Remarkable

October 3, 2011

It’s easy when one is working fulltime for the Church or studying theology or sharing opinions on the Catholic blogosphere (do all of you have jobs?) to get caught up in minutiae and the controversies of the moment and lose sight of the Big Picture or forget just how remarkable the Big Picture really is.  (And just so we’re clear, when I say, “Big Picture,” I mean, “The Gospel.”)

Last week, after slop buckets of minutiae, a few frustrations, and a futile circle or two, I decided I needed a day off the reservation (literally).  So I pulled on my jeans and my cowboy boots and grabbed a volume of Greek tragedies (you can take the nerd out of the university, but you can’t take the nerdiness out of the nerd) and drove down to Valentine, Nebraska to sit on the porch of Auntie D’s Coffee Shop and read Aeschylus in the late-September warmth, as trucks full of hay bales drove past on Main Street.

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God’s Forgiveness and the Two Sons

September 25, 2011

This little parable (Matt. 21:28-32) from Jesus is more complicated than it first appears. It seems pretty cut and dried when compared with the other parables of Jesus that tend to shock us or twist the meanings of words and situations. This one seems straight forward, the first son, who says “no” to his father, but eventually goes and works in the vineyard seems to be the one who does the will of his father. The one who says “yes” but then shirks his duties is the scoundrel.

To our 21st century American ears, it’s pretty easy to determine which of the two sons did the will of the father. The first one. However, to the ears of the listeners of Jesus in first century Palestine things were a bit more complicated. In a way, both sons brought shame and disgrace to the father. The first son commits the heinous sin of saying no directly to the face of his father. In a culture where family hierarchy was more stratified, this is an unpardonable offense, even if he changes his mind. To publicly say “no” to the face of one’s father was one of the worst things the first son could have done. And his going and working in the vineyard, to the minds of the earliest Christians who would have heard this gospel message from Matthew, would not have made up for or atoned for his betrayal of the father. Read the rest of this entry »


Contra Dennett III: Mystery

July 4, 2011

In my first post on the subject I argued that that Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell sets up a straw man by attacking only a childish and incoherent understanding of religion.  In my second I looked at his attempt to weigh the pros and cons of religion, which is riddled with logical flaws.  Dennett paints believers as unquestioning simpletons clinging to the stories they were told in childhood—he compares religion to Santa Claus—and simply ignores or breezily brushes aside any evidence that might contradict his stereotype.

One further aspect of Dennett’s charge against theism, however, deserves attention, for it can sometimes be a stumbling block even to believers—the notion of mystery.

For Dennett, “mystery” is simply a trump card played by believers whenever they can’t think of anything better to say, a talisman to be invoked when one has run out of arguments.  Unfortunately, sometimes this can be the case, especially when dealing with the sort of unsophisticated believers Dennett seems to favor.

In Dennett’s view, religious beliefs once provided simplistic explanations about why the world is the way it is, but believers have had to retreat from many of these explanations as human thought evolved.  Since religious beliefs are false to begin with—only material phenomena are real—they necessarily lead believers into absurdities and contradictions from which they attempt to extract themselves by changing their beliefs or, if they’re too stubborn for that, invoking mystery.

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Contra Dennett II: The Crusades, the Inquisition, and all that

June 21, 2011

Last week, I argued that Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell amounts to an attack on a straw man, “Religion,” an amalgam of what he calls “an unorganized set of dozens or hundreds—or billions—of quite different possible theories.”

Billions, huh?

Dennett is right in noting that many of these theories are vague and incompatible, and it would be a mistake to treat them all as equally valid. (Another reason believers should be on guard against relativism and syncretism, which result in religious absurdities at which skeptics rightly scoff.)

His straw man stuffed, however, Dennett is determined to beat the hay out of him. His argument is that in weighing up the pluses and minuses of Religion, it turns out that the phenomenon has been a net negative to human progress. There’s nothing even remotely scientific in Dennett’s method here, and he relies on stringing together a series of loaded associations without seriously exploring what his examples actually prove.

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Contra Dennett I: Stuffing a straw man

June 14, 2011

I’ve made little secret on these pages of my disdain for the crop of neo-atheists who have gotten so much acclaim over the past several years. Most of their arguments wouldn’t merit a passing grade for a high school sophomore.  (No offense intended to our exceptionally bright high school readers, especially those from MUHS.)

Nonetheless, Pope Paul VI in 1966 entrusted the Society of Jesus with the mission to make a “stout, united stand against atheism,” so I’ve devoted some time in my philosophy studies to the work of these neo-atheists.  Of the bunch, Daniel C. Dennett has a reputation for seriousness in part because he is a philosophy professor at Tufts, so I decided to review his book Breaking the Spell for a philosophy of religion class—and to share parts of my critique with you, dear readers of Whosoever Desires.

Dennett frames his book as a plea for the rational study of religion, a rather innocuous suggestion to which believers themselves should pose no objections.  I wish, in fact, that Catholic leaders would study seriously the research done by sociologists such as Christian Smith or Rodney Stark.  (Stark’s analysis disproves the common assumption that the growth of religious communities comes by loosening religious demands, when quite the opposite is true.)  Dennett claims that the only “prescription” he intends to make “categorically and without reservation” is to “do more research.”

Unfortunately, Dennett’s true agenda is revealed at the end of the book when he advocates a program of worldwide reeducation into a “historically and biologically informed” view of religion in order to combat “those who would betray our democracy in pursuit of their religious agendas.”  Such reeducation would be conducted “gently, firmly,” Dennett reassures us, but would necessarily involve depriving parents of the right to bring up their children in their own religious tradition.  Rather more than research is involved in the spell Dennett attempts to cast.

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Ouch.

May 16, 2011

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his disciples, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” (Matt. 5:30).

When I’m teaching confirmation class, I often use this passage to make the point that taking the Bible seriously sometimes means not taking the Bible literally.

Last week, however, I watched a movie, 127 Hours, which is about cutting off one’s arm.  Literally.

James Franco stars as Aron Ralston, a mountain climber who becomes trapped in a remote canyon in Utah, his arm pinned underneath a boulder.  After 127 hours in the canyon, facing dehydration and death, Ralston cuts off his own arm with a rather dull substitute for a Swiss Army knife.  First he has to break the bone, since the knife isn’t sharp enough to saw through it.  Yes:  ouch.  Or, as a delirious Ralston puts it while videotaping what may turn out to be his last moments, “Oops.”

The movie is not religious, but nonetheless contains a few good metaphors for the spiritual life.  The point of Jesus’ hyperbole in the Sermon on the Mount, for example, is that when it comes to doing good and avoiding evil, the stakes are higher even than life or death.  Ralston finally resorts to cutting off his arm after 127 hours—though we’re led to believe that the thought occurs to him soon after he’s been trapped—because his only other alternative is death.  More than a few conversion stories have begun in similar fashion, as when the alcoholic only sobers up after finally hitting rock bottom.

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Happy Faults, Good Thieves, and Divine Mercy

April 27, 2011

This weekend’s beatification of Pope John Paul II means that the spotlight will shine even brighter on Divine Mercy Sunday this year.  While a few liturgical purists criticized the late pontiff for injecting such “Polish piety” into the liturgical calendar so close to Easter, it seems to me that divine mercy is at the heart of the Easter message.

If this intuition isn’t obvious, perhaps it’s because we’re in the habit of selling mercy short.  And if we fail to grasp how beautiful, how shocking, how dazzling mercy is, perhaps this is because we’re inclined to confuse it with a legal acquittal or a God who shrugs his shoulders and says “Whatever” to our sins.  Mercy, it seems to me, is much, much more than that.

We often say we’re sorry, usually without much thought, and in reply we usually hear, “That’s OK,” “Don’t worry about it,” “No problem.”  Rarely, if we knock over someone’s coffee cup or show up late for a meeting do we hear in reply, “I forgive you.”

Perhaps it’s best that such weighty words are not expended on social trivialities, but we shouldn’t so disassociate forgiveness from apologies that we begin to think that when confronted with our sins God just mutters “No problem” and gets on with running divine errands.

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God for Atheists

February 28, 2011

Atheism of late has gotten a bad name thanks to its rather callow contemporary adherents—Dawkins, Hitchens, et al.  But history has produced a few brilliant atheists as well—like my favorite, Nietzsche—and the Church’s best theologians have long taken atheism seriously.

The insightful British Thomist, Herbert McCabe, OP, distinguishes between two different types of atheists in his excellent collection of essays God Matters.  McCabe points out that some atheists reject what they take to be a peculiar religious conception of God:  God as a sort of really big, really powerful guy, a “Top Person,” to use McCabe’s phrase.  In rejecting such a (mis)conception of God, McCabe says, Thomas Aquinas is an atheist too.

But there’s another type of atheism, one exemplified by Bertrand Russell, which amounts to the refusal to ask a particular type of question.  Contrary to the picture atheists often try to paint of themselves as bold questioners and champions of truth, such an atheism amounts to a sort of intellectual suicide.  It is this type of atheism that Thomas’ much celebrated and much maligned “five ways” are meant to counter.

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A new index of forbidden ideas?

February 22, 2011

The satirical documentary is not a genre known to be friendly to religious faith.  See, for example, my posts on Bill Maher’s Religulous (here and here).  Michael Moore pioneered this type of documentary—NOVA meets Saturday Night Live—with Roger & Me in 1989.  The genre relies heavily on ironic juxtapositions and gotcha moments.

While I have nothing against a little satire, the style and technique of such documentaries limit how deeply they can engage an issue.  These limitations apply to Ben Stein’s Expelled:  No Intelligence Allowed (2008), though Stein’s perspective is antithetical to Maher’s:  it’s secular orthodoxy he’s skewering.

The point of departure for the documentary is the dismissal of several faculty members from various universities across the country (George Mason, SUNY Stony Brook, Baylor, and Iowa State, as well as the Smithsonian Institute).  These professors were allegedly too sympathetic to “intelligent design”.  The film doesn’t do much to help us judge the merits of intelligent design theories, but Stein’s point is not so much about the validity of the theory itself as it is about academic freedom.

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Guilt & Gratitude

February 14, 2011

One of the pleasures of my time at Loyola has been getting to know some particularly thoughtful undergraduates who are living their faith with enthusiasm in a culture that is, to say the least, not always supportive.  I had an interesting conversation with a few of these students two weeks ago, in which one of them expressed regret that she did not spend more time volunteering.  In fact she said, “I feel guilty for not doing more.”

Now the young woman in question is a model Christian—generous, open-minded, and joyful.  (She also makes excellent soup.)  She does so much for others that I’m often tempted to ask her where she has managed to find days with more than 24 hours.  So the word “guilt” coming from her surprised me.

The conversation got me thinking about two things—the role of guilt in Christian life and the various pressures young people feel to volunteer.

“Catholic guilt” is, of course, a familiar trope in literature and pop culture, even if, for those of my generation, the idea now seems somewhat quaint.  As our sense of sin has evaporated, so too our sense of guilt—or so, at least, I thought until my conversation of a few weeks ago. Read the rest of this entry »


F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jesuit story

February 7, 2011

I have long thought F. Scott Fitzgerald to be a very Catholic writer, though explicitly Catholic themes show up only rarely in his work.  There’s the urbane Monsignor Darcy in This Side of Paradise, for example, and a few scattered references in Tender is the Night, but mostly Fitzgerald’s Catholic sensibilities come through in his moral vision, in the interplay of truth and illusion we see, for example, in The Great Gatsby.

In a Fitzgerald biography, however, I’d once come upon a reference to an early (1920) short story called “Benediction,” and I took advantage of a Chicago snow day last week to track the story down.  I was not disappointed.

The story is a gem, written in the witty, dancing prose of the youthful Fitzgerald, and touching on many of his typical themes—the giddiness of coming of age, the wistful sadness of romance, even a hint at class sensitivities.  The story centers around Lois, a romantic and beautiful nineteen-year-old travelling to Baltimore to meet her lover, Howard; on her way to their rendezvous she stops to visit her only brother Keith, a seminarian she has not seen in seventeen years.

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Nietzsche in November

November 21, 2010

We are nearly at the end of the liturgical year, with daily readings from the Book of Revelation reminding us of the end of everything else too.  Indeed, the month of November as a whole, beginning with the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, is dedicated in a special way to remembering the dead and contemplating our own eternal future.

Some people have a problem with that.

Friedrich Nietzsche, one of Christianity’s most brilliant enemies, criticizes our faith for placing too much emphasis on the life to come, thereby emptying this life of meaning and giving unhappy and unsuccessful human beings—“mutterers and nook counterfeiters”—an excuse to wallow in their own misery until they arrive in “heaven,” which in Nietzsche’s estimation seems like little more than a very long nap.

This, I’m afraid, is not one of Nietzsche’s better arguments (though to give the poor old guy a break, I don’t think it’s original to him).  Unfortunately, it has too often been taken up in one form or another by well-meaning Christians themselves.  If we spend too much time contemplating heaven, they say, we will be neglectful of our duties here on earth.  Or, as that summit of liturgical kitsch, “Gather Us In,” puts it, “Gather us in… [but] not in some heaven, light years away.”

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A holy day of opportunity

October 26, 2010

This year All Saints Day is not a holy day of obligation.  I have to confess, I’m a little sad about that.

I’m sad because, absent the threat of sin, most people won’t go to Mass.

Too cynical a way of putting it?  Maybe.  But am I wrong?

Human nature being fallen, there’s a certain legalistic streak in each one of us, and the most common form of legalism is minimalism.  Ever asked yourself, “How late can I show up at Mass for it still to count?”  Or calculated how many minutes into Mass communion is likely to be so that you can squeeze in one last donut before heading out the door?  Come on, admit it.  I have, too.  (The donut had sprinkles.)

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An interesting discussion on religion and violence

October 7, 2010

To mark the 439th anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto, I thought I’d alert our readers to a discussion taking place on Cynthia R. Nielsen’s interesting blog Per Caritatem on “Violence and Christian Holy Writ.”

 

I contributed a short piece on Rene Girard based on our own discussions of Girard here on Whosoever Desires.  (My own piece won’t come up for another few weeks, but the others’ contributions are even more interesting.)


A Jesuit shout-out from the Pope

September 17, 2010

I might be risking the sin of pride by saying this, but we Jesuits have some pretty cool saints.  One of the great unmerited blessings of this vocation is to be able to think of men like Francis Xavier, Peter Claver, and—today—Robert Bellarmine as elder brothers.  And among those saints, I’ve always gotten a special thrill from the martyrs of the British Isles.

If, like me, you were avoiding homework yesterday by poring over transcripts of the papal visit to Scotland on Whispers in the Loggia (yes, I am a really big dork), you might have noticed that the Pope mentioned one of those Jesuits, St. John Ogilvie, as an example for the Scottish clergy.

John Ogilvie (1579-1615), was raised a Calvinist but converted to Catholicism at the age of seventeen.  This meant he had to leave Britain to study on the Continent, first in Belgium and then in Germany and what is today the Czech Republic.  There he studied in a Jesuit college and joined the Austrian province of the Society of Jesus.

He went through the usual lengthy formation process, was ordained in 1610, and wanted immediately to return to Scotland.  His superiors thought Scotland too dangerous at first (and they were proven right), but he was finally able to sneak into his homeland in 1613 disguised as a horse dealer.

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Dressing Korean

August 15, 2010

I’ve blogged about the French-born anthropologist Rene Girard before (here’s my summary of key Girardian ideas); what I find particularly insightful in his work is the emphasis he places on how our desires develop through mimesis.  In other words, we learn what to desire often just by imitating others.  A few Girardian moments this summer reminded me of the validity of this point.

The first came at the first birthday party of my niece, the adorable Chloe, who I’ve mentioned before.  Chloe has idiosyncratic tastes; she’s as often interested in gnawing on someone’s shoe or a newspaper as she is in playing with her toys.  The one thing you can do to make her more interested in the toys, however, is to start playing with them yourself.  Once Chloe notices someone else playing with a toy, she crawls resolutely across the floor and takes it from them!  Mimetic desire starts early.

I thought of Girard again in northeast India when the fifth graders in the remote mountain village where I taught started flashing gang signs whenever I took their picture.  Of course, when I asked them what they were doing and why, they had no real idea—they were just imitating something they had seen on TV.

I should back up a bit here and say that even though the village where I worked has no telephone connections, paved roads, refrigeration, radio reception, or indoor plumbing, nearly every house has satellite TV.  An enduring image of the journey will be that of The Dish sticking out from under the thatched roofs of bamboo huts.

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Luxuries of a Third World Church

August 9, 2010

If you are one of our astute regular readers (and aren’t all of our regular readers by definition astute?), you might have noticed that my postings this summer were rather sparse.  You see, I was in the jungle.

The Jesuits, as most of you know, are a worldwide religious order, and, even though the order is divided into provinces, when a man becomes a Jesuit he enters the Society of Jesus, of which there is but one in the world.  Our current Father General has placed great emphasis on the international character of the Society, encouraging provinces to work together across national borders and reminding us that Jesuits in formation need to be comfortable working in any culture.

All of this, along with the inscrutable workings of Providence, is to explain how I found myself at the beginning of June in a remote mountain village in northeast India.  No phones, no internet, not even mail.

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A Church of sinners or a Church of one

August 5, 2010

Anne Rice has left Christianity.  While the author of vampire novels is not a figure of such towering intellectual stature that I anticipate droves of believers following her, the arguments she gives for leaving the Church are common enough to deserve comment.

Rice claims to have “quit Christianity in the name of Christ.”  The problem, she claims, isn’t Jesus:  it’s his followers, who are “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous.”

In the Facebook announcement of her departure, Rice works herself up into a rhetorical snit over how awful Christians really are:  they’re “anti-gay,” “anti-science,” “anti-secular humanist,” even—wait for it—“anti-life”.  Rice herself, of course, lacks such faults and is sure Jesus does, too, so he can stay even if everyone else must go.

The problem with such a line of argument is that Rice hasn’t really rejected the Church:  she’s simply created a Church of one.

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