"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Prayer and the Fool

I thought I'd observe the feast of St. Anselm today by pointing readers to a truly remarkable little essay by Brandon Watson on Anselm's argument for God's existence in Chapter 2 of the Proslogion. Though written three years ago, and garnering zero comment, it's well worth discussing. I'd like to initiate discussion of it here.

To that end, I'll just post the heart of it; but I caution those interested to read it all before commenting.

....the Fool either understands what he says does not exist, in which case he contradicts himself, or he does not contradict himself because he does not understand what he is saying does not exist. As Anselm says, "Even though he may say those words in his heart he will give them some other meaning or no meaning at all." So what is to be made of this?

I myself take Klima's view that the argument is sound. However, most of what I will say here does not require agreeing with me on this point. All it requires is that we ask, "Even supposing it is sound, what then?"

A sound argument is one that is logically valid and has true premises. But not all sound arguments are particularly helpful for coming to a conclusion. For instance, it is fairly easy to create arguments that are sound but that beg the question -- that is, arguments that are logically valid and have true premises, but whose premises can only be known to be true if we already accept the conclusion. When our interest is persuasion, the discovery of the truth, or anything else that relies on going from the unknown to the known or from the not-believed to the believed, we need something more than soundness. Klima argues, and I think that he's right, that the problem Anselm's argument faces is precisely at this level. Despite the fact that it is a sound argument, and shows that the atheist (the one who denies there is a God because that than which no greater can be thought does not exist) would be contradicting himself if he were seriously to reflect on that than which no greater can be thought, nonetheless it's possible to rationally reject the argument. As Anselm himself recognizes, understanding the words "that than which no greater can be thought" is not the same as having that than which no greater can be thought as an object of the understanding.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Quaestio disputanda

Divine mercy does not entail an act on God's part different from divine justice. For God offers to every human person a share in his nature (2 Peter 1:4), which we do not deserve. That is mercy inasmuch as it takes away sin, which we could never do for ourselves. The saved are those who freely and definitively accept that offer on his terms; the damned are those who freely and definitively choose to suffer rather than accept it on his terms. Both outcomes are just, but God does nothing different for the damned than for the saved. Hence on God's part, mercy and justice are the same act. But they constitute outcomes different from each other, the difference being dependent on how we choose to react to the one divine act.


Friday, April 17, 2009

Cutting to the bone

So much has been happening lately in the spheres which interest me that I have hardly known where to begin writing. I'll just start with three of the most egregious events as the set-up act for the big one.

I'm amused by Homeland Security's classification of pro-life activists as "right-wing extremists" and of returning combat veterans as potential "terrorists." Only dogmatic liberals could view that as more than ideological boilerplate. But I'm sickened by Notre Dame's bestowing an honorary J.D. on a president who thinks that outlawing even partial-birth abortion is incompatible with what the Supreme Court has said the Constitution means. This is the newest low since The Vagina Monologues was allowed to be performed on campus for what used to be called Valentine's Day, a holiday whose politically-correct designation is now 'V-Day'. With Ralph McInerny retiring from the philosophy department after 54 years, I have even less use for the place. By all means read his little jeremiad Is Obama Worth a Mass? Indeed we know what Jesus said about salt which has lost its savor.

I'm actually less sickened by the hue and cry over the Pope's remarks about the perennial AIDS-condom issue. Every few years or so, the media broadcast the charge that the Vatican is guilty of mass murder for opposing the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV infection in Africa. Now even if condom use were generally effective for that purpose, it takes only a moment's reflection to expose the recurring charge as ludicrous. Surely anybody can figure out that the number of AIDS-infected people who take Catholic teaching seriously enough to avoid using condoms, but not seriously enough to avoid sex with uninfected partners, has got to be pretty close to nil. In any case, all the Pope said was that passing out condoms en masse is more likely to be part of the problem than of the solution. Even the research from Harvard agrees—much to its author's chagrin, I'm told. What is the freakin' problem here? It's not that hard to understand. People who believe in what was called, during the 60s and 70s, "the sexual revolution" can't imagine that abstinence is a more humane and effective prophylactic than latex. That's because they can't imagine truly voluntary abstinence at all. Thus, if somebody capable of sexual activity and attractive enough to have a partner is abstinent, that must be because some malign force—such as mental illness, a controlling paterfamilias, or a religious hierarchy—is coercing them to avoid sex. That view is a prejudice which explains a lot of other attitudes as well. The latest hue and cry about the Pope, and the outrage against the Harvard report, only confirms the liveliness of the prejudice. But I'm more amused than sickened. And I thank God the salt's savor is likely to increase in quarters such as in the Archdiocese of New York under the newly installed Timothy Dolan.

Yet all the nasty things happening in society and the Church come down, I believe, to a culpably ignorant repetition of the sin committed at the very dawn of humanity. And I can't help feeling that the day of judgment is at hand.

The bone I want to cut to is described in the following few lines from an otherwise pedestrian article on pastoral strategy by an earnest Paulist priest:

We have to use tools that respond to the criterion that most people, de facto, use for religion today (whether we like it or not) -- experience. What people see, feel and get involved with constitutes the criterion of faith today. Faith (as modern Americans construe it) is not some objective reality into which they feel they should fit; rather, faith is the way people choose to assemble their ideals, in accord with the force or thrust of those ideals.

Again, we may wish this was not so, but it is. Just look at the proliferation of so-called ''non denominational'' churches -- they are a Rorschach for the multiple kinds of expressions of faith we Americans keep inventing for ourselves. The criterion for all of this? Experience. ''This is what I (want to) feel or think.''

That, my friends, presents the basic spiritual problem from which all of America's ecclesial and social ills flow. I wonder whether the author knew that when he wrote those words. I rather doubt he did, but I hope he comes to see it's so.

Think more deeply for a moment about the sentence I've bolded. Now think of Eve in the Garden as the serpent slithers and glitters before her. He tells Eve that she will not die if she eats the fruit of the "tree of knowledge of good and evil"; instead he asserts that God made such a false threat so as to keep her from becoming like God, "knowing good and evil." Eve sees that the fruit is a delight the eyes and fit for gaining wisdom. She concludes that eating it would be good for her; thus, she believes the serpent and disbelieves God. And so "faith is no longer an objective reality" into which she feels she must "fit," namely the objective reality of God and his will. She eats the fruit and induces her spineless husband, who should have prevented her from doing so, to eat it too. Faith has now become "the way people choose to assemble their ideals, in accord with the force or thrust of those ideals." And indeed the couple don't die: not physically, not right away. But they see they are naked and cover themselves in shame. Meant to be one body, in complete harmony with God and each other, they have lost their innocence. Now they are something of a threat to each other, and they experience God as a threat to them both. They fear and hide from him who made them and provided for them. For they know they have disobeyed him. They have died spiritually, and they will soon learn what that means.

Although the names 'Adam' and 'Eve' are obviously mythical, and the literal time and place of the Fall impossible to discover by research, such has always been the condition of fallen humanity. It is the condition from which God the Son came to redeem us. Christendom used to know that. But Christendom no longer exists. So, we are forgetting what the Fall was and, instead, are elevating the serpent's original falsehood to the status of principle.

That is why SCOTUS said in 1992, and was believed almost without question when it repeated in 2003: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." That's exactly the right our first parents claimed for themselves. Satan would have us think that makes them heroes, and many who call themselves Christians agree with him. But their Fall is the root of our problems. Given freedom for love—love of God, of each other, of the rest of creation—the first couple grasped freedom from the guideposts of love. The world has been full of lies and murder ever since.

For our day and hour, the above is why Barack Obama can blithely say that the question of the fetus' humanity is "above my pay grade" as he awaits the opportunity to sign FOCA into law. That is why marriage has become, under civil law, the only important contract that can be broken unilaterally with impunity, even reward. Now that marriage is such a legal monster, more and more people think it possible, even necessary, to make it an absolute farce: to redefine marriage so as to make the sex of the spouses irrelevant. That conceit has a common cause with what explains why the birth rate is falling below replacement level in almost all "developed" countries. Freedom from real love is also why we think we may produce human beings in vitro while discarding many of them as useless. And I'm omitting here a lot of other, apparently unrelated evils that bother more people than the ones I've cited. It's all about the imperial self in each of us. But we don't see that because, like Adam and Eve, we'd rather blame those other imperial selves over there.

So, I don't just see original sin anymore. Original sin is a state we inherit, not an act we commit. It is the state of deprivation of that divine grace we were given primordially. That state has the effect of physical death for us all and spiritual death for those who are not in some degree of communion with the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church. But what I also see now is actual, collective repetition of the first sin. That is only to be expected of the world at large; but we see it even in the Church, in the form described by that good, "pastoral" Paulist priest. It's why "cafeteria Catholicism" is now the rule not the exception. It's why only a remnant will survive the next great chastisement spiritually intact. The Church's flesh will have been cut to the bone.

Monday, April 13, 2009

If Christ be not risen...

In this year of St. Paul, it's worth noting for the Easter season something he says about the Resurrection: "If Christ be not risen, our faith is vain and we are the most pitiable of men" (1 Cor 15: 14). That statement is just as fitting today as when Paul made it. The Western world as a whole is sliding into a new paganism as hopeless as that of late antiquity. Even the U.S., still a "religous" country, is headed down the same path as Europe and Canada; we're just not as far along yet, but the secularist rot is clearly setting in. Many "theologians"—i.e., professors of various academic disciplines pursued within theology departments—treat the Resurrection as theory not history. In such a cynical, sterile environment, it is fitting that the Pope transmits Paul's message in the following paragraphs from his urbi et orbi address last week:

The resurrection, then, is not a theory, but a historical reality revealed by the man Jesus Christ by means of his “Passover”, his “passage”, that has opened a “new way” between heaven and earth (cf. Heb 10:20). It is neither a myth nor a dream, it is not a vision or a utopia, it is not a fairy tale, but it is a singular and unrepeatable event: Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary, who at dusk on Friday was taken down from the Cross and buried, has victoriously left the tomb. In fact, at dawn on the first day after the Sabbath, Peter and John found the tomb empty. Mary Magdalene and the other women encountered the risen Jesus. On the way to Emmaus the two disciples recognized him at the breaking of the bread. The Risen One appeared to the Apostles that evening in the Upper Room and then to many other disciples in Galilee.

The proclamation of the Lord’s Resurrection lightens up the dark regions of the world in which we live. I am referring particularly to materialism and nihilism, to a vision of the world that is unable to move beyond what is scientifically verifiable, and retreats cheerlessly into a sense of emptiness which is thought to be the definitive destiny of human life. It is a fact that if Christ had not risen, the “emptiness” would be set to prevail. If we take away Christ and his resurrection, there is no escape for man, and every one of his hopes remains an illusion. Yet today is the day when the proclamation of the Lord’s resurrection vigorously bursts forth, and it is the answer to the recurring question of the sceptics, that we also find in the book of Ecclesiastes: “Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’?” (Ec 1:10). We answer, yes: on Easter morning, everything was renewed. “Mors et vita, duello conflixere mirando: dux vitae mortuus, regnat vivus – Death and life have come face to face in a tremendous duel: the Lord of life was dead, but now he lives triumphant.” This is what is new! A newness that changes the lives of those who accept it, as in the case of the saints. This, for example, is what happened to Saint Paul.

Most of us are not saints and do not experience what Paul did. We get knocked off our horses and blinded, but we do not hear the risen Lord himself asking us why we persecute him or telling us which Christian house will be the place where we come to our senses. To be sure, it is a commonplace of preaching and spiritual writing to claim that committed disciples will and ought to undergo much "dying and rising" in the course of their journeys of faith. And that is true. But without faith, it will not serve either to hear that or undergo it; for "without faith one cannot be saved." And that faith would be vain if the Lord did not rise as the Apostles and the current pontiff say.

The Resurrection has everything to do with history, even with evolution, on which the "new atheists" stake their worldview. In his Easter-Vigil homily three years ago, the Pope preached:

Of what exactly does this "rising" consist? What does it mean for us, for the whole world and the whole of history? A German theologian once said ironically that the miracle of a corpse returning to life - if it really happened, which he did not actually believe - would be ultimately irrelevant precisely because it would not concern us. In fact, if it were simply that somebody was once brought back to life, and no more than that, in what way should this concern us? But the point is that Christ’s Resurrection is something more, something different. If we may borrow the language of the theory of evolution, it is the greatest "mutation", absolutely the most crucial leap into a totally new dimension that there has ever been in the long history of life and its development: a leap into a completely new order which does concern us, and concerns the whole of history.

The Resurrection is the "great mutation" pointing to what we are destined for and making it possible. We are animals destined to become gods; but God himself had to make the transition so that we can. It is up to each of us to choose whether to hitch that ride or not. We can choose to see ourselves merely as animals with a better computer in the cranium, or we can treat that status as the biological base for a great transformation that animals and computers cannot make.

If we choose the former, we will eventually destroy ourselves: we will effect, as CS Lewis said, the "abolition of man." For our power over Nature will increasingly become that of "some men over others with Nature as its instrument," and those wielding such power will acknowledge no higher norms than their own appetites. We will have "evolved" into a particularly savage animal hierarchy. If we choose the latter, we will be spared none of the difficulties of life. But we will be able to bear them as instruments for being taken up, obediently, into the life of infinite love himself.

Our hope, then, lies in receiving divinity as a gift rather than striving to be gods while denying God. Even the God-man received it as such, from all eternity and by being raised. He is thus "the source of eternal life for all who obey him" (Heb 5:9). To obey him, though, we need to believe he lives as a transformed man even now. Otherwise he is an abstraction, the kind of god who leaves us alone, the kind many seem to want. But of abstractions the world has more than enough.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Descending into hell

Today is a good day to meditate on two kinds of descent into hell: the kind some people undergo by refusing to repent of serious sin, and the unique one that Jesus undertook after his death. The key is to remember that the latter is part of the remedy for the former.

Commenting on earlier sources, Ephesians 4:8-9 does after all read: "Therefore, it says: "He ascended on high and took prisoners captive; he gave gifts to men." What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended into the lower (regions) of the earth?"(NAB translation). The idea is that the ascent and descent are all part of the same process of redemption. Many Christians don't seem to know what to make of that. What little we can make of it, indeed of the very nature of the Atonement, is mysterious enough. But that doesn't mean we can't benefit from meditating on the mystery.

The Apostles' Creed echoes Ephesians in saying that Jesus descended into the underworld. In English, said destination is often translated as 'hell', from the Latin infernum, the same word used in the Western tradition for the place of sempiternal punishment. But, I am told, the Greek text is the original and echoes the scripture verse just cited. Thus the earliest extant "creed," itself an expansion of a still-earlier baptismal formula, metaphorically describes a complex reality which most modern Christians barely pause to consider. The received doctrine, no doubt true as far as it goes, is that the place in question of "the limbo of the fathers," i.e. of our fathers in faith who lived before the time of Christ. An ancient homily even has Jesus, having descended to the underworld after his death, preaching to and liberating Adam himself. That's in keeping with John 12: 32's reference to the Crucifixion: "When I am lifted up, I will draw all men to myself." His "lifting up" on the Cross—an event which, to the ancient mind, was supremely humiliating—is also the first stage of his "glorification." That glorification continues with Jesus' descent after his death. But that should tell us that the further descent ad infernum is not just glory and triumph. It is descent and dereliction, for it is part of the Passion as a whole: and the glory consists in a love willing to reach down to us even as far as that. In fact, the descent into hell is the completion of the Son's loving descent on our behalf: the very descent by which he "became sin" (2 Cor 5:21) for us so that we might be freed from slavery to sin.

I came to think that way by reading Hans Urs von Balthasar. As far as I know, only he among major theologians has thought hard about all this. According to my own interpretation (which, along with several dollars, will get you a latté), his argument was that, in order to complete our redemption, Jesus had to experience what it's like to be alienated from God even though he could not, objectively speaking, ever have ceased being in communion with the Father. Given the patristic dictum "whatever is not assumed is not redeemed," Jesus had to "assume" all the effects of sin while being sinless. That's how he could "become sin" without sinning. So it wasn't enough that our Immortal King became sin by dying, in a supremely humiliating way, as a condemned criminal. He had to become sin by going to the furthest place from heaven one could go: "the lower reaches" where the souls of the dead were imprisoned. But because his is an unconquerable love, Jesus's presence in such an apparently desperate place was a victory for him and for the souls of the just abiding there. They greeted Jesus with joy and were liberated. Tradition does not say how the souls of the unjust greeted him. It doesn't have to. They are there to stay. But that is not for want of divine love manifested to them. The same, I believe, has been true ever since.

Some who pride themselves on their orthodoxy suspect that von Balthasar's speculation about the descent into hell is heretical. There was a dustup about that in First Things last year, calmly and judiciously reviewed by Richard Reno, who provides links to it. In my own view, such a suspicion overlooks the pattern of descent-as-ascent that is so clear in St. John. There is no contradiction in saying that Jesus achieved the best by experiencing the worst, even emotionally. He didn't just quote Psalm 22 in saying on the Cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" He felt that. But in due course he got his answer because, in the economy of salvation, the two go hand in hand.

And so it is for us, to the extent we get serious about following him. It is as much in our weaknesses and failures, our sufferings deserved and undeserved, as in our virtues and successes that our loving Savior abides with us. His power is most manifest when we are powerless. I cannot always remember that when I contemplate the great failures and disappointments of my life. I feel very far from God at such times, when I am not even grateful for the gift of life. Sometimes, in my impatience with reality, I don't even remember it amid my lesser weaknesses and disappointments. The least I can do tonight, whens I enter the church in darkness for the Easter Vigil service, is to offer such failures with the petition that I remember to remember that He has been through it all, and worse.