Thursday, September 29, 2011

What you read is what you get…

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…and other amusing anecdotes of late.

Earlier this week I was playing a grammar game in class, which involves three staircases represented on the board, which each team can ascend (to glory) or descend (to doom), and, further, which teams can push their opponents down. Three staircases is the best format, since two teams invariably gang up on the third team. Well, almost invariably. This week, I was simultaneously appalled and amused to see my seventh-grade students discovered game theory on their own! At some point, team A insisted on pushing team C up one step. I said they couldn't do that, but they were adamant. I was bemused, since vicious competition makes students focus better and try harder, but I let A bump C up. Two questions later, team C insisted on bumping team A up! Fortunately, the class was over soon, so their spirits weren't utterly sedated by their socialism. I caught one student, the original philanthropist, explaining to her teammates that she could tell team C was getting angry, so she wanted to make them feel better, not the least so that C wouldn't lash back at A. Fascinating.

This morning while driving to work, a man ahead of me was wearing a purple T-shirt with the word "STAGE" printed on the back in capital letters. The A, however, was printed without the middle horizontal bar, so all I saw was one form of the logical symbol for "empty set." That's what I get for reading oodles of philosophical logic!

On the same ride, Quine's famous phrase in "On What There Is"––namely, that modal realism "offends the aesthetic sense of us who have a taste for desert landscapes"––came to mind, as I had been reading it at breakfast, and with it came the memory of my work-study manager, Bill, from my first year at university. During a break all of us were chatting and he was asked about God. He explained that he is an atheist "for aesthetic reasons," a claim I took at the time to refer to the problem of evil, but which now seems to be of a piece with Quinean nominalism. God is the ultimate in realism, modal or otherwise, so for someone offended by modal realism, such as Quine and perhaps Bill, the reality of God may be so unseemly as to be unbelievable. Fortunately, however, the Jews found God first in the desert.

Later this morning as I got up to go to class, my plastic folder-box wouldn't close properly. I pushed the lid down again but then noticed the leg of a small cardboard rocking horse was stuck in between the edges. I have seen the rocking horse every day for weeks now, but it was only this morning that I had reason to lift it up, whereupon I noticed two foiled wings were under it. They had been removed, for originally the horse was a rocking Pegasus. This was another strange coincidence, since in the same essay, "On What There Is", Quine discusses the disputed existence of Pegasus and the property of anything like it as "pegasizing."

More about books. A couple weeks ago I left a small bag at a friend's house. There were two library books inside the bag, so when I finally got around to picking the bag up at his place earlier this week, his roommate handed me the bag and explained that he "figured the books might be overdue, so [he] returned them for [me]." I was civil about it, mainly because I was in a rush, but also because I couldn't quite believe my ears. He opened my bag, inspected its contents, removed the unfinished books, and returned them for me without any notice. I felt like I was in an episode of Seinfeld. Alas, my friend tells me the roommate's logic doesn't operate on the same plane as ours. Time to go to the library, I guess.

Nothing about books this time. Last night my wife and I were eating noodles. I think she saw I was about to eat the last clump of them off my plate, for as I lowered my head, verily, to eat the last clump of noodles, the extra clump of noodles she had on her fork craned over into my hair as she tried to lower it onto my plate. I just gaped and stared. She just bawled and patted me on the back. It was a hoot.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Naturalism as philosophy?

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Naturalism fundamentally amounts to the claim that there is no "philosophical" or "metaphysical" theory or data which may, or even need, be added onto our knowledge of the world apart from "the scientific picture" of it.

Since, however, science itself can only get off the ground in virtue of antecedent philosophical commitments, there are ineluctable data which metaphysics brings to our picture of the world, no matter how empirically scientific it may be.

Therefore, naturalism is fundamentally false.

The necessity of ideals...

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... and the relentless erosion of idols.

Prayers failed. --> God doesn't exist and religion is bunk.

Justice failed. --> Truth doesn't exist and virtue is bunk.

The experiments failed. --> Nature doesn't exist and science is bunk.

Depending on one's biases, none of the negative aspects of the above dimension of human life will seriously undercut the overarching value and reality of their subjects. Every experiment, to paraphrase T. F. Torrance, is like a prayer to nature, in order to seek if our intentions and actions (hypotheses and experiments) accord with the will of nature. Every legal effort is, or should be, in the pursuit of justice, and even when justice is abused, we must fight that much harder to (literally) rectify things. The power of religion lies in its efforts to bring the inner and out worlds, so to speak, into alignment with the highest reality. The myriad failures in such an endeavor are the fuel for an even greater fire, to be caged only by humility and hope. "[T]he historical development of a science is seldom rational" (J. P. Burgess, _Philosophical Logic_, p. 47). Likewise, the historical development of a religion is seldom spiritual.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Could there be a materialist Christianity?

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It is conceivable. No doubt a band of astute theologians and philosophers could modify the "core doctrines" of Christianity enough to generate a materialist Christianity. Indeed, we have Mormonism. It is not my goal in this post to generate, or even attempt to generate, a materialist Christianity. Rather, my point is to ponder what that conceivability means for Christian revelation itself.

Let us posit the following, then: Given enough time and dialectic, one could adhere to any version of Christianity one liked. Surely all the materials of the faith and reason could be conscripted to support any "theory" of Christianity. The problem, however, is that a faith so radically open to revision and "re-envisioning" is unsustainable. It is a chimera. It is like a chair that could swap or lose any and all of its properties at whim (given enough time and dialectic), even its materiality. After so much "de-essentialization", however, in what sense can we speak of 'it' as a chair, or even as 'any thing' at all?

It is not my task as a Christian to devise clever, new ways to "reconcile" the Faith with the complexity of the human psyche, of ongoing scientific research, pluralistic and interreligious dialogue, etc. Indeed, as far as I know, it may be within the bounds of the deposit of faith to believe in a materialist Christianity (though, of course, at that point neither Christianity nor materialism would resemble themselves any more). It is not my Christian duty to devise or revise struts for the Gospel, but rather to accept the Gospel as the divinely revealed will of God.

The trouble, though, is that if this "revelation" is so endlessly mutable as to accommodate everything, and to assert nothing, then there is no-thing for me to accept by faith. The ongoing understanding of the Gospel must have a character of the same nature as its foundation––namely, divine revelation––, or the revelation cannot be ongoing (or, abiding).

It dawned on me as I pondered this last night that this is the reason I am a Catholic. The teaching of magisterial infallibility is as scandalous as the Gospel which would root all redemption in the life and death and resurrection of a wee Jew some two thousand years ago in a backwater. Hans Küng once mused how absurd it is for the Catholic Church to claim magisterial authority ultimately hinges on the bishop of Rome. A man in Rome! A man! In Rome, of all places! What a grotesque historical accident papal infallibility is (according to Küng). Yet I immediately realized how absurd (and grotesque) it is for the Church also to claim redemption and the fulness of wisdom ultimately hinges on the birth and death of Jesus Christ. A man in ancient Palestine! A man! In Bethlehem, of all places!

Thus it seems to me that the Catholic Church alone has a suitably scandalous self-consciousness of Her mission as the pillar and foundation of the truth.

It is not my duty as a Christian to "figure out" the contents, defects, excesses, deficiencies, etc. of the Faith. It is, rather, my duty simply to heed to voice of the Church when She speaks. If God has not provided a way for me to detect that voice with scandalous sacramental precision, then God has not provided me with a way accept the primal scandal of His Incarnation. In order for Christianity to salvage its claim to be a consistent universal religion, there must be something in every age and for every person which makes the immediacy and "provincialism" of the Church's preaching as scandalous as the scandal of the son of a carpenter pinning all of Israel's hopes on Himself. The dogma of papal infallibility fulfills that role.

Yet this is not an argument for idealized integralism. There has always been ambiguity in the life of the Church. Otherwise, what need for faith, hope, and love? The original kerygmatic density of the Gospel (in the early Church) has been teased out over the centuries into an intricate system of doctrine and piety (dogma and worship). As the orthopraxic structure of the Church became more refined and complex, the magisterial order became more pronounced and self-conscious. This is no mere coincidence. In the earliest days, there was the challenge of feuding bishops, an unspecified canon, linguistic confusion, and so on. Yet there was also something so powerfully unique and coherent about the Gospel that those extrinsic cultural assaults only made the Church's self-consciousness that much more pronounced and articulate. As time passed, and more and more dogmas became "taken for granted" (in so far as they were seen to be de fide), there way a corresponding rise in the extrinsic difficulties posed to the Church: unevangelized nations, slavery, freedom of conscience, imperial collaboration, scientific discoveries, interreligious challenges, hermeneutic spirals, textual criticism, etc. One of the most vivid signs of Providence for me is precisely this concomitant rise in magisterial order and doctrinal clarity. The more universal the Church has become, the more organically centralized She has become––and vice versa.

Some sects would only accept a pre-Constantinian Christianity. Others would accept only a post-Lutheran Christianity. Others still would accept only a pre-Florentine Christianity. And others still would accept only a pre-Vatican II Christianity. In other words, sects, unlike the Church, accept only a golden age, or some golden facets, of the Church's heritage. Alas, there has never really been a "golden age" for the Church. Or to say it differently, the only golden age for the Church is now, in the unity of faith and order, which the Pope embodies as a kind of gigantic scandalous walking sacramental. The following thesis is incautiously worded but basically true: The only thing that matters in the Church is the epiclesis. The Church only exists, really, substantially, in the precincts of that moment. In every age the challenge is not ingenuity––indeed, heretics are usually the greatest boons for ecclesial creativity––but rather is obedience to the incarnate order that makes faith, hope, and love meaningful for all humans.