Tuesday, December 28, 2010

I may have to read Mein Kampf at some point....

I was scanning the radio on the way back from my sister's when I came across that rarest of species, a secular-progressive talk station.  I've occasionally caught snippets during past trips to and from my sister's house.  Sometimes I try to listen, get some perspective on how the other half lives, but usually:  no dice.  I'm not certain what it means that I can hear about the same stories and personalities (granted, from widely varying perspectives) when I turn on Rush, FOX News, CNN, or pick up a newspaper; but when I find a liberal talk radio station, it's like I'm hearing about a different country that has the same election schedule and officials with the same names.  Might be fun to speculate, but I don't feel like it right now; gonna try doing that "concise, focused" thing again.
Anyway, they were going on about how the Republicans kind of got power back in the midterm elections and how the House, I think it was they were specifying, was not a representative body but took most of its influence from relatively few big-number donors.  Okay, not an uncommon cynical view in any political camp.  They were talking about how Obama was kind of a political island, having been abandoned by his competent advisors and having found only unfit replacements, or something to that effect.  Again, not something hard to agree with.  I did find it a bit hard to swallow the implied conspiracy that everyone in Congress had fallen a bit under the sway of the same corporate interests; while that itself might not be false, it was too pat of a way to frame Obama as a lonely crusader and martyr.
Then one of radio personalities tried to circumvent Godwin's Law.  I wanted to be fair, especially when he tried to assuage his listeners that he was trying to make a valid comparison to the former German National Socialist party and not a cheap villifying one, and particularly because he was referring to something out of Mein Kampf, which I think he said he read, and which I have not read.  He said Hitler (actually I think he said "they," meaning the Nazis collectively) was very specific in his manifesto about his plan to rise to power.  Allegedly, the idea was to take four major components of the economy--the health care system, I think banking, and two other ones that are in the news in the US so much today I hardly notice anymore--say "The federal regulations on these industries are stifling our economic recovery," and then let them run about lassaiz-faire.
The guy on the radio kind of stopped there, which is part of what confused me.  I can see someone saying "Government restrictions make it harder for businesses to make money, which retards economic growth, and during a recession like the one we're in, the effect is to forestall recovery."  What I can't see is a national socialist, a fascist, making such a claim.  Someone who was interested in centralized control of an industry, or of all industries, would not be willing to relinquish what control he already had.
At least, not without following up any real or trumped-up disaster that resulted with a plea to reign in this out of control company or that one, put a federal leash on some business or other as a permanent solution to the particular sins that a fascist might want to stamp out.
But that's what's already happening.  That's the kind of thing he was saying he wants.  Was he honestly blind to the irony?  Because I was just a little creeped out.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The War on Christmas is over. It's over, and we lost.

I was at the grocery store last night, and not only did I not see Christmas displays any longer that had been up since Halloween:

I saw displays for Easter stuff.

Not even Valentine's Day, the next notable and distinct holiday.  Easter.

I'm not even going to comment.  Anything I could say would only soften the impact.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Celibacy is not the problem

I read an online article several days ago, written by one of our archbishops whose name escapes me now, that argued that the Scandal in the Church was not caused and is not propagated by the rules of celibacy in the western Church.  I thought I'd already read it some time before, as many of you probably have actually done so, but it only seemed familiar in the broadest strokes, in the terms of things I would have known anyway.

The usual points were made:  celibacy's a choice willingly made in pursuit of a vocation, it's been practiced for far longer than the problems associated with the Scandal have been going on (not denying that "protect the reputation of the Church at all costs" hasn't happened at other times and for other reasons), and the rate of sexual abuse is about half what it is in the general population (according to his numbers--I'd heard they were about the same, but the point holds), so it doesn't make sense to cast sole or primary blame on something that doesn't make a net difference in the outcome.

Two responses, conveniently located on the first page of comments (actually, probably on every page), caught my attention this time.

One was the bizarre accusation that pedophiles gravitate towards the priesthood in particular (along with other child-centered professions like teaching) because of the "absolute power" priests have over children.  I won't argue the "access to children" point, but power?  No priest alive knows the power that was held, or at least imagined today to be held, by priests of the late Middle Ages, whenever clericalism was at its peak. Were they sometimes protected, given the benefit of the doubt, by laity as well as by their respective ordinaries?  Perhaps so; but that's a far cry from the pastor of every parish in Europe or the New World being a little ceasaro-pope.

The more tired comment was something like this:  "Humans are sexual animals.  Repression of the sexual instinct is only going to lead to these kinds of problems."  First, humans are sexual creatures, but we are not animals; healthy human adults have it within their power to restrain their appetites and to turn a rational eye to bodily urges and emotional states instead of unwillfully submitting to them.  Second, even animals do not exhibit psychotic behavior just for being denied the opportunity to mate frequently.  Competition for mates happens all the time and all over the place, and by and large, the Darwinian losers don't take it personally.  Third, choosing of one's own accord or willingly submitting to a lifestyle of abstinence is not "repression"--at least, not any more than my fear of getting charged with assault and battery if I didn't indulge my so called instinct of rage on the face of a hostile supervisor is "repression" of my anger.

This sophistry, to put it generously, has been overused and abused to justify a lifestyle that conveniently claims to distill meaning from it's-your-fault-if-I-feel-oppressed-by-imagining-you-mentally-judge-me pleasure seeking, that I no longer think that intellectually serious hedonists would even bother making such arguments--at least, not honestly; perhaps only to provide more chaff for casual leave-me-alone-with-my-endorphins hedonists to throw in the air and slow everybody else down.
Please, people:  find a new argument.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Fear not the devil (II)

The woman and I had another interesting conversation that tied to the first, but I felt I had gone on long enough on Harry Potter.  This time we were discussing yoga.  We've discussed it before and I may have posted about it once in the  past, but the idea annoys me so I feel it's worth revisiting.

She used to practice yoga, primarily as a low-impact exercise, until her Evangelical friends pointed out that the components of Eastern mysticism that are inherent to yoga had been downplayed, and therefore was inappropriate for serious practice by a Christian and contained some spiritual hazard for anyone.  This much I have no reason to debate--non-Christian mystical habits of Christians can easily scandalize others, and if you open yourself up to flatly heterodox influences, you risk being swallowed up by heterodoxy and, eventually, hell.  The physical components, as you may have deduced--the poses, the motions, the breath control--don't bother me a bit.

As I've said before, or intended to, there's wisdom in refraining from eating meat in front of vegetarians out of a desire to prevent scandal; but it would be wrong for me to lie to vegetarians and to myself by saying "Well, meat is evil after all" when I believe nothing of the sort.

But to me, see, it hinges on that "if" of opening yourself to heterodox influence--to malevolent forces.  I don't believe you can do so without willing it.  You can do so without fully recognizing the gravity of what you do, but not without your consent or fully contrary to your desire and intent.  People who worship money or power or just their jobs make conscious choices to put those things first in their lives, even if sometimes as a means to some other end, even if you showed them a church with dollar signs instead of crosses they wouldn't make the connection.

So when this woman tells that she was warned to stop doing yoga because some of the poses and movements are acts of worship to certain Hindu gods, I struggle to think of a diplomatic way to say "That is a psychotic and paranoid claim, based on an irrational definition of 'worship,' that hardly approaches the truth of what the worshipped or the worshipper do or are."  Maybe I should be blunt instead of gently suggesting that a principled willingness to discard the good and the harmless to escape evil ("If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out," not "pluck out your eye, for others have sinned with theirs") is not possibly, maybe, just a harmless metaphysical eccentricity.  But saying "I'm sorry, but that's stupid and I would be embarrassed if someone got the impression that I took such ideas seriously" just seems too...too "high school" dramatic to serve as a wake-up-call kind of shock.

No.  My contention is that it is not possible to worship something by accident.  You cannot, simply by raising your arms at a certain angle or standing with your feet with a certain spacing, offer the praise and adoration due to God alone to any other entity or object.

If it were that simple, we'd have to have someone go around cataloging all the angles to which it's morally safe to bend each joint and all the positions it's spiritually hazardous to keep our limbs in, just in case some pagan somewhere drew some arbitrary or symbolic inference between body alignment and some natural phenomenon, which convinced some terrified and ignorant Christian that such bodily alignments were inherently demonic, which I would say was so offensively stupid if I wasn't afraid that someone would look at my exasperation at such gullibility as protesting a bit too much.

It requires an act of the will.  I'm not saying it's necessarily safe to show up at a black mass and go through the motions just to make the point that it can't hurt you, because then you're deliberately initiating spiritual combat, but willfully interacting with preternatural forces, one way or the other, is not the same as doing things that to the best of your understanding may as well be nothing more than coincidence.

Honestly.  Giving the devil more power than he really has by seeing him beneath rocks he's not hiding under is closer to worship than doing isometric exercises.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Fear not the devil, especially when he's not there

A woman I know, raised Catholic but spending a lot of time (too much, in my opinion, but that's a story for another time) in an Evangelical prayer group, has been becoming sympathetic to some of their views on spiritual combat.  This is not all bad, since she just wasn't getting much of it at her home parish or in her own search for spiritual reading material, but it's also not all good, because in her pursuit for a more down to Earth (so to speak) Christianity, the line between orthodoxy and heresy is getting blurred.

I don't want to dwell on her condition much at the moment; suffice to say one needs to test all spirits and hold fast to what is good, not just take a sampling and swallow all of what has given a positive impression. I just need a stepping stone to make a few points because I apparently am a lazy writer, after all.

She's mentioned on a few occasions how she used to think the Harry Potter novels were harmless, but now she fears they can be a gateway to occult forces, since the fact of magic being portrayed in the book can open a door to demonic influence.

My philosophy is that the books themselves pose no threat.  They contain nothing essentially satanic, the magic that is described within is basically an obscure natural force that can be harnessed only by certain individuals, and if kids are interested in playing at Harry Potter, well, they've always been interested in playing at Hobbits, Superman, Voltron, the Lone Ranger, and every other [super]hero you can think of; nothing has changed, and nothing is going to stop it.  There's a disordered hunger for power and there's a desire to pretend at adventure, and these things do not perfectly overlap. Could a child, reading Harry Potter, look at the magic portrayed within and develop an unhealthy desire for special powers?  Sure, but the same could be said of anything.  Tarot decks are just archaic playing cards, and divination can be practiced with modern four-suit, 52-card decks.  Schoolkids who are warned not to play Pokemon on the playground will play Digimon instead.  The spiritual risk of any particular book, film, activity, or idea is a question of temperament, the availability of grist for temptation (a child from a home with no TV will not think much of troublesome cartoons), and the aesthetic preferences of the child.  Not a question of Harry Potter, inexplicably unlike any other, being some escapist fantasy about how a boy with a great destiny thrust upon him grows to be worthy of the challenges he faces book after book.

But this woman is still skeptical of the more radical caution her prayer group exercises in other areas.  Naturally they're opposed to practices of divination like ouija boards and tarot cards, but many of them also find magic tricks--as in illusionism, slight of hand card tricks and such--to be demonic.

As an aside, I think situations like this are where the cohesiveness and coherence of Catholicism can really shine.  The objective and subjective risks of the vast majority of these cases have already been sussed out, and we don't have (at least, we have far less often) people who disagree arguing indefinitely, because they come from or choose to follow different schools of thought on such things, or they move forward agreeing to disagree over an issue that has a healthy and balanced solution.  In this case, it's "fantasy fiction is not inherently evil because literature is not evil; divination is evil; things are not evil just for resembling other things that are evil; it may be prudent to avoid some of these things anyway in the interest of not confusing people, but it can also be a learning opportunity for the same confused people."  It's not rushing headlong into hell with the conviction that baptismal immunity buttressed by good intentions has no exceptions, and it's not calling a good thing bad and cutting it out of your life just in case someone somewhere fears or abuses it.

Remind me sometime to get back to the subject of schismatics--either the Protestant or the secular type--rejecting Catholic teaching, then revisiting old moral problems as if for the first time, and casting about everywhere except Rome for possible sources of help and wisdom in solving said problems.  I may have touched on it before but I haven't done the subject the modest amount of justice that I'm capable of.

Anyway, since this woman has come to respect these people in other ways, she's been more circumspect in her disbelief, but to my discredit I could hardly contain my incredulity when she told me.  I'm no stage magician but I know a couple card tricks.  They're entirely about directing attention away from the cards the mark thinks he is focusing on.  As best I can figure, misdirection is being equated with infernal magnitudes of confusion and deception, or the tongue in cheek showmanship that some modern magicians still like to employ, in the vein of old-school illusionists claiming to have studied mystical arts in obscure lands is being conflated with actual demonic augmentation to the natural senses.

Okay, you know what?  Pretending to be in league with mystical forces might not be the smartest thing, especially since the only ones likely to help with cheap parlor tricks are going to demand much greater sacrifices in exchange, but it's like blaming a doctor for causing a disease that he just couldn't cure.  It puts the emphasis on the wrong thing.  Messing with demons is evil; playing with cards is not, no matter how many people ruin their lives gambling and no matter how many people think it's something to do with the little paper rectangles with numbers and faces on them that can rub off on you however you use them.

It reminds me of the fear of some teetotalers that alcohol should be banned because everyone who is not a practicing or recovering alcoholic is simply a latent one.  Kind of like the old feminist (second wave?) saw about all men being latent rapists, now that I think about it.

Simply put, this is an attitude of superstition.  It's harboring an inordinate fear of normal objects because of the possibility of their abuse, because some such objects have been misused in the past for deliberate or inadvertent harm.  It's virtually giving demons power in your life that they don't, or shouldn't, have; and then just trying to flee from them.  If that's not a backhanded sort of glory being given to them, I don't know what is.

Do you have a personal problem with gambling?  Okay, stay away from cards for that reason.  Do you think it is imprudent to spend much time or attention on demonic activity?  Great, you're right, so try not to put any more interest into the subject than you need in order to be able to avoid it.

If we're going to go that far in avoiding the devil, then no activity is safe from abuse and everything should be avoided.  If people will kill others and themselves for the glory of God, there's no reason to think any lesser motivation will remain uncorrupted.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Would a truly just God levy an eternal punishment for a temporal sin?

As a followup to my post on whether God double predestines souls by logic or will (since I kind of rambled on and then just tapered off--but it was long enough already), and how hard it is to understand the orthodox explanations of the issues concomitant with a just and omniscient God when you assume the orthodox explanations are unreasonable, I wanted to address something that deserves more attention than I gave it.

I had said;

I'm not saying it isn't reasonable to ask why temporary actions have eternal consequences. It's just that all actions have consequences that ripple forward in time forever, on into eternity, and we only imagine that temporary consequences for our actions are the only result.

People who fixate on these alleged injustices always ask "Why should I go to hell forever if I can only commit finite sins?" One might be able to make some hay by arguing that sin has such an eternal component because it is sin against an eternal being, but it leaves an equally important question unasked:

Why should I go to heaven forever if I can only commit finite good?

If we're talking about earning a ticket to hell, we have to consider what it would mean to earn a ticket to heaven.

A woman was once concerned that her son, a student in engineering, was not on a path to make much of a contribution to the world. She prayed about it and received the message "A doctor saves one life. Your son will save many." The impression she got was of something like a critical defect being prevented or detected in a bridge.

One thing I find interesting is that this sort of thing is rather run of the mill for a decent engineer--literally, the woman's son would just be doing his proverbial job. Can I say "literal" and "proverbial" together this way? Anyway, it's a reminder that when we die, our personal judgment will include an accounting of all things in our life, not just the profound highs and lows, and the final judgment will include an accounting of all the effects our life has had, from the down on his luck man inspired by your simple act of kindness to turn his life around, to the children who never came into the world because an offhand callous remark soured a man's mood and he ended up snubbing in turn the woman who was going to be his wife.

I'm not saying we should go about scrupling our complicity in remote acts whose outcomes we don't have the time or ability to imagine, let alone plan for. I'm just saying we shouldn't be blase about what the stakes really are, or casual about the state of our souls. "I'm no worse than most people, and even maybe a bit better than average, and God's not going to raise the bar to keep most people out, is he?" is just the attitude of complacency we should avoid.

One the one hand, it can be comforting to know you're going to have an "It's a Wonderful Life" event where you learn the true value of all the good you had done and all the positive influence you had. On the other hand, how many missed opportunities and bad choices that seemed trivial, that weren't even thought about at the time, will we also have to answer for? How much will we be saying "I'm sorry, Lord, I had no idea," and how often will we wish we could say it but know that, indeed, we did have some idea, after all?

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Would a truly just and fair God send people to hell?

A discussion some time ago at ISCA BBS covered this question in its non-Catholically shallow manner that really makes me wonder why I keep coming back. The few regular posters seem to be comprised of a handful of liberal Protestants, one or two postmodern pagans, and an evangelical. I don't have a problem with discussing things from perspectives I don't personally share, although I'm not as interested in distinctly Protestant and secular opinions as a lot of other people are. To each his own.

It's just tiring to see people going round and round, occasionally making dissatisfied references to Aquinas, but giving his arguments little more than a cursory look--grasping the immediate arguments but not their foundations or the implications they already "just know are so"--and then returning to "Why? Why? 'God is above mortal ken and the moral reckoning of men' is unsatisfying, so there must be a different answer that makes me feel better about an omnipotent God who only pretends to be omnibenevolent."

Perhaps not, for they either run in circles forever or come to pat conclusions that don't fit Scripture well, like hell either is or will be completely empty, or hell is actually annihilation, or some temporal metaphor or illusion. Perhaps, though, it's a mystery, and we should take it in turns trying to understand mysteries like a good citizen of Western civilization and accepting them as is so that we might drink more deeply of them, ponder them with our hearts rather than our minds.

I'm not saying it isn't reasonable to ask why temporary actions have eternal consequences. It's just that all actions have consequences that ripple forward in time forever, on into eternity, and we only imagine that temporary consequences for our actions are the only result.

There were some arguing that since God had foreknowledge that some souls He created would choose eternal separation, then God was effectively creating them for hell. This argument is common, and facile; omniscience in one being does not preclude free will in others, and all other considerations aside, if this argument is impenetrable and impossible to consider, let alone accept, then you need to reconsider what you think the Christian notion of free will is and what it's worth. A merciful God might seem immoral to Odinolaters, as well, but the Norseman must consider the missionary's ethos on Christ's grounds as well as on Odin's. If he looks at heaven and says "But that can't be right, for the glory of the afterlife is reserved for those who die in battle," then he never leaves his own assumptions to make a fair appraisal.

Some made it out to be a cruel game, like a geneticist who creates lab animals that depend on a certain drug to thrive and survive, and then the geneticist hides the drug with a bunch of other drugs and makes them guess. Of course, God wants us to survive, and all the other drugs were concocted by other lab animals trying to replicate or replace the real medicine, and He doesn't leave you to writhe on the floor like a suffocating fish the first time you mistake poison for medicine.

I don't think the drug and lab analogy is good, although it reflects perhaps a narrow aspect of what's going on. A more apt one may be a couple that has a child on a long ocean voyage; the child's needs are met by the parents and the supplies on the boat, but the child is free to fend for himself in the ocean if he chooses to jump over the rail. It doesn't seem like much of a choice, but if he holds out long enough with the people who really do have his best interests at heart, they will reach a land where anything he could want is available and he's not confined to three heaving, 55-foot decks; should he choose the ocean instead, he will never make it. Could the couple have gotten an amphibious pet instead? Possibly, but they wanted someone who was designed to make and receive the most from the greater good of eventual landfall, rather than something that spent its days dodging jellyfish and sharks. Sure, it might enjoy swimming, but it would be swimming alone, which is a lesser good than walking and running and playing with others from the boat.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

If women were in charge of the world, would there be no wars?

Some say so.  They claim to be too empathic to resort to non-dialoging means of resolving conflict.

To these, shall we say, puffed-up feminoptimists, I provide some anecdotal evidence to the contrary.

"Oh," you say, "that's just high school."  Sorry, I don't buy it, for reasons that don't require me to positively believe in original sin.

I was that age in the last century, and things are worse now, but that kind of behavior wasn't unheard of then.  And one doesn't have to look too hard to find high school kids who never grew up.   One didn't have to look too hard to find a little girl carrying a big metaphorical stick and calling herself a woman, but still being catty to the out-crowd and attempting to establish territory through emotional and social bullying.

Fast forward a couple decades, and I have a higher-level manager who once fired someone for dressing only as inappropriately as said manager.  If she perceives or imagines a business or political threat, she'll trump up behavior or performance problems; it doesn't matter if we see through it, because her superiors don't do their homework, so ineffective threats and criticisms can always be backed by permanent changes to one's employment status.

If someone like that isn't capable of war as we know it, even a cold war, I don't want to think of what she might do instead.  Even if she weren't a woman.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Doctor Howell's dismissal (III)--tardy denouement

I caught Dr. Howell on Al Kresta's show after the University of Illinois redefined the dismissal of the good professor as...well, they said his dismissal wasn't really a sign of any disciplinary action that was supposed to be formal or permanent.  How much of this is backpedaling and how much is political speak for "certain responsible agents overstepped their bounds in dealing with the situation," I don't know.  I'd like to think it was mostly the latter, since I'd rather have one administrator indulge a knee-jerk reaction to a hearsay accusation from a party that didn't really have standing to complain.

The situation now is basically that Dr. Howell will have a "visiting instructional appointment," which I think means he'll officially be an adjunct professor, paid by the university instead of provided gratis by the diocese or the Newman Center.  Some people following the case feared this would be the result, because now that he is more than before a University employee, the standards for tolerance (the intolerability of tolerance, perhaps) would be--I don't want to say higher, but perhaps stricter--such that it would be easier to fabricate a case with evidence against him in the future.  According to a letter sent to the University of Illinois from the Alliance Defense Fund, however, a close eye will be kept on the situation, so for now I'm hopeful.

Al Kresta asked an interesting question during the interview.  He asked if Dr. Howell had said anything offensive, which Dr. Howell denied.  Of course, sensitivity to scandal is in the eye of the beholder, and there could be different thresholds for different people who come at the situation with all lucid care.  But really, Dr. Howell was speaking the truth:  he didn't say anything to shock students that wouldn't have been reasonable for anyone walking into the classroom to expect to already be aware of.

I think what might have set some people off was the claim that, in utilitarianism, if the highest virtue is pursuing what you judge to be the most useful, and "most useful" usually being "whatever brings me the most pleasure" (at least when the utilitarianist is off duty, and not breaking laws and lying for professional advancement or what have you), then there's nothing to justify stopping short of bestiality, which most people still rightly are repulsed by.

Most people still know in their gut that bestiality is wrong, but they don't like learning that they've disarmed themselves in the fight with zoophiles, that they can only answer "I feel this is right for me" with "I feel dirty just listening to you."  They're probably shocked that a Catholic professor of religion--a man of faith and a professional, an academic; in a word, someone uptight and clean-cut--would talk or even think about such unsavory things, who would be warning them that, once they admit to "do whatever you want but please don't get in my way," there was nothing to stop someone from going as far as the barnyard, despite all protests to the contrary by the people who just want to marry someone of the same sex.

Well, folks, start thinking about the possibility and how we're going to answer it, because the polygamists and pedophiles are not trying all that hard to hide their hope for a libertine precedent in Congress or the courts.  It's high time to be asking what good they think would come to them from laws or court decisions that were only favorable on the surface to gay couples.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"What happened to this generation?"

I've been watching Fringe on Hulu.com.  I've been enjoying it--interesting premise, good enough stories, and characterization the way characterization is supposed to be done:  varying complexity and occasional moral ambiguity without relying too heavily on the "bad people arbitrarily designated protagonists" crutch.  Sometimes there are quantum leaps of deduction used to keep the plot moving in the right direction, but considering they're usually made by the resident lobotomized psychotropic-drug-using genius on a show where such insights can even be plausible, I'm willing to overlook the flashbacks to the early days of sf television.

I didn't mean to dwell on the show.  I just wanted to comment on a scene in an episode from a couple months ago.  The aforementioned genius, Walter, was taking a break from whatever work he was doing in his Harvard lab, and was sitting outside watching students go by and smoking pot with a colleague, Nina.  The following exchange takes place:

Nina:  "I forgot how serious this campus has become.  I remember my time here quite differently."
Walter:  "We did have fun, didn't we?  I don't know what happened to this generation."
Walter:  "Look at all these students.  When did they become so afraid?  We had the courage to think against the grain of what we were told; we let our curiosity be our guide."

What happened to this generation?  Walter and Nina did.  Walter's generation looked at the one that invented the bomb, decided to live for today (how that constitutes letting curiosity be their guide, and how what Archimedes and Galileo and da Vinci and Tesla and Einstein was something else, I can't imagine), and he himself went down a path that broke this universe, and the one next to it.  Maybe this generation finally learned that some caution is appropriate in this life, after all.

Here's the problem I see.  The "courageous" generation that preceded a "serious, afraid" one rejected what they were told, instead of simply playing devil's advocate like an honorable curious skeptic; but then they turned around and tried to teach their successors that this parochial truth of relativism was the One True Way.  Nina at least seems to be truer to her principles:  if the truest thing you can do is throw off Truth, then you shouldn't be scandalized when the  people you try to teach would not scruple to question, doubt, and reject the things you turned out to be taking as absolute after all.

Never mind about what Walter considers to be courageous.  Maybe our apparent seriousness and fear is just what prudence looks like to him.  Prudence is a virtue.  Too bad the consequences of his lapses in prudence were being shared with everyone--with the fearful and serious students he was watching with Nina, and with everyone and everything else known to exist.

But it's just a TV show.  Maybe I shouldn't think too much about the words that the writers are putting in the characters' mouths.  But that's begging a question.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Doctor Howell's dismissal (II)--followup and corrections

First, thanks to Gary at Goodwrites for links to the e-mail Dr. Howell wrote, the e-mail written by the aggrieved student, and e-mail addresses for various university officials who would be in a position to do something about the situation. The American Papist also has more detailed and clearheaded information than I have been able to muck up since Saturday, so check thou him out if I haven't entirely burned you out on the subject; then contact UIUC and the Diocese of Peoria.

Second, it was not a gay student group to which the student complained, it was the LGBT Resource Center. I stand corrected; my analogy to the Star Trek club is not accurate.

Third, it was not a student in the class who caused the uproar, but a friend of the student. The student in the class apparently described the lectures as preaching rather than teaching and allegedly found the subject to be inflammatory (I'm not entirely clear whether the person in the class was constantly complaining to his friend, or the friend was merely scandalized at what the person in the class was passing along). Either way, the friend who was agitating on behalf of the student has a loose enough grip on the facts to be unsure if Dr. Howell was a priest or not.

The behalfist pointed out that he and his friend in the class were both Catholic, and that he "didn't go to Notre Dame for a reason." If so, I must wonder why he would be shocked to hear something he should already have known, and if he didn't want a Catholic education, well, I don't see what taking actions he could predict would have a reasonable chance of resulting in the dismissal of someone else's instructor, has to do with him getting the best secular pluralist education he could hope for.

Fourth, I found it very rich that the associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Ann Mester, saw fit to justify the university's decision by saying "The e-mails sent by Dr. Howell violate university standards ofinclusivity." (hat tip to Dave Armstrong of Biblical Evidence for Catholicism. By "rich" I mean "ironic" or "hypocritical." I am somewhat alarmed that a public university, especially one in the vicinity of Peoria, would have "standards of inclusivity" that go beyond honoring the sacred trust of the teaching office, honoring the trust of each student, but are this explicit and binding, on pain of breaking of contract.

I would be skeptical that this code of inclusivity is so explicit that Mestercould point to chapter and verse; I could be wrong, but I find it more likely that vague platitudes would be preferred in that they are easier to twist and easier to slip past the casual, trusting reader.

Perhaps Mester refers to these inclusivity standards that include not only race, age, and the various things commonly lumped under sexual orientation, but actually spell out religion, yet still suffice to get Dr. Howell dismissed on the grounds that he conveyed information about a religious institution.

These inclusivity police are either cowards, trying to "disappear" salient members of the would-be opposition, or they are very patient, working carefully and slowly to make average people afraid to make a wrong move or speak a wrong word, and then act with impunity against people who not only talk about things that some people don't like, but actually believe them openly. Why else would they tolerate Dr. Howell's presence, yet get upset when he tried to resolve a disagreement in class after hours by presenting information that an honest progressive atheist could just as easily have presented?

The university's pledge to inclusiveness goes on to say "In an environment ofinclusivity, there is no place for acts of hatred, intolerance, insensitivity...." Insensitivity and intolerance next to acts of hatred? Are they talking about acts of hatred, acts of intolerance (whatever that would be), and acts of insensitivity (which "there is no room for that here" would seem to demand as a response even to diplomatic differences of opinion and misunderstandings, if they're going to be consistent), or just talking about how attitudes of intolerance and insensitivity are right up there with posting "Irish need not apply" signs and lynching black people? Either way, how do they cope with a difference of opinion? How can they cope with a misunderstanding? Where do they find room to enlighten well-meaning rednecks who show up completely blind to the depths of their latent bigotry?

Okay, speed bump. Sorry. More a theoretical question than a practical one; it's still more common for politically correct people to behave as normal human beings than not, so there's obviously some tolerance of intolerance "in the field." Back on track....

To anyone who is having trouble sorting "conveying facts about Catholicism" from "pushing Catholicism," if Dr. Howell started this class like he did the one I took, he would have pointed out that he was a Catholic and believed what he was teaching, and he would be teaching from that perspective in order that students may get a better understanding of the Church "from the inside," but that he expected and accepted disagreement (UIUC being a state school and all) and would not hold any differences of opinion or belief against any student, either in class or in the gradebook. His job was to rectify misunderstanding and clear away ignorance, not abuse his position and the teacher-student trust.

Dr. Howell is not an unapproachable guy. It's possible a student might be too timid even to approach him over a concern or disagreement, but there's no rational way a friend of such a student, either acting on the timid student's request or taking it upon himself to take up the timid student's banner, would up and...not go confront the professor, instead going first to the LGBT office and notifying the campus media before informing the department head that he's really not a gay activist. Sorry, pal, but you are now; welcome to the club. Dues are 20c a week and you have to bring doughnuts on Tuesdays.

In case any apologists missed the low-hanging fruit in the combox over there:

Don't confuse "nature" with "natural law," or "nature" in the sense of "plants and animals doing their thing unimpeded in the wilderness" with "nature" in the sense of "essential qualities of being." This is a basic distinction, and someone arguing that animals exhibit homosexual behavior, or that straight couples sometimes engage in sodomy, in the fact of that is like being told in a physics class that relativistic effects on time and motion are immeasurable at pedestrian speeds and then complaining that you can clearly see that when two people approach each other at the same speed, they close the distance in half the time it would take for one to walk all the way to the other. You're ignoring the underlying idea to show that you don't grasp the means to challenge the assertion that Newtonian motion is merely an approximation.

Referring to "natural law" is not just making a religious argument while swapping out "God" for "nature." "Nature" doesn't will or intend, in the human sense, anything. If I point out that humans tend to eat meat because the nature of their bodies does not include the ability to synthesize all the necessary amino acids, a reasonable argument would be "that's cruel to animals; complete protein in the diet can be achieved by eating this and that combination of vegetable proteins." An unreasonable argument would be "you're just saying God wants you to eat meat so you don't have to give up your backyard barbecues or stop looking down on us hairy-legged granola types!"

On occasion, rare enough that I'm not inclined to put much stock in the unsupported claims, it's argued that the "gay sex is unhealthy; that's evidence for a natural law position" claim is disproven by this or that anonymous corpus of sociological or biological research. It was brought up in the comboxes I mentioned (where the messages are posted, in case I've allowed myself to ramble into obscurity; not at Goodwrites), but a preponderance of evidence was only referred to in passing.
To anyone who thinks that's good enough reason not to think we could do well to discourage anal sex on the grounds of its dangers, I ask: What's so great about rectal prolapse?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

University of Illinois religion professor fired for doing his job

I encourage all of you to read the article at Catholic Online, but let me summarize.

Professor Kenneth Howell has, since the late 1990s, been teaching courses on Catholicism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Being associated with the vibrant Newman Center on campus, it seemed logical to Professor Howell and then-head chaplain of the Newman Center, Msgr. Swetland, to offer the courses both to edify the Catholic students and to provide an opportunity to the student body as a whole to clear up misconceptions on basic Catholic principles (in Howell's Introduction to Catholicism course) and on the application of these principles to more timely matters (the upper-division Modern Catholic Thought).

Professor Howell is--I can assure you personally--an honorable and faithful man. He made no secret about being a member of the faith he was teaching about, that he believed it was objectively true, and that any differences in belief or opinion between him and his students would be respected--his job was to instruct, not to proselytize.

Until the spring semester of 2010, this was good enough. Then, during a discussion on natural law, one or more students made a disproportionate display of outrage at his example of the Church's position on homosexuality. Hoping to clarify and settle things, Dr. Howell e-mailed the class explaining the differences between a philosophy of natural law and a philosophy of utilitarianism. Somehow this was also inflammatory, and was brought to the campus gay/lesbian/etc. student group, who took it to the head of the Department of Religion.

As an aside, I'm trying to imagine a modern lit/media professor saying something critical about the portrayal of Klingons on the small screen, and having it even occur to the campus Star Trek fan club to formally protest that professor's actions to the department, let alone having the department chair do anything but write a curt yet polite dismissal.

To bring a long story to a short end, the outrage of the student or students in class, the pressure from the homosexual group, and what I can only assume is the e-mail being treated as a confession to causing confusion and discomfort in class; summed up, led to the decision that Dr. Howell's services would no longer be required at the university.

Apparently UIUC did a good job covering its butt legally, that there's little room for a breach of contract suit from the Diocese of Peoria or Dr. Howell personally, but I can't wrap my head around the idea that an instructor can legally be penalized for providing accurate information about what some people believe that other people happen not to like.

It's not like it was a secret. Dr. Howell taught openly for years, and it is a joke so cliched that it's virtually taken as fact that Rome is doctrinally hard on gays because it's so conflicted about its plethora of pedophile priests. Now someone expresses outrage, and that--not the years of sober and fair instruction--is grounds for dismissal.

Sorry, Illinois. The customer is not always right. The vast majority of his students obviously did not feel offended or oppressed or unsafe (or whatever other "hostile classroom environment" words you want to use)--fearing either beratement in class or low grades after the fact--or Dr. Howell's reputation, not to mention his published teacher evaluation scores, would have reflected it. The outlier here is the aggrieved student or group of students, not the behavior of Dr. Howell.

Can you see this happening in other circumstances? Imagine he were teaching an anthro class instead, and brought up some tribe of cannibals back in some equatorial jungle somewhere. Now imagine him talking about their belief that green-eyed people taste better than anyone else. Having green eyes, what grounds would I have for being upset? He's just stating facts. Should I be afraid that one of these cannibals might find me and eat me? Only if I visited their part of the world. Should I be upset that the professor told me they exist? If I were, maybe I shouldn't have taken the class in the first place, because that hypothetical tribe would exist whether I knew about it, wanted to know about it, or not.

Perhaps that's an absurd example. Imagine me, a practicing Catholic, living as a student in the suburbs of Moscow during the Cold War. I go about my business but I keep my head down where it's expedient, and so far I haven't come to any trouble. In a social studies class I'm taking, the teacher spends some time discussing the relationship between religion and the state and society at large. He happens to mention that the Church has been persecuted for being the Church, with burnings at the stake and confiscation of property during the early days of the Reformation, and nowadays with more subtle oppression, to the point where in some parts of the southern US, such as eastern Texas, it's safer to be black than to be Catholic.

What possible rational, lucid motivation would I have for flipping out in class and trying to get my instructor fired? He's not persecuting me. Even if he's a good Party member with some residual Protestant attitudes from his parents from before the Revolution, he's only stating facts. That's his job.

He doesn't have to like what the truth is. I don't have to like what the truth is. I can even think that persecuting the Church is wrong and that my teacher is in error for thinking that religion is a national poison. But he's only saying what happens to be documentedly true and already widely known. I can't honestly be mad at him for that.

I have some angrier words for the people who cost Dr Howell his job in their pursuit of justice or comfort, but it may be best that I don't share them at this time.

Friday, June 18, 2010


Had some 'za for dinner. Got a cheese pizza from the freezer section at Wal*Mart, having forgotten about the crust and sauce left in my fridge from an earlier attempt, and threw on various toppings.

I got to thinking: I like tangy things on my pizza. It makes drinking cool, often sweet beverages in between bites that much more refreshing. I like green olives (black ones I can't enjoy except in trace amounts, as with a potent spice, and I'm just happy not to have them at all), hot peppers (yellow ones being pungent and sweet and not too hot if I'm not in the mood for recreational oral pain), even sometimes onion and tomatoes (which get nice and tangy when cooked down, or when already sun-dried).

What I didn't think about until just now is "If onion, why not garlic?" I've had it as part of a white-sauced pizza, like the flatbread equivalent to fettucini alfredo, but never as an addition to more conventional pizza. But I didn't start this post just to get an idea for getting sidetracked.

What I thought about when I was rounding out my pizza fixings was this: "If olive, and tomato, and pepper...why not pickle?"

It's tangy, salty. Should blend right in with olives and pepperoni and cheese, right?

Well, no twist from me tonight: it actually worked quite fine. I approve of dill pickle slices on pizza. I may be trying other kinds in the future.

Your milage may vary. Let me know what you think if you try it.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Some time ago I found a book, humorously written in the style of the Worst Case Scenario series, on being Lutheran. It was a pretty compact thing and appeared to contain a lot of wit so I picked it up and skimmed it.

There was, indeed, a good measure of solid advice, both on theological issues that would be of concern to any Christian, including (in not so many words) some suggestions for spiritual warfare, and on more practical matters of belonging to an ecclesial community, such as what kinds of casseroles are considered appropriate pot luck fare in different parts of the country.

Two things struck me as odd, one trivial and one a bit unsettling.

The trivial one was the portrayal of Martin Luther as a lighthearted, even jovial man. One can detect a dry sense of humor even in reading his 95 Theses, if you're a little familiar with the context, but for some reason I always tended to picture Luther as a man who, after spending numerous fruitless hours in the confessional, would come out totally devoid of consolation from either his confessor or directly from God; a man of mounting frustration who perhaps vented it through acerbic wisecracks and biting sarcasm.  I see this kind of thing here and there on the Internet, where certain personalities seem to have trigger topics that, once broached, send them off on massive, solidly if hastily reasoned, rants that go on and on and eventually touch on every related subject that the writer has been nursing a grudge for.

Still, I have no reason to think my original mental image is more accurate; it was just interesting to see a different perspective, one that provided a better window into his personality than I've ever looked through before.

The unsettling thing was one of the tactics suggested for spiritual combat.

One of Luther's catch phrases, I suppose you could say, was "Sin boldly." The idea, if I may digest it a bit, is that since in the long run we won't avoid committing sin, we may as well do so with gusto, as an act and show of robust faith in Christ's saving grace, which is greater than any sin or infirmity.

Faith and freedom from second-guessing are good things, no doubt, but I can't candone being cavalier towards sin. We shouldn't despair over the fate of our souls, but contrition is not the same thing as despair, and it is a better antidote to pride than something that amounts to recklessness.

I haven't gotten to the combat tactic yet: the questionable suggestion in the book was that, if you were mired in a spell of temptation to do some great sin, then you should commit some different minor sin to "throw the devil off."

I would really like to know who came up with this idea. It's wrong on so many levels.

First and foremost, it is never a good idea to commit a sin, of any magnitude. The ends will not justify the means; we're not talking "Take a course of action many would find ill-chosen but falls into the category of prudential judgment," we're talking "Commit a sin in order to escape another sin." Paul explicitly warned us not to promote sin in order to multiply grace, but this book's advice is materially contradicting that command. You're not accepting the lesser of two evils as a prudent effort to reduce harm, you're positively choosing evil in a misguided attempt to confuse the author of confusion.

If this advice is the fruit of "Sin boldly," then bold sin is a losing proposition right out of the gate. God never provides us a challenge without also supplying the grace to face it; can anyone argue that God's grace will specifically take the form of an opportunity for a "distracting" evil to disrupt the devil's efforts to bring you down in some other way?

"When I get the urge to kill, I masturbate until the rage goes away."  "I couldn't take my eyes off her, so I went to the park and made fun of the kids there until I stopped thinking about her."  Does any practice that resembles these sound like a good idea?

All I can imagine is that the author has observed that when he's tempted to do something heinous, if he does something a little less heinous, the inclination to commit the worse sin goes away. For one thing, it's a lack of faith, not a sign of it, in God's providence and generosity to resort to one sin in order to escape another.

For another, what is "throw the devil off" supposed to mean? Satan might be tempting someone with lust; is the person instead supposed to go and eat a whole chocolate cake because a sin that Satan wasn't immediately pushing somehow doesn't count?

It all counts. There isn't some tactical game you can play, hoping you can lose just one battle in order to win the war; Christ already won it for us so there's no reason other than scratching that sinful itch to cave in. Satan doesn't care how you sin; he'll take whatever disobedience from God he can get out of you, and being cunning, Satan probably anticipated your most likely immoral avenues of escape from the primary pressure he's exerting on you. The devil sends errors into the world in pairs, so that in fleeing one you embrace the other, for this very reason.  He might even be pushing lust on you simply to trick you into committing gluttony, because he knows it will be a more destructive avenue for you in the long run. Maybe that act of gluttony is less grave than the act of lust you were contemplating, but the devil still gets what he wants: your acquiescence to sin.

Either way, your resistance to sin gets worn down; if at first you show reluctant acceptance of small sin in order to avoid a great one, soon you will show a willingness to do so, and then an openness to doing so with greater and greater sins in order to avoid lesser and lesser ones that, in being consistently tempted to commit, you have come to believe you are especially prone to.

It's a simple high-pressure sales technique. "Can I interest you in a new computer? Then how about a cell phone instead?" "Are you still considering a new computer? How about a digital camera too? Or just the camera?" "Would you like to try our latest computer? Why not get a new hard drive as a backup for your old one instead?" Whether you buy a computer, a phone, a camera, a hard drive, or go in a different direction and get a multimedia device, the salesman isn't going to care: you're still in his store, and you're still buying his product; if you acquiesce to buying one thing, you may acquiesce to buying accessories to it or to buying the other things he's selling. One way or another, in one fell swoop or by a thousand increments, you're giving him your money, and possibly much more than if you'd caved to the first item he offered and then left the store too chagrined to be interested in anything else.

It also leads to pride.  I can't speak universally, but I can sum up some personal anecdotes.

I know of two general kinds of people who abstain from alcohol:  recovering alcoholics, and principled teetotalers.  The alcoholics I know best understand that not everyone is necessarily prone to the same temptations for substance abuse or have the same inability to moderate their behavior in certain activities.  Aside from the people who were never alcoholics but abstain merely as a religious discipline, the way Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays but don't think twice about Protestants having cookouts at the end of the week, I have known people who don't imbibe because of all the harm that alcoholism could bring, who have managed to cultivate an air of disdain for folks like me who appear reckless, who aren't insightful or holy enough to take a purer, less carnal and more gnostic path of holiness.  God knows I can understand how easy it is to feel smug about how much other people wallow in sin and in the near occasions of sin--I'd be posting twice as frequently if I weren't trying to keep that attitude in check when writing about things in the world that really need to be answered.

But when I hear, in word or in tone, a comment like "Oh, you had a beer once?  I'm disappointed," my gut reaction is "Maybe I was young and foolish, but all of a sudden, now I am too.  But I'd rather be drunk than judgmental."

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Once again I allude to Chesterton as he pointed out in Orthodoxy that criticism of the Church has been contradictory--that it is both excessively prudish and sex-obsessed, and so on.

Once upon a time I was asked a question, or a number of questions rather, about Catholic doctrine. Having given some answers to the best of my ability, I had to respond eventually with "I don't know." The retort to that was "Exactly!" What? Exactly what? Did I get zinged for not having memorized the whole of the Catechism, or for the suspicion that the Church hadn't thought of everything, which was why I couldn't provide some explanation or other?

One of these options might underlie the derisive tone people seem to take when they say "The Church tells you what to think"--unless the problem they have is that they think it is arrogant to believe you can know any truth, and so issuing instructions under such arrogance is folly.

Well, whatever. I can't really say if they have legitimate concerns because the questions and accusations they extend are so badly constructed. The conversation started out civilly with some honest questions about distasteful points of doctrine. For some reason I'm always surprised when there's a "So THERE!" moment and the whole dialog turns. Maybe I shouldn't be; there are plenty of reasons for someone to get upset at having preconceptions challenged without resorting to endemic anti-Catholicism, and it's not that hard for me to drop the diplomatic ball right after the charitable ball smashes my toes.

My favorite-of-the-moment, anyway, I think has to be when people complain that the Church has an answer for everything--as if it were bad that the Church has had time to contemplate so many (to the point of all) moral questions, or that it had the means or inclination to do so. That it would go so far as to develop overarching principles and philosophies that allow it to anticipate moral questions, even (although Rome is more circumspect with this faculty). That it has or would have done either seems no less likely an offense to the people I have talked to than the mere caricature of out of touch rich white sexless men living atop some crimson tower, standing on the obsolete shoulders of historical giants, making patronizing moralistic judgments based on their vague and uneducated impressions of what people used to take seriously in the Dark Ages.

As if someone else's school of thought is superior in that it has more opportunities to invoke Transcendent Mystery as a conversation-stopper, when it simply hasn't had the opportunity or willingness to think more things through to the end.

You know what I think? If you disagree with the Church and the only grounds you have to fall back on are that the Church has answers to your objections, then you just refuse to consider the idea that you can be wrong about something.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

What an interesting world it must be, that we live in...

...that I would be at most three degrees of separation from Pope John Paul II, Leeroy Jenkins, and Jim Varney?

If for no other reason, this life is a marvel.

Anybody else got other bizarre and/or amazing brushes with the famous, the important, or the fascinating?

Monday, April 26, 2010

I got a little sidetracked the other day.

I didn't mean to dwell on the notion that trusting the government to micromanage an entire society was foolhardy. I just wanted to bring that up as a compound example of how naive all attempts to date have been. Naive, or come-for-critics-in-the-night fascist. Usually the former morphs into the latter, given adequate time.

Since I am lazy, I will throw out some lyrics from the John Lennon song "Imagine," as it serves as a convenient manifesto-jingle for the pie-in-the-sky progressivism that established itself maybe around the same time the song was penned. Close enough, anyway; but it still possesses some inspirational power that I wish to quell.

Imagine there’s no heaven … imagine all the people living for today.”

The only positive way I can see to read this is “imagine people working on the immediate problems in the world, rather than ignoring them or rhetorically sacrificing the victims of these problems for more abstract goals.” Unfortunately, the reality, the importance, of a problem is not determined from its proximity.

“There’s no heaven” usually means “there’s no God, no moral balance sheet to account for after you die;” and “living for today” usually means not simply “today has enough problems; don’t worry about tomorrow’s until they come,” which is often stated instead as “take it one day at a time,” but also—and especially in this day and age—means “disregard the future; don’t bother planning or preparing for contingencies.” I guess if someone else is taking care of everything, then we can throw care to the wind, or we should throw care to the wind and try to ignore whatever little voices of charity in our head we might still hear.

Imagine there’s no countries … nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too. Imagine all the people living life in peace

People don’t kill or get killed just for the sovereign abstraction of their home. They also don’t only kill and die in the name of religion. Animals have no religion or politics, yet they still fight and die for resources like food, for territory, for mates, to defend their young. We are not so different from animals that we would not do the same; and we should be smart enough that we can tell the difference between a war for resources honestly fought and a war for resources rationalized with patriotic or religious propaganda.

But, okay. Let’s say there are not countries, there’s no nation-state or anything. Maybe just local governments and then some kind of enhanced UN handling the things that benefit more from economies of scale than from a preference for subsidiarity. Are people just going to start getting along? It does seem like we’re learning to do that, which was why I said last time that I can understand some of the secprog optimism, but we’re really not trying hard enough to inspire people to look past the little differences that catalyze a thousand playground fights a day, to grow up and see that underneath our subtle and sundry differences we’re all just the same. The modern defender of Marx says his system has never worked because it’s never been tried with the right people in charge. I say there are not enough of the right people to go around for taking charge of such a system, or for filling the ranks thereof.

Same deal with not having any religion. You can’t just take away church and whatever fills the role of church in pagan countries; you have to deal with what and how people think about transcendent truths, about morality and if it were immutable or not, even about the meanings of holidays and the importance of giving honor to honorable people. Humans are spiritual beings, and nigh everything we do overlaps with overt spiritual traditions of one sort or another. How Lennon would propose to treat things that fit into a spiritual system without an overarching formality, things that are still important enough to actual people that they may be disinclined to take disagreements in stride, has never been addressed anywhere that I have seen. Maybe it could be done by those people of adequate virtue and conditioning who don’t actually exist (in anything but paltry numbers, at least).

Okay, starting to look like I'm fisking the whole song. Sorry. You know how I have brevity problems as well as you should have expected me to eventually get around to critiquing these lyrics.

Imagine no possessions/I wonder if you can/No need for greed or hunger/A brotherhood … sharing all the world

Can I imagine no possessions? Yes, and thanks for the vote of confidence. Or maybe John was speaking about the difficulty of living monastically while immersed in the material world. Do we have to have greed or hunger? No, not even now; they are inevitable only because we have not developed perfect economics. Well, hunger, at least; the problem with greed, being a capital sin, is that the greedy want more no matter how much they already have, whereas hunger can be sated. Now, it is more natural for a man to share with his blood brother than with any random stranger whom he, yes, should be charitable to as his own brother; but while I don’t count the cost when I provide for my family, I recognize how fruitless it would be to take everything I have, divide it into six billion parts, and distribute—or even just attempt!—it to everyone on the planet. In His infinite wisdom, God gave us specific families to care for, and we have personal property that is dedicated to our explicit responsibilities to the closest of our brother-neighbors: our children who need us, our spouses to whom we are pledged, our siblings with whom we must share as long as we are under our parents’ care, our parents who are responsible for us and benefit from our cooperation.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I and many others just aren’t capable of maintaining charity on the scale of an entire civilization. I’ve carved out my niche of needy people to care for directly, and I save some on the side to provide to others who have needs that seem important to me. I may get along well with the guy who lives next door to me, but if we share a car because neither of us needs one all the time, eventually one of us will need it to take someone to the hospital and the other will not be willing to postpone yet another trip to the grocery store, and it will take more than the gentle reminders of a prophet of “Be Excellent to Each Other” and goadings from some authority figure to Shut Up, Play Nice, and Stop Arguing.

Imagine sharing? Yeah, in the Kingdom of God. Before then? We ain’t even close to ready.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Sometimes I can understand how people get so excited about the idea that humanity can bootstrap itself into a secular utopia.

In some ways, we have made great strides. Widespread education, eradication (to the point of extinction) of some major diseases, et cetera et cetera.

But what still gets me is the belief so many often have that we've really come so far that we have more than an inkling about starting the heavy lifting on completely reinventing human society.

The government meddles with the automotive industry as if the strings they attach to bailout money as a matter of principle and of vanity would really help the businesses run better, as if the car market going soft was the result of auto executives needing some firm parenting and not being just a part of a larger economic crisis. The government forces banks to make bad loans, and when the loans default and banks suffer, the government blames the banks for being careless in the first place.

The government tries to give the economy a shot in the arm with "Cash for Clunkers," which is a much smaller scale matter that should have been easier to forecast, budget, and manage, but it still flops. The government can't even handle this, but it's supposed to be able to defy rational economic theory and save us all? Same people who made the first mistakes are going to be in there making new ones.

And that's just a few tangible concerns. The powers that be don't have the sense not to take bad advice and bad philosophy, but the people who come up with bad philosophies and give bad advice don't have the sense to see how disruptive, at the very least, it is to institutionalize the killing of unborn children, dissolve meaningful marriage, and negotiate with terrorists and other bully states that have nothing to offer but negative reinforcement.

You can't just give a severely injured person in cardiac arrest CPR. You have to find out where the bleeding is first and treat that or it won't matter whether everything else you're doing is helpful or harmful.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Is consent the sole criterion of the good?

A popular subject these days. I don't have the skill, learning, or currently the inspiration to add an exhaustive treatise to the blogosphere's corpus of moral philosophy, so I will attempt to be pithy.

Consent is not the sole criterion of the good, because one can consent to things that are manifestly bad.

I don't mean just being willing to participate in something while invincibly ignorant of negative consequences, or acquiescing under pressure to something you don't have a good feeling about, although it's still a part of those things.

I mean being presented the chance to do something positively harmful to yourself or others, with a guaranteed result or proportionately probable outcome that is harmful, that by your own moral calculus brings less good than evil; and then doing it, knowing better.

In most real situations there are mitigating circumstances, but I live a pretty safe life, so when I end up in a bad place, I know it's largely because I've said to myself "I damn well am going to do this, anyway." Most of the factors that would overwhelm the remnants of my consent only had the power over me that I chose not to oppose.

If things can be bad despite my willingness, then I can't a priori assume on the other hand that things might be good despite my resistance.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Went out to lunch with a coworker on Friday. This being Lent, I scoured the menu for a dish that didn't contain carne.

It was difficult finding something I would have enjoyed, as I don't like seafood of any sort. I finally settled on the fish and chips; it seemed simple enough not to offend my palate, and the breading would carry the tartar sauce well.

So I asked for the fish and chips, and the server pointed out that it was all the fish filets and french fries I would want. "Great," I said, appreciative but entirely uninterested. "Thank you." I already had all the fish I wanted--none--and I didn't have to spend ten dollars to get it. Well, fine, whatever; I'll offer it up, like I'm supposed to.

Halfway through lunch, the server came back and offered to reload my plate. I politely declined, almost unable (along with my coworker who was well aware of my distaste for fish) to keep from laughing at her attempts to entice me with even more of something I never wanted.

Later, I was nearly done, and she came back one more time, trying to make a last-ditch effort to interest me in seconds. "You sure? You could have just a little, then take it home for later!" I was briefly tempted, since ten bucks might be fair for tilapia and rice pilaf but was a bit steep for three pieces of whitefish--but no: one meal of fish was enough.

Thank you, no. I've had more than I ever wanted already.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

You know what I'd like to see?

A former coworker of mine has rather eclectic musical tastes. One of the CDs she used to bring in to play in the lab was a Metallica album where they did a lot of covers; on either the same one or a different one (I don't remember), they did a healthy number of tracks incorporating a full orchestra.

What I'd really like to see is Metallica cover some songs from "The Muppet Show." They could do some John Denver-Muppet Christmas carols or just some straight up Muppet standards, but I think it would be both epic and hilarious.

Muppets, or any show tunes, I suppose. I bet Metallica could infuse "The sun'll come out tomorrow" with some overwhelming irony.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

So, Fearless Leader (the national one, not the one temporarily overseeing my department at work) has announced intentions, if not plans, to put in safeguards to prevent future financial crises like the current one from happening in the future.

I hope and pray he means safeguards like the ones put in place after the Great Depression, which to the best of my knowledge were roundly neutered in recent decades; and not new ones that look like they were inspired by the less subsidiarist parts of his health care plan.

What are the chances?

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Putting the doctrinal cart before the developmental horse

On some much more read blog than mine, whose identity I would remember better if I hadn't procrastinated so long before sitting down to write about it, an apparently new visitor to the blog got into the combox and inadvertently drove the discussion off the rails for a bit trying to explain how it was morally necessary to believe in geocentrism.

Most of his argument consisted of citing old Church documents declaring that geocentrism was an obliged belief to hold, like the Trinity or the bodily resurrection, and citing the historical consensus of popes and theologians until the modern era.

I felt some frustration when he continued to assert that geocentrism was held and taught "always and everywhere" despite Catholics with matching credentials, from medieval theologians to the latest popes, being more open to a Copernican conception of the universe. He was quick to point out that the dissenters from geocentrism were only expressing personal opinions, and ones that happened to be erroneous, while everyone else was making official proclamations with whatever weight of authority they could avail themselves of. This dismissal seemed a bit pat in context even before he continued as if to say "Always and everywhere--except for a few occasions of dissent, but I'm not really using hyperbole, so Always and Everywhere." I was almost more alarmed to see him studiously refusing to give more than a hand-waving refutation to these Copernican supposed material heretics, as if spending too much time trying to understand why they would be wrong would make it too hard to believe Always and Everywhere, than to see him stridently warn the blog's readers not to put too much stock in the consensus of their senses and reason.

The geocentrist did, in fact, quote documents where talk of heliocentrism was condemned as absurd or otherwise posed a moral or intellectual danger to the Christian. I will even agree that for pastoral reasons, at certain points in history it may have been prudent to discourage people from fixating on thoughts like "If we've been relegated to the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of some part of the universe, are we still the apple of God's eye?" It seems preposterous today, but before natural philosophy was divorced into physical science and theology, for the layman, maybe such a proposal would have sounded a lot more ominous.

I don't know. I'm only saying I can imagine something of the sort. One wouldn't even have to fall back on "they were a thousand years dumber than we are" to see that the best pastoral action is sometimes to prohibit something that is not inherently evil (such as making same-sex attraction an impediment to the priesthood) or mandate something that is not inherently morally obligatory (such as celibacy for the priesthood).

An idea was raised that I thought may have set the geocentric argument at nines, but it wasn't pursued and then the blogger got things back on topic and that was the end of it.

Someone pointed out that there was such a thing as development of doctrine, that our understanding of old teachings of the Ordinary or Extraordinary Magisterium can expand without contradicting the essence of original understanding. The geocentrist responded that no such thing had really happened, that the authorities who had spoken on the matter had spoken definitively and had left no room for dissent, question, or nuance; case closed--and further, new doctrines are to be judged against old ones, and not the other way around.

I think this is a wounding to doctrinal development. Let me cite the Latin for an example: Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, At the time this declaration--already a familiar concept, written about by St. Cyprian and lamented for not appearing true by St. Augustine--was made, there was only one Church, so "Salvation is the Church" was not going to make anybody wonder about possible schismatic saints. Fortunately, although we don't always know what's going on when the Spirit moves the Church to do one thing and not another, the Spirit does, and He does not err. The declaration that salvation only came from and through the Church did not have to be fully understood by the bishops who declared it.

"Ah," said the geocentrist in paraphrase, "but we must interpret new doctrines in light of old, rather than redefine old ones under the light of novel and potentially heretical ones!"

Okay, so we have to be sure that a new dogmatic definition is consonant with old ones before it is accepted as anything more than a hypothesis. Fine, but it is not the same thing as allowing for understanding of an old doctrine to grow.

Development of "extra ecclesiam" would be like "Outside the Church there is no salvation. We used to think that meant only Catholics in good standing went to heaven. In further consideration of the Church's role as the sacrament of grace to the world, and of people who strive for virtue as they can and are not culpable for being outside our official ranks, we believe now that people who are not formal Catholics may be saved, but it is through the instrumentality of the Church that saving grace is somehow afforded to them."

Insisting that doctrines can develop only within the confines of undeveloped understanding, which is the essence of the geocentrist's objection to modern bishops and astronomer-friars taking no umbrage at a relativistic physical universe, is a confounding of development in the first place. It is like saying "We used to teach that only people in good standing with the Church can go to heaven; today we understand that God provides some graces to sincere unbelievers through the instrumentality of the Church, but they have to be Catholic to get to heaven." It's like proving the square root of two is irrational by assuming it is rational and then deducing a contradiction, and then claiming development of doctrine on the grounds that you've found a new way to state the same thing. There's no increase in understanding there, just an increase in confusion about how or why God would dole out some graces and not others.

Consider further that the Church has drawn its own borders of competence around faith and morals. The Church may contain members who are experts in science or politics, but it learned the hard way that acting as a secular power is not the best way to go; by and large, it never had as great a problem with science (if you say "Galileo!" then try to think of someone else who got the same treatment and get back to me--I won't take the time here). If the geocentrist wishes to convince me that I must accept that the Earth is the center of the universe, he's got to offer some proofs of the following:

  1. The universe has a center in some meaningful and detectable way at all

  2. Why the universe's construction leaves only the subtlest clues that our current cosmology still has a few unasked questions; clues so ambiguous that a particular, grossly different geometry never even makes the list of possible explanations for remaining discrepancies between data and theory; clues whose own subtlety suggest that the way we think the universe hangs together at large and small scales is, to the best of our ability to observe it, pretty close to how it actually does. If quadropole and octopole asymmetries in the Cosmic Microwave Background are real, and are physically meaningful anisotropies, why should I have to discard the Big Bang completely for one explanation that doesn't actually explain the observations, instead of another acentric that does?

  3. Presuming the universe does have a center and we're at it, what moral meaning it would have and why I should be obliged to hold it (I'd accept excerpts from or commentaries on the documents he already cited for the former, but for the latter, I'd also like to know what the danger of heliocentrism was besides what usually comes with hypothetical disobedience to moral authorities.)

  4. Failing anything better than "Rome has spoken! Don't trust your senses," at least explain how the Church could declare a physical arrangement of the universe to be a necessary belief and then say it's not competent as a body to judge empirical data. Either the Church lost some capability in recent centuries, old papal bulls trump formal pedagogical documents as cited in the Catechism (the agreement of other councillar or encyclical documents on this matter being the umbrella over this tension), or development of doctrine is bogus.

Something else occurred to me. If all the geocentric-favoring statements made in Church history were dogmatic and binding, and all the Copernican statements made later on as science improved were merely opinions, what does the geocentrist make of this pandemic of heretical cosmology? Sure, no pope has taught ex cathedra against heliocentrism, but why is the support for geocentrism so...obscure? Where are all the other uncomfortable doctrines that are clearly resolved but disapproved (only personally, not formally!) by popes and theologians?