Friday, December 31, 2010

Christmas Jingles, Utilitarian Christianity, and Reality as It Is

I love traditional Christmas music and carols; however, I really dislike almost all pop-Christmas music. It always presents to me with the image of a solitary man at a bar on Christmas Day, smoking a lone cigarette and nursing a double whiskey, no ice. As the music on the jukebox is playing “Santa is Coming to Town,” he tries to forget all of the mistakes he made in life that led him to be spending Christmas alone at the only bar open for 10 miles; but for the life of him, he can’t forget.

Enough of that. The real introduction to my topic is the song referenced above: “Santa Clause is Coming to Town.” One of the verses ends with this: “He knows if you've been bad or good, / So be good for goodness sake!” I always hear the second line first and think, “Yeah, we should be good for goodness sake.” Then I internalize the first line. In the song, children are being asked to be good not for goodness sake, as the second line makes it seem, but because Santa can see when children are good and/or bad, and he gives presents accordingly.

This gets me thinking about a version of Christianity – or perhaps “an articulation of the faith” is a better phrase – that always seems to unsettle me. I’m not sure if it’s automatically a false version of the faith, or simply a version with a misplaced focus. It’s the version of Christianity that focuses on reward. “Do good, so that you’ll get to heaven.” “Love your neighbor, because it’ll get you a crown in heaven.” “Love your enemies, so you can enter heaven earlier.” And so on.

I call this the “Utilitarian Version of Christianity:” The rules and dictates of the faith are worthy to be followed because you’ll end up in a good place. The consequences of following Christianity are worthwhile.

When I read Camus’ issues with Christianity, this is what I always see as his stumbling block. He finds a lot of truth and beauty in the Christian religion – in particular, its ideas of love, brotherhood, unity – but he finds the flaw in the fact that Christianity offers a reward for cooperating with those things: Heaven; eternal happiness.

There is much of the Bible that presents the faith as such. The Gospels are replete with dictates that we should follow Christ or do X or not do X “in order to attain eternal life.” And St. Paul is often more extreme. He tells us to love and smile at our enemies in this world, and to be sure we’ll see them burning on hot coals in the next. (I think this is in “Romans” – but I’m not positive; it’s one of his epistles, though.)

As odd as it sounds, I think the old Christmas jingle “Santa Clause is Coming to Town” helps demonstrate this seeming paradox. The second line is trying to claim that we should be good for goodness sake: we should act right because it is right, not because of the risks/rewards. However, the song is about Santa coming to give gifts to the good children, and overlooking the bad ones. It’s all about him “watching” you and “knowing if you’ve been good or bad.” So ending the verse by asking the children to be good for goodness sake seems ridiculous.

But shouldn’t we be good for goodness sake? Isn’t that the real point? It’s the heart of the Christian faith God’s love for us, and secondarily our response to that love, directed at Him and others? Shouldn’t I love my enemies because they are creations of God Almighty; as fellow-humans, aren’t so intrinsically connected to my own humanity, in a bond that is a reflection of the Trinity?

I often find myself during the holidays arguing with different family members about faith and morality. Often, I’m presented with the question: “So why does the Church say not to do X? Because it’s enjoyable? They love saying you can’t do things that are enjoyable.” And I have to repeat the same thing: The Church says not to do X because X isn’t good for me. It isn’t arbitrary; the Church attempts, through revelation, to get at the heart of reality, and formulate a system that best works with reality. And so I don’t do X because it isn’t good for me; and it isn’t good for me because it isn’t in line with “Reality as It Is.”

The Christian faith isn’t about rewards, then; it is about aligning oneself to Reality as It Is. If Heaven is the ultimate goal, this is only because it is the ultimate or final step in Reality as It Is.

So I’m not sure if the earlier proclamations about the Faith are fine, misguided, or just wrong. Perhaps they’re simply one way of viewing a complex matter. Even so, I find them an ill-advised way.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Illusion of Moral Freedom

“Moral freedom” is often a label, not for moral freedom, but for a different set of moral values.

In a confessional fit, I’ll admit I listen to quite a bit of NPR and WNYC radio. I listen to almost anything on, except for Jonathon Schwartz with music over the weekend – I find the music dull and his observations even duller.

I run across a number of secular humanists throughout the radio day. There’s always an intense focus put on human rights, human freedom, and human life. (Except, of course, for the rights, freedom, and life of the unborn, which is really quite illogical, according to their own standard of values; figure that out.) I’m nearly fine with this system of values, since for one, it is a system of values and not a postulation of relativistic amorality. But here is where I take fault: Most secular humanists love to disguise themselves a relativists; they dislike organized religion since it sets up objective rules and laws, that somehow disfigure the moral freedom we are all given by right of existence.

They’d love the storyline of a new book or movie that follows an alcoholic priest who gives up his religion and vocation when he finally accepts that he was molested by his parish priest as a child; and that he himself is gay. The climax of the novel would probably narrate the former-priest reflections after making love to his male partner. Secular humanists would see this story as revealing the individual’s ability to free itself from the strains of Tradition and restraint, and to bask in freedom from moral constraint.

These secularists love art exhibits that trash traditional religious values, since they claim all expression must be free from moral constraint. If you fight for something to be censored, you are labeled a cog in the totalitarian government, an enemy of democracy, and promoter of Big Brother.

However, except for those amoral purists, “moral freedom” simply is a label for a different set of moral values and rules.

Let’s see the secularist who supposedly believes in “moral freedom” defend an art exhibit that is blatantly anti-homosexual. This would be a real test of whether or not these avid secularists are really defending the freedom of speech and the freedom from morality, or whether or not they are simply promoting their own set of moral standards.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Genesis 1 vs. Genesis 2: Literalness Isn't the Only Form of Truth

I want to throw out a theological point that I often use when discussing evolution with Creationists – or people who, for whatever reason, think Catholics cannot believe in the basic tenets of evolution. However, I’m not completely surefooted in my theological presuppositions and logic, so I would love some commentary, from those founded in theology and those who are not. What I pose here is not actually a complete argument for the coexistence of Catholic theology/doctrine and evolution, but simply an initial line of reasoning I often begin with.

a) We have two different creations stories in Genesis 1 and 2. They are both extremely familiar to us, but for whatever reason, people often don’t recognize that they are distinctly different – at least, that has been my experience. (By the way, different doesn’t mean contradictory, as I will point out later.) In Genesis 1, the world is made in 6 days. Man and woman are created on the 6th day; they seem to be created together – “God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them” (Genesis 1: 7) – but I suppose this is an inference. The major thing I want to point out is that man is created after the animals. Now onto Genesis 2: Here, man is created without woman. Then the garden is created, etc. What is significant to note, in terms of a literal reading, is that the animals are created after man: “Yahweh God said, 'It is not right that the man should be alone. I shall make him a helper.' 19 So from the soil Yahweh God fashioned all the wild animals and all the birds of heaven. These he brought to the man to see what he would call them; each one was to bear the name the man would give it” (Genesis 2: 18-19). If we are reading this strictly literally, the two stories actually contradict one another. I don’t think they actually contradict one another; but a literal reading forces one to recognize their incompatibility.

b) I take this apparent contradiction to show that the writers of Genesis were not concerned with its literalness – at least not literalness in the sense that our modern world, borrowing certain ideological points from the scientific method, often uses the term. The first creation story flows directly into the second. Did they not recognize that the two didn’t mash? I don’t think we have to answer that question. I think we can simply recognize that the truths expressed through both creation stories are truths indeed; but these truths are not literal truths. (I’ve already made the point that if they were literal truths, one would be a lie.)

c) I don’t think this recognition in any way lessens the truth or beauty of the Bible. I think it simply presents us with an important point, especially for those that want to understand their faith: The writers of the Old Testament wrote the Scriptures with a different set of narrative and logical principles in mind. It is our modern set of principles that can make a sort of either/or statement: “Either the creation story is literally true, or it is false.” The following statements – we are made in God’s image and likeness; God rested; God asks us to abide by certain rules; we were initially naked and without shame – are all truths from the Genesis stories, independently of whether or not the actual events of the story took place.

d) Literal truth is only one mode of truth, and I definitely don't think it's the highest mode. I don’t want to get hokey here – “the truth doesn't need to be true” or “truth is what you want it to be” – but a point needs to be made that the deepest truths of God as expressed by man, the ones that get closest to His Truth, are probably mystical truths – truths that aren’t literal in the sense of the scientific method.

So is this sort of reasoning logical and/or theological? Am I missing something about creation stories, or the writers of the Old Testament, or something else? I desire dialogue, especially if I’m wrong in whatever way.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

My Rambling Thoughts On Aggressive Self-Defense

Here are some thoughts of mine in relation to the other night’s topic. I was trying for one cohesive argument; I then decided it would be more like a semi-organized amalgamation of a interconnected thoughts; by now, I’ve simply decided to make separate points. If you can find the pattern or the unity, let me know.

1. Playing God. Although there is something in me that appeals to this argument, I don’t think it holds water by itself. We “play God” in creating life, in transferring organs, reorganizing ecosystems, etc. The obvious difference in most of these cases is the continuation of life vs. its termination, as in the act of aggressive self-defense. Regardless of this distinction, it remains true that we “play God” in ways that we find perfectly moral. God allows humans to be actors on this earth. In fact, there are many things that we are required to do.

2. Another reason I don’t like this appeal is the fact that I can flip the argument right over. Who is to say that God doesn’t want us to defend to the point of taking a life? I could then ask, “Who are you to say that God didn’t put your child in your life to protect?” or something like that. I’m not saying this is a good argument. I’m simply saying the argument, either way, must be developed further.

3. Mother and Baby in Womb. Let me use an analogy – although perhaps it’s not quite an analogy, but a related situation. If I remember correctly, if a mother’s life is in mortal danger, and her life can only be saved by an act or medicine that will undoubtedly end the life of the baby in the womb, the family is permitted, morally, to allow the woman to take the medicine – as long as a major requirement is met. The action taken cannot directly kill the baby. Therefore, almost all forms of normal abortion are not permissible, even though they would be saving the mother. The baby can’t be directly killed. The baby’s death must be a by-product of saving the mother.

4. Essentially, the argument and requirements here are a version of thedouble-effect. What this creates is the following moral truism: Act A has Effect B and C. B is necessary for saving the life of an innocent person. C will, by all conscious reflection, result in another death as well. Without getting into too many more specifics, Act A may be permissible if Effect B is intended, and Effect C is not intended. Although you may find this silly, I do think you can perform an action that has two results – both of which you are pretty sure will ensue – and that you can intend one and not the other.

5. This gets us to the issue of intention. I think it was Matt C that kept saying, “It’s all about intention.” Well, in this case, even though the ending of a life is a pretty sure consequence, it doesn’t mean it’s intended.

6. But even as I reflect on how to relate the mother-baby issue to our normal self-defense situations, I see problems. In the first case, I cannot directly kill the baby. So does that mean I cannot directly kill an attacker? Or is the case different because the attacker is not innocent like the baby? By now I’ve confused myself.

7. All of the rules and regulations of just-warism, or aggressive self-defense, almost lead me to say, “Let’s just make it easy. Let’s just say that all aggressive, intentional killing is wrong.” However, a desire for simplicity is not a basis for ethics. I find myself always trying to explain distinctions and such about religion, the existence of God, and morality to my agnostic brother; and he usually responds by claiming that these distinctions are just bogus. But the fact is that we live in a complex world. No answers about natural things seem to be easy – laws of physics, etc. – so why would moral answers be simple?

8. The Catholic tradition of the moral permissibility of killing to defend. Now, I don’t think that simply because there is a Catholic tradition for something, that this something is necessarily correct. There was a Catholic tradition for selling indulgences. However, when a Catholic tradition is being questioned or rejected, it is a serious matter. On a personal level, I don’t feel as if I have the ability or right to make definitive claims about heavy moral matters that are in opposition to the Catholic tradition. I can entertain arguments about such, even express my confusion or disagreement. But this is different than putting my own reasoning, my own ego, ahead of the Truth as it is preached by the Church that has been established by Christ.

9. I know that I am called to think open-mindedly and to bring my own personal self into matters, even if they are weighty matters. But I still don’t accept that I can argue something that is not in line with Catholic tradition, without there being some sort of opposing tradition.* I don’t trust my own mind. Although I make daily attempts to come to know the Lord – although I have experienced His presence in my life – I understand that recognizing the beauty of Truth takes more than simple logical reflection. This isn’t because human logic or reason is flawed, but because my sin, weakness, and position in a fallen world make it incredibly difficult for me to be sure I’m using my reason and logic well. For me, I know how my “objective, unbiased analysis” can be very much affected by my pride. But this is the beauty of Revelation. This is the beauty of the Catholic Church. We are able to reason wholeheartedly, to think and to question; but at the end of the day, we are able to submit ourselves to a body and a structure that we believe is established and supported by Christ – and that our willingness to submit our personalistic values and beliefs to this greater good is rewarded by an assurance that we are as close to Truth as we can be.

10. [*Of course, someone has to begin an opposing tradition. But as for me, I don’t trust myself to be this sort of person; and I wouldn’t trust someone unless they were a person of deep prayer life, a person who understood deeply the Trinitarian love. I like to think about John Henry Newman’s discussion about the development of doctrine. It’s not that Catholic doctrine is directly canceled or rejected, but that doctrine will look different to different cultures at different times. Truth doesn’t change; but the worlds in which it resides changes constantly.]

11. "The Catholic Church is the only thing which saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age"--G. K. Chesterton

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Statement of the Issue:

...And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

Thus penned Jefferson, and signed the delegates of the Continental Congress in 1776, pitting grave resolve in the cause of liberty. This line struck me in relation to our discussion of "just wars" last night. In the depths of specificity and nuance, I think we may have at points left the ground of common experience which calls forth just war. This ground I believe to be the idea that one has a duty to protect one's family, clan, city-state, and country, with the understanding that family, clan, etc. are impossible without such a duty. Along these lines, Chesterton said, "The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he hates what is behind him"; Ben Franklin (not necessarily our standard of moral rectitude, but a man capable of wisdom) said, "They who give up an essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety"; and probably many other people have said many similar things. What I am observing is not a specific moral formula but a common thought that has a long tradition in humanistic history.

**Now, it could be argued that aggressive war also has a long tradition (God wills it!). However, it does seem that defensive war tradition is distinct in being accepted on its own merit, as opposed to requiring an outside motivation and legitimization (such as the will of God, realpolitik, or the requirements of a particular social system).**

It is from this tradition that this discussion begins. The claim of pacifism then enters the dialogue: the moral values from which we draw in order to defend defensive war (defending the innocent) are in fact grounded in the truth of human dignity. Thus when defense against evil resorts to killing human beings, it attacks its own moral foundations. The old tradition was a disordered legitimizing: like aggressive war, it held certain goals to be worth causing the destruction of human life. Even though those goals were the protection of innocent human life, and even though the ultimate and indirect cause is the aggressor's, the defender's decision to use force to the point of death is a breach of the fundamental moral value.

But is this the final word? Is this indeed the certain end of the conversation?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Beyond Five Senses and Three Dimensions: Part #3 in the Series “Science and Beyond Science”

Imagine for a moment that we had no eyes: human beings – if we’d be still be human beings – had only four major senses. If this were the case, would we be able to imagine the sense of sight? I think the answer to this is emphatically negative. Imagine humanity crawling around the globe, ever employed and directed by our sense of touch and sound; imagine what we wouldn’t know about the world today, in terms of astronomy, physics, etc. Could we ever extrapolate knowledge about the planets? Even the things we encountered would be encountered in a markedly different fashion. For example, a sunrise would probably not have the same effect. While the warmth of the sun’s rising would be pleasant, the beauty and magnificence of the rising star, recognized through vision, would be lost. In this line of thinking, let me not forget or overlook the positives of such a position. Perhaps without our sense of sight, we would recognize the beauty of things in a different way, a way lost to a species that operates primarily through its ocular powers. However, I think the point remains: There would be much missing, or at least diminished, in our study if we functioned with only four senses.

This being said, is there perhaps a sixth sense? I’m not, of course, referring to the normal use of the term sixth sense, as in some sort of special mental power of recognition. That aside, could we even imagine what this sixth sense might be, or how it might sense – or what it might let us “see” new things, or the same things in a new way? Just as the four-sensing species could not imagine the sense of sight, we cannot imagine a sixth sense. However, is it silly of me to imagine that a sixth sense is a possibility? Or perhaps a multitude of other senses? Or an infinite amount? If we find a four-sensing species silly to argue against our protestations that there really does exist a fifth sense, aren’t our protestations the same?

In line with the earlier logic, if there does exist a sixth sense – or a 1,000; or an infinite – isn’t there much missing in our recognition of reality? Isn’t there the distinct possibility that there exists reality that we cannot grasp through our five senses? I’m not talking about psychic reality, or invisible monkeys floating in dark matter; no, I’m simply talking about physical matter that needs a different sense to be established. Just as much of our knowledge, if not all, of the planets comes from using our sense of sight, and so this knowledge would be completely absent if we didn’t have this ocular sense, couldn’t there be other matter out there, analogous to our planet-knowledge, that needs a sixth sense? It doesn’t have to be in space; it could be right around us.

This topic is related to the topic of a fourth dimension. (I’m not talking about time as the fourth dimension, since time is part of the third.) Imagine being a two-dimensional creature – or, at the very least, you can only sense in two dimensions. Imagine a picture of person on a table in front of you. If you were able to talk to this person and tell them there was a third dimension, that of volume, they may ask for you to point to it. They understand the difference between two and three dimensions, but they can point to that extra, third dimension. The two-dimensional figure could point north, south, east, and west on the painting, but they necessarily can’t point outside of it, what I might imagine would look like “up” to someone sitting at the table upon which the painting it. The point I’m driving at, amidst my confusing visual, is that a two-dimensional person could not imagine the third dimension; at least he could not imagine what it would look like, or how he would sense within one. Now, might there be a fourth dimension? Using the analogy of the person stuck in a two-dimensional world, aren’t we, in a three-dimensional world, necessarily cut off from imagining the world in these four dimensions?

That being said, why are we prone to claiming the world really only exists in three? Or do physicists not make this assumption? Either way, what is it about reality that we can’t see or understand because of our three-dimensional limitations?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Narrative as the Center of Man’s Relation to the World: “Are Perceptions More Important than Physical Reality?” or “Why We Like Narrative Literature”

These are beginning thoughts concerning something I’ve been contemplating for four or five years. It is sort of a defense of studying literature; but it is simply more concerned with why I, and many others, love stories. Although I’ve thought about this for a while, I only took an hour or so to compose this. I intend to tweak things out in time.

As an English teacher, as well as a lover of narratives in general, I accept that I speak from a bias. Although I will approach the material as objectively as possible, I will not detach my love for narratives from my analysis. There are two reasons for this. First, not to get real philosophic (yet), but I believe truth is not captured or experienced objectively; I believe truth is experienced subjectively. Truth is lived. So I shouldn’t try to detach my passion from my analysis, since I believe my passion can lead me, with reason as a guide, to truth. Second, my passion for narrative literature, as it is a common trait in humanity, is, in a sense, the entire point of my piece. That leads me to the questions that form the underpinning of my rambling essay.

Why is that we love story-telling? From cave art, to the oral tradition, to Greek tragedy, to the Elizabethan stage, to the invention and production of the novel, and, importantly in modern days, to film – why is man led to retell his experience in terms of narrative; and why do these narratives of history find themselves, artfully, retold and restructured through the medium of fiction? What is the reason for our preoccupation with this art form? Because this set of questions is open to a grave amount of speculation that may be neither provable nor helpful in any sense of the word, I offer a second set of questions: What does this fascination with narrative fiction reveal to us about being human? In what way does humanity’s endless interest in narrative literature help us understand history, written texts, spoken texts, and man’s current predicament amidst existence here on earth?

To borrow phraseology from a couple of Dutch literary theorists who said that the self is the center of man’s narrative gravity, I claim that narrative is the center of man’s relation to and experience with the world. I think our brains interpret the data we experience narratively. I think this is how we make sense of the world around us. There is something about the very nature of narrative itself that is human.

Let’s take a look at a few examples. I could go back to older mythologies, but I am more familiar with Greek mythology. These stories and tales create a cohesive (although that may be an overstatement) perspective on reality and world. Lacking scientific study for things like the seasons, the Greeks interpreted data narratively. Why is there winter? Easy. Persephone, daughter of the Greek Olympian Demeter (goddess of the earth and vegetation), was abducted by Hades. After much haggling, Hades agreed to give Persephone back, as long as he is allowed to keep her for a 1/3 of every year. Thus, during the 1/3 of the year that Persephone plays the queen of the Underworld, Demeter weeps for her daughter and refuses to allow vegetation and life forms to grow on the earth.

Let me take an example from Christianity. We often refer to our faith as the story of salvation, or the salvation story. In fact, all of our perception of God and Christ takes the form of a story. God created the universe. Man sinned. God came to earth, died for man’s sins, and invited man to join Him in the heavenly realms. Life is the battle between reveling in the fallen nature of humanity and accepting the salvation won for us on the Cross. The end of the story is Heaven.

OK, so what’s the point in all of this? How does this affect anything? Well, I believe this changes quite a lot of how we view the world – or it can at least help us envision the world through a different lens. How? I know my bias is coming out, but here’s my point: the study of literature is essential to understanding human experience. Why? Simply because it reveals to us, the readers, how different human beings, throughout different generations and cultures, interpreted the world around them. Because humans essentially translate experience narratively, narratives of the times can give us an honest existential view of human experience.

We do not experience our lives as historical sets of data; instead, we view it as a story. The beginning and end are somewhat obvious in terms of a plot line, but the conflicts, climaxes, and characters vary day-by-day, and year-by-year. To understand a historical experience, one must go beyond the data – although this going beyond doesn’t imply disregarding the historical data and factors involved – but one must go beyond the data and understand the experience as a narrative.

Although narratives are further from literal truth than other sorts of analysis, they are a lot closer to lived truth, to truth as it is experienced on a human level. For example, if I were to study the brain activity of a person in love, I could figure out, on a literal level, what the physical properties of love are: I could understand the chemical processes and transferences that occur when one is in love – what areas of the brain reveal heavy activity, and what neurons fire where and when. However, although this is essentially more literal than a play that expresses how one feels in love (take a Shakespeare, for example), the play gets us a lot closer to the human experience of love than the scientific study. Now, I’m not claiming that the previous scientific study is irrelevant, unimportant, or doesn’t tell us something about love; however, I am claiming that the play, even though further from literal truth, gets us closer to lived truth – and this is because human experience is first and foremost narrative.

I’m not saying, “Let’s look at a narrative from WWI, and we’ll understand the historical reasons behind the war.” Or, “Let’s look at a narrative from WWI, and we’ll understand how people were back then.” Let’s remember that literary narratives are essentially fictional; also, a single person composes them. Both of these realities shed light on what studying literature primarily is not concerned with: studying characters or plots and comparing them to reality, or something of that nature. Instead, the study of literature should essentially be a study of the structure of the narrative, a diving into the different forms and constructions that people use to express their experience. This doesn’t mean we don’t concern ourselves with the historical experience that produces the narrative; this would, falsely, cut off the source of the inspiration. However, we should be more concerned with how different individuals, from different times and beliefs, formulate experience narratively.

And, in studying this, we are essentially studying what it means to be human – at least a part of it. If humans necessarily, or at least often, experience the world around them in a narrative fashion, understanding that narrative helps us understand humanity. So is the study of literature more important to humanity than the study of science? I’m neither biased nor blind enough to agree with this statement. However, the study of science gives us an incomplete picture of reality and truth, especially as they pertain to human experience.

Let me use some examples from Dostoevsky (all praise be his name on high). In his Notes from the Underground, the first part of the novella is concerned mainly with a philosophic problem. We can call the problem by different names: the problem of authenticity, identity, morality, or whatnot. However, the problem is not solved through philosophic debate. Getting to the heart of truth is not simply objectively, impassionedly studying a set of premises and conclusions, and circling the logical truism. No. Truth is lived, and truth is lived out narratively. Therefore, Dostoevsky gives us the second portion of the novella: a narrative. Now, I don’t want to oversimplify the matter and say that the second portion of the novel is an answer to the first; perhaps it’s simply a playing out of the ideas expressed in the first part. Either way, Dostoevsky intentionally gets beyond the philosophical problem he outlines, and dives into a more authentic approach to discussing philosophy and truth: through story-telling.

There is a similar pattern in The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan outlines some pretty intense arguments against God, free will, and much else – or at least problems with these ideas – in the chapters entitled “Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor.” Alyosha does not do a great job with his philosophic rebuttals. In a certain way, Ivan wins. However, and I don’t intend to give anything away to anyone who hasn’t read the novel yet, but I think that it is the narrative that answers the problems Ivan describes. Could Dostoevsky have given us a more logical answer to the issues at hand? Could Alyosha have responded more critically and academically to Ivan? Perhaps. But perhaps Dostoevsky thinks that no, Alyosha could not have actually argued his way out of Ivan’s intellectual and religious dilemmas. Whatever the answer, Dostoevsky did in fact choose to provide an answer, or at least a perspective that offers potential answers, through the narrative. Of course, this reading implies that the novel answers the religious problems it presents. I think it does, but not in a simplistic sort of way. Unlike my reading of Notes, I am more confident that the actual narrative is the answer to Ivan’s problems.

For those who concern themselves with things like literary theory (to be blunt: what is it we’re doing when we study literature?), this idea is probably closest to the old and simple approach to literature: close reading. Sticking, for the most part, closely to the text helps us best understand the patterns and structures used to create the text; and studying these patterns and structures help us understand the human act of creating narratives – and since creating narratives is a universal human drive or ability, this study helps us understand humanity on a lived, existential level. Of course, the text is connected to its place of creation, both geographically and temporally; so understanding these levels help us understand the text. But we don’t abandon or forget the text in our analysis of the culture that produced it. For one, we would be in danger of distancing ourselves from the patterns and structures that shape the nature of the narrative; and second, we may be, implicitly, denying the fact that a certain part of human nature, what is means to be human, is universal, from culture to culture, from narrative to narrative.

Let me end very specifically. What sometimes annoys me in people’s study of literature (especially as it is portrayed on TV or in the movies) is how they analyze the characters as if they are real. People apply psychoanalysis to them, or at least attempt to uncover their real motives. Now, while a certain amount of that is OK, it is only OK in the context of understanding its limitations. The character in a movie or novel is not real; therefore, studying him as if he were is futile and misplaced. It is better to understand why a character such as he was created; or understanding how the character is influenced by the other powers in the novel, and how he influences these powers; etc. And all of this is not to understand how people actually act or react in real life, but simply to understand a perspective on how people perceive these things. These perceptions, as they are expressed through narratives, help us understand how humanity perceives the universe. And perhaps understanding how humans perceive the universe is, in fact, more important than what exactly the universe actually is.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Philosophy Group: A Revisitation Through Gutierrez and Benedict

I realize a decent amount of time has expired since our last philosophy group. I haven’t gotten around to summing up the night’s discussion, along with posing provocative (and usually either opaque or meaningless) questions. Instead of racking my memory to achieve that goal today, I intend to present two quotations that I think represent two divergent perspectives on the issues surrounding our meeting. The first is by Gustavo Gutiérrez, from the text we discussed during the meeting. The second is by Pope Benedict XVI, from his Introduction to Christianity. (It’s actually from his newest introduction to the book, which was written within the last five years or so.) I guess the idea is to see, first of all, whether or not they disagree with one another; and, if so, to pick apart the disagreements in light of our own readings of history, Church teaching, sociology, theology, and our own personal experiences.

1. Gutiérrez, from his A Theology of Liberation: “The construction – from its economic bases – of the ‘polis,’ of a society in which people can live in solidarity, is a dimension which encompasses and severely conditions all of man's activity. It is the sphere of the exercise of a critical freedom which is won down through history. It is the universal determinant and the collective arena for human fulfillment.”

(If I remember correctly, this specific quotation was discussed throughout the night. This sounds extremely Marxist – and, by the way, I’m not presupposing that this means it’s incorrect, or even off base at all. I’m simply pointing out that Gutiérrez gives the economic and political spheres of man primacy in all of his interaction. In some ways, we can’t discuss man, according to Gutiérrez, outside of these spheres.)

2. B16, from his Introduction to Theology: “Now Marx appeared to be the great guidebook. He was said to be playing now the role that had fallen to Aristotle in the thirteenth century; the latter’s pre-Christian (that is, “pagan”) philosophy had to be baptized, in order to bring faith and reason into the proper relation to each other. But anyone who accepts Marx (in whatever neo-Marxist variation he may choose) as the representative of worldly reason not only accepts a philosophy, a vision of the origin and meaning of existence, but also and especially adopts a practical program. For this “philosophy” is essentially a “praxis”, which does not presuppose a “truth” but rather creates one. Anyone who makes Marx the philosophy of theology adopts the primacy of politics and economics, which now become the real powers that can bring about salvation (and, if misused, can wreck havoc)” (“Preface to the New Edition” in Introduction to Christianity 14-15).

(In particular, the end of this quotation seems to contradict Gutiérrez. The very idea that our consciousness is rooted in the economic sphere – and is, therefore, necessarily political – is what B16 seems to find problematic in liberation theologies. By the way, B16’s argument isn’t contained in here. You really need to read his whole book if you want that. I highly, highly recommend it. I suppose the same comment can be applied to the Gutiérrez quotation.)

So, in conclusion, do these two ideas cross each other out? Is one of these two inherently incorrect, or misguided? Discuss amongst yourselves.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

“Leaps of Faith:” The Scientist’s and the Religious’: Part #2 in the Series “Science and Beyond Science”

I will not be expounding or discussing the regular use of the phrase “leap of faith.” Instead, I intend to argue that every line of thinking, everything formulation of an idea, takes its own leap of faith. I intend to shift the burden of proof to the scientist – or, at the very least, to somewhat even the playing field.

What we often refer to as a leap of faith is nothing more than recognizing the plausibility of the following statement: “I do not have enough faith in science and physics to accept that all of reality can be known through the narrow confines of the scientific method.” Why would it be the case that all that is true and real can be epistemologically proven? We go outside of epistemology to make this sort of statement.

Let me use an analogy. Let us imagine a house that is a mile away from us, the viewers and observers. Let us imagine that we have certain tools, like binoculars and computers – we even have a heat-sensing tool that allows us to discover somewhat of the nature of certain things through the walls. Now we observe. We can see through the windows quite easily; we see certain people as the pass the windows. We can see the outside of the house; we can see people if they come outside, or anything they bring outside. We can use the heat-sensing tool to recognize other forms of things within the house. But there is a limit to what we can see and observe from our position. Let us imagine that there is a dresser in a room, and this room is without windows; the dresser exudes no heat. With our tools, we would not be able to scientifically posit the existence of the dresser. This would be the case for many of the items within the house. However, it would be somewhat foolish to assume that only what we could prove empirically from our one-mile distance actually existed. There are things within the house that necessarily cannot be sensed or proven using the tools that we have. Now, it may be reasonable to state the claim, “I only accept the existence of something within the house that I can prove empirically.” This is rational. However, that does not translate into claiming the overstatement: “Only what I can prove empirically exists.” This is nearly as ridiculous as another observer, without any reason whatsoever, claiming that there exists a clown in the basement.

I think this is like empirical proof. Our tools for sensing and understanding the material world around us are vastly powerful. But they are only able to understand reality as it conforms to their abilities of sensing. Just as the dresser in the house was necessarily outside of the reach of the tools, so too might there exist other properties of reality that are outside of the reach of the empirical sciences. Like with the analogy, I think it a reasonable claim to say, “I do not believe in what I cannot prove empirically;” but to go beyond this and claim only “what I can prove empirically exists” is not logical.

I’m not boiling down the “leap of faith” to a statement of logic or probability. However, I’m reassigning the onus of proof. If a scientist wants to claim that nothing exists but what can be known through the sciences, he is making his own leap of faith – a leap, I may say, that is not scientific. A religious person, on the other hand, who makes his own leap of faith, at least makes one in line with religion. His leap is one based on moral and religious conviction. In other words, the religious man’s leap of faith is justified by his set of rules – belief, religion, faith – but the scientist’s leap of faith, in this instance, is not justified by his set of rules, such as the scientific method, laws of physics, etc.

As with every analogy, this one limps; however, how it limps can be helpful to additionally understanding the subject. In the said example, the dresser undetected by the tools of investigation was a completely different object than, say, the people that had walked past the window. This would seem to argue that there are, perhaps, invisible objects that our senses cannot detect. Now, I’m not saying that this isn’t the case; but at the moment, that’s not the objective of my argument. I’m more concerned with understanding that there may be principles of objects we can detect by our senses that have non-material properties – properties of final causation, purpose, or moral order, for example. There may be principles and structures of reality that do not conform to empirical diagnosis – and, not only would be it outside of the bounds of science to say these don’t exist because they can’t be empirically proven, it will also be a self-proving point. Science cannot make the claim that only science can make claims about reality.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Materialism and Radical Materialism: “Why Science Can’t Say Only Physical Matter Exists:” Part #1 in the Series "Science and Beyond Science"

I constantly have abstract arguments and logical syllogisms racing through my head – or, more appropriately, blindly knocking around my head, heedless of their all-too-often nonsensical and inconsequential nature. Recently, one of the central debates raging inside the corridors of my often-miscalculating mind has been the dispute between what I’m calling science and beyond science.

To be more specific, I have been contemplating the wonder, mystery, and limits of science. I am sure to blog about a whole bunch of these thoughts, as well as a number of tangential topics. As usual, please feel free to point out my flaws. Most of this occurred strictly within the confines of my single brain, and I have known many brains acting solely (and may I add solipsisticly) to come to wacky or misguided conclusions via flawed assumptions or undue emphasis of certain things – and my brain is most definitely not an exception to this observation.

For this first thought-process, I am stealing very exorbitantly and without compunction from an American fantasy writer, John C Wright. I recently began a trilogy of his after running across his name on a list of current Catholic writers. Besides being very entertained by his books – I’m now on the second one – I was reading some of his online blog. He writes a lot concerning free will, and how free will does not contradict or pose a problem to physics. In one of his posts, he distinguished between materialism and radical materialism. Materialism is a simple acceptance that there is physical matter, and this matter is guided by rules and laws. We can use things like physics, empirical data, and the scientific method to help understand the physical matter within our universe. However, radical materialism takes it one step further: it states that all of the universe – all of reality, in fact – is composed of matter. Wright goes through why he thinks materialism does not explain the totality of reality, etc. He ends up showing how free will fits into this narrative without rattling any findings in physics or elsewhere.

However, Wright’s early dichotomy between materialism and radical materialism got me thinking about something I was discussing recently in a medieval spirituality course I’m taking at Drew. We were discussing John Wickliffe’s (rather new for the time) idea that everything Christian must have its basis in the Scriptures. In many ways, Wickliffe is an obvious predecessor to Luther. In class, we were discussing how the idea of solo Scriptura is somewhat contradictory – or, at the very least, lacking plausibility. [I’m sure people have an answer to the argument I’m about to outline; but remember, the point here is materialism, not religion.] There is nothing within the Scriptures that says the Scriptures are the only thing that contain truth; you must posit an outside idea, belief, or revelation that argues that solo Scriptura holds water. But the problem should be obvious: you are using an outside idea or revelation to make the point that no outside ideas or revelations should be trusted, only those that find their root in Scriptures.

Let me draw the analogy. There is nothing within materialism, within the physical sciences, that allows it to posit radical materialism: to say to there is only material in the universe. It is simply not within the scope of what science or materialism can do. This is not to belittle or scorn science, but to simply point out its necessary limitations. You can’t use a method that only studies physical matter to claim that there is only physical matter. This is akin to using a specific lens that only reveals certain colors to prove that only those colors actually exist. Well, the lens is only made to see those colors, so obviously it cannot see the rest of the colors. And so with science: of course it can only find or prove that matter exists, for all science can talk about it physical matter. This is a somewhat obvious point, but it often seems to go unnoticed.

It is outside of the bounds of science to discuss non-material existence – free will, intention, real emotions, real thought, metaphysics – and so it should be an obvious logical syllogism that allows us to state, even before science does, that science does will not prove or discover any of these things. If any of these things are non-material, then science simply cannot prove them. But the irony lies in the fact that scientists and materialists repeatedly sit upon the their scientific chairs and claim that material is all that the universe is composed of. This leap is, how shall I say, non-scientific?

To return to the analogy of the lens that only recognizes certain colors – let’s say blue and green – someone may object and say, “Yes, but the scientist in this case can simply put down his lens, and see that the world exists in more colors than blue and green.” My response is, yes, it is obvious that reality extends beyond the colors of blue and green. But I think it equally obvious, even if less appealing to a scientific world like our own, that there exists more to reality than physical matter. Everyone experiences free will; everyone has experienced emotion – love, fear, regret, guilt, or loss – as something beyond its physical properties. Now, I’m not saying these “experiences” prove the existence of non-material reality; what I’m saying is that they point to, even in an empirical sort of way, something beyond materialism.

One may claim that our emotions are completely connected to or dependent on the physical matter of our brains – but even this sort of connection or dependence cannot then make the bold claim that, therefore, there is only material in this universe. If there is connection between my emotion of loss – say, when a person close to me dies – and something physical going on in my brain, then all you are proving is that the specific emotion is not purely non-material; you are not, however, proving that all of emotion is physical. This, quite simply, is outside the bounds of what science can say.

Rightfully so, an objector may ask the following questions: A) Knowing what we know of science, what actually points us in the direction of the existence of non-material reality? OK, so science can’t say “only material exists,” but what would lead us to say there is stuff beyond matter, other than long-held superstition? B) If you’re claiming that empiricism cannot truly discuss the non-material, then how is one to talk about it?

To answer B, I say, “Philosophy.” Pick up and read Aristotle. The man is not a dualist who believed in non-material Forms like Plato, but he is definitely discussing the existence of non-material reality. Answering A takes more time, and perhaps that’s what I’ll work on next: for I truly think our basic experience of the world around us points us beyond radical materialism 100 times a day; but in a scientific world, we either don’t recognize these moments, or we are afraid of claiming them as such. I plan on stepping beyond these fears very soon.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Ramblings of an Incoherent and Unqualified Sailor, part #1: The Mystery of the Origins of the Universe

I don’t intend to get uber-philosophic here; nor do I intend to get swamped by scientific fact. I have even less of a claim to this latter knowledge, even considering the very little claim I have to the former. Perhaps not diving too deeply into either of these disciplines is problematic when discussing this topic, especially the absence of pertinent and contemporary scientific data; and perhaps this will prove to be the downfall of my overall idea or conclusion. Perhaps. You can be the judge of that. I simply intend to ramble in a slightly more than incoherent fashion. Using an analogous image, I sort of see the direction and pertinence of my ideas as a drunken sailor attempting to teach himself calculus, while barely having a footing in algebra one. Here it goes.

No matter how you figure it, the answer to the questions surrounding the origins of the universe is a bizarre one. There’s no way around it. If you categorize the different possibilities by placing them into groups, perhaps you could come up with three or four distinct classes of answers – perhaps more. (I will be attempting to categorize them in a few moments.) What I see as present in each of the possible answers is two things: 1) an encounter with something eternal or non-material, or at least different from the temporality of everything else we experience on a material and scientific level; and 2) an answer that is distinctly different, both in terms of logic and empirical conclusions, from any other subject or question we pose – especially in the scientific field.

The interesting part of this is the fact that one of them must be correct. The universe does in fact exist; I exist. (Yes, I’m telling you to take your Cartesian doubt and flush it down the toilet for a moment: there are things that exist, independently of whether or not we can prove them empirically.) The very existence of anything whatsoever has such bizarre consequences.

Allow me to attempt to break down the different classes of answers to the following question, “How is it that the universe, at least the material universe, exists?”

Answer One: God. Here I place all answers that deal with a deity or deities that can create ex nihilo, out of nothing. These answers are somewhat simple, at least to begin with. How is it things exist? Easy: there is a being or beings that can create matter, space, mass, etc. from nothing. Of course, this answer only brings up a separate, similar question: what sort of being is this? This post does not intend to answer this question, or even categorize the different types of answers to this question. Let me simply say that this being must be non-material, at least in a certain sense – for if the cause of all matter in the universe is material, then it wouldn’t be the cause of everything material in the universe; therefore, it is non-material. Besides the fact that we are now discussing something non-material, something not able to be discussed in scientific terms – science can only deal with things empirically, and non-material beings cannot be dealt with in this manner; science necessarily deals solely with the material – we are dealing with answering a question, an important question, in a bizarre sort of way. We are positing that the cause of everything that is physical is something non-physical. No matter what way you spin it, this is bizarre. (By the way, bizarre in the way I’m using it here is closely aligned with the terms awe-inspiring, mind-boggling, or beyond our intellectual reach.)

(There are two good responses to this: a) Well, this being could be material; and something else could have been the cause of it; etc. ad infinitem. This sort of infinite regress theory will be addressed later; b) Well, this being could be material; but it could have been the cause of itself. On the one hand, all we know about matter and material is that it can’t be the cause of itself. However, the theory of a self-created universe will also be discussed later.)

Two: The universe has always existed; therefore, we don’t need to find a cause for it, since there is none. This, of course, gets us into problems with the philosophic idea of “sufficient reason:” Does everything need a sufficient reason for being the way it is? Does everything need a sufficient cause for existing? I would throw the idea of infinite regresses into this category. For everything physical and material, there must be a cause for it. Instead of taking this line of reasoning and coming to the conclusion Aristotle and many others have, saying there must be a Unmoved Mover for we can’t keep finding a cause behind every effect, there must be a stopping place – instead of this, the proponent of infinite regresses says that there is always a reasonable explanation behind each physical effect, and it is simply the physical cause behind it, and this “tracing back” can go on infinitely. Although I disagree with the idea of infinite regresses existing physically (as opposed to mathematically or abstractly), I grant them their space here is this discussion.

But despite allowing them their place, this sort of answer is bizarre in its own way. Somehow the universe, and everything physical within it, is eternal. What caused the big bang? Well, what caused that? Ad infinitum. Even if we allow this sort of reasoning, the answer remains bizarre. Scientifically, we are always looking for causes and effect – but this answer simply says, there is no real cause of the universe as a whole. Science can deal with individual pieces of the universe, but never its entirety. (Side note: My favorite question relating to this sort of answer is this: Why, then, does the universe exist at all? Why is it that something exists, instead of nothing? This isn’t a philosophical rebuttal to this second theory. It simply shows the problems and complexity of this theory as to the universe’s origins – just like all of the theories have bizarre-like complexities.)

Three: The universe is self-causing. There was nothing – and out of this nothing, something came to exist. I find this argument the least intellectually grounded; but it is an argument nonetheless. I hope the bizarre ramifications of this sort of thinking are apparent. Everything has a cause, science argues; however, in this line of argument, essentially nothing has a cause. If everything came to be at once, everything has no cause.

At the moment, I can’t think of a fourth explanation or category. If I’m wrong, please correct my error.

Reasons one and three go beyond science, as we know it. They purport something being created from nothing, which is in direct contradiction to the basic tenants of science. Reason two is probably the most scientifically based, but it too steps beyond our basic grasp of science; it regards the world as essentially eternal or infinite – and it allows the chain of causes to find no beginning. For everything in the world as we know it, we can ask, What is the cause of this? and science can give us an answer – or at least potentially it can. This works on a micro-level – what is the cause of the leaf on this tree? – and a macro-level – what are potential causes of the big bang? But according to theory two, science cannot answer the question, What is the cause of the universe? Hence, in all three, we have the limits of science.

I recognize that the scientist arguing for theory two can attest, in relation to my most recent comments, that science does in fact answer everything in the universe. For every single, physical thing, there is a physical and scientific answer. Asking the larger question of what is the cause of the universe as a whole is an artificial or contrived question. Evening granting this scientific sidestep, the idea that we cannot answer the question of the ultimate origins of the universe is bizarre, especially since theory two attests there are no ultimate origins of the universe, for it is eternal. At the very least, we can say that the universe operates on a scale different than anything else we discuss, since the idea of cause-and-effect don’t apply to it.

So what is my ultimate conclusion of this line of thinking? I’m working out a few responses. For one, it reminds me of the ultimate mystery of the universe and existence. Even cold-hard scientists that despise the idea of mystery must purport a theory that rests ultimately on mystery – a theory that ultimately answers a question in terms that no other question can or has been answered. Second, it is often the theist that is criticized for his bizarreness, his faith in a superstitious being that is non-material and has the power to create things. But isn’t the belief that the universe created itself, or the idea that the universe has always existed and is eternal – and that the universe exists simple because, well, because it is exists – isn’t this just as bizarre as accepting the philosophical argument that infinite regresses cannot exist in physical matter, and therefore there must exist some sort of Unmoved Mover?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Lived Truth: Destroying the Myth of the Objective Seeker

There have been many points in my life when I’ve internally uttered the following statements: “I want to seek truth in a genuine and authentic manner. I want to – as objectively as I can, putting aside all previous biases and assumptions – seek that which is. And no matter where this journey takes me, I will follow it. I want to judge a way of thinking, a series of analysis, simply on the grounds of logic and reason, and not be tainted by my former prejudices and beliefs.” There is a drive in me for authenticity of knowledge, experience, and personal decisions. Even if I think something is true, if it’s been “preached to me” by another person, my reaction is to discover it on my own. This is simply the person I am.

Of course, there are problems inherent in this type of thinking. How does one recognize authenticity, even in oneself? Does this authentic searching involve reading? If so, aren’t we being influenced by what we’re reading? But in my opinion, the biggest hurdle in trying to seek pure objectivity is the problem Descartes ran into; in some ways, in Descartes’ search for pure objectivity, he revealed the deepest flaws of this line of thinking. No matter how hard you try, you cannot find perspective-less reasoning. Descartes’ hyperbolic, steamroller of doubt crushes all in its path, and there is no hope of rebuilding a coherent city of logic in its wake. You cannot think without making assumptions. At the very least, my statements above made the assumptions that there is truth, that I can find it with reason, and that is it good to search for it.

I must make two points in relation to this sort of thinking. First, the idea of truth-seeking is not completely released to abject and illogical subjectivity on account of this. There are still alive the categories of “more objective” or “less objective.” We may not find an assumption-less position, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be open and genuine about what assumptions we are making. Second, this conclusion of modern philosophy is often seen as depressing and nihilistic. However, as the saying goes, “We only bemoan the absence of something when we feel it should be there.” We only find the conclusion of our reading of Descartes as disheartening if we feel there should be a perspective-less, purely objective way of thinking. But we are humans within three dimensions; we are necessarily limited by our place in space and time. Just as we must look at an object in space-time from a specific point of reference, so must we view all of truth-seeking from a specific point of reference. However, this is not to say we don’t distinguish between seeing an object fifty feet in front of us through fog, and seeing that same object right in front of our eyes, along with cameras that can show us all of the angles of the object at once. Even though both perspectives are “trapped” within space-time, we are allowed to refer to one as more objective than the other.

Although this sort of thinking used to trouble me, I find it rather comforting these days. There are two major reasons for this. First, I wondered why people didn’t find the same objective truth as much as they should have. To return to the opening statements, I know that there are thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people who have expressed the same attitude. Why, then, do these people come to so disparate conclusions? If we all want to find the truth and accept it no matter what – if we are all so desirous of authenticity – why then do we not arrive at the same conclusions – or at least similar ones? Well, one of the major answers lies in the fact of our station in space-time. I don’t discount the fact that many people, like myself, truly want to find out what really is; but we don’t all begin at the mythical perspective-less, assumption-less point zero. Nowadays, this gives me comfort, rather than disquiet.

[On a bit of a side note, I have a separate theory as to why we don’t all come to the same conclusions, despite our protestations, genuine they may be, that we seek truth no matter our former prejudices or beliefs. I ran across a wonderful line in a truly enjoyable book, The Quiet American, by Graham Greene: “Perhaps truth and humility go together; so many lies come from our pride.” My theory runs as follows: Most people who are prompted and able to ask the “big questions” of life, to seek objectivity, are intelligent, on one level or another – and with intelligence comes a strong pull toward the ego, pride. Intelligence may be a prerequisite to genuinely deep thinking; but it also threatens the individual to a worship of pride. This was the answer I arrived at years ago in college studying philosophy. I wondered how so many brilliant people could espouse just as many different philosophies of life. What I also sensed in their writing, deeper than their intelligence and acumen, was a tendency to pride. Perhaps later I will write a full post on this idea.]

The second reason I find the idea that seeking truth always comes from a perspective or assumption engaging rather than perturbing is connected to a thought that has been floating around my head a while these days. (There’s a lot of room for things to float around in my head.) This is the idea that truth is lived, not learned; truth must experienced, not arrived at abstractly. This idea is very related to my encounters with religion and philosophy, so the best way I can explain myself is to recount certain aspects of my experience.

I have a similar experience a few times throughout my life. There is something I have a problem with in terms of Christianity or Catholicism – or religion in general. The skeptic in me finds an apparent flaw in an aspect of my belief system. My usual approach is to step back from the situation and to try and view it as objectively as possible. Now, there is nothing wrong with this – and a few times I have stumbled upon an answer in just this fashion. However, more times than not, if it was a more powerful doubt, simple engagement of the faculty of my reason did not quell my uncertainty. Here is where my more recent paradigm shift comes into play: When I pretend to stay objective and authentic, I am disallowing the deepest truth to enter my self. There are so many things, and I would argue the most significant things, that can only be fully grasped when they are lived.

So I don’t understand intellectually the idea of prayer? So what. I immerse myself in prayer, and in this experience, I learn the real truth of prayer. It’s almost as if truth can only be fully understood from the inside. Philosophy, while it is great, necessarily stays on the outside. Only a leap of faith can get us to the inside. I can’t understand fully prayer unless I am doing it. Although this may have sounded in the past to me like an excuse or a rationale for the irrational – “I don’t actually understand this, but do it anyway because I say so,” or “because that’s what tradition has taught us” – I recognize this as necessary within the inherent subjectivity of our position here on earth. It’s not as if we’re accepting there is no objective truth; but it’s simply saying that you can’t encounter the objective truth unless you take that leap of faith. Remember, there is no staying neutral. You can’t take the cold scientific approach and say you’ll only believe what you can prove. Besides other things, this train of thought is making the assumption that all truth can be proved in an empirical sort of way. But this is an assumption, for there is no assumption-less position in space-time.

To make this more specific, Christianity can be analyzed intellectually. It can be found as reasonable, or perhaps unreasonable. But the real truth of Christianity can only be found in abandoning oneself to it completely; it can only be found in complete surrender. And this happens through experience of the person of Jesus. Can this be approached through logic and reason? Yes. Can its deepest reality be approached through logic and reason? No. This happens solely though throwing oneself as the foot of the Cross and experiencing the power of the Creator’s love.

I’m not sure I find myself at the Kierkegaardian position of making the leap of faith because it’s rational. All I’m saying here is that truth can’t be experienced without that leap of faith. In fact, nothing can be truly experienced without the leap of faith. The myth of the cold, hard sciences – or the authentic searcher for objective truth – no longer holds water. And this isn’t because we’re trapped in a subjective world where we can trust nothing and no one. No, this is the case because truth was never intended to be approached in this cold, hard way – it was intended to be lived and experienced.

The Philosophy Group: Social Justice & Liberation Theology


I have given too much space between the night we discussed social justice and the time I spent actively categorizing and meditating on our discussions, ramblings, disagreements, and conclusions. Therefore, permit me to admit that I will probably, more than once, misinterpret someone’s idea or main point. I am sorry.

Church’s Teaching on Social Justice

We digressed often from the, nominally speaking, main topic: the Church’s teaching on social justice. Here are three simple points that stuck in my head: 1) Every person must be given what he or she needs to develop as a person. Although I understand the often vagueness used by the Church (in order for Her not to overstate Her case, or so that the Truth can apply to all places, peoples, and times), there is a problematic indistinctness here. Who is “in charge” of making sure all people obtain what they need to develop as persons? Is biological subsistence enough to fit within this definition, or are we discussing an individual’s need to fit within a cultural level too? (Do people have a right to broadband Internet?) Are we speaking on a national or global level? Etc? 2) Private property is enormous part of a society’s insurance that it is potentially just. Regardless, this isn’t an “absolute” right. For example, your individual right to a specific piece of material property can be trumped by a greater good. 3) Giving “charity” to people who actually need it – i.e. food, water, shelter – isn’t charity, but justice. Giving people something they have a right to is justice. This is a hard truth for us.

I sped through that preliminary work to get us to what I found most engaging: the discussion of liberation theology, why it gets such a knock, how it (potentially) changes our perspective on salvation, and whether or not we can take Marxist analysis at all – I add a further section on my reflections on these matters.

Arguments Against Liberation Theologies: “Straw Men”

As Mike Clemente so aptly explained, perhaps B16’s and others’ criticism of Liberation Theology are straw man arguments. (I am not well-read enough in this area to give personal opinion.) This is the way this story goes: Yes, there are bad, violent liberation theologies; and these were and are incompatible with Church teaching. Rightfully so, the Church came out and declared these theologies as incorrect. However, this is only the extreme liberation theologies. There are more moderate ones, ones that are comparable with the Church. However, when people preach against these moderate theologies (I’m not sure moderate is the correct word, but it’s all I have recourse to at the moment), they are essentially arguing against the violent, bad theologies. Therefore, in the end, they aren’t actually making arguments against the liberation theologies, as they are espoused by, say, Gustavo Gutiérrez. Mike C said that B16’s arguments fall into this “straw man” trap. Of course, what needs to be explored, if this narrative holds water, is a more in-depth analysis of the good (moderate) theologies – those compatible with the Church. We obviously didn’t have time to go into too much depth here; however, we did discuss one of Gutiérrez’s major points concerning our perspective on salvation and the afterlife. I will get to that in a moment.

Using Marxist Analysis Within a Catholic Framework

Another problem Mike C saw in B16’s analysis is that Benedict categorically rejects any analysis that sounds as if it comes from Marx. More specifically, Gutiérrez uses Marx’s analysis of class struggle, and places it within a Catholic framework. Because Marx was a deep-set atheist and his conclusions were anti-religious, B16 distrusts anything related to Marx, and that includes some of his more basic analysis. This is an interesting question – and it goes beyond. Can we use analysis from any thinker who arrived at conclusions we disagree with? I think this is a case-by-case question. For example, a lot of Freud begins with the assumption that our sexuality is analogous to our desire to eat. His analysis that proceeds from this assumption is bound to be flawed on some level, since I believe man’s sexuality is so much more than a desire. Although it may express itself sometimes simply as a desire, it is, in my opinion, one of the deepest connections between the physical and transcendent aspects of ourselves. Because Freud looks only at sexuality’s materialistic side, he misses half of the story. On the other hand, with some of Freud’s other analysis, such as his perceptions about the unconscious, are fine to examine and use, trusting that we aren’t unknowingly accepting assumptions we find as false. Back to the discussion at hand, I think it is fine to use a portion of Marxist analysis, since I don’t find the entire critique rests on a theory that is necessarily materialistic and atheistic – some of it, definitely; but not all of it.

The Salvation Narrative as Singular

Now back to Mike C’s quoting of Gutiérrez. I know I’m doing a huge injustice to the both of them, but I must continue. Gutiérrez wanted people, and the Church, to see salvation not simply as something for the afterlife, or that there are two different modes/avenues/roads of salvation: one for this world and one for the next. Instead, our salvation story is singular – and, therefore, salvation here on earth is essentially the same as the salvation we refer to when we discuss heaven. Although I initially reacted poorly to this idea – on an emotional level, I’ll admit – I think my problem is centered more on how I view certain people can use or interpret this. This is similar, perhaps, to Mike C’s reaction to my point that life’s goal is to “get as many people in heaven as possible.” This idea could be interpreted as a complete ignoring of anything temporal or physical, i.e. “Don’t worry about the physical position of the poor since all that matters is whether or not they get to heaven.” However, this is not what the first sentence necessarily implies. Despite my acceptance of Gutiérrez’s statement (I actually find the idea quite powerful now), I will end this entry by pointing out some of my potential issues with its possible interpretations, as well as some thoughts on liberation theology in general.

My Thoughts

There is only one story of salvation, and an integral part of that narrative is Christ’s death on the Cross; therefore, it is essential (and almost obvious) that our salvation story here on earth is the same as the salvation story of heaven. In this way, I full-heartedly agree with Gutiérrez. However, what is our salvation? Fundamentally, it is a freedom, but a freedom from sin. Our salvation story is not a story about Jesus coming to ensure material success or material freedom: “My kingdom is not of this world.” Of course, I understand that there are shortcomings of focusing too much on this side of the story, i.e. “Let’s not worry at all about poverty or people’s status in society, since the kingdom is not of this world.” Regardless, humanity’s essential poverty is not a poverty of material goods, but a poverty of spiritual goods. These are two exclusive categories.

This comes down to putting Gutiérrez’s comment into practice. Yes, the salvation story is one and not two; but what part of the salvation story here on earth means trying to work for material equality here on earth? Is salvation essentially about material equality? (By the way, I’m not saying working for equality isn’t good.) I guess what I’m driving at (and I’m still working out a lot of this in my own head) is this question: what is the relationship between spiritual and material poverty? I don’t see, as some medievalists may have seen, these as two completely mutually exclusive groups. But what part of working for salvation here on earth means working for material equality or fairness? Of course, some of it is connected. A person must be treated with the human respect and dignity that his intrinsic value requires. But how else does material poverty or success or fairness actually affect the salvation story? To return to Gutiérrez, how is freeing the oppressed in a poor country working toward Christ’s salvation? I’m not saying there isn’t an answer; I just can’t think of a cogent one at the moment. I’d prefer someone else who can think beyond my limitations to let me know where I’m wrong.

My final thought on liberation theology: Because spiritual poverty is distinct from material poverty, what I sometimes find potentially problematic in liberation theologies is that the rich get overlooked. (Yes, I see the irony in this statement.) What I mean is that those who are spiritually poor but materially well-off – or at least materially comfortable – are forgotten. Now, I understand that not everyone can fight for everything, so this problem doesn’t mean that liberation theologies are in any way incorrect. However, what I see as problematic is when material poverty is emphasized more than spiritual poverty. This, of course, gets back to the connection between the two poverties. Somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind, I recognize that there is a deep connection between these the poverties, but I can’t put it into words or even emotional utterances.

Encouraging Dialogue

At times, I overstated what I believe (or overemphasized certain aspects of what I believe). But the point was so that people who disagree with me will feel led to respond. The salvation story is essentially the Christian story; it is the heart of life. I seek a better understanding of this story, but I recognize that this comes in dialogue. Where my intellect and experience ends, another’s can inform me.

{By the way, what is life’s goal? I may sum it up by saying, like Mike C, it is to show people who they truly are. However, considering we are made in the image and likeness of God, to show people who they truly are is to introduce them to Christ. If I wanted to have an eagle know what it truly was, if I didn’t mention that it could fly, or if it didn’t figure this out on its own, the eagle’s knowledge of itself would be lacking.}

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Human Dimension of the Mystery of the Redemption

Chapter 10 of Redemptor Hominis, the first encyclical of Pope John Paul II.

Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it. This, as has already been said, is why Christ the Redeemer "fully reveals man to himself." If we may use the expression, this is the human dimension of the mystery of the redemption. In this dimension man finds again the greatness, dignity and value which belong to his humanity. In the mystery of the redemption man becomes newly "expressed" and, in a way, is newly created. He is newly created! "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." The man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly - and not just in accordance with immediate, partial, and often superficial, and even illusory standards and measures of his being - he must with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ. He must, so to speak, enter into Him with all his own self, he must "appropriate" and assimilate the whole reality of the Incarnation and Redemption in order to find himself. If this profound process takes place within him, he then bears fruit not only of adoration of God but also of deep wonder at himself. How precious must man be in the eyes of the Creator, if he "gained so great a Redeemer," and if God "gave his only Son" in order that man "should not perish but have eternal life."
In reality, the name for that deep amazement at man's worth and dignity is the Gospel, that is to say: the Good News. It is also called Christianity. This amazement determines the Church's mission in the world and, perhaps even more so, "in the modern world." This amazement, which is also a conviction and a certitude - at its deepest root it is the certainty of faith, but in a hidden and mysterious way it vivifies every aspect of authentic humanism - is closely connected with Christ. It also fixes Christ's place - so to speak, His particular right of citizenship - in the history of man and mankind. Unceasingly contemplating the whole of Christ's mystery, the Church knows with all the certainty of faith that the Redemption that took place through the cross has definitively restored his dignity to man and given back meaning to his life in the world, a meaning that was lost to a considerable extent because of sin. And for that reason, the Redemption was accomplished in the paschal mystery, leading through the cross and death to resurrection.
The Church's fundamental function in every age and particularly in ours is to direct man's gaze, to point the awareness and experience of the whole of humanity towards the mystery of God, to help all men to be familiar with the profundity of the Redemption taking place in Christ Jesus. At the same time man's deepest sphere is involved - mean the sphere of human hearts, consciences, and events.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Tiller and Killing in Self-Defense

A little after George Tiller, the infamous late-term abortion doctor, was murdered outside of his church, I had a conversation with a middle-aged Catholic man. It was a similar conversation I’ve had in the past. The man boiled down his reaction to the entire killing the murderer incident in these words: “I would never do that, but I can’t help saying I’m happy it’s been done. I guess I wouldn’t do that because I have a family, wife, and kids; but I’m not sure I see anything wrong with it.” My disappointed reaction was similar to my past reactions to these sorts of arguments: “Come on, now. If you go down that road, you lose the dignity of life that you’re protecting by being pro-life. Your gut-emotional reaction may tell you you’re pleased with Tiller’s murder, but your reason and ethics should tell you otherwise.” I could have added: “And whenever these two aspects of our humanity – the emotional and the rational – disagree in situations such as these, it’s because our humanity is fallen. We should never be pleased with something that is immoral.”

Of course the man responded with the usual “Tiller has given up his right to life,” and “he is guilty, while babies are innocent,” and “you’re actually saving lives by killing him.” I had my preprogrammed rebuttals to each of these arguments – and I stand by them today. However, unlike other times, the topic stayed with me over the next few days. I spent a few hours in sustained thought on the subject about a week after the conversation. I didn’t necessarily reason myself to the other side of the argument; but I did run into some logical problems with any positions other than complete non-violent pacifism. I’m pretty sure there are answers to my problems, so please join in the conversation if you have anything to add.

Let me begin by stating the conclusion I came to: Perhaps there is no real way of condemning the killer of George Tiller except through the idealist’s proclamation of complete non-violence. Related, it seems we run into a lot of other issues like this outside of the clearly and simply defined parameters of complete non-violence. Let me see if I can put in a few paragraphs the general outline of my thoughts.

Murder is different than killing in the sense that murder is not done for the sake of self-defense. I may not be correct in my huge generalization, but I think all moral killing is done for the sake of self-defense. This covers the rather specific instance of you shooting a man that is running at you or your children with a broadsword and/or scimitar, with the intent to kill – as well as the general case of killing within the context of a just war.

Since George Tiller was one of a very limited number of doctors willing to do extremely late-term abortions, killing him has the very real (although I suppose it is only potential) effect of saving lives. Let’s take out societal norms and rules, and apply only the laws we know are eternal and true. Are we not saving innocent lives by killing George Tiller? And if this is wrong, how is this any different than killing in time of war? In fact, most who are killed in times of a just war are probably innocent – a Christian German family man during WWII – while George Tiller is not innocent.

As I look back on the previous two paragraphs that outline my initial thoughts, there is nothing new or complex or inventive in my thoughts. I guess my idea right now is that I don’t see a glaringly convincing response to the simple argument stated above. My secondary response is this:

When we take the ethics that allows us to call certain wars just, it seems we can apply that to other situations that we would normally be against, i.e. this George Tiller situation. For the life of me, I can’t think of another example off the top of my head at the moment. (I did before, though…) I realize this post is ending on somewhat of a weak note, but I ask for those we do see a “glaringly convincing” response to my rather simple argument above to respond to me. Thank you.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Brief Thoughts on a Sensory Experience

Earlier this year, I went to Dr. McGuire to have my wisdom teeth pulled. After taking one look at the x-ray, McGuire let out a quiet, “Ooh.” This is never a good sign. Ever. In this case, I had a cyst growing around one of my teeth, thus explaining the nearly excruciating pain I’d been in for the past few days. Fortunately, he could operate and fix the issue that day. The only real side effect (other than obtaining a few dreamy days’ worth of Percocet) was a numbing of a nerve that went across the left side of my chin. McGuire assured me this was normal, and that the feeling would return, even if it took a few months.

The doc was right. After about a month, feeling began to return – but in the form of pins and needles. Then something very odd happened. Every time I drank something, especially if it was cold, it felt as if a little was spilling out of my mouth. I was constantly wiping my chin. My beard made my discovery that nothing in fact was spilling out take a few days. Finally I realized this. It’s sort of hard to explain, but let me try:

Whenever any cold liquid touched the inside of my bottom lip and chin, it ran across the nerve that was regaining sense – and this experience made it feel exactly as if there was something cold pouring on the outside of my lip and chin. Exactly. I kept experimenting with this, because it was so odd. I could recognize that nothing was on the outside of my lip and chin, but still feel like it was.

Although this is odd, and I could dive into a Cartesian doubting of all sensory experience on account of this, I am more interested in what happened after this. Our minds are powerful things, and mine did something truly wonderful.

After I recognized that there was nothing on the outside of my lip and chin even though it felt as if there was, my mind’s interpretation of the sensory data changed. The actual sensory data did not change; and it still hasn’t – but how my mind chose to relay this data was transformed. No longer did the feeling convey the conclusion that liquid was spilling out of my mouth. At first I thought perhaps that the nerve in my mouth was healing or “normalizing.” But when I consciously thought about the feelings occurring, I came to the conclusion that no sensory data had changed. However, since my mind recognized (through the use of my eyes, different sensory data) that my initial interpretation was not valid, it was modifying itself.

Now when I drink, technically the same feelings occur; but I now recognize this sensory experience as feeling inside of my mouth. Two conclusions/questions for me stem from this: 1) Sensory experience is not first-level type of experience. What do I mean by this? I’m not positive, but it’s something like this: When I feel something, I don’t actually feel that thing. My nerve endings experience something and translate the data into workable conclusions. 2) Our mind, using new data, can reinterpret what the nerve endings tell us. I’m not sure if proves the existence of a “mind” completely separate from “the senses,” (I’m not sure I believe that) – but I think it points to the idea that we have a “mind” that works independently from, even if constantly connected to, our senses. I take a Thomist/Aristotelian approach to this discussion; and I feel like this experience reinforces it.