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

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Another item from the plus ça change department

A recent article by Sandro Magister at Chiesa includes the following description of the Curia made by Pope Paul VI, explaining his far-reaching reform of that institution back in 1967: ...a pretentious and sluggish bureaucracy, entirely wrapped in rule and ritual, a breeding ground for ambition and sordid antagonism. Couldn't have said it better myself. Like banks and taxes, the Curia is just one of those necessary evils that Catholics learn to accept for want of a plausible and attractive alternative. But what's the point of bringing that up now?

Magister is disappointed that Pope Benedict XVI, a long-time Curial veteran of decidedly uncurial temperament, has not launched what ecclesiastical politicians and journalists had widely anticipated would be his equally far-reaching reform of the Curia. Never having really expected such a reform, I am not disappointed. A man of Ratzinger's age who does the many things he already does just doesn't have time and energy for the infighting, as bitter as it would be petty, that serious Curial reform would doubtless entail. The result is that the Curia remains pretty much what it's always been, which is pretty much what Paul VI said. This is another one of those intractable embarrassments for the Church like, e.g., the proportion of homosexuals in the celibate priesthood, which is and probably always has been substantially higher than in the general population. But such embarrassments can actually be good for the Church.

In general terms, they remind us that she is not our Church but Christ's. He does her real work; the best we can do is to get our pride, greed, vanity, and lust out of the way long enough to serve as his willing instruments. As Ratzinger observed in his book Called to Communion, the priesthood depends on "self-dispossession;" I would add that that observation holds as much for the priesthood of believers as for the ordained priesthood. Humanity being what it is, that means in practice that Christ will work as much in spite of Christians as because of them. Along with that of its small-scale counterparts in chanceries throughout the world, the nature of the Roman Curia reminds us of precisely that fact.

That reminds me in turn of an argument that helped mightily to preserve me from apostasy in youth. Commenting on the Magister article, Phil Blosser recounts the argument well:

I'm reminded of the words of the 14th century Jewish merchant, Abraham, about the church in Rome to the Archbishop of Paris after returning from a business trip to Rome in Boccaccio's Decameron: "No earthly business that stupid and corrupt could last fourteen weeks. Your Church has lasted fourteen centuries. It must have God behind it."

Phil remarks: Miserere Domine. I note that all prayers imploring mercy from God are merely attempts on our part to dispose ourselves to receive what he is delighted to bestow.

Dealing with the Dawkins gang II

In the combox to my June 12 post Dealing with the Dawkins Gang, a commenter named "arensb" raised objections that he still believes have gone unanswered. Since I find them worth answering, if only for the assumptions they reveal, I shall do so here.

Although the main target of arensb's objections is philosopher Alvin Plantinga's critique of Dawkins' "many-worlds" theory, one of his main objections is to a common theistic doctrine that Plantinga himself has criticized: the doctrine of divine simplicity ('DDS' for short), most notably expounded by St. Thomas Aquinas. As formulated in response to Edward DeVita's defense of Aquinas, arensb's objection is expressed thus (emphasis added):

God is supposed to have designed and created the universe, as well as life on Earth. He is supposed to be conscious, intelligent, to hear and answer prayers, and so forth. All of this implies a brain, sensory organs, hands, etc. (or something equivalent). This is not a simple being.

The above objection assumes that the powers attributed to God by classical theism are to be understood, conceptually, in just the same way as the corresponding powers in us. On this account, if a given entity B is "conscious" and "intelligent" and can "answer prayers," then B must have "a brain, sensory organs," etc. In other words, a conscious and intelligent entity must be embodied and thus material; if so, of course, then no such entity could be "simple," in the sense of 'simple' invoked by Aquinas: not composed of parts. Essentially, then, arensb is holding that the concept of pure spirit is conceptually incoherent. So of course there can be no such thing as analogical use of terms like 'conscious', 'intelligent', etc. which, as such, could apply to a non-material yet actual entity—i.e., to a pure spirit.

Clearly, such an assumption is incompatible with classical theism in general as well as with Aquinas' use of analogical predication re God in particular. But no reason is given why we ought to share that assumption. For the reasons already exhibited, it is taken for granted that Aquinas and classical theists are talking nonsense when they predicate consciousness, intelligence, etc. of God analogically. The stance behind that attitude is a radically empiricist philosophy of language, according to which the meaning of a predicative term is a rule for its use, which in turn can be specified only with reference to empirically describable realities. But invoking such an assumption against classical theism is an exercise in pure question-begging. And that typifies many arguments made by "the Dawkins gang" generally.

Thus, arensb also objects to Plantinga's critique of Dawkins' "many-universes" proposal. According to that proposal, one could explain the existence of our universe as that of one of countlessly many universes that could, and perhaps do, result from some initial state or singularity. Now I believe Plantinga is quite correct to reply, in effect, that even if there are countlessly many such "universes," of which ours is only one, the sort of question in response to which God as creator can be adduced an answer would remain just as it is. My own way of putting the matter is this: the question is not why this universe as distinct from others exists, but why the world exists at all, where 'the world' is the totality of things that undergo real change. If we grant as fact the speculation that there are multiple universes, the question as I pose it remains just as it is—for all the universes in question would belong to said "totality." Indeed, in such a case my question is actually more directly applicable to said multiplicity of universes than it is to any particular such universe. So, Plantinga is right that the many-universes theory misses the point. It does not address the real question to which God as creator can be and has been adduced as an answer. The only way for the atheist as such to deal with that question is to define such terms as 'world' and 'explanation' in a way that would rule out the question. And that, in effect, is what the Dawkins gang does.

While that stance certainly poses a challenge to theists as evangelizers, it does not constitute a philosophical objection to classical theism. It merely represents a decision to talk about these matters from within a purely empiricist, materialistic standpoint. Of course, empiricists and materialists often say that the decision is well-founded because, unlike religion, natural science includes agreed-upon methods for resolving disagreements. But the argument that we ought to limit our knowledge-claims to claims of that kind is a moral one. That's really the sphere where the discussion needs to move forward.

The courage of the disciple

It doesn't have to be glamorous; usually, it isn't. Here's an example: a young mother, with the love that comes from God, keeping her child of rape.

HT to Letters from a Young Catholic.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Islam and Christianity

There's an excellent blog of the above title authored by "a Christian living in the Middle East." I know the man from Pontifications days to be highly educated and committed. His observations are generally trenchant and illuminating, though many would not avoid scholarly and/or polemical quibbling. Check it out.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The irrelevance of relevance

When I was young, there was much talk of making Catholicism and the Church "relevant" to the modern world. Vatican II's last major document was its "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World." 'Relevant' was quite a buzzword in Sixties secular culture; its use went with a kind of optimism arising from an almost unquestined assumption that what we were supposed to be relevant to, i.e., contemporary culture and mores, was both good and exciting. Back then, it seemed self-evidently important that anything and everything be "relevant."

Yet by the time I had some college, I found it rather odd that so many priests and religious went in for the relevance shtik. It seemed that the Church was "opening to the world" precisely when the world—at least as I had been experiencing it—was going crazy. I concluded, again from experience, that all the insistence on relevance was mostly about sex: specifically, the repudiation of sexual morality. Surely the results wrought in liturgy, I thought, couldn't have sustained anybody's interest for very long. Nothing that's happened since has caused me to revise such conclusions; but there is a broader intellectual lesson to be learned.

In a paper referenced by James V. Schall, SJ, theologian Tracey Rowland said of one of my favorite Catholic authors:

What Chesterton understood was that it was precisely one of the great graces of the Catholic Church that she makes it possible for people, poor as well as rich, to transcend their cultural limitations, to rise above their cultural poverty and be citizens, or rather subjects, of an eternal city. The effect of the Church on the culture of the world, and in particular on the life of ‘common man,’ ought to be ennobling, ought to be affirming of an aristocratic status as a child of God, as a member of a royal priesthood, a people set apart. This does not happen when mass culture is ‘baptised’ by its use in the liturgy or when its idioms are taken to wrap the Church’s doctrines. Contrary to the rationale behind such pastoral projects, their ultimate effect is not to make the Church relevant to the modern world, but to make it indistinguishable from the modern world, and this in turn makes it completely irrelevant.

That's it! The "ultimate effect" of trying to make the Church "relevant" in the ways taken for granted in so many quarters since Vatican II has been to make the Church "indistinguishable from the modern world," and thus supremely irrelevant. All one gets in progressive Catholicism is a timid, mediocre version of what's already out there—and what's out there contains a lot more bad than good.

Mind you, I don't believe the alternative is "traditionalism," as that ideology is currently espoused in some Catholic circles. The late, great historian of doctrine Jaroslav Pelikan rightly called that sort of thing "the dead faith of the living." The alternative is the recovery of Tradition, what he called "the living faith of the dead." Tradition, and a lively sense of it in morality, spirituality, and liturgy, is what makes us "a holy nation, a royal priesthood, a people set apart." Therein consists our relevance.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The essential "I"

Elliot Bougis offers a philosophical criticism of my paper The Problems of Evil, invoking a common conception of personal identity that I believe is seriously mistaken. It's worth pointing out what's at stake.

In PofE, I argued that

....there is no reason to believe that this world's innocents would be better off for being spared disproportionate suffering than they are by undergoing it. For in the sort of world where innocents would be spared such suffering, the innocents of this particular world could not have existed at all. Whether innocent or not, we are fragile creatures subject to the mischances of nature and other peoples' failings. In particular, none of us today would have come into being if the sorts of physical and moral evils that cause disproportionate suffering had not contributed to our ancestry. Hence, a world in which suffering precisely matched desert would not be a world in which the actual descendants of the first couple could have existed. Such a world might have contained rational creatures, even humans, but not you and me. Hence, the price of preventing or eliminating the disproportionate suffering of actual human beings would have been denying us existence altogether.

Elliot asks: "How do you differentiate between a person's created essence and his historical reality in this argument?" And the import of that question seems clear, at least to him:

Couldn't I (in essentia) have existed nine hundred years ago in Sweden? If I am, necessarily, a result of a given state of affairs, aren't God's hands tied? Couldn't I have existed in a world in which Hitler never did? If he has to allow certain evils to produce me, then doesn't he have to allow certain diachronic evils to produce the final good? That may be true, but something in it smacks of theistic necessitarianism (not mention anthropological historical determinism). If God always, by nature, wills the greatest good, then it seems he MUST always will the good in a certain way.

To raise such a difficulty is to suppose two things: that (1) my "created essence" is distinct from my "historical reality," and that (2) on my account, God always by nature wills the greatest good.

My response is that both (1) and (2) are ambiguous. In the senses in which they are true, they are irrelevant; in the senses in which they relevant, they are false.

In (1), the phrase 'my created essence' can refer either to what I am, i.e. the sort of entity I am, a human being, or to who I am, i.e. what distinguishes me in particular both from other human beings and from myself at any given stage of change. Now in terms of what I am, my created essence is obviously distinct from my historical reality. One's being an instance of humanity does not, by itself, tell us anything about me in particular; it only tells us what sort of entity I am, which in turn tells us nothing about my concrete historical reality. But nothing in my argument requires otherwise, nor does the truth in question affect my argument. Now if we take the phrase 'my created essence' to mean who I am, there's also a sense in which who I am is distinct from my concrete historical reality: I remain who I am despite all sorts of changes, such as age, virtue, experience, weight, amount of hair, etc. But that doesn't affect the argument either. What Elliot is really suggesting is that I can be who I am without having come to be as I have, i.e. by sexual intercourse between my parents at a particular time and place, in virtue of which there came to be a human being with this set of genes and dispositions as opposed to other, equally conceivable ones. If that suggestion were correct, then the sort of argument I've made above could not succeed. For God would be under no constraint to create me through the physical means by which I have come to be; and if so, then I could not maintain that "in the sort of world where innocents would be spared [disproportionate] suffering, the innocents of this particular world could not have existed at all."

Another distinction is needed here. It is indeed not absolutely necessary for God to create by secondary causes. God could have created without secondary causes—though it's hard to understand how, as opposed to stipulating that, a collection of entities which do not help cause each other to be would constitute a world. But given that God creates a world in which secondary causes are the ordinary means by which the particular constituents of that world come to be, it is hypothetically necessary that who I am depend in part on how I came to be. For what I am includes being a body of a certain sort, such that after the first instances of bodies of that sort, it is a causally necessary condition of being a body of that sort that one be constituted partly by inheritance from other bodies of that sort. God could of course have decreed that embodied, rational creatures come to be by some other means, or even without secondary causes at all; but such creatures would not be of just the same sort as we. Given how God has designed the universe, who I am includes, without being limited to, having come to be in a certain sort of way, which includes having had the parents I have, of whom the same is true in their turn. And so, while there are senses in which my created essence is distinct from my historical reality, that is not so in a sense that undermines my argument.

Elliot's (2) ignores a similar distinction between absolute and hypothetical necessity. According to Aquinas, given the kind of world God has created, there is a sense in which God "by nature wills the greatest good." Thus, given the kinds of entities the world contains, i.e. the constituents of the world, the composition of the world, i.e. its overall structure (whatever that is), must be optimal: the best possible for that set of constituents. But it does not follow that God must create, or even has created, the best possible set of constitutents. Such a notion is indeed arguably incoherent. For any creature is finite; and for whatever finite creature you pick, there's always some respect in which it could be better. God could always have created a more perfect kind of thing, similar in kind to the thing there is; and for whatever actual, individual thing you pick, there's always a respect in which it could be better relative to its kind.

Given as much, the hypothetical necessity by which God wills the best possible outcome for this world actually strengthens my argument. One could of course reply, as some have, that the sort of world in which innocents suffer disproportionately was not worth creating. But as I've said, we lack the standpoint from which we could know that. To say that is nothing but God's reply to Job.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Closing the barn door

Today during Mass at Belmont Abbey, the celebrant and homilist read to us a letter from the North Carolina bishops, Peter Jugis of Charlotte and Michael Burbidge of Raleigh, urging us to convey to our legislators our opposition to the bill pending in the legislature to fund embryonic-stem-cell research (ESCR). (The text of that letter may be found here, but the format requires Internet Explorer.) The same issue pends yet again in Washington, where Congress will yet again pass, and the President will yet again veto, a similar bill. Two observations go without saying: the bishops are correct, and many Catholics will neither agree nor understand why. The latter evinces a still deeper problem which, far from going without saying, is barely recognized by the bishops or indeed by most observers. The problem is that the bishops are closing the barn door long after the horses have escaped. This needs to be brought to the fore as the sort of problem explaining many of the American Church's failures.

Educated Catholics of a certain stripe know why, for example, in vitro fertilization (IVF) is immoral. The teaching is summarized for all to see in the Catechism; the deeper theological explanation is given in a CDF document written principally by then-Cardinal Ratzinger about twenty years ago. But many Catholics accept IVF for infertile couples as a matter of course. Many of those do not even know the Church's teaching; some of the more educated among them do know it but reject it along with its rationale. It gets worse. The most recent poster children, as it were, for the new genetic-screening technique of "pre-natal diagnosis" (PND) are a nominally Catholic couple; yet according to Church teaching, PND is wrong for the same reasons that ESCR is wrong, and even more blatantly so. Most Catholics know little of that and care less. Yet there's no reason to believe that things would have turned out differently if the bishops had slammed the barn door shut sooner—say, twenty years ago.

Almost as soon as it was issued nearly forty years ago, amid the upheavals associated with Vatican II, the majority of Catholics rejected Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae reaffirming the ancient and irreformable teaching about contraception. Never having been taken to task for that, the laity continue to act accordingly even though HV's teaching is reiterated without compromise in the CCC. And once people accept the idea that procreation may be actively excluded from sexual intercourse, they start losing the ability to see why it's wrong to procreate without sexual intercourse. It's a matter of spiritual if not formal logic. Once Catholics get comfortable with the illusion that the constant and irreformable teaching of the Church can be ignored with spiritual impunity, things fall apart fast indeed.

Over the past generation, the divorce rate among Catholics has increased, and the marriage rate has declined, roughly in tandem with those rates in the general U.S. population. In fact, the majority of Catholics no more accept and live by the Church's developed theology of marriage than most non-Catholics. Yet for reasons that make practical sense, the bishops require that a civil divorce be completed before a nullity petition may be brought before a diocesan tribunal. That policy has had the unintended effect of reinforcing, even among many devout Catholics, the idea that divorce is just one of the many necessary evils that mature adults must learn to live with. Now that unilateral, so-called "no-fault" divorce is the norm, the idea in question causes many ostensibly Catholic marriages to be abandoned without sufficient reason even when one spouse is opposed to the idea, and leads the spouse initiating the divorce to expect vindication by the Church in due course and as a matter of course. I know by direct, firsthand experience as well as by observation that that expectation is usually justified. So, despite the best of intentions, the Church has become complicit in the divorce culture and thus in the disintegration of the family that, proceeding ever apace, heralds deep social decline.

I do not say these things to be critical of the bishops as individual men. I have great respect for Bishop Jugis and for a good number of other American bishops—especially that relative handful who, like Jugis, have put themselves on the line by directing their priests not to give the Eucharist to "pro-choice" Catholic politicians. But even the best bishops don't seem to grasp the significance of the fact that, for most American Catholics, the moral teaching of the Church is mostly just a matter of opinion—one that, as such, admits a variety of opinions. That attitude is pellucidly reflected in the response of some CINO Congresspersons to the Pope's recent claim that politicians who formally cooperate in abortion, by making and/or keeping abortion legal, are unworthy to receive the Eucharist. Those legislators were only reflecting the default stance of most American Catholics. Until that default stance is changed, anything the bishops say about political issues bearing great moral import will only be preaching to the converted. It will not have the educative effect they intend.

It's not much of a challenge to issue statements that are true and justified, such as the recent statements of the bishops about proposed ESCR legislation. The challenge is to get Catholics to understand that the moral tenets involved are not merely matters of opinion. The challenge, in other words, is to re-establish the moral authority of the Church. The sex-abuse scandal made that still more difficult in a society where it had already become difficult. The only solution is the example of conspicuous fidelity and holiness in the clergy, especially the higher clergy. How that is to come about, I cannot say. But unless and until it does, nothing the bishops say or do as a body will have much effect.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Ten Commandments for Drivers?

My least favorite curial loose cannon, Cardinal Renato Martino, has really outdone himself this time. In his capacity as head of the office for the "pastoral care of migrants and itinerant people," he has issued Ten Commandments for Drivers—in Italian of course, apparently hoping to protect his vulnerable charges from the crazy drivers even more prevalent in Rome than in Boston.

It should go without saying that the people who are most in need of the good prelate's advice are those least likely to heed it. I live in an area teeming with young drivers, such as the depicted, who break every one of the new "commandments" and then some. The few such drivers in the wider world who might actually know what Cardinal Martino thinks wouldn't care. And most other people who would care probably don't need to hear it begin with.

Why such ecclesiastical fatuity? Beyond a misplaced sense of self-importance, perhaps its larger purpose is to provide material for intentional humorists. You gotta love this explanation of where the idea came from!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Rushdie thing

I was delighted to learn a few days ago that Salman Rushdie, a middling novelist with a glamorous young wife as famous as he, has been made a Knight of the Realm by Queen Elizabeth II. I was even more delighted when, amid the predictable outrage from the usual quarters, the British Government calmly rejected the suggestion that the Queen's act was an inexcusable incitement to what would be perfectly excusable terrorism.

I have read The Satanic Verses, the novel that earned Rushdie an assassination fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 and cemented the Umma's loathing for him ever since. It's a good read, but I wouldn't call it a classic either. The man obviously hates the Islam in which he was raised in Bombay, and used the novel to vent that hatred. I am told by a true man of letters that the quality of Rushdie's work has declined over the years. I don't doubt it. People animated by hatred generally spend their spirits, and therefore their creativity, if not in hate than in more subtly corrosive ways. So I can't blame Muslims for loathing him and resenting the honor that's just been bestowed on him. But that hardly matters. What really matters is that, with this act, the relevant powers-that-be have given notice that they are not quite resigned to being dhimmified.

Literary types support Rushdie almost to a person. Some have even complained that Rushdie was not honored in some fashion sooner. That's probably why the committee that proposes candidates for knighthood proposed him; indeed he's always enjoyed the support and protection of the British establishment. That is a good thing even though he's now living in New York, which has a lesser concentration of Muslims than London and thus fewer Muslims who would be happy to kill him. (The way New Yorkers generally feel about radical Islam as a result of 9/11 also gives him a congenial sea to swim in.) But why isn't this stick in the Islamist eye extended on other matters too? Too many among the well-educated, not merely the artistically inclined, still seem to think that while everybody should enjoy enough freedom of speech to blaspheme Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, it is unduly "insensitive" to blaspheme the Prophet Muhammad or even to support the right of Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men. To such folk and others, I say: use this occasion to wake up. Demand what the Pope calls "reciprocity" and settle for nothing less. If you don't, you may find that you've lost World War III before you knew it was being fought.

Monday, June 18, 2007

A Jewish scholar's "argument with the Pope"

In his latest book Jesus of Nazareth, the Pope devotes over a dozen pages to engaging the thought of prominent Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner, especially as that thought is expressed in his 1993 book A Rabbi Talks with Jesus. Anybody who, like me, has pursued "religious studies" in a secular university will know Neusner's name if not his actual work, if only because he has accomplished the enviable feat of having published more than Fr. Andrew Greeley while being only slightly less controversial. Neusner responds to Ratzinger in an article that was republished and commented on last week by Sandro Magister. Having myself recently sparked a surprisingly bitter debate about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, I find the exchange's combination of frankness and civility most worthwhile.

The passage from Neusner's article I find most striking is one about Jesus himself:

He claimed to reform and to improve: "You have heard it said... but I say..." We maintain, and I argued in my book, that the Torah was and is perfect and beyond improvement, and the Judaism built upon the Torah and the Prophets and Writings, the originally-oral parts of the Torah written down in the Mishna, Talmud, and Midrash – that Judaism was and remains God's will for humanity.

What Neusner says Jews maintain about the Torah sounds to me very much like what Protestant fundamentalists say about "Scripture," or what Orthodox believers say about Scripture-and-the Fathers, over against the claims of the Catholic Church. For it seems to me that the sort of retrospective abduction you find in NT interpretation of the OT, to which Jews strongly object, is what you get in RC "development of doctrine" vis-à-vis Scripture and the Fathers, to which conservative non-Catholic Christians equally strongly object. Thus, the way the Catholic Church has come to understand our appropriation of divine revelation is found objectionable in the same way that Neusner finds Jesus' claim to complete divine revelation objectionable.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Father's Day: a blessing and a warning

The Lord Jesus reminded us that the Father—uniquely his father, yet also ours—showers his most obvious blessings on good and bad people alike. God is to be thanked for such sublime indifference to our conceptions of justice. The Deity's infinitely liberal fecundity, which befits his Perfect Goodness, is not only the source of creation but the paradigm of fatherhood. The latter in turn is a gift and privilege that men share with God himself even as angels do not. Such co-creation of lives destined for eternal life is one of the distinctive, and greater, privileges God bestows on us. Men who, like me, are fathers need to appreciate that. Many do, to be sure; but even among those who do not, meditating on it should induce enough awe and gratitude to motivate better parenting. So my message to all fathers today is: appreciate what you are, so that you can become a better example of it.

Some fathers will learn to appreciate better who they are by how their wives and children express their own love and appreciation for him. That is very important. Nowadays it needs to happen more than it does. It's a standing joke that the highest volume of collect calls during the year are those to Dad on Father's Day; worse, many more people are (rightly or wrongly) alienated from their fathers than from their mothers. Yet study after study has indicated that fatherlessness, in the sense of being raised in homes where the biological father is absent, is the single biggest common factor in a host of social maladies among young people. Indeed, fatherlessness virtually defines family breakdown; and I'm far from alone in believing that family breakdown is our single biggest social problem. In Britain that belief has become conventional wisdom; and just as in this country, it is popular there to castigate men who abandon their families voluntarily. But as popular as scapegoating and ridiculing the male has become, abandonment is not the primary cause of fatherlessness.

There are two main causes of children being without their fathers. One is sexual licentiousness, in which either the father, the mother, or both have no intention of committing themselves to a long-term relationship that would provide a stable context for raising children. The answer to that is plain old common sense and morality, which can probably be provided only by sound religion. But an equally important cause is no-fault divorce and the lucrative industry that has grown around it.

When it comes to family matters, the machinery of the state is most often devoted to decreeing no-fault divorce, pursuing non-custodial parents for child support, and preventing or punishing domestic violence. Politicians are almost unanimous in their support for all three, and particularly vigorous in calling for more of the last two. In practice, what that usually means is that the law is in the business of barring men from their homes, presenting them with a bill for the privilege, and sending them to debtor's prison if they fall far enough behind in paying that bill. Federal law provides strong financial incentives for states to do precisely that. And that is why the fact, which is no secret to family-law practitioners, that women initiate about four-fifths of divorces when children are involved is so easily explained: the law not only permits, but provides strong incentives for, women to dump and loot their husbands. That the law ought to do so is of course an article of faith among self-styled feminists; but as long as it remains what it is, our society is headed for irreversible decline.

There are other causes of family breakdown as well; many are as old as humanity; indeed, there are some cases where it is not as bad as the alternatives. But those are not the majority of cases. People must be convinced once again that the intact family built on marriage between men and women, both nuclear and extended, is essential not only for the health of society in the present but for bequeathing to our children a future worth having. Right now, Western society is too besotted by individualism, materalism, and moral relativism to understand that. I hope and pray that it is understood anew, especially by men, before it's too late. If men wake up to the problem and act accordingly, the women will follow. I suspect they're waiting.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Discussing miracles

Lately, Maverick Philosopher Bill Vallicella has been posting about miracles; he's having a professedly hard time understanding how they are "possible." Since such doubts come from a thinker who is by no means hostile to theism, I find them definitely worth discussing.

Bill takes the Humean position that, given the very concept of a "law of nature," it is absurd to say that there can be "exceptions" to such laws. For a law of nature is just an "exceptionless regularity." Any event, therefore, that appears to violate the laws of nature must really be only be following those laws in a way we don't yet understand. But if that's the case, then to say that such events lack any "natural" explanation is merely to say that we're not, at present, in a position to provide such an explanation. Such is the "epistemic" conception of miracles. If that conception is adequate, then miracles lack the sort of evidentiary value that would facilitate or confirm religious belief.

Clearly, the difficulty here is conceptual. But I don't think it useful to begin with the concept of a "law of nature," a concept of which philosophers of science lack a consensual account. For the present purpose, I believe, one must first adduce a conception of miracle common to those theological traditions which assign evidentiary value to miracles.

Contemporary theologians almost always insist that miracles, if they occur in a theologically significant sense, can only be recognized as such by the eyes of faith. That is because miracles, precisely as such, function as manifestations of divine agency for the purpose of eliciting or confirming faith in God beyond that which is or can be elicited by reason alone. And that viewpoint seems to be confirmed by Scripture itself. Given as much, the best definition of 'miracle' I know of is that of St. Thomas Aquinas, as offered in Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III: "...those things are properly called miracles which are done by divine agency beyond the order commonly observed in nature (praeter ordinem communiter observatum in rebus)." Thus miracles are "super"-natural whether or not some are also "anti"-natural. What's essential to an event's being a miracle, therefore, is not that it be a "violation" of the laws of nature, but that it depart from the order of nature "commonly observed" in such a way as to manifest divine agency of a sort beyond that manifested by Nature alone. And such agency would be, at least in part, the object of faith.

I don't have time at the moment to do more than propose such a definition of 'miracle' for discussion. But I am confident that such a definition would frame the question more fruitfully than we often see. A book which does that well, in my opinion, is Stanley Jaki's Miracles and Physics.

Dealing with the Dawkins Gang

What's often dubbed "the new atheism" by journalists is a godsend (pun intended) to educated theists. The attacks of men such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and their followers on "religion" (a term which, conveniently, covers everything from witch-doctoring to Thomism) contain no new arguments, and their frank, often ill-mannered hostility enables us to appear urbane and judicious by comparison. But most people outside academia, or within it for that matter, don't have time for a point-by-point rebuttal. If you're an educated believer who moves in circles influenced by the new atheism, it's best to have just a few quality resources on hand for dealing with them.

I'm inclined to agree with Maverick Philosoper Bill Vallicella that the following essays are as good as any for the purpose:

Michael Novak, Lonely Atheists of the Global Village.

Alvin Plantinga, The Dawkins Confusion: Naturalism Ad Absurdum.

Alvin Plantinga, Darwin, Mind, and Meaning

Read and absorb those, and you'll have invested all the time you need in acquiring your arsenal.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Priestly celibacy: what's important is the fascination

At his blog Ascent to Mount Carmel, Catholic seminarian Paul Hamilton remarks: "I have had more conversations about priestly celibacy with both Catholics and non-Catholic strangers alike than I have had about any other single topic." Amazing, isn't it? More than on any other single topic. Alas, I believe it. And it's got me thinking anew about a topic about which I'd thought there was little left to say.

Over the decades, I've tried more than a few times to explain the point and value of requiring celibacy to people who are mystified by, even skeptical of, that feature of the Catholic priesthood, be they non-Catholic or Catholic. I've relied chiefly on the work of Fr. Benedict Groeschel, a PhD psychologist and ascetic as well as the founder of a new religious community, and encyclicals by popes Paul VI and John Paul II. But in my experience, the only people who take such explanations at face value are those who, for reasons of their own, are keen to defend the Eastern-Catholic and Orthodox tradition of a married parish clergy while, at the same time, upholding the concurrent tradition of celibacy for bishops. The rest generally take for granted that the stated reasons for the Roman-Catholic requirement are not the "real" ones which, of course, are then triumphantly proposed in the most cynical terms. Just as oddly, it has rarely occurred to anybody unbidden that I might actually be interested in consecrated celibacy for myself, which I once was and am again, even when they know me as a deeply committed and well-informed Latin-Rite Catholic. The few to whom I've expressed such interest wonder, not so covertly, what DSM heading(s) my particular form of derangement is to be classified under. But a bright, mentally healthy young man such as Paul who's actually about to commit himself to lifelong celibacy cannot be so easily dismissed and, indeed, compels attention to what that commitment stands for. The phenomenon of such a person seems to compel attention even when talking directly about what it stands for would not.

That, I have come to believe, is the best argument for retaining the Latin Church's norm of requring celibacy of its priests—the exception to the norm being, of course, those ordained under the Pastoral Provision, which will necessarily remain exceptional. When lived faithfully for the right reasons, its evangelical witness is incalculably powerful. In former times, the witness of giving up the possibility of children attested sharply to the reality of the Kingdom to come; in today's sex-obsessed world, where children are often seen as more of a burden than a blessing, the witness of giving up voluntarily induced orgasms is testimony enough. Of late, that witness has been somewhat obscured by the sex-abuse scandal; but there's no reason to believe that such abuse has been less prevalent among married people, even among married clergy of other churches. As the Church tightens her measures for excluding pederasts, the witness will re-emerge once again.

In the meantime, Paul, I'll support you or oppose you—whichever you think would help!

The ambiguity of Corpus Christi

For an American Catholic, the phrase Corpus Christi is wonderfully ambiguous, inviting one to slip a great truth through the interstices of the banal. Today I want to take up the invitation.

For most Americans, the phrase first and foremost designates a muggy seaport city lying smack within Hurricane Alley. But as I learned when I lived in Texas, the city is well-loved nonetheless—so much so that the U.S. Navy, which has an air station there, has proudly named an attack submarine after it. Yet it is a delicious irony that the dwindling minority of Americans who know Latin also know that the phrase means "the body of Christ." In Catholic theology, that phrase too is ambiguous.

The Feast of Corpus Christi, first instituted in the thirteenth century for the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, was meant to accommodate and encourage Eucharistic devotion within the context of the liturgy. The Corpus Christi to be celebrated was thus, in the first instance, the body and blood of the risen Christ truly present in the Eucharist. There was a very good reason for that.

Many Catholics in the Middle Ages had become more inclined to adore the Eucharist from a distance than to actually receive it. Understandable, since one didn't have to go to confession and reform one's life in order to adore as distinct from receive. But it was thought that, by setting aside a high Mass celebrating the specific theme of the Real Presence, one might induce at least some people to associate more firmly the Eucharist as sacrificial offering with the reserved sacramental species as the body and blood of the risen Christ. That would, in theory at least, make them likelier to experience reception of the Eucharist as life-giving. Centuries later during the Counter-Reformation, the feast became still more important as an occasion to reassert the Tridentine dogma of transubstantiation against the various alternatives proposed by the Reformers, from "consubstantiation" to outright denial of the Real Presence in favor of seeing the Eucharist as a memorial alone. The issue was so polemically charged that public Corpus Christi processions were unthinkable in countries ruled by Protestants when not criminalized outright. There are still many places in the West where such processions are considered rude. And I don't have to tell you what would happen to them in predominantly Muslim countries.

In the nature of the case, the issue of the Real Presence remains vitally important. I've never found a plausible way to downplay the fact that, in John 6, Jesus refuses to accommodate hearers who can't quite swallow such statements of his as:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world. (verse 51)
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. (verse 54)
Surely, both "the Jews" and "the disciples" seemed to think, such talk cannot be taken literally; but Jesus pointedly declines the opportunity to turn it into a metaphor that could be easily accepted and almost as easily forgotten. He is reported to have said instead:
Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
After the Resurrection, the Eleven did indeed see "the Son of Man ascending to where he was before." And the very existence of the tradition set down in John's Gospel indicates that the Apostles and the early Church took Jesus's statements about eating his flesh and drinking his blood quite literally. It was that which convinced me that conservative Protestants who insisted that I take the Bible "literally" meant only that I should agree with their view of what the original authors intended, which was not at all the same as the ancient and traditional view. In this case especially, I just couldn't believe that true Christianity had been forgotten sometime between the death of the Apostle John and the death of the Emperor Constantine, only to be recovered by Martin Luther and his friends.

The other meaning of Corpus Christi in theology is, of course, the Church as "body of Christ." That's not a later Catholic invention; it's right there in St. Paul, who takes it literally enough to speak, in Ephesians, of marriage as a metaphor of it. The connection between the sacramental and ecclesiological meanings is not only not accidental but most intimate. By eating Christ's risen body and drinking his blood in faith, we collectively become what we eat, i.e. Christ's body, albeit in still another mode; spouses sacramentally enact that reality in turn. But the ecclesiological meaning of the phrase too seems to be lost on many Christians, including many Catholics, who persist in thinking of the Church primarily as an institution and secondarily as the corps of celibates designated to run that institution. Impoverished understandings of the Eucharist and of marriage go hand in hand with that.

We've long had a theology of the Eucharist. Recently, John Paul the Great inaugurated the "theology of the body." What we need now is an ecclesiology of the body, as I've adumbrated before. Of course I've got to find a publisher first. I've been told so far that my choices will be very limited.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Errores philosophorum

There's a most judicious post by Catholic philosopher Michael Sullivan over at Monadology, prompted by his reading of Giles of Rome's treatise of that title. I heartily endorse this observation in particular:

Where a medieval thinker thought an idea, whether coming from a pagan, Muslim, or Jew, had reason on his side, he would accept it and incorporate it into his own scheme of thought. Where he thought a non-Christian philosopher was wrong, especially where the thinker argued for something contrary to Christian doctrine or something which implied such, the Christian would argue against him. But as often as not the Christian would not refute the infidel using the Bible, the pope, or some other Christian authority, but using the principles of the infidel philosophers themselves! I know firsthand of many, many cases where scholastics argue that Aristotle or whoever was wrong about such-and-such given Aristotle’s own principles, and where he came to a conclusion incompatible with Christianity, this is not simply because he lacked the True Faith, but also and especially because he had failed as a philosopher to discover the best arguments available to reason on the subject.

To use an image they themselves loved to reproduce, the medievals saw themselves as the Jews during the Exodus, who as they were leaving Egypt for the promised land despoiled the Egyptians of the riches owed to them for their generations of servitude (i.e. they claimed reparations). The riches of Truth for them came from God, and properly belonged to those who were God’s friends and faithful servants. If the pagans and infidels had come into possession some truth on their own, it belonged with just as much right to Christianity as well, and so Christians would appropriate good reasons and good arguments wherever they found them.

Read it all.

The plight of Iraq's Christians

At his meeting with Pope Benedict yesterday, President Bush was reminded of something that probably had not occurred to him when he decided to overthrow Saddam Hussein: the persecution and flight of Chaldean Catholics and other Iraqi Christians. In God's providence, I'm sure it's not coincidental that the Synod of the Chaldean Church has been taking place this week, on the heels of the murder of a priest and three subdeacons in Mosul. The decimation of the one of the world's most ancient continuous Christian communities proceeds apace.

Appeals to save it are echoed throughout many quarters of the Church that otherwise are often at odds. One can only concur, but it isn't clear how much can be done to preserve that community in particular if the country in general is not governed well. Iraq has known little more than war, oppression, and sectarian hatred for decades. Saddam persecuted Kurds and Shiites while invading Iran and Kuwait; one of his few virtues was that he generally left the Christians alone. With him gone, Sunni and Shiite Muslims now kill each other even as they both persecute non-Muslims, especially the Christians. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda does it best to keep the pot boiling in Baghdad and the adjoining provinces, hoping to secure Iraq as a base for an even more ruthless brand of jihad against us, Israel, and anybody else who opposes themincluding, of course, Iraqi Christians.

Beyond a few dollars and prayers, I have no answers. Perhaps the great suffering of Iraq's Christians can be oblative for Iraq and beyond. In the meantime, we too must sacrifice so that sectarianism and jihad do not remain the order of the day.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

That other pope: there's nothing to apologize for

It would appear that Pope Shenouda, leader of the Coptic Church and, by his church's reckoning, the true Patriarch of Alexandria, is miffed by the John Paul II's apologies to the Jews. According to one report:

Asked whether Jews were “Christ-killers”, responsible for the crucifixion, Shenouda stated, “The New Testament says that they are,” and asked rhetorically whether the Vatican was “against the teachings of the New Testament?”

So much for ecumenism. The same report adds:

Shenouda stated he had banned Copts from visiting Israel for fear they will “be influenced by the Israeli media, and we will not be able to prevent this. Who knows what ideas they will return with?”

So much for crazy, liberal ideas like freedom of association and thought.

I prefer the other pope—you know, the one who has held the job, if not the title, of grand inquisitor. He's so much more...well, with it. I suppose that attitude would always make me a dangerous liberal in Alexandria, where Christians long ago burned down the greatest library then known to the world amid civil unrest sparked by a dangerously liberal female philosopher.

Hat tip to Siris.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Is Christian love a disposition?

There's an interesting discussion of that question over at Right Reason. The post's author, Alexander Pruss, is certainly right to imply that love in the relevant sense, i.e. agape, cannot be merely a disposition. But neither do I think it right to say that agape entails no disposition to love, if indeed that's what is being said. I'd say that agape is fundamentally a kind of action which, when performed regularly, entails a non-necessitating habitus or disposition to act similarly.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Why only God can, and may, be a utilitarian

When I taught ethics, not as long ago as it often seems to me, the moral philosophy that usually attracted students the most at first was rule-utilitarianism—a version of what is now more commonly called, as per G.E.M. Anscombe, "consequentialism." The core idea of rule-utilitarianism is that a given proposed action is right only if it conforms to a rule the general following of which would "maximize net utility" in its consequences—or, in more traditional terms, would promote "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" of people. One of the complications of that view, of course, is that many proposed actions conform to one or more such rules while also violating others, so that one must have at hand and apply a hierarchy of rules in order to decide whether the conformities would outweigh the violations. Any such hierarchy would be to some degree controversial, and the controversy could not be settled by utilitarian means. (That's one reason why Catholic rule-utilitarians, otherwise known as "proportionalists," speak of the "pre-moral" goods we're supposed to be maximizing.) Another, related complication is that one could never be sure one had all the information needed to make the calculations that would yield the desired optimum value. That problem strikes me as decisive for any version of consequentialism, as it struck Philippa Foot. For in order to make the all the needed calculations reliably, one would have to occupy a global, impersonal point of view (where 'impersonal' means not 'non-personal' but 'not discriminating among persons'); no such point of view is available to us; if there is one, it belongs only to the omniscient God. Hence, the problem with consequentialism is that it calls for doing, or at least striving to do, what only God can do. A moral philosophy needs to be more practical than that.

The lesson that only God can be a utilitarian is of even greater importance when we consider the so-called problem of evil.

As I argued in an old paper, The Problems of Evil, the problem of evil is really that of "disproportionate suffering" (DS). We don't object to people suffering as much as they deserve; some of us are even willing to concede that it wouldn't be so bad if some people ended up suffering less than they deserve. What gets many people indignant and contemptuous toward God is that there seems to be much more suffering than innocent human beings deserve, or even than some not-so-innocent human beings deserve; for that matter, any suffering they undergo is more than infants deserve, and is thus disproportionate in that respect. Understood in such general terms, DS motivates what is considered a logical challenge to classical theism. For, it is said, if God is "all-powerful" he could prevent or eliminate DS and, if God is perfectly good, he would want to eliminate it; but he doesn't, so he's either not all-powerful or not perfectly good. But as launched, the challenge doesn't quite hit the target. The questions are not whether God could or would want to prevent or eliminate DS simpliciter, but at what cost to creation he could so and whether the cost is one that his perfect goodness would impel him to pay. Thus we must consider whether there could be goods which, facilitated or occasioned by such suffering, would outweigh and thus justify the DS there actually is; if there could be, then God might not be able to prevent or eliminate such DS at a cost his goodness would impel him to pay. That begins to sound like a problem for a utilitarian.

To be sure, if there is such good, we cannot know what it is, or at least know enough of it to get the full picture; only God can and does, and so only God is in a position to make it known should, for good reason, he choose to do so. But by the same token, neither can we know that there couldn't be such a good. Hence, when the question at hand is the moral status of the universe, one must note not merely that only God can be a utilitarian; only God may be one. As I said in "The Problems of Evil," we necessarily lack the knowledge we would need to have in order to put God in the dock and convict him—just as we lack the viewpoint we would need to adopt to be successful utilitarians in our dealings with one another.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Pontifications is back! Sort of...

Fr. Al Kimel has opened his new Pontifications blog at the Wordpress server. Apparently it will not carry much of the archival material found at the old Pontifications which he assures us, as per the CANN geek, will be back up in a few days. I can hardly wait for that event, as I've neglected to save my best old Pontifications articles to disk and the links I have for them don't work.

Even so, I am chastened by the humility evident in the first post on the new site. It concludes:

Needless to say, a person who spends most of his life in despair probably should avoid sermonizing, pontificating, and opining. As the saying goes, “Do not speak unless you can improve the silence.” I need to learn this truth.

So do I. And that's needful to say.

The filioque VII continued

Designed as a reply to Catholic objections, my previous filioque post did not satisfy the objectors, as is quite evident in the combox. I hereby make another attempt to answer them. Clarifying my position further may also be of interest to others, even though I do not for a moment imagine that it will quell all doubts.

I believe Robert Kovacs is representative in attributing to me the thesis of "symmetric interdependence" (SI) between the origination of the Son and that of the Holy Spirit. I take it that, by SI, Robert means the thesis that the origination of the Son by the Father depends on that of the Holy Spirit in the same way that the origination of the Spirit by the Father depends on the Son. I admit that my use of the term spirituque for the former would naturally cause people to attribute SI to me, and indeed the arguments against my position depend on that attribution. But I do not hold SI, and I need to make clear why not.

I do claim that the origination of the Son and the Holy Spirit respectively are "mutually interdependent." But from that claim, it does not follow that the interdependence relation is "symmetric," as though each depends on the other in exactly the same way, such that there is no order of precedence between them. All that follows is that it's impossible to have one without the other, not merely because both obtain co-eternally and necessarily, but also because they do so from the same source with whom they together constitute one substance, the divine substance. I see no need to argue on behalf of that claim for the benefit of Catholics. I call it the thesis of mutual interdependence (MI), which is a weaker claim than SI would be, for it does not rule out some-or-other order of precedence between the Son and the Holy Spirit even as it does not, by itself, specify any such order. Assuming there is some such order, the reason must lie in some further truth not specified by MI.

Robert's position is that the order of precedence ad intra must be specified as follows: the Son is a principle of the Spirit but the Spirit is not a principle of the Son. (That, I take it, is the position of Jonathan Prejean and Brandon Watson as well.) But it is not at all clear to me that said position is compatible with the monarchy of the Father. (I speak of "said position" because I want to avoid an exegetical debate about Aquinas' position, which Robert cites as an authority but whose unique aspects are not dogmatically binding.) Robert interprets the Lyons-Florence definition, i.e., that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son "as from one principle," to mean that there is one common action, spiration, in which the Father participates as principle without principle and the Son participates as principle with a principle, i.e. the Father, from whom the Son has his being principle. But as it stands, that interpretation does not rule out double procession, an idea to which the Orthodox rightly object. Two hypostases, one of which is primary and the other derivative from the primary, are still two principles of the third, even if the action in which the first two participate is one common action, and even if the hypostasis that is the secondary principle derives its being principle from the hypostasis that is the primary principle. And two principles of procession constitute dual procession. Yet since the Lyons-Florence definition was deliberately adduced to rule out dual procession, and thus to address that very Orthodox objection, I firmly believe that we need to interpret "as from one principle" differently.

I interpret it thus: to say that the Spirit proceeds hypostatically from the Father and the Son "as from one principle" means that the Father originates the Spirit in virtue of being Father of the Son. That is the clearly orthodox sense of the filioque; it is entailed by, but does not itself entail, the objectionable sense. The former is thus weaker than the latter; but it is not just to say that the Father breathes forth the Spirit alongside begetting the Son, as if the former had nothing otherwise to with the latter. Rather, the Spirit is breathed forth by the Father only as the Spirit of the Father and the Son and is thus, as Paul VI confessed in his Credo of the People of God, as the bond or nexus of love between the Father and the Son. But the Son must not be said to contribute something to the act of spiration distinct from the Father's contribution; otherwise we would have dual hypostatic procession, which is ruled out ex hypothesi. Accordingly, while the Holy Spirit is consecutive to the Son inasmuch as the Son is, on my account, what I call an "explanatory factor" in there being a Holy Spirit, the Son is not said to be a cause of the Holy Spirit, even by derivation, in the way the Father is. That is also how I understand the traditional taxis by which the Son as hypostasis precedes the Holy Spirit as hypostasis, or the Holy Spirit is "consecutive" on the Son. I believe my interpretation to be clearly compatible with the monarchy of the Father, and thus acceptable to the Orthodox.

Now given such an interpretation, we may ask something similar about the begetting of the Son: can it reasonably be said that the Father begets the Son without the Holy Spirit's being in any way an explanatory factor in that act? Well, traditionally, Western theologians have argued that we must characterize the difference between the act constituting the origination of the Son, i.e., "generation" or begetting, and the act constituting the origination of the Holy Spirit, i.e. "spiration" or breathing forth, thus: the Son is involved in spiration but the Spirit is not involved in generation; generation is direct from the Father, having nothing to do with the Spirit; whereas spiration is with or through the Son. From that, it follows that the Spirit is not an explanatory factor in generation even though the Son is such a factor in spiration. But I don't think that will do. For if MI, then it is unreasonable to claim that generation takes place without being in any way dependent on spiration. Rather, I suggest, it is in virtue of breathing forth the Holy Spirit that the Father begets the Son, because it is impossible that there be a Son who is not related to the Father by a co-eternal and co-necessary Third, the Spirit, who is the bond of love between them. That, I take it, is what the PCPCU statement referred to in my previous post, which comes pretty much straight out of Gregory of Nazianzus, means. It must not be said, however, that the Holy Spirit contributes something to the act of begetting distinct from the Father's contribution. That would be dual generation, which is even more clearly unacceptable than dual procession. Rather, I claim, the Father and the Holy Spirit beget the Son "as from one principle," which means nothing other than that the Father begets the Son in virtue of his breathing forth the Spirit. That is also, I take it, what Weinandy means by saying that the Father begets the Son "in" the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is thus an explanatory factor in generation, even as the Son is an explanatory factor in spiration.

But the symmetry between generation and spiration is not precise. We may infer that the Father and the Holy Spirit beget the Son "as from one principle" only because, and as defined at II Lyons and Florence, it is revealed and professed that the Father and the Son breath forth the Holy Spirit "as from one principle." That epistemic asymmetry, I believe, reflects an ontic asymmetry by which a certain order of precedence must be said to obtain in reality, not just in thought. Thus the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, is said to be the "Word" and hence the perfect self-expression of the Father, which is never said of the Third Person, the Holy Spirit, even though it must nonetheless be said that the Holy Spirit is co-equal in divinity to the other two persons. I suggest, perhaps unoriginally, that the Son "images" the Father immediately, whereas the Spirit only does so mediately, through the Son. By way of explaining the order of precedence, as weakly and inadequately as the subject matter makes inevitable, I invoke St. Maximus' analogy, whereby the Father is the "thought," the Son is the "word" embodying the thought, and the Spirit is the "breath" transmitting the word and thus the thought.

In human life, the kind of thought we're capable of is embodied in language, i.e. words expressing the thought, which in turn would not exist without physical tokens, i.e., speech and, later on in human development, markings. Hence the thought gives rise to the words and the tokens insofar as the latter two are mutually interdependent; but it is the words that more directly express the thought, giving meaning to the tokens. Hence the Son more directly expresses the Father than the Spirit, who can only be understood as the Spirit of the Father and the Son. But there would be no Son without the Spirit, just as there would be no words without speech.

On The Same Old Thing

One of C.S. Lewis' most memorable characters, the senior tempter Screwtape writing to his protegé Wormword, said:

The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart - an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship. The humans live in time, and experience reality successively. To experience much of it, therefore, they must experience many different things; in other words, they must experience change. And since they need change, the Enemy (being a hedonist at heart) has made change pleasurable to them, just as He has made eating pleasurable. But since He does not wish them to make change, any more than eating, an end in itself, He has balanced the love of change in them by a love of permanence. You must of course unbalance your patient, lest he realises and accepts that both change and permanence are desirable in equal measure. Whether it be in eating, relationships, faith, or anything else, above all make the patient desire change even if he is quite happy and content with what he already has.

I thought of that passage this morning before Mass today, which is Trinity Sunday in the Roman calendar. In several different respects, the theme of the Holy Trinity is the Same Old Thing. Most of those respects are bad; some result from the kind of imbalance that the real Screwtapes constantly strive to bring about. But the respect that's good is by far the most important.

The doctrine of the Trinity tells us, inadequately but truly, that the Creator of all things is a community of persons who exist co-eternally, so intimately united with one another that each is the same God as the others. It is the life of that community which the baptized are called to participate in, forever. What could be more important than that? There is nothing nearly as great to give one's heart to. The Trinity is the Same Old Thing in so fundamental and good a way that if one does not praise, wonder, and rejoice, one is spiritually dead.

Nearly every morning, the first thing I do when I get up is to bow before the crucifix and recite an ancient doxology: "Glory be to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, forever and ever. Amen." I do that not just because God is God and should be so acknowledged in the attitude of worship. I do it because, like Sam Gamgee looking up at the stars while lying in the depths of Morder, I need and get assurance that reality is unimaginably great and good regardless of what happens to me in particular, that my only reasonable choice is to be part of that reality by giving praise, thanks, and glory to God by how I live my life, no matter how disappointing or painful my life (or indeed anyone's life) can sometimes be. I hope that, even if by nothing more than habit, it is the prayer on my lips as I stand at death's door.

The doxology I favor was in use in the Church before the Arian heresy, after which the orthodox preferred the form better-known today: "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit...." The shift was understandable inasmuch as the older form easily admits an Arian or otherwise subordinationist understanding, whereas the the newer form more reliably connotes the co-equality of the divine persons. But I also believe the older form to be more...well, informative, if one understands it in an orthodox sense. It intimates more strongly the dynamic structure of the Christian life itself, which is that of divinization through engrafting into Christ. The newer form irons out that intimation for the sake of discouraging a certain kind of heresy. Thus, a good thing was done with the Same Old Thing that made it bit less relevant to the mind of the ordinary Christian.

Part of the problem, of course, was and is that we can never fully comprehend the Trinity. Most Christians, even among the most devout, don't even try. We can hardly expect otherwise. For well over a millennium, the doctrine of the Trinity has been the Same Old Thing; if the S.O.T. is also incomprehensible, say most Christians to themselves, why bother with more than ritual bows in its direction? Even the almost equally incomprehensible Incarnation was at least tangible to some people; it even extends itself tangibly in the Church, the sacraments, indeed anyone put before us to love ("Whenever you do it to the least of my brethren...."). But in practice, the Trinity is a mere abstraction for most Christians. The ever-running filioque issue between East and West does nothing to discourage that standpoint. Such news is so old that it too has become the Same Old Thing.

Generally speaking, priests only encourage the corresponding attitude. Most of the homilies I hear on Trinity Sunday are not much more closely related to the Trinity than are most other homilies. The Mass I attended today, for example, was a new priest's first Mass; unsurprisingly the homilist, who had been one of the new priest's teachers in seminary, said rather little directly about the Trinity. And yet there's usually a reason for homilists, or catechists for that matter, not to say much about the Trinity: such truths as they would utter would usually not be original, and such original things as they might utter would usually not be true. Lately, I've even been accused of that myself!

Still, there are unoriginal truths here which are so rarely stated that stating them would be helpful to many. Last year at this time, I offered the following:

Consider the structure of the ancient baptismal formula known as "The Apostles' Creed." I insert the text here for convenience:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth;

I believe in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord;
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit,
and born of the Virgin Mary,
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day He rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. AMEN.

Jesus comes forth from the Father and comes down to us. He takes flesh, suffers, dies, is buried, and descends even to Hades; he then rises from the dead and ascends into heaven. This is what St. Thomas Aquinas, following the Pseudo-Dionysius, called the exitus and reditus of God. Creation itself had come forth from God in a free choice of love and finds its goal in God, whose Holy Spirit vivifies and orders it. When it fell from that plan through the fall of Lucifer and the human race he seduced, God himself had to recapitulate the necessary movement by descending into the depths of creation so that he could elevate it by his victory and ascension. The exitus-reditus model is that of descent and ascent. The fullness of glory is thus attained by self-emptying for others who do not merit it: a process of pure love. Such is the dynamic model of all reality, both divine and created. In and through us, the reality of the divine love makes that of creation both possible and actual.

Such, then, is the structure of divine revelation itself. How God thus reveals himself also tells us what God in himself is like: a communion of persons who love one another by giving themselves to, and thus emptying themselves into, each other. The eternity and changelessness of God is thus dynamic not static. It is that of love. But it takes no time to be complete in God himself. It only takes time to be expressed and revealed in creation. That's what Jesus Christ, the incarnation of God the Son, was and is about. By doing in time and flesh what he eternally does in the Godhead and in spirit, the Son made it possible for us to participate in the very life of God. To avail ourselves of that staggering opportunity, we must agree to be reborn "by water and the Holy Spirit," becoming part of his Body, the Church, so that he does in us what he did once for all in his Pasch. Thus we are to love as he did, which can happen only because we are loved as he is loved eternally by the Father.

Properly appreciated, therefore, the doctrine of the Trinity tells us what life is for. The doctrines of the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ tells us how God made it possible for us to attain the goal. For motivation's sake, it's always best to keep that big picture in view.

After all, if we did keep that picture in view, the Same Old Thing would appear more often in its eternal youth.