Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Neal Stephenson

Eliot asked me about Neal Stephenson, and I would love to go on about this author. I read Snow Crash probably a year or two after I finished my master's degree and loved it. I'd been reading Douglas Coupland and William Gibson. Somewhere I read a description about SC that described the setting as follows: in the future, there are only two classes of people—those who work in the computer industry, and those who deliver their pizza.

I was hooked.

Now, that synopsis wasn't really all that SC was about. What I find compelling now is that the idea of a computer virus affecting the real world is not nearly as fantastic now as it was then. Nowadays we expect that a virus will delete everything from our hard drive, make crank calls to our ex-spouses, run up tabs at our favorite bars (not to mention our accounts at Barnes and Noble), and maybe call and tell our parents on us.

After reading Snow Crash and The Diamond Age I spent quite a bit of time trying to track down Zodiac (which I found somewhat quickly) and The Big U (which was out of print until a couple of years ago). Read 'em. Mostly loved 'em (except for The Big U, which was more a like).

And then Cryptonomicon came out. Stephenson went from being someone who produced a good sci-fi yarn to someone who wrote literature. Some might consider me old fashioned for making a distinction. So be it.

Unfortunately, I haven't read much of Stephenson's work since Quicksilver. I have reread The Diamond Age recently, which was easily one of my favorites early on. However, on rereading, I found much I didn't care for—mostly thematic. I still love the concept of Diamond Age, but somewhere in the depths with the drummers, I get a bit queasy.

I have Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code on a shelf sandwiched between Cryptonomicon and Quicksilver on one side and Thomas Pynchon's Vineland on the other. Needless to say, DVC doesn't belong there. Frankly, the only reason it's on the shelf is to encourage discussion. My copy of The Da Vinci Hoax is supposed to be next to it, but that's still packed away in my wife's office things following our move. What I can say is that Stephenson belongs next to Pynchon.

I wrote my thesis on Vineland, and I read every novel and short story by Pynchon as well as every scrap of literary criticism about his work leading and following the publication of Vineland. I liked the novel, but it was clearly not the best of his work to that point. I think Mason and Dixon is the best novel Pynchon has published.

And I think Quicksilver is better. Or I guess I should say, Stephenson's novels from Cryptonomicron forward are better than Pynchon's works. Stephenson demonstrates a mastery of technique that exceeds Pynchon, while exhibiting a thematic breadth easily equal to the famously reclusive polymath. Possessing the latter alone would be enough, but Stephenson has gone beyond. Stylistically, Stephenson reads better as a youngish author than Pynchon. Mason & Dixon outdistances Pynchon's previous novels in its emotional depth. Some critics might consider that elusive element to be "sentimentality," but that, I'm afraid, has more to do with the coarsening of our culture than the softening of Pynchon's heart. Pynchon developed a novel with heart. Stephenson, I believe, started with heart first.

Stephenson's latest works have heart, and they still manage the Pynchonian penchant for conspiracy, by no means any less developed than the reclusive master. Cryptonomicron compels because of its human story as well as its techno-cryptological intrigue. Quicksilver reveals the same impulses with a sort of pre-"Steam Punk" twist. All Baroque intrigue, all the time. What more could a geek like me ask?

That said, I wasn't comfortable with Quicksilver. I don't think any Catholic or orthodox western Christian could be as it it exposes the ugliness of the Reformation era. However, I do intend to follow up with the rest of the Baroque Cycle. In what I have seen of these latest works, Stephenson goes well beyond the genre of Sci Fi and produces something timeless.

Technorati tags: Neal Stephenson

Job for Domenico

Dom Bettinelli is looking for a new job. He's currently the editor of the Catholic World Report. His departure from that magazine comes at a difficult time, on the heels of the birth of his daughter. If you know of a position for a Catholic journalist and editor, please pass along the tip.

Updated 6/5/06

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Was Christ Divine? Five Options by Peter Kreeft - Part II

In the first post of this set, I noted the reasons why the question of Christ's Divinity is important. It's important not only for those who are seeking the Truth and have not yet accepted faith in Christ. It's also important for those who do have faith but have to this point considered reason and faith to be incompatible or who think it unnecessary to treat people's questions about Christ's Divinity with any seriousness. As noted in the first post of this set, if Christ is Divine, He has a right to all we do and are. Those who do not recognize that right will suffer the consequences, so for them as well as us, the question is a matter of dire importance.

So Kreeft lays out the argument as follows:

Jesus is either Lord, liar, lunatic, guru, or myth.

Those are our five options.

Kreeft takes each of these points and demonstrates how each one leaves us with option A.

We can begin with the first two: either Jesus is Lord or he is a liar.

One of the frequent claims of syncretists, liberal Christians, and followers of non-Christian faiths is that Jesus was a good man. Jesus is almost universally recognized as a good man. Almost universally, honesty is a required virtue for the good man. If Jesus were lying about whom He was and what His relationship with God the Father was, He could hardly be considered a good man.

So we then have to consider that maybe Jesus was a lunatic. In addition to Christ's goodness, however, was His wisdom. His words have inspired people for 2000 years. So could a wise man be a lunatic (that is, someone who believed Himself to be God but was not)? If I believed myself to be George Washington, would my word on any other matter be given much credence? Most likely not. So Christ can't be either a liar or a lunatic.

Probably the most common claim from non-Christians today about Christ was that He was a good teacher or guru but not Divine. However, these people would have to be very selective in their reading of Christ's words to make this claim. They would have to dispense with His insistence that his followers eat his body and drink his blood. They would have to jettison the divisive comments he made: "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." What's more most of the people who cast Jesus in this light try to inject eastern notions into the skin of a first-century Jew. Jesus wasn't a spiritual teacher in any other tradition other than that in which he dwelled: first-century Judaism. He preached from their scriptures and claimed to be the fulfillment of their law.

In addition to this, a measure of a teacher is in those whom he teaches. If Christ were simply a guru, then those students closest to him (Peter, John, James, and Andrew) completely misunderstood his message. And from what we can tell, none of the other followers of Christ after the purported resurrection denounced the Apostles for their beliefs, so they must likewise have been deluded. Is a good teacher always so grossly misunderstood? Is that the mark of a good teacher?

Finally, we come to the last possibility: Christ was a myth, or his followers created a mythos about him that turned him into something he wasn't.

To the first charge, given that the fragmentary early biblical writings in addition to the non-Christian references to Christ constitute the largest collection of historical data on any figure of that period or before, we'd have to call into question whether Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Hammurabi, or any other early personage actually existed. The letters from the Apostles concerning Christ are just as valid as historic documentation as any of the letters passed between Emperors and proconsuls. Yet no one thinks to discount the matter of such documents out of hand because of a delay between the occurrence of the events in those documents and the actual writing of the document.

So why is this historical approach considered an appropriate when the letters or gospels in the New Testament are the subject matter? Even dismissing these documents, what do we do with the extra-Biblical references made by Josephus, Tacitus, and the like?

So Jesus’ existence is as much a part of the historical record as Plato's.

Next, then, is the common assertion that Christ never claimed to be divine. The only alternative (other than Jesus’ Divinity), then, is that His followers intentionally altered what He said. That is, the Apostles wrote the epistles and gospels in order to deceive.

People lie for many reasons, but typically it's for self-gain. So what did the Apostles have to gain by promoting their teacher as something He was not? Were they going to gain much by proclaiming that someone executed as a common criminal was in fact the Messiah, the anointed one of God? Not likely. Were they going to gain financially? Paul's epistles make it clear that he was by no means well off.

What the Apostles and disciples of Christ did gain, starting even before Nero's first persecution, was martyrdom. That is hardly a prize worth lying for, unless you believe what you're saying. So the only motivation the Apostles had for making the claims they did was that it was the truth, and they wanted everyone to know the Truth. In addition, the Apostles operated in a time when many of Jesus’ own family members still lived. These were people who were not His followers before the resurrection. However, Jesus’ brother James held an important position in the early church of Jerusalem, so clearly they came to believe afterward. If the Apostles lied, how is it that all these early letters and gospels agree so well? Even Gamaliel suggested in Acts that a false Messiah would come to naught. One could hardly say that Christianity has come to naught. For whatever reason, we don't have reams of documentation from the same period condemning the facts laid out in the gospels. So an argument against the veracity of the Apostles is an argument from silence.

Jesus wasn't a liar, a lunatic, a guru (or good teacher), or a myth. So we're left with one option. Jesus is Lord.

This is an ultrasynopsis of what Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli set forth in Handbook of Christian Apologetics. Although my treatment condenses many of their points, the authors spend 23 pages on the subject and leave very few (if any) stones unturned. In that same book, they cover the historical reliability of the gospels, the rational basis for belief in the New Testament miracles, and 20 arguments for the existence of God. For the latter, they note that many arguments are inductive—that is, they lead to a reasonable conjecture based on the evidence while not providing conclusive logical proofs.

Technorati tags: Christianity, Catholic, Catholicism

Was Christ Divine? Five Options by Peter Kreeft - Part I

I'm a big fan of Peter Kreeft, and one of the aspects I like best about his writing and his lectures is how he demonstrates the rationality of faith, or perhaps a better way to say it is the complementarity of faith and reason.

One I like best is the argument for the Divinity of Christ. Kreeft picks up where C.S Lewis left off in Mere Christianity.

In Handbook of Christian Apologetics, Kreeft lays out the importance of this fact in six points:

- Jesus's divinity is what differentiates Christians from all other monotheists and many other major religions today. Muslims do not claim that Muhammed was divine, nor do Buddists make this claim about Guatama Buddha.

- Jesus is either God in the flesh (Incarnate) or he is what liberal, revisionist, modernist Christians claim to be—an ideal man, a prophet, rabbi, teacher, sage, or other human agent.

- Revealed Doctrine works like a skeleton key, unlocking other doctrines of the faith. This point is important to me because it's the very reason for my conversion. Christians accept more advanced doctrines not because of their own intricate understanding but because they are revealed by Christ (as recorded in the gospels). If Jesus was fallible, what he said in any instance could be untrue, so the doctrine of faith would be in question.

- If Christ is divine, His incarnation is the single most important point in history. It changes everything.

- If Christ is the omnipotent, everpresent God, He can effect immediate changes in your life right now, and no one else can.

- If Christ is divine, He has a right to all we do and are. He has a right to our very being. This makes freedom not simply a matter of doing what we will, but doing what we will in accordance to the nature with which Christ endowed us. I believe tis is the point at which so many falter. They know that if Jesus is God, they have to conform to His will, and that is an obligation many don't want to accept.

These are the reasons the question is important. The five options follow in part II.

Technorati tags: Christianity, Catholic, Catholicism

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Heaven: a Place on Earth?

I'm hoping someone out these can direct me to any statements by the Holy Father concerning Heaven, particularly whether Heaven is a place. One of our priests today made a statement for which I want to verify the context. Essentially, he said that Pope Benedict created quite a stir recently when he said that "Heaven is not a place."

Now, my concern with this primarily is with its lack of context. Certainly, it's reasonable to assume that Heaven is not a place in a temporal-spatial sense, as God and the spirits are not limited or bound by space and time. However, that's not the same as saying that there is no "place" or abode separate from Earth that is Heaven. My concern is the creeping symbolism that such flatfooted claims inject into Catholic doctrine (for example, that Heaven is really only something here and now and doesn't involve an afterlife). When someone takes a complex theological concept and flattens it out to make it comprehensible, they must do so with care. A statement such as the one our priest made today disregards the proper care that a concept such as Heaven should be treated.

Secondarily, I'm wondering about the accuracy the rest of the claim. He indicated that the Holy Father caused a stir when he said this. However, I follow numerous Catholic blogs, many on the more traditional side, and I've heard nothing of this stir. The only comment I know of that has come even close to causing a stir is that speculation on a Limbo of the Infants was identified as just that: theological speculation. Frankly, that doesn't strike me as a particularly Earth-shattering acknowledgement.

Anyway, if anyone could point me to a source, I'd be grateful. I've been planning to invite this priest over soon and to get to know him. (He lives three doors away.) Undoubtedly, we'll discuss theology and doctrine, but I want to get to know him as well.

[Technorati tags: Christianity, Catholic, Catholicism, Church History]

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Lecture 2: Apostolic Succession - First Persecution

The semester is buzzing right along. Prior to this section's readings, I was familiar with some of the material, but Daniel-Rops does an excellent job of fleshing out the details and build a coherent picture of the Church in the early second century.

What is the meant by apostolic authority at this time?

Apostolic authority was originally the authority given to the twelve apostles by Christ himself. Shortly after the Pentecost and the establishment of the Church in Jerusalem, it became an authority that could be transmitted from one apostle to other disciples of Christ, exemplified primarily by the selection of Matthias to replace Judas as one of the twelve, and secondarily by the selection of seven others (deacons) who would play roles different than the twelve. In Acts 6, we see the precursor of the Rite of Ordination, which becomes the means by which the twelve bestow authority on others to teach and lead the local churches.

As time went on and the Church spread, there needed to be more people who could represent the apostles and teach with their authority. Those who were granted authority to preside over the Eucharist and to be the local leaders were called bishops, from the Greek word episcopos (meaning overseer). These bishops exercised apostolic authority with a constraint: their authority was restricted to a locale. Roman administrative authority was to be useful here, as the regions as part of the Roman Empire already had an administrative structure. Each region controlled by a specific city was a diocese (Greek word equivalent to the Latin terms, ager or territorium. While an apostle had a certain widespread authority, bishops help authority only within their diocese. This constraint was with one notable exception, the See of Peter.

What kind of evidence is available for such authority in these first years?

The earliest example of transferring apostolic authority is in Acts 1 with the selection of Matthias. The term bishop occurs in some of Paul's letters to Timothy and Titus, and in 1 Peter, depending on the translation. However, there are elders (presbyters) in these local churches, and these clearly have some authority. Paul specifically refers to bestowing this authority on Timothy by "the imposition of my hands" (2 Tim. 6) and "imposition of the hands of the priesthood" (1 Tim 4).

The problem here is that there are very few historical sources for the period between 70 AD and 90 AD, which appears to be the time in which the episcopal hierarchy develops. What can be confirmed is that by 90 AD, this hierarchy existed uniformly in all of the churches: bishops, who exercised apostolic authority over a diocese, presbyters, who were other elders or teachers in the local church, and deacons, who served ate the Eucharist next to the bishop and were responsible for some administrative functions.

How do Clement and Ignatius contribute to the development of the papal office?

Clement was the third successor of Peter, or the fourth Bishop of Rome. Aside from Peter, he's the only one of the first-century popes we know anything about, possibly due to the tumultuous conditions of the first persecution. The letter he wrote to the Corinthians has been given numerous dates, from 80 AD (according to William Jurgens) to close to the end of his life around 100 (according to Philip Scharf). What's important about this document is that it was written in response to what must've been a request from the church in Corinth to the Bishop of Rome for intervention. This point is important for several reasons:

- Corinth had its own bishop, who apparently could not satisfactorily resolve the situation.

- St. John, the last living apostle, was living in Ephesus at the time. Ephesus was considerably closer to Corinth, so it would've been easier to send to St. John for intervention, if that were St. John's authority or prerogative.

- The letter makes it clear that the writer believes that he has the right and/or obligation to intervene in matters of faith.

Clement's authority derives from his see, the See of Peter. Unlike other bishops whose authority was limited by their local, Clement's authority as the Bishop of Rome clearly extended beyond the limits of the diocese of Rome.

St. Ignatius was a contemporary of Clement's, a Bishop of Antioch, the second successor of Peter at Antioch, and is widely accepted to be a disciple of St. John, along with St. Polycarp. During the reign of Trajan, Ignatius was condemned to die in the arena in Rome. In transit, he wrote seven letters, in gratitude for the churches of the seven cities where he stopped along the way. In his epistle to the Romans, he requests that the Christians in Rome do nothing to interfere with his martyrdom, for which he is most eager. He notes that he cannot command them as Peter and Paul could, indicating that although he is a bishop, that he has no jurisdiction over Christians in Rome.

So, in Clement's case, we have a bishop who clearly asserts his authority over a diocese far away. With Ignatius, we have a bishop who does not. I think it's interesting, though, to note that both the See of Rome and the See of Antioch were founded by Peter. You argue that both bishops had equal claim to being in the See of Peter. Nonetheless, it's clear that Clement considered himself within the bounds of his authority to intervene in matters in another diocese, while Ignatius did not.

How was Christianity a threat to Rome? What does this say about the Church?

Christianity posed several threats to Rome by virtue of Its belief in a single creator God. First, as a clear outsider to the pagan religions of the Roman empire, Christianity set itself at odds with the followers of those other religions. Whereas a certain amount of syncretism could be allowed by these pagan believers, no such compromise could be allowed by the Christian, despite whatever superficial similarities might exist. Christians rejected the practices of these others and set themselves apart from the rest of the population. This, on its own, wasn't new. The Jews had lived in a similar fashion for centuries. The primary difference is that Jews didn't try to convert gentiles. Christians in the early Church believed it to be their calling to convert others, to spread the good news. By rejecting the customs of these pagan populations and actively proselytizing, they threatened to reduce the number of pagans in a local population, hence they threatened the economic base of those who made livings selling livestock for slaughter or selling graven images for worship.

Second, because they worshipped the one true God and not the pantheon of civil gods of the Romans, they denied to Rome what Rome believed was its due. Rome had a policy of tolerance toward other religions, and Eastern mystery cults were quite popular with the cosmopolitan Roman population (that is, those wealthy enough to have time for such things). Rome wasn't concerned about pagan religions because they didn't have a problem taking part in the civil festivals and the cult of worship. However, Christians were suspect because they did not hold the civil gods in esteem. They created a division in society that could be exploited by others (including internal opponents of the emperor), and they appeared to respect some other authority above Rome.

Third, this authority that Christians believed in was eternal, beyond life and death. Rome had a few useful tools for gaining compliance: death, exile, torture. However, these were all temporal means of compulsion. For those Christians who lacked faith, these means might be useful. But for those fervent believers who ran headlong rejoicing into martyrdom, these temporal compulsions meant only a quicker release to be with God. What's more, the former weren't the threat. No one is converted by weakness in faith. Ardor and passion for one's beliefs make converts. So the very means by which Rome kept its people in check was the very thing that created more converts to this new faith.

[Technorati tags: Christianity, Catholic, Catholicism, Church History]

Friday, May 26, 2006

Thursday, May 25, 2006

What kind of American English do I speak?

My mother was raised by mid-Westerners. My father grew up in Vermont. I grew up on or around military bases with lots of transplants. The results are no surprise.

Your Linguistic Profile::
80% General American English
5% Upper Midwestern
5% Yankee
0% Dixie
0% Midwestern

Pick a Fruit...

...but not just any fruit. This would be one of the seven fruits of the Holy Spirit. Moneybags tells you how.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Heading to Houston!

I'll be gone for a few days on business. If I find time between studies and work, I might sneak in a post, but don't count on it.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Reign of Augustus: a Sign for Our Times

I'm wrapping up the readings for this week, and I came across a passage in Daniel-Rops's Church of Apostles and Martyrs that I find to be an apt object lesson for the U.S. It's a picture of Rome during its golden age.

During Augustus's reign slaves accounted for more than one-third of the population of Rome; in Alexandria, possibly two-thirds. The quantity of slaves available resulted in bargain prices being paid for them; an ordinary unskilled slave was worth about 500 gold coins, a slave specializing in a particular trade, fifteen hundred to two thousand. Consequently anyone who needed a manual worker, whether he was a landowner, a business man or a craftsman, preferred to use slaces rather than free men. This proved a further cause of society's disintegration.

As a reult of it a large body of people sprang up in the great cities, particularly in Rome, who were largely unemployed all the time. They consisted of uprooted peasants, free workmen who could no longer find work, freed slaves, andforeigners from every corner of the Empire. This was an excellent breeding-ground for all political cankers, and for all forces of demoralization. The hard-working Roman of olden days became the 'client,' the parasite, paid for his doubtful loyalty by the sportula.

Jimmy Akin has commented pretty sensibly on the issue of immigration reform and the recent protests. He also mentioned the economic realities behind the current mess (although I can't find that post right now).

Mind you, I'm all for legal immigration, particularly from our neighbors down south. They're coreligionists, and it can only bode well for the Church to have an infusion of these people. Several of our parishes have large Hispanic communities, and we're doing what we can to help assimilate the newcomers into our broader commuunity.

That said, the problem is with those who come here illegally. They might have legitimate reasons for doing so (persecution, poverty, crime). However, the problem isn't why they come but how they get here and what happens next.

For those who are smuggled in, if they make the trip safely, they can spend their years being exploited by business owners who don't pay overtime, don't pay minimum wage, and don't provide safe working conditions. Because the cheap labor pool is available, the wages for some jobs (the so-called undesirable ones*) drop, so some people would rather collect unemployment thank work. So we get pool of unemployed along with a pool of exploited people.

For those who come in and have forged papers, they pay taxes but cannot claim tax refunds or derive social security benefits. They might not be as exploitable, but they certainly don't gain the true benefits of a free society either.

So we have an unemployed class and an exploited class. Add in gladitorial sports, and we're ripe for just the sort of collapse that felled Rome.

It took another two hundred years for the Romans. Will it take that long for us?

UPDATE: In addition to the aforementioned, Daniel-Rops mentions the decline of the birthrate and the increase of adultery, as well as the increase of abortion and exposure. He also throws out this memorable line: "The substitution of the State edict for the individual conscience is always a sure sign of decadence, in every country and in every age."

Friday, May 19, 2006

Prayer Request

We have a developing situation about which I don't really want to post anything specific. However, I would like to ask that you all please pray for my stepdaughter, Hannah, that the Lord will grant her wisdom and guide her decisions over the coming weeks.


Thursday, May 18, 2006

Say Hello to Isabella Marie Bettinelli

Dom Bettinelli has posted a photo of his newborn daughter at his site. Mother, baby, and hand-wringing father all appear to be fine.

UPDATE: Doh! Typos are even worse when they're in Latin.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


I've been reading about St. Teresa of Avila lately, and I'm struck by the humility of this dynamic woman who had so many gifts.

Our society puts us at odds with the notion of humility these days. We're encouraged to think about what's right for me, what I want out of life, what the world owes to me. Society compels us toward egocentrism. People who are considered successful in the world's eyes are those who have gone and gotten theirs. These are echoes of the great lie of Satan to Adam and Eve: "You will be like God."

Sadly, we sometimes can't even get away from this impulse in the Mass. How many of the hymns are sung from the perspective of the parish or the individual? How many of our priests and lay ministers encourage us to change our focus to ourselves? How does the insistence on lay participation turn our attention from service to power?

We have so many opportunities to not be humble.

And we (or at least I) have so many reminders of why we should be humble.

I'm reminded everytime I note my own pettiness, my cynicism, my judgementality, my lack of charity (even when it only occurs in my mind).

"I kept thinking of the Energizer Bunny, because it kept going and going and going..."

Apparently, The Duh-Vinci Code is not wowwing them at Cannes. According to this story, it's drawing everything from mild praise to shrugs and derisive jeering.

Do you suppose the editor who titled the article understood the significance of the phrase "misses the mark"? (UPDATE: See hamartia.)

Kathy Shaidle has more here.

Jeffrey Overstreet sums up some of the furor.

UPDATE: Our friendly American Papist has been sifting through reviews, and it looks as though the movie is getting quite a thrashing.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Spiritual Direction

I finally got around to getting a spiritual director. Not sure when I'll work in visits, but we'll take care of that when necessary. He recommended that I read Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and the Gospel—on Prayer by Thomas Dubay, so I picked that up and have been trying to work it into my morning devotional readings.

St. Teresa reminds me of a certain someone I know of the same name (different spelling). Sounds like she was quite the bundle of energy despite her physical suffering.

I see travel in your future.

And near future at that. Looks like I'm going to have to go to Houston next week. Perfect timing, too. I have a heavy reading load for these two weeks, work is ramping up, and my schedule has gone kaflooey. Sometime in July I'll have to go to Singapore, and at the end of August I have a Microsoft visit and my first wedding anniversary. Somewhere in all that, I have to work in my papers and my final.

Yeah, I know all you students. Big deal, huh? I used to think that, too, when the nontraditional students used to complain about juggling work, family, and school.

Fortunately, I really like the reading material for the course. I'm just going to have to plan ahead a bit.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

This oughta clear things up!

The Holy Office at Live Journal has produced a handy guide for secular folks who are having a difficult time making sense o' this here Christianity thing.

HT to Elliot at Claw of the Conciliator

Thursday, May 11, 2006

More on Ahmadinejad's Letter

Okay, this time it's for real. The Dragon and the Phoenix has the following post: NY Sun Says Ahmadinejad's Letter Is War Declaration.

This news is probably a bit more accurate than the transcription I wrote about the other day.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Da Vinci Code goes Open Source!

Over at the Curt Jester.

I suppose that means it'll be up on shortly.

Dreher and Eastern Orthodoxy

Darwin Catholic has a thoughtful post on Rod Dreher's concerns with the Catholic Church and his attraction to Eastern Orthodoxy:

Perhaps it's easier to see this as both a cradle Catholic and a student of history, but it's always seemed to me that the proof of God's divine guidance is not that the Church is so sinless, but rather that she has remained wholly true to the deposit of faith despite being populated and occasionally run by some exceedingly sinful people.

I don't need to look very far to find a sinful, imperfect example of a Catholic. In fact, he's on the input side of this entry as we speak!

HT to Chad at On the Silent Planet, his new blog.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Full Text of Ahmadinejad's Letter

James Lileks has the full text (minus some extraneous diatribe) of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's letter to President Bush.

Abso. Lutely. Chilling.

Opus Dei Strikes Back!

This posting on Fr. John Wauck's blog takes a refreshing tack on the balderdash in the Da Vinci Code.

HT to the Curt Jester

Monday, May 08, 2006

The Condom Debate

I posted over on Greg Krehbiel's blog on the recent debate and news on Condom use and AIDS prevention.

Here's what I wrote:

Seems to me that the principle of double effect only applies when no good option is available. You can choose the lesser of two evils when those are the only two options. In this case, abstinence is an option that the parties could choose. Abstinence for the sake of preserving life is undeniably good, and it demonstrates greater love for both parties than the demand for physical intimacy.

The only case in which abstinence is NOT an option is when the female party has no choice, in which case, the unitive effect of the marital act is undeniably thwarted. So use of condoms in such a case would actually be a greater evil because it would seem to justify rape.

Now, I'm not saying that the Church couldn't come out and approve condom use in a very narrowly defined case such as this. However, I think that proponents will have a hard time applying the principle of double-effect (which some people misunderstand as a "lesser-evil" argument) in support of such a move. I should also note what option I offered: abstinence for the sake of preserving life.

Greg responded:

It’s not so clear to me that abstinence is a “good” option when Paul specifically tells married couples to “come together.”

From my perspective, if I have to weigh the extraordinarily clear words of Scripture (”come together again lest Satan tempt you”) against the muddy philosophical arguments against condoms, the “clearer” route would be to allow condom use in this case.

Doogie points out the context of the passage in 1 Corinthians:

You’re omitting part of St. Paul’s direction to the Corinithians here though. I Cor 7:5-7 reads:

“Do not deprive each other, except perhaps by mutual consent for a time, to be free for prayer, but then return to one another, so that Satan may not tempt you through your lack of self-control. This I say by way of concession, however, not as a command. Indeed, I wish everyone to be as I am, but each has a particular gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.”

Dawn, Doogie's wife, also posts on the effectiveness of condoms (or lack thereof) for protecting against HIV infection, as well as comments on the unitive aspect. She expands upon the idea I mentioned that "Abstinence for the sake of preserving life is undeniably good, and it demonstrates greater love for both parties than the demand for physical intimacy."

I don't like to go on at length in other people's comboxes, which is what a correct description of the principle of double-effect with its application to Catholic moral teaching would require. I also don't think a combox is where an extended presentation belongs. Greg is gracious enough to allow comments, and I think it's rude to leave a 500-word essay on my side of the argument (which it really isn't since we're simply discussing different perspectives). However, I do want to respond to the muddiness quotient of the argument against condom use.

The basis of my belief is this paragraph from the Catechism

1756 It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.

But I think also relevant to the case is this:

1766 "To love is to will the good of another."41 All other affections have their source in this first movement of the human heart toward the good....

There is nothing muddy about the requirements of the principle of double-effect. However, such arguments can be complex. What may be muddy is an individual's understanding or application of the principle. In a nutshell, this was what my terse presentation meant. The end is to prevent HIV infection. If that's the aim, there are multiple means to that end, one of which involves a good effect (prevent infection through sexual intimacy) that does not include the bad effect (thwarting the procreative aspect of sexual intimacy) and one that involves a probability of the good effect and does involve the bad effect. When a path to an end does not include the bad effect, we're supposed to take it.

One formulation of principle of double-effect is described in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The New Catholic Encyclopedia provides four conditions for the application of the principle of double effect:

The act itself must be morally good or at least indifferent.

The agent may not positively will the bad effect but may permit it. If he could attain the good effect without the bad effect he should do so. The bad effect is sometimes said to be indirectly voluntary.

The good effect must flow from the action at least as immediately (in the order of causality, though not necessarily in the order of time) as the bad effect. In other words the good effect must be produced directly by the action, not by the bad effect. Otherwise the agent would be using a bad means to a good end, which is never allowed.

The good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the bad effect” (p. 1021).

So let's see how each of these applies to the question of whether condom use should be permitted to prevent HIV infection.

The act itself must be morally good or at least indifferent.

The condom itself is morally indifferent. It's a thing. The act involved can be good or bad. I don't think you could see sexual activity as morally indifferent. If there's muddiness anywhere in the debate, it's here. So the question is, then, is the act itself moral under the conditions presented, whether a condom is involved or not?

Is it moral for someone infected with HIV to expect (or demand) sexual intimacy with a spouse who is not infected?

Is it moral for someone who is not infected to risk infection (and eventual death) by engaging in sexual intimacy with a spouse who is infected with HIV?

These are complex questions, and it would require more space than I want to take up on the topic. People with big brains at the Vatican are discussing it, and I trust their judgement on the matter. However, I think it bears repeating that the risks are merely lessened, not eliminated.

However, I did note one case in which the licitness of the act itself would be in question.

The only case in which abstinence is NOT an option is when the female party has no choice, in which case, the unitive effect of the marital is undeniably thwarted. So use of condoms in such a case would actually be a greater evil because it would seem to justify rape.

I should have said that allowing the use of condoms would be a greater evil.

UPDATE: Jimmy Akins has just blogged on a related question that goes into more detail on this point.

And I guess I should amend what I've written here. The justification that a man infected with HIV can just use a condom would seem to encourage rape in this particular instance.

Next requirement:

The agent may not positively will the bad effect but may permit it. If he could attain the good effect without the bad effect he should do so. The bad effect is sometimes said to be indirectly voluntary.

Here's the point where I think the debate in support flounders.

The good effect is not the successfuly unitive activity. It is the prevention of infection and possible death by HIV through sexual intercourse. There are three options:

- Abstention
- Sex with condom
- Sex without condom

Good effect: prevent HIV infection
Bad effect: thwart the procreative aspect of the sexual act

Clearly, the last option isn't in the running as it doesn't have any preventative aspect but luck. So we have the first and second options from which to choose.

If the second option were the only means to get the good effect, then there would be a case for condom use. Because abstinence is a means of gaining the good effect without simultaneously enacting the bad effect, this requirement would stand. There is no thwarting of the procreative aspect if the act itself doesn't occur. It also provides a greater degree of prevention against HIV.

Now, if we recast this debate in terms of "maintaining marital happiness," well, we're changing the end and muddying the waters. However, that's not what the debate is about, or at least not as it's being cast by the pro-condom side of the debate. If this new end is what the debate is about, then it's back to condition 1. Is the act in itself moral? That's why this debate gets muddy. People keep bypassing this second condition.

One could claim that abstinence also has a bad effect (namely undermining marital happiness). However, that's a separate argument, and I think that it's resolvable by requirement three below. Dissolution of marriage does not result immediately as a result of abstinence. It may result over time, but that would arguably be due to factors in addition to abstinence.

The good effect must flow from the action at least as immediately (in the order of causality, though not necessarily in the order of time) as the bad effect. In other words the good effect must be produced directly by the action, not by the bad effect. Otherwise the agent would be using a bad means to a good end, which is never allowed.

I think this could be reasonably argued to be true in some cases (the act incurs both bad and good effects immediately). However, you have the bad effect regardless, while the good effect has a one-in-ten chance of not occurring.

The good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the bad effect.

I think this point could be reasonably argued (that prevention from infection is desirable). However, the second requirement would make it a moot point, and the third would undermine it.

All of this said, I trust the Church to make this determination. I know what my decision would be. I would want the best for the person I love. Risking exposure wouldn't be the best thing.

Pillars of the Church?

Owen S. posted a reflection on his conversion from his Protestant faith over at the Catholic Catechism Dialogue Blog.

He notes this passage of Paul's from 1 Timothy 3:14-15:

I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that, if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.

Paul makes the case for Sacred Tradition many times in his epistles (2 Thessolonians 2:15, 2 Timothy 2:2, Romans 10:17, Ephesians 2:20 to point to a few). A great presentation of the case for Sacred Tradition is here.

One of the things that convinced me to return to the Church was that Sacred Scripture upholds all that the Church teaches, either explicitly or implicitly. All of the prooftexts that same to condemn the faith of the Church, when presented in the larger context of the totality of Sacred Scripture become clear. Context is so very critical. Tradition is part of that context, but even without starting from Tradition, Sacred Scripture points us in that direction as its own foundation.

Oh yeah, and the whole history thing. As Cardinal Newman said, "To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” Carl Olsen has a great article on Cardinal Newman on Catholic Exchange.

As my latest posts indicate, I'm taking a graduate course on Catholic History this semester. So far, I'm enjoying the readings and lectures tremedously. It's been years since I've written a history paper. I hope the expectations aren't significantly different from literature and philosophy (disciplines with which I'm much more familiar).

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Lecture 1: Introduction - Jewish & Roman Context

Well, I've read the first lecture and watched the DVD. Surprise! The written lecture is nearly verbatim! So now I'm thinking I could've saved the price of the DVDs. Oh well. Processing the same information through multiple channels is often one of the best ways for me to really solidify my grasp of it.

Explain the definition of history in the lecture.

"History is the reconstruction of the past by the mind from sources."

Fr. O'Connell highlights that the definition is a declarative statement followed by three prepositional phrases. If we want to be really pedantic, we could go a little further and say that it is a noun phrase followed predicate nominative modified by three prepositional phrases (and since I also tend toward pedantry, I will go further and say that ;-).

History is a reconstruction. It doesn't come to use whole cloth but requires us to assemble it from pieces. Those pieces are persons, settings, and events in the past. We take those pieces, attempt to determine how they fit together, and try to create a picture—our reconstruction.

I consider the inclusion of "persons" here critical. Without people, there is really no history but simply paleontology or science. The study of past events becomes history when it involves people as beings with will. When a science involves geophysical elements from the past, we call it geology. When science involves plants and animals (even human animals) from the past, we call it evolutionary biology. The difference between these elements and the subject matter of history is that history studies a subject with volition or will. As much as modern scientists and philosophers might look contemptuously on eschatology or directed purpose in the world, the very subject matter of history presumes it to a degree.

Enough of my bloviating...

A reconstruction of the past...
We take pieces from the past and reassemble them. As Fr. O'Connell said, "What you see is what you get" (or WYSIWYG as they call it in my profession).

in the mind...

There are two aspects of this. First we assemble these pieces from the past and evaluate them from a subjective viewpoint. We cannot help but to insert our own biases, our own experiences, or our own belief systems into the process of making sense of the events of the past.

This reminds me of a satire I read in Reader's Digest of all places about twenty years ago. The piece was supposedly a paper written after the discovery of an ancient burial tomb. The actuality was that this "ancient tomb" was a room at a Holiday Inn. The archeologists went to painstaking detail to describe the burial vestments used by these ancient peoples, including an ephod-like item with a headband that had the words (spelled phonetically) "sah-ni-taiz'd for yor pro-tek-shun."

There was a similar essay concerning the Body Rituals of the Nacirema that I read during my undergrad studies.

Did I mention that sometimes digress?

The second aspect of the phrase "in the mind" is that we are constrained by concepts our mind imposes on the material by necessity. We can't possibly wrap our heads around the totality of human history, so we naturally try to compartmentalize it. We have to be cognizant of the fact that the distinctions we draw to enable ourselves to understand history are conceptual—they're mental fabrications that don't really exist in the real world. For example, if we talk about the economic history of Antioch, we're bleeding over into the religious history of Antioch as well. There's no real line between these to topics, except the one we impose upon it.

In any case, we have to be cognizant of these impositions on the material of our own mental categories (hat tip to I. Kant) and understand that these mental categories are not inherent in the material itself but are imposed by us. What happens when we forget this and begin imposing our concepts or our contemporary mindset willy-nilly on the events in the past is a construction as opposed to a reconstruction. Some of the abuses of the feminist, Marxist, and the ironically named deconstructionist historical perspectives strike me as excellent examples of subjectivism run amok in the historical playground.

I guess I'm rambling...

from sources.

This phrase is what makes history objective. I hesitate to say scientific because the sources include human witnesses who often have preconceived notions of how the world works, and there is no attempt to isolate conditions in such a way as to eliminate irrelevant data. However, what historians do is piece together the data of what witnesses profess, in addition to whatever data is available. Unlike fiction or poetry, the starting point for history is not the imagination but the details related by the source. The historian's job is to piece together the facts presented by the sources to present a picture of the totality, creatively but constrained by the sources.

What is the difference between history and tradition?

Tradition is an accumulation. If we say tradition with a lowercase t, we're talking about a vast body of thought, stories, memories, individuals, and practices that makes up the cultural framework around our faith. If we say Tradition with a capital T, we're talking about certain practices or beliefs that have been handed down consistently without contradiction by through the guidance of the Church, hence, the Holy Spirit. Lowercase tradition contains uppercase Tradition, but some things in lowercase tradition don't have the same weight of truth. They don't necessarily rise to the level of revealed Truth.

History, on the other hand, is focused on material, temporal events and personages, that have been recorded. Like science, it does not attempt to reach beyond material experience. However, history allows us to reach back to confirm whether something is tradition with a lowercase t or with an uppercase T.

What does he mean by not fleeing history?

We cannot and should not try to ignore the history of the Church, even though some aspects of our history are less than flattering. Our history is what makes the Church what it is today—and institution of fallible human beings handing on infallible Truth. Our history demonstrates better than anything else that even the sinful nature of man cannot overcome the Truth. If we haven't destroyed the Church with all of our frailties and failings, what could prevail against it? Only a Divinely supported institution could last through such events.

UPDATE: I just read this article on Cardinal Newman by Carl Olsen over at Catholic Exchange. Mr. Olsen's final paragraph sums up the case for history well. History our friend because it bears out the claims of Apostolic Succession and the roots of the early Church.

In what way is history a science? In what way an art?

History is scientific in that it relies on data for its material. It is constrained by the data available to it. History is an art in that the data cannot interpret itself. The data must be assembled and synthesized to make any sense. Like art, the material is filtered through the mind of the historian and expressed. The difference is that the artist's inspiration comes from within. The historian's inspiration comes from without.


Saturday, May 06, 2006

Round Two of Theology Studies

I just received notification that my next theology course is available online. This semester, I'm taking "Two Critical Moments in Catholic History." So far, so good. I read the lectures yesterday (and will reread them during the course of the semester). I find Rev. O'Connell's writing style quite engaging, and I'm looking forward to starting the DVD lectures. (And since I discovered that today's king fu class has been pre-empted, it looks like I'll get to start right away). I'm having a little difficulty getting volume 2 of Daniel-Rops' The Church of Apostles and Martyrs. The first bookseller advertised both volumes but sent only one. We'll see if he comes through on volume 2. Not wanting to leave it up to chance, I ordered the set from another bookseller in Australia. The only other copy I could track down via Abe Books or Amazon was going for $102.75 USD. I don't mind paying for rare books or first editions, but I suspect this offer is just plain gouging. Anyway, I may just end up with two sets.

To all of my classmates and to my online instructor, welcome. I hope the less relevant postings won't be too distracting. Please leave comments!

Friday, May 05, 2006

What Book Am I?

Saw this quiz on the Happy Catholic blog. Julie D. didn't much care for her results.

I think mine might be closer to the mark (short, hairy feet, etc.).

You're The Hobbit!

by J.R.R. Tolkien

All you wanted was a nice cup of tea when some haggard crazy old man
came into your life and told you it was time to do something with yourself. Now you're
all conflicted about whether to stick with your stay-at-home lifestyle or follow this
crazy person into the wild. While you're very short and a little furry, you seem to be
surrounded by an even greater quantity of short folks lately. Try not to lose your ring,
but keep its value in perspective!

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Dilbert Effect

Having worked in high tech for a while and seen the seemingly disproportionate number of bad ideas floated around as new management trends, I quickly found a lot of common ground with Dilbert.* I've followed the strip faithfully ever since.

I don't necessarily agree with Scott Adams's personal views, but on some points we synch up quite well. On the Iraq debate, it seems we have some commonality as well (although I think the data unreported by the MSM largely supports that there was an active weapons program and that many of the WMDs were moved to the Bekka Valley and to Syria just prior to the invasion). I didn't think the invasion was the right move, and when it did happen, I didn't think it was done with enough troops or appropriate planning for an extended occupation. And I know diddly squat about such matters so my opinion matters very little. However, I do think we have an obligation to stay and help the new Iraqi government stabilize and gain strength. We walked in and disrupted the situation, so we'd better stay and help set things right as much as possible.

Mr. Adams takes up the "argument" that somehow we should have invaded another country that has a lunatic dictator and an active weapons programs, North Korea (or more specifically, that we had more justification to do so). I nearly jetted streams of Fess Parker's Frontier Red from my nostrils when I read the following:

To me, it seems safer to have one America-hating nut job with WMD compared to two. And since zero isn’t an option, it makes sense to whack the guy whose WMD and army are still somewhat dysfunctional. That cuts the risk in half.

I guess I could argue with his reasoning, but I suspect I'd just look silly.

*I used to follow a mailing list for technical writers that had a number of rather testy individuals. Unbeknownst to us, Scott Adams had been following some of our discussions about a strip he had featured with Alice the engineer. After waiting and watching with some amusement to the heated debate about Alice, he jumped in and let us know that he found the debate enlightening and that he'd be introducing a new character soon. A few weeks later Tina the Brittle Technical Writer was born.

Monday, May 01, 2006

First, Dan Brown. Now, Steven J. Rolfes.

Apparently, Leonardo da Vinci wasn't the only artist conveying secret meanings in his work. It appears that encoded messages in some other seminal works have been discovered by Steven Rolfes at Wittenburg Door.

Where will it end?