Saturday, January 31, 2009

Counting to infinity by infinity…

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[Read this post for a later attempt to make this same point.]

MAJOR PREMISE: It is not possible to measure an infinite magnitude.

POSTULATE: The very act of measuring, or quantitatively delimiting, puts an incoherent 'cap' on infinity.

MINOR PREMISE: It is possible to measure the universe. It is possible at the very least to measure matter, and material objects, as the constitution of the universe.

CAVEAT: The inability to measure the universe to an infinitely precise degree does not negate the fact of its measurability per se. Indeed, the very ability to challenge or refine one measurement, is itself based on a competing standard of measurement (viz., a measurement obtained in and of the actual spacetime manifold can only be refined, or, indeed, rejected by measuring it against other quantifiable objects). This is significant, because potentially infinite divisibility (i.e., by increasingly precise measuring devices), does not equate to actual infinity. If everything were actually infinite, then anything we measured, at any scale, would be infinite, not measurably finite, as our measurements report.

CONCLUSION: The universe is not of an infinite magnitude, and is not itself a material 'entity' of infinite magnitude. Nor can it, therefore, be eternal.

DENOUEMENT: I would even go so far as to say the idea of an infinitely large material substance, as well as an eternally 'old' temporal object, is incoherent, since in either case, the categories of materiality and temporality presuppose finite divisibility, i.e., quantitative divisibility and measurability as distinct objects in spatiotemporal relation to others. To be an object of empirical scrutiny is to be quantitatively delimited by others, and to delimit others objects in the same way. This holds for objects' fourth dimension as well. Unless one is prepared to deny science can measure anywhere in the cosmos––i.e., sectors or 'levels' of the universe are metaphysically simple––then one admits the universe, from top to bottom, is subsumed by the finite categories of quantitative spatiotemporal extension. To reject the universe's 'subsumption' under finitude is to posit an inifnite (and eternal) universe. Again, though, an infinitely extended quantity is incoherent on the grounds that an infinite magnitude cannot be a "quantum" (i.e., a discrete amount). One infinity cannot be more "magnus" than another, and therefore neither can be of any magnitude.

[I would like to add comments from the discussion about this post at PhilPer. They help get at what I was shooting for in the original post, above this memo. Vero, "semper homo bonus tiro est."]

Now, perhaps someone will object that there are provably larger and smaller classes of infinity (Cantor, Dedekind, et al.), and therefore infinity does admit of a sort of quantification. So I'm wrong. To which I reply:

Leaving aside the controversy among number theorists about how viable Cantorian infinities are, I would reiterate the fact that infinity is not a quantity, and therefore cannot be ‘manipulated’ in actual reality like quantities and magnitudes can. Much of the basis for Cantorian innovations in set theory was to get an arithmetical grip on unwieldy infinity problems (e.g., ∞ + ∞ ≠ 2∞, = ∞; ∞ – ∞ ≠ 0, = ∞; etc.). They are purely theoretical entities, not physical quantities. Therefore to say one infinity is “larger” than another is simply a way of arithmetizing them in order to tighten up the meaning of zero and limits. It’s a formal convenience, not a physically coherent possibility.

Further, to head off the objection that we can measure the number line even though it is infinite, I would stress two points. First, the infinitude of the number line is based on its existence as a conceptual reality. There is no number line fully existent in actual reality. There is no limit (n) on a number line, since we can always posit n + 1, but physical reality doesn’t work that way: as soon as we posit "+ 1" to a measured reality, we cease to be talking about that measured reality itself in its specific dimensions.

Second, there are plenty of finite number sets (e.g., the natural numbers {1…10}, all prime numbers less than 1 x 10^6, etc.), so while there may be an infinitely vast universe “somewhere out there”, I deny it is measurable like ours is. Ours happens to be, as it were, a finite “set” cosmos. (This, incidentally, is why, following the work of Stanley Jaki, I think Gödel's incompleteness theorems are the death knell for any necessarily true and absolute "theory of everything." Contingency will simply never be vanquished.) Such sets we can measure easily (say, on our fingers, or on graphing paper, or in bits, etc.), because they are concrete, actual entities with specifiable magnitudes. I’m willing to grant that the “entire number line” is an analogy for prime matter––i.e., the infinite scope of raw possibility in nature––but that doesn’t help us much scientifically, since prime matter is technically nonexistent and utterly non-measurable (because non-distinct). When physicists find a singularity, in which an otherwise sound physical theory breaks down under infinite energies, densities, durations, and the like (such as in a black hole), they must renormalize those infinities into meaningful physical terms, knowing that such an "infinite failure" only means the theory is not complete yet, is not yet adequately describing the singularity as a part of physical reality.

Lastly, even if one were to grant an infinite-eternal universe, as St. Thomas admits, this would not solve its contingency in various ways (i.e., its presumed measurability, its unique causal ‘history’, etc.).

A further worry might be that I appear to equate “physically realizable” with “measurable”—which isn’t really sound in light of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. In point of fact, in this discussion, Heisenbergian uncertainty vis-à-vis measurability needs to be qualified in at least two ways. First, we must avoid the fallacy of equivocation which suggests that because an event cannot be determined (i.e., measured) exactly, it cannot be determined (i.e., caused) exactly. This qualification is important because the indeterminacy of a measured quantum state does not entail a diremption of physical causality. Quantum indeterminacy is a physical reality.

Second, the quantum flux is not a discrete (measurable) physical phenomenon, but a field of immeasurable potentiality. Wolfgang Smith has very penetrating comments about this topic in The Quantum Enigma. Insofar as a quantum state CAN be measured in physical reality, it is no longer that theoretically infinitely potential field of superpositions. Uncollapsed, the quantum state is purely deterministic according to the Schrödinger equation, but is only determined once it is collapsed (i.e., observed) BY SOMETHING OUTSIDE THE STATE ITSELF, whereupon the non-discrete potentialities becomes a discrete physical reality. We don’t measure (and therefore cannot predict) the infinite possibilities of an uncollapsed quantum state, but only the uniquely determined state itself in the very act of measurement-collapse. In this way I think quantum mechanics is implying exactly what I mean about the unmeasurability of an infinite field or magnitude: we simply cannot get there from here. Once the state is collapsed, however, it is measurable––because measured––AND THUS not infinite. The obverse holds. Insofar as it is an infinite potentiality, a quantum state is neither measured nor measurable. At the very root of known physical reality, therefore, we find that theoretical infinitude is inimical to physical measurement. All of this is to say that it does no good to confuse the methodological inexactitude of our measurements with the empirical fact of measurement per se. The uncertainty of a quantum measurement, like the inability to reach “n + 1” is an empirical problem. It is not a refutation of the fact that a measured quantum state exists only AS MEASURED. Infinity is exactly what gave quantum mechanics the push it needed (viz., Planck)– cf. the ultraviolet paradox in black body radiation–so I can’t imagine physicists want to tangle with it again. Indeed, the very idea of a quantum is that it is a FINITE AMOUNT (quantum finitum) of energy. Thus, as I’ve said, I think an infinite quantum is literally a contradiction in terms, like asking how long an eternal hour is, or how tall an infinite meter is.

"Hucusque auxiliatus est nobis Dominus" (1 Sam 7:12)––but unfortunately another, theological, objection lurks: “If we have bodies in heaven and the bodies move, there is time in heaven, and heaven is eternal.” Therefore, the fact that time is infinite in heaven does not seem to "fit" my theory about the immeasurability of infinity. In light of this objection, I should perhaps rephrase my complaint thus: If we can measure at all, we can only meaningfully obtain finite measurements. Since, obviously, we can measure, then we cannot be obtaining finite measurements of infinite quantities. We can, however, obtain finite measurements of finite segments which are theoretically (or formally) contiguous with infinite quantities.

We cannot measure TIME and SPACE as such, since the very position and moment from which, and in which, we take that measurement would itself be spatiotemporal, and thus lie outside the supposed “fullness” of space and time we are measuring. The very notions of measuring, measurers, and measurees, as it were, require all three be not only notionally distinct but also spatiotemporally discrete. If we found an infinite mass, would it include us and our scale? If so, then what instruments or observer takes the measurement? If not, then how can it be considered infinite insofar as it is delimited (“pressed up against”, “stopped”, etc.) by us and out instruments?

All we can do is measure discrete objects, velocities, etc. IN space and time. The measured duration and size of the universe are not themselves measurements of the whole of space and time, since they apply only to the PAST career of spacetime. If we had a measurement of time in its fullness (i.e., infinitude), then all ‘future’ moments would be measurably present. They are, however, not present. Thus, while the fullness of empirical time is formally contiguous with the infinitude of ‘ultimate’ time (in heaven or otherwise), ‘our’ time is not itself infinite. It makes no sense to ask “When is time?” or “Where is space?” This is because they are not properly called magnitudes, and thus, as bizarre as it sounds, not actually measurable. We cannot ask how much time is in a minute, but can ask how many minutes are there in time. Nor can we ask how much space is in a cubic liter, but how many cubic liters there are in space. The former are measurable; the latter, being the very criteria of measurement, are not.

I’m being a bit pedantic because I believe my intuitions emerge from the very face of the things we are discussing. A measurement is by definition FINISHED, counted, ended (otherwise we would still be counting up to it, not stating it). An object, in its actual measurable dimensions, can only begin and end where others end and begin. It is FINIShed, and therefore not INFINIte. Likewise, space and time as formal IMMENSIties are literally without (im-) measure (-mensura). Infinity is literally incalculable, while exact measurement is the lifeblood of calculus. God, being infinite and eternal and entirely immaterial, is not measurable, although His actions are measurable (e.g., how many loaves and fish, the corporeal dimensions of Christ on the Cross, the velocity of prophetic words in the air, etc.). Intellection, likewise, because it is immaterial, has no measurable properties, though its operations do (musing, asking, wondering, neural activity, etc.). In an analogous way, while space and time as such are formally immaterial (since they cannot be wholly materialized “all at once”––when?!––or “all in one place”––where!?), they ‘contain’ finite proper parts which do admit of quantification.

All of this should remind us that creation, on multiple levels, partakes of eternity, without actually ‘enclosing’ it. Additionally, the participation of the higher in the lower is wholly concrete: we know Time only in the discrete moments that comprise our life, Space only in the discrete areas that comprise our range of action, Wisdom only in discrete acts of “mentation”, and God only in the discrete sacramental disclosures He gives of Himself. I add this last point to reiterate my “Aristhomism”, as opposed to the creeping Platonism some of my comments suggest. Not that it is so bad to be a Platonist; I am just more of a “Thomistotelian”.

Finally, it may be wondered why I think it’s important to argue that the universe not be infinite-eternal. What's the hullabaloo? The main reason why I find an infinite but empirically coherent universe (or any substance) repugnant is because I believe the “infinite” (and related “homogeneous”) impulse in cosmology has always been trouble for exact physical science. It’s driven, then, by a sort pragmatic urge to preserve the intelligibility of the universe AS we MEASURE it in reality. But a related motive is that I do believe the very idea is incoherent. And I think it befits a philosopher in fieri (moi!) to address that.

I close with Sapientia 11:21–27 [Wisdom 20–26]:

…uno spiritu poterant occidi,
persecutionem passi ab ipsis factis suis,
et dispersi per spiritum virtutis tuæ :
sed omnia in mensura, et numero et pondere disposuisti.
22 Multum enim valere, tibi soli supererat semper :
et virtuti brachii tui quis resistet ?
23 Quoniam tamquam momentum stateræ,
sic est ante te orbis terrarum,
et tamquam gutta roris antelucani quæ descendit in terram.
24 Sed misereris omnium, quia omnia potes ;
et dissimulas peccata hominum, propter pœnitentiam.
25 Diligis enim omnia quæ sunt,
et nihil odisti eorum quæ fecisti ;
nec enim odiens aliquid constituisti aut fecisti.
26 Quomodo autem posset aliquid permanere, nisi tu voluisses ?
aut quod a te vocatum non esset conservaretur ?
27 Parcis autem omnibus, quoniam tua sunt, Domine,
qui amas animas.

…men could fall at a single breath
when pursued by justice
and scattered by the breath of thy power.
But thou hast arranged all things by measure
and number and weight.
[21] For it is always in thy power to show great strength,
and who can withstand the might of thy arm?
[22] Because the whole world before thee is like
a speck that tips the scales,
and like a drop of morning dew that falls upon the ground.
[23] But thou art merciful to all, for thou canst do all things,
and thou dost overlook men's sins, that they may repent.
[24] For thou lovest all things that exist,
and hast loathing for none of the things which thou hast made,
for thou wouldst not have made anything if thou hadst hated it.
[25] How would anything have endured if thou hadst not willed it?
Or how would anything not called forth by thee
have been preserved?
[26] Thou sparest all things, for they are thine,
O Lord who lovest the living.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

As we age…

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As we age, we discover that the hardest person to deal with in life is none other than ourselves.
–– Elliam Fakespeare

Anything worse, anything better…?

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Is there anything more pestiferous than a big dog that thinks it is a small dog?

And is there anything more adorable than a small dog that thinks it is a big dog?

This asymmetry carries over into human interactions, I believe. Such as how childish self-seeking in grown people is universally loathed. Or how children wearing their parents' clothing are universally adorable.

I am further inclined to say this tendency points to something fundamental about creation and God's will for it. As well as to the absurdity of human arrogance in the face of, and in contrast to, the kenosis-Incarnation of Christ.

What that 'something' might be exactly, however, I cannot say at this moment.

I am reminded of C.S. Lewis's medieval reminder in The Four Loves, The Weight of Glory, and, in a more oblique way, Miracles, that the higher contains the lower.


Monday, January 26, 2009

A storm without wind or water…

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It dawned on me recently, I believe because I've been away for four months, and have fresh eyes upon returning, that the best way to describe driving in Taiwan to an American, is this: It is like constantly driving at or around a stadium event.

The feeling is always like people are constantly looking for a parking place, everyone oozes with that itch to just get out of the parking lot or into the stadium, people keep talking on cell phones trying to meet up with friends, there are too many cars for too little space, vendors stud the terrain like tailgating trucks and RVs, and pedestrians are always milling about with much attention to anything but the event awaiting them.

You can navigate it with some peace only if you take it slow, settle for a spot farther away (or at least a feeling very much like that), and keep your eyes open for any erratic moves. Traffic is almost always about as busy as the start or end of the event, but rush hour might be described as a Super Bowl frenzy, or a Skynyrd-Stones combined concert in the 70s, with a little Amish thrown in for that down home look and feel. Once night falls, things become as vacant and hushed as a commercial parking lot.

Now that I can see this, I have gained a noticeable increase in peace on the road, something with which I have struggled my entire five years in Taiwan. As the Dao of G.I. Joe teaches us, "Now you know, and knowing is half the battle!"

Like oatmeal…

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ERNIUS: Hey, how are Ellen and Ben doing? Last time I saw them, it was…

BERTUS: Weird?

ERNIUS: Awkward?

BERTUS: Yeah. From what I can gather, being with Ellen most the time is like eating cold oatmeal. For Ben, I mean.

ERNIUS: Did Ben actually say that?

BERTUS: Well, in so many words.

ERNIUS: He talked cold oatmeal?

BERTUS: No, but, you know how it is. You get up from the table, go to the bathroom, check your email, make a call, whatever. But when you come back, the oatmeal is all chilled down and congealed. Clammy and unwelcoming.

ERNIUS: Congealed. Clammy.

BERTUS: Right. There's no inviting steam coming from the bowl. That waxy film is on the top.

ERNIUS: Arrghh, the waxy film! Quaker Instant Goatmeal strikes again! Is Ellen the waxy film?

BERTUS: Well, no, it's that bad. I mean, she's not that bad. But I guess Ben feels like he got up from the table one day for something, and when he came back, things were all cold. And now he's got to slog through this whole bowl cold oatmeal, presumably for the rest of his life.

ERNIUS: That's a lot of oatmeal. So why is he with her, then? Why not just go for some Pop Tarts or something? A bagel.

BERTUS: Well, why do we eat cold oatmeal? Because we know should. Because we know it's healthy. Because we can remember all those other times when oatmeal was so good, when it woke us up and made us warm! And we hang on to those ideas just so we can make it through this one lousy bowl. Deep down we know oatmeal is better than this––it's been awesome before––but now we have this, like, cognitive dissonance between what we know about oatmeal and what we're padding around in our mouth to warm it up, our tongue avoiding it and yet running into again and again like seeing an old classmate whose name you forgot at a party you're not even really invited to.

ERNIUS: Ben said all this?

BERTUS: In so many words.

ERNIUS: So can't Ben just, uh, microwave things? I mean, when in Rome, right?

BERTUS: Dude, you're focusing on the wrong part of the story. I'm just trying to say, Ben knows he's supposed to be loyal, and he knows Ellen is "good for him," but it just seems like he's trying to get from one bite to the next, and not really having fun. And even when he does heat it up, it's like something always happens and when he comes back to it, it's cold and soggy again.

ERNIUS: So he's eating cold oatmeal out of duty. Is Ellen, too?

BERTUS: No idea. I imagine she's pretty happy. Maybe she's the brown sugar that makes the oatmeal sweet enough to finish. Brown sugar is always pretty happy, right?

ERNIUS: It looks good to me.

BERTUS: Anyway, he's got this big bowl of cold, thick oatmeal in front of him––and it's got raisins in it––

ERNIUS: Raisins!

BERTUS: ––and they're all swollen and mushy from the oatmeal, and eating each one is like eating a mushroom filled with maple syrup, or a little diabetic slug.

ERNIUS: Dude, dude––dude! The line is right here––you're way over it over there!

BERTUS: He knows he can't just throw it out. So he's taking it one bite at a time. Like a man. Trying to hide his frown with the funnies, or orange juice, or something. You know, like when you're eating something really "interesting" that your friend's mom made, and you're trying not to frown, but your mouth is all stiff while you're trying to chew, and things only get harder and more awkward when you try to force a smile and say something really, really complimentary? Like trying to smile and sing happy birthday at your friend's birthday party when you're right on the verge of puking from too much soda and snacks before you even get to the cake.

ERNIUS: In so many words. But I mean, Ben doesn't know how to reheat the oatmeal?

BERTUS: Dude, reheat it? I think you're reading too much into this. It's just an analogy. She's not literally cold. Forget about the microwave.

ERNIUS: I'm just saying, maybe he can focus on the good things. The brown sugar.

BERTUS: It can only do so much, I think. Man shall not live by brown sugar alone.

ERNIUS: Do we know anyone named Mikey? Or anyone related to Milton Burle?

BERTUS: You mean Wilford Brimley?

ERNIUS: Him too, I guess.

The expansive logic of love…

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…versus the sterile logic of contraception.

Love by its very nature seeks to issue in something greater than either the beloved on his own or the lover in the abstract. Love seeks to issue in a higher synthesis comprised of the lover-with-his-beloved. Love is, therefore, intrinsically generative and expansive. Bene ergo dicitur bonum diffusum sui (Therefore is it well said that the good diffuses itself). So expansive, in fact, that love will not stop at this one step higher into harmony. Love between two lovers expands to encompass the very objects and people in their lives: this is why “inside jokes” are such a powerful signal, and reinforcement, of friendship and love: they conscript something ordinary and innocuous, the coal of everyday life, and transform them into diamonds forged by the power of love. For better or worse (Romeo and Juliet, anyone?), “worlds collide” precisely because lovers instinctively draw their surroundings into their inner circle. Because humans are essentially embodied, historical beings, our efforts to love one another inextricably draw matter, money, artifacts, and other flesh into the dance.

As love proceeds, it seeks higher harmonies and greater fecundity. A shared bank account, a shared apartment, a shared house, and the like, become tangible, virtually living testaments tot he vitality of the relationship. And such objects and places are ‘consecrated’ by the lovers in the very act of sex. This is why “getting it on” in all kinds of places is such a titillating aspect of “wild love”; the world of inert objects becomes animated by the insatiable passion expressed and deepened in the act of sex.

No matter how passionate such erotic love is, however, it too argues for its own inner logic. The seed cast away in “safe sex” (only those who know nothing of ‘the power and the glory’ of sex would call it safe!) retains a mute but incessant power to generate ideas of literally embodying the love in a way that cannot fade as easily as an organism fades as an ember blinks out. The most obvious response to this fecund plea, is children. I have witnessed time and again how couples, initially intent on ‘controlling’ their lives by ‘preventing’ children, gradually find reproductive sex as tedious and artificial to maintain as the Berlin Wall became. It need not issue in a conscious, explicit desire to get pregnant, but, as time passes, the original ‘logic’ of contraception becomes incoherent, distracting, tedious––much like a theoretically pristine melody in one rehearsal room increasingly becomes mere dissonance for the musically fecund power of genius in another. As love grows, the inhumane ‘logic’ of protecting yourself from your own beloved in the most intimate bond becomes truly absurd. One’s ideological guard drops, the eyes droop, a longing for unaffected embrace and complete self-donation weakens the technologically trained will. At some point, the prophylactics simply get lost in the shuffle of love lived as one life and one day a couple finds themselves pregnant. And in every case I’ve known, they look upon the living, breathing embodiment of their love without a hint of regret. If this logic writ by love is opposed, however, one spouse invariably grows to resent the other. Hence, lovers face a dilemma: the logic of contraception eventually, and intrinsically, works to undermine the logic of love, and vice versa.

If we do not allow the fire of love to burn outside the tranquilly sterile furnace of our own finitude and biological entropy, we will end up melting by it. Openness to life in marital love not only keeps the furnace whole and warm, but also warms and illuminates those around it. Any form of love, therefore, which intrinsically stifles the fecund potency of love–-such as masturbation, homosexual fornication, or contraception––dooms the fire of love, and its world-warming power, as surely as fire wood tossed on the floor but not in the furnace, coal dumped in the flue but not in the furnace, or an oxygen-blocking sheath over the vents, respectively, cannot but be rejected as a threat to the life of love.

In any case, once the logic of love is allowed to expand into the very blood of a new life, we have a family. And the family, being a nucleus of love, naturally displays the same desire for higher harmony and fecundity as found at every lower level. Hence, we have neighborhoods, and community soccer teams, and carpools, and sleepovers, and town councils. Soon, though, a problem surfaces: what more is there than the local community? Love answers: the City, the Nation, the People, the World, the Cosmos. Mankind, which is invariably generated in and for families, is driven by love to find higher and greater harmony as far as the collective consciousness (and conscience) can reach.

But then finitude comes crashing down. The obvious goal of love is an infinite embrace of all things in one thing––the cosmos loved and redeemed in the merest touch of the beloved. Love is infinitely ‘cosmophagic’, ‘ontophagic’––transcendentally driven to consume the cosmos and all being by sacramental (i.e., concrete) means. The insatiability of love bears within it the awful risk of consuming and destroying anything finite. The law of diminishing returns sets in. The finitude of any object loved in, and with, the beloved renders it prey to the tireless chomping hunger of love. Nostalgic repetition with enforced variation (“Tell that joke again,” etc.) seeks to extract from finite being all it can, and in the process, shatters finite creatures into increasingly tiny bits of shrapnel.

Only if love is allowed to tap into an infinite Being will its insatiable ‘lust for life’ find a safe way to exhaust itself, and thus, by maximizing its intrinsic nature, perfect itself. Love seeks heaven the same way a water fountain seeks the sky; but love invariably comes tumbling down just as water does into the pond around it. The only means by which such grave love does not become a mockery and refutation of love's upward striving, is a hypostatic condescension by God which sacramentally infuses His own love into the drooping matter of our world. Thus, there is hope for failed and confused love––hope in Christ who overcame the severest rejection of the greatest love by burrowing with love so deeply into the matter of our world, in the very belly of the earth, that He rose again to generate all new and lasting life. If we unite ourselves to the Sacrament of Divine Condescension (i.e., Christ in the Eucharist), we will find that, upon death, we can evaporate into the heavens and find ourselves transfigured and reunited with our past loves like clouds shimmering in the sun.

I close by asking you to ponder Matthew 3:8–11:

Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our father'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

Facite ergo fructum dignum pœnitentiæ. Et ne velitis dicere intra vos : Patrem habemus Abraham. Dico enim vobis quoniam potens est Deus de lapidibus istis suscitare filios Abrahæ. Jam enim securis ad radicem arborum posita est. Omnis ergo arbor, quæ non facit fructum bonum, excidetur, et in ignem mittetur. Ego quidem baptizo vos in aqua in pœnitentiam: qui autem post me venturus est, fortior me est, cujus non sum dignus calceamenta portare: ipse vos baptizabit in Spiritu Sancto, et igni.

Sehet zu, tut rechtschaffene Frucht der Buße! Denket nur nicht, daß ihr bei euch wollt sagen: Wir haben Abraham zum Vater. Ich sage euch: Gott vermag dem Abraham aus diesen Steinen Kinder zu erwecken. Es ist schon die Axt den Bäumen an die Wurzel gelegt. Darum, welcher Baum nicht gute Frucht bringt, wird abgehauen und ins Feuer geworfen. Ich taufe euch mit Wasser zur Buße; der aber nach mir kommt, ist stärker denn ich, dem ich nicht genugsam bin, seine Schuhe zu tragen; der wird euch mit dem Heiligen Geist und mit Feuer taufen.

Produzcan frutos que demuestren arrepentimiento. No piensen que podrán alegar: "Tenemos a Abraham por padre." Porque les digo que aun de estas piedras Dios es capaz de darle hijos a Abraham. El hacha ya está puesta a la raíz de los árboles, y todo árbol que no produzca buen fruto será cortado y arrojado al fuego. »Yo los bautizo a ustedes con[b] agua para que se arrepientan. Pero el que viene después de mí es más poderoso que yo, y ni siquiera merezco llevarle las sandalias. Él los bautizará con el Espíritu Santo y con fuego.

你 們 要 結 出 果 子 來 , 與 悔 改 的 心 相 稱 。 不 要 自 己 心 裡 說 : 有 亞 伯 拉 罕 為 我 們 的 祖 宗 。 我 告 訴 你 們 , 神 能 從 這 些 石 頭 中 給 亞 伯 拉 罕 興 起 子 孫 來 。 現 在 斧 子 已 經 放 在 樹 根 上 , 凡 不 結 好 果 子 的 樹 就 砍 下 來 , 丟 在 火 裡 。 我 是 用 水 給 你 們 施 洗 , 叫 你 們 悔 改 。 但 那 在 我 以 後 來 的 , 能 力 比 我 更 大 , 我 就 是 給 他 提 鞋 也 不 配 。 他 要 用 聖 靈 與 火 給 你 們 施 洗 。

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Taking the watch apart…

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…is lots more fun than putting it back together.

My girlfriend today told me a question her roommate asked her not long ago. If we live our whole lives without God but then repent at the last minute, won’t God forgive us and save us? If not, how can you say He is so loving? If so, how can you say He is so just?

To help respond to this question, I suggested some analogies. The right way to understand this issue is based on the principle that some things are irreversible, or at least, so nearly intractable once enacted that they basically preempt such an easy ‘lat minute’ solution. As St. Augustine remarked in one of his many discussions of the fall in Adam, there are some acts we perform by which we forfeit our ability, let alone right, to undo or repent of them. Such as suicide. As soon as you kill yourself, there is by definition no last second chance or last resort to reverse that action. Suicide coalesces your last second with your last resort; a second later, you’re past your last resort, past the point of no return.

Analogies for this principle are the following: An egg is easier to drop than to pick up. A car is easier to blow up than to put back together. A child is easier to create than to obliterate except, of course, for that wonder-working quick and dirty kludge of all kludges, abortion. (In a typically Luciferian fashion, whereby the evil mocks the good with an inverse mimicry, abortion distorts the Gospel of the Crucified Savior by willfully sacrificing the unwilling innocent. There is indeed power in the blood of the innocent slain for the desperate.) A watch is easier to take apart than to put back together.

Or consider this scenario: A man marries a woman and quickly announces he intends to live his whole ‘married’ life apart from and in spite of his wife. He comes and goes whenever he likes, demands help when he needs it, offers help when he finds the time, all the while assuring himself and his family that he will make good on everything in the end. As death approaches, he returns home and asks his wife to take him in. Would she? How could she? What meaning would his ‘love’ have at such a late hour after being displayed as narcissism and self-isolation all the years before? Even his wife, by sheer grace, did embrace and restore him, could the man really have the capacity to live in the fullness of that relationship? Would he not have become to isolated and self-centered that even the restoration he finds in his wife would seem a theatrical, and therefore artificial, finale?

Theoretically, yes, God would and can forgive us and save at the last minute, despite a life lived without and against Him. The problem, therefore, is not God’s justice or benevolence, but rather, our shallowness and intransigence. Every moment of our lives we stand under a shower of grace, knee-deep in puddles of grace, God’s very immanence in Christ. Our only chance for enjoying that grace is to lower our umbrellas of self-enclosure and idol protection, get naked, and play in the rain. Otherwise, not even grace can touch us. Grace, after all, is not an abstract ‘thing’ but God’s own touch by the Holy Spirit. If we continually reject Him qua Grace, the problem is not that He will not ‘be there for us’ in our final hour, but rather that we will not be there to be touched and healed.

Imagine a plastic drinking straw. A saint is like a clean, straight straw that is fully open to the coursing of grace through him or her. Sins become kinks in our character, in our faculties, which impede the flow of grace in us (and not only for our own sake but also impede the overflow of grace into our neighbors’ lives). Hell is simply a case of a straw that has become knotted in itself: not only can grace not flow through it, but also its continued flow only increases the internal pressure of the plastic––thus hell is suffering in the very presence of God made into an absence by our inability to let Him in. The reason God cannot untie our knots in hell, is because grace only works on the foundation of nature, not against it. As St. Thomas said so well, "Gratia non tollat [destruit] naturam, sed perficiat [Grace does not negate {destroy} nature, but perfects it)" (ST I, i, 8 ad 2). Indeed, not only does grace presuppose nature (De Ver. 27, 6 ad 3)––as the subject of grace––but grace also presupposes the intrinsic openness of nature to grace as its operative reforming agent. Nature is the preamble of grace (In Boeth. de Trin. 2, 3). Once that openness, however, by its own operative powers, becomes an intrinsic closure, there is literally no means, no access, by which God can infuse His grace into that nature. The moment of death is a mystical crucible, ignited in the first exposure to God qua Lumen de Lumine, which hardens our nature into a permanent cast, much like a “glow wall” leaves our shadow on it after a flash.

The point is that consciously living a life without and against God summons all our natural powers to shape those same natural powers into a mode that has really no capacity for turning back to God. All the grace He would shower upon us finds no foothold, or, worse (such as a grace of conviction which is quickly spurned for further hardening in sin), becomes just that much more fodder which we can use to resist God and stifle our own capacity for repentance. A man who says he will ‘test God’ by jumping off a building and then asking for salvation at the last instant is not even seeking the right God. For the God Who was in Christ is also Creator of the very laws and nature that dictate his jump will be irreversible and fatal. As below, so above. Making the jump of premeditated ‘final repentance’ is really just making a final jump. Grace is intrinsically a gift, but a gift is intrinsically something that can only be received by one with the capacity to accept it; unfortunately, sin is something that robs us of this ability, like a beggar who cuts his own hands off to win sympathy but can not even accept the alms given him. We may cut off our nose to spite God’s face, but, being made in His image, we only end up scouring off our own faces, ultimately rendering ourselves blind, deaf, and mute when grace passes us by in the end.

It takes a lifetime…

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It takes a lifetime to live a life.*
–– Elliam Fakespeare

Most of our present moments, though they are, strictly speaking, the only thing we possess, are but oscillating patches of habit, regret and hope, condensations of the past and an evaporation into the future. Who we are is both ‘when’ we come from and ‘when’ we are going. The failures of any one moment must be weighed by the metal out of which they were forged and must be measured against the stresses set to meet them. You are bigger than your ‘right now,’ and thus not liable (nor commendable) for it alone. Being bigger than any one moment does not, however, exempt you from the stifling humility that each of our most pitiful moments reveals of us. Don’t settle for now alone, since there is One continually calling you past it into an ever fresh present.

To abandon your ideals just because you are not worthy of them is the only thing that makes you unworthy of them. Ideals, being ideal, are, in a sense, made to be missed. On the one hand, if we attained stasis in an ‘ideal’ past, we would be crystallized and inert. This is much of the point of my poem, "Past On," which begins thus:

The past


But the past parts

––do they part?

Time lost

is the only time

we know,

the only time

we gain

with the tender called pain.

and concludes:

My past has cost me

so much of my past.

The time has come,

time has come

and gone,

for the past…

Time is up

for the past:

to go now,

in time.

If were made to live in our past, in other words, God would not have ordained the very passage of time which generates the past per se.

On the other hand, if we had no ideal leading us onto an endless horizon, we would sink into the fleeting quicksand of the passing moments. This is what I meant a couple days ago about "present grace." It is not so much that the world is moving away from us, as that, as we mature, we increasingly see our proper place in it, a place that takes on an increasingly small stature in comparison to the glory all around us.

* Tentative translations:


Man braucht ein Leben, das Leben zu leben.

Vivir la vida necesita una vida.

[Help welcome!]

Saturday, January 24, 2009


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[A song in progress…]

Why we like abortion...

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We like offing the little ones before they can fight back, since the best defense is a quick offense. We like doing babies in before they can move, since no one likes a moving target. We like 86'ing them before they can cry, since no one likes a howling infant and stifling silent screams is easier before they hit the air.

We send countless children down the River Styx so we can keep our place on the merry cruise called Hedonism. (After all, who do these youngsters think they are, requiring an alcohol- and drug-free womb for their own good?) We flush them out while we're still svelte and undetected, lest the hormonal snowball effect ruin our figures, reps, and precious swollen bankrolls.

People willing to kill babies in order to save a relationship or save some dreamt-of future, are willing to resort to any measures--including deceit, drugs, affairs, and more--down the line to keep things going. We are happily utilitarian as long as "we" the mighty all agree we are the only "we" are the only "people" involved in attaining the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people.

Abortion is a kludge––a theoretically ‘clever’ but practically inept solution to a problem. Any kludge, like any abortion, only makes the problem worse than it was before, sort of like tearing a big enough hole in your pants sew them over with an even bigger stitch, only to find the mend shrinks a few sizes off the pants and you can't even wear them. Kludges are inspired by the furtive wisdom of fixing a problem before anyone notices it and in a way no one would think to forbid. But as time goes on, the kludge-work diffracts its disorder into other parts of the system, entailing kludge upon kludge, all so the buck doesn’t stop here and each tinkerer can stay ahead of the other who might be looking for a sign of weakness.

Narcissistic Spartans...

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I have written before (here as an obiter dictum and here, in response to a reader's response) about the "Spartan" mentality I see in much of modern America. In my first musing on the topic, I said

...that we (USAmericans) raise our children for economic fitness the same way the Spartans raised kids for military advantage. I won't go into detail now, but I am increasingly aware of the US tendency to whittle life down to a young-adult-to-middle-age idealized median range. In addition to rubbing out the old end of the stick with the scouring pad of euthanasia and institutionalized benign neglect, we are pressing the upper limit of youth farther and farther back, robbing children of any protective barrier between true childishness and adulthood. And I'm very inclined to believe this erasure of life's outer limits is meant for the good of the market. We are economic Spartans. Insular, focused, peculiar and prepped for battle.

Due to recent events of a personal nature, I see the same principle at work with a vengeance. The battle of our day is, of course, the battle of the sexes waged with those old weapons known as genitalia. The increased influence of technology has sharpened this conflict in the same way twentieth-century weaponry made the First World War something qualitatively new and horrific in comparison to previous warfare. Hunkered in the trenches of our self-interest, we lob the mustard gas of ideologically driven gender-distrust and dive-bomb each other with cosmetic infanticide. We are so obsessed with our reproductive 'fitness' that, paradoxically, we even sacrifice our fertility to it. At all costs we want "sexual health" to be unhampered by reproductive responsibility. Thus we sacrifice childbearing on the altar of babymaking. We are so concerned with staying lean, strong, and tactically mobile that we will leave a baby on today's country hills (abortion clinics) for the elements and the wolves to destroy. We are truly Narcissistic Spartans: all our social efforts are geared from day one to enhance and preserve our narcissistic freedom, a vain defense of free will that we don't even believe in anymore on allegedly "scientific" grounds. It is only a matter of time, I fear, before our egoistic pond-gazing will have us tumbling headlong into an abyss.

Noli erratorum permittere te terere...

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I saw the phrase "illegitimi non carborundum" on the web someplace recently and, having a rather keen interest not only in Latin but also, more poignantly, in drastically improving my laughable command of it, I decided to google the phrase. Get smart, and all that.

Turns out, according to Wikipedia, "illegitimi non carborundum" is not only one of many versions of that saying, but is also totally fallacious Latin. It is "suppozed" to mean "Don't let the bastards wear you down," but is actually nonsense.

The actual Latin for "bastard" is "nothus" and "carborundum" is a neologism based on a hard substance used for grinding (the -undum suggests a gerund, but doesn't work here). According to Henry Beard (Latin for Even More Occasions, chapter 1), the proper Latin is the following:

Noli nothis permittere te terere.

Noli is the single negative imperative (plural, nolite) and nothis is in the genitive (as they are wearing down (terendum) in relation to te, you).

Lastly, if I'm not mistaken (such a large if!), my title for this post means "Don't let errors wear you down."

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


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High-performance hypocrisy...

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A high-performance hypocrite is someone that gives his or her all to either side of the fence he or she straddles. A sort of spiritual oscillator. Spiritually bipolar. When devout, those on the side of his devotion get their money's worth, so to speak: wise guidance, prayerful inspiration, fraternal support, etc. When fleshly, however, those on that side enjoy an equally hardy ally in whatever escapade is afoot. Hence, "high performance" on either side of himself.

Present grace is grace truly present...

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The grace of the present moment is perhaps the quintessential grace of our lives. For it is in the present that we are graced to realize, on the one hand, that we have been given enough grace to make it past our past and, on the other, that we immediately have enough grace to make it into our future. Every present moment is an inescapable reminder that having the breath to curse God or despair of our lives is the most basic reason not to lament. To be able to lament is still to, and to be is to partake in some attenuated way in the very essence of God as He Who Is.

Σοφία! Ὀρθοί:

What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?

Quid autem habes quod non accepisti? si autem accepisti, quid gloriaris quasi non acceperis?

你 有 甚 麼 不 是 領 受 的 呢 ; 若 是 領 受 的 , 為 何 自 誇 , 彷 彿 不 是 領 受 的 呢 ?

Was hast du aber, daß du nicht empfangen hast? So du es aber empfangen hast, was rühmst du dich denn, als ob du es nicht empfangen hättest?

¿Y qué tienes que no hayas recibido? Y si lo recibiste, ¿por qué te glorías como si no lo hubieras recibido?

–– I Corinthians 4:7

All you have is a gift, mediated by God through others. All you are is to be a gift, mediated by Christ for others.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Die Umwandlung...

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[For those of you with some German savvy, you might not only know this word means "commutation" or "transmutation", but also realize it is a play on Kafka's famous story, "Die Verwandlung" (The Metamorphosis).]

A man wakes to find himself in silk sheets, staring up at a fine wood ceiling. He looks around him. His surroundings are immaculate and chic. "What incredible luck," he says to himself, to no one in particular, which might just amount to the same thing. "What unbelievably good fortune," he murmurs, rolling on his side to look at his night table. A silver Rolex lies curled next to his alarm clock as the golden pendulum rotates back and forth under its glass bulb. He tosses his blanket and sheet off him and sits up to look around. He can hardly believe he's here. How long has it been? It all seems so new, and yet so obviously lived in. He walks over to the closet, slowly flips jackets, shirts, slacks from to side, his grin not sure whether to widen or just perch there like a cat burglar poised midstep while a guard passes in the hallway. Suddenly, without thinking about it, he sniffs the air. Leans into the closet and sniffs as deeply as he can. Is that what he smells like? Funny to think about his own smell. Like hearing your voice on a recording for the first time. How odd to meet himself with his nose, he muses. Who knows--whose nose?


This story is about a man who wakes one day to find himself in another man's life. It's not that he is inhabiting his body, so much as everyone he meets reacts to him as if he were. He can see his own hands and feet, hear his own voice, but he is constantly catching up to who he is. For example, whoever it is, apparently, had a slight but noticeable slouch; our man does not. His acquaintances comment on this--sore back? New year's resolution?--so he finds himself constantly bobbing between faking a hunch and just standing erect. He immediately finds he is wealthy, connected, and successful. He has a beautiful fiancee and a stellar apartment. He would try to extricate himself from whatever life he's entered, but at the same time, he realizes, extricating himself from himself would be just as easy. Everything he does, he does as this man. For a time he stifles the cognitive dissonance, but gradually he is morally troubled to be leading (or misleading) another man's life. How did this happen? What happened to the original man? Who is he?

Over the weeks he amasses more and more clues as to his origin (photos, notes, vague memories, etc.), and eventually finds his former neighborhood. It is a much dingier, humbler place than his new life. Unfortunately, however, no one there recognizes him. He is as much a stranger to them as he is to himself. So he goes about asking about himself, looking for his past among people who are inclined to acknowledge that someone by that once lived among them, but can offer only diffident recollections and mildly baffled suggestions. After some time he discovers the woman that was his lover in his past, or at least passed, life. When he confronts her, however, she seems oblivious to who he really is. After enough encounters, however, he begins to sense she is feigning ignorance, and eventually she admits to being the only person who recognizes him.

Meanwhile, of course, he is living his other posh life. He comes to see that while, from the outside, it is a superior, even "great," life; but he can't live such a lie. This "existential schizophrenia" leads to much turmoil in his posh life: business failures, turmoil with his fiancee, mental anguish, etc. He is caught: the more damage he causes in his new life, the more damage he causes the man he is being taken for; and yet the more damage he causes, the more leverage he has for breaking away back into his old life. Finally, he ruins most of what he has and flees back to his "home life"--only to find of course that there is no place for him. His beloved has a new lover, someone chillingly reminiscent of himself, and he is only taken for a madman by others there. Having two lives amounts to having no life; dwelling in two worlds robs him of any dwelling in either. Once more, from the outside, he longs to enjoy the fruit of his new life; he fully recognizes how fortunate he is, and yet he can never find his place there.


This is a sort of allegory, about how decisions look to us from an objective perspective versus how they feel as the very fabric of our lives. It also examines the damage we can do to others by living too much in our past, or based too much on who we thought we should have been, or, indeed. Just as much, it explores the damage we can do to ourselves by trying to live up to a false pattern for ourselves. The story is driven by the anguish a man feels when he steps back from his own life, consults with friends, reflects on human life in general, sizes his lot up in comparison, and recognizes that "such a man" would be a lucky man--and yet is agonzied that he cannot bring himself to be that lucky man. It is a surrealistic combination drawing, in various ways, upon Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Paul Auster's New York Trilogy, Christopher Nolan's Memento, Kafka's Die Verwandlung, Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (à la Philip K. Dick), Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall (à la Philip K. Dick), the Wachowskis' Matrix, Terry Gilliam's Brazil, Alex Proyas's Dark City, and Peter Jackson's The Truman Show, among other influences.

I still am not sure how to account for this man's "Umwandlung" into another man's life. I believe it will involve a dark conspiracy to rub out his surrogate, who was perhaps an important economic or political figure--in which case the protagonist himself will be killed once 'his' enemies realize he is still alive. Or perhaps it is just an elaborate prince-and-pauper set-up for some other purpose. I think it might even be better that the protagonist ultimately finds his surrogate, now inhabiting his former world, and kills him in order to occupy that man's new place in what was once the protagonist's own world. (His surrogate is just as unable to return to his life as the protagonist is; he is taken for someone else entirely.) Thus, the protagonist can at least live his own anonymous life, unknown by others, but known to himself.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The longish and winding road...

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Well, friends and family, the Cogitator is coming to a transition point in his shortish life.

The past few months I've been visiting friends and family in Oregon, New York, New Jersey, and, for the great majority of the time, Florida. During that time I've been reflecting on a number of things in my life: Taiwan, my educational and career goals, personal relationships, financial responsibility (and lack of such wisdom on my part), and the like. I had reached a point in Taiwan, after five years of pretty much nonstop English teaching and being-a-foreigner, that I needed not only a breather and a chance to recharge my batteries in my own culture, in the company of Ammi, "my own people," but also, more important, to take a step back from my normal life and see what I saw.

I have a hunch that life is basically five-year blocks that we swing between like Tarzan. I have a veritable theory that life is comprised of five-minute blocks of alternating currents of diversion and focus, fruitful or otherwise. If you can make it through "this five minutes," you can make it through the next. If you are wasting "this five minutes," you'll likely waste the next five minutes. Add enough five-minute windows and you have a life: endured, enjoyed, redeemed, wasted, or any other tale that each life ends up telling. In any case, I needed to step back from the "rut" I was in in Taiwan, rather like slamming the brakes in a moving car and seeing what flies away and what is really secure and part of the car. Did I love Taiwan as much as I do since it was all I've known, or do I have a genuine vocation there past the past five years? Am I really inclined to be a teacher, or has it just been a good way to earn my keep? Is the social and cultural void that the States seems to offer me an illusion, or is there in fact not much for me to pursue in my home country? Do I want to be a husband with a monk's heart or a monk with a husband's heart? And so forth.

It's been a season of prayer, some hard discipline, a lot of humility, tremendous gratitude, a good share of 'closure', and generally a total restoration of "my precious bodily fluids." Over the past couple months I've been fortunate enough to have work at a friend's father's demolition company. Good, honest labor. Today was my last day working there. I miss it deeply already. There's something truly satisfying about seeing something "get done" by your own hands and the hands of coworkers. There's also something very soothing about falling to sleep easily after a good day of exertion. Life is bursting with beauty and sublimity, if we have eyes to see it. The subdued rainbow of an early morning; the home-baked warmth of a diesel fan heater in the cool of the morning as hot air oozes through your jeans and steel-toed boots; the security of having a morning routine and morning greetings and morning coffee; the challenge of small things we are given to handle. (Admittedly, the dust is a real downer and I'd be nuts to think I would work demo full-time my whole life.) Plus, hey, there are all the manly goodies I've picked up along the way salvaging things before we toss them. Fifteen feet of large-link chain; a heavy-duty airport sandbag for carrying said chain; three pairs of almost new tennis shoes and two pairs of virtually new military-issue steel-toed boots; a Navy jumpsuit and two pilot jackets; mirrors, shelves, tools, and so forth. One man's junk is another man's jewel.

As I drove home from work, I listened to two strangely apt songs on the radio. Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Simple Man" followed by U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For". Skynyrd's ode to being a simple man struck a chord with me: what more is there to life than honoring God and having a satisfying job? What need of there is introspection when you can find humble peace even while picking up trash on the side of an access road or shattering commodes and dry wall to clear out a room for renovation? If you can't smile and laugh and breathe easily doing that, what hope is there for you with some "higher" life? Strangely enough, all these principles find a breathtaking unity in the monastic life: humble work, fraternal collaboration, divine devotion, and simple peace--the high and the low at one in the Highest Made Low for us. I was given this transformative insight by watching Into Great Silence, which I assure you is one of the greatest films ever made. It is four-dimensional, its re-presentation of time, nature, prayer, and fraternity palpably enveloping the viewer in a special kind of time and space.

At a used bookstore a few weeks ago, I thumbed through a small book by M.D. Chenu on "the theology of work." I quickly decided not to buy it, and in fact not even to read closely because I sensed that I was already living that theology as a demo do-boy. There's not much to the theology of work in any case: God is good, man is fallen, but God can make man good through his work in all fields by His Son's work on the Cross. A good job is almost a complete moral: cooperation, discipline, honesty, generosity, fairness, humility, perseverance, and the like, are core virtues of a worker. It is gratifying to the bone to know I am God's son whether I study and teach metaphysics for a living, or shovel ceiling tiles, or, indeed, spend my days ill in bed as a clinical anchorite.

Nevertheless, while I strongly resonated with "Simple Man," I couldn't help finding my voice just as much in U2's song. I have reached some conclusions, namely, I do miss Taiwan and will return, but perhaps the only thing I can say with certainty and joy that I hope to pursue in my immediate future is a graduate degree in philosophy. I believe I can accomplish that goal more quickly, pleasurably, and economically in Taiwan than anywhere else. So, despite the misgivings in my labor-gut, back I go, with a preponderant peace and hope in my life-gut.

Please pray for me. My sins persist, but so does God's grace.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

No greater persecution...

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"There is no greater persecution of the Church than 'the comfortable life.'"
-- Fr. Stanley Jaki, Jan. 7, 2009, at the Carousel Diner, Princeton, NJ

Reductio ad Hitlerum

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"A view is not refuted by the fact that it happens to have been shared by Hitler."
-- Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History, University of Chicago Press 1953, pp. 42-43.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Wisdom from...

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CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA (ca. 378-444): We must not pass judgment

The blessed disciples were to be the spiritual guides and teachers of the whole world. It had therefore to be clearly seen by all that they held fast to the true faith. It was essential for them to be familiar with the gospel way of life, skilled in every good work, and to give teaching that was precise, salutary, and scrupulously faithful to the truth they themselves had long pondered, enlightened by the divine radiance. Otherwise they would be blind leaders of the blind. Those imprisoned in the darkness of ignorance can never lead others in the same sorry state to knowledge of the truth. Should they try, both would fall headlong into the ditch of the passions.

To destroy the ostentatious passion of boastfulness and stop people from trying to win greater honor than their teachers, Christ declared: The disciple is not above his teacher. Even if some should advance so far as to equal their teachers in holiness, they ought to remain within the limits set by them, and follow their example. Paul also taught this when he said: Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. So then, if the Master does not judge, why are you judging? He came not to judge the world, but to take pity on it.
(On Luke 6: PG 72, 602-603.)

Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria, was a brilliant theologian who combatted the Arian and Nestorian heresies. Cyril presided at the Council of Ephesus in 431 where Mary's title as Mother of God was solemnly recognized.

ST. AUGUSTINE: The Testimony of Creation

Then I asked the earth, it responded: "I am not God." When I asked the heavens, the sun, the moon, the stars, they said: "Nor are we the God you seek." I said: "Speak to me of my God." Loudly, they exclaimed: "It is He Who made us." The heavens, the earth, and everything that is in them, all these things tell me to love you.
-- Confessions 10, 6

Prayer. It was you, O Lord, who created the heavens and earth. They are beautiful because you are beautiful. They are good because you are good. They have come to be because you are.
-- Confessions 11, 4


[1] In part, the above opinion [viz., that God's existence is self-evident] arises from the custom by which from their earliest days people are brought up to hear and to call upon the name of God. Custom, and especially custom in a child comes to have the force of nature. As a result, what the mind is steeped in from childhood it clings to very firmly, as something known naturally and self-evidently.

[2] In part, however, the above opinion comes about because of a failure to distinguish between that which is self-evident in an absolute sense and that which is self-evident in relation to us. For assuredly that God exists is, absolutely speaking, self-evident, since what God is is His own being. Yet, because we are not able to conceive in our minds that which God is, that God exists remains unknown in relation to us. So, too, that every whole is greater than its part is, absolutely speaking, self-evident; but it would perforce be unknown to one who could not conceive the nature of a whole. ... [A]s it is said in Metaphysics II [Ia, 1], ... “our intellect is related to the most knowable things in reality as the eye of an owl is related to the sun.”’

[3] And, contrary to the point made by the first argument, it does not follow immediately that, as soon as we know the meaning of the name God, the existence of God is known. It does not follow first because it is not known to all, even including those who admit that God exists, that God is that than which a greater cannot be thought. After all, many ancients said that this world itself was God. ... [Even assuming] that everyone should understand by the name God something than which a greater cannot be thought, it will still not be necessary that there exist in reality something than which a greater cannot be thought. ... [T]hat something greater can be thought than anything given in reality or in the intellect is a difficulty only to him who admits that there is something than which a greater cannot be thought in reality. ... 

[J]ust as it is evident to us that a whole is greater than a part of itself, so to those seeing the divine essence in itself it is supremely self-evident that God exists because His essence is His being. But, because we are not able to see His essence, we arrive at the knowledge of His being, not through God Himself, but through His effects.

... [M]an naturally desires God in so far as he naturally desires beatitude, which is a certain likeness of the divine goodness. On this basis, it is not necessary that God considered in Himself be naturally known to man, but only a likeness of God. It remains, therefore, that man is to reach the knowledge of God through reasoning by way of the likenesses of God found in His effects. 
(SCG I, xi)


It often happens that the fire of holy love is still burning in the soul, but it is covered under the ashes of a multitude of venial sins that dull its splendor. These sins, although they do not rob the fire of charity of its force and potential for action, numb it, so to speak, and deprive it of its activity, and so charity remains sterile. In brief, these kinds of sins hold us back in our life of holy love.
(T.L.G. Book 4, Ch. 2; O. IV, pp. 218-219) 


THE Germans have not conquered very much in history as a whole. About fifty years ago [ca. 1870] they beat the French and fifty years before that the French very soundly beat them. If we see history as a whole there is no more doubt that the French people is the more military than there is that the German people is the more musical. Germany is a great and splendid nation; and there are millions of sensible German patriots grappling with the sins and follies which are part of her problem.
('Illustrated London News.')


Rollin', but not in my 5-point-O

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I can't be stopped. Always on the move. Like a ball. On an uneven surface. A ball, with legs. Well.

I'm in Grafton, NY, a guest of dear friends. I enjoyed my first session of snowshoeing this afternoon, then had a great steak dinner with a potato and peas. (Let there be peas on earth, and let it begin on my plate.) It's about 5 degrees Fahrenheit outside. Love it. The plaid hunter's cap and gators on my boots make me as authentic as a man can be for only being on the Rensselaer Plateau for a few hours.

Tomorrow I'll enjoy the morning with not much to do but tramp through the snow and take pictures. In the afternoon I am booked to take a train to Penn Station to hang in the Big Apple for a couple days.

If God wills, I will have a chance to visit Fr. Stanley Jaki in Princeton. (Let's just say I hope God wills it!) God bless!