Minute Particulars

"...minute and particular." -- Enormous Generalities

Friday, February 28, 2003

APOCA . . . HUH?!

So, if someone walked up to you and screamed "You are an espouser of apocatastasis!!!" would you, after calmly wiping off the flecks of spit that landed on your cheek,
A) reply, "Same to you buddy"!
B) thank him
C) clarify by asking if he means "restitutio in pristinum statum"
D) shout "anathema sit! as you turn and bolt
E) or walk away and go look it up?
Looks like Tom of Disputations is distilling what is shaping up (I think more posts are coming) to be a very fine reflection on the different kinds of "universal salvation" within the Tradition.




Body and Soul has a very nice tribute (via Camassia) to Fred Rogers. Here's a small sample, but you should read the whole thing:
Fred Rogers had an astonishing gift for knowing exactly what worried kids, and more than that, a gift for brushing away their concerns without at any time making it seem like there was anything wrong with that concern. Just try to strike that perfect tone. You probably can't do it, for the same reason you can't sing like Aretha Franklin. It's a glorious gift that God didn't hand out to everyone.


Thursday, February 27, 2003


I posted most of this back in September in response to Pope John Paul II's words on the occasion of the one-year commemoration of 9/11. It seems a relevant post today in light of the ongoing blogussion about praying for and forgiving one's enemies and the pope's position on the Iraq situation.

What was the most striking thing Pope John Paul II said at the commemoration? Perhaps,
Terrorism is and always will be a manifestation of inhuman cruelty that, precisely because of this, will never be able to resolve conflicts among human beings.
No, I think most would agree with that and not find it very challenging. How about,
Outrage, armed violence and war are choices that only sow and generate hatred and death. Only reason and love are valid means to overcome and resolve differences between persons and peoples.
Nope, though the “reason and love” bit might irk a few. Perhaps,
We repeat that no situation of injustice, no sense of frustration, no philosophy or religion can justify such an aberration.
Well, that kind of goes without saying unless you’re Susan Sontag. Maybe,
Every human person has the right to have his/her life and dignity respected, which are inviolable goods . . . God says this, international law sanctions it, the human conscience proclaims it, civil coexistence demands it.
Again, rock-ribbed truths that might stir things up with some, but still pretty generic (yes, of course, important) material. How about,
When fundamental rights are violated, it is easy to fall prey to temptations of hatred and violence. It is necessary to build together a global culture of solidarity, which will again give youth hope in the future.
Well, again, standard stuff you’d expect from John Paul II. Here’s something, to pray,
for the eternal rest of the victims, and that God will grant mercy and pardon to the authors of this terrible terrorist attack.
Well, yes, we should pray for the victims. What’s that? “Grant mercy and pardon to the authors of this terrible terrorist attack”!? There it is. It’s all pretty routine until you hit that little speed bump.

Here’s the thing about trying to fly over speed bumps; my Dad always said “The less you feel it the more the car is getting damaged.” That’s because the suspension system takes one hell of a beating if you just gun over the things without slowing down. When you slow down and creep over speed bumps, your car doesn’t take a pounding. But that, of course, requires that you slow down, feel the car lurch up and over, spill your coffee, and get abused by the horn-blowing guy behind you. But at least you’re protecting your vehicle.

One of the first descriptions of Christ was that he would be “a sign that will be contradicted”. I’ve found this to be a good litmus test of my willingness to follow Christ. When I ask myself if anything I believe seems to contradict my expectations, if I seem to be asked to do more than I think I can, if much of what is revealed leaves me with slack-jawed incredulity, if I answer "Yes" then I figure I’m on the right track. I don’t mean that we ought to be racked with contradiction, but that we ought to be open to it. As French Dominican M. D. Molinié writes:
We must accept the fact that one by one our poor little ideas are gently being splintered in the tender darkness of God.
And as he says elsewhere
Without revelation, mankind is immersed in a darkness beyond the reach of delivering wisdom. When the Word of God throws light into that darkness, the darkness is not dispelled as might be hoped. Rather, it is intensified, for the obscurity deepens as the light progresses. And so it goes, until man meets his God face to face.
This isn’t a suggestion that we are condemned to be agnostics; it’s not a plea that we should revel in ignorance. Rather, it simply points to the stark truth that
Faith is a personal adherence of the whole man to God who reveals himself. It involves an assent of the intellect and will to the self-revelation God has made through his deeds and words. "To believe" has thus a twofold reference: to the person, and to the truth: to the truth, by trust in the person who bears witness to it.
If you believe that Christ is the Word made Flesh, then you must adhere to all of what he’s revealed. As Mark Shea nicely puts it :
"For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." - Matthew 6:14-15 There is neither an exception nor an escape clause here.
Authentic belief in Christ is not a wager or bet or any other such thing; it requires knowledge of the person of Christ because it requires a judgment of his credibility and the credibility of witnesses; and this because we must give assent to the content of his testimony and testimony about him by judging who it is who is testifying. If Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, then everything he reveals about the Father, about himself, and about us must be the truth. If you think something like the statement above on forgiveness is suspect or should be applied conditionally, then you are either:
1) implicitly or explicitly admitting Christ was in error
or 2) implicitly or explicitly denying that Christ in fact revealed it
It sounds simplistic but it’s deeply profound, when the Truth is a person then accepting that Truth is really an all or nothing situation.

And so, Aquinas writes
Now, whoever believes, assents to someone's words; so that, in every form of belief, the person to whose words assent is given seems to hold the chief place and to be the end as it were; while the things by holding which one assents to that person hold a secondary place.
Obviously the application of the truth revealed is the tough part. Agreeing with the pope that we should all pray “that God will grant mercy and pardon to the authors of this terrible terrorist attack” and genuinely praying for this are quite different. We can gloss over what might seem an outlandish request, we can just hit the accelerator and not even feel the bump as we fly over it, but we do so at our own peril. And, at the risk of stretching the metaphor too far, I think we do some damage to the vehicle we’re riding in: we loosen the chassis, weaken the suspension, and ruin the alignment. If our faith is to carry us to the end, we need to slow up and respond to all that it demand of us.




A reader emailed that I should have added Blessed Bartholomew Longo to my short list of examples in the Catholic Tradition of why our prayer and forgiveness ought to include potentially every human being regardless of what he or she has done:
Following a philosophy class taught by a fallen-away priest, Longo moved from indifference to the Church to ridicule, to open hostility. He participated in street demonstrations against the Pope, then dabbled in occult nonsense like magnetism and spiritism, tipping tables and contacting the spirit world through mediums. Burning his bridges, he finally became a Satanist, and with some further study, a Satanist priest.

Bartholomew's family and friends refused to give up on the young man, praying for his return to the faith, and pecking away at his interest in Satan. Vincente Pepe, a respected professor from his home town, convinced him to turn from the occult, and a Dominican friar named Father Albert guided him through his return to the Church in a process we would today call deprogramming.

Longo finally recovered his senses and his faith, and became a Dominican tertiary on 25 March 1871, taking the name Fratel Rosario (Brother Rosary).


Wednesday, February 26, 2003


Rod Dreher responded to some of the feedback he received about his review of the new film Gods and Generals. Bill Cork of Ut Unum Sint responds here to some of the comments in my post:
Well, yes ... and no. Mark is right that slavery was the issue. Because of that, we cannot turn Stonewall Jackson into a saint. We dare not romanticize the South. We must not justify that culture.
But perhaps we can still "talk about honor, nobility, and goodness" in men of both sides; men who (to coin a phrase) were simul iustus et peccator.
And Tom of Disputations suggests in his comments on this that my post or at least the statement:
Why try to justify one iota of a culture that had slavery at its core? How can folks who admit slavery was a great evil talk about honor, nobility, and goodness in those who fought to allow it to continue?
goes too far. I don't doubt it. Certainly my brief comments oversimplify the many issues. I think both Bill and Tom are trying to find a mean in which we can speak of "honor, nobility, and goodness" on both sides of the War in the manner implied perhaps, as Bill suggests, by Lincoln's words: "With malice toward none, with charity for all." So, let me just reassert the proper context of my post briefly and in slight defense.

What I want to resist are statements formulated and defended in 2003, nearly 140 years after the Civil War ended, that suggest that those who fought for the Confederacy were good and noble and honorable. I agree with Tom that
"People are complex," as they say, and complexity makes for both good story-telling and fruitful meditation. How can honor and nobility co-exist with a willingness to kill to preserve slavery? That's an important question without a simple answer.
This, of course, could be said about any war, any army, and any cause. Human beings are indeed complex and concrete, having actions that are particular and immersed in circumstances that make moralizing difficult if not at times impossible. And certainly no side of any war is ever morally spotless:
. . . Besides, there is no
king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to
the arbitrement of swords, can try it out with all
unspotted soldiers. Henry V
But what then can we say? Can we make cogent and meaningful moral statements about something like the Civil War from a vantage point nearly a century and a half later, with a perspective that sees how many of the moral threads played out? I think we can if our perspective and context are clear.

We might call it a kind of macro-morality that lets us make statements about a war like the Civil War or any war that has fairly clear causes and is fought by imperfect and fallible combatants in a particular place and time. To say that a Confederate soldier was fighting a battle for a government and cause that were grossly flawed and morally wrong is not quite saying that no good or honor or virtue could be found in any Confederate soldier. But if our words are meant to apply to soldiers in the context of a war, actions of human beings as they are engaged in the defense of a government and culture that had slavery at its core, a cause that was and is morally wrong, then I think we can rightfully balk when "honor, nobility, and goodness" are predicated of such soldiers.

As Bill and Tom suggest, there is indeed a fine balance required and no easy way to grapple with these kinds of issues. I'd simply add that just as the difficulties of moral discernment increase the closer we get to actually living in the time and place of particular individuals, so too, the difficulties are attenuated the further we are from the time and place and particular individuals. At some point we ought to be able to say without too much qualification that Lee was wrong to defend an immoral government that enslaved men, women, and children.

A final point: A number of folks responded that I was anachronistically applying current moral sensibilities to the Civil War or applying them to the South but not to the North. To that I'd simply repeat that I did say, and not entirely for dramatic effect, that if I were a Southerner at the time I likely would not have had the courage or imagination to rebel and fight for the North or even rail against slavery as an institution. Those who did were surely heroic. So, I'm not condemning individuals -- whatever that could mean now -- by holding them to a higher and heroic standard then what was reasonable. Rather, I'm insisting now, in our own time, that we can and ought to make moral judgments about the events and actions of 140 years ago. And my points with regard to what we can say now would apply to the North as well; I surely wasn't suggesting that the North had an idea of slavery that was equal to what most of us hold today.

But what concerns me is the moral relativism that creeps in if we refuse to acknowledge that, objectively speaking, defending a government that enslaves humans is morally wrong. We must at least start with some kind of objective background if history is going to have any moral meaning for us now; we can then suggest all kinds of mitigating circumstances and distinguish reasonable from heroic standards, etc., once we're standing on some kind of common moral foundation.




There was a bit of a dust up in the comments box over on Disordered Affections when Karen wrote:
I firmly believe that Evil exists, and it is not in the same class as "enemy", and that God meant for us to fight evil, not pray for it.

Having spent an insane amount of time studying possession and exorcism (for the book that I wrote, and because I find it fascinating in general), I believe that someone like Osama Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein or Adolf Hitler is "perfectly possessed", meaning they are the embodiment of evil. Any exorcist worth his salt will tell you there is no amount of praying that will help that person. I've had two different exorcists say to me, "You just have to hope someone will lock them up before they kill too many people."

When Jesus cast out demons, he did not pray for the demons. He sent them into pigs and over a cliff, or just back to hell if he wasn't in a creative mood. And he said to Peter, "Get thee behind me, Satan"; he didn't say, "Peter, we need to pray for you, you are in need of clarification."
Whatever it means to "pray for someone," it surely doesn't simply boil down to "wishing them well." But this seems to be a notion of prayer that many have, especially those who object to praying for the enemy or a human being who seems utterly evil. After all, the objection seems to be something like this:
Okay, let me get this right. You want me to pray for _________ so that ______________ will have health and prosperity . . . so _________ can then continue to slaughter the innocent!?.
This, of course, would be absurd and it's not what most have in mind when advocating that we pray for the enemy or a person who seems "the embodiment of evil." But what does it mean?

First, let's be clear that we probably don't even know what we're talking about when we bandy about affirmations for or objections against prayer. It's likely that no two people will explain what "prayer" means in quite the same way. St. Paul tells us that:
[W]e do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God's will. Rom. 8:26
But surely we have examples of prayer. Most obviously in Jesus' words of the Our Father. And it's there, of course, that we find, "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Now, this alone seems the showstopper to any objection to praying for and forgiving our enemy or someone who seems to be evil incarnate. Only a naïve or superficial person would deny that these words are a difficult, difficult standard to try to live. But there they are.

The other related words of Jesus were spoken while he was hanging on the cross: "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do" (Lk. 23:34). Here is a prayer; Jesus is speaking to the Father, and asking Him to forgive those who have committed the gravest of evils, torturing and killing an innocent human being. Again, it's a showstopper. Our prattling on about who ought to be prayed for and who not, who ought to be forgiven and who not, seems callow in light of these words, words prayed by the Word made Flesh as He hung in agony, impaled and dying on the cross.

But if these two showstoppers aren't enough to cool your righteous indignation at those who might suggest that we pray for our enemies, pray for the most depraved tyrants and murderers and slaughterers of hundreds, thousands, or millions of human beings, there are more examples, a lot more, in the long tradition of Christian prayer and forgiveness that hint at what we are called to.

Here's a ladle of examples from an ocean of wisdom:
-- The well-known Fatima prayer ends with "Lead all souls to Heaven, especially those most in need of Thy mercy." Not "also" or "even" or "and don't forget," but "especially those most in need of Thy mercy."
-- Saints and martyrs from St. Stephen onward have prayed for the forgiveness of their murderers before being murdered (and surely after as well).
-- St. Paul himself aggressively persecuted Christians prior to his conversion.
-- A number repentant murderers have actually been canonized (here are a few).
-- Pope John Paul II met with and forgave the man who shot him, a shot that left him permanently disabled.


Tuesday, February 25, 2003


DoubleTake Magazine (via Catholic Light) has a previously unpublished interview with Walker Percy. Here are a few snippets:
RL: You are openly critical of joining groups. Why, then, did you join the Catholic Church?
WP: The question opens such vast areas‹or should I say abysses‹of misunderstanding that I am somewhat boggled and could not begin to answer it seriously without writing a three-hundred-page Apologia pro Vita Sua. Indeed, I had supposed that all of my writings might be considered as a sort of covert answer to this question. Therefore, I will answer your question unseriously: Would you like it better if I were a Methodist?
RL: What were your most significant transitions philosophically?
WP: From Tolstoy to Dostoevsky. From Sartre to Marcel. From Plato to Aristotle. From Wolfe to Faulkner. Though in no case did I lose admiration for the former performance. It was a matter of further discovery.


Monday, February 24, 2003


A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian theological spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.
If you've been in enough breath-holding contests at a pool as a kid you'll know that someone, maybe even you, will eventually try to pull a fast one by sneaking a breath when no one is looking in order to win the contest. I sometimes think brash skeptics are a little like the kids who cheat. They claim to have hopped into the theological pool, stayed submerged longer, and seen more and deeper than the fools around them. But the "absurdity" they turn up is usually evidence that they didn't stay under very long or stray out of the shallow end of the pool.

The Dilemma of Heaven (link via Redwood Dragon) seems to have resulted from someone hugging the side of the pool and braying that they've spotted something wrong in the deep end. In the article, Doug Wetzel writes:
I recently began to ponder the ever-promised goal of theistic heaven, particularly the Christian version which entails a very specific path to having arrived there.
He then trudges through his assessment of life as a human being within some kind of Divine Providence and concludes that:
In the end, heaven and its very concept is a wholly unsatisfactory one. Any understanding that we have for it is simply inconsistent. God must, by necessity, peel from those who enter heaven the very things that constitute them as individual, free-willed, and knowledgeable beings. He would have to cause us to become as unwitting animals of the dumbest sort, like puppies who are always glad to greet their master, with tongues lagging from their mouths and utter dereliction in recognizing the harm they cause by urinating on the divine floors. Is this what I, or any of us, should look forward to as a proper Christian? I should hope not, but that is what is offered.
I kind of feel like saying,
Well I'll be damned! Doug Wetzel has found the cryptic key, the lynchpin, the tiny chink in the armor of two millennia of theological thought. It's all a farce! The notion of Heaven is contradictory and would reduce us to puppies peeing on the divine floors! Why didn't I see that?!
But I'll not say such a thing. Instead, I think I'll just recite my worldview mantra, a little something from an old Steve Martin routine (from memory since I no longer have the album):
Religion is so arbitrary and mystical while science, on the other hand, is pure empiricism which by virtue of its very method excludes metaphysics. I guess I wouldn't know what to believe if it weren't for my lucky moodwatch.
I mean really, isn't this pretty much what someone like Doug thinks I'm doing by reciting the Nicene Creed or asserting a position of faith? If I were to explain to him that a perfect good is more desirable than any other good, and that the beatific vision is the possession of this perfect good, and that once I possess this I could no longer choose anything else because no other good could be perceived as better, would I make any headway? What if I told him that his example is a little like my complaining that while sitting at table at a glorious banquet the thought of standing up onto the table, squatting, and defecating on my entrée didn't occur to me? That is what Doug's gripe comes down to in a very superficial way. He's concerned that some lesser good won't occur to him in Heaven. What a very strange thing to say.


Sunday, February 23, 2003


Today's Gospel mentions that Jesus knows what others are "thinking to themselves":
Jesus immediately knew in his mind what they were thinking to themselves, so he said, "Why are you thinking such things in your hearts?"
This is interesting. Ironically, the fact that Jesus knew the secret thoughts of those who thought he was a fraud should have been a hint, a glimmer that he was divine and genuine in his claims. I don't know how far back the tradition that only God can know the secret thoughts of human beings goes, so perhaps knowing another's secret thoughts would not have been considered a very remakable thing.

And isn't there a common notion that spirits both good and bad, angels and devils can divine the secret thoughts of human beings? And in our own day, don't we have purported mind readers and even hints at how technology will one day pull thoughts out of the mind and heart for all to see?

Aquinas is very interesting on this issue. In the question: Whether angels know secret thoughts? (ST 1a.57.4) he writes:
A secret thought can be known in two ways: first, in its effect. In this way it can be known not only by an angel, but also by man; and with so much the greater subtlety according as the effect is the more hidden. For thought is sometimes discovered not merely by outward act, but also by change of countenance; and doctors can tell some passions of the soul by the mere pulse. Much more then can angels, or even demons, the more deeply they penetrate those occult bodily modifications. . . .
What's interesting up to this point is that he mentions how thoughts manifest themselves. My post, THE NAKED FACE, touches on this and later this week I'm going to write about the brouhaha caused by the latest results from brain scans and Brain-Computer Interface systems -- materialists' best hope for snuffing out immaterial principles and immortal souls. Stay tuned.

But back to Aquinas since he wasn't quite finished:
In another way thoughts can be known as they are in the mind, and affections as they are in the will: and thus God alone can know the thoughts of hearts and affections of wills. The reason of this is, because the rational creature is subject to God only, and He alone can work in it Who is its principal object and last end . . . . Consequently all that is in the will, and all things that depend only on the will, are known to God alone. Now it is evident that it depends entirely on the will for anyone actually to consider anything; because a man who has a habit of knowledge, or any intelligible species, uses them at will.
For Aquinas, our secret thoughts derive from a movement of the will to think these thoughts. While our countenance, our physiology, and our brain activity may give signs of these secret thoughts, they are, in principle, hidden. Can they be coerced out of us or known through our being drugged? Are they spilled when we talk in our sleep? I think in principle not, though I don't know much about such things as truth serum or "ways to make one speak" or the nature of the content of what we might say in our sleep. I suspect that what can be lodged from the mind and heart in this manner would be very different and lack the organic unity and coherence of something willingly spoken.


Saturday, February 22, 2003


Rod Dreher has a review (via Kevin Miller) of the new film Gods and Generals. I guess Rod and I are just not going to see eye to eye on this warm fuzzy feeling a lot of people still have for the antebellum South (here's a previous response to Rod on a different, though related, issue). There's a saying that goes:
To judge the past, we would need to have lived it; to condemn it, we would need to not be indebted to it for anything.
It's a fine thing to keep in mind whenever you might be tempted to distance yourself from the past or diminish the intelligence and virtue of human beings who lived long ago.

That said, though, I am bothered by the tendency toward what I'll call "revisionist morality" that Rod expresses in the review. For example, he writes:
Lee opposed secession, but once the decision was taken, it was this sense of duty that bound him to fight for the Confederacy. If you or I had been Virginians back then, how many of us would have had the courage to have gone north to fight for the Union, or even had the imagination to conceive of such a thing? What Maxwell is trying to do here is show contemporary audiences why good men would take up arms to defend a government and a culture that enslaved other men. It is for much the same reason that black GIs fought bravely in World War II for a country that still didn't guarantee them their full rights: because their homeland asked them to.
Now, I'm not saying that if I were a Southerner at the time of the Civil War that I would have fought for the North or had the courage or even "the imagination to conceive of such a thing." I'm not claiming I would've been some paragon of virtue and seen the grave injustice of slavery if I had grown up in the South in the middle of the 19th century.

But slavery is evil now and it was evil then. Men who took "up arms to defend a government and a culture that enslaved other men," women, and children were not "good" men. And this is not an anachronistic and unfair assessment. It reflects the objective fact that slavery was and is a great moral evil. Sure there are mitigating circumstances that come into play in assessing the moral gravity and culpability of those who fought to maintain the Southern way of life. I don't think anyone would deny that or deny that we are all inevitably and indelibly marked by the times we live in. But to suggest that fighting for the South was a good and noble thing to do seems hard to justify; it seems to be a distortion of the foundation of an objective, timeless, and binding morality.

Rod continues with:
Maxwell, [who wrote the screenplay for and directed the film], takes a big risk in downplaying questions of race and slavery here. You can understand why he may have done this; do modern audiences really need to be told that slavery was evil? We see now how vicious and evil slavery was, but if you're trying to show audiences why Lee and Jackson behaved as they did, you're simply not going to put slavery front and center, because it didn't figure prominently in their own deliberations, certainly not compared to the centrality of the claims their native soil had on their loyalties.
But this is just plain wrong. While slavery may not have been "front and center" in many of the combatants' minds, its existence as an institution and the foundation for a way of life was surely underneath whatever it was they were thinking about. The enslavement of other human beings was the heart of the matter regardless of how you trace out the many social, political, and economic permutations that eventually ignited the war. Denying that slavery was the issue of the Civil War would have been myopic at the time and it's revisionist nonsense now.

As I said in my response to Rod on the Trent Lott debacle, these warm words for how things used to be, these sentiments for the glorious days of the South, are inexcusable. They yield the hallowed ground that separates us from such oppressive times. Why try to justify one iota of a culture that had slavery at its core? How can folks who admit slavery was a great evil talk about honor, nobility, and goodness in those who fought to allow it to continue?




Karen of Disordered Affections has a new blog called Write This Way that already has some great links and interesting posts.




I received a number of responses about my A SLIGHT CHANGE post below. CalPundit disagreed with my conclusion as did a number of other bloggers and folks who sent emails. Some even implied that I'm being a bit of a closet creationist. So, let me attempt one final clarification on this slightly stale topic.

Prof. Dini's original question was, "How do you think the human species originated?" His revised version is, "How do you account for the scientific origin of the human species?" Part of the problem is the equivocal use of "human species." In one sense this can mean homo sapiens, a featherless biped or any other description restricted to what can be seen, touched, heard, smelled, and tasted. In another sense, "human species" means rational animal, an animal with an intellect that can abstract, understand, make judgments, and use true language.

The rational animal distinction isn't archaic nor can it simply be dismissed as superstition. It's a distinction that was made very early on in philosophical thought and has persisted to the present. The rational operations of human beings suggest an immaterial principle, a principle that does not depend on matter for its operations per se, but only indirectly (e.g. understanding requires initial input from the senses and the brain but is only possible apart from the material aspects of the senses and brain). This, of course, is a sprawling philosophical problem that goes everywhere or nowhere depending on the premises you accept and the conclusions you draw about human nature. And while I hope to post more on this later, my point here is not to convince anyone of this notion of "human species" so much as to point out that it's a coherent and reasonable explanation of human nature.

Concluding that there's more to what human beings do, what human beings "are" in the most profound sense, than a materialist philosophy or contemporary science can account for is simply not unreasonable nor does it immediately make one a creationist or divine interventionist or even a theist. And -- and this has been my point throughout my comments on this issue -- such a position does not affect one's ability as a biologist or medical doctor unless you're defining the fields of these endeavors inappropriately.

You can argue that you don't think "rational" implies an immaterial principle, but that's not my point here. You can insist that "understanding" can be explained in purely materialist terms, but that's not my point here. My point is that it's not unreasonable to think that "rational animal" implies an immaterial principle or hold that the operation of human understanding can't be explained by matter alone.

So back to the questions proposed by Prof. Dini in his apparent attempt to cull the herd of creationists:
How do you think the human species originated?
How do you account for the scientific origin of the human species?
The revision of the question to include "scientific origin" is still a misunderstanding of what we mean when we say we have a "scientific understanding" of the human being.

But, this assumes that by science we mean an understanding of the human being derived from a scientific model, evolution theory (even accounting for the various permutations of the theory within the field itself). This scientific model can only support statements that are testable and therefore falsifiable -- else they're no longer "scientific" in the contemporary sense. The statement "human beings originated from ________ " is not a scientific statement if by human beings you are referring to "rational animals" for the simple reason that material principles can't give rise to immaterial principles and "originated" implies this demarcation. If by human being you simply mean "animal" then "origins" becomes problematic -- where'd the precursor to the precursor "originate" from and so on ad infinitum? The questions strike me as ham-fisted attempts to weed out "creationists" rather than clarify a student's potential in graduate school or med school. Surely Prof. Dini has the right not to recommend anyone for any reason, but his poorly formed question suggests that he won't recommend anyone who in fact has a proper understanding of science while also holding a reasonable philosophical (and not necessarily theological) understanding of human nature. That makes him unreasonable in his recommendations even if he has the right to be unreasonable.

I am not an advocate for creationism or intelligent design being treated as contemporary sciences. Creationism and intelligent design proponents make claims that aren't testable and therefore aren't falsifiable theories; that is why they aren't scientific in the contemporary sense. What I do advocate, though, is a proper understanding of scientific disciplines, the proper objects of each, and the legitimate and reasonable conclusions one can draw from each discipline.


Wednesday, February 19, 2003


Chris of Veritas has a thought-provoking post on the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification document that was signed on October 31, 1999 by Rev. Ishmael Noko of the Lutheran World Federation and Bishop Kasper, Secretary, Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. In particular, Chris discusses the following paragraph:
40. The understanding of the doctrine of justification set forth in this Declaration shows that a consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification exists between Lutherans and Catholics. In light of this consensus the remaining differences of language, theological elaboration, and emphasis in the understanding of justification described in paras. 18 to 39 are acceptable. Therefore the Lutheran and the Catholic explications of justification are in their difference open to one another and do not destroy the consensus regarding the basic truths. (emphasis added)




Okay, fair enough. If I'm going to raise the rhetorical question "What if it were possible to lose?" in order to shed light on areas that the powerful might be blinded to, I suppose the question "What if the marches succeed?" (via Josh Claybourn) ought to be asked.

I would only respond that peace rarely if ever means "doing nothing" as the article somewhat simplistically suggests. Still, it's always good to ask the equivalent of, "What if what I really want really happens?"




Kids, don't try this at home!


Tuesday, February 18, 2003


This story (via Josh Claybourn) reminded me to go look at Professor Michael Dini's controversial Letters of Recommendation page again to see if he's changed anything. I mentioned the controversy initially in my EVERYONE LOOKS LIKE A CHIMP post, and then followed up with ABOVE THE DINI DIN DIN and HUMBLE AND GRATEFUL MINDS NEED NOT APPLY. I ended up concluding that the issue wasn't really religious discrimination -- this was a red herring that a lot of folks went after because the student who complained was a Creationist. It was really about a poor understanding of the nature of science:
So, the point isn't that Dini should give a recommendation for the student. Only a fool would want a recommendation from Dini after refusing to give Dini the answer he's looking for. The point is that Dini doesn't understand the nature of science and the fact that different objects and different aspects of an object require different scientific approaches . . . [T]his isn't about religious discrimination, it's about recognizing precisely what evolution theory and biological science explain and what they cannot. If I held that evolution is the central unifying theory of biology (as I , in fact, do) and yet also recognized that it cannot explain every aspect of human beings (which I also maintain), then I would not be able to get a recommendation from Dini even though I understand evolution theory and its proper applications; and this on account of his ill-formed question.
Well, it seems Prof. Dini has changed his approach a bit. His original statement was:
If you set up an appointment to discuss the writing of a letter of recommendation, I will ask you: "How do you think the human species originated?" If you cannot truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer to this question, then you should not seek my recommendation for admittance to further education in the biomedical sciences. (emphasis added)
It now reads:
If you set up an appointment to discuss the writing of a letter of recommendation, I will ask you: "How do you account for the scientific origin of the human species?" If you will not give a scientific answer to this question, then you should not seek my recommendation. (emphasis added)
Besides making it clear that he doesn't read Minute Particulars, Prof. Dini's revision still reflects a misunderstanding about what evolutionary theory or biology in general can and cannot tell us. And it's again a poorly formed question if he wants to know if a student thinks evolution is significant in biology and in human physiology. Why does he insist on the metaphysical question of origin? Why not simply ask specific questions about the human being that the model of evolution explains quite well: "Why do you think human beings share so much DNA with other animals?" or "Why do human beings have vestigial organs that no longer have any use?" or any other question related to the evolution of all animals.




This (you might need to scroll to the "How Catholics can . . ." post from the main page since archives seem cranky) is why Disputations remains the finest combination blog out there: smart and sassy (oops, that's taken) wise and witty.




My blog ears were burning and now I see why. HMS's Greg Popcak wrote:
Emily [Stimpson], sounds like Minute Particulars got to you. This is a debate he and I have had many times. Specifically, how well can you know a person (in the ontological sense) by simply observing their actions?
They're debating the lunch with Granholm hubub. I haven't been following the issue closely enough to add anything. I suppose it's similar to Sharpton's appearance in the pulpit of a Catholic Church.

If you want to see one of the exchanges that Greg has in mind (I think), take a look at my ONCE MORE UNTO THE BREACH, DEAR FRIENDS, ONCE MORE post from last May.




Josh Claybourn has let Andy of World Wide Rant fame loose on his blog. A great idea. I suppose comment boxes already provide this kind of contrast and forum, but giving someone the helm takes it much further -- admirably so.

So, you might ask, is The Raving Atheist going to take the reins at Minute Particulars for a day? Well, I suppose that after our recent exchanges of goodwill and cheer, anything is possible.




This article (link via Dust in the Light) is really very good. It's not the usual debate between someone who thinks infanticide and euthanasia are morally wrong and the cold, calculated thinking of Princeton philosopher Peter Singer. Rather it's a debate between two people who ostensibly ground their moral views in reason alone: one confined to a wheelchair, the other not; one a disability rights lawyer, the other a philosopher. Harriet McBryde Johnson recalls her encounters with the Princeton philosopher in a remarkably intelligent, sensitive, and sobering article. What most surprised me was her candid assessment of Singer and the manner in which she debates him. Here are some excerpts that I really liked:
He insists he doesn't want to kill me. He simply thinks it would have been better, all things considered, to have given my parents the option of killing the baby I once was, and to let other parents kill similar babies as they come along and thereby avoid the suffering that comes with lives like mine and satisfy the reasonable preferences of parents for a different kind of child. It has nothing to do with me. I should not feel threatened.
In the discussion that follows [on assisted suicide], I argue that choice is illusory in a context of pervasive inequality. Choices are structured by oppression. We shouldn't offer assistance with suicide until we all have the assistance we need to get out of bed in the morning and live a good life. Common causes of suicidality -- dependence, institutional confinement, being a burden -- are entirely curable.
The tragic view comes closest to describing how I now look at Peter Singer. He is a man of unusual gifts, reaching for the heights. He writes that he is trying to create a system of ethics derived from fact and reason, that largely throws off the perspectives of religion, place, family, tribe, community and maybe even species -- to ''take the point of view of the universe.'' His is a grand, heroic undertaking.
But like the protagonist in a classical drama, Singer has his flaw. It is his unexamined assumption that disabled people are inherently ''worse off,'' that we ''suffer,'' that we have lesser ''prospects of a happy life.'' Because of this all-too-common prejudice, and his rare courage in taking it to its logical conclusion, catastrophe looms. Here in the midpoint of the play, I can't look at him without fellow-feeling.
If I define Singer's kind of disability prejudice as an ultimate evil, and him as a monster, then I must so define all who believe disabled lives are inherently worse off or that a life without a certain kind of consciousness lacks value. That definition would make monsters of many of the people with whom I move on the sidewalks, do business, break bread, swap stories and share the grunt work of local politics. It would reach some of my family and most of my nondisabled friends, people who show me personal kindness and who sometimes manage to love me through their ignorance. I can't live with a definition of ultimate evil that encompasses all of them. I can't refuse the monster-majority basic respect and human sympathy. It's not in my heart to deny every single one of them, categorically, my affection and my love.




My 13-month-old son. We think putting a bucket over your head and walking around enjoying the echo of your voice is a sign of genius.

Uh, could you tell that Dad was in charge of picking out his outfit for the day?


Monday, February 17, 2003


I've added a section of links to blogs that espouse, though aren't necessarily limited to, materialistic and/or atheistic views contrary to much of what you'll find on Minute Particulars. Some of the blogs linked to (in my opinion) can at times be offensive and tend toward a Beavis-and-Butthead style of humor that is tiresome. But I've also found them to be smart and challenging. I include them because genuine debate with a raving atheist or materialist is often better than no debate at all.




I guess this is good news:
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Internet search company Google Inc. has agreed to acquire Pyra Labs, the handful of Web developers who helped jump-start the personal publishing phenomenon known as blogging, Pyra's founder said on Sunday.




I have to admit that this "Part 2" was thrown up with a little more haste than usual because, after reading Disputations' response to Part 1, I feared I might be seen as gliding perilously close to if not smacking right into Tom's recent definition of an idiot: "someone who talks about something he doesn't understand without knowing he doesn't understand it."

I really was and am aware of the "serious prospects of success" stipulation in the latest iterations of just-war theory (cf. CCC and USCCB). I had hoped the context of the post and my mention of the fact that Kevin Miller had commendably linked to the various sources he cites would have suggested that I was aware of the traditional and current tenets of just-war theory. But more to the point, the questions "Are there serious prospects of success?" and "What if it were possible to lose?" are very different.

My point was that I think "most people" who currently support an invasion of Iraq might reconsider if it were possible that we could lose a war with Iraq. Tom suggests, I think, that a change in position would occur because just-war theory has a "probability of success" requirement. But that wasn't my point (and perhaps it wasn't Tom's?). The "probability of success" stipulation is in place so that a country not enter into a war that might be futile or require a disproportionate response.

The questions "Are there serious prospects of success?" and "What if it were possible to lose?" are not the same, and further, the latter could only really be asked by the world's most powerful countries. The first is an assessment of fulfilling the goals of a war and, one hopes, a careful definition of what "success" would mean. But, "What if it were possible to lose?" can only be rhetorically asked by a country like the U.S or a U.N. coalition. And yet, it seems a required question if we want to ensure another tenet of just-war theory: that "all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective"(CCC).

This may just be a silly "everything-you-need-to-know-about-fighting-you-learned-on-the-playground" notion, but doesn't our perspective inevitably get jaded when there isn't the possibility of losing? It's not insurmountable jading, just inevitable. Acknowledging the possibility of a jaded perspective in the powerful because they're powerful seems an implicit aspect of the just-war requirement that "all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective"(CCC).

So, if your position would change if we in fact could lose a war with Iraq, doesn't that warrant, at the very least, another look at your position? Not, of course, because it's a real possibility, but because the possibility of losing sheds light on some considerations we might have left implicit. The possibility of losing can force the situation to a moral crisis, even if it's an artificial crisis and urgency, that might suggest that we have not exhausted "all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective."

There is an interesting tension between these two stipulations of just-war theory in the CCC:
-- all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective

-- there are serious prospects of success
If you are in a position in which you could not realistically lose a war, you have to consider these requirements somewhat independently at first, before bringing them together in a final judgment.

The first requirement that we consider "all other means" seems to require, again if you really couldn't lose, an affirmation that you would still want to go to war even if it were possible that you could lose. Such an affirmation shores up aspects that may have been glossed over because they aren't seen in the stark light of actions that could doom you. The gravity of war requires this stark light even if it must be somewhat artificially applied. The second (and there are, of course, more) requirement is that you then consider the prospects of achieving success.

Perhaps more later.


Friday, February 14, 2003


Kevin Miller has a thoughtful and careful post on Just War theory. He's also, and commendably since it's a pain to do, linked to all of the major reference points he touches on. You could end up spending a lot of time reading everything he links to. Very nice and exactly what a blog post should provide.

It occurred to me, and I'm not sure what I was reading in his post that precipitated this, that the position of many on this issue might change if the U.S. could actually lose a war with Iraq. Would advocates for a preemptive strike shift a bit or hesitate? If so, why? Would this imply that the threshold for a preemptive strike needs to be raised?




Disordered Affections gives the morning report:
What Hans Blix said: They're nicer every day. Any minute now, they're going to drive us to a warehouse and say, "We give up, here are our weapons of mass destruction."

What Colin Powell heard: They found a missile that goes nine miles beyond the limit, we can drop bombs now.

What the news media reported: Today is the day we're all going to die, except for the people who bought plastic sheeting and duct tape!

What I came away with: Caleb looks so cute in his new "Bear in the Big Blue House" sweatshirt.




Fussy describes taking her toddler to the pediatrician:
Anyway, our pediatrician . . . ends up repeating himself a lot. I'm sure he has a lot of patients, so he has to make sure we've all heard about the same dumb pair of lawyers who put Nestle's Strawberry Quik into their baby's bottle. That was last year; now we're getting the over-eighteen-months-old bits, like this one:

Doctor: "How's his vocabulary?"
Me: "Well, he's starting to put two words together, like 'more milk.'"
Doctor: "He's right on schedule. The next six months are going to blow your mind. He's going to start understanding plurals and possessives and abstract notions of time and space, and before you know it he'll be speaking in the pluperfect subjunctive."

In case you're sitting there blankly trying to remember what the pluperfect subjunctive is (and it's been awhile, hasn't it? or did they even teach you grammar at that reform school?), the doctor puts on a soft little accent and says, "Mother, I should like another glass of milk."

We've heard the pluperfect subjunctive bit twice now, and I think we can expect it at least one more time.
Wouldn't the pluperfect subjunctive be something like, "Mother, I might have liked another glass of milk"? My reform school days were long ago so I might be misremembering that. Anyway, it's a funny story and there really is something about pediatricians having a tool belt of anecdotes that they sling with each visit, anecdotes we hear over and over again. I suppose I don't mind since most anecdotes our pediatrician spouts are useful, easy to remember, and, given their repetition, time-tested.


Thursday, February 13, 2003


Dappled Things will be posting interesting Latin phrases from week to week. Here Fr. Jim looks at "Nemo dat quod non habet" and "Initium sapientiae timor Domini." The "Nemo dat quod non habet" reminded me somewhat of "gratis accepistis, gratis date" which is the Vulgate Latin for Mt 10:8: "Freely have you received, freely give."




Edgar Allan Poe preferred or at least recognized a qualitative difference in stories that could be read in one sitting:
If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression- for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed.
I think Augusto Monterroso's El Dinosaurio would surely fit the one-sitting rule. From a recent article:
On Sunday 9 February Augusto Monterroso, the Guatemalan writer passed away. Augusto was known around the world for his brevity and the economy of his characterisation, i.e. Augusto is credited with writing the shortest short story ever.

If you don't know the story well here it is: Under the title 'El Dinosaurio' -
Upon waking, the dinosaur was still there.




Aquinas, somewhat offhandedly it seems, tosses in a nice gem in this question on whether the soul is a body:
The philosophers of old, not being able to rise above their imagination, supposed that the principle of these actions was something corporeal: for they asserted that only bodies were real things; and that what is not corporeal is nothing: hence they maintained that the soul is something corporeal.(emphasis added)
You might think that a lack of imagination would be the reason "philosophers of old" (he has materialists in mind here) didn't see that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their philosophy. But he says "not being able to rise above their imagination" [imaginationem transcendere non valentes], not a lack of imagination.

This will only make sense if you realize that there is nothing in the imagination that doesn't ultimately come from the senses. And so, the imagination is not capable of producing concepts like "an immaterial subsistent principle." And really, that's not so much a concept as it is a "negative judgment" that there are more things in heaven and earth than what we sense. Arriving at an unchanging (hence immaterial) subsisting (it exists per se and not in something else) principle (if it exists it must do something) is not something one conjures up like "unicorn." It's a judgment made in response to the fact that, in the case of the human soul, some things have operations (understanding, free will) that cannot derive from a physical entity alone.




Duct Tape: $4.95
Plastic Sheets: $24.95
Bottles of Water: $13.65
Canned Food: $38.56
Basement Option: Priceless Useless

Charles Murtaugh walks through the likely scenarios of the unthinkable in a fine post on the futility of most home preparations against a major terrorist attack.




Yesterday, NPR interviewed Matthew Scully, author of Dominion: "The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy". Here's the introductory blurb for it:
How important is the quality of life of animals destined for the dinner table? For Matthew Scully, it's a moral imperative. The author of Dominion joins guest host Melinda Penkava to talk about industrial farms, animal welfare and vegetarianism.
What is usually lacking in these discussions, certainly in this interview, is the blazing fact that while human beings are animals, they are the only animal to which morality and mercy can be applied with any meaning. Also missing from most debates on animal cruelty is the fact that animals don't survive after death, humans do, since the human soul is an immaterial subsistent principle. These don't change the fact that cruelty towards animals is wrong; but they shift the reason such cruelty is wrong.

Even if you had a 16oz. filet mignon last night for dinner, thick slabs of bacon for breakfast, and felt a small artery slam shut in your chest as you wolfed down a couple of Whoppers for lunch, animal cruelty ought to concern you. But not because animals raised in harsh conditions suffer. Rather, because just as "you are what you eat," so too, "you are how you treat what you eat."

The concern about animal cruelty issues ought to be about those inflicting the cruelty. As human beings, incarnate intelligent beings shaped by our actions as much as our actions shape us, any act of cruelty toward other living sentient creatures habitually disposes us toward other human beings in a like manner. That doesn't of course mean that anyone who is cruel to animals will become a sociopath; rather, it means that our actions have consequence not only in the immediate situation, but in our disposition toward others down the road and our inclination toward other similar actions. That is a central and vital truth of the virtue tradition. Perhaps more on that later.


Wednesday, February 12, 2003


So, my Google search mentioned in the previous post for a statement like "God created the Universe 13.7 billion years ago" landed me on a really excellent, short article (scroll down) entitled Demarcation Between Science and Non-Science by Dr. Scott C. Smith on a website of The American Physical Society, which represents some 42,000 physicists. The Society's public website is really good.

Here's an excerpt from Smith's article:
Simply put, any scientific statement must be testable, and thereby falsifiable. A good scientific theory can never actually be proven, but it can certainly be disproven. Therefore scientific theories must continuously evolve to conform to new evidence as it arises. It is a hallmark of non-scientific theories such as "scientific" creationism to maintain the theory intact, and develop contorted "explanations" to "invalidate" the evidence.

Consider the statement, "God created the universe 'as is' 6000 years ago." There is no evidence that can possibly disprove this statement. "As is" presumably means complete with fossils in the ground, light in transit from stars billions of light years away, and all the other physical evidence that points to a much older universe. One can make no predictions of what will be discovered (or, more importantly, what can be ruled out) as a result of this hypothesis. The statement is not scientific. On the other hand, if we take the statement, "Life on earth evolved over 4 billion years through a continuous process of random mutation and natural selection," there are certainly pieces of evidence that we can imagine that would render the statement false. In fact, while our understanding of the sequence and mechanisms of evolution are by no means complete, and have been continually improved and modified since the hypothesis was first proposed, all of the evidence gathered to date supports some variation of this evolutionary theory. The statement is scientific because it leads to testable predictions, and the fact that the available evidence does not violate any of those predictions means that it continues to be a viable theory.




"An all-sky image of the infant universe, 380,000 years after the Big Bang, as captured by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe."*

This is really interesting:
Scientists using a robotic NASA probe have determined with precision the age of the universe -- 13.7 billion years -- and figured out when stars began to shine.

Astronomers have been closing in on these numbers for decades, but a spacecraft now about a million miles from Earth was able to look back to nearly the dawn of time to find the answers, NASA researchers said on Tuesday.
Now, how long do you think it will be before a Google search will find a site with something like "God created the Universe 13.7 billion years ago"? (Let me know if you find one.)

Why would this be a silly thing to say? Well, it would be a complete misunderstanding of what creation ex nihilo implies and how spatial and temporal categories don't apply to God, they come from God. To say "God created the Universe" and then modify it by time (X years ago), or quantity (a Y that soon expanded), or manner (by doing Z) is to miss the point that such statements apply characteristics that are after the fact of creation and come from Creation itself. The exception seems to be a statement like "God created the Universe ex nihilo," but even this has to be carefully distinguished as a negation meaning something like " God created the Universe NOT from A or B or C . . ., but from none of these. And since we can't experience nothing we can only know it from this same kind of negation: it's NOT A or B or C . . .


Tuesday, February 11, 2003


Mark Shea suggested an interesting thought experiment that generated a comments box that must be about 8 feet long if you scroll to the end. Here's what he proposed:
I'm intrigued to ask any of my resident atheists a fairly simple question: If somehow it were shown to you incontrovertibly that God did exist, say, by moving Australia into the Atlantic for a day, what would you do? How would you respond to the knowledge that God is real? How would it affect your life? How would you feel? Would it make you angry? Glad? Fearful? Or What? I ask because typically, my atheist readers appear to imagine themselves as paragons of impartiality and reason but they consistently strike me as people who badly *want* God to not exist.

So: what would be your reaction to the news that God exists and Jesus is his Son and so forth? Use your imagination and pretend it's all true. What's your reaction?
I was going to toss something into the comments but I wasn't sure when I'd be able to check it again and I hate leaving things in comments and then not following up on them -- it's kind of like not picking up your dog's poop in the park (I don't have a dog but if I did I suppose the day I picked up its warm steaming squishy grunts with a little plastic bag over my hand is the day I'll know I've lost all perspective on the proper roles of rational and irrational creatures). Anyway, here's what I would've said:

My first thought was that -- and I understand Mark's point of trying just to get a reaction from folks -- but my first thought was that I'm not sure God could be anymore convincing and compelling than He has been. Woody Allen's quip:
"If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank."
is funny, in part, because we see how easy it is for us to look for signs that are really of our own making. Yet given our world and our human condition, wouldn't the fullest "sign" from God almost have to be a human being like us in all things but sin?[1] What else would be more surprising and contradict nearly every expectation of ours? Surely this is a notion irrevocably tainted by hindsight, but I think it still has some semblance of meaning. What is more not on our own terms than another human being? What is more gift than that another human being might love us?

Ironically, nothing we put in the blank to the following question,
What would you do if God _________________________ in order that you might know Him?
could be more amazing than what has actually happened:
What would you do if God became flesh and dwelt among us, suffered, died, and rose again in order that you might know Him?
The other response I had was a doubt that believers and nonbelievers could really trade places. Again, I know Mark was making a rhetorical point not a statement about how belief occurs; and given the number of interesting comments it was a useful thought provoker. But I was reminded of a passage from Pieper that I've always thought summed things up fairly well:
The experiences of a believer, for example, cannot as a rule be imparted to a nonbeliever. It is an essential characteristic of faith to effect a total identification of the believer with what is believed, to such an extent that it becomes impossible to assume, even theoretically and hypothetically, that what is believed is untrue. For the same reason a nonbeliever is unable to reproduce the conviction, be it only as a thought experiment and "pure theory," that what is believed is true. ("Let's assume the Christians are right, and let's see how far we get with it.") Faith is not something like an observatory tower or a telescope, which can be used for experiments by everyone. Only the believer with full existential commitments is capable of perceiving the light that the truth of faith sheds on all reality.

[1] There is no greater mystery than the Incarnation in its full context. But its mystery derives from the fact that God created in the first place and created a temporal existence that culminated in the creation of human beings. There is a "fittingness" to the Incarnation given the temporal world and our human condition. But the "why?" of a temporal world or human condition remains mysterious.




There've been lots of comments on God, free will, and existence -- you know, the usual light stuff -- in this comment box over on World Wide Rant. I think the thread has gone cold by now. Anyway, at one point I was so befuddled by the comments of one person and his understanding of my point that I was forced to pull out the ol' "Sordello" story:
There’s a story told of Douglas Jerrold who, recovering from severe illness, tried to read Robert Browning’s poem "Sordello." As one Browning critic tells it, Jerrold exclaimed, “My God! I’m an idiot. My health is restored, but my mind’s gone. I can’t understand two consecutive lines of an English poem” (Tennyson also noted that out of the 5800 or so lines of the poem he understood two).
Here are some lines from "Sordello". I think there's also a story about Browning being asked about the meaning of an early poem of his and his replying something like, "When I wrote those lines God and I knew the meaning; now, God only knows."




Is this a vector? What is the matter with you? Are you afraid of me? Are you afraid of your parents? Are you afraid of God? God cannot tell you this is not a vector.


Econ Prof: (mispronounces "envelope")
My friend, a psych major: (laughs)
Econ Prof: Okay, ENVELOPE.... I hate having English majors in my class.
Friend: I'm not an English major. I'm a psychology major.
Econ Prof: Yeah, yeah, I get all those fake majors mixed up.

These quotes and many more (link via Eve Tushnet) are supposed to be actual statements from actual professors in actual classrooms.




Justin Katz has an interesting post that touches on something that reminded me of a favorite passage from Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses:
The night was almost warm. He and Rawlins lay in the road where they could feel the heat coming off the blacktop against their backs and they watched the stars falling down the long black
slope of the firmament. . . .

Rawlins propped the heel of one boot atop the toe of the other. As if to pace off the heavens.
My daddy run off from home when he was fifteen. Otherwise I'd of been born in Alabama.
You wouldnt of been born at all.
What makes you say that?
Cause your mama's from San Angelo and he never would of met her.
He'd of met somebody.
So would she.
So you wouldnt of been born.
I dont see why you say that. I'd of been born somewheres.
Well why not?
If your mama had a baby with her other husband and your daddy had one with his other wife which one would you be?
I wouldnt be neither of em.
That's right.
Rawlins lay watching the stars. After a while he said: I could still be born. I might look different or somethin. If God wanted me to be born I'd be born.
And if He didnt you wouldnt.
You're makin my goddamn head hurt.
I know it. I'm makin my own.
They lay watching the stars.


Monday, February 10, 2003


My son, who just turned 13 months old, has begun shaking his head "No" when he's about to do something he's been told not to do. He'll approach an electrical outlet or bring a crayon toward his mouth and start shaking his head "No" . . . while he goes ahead and attempts to touch the outlet or eat the crayon anyway. It's very funny and I wonder if he's simply gesturing what's going on in his head. "NO, don't touch that." "NO, don't eat that."

I suppose he'll soon be like the rest of us when he realizes that he doesn't have to act out everything that occurs to him as he goes about his day of mischief.




Since Sunday's First Reading was from Job 7:1-7, I thought I'd check out Aquinas's Commentary on the section:
He next explains how his months have been empty and his nights sleepless adding, “If I sleep,” when it was time for sleeping at night, “I say, ‘When will I arise,’” longing for day. “And again,” when day has come, “I wait for the evening,” as he is always tending to the future in his desire. This desire is indeed the common experience of all men living on earth, but men feel it more or less in the measure in which they are affected by either sorrows or joys. For he who lives in joy, desires the future less; but he who lives in sorrow, desires it more. So Job passionately shows this desire for the future is in him as he continues, “I will be filled with pain until dark,” for because of these pains, the present time is tedious for me and I desire the future more.
It's interesting to think that our desire for the future might be a gauge of our current sorrow or joy.

But setting it in those terms got me thinking a bit about the cultural shift that has made the future seem so desirable for so many. The notion of the future in the 13th century when Aquinas was writing was surely not how we envision it now. I suppose back then the future was simply distance from current events and desiring it in times of perhaps illness, war, famine, or a terrible winter was simply a desire to escape the current blight. But our sense of the future now is not just distance from current events. What we imagine for the future is a qualitatively different world. Diseases are eradicated, physical and technical obstacles are eliminated, death is pushed further out, and all is well. The future seems desirable in itself regardless of our current joy or sorrow.

But I wonder if our desire for the future isn't still a gauge for our current joy or sorrow? If our sense of the future is that it's not simply distinguished by time, but distinguished by qualitative improvements, can an inordinate desire for it still indicate current sorrow or lack of joy? Let me give an extreme example.

I don't mean to pick on the cryonics folks again (cf. CRYONICS, SCIENCE, AND PHILOSOPHY), but they seem so set on living in the future that it does make one wonder if they're living the life of Job here in the present. I know the current thinking on cryonics is that the deep freeze occurs when you're dead (or they'll say, beginning the long process of dying). But what if someone who was planning a cryonic funeral were shown that their chances of success increased a hundred-fold if they hopped into the liquid nitrogen while perfectly healthy and years away from old age and infirmity? My sense is that some if not many would hop in.

If so, I think this would suggest a deep sorrow or even despair that many don't acknowledge. But perhaps more later.




From Boswell's Life of Johnson:
EDWARDS. 'You are a philosopher, Dr. Johnson. I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher; but, I don't know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in.'
While I'm quoting Boswell, here's one of my favorite lines attributed to Johnson:
Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.

(First quote found in John Derbyshire's recent column.)


Sunday, February 09, 2003


I once knew someone who would scoff if you offered him water by saying, "Bah! Water is for external use only!" He was, needless to say, a man who appreciated fine whisky and surely would have enjoyed this article (link via Dappled Things):
There is whisky being born here. It evaporates, even through the thick oak staves of the cask, at a rate of about 2 percent a year, nearly a quarter lost in 12 years of undisturbed steeping. That's known locally as the "angels' share."

They are a wee bit spiritual about their whisky in Scotland, particularly here along the Spey River -- the spine of whisky country. Aberlour itself was once an ancient Druid settlement. "We don't know much about the Druids, but we know they worshiped water and oak," our guide Beatrice Warner says with a significant look. Whisky, don't you know, also is born of water and oak. And the word itself, whisky -- never "whiskey" in Scotland -- comes from the ancient Gaelic, uisge beatha, the "water of life."




Josef Pieper, in his essay Not Words But Reality, writes:
To avoid misinterpreting everything about Christian religious ceremonial, the first thing one must understand about it is its derivative, subordinate and secondary character. What takes place in the rite is essentially an echo or reminiscence, a continuation. Or more precisely, it is . . . the rendering present, the becoming present, of an event which we customarily designate by the theological term "Incarnation." Consequently, anyone who is unable to accept the earlier, primordial event, whose priority is both of time and of essence, as something which really happened, will never be able to understand or "realize," either in thought or in action, what "happens" during the liturgical worship of the Church.


Saturday, February 08, 2003


I find that it's easy to lose track of comment threads I'm enjoying or actually participating in. It's usually possible to bookmark the comment and so I now have a "Comments" folder where I save the URL to comment threads so I can quickly check them.

This inspired me to post the links to some of the comments on other blogs that I've followed in case you're interested in following the threads as well. It currently requires a template update so I might eventually just post the links once a week or so.




Camassia has a response to my A DIFFERENCE IN MOTIVATION post below. She has reduced my argument in her summary to:
The gist of it is that pro-choicers are motivated by self-interest -- I or someone like me might want to have an abortion -- while pro-lifers are only concerned for others, because no one's in danger of becoming a fetus.
This was not quite my point and, as always, you can follow the links yourself. Summaries and their limitations are inevitable in responding to blog comments, but I think a better summary of my argument would have been:
The gist of it is that pro-choicers (and most advocates on most moral issues) are motivated by the fact that they and others like them can be, but aren't necessarily, affected by the issue -- I or someone like me might wants to exercise a fundamental right -- while pro-lifers (and this seems true in only a few moral issues) aren't motivated in this manner because they cannot really be affected by the issue -- I or someone like me wants a person who is in a predicament I'll never be in (I can no longer be aborted) to be permitted to be born.
So the issue isn't quite "self-interest" versus "concern for others" as it is:
A) good and noble motivations for most moral issues: self-interest and concern for others like me
contrasted with
B) good and noble motivations for unique moral issues: concern for others not like me in a predicament I can never be in
I've emphasized that these motivations are "good and noble" to ward off the connotation that A-type motivations are somehow better than B-type motivations. As I indicated in my post, the fact that there is a component of self-interest in my support of laws against murder and robbery does nothing to attenuate the goodness of such laws or the purity of my motivations. That, as I said, would be silly. My point was that the motivation of someone who is against abortion, and against abortion because it is an act against a human being, is quite different from most moral stances because abortion is an act against a human being not like me (I'm already born) in a specific predicament I'll never face (I can't be aborted -- pace believers in reincarnation I suppose).

But Camassia, while thinking it seems a bit too binary, doesn't seem to be disagreeing with the above distinction so much as proposing that there's more to the story. Her real objection, I think, is to the following from my post:
How, for example, can someone who is against abortion possibly benefit from such a position? They themselves can't be aborted. Sure you could conjure something up, some circumstance where it might directly benefit someone to prevent abortions, but I think it would be an exceptional and probably somewhat convoluted example.
She then provides a number of excellent links to nuanced and smart examples not necessarily justifying a stance against abortion but showing how the stance can be interpreted as being in our own interest. The examples touch on important issues: the dignity of women, cultural pressures, inequality and bias in gender issues and only a condescending fool would claim that none of these are at play in the motivations for or against. But they strike me as qualitatively different considerations.

I don't mean to be glib or obtuse. It's just that these examples seem a so abstract and highlight concerns that wind their way to "self-interest" in a manner that seems convoluted at best and contrived at worst. As I said in my original post and I could simply add the concerns Camassia points out to the list:
Most people who oppose abortion oppose it because it is the taking of human life. It's that simple. They aren't concerned that they themselves might be aborted. They aren't concerned about negative population growth and how it might affect them. They aren't concerned that permitting abortion might make other procedures that could affect them more likely -- these slippery slope arguments are usually rhetorical meringue that don't hold up when applied (perhaps a later post on that). Their only motivation really is an abiding concern for the life of another human being in a condition (in utero) that they themselves will never be in. That is remarkable.
Camassia gives an example of how self-interest can motivate an anti-abortion position by mentioning a study "of pro-life and pro-choice women":
Essentially, there was a disagreement between them about what makes women valuable. The pro-life women were heavily working-class, and found meaning and power in motherhood that they did not find in the workplace. The pro-choice women were the reverse: more affluent, more likely to see children as getting in the way of a career.

Now, you could say, that's all very well for women who choose not to have abortions themselves, but where [is] the self-interest in trying to stop others from having them? The strong feeling I got from that study, as well as a lot of other pro-life rhetoric, was that the presence of abortion on demand leads to a cultural devaluation of motherhood, and a shift in expectations of what women are supposed to be like.
When I see the phrase "a study of _________" in an argument my lies-damned-lies-and-statistics sense tingles and lots of concerns click into play: correlation is not causation, many good studies are contradicted by other good studies, models of human behavior are probable at best and hollow when applied to the concrete particulars of individual actions, etc.

But tingles be damned! I'll concede the point and assume the study points to some real aspect of this issue.

Actually, I don't have to imagine what a "devaluation of motherhood, and a shift in expectations of what women are supposed to be like" is like nor do I doubt the concern: I'm married to a mother and she combats it daily.

My wife's job makes demands on her that rarely include reasonable accommodations for nursing a child, general caring for a child, or even the plain fact that evenings and weekends -- time that she's not "officially" required to yield -- might be time she'd want to spend with her family, not with committee members who seem oblivious to the fact that she has a very young child at home.

I'm personally and painfully aware that our society sucks and that the world of work devalues motherhood and has reshaped expectations of what women are supposed to be like. But these are institutional trends and patterns, institutional concerns (cf. ENTERPRISES OF GREAT PITH AND MOMENT for an oblique comment on this) that are utterly trumped when compared with the concern for human life. My wife is not motivated in her position on abortion by discrimination or even the possibility of discrimination against her. She's motivated by the concrete reality of another human being unlike her in a predicament she'll never be in. And that motivation is different from the motivation of most moral issues.

Is it possible that those motivated to resist abortion morally are also motivated by these institutional trends? Sure. But it seems a little like refusing to jump off a 1000 foot cliff into a deep lake because you can't swim. An inability to swim is really not the reason you'd refuse, the 1000 foot fall is. Someone who says you shouldn't jump because you can't swim is sort of right, but it's not the point given the context.

Finally, Camassia concludes with:
None of this says, necessarily, that there isn't an altruistic reason to oppose abortion. Just that I don't think you can reduce it to the simple binary that Mark does. I think that pro-choicers know this, and so if you try to persuade them you're in the cause purely out of the goodness of your heart, they're not going to believe you.
I'd like to say more on "simple binary" issues later, but is it really possible that "pro-choicers" have all of these ulterior motives in mind when they consider "pro-life" motivations? The concern for the human life who will be aborted is the central motivation for most "pro-lifers." Surely "pro-choicers" realize this and that's why the claim that what is aborted is a human life is so vehemently opposed. If that is admitted then doesn't the fundamental right to choose to terminate a pregnancy become very difficult to support with pregnancies that are not the result of rape or coercion? (cf. PREGNANCY AND CHOICE for my attempt to make some distinctions on this).




The London Review of Books (via A&L Daily) has a review of the new volume of the collected papers of evolutionary biologist W.D. Hamilton:
Brilliant field biologist that he was, Hamilton was at his best when focusing not on people but on the bizarre insects he loved. In an article written for a Japanese entomological magazine entitled 'My Preferred Burial and Why', he provided both an epitaph and, characteristically, a macabre insight into the life-cycle of beetles that lay their eggs in animal corpses they have buried.
I will leave a sum in my last will for my body to be carried to Brazil and to these forests. It will be laid out in a manner secure against the possums and the vultures just as we make our chickens secure; and this great Coprophanaeus beetle will bury me. They will enter, will bury, will live on my flesh; and in the shape of their children and mine, I will escape death. No worm for me nor sordid fly, I will buzz in the dusk like a huge bumble bee. I will be many, buzz even as a swarm of motorbikes, be borne, body by flying body out into the Brazilian wilderness beneath the stars, lofted under those beautiful and un-fused elytra which we will all hold over our backs. So finally I too will shine like a violet ground beetle under a stone.
There then follows a very funny line:
Regrettably, convention (and practicalities) intervened and Hamilton was buried in the usual way in Oxfordshire.




Karen of Disordered Affections links to an interesting article on Catholic writers, literature, and culture:
Here in the United States were four great Catholic writers at once: Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor. (Yes, there were others, and I have had many a friendly argument about which names to add to the list, but concerning these four there is a high degree of consensus.) They knew one another just a little. But they shared aims and strategies to a remarkable degree. They all spoke the same language.

Their work is a kind of "wisdom literature." They were obsessed with the question of what it means to be a human being and how a human being ought to live. Their sense of the human person was Christian, so the question of how to live was, often, how the Christian ought to live.