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

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

If you have a Google account....

...and if you like this blog, and you haven't already done so, please sign up as a "follower" with Google Friend Connect. You can find the link, and the list of current "followers," by scrolling down the sidebar. Thanks!

Note also that I've added a number of things, the most recent of which is the Dominican seal just to the right in the sidebar. It links to the Dominican Laity chapter of which I am a novice member. Anybody in Central New York who's interested, the contact info is all there.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

God's doing OK in the polls!!!

You read that right. According to William E. Carroll—a Catholic philosopher currently ensconced as a good old Fellow at Blackfriars, Oxford—a respectable organization conducted a national poll a month ago showing that
...if God exists, voters are prepared to give it good marks. Voters approve of God’s performance by a 52% to 9% margin . . . When asked to evaluate God on some of the issues it is responsible for, voters give God its best rating on creating the universe, 71% to 5%. They also approve of its handling of the animal kingdom 56% to 11%, and even its handling of natural disasters 50% to 13%. Young voters are prepared to be more critical of God on natural disasters with those between 18 and 29 rating it 59% to 26%, compared to 47% to 12% among those over 65.
If such trends continue, God would be a shoo-in to beat Barack Obama next year. At any rate, nobody's confusing the latter with the former anymore.

Now Carroll does say much of what I'd say about this sort of thing, starting with the report's use of the impersonal pronoun 'it' for God. Even on that score, though, his critique should have gone further. How, I'd ask, can an 'it' be evaluated for its performance unless it's a machine (or perhaps a lower form of life), which very few people think God is? Even pollsters need to think through questions like that before asking people about their theological beliefs. Unlike the polling company's writeup, though, Carroll does get the very project's inherent irony. Surely, if there is a personal God, then he (yes, he; but that's another debate) is worthy of worship; granted such an analytic truth, it is God who should be evaluating our performance, not we his. Withal, the mere conduct of a poll asking people their opinion of God's job performance puts us in Monty-Python territory: entertainment, not theology. Our consumerist, democratic selves are ready grist for parody. Self-parody, one supposes, would be too much to expect; I'd be pleasantly surprised if that's what the pollsters were up to.

Yet the still-greater irony here is that, among a people still describing itself in the main as Christian, neither pollsters nor polled seemed to suspect irony.

The late theologian Herbert McCabe, OP, once pointed out: "It needs a kind of cosmic megalomania to suppose that God has the job of saving my soul and is to be given bad marks if he does not do that. Whatever he does for us, like creating us in the first place, is an act of gratuitous love, not something that is demanded of him." Now it is not megalomania to suppose that God has set himself the job of preserving the innocent from ultimate harm, whether the harm be from other people's bad choices or from the forces of nature. In fact, according to Christianity, our first parents were innocent and preserved from harm before their Fall, and we, their unfortunate descendants, are all meant to be blessed forever, free of death and all other harms. But in this in-between time, there is no reliable correlation between virtue and good fortune. The minority who admit to giving God bad marks give them largely for that reason. That may not be megalomaniacal, but I believe it manifests what the psychoanalysts term "infantile narcissism" in people of an age to know better. They're like seven-year-olds complaining "It's not fair!"

Well, so what if it isn't? If it hasn't dawned on you by the age of majority that life is not fair and never will be, then you haven't outgrown your infantile narcissism. The more sensitive and thoughtful narcissists just invest it, on humanity's behalf, in a bitter cosmic complaint against the Almighty. I for one have found that to be the most common cause of atheism. But the problem manifest in the complaint is not God's problem. If you think it is, the joke is on you and the complaint is your problem.

Creation and redemption are about gratuitous love. Hence life in this vale of tears is about mercy, not fairness—even granted that, in the age to come, the two qualities will be as one. When we who are ostensibly Christian fail to recognize that, we neither see nor appreciate the real ironies of life. We just stay angry with God—even when we call ourselves atheists. So long as we think we're in a position to evaluate God's performance, we expose ourselves to that and worse ironies.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Evolutionary theology

Yes, it feels like a so-bad-it's-good Chuck Norris movie. At the climax of yet another such flick, the words of the steely-eyed hero played by Chuck resounded in the villain’s head: “It’s time…to die.” The poor fellow promptly turned around to see Chuck fire a live RPG into him. In tackling the subject to which my title alludes, I feel like that villain. I can sense some combat-hardened defender of orthodoxy behind me, ready to fire his overkill and watch me blow up. The time has come to address the subject; indeed, that time is overdue in the Church. But at least I’m not the villain of the piece, and the conversation will continue regardless.

I do, after all, have a legion of well-intentioned company. A few weeks ago, as my radio droned over my chores, I heard Barbara Bradley Hagerty conducting an NPR piece that their webmaster entitles “Evangelicals Question the Existence of Adam and Eve.” At first, I rolled my mind’s eyes: Since when is it news that not all evangelicals, never mind other sorts of Christian, are fundamentalists?  Of course it’s possible for a faithful Christian to doubt that the first several chapters of Genesis are literal history. E.g., the chronological order of creation described in the first chapter does not square with that of the second—a fact that surely cannot have escaped the notice of whoever first put these stories together in a single written text. And many scholars, including one Joseph Ratzinger, have pointed out the similarities between Genesis and Babylonian myth. As a Catholic, I tend to think of the first eleven chapters of Genesis as myths and legends given a distinctive theological interpretation in their divinely inspired, written form. What’s important is not that they be history as the modern mind understands that genre, but that their theological interpretation be—well, divinely revealed truth. That, to be sure, must bear some relationship to what literally happened in the past. But it’s not clear exactly what that is, and it’s doubtful that we can ever get clear enough about it to satisfy intellectual curiosity. I’m far from alone in that attitude, not only among Catholics but among Christians generally.

But despite my inclination to let the matter rest there, other Catholics won’t. I’ve noticed over the years that whenever the question of humanity’s origins comes up, many thoughtful Catholics will take the evolution of the body for granted (as did Pope John Paul II), but all will zero in on the question of monogenism.

Last week, e.g., science writer John Farrell observed on his blog at Forbes.com:

The question arises: Can theology adapt to the findings of science? Can the strict monogenism of the human race as traditionally understood by Christians, be modified to the scientific consensus that the human species originated in a small population, not a single couple? In famous cases, of course, such as the trial of Galileo, and acceptance of the reality of heliocentrism, the answer is yes, though it took the Catholic Church a long time to officially come around. But as Coyne points out, the erosion of the idea that the human race descended from a single couple is something that is much more necessary to the theology of salvation in Christian tradition than is the issue of, say, whether God really made the sun stand still for Joshua and the Israelites. Christians have for centuries adapted to a more allegorical interpretation of many books in the Old Testament. But not the Book of Genesis and its account of the Fall and Expulsion from Eden.

The question at issue here is really dual: Did the human race today descend from a single couple? And: Is an affirmative answer to that question necessary for preserving Catholic soteriology? From a scientific standpoint, the first question seems to be settled in the negative. Many faithful Catholics think the second is settled in the affirmative. So, to that extent, we have a conflict. Farrell worries that the Catholic Church has not tried to resolve the conflict. He’s right to worry, for the conflict is a serious test of faith for many educated Catholics.

At the magisterial level, the only explicit treatment of the matter we find is Pope Pius XII’s  1950 encyclical Humani Generis. Here’s the passage Farrell quotes, like many others before him:

For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.

That came partly in response to the speculations of Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, who indeed had little compunction about coloring outside the lines of orthodoxy. The Vatican, needless to say, was not pleased. Even today, most champions of orthodoxy believe that Pius XII settled the matter in favor of monogenism, “science” be damned. But I’m not so sure about that.

Since I’m not a scientist, and my academic credentials are not in theology, I’m not the one to solve the problem. But I suggest that, to make progress, we should first ask whether the conflict is real or apparent, temporary or permanent. For answers, there are three basic options:

  1. The conflict is real and permanent: the “surrender” option.
  2. The conflict is real but temporary: the “truce” option.
  3. The conflict is only apparent: the “creative” option.

WWhich option is the faithful Catholic to take?  Clearly not (1). Since the Church has long insisted that “reason” and “faith” complement rather than contradict each other, surrendering the confirmed results of natural science to theological dogma on this point is not an option. So the debate among thoughtful Catholics is really about whether to embrace (2) or (3). Do we settle for a temporary truce, waiting science out a while longer? Or do we take the present results of science for granted as a point of departure for some creative theological re-thinking?

It’s tempting to go for (2). Science does develop and change, after all. Prima facie, waiting science out still seems to be the Vatican’s preferred route. Largely for that reason, it is the preferred route of orthodoxy’s champions. But after six decades of scientific progress since Humani Generis, continued silence on their part is a theological and apologetical embarrassment. What, then, can be done with the creative option while remaining within the bounds of orthodoxy?

As a philosopher, my instinct is to look for the logical wiggle-room. And in Pius XII’s words, that’s what we find. To be sure, it is irreformable dogma that an individual couple committed the first sin and transmitted the resulting loss of grace to their descendants as “original” sin. With the usual two exceptions understood, those descendants are all of us. But a conflict with current science arises only if we assume that the “generation” by which original sin is transmitted logically entails that a first couple, Adam and Eve, were the first humans in a purely natural sense, i.e. the genetic sense. Nothing in magisterial documents requires adopting that assumption. So it is no more theologically irreformable than scientifically defensible. We may and should dispense with it.

Why not hold instead that Adam and Eve—whoever they really were, and wherever they really lived—were the first humans in a supernatural sense? As a couple, they were the first people to be called and elevated by grace to a state of fellowship with God meant to culminate in a greater union with him. That doesn’t entail that they were genetically the first humans. It entails only that they were the first humans God gave a destiny beyond Nature. So when they sinned and lost his grace, they largely reverted to Nature, which is the state all of us since then find ourselves in until we are somehow incorporated into Christ.

Of course such a proposal raises many questions. There are always questions, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But centuries ago, the Church slowly came to see that affirming biblical inerrancy did not entail rejecting heliocentrism. It is not unreasonable to imagine her coming to see that affirming monogenism need not entail rejecting evolutionary biology.

OK, time to duck the RPGs….

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The argument from desire

As I waded this morning through my overwhelming social-network streams—all of which now integrate into my single Google+ stream—I managed to notice somebody quoting C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity: "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world." Both in context and in general, that is the nucleus of an argument for the existence of God. Seeing a token of it revived my memory of having found the argument persuasive when I read the book in my teens. I still believe the argument has potential: more than even theists generally acknowledge.

Of course modern and post-modern Western minds scoff.  The only difference between the modern and post-modern minds is that the latter is more consistently cynical, and even that difference does not obtain here. And for good reason: If only for maturation's sake, we are taught not to assume that desiring X is evidence that X exists to satisfy the desire. I desire freedom from death, or failing that, freedom from the natural consequences of sexual license; yet as they're fond of saying in the South, that ain't gonna happen. (The South has some wonderful sayings, such as "Y'cain't win fer losin'...") I desire that the tree in my yard grow money, but that ain't gonna happen either—and if it did, the government and my ex would find a way to get most of it anyhow. We all know that we can and why we should outgrow desires we know cannot be satisfied.

But can we or should we outgrow what the Germans call sehnsucht?  I mean what Lewis meant:
That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World's End, the opening lines of "Kubla Khan", the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.
We've all experienced that. But most of us can't name the desire itself, still less its object; and as we age, most of us tend to forget it. We assume it's the fantasy of children and poets, and fear that dwelling on it would inhibit the "real" business of life. Indeed, as Lewis taught us, even the experience of it cannot be summoned up by wishing or seeking. And so it would seem that sehnsucht tells us nothing about any "beyond." For many of those capable of even discussing the matter, sehnsucht is just part of our makeup, full stop. Perhaps it's our brain chemistry. As such, it may have "adaptive" value, by virtue of causing some people to believe that all the pain and suffering of life is worthwhile in terms of a beautiful Reality beyond what the world has to offer. Such a belief motivates many to carry on and stay relatively sane. But sehnsucht is not, really, evidence of any such Reality. Or is it?

Like Lewis, I think it is. I have always thought so. In general, natural, inescapable desires for good things can and should be satisfied. We have natural, inescapable desires for food, sleep, sex, play, knowledge, beauty, and many other generic goods. It is natural for us to love—even to love specific people, such as our children. Under certain conditions, all the aforementioned goods are available; under certain conditions, we should seek and attain them; when we do, we enjoy them. Why should that natural, inescapable desire called sehnsucht be any different? Is there any reason to believe that "reality" ultimately frustrates that longing, that what's longed for cannot be named because it does not exist? Of course it's logically possible that sehnsucht is futile at the end of the day, or of life; but what's actually the case is only a small subset of what's logically possible, and much more interesting.

One can rule out such an "argument from desire" by stipulating that only what can be known scientifically can be known at all, and thus can be safely said to exist at all. But scientism would have us believe, like Bertrand Russell, that we are evolutionary experiments doomed to frustration and oblivion. To my mind, and that of most of the human race, nihilism is unreasonable as well as boring. Trust your sehnsucht instead. It's the reasonable thing to do.

Friday, August 19, 2011


Anybody know anything about this? Get PAID to GIVE. It looks legit and was recommended to me by a trustworthy woman who runs a retreat center. But this is the Internet. Clever scams abound.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Why "Apostolate" is Bigger Than Ever

The following is a slightly edited version of a column I have written for this month's Dominican Laity newsletter eLumen.

Only this year, my first as a Dominican, did I notice that August is a huge month for feast days. To name just some, in order: St. Alfonso Liguori, St. Jean-Marie Vianney, The Transfiguration of the Lord, St. Dominic (my father in faith), St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), St. Lawrence, St. Clare, The Assumption of Mary (which I will have celebrated at one of her shrines), St. John Eudes, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Rose of Lima (lay Dominican), The Beheading of St. John the Baptist. Contemplating such a lineup, it's easy is to feel inadequate to the mission of evangelization—the most visible form of what used to be called "apostolate" in the Catholic Church, and in more traditional quarters, still is. But Christ spares no disciple their mission. Accordingly, while we do well to seek the help of our great forefathers and mothers in faith, the point is to emulate them.

Many Catholics seem to find such a resolution presumptuous, if not downright crazy. In their eyes, saints are like tangible miracles: by definition rare, and certainly not to be expected in the ordinary course. It's natural to live in such a way as to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. But that is not how God wants things to be. “Be ye perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Mt 5:48). And that “universal call to holiness” has a necessarily “missiological” dimension. Transformed by Christ ourselves first of all, we the laity are meant to transform the world for him. The two processes are inseparable: committing to either means committing to both. In today’s world especially, that means thinking and acting bigger than we are, by grace and faith.

The task too often daunts. Thanks to scientific advances, which have enabled humanity to improve the conditions of life along with our understanding of God’s creation, people can do more than ever without reference to God. Thus in the more “developed” countries, secularism, materialism, and unbelief abound. Even where God is remembered, his name is often invoked to rationalize violence, exploitation, and other forms of unlove. Lately, the need for conversion among the baptized, even among the clergy, has become all too evident. Those who would follow Christ have more work than ever, starting with themselves. So even aside from our natural incredulity about the call to holiness, the obstacles to answering and spreading it can seem overwhelming. No amount of virtue, talent, study, or publicity seems to make much difference in a world full of opposition to the Gospel. But what we do, if we offer it in faith to God, does make a difference. The Kingdom of God is “like a mustard seed” (Lk 13:19). Those who belong to it are small, and start small, but God gives the increase. And the increase is mighty indeed, if we would but let ourselves become living sacrifices of love for God and neighbor.

One way to do that is through the new “social media” on the Internet. Most of us know about them, and some of us use them. It’s easy to dwell on the pitfalls of such media: the over-the-top rhetoric, the opportunities for shallow publicity and self-indulgence, the threats to privacy, and so on. But as the Pope has repeatedly pointed out—see, e.g., here—the new media also present enormous opportunities for apostolate. I shall offer my own example, then generalize.

A dozen years ago, I hosted “Religion Chat” for MSN and moderated its largest Catholic “group.” From 2005 to 2010, I blogged on mostly theological topics (Sacramentum Vitae). That got more attention than I expected: attention evoked more by the message, thank God, than by the personality of the messenger. After a year in which my online interaction with people has been mostly on Facebook, to good as well as bad effect, I shall resume my original blogging apostolate. And I have now joined Google+, a new social network that, in my opinion, is better organized and has more even potential than Facebook.

Such activities are not just a personal hobby or eccentricity. Many Catholics are engaged in them, and I could here cite numerous examples with which I am personally acquainted. But to get a broader idea of how it's working in America, I cite young Brandon Vogt’s new book The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet (Our Sunday Visitor, 2011). To the extent we can, the members of the Order of Preachers in particular should make extensive use of them. Some of us do; I notice that the St. Joseph Province has quite a respectable website.

Then there’s all the research material the Internet has made available for study, private as well as public. Almost anybody can now carry around a library of Catholic classics, including St. Thomas’ Summa, in a device no bigger and somewhat lighter than most books. I plan on getting an e-reader as my Christmas gift to myself (unless, of course, somebody wants to spare me the trouble--hint, hint). Even the mobile phone I have now contains an “app” for reciting, and daily updating, the complete Liturgy of the Hours. The opportunities for living our charism in and through these new media are enormous. Let us pray and work together to take still better advantage of them.

Monday, August 15, 2011


The most important assumption to note today is that of the Mother of God into heaven. Among Eastern Christians, that reality is known as the "Dormition" of the Theotokos (depicted left). As the paradigmatic instance of what we are all meant to become, Mary helps to bring about what we are to become. Her very person is sacramental to a degree no other human person's is. Even so, and as the now-hoary title of this blog is meant to suggest, human life itself is sacramental. The basic goodness of what we are helps to constitute, and to bring about, the goodness of what we are meant to be. I often forget that. And so I've decided to resume blogging by reminding everybody of it.

In its basic goodness, human life expresses the divine goodness, which has no need of it. But precisely because it has no need of its human signification, divine goodness is fittingly expressed by the creation into which it overflows. Rational creatures, such as ourselves, enhance that expression by appreciating and responding to it. That's what divine "glory" is. By becoming what we are created to be, we give God glory. In prayer, I've learned once again that this blog is a means for me to become that and give God glory. That's why I've picked today to resume blogging after eight months of silence.

With that resolution, I can now proceed on several other assumptions. For example, this summer I finally joined the lay wing of the Dominican order as a novice. For several years I had hesitated to do so, sincerely believing such a move would be hypocritical. Joining a religious order, even as a mere tertiary, means acknowledging a charism and taking on a mission. That requires resolving to preach Christ by deeds as well as words. And though I have preached Christ with my lips and keyboard, I have not done so successfully with my life. But my confrères persuaded me that, if I wholeheartedly desire to become whatever it is I am meant to be, God will give the increase. I now proceed on that assumption.

Another assumption is that many of my online friends and acquaintances will be willing to follow me again. I hope that's a safe assumption. A few weeks ago, I warned my Facebook friends that I would switch to Google+ for my social networking. I do not regret that decision; I find Facebook annoying for any number of reasons, and am impressed with G+'s implementation of sharing as well as with its integration with other Google services I use, including this one. I am still allowed to invite people; if you're a friend and not on G+ already, please let me know either on my Facebook wall or by email, and I'll get you here.

Finally, you may safely assume that this blog will see many changes in format and usage over the next few months. The online world is moving fast, and I strive to move with it.