Saturday, May 31, 2008

Vehige: Is Rock Music Bad for Morality?

I grew up listening to rock-n-roll in all its forms -- form Chuck Berry to Jimi Hendrix to Black Sabbath to Iron Maiden to Metallica. And even on occasion, I enjoyed one band almost every god-fearing parent of the 1980's despised -- Slayer.

When I got to college and read in Plato's Republic about the kinds of music he would have in his ideal state, I'd already moved beyond rock-in-roll to listening mostly to God's favorite music, Blessed Silence. So I was open to what Plato said. I wasn't sure I agreed with his views of music, but then I came across something Peter Kreeft said in The Snakebite Letters -- namely, that whereas the ancients made too much of the affects of music, contemporary men and women don't think it has any affect on them (if you have this passage handy, please put it in the comments). This little comment did more to convince me that Plato was correct -- that music does indeed influence us in ways in which we are not aware. Though it might be an overstatement to say that the music of Bach and Mozart raises us to the realm of angles whereas the music of Ozzy and Green Day bring us crawling on all fours, raving mad, like Nebuchadrezzar, it's not an overstatement to say that classical music brings tranquility to the soul whereas and rock-n-roll excites it.

How is this possible? How does rock music have such power? The gentleman over at Just Thomism wrote a post that explains rock's power. Here's an excerpt:

Beats move people in certain ways and so rock music seeks to move people in certain ways. We don’t mean motion in the sense of mere motion of the body--this is only a sign of an interior movement. The primary motion music causes is the motion of the affections, and since the affections are per se the seat of moral virtue, rock music has a per se effect on the seat of moral virtues an so also on morality. The lyrics are of relatively little importance--they need not be understood or even make sense. The moral effect of music will be much the same regardless of whether one sings about angels or demons. In rock music, the affections move primarily to the beat.
The whole post is worth reading, but the sentence I highlighted in this excerpt is the key to the argument. If I understand St. Thomas correctly, the affections are what cause us to desire things, and our desires are important because we can only desire that which we believe to be a good. What we desire may not in fact be a good in the objective sense, but if we desire it, we believe that it is good for us at that moment. Thus, the whole rationale behind mortification is bringing right order to our affections. We all know from experience that it is easier to make a decision in a moment of tranquility than in a moment of excitement, but if our affections are aroused to excitement and disorder by rock music, how it is possible to make a good moral decision?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Vehige: A Review of Mortimer Adler’s Truth in Religion

Mortimer Adler’s Truth in Religion treats a difficult topic. Our scientific worldview has taught us that material and/or experimental proof is the only valid test for truth, and our pluralism tells us that we must be tolerant of other’s views. Since religious truth is improvable by scientific methods, and since the plurality of religions makes it difficult to hold that one religion might possesses the fullness of truth, how can we speak of truth in religion?

Religious Pluralism

First, Adler discusses plurality. He distinguishes between matters of taste and matters of truth. Matters of taste would include food, clothing, entertainment, political views, etc.; insofar as none of these contains any truth, they are all subject to matters of taste and therefore a plurality of these things is both good and necessary. Matters of truth would include all scientific, historical, philosophical, and religious truth, and they exclude the possibility of plurality.

To understand this distinction, we need to understand that Adler is speaking of logical truth. In On Interpretation, Aristotle distinguishes between contradictory statements and contrary statements. The statement “God exists” is contradictory to the statement “God does not exist,” and therefore one statement is true and the other is false, for God either exists or does not; there is no middle ground.

Contrary statements have more leeway. “Christianity is true” and “Islam is true” are contrary; both statements cannot be true because Christianity and Islam contain doctrines that are incompatible with one another. Yet, both Christianity and Islam may be false and another religion—Judaism, for example—may be true. So whereas contradictory statements necessitate that only one statement is true and the other is false, contrary statements allows that one statement may be true, but also that both statements may be false. Thus, when Adler speaks of matters of truth, he means matters of logical truth.

Insofar as religions contain matters of truth (doctrines) and not just matters of taste (forms of prayer), religions are subject to the logic of truth. Since plurality is possible only in matters of taste, we cannot accept religious pluralism so long as religions hold to matters of truth. Just as we exclude pluralism from the domains of science, history, and philosophy, we must exclude pluralism from the domain of religion. We cannot accept with intellectual honesty the possibility of religious pluralism.

A side note: Not all religions contain explicit doctrinal or creedal statements; some religions contain only ethical codes. Adler contends, however, that all ethical codes assume a doctrinal framework. Take, for example, the Golden Rule. We find it in creedal religions as well as non-creedal religions. Even without an explicit creedal statement, this simple and universal ethical code implies a creedal framework: (a) that human beings are distinct from animals, (b) that human beings are the same, (c) that there is a universal good for all human beings, and (d) that we can know what this universal good. If ethical statements contain implicit doctrinal assumptions, even religions without doctrinal statements are subject to the laws of logical truth and, therefore, are either true or false.

Religious Truth

Some will say religious truth is impossible because we cannot prove religious creeds by scientific experiment. Adler points out that we prove neither historical nor philosophical truth by scientific experiment; the different sciences have different means at arriving at truth. If this is the case with science, history, and philosophy, it is also the case with religion.

Yet, religion is different insofar as religious claims are beyond what human can know through reason alone. Almost all religions claim their doctrines were revealed by superhuman means. In the Catholic faith, we call this Divine Revelation. Though a philosopher can prove philosophically that we can trust our senses or that God exists, no creedal religion can prove its creedal statements. But just because a religion cannot prove its creedal statements does not mean religions are not subject to the laws of logical truth. “Jesus Christ is God” and “Jesus Christ is not God” are contradictory statements. Though we cannot prove which statement is true and which is false, that does not mean that one is true and the other is false, for Jesus Christ cannot be both God and not-God.

Still, there is a matter of practical difficulty: if we cannot prove which creedal statement is true, what are we to do with the man claims to religious truth? How is one who is devoted to the truth to navigate through the world’s many religions? Don’t we have little hope in knowing truth if we have no help deciding which religion is true.

To answer this difficult problem, Adler appeals to a medieval debate. Averroes (d. 1198) was an Islamic philosopher who said that there are two distinct kinds of truths, the truths of religion and the truths of science and philosophy; he said this in an attempt to reconcile the contradictions between his Aristotelianism and his Islamic religion, and by saying it caused a firestorm within medieval Islamic communities. In the 13th century, this debate carried from the Middle East to Christian Europe, and St. Thomas Aquinas found himself in the middle of it. St. Thomas’s answer was simple: just as God is one, truth is one; just as God is a unity, truth is a unity; therefore, we cannot separate scientific truth from philosophical truth from religious truth. If a scientific, philosophical, or religious claim contracts a claim made by the other two fields, we have made an error in thought, the contradiction is in appearance only.

Thus, the principle of the unity of truth is the way to begin answering the question, Which religion is true? If creedal statements (either explicit or implicit) contradict what we know with certainty from science, history, or philosophy, we know those religious statements are false.

Thus, any religion that make creedal statements must be willing to subject these statements to the unity of truth. The creedal statements cannot contract known fact. The upshot of this, which Adler only hints at, is that if any religion can pass the test of the unity of truth, that religion will bring coherence to what we know through science, history, and philosophy. The religion will do for the intellect what it does for the soul—bring healing and wholeness.


Adler’s point in Truth in Religion is not to declare which religion is true. His point is to establish the philosophical foundations needed in order to begin answering the question. However, Adler is willing to take one step in this direction. Insofar as they all reject the philosophical truth that one God exists, and insofar as they reject the unity of truth (in other words, they maintain an implicit Averroism), Adler claims all Far Eastern religions are false. He is left with the three great Western monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and he leaves it at that.

Truth in Religion is not an easy book. The subject matter is both difficult as well as personal. To think logically and philosophically about any topic is hard, but when the topic is as personal as religion, the book takes on special problems. Readers who have Averroistic tendencies—readers who want to keep religious truths separate from scientific, historical, and philosophical truths—will have tremendous problems with Adler’s book. Those, however, who believe in the Thomistic principle of the unity of truth will find that Adler’s book is a profound reflection on the philosophical foundations of religious truth as well as an excellent book concerning the philosophical foundations of apologetics.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Vehige: 21 Reasons to Read Cicero

1. Seneca
2. Quintilian
3. Lactantius
4. St. Jerome
5. St. Augustine
6. Peter Abelard
7. John of Salisbury
8. St. Thomas Aquinas
9. Dante
10. Petrarch
11. Desiderius Erasmus
12. Martin Luther
13. Philipp Melanchthon
14. The Jesuits
15. Michel de Montaigne
16. John Locke
17. David Hume
18. Immanuel Kant
19. Friedrich Schiller
20. Thomas Jefferson
21. John Adams

And I limited this list to those names that should be recognizable to anyone who has the faintest grasp of the Western intellectual tradition. Though he's considered unimportant today because he wasn't an "original" thinker -- that is, he didn't think up his own creed, but, rather, acted as a kind of middleman that communicated Greek philosophy to his Roman contemporaries -- it seems to me that any ancient writer who has had this kind of impact needs to be read by anyone interested in understanding Western thought. Alas, he's limited to advanced Latin students who don't even get to read/study his most influential of his works -- Discussions at Tusculum, On Duties, and On Friendship. Cicero's condemnation of Catiline may be important for understanding Roman history, but these three works are important for understanding all of Western history.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Vehige: Some Words about Aristotle's On Interpretation

Reading Aristotle can be terribly difficult because not all of his works were written to be read; that is to say, some of his works are nothing more than lecture notes. Trying to make sense of them can be very frustrating.

Hence, I almost gave up reading On Interpretation. Chapter 10 made no sense to me, and either did Chapter 11 or 12. I closed the book in frustration and put it on my shelf. Then I moped around all day feeling like a quitter. So yesterday I took my copy of On Interpretation down again, opened to Chapter 10, and began reading. Slowly. And aloud. It made a striking difference.

What I began to see, in Chapter 10, was that Aristotle was laying the foundations of how to make propositions — not how to use them. In other words, if we have a noun (man) and a verb (is), we can, from these two words, make four propositions: man is, and man is not. But the noun “man” can also be used in an indefinite way, not-man, and therefore we have two further propositions: not-man is, and not-man is not. (Aristotle’s use of indefinite nouns and verbs make this terribly confusing.)

He then goes on to show that if we use a verb like health, then is becomes a middle term, and it is this middle term that makes a proposition an affirmation or a negation. It took me a long time to understand this point. Man is just and Man is unjust are both affirmations; the denials or negations would be man isn’t just or man isn’t unjust. (Aristotle doesn’t use contractions, and perhaps a logician would cringe at my use of contractions here; but the contraction is important, I think, because it shows that the middle term is has been modified to make the proposition a negation.) Aristotle shows that by using a middle term, we can make eight propositions, for affirmations and four denials:


1. man is just

2. man is unjust

3. not-man is just

4. not-man is unjust


1a. man isn’t just

2a. man isn’t unjust

3a. not-man isn’t just

4a. not-man isn’t unjust

(I should point out that Aristotle uses the phrase “not-just” rather than “unjust.” Here’s my question: Are “not-just” and “unjust” synonyms for Aristotle, or do they mean different things? Does “not-just” denote a state of moral neutrality whereas “unjust” denote a state of moral defect? I don’t have an answer for this.)

At any rate, after taking some time to read Aristotle carefully, I began to see what he was doing. The lesson is learned: Don’t give up because it’s difficult. After four or five times, it began to make sense. The feeling of accomplishment was worth the effort.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Feast of Corpus Christi

Tantum ergo Sacramentum
Veneremur cernui:
Et antiquum documentum
Novo cedat ritui:
Praestet fides supplementum
Sensuum defectui.

Genitori, Genitoque
Laus et jubilatio,
Salus, honor, virtus quoque
Sit et benedictio:
Procedenti ab utroque
Compar sit laudatio.

V. Panem de caelis praestitisti eis.(T.P. Alleluja)
R. Omne delectamentum in se habentem.(T.P. Alleluja)

Oremus: Deus, qui nobis sub sacramento mirabili, passionis tuae memoriam reliquisti: tribue, quaesumus, ita nos corporis et sanguinis tui sacramysteria venerari, ut redemptionis tuae fructum in nobis iugiter sentiamus. Qui vivis et regnas in saecula saeculorum. R. Amen.

Down in adoration falling,
Lo! the sacred Host we hail,
Lo! o'er ancient forms departing
Newer rites of grace prevail;
Faith for all defects supplying,
Where the feeble senses fail.

To the everlasting Father,
And the Son Who reigns on high
With the Holy Spirit proceeding
Forth from each eternally,
Be salvation, honor blessing,
Might and endless majesty.

R. Thou hast given them bread from heaven.
V. Having within it all sweetness.

Let us pray: O God, who in this wonderful Sacrament left us a memorial of Thy Passion: grant, we implore Thee, that we may so venerate the sacred mysteries of Thy Body and Blood, as always to be conscious of the fruit of Thy Redemption. Thou who livest and reignest forever and ever. R. Amen.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Vehige: A Song for Saturday

I played guitar all through junior high and high school. One of my favorite bands was Cream, and one of my favorite songs by Cream was their version of Robert Johnson's "Crossroads." Back then there was no or online shopping, so I had to search high and low for a Robert Johnson tape, and when I finally found it, it was nothing like I expected. But I listened to it over and over and eventually I came to love the old Delta blues sound. My mother, unfortunately, did not; she used to hate whenever I listened to Robert Johnson . . . because like all teenagers I listened to all my music very loudly. In fact, I think she hated everything I listened to.

At any rate, here's a video of "Crossroads" by Robert Johnson. I don't know who made the video, but it's good . . . though I don't understand the image of the girl who is about to tightrope walk across barbed wire. If you have any ideas after you watch it, let me know.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Vehige: Some Words about Aristotle's Categories

The most important chapter in the Categories is Chapter 2, in which Aristotle outlines his fourfold classification of being. The phrases he uses “to predicate of” and “to be present in” are strange enough to trip up the casual reader–if Aristotle actually has casual readers.

I know that when I first read the Categories as an undergraduate (perhaps undergraduates are the casual readers of Aristotle) I skipped right over Chapter 2; back then, I would have said Chapter 5, the chapter on substance, would have been the most important. Rereading it as a graduate student, I skipped over Chapter 2 again and believed (wrongly) that the fifth chapter was the most important.

But rereading it today, with a determination not to push to the next chapter until I understood the chapter I was reading, I stopped at Chapter 2 and thought about it for a while. When I finally understood what Aristotle was saying, I was surprised at how easily I understood the rest of the Categories. (I should note that I’m reading the Loeb edition.)

The first step one needs to take is to reword the fourfold division of being; “to predicate of” and “to be present in” are almost unintelligible—at least in English. What Aristotle means by these words are the notions of “essential” and “accidental.” “Essential being” is that which defines an individual thing, and “accidental being” is that which an individual thing may or may not have, but whether it has it or not has nothing to do with what it is.

For example, we call a rational animal a man. “Man” is its essential being. The man’s height is accidental: he may be tall or short, but whatever height he is doesn’t change the fact that the individual is a man.

Another way to look at the concepts of essential and accidental being is to speak of a thing that possess them as if it didn’t. If the sentence makes sense, then the predicated being is accidental; if the sentence does not make sense, then the predicated being is essential. For example, when we say, that man is not tall, we understand the sentence clearly, and therefore we can say that “tallness” and “height” are accidental beings. But if we were to say, that man is not a man, we would not grasp what was being said, or we’d assume that the predicate “not-a-man” was being used in a figurative sense; therefore we know that “man” is essential being.

Using the terms “essential” and “accidental,” here is Aristotle’s division of being:

1. Some things are essential, but not accidental (such as man, horse, tree).

2. Some things are accidental, but not essential (such as tallness, whiteness).

3. Some things are essential to one thing but accidental to another thing (such as knowledge, which is essential to grammar—that is, grammar is knowledge of words, punctuation, sentences, etc.—but accidental to a man).

4. Some things are neither essential nor accidental—and these things are individual things, such as the individual tree, the individual man, the individual horse, and so forth, for a thing cannot be essential to itself, nor can it be accidental to itself. For Aristotle, the individual thing (which he calls “primary substances”) are the foundation of reality.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Vehige: Cicero on Happiness Revisited

Cicero begins Book Five of "Discussions at Tusculum" with the following observation:

That is why the first philosophers who ever existed dismissed all other considerations into the background and devoted themselves entirely to the search for the best way to live. The reason why they decided to dedicate all their care and concentration to this quest was because they believed it would reveal how happiness could be attained.
It's interesting that the beginnings of philosophy -- such an obscure academic pursuit nowadays -- began with the simple question: "How should I live if I want to be happy?" It's a question that's still being asked today, and a whole host of answers are being given.

The purpose of this blog post, however, isn't to list all the answers. We know how people answer this question. Rather, I want to call to your attention to how the question is being asked today. We don't ask, "How should I live if I want to be happy?" Rather, we ask, "What do I want that will make me happy." Whereas the ancients focused on living, we focus on obtaining -- which, of course, is why most people nowadays aren't happy.

It reminds me of a passage in Gaudium et Spes, a document from the Second Vatican Council, which says: "It is what a man is, rather than what he has, that counts." It is how we live, not what we own that really matters.

Sadly, I have to admit that even though I read Gaudium et Spes over ten years ago, it wasn't until I was writing this blog post that it occurred to me that I've never looked at my life and my happiness in terms of how I live. Of course, I've never equated my happiness (too much) with what I own. Rather, I've always thought of happiness in terms of what I want to do with my life. At a certain point in time, we all have to accept the life Divine Providence has given us by living it the best way we can. Therein lies the pathway to authentic happiness.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Vehige: The Mortified Life

From In Conversation with God, Volume 3, Seventh Week, Monday.

In our apostolate, we should be aware that often the great hindrance to many souls accepting the Faith, recognizing their vocation, or leading a consistent Christian life, is provided by personal sins unrepented of, disordered affections, and a lack of correspondence with divine grace. Man, influenced by his prejudices or stirred up by his passions or bad will, is not only able to deny the evidence of external signs plain to be seen before his very eyes, but can also resist and reject the high inspirations God infuses into his soul. If one is without the desire to believe and to do the will of God in everything, whatever the cost, one will simply not accept even what is glaringly evident. Thus, the person who lives shut up in his own egoism, who doesn't seek the good but only his comfort and pleasure, will have a difficult time believing or understanding a noble ideal. And, in the case of a person who has already taken the step of giving himself to God, he will find within himself a growing resistance to the specific demands of his vocation.
There are three things that hinder us in our spiritual life.
  1. Unrepentant sins.
  2. Disordered affections.
  3. A lack of correspondence with divine grace.
The first, unrepentant sin, is pretty easy to define: One is not sorry for one's actions. The second, disordered affections, simply means that we have bad desires -- for food, for money, for sex, for comfort, for material things, and so forth. The third, a lack of correspondence with divine grace, means that we are not docile to God's will. By way of summary, we could call these three things sinful actions, sinful desires, and sinful negligence.

The more I read and study -- not to mention my own attempts to live the Christian life in a better way -- the more convinced I am that the what people most need to hear nowadays is that intimacy with God is impossible without living a mortified life. One must die to one's sinful action, sinful desires, and sinful negligence.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Adler: The Unity of Truth

According to the position of Aquinas in his dispute with those whom he called Averroists, truth is one comprehensive, integral, and coherent whole in which there are many parts, each part differing in the methods by which truth is pursued and also in the aspects of reality with which that pursuit is concerned.

Mathematical truth is a part of that whole; so is the truth of all the various empirical sciences; so also is the truth achieved by historical research and by philosophical thought; and, finally, if religious truth is not poetical truth of the kind to be found in myths and other forms of fictional narrative, then it, too, is simply one part in the whole of truth that must have coherence and by compatible with all the other parts of the whole. That, briefly stated, is what is required by the logic of truth in terms of the unity of truth.

Truth in Religion: The Plurality of Religions and the Unity of Truth

Monday, May 19, 2008

Vehige: Some Words About Art

In what might be my favorite new blog (new for me, at least), The Roving Medievalist Jeffrey Smith (gotta like anyone with the first name of Jeff) had this to say about a recent discussion I've seen on some other blogs about "why Christian art is so lame."

The other item is about the question "why is Christian art so lame?" Never mind that every generation for the last thousand years has asked that very question. The idea seems to be that art in the past was so wonderful that the best of today is much worse than the worst of yesterday. Sorry, Zippy, but I look at a hell of a lot of the art of past centuries, every day, in doing these confounded blogs, and I have to say that you're full of it. The terminally dissatisfied look at Mozart and Dante and Michelangelo and lament. Pardon me, but art in those days wasn't all Mozart and Dante and Michelangelo. Most of it was dreck. The only reason that's not painfully obvious is that most of it was either thrown on a tip years ago, or moulders unnoticed in museum storage rooms. Today's art isn't much worse, but everyone's too busy bitching and moaning to look. If you expect every artist to be a Michelangelo, every poet to be a Dante, and every composer a Mozart, you show evidence of a strong disconect in the reality department.
One more point: Jeffrey Smith puts up some of the most spectacular pictures of medieval art and architecture. You've gotta check out his blog.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Trinity Sunday

The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them. It is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the hierarchy of the truths of faith. The whole history of salvation is identical with the history of the way and the means by which the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, reveals himself to men and reconciles and unites with himself those who turn away from sin. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 234).

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Vehige: My Favorite Scene from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

The novel, that is, not the movie. This is when Peter, Susan, and Lucy first meet Aslan. Edmund is still with the White Witch.

His voice was deep and rich and somehow took the fidgets out of them. They now felt glad and quiet and it didn't seem awkward to them to stand and say nothing.

"But where is the fourth?" asked Aslan.

"He has tried to betray them and joined the White Witch, O Aslan," said Mr. Beaver. And then something made Peter say:

"That was partly my fault, Aslan. I was angry with him and I think that helped him to go wrong."

And Aslan said nothing either to excuse Peter or to blame him but merely stood looking at him with his great golden eyes. And it seemed to all of them that there was nothing to be said.
What I like about this passage is that it rings true to how it will be when we face Jesus Christ. Something will allow us to see our actions as they truly were; something will compel us to confess; and Christ himself will say nothing to either excuse us or blame us. We will know us as we are known (as St. Paul indicated in 1 Corinthians) and we will know our eternal fate as well.

On not quite so heavy a note, as a parent of children who will soon be reading and studying these books, I also admired how Lewis treats Peter's actions. From the human point of view, Peter anger was justified: Edmund had been acting like a little turd toward his sister. But Peter's anger doesn't help the matter, but, rather, only widens the gap between Edmund and the others. This is a valuable lesson -- one that can really only be taught through literature.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Vehige: Blogging and Intellectual Fitness

As a Catholic stay-at-home dad who is homeschooling his children, my circle of friends and acquaintances is rather . . . circumscribed. I find myself moving within a group of people who more or less see the world as I see it. I'm not sure this is entirely a good thing. It's good for my emotional state; I don't feel I have to constantly defend my life choices. And it's good my children, because they are in regular contact with families who are like theirs. But it's not good for my mind, because there's no challenge (well, Woodward can sometimes pose a challenge . . . sometimes) to my ideas. Just as the body needs resistance to stay fit, so does the mind.

There are a couple of ways to keep the mind fit. The easiest way, as well as the funnest, but not really the best if I don't want to be ostracized from "the group," is to voice those positions the group (as a whole) doesn't hold. I could sing the praises of Harry Potter, for example, or I could state why I think the return of the Latin Mass is a bad idea. But to do that seems little more than to be contrary for the sake of being contrary. I did that when I was in high school. Why do I need to do that now?

Another way to keep the mind fit would be to read books by people who don't agree with me. You know, people like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and John Hagee. But there are two problems with that. First, I own about 750 books on my shelves that I have not read, (I know because I counted), so I can't really justify buying any more books for a very long time. There's the library, of course, which brings us to my second problem: simply, reading folks like me is not how I want to spend my time.

You see, I'm pretty much reached a point in my life where any serious study I engage in must have some practical purpose. I want to study ancient Roman history because my kids are studying ancient Roman history, and in a few weeks that will shift to medieval history. To read Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, or Hagee (I'm sure Hagee loves being in their company) has no practical value for me. Maybe if I were teaching somewhere or participating in a high-caliber study group, my thoughts would be different. But since I find neither atheism or anti-Catholicism intriguing at the moment, I can't think of a reason to spend the limited time I have reading these authors.

The third way to keep intellectual fit is by writing. One of my new favorite SF writers, James Van Pelt, has a post on writing and intellectual fitness that I found very helpful. He basically says that if you want a fit mind, you must write. But go read the post for yourself.

Furthermore, almost every major thinker kept a regular journal. I think Pope John Paul II wrote every morning before the Blessed Sacrament. One of the beauties of blogging is that people who are devoted to thinking -- not debating, not pushing along the daily scuttlebutt and ephemeral headlines, but, rather, thinking -- can keep their journal online so that others devoted to thinking can think along with them. The setback of blogging is largely unedited and rambling posts that end up saying in 500 words what could be said in 50 words. And since this post is on the verge of becoming one of those, let me end succinctly:

Blogging good, therefore blog.

Vehige: C. S. Lewis

I'm rereading this . . .

. . . so I can read this for the very first time . . . .

. . . so that I can take my son to see this movie . . .

. . . which I hope and pray will be better than this one . . .

. . . which my son has not seen and will not see so long as I can help it.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Vehige: Is a Personal Interpretation of Scripture a Valid Interpretation?

Woodward wrote a very interesting piece on the Dr. Seuss book, Horton Hears a Who, which, in turn, prompted the following anonymous comment:

This is a nice perspective when it comes to all books but one. Unfortunately, too many practice their faith in this manner, but that isn't the point of your post, and I am a bit off topic.
It seems to me that the book to which the writer refers is the Bible. Woodward also understood this to be the case, as he writes in his response:
I agree with you, assuming that the book we're talking about is the Bible, that we are not entitled to our own individual interpretations of it, no matter how reasonable and responsibly thought out those interpretations might be. To belabor my analogy one step further -- the Bible does not come with a "What This Book Means" instruction sheet, but it was entrusted to a divinely established institution that DOES have the authority to say "what this book means" -- the Catholic Church.

So your distinction is an important one. Literary analysis and biblical exegesis are fundamentally different processes.
Now I certainly understand the apprehension we Catholics have (and I'm assuming our anonymous reader is a Catholic) about a personal interpretation of Scripture, but it seems to me that Woodward has more than slightly overstated that apprehension when he writes: "we are not entitled to our own individual interpretations of it, no matter how reasonable and responsibly thought out those interpretations might be."

As I understand the history of biblical interpretation, the rupture between a "personal" interpretation and an "ecclesial" interpretation (i.e., what the Church says the Bible means) occurred with the Reformation. It was then that line was drawn in the sand. The Reformers insisted on a personal interpretation of Scripture, which resulted in over 300 denominations within the first 80 years of the Reformation; and the Church insisted on an ecclesial interpretation, which resulted in five centuries of Catholics having a deep anxiety about reading the Bibles for themselves.

(This anxiety, by the way, is a post-Reformation one, not a medieval one. Too many anti-Catholics try to prove that the Church did not want the faithful to read the Bible by pointing out that in the Middle Ages the Scriptures were chained to church pulpits. Bibles were expensive back then, and they were chained to pulpits so they wouldn't be stolen.)

So the bifurcation between a personal interpretation and an ecclesial interpretation of Scripture was unknown to the early Church Fathers and their medieval disciples. Why is this? Because of their understanding of the Holy Spirit . . . which, by the way, is also our understanding.

The Holy Spirit is the one who inspired the biblical writers. The Holy Spirit is the one who guides the Church to the fullness of understanding. And the Holy Spirit is the one given to us at Baptism, Whose gifts are strengthened in us at Confirmation. Thus, the Holy Spirit is the transcendent principle that unites the Word of God with the mind of the Church and the mind of the disciple.

Yet, there is still a danger, as any early Church Father and medieval theologian would have known—namely, the danger of interpreting Scripture in a way that contradicts the teaching of the Church. This is why a theologian as great as St. Thomas Aquinas said before his death that he submitted all of his work to the judgment of the Church.

But even within this framework, there was still much freedom regarding personal interpretation. We must remember that the ancient and medieval method of interpretation was rooted in what is called the four senses of Scripture. The literal sense provides us with the literal/historical meaning of the text. From this literal sense, three spiritual senses can be derived: the allegorical sense, which shows us how Christ is, the moral sense, which teaches us what to do, and the anagogical sense, which reveals to us life after death.

Many ancient and medieval commentaries—I am thinking of the commentaries of St. Bernard of Clairvaux—used the literal sense only as a means to expound the spiritual meaning of Scripture. And almost every interpretation rooted in the spiritual sense of the Bible was highly personal, rooted in the interpreter's own mystical experience.

(Here we'd have to make a distinction between monastic exegesis and scholastic exegesis—a topic for another post, to be sure.)

It seems to me that Vatican II seeks to regain the Patristic and medieval understanding when it says in Dei Verbum, no. 21:
For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life.
It would be difficult to see the Father coming to meet us through the Scriptures if we could not understand the Scriptures in a personal way.

In her autobiography, St. Therese of Lisieux tells the story of how she came to understand her role within the Church. After reading 1 Corinthians 12, which sketches the various gifts within the Church, and not recognizing any of those gifts within herself, she went on to read 1 Corinthians 13; and reading that the greatest gift was love, she decided that she would be the heart of the Church and live a life devoted to the love of God.

Another saint—Francis of Assisi—had a similar experience with Scripture. Not understanding what God was calling him to do, he opened the Gospel three times, in honor of the three persons of the Trinity, and each time he read of Christ's commission to the disciples. They were to go out and preach, but without money, without food, without walking stick or belt. And that's what Francis did. And it caused a great scandal in the Church, for a time, as well as great reform.

Which leads us back to Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformation, and the split between personal and ecclesial interpretation. Where did Luther go wrong and Francis go right?

Luther's error was that his personal interpretation was rooted in his misunderstanding of the theology of sin, both original and actual, as well as a misunderstanding of indulgences and purgatory. He changed the Bible, taking books out of the Old Testament as well as the New, and proffered his own interpretation in order to find spiritual peace. That's not the path to solid exegesis.

Francis, on the other hand, sought not his own good, but, rather, God's will. "What does God want from me? What does God want me to do?" Francis wanted to love God by doing God's will. And he was so humble that at first he misunderstood what God wanted. He thought God wanted him to become poor in order to minister to the poor—not to teach the entire Church to become poor in spirit by his own physical poverty.

Luther's personal interpretation was inspired by self-centeredness, whereas St. Francis' was inspired by love.

And as St. Augustine once noted, love is the measure of authentic interpretation:
Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought. ("De Doctrina Christiana" II, 36,40)
So we should not fear a personal interpretation of Scripture, so long as we understand that they are just that—personal. Not everyone is called to be a St. Francis or a St. Therese. So long as we understand that the Word of God comes to us through Scripture and Tradition as understood by the Church—so long as we strive to understand the teaching of the Church—we shouldn't be afraid to read the Bible as if our heavenly Father were coming to speak to us.

(Originally posted on TNG, 1/31/07)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Vehige: Roundabout

It's amazing what you can find on YouTube. When I was in high school, this was one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Woodward: The First Papal Address

Today's first Mass reading recounts the circumstances of St. Peter's impromptu homily to the crowds that were assembled in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. That makes it, by my reckoning, the first public papal audience.

In the fourth of the famous homilies that he preached on the Acts of the Apostles, St. John Chrysostom meditated on the power of the Holy Spirit as a transformative force in the Church, in the world, and -- specifically on Pentecost -- in the life and person of St. Peter. For Pentecost was the day on which Peter and the other Apostles became, in St. John Chrysostom's phrase, "spiritual men."

"But Peter, standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice, and said unto them." Here you see his manly courage. For if they were astonished and amazed, was it not as wonderful that he should be able in the midst of such a multitude to find language, he, an unlettered and ignorant man? If a man is troubled when he speaks among friends, much more might he be troubled among enemies and bloodthirsty men. That they are not drunken, he shows immediately by his very voice, that they are not beside themselves, as the soothsayers: and this too, that they were not constrained by some compulsory force. What is meant by, "with the eleven?" They expressed themselves through one common voice, and he was the mouth of all. The eleven stood by as witnesses to what he said. "He lifted up his voice," it is said. That is, he spoke with great confidence, that they might perceive the grace of the Spirit. He who had not endured the questioning of a poor girl, now in the midst of the people, all breathing murder, discourses with such confidence, that this very thing becomes an unquestionable proof of the Resurrection: in the midst of men who could deride and make a joke of such things as these! What effrontery, think you, must go to that! what impiety, what shamelessness! For wherever the Holy Spirit is present, He makes men of gold out of men of clay. Look, I pray you, at Peter now: examine well that timid one, and devoid of understanding; as Christ said, "Are ye also yet without understanding?" (Matt. xv. 16) the man, who after that marvellous confession was called "Satan." (Matt. xvi. 23.) Consider also the unanimity of the Apostles. They themselves ceded to him the office of speaking; for it was not necessary that all should speak. "And he lifted up his voice," and spoke out to them with great boldness. Such a thing it is to be a spiritual man!

Woodward: Pomegranates!

For the first time since we planted the bushes three years ago, it looks like we are going to have a pomegranate crop. Pretty red-orange blossoms all over the place.

I don't know exactly why the pomegranate has always had exotic associations for me. It might date back to the first time I saw The Ten Commandments, and heard a slightly over-the-top Anne Baxter seductively calling Charlton Heston's attention to the attractiveness of her own lips -- "red and moist, like a ripe pomegranate." I was only seven or eight, and had no idea what a pomegranate was, but I was pretty sure it was something good.

Or maybe it was the Song of Solomon that did it: "I would give you spiced wine to drink, the juice of my pomegranates" [8:2]. Whatever else St. Jerome may have been thinking as he translated a line like that, he certainly knew what term to use for the fruit in question -- malum granatum, the apple with a lot of seeds. But the Romans also had another name for the pomegranate, one that expressed their own recognition of something exotic about the fruit -- malum punicum, the "Carthaginian apple." You can almost picture Dido, nibbling on one while she waits for Aeneas to show up.

So when we read in Ovid about poor Proserpina swallowing a few pomegranate seeds and ending up for half of every year as the queen of the Underworld; or when we notice that that thing the infant Jesus is holding in Botticelli's Madonna del Mare is in fact a pomegranate, now become a Christian symbol of immortality:

then I think we're entitled to start thinking of those Carthaginian apples as no ordinary fruit. And that's why I found myself this morning following the advice of King Solomon: "Let us go out early to the vineyards, and see whether ... the pomegranates are in bloom." In north Texas, they are.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Vehige: Cicero on False Happiness

As for the other so-called "good" things, it is erroneous to describe or regard them as good, since it is perfectly possible to possess them in abundance and still to be miserable all the same! Imagine a man who is favored with excellent health, great physical strength and extremely good looks, and whose senses are all vigorous and active. Then throw in wealth, distinctions, great offices of state, power and glory. But suppose also that the person thus endowed is at the same time unjust, intemperate, cowardly, and slow-witted or downright stupid. You will surely have to admit that he is an unhappy man. Well, then, if someone can be loaded with all those worldly honors and still be exceedingly unhappy, it would be quite wrong to classify him as good.
Cicero has a lot to say about happiness in Discussions at Tusculum. In fact, the whole work is dedicated to defending the basic Stoic definition that only the morally good man is the happy man, and that the good man is always happy. Christianity challenges this view, of course, and when I finish reading Discussions at Tusculum I intend to write a rather long post on the topic, comparing Cicero's view of happiness with that of St. Thomas Aquinas.

This doesn't mean that Cicero is wrong, but, rather, only incomplete. There's no denying the truth to the passage I cited. True happiness cannot be found in any external good. (St. Thomas will add that it can't be found in any internal good, either, but more on that later.) But what I find most intriguing about this passage is Cicero's idea that the stupid man can't be happy.

Like Socrates before him, Cicero equated wisdom with virtue; if you are wise, you are virtuous, and vice versa. The stupid man, therefore, cannot be happy. This view is wrong; one can possess all kinds of ethical wisdom and yet never put it into practice whereas a person without being able to define the virtue of moderation could very well be the most moderate human on the planet. This does not mean, however, that one should engage in philosophical study. Ignorance isn't a virtue, after all, and most people -- I daresay the majority of people -- need to be told what moderation is in order to practice it.

Why I find this notion intriguing is because Cicero is so blunt about it: "slow-witted or downright stupid." That kind of straight-forward talk is good to hear sometimes. I've heard a lot of ways to cure unhappiness, but I've never heard anyone say that one should engage in serious study.

It makes sense, though. For one reason, studying something takes you out of yourself. It's not a form of escape, the way good (and bad) novels are. I'm rarely cured of my random states of depression by reading fiction. All too often when I put the book down, I'm more aware than ever that my life pretty much sucks (which it doesn't, but it's how I feel about my life when I'm depressed). But to read theology, philosophy, history, or science -- those subjects have the power to cure my depression. I haven't really thought about why this is the case until now, as I write this post, but my initial thought is because those subjects force us to look at life in its proper context.

But that's just my initial thought. Anyone else have any ideas?

Friday, May 2, 2008

Athanasius: On the Incarnation

Even an earthly king, though he is only a man, does not allow lands that he has colonized to pass into other hands or to desert to other rulers, but sends letters and friends and even visits them himself to recall them to their allegiance, rather than allow His work to be undone. How much more, then, will God be patient and painstaking with His creatures, that they be not led astray from Him to the service of those that are not, and that all the more because such error means for them sheer ruin, and because it is not right that those who had once shared His Image should be destroyed.

What, then, was God to do? What else could He possibly do, being God, but renew His Image in mankind, so that through it men might once more come to know Him? And how could this be done save by the coming of the very Image Himself, our Savior Jesus Christ? Men could not have done it, for they are only made after the Image; nor could angels have done it, for they are not the images of God. The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father Who could recreate man made after the Image.

Woodward: Votaries of Science

Ben Stein's documentary Expelled – which, for the record, I did not like very much – has provoked what can best be described as a fevered response from John Derbyshire, a conservative author and columnist for National Review magazine. In a series of posts at National Review's staff blog “The Corner,” Derbyshire has linked Stein and his movie to forces that are working, even as we speak, toward the dismantling of Western civilization. I'm not kidding.

Derbyshire, who can be an engaging commentator on subjects as diverse as mathematics, Chinese history, and opera, has concluded that Expelled marks one sally in an “anti-science crusade.”

Seems like I've heard those words before. They are reminiscent of the pro-abortion polemics in which George Bush's opposition to Federal funding of embryonic stem cell research has been called – as recently as this week by Hillary Clinton -- the Administration's “war on science.” The value system that such rhetoric bespeaks – science as not only a positive moral force but an end in itself that confers moral legitimacy on anything it undertakes or could undertake – is the one ideological target that Expelled, amid all its half truths and distortions, scores a legitimate direct hit against. I think that's what makes people like John Derbyshire so mad.

It is important to remind ourselves from time to time that science, as a human enterprise, is morally neutral. Yes, it is a positive good for man to exercise his God-given capacity for speculative and analytical reason in discovering how the world works. And in its practical applications, science can also produce positive goods. I am glad that medical science has made it possible to prevent smallpox and polio and to treat cancer and strep infections and AIDS. I am glad that chemistry has given us plastics and deodorant, and that physics has given us computer chips, and that astronomy has shown us our place (unimpressive though it turns out to be) in the material universe. I'm glad that a knowledge of mechanics and hydrology enabled the plumber to fix our toilet last weekend, and that a knowledge of physiology and psychology equips our youngest son's speech therapist to help him talk more intelligibly, and that electronics enables me to hear the incomparable voice of Joan Sutherland singing the climactic scene from La Sonnambula whenever I want. I like science a great deal.

But, frankly, I would never say anything as materialistically reductionist as this: “Our scientific theories are the crowning adornments of our civilization.” Nor, were I a scientist, would I say anything as self-congratulatorily elitist or as paranoid as this: “For most people, wanting to know the truth about the world is way, way down the list. Scientific objectivity is a freakish, unnatural, and unpopular mode of thought, restricted to small cliques whom the generality of citizens regard with dislike and mistrust. There is probably a sizable segment in any population that believes scientists should be rounded up and killed.”

That – not to put too fine a point on it – is just silly. Science, like philosophy, can lead us to good or bad results. It is not a good in itself. Least of all is it the “crowning adornment” of Western civilization. In his frenzied concern for the threat that Ben Stein poses to our way of life, John Derbyshire actually says this:

I really, seriously wonder how much of a future the U.S.A. has. We are sinking into a bog of mediocrity, frivolity, superstition, and ignorance. When even Jews join the parade of folly, it's hard to keep hoping.

Yesterday...I had the colossal privilege of watching Kurt Masur conduct Anne-Sophie Mutter in rehearsal. While Tchaikovsky's wonderful music filled the hall I found myself thinking, as I always do: How long shall we have this? How long will it last? How long before it is all swallowed up in the great grinning, jeering maw of hip-hop, the worship of worthless "celebrities," reality TV, Oprahified politics, and "intelligent design" — junk religion meets junk science? How long have we got?

Our civilization is on the way out. I hope it at least outlives me, but I am less and less sure it will. I'll be damned if I won't go down fighting, though.

People – especially disgruntled middle-aged men like John Derbyshire and me – are constantly fretting that “civilization is on the way out.” Such fears have been justified remarkably few times in human history, but it is at least informative to note what things people cling to for hope when they have such fears. John Derbyshire has science to cling to. Like many people over the last 500 years or so, he believes that science can save us. It can save us from “the great grinning, jeering maw of hip-hop, the worship of worthless 'celebrities,' reality TV, Oprahified politics, and 'intelligent design.'” It can somehow even salvage Tchaikovsky for us, apparently, although Derbyshire doesn't go into much detail about exactly how that works.

It would be a waste of time, I suppose, to point out to John Derbyshire that science, or its workaday brother technology, has in fact produced most of the threats to Western civilization that he indicts in that quoted outburst. Which only illustrates my point that science is a morally neutral enterprise, to be known by its fruits. It is not our savior. It can, in some instances, turn out to be what we need to be saved from.

Just now I am reading Winston Churchill's A History of the English-Speaking Peoples with my 15-year-old daughter. In the chapter that narrates Henry II's clash with Thomas Becket, a clash that ended with Becket's murder at the hands of Henry's over-zealous henchmen, Churchill contrasts the ways in which governments of the twelfth century and those of the twentieth century dealt with challenges to their authority. Writing in 1938, as the chilling authoritarianism of Nazism was just coming to be known to the rest of the world, Churchill said this:

It is a proof of the quality of [Henry's] age that these fierce contentions, shaking the souls of men, should have been so rigorously and yet so evenly fought out. In modern conflicts and revolutions in some great states bishops and archbishops have been sent by droves to concentration camps, or pistolled in the nape of the neck in the well-warmed, brilliantly lighted corridor of a prison. What claim have we to vaunt a superior civilisation to Henry II's times? We are sunk in a barbarism all the deeper because it is tolerated by moral lethargy and covered with a veneer of scientific conveniences.

I am grateful for the good things science has given us, but anyone who thinks that science is the last best hope of civilization is deeply ignorant of both history and human nature.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Vehige: True Education