Archive for November, 2007|Monthly archive page

An Embarrassing Incident

I’m going to take a break from the nerdiness for a bit, if only to descend into the realm of sheer stupidity.

A couple weeks ago, I was riding my bike to work. Charlie had kept Jess and me up from about 5 a.m to 6 a.m., so I was a little groggy, and traffic was especially heavy that morning. There had been construction on my route throughout most of the autumn, so I’d been contending with things like cones, construction workers, and backhoes every day. Well that particular morning, traffic had forced me to ride on the sidewalk on the left side of the street rather than on the road. When the traffic finally cleared enough for me to cross the street, I was on top of a little embankment, which I rode down into the street in order to cross to the regular side. There was not a car in sight. There was a line of cones in the middle of the street blocking off one of the lanes, but no matter, there had been cones there for months. Well, as soon as I rode down the embankment and onto the pavement, I heard a construction worker yell and whistle at me. I was picking up speed pretty quickly and had no time to even acknowledge the worker’s gesticulations before I rode straight into wet cement.

Now understand that this has all taken place in the matter of a few seconds, but the flash of a thought that crossed my mind was that I was going too fast to stop, so I hoped I might kind of skim over it. As this idea was still even in the first brief moment of formulating itself, I was sailing over my handlebars, as the cement I had ridden into was about 2.5 feet deep, and my front tire had instantly sunk into it, the momentum carrying the back end of my bike up and propelling my body forward into the air.

I landed with my feet and legs in the cement and my upper body on the pavement. I realized that I was not injured and then realized that I had probably incurred a large fine for breaking some kind of law and costing the construction company loads of money. Then I looked behind me and saw the handlebars of my otherwise submerged bike. Then I saw three or four Hispanic construction workers running towards me and all yelling in Spanish. I got up and said, “I am so sorry!” One of them asked me if I was all right and told me to get out of the street (I guess some cars wanted to use it). Once he was assured I was not injured, he pulled my bike out of the cement swamp and posed for his fellow construction workers, who were taking pictures of him and the (now cement-gray) bike with their cell phones. I fretted over my impending financial doom and mourned the loss of my ruined bike, much, though shortly, loved. And I was very embarrassed.

Three construction workers then raked the cement smooth and all the damage I had done was instantly undone. The worker with my bike told me to follow him and walked it down the block to the cement truck. I was in a stupor, the kind you always feel after a wreck. As he walked my bike down the middle lane where construction was going on, he turned around and told me to get out of the road. I looked behind me to see a long line of cars in the single lane (due to the construction) waiting for me to get out of their way. I walked up onto the sidewalk and about twenty paces later realized I had wandered back into the gutter and was stalling traffic again, cars slowly but cautiously easing their way around me.

When we got to the cement truck, another worker asked, “did somebody fall in?” I realized then that I was not the first person to make this mistake. The worker hosed down my bike, which then looked good as new. I also asked him to hose me down. He was hesitant, because it was cold, but I insisted. I rode the rest of the way to work, recovering and now aware of my stupor and riding extra carefully, and changed into my work clothes. I had a few scrapes on my hands and a slightly painful bruise on my elbow. I told everyone I saw, because it is a good, funny story, and I love telling good, funny stories.

Dostoevsky on Miracles

dostoevsky.jpgMiracles will never confound a realist. It is not miracles that bring a realist to faith. A true realist, if he is not a believer, will always find in himself the strength and ability not to believe in miracles as well, and if a miracle stands before him as an irrefutable fact, he will sooner doubt his own senses than admit the fact. And even if he does admit it, he will admit it as a fact of nature that was previously unknown to him. In the realist, faith is not born from miracles, but miracles from faith. Once the realist comes to believe, then, precisely because of his realism, he must also allow for miracles. The Apostle Thomas declared that he would not believe until he saw, and when he saw, he said: “My Lord and my God!” Was it the miracle that made him believe? Most likely not, but he believed first and foremost because he wished to believe, and maybe already fully believed in his secret heart even as he was saying: “I will not believe until I see.”

-The Brothers Karamazov

Avery Cardinal Dulles: God and Evolution

Last night, I read Avery Cardinal Dulles’s essay “God and Evolution” in First Things. Dulles’s tone is refreshing, and he respectfully addresses the various perspectives in many of the current debates with charity and grace. He draws on and explains the Catholic position on evolution especially as developed by John Paul II, which I tend to agree with, throughout the essay. He also insists, along with John Paul II, that although religion and science are separate, they complement each other:

[John Paul II] recommended a program of dialogue and interaction, in which science and religion would seek neither to supplant each other nor to ignore each other. They should search together for a more thorough understanding of one another’s competencies and limitations, and they should look especially for common ground. Science should not try to become religion, nor should religion seek to take the place of science. Science can purify religion from error and superstition, while religion purifies science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each discipline should therefore retain its integrity and yet be open to the insights and discoveries of the other.

A corollary of this is that “knowledge” has a broader range than what we can simply observe and categorize. On Dawkins and his ilk, Dulles has this to say:

The proofs for the existence of God, [Dawkins] believes, are all invalid, since among other defects they leave unanswered the question “Who made God?” “Faith,” he writes, “is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. . . . Faith, being belief that isn’t based on evidence, is the principal vice in any religion.” Carried away by his own ideology, he speaks of “the fatuousness of the religiously indoctrinated mind.” He makes the boast that, in the quest to explain the nature of human life and of the universe in which we find ourselves, religion “is now completely superseded by science.”

Dawkins’ understanding of religious faith as an irrational commitment strikes the Catholic as strange. The First Vatican Council condemned fideism, the doctrine that faith is irrational. It insisted that faith is and must be in harmony with reason. John Paul II developed the same idea in his encyclical on Faith and Reason, and Benedict XVI in his Regensburg academic lecture of September 12, 2006, insisted on the necessary harmony between faith and reason. In that context, he called for a recovery of reason in its full range, offsetting the tendency of modern science to limit reason to the empirically verifiable.

Later, Dulles favorably quotes Terry Eagleton, a Marxist literary critic sympathetic at least to certain forms of Christianity who wrote a scathing review of The God Delusion for the London Review of Books a year or two ago. Eagleton’s review is satisfying, if for nothing else, for how eloquently and vehemently he dismantles Dawkins’s arguments (the full review is here). Again, this is Dulles quoting Eagleton:

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge is The Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. . . . If card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins [were asked] to pass judgment on the geopolitics of South Africa, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.

Of course, the irony of this quote is that, just as reading Dawkins on theology gives you a rough idea of what it’s like to read a “biologist” who has only read The Book of British Birds, so reading some Christians holding court on atheism can give you a rough idea of what it is like to read Dawkins on theology. In other words, Christians critiquing atheism ought to read more than just The God Delusion. For an excellent example of a Christian who actually listens to atheists, read Merold Westphal’s article “When Not to Refute Atheism: Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud for Christian Reflection.”

But one of the most interesting bits of Dulles’s essay comes when he takes a look at some of the epistemological foundations of modern science.

The Thomist philosopher Etienne Gilson vigorously contended in his 1971 book From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again that Francis Bacon and others perpetrated a philosophical error when they eliminated two of Aristotle’s four causes from the purview of science. They sought to explain everything in mechanistic terms, referring only to material and efficient causes and discarding formal and final causality.

Without the form, or the formal cause, it would be impossible to account for the unity and specific identity of any substance. In the human composite the form is the spiritual soul, which makes the organism a single entity and gives it its human character. Once the form is lost, the material elements decompose, and the body ceases to be human. It would be futile, therefore, to try to define human beings in terms of their bodily components alone.

The ultimate result, Dulles argues, is that scientific knowledge illegitimately provides its own moral justification and, despite the patently good things it has given us, has “visited untold horrors on the world.”

The only odd part of the essay is when Dulles says that “Darwinism has not entirely triumphed, even in the scientific field. An important school of scientists supports a theory known as Intelligent Design.” While Dulles goes on to critique various elements of Intelligent Design, I don’t see how it has at all mitigated the triumph of Darwinism – especially in the scientific field. It has scored some legislative victories, but as far as I can see, in the scientific community it is made the butt of more jokes than it is intellectually engaged. On top of that, I’ve met very few Christian theologians who are even enthusiastic about it. Despite this, most critiques, it seems, typically make an overly-quick categorical judgment (“it’s not real science”), which is actually a categorical mistake. These kind of prima facie judgments only reveal the epistemological mistakes Dulles points out that Bacon and other Enlightenment thinkers made. So while maybe it shouldn’t be given such short shrift, it seems pretty clear to me that, at least among the elites, Darwinism remains regnant. The only way I can make sense of Dulles’s point is that Intelligent Design is influential insofar as it is popular.

The essay is excellent, and I just wanted to share some good parts, so if you’re inclined, read his whole essay. It’ll be well worth your time.

Incarnation or Accomodation?

In discussions about the church and culture, I often hear about how the church needs to be incarnational, meaning basically that the church should be present to the surrounding environment. Local churches should be involved and concerned with their community’s life and well-being. Christians should, as is reasonable and “biblical,” engage with the surrounding culture and even take on patterns and customs that enable them to authentically share and spread the gospel. To deny this would be to deny Christ’s incarnation. Jesus became human in order to reach humans. Since the church is the body of Christ, we should imitate Christ’s kenosis, his emptying of his divine glory to become human.

While I think this argument has a lot of merit and is right on several levels, it can be pretty easily misused, usually in the form of Christians “engaging” the wider culture or being “relevant” in the public arena. While I don’t think those are bad things in themselves, the way the questions are posed makes a lot of invalid assumptions about culture itself. For instance, it assumes culture is a static category that we can “engage” without first asking what our culture deems good or virtuous. Being “incarnational” can become an appeal to justify whatever ends we are taking to “reach” people for Christ. Another assumption is often that in order for the church to “engage” culture, it must cease to look like the church and act like the church. Are we in fact still being incarnational when our zeal to reach people for Christ becomes a naked appeal to, say, consumerism or patriotism?  When seeker churches shed every visible vestige of Christianity in order for people to feel comfortable in their services, are those churches appealing to some neutral public square? No, they’re appealing to a specific cultural arrangement that has intentionally left Christianity out of the picture. Why should we be ashamed of the church as its own cultural arrangement? However, seeker-friendly churches are kind of a baby-boomer idea and are not usually associated with “incarnational” language. Emergent churches have shed the “seeker-friendly” terminology, but I think they’re essentially doing the same thing but with more pop culture savvy. It’s like they’re extremely embarrassed of their parents’ lingo, but have dressed up their ideas to look presentable to their non-Christian peers. So all the while, they think up new ways of doing church in the name of becoming incarnational and end up accommodating themselves to a social arrangement that is self-consciously not Christian. I just don’t see how drifting further from a visually and concretely embodied tradition is beneficial to Christianity in the long run.

Are Theologians Saints? Are Saints Theologians?

balthasar“In the whole history of Catholic theology there is hardly anything that is less noticed, yet more deserving of notice, than the fact that, since the great period of Scholasticism, there have been few theologians who were saints. We mean here by ‘theologian’ one whose office and vocation is to expound revelation in its fullness, and therefore whose work centers on dogmatic theology. If we consider the history of theology up to the time of the great Scholastics, we are struck by the fact that the great saints, those who not only achieved an exemplary purity of life, but who also had received from God a definite mission in the Church, were, mostly, great theologians. They were ‘pillars of the Church,’ by vocation channels of her life: their own lives reproduced the fullness of the Church’s teaching, and their teaching the fullness of the Church’s life.”

-Hans Urs von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology. From here

Post at Nonnus

Blondel and the Determination of the Christian Supernatural

Blondel Preview

In a rash of hyperbole, Matt, who runs Nonnus, posted this picture to my first post on Blondel. Although I’ve never been called an “evangelical wunderkind” before, I have to admit that my ego gave a low, subliminal purr when I read it.

The Enemy of My Enemy Is My Friend; and, Holy Nepotism, Batman!

Warning! Two very biased but unrelated political rants ahead! If blowhards with their knee-jerk political reactions annoy you or if you find politics very boring, I advise you to simply skip this post. Caveat Lector!

1. General Musharraf has declared martial law in Pakistan. His opponents are being detained, dissenters arrested. The White House verbally condemns Musharraf’s junta but continues to financially support the Pakistani military in the name of a necessary “stability” until democracy can be reinstated. Plus we need their guns to fight terrorists in Afghanistan.

I understand the threat of terrorism to the United States, but we also have a pretty sorry history of arming hostile dictators in the name of U.S. foreign policy. We armed Pol Pot to the teeth (who went on to kill millions of Cambodians, his own countrymen and women) so he could help us fight the Viet Cong, and we armed Saddam Hussein (who gassed thousands of Kurds – also his own countrymen and women) so he could help us fight Iran (was it Iran? Jordan? I’m second-guessing myself now). I know it’s early to tell what Musharraf’s plans are, but for all our hawking of democracy abroad, we sure don’t seem to care as much about it as long as the people in power are pointing their semi-automatic rifles and missile launchers at our opponents (or themselves).

The second is a little less serious.

2. Does anyone think it odd that if Hillary Clinton were elected president that for at least six to seven terms – that’s twenty-four, maybe twenty-eight, years – we will have had only two families represented in the White House? Granted, they’re two very different families, personally and politically, but what does this say about our political process? How inundated with cronyism and nepotism must the capital be for this to happen?

Fulgentius on God’s Presence

fulgentius.jpg“Therefore, the one God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, fills up the whole, contains the whole; as the whole is in each thing, so the whole is in everything; as the whole is in small things, so the whole is in the largest creatures. This is true of nature but not of grace. When it creates human beings, it does not by the same act save them. While it makes them, it does not by the same act remake them. While it makes that sun to rise over the good and the evil, it does not do the same when the sun of justice rises on those on whom the light, not of the flesh but of the heart, is poured by the gift of prevenient mercy. As it belongs to all to be born through nature, it does not in the same way belong to all to be reborn through grace. Since the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit by nature are one God, eternal and infinite, there is nothing in heaven, nothing on earth, nothing above the heavens, nothing in any nature that he made that has not been made, where the same one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, could be missing. In God, just as there is no mutability of times, so there is no spatial capacity. As Solomon truly said at the dedication of the temple in these words: ‘Even heaven and the highest cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built.'”

-Fulgentius of Ruspe, Letter to Scarila 10.7

The Future Is Nonnus

I’ve gotten to know some fine fellows who run a website called nonnus.com. They have kindly invited me to contribute to their weblog (also now on the sidebar) at my whimsy. You can check out my first post, which is more of a prospectus for further posts, here. Be sure to read all their other posts, which are very good, while you’re there.