Saturday, November 27, 2010

Deliver me, O Lord…

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Deliver me, O Lord, from the cross of my passions to the Passion of Your Cross, from the agony of my freedom to the beatitude of Your likeness.

I have been remiss in…, but, as I say, life gets in the way, and excuses help it find a seat.

An interesting documentary…

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If you happen to watch it, note the point made by one interviewee (with spectacles and a gray goatee) that, insofar as "there is always a time lag" between a protest movement and its manifest impact, the value of persisting in protest must, to some extent, be "taken on faith" (ca. 1'32"). So much for secular progress by "purely political" means.

I love Rage's music and have always accepted as much of their prophetic message (that religious thing again!) as my grain of salt permits.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Readings from...

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MACARIUS OF EGYPT: The pledge of the inheritance

Even while still in this world they [i.e. Christians] enter his palace, the dwelling-place of the angels and the spirits of the saints. For although they are not yet in possession of that perfect inheritance prepared for them in the age to come, they are as fully assured of it through the pledge they have received here on earth as though they were already crowned, already reigning.

Christians find nothing strange in the fact that they are destined to reign in the world to come, since they have known the mysteries of grace beforehand. When man transgressed the commandment, the devil shrouded the soul with a covering of darkness. But with the coming of grace the veil is entirely stripped away, so that with clear eyes the soul, now cleansed and restored to its true nature, which was created pure and blameless, ever clearly beholds the glory of the true light, the true Sun of Righteousness, brilliantly shining in its inmost being.
-- (attributed), Hom. XVII, 3-4: PG 34, 625-626.

ST AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO: Love -- the Distinguishing Sign

Love is the only sign that distinguishes the children of God from the children of the devil. To prove this, let them all sign themselves with the cross of Christ. Let them all respond: Amen. Let all sing: Alleluia. Let all build the walls of churches. There is still no way of discerning the children of God from the children of the devil except by love!
-- Sermon on 1 John 5, 7

Prayer. Come to my aid, O God, the one eternal, true reality! In you there is no strife, no disorder, no change, no need, no death, but supreme harmony, supreme clarity, supreme permanence, supreme life.
-- Soliloquies 1, 1


In the opinion of the great Saint Thomas Aquinas, it is not expedient to consult much and deliberate long about an inclination to enter a good and well-regulated religious order. It is sufficient to have a serious discussion with a few people who are truly prudent and capable in such matters. They will be able to help us come to a simple, sure answer to our question. But as soon as we have deliberated and decided, we must be firm and unchanging; we must never let ourselves be shaken by any hint whatsoever of a greater good.
-- (T.L.G. Book 8, Ch. 11; O. V, p. 95)


DID Herbert Spencer ever convince you -- did he ever convince anybody -- did he ever for one mad moment convince himself -- that it must be to the interest of the individual to feel a public spirit? Do you believe that, if you rule your department badly, you stand any more chance, or one half of the chance, of being guillotined that an angler stands of being pulled into the river by a strong pike? Herbert Spencer refrained from theft for the same reason he refrained from wearing feathers in his hair, because he was an English gentleman with different tastes.
-- 'The Napoleon of Notting Hill.'

Never give up...

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I've basically transplanted all my previous glosses of SCG to my SCG blog and am poised to resume reading and glossing SCG, hopefully this weekend.


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I have read so many different articles on the kerfuffle about the Pope's recently released comments about condoms that they have all melted together into a meta-commentary. I seldom tend to rattle my poker in the fires of contemporary "events" at FCA, not the least because so many persons (e.g.1 and e.g.2), abler than I, discuss such topics. I prefer my "issues" to be clocked by the centuries and measured by the order of angels.

But a small point I wanted to make comes in response to a comment I read in [INSERT POSSIBLE SOURCE]. The comment was something to this effect: "The Pope's advisor admitted that the AIDS crisis cannot be solved merely by handing out condoms, but something more must be done" (emphasis in original) The point the commenter then made was to the effect that such a statement admits "handing out condoms" is at least part of the solution, and hence at least minimally endorsed by the Pope. This, however, strikes me a case of a condition I dubbed today: disjunctivitis exclusivus, i.e. the confusion of an exclusive or with a conjunctive.

Let's rephrase the commenter's assertion, say, in a context about the Kurd problem in Iran: "The UN Secretary stated that the problem cannot be solved merely by decapitating any and all Kurds on sight, but something more must be done [such as providing them with political power, etc.]."

Clearly, at least on a logical plane, nothing in the Pope's statements, or subsequent clarifications, support a conjunctive interpretation. Rather, the Pope's other comments, coupled with the huge bulk of Catholic teaching on contraception, indicate that the disjunction is exclusive. Ambiguous disjunction: Either handing out condoms is not enough or something more must be done. Exclusive disjunction: Handing out condoms is not enough and therefore something else must be done to function as an acceptable solution.

A small point, as I say, but I wanted to note it before Lethe washed it away. As we all (ought to) know, the ocean's owned by the serpent.

The BB of an EDU…

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This week in BBEDU!

With anecdotes some of you might find tragicomic. And perhaps edifying in a way.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Our time is now…

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I've read nearly half of David Braine's The Reality of Time and the Existence of God.

Mine is a used copy.

Starting around page 115, I noticed the pencil marks from the previous owner appear less and less frequently.

A perusal of the remaining 200 pages suggests he or she made no further marks.

In all likelihood, that reader did not finish the book.

I have made marks on at least page 120.

I win.

All I have to do now is live long enough, or keep my sight long enough, to finish the book.

If Braine's argument is right, the future is as open to me as it is to God. May He sustain my existence until the last page!

Die Liebe ist…

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…was die Liebe isst.

Eros is a function of irrationality over time multiplied by rationality. The larger the amount of irrationality which is crammed into a period of time (for personal rational-user benefit), or the shorter the amount of time in which irrational acts are performed (ditto), is how potent your eros is. As time goes on, eros diminishes.

Philos is a function of rationality over irrationality multiplied by time. However many rational gains you make versus the irrational sacrifices you make over a period of time, decides the quality of your friendship.

Agape is a function of time over irrationality. How long you can persist in making irrational sacrifices, even of a small nature, indicates the depth of your love. As time goes on, agape increases. Interestingly, the less irrational the acts over time, the greater agape is as well. How many pairs of underwear did your mom wash and fold for you?

Let's all go to the movies…

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…and shut the hell up.

[WARNING: This is my cranky, caffeine-laden intellectual-persona speaking.]

AXIOM: There is a direct proportion between a person's intelligence and how little he or she speaks during a movie in a theater.

PROVISO: This holds unless it is a larger cultural exigency that everyone is allowed, and even encouraged, to natter on during a movie.

SUB-AXIOM: There is a strong correlation between a person's intelligence and how much he or she speaks after a movie in the theater.

This afternoon I went to see The American again and would have enjoyed even more than I already do, had I not been stricken with what I call "cinemal sub-vocalizers" in the seats behind me. Sub-vocalization is the name of a reading deficit wherein the reader vocalizes the text as she reads. Children are taught to outgrow this crutch, and advanced readers do not sub-vocalize. Rather, they read with "the voice in their heads." Famously, this ability was a marvel to Augustine when he witnessed Ambrose reading silently in Milan. (Read this post for a discussion of Ambrose's broader impact on Augustine.) By now, silent reading is par for the cognitive course. In the world of reading, at least, but not yet in the deteriorating world of public cinema.

In a theater, cinemal sub-vocalizers are "those people" who, as soon as they hear dialogue, see an object, ponder a plot twist, misunderstand an event, or, really, just let their eyes and ears get stimulated by anything in the room, involuntarily and promptly vocalize every passing reaction: Why'd he do that? What's that? Who's she? Where are they going? These are the cinematic equivalent of backseat drivers, the movie world's mouth-breathers, and they inspire me to train my neck muscles just so I perform Olympic-level reverse headbutts over a chair.

I'm tempted to call cinemal sub-vocalization a kind of audio-visuallly induced epilepsy, since it's like "those people" take a mental bathroom break every few seconds and come back to ask what they missed. Then, without fail, as soon as the credits roll––if not sooner!––, the sub-vocalizers begin nattering on about something completely unrelated as they scurry out. By the last third of the film today I lost count of how many times I sighed and face-palmed, to no avail. Was I really so wrong to hope a bullet or two from George Clooney's gun might have broken the fourth wall and 86'd the mouth-breathing on my neck?

By the skin of my volume…

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[I revised and expanded this post since first posting it last night, so you roving rabid readers of mine may want to take it for a second spin.]

The soul is only as accidental to the living organism as the number one is to the number three. One suffuses three, yet is not identical to it. The soul suffuses the organism, yet is not identical to it. Three is not "made up of" three ones, since it does not instantiate the form of one three times. If it were of the form of one, it would be one.

Nor, however, is three made up of some brute substance––call it triplex matter––that could possibly exist without the primal act of one's existence. The act of three's existence integrally instantiates the act of one's existence, and in a way that renders them mutually concrete. The difference is that three is an expression of the powers of one, whereas one is an expression of a more potent mode of being which suffuses into the other integers. Three exists by the power of one but not as the power of one, exists in its own unique mode by the power of one. Three is something one can do, yet not something one can do on its own, qua concrete singularity, apart from the dynamic complexity of three. Likewise, the organism as a whole is an expression of the powers of the soul: it is something the soul can do, yet not something the soul qua form can do on its own, apart from the dynamic complexity of the organs.

If you cut apart three, you will find only one(s). Three cannot be observed apart from its integral act of existence, and every attempt to 'reduce' it to something more ontologically 'basic' is simply to destroy three qua something that exists in a formally unique (proper) way. By the same token, one can never truly be observed in three, since every investigation of three will manifest three's proper (unique) act of existing, not as one but as three. The two 'elements' of an integer, then, must be combined, like lenses, in order to get a clear picture of actual being. The same goes for an organism: its primal act of being (the soul) must be focused together with--notionally superimposed on--its secondary, dynamic mode of being (the body).

A different avenue: The surface of a contained fluid is no more accidental to the fluid than the soul is to the organism. There is no actual "film" or "plane" that can exist abstracted from the actual volume of the fluid,* yet the fluid can only exist within the confines of its volume, which is to say, within the (formally reified) enclosing film. No one can remove the "outermost layer" of the fluid to scrutinize it. First, not only is a material plane infinitely divisible into further "outermost layers," but also, second, shaving off the fluid's outer surface alters its volume, which would then require a newly measured shaving, et cetera, ad infinitum. In the same vein, no one can vivisect the organism to excise the soul (as the "innermost layer") for empirical scrutiny. The fluid exists as its outer surface but not in its outer surface, for the outer surface is not an independent container of an equally independent substance. Rather, the fluid can only be the fluid that it actually is by virtue of its being contained in a specific way, and yet it is not identical to this abstractly specific, pure way of containment.

By the same token, the outer surface exists as the boundary of the fluid but not in any boundary of the fluid: it is immeasurable--indeed, intangible--precisely because it is that by which the fluid is measurable in the first place. If the fluid lacked a measurable boundary, it would not be a distinct substance: it would be literally amorphous (i.e. formless). By analogy, the soul exists as the functions of the body but not in (any of) them. For that reason the soul is imperceptible and immeasurable--literally im-mense, as Scholastic theology has it--outside of the integrated life of the organism. The life of the organism, as an integral act of specific being, points to its own unity qua the soul precisely because it is one act of being, one organized entity, one organism.

* Even so, there does seem to be a form of the fluid's contours by which such a pure film could be modeled, as an intentional object of existence, and which could later be used to replicate the contours of the fluid itself under the so to speak "formalized form" of the film. This is to suggest how the soul can exist, albeit only in an intentional way, apart from the body, and ultimately suffice to actualize the same organism at the Eschaton.

Friday, November 19, 2010

There can be only one...

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The famous tagline for The Highlander movies (movies which became increasingly infamous and cringe-worthy as time passed). If you've seen the trailer for part 1 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows--I admit I've never read a Potter book nor watched any of the films-- , perhaps you noticed one of the slogans: "Only One Can Live." I've been reading Thomas Aquinas on a daily basis for the past few weeks and one "slogan" I've encountered many times in his writings is along the lines that "all things tend to one," or that "Nature is disposed to unity." So when I saw the slogan in the Harry Potter trailer, I was struck by how perennial wisdom surfaces even in the most unexpected places. No one goes to a Harry Potter for lessons in metaphysics--well, perhaps some people go for lessons in "the metaphysics section at Borders" metaphysics--, yet in that slender slogan, they are encountering a fundamental principle of true metaphysics. The quest of scientists for a grand unified theory is a profound reflection of the metaphysical 'instinct' in all things to find unity in the final end of all reality. The highest aim of science is to reach a total, intelligible account of reality, even reality that surpasses humans' perceptual and, indeed, conceptual powers.

This is all a sad instance of man's noetic fallenness, for, in a rectified intellect, the willingness to admit an ultimate account of reality, rooted in principles that surpass spatiotemporal perception and which, of themselves, unalterably account for the contents of reality, should generate a parallel admission of an equally autonomous cause of reality as existing metaphyiscally prior to the spatiotemporal contours of the final account. The convergence of all things to unity--and this unity would of course be absolute and non-contingent, on account of its pure non-composition--, is but the mirror image of their origin from one cause.

The appearance of this principle in something as "fluffy" as Harry Potter reveals how the primacy and ultimacy of the One is not only a metaphysical but also an ethical principle. It is only the dramatic tension of all things converging to unity--"There can be only one"--which makes Harry Potter a genuinely human and humane narrative. A life directed to many disparate ends is a degenerate life, not the life of a hero.

Monday, November 15, 2010


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A scrupulously proper use of prepositions––never at the end of a sentence!––reveals that the speaker/writer suffers from severe emotional inadequacy. An improper use of prepositions, by contrast, nearly always means the writer/speaker is schizophrenic, and to a degree proportional to his or her misuse of said prepositions. Those are the people for whom I'm writing and that's what those behaviors are indicative of.

The goodness of people…

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I'm always impressed by the goodness of people. Most people. Nothing you can do about a few bad eggs. I mean, like, the other day, or the other night, I mean, I was in an alley behind Deep Six, that old pub on Watershore Avenue. And I was jimmying the wheel lock on a guy's bike. It was about 4 in the morning, so I figured no one would be around. And things were pretty tranquil. But I forgot Deep Six closes after 3, so I should have expected some lush to stumble out. And sure enough, just as I'm hotwiring the bike, out stumbles this drunk in a brown leather jacket. A brown leather jacket! Just what I need while I'm working.

"He looks at me, squinting to focus, and says, "What are you doing?" I say, "I'm good, thanks, and how are you?" I guess he wasn't as drunk as I thought, 'cause he yelled back, "I said what are you doing to my bike?"

"Is this your bike?" I said. "Damn straight," he said, hitting his chest like Tarzan.

"Well, you see, my wife's real sick," I explained, "and I really need to get home to her."

He didn't buy it, so, to make a long story short, I bought him a few more beers at the local 24-hour, and me and him had a nice chat, without involving anyone else, you see. We settled it like gentlemen. In the end, this swell guy agreed to let me steal his bike on an installment plan. So now I've only got to make monthly payments for the bike at slightly lower than the market value. Like I say, I'm impressed by how good most people are! When the time is right, I'll be sure to do business with him again and I've already recommended him to my colleagues. This layaway theft deal is a dream come true.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Which one of these doesn't belong?

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Confession: In my childhood I was a heavy Highlights user.

One of my favorite features was the "Which one doesn't belong?" challenge.

Spoon, fork, bowl, knife? See ya, Mr. Bowl!

Recently, I had yet another wave of nostalgia and realized we still play this game as adults. Let me test your categorical logic.

"I am proud of my Chicano blood."

"I am proud of my African blood."

"I am proud of my Samoan blood."

"I am proud of my Anglo-Saxon blood."

Well, kids, who's the odd genotype out?

Have a another try.

"I'm proud to be Black."

"I'm proud to be Asian."

"I'm proud to be Indian."

"I'm proud to be White."

Boys and girls, can you guess who is being ushered out by security?

If you're going to boast in your race, let everyone boast in theirs. If, however, you reject all phenotypolatry, then find yourself in Christ.

Galatians 4:

[27] For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
[28] There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
[29] And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.

Philippians 3:

[3] For we are the true circumcision, who worship God in spirit, and glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh.
[4] Though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more:
[5] circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee,
[6] as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless.
[7] But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.
[8] Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ
[9] and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith;
[10] that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,
[11] that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Cancer awareness?

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I recently caught wind of the "Movember" movement. Some friends on Facebook--which I've limited to using on Wednesdays and weekends, hooray!--are "doing Movember," which means that for the month of November, they are growing a moustache. Or at least trying to grow one.

Others asked them why and the, uh, Movemberers said it's to raise cancer awareness.

"Cancer awareness?" I said to myself. "I think everybody is pretty aware of cancer."

Meh. I've thrown my upper lip into the fray and will sport a cancerstache this month, and possibly even longer! No lack of a strong manstache heritage in my family!

Oh, happy day! Oh, cursed night!

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People are taken aback sometimes when I tell them a simple truth about me: I don't like sleep.

That's right. I'm not a huge fan of sleep.

Nothing happens when you sleep.

(Don't talk to me about dreams. My latest campaign to develop my dream-life a few weeks and months ago was another failure. As always, sleep for me is a triptych: lie down and close your eyes, blackness, open your eyes and stumble around.)

You can't do anything when you sleep.

People can drop anvils on your head when you sleep.

And, as is often the case with me, you can miss work when you sleep.

You've heard it all before, I'm sure. "I know I set my alarm."

Well, I know I set my alarm and left my cellphone on. But here I sit, a man in shame.

(Well, no, not really shame, since I already help the boss out so much and, in point of fact, the only reason a sub was needed is because she took the day off!)

So here I sit in groggy shame.

Apparently where I set my phone in my room can entirely cut off its signal, and I guess this afternoon I found one of those sweet spots.

In my beeline to the office, I was mocked by a steady stream of missed text messages and phone calls, all rushing into my pocket now that the gates of digital Hades had been wrenched open.

Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

I prayed that prayer many nights with my mom as a child. It seems, however, I need a revised edition pleading with the Lord my soul to wake.

It just goes to show you: don't go to sleep unless you're prepared to die.

(Okay, well, no that doesn't really follow, but I'm a bereaved man, so you have to nod and agree with a thoughtful frown.)

Speaking of death and missing things, enjoy this clip from Curb Your Enthusiasm.

This week in bodybuilding...

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You can peruse my latest efforts at BBEDU. I'm tickled pink to have chalk!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The lack of evil, the abundance of absence... (3.0)

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Seeing as his rebuttal to Professor Law's "evil-god argument" had led to a discussion of God's moral goodness and the goodness of natural finality, Dr Feser wrote a post on the topic: "God, obligation, and the Euthyphro dilemma".

The reader who had spearheaded the question of God's obligations to us--I shall call him the Obligator--commended Feser on such a well argued essay and decided their disagreements on the issue were merely semantic. "As I define 'obligation,'" he writes,

A has an obligation to B if and only if:
(a) there is some good that A should give to B (as something due to B), or there is some evil that A should not inflict on B; and
(b) there is some law regarding this obligation, such that failure to fulfil the obligation would make A morally culpable.

Nothing in the foregoing definition stipulates that the law has to be external to A, the bearer of the obligation, OR that A's failure to fulfil the obligation has to be a real possibility. Hence when I say that God has an obligation not to lie to us, I simply mean that having freely decided to create us, God should not lie to us, because that would be bad for us, since our minds are designed for truth. If, per impossibile, God were to lie to us, He would be going against the eternal law, which is identical with Himself. In other words, God would no longer be God, which is a contradiction.

But as Professor Feser uses the word "obligation," the law in condition (b) needs to be "imposed on others by way of a rule and measure” (S.T. I-II, 90.4) from outside. In that case, as he correctly points out, "there is accordingly no rule or measure outside Him [God] against which His actions might be evaluated.... He is not under the moral law precisely because He is the moral law." Well, if that's what Professor Feser means by an obligation, then I would likewise affirm that God has none.

Since it is not my intent to reproduce Feser's post, nor the whole discussion, I will confine myself, as before, to my own comments on the matter.

In Feser's initial response to Law, the Obligator focused on God's moral obligations first posed the question thus: "What if God's being Himself necessarily includes behaving in the appropriate way to whatever beings happen to exist? This would mean that if God chooses to create, He thereby binds Himself to behave in certain ways towards what He creates."

Thereupon followed a quick, cogent response from another commenter: "God owes us nothing. Everything He gives He freely gives from His eternally willed beneficence. He can't annihilate us simply because He willed from all eternity to give us immortal souls. If we can be annihilated then He in fact didn't give us immortal souls and we would not truly have that nature He willed us to have."

I then chimed in to the Obligator:

I basically side with ... [the above] reply to you. A further reason I think it's incorrect to speak of God's duties to His creatures, is because He is the authority by which all defections from duty are judged, the power by which duties are ordered, and the truth by which all duties are measured. Cf. Aquinas' De Veritate.

I suppose in some minds this raises Euthyphro's dilemma, but the immediate point is that there is no truth other than God Himself which God is obliged to tell us. What's true in and of itself--God's existence--can't be a lie and can't tell a lie. What a thing does is a function of what it is. Hence, He Who Is the Truth can only generate the Truth. He who is Light can only emit Light. Therefore God, in Himself, can't be 'obliged' not to tell a lie anymore than He can be 'required' suddenly to drop out of existence.

The reason I am not terribly worried about Euthyphro's dilemma, is that I think it fails to consider a purely existent and wholly self-conceiving Deity, as Plato and Aristotle presented. Indeed, the original context of Euthyphro's dilemma was in a polytheistic milieu. "Is something good because the gods will it, or do the gods will it because it is good?" In De Veritate, Thomas makes the point that there would be no truth if there were neither human nor the divine intellect. Since, however, there is at least always the divine intellect, then there is always truth: hence, truth is eternal. The one truth that would abide even without created intellects (such as ours) would be that truth grasped by the divine intellect in knowing its own essence. As such, there is no logical space, on classical theism, for asking whether something is "true because God sees its truth" or whether "God sees its truth because it simply is true." This I take to be an analogue for how goodness is neither imposed upon God nor merely "invented" by Him. For the only subsistent goodness that abides is one with the only subsistent being that abides: God's total actuality in and of Himself.

The Obligator replied: "Both Codgitator and James Chastek appear to believe that God's having obligations to other agents would entail that God's actions are "measured against some measure distinct from himself." Heaven forbid! I completely agree that God, the Ultimate Standard, is the only yardstick against which His actions can be judged, and I would also agree with your solution to the Euthyphro dilemma, Codgitator. However, I can't see why an agent A's having a duty towards agent B logically entails the existence of a yardstick outside A, against which A's actions can be judged."

As we have seen, however, Dr Feser's response to Euthyphro's dilemma satisfied the Obligator's worry. I'm just pleased he agreed with my solution to Euthyphro's dilemma. Since my first encounter with that dilemma, it has struck me as a cheapish mental trick, and something which really ought to bother only polytheists--which is to say, relativist secularists. For more on this latter point, see my previous posts on seductive adjectives and polytheism and the pitiable rationality of pagans.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Nope, nothing to see here of merit…

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It's sola fide all the way down.

From today's missal reading in Philippians 4:10–19:

16] For even when I was at Thessalonica
you sent me something for my needs,
not only once but more than once.
17] It is not that I am eager for the gift;
rather, I am eager for the profit that accrues to your account.

So the Philippian Christians can do things which "profit" their "account" as Christians. Here is the Greek for verse 17:

[17] οὐχ ὅτι ἐπι ζητῶ τὸ δόμα, ἀλλὰ ἐπιζητῶ τὸν καρπὸν τὸν πλεονάζοντα εἰς λόγον ὑμῶν.

The word for "account" is lógon (which is mildly humorous, since in our day we must "log in to an account" or "log on to the Internet"), and you can read the Strong's Lexicon here to understand more about the word. You can also examine the other uses of the word in the New Testament, based on Strong's Concordance here. Granted the word does not strictly mean a "bank account," but rather an explanation of one's behavior when faced with judgment. This is the reason accounts have taken on their financial connotation: they are detailed records (explanations) of previous fiscal behavior that must be assessed (judged) by a higher authority. The upshot is that St Paul is commending the Philippian believers for adding to their account before God by means of their acts of charity towards him. At the Final Judgment, Paul assures them, their charity will abound to (pleonázonta, cf. Perseus Lexicon) their account before God.

Now, the typical Reformed objection to the idea of merit is that, at the Final Judgment, the believer will give an account simply by pointing to the Lamb, or showing the Blood. And this is true as far as it goes. The problem, however, is that Jesus is the Lamb who takes away sin, and the Blood is what washes away our guilt––not the Lamb who specifically performs the acts of virtue to which He calls us, and not the Blood which paints on our virtues. The atonement is a negative victory for us: it gets us out of Hell. It does not however completely suffice to determine our precise standing in the Eschaton, a standing which is but a ratification of the "account" we have before God. On the one hand, our merits in Christ are our merits, but, on the other hand, they are ultimately meritorious before God only becuase they are in Christ.

I grant that from today's reading it does not logically follow that our vices can detract from the atoning power of the Blood of the Lamb, but I do think it adds striking support to the notion of merit as taught by the Church. As we read in Part 3, Section 1, Chapter 3, Article 2, subsection III of the Catholic Catechism:

2006 The term "merit" refers in general to the recompense owed by a community or a society for the action of one of its members, … deserving reward or punishment. Merit is relative to the virtue of justice, in conformity with the principle of equality which governs it.

2007 With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator.

2008 The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man's free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man's merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit.

2009 Filial adoption, in making us partakers by grace in the divine nature, can bestow true merit on us as a result of God's gratuitous justice. This is our right by grace, the full right of love, making us "co-heirs" with Christ and worthy of obtaining "the promised inheritance of eternal life."60 The merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness.61 "Grace has gone before us; now we are given what is due. . . . Our merits are God's gifts."62

2010 Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.

A second Reformed maneuver in light of such "works" passages in Scripture is to localize, or 'immediatize', their meaning. In this case, the rebuttal would be that Paul is merely talking about the standing the Philippians have in the eyes of other Christians, or perhaps the impression their kindness toward him makes on non-Christians. But this is specious for at least two reasons. First, regarding the impact charity has on non-Christians, the biblical theme of "fearing God, not man" makes it highly suspect that Paul would encourage believers to curry favor with non-believers. Granted, Jesus tells the disciples to let their light shine before men (Matthew 5) so that they may glorify the Father, but this actually reinforces the Catholic notion that faith by itself is inadequate: what truly glorifies God is the concrete expression of that faith. (It also undermines the Reformed doctrine of monergism, since if salvation unfolds monergistically, it is incoherent for Jesus to exhort believers to "let" their light shine, as if they could synergistically impede or abet the power of God.) Second, if St Paul is applauding the account the Philippians have in the eyes of other churches, he is again undermining Reformed doctrine since he is commending the works of believers as a means to justify themselves. Further, if acts of virtue, supernaturally inspired though they may be, are "as but filthy rags" before God, then it is a strange logic on the part of the "Reformed Paul" to base his congratulations on filthy rags.

The last-ditch Reformed rebuttal is that while "saving faith" just is faith that tends to produce good works, it is still only faith which saves us. This, however, is simply to concede the Catholic teaching, the point of which is that "faith alone," devoid of actual virtuous output, is insufficient for salvation.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Am I allowed to laugh now?

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Whenever people say something like, "You know, Rowan Atkinson is actually quite intelligent," they are betraying at least one of two things.

Either they are perplexed, and not a little troubled, by the fact that someone "otherwise intelligent" would produce something like Mr. Bean. Citing Atkinson's actual intelligence is for them a way of legitimizing how silly, how pointless, Mr. Bean is. There's a method to his madness, you see, so, while they personally don't "get the joke," they can reassure themselves that Atkinson himself isn't really like that, doesn't really find it amusing.

Or they are anxious about the fact that they secretly love Mr. Bean and cling to Atkinson's actual intelligence as a way of justifying their own enjoyment. It's not simply mindless fun, and certainly not low humor, since, after all, the performer is actually quite intelligent.

This dynamic lies behind the frequent adulation "freethinkers" have for George Carlin, about whom I have written before. On the one hand, some fans might realize how arch and unreasoning Carlin's shtick often is, and so they advert to his obvious intelligence to buttress what they realize is little better than the ramblings of an angry drunk man. This is what Crude aptly calls "reverse strawmanning". On the other hand, perhaps fans really take all––or nearly all––of Carlin's pontifications to be rationally sound and compelling. When, however, someone begins to critique the logic, coherence, or relevance of what Carlin actually says on a particular topic, the fans advert to Carlin's actual intelligence––such as his love for physics––as a kind of blanket defense. The critic is allegedly missing the point, since, while Carlin may not have expressed himself flawlessly in this or that instance, "he's actually very intelligent," so his larger point of view holds. So there! Now shut up and laugh!

(As always, I want to go out of my way to say that I really do respect George Carlin as a comedian and rhetor, and, if his loyalty to his daughter is any indication, as a father. I don't deny for an instant that he makes me laugh, consistently, and pretty much always makes me at least grin. His delivery is one of the best in the business and he brings a great deal of insight into social foibles to the stage. When I disagree with Carlin, therefore, I do so either for intellectual or ethical reasons, as I have explained before. I have no axe to grind against Carlin, and I even pray for his soul.)

Some jokes can be denounced for intellectual reasons but I think we all know few if any jokes can be redeemed with an intellectual certification. A defense of a comedian which points more to his education than his material, more to his daily eloquence than his on-stage delivery, is just an elaborate form of "explaining the joke." Nearly all funny people are intelligent, but only a few intelligent people are funny.