Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The End of Time

All of a sudden, cosmology seems to be the sexy topic in the mainstream media's coverage of science. (Could Stephen Hawking have anything to do with that?)

Here is what seems to me a rather scatterbrained bit of speculation on the way in which the laws of physics and probability dictate that time will have to come to an end sometime within the next, oh, 3.7 billion years. (Nothing lends scientific credibility to a number like a decimal point, does it?)

I'd be more inclined to dismiss this bit of speculation as quickly as I do most cosmological ruminations if it weren't for a single line in the story that seems to ring true for some reason. The scientists involved "don't know what kind of catastrophe will cause the end of time, but they do say that we won't see it coming."

Hmmm. Do they mean it will be sort of like "a thief in the night"?

Monday, September 27, 2010

"Expert in Humanity"

I'm reading Dayspring, a novel by Harry Sylvester. It's set in New Mexico (which is how it caught my attention--yes, I'm still on my New Mexico kick) and has as its central character an anthropologist who fakes (sort of) a conversion to Catholicism in order to gain access to the Penitentes, members of a secret brotherhood that imposes extreme forms of penance--chiefly flagellation--on its members and that has had a tense relationship with the Catholic hierarchy through most of its history.

After his pretended conversion, the anthropologist finds himself becoming more and more authentically Catholic in his outlook and sensibilities.  In one passage, he marvels at all the ways in which the Church's teaching represents a very wise and commonsensical approach to matters of human behavior.

"On the basic things the Church was always right. By what extraordinary sifting of experience she had become so, he could not understand: it had always amazed him that this basic accuracy and rightness, achieved through some realistic process and over a long time, should be attributed by the Church to anything as ridiculous as what she called revelation. It was not that he and some of the others were ignorant of the Church's being right so often, as that they could not bring themselves to subdue their incredible pride long enough to do what someone else said they should do. Of course, if they believed in God, he thought, it would have been something else again."

What a brilliant miniature portrait of the "scientific" mind contemplating religious truth. And what a devastating analysis of the role played by pride in the origins of sin. The secular world necessarily dismisses any notion that there is such a thing as God's will, but is constantly amazed--and annoyed--that Christianity so often proves to be right about the practical consequences of living in defiance of God's will.

Catholic moral theology is grounded in Catholic anthropology, which means that the Church's calling is twofold: to show God to man, and to show man to himself. When Pope Paul VI, addressing the United Nations General Assembly in October 1965, scandalized representatives of the affluent Western democracies by explicitly condemning artificial birth control, he did so after having referred to the Catholic Church as an "expert in humanity." His claim was greeted with smug condescension. (I still have a vivid memory of CBS's Eric Sevareid being eloquently smug and condescending on the subject.) Forty-five years later it's still possible, perhaps more than ever, to find Catholic claims of "expertise in humanity" being greeted with smug condescension. But it's also possible to find--in every corner of the world--dramatic and tragic evidence that Pope Paul's warnings about "reducing the number of guests at the banquet of life" were right.

Of course, we mustn't attribute that to "anything as ridiculous as what the Church calls revelation."

Stephen Hawking, Theologian?

The physicist Stephen Barr thinks that there is less to Stephen Hawking's latest speculations about God and cosmology than Hawking's publisher and the secular media would like there to be.  As I read Prof. Barr's explanation of what Hawking and his co-author Leonard Mlodinow are arguing in The Grand Design, it occurred to me that their claims are not only not antagonistic to the claims of religion, but that they might actually be seen as pointing toward the validity of some of those claims.

But I was a little too lazy and way too scientifically ignorant to undertake an exploration of that subject. Now, fortunately, someone who is up to the task has done it, and his analysis, at Mike Flynn's Journal, is well worth reading.

My only regret in linking to the post is that now I'll never be able to pass off as my own this great Mary Midgley line:

"People who refuse to have anything to do with philosophy have become enslaved to outdated forms of it."

Two Cheers for Robin Le Poidevin

It long ago ceased to be fun pointing out ways in which Richard Dawkins embarrasses himself when he pretends to be a philosopher. But Robin Le Poidevin, professor of metaphysics at the University of Leeds, still finds the temptation irresistible and, in succumbing to it, makes a point well worth making in a post at the OUPblog.

One of the pillars on which Dawkins's argument against the existence of God rests in his book The God Delusion is his contention that God would have to be almost infinitely complex to be the creator and sustainer of an almost infinitely complex universe. Simply knowing such a universe fully would make an omniscient God at least as complex as the knowledge itself. With this "straw god" firmly in place, Dawkins invokes Occam's Razor to argue that natural evolution is a simpler and therefore a logically preferable explanation for the existence of the world. (You can read this argument in full in Chapter 4 of The God Delusion.)

Dawkins seems unaware, at least within the context of the argument as he presents it, that the concept of a "complex God" flies in the face of orthodox Christian theology. Christians in the Thomistic tradition--which is to say Roman Catholics and a fair number of Protestants--hold to the concept of a "simple God." God acting in different ways at different times and in different places; God "responding to" the actions of human beings; God "working out" his will sequentially through history; God knowing a hundred bazillion separate facts, if you will; these are the perceptions of God as they occur necessarily to finite human beings, but they cannot be essentially true of the "uncaused cause" of the universe in whom Christians, Jews, Muslims, and a fair number of "virtuous pagans" have believed over the centuries. The basics of this philosophical position can be found in Part I, Question 3 of the Summa Theologiae.

Prof. Le Poidevin pinpoints Dawkins's mistake in his blog post:

"When the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz opined that God had created ‘the best of all possible worlds,’ his view was mercilessly lampooned in Voltaire’s satirical novel Candide. ‘Best’ here, however, does not mean most agreeable, but rather where the greatest variety is produced by the simplest laws. And indeed it is a requirement on scientific explanation that it not involve needless complexity. Elegant simplicity is the ideal.
Perhaps God is like that: his understanding and capacities may be infinitely complex, but the underlying nature that gives rise to that complexity may be relatively simple. If so, then it isn’t a given that the probability of such a being is enormously improbable. And if God is not clearly improbable, then atheism is not the default position."
A nice encapsulation of the philosophical principle. Thomists, however, would correct Prof. Le Poidevin in one detail. God is not "relatively" simple; he is (as St. Thomas Aquinas termed it) omnino simplex--absolutely, altogether simple.
Prof. Le Poidevin moves on from this point to a philosophical defense of agnosticism and gets into a bit of trouble, I think--which is why I'm giving him only two cheers. I'll say something about agnosticism in another post.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Close Encounters of the Worst Kind

So humanity's first contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life is to be coordinated by the United Nations?

We're doomed.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Rangers Clinch!

No one with a shred of human compassion will begrudge Texas Rangers fans their moment of triumph today. This is beyond question the best Rangers team ever to make it into the absurdly expanded major league baseball post-season ( in which the world championship is now decided in a combined best-of-nineteen-game playoff).

The Woodwards will be attending the first home game of the division series, against either the Yankees or the Rays, and we're pretty keyed up about it. The last post-season game I attended in person was the legendary third game of the 1975 World Series. Surely I'm entitled to a little excitement once every 35 years....

Friday, September 24, 2010

Eddie Fisher R.I.P.

He had better pipes than Frank Sinatra, better than Tony Bennett. The first time I ever noticed that a human voice can be beautiful, I was seven or eight, and I was listening to Eddie Fisher sing something or other on the radio.

One might wish that his musical taste had been as good as that voice. He got very rich singing some very bad songs. But here he is singing a great one.

One interesting sociological note. In 1959, Eddie Fisher was arguably the biggest recording star in the United States, and his hit TV show was making him a bigger star than ever. But in March of that year, amid the scandal of his having divorced his wife Debbie Reynolds in order to marry Elizabeth Taylor, NBC cancelled the show.

O tempora, O mores....

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Yeah, But What About Monothelitism?

Of all the protesters holding up signs as the Pope traveled through Great Britain last week, something tells me that this guy is the one His Holiness would most have enjoyed stopping to talk with.

The Faith of the Founders

I can't think of any topic of civic discourse in the last 50 years that has been more pointless or that has provided the opportunity for the parading of more ignorance and ill will than the question of whether the United States is a "Christian nation."  Particularly discouraging has been some right-wing demagogues' portrayal of the Founding Fathers as more or less a collection of Billy Grahams in powdered wigs.

Now, finally, someone with some knowledge of the subject and a dispassionate interest in judging the matter accurately has turned his attention to what Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton and all those other guys on various denominations of U. S. currency actually believed. The results are not particularly surprising to anyone who has studied American history, but they should still be an eye-opener to most Americans -- both left and right.

Bottom line: The Founding Fathers mostly believed in God (if only the God of the Enlightenment), which puts them at odds with most of the secular Left. But relatively few of the Founding Fathers believed that Jesus was the divinely begotten Son of that God, which puts them equally at odds with the Christian Right.

Read the fascinating details here.

(By the way, one curious omission from the First Things review (although I hope not from Prof. Holmes's book itself) is Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence and the first great Catholic figure in the history of the new Republic. A wealthy Maryland farmer--and slave owner--he nonetheless advocated a gradual end to slavery, introducing abolitionist legislation in the Maryland senate and promoting the establishment of Liberia as a nation home for emancipated and "repatriated" slaves. That makes his beliefs with regard to "America's original sin" considerably more admirable than those of most of his fellow Founding Fathers, especially the slave-holding ones.)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

One More Thought About Newman

How many saints or beati of the Catholic Church rank with John Henry Newman -- not as examples of heroic virtue but as major literary figures? Here are the ones who come to mind:

St. Augustine
St. John of the Cross
St. Teresa of Avila

Anybody else?

UPDATE: Kind of embarrassing to forget St. Thomas More....

Blessed John Henry Newman

A great day for the Church and for that multitude of us who revere Cardinal Newman as a thinker, a writer, and a model of holiness.

Nothing that happens in the Church nowadays can be absolutely free of partisan tensions. Newman, certainly, is too central and towering a figure in Catholic history to escape being laid claim to by a wide and contentious assortment of advocates for this or that "brand" of Catholicism. And so it is that we get Garry Wills (writing in that distinguished theological journal the New York Review of Books) calling Newman a "radical"--like Wills himself, get it?--and Pope Benedict "the best-dressed liar in the world." I'm old enough to have had at one time a tempered admiration for Garry Wills, back in his Bare Ruined Choirs days. Lately I find myself hoping that Wills will wake up in his right mind one of these days and instantly regret pretty much everything he's published over the last 25 years -- well, maybe with the exception of Lincoln at Gettysburg and his translation of Martial's Epigrams, two intelligent if wildly different studies in the power of language.

In one sense, Newman certainly was a "radical"; his conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism is a perfect object lesson in Christian radicalism--a return to the roots of truth. But he was no "radical Catholic" in the way Garry Wills would like to think. Yes, Newman championed conscience in his famous toast--but conscience as the Catechism understands it, not as Hans Kung or Joan Chittister or Nancy Pelosi misrepresents it. And yes, Newman expressed reservations about the First Vatican Council's definition of the dogma of papal infallibility--but as a prudential matter, a question of timing and policy, not because he himself did not believe the dogma. (He did believe it, and wrote iron-clad defenses of it.) These are all matters of record for anyone willing to pay attention to the record--Newman's own writings, the standard biographies (Ker, Zeno, Martin), histories of the First Vatican Council. Yet the legend of "Newman the dissenter" is still resurrected from time to time by hero-starved Catholic dissenters, in much the same way that Protestants still talk about the Council of Nicaea as a Catholic hijacking of the New Testament Church, or anti-Catholic secularists still talk about Pius XII's collaboration with the Nazis. Some lies are simply too useful to abandon.

What Newman genuinely offers us today, above all, is not an endorsement of one side or another in the Catholic culture wars, but rather a call to action...oops, let me rephrase that...a warning and an encouragement about the real culture war in which Western civilization is now embroiled. It is the war against moral and epistemological relativism, and Newman gave his whole adult life in a struggle against it. Here is one of his most famous statements on the subject--the "Biglietto Address," the short speech he made in 1879 when he accepted the cardinal's biretta. (Newman's use of the term liberalism here is perhaps unfortunate--even though it was precisely the correct term at the time--because it suggests to modern ears that relativism is tied in some way to a political philosophy. It need not be.)

In any case, Newman's words are startlingly prophetic. And, in their tone of calm Christian hope at the end, they are comforting:

For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion. Never did Holy Church need champions against it more sorely than now, when, alas! it is an error overspreading, as a snare, the whole earth; and on this great occasion, when it is natural for one who is in my place to look out upon the world, and upon Holy Church as it is, and upon her future, it will not, I hope, be considered out of place, if I renew the protest against it which I have made so often.

Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy. Devotion is not necessarily founded on faith. Men may go to Protestant Churches and to Catholic, may get good from both and belong to neither. They may fraternise together in spiritual thoughts and feelings, without having any views at all of doctrine in common, or seeing the need of them. Since, then, religion is so personal a peculiarity and so private a possession, we must of necessity ignore it in the intercourse of man with man. If a man puts on a new religion every morning, what is that to you? It is as impertinent to think about a man's religion as about his sources of income or his management of his family. Religion is in no sense the bond of society.

Hitherto the civil Power has been Christian. Even in countries separated from the Church, as in my own, the dictum was in force, when I was young, that: "Christianity was the law of the land". Now, everywhere that goodly framework of society, which is the creation of Christianity, is throwing off Christianity. The dictum to which I have referred, with a hundred others which followed upon it, is gone, or is going everywhere; and, by the end of the century, unless the Almighty interferes, it will be forgotten. Hitherto, it has been considered that religion alone, with its supernatural sanctions, was strong enough to secure submission of the masses of our population to law and order; now the Philosophers and Politicians are bent on satisfying this problem without the aid of Christianity. Instead of the Church's authority and teaching, they would substitute first of all a universal and a thoroughly secular education, calculated to bring home to every individual that to be orderly, industrious, and sober, is his personal interest. Then, for great working principles to take the place of religion, for the use of the masses thus carefully educated, it provides  the broad fundamental ethical truths, of justice, benevolence, veracity, and the like; proved experience; and those natural laws which exist and act spontaneously in society, and in social matters, whether physical or psychological; for instance, in government, trade, finance, sanitary experiments, and the intercourse of nations. As to Religion, it is a private luxury, which a man may have if he will; but which of course he must pay for, and which he must not obtrude upon others, or indulge in to their annoyance.

The general character of this great apostasia is one and the same everywhere; but in detail, and in character, it varies in different countries. For myself, I would rather speak of it in my own country, which I know. There, I think it threatens to have a formidable success; though it is not easy to see what will be its ultimate issue. At first sight it might be thought that Englishmen are too religious for a movement which, on the Continent, seems to be founded on infidelity; but the misfortune with us is, that, though it ends in infidelity as in other places, it does not necessarily arise out of infidelity. It must be recollected that the religious sects, which sprang up in England three centuries ago, and which are so powerful now, have ever been fiercely opposed to the Union of Church and State, and would advocate the un-Christianising of the monarchy and all that belongs to it, under the notion that such a catastrophe would make Christianity much more pure and much more powerful. Next the liberal principle is forced on us from the necessity of the case. Consider what follows from the very fact of these many sects. They constitute the religion, it is supposed, of half the population; and, recollect, our mode of government is popular. Every dozen men taken at random whom you meet in the streets has a share in political power  when you inquire into their forms of belief, perhaps they represent one or other of as many as seven religions; how can they possibly act together in municipal or in national matters, if each insists on the recognition of his own religious denomination? All action would be at a deadlock unless the subject of religion was ignored. We cannot help ourselves. And, thirdly, it must be borne in mind, that there is much in the liberalistic theory which is good and true; for example, not to say more, the precepts of justice, truthfulness, sobriety, self-command, benevolence, which, as I have already noted, are among its avowed principles, and the natural laws of society. It is not till we find that this array of principles is intended to supersede, to block out, religion, that we pronounce it to be evil. There never was a device of the Enemy so cleverly framed and with such promise of success.

And already it has answered to the expectations which have been formed of it. It is sweeping into its own ranks great numbers of able, earnest, virtuous men, elderly men of approved antecedents, young men with a career before them.

Such is the state of things in England, and it is well that it should be realised by all of us; but it must not be supposed for a moment that I am afraid of it.

I lament it deeply, because I foresee that it may be the ruin of many souls; but I have no fear at all that it really can do aught of serious harm to the Word of God, to Holy Church, to our Almighty King, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, Faithful and True, or to His Vicar on earth. Christianity has been too often in what seemed deadly peril, that we should fear for it any new trial now. So far is certain; on the other hand, what is uncertain, and in these great contests commonly is uncertain, and what is commonly a great surprise, when it is witnessed, is the particular mode by which, in the event, Providence rescues and saves His elect inheritance. Sometimes our enemy is turned into a friend; sometimes he is despoiled of that special virulence of evil which was so threatening; sometimes he falls to pieces of himself; sometimes he does just so much as is beneficial, and then is removed. Commonly the Church has nothing more to do than to go on in her own proper duties, in confidence and peace; to stand still and to see the salvation of God.

Mansueti hereditabunt terram,
Et delectabuntur in multitudine pacis.
["The meek will inherit the land,
And they will delight in the abundance of peace."]

Blessed John Henry Newman, pray for us.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

I've been away from blogging for several days, back in my home town of Louisville, Kentucky, tending to a family emergency. (Prayers for my father's recovery from a serious illness would be deeply appreciated.)

I do find myself with a little time today, though, to pause and wish the Mother of God a happy birthday.


Joye in the risinge of our orient starr,
That shall bringe forth the Sunne that lent her light;
Joye in the peace that shall conclude our warre,
And soon rebate the edge of Satan's spight;
Load-starre of all engolfd in worldly waves,
The card and compasse that from shipwracke saves.

The patriark and prophettes were the floures
Which Tyme by course of ages did distill,
And culld into this little cloude the shoures
Whose gracious droppes the world with joy shall fill;
Whose moysture suppleth every soule with grace,
And bringeth life to Adam's dyinge race.

For God, on Earth, she is the royall throne,
The chosen cloth to make His mortall weede;
The quarry to cutt out our Corner-stone,
Soyle full of fruite, yet free from mortall seede;
For heavenly floure she is the Jesse rodd,
The childe of man, the parent of a God.