Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Woodward: "Catholics Need Not Apply"

That was the sign that applicants often found on employers' doors during the Irish, Italian, and eastern European immigration booms of the 1800s. Unfortunately, it is the sign that some modernist theologians would like to hang on the doors of the Catholic Church today.

“If Protestants became Catholics in the late 1960s or in the '70s and early '80s, it was mainly for family reasons, or because they intended to marry a Catholic.” So intones Fr. Richard McBrien, Crowley-O'Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, in a recent column, remembering what he apparently thinks of as the good old days.

Well, I was a Protestant who became a Catholic in 1972. It was not for family reasons; my conversion broke my Presbyterian parents' hearts. And it was not because I was marrying a Catholic; I had no intention (make that prospects) of getting married to a Catholic or anybody else at the time. It was because I came to regard the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church as the truth – or, as Fr. McBrien would say, “the truth.” (Fr. McBrien is one of the preeminent contemporary masters of the scare quote. If there were a surcharge on their use, he could not afford to publish anything at all.)

Fr. McBrien seems worried – no, make that annoyed – that anyone would convert to Catholicism for reasons of actual religious conviction. If your spouse is Catholic and you're really only interested in the whole family being able to go to church together, then fine – sign up for RCIA and go through the formalities. But if you actually come to a belief in the Real Presence, or the primacy of the Chair of Peter, or the redemptive value of suffering, or that “communion of saints” business that you may have professed as a Protestant even if you had no idea what the term meant, then you're immediately suspect in Fr. McBrien's new “post-Vatican II” Catholic church. (See, I can use scare quotes too.)

Everyone is entitled to his own assessment of the greatest challenges now confronting the Church. (To see one pretty good list, by the way, go here.) But, with this column, Fr. Richard McBrien instantly becomes a strong contender for having the most bizarre notion of the major problems besetting Catholicism in this first decade of the Third Millennium. (Yeah, I know -- Fr. McBrien would probably put a triumphalistic term like Third Millennium in scare quotes too.) He thinks too many people are becoming Catholic because ... they actually believe what Catholicism teaches.

I was able to come into the Church – Deo gratias – at a time when people like Fr. McBrien were in the ascendancy and the hermeneutic of discontinuity was the party-line interpretation of the Second Vatican Council. I have lived long enough as a Catholic to see that faulty view corrected. Fr. McBrien has lived long enough – Deo gratias – to see it corrected too. Unfortunately, that just seems to have made him grumpy.

Vehige: The Temptation of Christ

Pope Benedict writes in Jesus of Nazareth:

At the heart of all temptations, as we see here, is the act of pushing God aside because we perceive him as secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the apparently far more urgent matters that fill our lives. Constructing a world by our own lights, without reference to God, building on our own foundation; refusing to acknowledge the reality of anything beyond the political and material, while setting God aside as an illusion -- that is the temptation that threatens us in many varied forms.

Now, an excerpt from a catechetical essay I wrote on original sin:

It’s generally accepted that the account of the fall as described in Genesis 3 is clothed with religious symbols. But that does not mean that the fall did not happen. Stripped of this clothing, we have basically the following facts: our first parents had been given a divine command, and the devil tempted them to go against God. But their disobedience was not juvenile, it was not disobedience for the sake of disobedience. The devil appealed to their pride and tempted them with moral autonomy. Here's what Genesis says:

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good from evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate (Gen 3.4-6, RSV Catholic Edition).

This is so important, let’s look at it in a couple of different translations. First, the old Confraternity Version:

But the serpent said to the woman, “No, you shall not die; for God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Now the woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for the knowledge it would give. She took of its fruit and ate it, and also gave some to her husband and he ate.

Second, the Jerusalem Bible:

Then the serpent said to the woman, “No! You will not die! God knows in fact that on the day you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil.” The woman saw that the tree was good to eat and pleasing to the eye, and that it was desirable for the knowledge that it could give. So she took some of its fruit and ate it. She gave some also to her husband who was with her, and he ate it.

All three translations make it clear: At the heart of the temptation was the desire to be like God, to know good and evil, and at the prompting of the devil, Adam and Eve desired to have this God-like knowledge.

Do you not find it interesting that the first act of sin, and the first temptation the devil puts before our Lord, is the sin of pride -- the sin by which reject our creatureliness and desire to be the Creator?

If you're like me, sometimes most of the time it can be difficult to live out an imitation of Christ. The difficulty, or so I claim, is that our Lord was, well, the Lord, and he lived in different a different age, in a different culture, and he wasn't married and didn't have three hyper-active kids, or a spouse who by necessity is pre-occupied with what's going on at work, or the annoyance of living in a big city, or . . . or . . . or . . .

And the list can go on and on.

But the heart of all sin is pride. This is what the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve teaches us, and a close examination of conscious can usually show that all of our own sins, particularly those we intend, have their roots in pride. And that's exactly the temptation our Lord endured.

So if anything, the temptation of Jesus should make our imitation of Christ, if not easier to live out, at least easier to think about. One by one, I can hear the Holy Spirit knocking over the excuses like wind blowing down dead trees.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Vehige: Does Your Mother Know You're Reading This?

Online Dating

This rating was determined based on the presence of the following words:

* dick (13x)
* abortion (4x)
* hell (3x)
* dead (2x)
* sex (1x)

I think my post on Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle really did us in.

H/T: Happy Catholic

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Woodward: Where the Magic Happens

I can't claim that my posts are about to become any more enjoyable to read, but they will certainly be more enjoyable to write, now that I have a new computer desk. (If the picture doesn't look all that impressive to you, just imagine what the old set-up must have been like.)

As happy as I am to be so well-equipped and organized now, I'm still nowhere close to having the posh work surroundings that Vehige enjoys. He actually has his own study/den/library -- just like Ward Cleaver.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Vehige: Good Stephen King

As I've noted in previous posts, I'm a life-long Stephen King fan. I have read much of his new stuff; it's not very good, I think. And as much as King himself hates to hear it, his best stuff is his old stuff.

Why is that? Because when he was just starting out -- even after the success of Carrie, Salem's Lot, and The Shining -- he still had editors he had to please. I know that many writers hate having editorial boundaries, but those boundaries usually improve a piece of fiction. Case in point is The Stand, King's fourth novel.

In the mid-70's, when he didn't have the clout that he has now, the editors at Doubleday made King cut -- get this -- 150,000 words from The Stand. Folks, 150,000 words is 600 correctly formatted manuscript pages; it's a novel in-and-of-itself. And that original version of The Stand is a fine novel; it may be his best work.

But King wasn't happy with it. In fact, on his web sight, he calls that original version "incomplete." Perhaps from King's viewpoint it is; but that "complete and unabridged" that restored those extra 600 pages isn't any better than the original version. Sure, some of the plot lines are more coherent; but there's a lot of superfluity, too.

At any rate, the King I like best is the old King -- when he still had to meet the demands of the editors. The short-story collection Night Shift contains some of King's oldest work.

I recently started rereading Night Shift because I finally decided, after twenty years, to read the story that opens that collection, a story called "Jersualem's Lot." Told in an epistolary form, this is a Gothic story at its finest. Charles Boone is a member of a cursed family who, upon retuning to his ancestral home, Chaplewaite, discovers that he himself is haunted. Joined to this basic Gothic structure is a series of hat tips to H. P. Lovecraft: rats in the walls, a shunned village, a rare book of the occult, an evil attached to ancient mystery religions, the use of the word “eldritch,” and, finally, the appearance of yogsoggoth (i.e., Yog-Sothoth).

King is able to pull off some genuinely creepy moments — none of which are found at the climax. The best kind of horror story, the one that can really creep out the reader, is the kind that doesn’t show anything, or only shows very little. It refrains from opening the door. It knows that nothing can be scarier than what’s left to the readers own imagination. At the climax of this story, King does what King does worst — he opens the door all the way and shows us the yogsoggoth. Sigh . . . the spell has been broken. But in the middle of the story, through the power of suggestion as well as some really creepy images, King is able to make your flesh crawl. Good stuff, that.

On a personal note, I’m glad it took me twenty-years to read this story. This little gem reminded me why I love King’s work.

So if you're interested in a fine collection of scary stories by the King of Horror, do yourself a favor and get a copy of Night Shift.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Woodward: Words Mean Things

The New York Times opposes President Bush's veto of a bill that would have permitted Federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. (Free registration required to read the editorial.)

Fair enough, and no surprise -- although one might quibble with the Times' characterization of the bill as one that would "lift restrictions on human embryonic stem cell experiments." Note to the Times: There are no legal restrictions on human embryonic stem cell experiments, unless one thinks that refusing to pay for a practice is a restriction on that practice. In that sense, I guess I might be accused of restricting the sale of the New York Times by not subscribing to it.

But I digress -- or maybe not, because what I want to talk about is the peculiar relationship the New York Times has with the English language. In particular, take a look at the way the Times describes President Bush's reason for vetoing the embryonic stem cell bill:

...because it would involve the destruction of microscopic entities — smaller than the period at the end of this sentence — that the president deems a nascent form of life.

Now a great deal of verbal imprecision -- intentional and unintentional -- characterizes the public discussion of embryonic stem cell research, beginning with the tendency of its proponents to drop that first word and to accuse those opposed to embryonic stem cell research of opposing stem cell research, period. That tendency -- an example of intentional (dishonest) verbal imprecision, in my view -- has been pointed out and commented on adequately, I think. Neither President Bush nor (more importantly, from my perspective) the Catholic Church is opposed to stem cell research.

But the latest New York Times editorial descends to new obfuscatory depths in the war of words over this issue. The problem, it implies, is with President Bush's peculiar understanding of what an embryo is. He "deems" an embryo to be "a nascent form of life." Sort of the way I "deem" Willie Mays to be the greatest baseball player of all time. Just my private opinion, open to debate.

The problem with the Times' choice of words is that I've never met, read, or heard of anyone -- other than, apparently, this particular editorial writer -- who would challenge the proposition that a human embryo is "a nascent form of life." That's not at all the point of controversy regarding embryonic stem cell experimentation. The question, as someone perhaps should explain to the New York Times, is whether an embryo in the very earliest stages of its development constitutes human life in a way that entitles it to particular respect and protection. The bell pepper seeds that my kids planted this spring are "a nascent form of life," but no one is debating the ethical ramifications of their treatment.

Why would the New York Times imply that moral issues surrounding embryonic stem cell experimentation hinge on whether an embryo is "a form of life"? Just sloppy, hurried writing? Maybe, but I suspect not. (The Times isn't as well written as it used to be, but it's still not that bad.) I believe the editorial's strange wording exemplifies a black-and-white, line-in-the-sand strategy that marks the pro-abortion movement these days -- a relentless unwillingness to admit that abortion poses any moral questions at all. One can see this unwillingness in the radical positions of some prominent pro-abortion politicians even with respect to measures one might think unobjectionable in and of themselves -- laws protecting babies who are born alive even as the result of an unsuccessful abortion, or laws making it a separate offense to kill an unborn child in the commission of another crime. The only comprehensible reason any legislator could have for opposing laws of this kind is that they imply a rudimentary moral imperative with respect to a child still in his mother's womb. To admit such an imperative would be to admit the relevance of additional questions that no supporter of abortion on demand wants asked. The best defense of the pro-abortion position is a full court press; giving anything away could mean giving everything away.

And so now we have the New York Times really giving nothing away -- implicitly calling into question whether a human embryo is even alive. If it's not "a nascent form of life," then it certainly can't be a nascent (or any other) form of human life, so what's all the fuss about?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Woodward: Harrius Potter?

No, I think we'll stick with the classics.

Vehige: Harry Potter

Hey, Woodward, are you gonna incorporate this into the Woodward Academy's Latin curriculum?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Woodward: Baptism and Temptation

We are a long way today, both historically and intellectually, from the Christological disputes that shaped the first three centuries of the Church. The question of how a single person can be both God and man doesn't bewilder us as it did the earliest generations of Christians. It is unlikely nowadays to inspire anything like the turmoil and violence that marked the Catholic-Arian conflict and made necessary the Council – and the Creed – of Nicea.

But none of this modern tranquillity is evidence that we are more theologically sophisticated than our Christian ancestors of the third and fourth centuries. It's simply that we don't think about the matter any more. We stand up on Sundays and mutter something about God the Son being born of the Virgin Mary and becoming man and we let it go at that. We are disinclined to spend much time speculating about what a human being who is also God would actually think and feel and do.

Occasionally, though, a Gospel passage (if we stop and ponder what we're reading) will force the question on us in a way that makes us see just what a stupefying thing it is that we say we believe. And we may then find ourselves sorting out the nuts and bolts and practical consequences of the Incarnation. Two such Gospel passages are the very first two texts that Pope Benedict takes up in his new book Jesus of Nazareth: Our Lord's baptism and his temptation in the wilderness.

Why would Jesus need or want to be baptized? Why submit himself to a ritual that – even in the non-sacramental form in which John the Baptist administered it – signified a cleansing from sin? And in what real sense could Jesus, whose human will was perfectly united to the will of his Father, ever be tempted as we are?

I won't try to summarize His Holiness' answers to these questions. They are not long or complicated, but they are brilliant, and every Catholic should read them. I will just say that Benedict fits these two seemingly odd and theologically confused episodes firmly into the context of Jesus' whole life and mission. Like everything that Jesus said and did, his baptism and his temptation by Satan were integrally related to his work of salvation. Here are a couple of passages that will give you a taste of what the Pope has to say on the subjects.

On the baptism:

Jesus loaded the burden of all mankind's guilt upon his shoulders; he bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. He inaugurated his public activity by stepping into the place of sinners. His inaugural gesture is an anticipation of the Cross.

And on the temptations:

The Apostles' Creed speaks of Jesus' descent “into hell.” This descent not only took place in and after his death, but accompanies him along his entire journey. He must recapitulate the whole of history from its beginnings – from Adam on; he must go through, suffer through, the whole of it, in order to transform it...In this sense, we can see the story of the temptations – just like the Baptism – as an anticipation that condenses into a single expression the struggle he endured at every step of his mission.

Beyond the carefully worked out theological analyses of which these quoted passages are a part, Jesus of Nazareth is full of startling little gems – single sentences or short paragraphs that stand on their own and express insights that have come from Benedict's long lifetime (may it be much longer!) of reading and meditating on the life of Jesus. My copy is getting pretty marked up with marginal notes – checkmarks, exclamation points, stars, an occasional “wow.” Here's one of the gems:

At the heart of all temptations, as we see here, is the act of pushing God aside because we perceive him as secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the apparently far more urgent matters that fill our lives.

Beside that one, I wrote “ouch.”

Monday, June 11, 2007

Vehige: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick falls in the sub-genre of alternate history, and shows what the world might look like had the Allies lost World War II. Philip K. Dick presents this reality through the lives of a half-dozen individuals, individuals taken from different parts of society. So what Dick gives us primarily is a character story — the best kinds of stories, I think.

I won’t attempt to explain the back story. You’d have to have read the novel at least two or three times in order to do that, and you’d also have to do it with a map. Instead, I’ll point you to this article, which certainly helped me, and provide you with this map of Dick’s alternate post-WW II world:

Focusing on the United States, you see it is not divided into three sections. The lime-green on the Western coast is now Japan’s (this is where most of the action takes place); the red on the east and southeast, all the way to Texas, is now the Nazis. And the spread of blue in the middle is what’s left of the U.S. You can get a better look at this map here.

Beyond this basic sketch, I’m not really sure what to say about Dick’s novel. So let me ramble a bit.

On the one hand, I thought it was brilliant — not only in its alternate history, but in the way he presents that history to us. Most of this novel takes place in San Francisco. Japan runs the show, and white people are in the minority. Since High Castle was written in 1963, it’s hard to miss the racial undertones here. I suspect a white American reading this book in 1963, particularly if he or she lived in the south, would finds parts of this novel very uncomfortable. But that’s the reality Dick gives us, and he does a masterful job making us feel what it’s like to a minority within a culture.

It’s actually this story — the story of Robert Childan — that I found most intriguing. Childan owns a shop that sells American memorabilia to the Japanese. The Japanese infatuation with this stuff makes for a very memorable scene when Tagomi, a Japanese businessman, presents a Mickey Mouse watch to Baynes, a Swedish business man, as a token of great respect. Both Childan and Tagomi have agonized over this gift, but we are in Baynes’ point of view when the gift is given. Baynes is a lover of fine art and classical music and is quite shocked when he opens this gift. “Is this is a joke?” he thinks. Funny, yes; I laughed aloud when I read it. But it has a serious side, too — namely, cultural differences can make it very difficult for us to understand one another.

But it’s Childan’s story that really moved me, because it’s all about art and the roll of art in society, and what separates cheap and popular art from true and good art. True art, Dick suggests, isn’t about looking pretty; its not about being easily apprehended. True art, rather, is initially rejected, and it must be contemplated to be understood; and it’s through that contemplation that true art leads us to wisdom — indeed, is able to lead to us new and alternate realties.

The other story lines in High Castle are enjoyable, too, but I didn’t find them as moving as Childan’s story.

On the other hand, I’m not sure what to make of the metafictive aspects of the novel. Metafiction, if you don’t know, is fiction about fiction — fiction that asks what fiction is and the way fiction works. It’s a philosophy of fiction written within the context of fiction itself. Depending on how the writer uses it, I find metafiction either very enjoyable, like an inside joke, or very annoying. And if it’s anything, High Castle is a piece of metafiction, and it has both the enjoyable and annoying aspects of metafiction.

Last week I noted a passage in which Dick gives us a definition of science fiction — an obvious reference to his own novel. That kind of metafiction is enjoyable. Through that passage, Dick gives his readers a wink: “Hey,” he says, “did you catch that? Do you see the relationship to the novel you’re reading? Do you understand what I’m saying.” What’s being discussed in that passage is the novel everyone in High Castle is reading, a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which is an alternate history of what happens had the Allies won World War II — but its history is different than the history we are living in the “real world.”

So there’s a novel within a novel, or, more precisely, an alternate history novel within an alternate history novel. Both novels are dealing with alternate histories stemming from World War II. And both novels present histories different from our own. (The world of Grasshopper where the Allies are victorious is very different from our world.)

So far, so good, but in my opinion this is when metafiction can start to become annoying. It works within High Castle because what makes alternate history so enjoyable is that there are so many possibilities one can ponder. Too often we think in terms of either-or, as if there were only two possible historical outcomes. “Thank goodness Germany lost WW II,” we say, believing ignorantly, as Dick tells us, that the way the Allies won, and the aftermath of that victory, was the only possible way things could have unfolded. So High Castle gives us one version of the world had the Nazis won, and Grasshopper gives us an alternate vision of the world had the Allies victory happened in a different way. Which means that as a reader we’re dealing with three realities — the one we’re living in, the one of High Castle, and the one of Grasshopper.

At the ending of the novel one of our characters in High Castle meets the man who wrote Grasshopper, and she learns why he had written Grasshopper. It is this moment of revelation when I think metafiction goes awry and becomes annoying. It doesn’t help, either, that I’m neither an existentialist, a nihilist, a pessimist, nor a madman — one of which you’d have to be in order to find Dick’s conclusion anything but eye-rolling. Call me an Aristotelian, a Thomist, a realist, or a philosophical philistine — I can live with all four — but art that questions whether or not we can know reality, or that posits alternate realties other than our own, or suggests that life and existence is unknowable and meaningless . . . well, I find that kind of art, at best, silly, and at worst, immoral. Luckily, Dick's climatic idea is just silly.

Thankfully, because there are so many characters, High Castle is more than it’s ending. Each principle character has his or her own story, and all of them are very good. It’s just the last few pages that are irritating. I enjoyed it immensely, and I’m looking forward to reading it again.

(NOTE: Also posted at A Science Fiction Odyssey.)

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Vehige: The Second World War by Winston Churchill

Woodward and I shop at the same used bookstore chain, so we often talk about our finds. Though we've never spoken of it in terms of competition, I know whenever he announces a good deal I feel a twinge a jealousy. And though he's never said anything about my own good finds, I can tell by the way he tightens his lips that he's not too pleased that he missed it for himself.

Well, today I think I can declare myself king of this mountain.

Sitting on the clearance section were all six volumes of Winston Churchill's history of World War II. A full, matching set. In hardback. In good condition. Each costing a grand total of one dollar. Yes, that's right, I bought the set for a whopping $6.

I'm giddy!

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Vehige: The Baptism of Jesus and Taking the Gospels Seriously

The baptism of Jesus, as Pope Benedict notes in Jesus of Nazareth, is difficult to understand. If Jesus is without sin, why did he need to be baptized? If he is truly the Son of God, then what is the significance of the heavens opening, the voice of the Father, and the descent of the Holy Spirit? These are the two primary questions, but they are difficult and challenging.

The Pope answers them, so I won't belabor the point. What I want to highlight, however, is how the Pope closes the chapter. He notes that so-called "liberal scholarship" (which should not be confused with liberal politics) has tried to interpret Christ's baptism as a personal revelation, a personal epiphany, on the part of Jesus. Simply, that through his baptism, he had a spiritual awakening, understood his special relationship with God, understood his vocation, and at that moment set out upon fulfilling his task.

As the saying goes, there are no new heresies. The early Church endured a similar notion -- adoptionism. This heresy, which goes all the way back to the second century, taught that Jesus was only a man, albeit a very pious and religious man, and that at his baptism he was filled with the power of God -- the Holy Spirit -- and adopted as the son of God. Like most heresies, it took various forms throughout the centuries, but it never departs from this basic outline.

From a certain point of view, it's a nice solution to very difficult questions. By evading the stumbling block of stumbling blocks -- the Incarnation -- adoptionism is a perfectly rational explanation of Jesus' baptism. The problem with it, as the Pope notes, is that it's an explanation that is not grounded in the Gospels. If we can dismiss biblical texts that confound us, then the Bible becomes a rather simple book to interpret, for we are rewriting it according to our own ideas and imaginations.

The hallmark of Catholic theology is taking the Bible -- every part of the Bible -- seriously. Despite what many Protestants may think, Catholic theology is determined by what the Bible says, it does not determine what the Bible means. And if there's one thing our world needs to hear today, is that when we read the Bible, we must take what it asserts seriously.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Woodward: Science Throws a Hissy Fit

Let me begin with some disclaimers. I don't believe – as Bishop Ussher did and as a lot of people apparently still do -- that the earth was created in 4004 B.C. (I'm under no obligation to take a Catholic bishop's word on the subject, let alone an Anglican's.) Nor do I believe that all forms of life on earth came into existence more or less at the same time during a single act of divine creation. If asked to explain the origin of species – something that, surprisingly, I am almost never asked to do – I would say that increasingly complex forms of life have developed slowly and incrementally through genetic mutations over hundreds of millions of years, and that that development includes human beings. I do, however, have my doubts – as do many reputable biologists, I believe – about the adequacy of Darwin's theories to explain what we humans regard as the upward direction of that evolutionary development. In short, I accept evolution as a reasonable, indeed a likely, explanation of biological diversity on this planet; I do not have any idea – nor do I think anybody else does – as to how evolution “works.” All of that puts me, I guess, somewhere in the middle of the vast ideological expanse that lies between a young-Earth creationist and Richard Dawkins. And that's fine with me. I would like to maximize the distance between myself and each of those extremes.

Just lately, though, in the loud and acrimonious cultural skirmish being fought between “science” and “religion” over evolution, it has seemed to me the scientists are the ones who are looking like anti-intellectual fundamentalists. I offer two bits of evidence gathered at random in the last couple of weeks.

The first is an article, published on the website of the Edge Foundation, explaining why some people “resist science.” Turns out that the reasons for this resistance are psychological, according to the authors (who are both psychologists). We live in a complex culture, in which we daily encounter “asserted information” that we cannot directly verify on the basis of our own observation or testing. Faced with these assertions, we rely, out of pure practical necessity, on the a priori trustworthiness of the source of the asserted information. We take the word of a friend about what an entertaining character his Uncle Charlie is, because we don't personally know Charlie but our friend knows him well and is a generally reliable sort. For analogous reasons, we take the word of a chemist that helium atoms have two protons and two neutrons in their nuclei, and two electrons circling around. But when asserted unverifiable information from one source comes into conflict with other asserted unverifiable information from another source, then our willingness to acknowledge the truth of either assertion depends ultimately on our judgment about which of the two sources is more trustworthy. And this is where pre- or sub-rational psychological forces come into play (according to the article). People tend to subordinate the claims of science to the claims of religious faith because some of the assertions of science are (in the words of the article) “unnatural and unintuitive,” and posit a world that works differently from the commonsense world we have perceived since childhood. If we have religious beliefs that seem to be contradicted by the scientific assertion, then our tendency to resist science will be all the stronger. Here is how the article puts it:

Resistance to science will arise in children when scientific claims clash with early emerging, intuitive expectations. This resistance will persist through adulthood if the scientific claims are contested within a society, and will be especially strong if there is a non-scientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are taken as reliable and trustworthy.

I cite and quote from the Edge article not in order to argue with it but to single out one feature of the authors' conclusions about the current state of science in American culture. Except when scientists take positions outside their fields of expertise, it would be “mistaken” (the article says) for people to reject scientific assertions in preference to the teachings of religious leaders because

...the community of scientists has a legitimate claim to trustworthiness that other social institutions, such as religions and political movements, lack. The structure of scientific inquiry involves procedures, such as experiments and open debate, that are strikingly successful at revealing truths about the world. All other things being equal, a rational person is wise to defer to a geologist about the age of the earth rather than to a priest or to a politician.

I have two reactions to that passage. First, since I began this post by deferring to geologists about the age of the earth – and refusing to defer to a priest (albeit an Anglican one) – I would seem to qualify officially as a rational person. (I hope Vehige is reading this.)

Second, I can't help wondering whether the passage accurately defines the position that scientists really want to stake out for themselves in the modern world. The passage seems to me to define a very different position from the one that scientists have occupied throughout most of history. The claim of the scientist on the public's attention has always been “Believe me, because I can demonstrate that what I say is true.” Now the claim seems to be turning into something more like “Believe me, because...well..I have a 'legitimate claim to trustworthiness.'”

I might have passed over the Edge article without further thought if I hadn't come across an account, a few days later, of the opening of something called the Creation Museum. This is an elaborate facility (in my home state of Kentucky, wouldn't you know) operated by an organization called Answers in Genesis -- some of those people I mentioned at the beginning of the post, people who think that the earth is only a few thousand years old and that all species were created directly by God, more or less simultaneously. In other words, they believe that prehistoric human beings and dinosaurs lived at the same time.

That is the sort of “asserted information” that nowadays seems to drive some scientists and proponents of science completely nuts. The National Center for Science Education (NCSE), for example, issued a response to the museum's opening that reminded me in many ways of the appeal to “trustworthiness” expressed in the Edge article. The NCSE press release quotes a Los Angeles Times editorial contrasting the Answers in Genesis position with that of “the world's credible scientific community.” Note the wording – the issue, even as the pro-science side expresses it, is “credibility.” I hate to point this out to the NCSE and Los Angeles Times, but public opinion polls suggest that creationism and its variants are quite literally as “credible” as Darwinism. Are the claims of science now to be tested by their “credibility,” as if science were simply one competing belief system among many and the competition is best settled by a show of hands?

Apparently so. On Memorial Day, in front of the Creation Museum, there was to be a “Rally for Reason” -- a phrase whose swirling ironies should boggle any rational mind. And why the rally? “To protest this destructive [i.e., creationist] world view,” explained the rally's organizer. Note again the wording. Is the protesters' objection to creationism that it is false? Is their quarrel with it, as the name of the rally would imply, its irrationality? No. Their objection to creationism is that it is “destructive.” I don't know a single person associated with Answers in Genesis, but I would be willing to bet that virtually all of them regard Darwinism as a “destructive world view,” making the science-religion confrontation on this point, at least, a rhetorical stand-off. No evidence, no argument, just name-calling.

Here, however, (from the NCSE press release) is the real give-away that the public stature of science is being undermined by its own champions:

NCSE executive director Eugenie C. Scott told ABC's Good Morning America (May 25, 2007) that her fear is that students will "show up in classrooms and say, 'Gee, Mrs. Brown, I went to this spiffy museum last summer and they say that everything you're teaching me is a lie.'"

Pardon me, but if Mrs. Brown has any dedication to and confidence in science, shouldn't that be the kind of moment she lives for? Isn't meeting intellectual challenges of that sort precisely what we pay teachers to do and what they should be grateful for the opportunity to do? Isn't the student's assertion -- “Everything you're teaching me is a lie” -- something that a scientist should not “fear” but should welcome the chance to refute, with evidence and argument? What happened to "the structure of scientific inquiry," with those "procedures, such as experiments and open debate, that are strikingly successful at revealing truths about the world"? When did the scientific method become "Shut up. I know more than you"?

Yet exactly that response now seems to characterize the scientific establishment's paranoid strategy for combatting creationism and other attempts to "resist science." If evolutionary biologists are coming to see their relationship with the lay public as one based not on a dialogue of fact and observation and proof and reason, but on “trustworthiness” and authority, then perhaps they should be afraid of the Creation Museum.

Woodward: Pope Benedict as Exegete

Reading the opening pages of Pope Benedict XVI's new book Jesus of Nazareth, I couldn't help thinking of the closing pages of another book, Peter Berger's A Rumor of Angels. In a previous post, I tried to explain what I found defective about Berger's approach to the figure of Jesus in the New Testament and in human history. Here is Berger:

The discovery of Christ implies the discovery of the redeeming presence of God within the anguish of human experience...It can hardly be doubted that it was in connection with the events surrounding the life of Jesus that this new understanding of God's relationship to man emerged. This is admitted by both those who want to root Christian faith in the historical figure and those who would see only the figure as witnessed to (and, presumably, transformed) in the message of the early church. However important may be the findings of historical scholarship on these events, I find it difficult to see how, in the wake of all the relativizations of which we must take cognizance today, an inductive faith can rest upon the exclusive authority of these events – and thus, how the discovery of Christ as the redeeming presence of God in the world can be exclusively linked to the figure of the historical Jesus.

I think Jesus of Nazareth may turn out to be the perfect book for Vehige and me to blog about next, because it is already looking like the perfect antidote to Berger's – and more recent theologians' -- “cosmic Christ” interpretation of the relationship between the “historical Jesus” and the fundamental message of Christianity. I say that because, in the foreword to his book, Pope Benedict tells us that he intends to do precisely what Peter Berger thought could no longer be done back in 1969 -- link the discovery of Christ as the redeeming presence of God in the world exclusively to the figure of the historical Jesus.

“What can faith in Jesus as the Christ possibly mean,” His Holiness asks on the very first page of his book, “if the man Jesus was so completely different from the picture that the Evangelists painted of him and that the Church, on the evidence of the Gospels, takes as the basis of her preaching?”

Followers of the “cosmic Christ,” of course, have an answer to the Pope's question. They say that the Church does not, in fact, take the “evidence of the Gospels” as the basis of her preaching, but quite the opposite – that the early Church wrote the Gospels to provide evidence for what it already wanted to preach. This modernist view sees the Gospels not as four complementary records of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth but as attempts to codify the theological thought of various – and sometimes competing -- early Christian factions. It is within the context of such a view that Peter Berger "presumes" the figure of Jesus to have been "transformed in the message of the early church."

His Holiness has a response to this theory as well. He points to the Christ-hymn of Philippians 2:6-11, the famous passage in which Paul extols Jesus as being “in the form of God” but “born in the likeness of men,” as evidence of a fully orthodox Christology widely understood throughout the Church barely 20 years after the Crucifixion. Jesus Christ -- God become a human being. How can this very early understanding of the Incarnation (His Holiness asks rhetorically) be squared with the currently fashionable theory of the Gospels, which sees them as the end result of decades of contention among various Christological parties or communities – Johannine, Lucan, Marcan, Matthean? Benedict thinks there is a better – and simpler and more sensible – answer:

Where did this Christology [as evidenced in Philippians] come from? To say that it is the fruit of anonymous collective formulations, whose authorship we seek to discover, does not actually explain anything...Isn't it more logical, even historically speaking, to assume that the greatness came at the beginning, and that the figure of Jesus really did explode all existing categories and could only be understood in the light of the mystery of God?

The foreword and opening chapter of Jesus of Nazareth do not actually get into an examination of the life of Jesus. Instead, the Pope uses them to lay some methodological groundwork, to explain how he reads the Gospels and how he goes about understanding and interpreting the facts – he actually dares to use the word – that he finds there. After a brief but impressively learned survey of recent schools of biblical scholarship and exegesis, Benedict places the historical-critical method in its proper place – something I would argue that every pope since Pius IX has done – and goes on to explain that he accepts and will employ that method as part of his own interpretation of the life and person of Jesus. How is Jesus of Nazareth going to approach the raw material of its subject? The Pope answers in four words: "I trust the Gospels."

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Vehige: Why we home school

All of us home schoolers have pretty much the same reasons for home schooling, except that we perhaps rank them differently. For me, academics is first and foremost; the reasons for this are various, and maybe I'll explain them later.

But a close second is the desire to allow my children the love and space to grow and develop into the persons God intended them to be -- or, to state negatively, to keep my kids from the negative influence of the herd. (We all know what this is like, so let's not deny it.)

Now I've been home schooling for a year . . . long enough that it's easy to forgot exactly why I'm doing what I'm doing. It becomes routine, sometimes even a drag. But this beautiful post by Scott Lyons over at The Glory of Everything reminded me why I'm home schooling in a most profound way.

Even if you don't home school, read it. It's bound to touch you.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Vehige: Jesus, the one who shows us the Father

This is the first real post of our summer/autumn project -- reading Pope Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth and writing about it. We're taking one chapter a week. I'll post Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday, and Woodward will post sometime over the weekend.

And now . . . .

I didn't learn how to really read a book until I was a graduate student in theology when I took a course called "Recent and Contemporary Theology." We read almost every major theologian from Immanuel Kant forward. It was intense, to say the least.

But it was during that class that I learned how to read a book -- that is to say, learned how to read beyond the words and understand the author's motives, learned how to see his theological presuppositions.

So when I opened the Pope's book and read the first two sentences the Introduction, I knew exactly from where the Pope was coming. All that was left was to see his brilliance in action.

Here are the first two sentences.

The Book of Deuteronomy contains a promise that is completely different from the messianic hope expressed in other books of the Old Testament, yet it is of decisive importance for understanding the figure of Jesus. The object of this promise is not a king of Israel and king of the world -- a new David, in other words -- but a new Moses.

From previous study, I knew that Deuteronomy contained the promise of a "prophet like Moses," and I also knew that this promise is mentioned, if I recall correctly, only once in the New Testament -- when the Pharisees are interrogating John the Baptist (Jn 1.21). Needless to say, to begin a major work on Jesus Christ from such an obscure reference point is cause for great excitement, for the Pope has undoubtedly seen something others have not.

As the Pope explains, Moses was the greatest prophet in Israel's history because he was the only prophet to converse with God "face to face." As the Pope says: The most important thing is that he spoke with God as a friend. No other prophet in Israel's history can make that claim. And so the promise of a "prophet like Moses" is something quite profound, for it can only be a promise for a prophet who is greater than Moses. Why?

Because any prophet who does not have this relationship with God -- and any prophet who does not do the great things of Moses -- is not a "prophet like Moses." And since God is not in the business of repeating himself (all the other prophets were little more than people who pointed back to Moses and said, "See, here's where you've gone astray), God will not give us another Moses. The coming "prophet like Moses" must be greater than Moses: his relationship with God must be deeper, and his works must be greater.

What were the works of Moses? Yes, from a simplistic point of view we can say that Moses was the man who led the ancient Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, across the Sinai peninsula, and into the land of Canaan. But the Pope proffers a deeper interpretation, which begins with the true nature of a prophet:

It now becomes perfectly clear that the prophet is not the Israelite version of the soothsayer, as was widely held at the time and as many so-called prophets considered themselves. On the contrary, the prophet is something quite different. His task is not to report on the events of tomorrow or the next day in order to satisfy human curiosity or the human need for security. He shows us the face of God, and in so doing he shows us the path that we have to take. The future of which he speaks reaches far beyond what people seek from soothsayers. He points out the path to the true "exodus," which consists of this: Among all the paths of history, the path to God is the true direction we must seek and find. Prophecy in this sense is a strict corollary to Israel's monotheism. It is the translation of this faith into the everyday life of a community before God and on the way to him.

This was one of those paragraphs (which are getting harder to come by as I get older) that caused me to jump up and hop around the room for a while, it was so exciting.

Again, let's go beyond the words and consider what the Pope is suggesting. Moses, the leader of the physical exodus, is not the greatest of Israel's prophets because he took the ancient Hebrews on a road trip. He is the greatest prophet because, through speaking with God as with a friend, he received the Ten Commandments -- the true path that leads to God.

So what do we have? The prophet like Moses will not only have a deeper relationship with God, but will also point us along a more sure path, and more true path, indeed, the path that leads us to a face-to-face encounter with the living God.

I don't think I need to explain the relationship between Moses and Jesus. I think its quiet obvious that, for the Pope, Jesus Christ is the one who will show us the true path to God -- the one who will lead us to the face of the Father.