Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Lent's growing on me

When I was young, it was just that time of year when I had to eat fish on Fridays and do or give up something for 40 days. I didn't mind the latter, in principle, but I hated fish (my mom, a great cook every other day of the year, tended to favor cod fillets cooked into leather and some canned salmon casserole with whole bones that freaked me out), and so I dreaded the season. I've been finding other ways to avoid regular meat, though, so there hasn't been much of a problem there lately.

I used to think of Lent as a spiritually dry time, reflective of it being a liturgically dry time. I don't think dryness is the most accurate way to describe my experience with Lent, though. It has been that way--just trudging through, not seeming to get anything out of it but having enough motivation to keep at it, and otherewise no more interesting than ordinary time--but I think it was more my imagination or expectation, or just temporarily putting a label on something I sometimes felt at other times of the year.

What it does seem to be, though, is raw; a little tender like a blister that's been popped and is healing. It's not exactly painful, but I am a man of mild and even temperment, so any increased spiritual or emotional sensitivity is unfamiliar, and a little uncomfortable in its strangeness, although it's not entirely unwelcome. Particularly this year, I'm getting more of a sense of how poor a soul I really am; the rationalized conceits I protect my ego with seem less compelling, and even the objective truths I take comfort in don't cover everything--I may know I'm properly disposed to receiving the Eucharist after receiving absolution following a sacramental confession, for instance, but I certainly don't deserve it. Seeing--if only dimly--the distance between where I am and where God is, and seeing God bend heaven and Earth to reach us, to reach me and people like me, is an awesome and humbling thing, humbling and awesome, around and around. Sometimes it's enough to make me weep during Mass, which strangely enough is a sort of consolation in itself. It doesn't always happen in the Lenten season, but maybe times out of ten since I've started thinking about it.

I don't really understand it. It's worth meditating on more, but I'm not sure I'll be able to put it into adequate words for posting here. I'll try, though, if no one objects. Any of you have a similar or related experience? What'd it mean to you?

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Hopefully this quiz result is representative, and I didn't just luck out and happen to know the particular answers. Whatever that last 1% is, it's not deliberate.

You are a 99% traditional Catholic!

Congratulations! You are more knowlegeable than most modern theologians! You have achieved mastery over the most important doctrines of the Catholic Faith! You should share your incredible understanding with others!

Do You Know Your Baltimore Catechism?
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Friday, February 16, 2007

Mass attendance...

I heard a priest say yesterday that the usual weekend attendance at his church was around 2300, but on Ash Wednesday, it tops out above 5000. The priest was a little incredulous, and perhaps a little disappointed; at three different times during any day they could come in to receive the Lamb of God, but on this one day a year, which isn't even a day of obligation, they show up to get marked and be told "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return."

I didn't think of it then to make the quip with comedic timing, but I thought it was too bad he couldn't offer ashes at every mass.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

God, Darwin clash again in Kansas

Briefly, the Kansas Board of Ed is reconsidering the policies it adopted in 2005 that downplay the scientific value of evolution (and probably all science that doesn't support a superficial reading of Genesis).

The usual rationale is that evolution and whatnot is not without its gaps, to which I will say that the critics are correct.

The solution, however, is not to refrain from teaching it. If you want to point out the inconsistencies and the questions it hasn't been able to answer, great; it'll give future scientists some ideas of what to focus their research on next, and keep today's scientists modest and hopefully take the wind out of their politics (evolution as proof for atheism is no more valid than intelligent design is for theism). If you want to stop teaching all science that may be conditional or confusing, then you have to stop teaching all science.

In fact, to avoid confusion and muddying up the classroom with uncertain interpretations of things, you really would need to stop teaching everything. Obviously that option is ridiculous, because education is about removing ignorance, not keeping people from getting confused. Some students will get confused along the way; at some point, probably every student at least once. Educators, like scientists, are just human, so we can only hope to minimize confusion and work through it when it arises. Refusing to do their job to keep people from misunderstandings is plain old wrong. There's withholding knowledge to prevent scandal (which can be permissible), and then there's just preserving ignorance to keep people sedate.

Can science tell us everything? No. Can evolution tell us everything about the science that involves it? No. Evolution does, however, happen to be well demonstrated by more different fields of science than perhaps any other theory. The fossil record doesn't prove it, epidemiology doesn't prove it, DNA and morphological similarities between related species don't prove it, but take them all together and you've got something that isn't going to be displaced unless it can answer all these claims (or provide some unimaginably revolutionary breakthrough in one particular area or more).

What claims does "evolution can't be right" make? The chances of random atomic activity resulting in human life are distastefully low; a superficial reading of a religious text demand that the logic and observation that go into science are wrong--either lies or misinterpreted.

I'm sorry, but "It can't be A, so it must be not-A" isn't science. As simple logic, it's fine, but here, it's like dividing the universe up into bananas and non-bananas, and then implying that the only plausible non-banana is an apple, since the fruit in Genesis is usually thought of as an apple.

Whatever it is, it's not science. Are opponents of evolution even as a tentative (if robust) theory interested in having science taught at all?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

In the absence of a theism, scientism often rushes in to fill the vacuum.

A while ago I caught, on the Scientific American podcast, part of Michael Bloomberg's commencement address to JHU's medical school. If ever I dreamed of a nigh-utopia ruled by scientists, Bloomberg's speech woke me up.

Don't get me wrong; I still think the average American needs more science education, and more sophisticated science education. I just think that Bloomberg's speech made it plenty clear that "more science" isn't "enough."

Some of his bullet items are no-brainers to anyone who's been around the Catholic circuits at all. I realized that many of them were extrascientific long ago, but I had fallen into the trap of assuming--probably not with the best justification--that common sense was, well, common.

Now, if everyone just upped their science quotient when it comes to voting and public policy discussion, we'd make great strides. However, there were a few things Bloomberg cited that put the lie to his science-as-panacea thesis:

  • Terri Schiavo

  • global warming

  • funding of stem cell research

He also mentioned how ID, as gussied-up creationism, does a disservice to science by masquerading as it, and to theology by conflating the two; but he still betrayed a penchant for utilitarianism.

You can make valid arguments from utilitarianism, and make different ones from existentialism or some other school of thought that may contradict or not even intersect with the utilitarian ones, but just advocating a purely practical or existential position isn't the same thing as using the logical bedrock upon which all philosophy rests, nor can it (or logic) guarantee truth or goodness as its object.

Obviously, bridging part of the gap between "more science" and "enough knowledge to get the job done well" is some basic philosophy, so people can recognize what informs an argument when they see it. In addition, though, I think fundamental critical thinking skills in addition to "X is utilitarianism, Y is stoicism, etc." is essential. I started learning critical thinking when I was ten years old, in a public school no less; I didn't get to differing philosophical schools until I was in tenth grade. Not that I was precocious, but in the state of today's education, most students don't get to the latter until college when they need to fill some general education requirement, and most students never get to the former. It can't be that hard to add a little elementary logic to a curriculum (just showing students half a dozen propaganda techniques and a dozen common logical fallacies should be enough to get us past the "expert juror" hazard in public discourse).

Anyway, I just wanted to touch on the three examples Bloomberg gave, especially the last one.

The Terri Schiavo bit was typical "society has no compelling interest in preserving her, so look--but not too closely--to her husband." Terri wasn't dying, she just didn't have any usefulness left in her. I suppose the pro-euthanasia types also felt some irony, but I was a little disappointed to see so many people making the libertarian argument, that the federal government shouldn't get involved in saving one sick woman's life.

Global warming I've said enough about. Suffice it to say his "what we now know about water being wet and the sun rising" panegyrics to the environmentalist lobby were about as edifying as an Enzyte commercial.

As for stem cell research, the problem isn't stem cells themselves--which is old news I'm not afraid to repeat. The problem is in killing babies to get the embryonic kind. Last I heard, we have around 95 therapies currently in use--at least as effective clinical trials--from adult and umbilical cord blood stems cells, including a functioning coin-sized liver in a petri dish. The embryonics have yielded nothing so far except tumors.

If Bloomberg--or anyone--is so hot and bothered for really helping people, curing life-threatening diseases, then why isn't he more interested in the most practical solution, the one we've already got?

A bird in the hand, Mr. Mayor.

I like having dissenters around.

They can help keep us humble, which helps keep us honest. Even Voice of the Faithful is right in reminding us not to cover up a scandal. Yes, sometimes it is easier for an educated person to tell a recalcitrant ignoramus "Shut up and trust me," but being easy doesn't always mean it's always appropriate.

Most people aren't experts in all, or any, of the subjects that are major, contentious policy issues in this country, but they're not stupid, either. They can be duped by a propaganda campaign but respond thoughtfully when accurate and balanced information is made available. Sometimes people need to be reminded, but with flawed policy as with heresy, the danger is in unbalancing a complementary set of principles and emphasizing one at the expense of the others. We generally take it with a grain of salt when it's commercial advertising or political campaigning, but it's often confusing when it comes from a different source, and sometimes the paralysis of confusion is the biggest defense against would-be policy makers with strange agendas.

Generally this paralysis can be pushed through with a persevering united front of public institutions, either by getting the honest word out or by spinning a convincing story otherwise. There are several examples--pro-abortion activists perpetually recasting the debate in terms of "women's rights and safety versus oppressive men and their brainwashed wives," war opponents defending Saddam (and I'm not saying the Iraq thing has been clean on any level) and conveniently forgetting UN weapons inspectors' reports of being stopped outside of facilities and watching convoys leaving through other exits, people claiming the APA has certified homosexuality as healthy because it took it off its list of disorders (the real reason being, with no apparent means of treatment, reducing the stigma would at least be palliative), and environmentalists warning us that deleterious climate change is such an urgent matter that we can't take the time to study it before trying to fix it.

I'm going to focus on this last point today. I'm not going to say there isn't good science out there, but I'd like to talk about how science isn't the only thing in play, and how if there weren't skeptics of global warming asking these questions, the stop-industrial-emissions-in-developed-countries program would be a lot farther along, and the climatological evidence would either be undiscovered or underreported (because, hey, if crackpots couldn't make skeptics out of normal people, why divert efforts trying to prove anything to them?).

To wit, Dr. Stephen Schneider, a high profile activist for the global warming theory, as quoted in Discover in 1989:

To capture the public imagination, we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we may have. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.

In the same quote he also said that scientists are also humans who care about people and how they live, and I do sympathize completely with his motivation; mentioning any single piece or small assemblage of evidence and letting it drop might elicit no more than "How interesting. What's next, evidence of an inflationary universe?" I also can't blame him for oversimplifying--we see it everywhere, with some of the most dramatic examples coming from the field of nutrition, where we were at first told to cut out all fats because they didn't think we could distinguish HDL from LDL, so people binged on low-fat and later low-carb snacks (well, all right, I won't blame the talking heads for people consuming far more than normal because "good in the right amount" was confused with "harmless")--and it's hard to tell when you're above the "a little knowledge is dangerous" threshold but below the "too much information is confusing to the untrained mind" point. However, what Schneider is talking about isn't science, it's propaganda, plain and simple. While making efforts to convince people of something is just a natural part of society, we have to remember the difference.

"Oh, but now we understand the science better than we did before," says many a disciple of global warming. Yeah, and in a decade we'll understand it even more. Thirty years ago, we were sure there was global cooling because scientists were in consensus. After years of propaganda that got way out ahead of the science, do you really think we're just supposed to pretend that enchanting us with doomsday stories has something to do with reality? Fool me once, fool me twice. Why should we believe your story is true just because you want us to find it engaging? If it was clearly overstated from the beginning, but you advertised it as fact anyway, then it's either pure marketing or part of some other agenda.

We can handle the truth, even if it's bad news. We might want it with a pinch of sugar, but if you're just trying to manipulate us into pressuring the Powers That Be into funding your project, into stopping your pet apocalypse, whatever, we're going to be suspicious because unmixing the truth from the propaganda isn't easy. Show us the science--try not to water it down too much--because trying to convince us to believe it because everyone is believing in it is just calling us to jump on the bandwagon.

Oh, and the Atlantic "conveyor belt" isn't in such bad shape, after all (see the 1117-06 issue of Science). Was this oceanic current supposed to be one of those smoking guns that we can trust, or just a curiosity? Will there be any others?

We've also got The Weather Channel quashing open discussion of doubt in global warming, in the interest of raising science above the level of politics. Science isn't about silence. Honest science--I admit, with humans as scientists, egos often get in the way on all sides--requires listening to all hypotheses and their criticisms, finding evidence for the accurate ones and against the inaccurate ones, and addressing the inadequacies that dissenters can more easily see. The answer to "your theory doesn't cover a few discrepancies I'd like to address" is not "Never mind, and listen to us; we're the ones with the consensus." Sometimes criticism is easily answered, but for the sake of us unwashed masses, please make the effort.

It's doubly important when there's public policy to downplay the facts, whatever they may be. The antidote to propaganda is not contradictory propaganda; it's truth. When someone calumns your position, your first responsibility is not to play that game. Present what you know, admit what you don't, address the criticism, but don't incite panic. There's more to being right than just being persuasive.

"The world's about a degree warmer than it was a century ago!" Look, I'll give you shrinking ice caps, but you've got to come clean so we can all try to solve the problem, whatever shape it's taken: Are you measuring temperatures in 1907 the same way you're measuring them in 2007? What's your confidence interval in each case? Just tell us, and show us how. Obviously being patronizingly vague has gained you as many enemies as it has sycophants, neither of which will convert the other.

One degree doesn't tell us much, anyway. We have decades of detailed meteorological data, including some studies of historical outliers like the little ice age and the warm middle ages, and still have trouble predicting a week in advance. Are we putting a reasonable amount of faith in the predictions made for decades and centuries into the future?

Besides, it's not just a question of what some planetary thermometer can tell us. Just being hotter may not mean much; we also need to look at heat capacity, how thermal energy is stored; at the difference between isothermal climate change and adiabatic climate change. Some extra heat energy is hypothetically converted to mechanical energy in the form of more severe and numerous storms, but there hasn't been much of a change there at this point, as well as in the conversion of ice to water, which we have seen (although they're getting thicker--more snowfall is another meteorological effect of heating in current science; this quickening of the polar water cycle might be another means of buffering the atmosphere from greenhouse gases).

"It's our fault! Temperatures are changing more quickly than they should!" How do we know how quickly they "should" change? Are there studies out there using human-excluding models that have much flatter "hockey stick" graphs than what we're really seeing? I saw one presentation where a researcher from, I believe, NOAA presented a model and findings where the opposite was true, where our impact didn't appear to be sufficient to cause what we're seeing. Just one man, yes, verses a horde of environmental activists and journalists who can't distinguish context from slant assuring me that some expert or plurality of experts somewhere is sure that we're mostly responsible. Whatever studies are out there, once they're in the public sphere, they seem to be suffering from the Bush Dictator effect: badly paraphrased, vaguely cited.

Not to mention methane, which is more potent than CO2, but not anthropogenic, and the fraction of greenhouse gases that are artificially produced. Actually, they don't mention methane nearly as much. Is it because it's not as important, or just because there's less we can do about it? Why don't we plant a few trees and try to reign in a little our enthusiasm for government oversight, and then look at what we can't do without federal or international cooperation?

Don't get me wrong, I'm concerned about the place we live, too. Even if the Earth were on the verge of another ice age and this shrinking ice cap thing were just a fluke, I'd be in favor of trying to minimize our environmental impact in every sphere--fertilize or irrigate when necessary, but try to do no harm along the way. I'd be a little wary of trying to tame the weather when our knowledge of how climate is is so limited we can hardly even ask the question of how the climate should be. I just don't see the loudest advocates treating it like the emergency they tell us it is. Al Gore--not a scientist--is up for a Nobel Peace Prize for bringing American industrial waste gases even more to the public's attention. To paraphrase a recent letter in the local paper, we shouldn't confuse activism, activity, with accomplishment; but I suppose if Yasser Arafat deserved the prize, Gore is no less qualified.

Not to pick on him, but he's a dramatic example.

Come on: he tools across the country on a private jet that puts out more emissions in a single flight than the average SUV does in a year, in order to warn us even more about global warming, including promoting America as being to blame for being so productive. When he lands, he takes an SUV. Conservation for thee but not for me? Is saving the world too important to bother saving the world along the way?

An Inconvenient Principle?

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A few lucky guesses, a few easy questions

You know the Bible 100%!

Wow! You are awesome! You are a true Biblical scholar, not just a hearer but a personal reader! The books, the characters, the events, the verses - you know it all! You are fantastic!

Ultimate Bible Quiz
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I only got 98% the first time. I don't remember which answer I guessed differently this time.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

I recently caught CNN's special on the early Church, roughly from the Ascention through the legalization of Christianity under Constantine. I am at turns interested in and frustrated with purely secular attempts to exegete ecclesial history. It can be fascinating to learn what perspectives can develop when one is disinterested or slightly skeptical, rather than zealously supportive or antagonistic; on the other hand, sometimes things still get lost or distorted in the interest of one scholar or another trying to advance an agenda completely unrelated to the material in question, if not distinct from the orthodox interpretations for the sake of novelty. In CNN's "After Jesus," they candidly admit that historians can only go by the physical evidence available, but it's still interesting to see how they pitch the Church's development as a rather haphazard thing, like the debate over whether Christian converts needed to be Jews first being determined by a battle of wits and egos, by Paul's persuasion of James, rather than as a discovery of some objective truth, which would have been more how Paul and James would have imagined it.

it reminds me of a discussion I followed at ISCA last year, too late for me to participate, but it took me this long to think of what to write about it for you, and like I said, I prefer to lurk. It's about the time, described in John 12, when a Mary annointed the feet of Jesus with nard, and Judas offered the criticism that it should have been sold (ostensibly for the poor, although he'd actually been embezzling, according to John). Jesus's response is "(7) Leave her alone. She has kept this for the day of my burial. (8) For you always have the poor with you, but you don't always have me." The issue in question during this discussion is why Jesus didn't have the nard sold in the first place. When asked what he got out of the first six verses in the chapter, the user said:

I would have "liked" Jesus to have stopped the woman from washing his feet at all and told her to buy bread for the poor and that they will celebrate his majesty by providing for the hungry.

By verse 7 he's kinda in a tight position, though, so there's not much to say right at that moment. If he had said "Oh, Judas, you're right...' he wouldn't have been the all-knowning dude he was, right?

In response:

Yeah, that's the thing, I'm thinking it's sarcasm, sort of a backhanded "you're not getting this money dude, so don't even think about it". Sort of like, it's better for my feet than to have you steal it with your false concern for the poor.

And...the wise are confounded. Didn't other apostles at other times make similar suggestions to Judas's? Jesus wasn't sarcastic, though; He was saying what He meant. He isn't always direct in the gospels, but even when He uses dramatic language--brood of vipers, raising stones up to children of Abraham, children of the devil--it's pretty clear from the narration, if not always the context, that there's a bigger message being conveyed. Maybe Jesus was being direct--or maybe He meant it both ways, that being annointed in anticipation of His burial is also better than having Judas steal the 300 and spend it on, well, probably nothing he'd have time to enjoy.

I think in a way it's also a lesson in sacramentality. Sure, it's great to do things like give to the poor as a celebration of His majesty or comemoration of His message, but loving your neighbor is the second great commandment, not the first. We are limited, physical creatures; if we do not at intervals make explicit gestures of worship to God, then it is probable we will lose sight of why we are making explicit gestures of keeping after our brothers. It's liable to become a chore, either something eventually neglected or at least done out of habit, devoid of the anagogical dimension God likes to introduce into things He elevates to sacramentals.

No, they say: let's interpret it as Jesus merely scolding, and not as teaching his disciples that making great efforts to worship God (a la the first great commandment) is important next to making any efforts to help one another (the second great commandment). Jesus, after all, was just a teacher, wasn't He? Never mind that the Evangelists thought He was divine, as did the other Apostles, and don't forget that the multitudes he fed didn't want to carry off and coronate Him just for inspiring them to generosity. Let's interepret the passage in a way that has Jesus meaning the opposite of what He says plainly, in a way that expressly precludes what the rest of the New Testament has a pretty solid consensus on; let's catch Jesus glutting a bit on Mary's fawning and weeping with the nard, and then have Him turn it around on Judas when he's caught so people can still say "No, it's all on Judas; it's good to pamper God!"

Taking the "Jesus was sarcastic" route makes the orthodox interpretation look like sophistry--which is fair to suspect, as Judas's question was only asked in the wrong spirit--but if the whole of Jesus's message were "be excellent to the poor," then why'd He waste all that time talking about other things of the Kingdom of God? He sure wasn't executed for being a socialist.

Is it so hard to acknowledge that the stuff about the Jesus's divinity might be on the straight and level? To consider that at least the Apostles thought so? Look at verse seven again: "She has kept this for the day of My burial." It's not just about "celebrating his majesty," and Jesus wasn't overindulging in some TLC from the woman. I can buy Christ trying one more time to correct Judas, but looking at "Do you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?" and "let he who is without sin cast the first stone," where He used situational irony, I can't see Jesus being sarcastic just for the sake of sarcasm, just to cover His behind when He could have just as well told Judas off straight away. It's pretty clear that by this point in the Gospel story, Jesus was anticipating His own imminent death. Why the insistence on reading that verse apart from the rest of the passage? Verses 3-6 set up Christ letting Mary bathe His feet and the others not understanding why resources should be wasted on being good to Jesus. These verses aren't the lesson with Jesus changing the subject in the seventh, they are the question to which the answer is verse seven. It's again like historians trying to reinterpret the story with only secular data: "See, Jesus was all about helping the poor, so when they caught Him enjoying a little luxury, He had to retain an image of modest living and generosity"--a rather one-dimensional image, in the eyes of someone who can accept both/and solutions to an apparent dichotomy--"as well as omniscience, so it's achieved by showing Jesus knowing what Judas was up to and saying that waste is better than theft." At this point I don't see Him being sarcastic, but perhaps ironic again: Judas's suggestion, after all, wasn't bad, but only insincere. The woman at the well also said she had no husband, which wasn't false; it was just inaccurate, as she'd had five, which Jesus made a point of bringing up.

It also seems to have hints of liberation theology. It's a little beside the point, but we've got here another case where someone takes portions of the Bible that fit some philosophy or agenda at face value, and dismiss the rest with a wave of the hand, hardly bothering to rationalize ignoring the other text: Jesus was all about helping and feeding the poor, and only about helping and feeding the poor; when He mistakenly lets Mary pamper Him and Judas calls Him on it, Jesus smacks him down because Judas was just filching from the Apostolic purse anyway.

I'm all for helping the poor, but doesn't it seem rather unoriginal? "Jesus taught us to help the needy! Let's call him God!" seems no less silly than "Jesus goaded us not to hoard our lunch for ourselves! Let's make him king!" I suppose I should expect as much from a one-dimensional philosophy, whether it's a dimension of welfare or a dimension of pacifism.

When it comes to Lord, liar, or lunatic, why is it so easy to say "You know, I don't like the historical evidence. I think he was just a swell guy who got a little puffed up in the retelling by his cultus?"

What's next, wild dogs?