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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