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Mercy, Justice and Grace in “Suits”

Suits is a popular TV show about slick lawyers who are rude, nasty and deceitful while bending, skirting, or straight-up breaking the law and playing interminable office politics, and it may be the last place one would expect lessons in mercy, justice and grace, but as St. Augustine says, where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.

[Warning: spoilers ahead]

Mike Ross is a bike messenger and drug dealer who was expelled from high school for giving his best friend Trevor the answers to a math test, which his friend sold to a girl who happened to be the dean’s daughter, leading to the dean’s dismissal. While evading the police, Mike stumbles in upon a job interview for law graduates, and is hired by Harvey Spector despite his lack of a law degree, after demonstrating his exceptional eidetic memory and knowledge of the law – Mike had also been making a living sitting the LSATS for other people. This incredible opportunity enables Mike to fulfill his dream of becoming a lawyer, which was derailed by the incident with Trevor as he had had to give up his acceptance to Harvard law.

To the associates and partners of the firm Pearson Hardman, their jobs are not just jobs, but become their entire purpose for living, their telos and identity. Jessica Pearson tells Harvey that when he joins the firm, he’s joining a family. The lawyers are married to their work, and this theme is played out over and over in hilarious and heartbreaking ways, as the language and norms of courtship are applied to their work relationships. Mike desists from destroying a dodgy opposing lawyer’s career, because that man pleads with him that being a lawyer is who he is, and all he has left after losing his family following the financially calamitous loss of a massive suit.

In more somber tones, Suits also shows how damaging it is to familial bonds when one becomes completely given over to one’s chosen career. Jessica’s husband divorces her, and Harvey’s mother repeatedly cheats on his father, who is often away as a traveling musician.

The show also explores how one’s childhood and family experiences can continue to play out throughout one’s life, especially when one is deeply wounded. Harvey seems to have everything go his way, and appears to be invincible and suave, fixing everything that goes wrong. But he is unable to sustain a romantic relationship, and although he and his secretary Donna have fancied each other for twelve years, he does not allow himself to truly love her and give himself to her. His inability to be vulnerable and trust others is traced back to his mother’s infidelity. We see how the sins of a parent can mar the child for life, damaging his future relationships.

As for Mike, he lost his parents in a car crash when he was twelve, and he is unable to forgive the lawyer who convinced his grandmother to accept a settlement. His anger bubbling from this ingrained sense of injustice is a key motivation in his practice of the law; he jumps at chances to defend the underdog. Yet, his anger and ambition also blinds him, and he handles 88 cases despite his lack of qualifications. That is something like an invalidly-ordained priest celebrating the sacraments – everything he touches is invalid. Despite good intentions, when the means are flawed, the consequences can be dire.

In Season 5, this lie blows up in Mike’s face when he is turned in for conspiracy to commit fraud, just after resigning following a soul-searching talk with his old school chaplain, Father Walker. We are on tenterhooks while he navigates the court case – will another incredible stroke of luck save him?

Mike ends up in prison after a self-sacrificial act to save his superiors’ skins, but though things look dire, his presence enables him to work for the freedom of his unjustly-jailed cellmate. It is terrifying to watch Mike deal with the resident murderous big bully, but Harvey continues to have his back, pulling all sorts of strings to get Mike out of jail.

Meanwhile, as Jessica faces the loss of her firm and all she has worked for, her romantic interest Jeff Malone reflects that sometimes God allows unpleasant things to happen, for a greater good. Indeed, this decimation of her firm allows Jessica to reevaluate her priorities in life, opening her mind to the possibility that there may be more to life than work.

Suits provides a nail-biting examination of moral issues and the motivations which drive people to cheat, lie and blackmail while trying to secure that nebulous thing called justice. It is a riveting show which deals honestly with questions of truth and the factors surrounding human relationships, bound by die-hard loyalty but also fractured by pain and fear. When viewed through the prism of divine providence working through the messy lives of humans, it demonstrates how good can eventually be drawn from the consequences of bad choices, although each character pays a price for their misdeeds.

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Movie Review: Mary Magdalene (2018)

A friend and I were given free tickets for a preview of the upcoming film Mary Magdalene.

The visuals were truly exquisite, bringing to life the stark beauty of poor Hebrew dwellings, their dress and cuisine, and the simplicity of life in a fishing village, with the soothing susurration of the waves ever present.

However, I was really disappointed with the lack of true understanding of Mary Magdalene’s role as a disciple of Jesus, and how the film pits her against the apostles. The film has a strong feminist bent while funnily leaving out Jesus’ other female disciples.

We are introduced to Mary as a strong-willed though mild young woman who refuses to marry, despite her father’s attempts to match-make her.

She flees to the synagogue to pray in distress, and is rebuked for bringing dishonor on her family by appearing crazed.

Her stubbornness is interpreted as demonic possession, and she is tricked into an exorcism ritual where she is nearly drowned.

However, she encounters Jesus, who is mobbed by villagers seeking cures. She runs away from home to follow him and his apostles to Jerusalem.

The apostles are portrayed as clueless Jewish patriots who see Jesus as the key to overthrowing the Roman Empire. Judas is portrayed in a sympathetic light, as someone who lost his wife and child to the Romans.

The movie depicts Mary Magdalene as being the only one to understand Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness. At her instigation, he preaches to the women of a town, especially one who is filled with hatred and unforgiveness over another’s rape. This is in contrast to the Scriptures, where Jesus needs no one to prompt Him to approach the Samaritan woman, or to visit Mary and Martha, or to raise Jairus’ daughter from the dead.

Also, Mary Magdalene is shown baptizing women, using a strange formula about being “baptized into the Light.” There is no mention of the Holy Trinity, which is necessary for a valid baptism.

Peter resents Mary’s presence and declares that she will cause division among the apostles. However, he is sent with her to minister to the towns. She tends to the dying, and he realizes that she, more than he, has grasped Jesus’ message of mercy.

Mother Mary meets them as they enter Jerusalem. Far from the beautiful and stately Mary portrayed by Maia Morgenstern in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), she looks crabby and restless. She sharply states to Mary Magdalene, indicating Jesus, “You love him, don’t you?” Mary Magdalene is then depicted lying down near Jesus, his one companion in his distress as he approaches his death.

Jesus is also shown breaking down in tears before entering Jerusalem, while Mary Magdalene comforts him, cradling his head in her lap. It is a poignant reminder of God making Himself vulnerable in His humanity, and that we can comfort Him by doing reparation for sins. Yet, all this intimacy between Mary Magdalene and Jesus in the end does a disservice to the Gospel, where Jesus pursues His earthly mission as both God and man, the Anointed One with the strength to resist temptations alone in the desert.

The movie also omits the true friendship Christ enjoyed with the apostles, particularly St. John the Beloved, who stayed with Him to the bitter end and was entrusted with His mother’s care. Instead, after the Resurrection, Mary and Peter are again depicted at odds, with Mary Magdalene pledging to carry Jesus’ message despite the corrupted message she feels Peter and the apostles will pass on in forming a church. Yet, Scripture records that Peter was the one who stood by Jesus when others deserted Him over the Eucharist.

Oddly enough, the movie ends with references to the very Church built on the rock of Peter (Matthew 16:18); yet, again, it distorts the message of the Catholic Church. It notes Pope Gregory the Great as wrongly conflating St. Mary Magdalene with the penitent prostitute, and claims that because the Vatican has recognized her as the Apostle to the Apostles, that means she is equal to the apostles.

“Apostle” is simply Greek for “messenger”, and yes, Mary Magdalene brought news of Christ’s resurrection to the Apostles, so she was the messenger to the messengers of the Gospel, the messengers ordained by Christ to preach and to forgive sins with His authority (Matthew 18:18). All this hype about “equality” is a tone-deaf rendering of the roles of both men and women in the Church, which are different though complementary.

By denying St. Mary Magdalene‘s identity as a penitent, the film has omitted the awesome wonder of God’s grace working through a repentant sinner to bring the Good News that Christ conquered sin and death.

In the end, the 2018 film Mary Magdalene may be remembered for its beautiful cinematography, but it fails to deliver the salvific truth of the Gospel as ministered through the seven Sacraments instituted by Christ. The Gospel is not just about human charity and forgiveness or equality between men and women. It encompasses God’s great design for human salvation from the time of the Fall to the present day, and the movie very disappointingly lost His plot.

(Also, they forgot the donkey when Jesus made His entry into Jerusalem, foretold in Zechariah 9:9.)

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.”

 

—-Footnotes—-

[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.

Footnotes

[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.

—-Footnotes—

[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.”

tape-measure
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.

 

—-Footnotes—-
[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
Source

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.

francis-and-dominic
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
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.

DominicanSeal
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.

DominicanCross
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

—–Footnotes—–
[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).

Secular Songs That Can Bring Us Closer to God

I listen to a lot of music—from great Catholic artists like Matt Maher and Audrey Assad to classic rock to punk rock to alternative to country to everything in between. Generally, when I wish to feel close to God or get myself into a meditative/prayerful mood, I listen to Catholic Christian music, but every so often, I come across a secular song that brings me closer to God in a new and profound way. Here are some secular songs that bring me closer to God.

“Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind

This song talks a lot about using drugs and having premarital sex and the rush that it all is. But it always comes back to the chorus:

“I want something else to get me through this semi-charmed kind of life, baby, baby, I want something else, I’m not listening when you say goodbye.”

The singer is still searching, still unfulfilled, though he keeps going on these manic adventures and searches and usages. If these things aren’t fulfilling, what else possibly could be? Well, God. That’s what this song always brings me to—I may try to fill myself up with these things of the world, things that are promised to fill me up, make me whole, and make me free, but they can’t. Not entirely, anyway. Only God can do that. Without God, we’re just living some (partially) empty, semi-charmed life.

“Let It Be” by The Beatles


Many, many a person has mistaken the subject of this song to be the Blessed Virgin Mary, that Paul McCartney was singing of her guiding hand. In fact, he wrote this song about his own mother, Mary, and how she appeared to him in a dream after she died when he was a young teenager. Doesn’t change the fact that this song could very well be about the Blessed Virgin, and I choose to listen to it that way because she is always guiding us and helping us to grow in virtue and discernment, after all 😉

“Fix You” by Coldplay

The emotion in this song is infectious, and it’s hard not to feel the pain and longing. This song is all about being broken and needing to be fixed. When listening to the chorus as though it were Christ speaking to you, well, let’s just say tears stream down my face every time.

“Bless the Broken Road” by Rascal Flatts

This one, I think, is a little more straightforward. The road of life is rarely ever straight and obstacle-free, and this song talks about walking it anyway, trusting God to bring you right where you’re supposed to be no matter what. And who couldn’t learn to trust Him a little more? I know I need that reminder! Jesus, I trust in You. Great song for the Year of Mercy!

“The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World

I first heard this song when I was young and very unsure of myself, of who I was and what I was doing, and this song reassured me that if I continued to stay close to God and pursued Truth and goodness, that it would all figure itself out (which it did). I always picture Jesus singing this song to me, just telling me to hang on, trust Him, and do my best in every situation that’s presented to me.

“How to Save a Life” by The Fray

Another fairly straightforward song, this one talks about trying to help a friend out of a deep struggle, an addiction of some sort, but all of the gentle nudgings of the narrator remind me of how God gently nudges us, is always beside us even in our darkest moments, and always tries to help us into the light. This song, for me, is about learning how to accept God’s grace, not wallowing in self-pity, and being grateful for every moment, every struggle, every slight urging back to grace.

“Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” by Green Day

Life changes. Things happen. Our perspective shifts. This mournful song is about learning to accept the changes, learning to be ready for them, and being grateful for what you’ve been given and the time you’ve had to live. At one point, he sings: “For what it’s worth, it was worth all the while.” Life is always worth living, always worth fighting for, always worth moving forward. With God, the future, the unpredictable path of life, doesn’t have to be so scary. So while this song is very reflective on life lived thus far, I find it very hopeful for the future, that everything is a gift and that God will never abandon us no matter what life throws our way.

What are some secular songs that remind you of God or bring you closer to Him? This list certainly isn’t exhaustive! Which ones on my list surprised you or made you think? Any that you completely disagree with?

 

A version of this post originally appeared on EpicPew

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.

bigthink-michio-kaku-brain-net-futureBCI-brain-computerinterfaces
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?

The_Matrix_Poster
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)

—-Footnotes—-
[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].

Sides-LA-Riots-6_525
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].

st-nick-punches-arius
Heresy!

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-the-Hammer
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.

 

Footnotes
[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.

Evangelizing the Lost and Hurting Catholics: A Review of Shaun McAfee’s “Filling Our Father’s House”

Why should we care about apathetic Catholics?

Throughout the world, there are many Catholics who have grown disinterested in the faith. They have no desire to further their devotion. At times they stop practicing the faith altogether, especially after negative experiences with priests or parishes. Yet, despite the fact that so many of these apathetic Catholics occasionally sit next to us in church or walk past us in the parish’s parking lot, we easily can turn a blind eye to their lack of concern. Instead, following a culture that focuses so much on the individual, we satisfy ourselves with attending Mass each week and observing the Precepts of the Church, not thinking about the plight of others in the pews. However, in Filling Our Father’s House: What Converts Can Teach Us about Evangelization (Sophia Institute Press, 2014), author Shaun McAfee challenges this individualized outlook. He challenges people to truly care about evangelizing other Catholics, since we are all one family in the Catholic Church:

“No family is ever happy or ambivalent when a member is in a rough place, is sick, or feels unwanted, just as no one is satisfied with a part of his body having an infection or being broken. It matters even more for those who are Christian because we identify with the reality that we are Christ’s Body,” McAfee notes.

As members of the Body of Christ, we have a mission to reach out to the other members who are hurting or lost. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops declares, “The focus of the New Evangelization calls all Catholics to be evangelized and then go forth to evangelize.” Filling Our Father’s House is directed towards helping Catholics in this mission. This concise book provides ways for people to deepen their faith lives and be evangelized themselves, so that they may go forth and bring the Gospel to others.

Drawing from his personal experiences as a convert to Catholicism, McAfee illustrates the ways in which Catholics may grow in their faith and then share it with others. After reflecting on the importance of giving one’s personal testimony in evangelization, McAfee walks the reader through the process of developing his or her own personal testimony, so that he or she will be able to present it when asked about the faith. Reflecting on 1 Peter 3:15, McAfee affirms that “Every child of God has a story worth hearing, and Catholics are no exception.” He continues to remind the reader that “you might provide someone’s only chance to hear a moving story about the real life-changing power of Christ.”

After addressing the need to develop a personal testimony, McAfee then dives into the ways in which Catholics can grow stronger in their relationship with God. He discusses the importance of reading and studying Scripture, while providing several accessible resources for this. He notes the importance of prayer as well. I especially appreciated the emphasis that McAfee places on growth in and through the parish community. He states, “After the family unity, the parish is where the souls of the Church are formed and nurtured.” From social media to surveys of talent and small groups, McAfee discusses a variety of ways in which Catholics can become involved in their parish communities as they grow stronger in their faith.

Finally, after discussing ways in which Catholics can grow stronger in their faith and help other Catholics grow as well, McAfee touches on the importance of going out to non-Catholics. Drawing from papal encyclicals and Scripture, McAfee encourages us to recognize the importance of ecumenism, and to work for unity among the various groups of Christians that exist.

Reading Filling Our Father’s House encouraged me not only to take my own relationship with God more seriously, but also to intentionally think about the ways in which I may reach out to those Catholics who slip into my pew at church. After all, we never know who may be waiting for a friendly greeting or a helping hand in the journey towards God.

Schrödinger’s Family: An Open and Closed Case for Family Discernment

When our first son was born, we received hand-made stockings with our names on them for Christmas. I loved these stockings. They were well made and just the style I would have chosen. So when we found out that I was pregnant with our second son the next year, you can imagine how I panicked. Could I get another stocking? Would it match the others? What if it looked differently? This new baby was a monkey wrench thrown into my Type A Christmas decor planning.

If you’re worried about how it turned out, we were gifted another matching stocking and the crisis was averted. Looking back though, it’s quite embarrassing. I was so concerned with having a “complete” set of stockings on the mantle that I forgot about the family members they belonged to. This question of numbers and completeness kept bothering me. How many children would we have? When would we have them? What did God want from us and when? Just how many stockings would I need?

I’m not the only one to have lost some sleep over this. There is a sense of anxiety and an urgency to either have your family complete or to know exactly the plan to complete your family. As soon as someone has a new baby, people begin to ask if there will be any more. Friends have posted on social media, “With this new baby, now our family is finally complete!” I’ve seen painted on nursery walls, First we had each other, then we had you, and now we have everything, which boasts this sense of wholeness. People comment to a friend with three little girls and a new baby boy, “Now that you got your boy, you’re set!” This impulse to be “complete” and in total control is understandable.

In a way, we can even say that this desire is an echo of Jesus’ command in Matthew 4:48 to, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We desire a fulfillment and meaningfulness in our hearts, and in the married life, establishing a family can provide that kind of affirmation.

Even so, placing our family or our family size as the nucleus of our meaning and purpose is unfair to them, to ourselves, and to God. We will not find our ultimate worth and meaning in life by means of any person or worldly pursuit, even good ones like marriage and family. Only in the pursuit of Truth and a relationship with the Lord will we find the fulfillment we see. Living the vocation of marriage doesn’t mean that we find meaning in this perfect spouse and create some idyllic family. It means that we spend each day seeking holiness. We experience the sacrificial love of Jesus in each other. We help each other along the way to Heaven in every big and little action, word, and decision.

But what does this have to do with the mistake of thinking that we can “complete” our family? How can we quell this anxiety we might feel when we think about where we are going and what we should be doing? We might consider Schrödinger’s thought experiment as a guide. Take a moment to consider that you and your family are simultaneously complete and incomplete, perfect and being perfected, on the journey and at your destination.

Maybe you’re newly married and have no children yet, or you may have 7 children and counting. You might be struggling with infertility. You may be postponing a pregnancy, even indefinitely, for any number of reasons. No matter what age you are or what situation you are in, your family is complete. Be confident that if you are consciously striving to live as a disciple of Jesus and are prayerfully discerning God’s will for your family, that you are fully living your vocation and you are complete in where you are and what God desires for you.

At the same time, remember that you and those in your family are incomplete. Even if you have a spouse whom you love and children you adore, even if you have the perfect job, hard but wonderful days, and a perfect set of Christmas stockings on your mantle, you are not complete. You are still traveling the road toward becoming perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, and you are not there yet.

If any of this resonates with you, pray and meditate on the words that Saint Paul wrote to the Philippians, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Don’t be anxious and afraid that you are not “complete”. Don’t be content to stay as you and become stagnant. Be dynamic, be joyful, and be confident that God will work in your own completely incomplete, and perfectly imperfect heart.