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

Monday, January 15, 2007

Is the London Times going soft on Catholicism?

Of late, the British media have taken a deserved shellacking for their biased, ill-informed treatment of the Catholic Church. The Times appears to be doing something about that.

Last Saturday, it published an article by Brian Davies entitled "Aquinas proves atheists are closer to God than they think". Fr. Davies is an English Dominican now teaching at Fordham; I once used one of his books as the main text for an undergraduate course on the "philosophy of God." His point is simple enough: in one sense, God does not exist; in another, God is all that truly exists.

God does not "exist" because he is not one existent among others, like an apple or a number. I would put the same point this way: it would be misleading to compile an inventory of all that exists while merely including God as one of the items. That would only be a list of what can be said to be, in the sense of the existential quantifier: "There is an x such that x is ____." Rather, God is the primary cause of all that actually exists. As such, God is Being; he is not a being. As Davies puts it:

Creatures are there, right enough, but, for Aquinas, their being is derived or dependent. All that they are and do is God’s work in them. They have no reality from themselves. Creatures are temporal, finite, and caused to exist, while God is none of these things. Aquinas puts all this by saying that God’s existing does not differ from his substance, that God, and only God, exists by nature, that God is “subsistent being” while everything else “has” being — has it as given to it. You can find a similar line of thinking coming from St Anselm of Canterbury. God, he declares, is “the being who exists in a strict and absolute sense” since with Him there is nothing temporal and nothing received.

Once God be thought of in that way, it can be readily seen that what most atheists take themselves to be denying when they deny that "God" exists is not God. They are quite right to deny that God "exists" in the sense in which apples or numbers do. You will not discover God the way you discover the price of apples today or even the way scientists have discovered dark matter. You will only discover him when you recognize the radical contingency of the world of existents.

Now there are atheists, unlike the "new atheists," who know that. The relevant atheists bolster their atheism by arguing that the world—i.e., the universe we know and any others that may have been causally related to it—just is not the sort of thing whose existence is derivative. As Bertrand Russell put it: the world is just there, and that's all. But that is a very difficult point to argue for. To get the argument going, you have to place certain strictures on concepts such as causality and evidence which make it impossible in principle to say that there is evidence the world has a cause not of the world. The debate then becomes one about whether the concepts involved in arguing that God exists in that sense are coherent and otherwise workable as concepts. The question almost always ends up being begged against the theist. So I say: well done, Fr. Davies.

The other good sign of the Times is its publication yesterday of an article by Catholic convert Dawn Eden entitled "Casual sex is a con: women just aren't like men." Single at 38, having been there and done that as a groupie and media professional, Eden is more credible than a priest or a minivan mom to the kind of people who most need to hear her message. I must admit, of course, that I discovered the same truth myself through my sins: most women are more interested in bonding than in the meretricious, mutual exploitation that is casual sex. Many women who end up engaging in the latter started down that road in the hope of the former. The distinct minority of women who both live the lifestyle of casual sex and are content with it, carrying on the way some single men do and more would if they could, tend to develop hard shells that make them unattractive as people. It took Dawn a while to figure that out and dislike what she had become; many of the Manhattanites among whom she moves still haven't figured out that the Sex and the City lifestyle is spiritually empty and destructive. But the mere fact that a bastion of secularism such as the London Times would print her story, and her arguments, is a sign that sex has not completely fried the brains of sophisticated urbanites.

Now if only the New York Times would follow suit. So far, the only reference to Eden's work I have found there occurs in an article about bloggers to be found in the "Fashion and Style" section:

Earnest and well intended, “The Thrill of the Chaste” may help conscience-stricken women rein in libido. But heedless reprobates may prefer to wait for the blook of Forksplit — a lusty, foul-mouthed blog by a randy young woman who is as confused as Ms. Eden by the dating game, but makes no secret that she finds “saying yes to a man” less of a struggle.

At least the article's author admits that chastity is a reasonable lifestyle option. But there's a long way to go.

I don't know whether the London Times is going soft on Catholicism or is just trying to silence the critics before resuming the usual sneers. But we should be encouraged that the criticism has had even a short-term effect. It's a sign of what could be accomplished with persistence. If the Davies and Eden articles are sops, they are sops of a kind we could have again. Well done, Auntie Times.
blog comments powered by Disqus