A few, short, vignettes as I prepare for “re-entry” into the “Real World” following vacation:


Only recently saw the following gems in Introduction to Christianity:

Man is a being who himself does not live forever but is necessarily delivered up to death. For him, since he has no continuance in himself, survival, from a purely human point of view, can only become possible through his continuing to exist in another. The statements of Scripture about the connection between sin and death are to be understood from this angle. For it now becomes clear that man’s attempt “to be like God”, his striving for autonomy, through which he wishes to stand on his own feet alone, means his death, for he just cannot stand on his own. If man—and this is the real nature of sin—nevertheless refuses to recognize his own limits and tries to be completely self-sufficient, then precisely by adopting this attitude he delivers himself up to death.

Holiness in the Church begins with forbearance and leads to bearing up; where there is no more forbearing, there is no more bearing up either, and existence, lacking support, can only sink into the void. People may well say that such words express a sickly existence—but it is part of being a Christian to accept the impossibility of autonomy and the weakness of one’s own resources.

Kinda harsh words, in our culture at least, but the Pope Emeritus speaks truth here, and a valuable one we would do well to heed.  As I have been saying constantly, “autonomy” is really an illusion at the end of the day, and a rather pernicious one.


More from Mind and Cosmos:

But I have alluded to the fact that human consciousness is not merely passive but is permeated, both in action and in cognition, with intentionality, the capacity of the mind to represent the world and its own aims.

Consciousness presents a problem for evolutionary reductionism because of its irreducibly subjective character. This is true even of the most primitive forms of sensory consciousness, such as those presumably found in all animals. The problem that I want to take up now concerns mental functions such as thought, reasoning, and evaluation that are limited to humans, though their beginnings may be found in a few other species. These are the functions that have enabled us to transcend the perspective of the immediate life-world given to us by our senses and instincts, and to explore the larger objective reality of nature and value.

It is not merely the subjectivity of thought but its capacity to transcend subjectivity and to discover what is objectively the case that presents a problem.

Nagel suggests that the subjectivity of consciousness (the qualia problem), as interesting and nettlesome as it is, is not the really hard problem, the really hard problem is the ability of subjective consciousness to grasp objective reality.  In this regard he sounds a bit like an (unconscious) Thomist.  I’ve noted before that while the Thomistic “hierarchy of souls” does not explain consciousness or subjectivity per se, it does eliminate the problem of trying to reduce subjectivity to matter in motion.  Against materialism (and with Nagel), Thomism-as I understand-recognizes a continuum of consciousness as being as much a part of the fabric of reality as matter.  In other words, reality consists of both what physics can explain and “irreducible mental states” (hat tip to Colin McGinn).  Whether you call it hylomorphism (Aristotle) or dual-aspect monism (John Polkinghorne), reality as multiple “flavors” to it.  Even Sean Carroll (in a different way) makes that point, by suggesting that we can “tell the story of reality in different ways.”

Nagel also-inadvertently-invokes the Thomistic understanding of “rational souls” by recognizing that the intellect’s capacity to “transcend” (I hate that word!!) mere subjectivity is distinct from subjectivity itself.  This is (obviously) a key distinction in Thomism.  Not that subjectivity is irrelevant-the existence of subjective experience remains a thorn in the side of materialism (or should anyway), and is an essential part of anthropology as taught by the Catholic Church.  Francis Cardinal George, of Blessed Memory, notes:

By participation in moments of self-transcendence, the person acquires specific fulfillment and identity.

Because we are made in Gods image and likeness, to be human means to be infinite in our inspired reach even though always finite in our own means.  People are able, when they realize their limitations, to turn to God and accept infinity itself, eternity itself, as pure gift.  Human subjectivity, which is the locus of our coming to awareness of who we are as people with infinite desires and finite means, is bound up in self-consciousness that is able to discern the spiritual at work in the temporal.

The capacity for self-consciousness that defines us as human beings is related to the self-giving that brings us genuine freedom…every human being is a person who is capable, although not necessarily very fully, of self-knowledge and self-possession, and therefore capable of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons.

Cardinal George explained St. Pope John Paul II’s thinking on this subject thusly:

In the future pope’s analysis of the acting person and of the persons in community, we find a project designed, first of all, to heal the modern split between subject and object.  This split has opened chasms between subjective persons and objective society, between subjective faith and public life.  To restore human persons, both their subjective wholeness and concrete totality, Wojtyla begins with the phenomenon of “I-act.”  In acting, the human self comes to self-possession through conscious self-determination; and acting in the world reveals the “I,” and subject, as related.  Self-consciousness becomes deeper and more integrated as action brings a person into ever wider fields of experience.

Once again, the power of subjectivity to know the objective is key.


Bishop Barron’s commentary on Rev. Rutledge’s The Crucifixion continues.  There are some interesting comments on the latest article over at Word on Fire:

As an somewhat skeptical naturalist, I see nothing fundamentally wrong with existence or human behavior—it’s precisely how I would expect an extremely clever mammal, with unprecedented ability to influence its environment and itself, would behave. Violence, conflict, decadence, agony, territorial war—we find all these and more in the animal kingdom, in species other than our own. I don’t “feel in my bones,” as Rutledge does, a sense that something has gone deeply wrong here. What are you comparing it to? What universe do you know of where things have “gone right”? It’s really pure speculation. Things do go “wrong” relative to an entity or ecosystem. Stars burn out and some explode. Whole species disappear because of catastrophic disasters, some extraterrestrial, some environmental. Human behavior, given that we are animals, like every other organism, living in a finite world with finite resources and many vulnerabilities and deficiencies (cognitive, biological, psychological, etc), means that conflict and violence is unavoidable, or at least completely understandable, rather than evidence that something has gone terribly wrong in nature. If evolutionary theory is true, we should expect to see what we do see in human history, and residues of that history among our closest primate relatives. They deal with conflict, reproductive necessity and environmental threats, just as we do. Since this sense that “things have gone wrong” is intuitive, emotional—and essential for Christianity to even get off the ground—I think this is a real problem for a person outside the religion looking in. Christ doesn’t make sense without this “feeling in our bones.” But investigating the nonhuman natural world puts a lot of strain on the idea that certain human behavior (which you call “sin”) is not something that appears out of nowhere or without strong genetic and evolutionary preconditions, all of which predate “sin” itself! I find it hard to believe an omniscient god would design *this* particular universe and then be surprised when humans act selfishly, or for the good of the clan, protecting others in it and fighting against other species for precious, limited resources.

I meant to say it puts strain on the idea that “[sin] appears out of nowhere or without strong genetic and evolutionary preconditions,” that it challenges the idea that we are an exception in our biological environment, such that “sin” is not evolutionarily surprising. It seem we have the desire to make of ourselves an exception within nature. Our sin has the ability to touch creation itself, apparently, and once again we find ourselves at the center of things, if only in thinking our behavior has deep, cosmic relevance.

These are important comments, and something that Catholics should take careful notice of (I also recall Christopher Hitchens making this point some time ago).  Evolutionary biology does seem to pose significant problems for any account of sin, and I would agree that if there is no sin-if something hasn’t “gone deeply wrong”-then we do indeed have a serious problem vis-à-vis Christianity.  So what do we say here?

Well, to a degree, I accept the skeptic’s terms.  Many people throughout human history have had a sense that something in the world is “off,” and there is a frequently recurring theme in many cultures and traditions of a “lost golden age,” a “primordial memory,” if you will.  Virtually all the world’s religions agree something is wrong (though they don’t agree on what the problem or the solution is) and many do indeed contain the “primordial memory” of “another time.”  Granted, these recurring themes do not prove anything; they could explained away as evolutionary hangovers, and it could well be that our sense that “something is off” is intuitive, emotional-and wrong.  It wouldn’t be the first time in our human experience.

It is the contention of the Catholic Church, however, that this recurring “feeling in our bones” is not an evolutionary hangover, but is telling us something true about reality.  The Catholic “take” on the primordial memory goes by the term “original justice.”  In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

374 The first man was not only created good, but was also established in friendship with his Creator and in harmony with himself and with the creation around him, in a state that would be surpassed only by the glory of the new creation in Christ.

375 The Church, interpreting the symbolism of biblical language in an authentic way, in the light of the New Testament and Tradition, teaches that our first parents, Adam and Eve, were constituted in an original “state of holiness and justice”.250 This grace of original holiness was “to share in. . .divine life”.251

376 By the radiance of this grace all dimensions of man’s life were confirmed. As long as he remained in the divine intimacy, man would not have to suffer or die.252 The inner harmony of the human person, the harmony between man and woman,253 and finally the harmony between the first couple and all creation, comprised the state called “original justice”.

377 The “mastery” over the world that God offered man from the beginning was realized above all within man himself: mastery of self. The first man was unimpaired and ordered in his whole being because he was free from the triple concupiscence254 that subjugates him to the pleasures of the senses, covetousness for earthly goods, and self-assertion, contrary to the dictates of reason.

378 The sign of man’s familiarity with God is that God places him in the garden.255 There he lives “to till it and keep it”. Work is not yet a burden,256 but rather the collaboration of man and woman with God in perfecting the visible creation.

379 This entire harmony of original justice, foreseen for man in God’s plan, will be lost by the sin of our first parents.


400 The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination.282 Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man.283 Because of man, creation is now subject “to its bondage to decay”.284 Finally, the consequence explicitly foretold for this disobedience will come true: man will “return to the ground”,285 for out of it he was taken. Death makes its entrance into human history.286

None of this, I realize, will impress the skeptic, but it is important to sort out the Church’s narrative on original justice to truly understand the teaching.  The Church does not mandate a “literal” reading of Genesis, and the most common view today (as I understand it) is that at some point in history human beings enjoyed the state of original justice and then fell from that state.  Mind you, this is not merely a mytho-poetic reading of dawning of self-consciousness, the Church teaches that there actually was an Adam, and the Fall “really happened,” but the actual details are lost to us.  C.S. Lewis offered a take on this in The Problem of Pain, that I expounded on previously.  In essence, we “fell back” into the “merely natural,” after initially (again details unknown) enjoying the state of original justice.

(Admittedly, not everyone in the Church shares this view-some contend the Fall took place in a different “dimension” of reality.)

The point is that for us the “primordial memory” is not simply a vestigial coping mechanism, but points to something that is “really real.”  That this is a matter of faith and interpretation of the world, and not something self-evident, is a given.  I would not say that the idea of a “universe gone right” is no more than pure speculation, and-though this is somewhat clichéd-I think the human sense of moral obligation is our “clue” in that department.  No one-not even and perhaps least of all-the skeptic who understands that violence and misery are “natural” in evolutionary terms accepts that reality as it is, we are all drawn to something better.  The mere fact that we can imagine a better world, in and of itself, is remarkably compelling.  Lewis’s explanation of the Moral Law, in Mere Christianity, may be out of fashion, but it is hardly out of date.  We are drawn to what should be, which makes it possible for us to be horrified at the state of what is.  The conflict of is-ought is an unavoidable part of being human.

I want to add one more word about the Fall.  I noted above that the idea of the Fall is not merely a nice little parable of the birth of self-consciousness, though that idea is not entirely wrong (see #2 above).  Incidentally, we shouldn’t use the phrase “fall upwards” (hence why I use the expression “fall back”).  Lewis mocked the positive framing delightfully in Miracles:

They say that the story of the Fall in Genesis is not literal; and then go on to say (I have heard them myself) that it was really a fall upwards—which is like saying that because ‘My heart is broken’ contains a metaphor, it therefore means ‘I feel very cheerful’.

The commentator above is skeptical that our behavior has “deep cosmic relevance.”  In point of fact, many theologians have suggested just that-contemporary Orthodox theologians most vividly (c.f. Olivier Clement).  As it happens, however, there is a diversity of opinion here.  Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli explain:

There are three ways of explaining how this may have happened.  The first and simplest is that the “thorns and thistles” were there before the Fall but they only hurt afterward.  The second is that fallen angels had already corrupted the earth, but God protected Adam and Eve in a special garden; they abandoned this protection when they abandoned God the protector.  (This theory was held by some of the church fathers; we wonder where there is any good theological or scientific disproof of it, or if it is just unfashionable to take seriously the work of demons).  The third is that Adam was the priest of the world, and the Fall was like saying a Black Mass, perverting everything.  The bottom line is, of course, that we do not know and can only speculate about how it happened.

Some have suggested that quantum physics supports the third option (of course), given that everything in reality is interconnected, and may even have had a retroactive effect on cosmic time.  It is possible that Teilhard de Chardin held this view.  Alexandre Kalomiros articulates this position in The Six Days of Creation:

Before the appearance of man on earth, all living things, even the stars of the universe, were dying because of man, in a period when man did not yet exist. Mollusks and fish were dying in the oceans in the first days of creation, not only before man appeared on the sixth day, but much earlier than the appearance of the first reptiles on land on the fifth day. Why were they dying before the existence of man if not because they were connected with him ontologically? If man was not to come from them, why were the fish in the oceans, the reptiles, and the birds of the fifth day eating one another because of the fall? Why would nature have to suffer from the beginning, to groan and travail, if not because of the free action of the last creature to appear on the earth, if not because all creatures were connected one with the other in an unbroken natural bond? And what natural bond exists in nature other than genealogy, the fact that we are born one from the other?

Man’s revolt against God not only had consequences from the appearance of man and after it; it had the same consequences for everyone and everything that lived before it, long before it. It was because of the ontological unity in creation, which is not contingent upon the course of time. Of course, it was not because of some kind of revenge by God. The will of God was nothing but a prescription for life, and man’s revolt against it brought corruptibility and death upon creation for the simple reason that it separated man from the source of life and immortality, which is God. It was man and not God who raised up a wall that separated him from his Creator. And it was this separation that brought corruptibility and death, since life and incorruptibility are God.

Again, this a theological opinion (not dogma), and I am not sure I believe it myself, but I am certainly willing to grant the possibility.  Incidentally, on the subject of evolution, Kalmoiros has a brilliant rebuke to those (like Tom Woods) who consider it an insult that Christ may have been “descended from animals”:

What are we in ourselves but “soil of the earth?” Why are we scandalized by the fact that we are animals that descend from other, lower animals, and that they came from the “soil of the earth?” We must have truly lost touch with Orthodox Christian teaching to be so scandalized by the truth that is thunderously shouted by Holy Scripture, the hymnology of the Church and her teachers and fathers? Our Orthodox Christian faith is a faith of humility. We Orthodox Christians know that according to our nature we are nothing, a zero that God brought into being from nonbeing. And rather than letting it fall into non-existence again from whence it came, He elevated it and made it the throne of God and more honorable than Cherubim and more glorious than the Seraphim. The glory we acquired is God’s and not our own. We are Christians, we are not idolaters.

Anyway, as I have said, I do not expect this will persuade any unbeliever, I offer it merely as how the Church sees the world.  The rest of the comments on the Word on Fire article also make good points that should not be casually dismissed.  In particular, the comment that humans have an obsession with setting themselves apart from nature is worth a whole reflection in itself.  Part of the problem with this one is few people really believe that there is no distinction (most people can see that our self-consciousness is a bit of an issue), and it is difficult to be logically consistent on this subject (John Gray and Stephen Jay Gould are probably the best from the atheist camp).

What about the comments vis-à-vis human suffering, delayed redemption and so forth?  Again, good comments, very valid concerns.  I have written about such things before, and would only say here that I am not so quick to comment on what God (good, omniscient, omnipotent), can, should, would or must do under any particular circumstances.  Yes, it is odd that Almighty power is exercised in weakness, and yes most of us think we could do a better job (though I’m far from convinced of that).  In the end however, reality is stubborn and unpredictable, and I take great comfort in belonging to a Church that is quite open about this apparent incongruence, and still preaches it without shame.


Wherefore classical theism?

I am delighted to announce that this is Post #400 on Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea!  Wow, what a journey it’s been!  I am leaving for vacation tomorrow, and will be off the grid for a bit, but I had time to drop one more essay first.  Enjoy.

While waiting to have some work done on my car the other day, I started reading (again) Mind and Cosmos, a philosophical rumination by Thomas Nagel.  The book-which caused quite a stir at the time-is essentially an atheist’s call to return to a teleological view of reality.  Nagel describes his views thusly:

My guiding conviction is that mind is not just an afterthought or an accident or an add-on, but a basic aspect of nature. Quite apart from antireductionist arguments in the philosophy of mind, there is independent support for the step to such an enlarged conception of reality in one of the background conditions of science. Science is driven by the assumption that the world is intelligible. That is, the world in which we find ourselves, and about which experience gives us some information, can be not only described but understood. That assumption is behind every pursuit of knowledge, including pursuits that end in illusion. In the natural sciences as they have developed since the seventeenth century, the assumption of intelligibility has led to extraordinary discoveries, confirmed by prediction and experiment, of a hidden natural order that cannot be observed by human perception alone. Without the assumption of an intelligible underlying order, which long antedates the scientific revolution, those discoveries could not have been made.

What explains this order? One answer would be that nothing does: explanation comes to an end with the order itself, which the assumption of intelligibility has merely enabled us to uncover. Perhaps one level of order can be explained in terms of a still deeper level— as has happened repeatedly in the history of science. But in the end, on this view of the matter, understanding of the world will eventually reach a point where there is nothing more to be said, except “This is just how things are.”

I am not disposed to see the success of science in this way. It seems to me that one cannot really understand the scientific world view unless one assumes that the intelligibility of the world, as described by the laws that science has uncovered, is itself part of the deepest explanation of why things are as they are. So when we prefer one explanation of the same data to another because it is simpler and makes fewer arbitrary assumptions, that is not just an aesthetic preference: it is because we think the explanation that gives greater understanding is more likely to be true, just for that reason.

The view that rational intelligibility is at the root of the natural order makes me, in a broad sense, an idealist— not a subjective idealist, since it doesn’t amount to the claim that all reality is ultimately appearance— but an objective idealist in the tradition of Plato and perhaps also of certain post-Kantians, such as Schelling and Hegel, who are usually called absolute idealists. I suspect that there must be a strain of this kind of idealism in every theoretical scientist: pure empiricism is not enough.

Well, not surprisingly, that didn’t go over well with a lot of folks.  But that’s neither here, nor there.  What I found more interesting about this book (as did David Bentley Hart, Ed Feser, and Keith Ward) was that Nagel seems utterly clueless about classical theism.  In Hart’s words, in Mind and Cosmos

one encounters the fascinating phenomenon of an intellectually honest atheist who recognizes the logical deficiencies of the mechanistic materialist account of (in particular) consciousness, and who finds himself irresistibly drawn toward a picture of nature to which teleology (the final causality that the mechanical philosophy exorcised from the physical realm) has been restored. The book has been reviewed poorly by a number of critics who have, without exception, failed to understand its central arguments (which are very clearly stated, to be honest), and as far as I can tell it has been well received only by theists. And it is hard not to feel that Nagel is able to maintain his own atheism consistently only because the picture of God with which he is familiar is that of a deistic demiurge who constructs a cosmos out of otherwise mindless elements external to himself; thus he sees cosmic teleology as somehow an alternative to the idea of divine creation rather than (as it is) an essential feature of any classical picture of God’s relation to the world.

Brief timeout.  What precisely do we mean by “classical theism”?  Well, if I was the snarky type (!), I would note that classical theism is the de fide teaching of the Roman Catholic Church (which, I would contend, it is).  But, obviously, you want to know more than that.  Thomas Cothran explains:

What is classical theism? Classical theism refers very generally to the way most of the great theological and philosophical traditions have conceived God: as the cause of all finite being, the ground of the good, eternal, immutable, transcendent of space and time, perfect, omnipotent, immaterial, infinite, and omniscient.

These very general lines are, of course, construed differently in the various traditions, but the general picture stands out clearly. Classical theism is perhaps most readily explicable by its negations: God is not a being that has come to be, he does not change, he is not limited by space or time, nor indeed limited in any way. God is not an effect, he does not depend on anything more fundamental. God is not a finite spirit flitting about the cosmos like a ghost; he is not a being differentiated from other beings simply by a greater degree of power or knowledge. God’s mode of existence differs from ours as the infinite to the finite.

Cothran goes on to make the same point that Hart does in The Experience of God-that classical theism is a deeply ‘ecumenical’ view:

This view is, by and large, held by the mainstream of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions; it is the common inheritance of the most influential classical forms of the Western metaphysical traditions; and it may be found by many forms of Hinduism, Taoism, and certain quarters of Buddhism.

By identifying these similarities, however, I certainly do not mean to give the impression that classical theism is a single tradition. It is a post-hoc identification of the convergence on a general sense of what is meant by “God.” Not every classical theist affirms everything I’ve listed (certain Greek thinkers didn’t think of God as infinite, for example.) And even while agreeing on the general marks of divinity, how those are construed differs even within particular religious traditions. God’s omnipotence, even within medieval Catholic theology, was construed very differently by Aquinas and Occam. Careful thinkers avoid reducing classical theism to one of its articulations.

Still less does classical theism entails a particular ontology—whether Platonist, Aristotelian, Thomist, Hegelian, Vedantic etc. There is no “classical theist” theory of being or of matter. Classical theism is a common notion of God abstracted from the great religious and philosophical traditions. It is not a single school of metaphysical thought.

Despite these differences between concrete religions and philosophical traditions, the convergent belief that all finite being depends on an eternal, omnipresent, omnipotent, and transcendent source—God with a capital “G”—is strong enough to identify classical theism and to talk about it coherently.

Cothran lays out perfectly something I’ve been trying to articulate for awhile.  Classical theism is not another candidate for the “perennial philosophy,” it is not in any way a metaphysical school.  Indeed, it can coexist (and does exist) with different ontologies.  The underlying metaphysics are abstracted (distilled) from different sources, post-hoc as Cothran notes.  I noted recently I am ever more skeptical about the possibility that there really is a “perennial philosophy,” but I think the argument for the universality of classical theism has some real chops behind it.

At the same time, as Steven Dillon notes, classical theism is not universally affirmed in Christianity:

This philosophical Zeitgeist has all but determined the discussions and debates about God for the last 50 years. This is why Richard Swinburne — with his edifice of probabilistic arguments for God — has gained the place of prominence he has. Even Alvin Plantinga, who is perhaps today’s most influential philosopher of religion, says “In my opinion, Swinburne’s arguments that Christian belief is probable with respect to public evidence are the best on offer.”2

But, this ‘scientizing’ trend is a blip on the radar screen of historical theism, whose adherents have traditionally looked to considerations deeper than, and indeed presupposed by, science in order to determine the question of God’s existence. Their contemporary successors don’t appeal to Big Bang cosmology, to the fine-tuning or specified complexity of anything, in order to infer that God exists. Probability calculations are entirely inappropriate to their way of thinking. It does not much matter whether religious experiences are just effects of temporal lobe seizures, or even whether an all-powerful, all-good demiurge of the sort called ‘God’ by philosophers nowadays would prevent more evil than is in fact prevented: their cases for God aspire to rest on nothing less than metaphysical demonstrations.

Because of what the classical theist takes God to be, she contends that there is something so fundamentally absurd about God’s non-existence that questions of probability calculations and scientific discoveries are superfluous or distracting at best, and circular at worst (as science can hardly explain the material it presupposes in order to explain things).

I hadn’t really noticed this before, but it is true that many Christian apologists today-Swinburne, Plantinga, William Lane Craig, Timothy Keller-do present their arguments for God’s existence in probabilistic terms.  Keller, in particular, stresses this approach in The Reason for God by suggesting that there are plenty of “clues” that weigh in favor of God’s existence.  The incessant tendency on the part of some apologists (again Keller included) to invoke the Anthropic Principle is another example.

Here’s where it gets interesting-very few people really engage with classical theism, either as proponents or opponents.  Jerry Coyne, among others, has dismissed Hart’s arguments in The Experience of God as a pointless distraction-because, as Coyne contends, very few Christians believe in the philosophical God that Hart argues for, but rather in an anthropomorphic deity.  Even granting that this critique is correct, and that no one believes in the God of classical theism (which is manifestly false) this is still a remarkably convenient excuse (read cop-out) for engaging with classical theism.  The philosophy here is not that hard to understand.  Yet a philosopher as intelligent as Colin McGinn kept invoking Santa Claus (!) when Robert Lawrence Kuhn attempted to engage him on classical theist arguments in Closer to Truth.  Have our intellects-and indeed our imaginations-really become this narrow?

There is another argument, however, and that is that even if the classical theist arguments are invalid it does not follow that the God revealed by classical theism is the Living God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  Indeed, as I just noted above, classical theism can be found in a wide variety of religious settings, some quite antithetical to Christianity.  Whatever the nature of the bridge between classical theism and Christianity, it is not straightforward.  Indeed, some of the most vociferous critics of classical theism have come from within Christianity-Swinburne, Plantinga, Craig, Jurgen Moltmann, Stephen H. Webb.  You know the arguments-classical theism is incompatible with-perhaps antithetical to-the Scriptures, and represents an accretion of Greek philosophical concepts onto a Gospel that is…well, obviously not Jewish as such, but arising Semitic roots that are (allegedly) irreconcilable with Greek philosophy.

I do not have the time or space here to refute this specious argument in detail, plenty of others have done it for me.  I offer just a few short thoughts from others here.  Cothran, responding to Webb, writes:

The classical theistic notion of God is not only necessary to maintain Christological doctrine; it is requisite for Trinitarian dogma. Webb makes several strange claims on this point. He claims, for instance, that classical theists consider “Jesus Christ identical with God the Father”9, when, in fact, any orthodox Christian denies this. Webb veers to the other extreme when he says that “[n]o classical theist has ever given a convincing account of how God can be without parts and yet composed of three persons.”10 But of course, no orthodox Christian thinks that the divine persons are “parts” of God.

Then there is the Pope Emeritus, who has written quite well on how Church Fathers revealed that the God of the Philosophers is the God of the Bible, and the remarkable synthesis the Patristic era produced.  Just a snippet:

In contrast to all this, the original Christian option was something quite different. The Christian faith opted, we have seen, against the gods of the various religions and in favor of the God of the philosophers, that is, against the myth of custom and in favor of the truth of Being itself and nothing else. Hence the accusation made against the early Church that her adherents were atheists; this reproach arose out of the fact that the early Church did indeed reject the whole world of the ancient religion, declaring none of it to be acceptable and sweeping the whole system aside as empty custom that was contrary to the truth.

The God of the philosophers, however, who was left over, was not regarded by the ancient world as having any religious significance but as an academic extrareligious reality. To leave only him standing and to profess faith in him alone and in nothing else seemed like lack of religion, as a denial of religion, as atheism. The suspicion of atheism with which early Christianity had to contend makes its intellectual orientation, its decision against religio and custom devoid of truth, its option in favor of the truth of Being clearly apparent.

Of course, the other side of the picture must not be overlooked. By deciding exclusively in favor of the God of the philosophers and logically declaring this God to be the God who speaks to man and to whom one can pray, the Christian faith gave a completely new significance to this God of the philosophers, removing him from the purely academic realm and thus profoundly transforming him. This God who had previously existed as something neutral, as the highest, culminating concept; this God who had been understood as pure Being or pure thought, circling around forever closed in upon itself without reaching over to man and his little world; this God of the philosophers, whose pure eternity and unchangeability had excluded any relation with the changeable and transitory, now appeared to the eye of faith as the God of men, who is not only thought of all thoughts, the eternal mathematics of the universe, but also agape, the power of creative love. In this sense there does exist in the Christian faith what Pascal experienced on the night when he wrote on a slip of paper that he henceforth kept sewn in the lining of his jacket the words: “Fire. ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob’, not ‘of the philosophers and scholars’.”2 He had encountered the burning bush experience, as opposed to a God sinking back completely into the realm of mathematics, and had realized that the God who is the eternal geometry of the universe can only be this because he is creative love, because he is the burning bush from which a name issues forth, through which he enters the world of man. So in this sense there is the experience that the God of the philosophers is quite different from what the philosophers had thought him to be, though he does not thereby cease to be what they had discovered; that one only comes to know him properly when one realizes that he, the real truth and ground of all Being, is at one and the same time the God of faith, the God of men.

In order to see the transformation undergone by the philosophical concept of God through being equated with the God of faith, one need only look at any passage in the Bible that speaks of God. Let us take quite at random Luke 15:1-10, the parables of the lost sheep and the lost drachma. The point of departure is the irritation felt by the scribes and Pharisees at the fact that Jesus sat down to eat with sinners. In reply comes the story of the man who owns a hundred sheep, loses one of them, goes after it, looks for it and finds it, and rejoices more than over the ninety-nine for which he never needed to search. The story of the lost drachma that, when found again, causes more joy than the one that was never lost tends in the same direction: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (15:7). This parable, in which Jesus depicts and justifies his activity and his task as the emissary of God, involves not only the relations between God and man but also the question of who God himself is.

If we try to answer the question on the basis of this passage, we shall have to say that the God whom we encounter here appears to be, as in so many passages of the Old Testament, highly anthropomorphic, highly unphilosophical; he has emotions as a man does, he rejoices, he seeks, he waits, he goes to meet. He is not the unfeeling geometry of the universe, neutral justice standing above things undisturbed by a heart and its emotions; he has a heart; he stands there like a person who loves, with all the capriciousness of someone who loves. Thus in this passage the transformation of purely philosophical thinking becomes clear, and it becomes apparent how far we still are fundamentally from this identification of the God of faith and the God of the philosophers, how incapable we are of catching up with it, and how badly our basic image of God and our understanding of the Christian reality come to grief on this very point.

Moreover, there is another point to consider about classical theism.  Classical theism, in many respects, is fundamentally apophatic, as Cothran notes, it places a lot of emphasis on negatives.  However, as Bishop Robert Barron wrote in Catholicism, this is essentially the result our own epistemic and linguistic limitations-we just don’t know how to describe God positively.  As he notes:

The theological language of the tradition exists not simply to clarify our minds in regard to God but to order our spirits appropriately. Part of the genius of Catholic theology is that it uses a bevy of words to designate the transcendence of God and thus to hold off the grasping tendency, and it uses a bevy of words to designate the immanence of God and thus to hold off the hiding tendency. Let us look first at some of the anti-grasping names of God. The great theologians speak of God’s infinity, and they mean thereby that God is not definable, not like any of the particular things in the world; similarly, they speak of God’s immensity, which simply means God’s immeasurability. They affirm that God has eternity, and by this they mean not that God endures endlessly but that God does not exist in time at all. Also they assert that God is immutable, which is to say he is not characterized by the changeability that marks creatures. It is most important to note that there is really very little positive content to these attributions. I can affirm that God is indefinable, but that just means that he’s unlike anything in my experience; I can affirm that God is outside of time, but that means I have no idea what he’s like positively, for everything in my experience is temporal; I can affirm that God doesn’t change, but if I try to imagine what that is like, I’m tripped up, for I’ve never experienced anything that is not capable of change. I would like to dwell just a moment on this last example, for it has been the source of quite a bit of controversy in recent years. Some thinkers objected to the claim that God is immutable on the grounds that this attribute would render him cold and unresponsive, so unlike the God described in the Bible. In point of fact, we can draw no such conclusion from the assertion of God’s immutability, since it simply tells us that God does not change in the creaturely manner, moving from potentiality to actuality. But it does not really tell us anything about the manner of the divine being in itself. All of the qualities that we have considered so far are in service of the anti-grasping principle. Thomas Aquinas observed that, in this life, we don’t really know what God is, only what God is not.

This same point was made humorously by C.S. Lewis in Miracles:

If anything is to exist at all, then the Original Thing must be, not a principle nor a generality, much less an ‘ideal’ or a ‘value’, but an utterly concrete fact.

It is clear that there never was a time when nothing existed; otherwise nothing would exist now. But to exist means to be a positive Something, to have (metaphorically) a certain shape or structure, to be this and not that. The Thing which always existed, namely God, has therefore always had His own positive character. Throughout all eternity certain statements about Him would have been true and others false. And from the mere fact of our own existence and Nature’s we already know to some extent which are which. We know that He invents, acts, creates. After that there can be no ground for assuming in advance that He does not do miracles.

Why, then, do the mystics talk of Him as they do, and why are many people prepared in advance to maintain that, whatever else God may be, He is not the concrete, living, willing, and acting God of Christian theology? I think the reason is as follows. Let us suppose a mystical limpet, a sage among limpets, who (rapt in vision) catches a glimpse of what Man is like. In reporting it to his disciples, who have some vision themselves (though less than he) he will have to use many negatives. He will have to tell them that Man has no shell, is not attached to a rock, is not surrounded by water. And his disciples, having a little vision of their own to help them, do get some idea of

Man. But then there come erudite limpets, limpets who write histories of philosophy and give lectures on comparative religion, and who have never had any vision of their own. What they get out of the prophetic limpet’s words is simply and solely the negatives. From these, uncorrected by any positive insight, they build up a picture of Man as a sort of amorphous jelly (he has no shell) existing nowhere in particular (he is not attached to a rock) and never taking nourishment (there is no water to drift it towards him). And having a traditional reverence for Man they conclude that to be a famished jelly in a dimensionless void is the supreme mode of existence, and reject as crude, materialistic superstition any doctrine which would attribute to Man a definite shape, a structure, and organs.

Our own situation is much like that of the erudite limpets. Great prophets and saints have an intuition of God which is positive and concrete in the highest degree. Because, just touching the fringes of His being, they have seen that He is plenitude of life and energy and joy, therefore (and for no other reason) they have to pronounce that He transcends those limitations which we call personality, passion,

change, materiality, and the like. The positive quality in Him which repels these limitations is their only ground for all the negatives. But when we come limping after and try to construct an intellectual or ‘enlightened’ religion, we take over these negatives (infinite, immaterial, impassible, immutable, etc.) and use them unchecked by any positive intuition. At each step we have to strip off from our idea of God some human attribute. But the only real reason for stripping off the human attribute is to make room for putting in some positive divine attribute. In St Paul’s language, the purpose of all this unclothing is not that our idea of God should reach nakedness but that it should be reclothed. But unhappily we have no means of doing the

reclothing. When we have removed from our idea of God some puny human characteristic, we (as merely erudite or intelligent enquirers) have no resources from which to supply that blindingly real and concrete attribute of Deity which ought to replace it. Thus at each step in the process of refinement our idea of God contains less, and the fatal pictures come in (an endless, silent sea, an empty sky beyond all stars, a dome of white radiance) and we reach at last mere zero and worship a nonentity. And the  understanding, left to itself, can hardly help following this path. That is why the Christian statement that only He who does the will of the Father will ever know the true doctrine is philosophically accurate. Imagination may help a little: but in the moral life, and (still more) in the devotional life we touch something concrete which will at once begin to correct the growing emptiness of our idea of God.

The last point brings us full circle.  Classical theism is both true, and-in some sense-universal, but by itself it is not enough.  One cannot truly worship-much less know a negative.  To avoid abstractions, Lewis stressed, we must recognize the importance of practices, in our daily life, both religious and otherwise.  These things deliver us from the dangers of philosophical abstractions.  Mind you, this doesn’t eliminate the need for philosophy-not hardly.  We need classical theism.

But the Catholic should not forget that God has come near, as the Pope Emeritus has said, He delivered Himself over to us-first by giving us a Name, and then by becoming a man with a name.  God can, in fact, be known.  Refuse to accept that, and Christianity collapses.  In the last analysis, as the Pope Emeritus stressed, the God of classical theism and the God of Christ are the same.  That fruitful, delightful, tension has been source of strength and fecundity in the Church for more than 2,000 years.  Not a bad place to start.


A few short vignettes for today.

1 – A Follow-up “Personalism vs. Bureaucracy”

I must confess, Dreher’s blog was not the only inspiration that post-I had also watched an interview with Judy Sheindlin, alias Judge Judy.  I will confess I used to watch Judge Judy intermittently (a sort of guilty pleasure), but apart from that, she is a remarkably interesting woman, who had an extremely interesting stint on the bench of the NYC Family Court prior to her TV fame.  A 1994 LA Times article noted of her experience:

Does any of it make a difference? Sheindlin and other judges like to think they’re dispensing the wisdom of Solomon. But they rely on gut instincts, often not knowing the full story of children in crisis. They usually operate in the dark. And that may be the worst tragedy of all in family court.

Her classic memoir of those years-Don’t Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It’s Raining-is worth a read.  Judge Judy never had a reputation as a “nice” judge, and I distinctly remember a professor telling us our first week of law school that she is the very embodiment of a “bad” judge-mean, uncivil, bullying, etc.  Her lack of tact aside, I find Judge Judy (and perhaps Dr. Laura as well) helpful reminders that niceness is not always a virtue, and that sometimes the truth is…well, offensive.  I’m not suggesting that Judge Judy (the show) is a bastion of wisdom, and it admittedly plays to some rather unsavory aspects of our nature (schadenfreude for instance), but still-there is something to be said for those willing to speak their minds, political correctness be damned.

Anyway.  One other follow-up to my previous post.  I haven’t said much about Black Lives Matter, or Blue Lives Matter, or All Lives Matter, or anything along those lines, mainly because I don’t comment much on politics here.  Still, reading Dreher’s posts about the pervasive despair and paralysis that afflicts hillbilly whites and inner city blacks alike, I can’t help but think that there is a sense that as a society we are more than willing to throw many lives away in the name of progress.  One may call them “write-offs” or “sacrifices,” but either way, most people-even if they won’t admit it-believe that some lives really don’t matter.  As N.T. Wright observed, the march of societal progress is built at the expense of lives-or at the very least, leaving some behind.

Bureaucracies and impersonal social programs solve this problem-love, as exercised in the context of real relationships, might have a chance.  What I add now is that we would well not to justify our (often subconscious) sense that certain lives are dispensable by thinking that they “deserve” what has happened to them or that they “can’t be helped anyway.”  There are limits to what we can do to help those locked into psychological fatalism and material poverty, but as much as we would like to avert our eyes entirely, we are not permitted to look away from those the bear the image of God.  In the words of A Christmas Carol:

“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

2 – Man Cannot Live by Bread Alone

On a related note, I came across this article from the American Enterprise Institute yesterday.  The gist is that we live in better times than almost anyone else in history-a point made by the Steven Pinkers of the world, the Cato Institute, and many others.  Incidentally, I have seen the Louis C.K. bit in question (I quite like Louis C.K.) and find it funny as hell.  The author of the article notes:

Thanks to A. Barton Hinkle and Louis CK for a few much-appreciated messages of optimism to counteract the habituation that sometimes makes us numb to the amazing cornucopia of technological marvels that surround us, and which improve our lives so significantly. If the advances of the last 20 years had magically happened all at once, we would be in awe of those technological miracles. But when those same monumental innovations take place gradually but consistently over several decades, we sometimes lose sight of how transformative and amazing those technological gains really are.

There is, absolutely, something to be said for all of this; we (or at least some of us) do live in prosperous and peaceful times.  Yet, utterly missing from this reflection, is any sense that perhaps there is more to being human than material piece and prosperity; that maybe-just maybe-the freedom to have sex “freely” (well-maybe), live longer, and enjoy all kinds of technological goodies, is not enough for true human happiness and flourishing.  Nowhere is there any consideration to the possibility that the calculus of utilitarianism might be missing some critical things.  This view ignores the fact that many in our country have been left behind and that there lives matter (see #1 above and previous post), and also the fact that a sort of existential despair, a malaise, has settled over the populace.  The spike in drug use and suicide, and the fact that both are hailed by the libertarian mindset as “progress,” is not a coincidence.

Huston Smith explained the real state of affairs better than almost anyone else:

Nobel prize-winning poet Czelslaw Milosz tells us that “on the one side there is luminosity, trust, faith, the beauty of the earth; on the other side, darkness, doubt, unbelief, the cruelty of the earth, the capacity of people to do evil.  When I wrote, the first is true; when I do not write, the second is.”  Touché!  I myself regularly receive letters both from doomsday prophets who see us going down the drain like Rome, and from their opposite numbers, bright-eyed bushy-tailed New Agers, who sound as if they expect a mutation of consciousness to reopen the gates of Eden for two-way traffic any day now.  I wish I could readdress each letter, unopened, to one of its opposite numbers.  Let them figure it out while I hold their jackets.  The French adage, Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose (“The more things change, the more they remain the same”) rings truer to me, as does the opening line of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

That was twice quoting Dickens.  Anyone, as I have said many times, part of the answer comes in remembering how truly contingent we are.  Our mortality may have been extended, but it remains.  The peace and prosperity of our time is fragile.  In the cosmic scheme of things, our planet could be wiped out by a supernova or a rogue comet, or-perhaps-by an eruption of the gigantic volcano that slumbers beneath Yellowstone (or maybe Mt. St. Helens).  Just last night I scared myself senseless reading an article about parasites-creatures that, incidentally, are greater evolutionary success stories than mere humans.  Our lives are for more fragile than we care to admit.

Still, I do not say this to inspire fear.  We should not be hiding under the bed for fear of nuclear war with Russia, or ISIS, or the possibility that an asteroid could hit NYC rather than Siberia.  Disasters and dark times will come.  There will be sadness, there will be death.  Human nature is still barbaric.  And yet, for all of this, there is good.  We should approach life with an awareness of our contingency, but also with gratitude, the spirit of giving thanks for all things.  The Catholic should live boldly and with joy.

3- Catholic News

Lastly, a few brief articles from the Catholic news front:

  • The Ad Orientem controversy is heating up (see here and here).  As I noted previously, I do not have a dog in this particular fight, and so watch with interest.
  • A call has been put out to Pope Francis to clarify Amoris Laetitia.  I’m not quite sure what to think about the fact the signatories have chosen to remain anonymous-perhaps it is better not to fight anything.  Frankly, I’d like to see the Pope issue some clarification, if only so the trads (and progs) might shut the hell up.
  • Maybe that won’t happen-apparently there is another conspiracy afoot in the Vatican.  Oy vey.

Tis an interesting time to be Catholic-as another expression has it (Chinese I think) to live in interesting times is a curse, but perhaps a curse with opportunity.  Then again, a quick survey of Church history indicates all times have been “interesting” in their own way.

That’s all for now…

Personalism vs. Bureaucracy

Lots of good stuff going on over at Rod Dreher’s blog.  First, in “Hillbilly America” Dreher talks about a new book by J.D. Vance:

Vance plainly loves his people, and because he loves them, he tells hard truths about them. He talks about how cultural fatalism destroys initiative. When hillbillies run up against adversity, they tend to assume that they can’t do anything about it. To the hillbilly mind, people who “make it” are either born to wealth, or were born with uncanny talent, winning the genetic lottery. The connection between self-discipline and hard work, and success, is invisible to them.

Vance was born into a world of chaos.

One of the most important contributions Vance makes to our understanding of American poverty is how little public policy can affect the cultural habits that keep people poor. He talks about education policy, saying that the elite discussion of how to help schools focuses entirely on reforming institutions. “As a teacher at my old high school told me recently, ‘They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.”

The Marine Corps remade J.D. Vance. It pulverized his inner hillbilly fatalism, and gave him a sense that he had control over his life, and that his choices mattered. This was news to him. Reading this was a revelation to me. I was raised by parents who grew up poor, but who taught my sister and me from the very start that we were responsible for ourselves. Hard work, self-respect, and self-discipline were at the core of my dad’s ethic, for sure. There was no more despicable person in my dad’s way of seeing the world than the sumbitch who won’t work. I doubt that I’ve ever known a man more willing to do hard physical labor than my father was. Knowing what he came from, and knowing how any progress he made came from the sweat of his brow and self-discipline on spending, he had no tolerance for people who were lazy and blamed everybody else for their problems. This is true whether they were poor, middle class, or rich (but especially if they were rich).

Then in “Cops Can’t Be Our Saviors“:

One of the big lessons of J.D. Vance’s book is that so many of those poor white people — Vance’s people — were the authors of their own misery, and visited all that misery on their children, who fell into the same cycle of despair, including drug abuse. Vance speaks bluntly and persuasively about how people condemn themselves and their children to mental slavery through mind-forg’d manacles of self-pity and fatalism. His point is not that people have not suffered from injustice, economic and otherwise. He does not say that they are to blame entirely for their condition. Rather, his point is that despite the rotten hand these people have been dealt, the only way to break the cycle, if it can be broken, is to take responsibility for oneself, and to believe that one’s life can change through the decisions one makes — or it can remain the same, depending on the decisions one makes.

This is true of every single one of us, rich, poor, and otherwise. I’m not talking “think and grow rich” nonsense. I’m talking about self-control. Thank God my priest Father Matthew did not pity me when I came to him full of anger at my dad for his hard-headedness, and the way he kept hurting me. My father really was guilty of these things, and for all I knew, Father Matthew felt sorry for me having to struggle with them. But he never once let me feel sorry for myself, or settle for one second into the role of victim — this, even though I was being treated unjustly, with serious physical and emotional effects. Rather, he insisted firmly on my Christian duty to love my dad, period. That didn’t mean put up with his mistreating me, but it did mean not allowing anger at injustice rule my heart. In fact, Father Matthew told me that I’m not responsible before God for my dad’s sins, but for my own. What am I doing about them? Am I rooting them out in my heart and repenting of them? If not, why not? What’s my excuse?

I knew he was right, even though I didn’t want to hear it, and I did what he said, though I hated doing it. Because I did, six or seven months later, I was there the day that my dad said he was sorry for the way he had treated me — a day of grace I never thought would come. And I was able to be there at my dad’s bedside on his final days, even holding his hand as he drew his last breath. It was a gift — a priceless gift — I could not have imagined receiving in this lifetime. It would never have been mine had I stood on anger at personal injustice, and had I not been told by my spiritual father to turn on that anger in my own heart and root it out. What a severe mercy that all was. And what liberation. I’m serious: liberation. To have learned that if I allowed Him to do so, God would give me the strength not to succumb to my passions, and to realize my own moral agency.

Let me be clear here: my priest was not saying that we have to call what is unjust just, and what is a lie the truth. Nor was he blaming me for the pain I felt over the way my dad treated me. What he was saying is this: we cannot allow sin — sloth, wrathfulness, lust, gluttony, or any other sin — to conquer our hearts. All sin is disordered love, and to love justice more than love and mercy is, at least for a Christian, a sin. This is a battle we have to fight until the day we die: against the disorder in our souls and lives (and all sin is disordered love). There’s no other way to avoid defeat at the hands of the world.

Nobody wants to hear that. I sure as hell didn’t want to hear it when my priest spoke those hard words to me. But they were words of truth, and life. Not a soul on this earth could have fixed the problems I was struggling with then (or the ones I’m struggling with now). Only me, by God’s grace, and with the help of those dear ones willing to assist me. God was willing to help me, and so were the people who loved me, but without my firm and sustained assent, they would and could have done nothing. Because free will.

And one more, “The Limits of Expertise“:

The entire promise of our secular Enlightenment system is that we can specialize, and outsource, responsibility to experts, and those experts will be so much more effective than we are, that we can just relax and breathe a sigh of a relief and just reap the benefits. The market is one way of interfacing with those outsourced experts. Our civil servants are another. So, we can let down our guard, and let go of what once were called the restrictive practices and self-discipline that build moral character, because we’ll have someone else, in a secular institution, who will just take care of all that stuff. We won’t have to all be jacks of all trades, master of none, stuck with folks remedies for nursing and sewing and policing and cooking and teaching and farming. And that will free us all up to follow our bliss, and find our true selves, and engage in a kind of vulgar existentialism. That’s the promise, right? Externalize and formalize all our natural human practices, find expert driven best practices, codify some language of rights to guide those institutions, and the watch the resulting human flourishing.

Since becoming a parent, though, it’s become vastly more clear to me the giant fault line that runs under this set of ideas, where it is radically unstable. In short, the amount I will suffer and sacrifice for my kids, just naturally, even if the odds are long, wildly exceeds anything I would ever do for a job. I am far from alone in this. Anyone who’s ever wrestled with getting a nanny after staying home with their small children understands this dilemma; no nanny is ever going to have your kids best interest at heart to the degree that you will. Same for cops, same for teachers. This is not, at all, because they are bad people. It’s because the structure of the role itself is set up that way.

So here’s the dilemma. The narrative of the system built on the secular Enlightenment, as I’ve described it above, is REALLY appealing. It’s tantalizing. Who wouldn’t want to live as a totally liberated hyperconsumer with no physical restraints and no need for self-control, with a benevolent system that just takes care of all responsibilities? But, because it’s cutting so deeply against the grain of human nature, it just can’t really deliver what it promises. Because there is no way for the externalized, abstracted incentive systems of the workers at the DMV, or the teacher in the failing school, or the cop in the neighborhood where people keep shooting each other, to cause them to keep sacrificing when its a lost cause, and the odds are long, and they have no support.

Parents, and communities, can and will do those things. But culture/religion/ideology matters tremendously in determining whether or not parents and local communities really will step up to do those things that only they can really have the muscle, and sacrifice, and invasiveness to do.

I think people are so quickly to shout about bad cops and bad teachers because facing the actual alternative is too horrible: maybe we can’t escape from being responsible, and having to work constantly to change and improve ourselves. Maybe these externalized systems can’t actually work to an acceptable degree. Maybe the secular Enlightenment fantasia, where we can just put our feet up and relax, and we can outsource most of our responsibilities, simply can’t deliver as promised, not because it is immoral, but because it actually can’t work, not with human nature. Like, can’t work, the way that faster than light travel or perpetual motion machines can’t work. Maybe we have to keep struggling, and have to change ourselves to become better people, and no intervention of experts can free of us that burden.

There is something of a conservative cliché in all this.  I mean, “work hard” and “personal responsibility” are perennial buzzwords of the Right.  Still, I think Dreher is onto something here.  Much as many of would like to deny free will altogether, its reality is irritatingly inescapable.  Fatalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and embracing responsibility is the only known inoculation against it.  As Dreher notes, the real battle here lies within, and it is a battle.  The ascetical prescriptions of Classical Christianity (and the other great religions) are deeply unfashionable today, and admittedly subject to abuse, but there is simply no other way to attain freedom.

Moreover, and this is a point that I have long tried to make less eloquently, government bureaucracies simply cannot achieve the tasks they have been charged with.  The social policies favored by today’s Left ignore too much about human nature, and hence keep bumping reality.  The reason that I view socialistic/big government solutions to social problems with suspicion is not because I “don’t care about people” (as the charge often goes), but simply because I do not think technocratic/bureaucratic solutions work.  The idea of an omnicompetent/omnibenevolent state that acts as a “top-down” superintendent of society (to borrow terminology from John Lawrence Hill) is a delusion.  It ignores too much about human nature.

At the same time, I’m not suggesting that libertarianism as such is the answer.  As a philosophy of limited government, I find libertarianism rather congenial, but I hesitate to use that term, as libertarian philosophy can morph into a form of individualism that has almost nothing to say vis-à-vis ‘social ecology’ (which is ironic considering the term “social ecology” was invented by a chap who considered himself a libertarian-or at least a “libertarian socialist”).  To put all this into the Catholic idiom, subsidiarity and solidarity are mutually implicative, not mutually exclusive.

“Personal responsibility” is not the only thing we need to be delivered from fatalism; we also need real relationships.  A world that consists only of the individual and the top-down omnicompetent state (he said with some exaggeration) is a fantasy.  We are only persons insofar as we truly know and relate to other persons.  Freedom and responsibility cannot be cultivated in a vacuum.  No.  We are called to struggle together.  In the words of the Catechism:

1889 Without the help of grace, men would not know how “to discern the often narrow path between the cowardice which gives in to evil, and the violence which under the illusion of fighting evil only makes it worse.”13 This is the path of charity, that is, of the love of God and of neighbor. Charity is the greatest social commandment. It respects others and their rights. It requires the practice of justice, and it alone makes us capable of it. Charity inspires a life of self-giving: “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it.”14

Grace perfects nature.  The Church calls us to practice self-sacrifice, as Our Lord did.  And such sacrifices cannot be made in the abstract world of the bureaucracy.  Again, the Catechism:

The integrality of the gift of self

2346 Charity is the form of all the virtues. Under its influence, chastity appears as a school of the gift of the person. Self-mastery is ordered to the gift of self. Chastity leads him who practices it to become a witness to his neighbor of God’s fidelity and loving kindness.

2347 The virtue of chastity blossoms in friendship. It shows the disciple how to follow and imitate him who has chosen us as his friends,134 who has given himself totally to us and allows us to participate in his divine estate. Chastity is a promise of immortality.

Chastity is expressed notably in friendship with one’s neighbor. Whether it develops between persons of the same or opposite sex, friendship represents a great good for all. It leads to spiritual communion.

Note that this language is from the section on chastity of all places!  [1]  Remember, Catholicism is a seamless garment.  Friendship is deeply important for those who walk the Catholic Way.  The Church summons us not to “put our feet up” and “follow our bliss,” while entrusting management of our lives to bureaucrats and technocrats, but to take responsibility for our own lives, through the cultivation of relationships wherein we give ourselves away.  Such self-giving is not limited to spouses and parents, everyone is called to give themselves away.  To do so is a participation in the very life of God:

1877 The vocation of humanity is to show forth the image of God and to be transformed into the image of the Father’s only Son. This vocation takes a personal form since each of us is called to enter into the divine beatitude; it also concerns the human community as a whole.

1878 All men are called to the same end: God himself. There is a certain resemblance between the union of the divine persons and the fraternity that men are to establish among themselves in truth and love.1 Love of neighbor is inseparable from love for God.

I’m not the first to make this point either.  The Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, [2] who was a socialist, stressed the importance of a social order based on friendship.  As an article in Commonweal summarized:

For McCabe, divine friendship transfigured the meaning of socialism…he upheld friendship as the proper model for political and economic life.  As philia, love is political as well as personal, thriving among those who devote themselves to the building and maintenance of a polis.

In summation, yes we are called to cultivate personal responsibility, and yes that is something most contemporary liberals are not so good at.  [3]  Yet, this is not an individualistic call.  It is a summons to build deep relationships with others, to give ourselves away for others (as the members of the Trinity pour themselves out for each other).  Bureaucratic solutions fail to respect human nature, which is troublesome enough.  More to the point, however, bureaucratic channels can never become the vehicle of real love in action.

You wish to “make the world a better place”?  Family.  Friendship.  That’s where its at.  These are the things that truly have the capacity to rescue our brothers and sisters from the jaws of fatalism.


1 – The location of the Catechism’s paragraphs on friendship is a reminder that one need not be married, much less sexually active, to have truly fulfilling relationships.  Friendship is equally as much a fulfillment of the human vocation.  In the words of Eve Tushnet:

Friendship was once a form of Christian kinship—see Alan Bray’s beautiful historical study, The Friend. It was honored by society, guided by theology, beautified by liturgy. It wasn’t a sloppy-seconds consolation prize for people who couldn’t get the real love of marriage; it was the form of love experienced and most highly praised by Jesus himself.

2- I have not read much of McCabe’s work, but given that he was also something of an idiosyncratic Catholic, I confess to feeling something of a kinship with him.  Consider something that McCabe once said about the institutional Church:

It is because we believe that the hierarchical institutions of the Roman Catholic Church, with all their decadence, their corruption, and their silliness, do in fact link us to areas of Christian truth beyond our own particular experience and ultimately to truths beyond any experience, that we remain, and see our Christian lives in terms of remaining, members of this Church.

3- When I pointed this out on a blog post some years ago, I was taken to task by a self-identified liberal who insisted that he did practice personal responsibility, for instance by driving a Prius and recycling.  As commendable as that type of thing is, by personal responsibility I do not mean accepting your share of responsibility for some larger whole, but responsibility for your own life-thought, word and deed.  In the words of Jonathan Sacks:

We are about things our grandparents hardly thought about: world poverty, economic inequality, global warming and the loss of biodiversity.  But these issues have in common that they are vast, distant, global and remote.  They are problems that require the coordinated action of millions, perhaps billions of people.  They are, in essence, political rather than moral.

Sacks asks:

What duties do I have to something as amorphous as humanity in general, as inanimate as nature, or as intangible as generations not yet born?

In his wonderful book To Heal a Fractured World, Sacks posits that any notion of collective responsibility is inseparable from, and dependent upon, personal responsibility.

A similar point was made by C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain:

A reaction – in it’self wholesome – is now going on against purely private or domestic conceptions of morality, a reawakening of the social conscience. We feel ourselves to be involved in an iniquitous social system and to share a corporate guilt. This is very true: but the enemy can exploit even truths to our deception. Beware lest you are making use of the idea of corporate guilt to distract your attention from those humdrum, old-fashioned guilts of your own which have nothing to do with ‘the system’ and which can be dealt with without waiting for the millennium. For corporate guilt perhaps cannot be, and certainly is not, felt with the same force as personal guilt. For most of us, as we now are, this conception is a mere excuse for evading the real issue. When we have really learned to know our individual corruption, then indeed we can go on to think of the corporate guilt and can hardly think of it too much. But we must learn to walk before we run.

Not surprisingly, this can be unpleasant for those of us who tend to think bigger, abstract issues are more important than personal matters.  To quote Lewis again, slightly out of context:

Christianity now has to preach the diagnosis – in it’self very bad news – before it can win a hearing for the cure.

A Word from Rowan Williams

I just finished Dostoevsky (Making of the Christian Imagination) by Rowan Williams.  Wonderful book.  A few good snippets.  First:

The Dostoevsky we have been reading in these pages does not fit comfortably into the terms of modern religious debate as usually phrased. As we have repeatedly noted, he is not really interested in arguing the question— in general terms— of whether God exists. This does not mean that the reality of God is a matter of indifference to him or that he can be claimed for some form of contemporary nonrealism. But the difference between the self-aware believer, the self-aware sinner and the conscious and deliberate atheist is not a disagreement over whether or not to add one item to the sum total of really existing things. It is a conflict about policies and possibilities for a human life: between someone who accepts the dependence of everything on divine gratuity and attempts to respond with some image of that gratuity, someone who accepts this dependence but fails to act appropriately in response, and someone who denies the dependence and is consequently faced with the unanswerable question of why any one policy for living is preferable to any other. Kirillov’s atheism is probably closest to what Bishop Tikhon has in mind when he says to Stavrogin that “[ t] he absolute atheist stands on the last rung but one before most absolute faith (whether he steps higher or not)” [679]. Kirillov is intensely aware— at least as much as Nietzsche— that the death of God is not a rational conclusion which will allow humanity to pursue its proper goals and attain its proper happiness at last without interference. It is a terrifying gap in the coherence of the human mind: what “must” exist does not as a matter of fact exist. To recall Simone Weil’s phrase (above, p. 9), we should in such a case have to believe that our desire or love is illusory— unless we can fill the gap with a God who is identical with the human self. And if the supreme source of value is the unconstrained will of the self, so Kirillov argues, that can only be demonstrated by the highest possible expression of the will’s power, the power to overcome itself in voluntary death.

For readers of this blog, this should sound familiar.  Consider this also:

For others, there is no alleviation: “they are already willing martyrs.”  They are in revolt against reality itself, demanding that there should be no God; they long not to exist. They represent, in fact, the final stage in that affirmation of freedom as the purely arbitrary assertion of self that we have seen as a mark of the diabolical elsewhere— the condition in which the absolute liberty of the willing self becomes more important than reality, the state of mind of the Underground Man frozen for eternity in its misunderstanding of the nature of liberty.

Wow.  Well said.  One more:

 Faith, in this context, is anything but consoling.

Indeed.  Indeed.

A Word from the Pontifical Biblical Commission

Regular readers know that I have a longstanding interest in the historicity of the Scriptures.  In recent months I have been intrigued by offhanded statements that the magisterium of John Paul II “reversed” earlier positions taken by the magisterium with respect to the historicity of Genesis-and, by extension, the Church’s “position” on evolution.  It is worth noting that the magisterium has not taken a “position” per se on evolution (hence the quotation marks), although a quick glance at the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear which direction the magisterium leans in:

283 The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers. With Solomon they can say: “It is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements. . . for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.”121

Anyway, I have heard some folks contend that any recent magisterial statements suggesting that Genesis is not literal history (in the sense of a verbatim transcript) contradict earlier statements by the magisterium.  Interestingly, the discussion at issue (which I read some time ago on the Catholic Answers forum-apologies I do not have the link) was centered specifically around documents promulgated by the Pontifical Biblical Commission.  For those unfamiliar, the Pontifical Biblical Commission is an “advisory body” under the auspices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  While many of the Commission’s documents are available on the Vatican’s website, few have been translated into English.

Translations are available elsewhere online, however, and are quite illuminating.  A careful read indicates that the PBC has consistently taken nuanced and open-ended positions, and that these positions have developed (evolved!) over time, without the “reversal” some believe took place.  In fairness, recognizing development vs. reversal is not an easy matter, it requires careful reading (hence why I always stress how my legal training helps in this regard).  Many people also have no patient for nuance or open-endedness at all.  Sometimes, however, prudence calls for both.  Pope Francis is not the first leader of the Church to use ambiguous language, though-unlike in the past-this pontiff speaks in the age of mass media and soundbites, which makes the use of open-ended language much more difficult.  As always, the virtue of prudence comes in handy.

Anyway, for those who are curious as to what the PBC has said should consider the following:

On Narratives Historical only in Appearance in Books of Holy Scripture Historical in Form (June 23, 1905)

Is it possible to admit as a principle of sound exegesis that books of sacred Scripture which are regarded as historical, at times do not relate, either wholly or in part, history properly so-called and objectively true, but present only the appearance of history with the purpose of expressing some meaning differing from the strictly literal or historical sense of the words?

Answer: In the negative, except in a case neither easily nor rashly to be admitted, in which the mind of the Church not being contrary and without prejudice to its judgement, it is proved by solid arguments that the sacred Writer intended not to recount true history, properly so-called, but under the guise and form of history to set forth a parable, an allegory, or some meaning distinct from the strictly literal or historical signification of the words.

NB: I think belief in a literal “talking snake” probably falls into this category-as Fr. William O’Malley has noted, Aesop probably didn’t believe an actual rabbit and turtle had a race, and the sacred Writer(s) of Genesis most likely fell into the same camp.  As a friend of mine remarked in college “Let’s take a hint here-snakes don’t talk!”

Concerning the Historical Character of the First Three Chapters of Genesis (June 30, 1909)

IV: In the interpretation of those passages in these chapters which the Fathers and Doctors understood in different manners without proposing anything certain and definite, is it lawful, without prejudice to the judgement of the Church and with attention to the analogy of faith, to follow and defend the opinion that commends itself to each one?
Answer: In the affirmative.

V: Must each and every word and phrase occurring in the aforesaid chapters always and necessarily be understood in its literal sense, so that it is never lawful to deviate from it, even when it appears obvious that the diction is employed in an applied sense, either metaphorical or anthropomorphical, and either reason forbids the retention or necessity imposes the abandonment of the literal sense?
Answer: In the negative.

VI: Provided that the literal and historical sense is presupposed, may certain passages in the same chapters, in the light of the example of the holy Fathers and of the Church itself, be wisely and profitably interpreted in an allegorical and prophetic sense?
Answer: In the affirmative.

VII: As it was not the mind of the sacred author in the composition of the first chapter of Genesis to give scientific teaching about the internal Constitution of visible things and the entire order of creation, but rather to communicate to his people a popular notion in accord with the current speech of the time and suited to the understanding and capacity of men, must the exactness of scientific language be always meticulously sought for in the interpretation of these matters?
Answer: In the negative.

On the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, and on the historical character of Gen 1-11 (1948)

The question of the literary forms of the first eleven chapters of Genesis is far more obscure and complex. These literary forms do not correspond to any of our classical categories and cannot be judged in the light of the Greco-Latin or modern literary types. It is therefore impossible to deny or to affirm their historicity as a whole without unduly applying to them norms of a literary type under which they cannot be classed. If it is agreed not to see in these chapters history in the classical and modern sense, it must be admitted also that known scientific facts do not allow a positive solution of all the problems which they present. The first duty in this matter incumbent on scientific exegesis consists in the careful study of all the problems literary, scientific, historical, cultural, and religious connected with these chapters; in the next place is required a close examination of the literary methods of the ancient oriental peoples, their psychology, their manner of expressing themselves and even their notion of historical truth the requisite, in a word, is to assemble without preformed judgements all the material of the palaeontological and historical, epigraphical and literary sciences. It is only in this way that there is hope of attaining a clearer view of the true nature of certain narratives in the first chapters of Genesis. To declare a priori that these narratives do not contain history in the modern sense of the word might easily be understood to mean that they do not contain history in any sense, whereas they relate in simple and figurative language, adapted to the understanding f mankind at a lower stage of development, the fundamental truths underlying the divine scheme of salvation, as well as a popular description of the origins of the human race and of the chosen people. In the meantime it is necessary to practise patience which is part of prudence and the wisdom of life. This also is inculcated by the Holy Father in the Encyclical already quoted: “No one”, he says, “should be surprised that all the difficulties have not yet been clarified or solved. But that is no reason for losing courage or forgetting that in the branches of human study it cannot be otherwise than in nature, where beginnings grow little by little, where the produce of the soil is not gathered except after prolonged labour. There is ground, therefore, for hoping that (these difficulties) which today appear most complicated and arduous, will eventually, thanks to constant effort, admit of complete clarification.”

Note the last document cited specifically refers to prudence.  A close examination of the PBC’s position, along with other magisterial documents relating to the same, indicates that the magisterium has long proceeded cautiously in this arena, avoiding both a flat-footed (and dim-witted) fundamentalism on the one hand, and a complete capitulation to modernism on the other.  Note also that the Church’s prudence vis-à-vis biblical interpretation had begun well in advance of Vatican II.

Hat tip to Karlo Broussard on this.  I conclude with one more gem, from Pope Leo XIII (Proventissimus Deus):

18. In the second place, we have to contend against those who, making an evil use of physical science, minutely scrutinize the Sacred Book in order to detect the writers in a mistake, and to take occasion to vilify its contents. Attacks of this kind, bearing as they do on matters of sensible experience, are peculiarly dangerous to the masses, and also to the young who are beginning their literary studies; for the young, if they lose their reverence for the Holy Scripture on one or more points, are easily led to give up believing in it altogether. It need not be pointed out how the nature of science, just as it is so admirably adapted to show forth the glory of the Great Creator, provided it be taught as it should be, so if it be perversely imparted to the youthful intelligence, it may prove most fatal in destroying the principles of true philosophy and in the corruption of morality. Hence to the Professor of Sacred Scripture a knowledge of natural science will be of very great assistance in detecting such attacks on the Sacred Books, and in refuting them. There can never, indeed, be any real discrepancy between the theologian and the physicist, as long as each confines himself within his own lines, and both are careful, as St. Augustine warns us, “not to make rash assertions, or to assert what is not known as known.”(51) If dissension should arise between them, here is the rule also laid down by St. Augustine, for the theologian: “Whatever they can really demonstrate to be true of physical nature, we must show to be capable of reconciliation with our Scriptures; and whatever they assert in their treatises which is contrary to these Scriptures of ours, that is to Catholic faith, we must either prove it as well as we can to be entirely false, or at all events we must, without the smallest hesitation, believe it to be so.”(52) To understand how just is the rule here formulated we must remember, first, that the sacred writers, or to speak more accurately, the Holy Ghost “Who spoke by them, did not intend to teach men these things (that is to say, the essential nature of the things of the visible universe), things in no way profitable unto salvation.”(53) Hence they did not seek to penetrate the secrets of nature, but rather described and dealt with things in more or less figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time, and which in many instances are in daily use at this day, even by the most eminent men of science. Ordinary speech primarily and properly describes what comes under the senses; and somewhat in the same way the sacred writers-as the Angelic Doctor also reminds us – `went by what sensibly appeared,”(54) or put down what God, speaking to men, signified, in the way men could understand and were accustomed to.

Why anybody would choose fundamentalism (or the blathering of Bishop Spong and his ilk), over the position carved out by the Roman Catholic Church, is truly beyond me.  So thankful for the Church!

CODA: For those who would like to know more about the authority of the PBC, consider the words of Pope Pius X:

We now declare and expressly enjoin that all Without exception are bound by an obligation of conscience to submit to the decisions of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, whether already issued or to be issued hereafter, exactly as to the decrees of the Sacred Congregations which are on matters of doctrine and approved by the Pope; nor can anyone who by word or writing attacks the said decrees avoid the note both of disobedience and of rashness or be therefore without grave fault.

I understand how and why so many are frustrated with the magisterium-with its multitude of documents, levels of authority, bureaucracy, and legalism.  Still, it is part of the Catholic faith to affirm that the Holy Spirit chooses-freely-to work through this messy, very human, structure.


A friend of mine has pointed out that I spoke imprecisely in my previous post, God Needs Women.  My friend correctly points out:

As you establish the position god needing women also means god needs men, due to their influence on redemption of the life of the same which means god needs nature, and god needs just about everything else relative to human survival up to salvation of the same.

God is assumed to need human salvation. This assumption makes the particular theist position seems rather infantile, circular, and/or easily refuted as non-christian by an atheist. Though the last is not needed in my knee jerk response, the logic already has the error of a rather large undefended/baseless assumption of greater magnitude to prove a lesser point “God needing women.”

The marvel here (going back to using catholic theology) is that God doesn’t need salvation of humans, yet he wills it. He does not need Mary, but he Wants her as the prize of creation, elevating the dignity of women in a theological structure where it is not the lynch pin need of God, but God’s channel of Grace to us. He could have done it another way, yet he chose to show us our bodies male, female, or unrecognizable (all that see me laugh / I am a worm and not a man) can be used by Him, because He wills to save all by the same.

Quite right.  Classical theism affirms that God doesn’t need anything (c.f. Bishop Barron on this point), but rather He freely desires-wills-our good.  There is a slight wrinkle in that, because God’s freely desiring our salvation is not a voluntarist-kind of willing, but in accord with God’s nature.  But we won’t go down that road here.

My point is my friend is right, and I spoke imprecisely when I followed Rachel Held Evans in using the word “need”-though I think her general point, properly contexualized, still stands.

Mea culpa!