Thursday, March 23, 2006

Human dignity, human worth

These things come ultimately from God, certainly--but it seems that the story doesn't end there. What makes someone worthwhile? Is it possible for someone to become a waste? Surely it's possible for someone to waste himself--but to say that someone is a waste seems to be a blasphemy: to claim that God errored in creation. But what baout those who seem doomed to waste themselves forever, until the end? Sometimes I seem that way myself, and still God saves me. But sometimes it seems like there are people who God permits to waste themselves, forever until the end. Why? Addicts go without help until their bodies give up hope; unconverted sinners go to their graves cursing God and exploiting others; and nobody is safe. Nobody can say "that will never be me;" there are some who cannot even say, though they try, "that is not me now."

Dignity is unconditional--it is the quality of being loved by God, and thus of deserving the Christian's love as well. Worthiness, however, is not unconditional. True, on one plane--the truest plane--all are unworthy before God. Thus all the merits of human beings are the Glory of God and nothing else. Nevertheless we do, frankly, speak of the relative worthiness or unworthiness of people on earth; the play of sin and grace, the struggle between God's freedom and human concupiscence (which he allows because it is a part of our own freedom and finitude).
This is not so much theology as it is simple rote catechesis: the deepest criterion of worthiness is charity--"Love God, and do as you will."

Simplicity of Love

Love is complicated by the self. Because we love ourselves--and we do, whether rightly or wrongly--our love for others tends to follow the image of ourselves. It is not necessarily that "I love those who are most like myself" (for a truly selfish person might feel threatened by the presence of those whose selfishness matches their own, e.g., all those "reality TV" shows). Rather, it is that one loves those who one imagines one ought to love. The keyword is "fittingness". One's friends are determined by a sort of analogy of the self--the pattern of "what fits my style." So also, the relationships themselves must conform to this style. If one imagines himself to be entirely in control, he will avoid friendships which are not entirely on his terms. If one imagines herself as being unworthy of love, she will gravitate to people who show her disrespect--such behavior "lights up" with the credibility of the expected, and thus appears more honest and more authentic.

When love is simple, it detaches itself from the criterion of the analogy of the self. It removes, from the pool of potential "beloveds," all artificial or imposed criteria--anything that would designate anyone "unloveable". Even those who despise me, I love. Simple love seeks the good of others, but always within the network of all the other virtues. The reason why simple love can appears complex (and why St. Therese's "Little Way" can seem to unattainable to people outside of a convent) is because the world is dreadfully complex. Dilemmas of consequence and human weaknesses and prudential considerations - and all of these even before the question of sin and selfishness enters in!

But even then, one can find solace in the fact that love is the last word and is the one thing that God desires most. When love of him is pursued in itself, everything else falls into place--and even the virtues which don't quite make it into our repertoire, God can forgive. In this respect, there is something true about the whole business of the "fundamental option" being the only really critical thing; however, it would be a horrific mistake to misconstrue the "fundamental option" as anything other than the desire and active pursuit of the perfection of charity according to the whole of human virtues, example of Christ, and moral law.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

New blog

Parish the Thought! Don't worry, this one's not dead or anything.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

An (Incomplete) Catholic Doctrine of God (2nd draft)

“Is There a God?”

Although this question is always complicated by the thousands of religions and even the dozens of major (living, ancient) religions, there is something in it which is common to every human being. To accommodate everyone, one might rephrase the question as “What is Ultimate?”[1] What is That, which does not depend on anything else, but everything depends on it? Why is there something, rather than nothing at all? This is not about God creating the world, as if it were “manufactured” in the beginning and then left alone (for then the atheists rightly ask, “Then who created God?”). But to the question, “What is Ultimate,” even atheists have an answer: “quarks” or “space-time” or sometimes “mind”. But even then, the variety of answers can be deceiving. In fact, multiple authors[2] have pointed out that there remains one critical question which divides those answers into two groups: is God distinct from the world?

The Competition Between the World and the Divine

The question, “What is most Ultimate?” is often answered in terms of “What is most ultimate in the world? But as long as something belongs to the world, no matter how spiritual it is, it cannot coexist peacefully together with any part of the world. It must “share the pie of Being,” and so when the Ultimate is magnified, everything else is minimized, and vice-versa. This puts the world and God into conflict with each other—a conflict which can only be solved by absolutizing one or the other. The pagan gods, residents of the world, were merely grandiose and greedy spirits—they were less ultimate than the world in which they lived, or fate, or even sometimes human beings. They competed with the world, and magnified themselves at the expense of human beings, who they depended on for food, pleasure, esteem, and glory. Although they demanded things, the gods did not necessarily demand morality or goodness; these were considered less important than obeying their will. For example, Euthyphro was going to prosecute his father, asking the death penalty for a minor crime, on the grounds that he was imitating the example of the gods. The ancient Jews were persecuted and colonized by pagan religions that practiced ritual prostitution and child sacrifice for similar reasons.

A development of the Greek world was the speculative monotheism of Plato and Aristotle—either Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover” or Plato’s Eudaimonia, the Eidos (“Idea”) of the Good. Both of these ‘versions’ of God share a lot of the descriptive language of the Christian God—invisible, omnipotent, omnipresent, the first principle, the highest being, all perfect, all good, etc. But both, like the pagan deities, are ultimately a part of the natural universe—though the first and most important part of it. Nevertheless, like the minor deities, they stand in contrast to the world beyond themselves, while at the same time being completely natural, if metaphysical things (they have their own laws that they must obey, and so they are not free). The Unmoved Mover itself is coeternal with material nature, thus leaving Aristoteleanism stuck in a kind of pantheism (see below). The Eudaimonia is related to the material world as the “perfect original” to the “corrupted copy,” eventually leading to neo-Platonism—Christianity’s first opponent—which preached a hatred for the physical world and for the body.

Pantheism is often mixed with belief in several mythical gods, but the Deus sive natura, “God-that-is-nature,” is completely identified with the world—the world as we know it is God; God is nothing but the world. Thus, the world’s automatic rhythms become the absolute determinant both of God and of ourselves, making us into pawns of a predetermined fate, and it takes away all distinction between ourselves and the natural world. Greek tragedies are the expression par excellence of pantheistic anxiety—we experience freedom and intelligence and society, but all of these things are ultimately empty, and we are simply animals being herded by invisible forces. Communism is the modern, philosophical version of pantheism: the Law of History devised by Hegel and applied by Marx, Lenin, and Mao uses people (under the pretense of revolution and “the Party”) to perpetuate an absolute pre-determined progress which, eventually, devours its own children.[3] Other totalitarian movements—Nazism, the French revolution, and some forms of modern atheism—also tend toward a kind of pantheism.

Asiatic religions like Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism prefer an opposite view: the world is not the Ultimate; rather, the world has no part in the Ultimate. The Tao, the Zen, Nirvana, are states which are reached through gradual negation of the world. But these states are not merely temporary escapes from a concrete world into a haven of contemplation. They are, when complete, the final realization and achievement of total Oneness—not a harmonious unity, but rather the Absolute One: in which the world is absorbed and dissolved, all distinctions are gone, and everything is seen as nought. The additional powers, calm, and peace promised by the Tao is the calm resulting from the realization the world is not real—it is only a lucid dream. Thus, popular films such as “The Matrix” and “Dark City,” where the hero discovers that the world is a deception and that he can shape it by his own mind—are truly Asiatic fantasies. “There is no spoon.” The Tao and its relatives are completely passive, having no will or activity, revelation or relationship. This is why pursuit of enlightenment commonly takes on a methodological shape: we have to do all the work (this is also why these religions are often sharply divided between spiritual masters and “ordinary” people who are unable to attain enlightenment). Consistent philosophies in this regard are also strictly amoral—the human person, the body, the good itself all have no inherent dignity or value; all are mere ripples on an infinite ocean. The world outside of myself has nothing in it that can help me, and for myself the good and the evil are merely indifferent options. This does not mean that these religions despise the material world, like the neo-Platonists do; on the contrary, they see the world, especially the natural world, as the perceivable-but-superficial expression of the balance of good and evil that the Absolute One is supposed to be.

Yet although the Asiatic religions share Christianity’s ambivalent relationship with the world, still they have something more in common with all of the other beliefs discussed so far. No matter how small or how big, how worldly or how “other-worldly” these concepts of the Ultimate are, they stand in contrast to the world as one thing versus another thing.

[1] Personal speculation: This is the first one of four important questions everybody answers for themselves without necessarily having asked them. The next three questions are: “Is this ‘Ultimate’ worth my attention?” then, “Is the ‘Ultimate’ worthy of love?” and finally, “Does/can the ‘Ultimate’ love me?” Historically, the God of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims is the only ‘Ultimate’ in whom all answers are affirmative.

[2] The ones I have read personally are Peter Berger, a philosopher of religion, and Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI.

[3] It is sadly fitting that the philosophy which so emphasizes the primacy of the historical and the concrete be disproved in a historical and concrete way, as the single greatest ideological deathtrap in human history (which, unlike the many bestowings of that dubious award to “religion” or even “Christianity,” is not an exaggeration).

Friday, March 10, 2006

Why Will?

In discussing God before, as the final subtratum between limited being and complete nothingness, I wrote that only freedom--or something analagous to it--could possibly account for the fact of finite being. Why? Because if infinite being, the last substratum, is neither free nor internally differentiated in any understandable way, then its generation would have to be absolute. If "God" were unfree, it would have no choice but to continually double itself--with each double collapsing back into itself, and the rich finite world as we know it would be quite impossible.

But does this all necessarily imply Will? Before I wrote that it did, by process of elimination. This is how:
  • Did infinite being only create finite being because it lacked the energy to recreate itself fully? Impossible--it is infinite; it has no "resources" that could be "dried up" in the act of creation.
  • Was infinite bring somehow prevented from creating infinite being? Impossible--it is not passive in any way that it could be "prevented" from doing anything.
  • Is there some mysterious principle within infinite being such that it was "preprogrammed" to create finite being? This is either impossible, if it means that finite being is somehow prior to or determinative of infinite being (for then that finite being would need another infinite ultimate substratum to support it); or circular, if it presumes to say, "It just does."
So my thinking was simply: no other alternative exists. There is no possible explanation for how infinite being can yield finite being--how it can somehow allow for the existence of something which does not equal itself, though it bears the marks of goodness. There is only a void of explanation, to which the most proper response is awe and wonder, but even still, a further word seems begged for. What shall we say?

There are only two options, and on this side of eternity there is no third option nor middle ground. (1) We refuse to answer the question; we say, whatever man says is a lie, and the existence of finite being is an absolute mystery. Our lot is cognitive depravity. To even utter a guess is blasphemy. Or else, we dare to say, (2) Wait! This mystery, it presents itself to us as a mystery, certainly. But if we were utterly cognitively depraved, we would be presented no mysteries at all--we would not know a mystery when we saw one. Even knowing that it is a mystery and no deductions can be made, yet still, this mystery looks like something; it looks like something we already experience. The existence of finite being looks like a Choice has been made. We cannot be certain; logic does not prove this beyond all possible logical doubt. But to say that finite being is the result of a Choice - this, somehow fits.

But this presents us with a conundrum. Why? Because according to strict Aristotelean logic, one may still choose to believe that infinite Being is not free... and the existence of finite being is simply unaccounted for. There is no way to logically compel such a person to accept that Free Will is the correct answer to the puzzle of finite being; only that it is the only logically consistent guess available, and that it is fitting. The logic proving that God is free is not the logic of deduction but the logic of beauty, fittingness, piety--a different kind of necessity than Modus Ponens.

Should we mourn. Hardly! The fact that this last piece of my argument switches into an aesthetic logic actually saves the whole thing from creating an idol of deductive logic. No argument, no matter how good, can tear away the veil that God holds before himself; no argument can be absolutely compelling on the individual so as to destroy his freedom.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Step 10

OK, it has taken me long enough, but after revisiting the first nine steps of my 10-step argument for God, I think I have a tenth step. And it's very short and simple.

Generation or constitution? The only alternative can be generation, i.e., creation ex nihilo. Why? Because constitution is only possible within limited beings. Consider a sheet of thin white paper with red marker scribbling on it. The paper is the substratum of the difference between the white and the red on the paper. Because the dye of the marker has soaked the paper through, the paper molecules can be said to be constitutive of the difference in colors. But the reason why it is so is because the paper itself has ceased to be uniform.

H2O is constitutive of the difference between wet and hard inside a glass of water; but this is so only because of the non-uniform alignment of the molecules within space. Anything that is non-uniform cannot be God because interior limits imply a further substratum; i.e., in the case of the colored paper and the ice water, the substratum is space.

At the final border between limited being and nothing at all, there can only be one ultimate substratum. For being to be limited, thus substratum must have a will. And in order for this substratum to be absolutely ultimate, it's relationship to limited being must be creative rather than constitutive.

Friday, March 03, 2006

On liberal and conservative

We have to always transcend whatever easy answers and given "philosophies" present themselves to us as panaceas for modern problems; otherwise we give ourselves to something unworthy--an only too time-conditioned accidental conglomerate of opinions which esteems itself on being "left" or "right.

Nevertheless, (devil's advocacy being useful even if it is always pretentious), the terms "liberal" and "conservative" do in fact have meanings, which even if they are fluid and changning, should nevertheless be always kept in mind. It's not enough to say that "liberal" and "conservative" are artificial categories--for if they are in fact artificial, that only means that they were made, which means that they were made for a purpose, by people, within history in order to address a problem or to simplify a set of complex data.

For example, there is nothing wrong, per se, with understanding the profound differences between worldviews that see the present time as a moment within a long decline succeeding a long past golden age (conservative), and worldviews that see the present as a step toward an "age of aquarius, " a brave new world capable of fulfilling human values in radical and exciting new ways (liberal).

But we have to understand such things in the same way we understand other things--like Myers Briggs tests and models and maps, etc. They're tools, not metaphysics; they describe one certain way the data can be organized--not the essence of people. Souls are not conservative or liberal; or rather, it should be said, souls are radically both.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Lesson plan for adult religious ed

Situation: Adult religious ed tonight at 6:30; each class covers two topics (seemingly randomly picked). Tonight's are "Last Things" + "Personal Prayer". The textbook is "The Catholic Faith Handbook for Youth" (one of the best textbooks I have ever seen).

  1. To outline the basic concepts.
  2. To give memorable conceptual keys that provide a certain unity to the concepts.
  3. To relate to their lives.
  4. To address obstacles to acceptance.
Basic concepts [brackets indicate not covered by textbook]:
  1. Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, (if it comes up: Limbo)
  2. Two judgements, particular and final
  3. Communion of Saints, Prayer for the dead
  4. Prayer as relationship; [prayer in the Holy Spirit, prevenient Grace, not something "we do"]
  5. [Difference between personal prayer, public devotions, and liturgy].
  6. Vocal*, Meditative, Contemplative prayer; [need for asceticism].
  7. Difficulties--distractions, dryness, accedia.
  8. Devotions
Unifying concepts
  1. God's infinite freedom and our finite freedom ("Why is there a Hell? How is Heaven everlasting if we are free?")
  2. God's total goodness and the need for purification ("Why is there a purgatory?") - Balthasar quote about God hating evil.
  3. The Communion of Saints and prayer for the dead *(Linking 'last things' with prayer--C.S. Lewis quote!)
  4. Prayer as conforming us to the life of Christ; praying in the Spirit, through Christ, to the Father - the paradox of unity and separation, divinization and self-immolation.
Images and relations to life
  1. Freedom and salvation (Dante's Inferno! Gotta get some illustrations)
  2. God's total goodness (Soap in the powdered water, just like Mr. Wizard!)
  3. Prayer for the dead (I think we can rely on the C.S. Lewis quote... c'mon, who could hate Lewis???)
  4. Prayer in Jesus (perhaps a little field trip to our [wonderfully] cruciform church?)
Otherwise, there's a lot in the material itself can easily be directly plugged into daily life. With respect to the Last Things, I'll just ask people when they've felt the most "free" or the least "free" in their lives; I might suggest, if they are married, that their engagement and honeymoon love might have been such a time. Freedom + love for t3H w1n!!!11!!!one!

And personal prayer, well, I can just use the questions from out of the textbook.

Obstacles to address:
  1. "How could a good God punish souls in Hell for eternity?"
  2. "Purgatory isn't in the Bible; it seems like a made-up doctrine."
  3. "If Heaven is a place of freedom, then how can I be sure I won't fall from Heaven once (if?) I go there?"
  4. "If God knows all of my thoughts and needs before I even think of them, why do I need to pray?"
  5. "Why is God so silent? / Why doesn't God give me what I ask for?"
  6. "The very concept of memorized prayers offends me--how can memorized prayers come from the heart?"
  7. "If God is infinite and self-sufficient, why does he need our prayers?"
(I tend to do best with these if I stay 'impromptu' but also have my resources handy).

Handy quotes and links:

C.S. Lewis famous defense of purgatory

Henry Suso on Prayer: "Thus such people fall into a depression, case aside prayer, and say to themselves, 'How can you imagine that such befouled prayers are a help to you?'... They do not realize that their prayer, with all these incursions they deplore, is very pleasing and delightful in God's eyes... It is this repugnant existence itself that calls them to God's caring attention. In his eyes the bitterness of their sufferings turns into a pleasing prayer that approaches him more closely than otherwise, more quickly making him favorably disposed to them... Whatever purity in prayer one loses because of the inroads of suffering becomes pleasing in God's eyes for this very reason, just as one is often more ready to listen to a sick and weakly person who can hardly talk than to a strong and healthy person." --Henry Suso, "Lectulus Noster Floridus" in Christian Eloquence: Contemporary Doctrinal Preaching, C. Colt Anderson, (Chicago: Hillenbrand Books, 2005), 201-202.

Hans Urs von Balthasar on Prayer: "Our praise, gratitude and worhsip do not spring solely from our existence--though we can never thank God enough for it; our existence itself was only given to us because of a thought in God's mind prior even to that of our existence--'before the foundation of the world.' Indeed, our whole being is immersed in the ocean of the Father's love, who creates nature and its laws to act as a foil to set off his miracles. When we contemplate the Word of God, we must let ourselves be gripped by this primary truth, namely, that the whole compact mass of created being and essence and the everyday world we are so familiar with sails like a ship over the fathomless depths of a wholly different element, the only one that is absolute and determining, the boundless love of the Father... Once we have suspected or felt the muster of our existence, the necessity of prayer and especially of contemplative listening in prayer becomes evident. For the relation between God and creature is now seen to depend on the marvel of God's incomprehensivle love, and shows him, in setting up this relation, as the Lover absolutely. Then the creature itself is seen as a sustained utterance of prayer; and man only needs to know, in some degree, what he really is, to break spontaneously into prayer." --Edward T. Oakes, Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc., 2005), 124, quoting Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer, trans. A.V. Littledale (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1961), 35-36.

Balthasar Again on Prayer: "How immediately a landscape from which men are absent can unite us to God, for example high mountains, a large forest or a freely flowing river! The handwriting of the Creator can easily be read in them; even those who have forgotten how to pray will once more learn, with deep joy, to listen to the sound of the sources of existence. In the cities, however, only man's handwriting is everywhere visible, and much more so in the modern than in the ancient ones that were still built according to human measurements. Concrete and glass do not speak of God; they only point to man who is practically glorified in them. The cities do not transcend man, hence they do not guide to transcendence. Quickly and greedily they devour the surrounding countries and turn it into a dirty, defiled forecourt of cities. For some years now the Roman Campagna has ceased to exist, the Swiss landscape likewise. The Rhine has long 'had it.' Overnight, 'nature' will be turned into a reservation; it will become a 'national park' within the civilized world; and besides, in national parks--mostly crowded!--it is not very easy to pray either." --Oakes, 170, quoting Balthasar, The God Question and Modern Man, 57.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

A possible schema for summarizing the Catholic faith?

Tell me what you think of this one.

Years ago, I was big into denouncing any preaching that would presume to use the words "The only thing you need to know is..." [...that Jesus loves you; that God is love; etc.] "Ideology!" I would cry, and indeed, to this day I smolder at insipid homily-theosophy that tries to shrink the Divine Mysteries into a Hallmark card.

Recently, however, I've been toying around with a schema; a sort of propadeutic organization of everything that is unique to Catholicism into fewer rules than you need fingers to count them with. Ideally there would be three, and for some time, my mind swam in the cerebral bliss of thinking that there were three... but to my distress, I've thought of a fourth that, try as I might, can't be reduced to any of the others. Anyway, here's the thing:
  1. We are finite creatures of an infinite God.
  2. In Jesus, God is self-giving love.
  3. Creation and salvation occur by means of the analogy of being.
  4. Freedom (as in, freedom of the will from the flesh) is the measure of salvation.
This needs development, and really this is just a placemarker for more to be written, but we'll see just how much we can say about these.

[EDIT] - Just another thought... I am thinking that all four of these things may be in some sense contained in the intersection of the Biblical images of Father-Son and Bridegroom-bride. They are also contained partially in the diptychs of the vine-branches, master-servant, etc. But if the Father-Son relationship (the connection being the Holy Spirit) provides the primary archetype, and the Bridegroom-bride image represents how the trinitarian Godhead connects with the Church, thus giving form also to the Church's innner structure, right down to the domestic church, and even the individual soul, then these two may together contain the richest and most complete source of Catholic dogma and prayer possible.

Or not... No se!