Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Silliness in recent years

Below are responses to half-baked presumptions that have been in the news and on the Internet not-so-lately (would've posted it sooner, but I forgot I had left it in draft status for two years). I try to call out opposing sides on a couple things, although I'm probably not very fair. Maybe next time.

"God sent hurricane Katrina to punish New Orleans!"
God sends rain on both the just and the unjust. Was He not also punishing all the other cities that get hit by hurricanes? If New Orleans deserves punishment, would not also San Francisco? When was the last time they had a catastrophic earthquake? Maybe Boston's not getting hit hard, except for the occasional blizzard, because God doesn't condemn whatever's going on there. Does it seem likely in this context? Not to me. It's easy to map Biblical patterns onto current events; it's harder to know what's actually on the mind of God.

Christ wouldn't condemn [insert social misfit of your choice]! He'd probably go have dinner with him!"
Yes, He wouldn't necessarily condemn anyone, just as He didn't condemn the adulterous woman brought before Him by a mob, or the woman at the well who had married several times. He does, however, admonish sinners to sin no more. It's hard to invite sinners to a life of holiness when you distance yourself from them. It's a far cry from "I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more," to "Don't ever change." We should be comforted by the fact that Jesus loves us despite our failings, by His mercy, but we should also be motivated by His justice, not so much out of fear but out of love for Him. Even if God's mercy were greater than His justice, it wouldn't mean that we now get to keep doing whatever it is we wanted to do all along, only now there's nothing bad about it. It's not living under Christ's mercy, it's abusing it.

Late in 2005, in Israel, a British tourist named Sharon Tendler "married" a dolphin she had been visiting for fifteen years. Although assuring friends she'd end up with the dolphin instead of some boyfriend, she concedes she might "marry" a man someday, and hopes the dolphin, Cindy, finds another dolphin with whom to have lots of calves.
I'm not going to say "This fiasco is all the fault of the homosexual lobby!" but one more prediction about the fallout from the de-definition of marriage has come true. In fact, perhaps three have: is Cindy really the name of a male dolphin, and is Tendler going to divorce "him" when she meets the right human, or since she bases her love for Cindy primarily on how comforted she feels by Cindy's presence, and isn't expecting any fidelity (if consummation were even possible between them in the first place--I don't want to know) anyway, then what the heck kind of relationship is it? People can (but shouldn't) get married for whatever reason they want to, yet generally they recognize what marriage is supposed to be, at least in some stunted and partial sense; here, it's not even clear how Cindy could have said, in any way, shape, or form, "I do," how Cindy could have been capable of consenting to such an arrangement, personally if not legally.

"If a woman can't abort a pregnancy that is the result of rape, whenever she looks at her child, she's going to see the rapist."
I certainly sympathize with the victims of rape, but these words strike me as the kind that would only be spoken by someone who has never been or refuses to be a mother. I can hardly imagine how rape victims might react, but how cold and alienated do you have to be to look a person in the face, and not only not see that person, but hardly see a person at all? The solution, it seems to me, would be to put the child up for adoption. I know, continuing a pregnancy that's the result of rape would be a heavy cross to bear for anyone, and that pressure plus the abstractness in which abortion is often painted makes it easier to consider, but if a woman can come face to face with another person and say "I should have killed you," her problem is bigger than lacking the cab fare to Planned Parenthood.

"I could not bear to go through life knowing that my son or daughter, who resulted from a rape, was out there somewhere, being raised by adoptive parents. It would be less cruel to abort."
Less cruel to you than having to know someone else is trying to make good out of a bad situation? Maybe you're right, in a way--maybe people with attitudes like this one and the previous really are unfit to be parents. I know I wouldn't be happy living under the thumbs of people who really had to weigh the inconvenience of tearing my limbs off and crushing my skull against the inconvenience of having me around.

At least one protester's sign at a West Coast Walk for Life (caution: tasteless and vulgar content) read "Free abortion on demand."
I guess this one would go along with HMOs being a basic human right, along with liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Okay, flu shots are free, at least if you're a student or a senior citizen, but why should a major voluntary surgical procedure be free? I'm not talking about bankrupt people who need emergency medical care--they're already tax writeoffs for hospitals, if you're more worried about money than reluctant doctors--and I don't think the protester was, either. Why not demand free surgery for any sort of body modification you can think of? We have the right to self expression, after all.

Read another: Why not outlaw heterosexuality instead! [sic] Strike at the source!" Yet another: "Stop breeding."
Okay, even if you buy the notion that if the population increases by only one person, the global ecological system will completely collapse, what good would come of completely ceasing breeding? A hundred years from now, we'd be extinct. Do we really want to become extinct? I don't, even if it means that when our population reaches six billion and one, a "few" surviving people will find themselves thrown back to the stone age. Imagine instead what would the world would be like in fifty years if childbirth stopped tomorrow: everyone nearly old enough to retire, no one young enough to keep things going for them. I didn't see the people carrying those signs coming in from the woods trying to survive on their own, with as little impact on the environment as possible, and only trying to raise awareness. In fact, I don't see many of them wearing canvas instead of leather and eating tofu instead of beef, although it would be a start.

Things that make pseudoscientists and paranormal researchers look bad:
When Cassini's Huygens probe landed on Titan, a guest on Coast to Coast AM described the conditions on Saturn's moon as a "alternate reality." In my mind, describing anything, no matter how strange, that still follows the physical laws we already know, as "alternate reality" strikes me as distastefully hyperbolic.
On a different episode, George Noory was talking with someone about how medieval stained glass makers were able to create different colors by changing the fineness of the particles used to color the glass, rather than their composition; apparently, some of the particles were so finely ground that they functioned as quantum dots, with significantly different optical properties (like, you know, color) from particles with a more classical size. George commented that if skilled laborers could create quantum devices back then, maybe they were capable of time travel or something equally preposterous. Having a basis in regular science would really help in your study of its fringes.

Even an undergraduate level--skip the advanced stuff so you don't risk getting indoctrinated too much in scientism while you get extra practice at empirical research. I just wish liberal arts majors had to study more science to graduate. If people had more than a passing familiarity with the undisputed aspects of how the world works, it would really save us a lot of trouble all around.

Things that make actual scientists and wannabes look bad:
Examples of hearing second hand about an unexplained phenomenon, proposing a half-formulated rationale, and presuming its absolute veracity despite mitigating details:
Extended Marian apparitions, despite being obvious images of a woman who speaks with some of the people present, are dismissed as vaguely humanoid groups of birds and an unbridled imagination of schizophrenic magnitude in an otherwise and previously perfectly lucid witness. This kind of naysaying is quite common.
When informed that stalks of wheat from a crop circle appear to carry less of an electrical charge than stalks from elsewhere, a statistician on the National Geographic Channel (why they felt he'd be qualified to judge physical anomalies was not revealed) blithely described, without personal observation, the standing stalks as miniature lightning rods, which should hold a charge while stalks lying flat had their charges naturally dissipate, even though the flattened stalks had been on the ground for only a few hours before both groups of stalks were cut, which took place hours before the test; yet after the cutting of the dried stalks, there is no charge dissipation. Come on; you claim to be a scientist, even a plain mathematician, and a rational thinker, and some handwaving about differential capacitance in allegedly normal and uniform samples is all you can come up with, yet you brand your hypothesis as fact? Why is it so hard to accept that there are legitimately strange natural phenomena we simply haven't characterized yet? Another factoid from the NGC show: anomalous magnetic fields in agroglyphs (i.e. crop circles--I like the fancy word more, don't you?) are sometimes attributed to magnetized ferritic globules, but agroglyph hoaxers are believed when they claim it's all because they scattered iron filings around the glyphs, even though (1) the globules do not resemble commercially available filings (2) the globules stick to the plants, rather than to each other, as unconstrained magnets are wont to do.

Agroglyphs puzzle me. People so often seem to crave a paranormal dimension in their lives, at least to have room to believe there is one even if they don't experience it--up to and including faith in science as an omnipotent tool of understanding that we are simply unable to currently wield at its full potential. Something like bizarre patterns of flattened grains show up, and the first people to provide a superficially plausible demonstration are believed at their word with zero concern for the few lingering anomalies. I get better science from Mythbusters.

Materialists probably think they're following the maxim of Sherlock Holmes: "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." The problem is that the line of thinking usually runs this way: "I refuse to believe that anything supernatural is real. Some logical, empirical explanation must be able to account for this strange phenomenon. I'm too clever to think otherwise, so whatever I think of off the top of my head is most likely exactly what really happened." After a few implausible assumptions get made, the probability of the half-baked naturalistic explanation starts seeming as low as an actual miracle to objective observers, but admitting that better explanations require more knowledge than is currently possessed often seems too difficult.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Apologetic for a Random Reader (IV)

Today: the Real Presence

Obviously I'm not going to go into all of it. I just wanted to address one or two points that often come up when discussing the Eucharist with Protestants and other non-Catholics who have some familiarity with the Bible.

I do find it curious that the people most inclined to speak of the literal truth of the Bible tend to be the quickest to ascribe John 6 and related passages to symbolism. Certainly, the Eucharist contains symbolic elements, but Christ made an awful effort to emphasize the importance of the Bread of Life.

First, He uses very graphic language, words with connotations closer to "chew" and "gnaw" than to "assimilate for edification." When His listeners said "This is a hard saying. Who can accept it?" it should seem odd that Jesus would say "I can satisfy all your spiritual needs" and people would take issue with it, but not accuse Him of blasphemy, as happened elsewhere. At other times when people misinterpreted His parables and analogies, He corrected them; this time, He did not, which suggests that the more scandalous interpretation was the correct one after all. If I'm losing you at this point, ask yourself which seems more disturbing: a metaphor for God as the source of all goodness, or a command to commit something like ritual cannibalism.

Second, He spoke quite a bit about being the Bread of Life. More than any other analogy He made. Maybe more than all His other analogies put together. I haven't counted verses, but I'd put money on Eucharistic material outweighing other symbolism not counting Good Shepherd stuff, and I wouldn't be surprised if it did even including the Good Shepherd. If it were just a metaphor, why say things like "My flesh/blood is food/drink indeed?"

Sometimes, other parallels are made with more apparent symbolic language. "Jesus said He was a door," goes one common criticism, "but we know better than to look for a doorknob in His side, don't we?" "He said He is the vine, but we shouldn't be looking for a leaf-covered man at the Second Coming, should we?" Since I believe in the Real Presence, I sometimes wonder if these other metaphors also contain dimensions of truth that extend beyond the meaning we can apprehend (or can expect to lie beyond our apprehension), but true enough, Christ is not a door or a vine quite in the sense that we understand mundane portals and foliage to be.

When someone reminds us not to expect the doorknob, so to speak, though, they're missing a rather critical detail. We knew "I am the door" is a metaphor because there was no doorway to be shown to the disciples. We knew "I am the vine" is a metaphor because we never saw Apostles growing out of Him. How is "I am manna come down from heaven" different?

He did not only refer to Himself as food. He referred to food as Him. At the Last Supper, there was bread present, and there was wine present; and His words were "this is My Body...this is My Blood." Where we lacked signs of gateage or vinery in the other metaphors, so we could know that the language was only symbolic, here we have the consummation of the whole discourse on the Bread of Life, ratified with an unleavened loaf and a fermented drink squeezed from grapes. Here we have bread that is not just miraculously multiplied, but bread that Jesus names as Himself.

It strikes me as odd that John 6 should be so much harder to understand in this sense of identity than "the Father and I are one" is to be understood as a statement of identity. Then again, some people struggle with the Trinity, as well, so maybe at least I shouldn't be surprised.