04 January 2014

Spiritual Entropy

Drawing your attention to an excellent article over at The Imaginative Conservative, "Daydreams, Nightmares, and Christian Realism."

The opening paragraph (with a few editions):

As we look at our present nihilistic culture, malnourished in the absence of [faith and reason] and living only on a meager diet of [bread and games] it is hard to perceive any sign of true progress, unless we see progress as synonymous with suicide. Whether the homicide, genocide, and infanticide of secular fundamentalism can be seen as its own ultimate suicide, there is no need for the rest of us to follow such self-destructive notions of “progress”. On the contrary, as Chesterton reminds us, “true progress consists in looking for a place where we can stop”, which, in the dark ages in which we now live, means a place where we can stop the rot.

Pearce explores the notion of Original Sin and the myth of human progress (properly understood).

Well worth your time.
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What's Dangerous About Christianity? (Updated)

Insomnia last night. I started thinking again. Happens every time.

So, here's what got me thinking: Christianity's Dangerous Idea.

It took me a few decades to resolve a basic question about myself: who do you want to be?

I didn't say to myself, "Self, be the most dangerous person you can be!" That sort of response strikes me as incredibly pretentious. (I can hear Scuba Mom yelling at me, "GET IN HERE AND PICK UP YOUR DIRTY SOCKS, FATHER! NOW!" So much for pretense).

Anyway, let's assume for a moment that Christianity -- in all of it many forms -- is indeed a Dangerous Idea. Hitchens (in the link above) argues that Christianity is a dangerous idea b/c Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that he rose from the dead. Start with this idea and things get scary quick.

My question to you: as a Christian, what do you think is dangerous about Christianity and why?  

Leave your response in the combox, and I will tack it on the post as an update.

I feel a lot of good homily material coming my way! 

Response from Anon:  Christianity is dangerous because it demands that we conform ourselves to something external, or better, to Someone external. Our lives are not our own to dispose of as we wish. God makes demands of us, and He has the right to do so because He made us. Because He recognizes that we are sinful, in His mercy He has given us the Sacraments as the means to become fortified in grace and to become reconciled with Him. Even so, we squander graces more than we realize and continue to stumble in our sinfulness. Christianity teaches us to tame our wills, probably the most challenging demand ever made, and for many, a demand too radical for the human ego to abide. 

Response from Gregg the Obscure: Christianity is dangerous because it requires us to forgive those who trespass against us. 

Response from Shelly: Truth is always dangerous, and Christianity has the Truth and is not shy about speaking it, which angers those who hope to disregard Truth and "change reality" to fit their own agendas.

Love can also be dangerous, since Christianity speaks of loving as the Lord loves us, even to loving one's enemies - how can you encourage others to be jealous, or hate, or subjugate, or take advantage, of others when love is an over-riding concern?

And Christianity speaks to a Higher Power - the Highest Power - to whom Christians look for guidance...Christianity does not look to the world as the end of all things. There is more. And since that "more" is more important than anything here on this earth, then it is very difficult for an outside power to coerce Christians to follow along if the path being shown does not lead to Heaven.

Dangerous to those who want power, who want to control humanity ....


Response from cmom: It localizes one's existence in God rather than the state.

Response from Keith: In today's America, it is dangerous because it points out that those who are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick and visit the prisoners, are those of us who are Christians. Christ, insofar as I can determine from Sacred Scripture, never enjoined us to petition Caesar (in whatever form is contextually relevant) to take what God has bestowed upon us as individuals and families and establish public structures to see to those duties. If that understanding is correct and were it to be followed there are a large number of people, including but by no means limited to, those who are employed by Caesar's bureaus, departments, etc., to effect the delivery of those goods and services. That alone, if it were followed, would make a substantial number of our fellow citizens extremely unhappy.

Response from Pat: Christianity is dangerous because when you realize that God loves you enough to become human and die on a cross for you, that requires an unconditional response on you part.

Response from Suzanne: Well consider that Christ was crucified for preaching love. God's love. That is what is dangerous. God's love is what messes up everybody's thoughts and plans. And the world is ready to crucify you for it. 

Response from Melissa: Christianity is dangerous because it can devastate one's financial bottom line. Imagine what would happen if a huge corporation actually took Christ's demands to heart! Fair pay, no unnecessary work on Sundays, charity to the poor, love instead of competition . . . No wonder American society is so opposed to Christianity!

Response from Matheus: I find this to be an enormously complex issue, but what comes to my mind right now is that it is dangerous because it definitely sets one apart from a worldly existence. The very concept of God Himself fully becoming a man, and then facing excruciating torture and death for our sake renders not only life itself, but everything even remotely pertaining to it "new" and "special" (for shameful lack of better words), therefore obligatorily changing the way it is lived on every possible level.
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02 January 2014

Fat Kid in a Candy Store, or A Dominican in a Bookstore

Just made it back to New Orleans after a two week visit amongst the Squirrels. . .oh, and I said hi a couple of times to the Parentals and Family. . .

Upon entering the cloister of the priory, I was greeted by a stack of Amazon packages from the Wish List

I'm not going to say I didn't squeal -- it was very manly -- but I did emit a high-pitched squeak that some might mistake for a delighted squeal.

Here's a pic of me after opening the boxes:























Thanks to Michelle R. and Jenny K. (my two favoritest Book Angels) for making my After Christmas Party a mendicant delight.
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01 January 2014

31 December 2013

Mother of Our Freedom!

Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Redneck Squirrels, MS


Listen Here (8.00am Mass)
 

We call her "Advocate of Eve," "Seat of Wisdom," "Cause of Our Joy," "Help of Christians," and "Mother of Sorrows." We greet her in prayer, “Hail, Mary! Full of grace!” And we call upon her intercession using a variety of names: Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Knock, Queen of the Americas, and Our Lady of Prompt Succor. But all these titles and names are meaningless unless we understand the one title that makes all the others possible: Theotokos, God-bearer, the one who gives birth to God. Mary is who and what she is for us b/c she is first and foremost the Holy Mother of God. This title was settled upon in 431 A.D. by the Church Fathers at the Council of Ephesus. Fighting back a heresy that wanted us to believe that the Christ was actually two different persons—one human and one divine—the Fathers declared that Christ is just one divine person with two natures (human and divine). Mary gave birth to the divine person of Jesus Christ, making her the mother of God Incarnate. And since we never celebrate a Marian feast w/o remembering the One to Whom Mary always points us, we also celebrate her son, Jesus, the Messiah. Given all this, I'd like to propose another title for Mary: Mother of Our Freedom! Why this title? Paul writes to the Galatians, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman. . .so that we might receive adoption as sons. . .So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then also an heir, through God.” 

We are no longer slaves but sons, heirs; and made so by God through the faithful cooperation of Mary. The Mother of Our Freedom cooperated (operated with) the Holy Spirit and received into her womb the seed of the Word, which grew into the divine person of Jesus. His birth into human history and his death into eternal life makes our salvation possible. He cuts a path through the thorny tangle of sin and death and draws us behind him to be taken up, made holy, and seated at our inherited place at the banquet table of God. Our release from the slavery of sin, our escape from the inevitability of death is accomplished by Christ through the cooperation of Mary. She is the Mother of Our Freedom b/c she gave birth to the only means of our freedom. From slaves to heirs, we move ever closer to the perfection of Christ.

Our perfection in Christ is both our work and the work of God. Just like our Blessed Mother cooperated with the work of the Holy Spirit to conceive and give birth to Jesus, we too are vowed to cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit to conceive and give birth to the Word, making his flesh and blood our flesh and blood; surrendering our hearts and minds, and our hands and voices to the holy work of preaching and teaching the Good News to the world. The longer and harder we work at accomplishing this task, the higher we climb in holiness and the deeper we delve into divine wisdom. Like the shepherds who find the Holy Family in the manger and “made known the message that had been told them about [the Christ],” we too are vowed to finding Christ, following him, and making his message known. After seeing the Christ-child, the shepherds go home, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” And we too will return home, our heavenly home, glorifying and praising God, if we do what we have promised as followers of Christ to do. Mary held on the message of the shepherds, reflecting on it in her heart, remembering Simeon's warning in the temple that her heart would be pierced by the sufferings of her son. While the shepherds adored and the people were amazed, Mary quietly grieved, knowing the destiny of the one sent to redeem us all from the slavery of sin.

Mary's grief must have been nearly unbearable. Having assented to the conception of the Word and given him birth, she is left with the sure knowledge that her son is the long-awaited Messiah, the One who would suffer and die for the sins of men. To gain our freedom, the Mother of Our Freedom had not only to bear the Christ into this world, she had to witness his suffering and death for our sakes. And not only was she a witness to his passion, she suffered along with him as any mother would. Her heart, pierced by the sword of grief, bled out even as Jesus bled out on the cross. As painful as his death and her grief no doubt were, as a result, we rose as a race to be the adopted children of the Father, heirs to His kingdom. Granted the inheritance of the ages, in possession of God's promise of eternal life, and the possibility of perfection through His Christ, what do we do in order to give thanks? How do mere creatures show appreciation to the One who created and re-created them? There is nothing we can do or say that would equal this gift, that would express the enormity of this sacrifice for us. We are left to do only that which we have already vowed to do: bring the message of God's love and mercy to the world in all we do, say, think, and feel. Despite opposition, persecution, ridicule, and violence, we deliver the message that Christ is Lord! When we do as Christ did, and speak as he spoke, we grow closer to our perfection in him.

Some 1,600 years ago, a council of Church Fathers hashed out a theological statement that confirmed what most Christians at the time already believed: that Mary is the Holy Mother of God Incarnate. As the mother of God, she bore into the world the Son who grew up to teach and preach the saving word of his Father's mercy to sinners. Not only did he teach and preach his Father's mercy, he embodied that mercy; he gave that mercy flesh and bone and walked among us as a sign of contradiction, a rock upon which men's hearts and minds would be broken to reveal the truth inside. When confronted with the raw truth that your sins are forgiven and that you are no longer a slave to sin, the truth that dwells secretly within breaks out and flourishes in the light of Christ. The shepherds wandered the desert on the word of an angel until they found Christ. The truth in their hearts dropped them to their knees in adoration. Those near the manger, the ones who heard the shepherds' message, had their hardened hearts softened and exposed. They were left amazed by the Good News. Mary, Mother of Sorrows, had her heart broken on the knowledge that her son would suffer and die. The truth in her heart led her to a life of humble service to the Lord. Within the Body of Christ, his Church, there is a truth that will renew us, a truth that will bring us to remember our vows, and urge us to rededicate ourselves to the hard work that Mary started when she said Yes to God. That truth is this: each of us and all of us together are the flesh and blood of God's Word, not just people who believe or people who do good works, but the People of God who walk out into the world to be—however imperfect—Christs for one another. Mary, Mother of Our Freedom, gave birth to the only means of our freedom, Christ Jesus the Lord. Will you, will we say Yes to God, conceive His Word, and keep in the world the mercy and love that Jesus lived and died to bring to us? Do this holy work and the Lord will bless you and keep you! The Lord will let his face shine upon you. . .The Lord will look upon you kindly and give you peace!
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29 December 2013

Does narrative rescue God from metaphysics?

There are contemporary theologians and philosophers of religion who challenge the dominance of what they call "onto-theological thinking," that is, following Nietzsche and Heidegger, these folks argue that it was a big mistake for the Church's earliest theologians to translate the Biblical witness of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob into the Greek language of substance metaphysics:  "Yahweh" becomes "Being Itself."

The identification of Abraham's God with Plato's One seems natural enough when you consider Exodus 3.14, "I AM that I AM" (or any of the dozens of renditions).  With a name like "I AM," you are inviting metaphysical speculation on the nature of existence and your place in the scheme of things.  If God is not a being like all the others in the world, and yet He somehow manages to exist . . .how exactly are we supposed to understand what it means to exist but not as an existing thing?  Aquinas' answer:  God is not a being; He is Being.  He doesn't exists; He is existence.

Now, we could interpret the last two sentences above in purely metaphysical terms.  "God" and "Being" are two names we give to the persistence of existing.  No bible necessary here.  We could also interpret those same two sentences in a purely Biblical sense, using Exo 3.14 as our text and show that "I AM" is a religious and not a philosophical concept.  But as Gilson argues, this sort of splitting your worldview up into separate parts in order to keep them compartmentalized is dishonest. So, an honest believer's religious, philosophical, theological, etc. worldviews need to be consistent with one another.

Aquinas, wanting to be consistent, uses the first part of his Summa to address the question of who and what God is.  To keep this post within a reasonable word count, I will simply quote Brian Davies on Aquinas' notion of God:  "God. . .is the beginning and end of all thing, the Creator of the world which depends on him for its existence. . .Aquinas also holds that God is alive, perfect, good, eternal, omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient. . ."(129).*  Taking up the characteristics usually assigned to The One of Platonic metaphysics, Aquinas attributes them to God and then argues that though we can have some limited knowledge of God, we cannot know God perfectly this side of heaven.**

Skipping over a couple of centuries of development in philosophical theology, we arrive at what is usually called "the Problem of Evil."  In the past this argument has been more or less used by religious skeptics and atheists to poke holes in theism.  For some, it's THE argument against theism and moves them to quit religion entirely.  The classical form of the argument goes something like this:

1. God is omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient.
2. Evil exists.
3. Therefore, one or more of the "omni" attributions in #1 must be false.

#3 here is usually taken to mean that God cannot be all-knowing, all-powerful, and everywhere present if evil exists.  He could be a combination of any of the two but not all three.

There are hundreds of different reasonable responses to the Problem of Evil. I'm keen on the Free Will Defense myself:  evil is allowed by God so that human freedom may be maximized; or since God wills that human freedom be maximized, He allows evil, which inevitably results from the abuse of human freedom.  This is basically Aquinas' response, so we know it's the correct one.

This is an example of philosophy helping theology untangle a problem.  However, couldn't we say that philosophy caused this problem in the first place?  There would be no Problem of Evil if we had resisted the temptation to translate Yahweh into Being Itself.  Yahweh is not presented in scripture as possessing the three-omni's of Plato's One.  When Yahweh is addressed as "All-powerful Lord," He is being praised in emotive language and not assigned the philosophical label "omnipotent."  Etc. for the other two-omni's. 

Our Nietzschean and Heideggerian theologians/philosophers would have us abandon the God of Plato's metaphysics and simply stick with the Biblical God of Abraham, etc.  This notion of "forgetting metaphysics" has a number of different names in the academy, but the most common is "narrative theology."  Generally associated with the Yale Divinity School, narrative theologians are impatient with complex metaphysical problems and all the messy philosophical waste that seems to be secreted from the history of onto-theological discourse.  Their goal is to rescue biblical revelation from the clutches of onto-theological-philosophical obfuscation and return it to the center of the Church's communal life.  This strikes me as a important consideration for the development of a Catholic theology of preaching. 

However, in theology more generally, how we go about separating out philosophy from narrative in the biblical witness is beyond me.  We could, I suppose, focus only on metaphysical language (being, cause, essence, etc) and remove it from our theologizing about revelation.  But then that leaves us unable to ask epistemological questions (i.e., how do we know?).  We could just say that philosophy is really about wisdom and telling stories is the best way to disseminate and promote wisdom.  I wouldn't disagree entirely with this, but we are still left with deciding what counts as wisdom and what doesn't.  We also have the problem of interpreting and applying a story's wisdom to concrete situations.  That's called hermeneutics.  And it comes with a whole mule-load of philosophical considerations. . .and so on.

So, our theological enterprise is not doable without philosophy.  We might disagree about which philosophical approach to take, but philosophy as a way of thinking and talking about problems in human discourse is a non-negotiable. It's here to stay.  To paraphrase an old prof of mine:  "Philosophy always seems to be its own undertaker!"

*"Aquinas on What God is Not," in Aquinas's Summa Theologiae:  Critical Essays, ed. Brian Davies, Rowan and Littlefield, 2006, 129-144.

**It is this "divine hiddenness" that causes some sceptical philosophers and theologians to question the possibility of knowing anything at all about God.  Some go so far as to argue that the obscurity of God--intended or not--is sufficient reason to withhold belief in His existence.  The argument goes, if God loves me and wants me to be saved; and if believing in God is all-important to my eternal salvation; then revealing Himself to me would be an act of salvific love, while remaining hidden is an act of cruelty.  I'm skipping over several crucial steps in the argument, of course, but you get the idea: divine hiddenness is an epistemological nightmare.

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