Monday, December 31, 2007

On mercy and creation

For a long time, I have believed that much of divine mercy is material creation itself. I first heard the idea, I think, at a series of conferences on metaphysics at the University of Louvain; one of my professors, Ignace Verhack, asked our guest speaker his opinion on Thomas Aquinas' notion that God's reason for creation was "mercy".

I don't remember our guest's answer, or even his name--at the time I believed he had nothing to say that my own professors did not already know, and that they were just humoring him. But the notion that God created, not simply out of "love" (a common enough notion), but out of "mercy", captured my imagination. I pictured the Alpha and the Omega, the perfect interior dialogue of love within the Trinity, yet taking pity on finite being for its as-yet non-existence. Someone with no sense of poety would think this idea silly--and if taken on a literal or mythological level, it might be reduced to that. Yet it still seems to reveal something deeply true about metaphysics, and physics--that Creation is not merely an expression of agape, of perfect, self-giving love; but of mercy, almost of pity.

Some people--in particualr, my students--are often confounded by the idea that God created, knowing full-well that evil would enter the picture, and yet is not to blame for evil. They are too quick to scoff at the distinction between the perfect will and permissive will of God, and to lose hope that Creation is ultimately Good (reading the Harry Potter books as I have been, I find Potter's misguided anger with Dumbledore to be a profound reflection of a high school student's struggle with faith, but that is another subject).

Many students do not yet perceive even the simple point that God can scarcely be blamed for "doing it wrong" when the only other alternative is oblivion. Yet beyond this is another profound theistic fact: in the very Creation itself, even before the Fall, our First Parents were surrounded by safeguards, fail-safes, and protections. All around them, and inside of them--inside their very bodies--God had already infused nature with the means of regaining eternal life. Jesus Christ is not "Plan B". "Plan B" and "Plan A" are both ultimately "Plan A", right from the start. "Plan B" was in effect from the First Day.

If we are spiritual beings, created in the image of God, endowed with a Freedom "a little less" than his own, and with our whole being depending every instant and in every molecule upon him--then why do we not blink out of existence with our first ungodly thought? Or shoot straight to Hell, which if we really understood the depth of the contradiction between our sin and his Goodness, we would see really ought to happen?

Conversely, why was Satan not given an opportunity, or even the possibility in his will, for remorse and forgiveness? Why was a single thought of rejection enough to send the Light Bearer plummeting to the icy ninth circle? To this day I remember in grade school asking the visiting priest, "How many sins does it take to go to Hell?" and hearing his response: "Just one." He said the words with honesty but also with a cheer in his voice that assured me, even as he said them, that this was no reason for sadness.

What is it that sustains my being, within that awful span of time between a grave sin and the Sacrament of Confession, during which time I not only lose the inheritance of eternal life but even a claim on this one? What is it that carries evil and godless people (nb: a godless person and an atheist are quite different concepts to my mind) from one evil act to the next? The sun shines and the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.

The just, and the unjust alike: they have bodies. Bodies are our great mercy. Bodies are our safety net. Not foolproof, certainly, but the body, and mortal life, is the first gift of God to be given, and the last to be taken away. The body is our vehicle from sin to remorse to forgiveness; it is the hand of God reaching out to catch us before we fall beyond recovery; it is the thread spoken of by Jonathan Edwards, by which we are prevented, for a time, from perdition.

There's a lot more going on here, but I need to return to this later.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Some more thoughts

I need to process some things.

First, I have recently come to understand something very important about myself. Everybody has his or her "baggage"--all of those unresolved emotional needs that hang around and make one or another part of our adult personalities more childish. I have known mine was present for a long time, but something about this week has thrown it into clear relief. Becoming freshly acquainted with it makes me realize that it may well be the source not only of my anxieties, but also my attachment and fondness for the Church.

Second, while I am here I continue to think a great deal about the World Religions class that I will teach. How will it be different? How will it be better? How will this experience I am having right now manifest in a religion course for 16 year-olds? I had many of my hopes for tapping into youthful "natural curiosity" crushed last semester under the weight of unbelievable apathy and laziness. I hope that God can give me the grace and gifts necessary to lead a classroom--even one devoted to the study of non-Christian traditions--closer to him.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Who is your favorite theologian?

I am currently on retreat, and I know that there may be something questionable about blogging in this context, but this reflection is not disconnected with my vocational discernment.

Most of my fellow retreatants are students of philosophy, theology, or both; interestingly, none that I know of are current or former seminarians. Earlier today, one of them asked us about our favorite philosophers, to which I personally answered William James--I have never gotten over my undergraduate admiration for this melancholy, supernatural-obsessed psychology professor who charismatically contended against the positivism of his day.

But later on in the same day, the subject of monks' chosen names came up (a favorite among monastic discerners), and I asked whether there was yet a Brother Robert. There is none. This left me intrigued, and so I looked up Robert Bellarmine on the good old Wikipedia.

I don't know why, but I have a tremendous love for this saint; more than for any other Doctor of the Church or any other intellectually-gifted holy man or woman that I've encountered. It isn't because of any cultural, national, or ecclesiastical affinities; and it isn't because I love his writing (I haven't read it yet). But the sheer fact of his influence in the Council of Trent, in the Galileo affair, and in the ideological struggle with Protestantism makes me believe that he exemplifies the little blurb I have on the upper-right corner of this page. St. Robert was a first-rate controversialist, and he worked unreservedly in the service of reason--a reason which, coolly and confidently, affirmed and defended Catholic faith with a surgeon's precision.

Is this my exemplar? Is St. Robert the model of how I am being asked to serve God? I cannot adequately answer this question without becoming more acquainted with him. Suffice to say that I am far (very far) from the cool-headed, sublimely Platonic machine of logic that I sometimes fantasize about being one day. But as someone whose faith was forged in the pale glow of computerized debate, and who aspires to fulfill it in a more or less similar capacity, I have a lot to admire in St. Robert.

St. Robert, pray that God leads me as deeply into my true destiny as he led you.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Note for metaphysical reflection

Just a note to self:

  • Gratia increatia (God himself)
  • Gratia creatia (grace)
  • Nature
  • Finitude (created non-being)
  • Privation

Monday, December 10, 2007

The morality of causing suffering, part 2

Upon reflection, I don't want any readers to think that I am making a case for corporeal punishment or for physical self-mortification. That is not my purpose. Rather, I simply observe that these things are, for better or for worse, traditionally sanctioned actions, and so it would behoove a tradition-minded Catholic not to uphold contradictory moral principles. Either these things are allowed or they are not (whether they are wise in a given case is a distinct issue). On the surface, it would seem odd that a religious tradition which defends and upholds natural law as a standard of moral truth would permit actions that, by all appearances, directly will damage to that which God has made, or that directly intend suffering, which was not part of God's creation.

The theory I am exploring is that the principle of totality--according to which the parts of the body exist for the good of the whole and thus, in grave need, may be compromised to preserve the whole--forms the basis for understanding suffering as directly willed yet not morally unjust. The key element is that the "whole" now includes the state of one's immortal soul. Thus, if corporeal punishment or mortification are to be permitted at all, they would be so under the same conditions as surgery or amputation would be permitted for the good of the body. Once again, those conditions are (loosely, from memory):
  • The whole is in imminent danger of death.
  • The only effective treatment for the threat involves directly intended harm to a part of the whole...
need to continue this later... I'm nodding off...

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The morality of causing suffering

(By the way, the discernment post below keeps on growing).

As a teacher, I am finding that punishment is an extremely complex human reality. The question was brought to my attention during my sacraments class's unit on the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, and in particular our discussion of the authentic Catholic attitude toward suffering.

Certainly, we were able to establish some basic points to be agreed upon: suffering is not God's creation; Jesus Christ fought suffering and poverty wherever he was; yet Christ also transforms the meaning of suffering, gives it a redemptive power, and calls us all to a destiny better and beyond mere physical health.

But where all of this hit a snag was the question of whether Catholics should ever actively pursue suffering for themselves or inflict it upon others especially given that suffering is not, per Tradition, part of the original creation. The weight of brute tradition would seem to answer in the affirmative for both of these in certain cases: Paul gives us Biblical proof of the authentically Christian pedigree of bodily mortification; and Catholic moral teaching has positively and repeatedly affirmed the right of authorities (state and family) to punish wrongdoings, even corporeally; and in the case of the state this includes capital punishment in times of grave necessity.

What makes this question hairy is that the occasions we are speaking of are not merely a question of tolerating suffering for the sake of a greater good, nor is it matter of taking unavoidable suffering and uniting it with the redemptive, eternally present Passion of Christ. In both the cases of punishment and mortification, the suffering is directly intended. It does not conform to the doctrine of Double Effect. What this seems to mean is that we are limited to a few options:

  1. Maybe, to cause suffering, either of oneself or others, is sui generis a morally neutral act. Thus the moral ramifications depend entirely on other factors. Yet this has profound metaphysical implications which may not be orthodox, because there can be no moral neutrality when it comes to directly contradicting what God has made and declared good. Thus one would have to postulate that suffering may have been a part of creation. Though perhaps unorthodox, this theory would dovetail nicely with naturalistic theories of the universe's origin, since there can be no natural selection without suffering (at the very least, the suffering of beasts).
  2. As a correlate, it may be useful to distinguish between suffering and physical harm. I believe many would agree that it is possible to inflict the former without the latter. Everything from a slap on the wrist to the depression of somebody's high spirits ultimately is mere communication rather than flouting the goodness of the body. Yet even here there is a de facto disconnect between theory and tradition, as can be attested by a nation's right to inflict capital punishment, "just war theory," and the bloody self-flagellation of St. Josemaria Escriva (and other popular saints as well).
  3. Maybe, to cause suffering is not in conformity with the law of Christ or the Kingdom, but is tolerated as a concession to our broken natures, which would otherwise suffer even greater harm without the objectively sinful practices. A bit like how we explain the intermediary laws of Deuteronomy. However, I do not know if this argument can be valid for a consistent Christian morality. The main problems with this theory are that (a) in Christ we have the fullness of moral truth; there is no longer room for "concessionary" moral laws, even while pastoral judgment does make incidental concessions. There is only Christ. Also, even more problematic, (b) the ones who practice self-flagellation are not those who are weak, but rather those who are particularly graced and close to Jesus.
  4. Perhaps one could adapt the "principle of totality"--usually used to explain why surgery is not a moral evil--and expand it to include the salvation of the soul. While, on the one hand, one can never intend an evil so that good may come from it; on the other, where the totality of the body is under eminent threat of death, a part of the body can be "damaged" to ensure the survival of the whole. Infections can be amputated; skin can be opened; immune systems can be depressed, if these are necessary to ensure meaningful survival. The only reason why the principle of totality works is because of the essential relationship of the parts to the whole--thus, the entity which is being harmed and also being saved is one and the same. Thus, the damage and the healing are not related as cause and effect, but as morally one and the same act. The element of damage or harm is effectively "canceled out". When the immortal soul is brought into the same picture--and understood, in Thomistic fashion, to be not separate from the body but its very form, then Totality warrants an entirely broader range of moral action (at least so long as it is understood as eminently necessary).
This last theory has a number of advantages, among them being powerfully Biblical.
If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life maimed or crippled than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into fiery Gehenna. (Mt 18:8-9)
Hold on, I'm not finished yet, but I have some suffering of my own to do right now (grading).

Friday, December 07, 2007

Wow, a post on vocation and discernment

Here is a rarity. I haven't written about my vocation since March. But, as I plan to spend a week and a half in a monastery again, maybe it's time to revisit this topic. I hope that God will guide me.

First, a little confession: yes, from time to time I do use online personals to meet girls, or sometimes I'll strike up conversations in pubs and such. All in all, it hasn't been that bad, but it hasn't been that great either. Upon hearing this, however, a friend reported to me, "You're farther away from the monastery than I thought." I don't know whether, or how much that remark was meant sarcastically, but regardless, it gives me pause for thought.

Truth be told, I am far from the monastery. But that's not a situation which I am inclined to celebrate. In some ways I recognize that I have not lived up to what I know is right, and in that respect I have not lived up to my humanity, let alone a lofty and uncommon vocation. But I know that I could. As a lay Catholic I have found that the temptation to "let myself go", to grow lax and lazy, has been too attractive to resist completely. But, stretched between a past clerical aspiration and a current lay career, I can see the landscape a little more clearly.

Let me enumerate the biggest issues which factor into my discernment at present.

  • I don't have a very strong personal prayer life, and I know that this, at least, is part of my present confusion and darkness about God's will for my life.
  • I still value the freedoms of the lay life. Although my sleep schedule is beyond monastic (typically 8pm to 4am), I won't lie about the fact that I enjoy making an income, having a pet cat, buying computers and gadgets, visiting pubs and fast food restaurants at will, meeting girls, using the apartment hot tub, sleeping in on Saturday, and throwing on jeans and a T-shirt when I'm not at work. None of these are sins, though they are all luxuries, and all of them together sort of make me into the wealthy young man of the Gospel. I resist now giving up all of these worldly things. But the question is not whether I'm called to enjoy these things or not (I am not). The question is whether I am called to religious life, or something else--and the deciding factor must be something deeper than cats and hot tubs. It isn't like I couldn't live happily without these things--I did, for six years. What is at stake is, rather: where will I finally find peace? And I can say sincerely that I am not in a peaceful state right now, but I don't know how meaningful that feeling is, given that first-year teachers are not expected to be at peace.
  • Teaching has revealed to me even more clearly the vices and issues that I tend to carry with me wherever I go; it has also been an occasion for improvement. Teaching is good for me, and the last semester has served as a purgatory in the most positive sense of that word. I have chipped away at my procrastination habits--though they still remain--and the other areas I need to work on have become strikingly clear. However...
  • I am weary of this life after five months. This is nothing to fear, so I'm told--so far I have not experienced anything out of the ordinary for a first-year. But the work of teaching has been brutally more difficult than I anticipated, and the rewards scarce. I'm a happier person than I was one year ago; just also a tired one.
  • I'm caught in a classic vocations dilemma: on the one hand, there is the desire to purify my reasons for desiring monastic life (and proving to myself and others that I have the ability to make a sober, enduring, responsible life choice). On the other hand, there is the slightly more romantic wisdom that says that the heart has its reasons which the mind does not understand; or as St. Benedict urged, to listen with the ears of the heart. I'm caught between a Pauline distrust of the passions and a Petrine impulsive enthusiasm. It is only because of my awareness of my own sins that I trust my feelings so little--but "sober" reason, fueled by pride (the desire to appear strong and self-controlled), can also be fooled. In Brideshead Revisited, Sebastian Flyte winds up a sorry alcoholic mess, stumbling in and out of the hospitality of an infinitely tolerant monastery--and that is his salvation (admittedly not a sainthood to aspire to, but a glory to God's mercy and better than the most prestigious damnation). By the mercy of God, the graces of the Church can supply, over time, what is lacking in individuals who at least say "yes" with whatever freedom they have left. But this encouragement is tempered by a warning: as long as there is breath in my lungs, life will be difficult, and no mere change in states of life will alter that fact. The question becomes then, is the difficulty in my life now the difficulty which God has been calling me to embrace since before I was born; is it his gift; is it my real cross? Or is the difficulty in my life now not the cross which was intended for me, but rather the merciful signpost that I am not where I belong? How do I tell the difference between these two difficulties?
  • I miss study. Admittedly being a teacher has given me a great opportunity for study; I have tightened my catechetical knowledge, and I continue to connect everything back to what I learned in seminary. I review old notes, and I read books which I purchased in the seminary but never read (I am still chugging through St. Gregory's Pastoral Care). But I miss the seminary, I miss the classroom, I miss writing papers and drawing connections through every class. I miss feeling like each hour was bringing me closer and closer to an authentic understanding of the human person, of the pattern of our salvation. It's true that my perfectionism and procrastion damaged my ability to continue through the seminary; but it's also true that I was never quite so happy and thankful to God as those moments of inspiration and discovery. I still have those, from time to time, but who can I share them with here? I recently asked a young Dominican sister to talk to my students about religious life and sacramentals. The chats that she and I had between classes were an experience I hadn't had in years. We spoke the same language. I had forgotten what it was like to talk theology without carefully pruning it for an audience to avoid confusion. I long for more of that.
  • Whether I entered the monastery or not, I want to give my life over to study, perhaps be a professor, and certainly to write books. I will not be satisfied until I've read everything and written everything. I want to participate in the Spirit's mission to "prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness;" I want to unfold the Sacred Mystery until it blankets the whole dying earth. Indeed, it had entered my mind that the monastery could conceivably be an easier path toward that dream, though I have no intention of treating any vocation merely as a means to anything. Indeed, the Rule and constitution do a fair job of eliminating that impulse through the postulancy and novitiate. Whether I remained a lay Catholic or entered the monastery, it would be a couple of years yet that I would remain out of the classroom. The main difference is that, in lay life, I have the distracting consideration of having to make a career out of it.
  • There's more...

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Technology post, the third: review of the Asus Eee PC

In the tradition of 2007 summer films, we have a third-quel to the technology posts.

Last Wednesday I received from Newegg my Christmas present to myself: a black Asus Eee PC 4G. This 2lbs laptop is relatively cheap (about $475 when you include shipping and an 8GB storage card), and the reasons why aren't much of a mystery. First, instead of Windows, it comes preinstalled with a customized version (by Asus) of a customized version (Edge) of a customized version (Xandros) of a customized version (Debian) of Linux.

Second, even though the laptop is small, the screen is smaller. Although it looks as though the hardware could have fit at least a 9" screen, it is actually 7", with the thick bezel holding a pair of nothing-special stereo speakers..

Finally, savings are to be had via the absence of a "real" (magnetic) hard drive; instead, everything runs off of an internal, 4GB, solid state disk--hence the need to purchase a large SD card to store documents and music.

Unfortunately, in all the time I've had this machine, I haven't made much actual use of it. Instead, I have been suffering a long string of headaches directly attributable to attempting to install Windows XP Home on it. I've given up--as far as I can tell, my XP Home disk is corrupt. So I am back on Linux.

I dislike Linux intensely, but so far it has served me well. I belong to a class of people who are computer-proficient enough to desire advanced functionality and customization from their computers, but not enough to add an icon to the Launch menu (the "Start" menu of KDE, a customization of a... nevermind). Don't get me wrong: both Windows and Linux are sins against the anthropic principle of computing. A typical Windows installation has a nasty habit of rotting like bad fruit unless you give it constant coddling and massaging--fragmented hard drives, malware, registry errors, background apps, ugh. But at least the problems are at the tail-end of the experience.

In Linux, merely setting up and arranging the interface requires so much arcane knowledge that by the time I was able to install the GIMP (a graphics program), I was also clipping my cat's nails using voodoo magic and a stuffed doll.

Happily, most of the setup process is now complete, and I have been using the Eee PC with about as much ease as I would a Windows system. A gigantic plus of this situation is that Linux does not suffer from PC rot. If I stay with Linux, I will never have to clean the registry, defrag the hard drive, run spyware removers or pop-up blockers or anti-virus software. It doesn't slow down, it doesn't take forever to boot, and it doesn't crash--so long as I don't put a typo into the command line.

Another nice quality about the Eee is how quiet and peaceful it is relative to the desktops I'm used to working with. There is a subtly harrowing atmosphere caused by the buzz of speakers, a CRT monitor, and of course the fans and clicking hard drives of a desktop computer. With the Eee I can work with a machine with scarcely more pyrotechnics than a book. It really helps with the stress.

There are numerous features that I am missing out on because of Linux. It won't natively run my school's grading software (I'm still working out the arcane magic of remote desktop). It won't run at the processor's rated speed (It's an Intel Celeron M 90nm rated at 900MHz but clocked at 630MHz). It won't run many games at all. And as a Linux "n00b" I am constantly working under the burden of unfamiliarity and ignorance about the mysterious inner workings of this OS.

But for what I paid, this is a great machine.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Technology post, the sequel!

Today was "black friday" where concupiscence and rationalization run mad throughout the malls and big-box stores and online shopping carts. I didn't participate; oh, but I wanted to. I've become quite indisposed toward my huge, fat, too-bright 19" CRT staring me in the face and making my eyes tired. I imagine that I would enjoy an immense satisfaction at having it (and my rinky-dink speakers) replaced with a 37" 1080p LCD television for $800. But it was not meant to be.

I did spend some of my idle time thinking about technology; in particular, if one had to have certain good things in one's life ("had to have" being used equivocally, of course), what they would be, or not be.

For example: portable music. Most people's needs in this area are probably more modest than marketers will admit. That's certainly true in the case of 80GB iPods, but I believe it's also true in the fad, also endorsed by Apple, of having one's phone and music player in the same device. I might be a strange duck, but I'm still of the old-fashioned mold that considers the presence of a cell phone only valuable some of the time. One of the times I can imagine rather being without my phone, is precisely when I'm trying to relax with music. If both the phone and the music player can be made even more diminutive and affordable in a separate state, then all the better.

Then there's the business of PMPs, or portable media players. Beyond the obstacle of the still Byzantine process of actually getting media on the things, I don't imagine that PMPs will take off here unless we become as individualistic, escapist, and atomistic as Japan. The PMP is the ultimate step in the commoditizaion of drama, doing to theater what the Gameboy does to play. For probably not completely unrelated reasons, there is a tangible feeling of inappropriateness when someone uses such a device in public unless there are truly no other activities available. On this plane, the PSP (not a typo, I am referring to Sony's device) is a curiously obnoxious example. Recent advertisements that showcase the PSP being used for everything under the sun have only persuaded me that people using a PSP look silly.

In fact, with the exception of a small laptop, I've lost interest in the miniaturization and convergence craze. I believe a line is crossed when a machine that normally attracts the eyes' attention for longer than a minute is designed to be used standing up (or in a way that occupies both hands). Without such devices, we would almost never do this. People in their right mind don't walk and read a magazine at the same time. Granted, these devices cater to a Japanese culture which, so I've read, spends much time standing in line. But we're not there yet (and even if we were, I would like to think we would enjoy the peace that comes with line-standing rather than sacrifice even that small lamb to the productivity gods).

Then there's the point that such devices, especially game players, are the high-tech pacifiers of youths from grade school through college. I remember what it was like to enjoy video games so much that the prospect of not having to wait until I got home was unbearably attractive. It wasn't healthy, but it was attractive.

Let me say this about adulthood (even young adulthood): it is nice not to be any longer a sucker-fish on the algae of sensory stimulation. It's a breath of fresh air.

I hope that anyone reading this doesn't interpret it to be an anti-technology diatribe. Yes, I drew a line. Across that line, I believe technology innovations have become faddish, and have presumed to alter human behavior rather than serve it. But I'm happy for diminutive music players with simple interfaces, nondescript cell phones that can send text messages and hold memos, and more recently, cheap 2lbs laptops that just work. I'm also happy for great big TVs that I can't afford and XBox360s that let lots of people play great looking games without expensive PCs (I wish I had more time to play mine, and more people to play it with).

But the adage often cited--"Just because we can, doesn't mean that we should"--in connection to hotter issues like cloning and embryonic stem cells, also applies here. Where personal technological innovations are concerned, we just have to bear in mind an anthropic principle: if it wasn't designed to benefit people as they already are, then what the heck is it for?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Another technology post - the Asus Eee PC

Nothing about theology or course planning here; just another chance to talk tech before I hunker down to do the week's grading (ah, procrastination).

In my last technology post, I suggested three criteria for determining whether a gadget was a worthwhile investment. To recap (and slightly revise), a worthwhile gadget:
  1. saves more time than it wastes,
  2. does not attract unwanted attention, and
  3. does its job better than common alternatives.

Essentially, good purches should not be a timesuck, an obnoxious statement (either of materialistic superiority or anti-social technophilia), or redundant.

With my previous fascination with "Pocket PCs," I did not have these principles in mind. Instead, I was caught up in the excitement of having a single device which could (as various advertisements promise) be the "center of my digital world." The more things I could use the thing for, the more "points" I earned for entering into a make-believe technological utopia. The problem was that 90% of the things I used the thing for, it was a needlessy complicated and inadequate method of achieving them.

Truth be told, phones, organizers, music players, games, books, news, and laptops are probably better off separate than jammed into a techno-idol.

All this being said, I've been in the market for an ultraportable laptop. I don't have a portable computer of any kind right now, and my quality of life has not suffered considerably as a result. But a glance at my "objects of technological concupiscence" list reveals that I've had my eyes on the HTC Shift (and before that the Fujitsu p1600). That goes to show you that I was prepared to blow $1500 on an adequate solution to a few simple needs:

  • A way to do basic computing (class prep, grading, surfing, writing) in cafes or different parts of my apartment.
  • A dedicated PowerPoint presentation machine.
  • An option for some light gaming and music (ah, for a days of guilt-free videogaming for hours on end).

Happily now, it seems I don't have to do that, because in December Asus will release a version of their Eee PC with (at least) an 8gb solid-state drive and Windows XP for about $500. As a bonus, it has a Web cam.

Now here's a machine that fulfills the above criteria. It fills the gap left by my Averatec 3200 laptop when I gave that away, and it weighs half as much. Could I sacrifice countless nights trying to use it for everything under the sun? I could (I'm particularly keen on attempting real video-conferencing between me and a brother). But I won't.

I'm happy about the fact that it will never be an adequate music player (too big) or gaming machine (too weak) or even primary computer (screen too small) or DVD player (no optical drive) or e-book (puh-lease) or organizer (never used those functions anyway) or phone (can't hold it up to my ear). It's a laptop. It's nice that it is a real computer, and not a struggling wannabe. And it's nice that it's cheap. The end.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Seven Day Unit on Scripture

Applicable Diocesean Guidelines:

"Demonstrate an understanding of what the Bible is and the breakdown of the Old and New Testaments."

Awfully vague. Let's see what we can do.
  • Identify what the Bible is and its basic structure.
  • Locate chapters and verses of Scripture.
  • Identify the major parts of the New Testament*
  • Explain the origins of the canon of Scripture
  • Differentiate between "inspiration" and "dictation".

Friday, November 09, 2007

Seven-Day Unit on Penance and Anointing of the Sick

General Diocesan Guidelines:

  1. demonstrate an understanding of concepts underlying [the Sacrament of Penance] and their relationship to lived grace, ritual, prayer, and service.
  2. describe the relationship between Jesus, the Church, and [the Sacrament of Penance].
  3. explain the meaning of the Mystery of the Incarnation, Paschal Mystery, Pentecost, Church as the Body of Christ, and their effect on the development of [the Sacrament of Penance].
  4. identify major developments in the history of the [the Sacrament of Penance].
  5. explain what realities of human life are celebrated by [the Sacrament of Penance].
  6. identify the major symbols used in [the Sacrament of Penance] and the key aspects of ritualizing these sacraments.
  7. explain Eucharist as the source and summit of [the Sacrament of Penance].

Let's condense these goals into three:

  1. Relate Penance to the kerygma (God, Creation, Sin, Incarnation, Paschal Mystery, Eucharist, and the Church) (2, 3, and 7).
  2. Identify major developments in the thought and ritual of Penance (4 and 6).
  3. Discuss how Penance and Anointing fit within a lived reality defined by a loving and active God, sin and death, freedom, and hope. (1 and 5).

Unpacking #3 there...

  1. pain, sadness, loss, stress, injustice, cruelty, lonliness, hatred, disappointment, uncaring, death: the world gives us enough reason to give in to despair
  2. three ways to respond: despair. diversion. hope.
  3. reason to hope. there is One more powerful than all of these, and he has acted on our behalf, because he loves us.
  4. but we still have to choose: hope (receiving the sacraments; giving thanks; reforming our lives according to grace), or despair (drowning our sorrow in titillation and self-abuse)? our lives will reflect the choice.

What are the top 10 words that 17-year-old Catholics should know in regards to Penance and Anointing of the Sick?

  • Penance
  • perfect/imperfect contrition
  • order of penitents
  • seal of confession
  • examination of conscience
  • confessional
  • absolution
  • venial/mortal sin
  • despair
  • presumption

Time and resources:

  • 1 day for the test (next week Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on whether we are in school Wednesday)
  • 1 day for review (possibly two, see above)
  • 4 teachable days (Mon, Tue, Thur, Fri) (one of these should be interactive)
  • A good textbook chapter (split into two: 208-215; 216-220)
  • Some resources for PPT presentations (Catechism, historical info)

Monday: Introduction, PPT talk on the

Saturday, October 27, 2007

On teaching world religions

The perfectionist and idealist in me will not permit me to simply teach a class in which the units are simply divided among the different great religious traditions of the world. In my opinion, strongly held, such an approach can only do damage to the ideological presuppositions of a high school teenager.

And besides, it would be bad pedagogy.

One thing that I am learning through experience is that teachers are not meant merely, or even primarily, to pass along information to their students. It is not data, but skills that are the most important product of a school. While the skill set involved in a "sacraments" class is limited, especially in a pluralistic environment (my class could legitimately be renamed "sacraments appreciation"), the skill set involved in a world-religions course is more robust. Frankly, there are those in society that can speak intelligently about religion, and those who cannot. The difference hinges on one's factual knowledge, but that is not the only thing. There are at least two others:
  • a willingness and ability to enter into the experience, cares, and hopes of a community belonging to another religious tradition, as well one's own (or the tradition of one's family).
  • a grounding of the knowledge of world religions in a critical and philosophical understanding of religion and truth, which excludes prima facie neither the relevance of any particular tradition, nor the legitimacy of radical fidelity to a single tradition.
The second point perhaps needs clarification. In brief, it might be summarized as the stressing of a relatively recent philosophical discovery: that secularism (in the form of agnosticism, materialism, pluralism, or any other non-practice or non-belief) is not inherently more "objective" in its view of the world's religions than any other religious tradition.

Secularism does not correspond to the absence of bias and irrational belief that popular culture has assigned to it. It is not a "safe haven" from superstition, from unproven and unprovable doctrines, or error, any more than religious belief. Like a religion, western secularism has a foundation of doctrines which are not based on the scientific method; however, unlike religion, secularism is based on the prejudice in favor of constricting all knowledge to the scientific method.

Whether one is biased or not, intolerant or not, fair or not, ignorant or not, has less to do with whether one is religious, or with what tradition they cling to, than it does with how well they have developed the skill set of investigation, exploration, and understanding of religions--not to mention the virtues of patience, empathy, openness, and faith.

To be sure, not all traditions, including western secularism, lend themselves equally well to the task of learning about world religions. Coincidentally, both secularism and Christianity lobby the same critique at each other with respect to this task: neither can ultimately enter into the pluralistic arena with the serious intention of accepting another tradition as being true (at least in a way that would leave their own founding dogmas to be false). Both of these ideological starting points, as well as all others universally, begin by assessing the world's traditions in terms of how closely they represent values akin to one's own. Thus secularism will show appreciation for Buddhism's inherent synchretism, tolerance, and pantheism; while Christianity will appreciate Buddhism's monastic tradition, its relativization of worldly goods, and its ancient philosophical pedigree; but both will find something to disagree with.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

What's the point of the Eucharist?

The Eucharist is the central Sacrament of the Church; so also it is the central unit of this course. Although there is something strange and unpredictable about the Eucharist, (What? A religion in which people eat their God in the shape of bread and wine? Weird!) there is also something perfectly natural about it once we recognize the pattern of God’s relationship with his creation.

God is absolute Freedom and Mystery. “The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8). As William of Ockham suggested, God could have saved us by becoming a donkey if he wanted. God can do whatever, however he pleases. However, this does not mean that he necessarily works in random and unintelligible ways.

That is because we not only believe that God is Freedom, but that God is Love—and if God is Love, then he seeks to relate and communicate with his beloved: Creation, and especially, the Church. All theology would be impossible if God did not love, because if he did not love, not only would there be no revelation, but there very possibly would never have been a creation! Or, if there was a creation, there would be no guarantee that we would be created in God’s image (with an intellect and with freedom), and thus we would not be able to think about these questions in the first place!

The reason for this reflection is to remember that God often works in ways that allow us to understand him as much as our human minds can. Thus God works in patterns, and if we pay attention, we can recognize them. The Eucharist fits perfectly within the pattern that God was showing us for thousands of years up until, and including, Jesus’ life, the Last Supper, and the Paschal Mystery. (What might this pattern be?)

But the Eucharist itself contains the entire pattern of God as Love, plus our own love back to him (represented by Jesus’ love of the Father). The whole God and the mystery of our salvation are present together in a single consecrated food-thing, nested within a ritual that celebrates God’s works. Through the Eucharist, our whole lives can be a total “living-in” the mystery of God. Even though God remains mysterious and infinite and “beyond” us, he still freely lets himself to be closer to us than we are to ourselves. What better way to represent this closeness, than through the act of eating? God is able to empty himself (kenosis!) into humble, material things; even into a single human being; even into food—all for the purpose of filling us with his own eternal life.

Why do we need a Church?

It is impossible to make sense of Christianity without a hearty and complete understanding of Church. Different types of Christianity have different understandings of what “Church” means; however, all Christian ideas of “Church” contain at least part of the Catholic understanding, which traces itself all the way back to Jesus and is consistent with the beliefs of the early Christians.

For us, the Church is not just a group of individuals that happen to agree with what Catholic Christianity teaches. What makes someone a member of the Church is not primarily one’s beliefs (although these are important), but rather, one’s free and active participation in the sacramental life of the Church.

Why is this an important point? Because until recently, Christians never thought of the Church as something “man-made” (as it would be if it were just an organization of people that agree with each other). No, from the earliest times, Christians understood that at every level, the Church is born from, survives by, is shaped by, is destined towards, and is loved by: God. The Church is, in a way, a Creation within Creation—the baby tree of the Kingdom of God, planted in the soil of the old, broken creation, and nourished by the water and sunlight of God’s Grace.

As Saint Augustine said, “God, who created you without your help, will not save you without your help.” What this means, and what the existence of a Church means, is that God chooses to save the broken world in one, and only one way: through a mutual love relationship with a self-aware, willing, and active community. This would not be true if God simply saved everybody with a snap of his fingers. And this fact—that God gives us the ability to love him, and to be saved by that love—itself is reason to celebrate.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Things to address with students...

  • Need to take notes during lecture. It's not just recommended; it's essential. Can't expect to succeed in college without taking notes, so also in my class.
  • Similarities and differences between the sacraments and ordinary rituals (there is a lot of confusion about a part of the textbook).
  • The meaning of the word "correlate".
  • On the "Fear of the Lord"

Monday, October 08, 2007

The evangelist's frustration.

It really is unavoidable; a modern high school religion teacher is an evangelist of the highest order. Here are a hundred 17-year-olds; now teach them the Catholic faith. What? This job is no garbage pickup; it isn't pulling weeds; this task is by definition unfulfillable. My goal--my job description--is essentially beyond my reach and the reach of any mortal.

It would be one thing if I was only battling against the popular rational arguments against God, and if these indeed were fueled and propelled by an intellectual's search for the truth gone in an atheist direction. But what I have is a severely different monster; a beast composed of a hundred-fold irascible prejudice against religion, a lethargic miasma, an addiction to the bare minimum, a total blindness to a world beyond the narrow horizon of "bored-entertained-bored-entertained-bored". I could plow through the textbook, demand the lowest level of memorization, and succeed only in reaffirming the class's pre-existing stratification into achievers and non-achievers. But in doing so I would only be pretending to educate, thus cheating not only my students and myself but the very diocese that hired me.

How do I teach religion? I take for granted that faith is something which is not mine to dispense. But how to proclaim the Gospel in an atmosphere choked with the idealogical smog of pluralism and materialism, the pathos of presumptuous, blithe uncaring; of aloof, invincible indifference? "You want me to care? Make me." The words hang as an unspoken but heavy and real challenge, which, unanswered, muffles my voice into oblivion. Every Friday the disappointment, and every weekend the question returns, "How to cut through, how to cut through, how to cut through?"

I have confidence that my prayers will not go unanswered; and I have not forgotten how vital they are, but for this moment I am left to struggle a little longer, without answers, without epiphanies, without reassurances, and I am left only the task before me, which is grading papers.

How to I teach religion?

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Trying to memorize the Gifts of the Holy Spirit?

We Uphold the King's Crown to Find Perfect Freedom.

Wisdom Understanding Knowledge Counsel Fortitude Piety Fear of the Lord.

(Edited to suit my monarchist leanings).

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Script for a YouTube Video, Part 1

Let's talk for a minute about the sacraments and this class. On the surface, what we're doing here is very simple: it's your job to learn about the sacraments of the Catholic Church, and it's my job to teach about them.

But I'm bothered by a question. It comes back to me again and again. I don't have the answer yet, and I don't want to search for it alone. The question is something like this. How, or When, or Why does a person come to love the sacraments?

What do I mean by "love the sacraments"?

Take a few minutes in class to discuss this. What images come to mind when you think of someone who loves the sacraments? What about someone who doesn't? Are there stereotypes of both of these? Name some good and bad qualities.

You know you love the sacraments when you stop receiving them because somebody else wants you to, and you go because you want to. You know, when you stop thinking about whether skipping Sunday Mass is a sin, and you start wondering why anybody would want to. You know, when life without the sacraments looks infinitely more dull and pointless--hardly a life at all--than life with them.

I know that many people do come to love the sacraments. Not everybody, but a lot. It happens to some in high school. For many more, it happens as adults. But I do believe that, for everybody, it is possible.

Take a few minutes in class to discuss this. Do you agree with me that it's possible for everybody to, someday, come to love the sacraments? What about factors of personality, taste, culture, and background? What has to be true about the sacraments for me to say that everybody has the possibility of loving them?

I am not asking: how can I make someone love the sacraments? I can't. To love the sacraments is, first of all, a gift. We have no control over it, except that we can accept or reject this gift when it comes. However, loving the sacraments is also a skill. Like loving art, or loving music, or loving a person, it is impossible to love the sacraments without learning about them, and doing the work of experiencing them.

We can't be satisfied to know only what's on the surface. We can't be content to memorize a list of symbols and what they mean. We must look beneath the surface. We must dig deeper into the heart of Christianity.

Take a few minutes in class to discuss this. Colleges often have courses in "music appreciation," which teach primarily the skill of loving music according to its own history, meaning, and value. In what way is this class similar? Different?

Consider the fact that the word "taste" (as in "her taste in movies" or "his taste in clothes") was originally not about somebody's opinion, but was rather the skill of recognizing quality and genius present in works of art. So, what is "sacramental" taste?

It is often said that the heart of Christianity is love. But it's time to leave behind "love" as just a warm feeling between friends and family, or "love" as just being nice to everyone we meet. These are children's toys. The heart of Christianity is Love: Love that gives infinitely; Love that gives even when there is nothing left to give; Love that gives, even when it is not deserved; Love that gives itself to us, to be given away again. This Love is not fleeting, but permanent; not choosy, but universal; older than the earth, larger than the universe, more fundamental than atoms, but more intimate than a wife of 60 years; closer than friend who would die for you.

Nothing in Christianity--not morality, not social justice, not ministry, not preaching, not teaching, not even reading the Bible--nothing compares to the sacraments and liturgy for connecting us to this Love. All the other things come from them; and all the other things point to them, because they are nothing less than Heaven on Earth, as best as we can have in this life.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Can holiness be predicated of things?

I read an article in the local Catholic newspaper. It outlines some liturgical policies for the diocese, including a restriction of the rite of purification to the Ordained. I thought I might offer some comments on it.

It’s true what the article says: the US bishops asked Rome for permission to allow extraordinary lay ministers to purify, and they were denied that permission. The cardinal who put the kibosh on it, Cardinal Arinze, was a possible candidate for Pope two years ago. He was popular among American Catholics because they liked the idea of having a “black Pope”. If only they knew how conservative African Catholics can be!

The policy is so strong that, if lay purifiers were considered really necessary, the directives would prefer that a church stops offering Communion under both kinds (so that fewer vessels are used, so that fewer people are needed to purify).

I imagine that the fault-line of public opinion would lie in one’s understanding of the meaning of “holiness”. If “holy” is an adjective that can really describe objects (vessels) or offices (priesthood, diaconate), then maybe the policy could be fitting. But if “holiness” only applies to personal kindness, goodness and love, then the notion of “holy vessels” or “holy offices” is silly on the face of it—they are objects, and have no inherent connection to kindness or love. Priests are sinners; objects are dead things.

So, I can understand why the policy is awkward. They effectively say that a lay person, who may incidentally be more graced than a priest, is nevertheless not as fitting to purify the vessels as the priest. And this is so, even if the priest is a nasty piece of work. Isolated from the rest of Christian teaching, this would be exactly what Jesus condemned the Pharisees for: “You pay tithes of mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected… judgment and mercy and fidelity… [you] strain out the gnat and swallow the camel!” (Matt 23:23-24). Religious minutiae should never take the place of justice.

However, the very same Scripture does not imply competition between the "weighter matters" and "the others": "these you should have done, without neglecting the others." We as Catholics should not settle for a false opposition between justice and ritual.

Yet this brings us back to the question posed earlier. Can "holiness" be predicated of things and offices, independent of personal virtues we immediately associate with holiness? The Catholic tradition would certainly answer in the affirmative. But that little word "tradition" fails to light up the faces of, perhaps, the majority of Catholics. We need to ask the basic questions again.

An old chestnut

Consider the old chestnut that, "If there is a God, and he is good, then he will forgive me for not worshiping him, because it isn't my fault that I don't see why I should." A bit presumptuous for someone claiming to be an "agnostic." But it becomes a grand excuse to ignore the question.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

On technology.

There is a pious note in taking a sober and pragmatic approach to digital goods, rather than getting wrapped up in the romantic lie of gadget-lust. Conveniences help us to extend the productivity and scope of our Christian lives; gimmicks play on fantasies of a private "realized-eschatology" of unlimited whatever (unlimited information, unlimited usefulness, unlimited portability) and prey upon the vulnerable human longing for the infinite.

At bottom, the distinction between conveniences and gimmicks has three criteria: (1) does it waste more time than it saves? (2) does it attract unwanted attention? and (3) does it fail to do the job better than common alternatives? When it came to Pocket PCs, nearly all of their advertised functionality would have earned a "yes" from one or more of the above questions (except for word-processing, and music playing). If I had had the perspective then that I do now, I would have saved thousands of dollars, and purchased a more practical solution.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

A weekend for problem solving.

I find myself, after three weeks of teaching, in a little bit of a rut. I could not have been prepared for how much these students would challenge me as a teacher. Somehow, I need to reconfigure how this class operates. My classroom is an academic church, just as a family is a domestic church. Just as the Holy Church is a hospital for the recovering and a gymnasium for athletes, so also must my classroom be.

That's a tough order, because I don't have the luxury of dividing my classes into "honors" and standard curricula, and moreover, there's the bugbear of doubt and irrelevancy which haunts at least a quarter of each classroom and typically spills over a bit during my Socratic Seminar days.

You can lead a horse to water. For a high school religion teacher, the horses have already been led--not a few, forcefully--and am both educator and advertiser for the whole lot. Take a drink! It's delicious, nutritious, and anyway, it makes life worth living. But I'm a lone voice in that area, more often than not. It's difficult to help one appreciate the vitality of water when one is already attached to those crazy energy drinks.

I think I know what needs to happen. I'll report back later.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Christianity, an inherently rebellious religion

In its theology of the history of religions, Christianity does not simply take the side of the religious person, take the side of the conservative who keeps to the rules of play of his inherited institution; the Christian rejection of the gods signifies much rather a choice to be on the side of the rebel, who for the sake of his conscience dares to break free from what is accustomed: this revolutionary trait in Christianity has perhaps far too long been hidden...
Joseph Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, pp. 21-22

I believe there is a basic problem at the heart of any standardized religious curriculum, and this is that it is standardized, and thus, for possibly a large minority of students, bordering on irrelevant. This is a challenge specifically for religious ed--not science or math--and the reason why is not difficult to figure out. Science, math, and English--these courses have no trouble presenting themselves to students as vital skills, tools for the good of their own future. History, literature, art--these course have no trouble presenting themselves as enrichment, producing a well-rounded, knowledgeable citizen.

Somehow in the mix of it all, religion and theology gets bound up with the accusation, in some students' minds if not on their lips (or being reflected in their art classes), that religion is being "crammed down our throats."

I have a special sympathy with this sentiment, having attended a public school myself and thus never having been required to work so many hours studying a faith that I was not yet one-hundred-percent-sure about yet. I know that there is an awkwardness about studying the Catholic religion with the same seriousness as English literature or science. Students are under no illusions about the pluralism of the religious landscape (if only they were under fewer illusions about the pluralism of the scientific landscape!)

Other high school disciplines are liberated, by the consensus of society, to roll along without having their fundamental principles challenged. Students--even rebellious ones--do not raise the objection that we are "brains in a vat" or that history is a manufactured illusion, in order to challenge the dignity of their history teacher's subject. Never mind that history (as my cherished high school history teacher reminded us) is interpretation, and thus is incontrovertibly pluralistic.

Still, no discipline's pluralism is as obvious to a teenager as that of religion, and so no other discipline is going to have religion's share of challenges to a teacher's right to teach (or at least, his right to teach unimpeded by hecklers). Add to this the scurrilous motivator that is resistance to those immediate standards of behavior that only the religion curriculum dictates, and you have a potential tsunami to deal with.

The solution to this distinctive feature of standardized religion curriculum, as I stumbled upon as part of my Spring seminary internship last year, is to have a "remedial" course. I call it "remedial" only in the most literal sense; a standardized school religion curriculum is going to bleed doubt out of the wound of societal irreligion and pluralism. This wound begs for treatment.

Of course, there is no need to describe the situation in such dour terms. What we are really talking about here is not the lamentable waywardness of modern culture, but a discipline which openly calls out for the kind of critical thinking which all the other disciplines lamentably take for granted.

At my high school it is not required that one be Catholic; but we do stress the values of sincerity of heart and (what I endearingly call) a fierce determination for truth. What I can personally allow is that a student pass my course without feeling compelled to join, or re-join, the Holy Catholic Church. What I cannot allow is that this student do so without seriously, laboriously asking the question of why? And to learn to apply that question, with as much vigor and heat, to his/her secular opinions as to Christian doctrines.

I am already in talks to establish a Speech and Debate team next year, if I manage to survive that long. That would be first priority. But in all the free-time of a sick man, I can't help but visualize something more original. A club--not a class--dedicated to the singular purpose of asking and investigating contentious religious questions with the aid of a teacher. A place where nothing is crammed, but everything is made available, and no un-researched opinion is allowed to live longer than it takes to check out a book from the library. The club could generate a file--the memory of the club--so that new members can explore the work of past members and build on it. What would we call it? Doubter's Den? Too insubordinative. Wanderers and Finders? (I liked the idea of "Wanderers", but then I think of how agnostics twist Tolkein's quote to mean that it's ok to wander without finding anything). Truth Seekers Club? I dunno, I dunno.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Update to the "Items of Technological Concupiscence" list

My first paycheck should be coming in the mail today (I hope I hope I hope), and while the vast majority of it will undoubtedly evaporate into monthly bills and basic necessities, whatever's left can go into my exciting "Technological Concupiscence" savings account. These are a few of the conveniences I eventually hope to be able to afford thanks to a modestly professional career.

  • The Buddy 125 Series Italia

    It's about time Genuine Scooters came out with a decent color of their popular scooter. Because, I mean, really--pink? orange? cream? Only the black "Buddy" was acceptably demure, though it gives the distinct impression of "trying too hard to be cool"--not to mention that I fear the effect of the southwestern sun on black plastic.

    Earlier this year, Genuine released the red Buddy, which is undeniably awesome, but it loses all of the "retro" appeal. So, the first item on my list (and my first priority, since I do in fact need a transportation update) is the beauty pictured above.

  • The HTC Shift

    This super-small computer officially replaces my concupiscence for the Fujitsu p1610, which hasn't had an update in a long while, and, anyway, is too big. I don't know if HTC consorts with supernatural beings for their product designs, but ever since the original Compaq iPaq (their invention), they seem to be consistently years ahead of their competition. The "Shift" is their first Windows PC, and happily it will have an option for Windows XP instead of Windows Vista. But it can also dual-boot Windows Mobile. Which means that I can have the functionality of both a very large "Pocket PC" or a very small PC.

    If you'd like to see more, there's a long product demonstration done by an only slightly creepy Australian guy here.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Tired of Jesus being crammed down your throat?

Would you prefer that atheism be slipped into your drink?

Monday, August 06, 2007

Planning the Sacraments class, part trois

OK, so I wasn't quite thinking clearly last night, since I was thinking I would have two semesters to teach the class. HA! One semester for me. So I guess that means I need to do some more aggressive abbreviation here.

On the bright side of things, I learned what class I'm going to teach next semester: World Religions! But since my background is in philosophy and theology rather than religious studies, who could blame me for teaching the class like a "philosophy of religion" course? I'm seriously considering devoting half the class to discussing the matter of religious plurality itself, rather than simply doing a survey of religions. In particular, I want to explode any notion that "the religions" (a meaningless phrase) are a buffet, displayed side by side for our perusal. Such distorts not only the individual traditions but the notion of religion itself.

All right, so I need to rethink the semester... First, let's get specific about exactly how much in-class time I have. Spreadsheet time!

What can I say, I'm awesome with the spreadsheetin'.

Now, let's bring up an even further condensed version of my outline from last night:

  • Sacrament & Liturgy
    • Sacrament - History and Meaning
    • Sacraments as the Work of the Trinity
    • Liturgy
      • Grace and Prayer
      • Church and Salvation
  • For each Sacrament:
    • Its particular origin in revelation
    • Its history/ritual and symbols
    • Practicum (?) and significance
  • Challenges to the Sacramental Imagination
    • Iconoclasm
    • Naturalism
    • The analogical imagination
OK, now let's expand the middle part to include all of the sacraments:

  1. Sacrament & Liturgy
    1. Sacrament - History and Meaning
    1. Sacraments as the Work of the Trinity
    2. Liturgy
      1. Grace and Prayer
      2. Church and Salvation
  2. Baptism
    1. Its particular origin in revelation
    2. Its history/ritual and symbols
    3. Practicum (?) and significance
  3. Confirmation
    1. Its particular origin in revelation
    2. Its history/ritual and symbols
    3. Practicum (?) and significance
  4. Eucharist
    1. Its particular origin in revelation
    2. Its history/ritual and symbols
    3. Practicum (?) and significance
  5. Penance
    1. Its particular origin in revelation
    2. Its history/ritual and symbols
    3. Practicum (?) and significance
  6. Anointing of the Sick
    1. Its particular origin in revelation
    2. Its history/ritual and symbols
    3. Practicum (?) and significance
  7. Matrimony
    1. Its particular origin in revelation
    2. Its history/ritual and symbols
    3. Practicum (?) and significance
  8. Holy Orders
    1. Its particular origin in revelation
    2. Its history/ritual and symbols
    3. Practicum (?) and significance
  9. Challenges to the Sacramental Imagination
    1. Iconoclasm
    2. Naturalism
    3. The analogical imagination
This is ridiculous. OK, let's try the Catechism's trick, and use the traditional three groupings:
  1. Sacrament & Liturgy
    1. Sacrament - History and Meaning
    2. Sacraments as the Work of the Trinity
    3. Liturgy
      1. Grace and Prayer
      2. Church and Salvation
  2. The Seven Sacraments
    1. Sacraments of Christian Initiation
      1. Baptism and Confirmation
      2. Eucharist
    2. Sacraments of Healing
      1. Penance
      2. Anointing of the Sick
    3. Sacraments at the Service of Communion
      1. Matrimony
      2. Holy Orders
  3. Challenges to the Sacramental Imagination
    1. Iconoclasm
    2. Naturalism
    3. The Catholic Response: The Analogy of Being

OK, I like this. Now I can gauge how much time I'm going to need for each lesson:

  1. Introduction, Syllabus, Procedures, Maybe early start on lesson 2.1 - Week 1
  2. Sacrament & Liturgy
    1. Sacrament - History and Meaning - Week 2
    2. Sacraments as the Work of the Trinity - Weeks 3 & 4
    3. Liturgy - Week 5
      1. Grace and Prayer; Church and Salvation - Week 6
  3. The Seven Sacraments
    1. Sacraments of Christian Initiation
      1. Baptism and Confirmation - Weeks 7 & 8
      2. Eucharist - Weeks 9 & 10 (Mon & Tues)
    2. Sacraments of Healing
      1. Penance - Weeks 10 (Thurs & Fri) & 11
      2. Anointing of the Sick - Week 12
    3. Sacraments at the Service of Communion
      1. Matrimony & Holy Orders - Weeks 13 & 14*
    4. Sacramentals - Week 15
  4. Challenges to the Sacraments
    1. Iconoclasm - Week 16
    2. Naturalism - Week 17
    3. The Catholic Response: The Analogy of Being - Week 18
  5. Review for Final - Week 19 (Mon & Tues)
All I can say is BAM.

* - Week 14 is a very short week because of Thanksgiving. Rather than decide which of Holy Orders and Matrimony I want to give the short shrift, I'll teach both in a single lesson with a single quiz. This will allow me to illustrate their complementarity and how each life images eternal life in its own unique way. Woo John Paul II (and Christopher West!)

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Sacraments lesson planning, part deux

OK, let's start simple and then get specific. What all the outlines have in common is that they cover two topics:
  • Sacrament in general
  • The seven Sacraments
There are certain common sense subheadings we can put in here, so let's do that:

  • Sacrament in general
    • The meaning of "sacrament"
  • The seven Sacraments
    • Baptism
    • Confirmation
    • Eucharist
    • Penance
    • Anointing of the Sick
    • Holy Orders
    • Matrimony
Let's take this and collapse the seven sacraments into the subtopics that will be common to all of them.

  • Sacrament in general
    • The meaning of "sacrament"
  • The seven Sacraments
    • The Sacrament's particular origin in revelation
    • Its meaning/purpose
    • Its relations to other sacraments
    • Its ritual and symbols
    • Its history
    • Significance to daily life
    • Practicum
All right, now let's expand a bit on Sacrament in general

  • Sacrament & Liturgy in general (Judging by the Catechism it seems I can't very well separate these two terms, though they will need to be distinguished.)
    • Historical development (from mysterion to sacramentum)
    • Definition
    • The Trinity
    • The Paschal Mystery
    • Grace/Prayer
    • Significance for action
  • The seven Sacraments - for each:
    • Its meaning/purpose
    • Its particular origin in revelation
    • Its history
    • Its relations to other sacraments
    • Its ritual and symbols
    • Significance to daily life
    • Practicum
OK, I think I've over-expanded a bit, especially when you consider that the second "part" of the above outline is multplied 7x. Let's pare down some topics here.

  • Sacrament & Liturgy in general (Judging by the Catechism, it seems I can't very well separate these two terms, though they will need to be distinguished.)
    • The origin and meaning of the word, "sacrament"
    • Sacrament in Salvation History (incl. Trinity/Paschal Mystery)
    • Leitourgia: The Participation of People in the Work of God on Their Behalf
      • Prayer, Grace, and Salvation
    • Significance for the Christian
  • The seven Sacraments - for each:
    • Its meaning/purpose
    • Its particular origin in revelation
    • Its history/ritual and symbols
    • Significance to daily life/Practicum
  • Conclusion - challenges to the sacramental vision (or "Don't let bad ideas limit your spiritual destiny!")
    • Protestantism and iconoclastic piety
    • Modernity and nature's glass ceiling
    • What they have in common
    • The analogical imagination

The last section is a kind of a "bonus" section; although I don't expect to be able to cover everything that quickly, there's always the off-chance I could wind up with extra time. In any case, my teaching books say to always prepare more material than you need; I am first applying this advice at the annual level.

The order of subjects is, I think, logical. A part of me wishes there were more symmetry between the four points of the first and "second" sections. However, their present order allows me to tie them together quite neatly. When I finish discussing the word "sacrament," this provides a perfect lead-in to differentiating between pagan vs. Christian understandings of the word--hence revelation comes into play. I believe Grace deserves its own section here; it is such a poorly understood topic and so important to sacraments.

In the case of the seven individual sacraments, I felt that starting with a straight-up "here's what it means" would be easiest simply because students are used to that approach. But then I want to take things more "chronologically", moving from the seeds of each sacrament, its fulfillment in Christ, its growth in the Church, and finally its particular fullment in saving you.

Finally, a note on the section on "leitourgia": The second and third sections of the first block form a nice antipode; first we talk about God's side of things (the Paschal Mystery), and then we talk about ours (the liturgy). But even while we talk about "holding up our end of the eschatological bargain", we also negate it at every step. Thus, (and I don't care who hears it), I'll warn my students that the word "liturgy" does NOT mean "the work of the people." Even in its more ancient, secular use, it designated works done on behalf of the people. Enter Grace and Prayer, and I get a perfect opportunity to disabuse any students of the notion that we earn any part of our salvation.

Teaching about the Sacraments

I have begun preparing this class in earnest. Looking over the school calendar for the year, I have about 175 class sessions to cover everything a high school student should know about sacraments. That equals 35 total "weeks", but that doesn't account for the fact of Mass days and Rally days, which reduce class length to 40 minutes and 32 minutes, respectively. Thus to be on the safe side, I will imagine that I need to cover the material in 30 50-minute sessions.

Or another way I could look at it is: I actually have 37 "weeks" if by that we mean Mon-Fri periods where "most" of the days are teaching days, although some of them have as few as three days in them.

How I divide the course material, of course, depends on what the course material actually is. An initial look at my resource reveals the following:

  • The course textbook.
  • The Catechism + footnotes to source material; the Documents of Vatican II; Denzinger's Sources of Catholic Dogma;
  • Seminary handouts from Sacraments courses.
  • Seminary bibliographies
  • The Internet
  • The ASU library
To get a sense of how the course material should be divided, I compared the table of contents of the course textbook, the Catechism, and the list of course objectives given to me by the school.

Sacraments: Course Objectives

  1. The Catholic Sacramental Vision

    1. Sacramental awareness

    2. Grace

    3. Symbols and rituals

    4. Prayer

  2. Christ and the Sacraments

    1. The Paschal Mystery

    2. The Incarnation

    3. The Church (+ models)

    4. Death – Resurrection – Pentecost – Sacraments

  3. History of sacrament and Sacraments

  4. Sacraments and human life

  5. Symbols and rituals

Textbook TOC

  1. “Sacraments: encountering the sacred”

  2. “Symbols: doorways to the sacred”

  3. “Rituals: meaning in symbolic actions”

  4. “Prayer: worshiping in word, in act, and in silence”

  5. “Jesus Christ and the Church: sacraments of God's love for the world”

  6. “The Sacraments in History: changing church, changing sacraments”

7-13. The Seven Sacraments

*. “Conclusion: the sacrament you”

Catechism TOC

  1. The Sacramental Economy

    1. The Paschal Mystery in the Age of the Church

    2. The Sacramental Celebration

  2. The Seven Sacraments of the Church

    1. The Sacraments of Christian Initiation

    2. The Sacraments of Healing

    3. The Sacraments at the Service of Communion

    4. Other Liturgical Celebrations

How do I organize this jumble? I've been thinking about this for a while. What the course objectives are asking me to do is to survey a heaping ton of material in a short time. But perhaps I'm moving too quickly. What are my hopes for this class? How do I plan to inspire my students to care about this "object of study", these "sacraments"?
  • I hope that my students develop their sense of the sacred; the fact that the liturgy is God's tearing open the veil that separates this world from the spiritual world; that in the Mass and all the other sacraments, Jesus Christ--made present by the Holy Spirit--is the Father's perfect victory over, and transformation of the world. He is revealed and made known, and we are gratuitously permitted to take part in his, the everlasting worship of the Father, together with the Holy Mother of God, the saints, and angels.
  • I hope that my students gain a proper understanding of the visible elements of rite and symbol; how the sacraments are indeed the historically-conditioned and culturally saturated outer manifestations of the sacred Mysteries. Yet their form and appearance are not, therefore, our plaything, as if history belonged to us more than it does God. Precisely in their historicity they are the God's sanctification and purification of history and culture (Just as Christ's humanity sanctifies and purifies our humanity). Thus the first determinant of rite and rubric is neither a sarcophagus filled with other men's prayers (whether ancient or medieval), nor the passing fancies of historically ambivalent modernity, but rather something else entirely (will get into later). Thus I want to communicate that many sacramental forms are subject to development in continuity. Newman to the rescue!
  • I hope my students learn not only that the sacraments are sacred but how; I would like to reveal to them the drama which is made visible for them who have eyes for it. I would like them to not only see, but experience how Catholic worship is not amorphous "praise" or disorganized, ephemeral affections; but it is patterned, structured, complex, dramatic; the re-incorporating of the present into the singular drama of eternity. We are not just telling God how much we like him; we are presenting ourselves as bodily participants in the Crucifixion that saved fallen humanity and reversed the progress of sin and death that even now threatens to push us individually over the threshold of delusional despair. (Huge breath).
So now I feel like I can answer the question: how do I organize this mess?

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Harry Potter musings

I'm about halfway through Order of the Phoenix right now, and I have some thoughts.

  • If I remember correctly, this was the book people were criticizing for being burdensome, over-full, and disorganized... and though I do agree, I'm finding it pretty enjoyable anyway. When I saw the movie-version of Prisoner of Azkaban, I thought that the film improved the story by its omissions. I read a film review of Order of the Phoenix that said the same thing about it. So I'm looking forward to seeing the movie in hopes of getting a tightened, just-what-you-need-to-know version of the tale. I don't care about Fred and George's joke shop.

  • Rowling uses a tactic a little too often. In many, if not most scenes, there is something that is happening repeatedly in the background. This repetitive background "noise" is described in detail once (just one example, the screaming portrait of Sirius's mother), and again in less detail, and again in less, until the scene continues with periodic interruptions of "Oh, and the thing happened again". It's an amusing trope, but like the repetition-for-signifiance that was abused in Batman Begins, when a technique ceases to be transparent, it's time to stop using it.

  • When I was studying in Louvain, Fr. Denis (Yes, the same mentioned below) once said without blinking that Harry Potter was a Christian allegory. At the time I didn't really take him seriously, either because Father can say a lot of things without blinking and it's impossible to tell whether he's kidding; or because there is no good story which is not impervious to Christian allegorizing. Leastwise, literature has a lot more transparent "Christ figures" than Harry Potter, who lies, breaks rules, and has a temper.

    Reading Order of the Phoenix, though, there are a couple of themes that might be uniquely significant to Christians. One in particular is how difficult it is to make people believe something which is, to us, so plainly true. I revel especially in the contrast between the two "sides". The Order not only believes the true thing, but is thus compelled into absolute seriousness, seeing the world as it is--as a cold war of the forces of good and evil over the spirits of the indifferent. The Ministry/Daily Prophet is vicious in its opposition to this view, seemingly more out of concern for politeness than anything else. I don't know about Harry Potter and Jesus Christ, but I've never seen a stronger figure of the last two Popes than Dumbledore. Happily, the forces of ideological politeness (or "illiberal liberalism" as it is called by Fr. John Neuhaus) cannot demote the Pope in the same way they demoted Dumbledore.

    I'm sure the Christian meaning is deeper than all of this, but that's enough for one bullet point.

Monday, July 30, 2007

I'm moving!

Next time I write I'll be living in my NEW HOME. Woo.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Linux, *Shudder*

On a whim, I installed Kubuntu 7.04 on my Averatec 3250 laptop. I had read a lot of comments to the effect that it was a fabulous alternative to Windows Vista, and that all of those silly anti-Linux criticisms were utterly baseless (baseless I say!) in view of the great strides Ubuntu had made toward user-friendliness.

I will confess that my first reaction to Kubuntu, once it was rather quickly installed and running on my laptop, was one of awe and delight. XP Pro had atrophied to a crawl in spite of my legendary skills in spywayre/virus/temp/startup removal, registry cleanup, chkdisk'ing, and defragging. Kubuntu was, in contrast, an absolute champion of performance. Everything was so unbelievably responsive. I smiled at the "bouncy thingies" that appeared by my pointer every time I loaded a program.

But then I noticed that my wireless card wasn't working.

And not only was it not working; it's not-working-ness was unrelated to the Linux pro's usual refain: "It's the manufacturer's fault for not giving us good drivers." No, in fact, there were plenty of Linux drivers for my laptop's RaLink1500 wireless card; indeed, previous users of Ubuntu had reported lots of success. There's the rub: something is wrong with version 7.04. The Feisty Fawn is Foiled.

Now, the fact wrestling with this took a day and a half and a half-dozen failed attempts to fix the problems (all of which, I assure you, gave me a much unwanted crash course in the musty wilderness of the Linux command-line interface), by itself, might not have deterred me. But a number of other things did, in fact, persuade me to kick the dust off my feet and run back to Mother Microsoft.
  • I looked in vain amid the online documents, the forums, and the glitch reports for the so-called "community" that enthusiasts assured me would be my friendly, free support group. What I found was the same elitist ghetto that was firmly entrenched when I had tried Linux a few years ago. Explain terminology that might be unfamiliar to a Windows user? UNTHINKABLE! Sink or swim you Microsoft maggot. We all got here by sweat and blood and by golly, you're going to do the same!
  • I expect Linux to be different and thus just a little uncomfortable. I understand that it would be unfair to blame all of my troubles on objective defects in the operating system. But that argument can only be taken so far. I mean, come on now, just look at the directory tree in the file explorer. How opaque can you get? Where the heck are the executables? In Windows, they're in a folder called "Program Files." Who knew?
  • As ironic as it is, the way Linux is built, Ubuntu does new users a disservice by trying to hide the command line as much as possible. Why? Because the command line will always be there. There's no avoiding it. Better to make sure that everybody knows this fact going in, and equipping them with the tools to navigate it, than to make disingenuous "just-like-Windows!" promises that can't be kept. When I go into Kubuntu, and get stuck with a problem that needs the command line, and my only help are the Klingon speaking experts on the Web, you know where that leaves me? In a word, PWND.
As an aside, it was after using Kubuntu's disk burning software that my laptop's DVD-RW drive breathed its last and gave up its spirit. Maybe I shouldn't blame the death of my optical drive on Linux, but I do anyway.

So, with some sadness, I wipe my laptop's hard drive clean and fitfully reinstall Windows XP Home (I copied the disk onto a bootable 2GB USB flash drive). I still scrub away the remnants of the GRUB bootloader even after a reformat (irritating). So long, Linux. Let me know when you're not a ghetto anymore.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

On Hobby Horses, Fr. Denis's and my own.

There are certain kinds of people, whether because of their temperament or hobby or career, will have their opinions and priorities known by those in their sphere of influence. Priests almost always fall into this category, and I am reminded of a proverb I heard years ago at Louvain: "Every priest preaches only one homily." This may certainly be true of those priests (and other opinionated people) who have allowed themselves to drift off into the remote and narrow distributaries of the river of human thought. Giving up on the hard work of study, they forget the inconvenient complexities of truth and instead are content to drum up a simple, catchy beat that excites the lowest common denominator and provides modest successes of influence within a restricted province. Here we have our Ann Coulters and our James Carrolls, caught up in tiny creeks and bogs, far away from the river whose tributary is ancient, forgotten truths and whose momentum is difficult questions. By their very immobility, those caught in the tiny veins are able to make familiar friends with those on the shore.

But even well within the undulating river of thought, i.e. those whose who have been trained to fear all modes of intellectual suicide (a sin equally accessible to those of liberal or conservative bent), the adage is still quite true: every priest preaches just one homily. Everyone "specializes"; everyone has a distinct notion of just what is wrong with the world and what needs to be done/taught/changed. I know I am sloppily mixing analogies here, I'm sorry.

Fr. Denis Robinson, OSB, now sub-prior at St. Meinrad Archabbey and a double-Ph.D. in systematic theology, has one of the most complicated and non-axiomatic minds I have encountered (and he would hate that I am talking him up like this). Yet this does not mean that his speaking (liturgical, academic, or private) is an exercise in sheer variety. Now an interpretation of one of Flannery O'Connor's short stories, now an exhortation on the importance of self improvement, now a tirade on the dangers of modern rootlessness, now a statement that John Henry Newman is modernity's most important theologian, Fr. Denis's judgments have a daunting range but a discernible union.

I spent a relatively short time with him, but I could probably guess at themes that are among, if not certainly, his most favorite. I don't think he would balk too much at a description of himself as a champion of unpretentious and democratic faith as against the arrogance of the university; though behind this is an equally potent defense of reason in the service of Truth as against any anti-intellectualism in the service of peripheral goods (he is nothing if not an anti-sentimentalist).

Fr. Denis, I know, has a particular concern for the liturgy in all of its ritual and strangeness; in his words, "Relevance is the death of liturgy," and "The liturgy is supposed to be anachronistic," and "The liturgy should be somewhat theatrical". I was not surprised in the least to learn that he recently was granted faculties to celebrate the Divine Liturgy according to the Melkite rite, and I was not surprised in particular that he would seek those faculties rather than receive training in the Missal of John XXIII. Why? Knowing him I would guess his primary reasons are theological, not political. But I also know that Fr. Denis is keen on avoiding the easy solutions to difficult problems as presented by many conservative Catholics.

If I were looking for a common thread among these and other favorite themes of Fr. Denis, I might suggest something like the following. That in the Catholic Church is a power unique to it by virtue of the the Holy Spirit and its providentially guided history. And this power is a great many things, but one of those things is an as-yet largely untapped power to enrich and transform the individual. This is a power to turn a person from a sheep of the world--the "hired man"--into a man or woman of culture, of virtue, of good works, and of saving faith. And that this power is equally accessible to every individual irrespective of natural gifts. However, it is not commonly sought, and worse, it is not commonly offered by those to whom it has been entrusted.

I haven't even begun to skim the surface (and if this gets back to you, Father, my apologies in advance if I have given you unwanted or inaccurate publicity).

I don't pretend to have the breadth of learning or thinking that Fr. Dennis does, but I do try to plod along with what I do have. My hobby horses are well known from this blog (when I finish categorizing my posts, someday, they will be available for all to see in the category index). I might outline them as follows...

  • I am brash enough to believe that I know what liberalism truly is, and that as a philosophy--to say nothing of those who materially accept some of its doctrines--it is profoundly evil. The values that liberals proclaim are certainly good and must be defended. However liberalism is a modification of the virtue of mercy that, as a logical consequence, eventually terminates in its opposite. Liberalism is different from mercy and liberality not in degree but in kind. It is a personal mission of mine to name the devil that oppresses modernity in order to assist in its proper exorcism.
  • It is also my firm belief that perhaps the saddest symptom of the above oppression is the truncation of human possibility both on the level of the individual and civilization. Very broadly we might call this the "dumbing down" of civilization, but specifically my focus is on the deletion of the virtue of religion--a natural virtue connected to the cardinal virtue of justice. We have so completely removed the virtue of religion from public consciousness that we have even removed it from our Catholic worship. We have absolutely forgotten the sense that the worthiness of the liturgy depends upon nothing so much as our consciousness of our own unworthiness before God the Father. These are the terms I have chosen to phrase the same problem Fr. Denis refers to when he says, "Relevance is the death of liturgy." It is partly my attempt to answer the question of why this is so--because relevance is a criterion by which the movement of God must first be validated by my prior preferences. Beyond this, I believe that the issue of our rootlessness/culturelessness and the death of the virtue of religion are cyclically connected. I believe that culture is to a great degree recovered and built when an individual rediscovers the virtue of religion (and the passion of awe)--such is the phenomena of the clamor for the old rite of the Mass. Yet the recovery of culture, history, and ancestry fills out religiosity, not only by connecting today's youth with their religious forebears, grandparents and great grandparents; but by filling our modern religiosity with the Communion of Saints, with the music and the stories and the traditions of the past. This does not drag us backwards but precisely gives us a platform from which to leap.
  • In the main, I do think in terms of a cosmic struggle. It is a struggle which has already been won, but in which nevertheless we are players in the pages of an unfolding revelation (how is that for sloppily mixing analogies?)
  • I don't think I've adequately covered things here. Big surprise. And now I am exhausted. Oh well. Maybe something will get something from this. Good night, happy Sunday!