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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What do I offer?

April 6, 2011

I suggested at the beginning of Lent that this season is a good time to get back to basics, and for Catholics it doesn’t get more basic than the celebration of the Eucharist.  It’s well known that the Second Vatican Council called for the “full and active participation” of all the faithful in the Eucharist, but interpretations of what this phrase means have differed so widely that the Council’s vision hasn’t born the fruit we might have hoped for.  On the most basic measure of full and active participation—Mass attendance—we’re actually far worse off today than we were when the Council began.

For me this Lent has coincided with work on a master’s thesis about sacrifice and the Mass (some of the ideas for which I test drove here on Whoseoever Desires), and my research has raised a question so basic we usually forget to ask it:  what exactly do we do at Mass?

Answering that question depends on how we think about the Mass, what models we use to describe it.  An incorrect model for thinking of the Mass is that of a show or play.  Unfortunately, a lot of people fall into this kind of thinking.  I’ll sometimes hear complaints that Mass is boring, which doesn’t make sense because Mass isn’t supposed to be entertainment.  Even those who should know better sometimes fall into the trap of turning Mass into a kind of high school musical.  I once attended an Easter Vigil in which the man delivering the third reading dressed up as Moses—complete with beard, robes, and staff.  It almost made me root for Pharaoh.

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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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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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Moderne, Postmoderne und wir

February 22, 2010

It has been wonderful to page through First Things 20th Anniversary Issue—and not only because of its priceless, circa-early-90s pictures of the neocon clan.  The issue also features some excellent First Things essays which I have never read, like Joseph Bottom’s “Christians and Postmoderns” from February 1994.  Alas, I wasn’t a ROFTER at age ten.

Reading the essay caused some latent neurons in my head to refire as I began again to consider a question I have often mulled over: Which poses a greater threat to Christianity, modernity or postmodernity?

Were I submitting this essay to a professor for a grade, I would need, at this point, to stop and define what I mean by modernity and postmodernity.  But since I am not handing the essay in for a grade and want to avoid writing a many-thousand word blog post, let me omit positing a definition of modernity—and trust that the term is more or less clear—and proceed straightaway to the difficult task of grabbing the slippery fish of postmodernity and holding it still long enough to slap a definition on it. Read the rest of this entry »


“Secular Christmas”: A Critique of the Critique

December 10, 2009

The lights are twinkling, the Salvation Army bells are ringing, and Christians are up in arms against the supposed secular “war” on Christmas: it’s definitely Advent.  And when I see the ploys of an aggressive secularism (see exhibit A, above) that would remove any mention of the name of Christ from Christmas, I’m liable to join their outcry: “Holiday” trees just don’t seem right.

But alongside this—let’s call it—“aggressive secularism,” there is another secularism at play at in our culture.  This second secularism is one that practically no longer believes in the reality of God.  It does not actively work to remove God or Christian symbols from the public square, but does so rather by apathy. Read the rest of this entry »


Onto-Servants

December 1, 2009

Within the post-conciliar maelstrom of theological debate concerning the Catholic priesthood, two general positions eventually crystallized.  The first is a social-functional view which understands priesthood primarily as a service performed for the community through carrying out a function of the Church in its social dimension.  The second is a sacramental-ontological view that emphasizes priesthood as rooted in the ordained man’s being which is determined though the gift of a sacrament bestowed by Christ through the Church.

A 2006 study by Dean R. Hoge entitled “Experiences of Priests Ordained Five to Nine Years” uses a similar division of the “servant-leader” and “cultic” models of the priesthood.  It notes a shift in those recently ordained toward a favoring of the cultic model.  For example, whereas 63% of the diocesan priests studied in a similar 1990 study agreed somewhat or strongly that ordination gives a priest a “new status . . . essentially different from the laity” by 2005, 89% of recently ordained priests agreed with that statement.

Depending on whom you ask, that may be good news or bad news.   Read the rest of this entry »