Virtues and thrones and dominions! Oh my!

January 31, 2012

Sometimes contributor to Whosoever Desires, Paddy Gilger, S.J., is behind a new Jesuit online venture, a new page called The Jesuit Post.  Yours truly has an article on the page, in which readers of Whosever Desires might be interested.  Here’s how it begins:

If you listened carefully to the new edition of the Roman Missal rolled out this Advent, you might remember hearing mention of a strange menagerie of heavenly creatures.

The Advent Prefaces to the Eucharistic Prayer—the part that begins “It is truly right and just” and ends with us all singing “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts”—invoke the songs of Angels, Archangels, Thrones, Dominions, and Powers; other Prefaces throughout the year throw in Virtues and Seraphim for good measure.  But what exactly are all these heavenly gizmos the priest is inviting us to join in acclamation?

It is perhaps best to start by pointing out that in this context, thrones are not chairs sat upon by kings; dominions are not regal estates; and virtues have nothing to do with the established habits of decent human beings.  All of these words refer to types of angels mentioned in Sacred Scripture.

Now I am no expert in either angelology – though I do like saying the word – or Biblical studies, but you don’t have to be a specialist to notice how thoroughly permeated with spiritual beings the world of the Bible is.  We tend to gloss over mention of the heavenly hierarchies these days, not talking about them much because of how foreign the notion of angels is to our own worldview.  And we don’t talk about thrones and dominions because, well, we don’t even know how to talk about them.

To continue, check out The Jesuit Post


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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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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