Saturday, February 24, 2007

Sophia Update: Keep Praying!

This update isn't so good. Sophia still isn't out of the woods, so please keep praying.

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"Veronica just called me with the results of today’s CAT scan, and asked me to send an email and ask you for special prayers. The main artery in the brain is blocked. They explained that it is the artery that takes the blood out of the brain, so with extensive blockage she has the risk of a hemorrhage.

"They put her on medication to thin the blood but the doctor explained that it takes time, maybe days for that to happen, and in the mean-time it’s dangerous. I was about to start writing to you about today, and how well Sophia was doing. She walked, took a bath, ate, and even talked on the phone with my daughter Karina. This shows us how quickly things can still change. Thank you for your extra prayers! I’ll keep you posted. God bless each and every one you Daniela."
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The Literal Sense of Scripture

I recently submitted a paper on the development of the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy in the Catholic Church, and I have a chance to read up a lot on various views on hermeneutics. One of the most interesting aspects I found during my research was this concept of the "literal sense" of scripture. I've had a few debates in the past concerning just how the Church interprets certain passages and the constraints it puts on Catholic exegetes in terms of interpretation. Oddly, I most commonly encounter two extreme views that both begin with the same conclusion: "the Church says the scripture has to be interpreted this way, so this view must be accepted if you are faithful;" or "the Church says the scripture has to be interpreted this way, and that can't be right, so it must be discarded."

Both are looking at the same scripture and reading it from what they believe is the "literal sense." What they're actually doing is reading the word literally without considering the sense intended by the author or the sense with which the text was taken in its own time. They understand the words "literal sense" to mean "verbatim, what the individual words literally mean."

This isn't what the Church teaches about the literal sense at all, and this isn't what the fathers and doctors of the Church meant by the literal sense. Pope Benedict XV wrote about St. Jerome in Spiritus Paraclitus and the latter's appreciation for the literal sense, while noting that history is often "presented in metaphorical dress and described figuratively." Justin Martyr also makes note of the need to be acquainted with and to "rise above" figurative modes of expression. St. Augustine clearly saw the "literal sense" to be something quite different than literal verbatim understanding of the text, as he demonstrated in his multiple works on Genesis, where certainly treats the figurative modes of speech as matters or literal sense, and where his explanation of Genesis very rarely attempts to adhere to a letter-by-letter literalism.

What's often missing from overly literalistic views is that the Church has left considerable latitude for interpretation. Typically, the Church interprets scripture in negative ways: for example, you cannot say x is true about such-and-such passage. Marcellino D'Ambrosio points out that only seven texts have been interpreted positively by the Church, and all of those relate to the sacraments. All other definitions are done in the negative.

A good example are the findings of the Pontifical Biblical Commission in relation to the authorship of the Pentateuch, the historical character of various books. While the commission affirms the essential historicity of the Genesis accounts of the creation, it does not indicate how the words must be understood but how exegetes may understand them. I wrote a little more about the concept of limited inerrancy here.

In any case, all of this study into the meaning of the phrase "literal sense" reminded me of a project I did for a linguistics class either in my senior year or in my first year of graduate school. I had been reading some of J. Paul Grice's work on the Cooperative Principle. This is essentially a convention by which people assume that someone speaking to them intends to make sense and that, when faced with literally nonsensical utterances, they will find some way to make sense of the utterance. Essentially, people are meaning-making machines, and we will find ways to make a sentence mean something.

I went around and collected samples from public places. (One of the fun things about studying how people use language is that you get to listen in on conversations and call it research.) Anyway, I say around in public places and listened to how people spoke to each other. Then I'd write down certain interchanges that were sufficient on their own to constititute a complete interchange without giving any indication of the actual context. What I had were what seemed to be complete nonsequiturs, where one person said something, and the person to whom they spoke said something completely unrelated. However, the exchanges were only unrelated if you read them verbatim. Each one could be interpreted within a context with no problem

I asked several people from different age and social groups the list of these phrases and asked them to provide a context for each exchange. Without fail, the respondees were able to provide contexts in which even the most nonsensical utterances were understandable. Here are a few examples:

------------------
Q. Do you like Japanese?

A. Yeah, but I don't raw.
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Q. It's time to go.

A. I have to kiss the kitties.
------------------
Q. Can I have a drink please? (No question intonation added)

A. It's regular. (Intoned as a warning.)
------------------

Where Grice's work comes into play is that people operate under the assumption that a response to a question will make sense because people in a conversation are in a state of cooperation (the Cooperative Principle). When people deviate from the apparent cooperation, there were "conversational implicatures" that would essential "license" the deviation and make them acceptable or sensible.

The point is that we operate under the principle that verbal exchanges will make sense. Although written and oral discourse are different, they share (to a degree) this sense of cooperation. There are cases when people intentionally break the rules, but these cases are typically done for artistic effect rather than through a desire to deceive. So we have to assume that the sacred writers likewise wrote with the intent to inform, not to deceive, even when we don't fully understand the meaning. The problem occurs when we attempt to impose a context or understanding that didn't exist for the audience of the time. You can see examples of this in Marxist and feminist critiques that impose a cultural or class-based perspective on the times that simply did not exist. Or in the revisionist feminist histories that posit an idyllic pre-Christian paganism for which no one can provide any documentation.

The example I keep coming back to is Wisdom 7: 1-2.

I also am mortal, like all men, a descendant of the first-formed child of earth; and in the womb of a mother I was molded into flesh, within the period of ten months, compacted with blood, from the seed of a man and the pleasure of marriage.


A literalistic interpretation would suggest this passage means that the process of conception involves compacting the seed of man with the blood of the mother in the womb for (or within) 10 months. Now, Protestants get a pass on this one because it's not part of their scriptures. They might even use the scientific imprecision as a reason to dispute the legitimacy of this book. (To which I say, go read St, Justin Martyr's "Dialog with Trypho the Jew" if you still believe we added books to the canon in the 16th century.) However, Catholics don't get off so easily. We have to respond to what's present.

A scriptural fundamentalist would say, "Well, that's what it says, and that's what it means, so what science claims must be false."

A skeptic would say, "Well, that's what it says, and that's what it means. That's scientifically incorrect, so scripture must be in error."

And both of them would completely miss the point of the passage. In this case, the intent of the author is indicated in the opening clause: "I also am mortal." The author is asserting that he is mortal, just like the audience to whom he writes. His description of conception is how the people of his time understood conception, but he relates it, not as a claim of the actual process of conception but as an indicator of his own mortality. The claim is not a scientific assertion but an existential one. If the sacred writer had described the process of conception as we now know it to occur, his audience would undoubtedly thought he was out of his mind, or perhaps they would've seen it as proof that he was not merely mortal.

It seems like a pretty straight-forward idea. The Bible isn't making scientific assertions. Don't expect it to read like a science text. I think Pope Leo XIII said pretty much the same thing in Providentissimus Deus.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

For Our Friends Across the Tiber



In case those little blobs are a bit too unclear, they're cats.

If anyone finds a better image of cat herding, please send it my way, and I'll make a new poster.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Carmelite Community of the Word?

Is anyone familiar with the Carmelite Community of the Word in Pennsylvania? Is this an order that's worth supporting?

Paper #1 Outta the Way

My paper is now out of the way, and I'm hapy to report that I received a good grade on it. Now, I need to finish up my preentation for a professional conference by Friday and begin moving the parish foodbank, and the busiest two months in my professional life will be done.

Just in time, too.

Sophia Update

Mark at Dominican Idaho has an update on Sophia's condition. Recovery is slow, and it's still difficult to say what will happen. Please keep up your prayers, and also add some for strength and courage for her parents and family. This ordeal is rough on all of them.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

What is it with church signs in KC?

Wolftracker is at it again.

HT to Amy Welborn.

No, not THOSE primates...

Anglican primates! They're having a meeting, you know? And Elliot has kindly pointed to an illustrated report.

Funny, I was expecting to see something different from a meeting of primates...

Monday, February 19, 2007

And by the way...

My paper is done. Now I only have to...

- finish a presentation for a conference

- move the parish food bank

this week.

Slowly but surely I'm getting out from under this pile.

The Latest on Sophia

Sophia apparently had a seizure last night. Please keep the prayers coming.

Latest Google Hits

Apparently I'm now getting hits on the following keywords:

slap
deacon
catholic

Hmmmm.

While I'm enthralled that those posts generated so much traffic, I'm done with that topic. And, no, I'm not commenting on this week's homily. If Mark wants to do that, he's in a better position to relay the facts. I'm just going to continue praying for our clergy.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Update on Sophia

I just received an update on Sophia following her surgery yesterday. Some of the detail is a bit graphic, so I'll just post the first few sentences and explain the rest:

"After 11 hours in the surgery room, Sophia is doing great. Both Dr. Cherny and Dr. Johans said “it went very very well”. Dr. Johans was the first one to come talk to us, he said “in our field, these two surgeries were like poetry.” Everything went extremely well, very smoothly, with no complications and the doctors got to remove everything that was left of the tumor. With everything that could have gone wrong, nothing did."

They won't for another day or so how her vision is, but the doctors were apparently quite optimistic.

There was this little bit as well:

"It’ll probably be a slow recovery, but I believe the worse is over. And you never know, when you see that little body, and how incredibly well she endured these 2 dreadful surgeries, it makes you realize what a fighter our little Sophia is. Can’t wait to see what God has in store for her, I just know that she has a special purpose in life!. When I go back to the hospital tomorrow, I’ll be bringing my camera so that I can send you a photo. The nurses braided her hair, put a ribbon on the braids and she looks like an angel."

This is in contrast to the update we got on Wednesday:

"Last nigh the nurse was moving her, trying to change her sheets and Sophia, very clearly told her 'You guys are a pain in the rear !'"

However, that comment was apparently quite out of character for Sophia (and quite understandable given the circumstances).

Anyway, thank all of you in the blogosphere for your prayers. So many of us here locally are pulling for Sophia. It's nice to know others are as well.

UPDATE: Mark has a bit more from this morning, apparently some more good news!

UPDATE 2: The latest news from Dominican Idaho. Praised be to God!

Friday, February 16, 2007

More Prayers for Sophia! Surgery 2

Here's the latest from Dominican Idaho on Sophia's second surgery, which began at 7:30 this morning. Please continue to pray for the success of this operation.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Limited Inerrancy or Categorical Error?

I have been lame, Lame, LAME about posting lately. I apologize for any of those who regularly come to read my humble posts and thank you for your patience. This last month and a half has been extremely busy, and I'm finishing up on four separate projects that have been demanding my time. I guess that doesn't help my chances for the Catholic Blog Awards much, but I'm pretty used to being here in my quiet little corner of the blogosphere anyhoo.

Dominican Idaho has an update on seven-year-old Sophia, who underwent the first of her operations for a brain tumor.

Here's the young lady in question.



The next surgery, which is tomorrow, will involve removal of the remaining portion of the tumor, which is wrapped around her pituitary gland and optic nerves. She will very likely lose some if not all of her vision. Please pray for the preservation of her sight and for her complete recovery. Anita recommends prayers to Blessed Margaret of Castello.

On the theology front, I'm wrapping up a paper on the notion of biblical inerrancy following Vatican II (see Dei Verbum, 11), particularly the notion of limited inerrancy. I couldn't put my finger on precisely why I bawked at this term until last night when the phrase "categorical error" popped into my mind.

Any thoughts?

UPDATE: See the comments for an explanation of the categorical error in question.

UPDATE 2: Yes, I updated this post nearly a year after the fact because I found spelling errors. Sue me.

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

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Prayers for Sophia

Dominican Idaho has posted a prayer request for a young girl at our parish school, St. Joseph's in Boise.

We met Sophia's aunt a few months ago and only today heard about Sophia's situation today. Please keep her in your prayers from now until her first surgery on Feb. 13.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

New Blog Post

Yes, I'm being a bit quiet this week. Could it be that I...

a. am swamped with work?

b. have an upcoming paper for Normas of Catholic Doctrine?

c. have a deadline for slides for a professional conference in two weeks?

d. have to relocate the cathedral foodbank by the end of the month?

e. all of the above?

If you choose e, you'd be correct.

I'd appreciate your prayers. This is seriously one of the busiest months I've ever had, and I don't think I'll get everything done without a lot of Divine assistance (not that I EVER get anything done without it).

Warren over at My Franciscan Diary had asked me about the next installation of my onversion/reversion story. (Part I is here.) To quote Middle-Aged Man, "I'm workin' on it!"

However, if you've never read my crucifixion story, it's here in two parts.