Saturday, December 15, 2012

More or Less Gun Control

Predictably, after the latest school shooting tragedy, the gun control advocates, and the gun freedom advocates, are all up in arms, no pun intended. It's kind of pathetic watching it, actually. Each side thinks that more or less gun control is the solution to preventing these kinds of random acts of violence. What each conveniently ignores is that the source of such egregious acts of violence is not guns.

Then you have the mental health and anti-bullying advocates jumping into the fray. Clearly the perpetrators of these crimes are mentally disturbed, so the solution is for everyone to be more sensitive to and aware of such mental illness, to create better psychological safety nets. If only the person were more accepted by society, he wouldn't have done it. Or so it goes.

And then you have people like me who, predictably, point out the obvious. That if these folks had a correct and hearty respect for human life, they wouldn't do this, even if they did feel picked on/rejected by society, even if they had the whole of the U.S. military's weapons at their disposal.

Framing the problem around the proliferation of guns is so naively simplistic that it's amazing that otherwise intelligent people engage in it. I don't care what philosophical or ideological background you're coming from, or what terms you want to use. The undeniable fact is that having a firm moral foundation that must include respect for the first, fundamental, and most inviolable of rights--the right to and dignity of all human life--necessarily precludes such malevolent violations of that right.

The conversation we need to be having is how can we, as a society, better instill that foundation in our society. Period.

If you don't believe in God, fine. If you do, fine. We can debate that separately, but we need to agree on this fundamental right, and we need to make it a priority to instill, foster, and proliferate a healthy respect for it.  If there ever was an inconvenient truth, it's that we are miserably failing to foster such a moral foundation in our society.

More gun control does nothing towards that. Nada. Zilch. Zero. It's like someone with a runny nose stuffing more and more and more tissue up his nose. He'll still feel miserable, still be sick, and the snot will just run down his throat instead. And more counseling is like taking an antihistamine; it helps better, but it still isn't a cure (and it may lead to drowsiness). Less gun control is like saying you don't need anything to treat it at all; that it's natural and healthy for you to be snotting all over the place.

We do have gun control today, despite frenetic claims to the contrary, quite a lot of it, in fact. As a society we have an amazing, historically speaking, sensitivity to and awareness of psychological illness (some might say too much, that we're almost psychological hypochondriacs). These measures, I would say, do help some. But they only go so far, and there is a point at which they become counterproductive and even harmful. Sore throats are arguably worse than a runny nose, as is overdosing on antihistamines.

If we allow ourselves, in response to this latest tragedy, to indulge yet again in arguing about gun control or mental health, we'll miss yet another opportunity for serious, important moral introspection as a society. Facilely saying "if he didn't have a gun, it wouldn't have happened" or "if only all the teachers were packing, it wouldn't have happened (or been as bad)," are two sides to the same coin. They are both, in theory, true. And they both, in reality, miss the point.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Conservatives Care for the Poor and Needy, Mr. Colbert

I watched The Colbert Report when it first aired and have watched many, many episodes since then. It's funny. Even when I disagree with him, I can't deny that it is funny. I also give him credit for not being mostly obnoxious, unlike other comedians in the same vein/political outlook (Stewart, Maher, etc.). And hey, I can't deny that it's nice to have such a popular guy in showbiz who I believe does truly try to live his Catholic faith faithfully.  But as a rule, he is of the politically traditional (if I may use that word in this context) Catholic Democrat type.  This quote that was recently shared on G+ illustrates it:
Colbert Maligns Conservatives
This was said in response to a Dec 2010 column by "Papa Bear" (as his character lovingly refers to Bill O'Reilly). You can catch the segment this is taken from here. Doing so better situates the quote above for the criticism I offered on G+, which you can read at the link above. Colbert in this segment specifically, if satirically, positions Jesus as a liberal Democrat. I was taken to task for making a political generalization related to this myself. So I thought I'd point out the context and expound more here to show where my comment was coming from.


Colbert's The Colbert Report corpus related to this topic speaks for itself. He takes every opportunity to distort and mock conservative (Republican) positions on social matters while presenting the liberal (Democratic) positions as the blessed and holy way. The whole show, in its very fundamental, satirical conception, is intended specifically for this purpose (and to make money). His statement above fits right in with all that, and his intent is here, again, to distort a conservative position rather than engage with it fairly.  Of course, doing so wouldn't be funny and wouldn't please his audience, so he can't afford, quite literally, to do that.

Colbert is selective in his biblical references. St. Paul said, "Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness ... If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat." The context of that passage is specifically about humans living in community, that is, in society, and is explicitly a command from The Apostle using his Apostolic authority quite directly ("in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ").

On the other hand, the passages that Colbert alludes to have to do with individual works, freely chosen as a way to personal holiness and perfection.  In the segment, Colbert quotes Matthew 5:40; the context there is Christ contrasting the "eye for an eye" mentality of equal retribution for wrongs. Christ, in contrast to eye for an eye, teaches a giving mentality; that is, he is illustrating with some concrete examples that it is more blessed (this is in the context of the Sermon on the Mount--the Beatitudes) to respond with generosity, even when we feel we are being put upon or wronged in some way.  The context is not a command for how we must live together in society but rather an exhortation to personal perfection.

Colbert also alluded to the story of the rich young ruler, in Luke 18 as further evidence to contradict O'Reilly. Here again, the context is important. This is an individual who comes to Christ to ask, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" As with the woman at the well and as with the scribes and Pharisees seeking to stone the adulteress, Christ, being God, sees into these individuals' hearts.  With the young rich man, he pulls out the thing that was keeping him from the path to life--his attachment to his wealth. Christ's directive was to him as an individual; it is not meant as a blanket command for every person, much less as a guide for how to structure society here on earth.

And if Colbert is so hip to Christ's words here, it does beg the question, why hasn't Colbert sold all that he has and given it to the poor? He is, self-admittedly, a rich man.  His own way of life belies the flaw in his argument. Because he well knows this passage is not intended to be taken in the rhetorical way that he is using it in his argument.

So how did Christ relate to this world? Did he come to give us a guide to how to structure our society, i.e., our government? When questioned at his trial by Pilate, what did he say? "My kingdom is not of this world." As Colbert rightly noted, Christ could have come down off the Cross. He could have set up an incontrovertible temporal kingdom and ruled with a Divine iron fist to enforce truly "Christian" behavior. But he didn't. Why?

Because Christ--being God--is big into personal freedom. Of all beings, God could force every other creature to hum along in perfect tune if he wanted to. So we can obviously read in God's refusal to do this that he values letting we humans exercise our free will, he values each of us choosing to exercise authentically free faith, hope, and love. And it is the last of these freely exercised virtues that Christ exhorts us to in speaking of generosity with the poor. But it is always a free, personal, individual generosity; never forced.

Christ tells us in Matthew 5 that the way of individual perfection is that when someone asks me (as an individual) for help--or even when they try to take from me--that I should respond with generosity.  He does not, by this, say that I should force others to give. The typical liberal Democrat philosophy fails on this point. It fails by presuming, contra God's own example, to enforce individual perfection through external means. However, conversion and individual perfection always start on the interior as motivations of the heart in response to God's free gift of grace.

The typical liberal Democrat philosophy also fails on holistic, contextually situated adherence to Scripture. In addition to the passage from St. Paul's second letter to the Thessalonians quoted above, The Apostle also directs, in his second letter to the Corinthians (again, precisely in his Apostolic role in setting up and ordering Christians communities), "Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver." I couldn't have said it better.

There is no foundation in Scripture for taxing anyone (much less the rich, specifically or disproportionately) in order to provide for the poor. Taking care of the poor and needy, while a central tenant of Christianity, is always directed as a free choice of individuals, not a principle of civil government. Christian communities are directed to provide this care, but their means for doing so comes from the free participation of the Christian members.

Further, there is specific direction by St. Paul to not provide for those who do not work (those who are "idle"--a concept that is more than simply not working, to be clear). God is not unjust. He does not command or force us to give more than we can. He does not make us care for those who can rightly and justly care for themselves. The initiative towards the poor and needy is always towards those who are authentically poor and needy, not those who are idle. There are conditions, contrary to what Mr. Colbert asserts, and the conditions are found in justice.

The challenge for us is to be animated by a principle of generous charity while not impoverishing ourselves. It would not, for instance, be just for the provider of a family to forsake providing for his or her family and impoverish them so as to care for the poor and needy around them. Nor would it be just for a debtor to forsake his debts to give to the poor.

Some few are called to individual total self-impoverishment (the rich young ruler, St. Bridget of Ireland, St. Francis, and others, for example), but not all. And those who are called must respond in individual freedom, not coercion, and justly in regards to their obligations.

In as much as our government does provide for the poor, it must be done so justly--especially given that  its means for doing so comes from coercion (i.e., taxation). The government in these cases has a stricter duty to ensure that only those who are truly needy receive such assistance. It would be unjust for the government to be animated by an uncritical principle of generosity.

And therein lies another flaw of government care for the needy--the duty for just distribution is greater and therefore requires more overhead to ensure it, inevitably reducing what can actually be given to the needy. This is also why caring for the poor should be as local as possible, as personal and as individual as possible--because by being so, it is much easier to both discover the need and to know that the need is authentic and does not come from idleness.

All of this is in pretty stark contrast to the typical liberal Democrat presumption that the government, especially the federal government, should be tasked with caring for the poor and needy.

And about Colbert's caricaturing conservatives (and he is by no means alone in doing so) as selfish and uncaring for the poor and needy, there have been studies that show either that conservatives give more to charitable causes or, at least, equally (depending on the study). The concrete data proves the caricature wrong, in addition to the theoretical and Scriptural exploration above.

So, Mr. Colbert, who is "factually incorrect" and "borderline heretical" in this matter? It seems to me that your position is more correctly characterized that way than O'Reilly's. More than that, in caricaturing your political opponents as you have, you are guilty of violence to their characters and to the truth.

Conservatives have good, solid foundation for their political views, and as I read it, they are actually more Scriptural and Christian, not less, than the typical liberal Democratic view, both on this issue and other social issues for sure.  Caring for the poor and needy does not have to be done through government, and it seems to me that not only does it not have to be but quite possibly it shouldn't be. This is not a matter of selfishness but rather of disagreements about right and just political ordering.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Does God "Want" Us to Suffer?

"Now, this must be a really crazy God if he/she wants us to suffer." [Source]

This line stood out to me, not that I would tell someone that their loved one died because God wanted to teach them something. But her reaction, that God would have to be crazy to want us to suffer, is also a bit off, especially in that context. God himself willed himself to suffer, in the person of Christ, because out of that suffering comes a much greater good.

Is that crazy to consider, then, that we might endure suffering for a greater good?  

I think not.

The greater good of freely chosen love, of self-donation in the many forms it has taken and continues to take daily in human history, is only possible through undetermined freedom of individuals. Yet that same freedom makes possible much harm to others, and sometimes to our own selves.

We may not always grasp the greater goods that God brings out of suffering. That, in itself, is a kind of suffering. But for those of us who believe in God, we know that it is true, that despite what appear to be inexplicable, unjust, and unaccounted for evils, God can and does have a greater good in view by allowing them.

No, God doesn't "want" our suffering in itself. God wants the best for us, but sometimes that does involve suffering. For the Christian, suffering is not a waste. It is not an inescapable, engulfing void of grief and nothingness. Suffering contains within it the seeds of redemption, of some greater redeeming good.

It's not for us to read the entrails and try to figure out the details of how this or that evil brings a greater good (though we can rejoice when we do see it). It is for us, rather, to embrace the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, believing that God can, does, and will bring about the good, knowing that what we don't see does not escape his vision, and doing our part to bring about that good ourselves through simple yet profound acts of charity throughout our lives.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Elasticity of Belief and Degrees of Sin

A good friend of mine shared an article with me today entitled "Is Apple's logo blasphemy?" Frankly, it is hard for me to take such a question seriously, because it just seems preposterous on the surface. But there are people who might take it seriously, including those mentioned in the article and some of its commenters.  So I figured I should attempt a more serious answer.

First of all, let's consider the stretch of belief, the leap required to accept the proposition. All belief (i.e., assent to something proposed as truth) requires some amount of a "leap of faith" (using "faith" in the popular sense of the word, not in its proper theological sense, where God is the definite object of faith). The question is always just how big of a leap of faith one must take to accept a proposition.  Francis Schaeffer demonstrates this ably in his Trilogy, in his encounter with an existentialist. Even to avoid the simple conundrum of solipsism requires some basic amount of faith in reality per se.

So belief inherently contains a spectrum of credulity, and given the wide array of beliefs, I am often struck by the elasticity of belief--how it is so able to stretch this way and that.  Even one person is able to believe in such demonstrably self-defeating propositions like relativism.

Back to the subject at hand, despite the straightforward, logical explanations of the people involved in the creation of the Apple logo (even cited in the related article), for which almost no leap of faith is required, people craft another story, one that implies some diabolical conspiracy, as if Jobs struck his own Faustian deal with Mephistopheles in order to gain vast riches only at the cost of his soul. The leap of faith required to believe such a story is orders of magnitude larger than the simple story given by the actual people involved in the creation of the company and logo.  (And let's not forget that Job's history with the company was hardly a trajectory towards the stars from the get go...)

Which story is more likely? You decide.

Now, for the more credulous, let's consider for a moment that the alternative story is true.  That Jobs et al's intent was indeed to thumb their noses at God, that they intended to draw some parallel with the biblical story, that their products were somehow the new forbidden fruit.  I dare say that the Apple marketers would love this association, because it adds even more appeal for the vast majority of people. Our fallen nature desires the forbidden and relishes it simply because it is forbidden, as St. Augustine describes in his Confessions.

So let's say that was the intent. Isn't what made the forbidden fruit forbidden that God made it so?  Are we therefore saying that Jobs et al have that same power--to arbitrarily set up their products as divinely forbidden? In order for their products to be so, we'd have to grant them such divine ordinary power.  Not only is this impossible (they are not and can never be God, nor have they been given the Keys as St. Peter and his successors), believing this, too, would be a tremendous leap of faith, and it gives these men way too much power.

No, I think it's safe to say that they cannot, by their associating their product with the forbidden fruit, actually make their products a forbidden fruit. So then, their products, despite the imagined intent, are just products, just like any other manmade product. They have a designed purpose, and it is up to the user of the product to use it for good or ill.

Still, let's go further, lets say that somehow by purchasing and using Apple products (and displaying the logo) that we are somehow de facto participating in this thumbing the nose.  In moral theology, there are the concepts of proximate and remote, formal and material, active and passive participation in evil.  Do you by using Apple products intend to thumb your nose at God?  No, well that makes it material (i.e., much less serious than if you do--God looks on the heart and judges it, 1 Sam 16:7).  We can further say that buying such a product in spite of the intent would qualify as passive, mediate, and, possibly, proximate.  In other words, it may not be the remotest participation, but it's pretty dang low.  Add to this that basically no one in the world sees the Apple logo in the way described, and the actual effect of such an act is virtually null, that is, it seems that someone else would have to recognize it as an affront to God for your unintentional display to have any real effect as evil.

Of course, it would be better to not participate in evil at all, but this presupposes that the incredible claim about the logo is true.  So if you're willing to give credence to that, and you want absolutely no participation at all, then sure, don't buy Apple products. Or just cover up the logo.  But I hope you're consistent and as choosey with all the products you consume. I guarantee you that nobody who lives in this modern world can be free of material cooperation in evil in some way or another--people are just not perfect and any consumption of another's goods will almost inevitably involve at least remote participation in their evils.

Apple has real, documented evils that they've engaged in--you don't need to imagine one in relation to the logo.  But most businesses, especially large ones, have plenty of objectionable practices, and even if they aren't documented, you can rest assured that the sinners involved are being supported by the money or goods you give them.  This is just as true of your church as it is of any business.

So the bottom line is, you have to figure out where you draw the line in participation in evil. But you should be consistent and not single out this or that organization.  Generally speaking, what your intent is and what you do with the things that you purchase is far more important to your own sanctification than what the people who produced it do or intended.  If you manage to get your own life so perfect and free from sin, then I'd say you can start in on eliminating your remote material participation.  But be careful, because as soon as you do that, you're very likely to fall into spiritual pride, which is immeasurably more damaging to your soul than any remote material participation in evil.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Review: Saint Anthony of Padua: His Life, Legends, and Devotions

My wife and I just finished reading Saint Anthony of Padua: His Life, Legends, and Devotions. I requested it because we, like many, are fans of St. Anthony, my wife especially so.

This book is a composition of essays and some reference material on prayers and shrines to St. Anthony towards the end. For the uninformed, it's a great way to get a deeper understanding of Anthony and the many years of intense devotion to him over the years.

I was reading parts of it aloud to my wife in the mornings over coffee, and we came to where we could anticipate what was coming next. We even joked about it, because the book is very repetitive. This is its nature as a collection of independent essays, each of which recounts Anthony's life to greater or lesser degrees of detail, each with some slight difference in focus and perspective.

The compiler/author, friar Jack Wintz, O.F.M., says up front that it can be used to reference here and there--that it doesn't need to be read straight through, and I think that it would probably be better consumed that way.  But hey, repetition is the cousin of mastery, so my wife and I feel like we really know St. Anthony's life now.

As a lay Dominican, I have to note that it seems St. Anthony would have been more at home with us Dominicans. He had a similar, it seems, Augustinian education--much like St. Dominic himself. He had a knack for preaching, and we are, after all, the Order of Preachers. He had a strong desire for contemplation, and that is a strong part of the Dominican tradition.  But hey, God knows what he's doing, so I'm sure he had a reason for calling Anthony to the Franciscans. :)

I haven't read other books on St. Anthony, but I think I would prefer less repetition and more in-depth original material, building on what precedes. Still, it's a very readable, short book, and you'll definitely grow in your understanding of Anthony, so I can recommend it.


----

Thanks to the Catholic Company for sharing this book with me. As part of the FTC rules, I have to be clear that they gave this book to us in order to elicit a review. The Catholic Company is also a great source for first communion gifts and baptism gifts.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Big Lies About Religion from Your Atheist Friend (Redux)

Thanks to a (non-atheist) friend on G+ (Thomas Sanjuro), I came across yet another instance of typical atheistic ignorance of religion/religious people yesterday. I suppose that the motivation for this post could be avoided if people wouldn't conflate religion with creationism. The false dichotomy of science and religion is the source of much ignorance and stupidity in the world, both from creationists and atheistic evolutionists, who act as if this one issue determines all that is good and right in the world.

I'm a strongly religious person, a devout Catholic; anyone who questions that has never met me. Yet my wife and I teach our kids about evolution and all the other sciences--in homeschool!  I have a suggestion: Let's stop with the silly, ignorant, half-baked, false notions--hateful caricatures, really--about religion and religious parenting. People have done and do dumb things, mean things, smart things, and nice things in the name of all sorts of ideas, religious and atheistic.  Being a mix of dumb and smart, mean and nice is just part of being human. Neither religion nor atheism has the corner on being human. 

You are lying to yourself if you pretend that, as a parent, you are not inculcating your children with your beliefs and values; it's impossible to do otherwise and be a parent. It is irresponsible to do otherwise.  That you happen to not value religion, as an atheist, does not make it stupid or dumb that a religious person does. You claim "neutrality" in regards to religion--not teaching your children about it and "letting them decide for themselves." Your neutrality is not neutrality at all; it is a positive negative. 

By your own practice and what you teach your children, you are indoctrinating them to think that religion is how you see it is--something ranging from a harmless hobby to the source of all evil in the world (depending on your atheistic sympathies/where you learned it from). You teach them that religion is just some fancy that they can take up and change like a pair of jeans (but of course, no smart person would wear these jeans, according to you). Those are values. Those are beliefs.  So stop pretending that you're not teaching your children your own personal values and beliefs. Stop lying to yourself and treating other human beings (that is, religious parents) like they are stupid and sub-human for doing exactly what you do, only within the bounds of their own belief and value system instead of yours.

The poster also ignorantly asserted that religion has contributed nothing of value to the modern world, asking "What has religion contributed to the modern world?" 

Only people devoid of anything more than their sophomoric history class taught by "coach" who uncritically imbibe New Atheist authors' claims so ignorantly assert that religion has contributed nothing to the modern world but "War. Hatred. Anger. Discrimination. Separation. Ignorance."  Here's a short list off the top of my head, but there have been books written (for instance) that document, substantiate, and elaborate these and others. It is evident historical fact:
- government and laws based on inherent human dignity; the very idea of justice
- the motivation for and eventual realization of abolition of slavery
- the idea and most of the instances of the hospital
- the idea and most of the instances of humanitarian work
- the idea of selfless charity and a bagillion concrete instances of that which happen in boring, everyday life
- the idea of treating another person as you would treat yourself, and acting accordingly
- the development of science as a discipline and the desire to make the world a better place through it
- the ethical restraining of science
...

Can you have a lot of these without religion?  Theoretically it is possible, but chances are that we wouldn't have "evolved" to them without it. It isn't by chance that civilization and religion grew up together, hand in hand. Historically, these things in the West developed out of religious, mostly Christian roots. That we can now, from our vantage point in time and in a culture that is based on these religious foundations, come up with theoretical frameworks devoid of religion (secular humanism) to rationalize how we already are inculturated to think and feel is no evidence that we would have ever gotten here without religion. 

On the contrary, humans tend to be remarkably brutish to each other by nature, as is well documented by history. One shudders to think where we'd be were it not for the civilizing influence of religion; we are bad enough with it at times, although we got a glimpse into what it'd be like in the 20th century thanks to the triumph of atheistic philosophies in some states.

Certainly, undoubtedly, and absolutely no scientific theory would give us any of these things that are, far more than scientific advances, essential for human flourishing and which give human life so much beauty and meaning. I love science; I love that it does contribute to our well being, our comfort, even our intellectual advancement as a whole, but science doesn't give us humanism, much less humanitarianism. It doesn't give us justice or government by laws. It absolutely doesn't give us charity. And it doesn't give us the whole story about life, the universe, and everything.

The blind worshipper of Science--the one who inflates Science as the answer to all human needs, progress, and future--is no better than the ignorant religious bumpkin. They have both chosen to see with only one eye open.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Let's Teach the Politicians How It's Done

I'm involved in an interesting yet distressing dialog (political in nature). And it occurs to me how far we are, as a nation, from being able to find any kind of common ground. I mean, if we can't even agree on the nature and purpose of dialectic, much less dialectic with a view to political practicalities and (oh my!) compromise, how can we ever hope to ever have anything but the unfortunate deadlock and lack of meaningful progress out of the political mire we find ourselves in today.

Let me be clear--both sides (and shades in between) are at fault on this. I am just as put off when I see blatant, dishonest vilification of Obama as when I see it of, say, Ryan.

I get that politicians have vested interests in not engaging in true dialectic. It seems inherent to the job, in being an ideologue or a demagogue who gets paid by being elected by the masses. But what excuse do the rest of us have?  Why is it that discussing politics (or religion) is seen as off limits? What's more important than these things, in society? 

We expect our politicians to fix this, but they simply reflect our own unwillingness to engage in reasoned, polite (wonder where that word comes from??) dialogue towards an end of finding some common ground and some ways that we can find practicable compromises to move forward.  At the very least, we can learn to have a healthy respect for one another and treat each other as human beings with dignity, instead of dishonestly caricaturing and vilifying one another in hopes of scoring some imagined rhetorical points (or worse, winning someone over through these things).

We have to live with each other, for goodness sake! What is our other option? Civil war? Again?  It's not unimaginable, you know... deadlock, entrechment, polemics, refusal of dialogue, refusal to see the other as a reasonable person capable of dialogue, a dispersoning of the other, conflating their ideas (which you may rightly abhor) with them as a person, a human being, and treating them accordingly.  Those are all precursors to war, genocide, and other forms of social atrocity.

We must fix this. But it won't start with the politicians. We can't demand that our politicians take the lead--their job is, essentially, to reflect us, to represent us. And by God, they are! We are the ones that need to change. We, each one of us, is responsible to stop this downward spiral. We must re-learn how to have polite discourse; we must stop dishonestly caricaturing each other. We must learn to listen, to see the good in the other, and to use that as the starting point for our dialogue.

Only after we change will our politicians have incentive to change their ways. Let's show them how it's done!


P.S. For the believers among us, I encourage you to consider offering this prayer before engaging in dialogue with others. And by all means, pray for our country as well, but let's not lose sight of our own failings in this area before addressing others.  All in humility.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Prayer for Worthy Dialogue


In my time, I've done quite a bit of discussing of ideas, mostly online/email lists, though also in person, and in that time, I've noticed how easy it is to get sucked into some less desirable tendencies, especially in any dialogue with potential onlookers.

So the thought occurred to me today that perhaps a prayer for us discursive types might be beneficial.  Here's my first draft attempt.  Suggestions welcome. :)

Lord of all creation,
  Font of all that is true,
  Inspirer of minds,
I implore you,
  grant me keenness of mind
  in my dialectic.

Let me never be more concerned
  with appearing right
  than with discovering the truth.
Grant me humility of mind,
  to recognize my own limitations
  and the excellence in others.

When I am wrong,
  give me the courage to admit it.
When I am right,
  give me the gentility not to flaunt it.

Help me to be generous
  to those with whom I discuss;
to give them
    the benefit of the doubt,
to search for a good interpretation
    rather than assuming the worst.

And grant me discernment to see
  when further discussion
    would be fruitless,
  and on such occasions
    to gracefully bow out
      without bitterness or pride.

In the end, let me never lose sight
  of the Good and the Beautiful,
  which perfection I find only in You.
I ask this
  in the name of the Holy Trinity,
  whose eternal dialogue of love
  I desire to be the inspiration
    for all of my own dialogues.
Amen.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Appropriate Times for Blessing

In this third installment on the highly controversial should-we-bless-children-in-the-communion-line series :), I address a key sticking point for objectors to the practice, namely, that it is inopportune, that there are more appropriate times for such a blessing.

First, I want to dispense with a few misconceptions:

  1. Receiving a blessing in the communion line is inherently disruptive. - It is true that it can be disruptive, and it can be so due to the priest or deacon's actions or the recipient/family's actions. It could also be disruptive for people who think it shouldn't happen and start getting all anxious about it. But it doesn't have to be and in most cases it isn't. If it is disruptive, that should be addressed, but it is neither inherent nor the norm in practice. As with all good things, abuses should be curtailed when they occur.
  2. Desiring to receive a blessing in the communion line is a matter of impatience. - This seems more a rhetorical red herring than a real objection because obviously no one who attends mass would mind waiting a few minutes more for the general closing blessing--they will almost certainly be there at that point anyways.
  3. Desiring to receive a blessing in the communion line is a matter of sentimentality or an expression of entitlement. I've already addressed this ad nauseum; read the other two posts (starting here) and the comments on them. I admit that for some parents this may be true, but as far as I and my family are concerned, it does not apply, so it cannot be used as an argument against the practice. Again, abuses and misunderstandings should be corrected, but we should consider a thing in itself rather than in its abuses.
So, on to the point at hand. Put simply, as Br. Bob said, the objection is that "the communion line is for communion."

I suppose there are a few ways to respond to this. One way is by considering other things that have a main/primary purpose but are also well suited for secondary things. Take marriage. The primary goods are the mystical union of man and wife and the procreation and raising of children. There are many other goods, to be sure, and these are not excluded by the primary goods. It seems then that a good criterion here would be that the secondary goods do not inherently detract from or negate the primary good. Considered accordingly, it is clear that sacerdotal blessings in the communion line do not inherently detract from nor do they negate the primary good of those receiving communion.

Things can be designed for one purpose but well used for another. Daily experience confirms this in innumerable ways. A truck bed is designed to haul things, but it can be well used to sit in and have a meal together, or sleep in. A wrench is best for applying torque to bolts and nuts, but it can be used as a hammer when one isn't available. A school gym is used best for sports, but it can be used as a place to gather, even for religious services.  The list could go on and on. That something is designed for one thing is not an argument that it cannot be used for other things. In itself, it isn't even an argument that it shouldn't be used for other things--for that, having a criterion as suggested in the last paragraph would be more appropriate.

Another way to respond is to consider the reason why one should not receive communion. Certainly, we can all agree that if you are disposed to receive, you should. Likewise, hopefully, we can all agree that if you are not disposed to receive, you shouldn't. And the reason for this is not because we don't personally deserve to receive--none of us deserves to receive Him on our own merits, and we say as much ("Lord, I am not worthy...", Domine, non sum dignus). The reason is that we are not in the right disposition to receive that Insurpassable Blessing. For us to then, at that time, receive a lesser blessing in its place--according to our disposition--seems to be a good. 

Saying this does not equate the lesser blessing with the Greater One; indeed, we are presuming by the very nature of the Eucharist that if one can receive it, one should, precisely because it surpasses all others. The only reason you would not receive is that you are prevented due to your disposition, not because you desire the lesser blessing more--that would be absurd.

Seen in this way, such a lesser blessing is not only not not appropriate, it is positively appropriate to the disposition of these individuals.

Objectors have elaborated on this objection, suggesting that if such a sacerdotal blessing is so important, why don't I just seek it out on my own time (i.e., outside of the context of the mass). To me, this seems fallacious on a few counts. First, it seems to be moving the goalposts--because they have been unable to find unassailable grounds to deny non-communicants a lesser blessing in the communion line, they change the context of the argument entirely. It's no longer about whether or not it's good to do so in that context, the question is totally changed: "Why don't you get blessed at other times?" To the point at hand, it's kind of irrelevant--no one is saying that we can't get blessed at other times/in other contexts. What we are talking about is whether or not we should do it in the context of the communion line.

It also seems fallacious in that it is too open-ended. Suggest a context, and I can tell you why or why not I would do so. While father is showering? No. While he's sleeping? Eating? Etc.? There are a host of contexts in which it would seem far more inappropriate to seek a blessing than in the communion line. After mass?  Maybe, but Father is busy greeting the whole congregation as they exit, usually. It would be more disruptive and rude, potentially, to interrupt that, because people are typically in far more of a hurry then than they are in the communion line; not to mention, it isn't generally expected--again more inopportune than in the communion line. Wait until after that (an extra 15-20 minutes)? Well, you try doing that with five young children after they've already more (or often less) patiently made it through mass. Surely, I could corner Father at any time and ask for a special blessing, and at times I have (e.g., to ask him to bless an object), but as I said, this is beside the point. No one is suggesting that we can't do this. 

And consider it from his perspective. In the communion line, his focus is there; he has allocated that time already for the purpose of doling out blessings. He and others expect for folks to make their way, one-by-one, up to him, wait for the blessing, receive it, and move on. It is quite solemn and orderly, and that is not changed by these blessings. It makes little difference in terms of time or effort to give The Blessing (the Sacrament) or a lesser blessing. In short, it is more opportune for him, too.

So if the objection about appropriateness is based on whether some other time would work out better for everyone involved, the answer seems to be that no, another time would not. This is the time of blessing. That it is primarily for The Blessing does not inherently mean it cannot be a time also for lesser blessings. (And most pastors seem to agree, in my experience...)

This last point is salient because it speaks to a positive reason why these lesser blessings should be conferred in the communion line--because it is already an ordered time of blessing. It is a time already set apart for it. It makes sense that this time would be used. 

It actually reinforces that this is a special time for children, especially, because they don't just sit distractedly (as is their wont) in the pew or wander distractedly up, waiting for you to do your thing, and wander back. (And as an aside, I guarantee that if it were common practice to leave children alone in pews, there would be far more disruptions than taking them up for blessings with you.) No, rather, having them come up for a blessing actually reinforces in their minds that this is a special time, it is a time when they need to focus and receive what the priest can offer them (that which they are disposed to receive). It trains them from an early age that this part of the liturgy is special and they need to try harder than usual to pay attention.

And this in no way diminishes from their ability to notice and understand that their parents are receiving something different. In fact, it creates a contrast in their minds, because they are more aware of what's going on than if they were just tagging along. They see what their parents receive, and they see what they receive, and it is different, which stimulates in their mind the question why this is so, providing an opportunity for parents to reinforce the reality, the uniqueness of the Sacrament.

So it seems to me that the objection about appropriateness comes from a rather unnecessary and potentially undesirable limiting of the use of this sacred time of conferral and reception of blessing. It seems, on the other hand, that there are many good reasons to bless non-communicants in the communion line, and only a literalist, legalistic reason not to. 

At the end of the day, it's not my judgment in this that matters, however. If I were a parishioner at Fr. Sticha's parish, I would treat him as a treasure. His heart is, in my estimation, in the right place. There have been plenty of liturgical abuses these last many years. There is certainly an unhealthy feel-good and entitlement culture that needs to be addressed. There is surely a lot of residual confusion and lack of knowledge among the laity due to poor catechesis and lack of strong pastoral leadership. Father wants to address these things, and I commend him for it. I only wish to argue that this particular practice of blessing children in the communion line is not the right line in the sand and further that it is not even really a bad practice nor are parents (or other non-communicants) who want it necessarily misguided. It could be a great opportunity for catechesis in the Sacrament, in fact, without withholding the lesser blessing.

If Father Sticha in his pastoral judgment disagrees, then that is his right, until and if his bishop or some other competent ecclesiastical authority tells us otherwise. I am just thankful that in this one respect my pastors have chosen to give our children such blessings (and that they gave me such blessings when I presented myself for them before joining the Church and, at times, after).

Update (13 April 2012): I was just made aware of this letter on the subject from the CDWDS. As Fr. McNamara points out, the letter is not binding, but it gives interesting insight into the congregation's current thinking on the matter--they are inclined towards not approving such blessings.

Also, another blogger, Deacon Kandra, mentions a letter from a friend who remembers such blessings pre-Vatican II. The point being that this is not a new practice that is part of the "Spirit of Vatican II" as it has been lumped in with by many critics. I mentioned somewhere that my children also receive a blessing at the Extraordinary Form we go to semi-regularly--these are priests obviously mindful of liturgical correctness.

It will be interesting to watch how the situation develops. If it is being studied by the CDWDS, we may yet see some ruling. Probably it would be to the effect that they leave it to the bishops/bishops' conferences to make a ruling, as they have with other similar things pertaining to the reception of communion.

Monday, April 9, 2012

More On Why Children Should Be Blessed in the Communion Line


Predictably, Father Z comes down on the side of strict adherence to the letter of the law in the question of blessing of children at communion time. It's worth pointing out that the main thing he highlights is the "feel good" aspect. No surprise there--he considers himself a literalist liturgical watchdog and enemy of any contemporary culture seeping into the liturgy. And Father Z is not above judging the Pope in matters of liturgy, either.

But interestingly--and worshippers of the letter of the law should take note here--he says not that the case is closed but that "we could use more and intelligent conversation about this wide-spread practice." Indeed. Unfortunately, that's not what Fr. Sticha's post seems to be stimulating. Rather, my devout Catholic buddies seem to be focusing on Fr. Sticha's indictment of the feel good and entitlement culture (something I generally could agree on), buying into that characterization as the sole reason for blessing children at that time.

However, as I pointed out in my last post, this is an ungenerous simplification and, as I see it, an injustice to parents. Furthermore, it does violence to the nature of sacerdotal blessing (as being just something that gives us warm fuzzies instead of real blessing/grace). I also offered evidence of 1) a bishops conference supporting it and 2) the Holy Father himself doing it.

All these counterpoints are being ignored as folks, I must observe, self-righteously clap each other on the back, acknowledging their greater liturgical enlightenment over we silly wishy-washy parents who are foolish enough to desire a special priestly blessing for our children, the same children who, it must again be noted, are refused the Sacrament in the Latin rite for several years as a discipline (i.e., not an irreformable/infallible dogma). As I said before, in our rite we are withholding that greater good, so offering the lesser good of a priestly blessing in its place seems a good thing (and many priests and even bishops seem to agree--and to hastily generalize and characterize them all as disobedient or unorthodox would be an injustice).

The sole commenter on my post, sadly, took a simplistic and side-stepping approach, saying, "The communion line is for reception of Holy Communion." Really? I didn't know that. Sigh. Excuse me while I dismiss that dismissal of my arguments.

I apologize if I'm a little grouchy on this, but it does hit close to home. What's more, I see more religious pride at play in how Fr. Sticha's post is being received than real consideration of the pros and cons (again, because the main arguments seem to be based more against the perceived "feel good"/entitlement motivations). Anyone who reads my stuff can readily see I'm not one to go with the flow and base my opinions on what feels good, so I submit that, as Fr. Z suggests, we have "more and intelligent conversation about this widespread practice," instead of just patting ourselves on the backs.

Let me offer one more consideration in favor of the practice:
Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked them, but Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” 
After he placed his hands on them, he went away. (Matt 19:13-15)
I wonder if some of the reasons the disciples rebuked them are not the same as those rebuking parents/priests who bless today. But priests are in persona Christi, especially at mass, especially at communion. Maybe it is good and right to wait for children to mature before they partake, but that does not mean they should be entirely turned away. Instead, let priests act truly in the person of Christ, in imitation of him, and place their hands on the children and bless them.

Update (later 10 April 2012)Addressing the particular objection of appropriateness.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Please Give My Kids Their Spiritual Vitamins

As I was getting out of the truck with the groceries today, I came across Fr. Cory Sticha's blog on "Why I refuse to bless children at Communion." My immediate response, as posted on his G+ share of this blog was, "Bah humbug!" I thought maybe I should elaborate. :) Keeping in mind this is just the opinion of a layman who is willing to submit his judgment to the Church...

First off, my response comes from being a parent of five young children, and specifically my desire for them to receive as many blessings as possible. We've moved about the country a bit in our time (Tulsa, OK to Tampa, FL to central NJ), and within those places, we've moved locally such that we were situated near different parishes, not to mention traveling a fair bit and visiting other parishes. I mention that just to say that we've observed a fair variety of local customs in the US, and my impression (not by any means scientific) is that it was more common than not for our children to receive a blessing. It was common enough such that when we visit places that do not, my wife doesn't fail to comment on it (in a not praiseworthy manner).

Frankly, prior to reading Fr. Sticha's post, I had assumed that it was indeed normal practice, perhaps even sanctioned by the USCCB, and a non-controversial issue. I mean, I have considered whether or not EMs should do it, and I even suggested to our pastor at a parish where they did that perhaps they should not. He agreed and that was that. But it was never so much a question of whether or not it should be done at all. So I have to say I was a bit surprised in reading his post.

I have to say, maybe it's my non-denominational Protestant upbringing, but it seems to me that sometimes we Catholics can truly be overly fond of our strictures and rigors. I mean, I actually really like formal liturgy and structure--think it's important and indispensable--but I have felt on more than one occasion that some folks take it too far, dare I say Pharisaically (in the stricter meaning as one who really does do everything by the letter to a T).

Fr. Sticha cites Sacrosantcum Concilium (SC) 22 as, it seems, his primary motivation for not giving the blessing.  In my reading up more on this topic, I came across a series in Zenit's long-running liturgical Q&A on the subject of Blessings for Non-Communicants. In the second follow up, Fr. McNamara addresses that particular objection, noting, "Since much liturgical law is grounded in custom, canonists generally admit that, according to canons 23-28, some ecclesial communities have the capacity to introduce customs that either interpret the law, or fill a vacuum or silence regarding the law." In short, it seems the issue is certainly not as cut and dry as a simple reading of SC 22 might give the impression to be. (It should be noted that Fr. McNamara's personal opinion is also one of reticence towards this particular custom, but he is trying to be fair and provide both sides.)

Not only this, but the British bishops' conference have actually encouraged the practice, saying, "to receive a 'blessing' at the moment of Communion emphasizes that a deep spiritual communion is possible even when we do not share together the Sacrament of the Body and blood of Christ." And Fr. McNamara alludes to other bishops here and there who either encourage the custom or do it themselves. Further, it would seem that even the Holy Father approves the custom--at least for Catholic children--as he himself gave such a blessing publicly, as mentioned in this response on Catholic Exchange.

Fr. Sticha suggests that doing this is "disobedient" to SC. Well, I guess these bishops and the Holy Father (usually a very strict and traditional liturgist) are disobedient, or maybe Fr. Sticha's strict interpretation of SC might need to be re-examined.

Next, Fr. Sticha tears us parents a new one, saying that we parents ask for it because of our entitlement culture, because it makes our kids feel special and warm and fuzzy (or rather, us), lumping in blessing of children with every other conceivable liturgical abuse in the last thirty years. He goes so far as to say he despises blessing children in this way. (Now maybe you understand my response of "bah humbug," eh?)

Wow. This is over the top. First off, this is presuming a lot. It presumes the worst possible motivations for us parents to have in this case. I would expect more generosity on a pastoral issue like this. Even if the less-well-catechized parishioners don't articulate it well, I think it stems from a good parental motivation. I can say that I, too, am a critic of the entitlement culture. Not only that, I am rather traditional in my liturgical leanings. But I don't call myself a traditionalist or "traditional Catholic" (or "trad" or "traddie").

That's because one thing that I don't see as a good in traditional circles, but that is fairly prevalent, is this legalist/rigorist/scrupulous mentality that does not accord with Scripture. Think about it, every time someone comes down on the side of strict adherence to traditions/laws, God shows them up--with Christ and the Pharisees, with St. Paul's breaking down the walls for the Gentiles, with God revealing to St. Peter himself on the rooftop, with the enumeration of the fruit of the Spirit. I'm not one for abuses or transgressing in "the Spirit of VII" by any means, but there is another, equally dangerous extreme to be avoided here. There's a reason that we have a good few supposed traditionalist groups who are either in formal schism or bordering on it--they think they're more Catholic than the Church.

The fact that people (not just Fr. Cory to be fair--he is in some good company) are nitpicking giving a blessing to children is to any outsider pretty unbelievable; it is scroogery. Forget about "feeling good"--in our eagerness to combat excesses of the feel good culture, have we lost sight of charity and generosity?  Do we truly imagine God to be so stingy with his grace and blessings so that he would object to sending his blessing upon children who do not yet communicate? (Or other non-communicants for that matter?) It seems to me to be something of a scandal that this is a controversial issue, even a minor one, in the Church.

As I understand it, in the Eastern churches, communion is given to children when they are baptized (and they are confirmed)--all three sacraments of initiation. They allow their children the great boon of the Body and Blood at such early ages, but we are supposed to deny our children even a blessing?  The Eastern churches are even more protective of communion as a sign of unity than we are, yet they allow it to their children. We withhold the Sacrament from our children so as to better prepare them to understand and partake, not to create some jealous desire for it. There is little justification to withhold a lesser blessing when we are already withholding a greater one.

This is not about "feeling good" or warm and fuzzy; it's about real grace, a real grace that can be received through the blessing of those with Holy Orders. To suggest that such blessings are only about feeling good actually does violence to the faculty of Holy Orders.

Do I want my children to "get something" out of this?  You bet. This is a Good Thing. I want my children to have every exposure to God's grace that I can give them, every blessing. To suggest that this is a bad motivation for parents does violence to the whole concept of parenthood--which is all about seeking the Good for your children.

Again, I say it is scandalous (and I don't choose that term lightly) for priests to make much ado about this and withhold blessings from children. They are preventing parents from obtaining such a good for their children, and it's especially outrageous and inappropriate to do so on grounds of some perceived culture war. If parents don't understand the real value of such blessings, it's an opportunity to further educate them, a teaching moment. That would be a better pastoral response than to deny the good to all based on that potential misconception.

A commenter on Fr. Sticha's post suggests that the final blessing is somehow sufficient, i.e., children don't need a special blessing because they get the general one at the end. Again, this speaks to me of a certain stinginess with God's grace. If we believe that God imparts real grace through the blessings of ordained ministers, you'd think those ministers would be going crazy, blessing every chance they get. I think I would, anyways. Why are we even talking about what is sufficient? God is more than sufficient. He is infinite; we can never exhaust the riches of his grace, so why are we being stingy about it?

Now there is a decent objection in what Fr. McNamara and what I think was at the heart of Abp. Chaput's criticism--the concern that somehow such blessings can come to be seen as an equivalent blessing as partaking. To me, this seems to be rather flimsy grounds to object (a potential conceptual challenge) versus the denial of *real* grace imparted through sacerdotal blessings. And I can speak from personal experience that my daughter is in no way confused on this matter, even though she received many such blessings prior to her first communion. Everyone, even our separated brethren, understand that we think that the Body and Blood are extremely special and that's precisely why we are protective of it. The fact that we offer a different blessing is in fact evidence that it is not the same--otherwise we wouldn't need to offer it.

I encourage all priests and deacons, please, do not be stingy with this grace. Teach parents and children that this is a means of grace for the children, that it is (as one of my priests likes to call it) "spiritual vitamins" (a spiritual communion), and if necessary, correct them if they speak of it as an entitlement or confuse it with the good of receiving the Body and Blood.

Update (10 April 2012): In response to how Fr. Sticha's post has been received, I offer this further response.

Update (later 10 April 2012): Addressing the particular objection of appropriateness.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Chillin


People have been emailing me, asking why, why haven't I blogged the last couple days. I'm sorry fans, but I've just been chillin with the fam. (I kid, no one noticed. ;) ) But since I am supposed to be doing this--just a few more days, and then I'll give you a real break, I promise.

Actually, yesterday I was staring at the screen, the empty blog post window, with hands on keyboard, but I just couldn't think of anything to say. I am in fact having the same experience right now; hence this blather. Last night I was going to blog, but then I started holding Iain and fell asleep on the couch. Next thing I knew, it was bedtime.

So this is what I gotta say today: take some time and go spend it with your family. Peace!


Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Unto Us a Child Is Born

Apologies for not blogging yesterday (I'm sure you're really disappointed ;-) ). I excuse myself for having a very busy day at work and then having to get to bed way early for a ridiculously early morning today at the hospital.

The midwife asked us to get there at 6a, and we managed (almost). Turns out, it seems we probably didn't need to be there that early, but c'est la vie. To make a long story short, our fifth child was born today at 14:55 EDT. He's a boy: Iain Hamish Gregor, weighing in at nine pounds even and twenty-two inches tall (or long, depending on your perspective). Baby and mom are doing well, resting.

Here's his first pic:

Friends and family are welcome to see more, including vids, in our Iain's Birth set at Flickr. I'll be adding to it as we take more in the next few days most like.

Peace out! :)


Saturday, March 31, 2012

Evolutiondidit

Every time I see someone explaining why something is the way it is based on "evolution," I smile inwardly. It's amusing to me because it is so similar to the accusation against theists that every time we need to explain something for which we don't have evidential explanation, we supposedly say "Goddidit."  (They smash the words together to make it sound and look silly and worthy of scorn by the intellectual elite they know themselves to be.)

Now, before evolutionists go all apeshit batty on me, let me say that as far as evolution is concerned, my current position is that I am inclined to grant that it is possible, perhaps even probable. My problem is that I simply do not know enough about the requisite sciences to make a truly informed decision, so I am forced to rely on authorities and argumentation that I can understand. (I think I'm in good company in this situation, too; even some of the most belligerent and devout atheists doubtless fall into this category.)

So far, I haven't really felt a need to really dig deep into the sciences related to the theory. I have read this or that book, talked to this or that person, on both sides of the issue. Both sides have their array of purported evidence (which I personally cannot verify) and both have arguments, objections to arguments, and answers to objections (and so on ad nauseum). Both sides seem utterly convinced that they are right and that others (often) are at best ignorant and at worse deviously conniving in the service of their ideologies. Given that I was raised in a "young earth" environment, that I am willing to give evolution the benefit of the doubt is some evidence of my open mindedness.

It's this consideration of questionable motives that makes me hesitant to trust either side, because both sides seem convinced that if they can just prove the other wrong in this scientific question then the other's belief system will come crashing down around their ears and, simultaneously, make their own belief system the only viable alternative. Because so much ideology is entrenched, it is difficult at best to tease out the truth. Both sides have relatively cogent argumentation, so the only way to certainly resolve it would be to be more than we are, to be able to directly and personally observe the evolution of the species over time, or at least to be able to reliably reproduce evolution on the scale that it is supposed to have happened in a controlled scientific experiment. Otherwise we're left with extrapolation, not verifiable experimental evidence or personal observation/experience.

Given that we can't do these things, the best I can offer evolution in terms of assent is that it is possible, perhaps even probable, but I remain skeptical. And when I read argumentation to the contrary (for instance this), the doubts are renewed. My position is not driven by a fear that my belief system is at stake; I've written about this elsewhere. I don't feel threatened by the theory at all (actually, I find it intriguing--it opens up some interesting theological speculation as well). Disproving evolution alone does not necessitate a young earth/literal creationist position; it doesn't even necessitate belief in God. But it certainly does provide the foundation for much contemporary atheism, so it's no wonder that atheists feel threatened by challenges to it and respond to such challenges with much vitriol.

So it is from this position of tentative assent that I guess I am more skeptical than others when someone attributes some cause to evolution. I've seen it often enough, in this or that program on TV (that have little to do with science or evolution as a subject), in explanations of spirituality, even in explanations in favor of this or that diet (interestingly, different dietary theories use evolution-based theories to justify their claims).

My latest encounter was this morning, as I was beginning to read Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole, I (perhaps predictably) ran into this statement right in the beginning of the book: "We evolved in an environment containing many agents— family members, friends, rivals, predators, prey, and so on. Spotting and understanding other agents helps us survive and reproduce."[1] Ah, the old H.A.D.D. hypothesis...


Things like this are often presumed based on relatively paltry evidence. We look at this or that bone fragment, this or that physiological similarity, this or that genetic similarity, and we deduce grand narratives on the origins of species. And such a general theory may indeed be true (I do not treat it as a conviction, personally). But then like a jazz player, people start riffing off this general theory, embellishing the narrative here and there to tell a story about why this or that thing is the way it is. In reality, scientifically and objectively speaking, we have little to no ground to stand on for such embellishments. We cannot employ the scientific method for these cases, often because the environment we are investigating is lost deep in the past.

But by enlisting the general theory of evolution (which again itself stands on relatively paltry scientific grounds--compared to other scientific endeavors like technology, experimental physics, medicine), people feel entitled to derive all sorts of interesting stories.  In reality, these stories are more akin to ancient mythologies than science. They employ just enough of what contemporaries believe to be true about the world and apply that to the past to build a narrative believable to contemporary ears.  The difference for our contemporaries is that where in the past people would have attributed causes to a God or gods, today they attribute the cause to evolution. Evolutiondidit. And thus, my aforementioned smirk. Even a very well educated and thoughtful guy like Law falls into the enticing trap of constructing (or at least giving credence to) such evolutionary myths.

Another interesting analogical observation is that the relative credence one seems to be willing to give such myths is directly proportional to one's conviction in the supporting broader narrative. Evolutionists want to believe that evolution (or some other natural cause) is the explanation. Theists want to believe that God (or some god/supernatural cause) is the explanation. The mental processes and proclivities are the same--we are all human and subject to our prejudices.


One last observation about evolution in general. It seems to me that a lot of ink, time, energy, and money has been spilled over this issue, and I'm not sure I understand, from a scientific point of view, why it is so important. Evolution's primary focus is the past, offering a rationale for why the biological world is the way it is. As a theory, it doesn't seem to offer much in the way of practical applicability, certainly nowhere near as much practical potential as other sciences, and in terms of insights that might lead to practical advances, they seem limited at best (such as the occasional hypothesis that can be tested and results in some practical application). In my eyes, this is further evidence that evolution is less about science that "works" and more about ideologies. On that ground alone perhaps one could question whether or not it should be taught as core curriculum in science.

1. Law, Stephen (2011-05-19). Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole (Kindle Locations 157-158). Prometheus Books. Kindle Edition.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Hello, Lord Satan

Riffing on my post yesterday, and while on the way home tonight listening to the beginning of Johannes Cabal in which Johannes goes to visit "Lord Satan" in Hell, it struck me just how similar the presumption that we are worthy to judge God is to the sin of Lucifer, namely pride.

Isn't this the essence of our fundamental choice as creatures? Am I going to chose myself and exalt my self--my intellect, my perception, my judgment--over God?

God will honor the free will he has endowed me with and give me what I choose. If I choose to exalt myself over him, to sit in judgment over him and judge that he does not exist, to seek what I judge to be good, my own interests, my own pleasure, my own ego, then I get what I have chosen, which is exactly what Lucifer has--eternity on my own with myself, apart from God. On the other hand, if I humble myself, seek God first, and love him with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, he will give me what I seek--participation in his Divine Trinitarian love for all eternity.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

So You Got A Problem With God, Eh?

Lately I have been running into situations where people question God. Maybe they have a personal difficult situation. Maybe they look at some great injustice or evil in the world/history. Everybody seems to have a reason to put God on trial, and some also appoint themselves to be his judge, jury, and executioner.

The thing is, if God is who he says he is, and I mean the Christian understanding of God specifically, then he is infinitely Good, infinitely Just, and infinitely Loving. He is also the only necessary Being, upon which all of our beings are contingent. He is the prime mover, the first cause, the efficient cause. In him and through him all things have their being.

So, if this God does exist, that seems to trump all of the supposed evidence against him. It is perfectly logical, accepting the premise that God exists, to take the position that when we perceive evil, that there is a good reason for its existence, that, at the very least, God in his infinite nature allows it for a greater good. Put another way, we are finite beings and don't have the big picture (or sometimes even the right perception of the small picture); we just don't have the capacity to take it all in and understand how it truly is and how it is, all together, good. In short, we simply need to remind ourselves that we are not God.

But wait! I'm putting the chicken before the egg, some might say. To take this position, you must accept this understanding of God, but it's precisely this purported evidence against him that inclines me to not accept that. In a way, that's true.  But it is still an argument against that doubt, assuming that you are otherwise inclined to accept it. Because if such a God does exist, then this is true, and the problem lies with your judgment, not with God.

And in fact, we can even dial things back a bit, and just go by the purely natural, rational arguments for the Prime Mover, the Necessary Being, the Efficient Cause. You can consider the Ontological Argument, as well. Those arguments, as well, are not without objections, but nor are the objections themselves without objections. Such is the nature of reasoning (and why, again, we should be more inclined to doubt ourselves than God). In any case, it may be not as hard to accept such a God on a purely rational basis, but even so that Being is still the Being upon which yours is contingent. So again, putting yourself in the judge's seat is, well, a bit presumptuous to say the least, and our objections in such case are, at best, irrelevant.

Now I'm not saying that based on this line of thought that suddenly everything is okay and nobody has any doubts about God anymore. What fun would that be? If God wanted to remove all doubts about him, he could; obviously, that's not his thing. I'm just offering this as food for thought the next time you're tempted to put God on trial. How about starting with something for which it would be a little more believable to be in error, namely your own perception or thought processes, rather than the omnipotent, omniscient He Who Is?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Review: Lectio Divina Bible Study: Learning to Pray in Scripture

I recently got Lectio Divina Bible Study: Learning to Pray in Scripture by Stephen J. Binz. As a lay Dominican, we're encouraged to practice lectio divina, so I thought this could be a nifty way to help me do it. The book itself is structure for either group or individual Bible study, with notes on how best to leverage it for both. I was using it as an individual, though I would like to try it in a group setting. I think it'd work well, based on prior experience with similarly structured materials.

In Section I, the book starts with a great introduction on prayer. That in itself is valuable reading; it also has a short test run of how each session works, using the formula of Listening, Understanding, Reflecting, Praying, Acting. Again, as a lay Dominican, we have a similar approach to study in general, with the end result always geared towards acting--our apostolate. It resonates with me.

The book is broken into five other sections, starting with Prayer in the Lives of Israel's Heros and ending, in chronological progression, through to Prayer in the Apostolic Church. Each section has a helpful introduction to the content to follow, and then the sessions begin.

Spending time with the Word of God like this is naturally spiritually beneficial. It also helps to have the guidance and structure provided by the book. I highly recommend it as a great way to get into the practice of lectio divina, and just generally deepening your prayer life.

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Thanks to the Catholic Company for sharing this book with me. As part of the FTC rules, I have to be clear that they gave this book to us in order to elicit a review. The Catholic Company is also a great source for first communion gifts and baptism gifts.

Monday, March 26, 2012

What If My Child Were Gay?


A fellow Catholic I know on G+ was recently asked the following:
I know you are pro-life and anti-gay, so I'm curious: If your wife (if you have a wife, if not, pretend) were pregnant and it was determined that your unborn son is genetically gay. Would you raise the gay child or abort the pregnancy?
Read his response. I agree with it. Of course I wouldn't abort the child. Should go without saying...

So, what if my child were gay?

Even if there is a genetic cause to homosexuality, it would still be something that potentially prevents my child from having the full range of human life available to her (particularly, expressing love in natural marriage, procreation, and child rearing). Add onto that the extra challenges that come with being homosexual, and I just do not see the sense in simply accepting my child's situation--I would do whatever I could to give her those options and avoid the extra heartache, whether through natural or supernatural means.

I just don't see a justification for 1) treating homosexuality as a reason for disgust or, worse, hate or, conversely, 2) why it should be accepted as a desirable "alternative" condition. Both are two polemically wrong responses to what should be treated with the deepest personal care. The best response is for the person to be loved completely and helped by all means possible, just as you would with any difficult condition, genetically caused or otherwise.

It may be that person doesn't want such help or love, but that, too, is no reason to either hate them or to just accept it. People do all sorts of things that we may think aren't good for them, and our response should be compassionate care for them and still reach out in love and try to help them.

Of course it can be argued that my idea of the ideal fully human, sexually active life is constrained. I readily admit that point--I am not of the opinion that all forms of sexual expression are equally good for a person. Even within heterosexual marriage, not all forms of sexual expression are equally good, or even good at all. I also don't think that all forms of religious expression are equally good. If my child decided she felt inclined to Buddhism, I wouldn't think that's just okay either.

That doesn't mean I love her any less. That doesn't mean I treat her with disrespect. That doesn't mean I contemn her or ostracize her from the family. In fact, my reason for objecting is based in love--because I think she's doing herself some harm, so treating her in a mean way would make no sense. I totally don't get parents who disown children who don't follow their wishes; talk about not understanding what being a parent is about.

It's not that I haven't tried to understand the other viewpoint on this issue. I've actually given it quite a lot of thought over the last 15 or so years, since it first came across my radar as a college student. I don't know yet if any of my children will feel so inclined; I do have a family member who identifies as homosexual. I have had homosexual friends and co-workers, and doubtless some that I am not aware of. I am not anti-gay, though certainly those people do exist, and we should be concerned about them. We should not tolerate real hate towards homosexuals.

Take this article from UC Davis that gives some history on how homosexuality has been treated in regards to mental health. The concern seems to be with showing that homosexuality isn't the cause of other pathologies, that it doesn't prevent one from being a functional adult, etc. Similarly, the linked article covering changing sexual orientation seems intent on discrediting those attempts--it seems to take as an assumption that it shouldn't even be tried.

Naturally, if you don't see homosexuality as a pathology, then you would see things from the bias clearly represented in those articles. But in order to not see it as a something that should be treated medically, it seems that you have to 1) take an apathetic view on sex and 2) take an apathetic view towards procreation. Both of these are related to value judgments, meaning they are not scientific questions but rather questions of personal judgment.

Maybe you think sex is just a form of recreation. Maybe you see it as a harmless natural drug. Maybe you see it as an expression of intimate affection. Maybe you see it as an expression of total giving of self. Surely there are views all in between and outside of these. We can argue for our value judgments about sex, but we should acknowledge they are value judgments and not one of them is any more scientifically valid than another. We all acknowledge the basic biological functions; where we differ is in the values attached to how they are exercised and the results of that exercise on individuals and societies.

The question of procreation is a little less purely value judgment related. There is obvious biological societal self interest in procreation (self-perpetuation), and any society that thinks it is worthwhile and good (all of them probably think this, right?) understands the fundamental value of procreation as a means of carrying on not only the species but also its particular culture. Individuals generally understand the value of procreation from a personal perspective, too, though maybe it is less valued today than in times past. Most of us can appreciate the value of our own posterity and want to ensure it. We sure seem preoccupied with it. :)

So here's the deal. Given that the value of procreation is fairly obvious, both to society at large and to many individuals, and given that sex itself is value-judgment laden (most people are not apathetic about it), it seems that taking an apathetic view of these things in relation to how we treat them in medicine does not follow.

Society has a greater inherent self-interest in stable, monogamous heterosexual relationships because they can not only reduce the incidence of STDs caused by promiscuity (as can stable, monogamous homosexual relationships, to be sure) but they also tend towards procreation, something that homosexual and other forms of sexual activity do not.

Let's bring this back to the personal level. Given that heterosexuality naturally tends towards the acknowledged good of procreation and family, given that (at least for now and in any immediate future) heterosexuality is generally more accepted in and perceived to be preferable by society, and given that I want the best, least troublesome life for my child, it follows that I would want her to be heterosexually oriented.

And what about her, what about those homosexuals who do want to change? Maybe they want to change for religious reasons. Maybe they want to change so they can experience natural procreation and family. Maybe they just don't want to deal with the social troubles they face, despite all the efforts to make it get better. Whatever their reason, if they want to change their orientation, why should we deny them that?

So I ask, why has medicine abandoned homosexually oriented persons? Why does it fight or simply neglect research into creating the option of changing orientation? Why are we settling for only working against irrational hatred of homosexuals? It seems to me that we've just given up on that simply because we're worried that it might contribute to negativity towards homosexual persons. (But couldn't the same concern be held in regards to Downs syndrome research? Or fat reduction? Or...? These concerns shouldn't stop us.)

There is absolutely no doubt that working to ensure that homosexuals are fully accepted as persons, treated with respect, with empathy, and with compassion instead of disgust and hate is a noble and worthy endeavor. All people should be treated this way, regardless of any condition they find themselves in. But those are just feelings and perceptions; they're just the first step--we should do more.

People such as myself are not only not anti-gay, we love homosexuals more than those who stop with simply treating them as first class human persons--we actually want to offer them a choice. I see this as the next step in the pro-gay movement, to take it to the next level of advocacy for them as free, first class persons.

Having the choice does not mean people would be forced to take it. People are free individuals. Maybe I'm genetically disposed to be fat. If you offered me a therapy to change that, I may or may not choose it. Maybe I like being fat. Certainly, I can fully operate in society as a productive adult and still be fat. Surely I should be accepted and treated as a first class person, despite being fat--despite that there is plenty of societal pressure not to be so. (I can guarantee that some of my friends and family, even my mom, do not approve of my being fat and have pushed me not to be at times.)  But heck, I would fully support research into genetic or other ethical, non-destructive therapy to help give fat people more freedom to choose not to be.  And maybe someday I'd choose to take it. It would be nice to have the choice--my attempts thus far to change haven't worked.

So I say we should give homosexuals the chance to be able to choose not to be gay. We should support research--medical, psychological, and otherwise--that searches out how to make this an option for them. Maybe in the past that research and some of the techniques employed weren't ethical--that doesn't make the goal not good. We can do ethical research in this direction if we put our minds to it.

I hope that by the time my children are old enough for it to be an issue for them, that if they do feel that they are homosexually oriented, they will have the option to choose to not be if that's what they want. We can do better than just making them live with it.