Plato, in his Republic, writes a something quite similar. See The Republic, book 2, 361e. "Justice in the State and the Individual." I cannot let this passage go without discussing the ideas of negative and positive liberty. Positive liberty is the belief that people need certain things in order to be free, in order to fulfill their potential. It is a view that is seems to draw on naturalistic and mechanical impression of human life. If it allows for spirit at all, it does so in a secondary sort of way. The human soul can do no more than deal with the material circumstances it finds itself in. To ensure that humans society flourishes it puts forward that various levels of goods need to be distributed and that this distribution cannot be left to chance. It suggests, in other words, that an Agent is needed to fulfill the role of just distributor and invariably the Agent chosen is large scale government - national governments, the UN, that sort of thing. Many, many Christians subscribe to this line of reasoning. If Ratzinger is correct, however, how can this be right? Human governments are made up of human agents, who are, we are told, "continually assailing the truth." I think these points of view are irreconcilable. Government has legitimate functions, but addressing issues as large as these is not among them. Giving large, sweeping powers to governments made of men as John describes them is a recipe for disaster. Witness the US Oil for Food program and countless scandals large and small. I have always favoured negative liberty, in which freedom in is considered to be freedom from unjust and unnecessary human obstacles. It contains in it the idea that human laws are prone to abuse and must be regarded with wary suspicion. It is compatible with idea of human fallibility. This is not to say that there is no need for people (in the form of government) to step in a take steps to prevent the strong from abusing the weak. Those are legitimate but when we search for solutions to problems we begin from the small and the local. When we refrain from jumping to the phrase "systemic prejudice" at every turn, we avoid needlessly giving huge, sweeping powers to the government. The powers we do grant can be abused but, being small and local, will provide less scope for the grossest sorts of abuse. That is what I think Ecce Homo tells us about human governance. There is still the question of how we are to know at what level a problem should be dealt with, and how we can attempt to minimize the need to appeal to human authority at all. For that I want to bring in another passage from Ratzinger but it will have to wait until later today.