All posts by Nicene Guy

JC is a cradle Catholic, and somewhat of a traditionalist conservative. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 2014. He is currently a tenure-track assistant professor of physics at a university in the deep south. He is a lay member of the Order of Preachers. JC has been happily married since June of 2010. He and his lovely wife have had two children born into their family, one daughter and one son; they hope to have a few more. He has at times questioned – and more often still been questioned about – his Faith, but he has never wandered far from the Church, nor from our Lord. “To whom else would I go?”

Temptation and Lenten Penance

During the Lenten season, we seek to turn back from sin and to God. Each of the practices of Lent—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—helps us to do this. While Lent is not a season of merriment in the Church, it should nevertheless be a season of hope, and one of joy.

The Great White Fleet

Sin is a turning away from God. It is disobedience to His will for us, and it is the preference of something—anything!—else to God. Indeed, because God is not composed of parts [1], these three statements are in fact one and the same statement. In his Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis gives an analogy of a good life and a good society to the sailing of a fleet of ships. To reach the fleet’s destination, the ships must be well-sailed; they must be well-coordinated so as to not interfere with each other; and they must have a clear destination and route to reach that destination. Sin in this analogy takes on three forms—the individual ships may be badly handled; or the ships are collectively poorly coordinated, so that they stray apart (or crash together) regardless of handling; or they have the wrong destination in mind, so that they do not end where they ought [2].

These three conditions for a good fleet correspond to three conditions found in a good life and a good society:

  1. The well-run ship is akin to person’s own self-mastery.
  2. The well-coordinated fleet is like the harmony between members of a society.
  3. The proper destination for the fleet is an analog to both the individual’s and the society’s being “ordered” to the good.

The first condition means that each man has developed the virtues so that his intellect (captain) governs his will (bosun or boatswain [3]) which directs his passions (crew) and can overcome his desires or appetites (fears, obstacles). The second means locally that men will help each other to increase in virtue, that they will work together towards common (and sometimes individual) goals; and on a larger scale that laws will be just, that they will enable each person to do what is right and inhibit his ability to do what is wrong. The third condition is the defining principle or “final cause” of a good society and a good life. It means that both man and society must seek (and be guided by) the highest good, which ultimately means to discern and pursue God’s will for each individual and for society as a whole.

In his Commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, St. Thomas Aquinas describes three sources of temptation. These are the flesh, the world, and the devil. While these three temptations a can strike at any level, they correlate most directly to each of the three conditions of the good life and the good society:

  1. Temptations of the flesh strike at us directly attempting to ensnare us through the will, or indeed through the passions or the appetites. Saint Thomas Aquinas says that the flesh tempts us by seeking “its own pleasures, namely, carnal pleasures, in which often is sin. He who indulges in carnal pleasures neglects spiritual things.” These temptations put us in internal discord. Several of the deadly sins strike us here—in particular, lust and gluttony, and to some extent sloth.
  2. Worldly temptations are temptations towards a good which may not be ours to possess. According to St. Thomas, the word tempts us with “excessive and intemperate desire for the goods of this life,” and also with “the fears engendered by persecutors and tyrants.” These temptations put us at odds with our neighbors, with society as a whole, and even with the Church as a community. The deadly sins of avarice and envy are principally provoked by temptations of the world, and wrath may be our response to our neighbors when so tempted.
  3. The devil is the subtlest tempter, as St. Thomas notes.
    “The devil proceeds most cunningly in tempting us. He operates like a skillful general when about to attack a fortified city. He looks for the weak places in the object of his assault, and in that part where a man is most weak, he tempts him. He tempts man in those sins to which, after subduing his flesh, he is most inclined… he does not at once appear to suggest something that appears to us as evil, but something that has the semblance of good. Thereby he would, at least in the beginning, turn a man from his chief purpose, and then afterwards it would be easier to induce him to sin, once he has been turned away ever so little.”
    These temptations lead most directly to discord with God and his Church as Magister. The principal deadly sins which are associated with these temptations are pride and wrath, and to a lesser extent acedia.

Three more things should be said here regarding these three types of temptations. The first is, all three can tempt us to do evil or to avoid good. Both are forms of sin, which is why our confession asks for forgiveness both for what we have done, and what we have failed to do. The second is that all three temptations can work together [4]. The third is that any of the deadly sins may strike through any of these temptations or combination of temptations, even if some temptations lend themselves more closely to certain deadly sins.

Three Lenten practices

Just as there are three sources of temptation—the flesh, the world, and the devil—so there are three Lenten practices which combat these temptations. These are the aforementioned practices of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Each of these practices helps us to better resist temptation in general, but we can also see that each one is especially good at strengthening us against a particular type of temptation:

  1. Fasting helps us to gain mastery over our desires, and fights temptations of the flesh. Note that fasting here need not mean only “eating little” or even “eating less,” though this is the literal translation. It can mean giving up any thing which gives us pleasure, be it eating chocolate or spending time on facebook or reading dime comics and penny dreadfuls, etc. This is the reason behind the tradition of “giving something up for Lent.” This is also why giving up something innocuous is still beneficial to us.
  2. Almsgiving helps to order ourselves as members of a good society and fight temptations of the world. By freely giving away from what we have, we learn detachment from our worldly belongings, and are reminded that all we have—time, talent, treasure—are so many gifts from God. We become less covetous of that which we will give away.
  3. Prayer helps us to discern the will of God for us, and it also helps to fight temptations of the devil. In prayer we turn back to God, we praise Him for his goodness, we thank Him for His blessings, we ask Him for His grace, and we request His guidance in our lives. Indeed, we pray that He will “lead us not into temptation,” which is different from asking that we will not be tempted. We are here asking that God will not withdraw His graces from us, because it is when He does this that we are most apt to actually consent to the temptation rather than resisting it.

I think that there are two things which are left to be said in this brief essay. The first is that we should, when undertaking penances, bear in mind the difference between self-discipline and self-punishment; between mortification and torture. The second is related to this, which is that we should therefore approach the Lenten practices and penances with some sense of Joy. Venerable Fulton J. Sheen writes in his reflection on the Seven Last Words that

The Christian fasts not for the sake of the body, but for the sake of the soul… The Christian does not fast because he believes the body is wicked, but in order to make it pliable in the hands of the soul, like a tool in the hands of a skilled workman….

We are to mortify bodily hunger and thirst, not because the flesh is wicked, but because the soul must ever exercise mastery over it, lest it become a tyrant…. When such surrenders of the superfluous food and drink are made for the soul’s sake, let it all be done in a spirit of joy. ‘And when you fast, be not as the hypocrites, sad. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face; that though appear not to men to fast, by to thy Father who is in secret; and thy Father who seeth in secret, will repay thee” [Matthew 6:16-18].

We are, in addition, to cultivate a spiritual hunger and thirst. Mortification of the bodily appetites is only a means, not an end. The end is union with God, the soul’s desire.

Far from being a gloomy rejection of our pleasures, the penances of Lent are a joyful movement towards God. Part of this is becoming masters of ourselves, including of our bodies, and another part is in becoming a good society. We are undergoing a sort of spiritual growth, and with this comes some growth pains. We will expect some struggles in this, and it takes discipline. We will fail, perhaps often: but we will also draw ever nearer to our heavenly home, which is cause for joy.

As for our failures, our sins: they may be many, they may be grievous, but God’s mercy is more abundant. As John Henry Cardinal Newman notes in his Meditations and Devotions,

“Lord, our sins are more in number than the hairs of our head; yet even the hairs of our head are all numbered by you. You count our sins, and, as You count, so can You forgive; for that reckoning…comes to an end; but Your mercies fail not, and Your Son’s merits are infinite.”



[0] Featured image is a photo of Ein Gedi, Israel, by Rob Bye, posted on Unsplash. I have cropped it slightly.

[1] That God is absolutely simple—and thus not composed of parts—is a doctrine of classical philosophy which has been adopted and expanded upon by the Church (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 43). The Fourth Lateran Council’s Confession of Faith begins, “We firmly believe and simply confess that there is only one true God, eternal and immeasurable, almighty, unchangeable, incomprehensible and ineffable, Father, Son and holy Spirit, three persons but one absolutely simple essence, substance or nature.”

[2] To this might be added another situation, that they know where they want to go but do not know where they are. Discernment means learning not only the desired final state or outcome, but the “initial conditions,” and indeed the correct path to get from the latter to the former.

[3] I suppose to extend the analogy further, when the individual goes bad, the will becomes like the quartermaster of a pirate ship, complete with veto power of the captain (intellect) on behalf of the crew (passions etc.)

[4] In his science fiction short story, “The Feeders,” Michael Flynn has this brief dialogue between two characters (Heinrich, the main character, and his former seminarian comrade, Georg) on temptation:

“What are they,” he [Heinrich] whispered.
“What are what?”
He had not realized he had spoken aloud. “The three sources of sin,” he said, casting the first random thought into his mouth.
“Oh.” They walked a few paces further. “The world is one,” Georg said. “It provides opportunity. A pretty girl. An unwatched billfold. A careless enemy. Then, the flesh provides weakness. We call that Original Sin. It makes us prey to the temptations of the world. Then, finally: the Devil.”
“And what does the Devil do?”
“Why, as we stand there weakening before temptation, the little pumper-nickle creeps up behind us and gives us a push.”

If this is a sightly different synthesis of the three sources of temptation from what is offered above (and by St. Thomas in his Commentary on the Lord’s Prayer), it is one which compliments rather than contradicts what has been said above.

Aging and Mortality

Can we reverse aging so that the really old are young again? Image source.

A somewhat recent article in Scientific America caught my eye: this one is about aging, or rather it is about reversing the effects of aging. This particular article describes research conducted at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in which the genes which control aging are tweaked to change older cells into a more embryonic-like state. This process reversed some of the effects of aging and also resulted in a longer lifespan for the mice on which this experiment was conducted.

By tweaking genes that turn adult cells back into embryoniclike ones, researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies reversed the aging of mouse and human cells in vitro, extended the life of a mouse with an accelerated-aging condition and successfully promoted recovery from an injury in a middle-aged mouse, according to a study published Thursday [December 15, 2016] in Cell.

Time in a bottle. Image source.

Nor is this the only research into reversing the aging process. A group at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute of the Harvard Medical School has reported that they reversed aging in a group of “severely aged” mice via a process of controlling telormere-shortening. Other groups have investigated the results of blood transfusions from young mice to old mice. Still others have been investigating the effects of NAD and Reservatrol on the aging processes driven by cells’ mitochondria. More still are examining the effects of diet and even of existing drugs.

While these studies have predominantly been conducted on live mice or on cell samples, the results of this research have been promising. In some cases, lifespans have been increased, in others muscles and various organs have been able to function as if younger. Much of this research is aimed at curing or staving off “old-age” ailments ranging from arthritis to dementia to strokes—and to that end we would all be better for these cures.

Belmonte, like some other anti-aging researchers, says his initial goal is to increase the “health span”—the number of years that someone remains healthy. Extending life span, the number of years someone remains alive, will likely take longer to achieve. Most major killers, including heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s, are diseases of aging that become far more common past middle age. “This is not just a matter of how many years we can live but how well we can live the rest of our life,” Ocampo says.

However, it is also clear that some of the optimism behind this research as conveyed by these various popular science and news organs is that we may find a sort of fountain of youth, a way to stave off aging (and perhaps age-related death). As Karen Weintraub writes in Scientific America,

The new study suggests the possibility of reversing at least some of these changes, a process researchers think they may eventually get to work in living humans. “Aging is something plastic that we can manipulate,” says Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, the study’s senior author and an expert in gene expression at Salk….

Some compounds such as resveratrol, a substance found in red wine that seems to have anti-aging properties in high concentrations, appear to delay epigenetic change and protect against damage from epigenetic deterioration, Sinclair says. These approaches can reverse some aspects of aging, such as muscle degeneration—but aging returns when the treatment stops, he adds. With an approach like the one Belmonte lays out in the new study, theoretically “you could have one treatment and go back 10 or 20 years,” he says. If aging starts to catch up to you again, you simply get another treatment.

This research seems to be in its nascent stages: perhaps it will deliver a means of reversing (or slowing) the aging process, or at the least its effect; and again, perhaps not. To the extent that this research really does enhance our quality of life by seeking to cure certain illnesses like muscle degeneration or dementia, it may be commended and its results celebrated (if successful). However, there are hints that this is not the final goal of the research. Certainly, extending our “health span” is a worthy goal, and so to some extent is extending a lifespan. But to do so indefinitely?

The pursuit of a fountain of youth and of life everlasting in this world can end in nothing save tragedy. We are meant to live forever, it is true: but not bound to this fallen world, nor any other of our own creation or design. This present world is but a shadow of the one we’re ultimately meant to call home, and it is a “vale of tears.”

We need look no further than, for example, the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien to see this illustrated [1]. The fact that men are meant to die and to part from this life for the true everlasting life is a theme in both his Lord of the Rings series and his Silmarillion. Consider, for example, that one effect of the Ring of Power is that it extends the life of its bearer unnaturally: Bilbo lived to a great old age but felt “stretched” and “thin,” while Gollum slowly lost his very self, both visibly and mentally. Or consider the story in the Silmarillion of the fall of the Númenoreans:

Image source

The Númenoreans began to yearn for the undying city that they saw from afar, and the desire of everlasting life, to escape from death and the ending of delight, grew strong upon them; and ever as their power and glory grew greater their unquiet increased. For though the Valar had rewarded the Dúnedain with long life, they could not take away from them the weariness of the world that comes at last, and they died, even their kings of the seed of Earendil; and the span of their lives was brief in the eyes of the Eldar. Thus it was that a shadow fell upon them: in which maybe the will of Morgoth was at work that still moved in the world. And the Númenoreans began to murmur, at first in their heart and then in open words, against the doom of Men, and most of all against the Ban which forbade them to sail into the West….

Manwë was grieved, seeing a cloud gather on the noon-tide of Númenor. And he sent messengers to the Dúnedain, who spoke earnestly to the King, and to all who would listen concerning the fate and fashion of the world [2]….

Atanamir was ill pleased with the counsel of the Messengers and gave little heed to it, and the greater part of his people followed him; for they wished still to escape death in their own day, not waiting upon hope. And Atanamir lived to a great age, clinging to his life beyond the end of all joy; and he was the first of the Númenoreans to do this, refusing to depart until he was witless and unmanned, and denying to his son the kingship at the height of his days. For the Lords of Númenor had been wont to wed late in their long lives and to depart and leave the mastery to their sons when these were come to full stature of body and mind….

Thus it came to as in time that the Númenoreans first made great settlements upon the west shores of the ancient lands; for their own land seemed to them shrunken, and they had no rest or content therein, and they desired now wealth and dominion in Middle-earth, since the West was denied. (From the Tale of Akallabêth, in The Silmarilion)

The rejection of death ultimately proves to be the undoing of the Númenoreans: the Island of Númenor is that world’s Atlantis, and its sinking brings an end to the Second Age. Long before this happens, the greater part of the men of Númenor have lost hope for the next life, and in their despair they lost even what little bliss is afforded in this one. Their “wise men” abandoned true wisdom in search for a means of reversing death: “Yet they achieved only the art of preserving incorrupt the dead flesh of men, and they filled all the land with silent tombs in which the thought of death was enshrined in the darkness.”

This obsession with death and with forestalling it leads these people to cease really living well, as they turn from lives of virtue and daring to lives of “revelry” and pursuing riches and pleasures. They also cease in their offering worship to Eru (God), and turn instead to gaining dominion over all other men.

Real repentance and atonement for this is not made by Númenoreans, and their island is lost. Their descendants on the “mainland” include those who remain loyal to the elves and angels, who are led by Elendil and his sons, whom together found the realms of Arnor and Gondor. Yet even these don’t really repent of the sins of the Númenoreans whole-heartedly: this is evidenced by Elendil’s son and heir Isildur’s refusal to destroy the Ring of Power when he has it in his grasp, preferring to keep it and to use its power for himself. Indeed, it is a distant descendant of Isildur, Aragorn, who finally is show to really repent of this way of life. He does this throughout the Lord of the Rings series by braving the passes of the dead, by refusing to take the Ring when it was in his power to do so, and ultimately by laying down his life before becoming “witless and unmanned.”

In our own world, the methods are different but the aims are much similar. In Tolkien’s imagined world it is magic which is meant to conquer death, whereas in ours it is technology [3]. But the goal remains the same, namely to forestall again and to conquer death. I would venture to add here that some of the “side-effects” of this are the same. It is certainly true that we do, on average, live longer now than in ages past, at least in the wealthy and “modernized” nations of the world. But do we live better than our forefathers?

I do not mean by that question, are we physically healthier and more free from pain or illness. Can we be said to be happier people, or more joyful? Are we more virtuous, more faithful, more grateful for our blessings, and do we make more of ourselves and what lives we are given than our ancestors? I contend that on the whole, the answer is “no.” Indeed, in some ways we appear to make less of ourselves than they did, while at the same time being given greater opportunities than they had. I do not think anyone now living would need to look especially far to find examples to support my claims. We may look from drug addiction and the overburdened prison system, to the young mother ushered to the nearest abortuary; or from the late twenty-somethings who have not the appearance nor the reality of maturing into adulthood, to the simple despondency of many people who are not “making it” in the world.

To all of this, I can but recall the wisdom once taught to every Catholic school child, and now forgotten or even outright discarded:

7. Q: Of Which must we take more care, our soul or our body?

A: We must take more care of our soul than our body.

8. Q: Why must we take more care of our soul than of our body?

A: We must take more care of our soul than of our body, because in losing our soul we lose God and everlasting happiness.

9. Q: What must we do to save our souls?

A: To save our souls we must worship God by faith, hope, and charity; that is, we must believe in Him, hope in Him, and love Him with all our heart.


[1] Fiction in general and fairy tales in particular do more than just stimulate our imaginations and entertain us. They can show to us the world as it really is, in the sense that by changing the setting, a good story allows us to gain insights which we might overlook in “real life.”As Miss Jean Elizabeth Seah has written in the conclusion to one of her columns on this site,

Far from useless trifles or evil explorations, fairytales are necessary in training a child to love the true, the good and the beautiful. They open our eyes to see with a sacramental vision, beholding with wonder the magic and mystery in God’s creation, which should not be reduced to mere scientific facts or cast aside with Puritan coldness. The way of faery is the way of virtue, learning how to love ourselves and others as co-pilgrims on the rocky road to the Heavenly City, where we may one day meet the Prince of peace and be welcomed as co-heirs to His Father’s kingdom.

Tolkien, for his part, excelled at this.

[2] The gist of the message sent by Manwë is that death was a gift bestowed on man by Ilúvatar, that is, by God. The Valar (angels dwelling in the world) could not undo this gift, nor did they fully understand it: but it must be accepted by man as a gift, and thus dying well and with hope in one’s heart for the next life is the proper attitude towards death:

You and your people are not of the Firstborn, but are mortal Men as Ilúvatar made you. Yet it seems that you desire now to have the good of both kindreds, to sail to Valinor when you will, and to return when you please to your homes. That cannot be. Nor can the Valar take away the gift of Ilúvatar. The Eldar, you say, are unpunished, and even those who rebelled do not die. Yet that it to them neither reward nor punishment, but the fulfillment of their being. They cannot escape, and are bound to this world, never to leave it so long as it lasts, for its life is theirs. And you are punished for the rebellion of Men, you say, in which you had small part, and so it is that you die. But that was not at first appointed for a punishment. Thus you escape, and leave the world, and are not bound to it, in hope or in weariness. Which of us therefore should envy the other?’

And the Númenoreans answered: ‘Why should we not envy the Valar, or even the least of the Deathless? For of us is required a blind trust, and a hope without assurance. knowing not what lies before us in a little while. And yet we also love the earth and would not lose it.’

Then the Messengers said, ‘Indeed the mind of Ilúvatar concerning you is not known the the Valar, and he has not revealed all things that are to come. But this we hold to be true, that your home is not here, neither in the Land of Aman nor anywhere within the Circles of the World. And the doom of Men, that they should depart, was at first a gift of Ilúvatar. It became a grief to them only because coming under the shadow of Morgoth it seemed to them that they were surrounded by a great darkness, of which they were afraid; and some became willful and proud and would not yield, until life was reft from them. We who bear the ever-mounting burden of the years do not clearly understand this; but if that grief has returned to trouble you, as you say, then we fear that the Shadow arises once more and grows in your hearts. Therefore, though you be Dúnedain, fairest of Men, who escaped from the Shadow of old and fought against it, we say to you: Beware! The will of Eru may not be gainsaid; and the Valar bid you earnestly not to withhold the trust to which you are called, lest soon it become again a bond by which you are constrained. Hope rather that in the end even the least of your desires shall have fruit. The love of Arda was set in your hearts by Ilúvatar, and he does not plant to no purpose Nonetheless, many ages of Men unborn may pass ere that purpose is made known; and to you it will be revealed and not to the Valar.’

[3] I am here making a deliberate division between science and technology. Science is ultimately about searching for knowledge, specifically (when we refer to modern science) it is searching for knowledge about nature. Technology is one possible application of science: the tools and techniques we use to work with or even to control nature.

Life After an Election

“Put not your trust in princes,” we are warned (Psalm 146:3). During the last eight years, excepting possibly during the midterm elections, most faithful Catholics have heeded this warning. Let us not forsake it based solely on the fact that the lesser evil won this round of elections.

pinestrawThe US elections are over, though I would say that the fallout from them has only just begun to settle. The election fatigue set in long ago for some of us, perhaps even before the primaries were ended. We were given a choice between a cad (or at least a man who plays one on TV) and a crook (albeit one who never quite seems to be indicted), and have elected the former.[1] If he may be said to be the lesser of two evils, then we must remember that the lesser evil is still an evil.

We Christians—fundamentalists, evangelicals, Baptists, Catholics, “conservative” Christians of all stripes—collectively elected Donald J. Trump to be the next president.[2] We now have the duty to do what we can to facilitate the implementation of his good policies and to mitigate his bad ones.

However, I see that neither I nor (presumably) my readership are in particular positions of power or influence: we can’t have much in the way of direct effect on any of this. We might finally dare to believe that federal government’s culture-shaping and moral-corrupting edicts will cease or at least relent for a time, that we may be at the very least left alone. Whether we will, in fact, have a respite from the outgoing administration’s attempts at social engineering is speculation at this point. The media is temporarily cowed, but it is not thoroughly repentant; and social media will probably persist in its propaganda campaigns, thereby further polarizing the nation. Indeed, I suspect that both will return to their natural states with a vengeance long before the presidential inauguration (witness, for one, the many bitter recriminations broadcast by both in the immediate wake of election night).

man-matures-problems-politicsWe must remember that all politics are local, which is I suppose a sort of outline of the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. We cannot determine the actions of this or any other president—but we can determine our own, at least in part. In another election-related column, Mr. Ryan Kraeger offered a few ideas about how we ourselves can work to make the world a better place, to some extent regardless of the outcome of the elections [3]:

I think politics, especially National politics, is really a distractor for a lot of people. We get all wrapped around the axle and bent out of shape over these huge things that really don’t concern us. Worse, the fact of getting engrossed in them distracts us from the good we should be doing.

The government does not adequately take care of the poor in America. So? How does that prevent me from taking care of them?

The president has not solved homelessness and poverty. Does that prevent me from donating to my local homeless shelter, or volunteering my time, talent and treasure?

Abortion is legal in America. This is a tragedy, but it is not the greatest tragedy. The root of that tragedy is selfishness. It is selfishness that makes it so that babies are unwanted, that mothers feel like they have no other option, and that some so-called doctors do not care about human life. I can do foster care, or adopt, or sponsor an unwed mother, or engage in conversation with my fellow medical care providers. The government does not and cannot prevent me from doing so.

The president has not provided free healthcare for everyone. So? Why can’t I provide free healthcare, or reduced cost healthcare for patients who can’t afford it (once I get my PA certification, that is?)

The president has not stopped pollution, or saved the planet. So what? How does that prevent me from living simply, reducing my own trash and exercising stewardship of the environment?

Of course, the outcome of the elections may decide whether our virtuous actions are punishable by law. Elections do have consequences, and so for example we have spent time, energy, and even political and social capital battling over whether Catholics should be forced to pay for others’ contraceptives or abortions, and whether or not our young daughters should have to share the public locker room or bathroom with adult men. In both cases, we are fighting the good fight, but again, I can’t help but think: what a waste. To pick one more example which is keeping more in line with Mr. Kraeger’s suggestions—it becomes difficult to choose to feed the poor when doing so is punishable by law on account of not having taken the proper bureaucratic steps in obtaining a food handler’s license, a license to operate a food truck, and the right to peddle wares (even for free) on any public street corner. These are not fights we should even have to be considering; they should be non-issues, but our government has decided to make them issues. Nor can we back down here.

cs-lewis-error-in-pairsNevertheless, making the world—or our own country—better all begins with making our own small corner of the world better, perhaps only our own household. If Hillary Clinton is the epitome of what is wrong with our politics, and Donald Trump is the summation of what is wrong with our culture, we have to remember that neither is formed in a vacuum. Our society is put together from the building blocks of our own families, and these we can and do have some influence upon.

We can look at president-elect Donald Trump’s words and behavior in public and be aghast at his lack of modesty or decorum. Do we stop to ask whether we comport ourselves with modesty or decorum at all times in public? This goes for how we speak, how we act, even how we dress.[3] We may be rightly aghast at the possibility that our president elect is a racist or a bigot—I think that these charges are overblown to some extent, and that the media certainly has done its best to paint him in the worst light possible, but not all of the charges can be easily dismissed as merely more media manipulation.[4] It is certainly easier to be outraged at this prospect than to examine our own behavior in public and online: are we kind to others, do we give them the benefit of the doubt (every so often, let alone always)? Do we allow for the possibility that a disagreement may be honest and purely motivated [5], or do we assume that there is some malice afoot, that it is rooted in racism or bigotry or even simple selfishness?

We should remember above all that our political and cultural and even religious adversaries are still human, too. They should be treated with some level of respect and dignity, and above all with charity. Anything less and we are undermining whatever short-term progress we may make.


[1] There are in addition some also-rans, some of whom may even have been better choices… but none of them were going to actually win this election. Still, a vote for the third party/write-ins is not a wasted vote: had they received a more substantial share of the popular vote, it might even have signaled dissatisfaction with the two major candidates.

[2] I say this recognizing that not all of the members of any of these voted. Full disclosure: while I suspect that Trump is the lesser evil, and that much of his TV persona is a large act, I still wrote in my vote.

[3] Though this latter point is not something with which I can generally fault Mr. Trump, or any other prominent politician. At worst, we can complain about how lavishly they dress in buying very expensive clothing, or getting expensive haircuts, etc. For my part, I have never complained about this because even buying expensive clothes is helping to keep someone somewhere employed.

[4] The Left in general and the media in particular are always quick to blame any disagreement on either a mental defect or some form of bigotry (or both). Hence, the narrative is that Trump won because of stupid, poor, angry white men. I didn’t know there were so many more stupid poor angry white men than all other demographics in America. Apparently neither did Mr. Trump’s electorate.

[5] Confession: I sometimes have to work on this too. Admonishment: so, dear reader, do you.

Book Review: Particles of Faith

Particles of Faith, by Stacy Trasancos, is a must-read for Catholics (and others of good faith) who are weary of the vitriol in the faith-science dialogue. What follows is my review of this book. Disclaimer: I have received no compensation for the following review, save only for an advance copy of the book.

Yes, scientism is one of the 13 “isms” discussed in this book too.

As in all times, there are a variety of ideologies which oppose themselves to Christ and His Church. It is perhaps easy to blame this on the various “bad Christians” who exist, though we are all to some extent bad Christians. Nor is the admonition that to follow Him, we must each take up our cross daily an especially convenient, easy, or enjoyable task to pursue. Whatever the human cause or causes, the ideologies which and ideologues who place themselves against the Church, her teachings, and her Head are legion.

Many of these are more or less casual ideologies, though widely followed. I am thinking especially of hedonism, utilitarianism, and post-modernism. Some people may believe in these philosophies of life, or may even use them to convince themselves to stay away from religion in general and Christian religion in particular. However, these are philosophies often embraced after a decision against religion has already been made. Other ideologies may be embraced by a smaller and more fanatical cross-section of society to convince their ideologues to stay away from the Church. Some examples include feminism [1], Marxism and communism [2], or environmentalism [3].

Scientism caricatured. Image source.

There is at least one ideology [4] which in our present time has both the broad appeal and the seemingly solid intellectual claims to undermine the faith of many a believer. This ideology is in many ways the successor to rationalism, and even to modernism: it is scientism, the belief that all knowledge must be scientifically derived or scientifically verifiable. While this assertion alone seldom undermines the faith of the average Catholic, it comes with a variety of smaller claims which are more insidious. One such claim is that there is a conflict between science and religion, in particular that the Church undermines or even outright prevents scientific progress from taking place. Another such claim is that as science progresses, the realm to which belief–in God or in miracles or in the supernatural—is relegated must steadily shrink until it vanishes. Scientism underlies the question, “How can you reconcile being a religious believer with being a rational scientist?” It is in this assumption that a conflict between science and Christianity lies. Scientism asks, perhaps cynically: How do you reconcile faith with reason, belief with data, myth with facts [5]?

We are called to give an accounting of the hope which lives within us, and a part of that accounting is to address the questions and to meet challenges posed by scientism. This is especially true in our present milieu, where scientism is particularly pervasive. In discussing these questions, Dr. Stacy Trasancos poses a separate set of questions to those of us who are Catholics:

What is the first thing you would say if someone asked you about the relationship between faith and science?

Would your first reaction be to point out that faithful people can also be people who love science? To assert that many Catholics were scientists as evidence that even Catholics can do science? To point to this or that conclusion in science as evidence that science supports faith?

This is largely the gamut of common Catholic (or broadly orthodox Christian) responses [6]. Dr. Trasancos questions each of these reactions in turn:

If so, stop and examine those reactions. Why does a person of faith need to his or her ability to love science or to be reasonable? Why single out that Catholics can be scientists? Of course we can be reasonable, and of course we can be scientists! Why point to any particular scientific conclusion as if it could prove the existence of God? We hold religious truths in faith and certainty because they are revealed by God, not because scientists give them the nod.

Nicene-CreedThis last point is one of the key themes of Dr. Trasancos’ book: that our religious beliefs cannot be undermined (or proved) by scientific discoveries because it is by revelation that we know them and faith we hold them. This is to say that no human endeavor, whether scientific discovery or reasoned inquiry, can ultimately disprove or prove that special knowledge revealed to us in faith by God about Himself, ourselves, and the relationship between us and Him. In his essay Our Awesome Creed: The Faith Is No Excuse for Bigotry, the philosopher Charles de Koninck states:

“If we truly appreciated the mysteriousness of the truths that faith enables us to accept, and how inscrutable is this power to accept them, we could never show anything but understanding towards those who cannot join us, a humble gratitude for the light in which they do not share and which we ourselves have in no way deserved….

“The things which we Christians embrace by divine faith, and which are not to be received except by that faith, are humanly incredible. They are incredible for two reasons, two reasons paradoxically opposed: first, because they are so far above us, because they make it so plain that God is remote, infinite, and mysterious beyond all imagining; second, because they bring that inaccessible Begin so close, involve the two of us in each other, show us how much we mean to Him who is above all, how each of us is the preoccupation of Wisdom Itself, as if God has no other one to care for.” [7]

Reason can help to flesh out the meaning of revelation. Reason can help us make sense of a given dogma and can shed light on revealed mystery, but unaided reason will seldom reach so high as the mysteries of our Faith. Dogmas are conclusions, but they are not the end of thinking. Rather, as Chesterton has noted, they are like firm foundations on which we can build with the materials provided by reason, scientific discovery, or rational discourse (etc.).

Dogmas give us the truth, and then science gives us some of the facts which can surround that truth or help us to make sense of it. Faith gives us the words, and reason helps us to understand their meanings.

Similar imagery is used in the book itself at one point. Image source.

There are in this book three other themes of importance, and all are related to this first theme. The first of these three is that science and the truths we hold by faith are never at war with each other, but that science and the Catholic religion can be (and should be) in dialogue: conversation, not conflict, is the state which should exist between science and the Faith. The second is that while science can enlighten the Faith, the Faith ultimately also sheds light on science. The third is that if a scientific discovery causes a person to question his faith, then he may be looking at it in the wrong way, and conversely, if a person’s faith is preventing him from accepting as valid a new scientific discovery, then it is likely that he misunderstand what the Faith teaches or what the discovery means. Likewise (and tying back into the first theme), if science if being used to attack the Faith, then either the Faith is being misconstrued or the science is being misrepresented, or both. In Dr. Trasancos’ own words, “Faith and science are to different manifestations of the same reality. When they seem to have conflicting conclusions, it is because our knowledge is not complete.”

This last statement is a sort of crux for understanding (and navigating) any hypothetical or imagined conflict between science and the Catholic Faith. Indeed, it is the key to understanding and resolving many hypothetical or imagined conflicts between dogmas which we hold by faith and conclusions which we reach via reason. The Thomistic philosopher Dr. Edward Feser suggests this in his discussion of the dogma of the Holy Trinity, which is a long (for a book review or book discussion) but helpful exercise in understanding how to navigate supposed conflicts between faith and reason. He notes that:

“Something could be unintelligible in itself, or unintelligible only for us. What is unintelligible in the first sense has no coherent content; what is unintelligible in the second sense has a coherent content, but one which, given our limited cognitive limitations, we are incapable of grasping. Trinitarianism [or any other dogmatic ‘mystery’] would be falsifiable only if it were shown to be unintelligible in the first sense, but not if it is unintelligible only in the second. Indeed, that it is ‘unintelligible’ in the second sense is exactly what Trinitarian theologians mean when they say that the doctrine of the Trinity is a ‘mystery.’ They do NOT mean that it contains a self-contradiction, or that it is unintelligible in itself, or even that we cannot have any understanding of it at all. They mean instead that the limitations of our minds are such that, though [the mystery] is perfectly consistent and intelligible in itself, we cannot adequately grasp it.”

limits-of-a-limitless-scienceIndeed, as the late Fr. Stanley L. Jaki points out, science itself has a fundamental limit in it knowledge. Physics is generally acknowledged as the most fundamental of the sciences, with the other hard building on its (and each other’s) principles and discoveries. Physics, in turn, is a very mathematical science, so much so that math may be said to be the language of physics; and the principles of physics can generally be expressed as equations, often very simple (in appearance, at least) ones of the sort that may be easily printed on a t-shirt or coffee mug.

This is perhaps the greatest strength of physics, that it can make the natural world a more knowable place (at least with practice—these equations can be very difficult to master in practice). But it sets a limit to physics in particular, which extends ultimately to the other sciences in general: these govern only the realm of the quantitative. And, being a quantitative,”emperiometric” [8] science, physics is ultimately limited in s second way—it can never have a complete theory of all things, even all quantitative things, which can be proven to the the complete theory of all things [9]. This is a consequence of Godel’s incompleteness theorems, which are a sort of proof that no non-trivial system can contain he proof of its own correctness.

What, then, should we do when the conclusions of Faith and the findings of science are in apparent contradiction? Dr. Trasancos gives us a way to navigate would-be conflicts between the Faith and science. She does this in three steps:

1. Find out what the Church teaches. (pp. 48-52)
2. Begin to learn the science. (pp. 52-55)
3. Sort out the “system of wills.” (pp. 55-60)

All three steps are important, and if the first two seem self-explanatory, the third needs a bit of explanation. In short—for this is already a very long book review—the system of wills refers to the fact that there is a hierarchy to nature. The supreme authority is God, Who holds all things in existence and who wills the laws of nature into being. But between God and these (rather deterministic) laws, there is a whole hierarchy of wills, from angel to human to animal, which are largely free to act and thus to affect the course of nature.

A scientist, when formulating his theories or studying nature via experiment, will attempt to work within an isolated (and controllable) system as best he can. Indeed, he will often attempt to isolate merely physical effects from the system, for ease of calculation and prediction (consider that free-fall motion is much easier to analyze than motion with fluid resistance, for example). Such an isolated system must discount, among other things, the presence and action of the will, both his and others’. Yet, the very act of conducting an experience is itself an act of free will, for which neither physics nor any other emperiological science can account.

“There is no mathematical accounting for free will in the isolated systems of chemistry and physics…The isolation of physical systems needs to be appreciated in the faith and science dialogue. For physical scientists trained to think this acutely, this mechanical mindset is hard to escape. Remember this when you consider the theories of scientists. They speak in terms of isolated physical systems….

God created physical matter, and God created free agents, so together these form the whole systematic universe. The laws of physics may cover the whole of time and space, but as [C.S.] Lewis puts it, ‘what they leave out is precisely the whole real universe—the incessant torrent of actual events which make up true history.’

…What is a miracle then? St. Thomas calls a miracle something God does outside the order of nature ‘which we know.’ To us, it may seem like breaking laws of physics, but miracles do not break the supreme law. In addition, if God wills to move particles, it cannot be modeled or predicted with human calculation, which is why physics cannot study miracles.”

Because this is limited, we therefore conclude that ontology is null and void. Image source.

While not precisely a theme of the book, this process of sorting through potential faith-science conflicts reappears throughout later chapters. It is also reminiscent of the physicist and self-trained Thomistic philosopher Anthony Rizzi’s observation concerning quantum mechanics and some of its interpretations and their implications. In his book The Science Before Science, Dr. Rizzi writes,

“The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics says that objects have no properties of themselves, but claims that properties exist only in conjunction with measuring devices and not until measured (observed). One may now quickly realize this as another example of taking an emperiometric theory as giving the real directly [e.g. it is an example of taking an isolated system—albeit a big one—and calling that system the whole of reality]. In particular, one notes the implicit belief that measurements, which are readings taken from a sensor and processed to appear as digits on a computer screen (which are, in turn, interpreted by an interconnected web of emperiometric theory) are the arbiter of what is real. Stanley Jaki has been in the forefront in trying to rally physicists and others to see that the inability to make exact measurements does not equate to the inability for something to exist in a definite state or change in a definite way….

You may note that Bell’s theorem is parallel to Godel’s theorem in the following way. If one thinks al he knows are his ideas, not things (by ideas), he can via Godel’s theorem come to doubt all truth. Similarly, if one thinks all he knows is the emperiometric (and thereby forgets the basis for the emperiometric), he ca, via Bell’s theorem, doubt being itself, and hence the whole arena of things which he proposes to study.”

Particles of Faith is organized in three parts. The first part sets up these themes, interspersed with autobiographical anecdotes. It ends with this three-step process to navigating questions of potential conflict between faith and science. The second and third parts are to apply the principles and develop the themes established in the first part. Thus, Part II is about the relationship between the Faith and the physical sciences, and Part III is about the relationship between the Faith and the biological sciences.

In Part II, Dr. Trasancos discusses the doctrine of creation in time ex nihilo in the light of the Big Bang—and also the Big Bang in the light of the doctrine of creation. She then considers the atomic realm of matter—and the sub-atomic realm (quarks and electrons, photons, etc.). Throughout all of this, she considers the wonderful order and symmetry which underlies nature, in the light of the Scriptural verse that God has “ordered all things in measure, and number, and weight” (Wisdom 11:21). Finally, she discusses the apparently indeterminate nature of quantum mechanics and considers where (or not) this offers “proof” (or, alternatively, “disproof”) of the concept of free will. Much of the focus in this is what we can know through science and what we can know through revelation, that is, what we know by faith and what we know by reason. Suffice it to say that there is no contradiction between the two, and that each actually complements the other.

While this discussion is quite exhilarating, there are some omissions from this section which make it feel incomplete. In particular, there might have been a fourth chapter to discuss matter and form and the body-soul relationship, which fits somewhere between the discussion of the atomic word and of quantum mechanics. Likewise, and though it has been addressed by other thinkers (Sts. Thomas Aquinas and Augustine in particular), I was somewhat surprised to not see a discussion of the resurrection in light of the world of atoms. For not a hair from our heads is to be forgotten, and our bodies are to be restore to us in the resurrection—this would have been a very interesting discussion in the light of atomic theory, for our bodies are made of atoms, and indeed of shared atoms and even decaying atoms.

In Part III, Dr. Trasancos is primarily concerned wth the theory of evolution, and whether it is guided by random chance or by fate or by Providence. She also considers two inadequate answers to evolution—Creationism and Intelligent Design—before asking whether a Christian can in good conscience accept the theory of evolution (she argues that the answer is yes). Finally, she turns to bioethics to address one of the hot-button culture-war issues, that of when human life begins.

As Michael Flynn captioned it, “Mitochondrial Eve, which is the night prior to the Feast of Mitochondrial.”

Again, there is considerable discussion of what we know by faith and what we know by reason. Science, for example, can trace back humanity to a common set of ancestors, for example a mitochondrial Eve and a y-chromosmal Adam, which existed many thousands of years in the past (the approximate date of both is 200 000 years ago, though originated in separate populations of approximately 10 000 people each). We should be able to marvel at that feat of science, without demanding greater precision over such a long period of time—and recognize that this neither proves nor disproves what we hold be faith, namely, that all of humanity has a common set of ancestors leading back to the first man and woman [10], that we are all endowed with powers of intellect and will, that we are all created by direct action of God (Who alone can create a soul), or that we all come into this world with the stain of Original Sin in our souls.

The organization of the book is in general simple and easy to follow. Each chapter builds on previous chapters (for the most part—though Parts II and III could be read out of order). I do, however, have two criticisms of the organization, both relatively minor. The first is that the book would benefit from including the different sections within a given chapter in the table of contents. The second is that some chapters end with a summary of the main points of the chapter, and others rather end with a conclusion.

This book is neither quite a polemic work nor exactly a autobiography, though it is a sort of scientific memoir. Dr. Trasancos states in her introduction that the book is largely her attempt to bring a missing element into the science and religion discussion: that is, the human element.

I could have made these points in a more aseptic style, but it would not reflect either the way I think or the way I communicate with my friends and family on the Internet or around my kitchen table. I notice something missing in the faith and science dialogue, and that something is the human person. Science involves people. Faith involves people. Whatever challenges and controversies arise, they arise because of people. Therefore, I seek to show how a Catholic person works through these questions of faith and science.

With Particle of Faith, Stacy Trasancos as largely succeeded in putting the human element back into the science and religion dialogue.


[1] N.B. I am not claiming that only a small number of people will claim to be feminists. I am claiming that only a small number of particularly radical feminists will recognize their feminism as a reason to not be Christian.

[2] There are again some people who believe that Marxism and Christianity can be reconciled, though Christian socialism is a much more popular position than outright Marxism, and communism is practically a joke anymore.

[3] Again, there are Christian environmentalists, and ecological conservation does indeed fall under the pervie of Christian (and earlier, Jewish) thought. One of the first tasks given to mankind was to be good stewards of creation. I am again referring to hte radical element, the Gaia-worshippers and the earth-firsters who would see civilization burn and humanity eradicated (or at least sharply curtailed) for the sake of flora and fauna.

[4] I can think of others (progressivism, for example), but this review is not the place to discuss them

[5] It rather pointedly avoids the misstatement of demanding a reconciliation between “theology and theory,” and only very tenuously considers asking for their to be a reconciliation between truth and facts (the two being intertwined in most peoples’ minds) by replacing “truth” with “myth.”

[6] A fourth reaction might be to turn to the “separate magisteria” defense and to treat the two as entirely unconnected spheres of knowledge.

[7] Charles de Koninck, “Our Awesome Creed: The Faith Is No Excuse for Bigotry,” Saint Joseph Magazine (Oregon), Vol. 5 (1964), No. 10, pp. 16-19. Later in this same essay, Charles de Koninck writes that

“Our Faith is assuredly no easy matter and can move us to protest. Not only because it tells of mysteries that eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor mind conceived; but also because it penetrates every corner of life, because it will leave no part of our day untouched. That this is indeed a great reason for the difficulty of the Faith was proved by the reaction of so many good Catholics to the prospect of the solemn definition of the Assumption. When Pius XII proclaimed this truth, there were murmurs. Why? Oh, of course, because of the unnecessary stumbling-block again set in the way of the nonCatholic…. Nothing could be more natural than such feelings. We all hold the instinctive attitude that there ought to be some limit to what we are asked to take n faith, some acceptable frontier. But where are such bound to be set? Shall we confine our assent to the Incarnation, for example, with no reference to the Child’s mother or foster father? If we could manage these matters ourselves, we would all feel inclined to suppress such facts as that God was hungry, tired, thirsty, that He perspired, that He rode on a donkey, that He died.

“Yes, let divine truth be as lofty as you please; let it be glorious, sublime, awful, but let it not become human, pedestrian, ordinary, just me and my dull little life, for then it shocks the intellect.”

[8] Jacques Maritain, I think, coined the term “emperiological” to describe modern sciences, with the life sciences being “emperioschematic” and the physical sciences being “emperiometric.”

[9] Theory of all things is not to be confused with the common phrase “theory of everything,” which is basicaly only a theory which would unify gravity with the other fundamental forces and reconcile quantum mechanics with relativity.

[10] This belief in a single man and a single woman, Adam and Eve, as the common ancestors of all humankind is binding but not dogmatic.

Veritas and Vocation

dominican order crest

Veritas: this is the latin word for “truth.” It is also among the mottoes of my order, the seemingly simplest motto of the Order of Preachers. On the surface, it is the easiest, in that it is the only of the mottoes without an explicit action behind it: yet it is ultimately the most important, and indeed the most demanding thing.

Indeed, the other two mottoes taken by the Dominicans would seem to exist as subordinate clauses of “veritas.” The second motto, “To praise, to bless, and to preach” implies the existence of some content of one’s preaching—and if that content is to be be a blessing to anyone, or to be worthy praise, then it must be grounded first in truth. And what would we contemplate [1], and which fruits would there be which ought to be passed on, if it is not truth that we reflect upon nor is reflected by us?

Dominicans 800Years
Established 1215. Source.

All three of the mottoes of the Order of Preachers are tied in some way to the order’s charism, which in turn is tied to the order’s reason for being. Among various religious orders (and congregations, etc) within the Church, each has some special charism or gift which the order’s members are especially called to develop, and which is tied to the Church’s mission or to some aspect of her character. Thus, there are the contemplative orders which have built the great monasteries of the world; or the Franciscans (or Sisters of Divine Mercy, for that matter) who focus upon being or serving the poor; or the Salesians who teach and otherwise serve children, or the Jesuits who arose to become missionaries for the Church with special obedience to the pope [2]. For the Dominicans, the special charism is to preach.

Saint Francis meeting Saint Dominic. Source.

The order was actually founded at about the same time as the Franciscans, which was during the height of one of the “great” heresies to plague the Church. Saints Dominic de Guzman and Francis of Assisi established their respective orders in part to combat the laxity (and yes, even corruption) which was rampant in the Church at the time—but also to fight the Cathar heresy which was gaining traction in response to this. This particular heresy had a few forms (a common occurrence among heresies) and factions (the most notable being the Albigenses), and indeed appeared as a re-packaging of an older heresy (another common occurrence) known as Manichaenism.

The old Manichaens taught against the flesh in general, and forbid any number of earthly pleasures to their followers. According to these, man possesses a good spirit which is corrupted by being imprisoned in sinful flesh: a distortion of the traditional Christian view, and (as again is common for heresies) one which could even find some support in the Bible, if only certain passages are read out of context [3]. Certain foods were considered especially to be bad (in particular meat), as was sexual intercourse (which could lead to reproduction and thus the imprisonment of yet another soul in a material body). The new Manichaens resuscitated this old heresy and took it further, perhaps indeed to its logical conclusions, forbidding marriage and especially procreation, and indeed encouraging many of its members to “purify” themselves to the point of starvation. Although the new Manichaenism was extreme in its deprivations, it attracted many new followers because of the apparent holiness-in-poverty of its adherents [4], and because of the apparent Biblical support of its message, and the skill at oratory of those who proclaimed it.

Cathars rejected the material world. This also meant rejecting the sacraments established by Christ and continued by His Church for the salvation of souls. Source.

Saint Dominic recognized it as a threat not only to the Church but to civilization and indeed to mankind [5]. He also recognized that the Church of his day was ill-equipped to combat this latest threat, both because of the apparent wealth of her prelates and because of the poor training of many of her priests. They were often poor preachers, not only because they were poorly educated and poorly formed for their vocations, but because they were often weighted down by the worldly concerns of their offices. Their preaching often overlooked the Gospels, and because they  became too focused on their worldly trappings, they often overlooked the importance of preaching Christ, and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2).

Therefore, Saint Dominic found that he had to combat two different problems. The first was that of the actual heresy which had sprung up; and the second was the worldly and even sinful tendencies of many in the Church (including clergy) which made this heresy seem so attractive [6]. This he did by using the vehicle of a new order dedicated especially to preaching, one whose members took as vows the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience [7]. The order was dedicated to preaching truth, but also to spending time in contemplation to reflect upon the truth, to understand it, to internalize it, and indeed to discern truth from falsehood (or half-truth). It takes especially seriously two important passages about the truth, namely John 14:6 and John 8:32. The former has Jesus saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the light,” and the latter has Him telling his disciples, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”

Jesus is God’s definitive revelation of Himself to us (CCC 73), and apart from Him there is no revelation which is “the truth” [8]. This was indeed the answer to the Manichees (both old and new). They condemned meat, but Christ multiplied fish on a few occasions (Mark 6:31-44 and Mark 8:1-9), to say nothing of eating lamb [9]. The Cathars condemned marriage, but He praised it—and even (through St. Paul) spoke against condemning it (1 Timothy 4:3). The Albigensians rejected the flesh, the body—but He resurrected it, and indeed went so far as to offer proof that His body was risen (John 2:24-27, Luke 24:36-43), to say nothing of teaching (through His apostles) that we are His body (1 Corinthians 12:27), the Church.

Seal of the Order of Preachers. Image source.

We are constantly teaching others about ourselves (and by extension, our beliefs). We are all in a sense “preaching” something as long as we are observed by others, as any parent whose loose lips let slip the wrong word might assure. We all give our testimonies, if not in words then in actions or even attitudes.

If we are to preach Truth, then we must first come to know it (Him). To some extent, we do this through studying: there is some “head knowledge” involved, after all. Truth is the intelligibility of reality, of existence, and so we therefore must employ and form and strengthen our intellects to know the truth. There are some obvious points of departure for this endeavor, foremost written and Oral Tradition (e.g. Scriptures, the creeds, the Liturgy, etc.) and the Church’s magisterial teachings in her Catechisms and councils. We can be further helped in understanding these through the interpretations of the Fathers and the commentaries of the Doctors and the teachings other saints and pontiffs.

To perhaps a greater extent, we come to know the truth through prayer, because beyond the “head knowledge” there is also some “heart knowledge,” which we gain through relationship with Christ and with His Church. In particular, meditative and contemplative prayer is important to the order of preachers: time spent contemplating the crucifix, from which St. Thomas Aquinas could justly claim to have learned more than all the books ever written; time spent contemplating the Eucharist; and time spent reflecting on the words of Scripture, the teachings of the Church, and even the lives of the saints.

Thus, preaching may be thought of as a sort of contraction of “prayer” and “teaching.” Hence, to contemplate and to pass on the fruits of contemplation. Indeed, this joining of prayer to teaching in preaching has been with the Order of Preachers since its founding: before he established the Friars to go out and preach, St. Dominic established the sisters to pray for them.

A Dominican cross. Image source.

What is especially present in the prayer behind the preaching is that in preaching we will be serving truth, and indeed the Truth. Therefore, while we may in our contemplation reflect upon the truths revealed and entrusted to us, and while we may ask God for the wisdom, the understanding, and the knowledge to preach truly—it is equally important, above all, for us to ask for humility.

We must remember above all that all truth is God’s truth, and not our own. “Your truth” and “my truth” are not nearly so interesting as the Truth, and while we ought to internalize truth, it is not ours in the sense that we cannot own it as a private possession. When we contemplate on some revealed or reasoned knowledge, and then that contemplation bears fruit, we must share that fruit with others. Moreover, these fruits of contemplation ought to be shared freely, and they ought, indeed, to be shared

[1] The third motto of the Order of Preachers—commonly called Dominicans—is “To contemplate and then pass on the fruits of contemplation.”

[2] At least in theory

[3] “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41), for example.

[4] It also gave encouragement to seize and despoil the land of those who would not embrace it

[5] But I repeat myself.

[6] Sadly, this is also an all-too-common occurrence.

[7] The Dominicans are not unique in doing this. Also, the lay members are not required to take these vows—but of course, we generally obey them in the form of trying to live within our means, living generally chastely within the bound of our state in life, and being obedient to the Magisterial authority of the Church.

[8] Even the revelations of the Old testament which predated Him point forward to Him. And the various other revelations about (for example) Mary and the Saints and the Church, or Man and the World and Sin, are still “about” Christ and hence God in some way.

[9] This much is implicit by reading about what the Jews were to eat for passover (Exodus 12:1-28), that Christ participated in passover (Luke 22 7-23). To say nothing of His own references to our need to eat of His flesh and Drink of His blood (John 6:53-59).

Science and the Evidence for God

Still from the movie "Father Brown the Detective," based on the stories by G.K. Chesterton and starring Alec Guinness as the titular character.
Still from the movie “Father Brown the Detective,” based on the stories by G.K. Chesterton and starring Alec Guinness as the titular character.

One of the more memorable G.K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown” stories is The Resurrection of Father Brown. In this short story the titular character is “murdered” and then appears to return to life at his own funeral, shocking the mourners present. And though he is somewhat dazed in the aftermath of being attacked and then finding himself suddenly awakening and arising from his coffin, he keeps about him the presence of mind to declare to anyone who will listen that no miracle has transpired. His first move is in fact to telegraph the bishop to warn him against the fraud which has been perpetrated—for he was only drugged, and not actually dead.

I have recalled this story, because I have seen that a recent article is making the rounds: it claims that a well-known scientist has discovered “definitive proof that God exists.” When I read headlines of this sort, I usually regard them with at least some suspicion. A part of this suspicion can be summarized by a brief reaction from one of my friendly acquaintances, philosophy professor Rob Koons, whose initial response to this article was to write that “I always get nervous when physicists try to do metaphysics without bothering to get grounded in the literature.” To be fair, my suspicions are equal-opportunity: these articles are sometimes posted by people with some grounding in philosophy and none in science.

Michio Kaku. Image source.

In reading the actual article I see that the well-known scientist is string-theorist and CUNY professor Michio Kaku, who is indeed a reasonably well-known scientist [1]. Setting aside the exotic and never-before observed particles and untested conjectures which are the cornerstone of String Theory, what Prof. Kaku has allegedly done is to hypothesize that we live in a sort of “Matrix”, a non-base reality of sorts. The article quotes Dr. Kaku as saying that

“I have concluded that we are in a world made by rules created by an intelligence… Believe me, everything that we call chance today won’t make sense anymore.”

“To me it is clear that we exist in a plan which is governed by rules that were created, shaped by a universal intelligence and not by chance.”

Unfortunately, neither version of the article which is making these rounds gives any link or other reference to original source material. Indeed, Dr. Kaku’s website and twitter feed make no mention which I have found of this supposed discovery of a Matrix-like reality, or the intelligence behind it. Assuming, however, for the sake of argument that this news is real and not the next round of Snopes-fodder for the internet [2], what then?

A Gnostic’s fairytale.

The first thing that I notice is that the headline of the article is somewhat misleading with respect to what is actually being claimed—this is, I suppose, to be expected. Indeed, what Dr. Kaku is actually quoted as claiming is that we inhabit a “Matrix” reality which is “shaped by a universal intelligence and not by chance,” which certainly does sound like there is a God behind the scenes.

However, theory is always under-determined. Thus, there is more than one possible interpretation (e.g theory) which can explain a given set of data (e.g., “evidence”). Christians and other theists could point to this discovery as possible evidence for the existence of God, just as some of us have pointed to other findings in the past; yet, we should not be surprised when the skeptics, the atheists and the agnostics, remain unconvinced. Even assuming that Dr. Kaku’s quoted interpretation does make sense of the data—or at least of the existing theory [3]—this interpretation is subject to modification. Barring that, the interpretation itself may be further interpreted to include God, gods, other intelligences, or additional realities.

Parallel Universes: great for "Star Trek," but not as experimentally verifiable science.
Not exactly what we mean by “multiverse” or the more explicit yet oxymoronic phrase “multiple universes”

This is in fact what has happened, to some extent, with other theories which have been pronounced “proof (or evidence) of God’s existence.” The Big Bang theory of Fr. Georges Lemaitre was at first rejected by the overwhelming majority of “steady-state” theorists (often though not always on religious, that is unreligious, grounds), then grudgingly accepted. But by the time it had been accepted, additional interpretations of the theory had sprung into existence, most of which denied the Big Bang as the beginning of the universe, or at least of its beginning in time. A theist might point to the fine-tuning of the physical laws of the universe, yet an atheist will happily posit the existence of an infinite number of universes (e.g. a multiverse), each with its own laws, as a possible alternative to the existence of one God of infinite power [4].

Indeed, even at the time of the early scientific revolution—indeed, before then—the evidence of nature appears to point one way for the theist, and another for the atheist. The very orderliness of the universe is for the Christian more evidence of Providence, and for the skeptic it is the “proof” that we need no God, on account of the universe’s working fine on its own [5].

We should never take the latest physical theory—or worse, conjecture—to be the last word in proving (or disproving) the existence of God. For one thing, this can lead us into the trap of clinging to a wrong (or outdated and since supplanted) theory long after it has ceased to hold sway. Such was the sin of some—though by no stretch all—of the actors in the drama which was the Galileo Affair. Similarly, if we attach our faith too strongly to one or another scientific theory, we may be too slow in accepting a better (more accurate, more complete) theory when it is developed.

Caesarea Philippi, the former temple of Pan, and the site at which Jesus told Peter that he was the rock upon which the Church would be built.
Caesarea Philippi, the former temple of Pan, and the site at which Jesus told Peter that he was the rock upon which the Church would be built. Image source.

Worse still, we may fall into the tap of losing faith altogether if the right theory should be proven wrong, or if the wrong theory should be demonstrated as more reasonably right [6]. Our faith should be grounded on the Rock of Christ, and the smaller rock of St. Peter, rather than the shifting sands of natural science. Conversely, the study of the sciences should not be for the purpose of finding evidence of God—we often find that whenever and wherever we sincerely look for it, and seldom otherwise—but rather for the sake of appreciating and understanding His creation.

Faith, for its part, is a gift of the Holy Spirit, something which we merit only by supernatural grace. In his essay “Our Awesome Creed,” the philosopher Charles de Koninck states that

“If we truly appreciated the mysteriousness of the truths that faith enables us to accept, and how inscrutable is this power to accept them, we could never show anything but understanding towards those who cannot join us, a humble gratitude for the light in which they do not share and which we ourselves have in no way deserved—ever mindful that this gift does not confirm us in the good…. The utter impenetrability of mysteries like the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, the authority of the Church, the primacy of Peter and of his successors, is so great that the gap between them and man’s ordinary powers may be truly called infinite.”

There is, to some extent, a leap of faith involved in looking at the evidence, seeing that it points to a Creator, and then concluding that God exists and that the other tenets of our religion are also true. Later in that same essay, de Koninck states that

The Temptation of St. Thomas Aquinas, Diego Velazquez, (1631-32).
The Angelic Doctor. “The Temptation of St. Thomas Aquinas,” Diego Velazquez, (1631-32).

“It should help us to realize how unreasonable we are if we appreciate that everything we are saying for the entire Creed holds good, to a considerable extent, for mere belief in God, a thing which need not be taken on faith alone, but which actually can be proved… St. Thomas teaches that even though he existence of a Deity can be demonstrated, the task of doing so is extremely difficult: so difficult as actually to serve as one reason why it was right that God should make even His very existence the substance of a special revelation. What the Angelic Doctor is maintaining, then, is that, if God had not told man of His own existence, only a very few human beings could have come to know Him, and these only after a long time, and at the conclusion of researches and reasonings which would be sure to be mingled with many mistakes.”

In other words, there may exist some proofs and demonstrations of God’s existence, but these are likely to be really understood only by those who dedicate time and expertise to studying and understanding them. Said proofs will also be recognized and accepted as such only by those who are at least somewhat inclined to seek them out. “We see as through a glass, darkly,” writes St. Paul of this life. This admonishment is as true of making sense of natural evidence when it points to supernatural conclusions as it is of supernatural revelations themselves.

Upon arising from his drugged sleep—and appearing to rise from the dead—Fr. Brown says in response the reactions of the crowds:

“‘Oh you silly people,’ he said in a high and quavering voice; ‘Oh you silly, silly people…No; of course it’s not a miracle. Why should there be a miracle? Miracles are not so cheap as all that… Bless you, bless you,’ said Father Brown hastily, ‘God bless you all and give you more sense.'”

Indeed, a miracle is rarely so “cheap” as this—and neither should we expect the miracle of faith to come so cheaply as the latest conjecture by a well-known scientist.


Richard Feynman
Richard Feynman (Image source: Richard Hartt/Caltech Archives)

[1] Then again, so is Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who is a scientist with some accomplishments who is much more well-known for being a popularizer of science than for his actual contributions to science. There is nothing wrong with this, per se, and of course a person can be both (Stephen Hawking and Richard Feynman are two examples of this).

[2] Catholic Online is also carrying this story, and gives slightly more details (though none of substance). Intellectual Takeout also caries the story, and claims that the source is a Big Think video–but they embed the same Big Think video as all the other sites, which makes no such claim. Thus, I can’t shake the suspicion that this is akin to Father Brown’s “Resurrection.” The original sites both look like a hoax-news sites akin the World News Daily tabloid, complete with fatuous and fanciful articles about UFOs and man-beast hybrids. As for the embedded video, I think it is best left as grist for another day.

[3] This latest conjecture is based on String Theory, which perhaps is the most untested theory as such in all the sciences. For all of the work done by String Theorists, there is not one single “String Experiment” that I am aware of, and indeed not one new prediction made by String Theory which we can test at this time.

[4] I am here simplifying both sides arguments due to time constraints. I also do not wish to imply that the only reason to hold a theory of a multiverse is for religious (that is, nonreligious) reasons—it may well be the right theory! Conversely, we should not hold to one or another scientific theory only for religious reasons, because it may well be the wrong theory.

[5] Saint Thomas specifically addresses this very argument, I think satisfactorily but apparently to others unconvincingly.

[6] Theories are by their nature difficult or even impossible to actually “prove” as being right, but they can often be shown to be wrong, or inadequate, on the one hand, and good at making accurate predictions on the other.

The Culture War

In browsing through the latest headlines—and skimming the articles underneath them—I get the impression that the culture wars are anything but cooling down. Despite reports to the contrary, the culture wars are not dead. If anything, they appear to be boiling over, to the extent that some factions want every aspect of life to be devoted to (or consumed by) these conflicts [1].

Front page of Los Angeles Times, May 1, 1992

These things tend to ebb and flow, and today’s clashes may take on some resemblance to those from a generation, a century, or a millennium ago. “Black Lives Matter” is not necessarily more widespread or disruptive than the race riots of the past. The “bathroom battles” are just the latest skirmish in a series of seemingly unchecked advances by the New Gnostics as they attempt to sing the body irrelevant [2]; and several of the previous “advances” were the precipitate of older fights concerning the nature of sex and marriage. And the various legal fights over the rights of conscience are themselves the result of the insistence that todays “culture war losers” should not only surrender but make reparations for past struggles.

The culture wars are are not anything new, or new to the last century or so, at any rate. Rather, they are just the latest face of an age-old conflict for the soul of civilization, and indeed for the much more important prizes of the souls of the people who make up society. In past centuries, this conflict played out more as a conflict between Church and state, or faith and reason, or between orthodoxy and heresy [3]. Indeed, there is a sense in which the current culture war is a conflict between Church and popular culture [4].


This “latest” conflict, the culture wars, is the obvious face of the age-old conflict, this time tailored for a generation (or a society) which has largely lost its religious literacy. To see that this is so, you need only contrast our culture war with, for example, the fight in early Christendom over the Arian heresy. The everyman of Alexandria was very interested in these matters of doctrine, so much so that St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote of the times that

Men of yesterday and the day before, mere mechanics, off-hand dogmatists in theology, servants, too, and slaves that have been flogged, runaways from servile work, are solemn with us, and philosophize about things incomprehensible. Ask about pence, and the tradesman will discuss the generate and ingenerate; inquire the price of bread, and he will say, “Greater is the Father, and the Son is subject”; say that a bath would suit you, and he defines, “the Son is out of nothing.”

Today, one asks the price of cake and is told that marriage is between one man and one woman; but then the baker is promptly sued in court or fined by a “human rights” commission, and his (or her) business is destroyed. Or ask the price of coffee, and the barista implies in response that faithful Christians are bigots, and then bravely faces the applause [5].

C.S. Lewis warned his Christian readers against becoming more interested in arguing about God than in learning about Him and learning to love Him. Here is certainly some wisdom here for the Christian apologist—namely, that what is right is more important than who is right. But it can also be applied more broadly to the culture wars—since the “broader” culture wars are really just another aspect of the eternal struggle between the Church and the world. It is worth stepping back and asking, are the culture wars rally about the culture—or are they more about the war?

This is a question which people on all sides or in all factions of the culture wars should be asking themselves. The progressives of all stripes should remember that revolutions have a nasty tendency of eating their own. Any culture in which all people must at any arbitrary or unexpected time bend their knees to a cruel and capricious zeitgeist is a veritable dystopia. As Chesterton warned in The Thing, not knowing why we have a certain tradition or why we do things a certain way is not a sufficient reason for change:

FenceesAlong Road Photo by marius sebastian _ Unsplash
Why is that fence there?

[Consider a fence or gate erected across a road] The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

Conservatives should keep in mind the principles outlined by Russell Kirk. This includes the principle that “the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.” As Kirk noted,

The Permanence of a society is formed by those enduring interests and convictions that gives us stability and continuity; without that Permanence, the fountains of the great deep are broken up, society slipping into anarchy. The Progression in a society is that spirit and that body of talents which urge us on to prudent reform and improvement; without that Progression, a people stagnate.

kirk old virtues
Bonus Kirk.

Therefore the intelligent conservative endeavors to reconcile the claims of Permanence and the claims of Progression. He thinks that the liberal and the radical, blind to the just claims of Permanence, would endanger the heritage bequeathed to us, in an endeavor to hurry us into some dubious Terrestrial Paradise. The conservative, in short, favors reasoned and temperate progress; he is opposed to the cult of Progress, whose votaries believe that everything new necessarily is superior to everything old.

Change is essential to the body social, the conservative reasons, just as it is essential to the human body. A body that has ceased to renew itself has begun to die. But if that body is to be vigorous, the change must occur in a regular manner, harmonizing with the form and nature of that body; otherwise change produces a monstrous growth, a cancer, which devours its host. The conservative takes care that nothing in a society should ever be wholly old, and that nothing should ever be wholly new. This is the means of the conservation of a nation, quite as it is the means of conservation of a living organism. Just how much change a society requires, and what sort of change, depend upon the circumstances of an age and a nation.

Prudence, prescription, and preservation of the permanent things are all important—they are the chief virtues of a conservative—but not all old ways of doing things are necessarily better for being older.

Charles Martel, the grandfather of Charlemagne, at the Battle of Tours

Christians of good faith in particular should remember that our mission is to evangelize. While many people will strive to make themselves our enemies, we ultimately have one true enemy [6], however many his minions. Indeed, many of the devils would-be accomplices are more akin to his hostages than his allies (see Mark 3:22-27). If one side of the culture war seems to be fought with the final aim of persecuting Christians, and if many people seem sympathetic to this view, our response ought not to be punish to paynim. Our purpose is to evangelize, to share the joy of the gospel, and proselytism will follow from this. Yes, we must take a stand in the culture wars, but if we work to bring about the conversion of the culture, then the war will take care of itself.


[1] Some entire factions, and some people in every faction or “side” seem to want the culture-wars to be all-consuming, “scorched earth” affairs.

[2] And the Black Lives Matters and the New Gnostics have even met to declare that the biological race of one’s body is irrelevant, except when it isn’t.

[3] A note here: there need not be any conflict between these things, save only that orthodoxy and heresy are necessarily in contradiction of each other. Of course, there need not be an all-consuming culture war, either, but yet here it comes.

[4] Though the lines here have been more blurred than in previous iterations, to the extent tat many people who consider themselves to be well outside of the Church stand more-or-less on her “side” in the culture wars, and several people who apparently consider themselves to be “devout Catholics” seem to ask what the Church teaches only so that they can do the opposite.

[5] To be fair, faithful Christians faced everything from death to exile to fines and jail time and torture during the Arian crisis.

[6] On the other hand, that one enemy leads legions of lesser demons. And thought of differently, we have one true enemy who has two important collaborators, because the things which bring us to sin are the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Suffering: Unique Yet Common

ParadoxThe eminent twentieth century theologian Henri de Lubac writes in his Paradoxes of the Faith that there are two important truths to keep in mind when we encounter suffering. He writes: “All suffering is unique—and all suffering is common. I have to be reminded of the latter truth when I am suffering myself—and of the former truth when I see others suffering.”

The first truth, paradoxically, is the basis for charity, and indeed for rightly-ordered sympathy. When we see another suffering, we can become truly sympathetic only by recognizing that his suffering is not identical to our own (past or present): we must first become humble in the face of this fact, before we can offer to enter into another’s suffering to help bear him through it.

Keeping this truth in mind also acts as a safegaurd against judging falsely (see Matthew 7:1-5, but also 1 Corinthians 4:3-5 and Hebrews 4:12-13). There is, after all, no greater suffering than the separation from God, which is precisely what sin attempts to bring. We may look objectively at a sin, and call it such: and this judgment is true. But we cannot as easily see the subjective, the extenuating circumstances, or even the depth of the temptations to a particular sin as experienced by another person.

Nevertheless, it is also true that all suffering—and indeed, all sin—shares something in common. Chesterton wrote that many men think a sin or crime is horrible because they could never commit it: but in truth, the most atrocious sin is so horrible because any man might have committed it. We never really realize from what depths of depravity we have been spared, nor can we until the last judgment makes all things clear.

3D_Judges_GavelIndeed, we often overlook our own sins even when they are evident to others. We are quite good at deceiving ourselves as to the objective nature of sin. It is all to easy to call a sin “not a sin” because it is a sin which we in particular enjoy. This is the other face of Christ’s admonishment against judging, “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye” (Luke 6: 42) [1].

We are quick to excuse our own failings, and thus are slow to realize that these failings deprive us of so much of our potential. In his meditation on the seven last words of Christ from the cross, Fr. George Rutler notes that

“A saint is human, and specifically saints are the only humans, in contrast to sinners who claim to be only human; until a man is a saint, he is less than a man and an exile from his human potential…. By detaching the human being from any definition of being less than human, holiness is the one artful and authentic way to be human. Detachment is a moral crucifixion, as it nails down those impulses and habits that lead the intellect to lie and the imagination to violate and the will to will its own way. Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, that is, through sanctifying grace, the intellect abjures lies and stands defiantly before armies of bullies and alliances of compromised parliaments; and the graced imagination laughs at fantasies when they come as painted hags or tinsel utopias or the penultimate chapter of a volume on how to be happy by feeling happy.

This reality is expensive, and sin is the method of avoiding such expense. The bargain basement turns out to be much lower than one could possibly have known or imagined or wanted. That is why it is so difficult to believe in hell. It is not beyond belief—it is wondrously beneath belief, and it takes humility to fathom a justice deeper than our altruistic sense of justice” (The Seven Wonders of the World, pp.23).

Our choices have consequences—some good, some bad. All choices ultimately lead us to accept or reject God’s will for us; all choices make us more or less able to respond to God’s grace, and indeed to experience His love as tenderness or torment. They allow us to look past the superficial, indeed to desire to do so, and to see the truth of things, reality as it actually exists. Above all, when we turn away from the night sin with all its hollow promises and illusory dreams, and turn instead towards the light of truth, we begin to see ourselves as we truly are.

Our sufferings are, in a sense, there to remind us of this reality. The Ven. Fulton Sheen writes that:

“Many persons identify themselves with their environment. Because life is good to them, they believe that they are good. They never dwell on eternity because time is so pleasant. When suffering strikes, they become divorced from their pleasant surroundings and are left naked in their own souls. They then see that they were not affable and genial, but irritable and impatient. When the sun of outer prosperity sank, they had no inner light to guide their darkened souls” (Love One Another, pp. 51).

Pain is, as C.S. Lewis notes, “God’s bullhorn” into our lives and our very souls, if we will allow it to be this. A sudden loss has a sobering effect, and we re-evaluate our priorities when we lose someone or something which is close or dear to us. In this sense, suffering has a common purpose in each man’s life.

Our suffering is common to all, and if we will allow anyone else to show us sympathy we must bear in mind that they, too, have suffered. We must allow them to suffer with us, which is often harder than making ourselves to suffer with someone else in their time of misery.

sky-195430_1920And here, then, is the most important sense in which all our sufferings are in common, the sense which we remember and even celebrate during this Holiest week of the year. When Christ was nailed to the Cross, he took on Himself all our sins—and with them, all of our sufferings. Therefore, whenever we suffer, we can offer that suffering to God, Who has already accepted it and Who passes through it with us: indeed, He took it on Himself in the ultimate act of sympathy, and in the greatest act of love.


[1] It is interesting to note that even here, there is the urgency to overcome our own sins—and then to help others with theirs! The implication is that we should continue to judge sin as sin, and even to admonish others when they sin: always on the assumption that we are ourselves open to such admonishment, and are doing so from a sense of charity and not of superiority.

Lent and Love

What is the point of the Lenten sacrifices [1]? Why do we fast on some days, abstain from meat on others, and then also give up something which we enjoy for forty days? These are surely questions which are asked by everyone who has struggled to keep their Lenten fasts, whether they ended up succeeding or succumbing to these struggles.

Chesterton-Christian-Ideal1In his book What’s Wrong with the World, GK. Chesterton tells us that, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” What he meant here is that most things actually worth doing require some effort, and some level of skill or know-how which must be acquired through practice, and indeed through failure. The expert concert pianist has misplayed more notes than I have, because he has spent far more time playing the piano than I ever will. In the process of becoming an expert pianist who is able to play well, he was first a novice pianist who played but poorly. Becoming an expert pianist has been his life’s work to that point—and of course, he must continue to work at it if he is to remain an excellent pianist.

Each of us has some unique vocation in life: but what we all have in common here is the calling to pursue holiness, to be virtuous. Above all, we are all called to love. Indeed, we will find that it is easier to love if we are virtuous, and easier to be virtuous if we are pursuing holiness, and easier to pursue holiness if we do it for the sake of being more loving.

freedom-william-wallaceThere is a sort of prerequisite condition to becoming more virtuous, loving, or even holy: that is that we must be free. By this, I mean not that we must have political freedom—which is a good thing in general, but which does not guarantee that we can or cannot love, of be virtuous, or holy. Nor am I referring to freedom of the will as distinct from determinism, for this we are given as our birthright, though freedom of the will is necessary for love [2], or to choose virtue (or anything else for that matter). Rather, being free here means that we are not slaves of our passions or our appetites and other immediate desires, that we are able to resist temptation to sin or even mere distractions.

There is a sense in which the most important virtue is the lowest, that is, temperance. All of the other virtues (save perhaps prudence) require some amount of sacrifice on our part: and indeed, there is a sense in which the greatest of all virtues, love, especially requires sacrifice. Concerning this, we are told that “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Sacrifice is the greatest of all acts of love, and while this particular form of sacrifice hinges on the virtue of fortitude, it is the practice of smaller sacrifices through temperance that lead us to more easily make the big sacrifices which need fortitude [3].

It’s the little things in life… Image source.

While opportunities for these small sacrifices resent themselves to us in everyday life, we would not likely seek them out on our own. I may give up beer or sweets or fatty meats for a time for the sake of losing weight; or I may turn down the extra helping for the sake of allowing someone else at the table the chance to get their fill. But never would I likely have picked an innocuous minor good to give up for a time for the simple sake of making a sacrifice.

This is where the genius of the Church comes into play [4], with her custom of observing Lent by making a variety of small if at times difficult sacrifices. These small sacrifices do make it easier, in time, to make bigger sacrifices, and by developing first the virtue of temperance, we can next develop the other virtues. By saying “no” to some of our minor appetites and temptations, we get better at saying “no” to the bigger temptations, and perhaps even to our passions. This leaves us all the freer to say “yes” to the virtues, to God’s call to holiness. Indeed, by learning to sacrifice, we learn next how to love. Lent thus is an unsought aide to living the truly good life. It is worth saying again that if life is worth doing well, then Lent is worth doing badly.

[1] Recently there have been a couple of other good columns on this topic elsewhere on Ignitum Today. Neither was actually the inspiration for this particular post. I think I should credit both Schall on Chesterton and the study I’ve been doing of Love and Responsibility and Edward Sri’s practical commentary on the same for that. However, both Mr. Ryan Kraeger and Miss Liesl B. make many similar points in their columns to what I am saying here.

[2] Love is among other things an act of the will.

First Comes Love Scott Hahn[3] In his book First Comes Love, Dr. Scott Hahn notes that there is more to the story of the Fall than what we can get from reading the translation in English. The “subtle serpent was more akin to a terrifying dragon, yet there is still some small subtlety in the text: when he tells Eve (and Adam, who was likely nearby) that she (and hence he) would not die if he ate of the fruit of knowledge, the unspoken implication was that the serpent would see to it that they would die if they refused. The first act of disobedience thus came from a failure of fortitude on the parts of Adam and Eve. I would speculate here that there is more to it that this—since he was gifted with temperance and thus did not need to earn it first through trial and sacrifice, it is possible that Adam did not build up to fortitude through the smaller sacrifices of temperance.

[4] Another place where the genius f the Church comes into play is in the moderation of the sacrifices we undergo. We fast, but don’t starve ourselves. We give up goo things, but not necessary things. We discipline ourselves rather than punishing, torturing, or otherwise arming ourselves. That is, however, for another day.

Work, Play, and Science

Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski
Today’s post’s muse. Image source.

The other day, I saw an article making rounds through my facebook’s news feed about a brilliant young woman whom “Harvard believes is the next Einstein.” Having nothing better to do—I was recovering from a minor surgery—and since I generally enjoy topics of interest to the world of physics, I read the article. The young lady described therein, Ms. Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski, is certainly a brilliant and hard-working, motivated individual with a very impressive resume to her name. I was particularly taken aback by her sole quote, placed at the end of the article: “Physics itself is exciting enough. It’s not like a 9-to-5 thing. When you’re tired you sleep, and when you’re not, you do physics.”

This comment may be innocuous enough-certainly it has been given no context by the peope who pulled this quote from an interview. Taken alone, there is no inflection, no hint as to how we should interpret it. It could express joy in the wonders discovered through the pursuit of physics (or of the science in general); this is how I take it to mean as expressed by Ms. Pasterski. I have, however, also seen similar words used to cover for a deeper sadness or resignation, or worse to insist that we should cease to turn our eyes innward towards our own moral state or upward towards God. A senior member of the tenure and promotion comittee of my university has certainly said as much to me, and on more than one occasion.

Academia today. Yes, even at “teaching” universities. Image source.

I have been told by this person that a successful scientist should “get off [of his] knees” and focus more on getting work done. In this view, a laboratory is a place of labor, that is, of work and even toil, the rewards of which might be some advancement of one or another field of knowledge, and (perhaps more importantly to the untenured) a publication [1].

Such a view of things overlooks the purpose of science, and for that matter of the labors invoved in our scientific laboratories. There is, after all, a second definition of labor, one which comes more naturally to the female half of humanity, and also to those men who are married and preparing to welcome children into their homes. I mean here that to labor is the process of giving birth the old-fashioned way, and indeed all of our other labors become a fainter echo of this when they bear us fruit.

To labor in life is to give birth, and in the laboratory it is to give birth to new knowledge. This is, however, actualy the lesser function of the laboratory. There is a second word and a second meaning hidden in the word “laboratory,” and it remains all the more hidden because of the obvious placement of “labor” at the front. The second purpose—which is the more important—is hidden at the back of the word, and is thus obscured by the labor, both within the word and within life. The word “laboratory” could be thought almost to be a contraction of the words “labor” and “oratory,” the latter being a place where we pray.

Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit
The gifts of the Holy Spirit. Image source.

For what should we pray while laboring in the laboratory? In one sense, it is the same thing we ought to pray for when pursuing any other form of knowledge, whether in the classroom or in the library or study or where-have-you. We pray there for knowledge, since this is what we are usually seeking directly: the conformity of our thoughts with reality. But there is something better than knowledge, which can build on knowledge: wisdom, another gift of the Holy Spirit.

Wisdom enables us to see the ordering of the world, and ultimately to desire the greatest good first and the lesser goods in relation to this. Wisdom causes us to desire heaven above earth, God above nature. The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that

“Because God creates through wisdom, his creation is ordered: ‘You have arranged all things by measure and number and weight.’ The universe, created in and by the eternal Word, the ‘image of the invisible God’, is destined for and addressed to man, himself created in the ‘image of God’ and called to a personal relationship with God. Our human understanding, which shares in the light of the divine intellect, can understand what God tells us by means of his creation, though not without great effort and only in a spirit of humility and respect before the Creator and his work. Because creation comes forth from God’s goodness, it shares in that goodness – ‘And God saw that it was good. . . very good’- for God willed creation as a gift addressed to man, an inheritance destined for and entrusted to him. On many occasions the Church has had to defend the goodness of creation, including that of the physical world” (CCC 299).

The verse quoted by the Catechism, “You have arranged all things by measure and number and weight” (Wisdom 11:21), was indeed one of the most popular verses during the time of the scientific revolution in Europe. It is also pertinent to role which wisdom should play in the scientist’s studies: namely, that the ordered-ness of the universe is something which can be studied only because there is a God Who creates, and moreover that this God desires us to know Him and to love Him. The order in the universe is thus built in part to point back to its Creator. Then again, there may be more than one sense in which nature might be read—underlying the physical order of nature is a moral order. Wisdom, in other words, does these three things for us as regards science:

  1. We should have—and most scientists do have—a sense of wonder concerning nature and its beauty and underlying order. Wisdom points to us that this wonder should be transformed into awe for the Creator of nature. We can appreciate nature, which is the art, but this should make us love God, Who is the Artist.
  2. Wisdom lets us see that the orderedness of nature points to our own internal orderedness. This is true on the individual scale and on the social scale. Everything in nature has its place and purpose: we too have both, and every integral part of us has its place and purpose as well. This is true not only physically, but spiritually.
  3. Wisdom transforms the laboratory from a place of only labor and toil, albeit labor after knowledge, into a place of prayer, an oratory. Note that I began by saying that we should pray for wisdom: one effect of wisdom is that we therefore are more inclined to prayer, both in praise and in gratitude.

Created for Joy and DelightThere is another insight which is granted with wisdom, and it is an old insight indeed. It was anticipated by Plato, who writes that while God is serious, man and human affairs are not: the whole world is “the plaything of God, and that is really the best this about it.” Therefore, “One should live out one’s days playing at certain games—sacrificing, singing, and dancing.”

Commenting on this, Fr. James Schall says that

“This passage is the great prelude to the Christian notion that the world God made is not necessary to Him, that what goes on in it is not analogous to work or duty or determinism, bu to freedom, delight, and play, to things that are beautiful but not necessary, in the freedom of what need not exist but yet, when it does exist, is joyful and delightful….

[There is] in reality [a] profound connection between th highest thing and play, between the seriousness of God Whom we must approach in silent holiness and the fact that God’s holiness is our delight, to which we respond freely, happily, as Plato said, in ‘singing, sacrificing, and dancing,’ in liturgy, in praise. The real end and final holiday of human souls is to spend out lives at the most serious things; the blessed seriousness of God is worthy [of] the singing, the dancing, the sacrificing” (Schall on Chesterton).

This is also a challenge to those of us who have made or professions the study of nature—that is, the study of “the plaything of God.” There is order and beauty in nature, and some of the discoveries we make in studying this order may be useful to us. This is good—but it should not be the final nor greatest end of said studies. Rather, we should bear always in mind that we are studying a creation which exists above all to delight, to give joy and to evoke wonder. In this sense, “physics is not a 9-to-5 thing.” It ceases to be just work, and takes on some aspects of holy play: but exciting as physics is, it is also most certainly not “enough.” Rather, when rightly pursued, it has in fact the opposite effect of getting us “of our knees.”


[1] To be fair, “laboratory” is etymologically related to labor, as Stanley Jaki notes: in this case a very particular labor, that of making measurements (The Limits of a Limitless Science).

Resolutions and Virtues Part 2: Virtues as Moral Help

In my previous column, I discussed the cardinal virtues and stated that they could be of some benefit to us in keeping our New Year’s resolutions [1]. I did not, however, discuss how (or why) the virtues are beneficial t us in this way.

Wasn’t that a party?

So where do these virtues tie in to our new year’s resolutions? I have already given a brief description of which of the cardinal virtues might tie in to some of the more popular new year’s resolutions. I think that there are three more things to be said about virtues, and how they aide us in our resolutions.

The first is that the virtues are powers (ST II-II.56.1). Specifically, they are powers of the should which enable us to act as we ought. Now, the New Year’s resolutions which are more commonly made largely concern things which we ought to do, but which require some sacrifice on our part to do them. This sacrifice largely pertains to temperance: be it a sacrifice of time for doing something else that in the moment we would rather do, or of money that we are tempted to spend elsewhere, or of pleasures which we can do without. In some cases, it pertains (“in a restricted sense”, ST II-II.123.4R1) to fortitude.

GPHR 45/7702: Bernard H.B. Lange, CSC, in gym with students weightlifting.
Do you even lift?

Let us consider the very specific resolution of dieting, exercising, and losing weight. Dieting as dieting pertains to abstinence, a part of temperance. Getting up early to exercise (if in the morning) also pertains to temperance, in that it limits the pleasure of sleep. But returning to the exercising after feeling sore from the first (or hundredth) workout is an imperfect, “restricted” form of fortitude. So is cutting back portion sizes (or cutting out snacks between meals) when one feels hunger pangs. So, for that matter, is increasing a workout’s intensity (or load) when the last one seemed difficult. So much for the virtues as powers.

Second, then, is that the virtues are also habits (ST II-II.55.1-3). In considering habits in general, and virtues and vices (bad habits) in particular, the philosopher Mortimer J. Adler writes

“You know how habits get formed. To form the habit of being on time for appointments, you have to try to be punctual over and over again. Gradually, the habit of being punctual gets formed. Once it is formed, you have a firm and settled disposition to be on time in getting where you promised to be. The stronger the habit, the easier it is to act in that way and the harder it is to break the habit or to act in the opposite fashion.

When you have formed a habit and it is well-developed, you take pleasure in doing what you are in the habit of doing because you do it with ease—almost without effort. You find acting against your habits painful” (Aristotle for Everybody).

adler in libraryVirtues are habits, good moral habits, and they can help us to fight bad habits. They can, moreover, help us to develop the skills or abilities that we desire, as Adler notes in continuing his discussion:

“Having temperance enable us to resist what appears to be good in the short run for the sake of what is really good in the long run…Just as temperance is an habitual disposition to resist the lure of pleasures for the sake of more important goods that overindulgence in pleasure would prevent us from getting, so courage [fortitude] is an habitual disposition to take whatever pains may be involved in doing what we ought to do for the sake of a good life.

For example, we recognize that getting knowledge and developing certain skills are intellectual virtues that we ought to have. But acquiring knowledge and skills may be painful.Studying is often hard to do; learning how to play a musical instrument well, how t write well, or how to think well involves practicing that is often irksome” (Aristotle for Everybody).

There are several ways in which this ties into our New Year’s resolutions. For one thing, many of the resolutions in questions can be met once—and then forgotten. I can diet and exercise to lose weight, but once the weight is off, will I continue to diet and exercise to keep it off? If dieting and exercising have become habitual, and if the fortitude to face another workout and the temperance to resist the desire to stay in bed (or to have an extra helping at dinner) have all become habit, then my odds of keeping the weight off are good. I will not need to make losing the same 15 pounds my resolution again next year.

Total Money MakeoverTo pick on another resolution, consider the popular goal of saving money. For many people, this goal might as easily be stated as To pay down my debts. Now, one popular method of doing this is to use debt consolidation: a seeming short-cut to paying less money each month to get rid of old debt. Concerning this practice, popular financial advisor Dave Ramsey writes that

“Debt CONsolidation—it’s nothing more than a con because you think you’ve done something about the debt problem. The debt is still there, as are the habits that caused it; you just moved it! You can’t borrow your way out of debt. You can’t get out of a hole just by digging out the bottom. Larry Bucket says debt is not the problem; it is the symptom. I feel debt is the symptom of overspending and undersaving.

A friend of mine works for a debt-consolidation firm whose internal statistics estimate that 78 percent of the time, after someone consolidates his credit-card debt, the debt grows back. Why? He still doesn’t have a game plan to either pay cash or not buy at all, and hasn’t saved for ‘unexpected events,’ which will also become debt” (The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness).

I would emphasize here that the key point is contained here: this trick doesn’t work largely because the underlying habits which caused the problem—too much debt, in particular consumer [2] debt—are still there [3]. The same thing can be said for the latest “miracle” diet drug with respect to weight loss, or for that matter to saving water and electricity (go green) by only changing to a more efficient version of a frequently-used appliance (though this can help!). Ultimately, any of these “shortcuts” may technically help us to keep our resolutions short-term, but longer-term it will be in vain. I may save some money this year, but if I then go into debt (frivolously) next year, what have I gained? Or if I lose 15 pounds by June, and then regain them by December, is my resolution actually a success?

conan best in lifeI would like to turn now to the third, and final, thing which is left to be said about the virtues. The virtues are important to our living a moral life, that is, to living a good life. However, they are not the only thing to living a good life, and indeed the cardinal virtues are improved on by the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Just as we might build upon a successfully kept resolution in our own lives, God can build upon the virtues with the gifts of and with the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Philosophy professor Peter Kreeft writes of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance:

“These four are called ‘cardinal’ from the Latin word for ‘hinge.’ Al other virtues hinge on these four. That includes lesser virtues, which are corollaries of these, and aso greater virtues (the three ‘theological virtues’), which are the flower of these.

These four virtues are not the only virtues, or even the highest ones. As Einstein surpassed Newton, Jesus most certainly surpassed Plato. But just as Einstein did not contradict Newton but included him, presupposed him, and built on him, so Jesus’ supernatural virtues do not contradict Plato’s virtues but presuppose them. Plato gives us virtue’s grammar; Jesus gives us virtues’ poetry….

Of course natural [e.g. the cardinal] virtues are real virtues, just as natural reason is real reason and natural beauty is real beauty.

True, it does not save you [to be virtues in the merely natural sense]. You do not get to heaven by being a little more just, wise, courageous, and temperate, That is not enough. But it is good.

It is also a foundation for the supernatural virtues, which do get your to Heaven. A person who is unjust, foolish, cowardly, and uncontrolled will find it harder to believe, to hope in, or to love God. The natural virtues are the seedbed, soil, or fertilizer for the flower of supernatural virtue [e.g. the theological virtues]. Ethics is preparatory to religion, because ‘the law is our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ'” (Back to Virtue).

Slapping Batman Pelagianism nd virtueI include this long passage because because it show that we need not stop with cultivating the natural virtues: we in fact ought to allow God to cultivate in us the supernatural ones. God does in fact build on whatever foundation we lay, if we will allow him to [4]. Venerable Louis of Grenada writes that

“The gifts of the Holy Ghost also facilitate the operations of the virtues, animating them and strengthening them so that they will always be ready for the performance of their proper acts. Faith, hope, and charity are perfected by the gifts of wisdom and understanding; prudence, by the gifts of knowledge and counsel; justice, by the gift of piety; fortitude, by the gift of fortitude; and temperance, by the fear of the Lord” (Summa of the Christian Life).

In a similar manner, we can build on the success of keeping our New Year’s resolutions. If you ultimately want to lose 40 pounds, start with the goal of losing 15, then try for another 25 next year when that is successful. Or if you only lose 5, try to loose another 15 pounds next year. If your goal is to save up a third of your income as an emergency fund, but you save up only half of this, make saving up a third your goal next year (and then you will have a slightly more substantial emergency fund).

Remember that these New Year’s resolutions are not in themselves sufficient to make us truly happy in life, or truly fulfilled, or successful. Neither are the natural virtues by themselves sufficient to make us happy, nor saintly, nor will they get us into heaven. But, just as the New Year’s resolution (and its keeping) is a good start,so are the virtues a good start for us. They will make it easier for us to keep our resolutions, and to better our own lives. More importantly, they will enable us to allow God to work in our lives in such a way that we are able to live a good life in this world and enter into the joy of heaven in the next.


[1] Once, these may have been “Lenten Resolutions!”

[2] Consumer debt—there’s also student loan debt, and the mortgage. These are topics for another day, but it seems to me that there is a difference in habit between the poor college student who is $25k in debt from paying for tuition and the one who sailed through with scholarships but wracked up $20 k in debt from buying the latest in consumer electronics, etc.

[3] Dave Ramsey also notes that many of these loan consolidation companies do lower your monthly payments, in exchange for extending the period of the loan. This means that while the monthly payment may be a bit less, the period over which the payment is to be made will be extended by years, and so the total amount paid may also be greater. It’s also more difficult to attack debt one item at a time when all the debt is consolidated into a single large loan.

[4] He even offers us the perfect foundation, who is Christ.