Monday, November 22, 2010

TMM: Some Books I've Not Yet Read, and Some I Never Intend to Read

Those who log onto facebook will notice now and then (ok, almost constantly) some meme or other going around--a microcosm of the internet as a whole. I've seen two relatively recently (one is ongoing) which deal with books. The first, and better one, is the "15 Minutes, 15 Authors" meme, which challenges each participant to name fifteen writers (in fifteen minutes or less) who have shaped their worldview*. I rather liked this meme, since the list is personal and thus does not have the pretensions of being a list of "Great Books" or "Classics."

The second list is the so-called "BBC List," which actually doesn't originate with the BBC. The claim is often that the BBC estimates that most people have read only 6 books on the list--which claim is likely if we count all the people in the world, whether literate or not. As a rough guess, I'd say most Americans (and Brits, Canadians, Aussies, etc) have probably read at least 6 of the books, and (in America, at least) probably more once excerpts are included (since quite a few of these are assigned reading at some point in an American's school career).

This second meme, which claims to be from the BBC, is actually taken from a World Book Day poll, according to The Guardian. The BBC does, however, have an analogous list.  This list I don't much like, not because I haven't read many of the books:  I've read, or read excerpts of, 31 or 33 of the "books," (depending on whether you want to count "Hamlet" as separate from 'The Complete Works of Shakespeare" and "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" as separate from "The Chronicles of Narnia"), and have seen movie or television versions of at least half a dozen more.  Rather, I dislike the list because it's a pretty arbitrary list (basically, it comes from polling 2000 people as to what their top 10 books are).

A more interesting version has people noting whether they enjoyed the books or not:  which tells me a great deal more about the person (or at least about his or her literary tastes) than whether or not he has merely read the books.  After all, a person who italicizes Shakespeare (meaning," I've read at least excerpts from his works") tells me that he did the required readings back in that one English class from high school.  But a person who enjoyed Shakespeare!  Now that is a different creature entirely (personally, I prefer seeing Shakespeare performed).

A more interesting list would be for a person to write down his own list of 100 books (or 50).  Or perhaps to write down the 20 best books you've read, and the ten worst.  Ironically, this would be closer to what the poll originally asked of participants.

As to the "BBC/WBD 100 list," there are a handful of books on there which I haven't read and yet intend to read some day.  There are many more which I haven't read, and which I don't really intend to read.   Some of the books may rightfully be included on a list of "Great Books" or "Classics" (as indeed some already are).  Others are essentially Penny Dreadfuls, both modern and old.  The Penny Dreadful can be worth reading, if the story is good:  it may provide entertainment for a weekend.  But rarely does it illuminate any of the truly great ideas, or give a good answer to any of the great questions.  Its value hinges entirely on its ability to entertain, and many of these books simply fail to do this for me.  For the most part, I hold no ill will towards the books in this category (exceptions include anything by Dan Brown, and I suppose the "His Dark Materials" series), but neither do I have any desire to read many of them.  I would find them dull, both from an intellectual perspective and from the perspective of a guy looking for a bit of entertainment and relaxation.

*My list of authors, by the way, is this (though not necessarily in order):
1. G.K Chesterton
2. C.S. Lewis
3. J.R.R. Tolkien
4. Pope Benedict XVI/Joseph Ratzinger
5. Pope John Paul the Great/Karol Wojtyla
6. Russell Kirk
7. Father Stanley L Jaki
8. Saint Thomas Aquinas--including all of the stuff I pick up second-hand
9. Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman
10. Fulton Sheen
11. Pierre Duhem--Again, including second-hand contributions
12. Peter Kreeft
13. Professor J Budziszewski
14. Louis de Wohl
15. George Weigel
Noting that the bottom two, at least, will likely be replaced as I read more of Mortimer J Adler, Aristotle, and St Augustine.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Disorientation: A Review in Four Parts (Part 4)

Part 4: General Impressions and Conclusion

In all, the essays presented in Disorientation are quite solid. I was certainly reminded often of Chesterton’s Heretics, though brought up to date with the world of 2010 rather than of 1910 . Both works are inherently aimed at the problems of the intellectual culture of their times more so than the solutions to those problems. However, while Chesterton’s Heretics ultimately needed Orthodoxy to make sense of it, Disorientation works as a standalone book (though again, one could do worse than to read it along with Mr George Weigel’s Letters to a Young Catholic), as each of the writers takes at least some time to offer a Catholic answer to the ideology discussed. The remedy is offered to each of the ideologies, whether it’s Professor Kreeft’s call to action as members of the Church Militant, or Eric Brende’s call for material detachment, Mr Mark Shea’s distinction between nationalism and patriotism, or Fr John Zuhlsdorf’s advice that we “participate in liturgical worship that leads one past the instructional, the entertaining, the individualist, or even the communal experience into an encounter with Mystery.”

In reading through Disorientation, I found that many of the arguments used are ones with which I had at least some passing familiarity, but that there were also some new ones I’d not really encountered. That there are a few familiar arguments is not a bad thing, by the way, since the book is actually written primarily for freshmen who are about to enter college, and not for folks who are years removed from their undergraduate days. The book itself is certainly presented at a level which can be read and understood by college freshmen. Yet it also has something for older Catholics, for sophomores, juniors, seniors, and perhaps graduate students as well. The authors have taken to heart C.S. Lewis’ advice that just because an essay or a book is written for one age group does not mean it should be banal to another.

If a number of these arguments are familiar to me, it’s because I made it through college at a secular university with my faith intact. Indeed, if anything, my faith is stronger and more informed now than it was before I began college. Many of the arguments found in this book are the same ones I used myself in defending my Catholicism: they are, in short, the arguments which helped to keep me sane. Therefore, I believe that this book is a great service to college-bound Catholics everywhere (to say nothing of their parents); it is of use to Catholics who for the first time are leaving the home to live “on their own” without their parents’ rules to help them remain faithful to the Church. One of the book’s subtitles is “How to Go to College without Losing Your Mind,” and certainly it will be in college that most of these ideologies addressed in the book are most prevalent. However, a more fitting title might be “How to Leave Home without Losing Your Faith, Your Sanity, or Your Soul.”

Return to Equus nom Veritas home.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Disorientation: A Review in Four Parts (Part 3)

Part 3:  The Worst Essay--Scientism

In reviewing DisorientationHow to Go to College without Losing Your Mind, I have taken the time to discuss what I believed was the book's best essay.  My review would therefore not be complete without my discussing what I think is its worst.  Just as every chain has a weakest link, so too every book will have a weakest essay or worst chapter.  This is not necessarily to say that the essay in question way poorly written or poorly reasoned:  it was at the least serviceable, and actually for the most part was quite good.  It just wasn't quite as good or as complete (to my mind) as were the other essays, though to be fair it is also the essay from which I may have demanded the most.

Nevertheless, if Fr Rutler’s essay was the strongest, then the weakest is quite likely Dr John W Keck’s discussion of scientism.  While discussing a heresy prominent amongst scientists, Dr Keck failed to mention either of the two Catholic philosophers of science best-known for fighting scientism:  Pierre Duhem and Fr Stanley L Jaki (I was most surprised to see that neither even made his recommended reading list).  This was especially notable in that much of his essay traced scientism through the discoveries of physics (including astronomy and cosmology), in which field both of these scientists were trained (as indeed was Dr Keck himself).  This rather glaring omission aside, his essay was actually not too bad--indeed, it was actually very good--and he did a reasonable job of tracing both the origins and science and of scientism through the Renaissance.  Moreover, his refutation of scientism was sound, attacking the problem at its root (italics found in the original):
The funny thing about Scientism as preached by its progenitors Descartes and Bacon is that it is, on its own terms, unscientific.  Look at the claim they make--that the only things we can know are those of “proven” by mathematics or experiments.  This claim itself cannot be tested by either one--so, on “scientific” grounds, it is unproveable, an article of faith.  We can also see the falsehood of Scientism by looking at the nature of science.  The practice of modern science relies on many presumptions, such as the existence of a world outside our minds, the regularity of universal laws, and the ability of the human mind to discover those laws.  Since science rests on these assumptions, it cannot prove them without assuming what it sets out to prove--in other words, arguing in a circle.

These weaknesses of scientism are all addressed extensively by Fr Jaki, and to some extent by Pierre Duhem before him.  These two great scholars noted, among other things, that it was in Medieval, Catholic Europe that science was finally born, after having suffered stillbirths in ancient pagan Greece and Taoist China, to say nothing of the Islamic Middle East.  This was despite the relative advantages and headstarts of these other civilizations over Christian Europe (e.g. the Greek’s prior existence and discovery of such things as geometry and Archimedes’ principle; the Chinese development of gunpowder and other technologies; the Muslim access to Aristotle and development of algebra).  If modern science began with the formulations of Newton’s laws, then it began hundreds of years before Newton was born.  As Pierre Duhem discovered during the course of his scientific (and historical) research, it was not Newton the scientist but rather John Buridan the Medieval philosopher-theologian who fist formulated Newton’s First Law, upon which Newton’s other laws rest.  In “The Biblical Basis of Western Science,” an essay appearing in his The Limits of a Limitless Science and Other Essays, Fr Jaki discusses the origins of Western Science:
Science owes to Christian faith in a creation in time the very spark which made Newtonian science possible.  That science is based on the three laws of motion.  Once those laws were formulated, a science was on hand which from that point on developed in its own terms, with no end to its progress, to its ever new findings….But that irresistible progress needed a spark, the idea of inertial motion, which is first and most fundamental of Newton’s three laws of motion.

The formulation first preceded Newton by more than three hundred years.  It first appears in the commentaries which John Buridan gave on Aristotle’s book, on cosmology, On the Heavens, at the Sorbonne around 1348….The Aristotelian world machine is a perpetual motion machine.  As such, it blocks the possibility of perceiving an absolute beginning for physical motion….Unlike his many theological predecessors, [Buridan] did not merely restate the fact of an absolute beginning.  He also inquired about the how of that beginning.  In answer he said almost verbatim:  in the beginning when God made the heavn and the earth, he gave a certain quantity of motion to all celestial bodies, which quantity they keep because they move in an area where there is no friction.  This is, of course, an uncanny anticipation of Newton’s first law, the law of inertial motion.  Only after the first law has been formulated was it possible to think about the other two laws.

Elsewhere in that same collection of essays does Fr Jaki note (along the same lines of Dr Keck, though at much greater length) that scientism is a self-contradiction on its own terms.  In discussing the title essay to that collection cited above, he explains how science has certain boundaries, and yet within those boundaries is paradoxically limitless.
About quantities, insofar as they are embodied in matter and drawn out of it by measurements and mathematical operations, science alone is competent.  In that sense, and in that sense alone, science is unlimited, while remaining limited to quantities.  All other considerations that relate to non-quantitative features, are beyond the quantitative competence of science which is its sole competence.

Jaki discusses in that collection two more problems with scientism, both alluded to by Keck.  In his essay “Beyond Science,” Fr Jaki notes that “unless the experience of now is taken as an objective reality, the physicist can never be sure of being conscious of his objective results and cannot communicate them to another being, whose very consciousness rests on the experience of now.”  Elsewhere, in his book Miracles and Physics, Fr Jaki had noted that this communication is indispensable for scientific progress to be achieved.  Meanwhile, in his "The Reality of the Universe," Fr Jaki writes that
Since rightly of wrongly, this suspicion [of metaphysics] is fomented by science, one may ask whether there is a proof of the reality of the universe with a distinctly scientific flavor.  A scientific flavor means that only the addition or coating need be scientific, not the substance or crucial starting points.  Science in fact is unable to assert even the reality of its instruments, although scientific work has to start with them.  Scientists must presuppose the reality of matter before they can talk of its quantitative properties….starting with [the existence of] real matter, whose totality the universe ought to be, we take a metaphysical ground.  This means that the subsequent use of metaphysics may not be frowned upon as an unwarranted intrusion.

Much of this is summarized by Dr Keck in his explanations of the presumptions of science, though he followed most other modern academics in failing to recognize the medieval birth of modern science.  This is especially unfortunate, given his own conclusion that there is something higher than the created universe, whose material properties are the province and sole competence of the sciences.  This is a conclusion which might have been made all the more strongly had he followed, with Jaki and Duhem, the development of modern science through the Christian "Middle Ages" rather than beginning with the Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers.

continue to part 4 or return to Equus nom Veritas home.
Update:  Welcome to all those who are coming here from Mr Mark Shea's website!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Disorientation: A Review in Four Parts (Part 2)

Part 2:  The Best Essay--Cynicism
I have so far discussed at length why I believe DisorientationHow to Go to College without Losing Your Mind is a worthy successor to G.K. Chesterton's Heretics.  In doing do, I have sampled a handful of the better essays in that former book:   Mr Mark Shea on Americanism, Mr Jimmy Akin on anti-Catholicism, and Dr Peter Kreeft on progressivism.  There were a few essays which I did not discuss, some good contributions which were also made by Fr Dwight Longenecker (concerning utilitarianism) and Fr John Zuhlsdorf (concerning modernism), to say nothing of Mrs Elizabeth Scalia (against sentimentalism) and Dr John Zmirak (against hedonism).  However, quite possibly the best essay in this collection was presented by Fr George Rutler, who wrote about cynicism.

After a brief introduction in which he bemoans the mocking of a university’s songs (including the Alma Mater song itself)--where those songs are remembered and sung at all!—Fr Rutler hits on one of the great problems underlying the crisis of education (Catholic or otherwise) in general and of higher education in particular.
The Catholic scholars who formed the first great universities of Europe did so in the same age that popularized the image of the “Pieta” showing the Lady with Divine Wisdom on her lap.  She reverences her own Son, whose divine Person existed before her.  There is not much for students to sing about if they do not understand that.

I am reminded here of something attributed to Saint Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest philosopher to live, and certainly the most important Theologian in the West.  He once stated that he had learned more from the contemplation of Christ crucified--from gazing at and then contemplating the crucifix--than from any book he’d ever read.  Therefore, it should be no surprise that the great universities arose during a time when the Pieta was contemplated in popular piety:  for if we can learn much from the crucifixion, then we can learn plenty from Christ’s burial and his mother’s sorrow.  The expressions of art ad liturgy--of images and songs—cannot be taken in a vacuum from the intellectual climate of an era, for the elements of high culture brought forth in art and music inform and are informed by the intellectual climate in which they are created.  It is perhaps for this reason that Fr Rutler attributes the ugly modernist buildings on campuses to the cynicism which underlies our intellectual culture.

In discussing the negative effects of cynicism on the campus buildings, Fr Rutler echoes Dr Russell Kirk’s own analysis of poor the causes of poor architecture, as well as its effects on those who must live with it.  In his essay “The Architecture of Boredom and Servility,” published in Redeeming the Time, Dr Kirk wrote:
Britain’s urban riots of July, 1981, came to Edinburgh somewhat tardily, but they arrived.  Being there at the time, I asked a knowledgeable Scottish engineer, who builds roads but is and architect too, what had caused the Edinburgh troubles.

“Bad architecture,” he told me.  He meant that the Edinburgh riot arose in one of the ugliest and most boring of the county-council public housing schemes, afflicted by a ghastly monotony….It has been said that mankind can endure anything except boredom.  With great buildings or with small, the architecture of our mass-age in this latter half of the twentieth century, has been wondrously boring.  Also it has been an architecture of sham:  the outward symbol of a society which, despite all its protestations of being “free” and “democratic,” rapidly sinks into servility.

Servility is, of course, exactly that which a modern “liberal” education is meant to overcome.  However, servility is exactly what our modern education, laden as it is with cynicism, ultimately promotes.  Father Rutler continues in his own essay by noting that
Learning divorced from reverence for knowledge makes the school songs raucous, then rancid, and soon they fade away like an aftertaste of some remote harmony barely heard and rarely sung.  This is similar to the awful silence, haunted and not holy, that saddened Shakespeare when the monasteries had been destroyed for being politically incorrect, and all the seasons were a withered autumn.

Does this not capture the attitude so prevalent on college campuses today?  Would relativism, multiculturalism, feminism, or scientism (to name just 4 “isms” addressed in this book) be able to take such strong root in the hearts and minds of so many college students if they did not begin with a sort of indifferent-ism to truth?  Indeed, Fr Rutler addresses this very point in the cynicism of Pontius Pilate: 
“What is truth?” It is the same reaction you would get in a university today if a priest said he had a truth to proclaim.  For the cynic has moved beyond agreement about truth to denial that there is such a thing.  Perhaps Pilate’s question was sad.  Today, it has become sarcastic.  The voice in the lecture hall today says not “You’re right” or “You’re wrong,” but rather sighs, “Whatever.”  This is why it is difficult to engage in honest debate in the academy today, for debate proposes a model of truth and defends it.

The cynic’s “Whatever” is he first step to rejecting all truth, and with it God.  However, as Chesterton himself once remarked, when a man rejects God, he does not believe nothing but everything.  It’s the way man is wired:  he must ultimately believe in something, must get behind some cause.  Perhaps that cause is feminism (against which Ms Donna Steichen writes) or multiculturalism (Mr Robert Spencer’s essay), Americanism or Marxism(Mr Jeffrey Tucker’s essay); or perhaps he turns to hedonism and consumerism (Mr Eric Brende’s essay) to keep his mind occupied, and through utilitarianism seeks to export these latter ideologies to as many others as he can.

“Whatever.”  Such studied indifference to truth cannot be overcome by reason alone.  As Fr Rutler notes, “The cynics developed a form of debate they called ‘Eristic’ specifically for the purpose of confusing people, and causing onlookers to laugh at those who used real logic as mere religious fanatics.”  The cynic’s problem lies not so much in the intellect as the will.  Logic alone is not enough to shake him, but rather a strong moral imagination is needed.  He has rejected beauty (in art, in architecture) in favor of “efficiency,” “utilitarianism,” or (worse still) of forms and techniques meant to confuse onlookers (as in abstract art).  Is this not a mockery of the Catholic culture which presents art and architecture meant to bring the onlooker into contact with the mysterious Other?  The cynic leaves confusion, both morally and intellectually where the Catholic had once embraced awe and fear (e.g. of the Lord).  Indeed, it is the fear of the Lord which is the beginning of all wisdom (see Sirach 1:12).
Continue to Part 3 or return to Equus nom Veritas home.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sin, Vice, and Immorality

Continuing from my last pair of short reflections, there are two sets of hierarchies.  Holiness is built on virtue, which is built on morality; on the other hand, sin is built on vice, which is built on immorality.  Thus, in a sense, immorality is a type of vice, and vice is a type of sin.  But disordered virtue can also be a sin, though it is neither a vice nor a form of immorality.

Why do I bring this up?  Well, sin properly and precisely defined means disobeying God (that is, turning away from Him).  Now, the most obvious examples of sin are those which go against morality:  adultery, murder, and theft are three examples of this.  These things are all wrong to an obvious degree, and are rightly condemned by any "civilized" person.  Pornography, abortion, and defrauding a person of his justly earned wages are similarly immoral, though in our society they might be classified as vices.  That is to say, although not all people recognize these as immoral per se, most would agree that they are a kind of vice; most parents do not, for example, encourage their daughters to get pregnant so that they can have an abortion (and this is not merely a matter of expense).

These are, however, at least every bit as bad sins (respectively) as the first three sins (also respectively).  Moreover, any vice (or anti-virtue) becomes a sort of sin:  whether it's acting in some manner which is unjust or behaving in a cowardly manner (un-courageous, without fortitude), or engaging in gluttony (acting without temperance).  And extending the analogy to holiness, sins may take the most subtle of all forms, which is an improper ordering of virtues (or any other goods).  Thus, for example, it is a sin to place the love of man above the love of God, or to desire justice at the expense of prudence (or vice-versa).

Disorientation: A Review in Four Parts (Part 1)

Part 1: A Comparison with Heretics

But there are some people, nevertheless--and I am one of them--who think that the most practical and important thing about a person is still his view of the universe. We think for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy. We think the question is not whether the theory of the cosmos affects matters, but whether, in the long run, anything else affects them. In the fifteenth century men cross-examined and tormented a man because he preached some immoral attitude; in the nineteenth century, we feted and flattered Oscar Wilde because he preached such an attitude, and then broke his heart in penal servitude because he carried it out. It may be a question which of the two methods was the more cruel; there can be no kind of question as to which was the more ludicrous. The age of the inquisition has not at least the disgrace of having produced an idol of the very same man for preaching the very same things which it has made him a convict for practicing.

So wrote G.K. Chesterton in the introductory chapter to his book Heretics, a sort of prequel to his much more well-known and well-loved Orthodoxy. Chesterton knew then that there was one thing more dangerous than a bad idea, and that was the general rejection of all ideas as unimportant. Indeed, the belief that no idea is uniquely correct, that there is no such thing as transcendent truth, leads all-to-easily to any number of philosophical worldviews which asks not “is this right?” but rather “how does it make me feel?”

A worldview which rejects all of the consequences of ideas does not change the reality that the consequences of an idea are in fact quite real. We may treat with utter indifference the idea that “life is not worth living,” though if that idea were actually embraced, “the world would stand on its head.” Chesterton thankfully did not live to see the day when “Murders would be given medals for saving lives,” for abortion was not yet legal, let alone celebrated by the feminist establishment. Nor did he need to suffer the day when “poisons would be used as medicines” since doctor assisted suicide, to say nothing of euthanasia, was not a hotly contested issue of his day.

A little over one hundred years after Chesterton’s Heretics, it has become exceedingly apparent to those paying attention that Chesterton was right. Universities which once helped lead the charge in celebrating the search for truth now celebrate multiculturalism, relativism, and cynicism instead. Where once the passage from St John’s Gospel, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32) was the motto of many great universities, now the philosophy of the day on those campuses is that there is no truth, only a variety of ideological “isms.”

If nothing is true, than any thought becomes equally “valid.” It is against this philosophy and its discontents--a collection of thirteen “isms” frequently encountered on the college campus (and beyond)--that the collaboratively written Disorientation: The 13 “Isms” That Will Send You to Intellectual “La-La Land” (also subtitled “How to Go to College Without Losing Your Mind”) is written. Writing in the introduction to this collection of essays, Dr John Zmirak notes that
The questions raised in this book are going to come up again and again throughout your life when you have [to] make basic, real-world decisions. Your dating behavior will be affected by where you stand on Relativism, Hedonism, and Feminism. Your choice of career may hinge on how you have been influenced by Consumerism and Cynicism. How you vote will be influenced by your attitude toward Sentimentalism, Americanism, Marxism, and Multiculturalism. Life and death medical decisions regarding your parents as they age will depend on where you stand on Scientism and Utilitarianism. The state of your soul when you die may hinge on how you have reacted to Progressivism, Multiculturalism, and Anti-Catholicism.

The similarities to Chesterton’s Heretics do not end here, as indeed that great prophet of the twentieth century’s regress is echoed throughout the book. The well-written essay about Americanism by Mr Mark Shea is on the one hand a fitting tribute to Chesterton’s “The Fallacy of the Young Nation,” while at the same time being a work which is uniquely Mr Shea’s own. Chesterton himself called America “a nation with the soul of a church.” In Heretics, Chesterton gave us the warning that
All the absurd physical metaphors, such as youth and age, living and dying, are, when applied to nations, but pseudo-scientific attempts to conceal from men the awful liberty of their lonely souls….America, of course, like every other human thing, can in spiritual sense live or die as much as it chooses. But at the present moment the matter which America has very seriously to consider is not how hear it is to its birth and beginning, but to how near it may be to its end….Subjected to these eternal tests, America does not appear by any means as particularly fresh or untouched. She appears with all the weakness and weariness of modern England or of any other Western Power. In her politics she has broken up exactly as England has broken up, into a bewildering opportunism and insincerity. In the matter of war and the national attitude towards war, her resemblance to England is even more manifest and melancholy. It may be said with rough accuracy that there are three stages in the life of a strong people. First, it is a small power, and fights other small powers. Then it is a great power, and fights other great powers. Then it is a great power, and fights small powers, but pretends that they are great powers, in order to rekindle the ashes of its ancient emotion and vanity.

Chesterton wrote this prior to the world wars--America would indeed become a great power fighting other great powers; but this also preceded Vietnam, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq. For his part, Mr Shea reminds of the dangers of nationalism in general and Americanism in particular: the sense that a particular nation is “chosen” by God.
Unconditional love for one’s country does not mean approving everything its government does, but loving your country in obedience to God. When your country disobeys God, love of country means calling it to repent, not approving its sin. The prophets did this--and paid with their lives….What pride is to a person, nationalism is to a people. Sooner or later, every people seems to hit the point where, under the influence of pride, they want to feel as though they occupy a more special and privileged place in the divine plan than all other nations. In this, they imitate the only ethnic group that ever really had a claim to be Chosen: the children of Israel. But the paradox of biblical election is this: the Chosen are always chosen for the sake of the Unchosen....And that imposes a terrible burden on any who would aspire to such a terrible blessing.

Of course, the whole of Disorientation does not follow the whole of Heretics, though the two are similar in structure. Although both books address what is wrong with the intellectual world, Chesterton’s Heretics had to wait for Orthodoxy to tell his readers what he thought was right; the nearest analogue to Orthodoxy for Disorientation is quite probably Mr George Weigel’s Letters to a Young Catholic). However, whereas Chesterton’s Heretics only addressed the wrongs of the society in which he lived, Disorientation often includes some of the right responses, making the latter book a better stand-alone work. To cite one example, Mr Jimmy Akin’s essay on Anti-Catholicism (Protestant Fundamentalism) states not only what is wrong with Fundamentalism, but also what is right with Catholicism. In responding to the claims of the ex-Catholic about not being taught about Jesus Christ or the need for salvation, Akin suggests
A good response to this kind of claim is, “Really? When you went to Mass, didn’t you say the Creed, which talks extensively about Jesus and His life, death, and resurrection? Didn’t you say anything like ‘Lord, have mercy’ and ‘Lord, I am not worthy to receive You,’ signaling your need for grace? The Church was so concerned that you understand these things, it wrote them into Mass itself.

Indeed, though every essay spent the bulk of its energy critiquing the ideology against which it was written, every one of the writers offered some form or other of advice for how to overcome that particular "ism."  They took to heart Chesterton's quip that the problem with every revolutionary is that, while he knows just what is wrong with the world, he seldom if ever knows what is right.  Professor Peter Kreeft, drawing heavily from Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, wrote the essay concerning progressivism, the ultimate embodiment of knowing only what's wrong with the world, but never what is right.  The modern progressive, after all, invests his energy entirely in change for its own sake, never for a moment stopping to ask if the change is for the better.  For the progressive, all change is good, because all change leads away from the past and into the future.  To this "chronological snobbery," Dr Keeft offers a solution:
To judge any change as progressive or regressive, we must eventually ask ourselves the Big Question: what is our final end, goal, purpose, summum bonum or greatest good. We must ask nothing less than the question of “the meaning of life,” however unfashionable that question has become. If we don’t have a clear vision of the ultimate finish line, we can’t even know whether we are running toward it or away from it....[However] one more thing is necessary. Even if the patient has received the perfect diagnosis, prognosis, and prescription, he will not recover if he will not take his medicine. The will is the key that starts the car of the psyche....If we do not will it, it will not happen. Wishing, dreaming, longing, and thinking, even the clearest and most rational thinking, will not move our feet one inch….[These things] are maps, and maps are means of moving, for marching. An army of map collectors will win no battles.

Indeed, anyone who has listened to Dr Kreeft’s talk about the culture war would know his advice for how to win this conflict: and that is to become saints. This requires use of the intellect, it is true, but it also requires acts of the will.

Disorientation ultimately succeeds where Heretics fails in two ways.  The first is that while both are engaged against the dangerous ideologies of the day, Chesterton's work often gets bogged down with the details of specific people holding to those ideas.  This, of course, makes sense when the ideas are seemingly new and certainly in the small minority, since he must also warns against these dangers which are largely unseen by the people of his day.  Thus, at times the prophetic nature of Chesterton's warnings are lost on a generation who knows Bernard Shaw H.G. Wells and Rudyard Kipling by reputation only, and countless others of Chesterton's contemporaries have faded beyond the memory of our time.  However, in our own time, the ideologies which these people harbored and nurture have grown and matured, and some are so prevalent as to be majority opinions in society or at the least on a college campus.  They permeate the intellectual climate through which students must navigate during the undergraduate and even graduate years.

Secondly, and of more important contrast, whereas both works focus on the negative aspects of these ideologies, "the problems," Disorientation alone presents the solutions.  Readers of Chesterton's Heretics would have to wait a few years longer before he presented his own solutions in Orthodoxy, which along with The Everlasting Man was his greatest and most enduring work.  And while Disorientation is not quite so great a work as Orthodoxy--which truly belongs amongst the greatest books of the last century--it will remain a good resource for those of us who must pass through the intellectual quagmire of colleges in the twenty first century.
Continue to Part 2 or return to Equus nom Veritas home.
Update:  Welcome to all those who are coming here from Mr Mark Shea's website!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Disorientation: A Review in Four Parts (Introduction)

Part 0:  Introduction
The regular reader of this blog is no doubt aware that I've been reading the new collaborative work DisorientationHow to Go to College without Losing Your Mind, since I have posted three reflections inspired by passages from this book.  Having finished reading the book, I decided to write a review of it:  I have been known to do this from time to time.  And indeed I did write the review, spending a quiet Saturday evening at my keyboard with this and a stack of other books (for comparison) on my desk.  Alas!  When I had finished putting the final touches on the review, I found that it spanned nearly 8 pages:  not unheard of for me, but a bit long for a blog post written by anyone not named Mr John C Wright, who is the only regular blogger I can name who is able to get away with long tomes as the main staple of his site.  For this, I salute him.

Thus I have decided to break the review into four parts, though not all are of equal length. The first (and longest) part is a comparison with Chesterton's Heretics (1905), which book I believe to be his most underrated today.  The second and third parts might just as easily have been written up with the first three reflections, save that they concern not single passages but rather specific essays in Disorientation, namely which one I believed to be best (Fr Rutler's essay concerning Cynicism) and the worst (Dr Keck's concerning Scientism).  The final (and shortest) part is my general impressions of the book, which don't really work as a standalone piece (otherwise, I might actually ditch the rest of the review in favor of that last part).

Note:  The review also appears as one single long review on the Catholic America Today website.

Manic Monday Madness: Test Artwork Submissions

Well, I gave another test to my class.  I wasted at least four hours of my weekend grading it (not counting having to return to my office because I grabbed the wrong packet on the way out the door on Friday).  The up-side to this:  the pictures and jokes which some students submitted, apparently to kill time.  Without further ado, the top submissions:
This problem and the bonus problem got a lot of people.  A few actually drew pictures, but most of those were on the bonus problem  This looks like a combination of Strong-Bad with Bowser's airship from the Super Mario World games which was released with the old Super-Nintendos.  No wonder he couldn't finish the test!
A lot of people had trouble with this question, too.  This was in spite of the fact that I worked almost this exact same question in class during the review session.  Oh, and the test was open to both notes and homeworks.  Still, not a whole lot of students submitted pictures of a house.

I almost felt bad for the girl taking this class, since she missed the review session thanks to he accounting professor's scheduling an exam at the same time as my class hours.  What a jerk.  However, since said girl has never set foot inside my office for office hours--which seems to be par for the course, by the way--I didn't feel too bad.  For those who can't read her hand-writing (and hers is not the worst that I have to read), it says:  "JC, her is my best joke:  did you here about the fire at the circus:  it was in-tents!"  Nice.

Occasionally, I am forced to demonstrate that I can out-smart (alec) my students.  I ask him to find the amount of friction acting on an object, so he counters by suggesting that Harry Potter can find it by casting a spell.  He even included a wand in the equipment list.  I though about suggesting that the materialist paradigm, to which friction would surely belong, trumps the warlock/wizard/magic paradigm, to which Harry Potter evidently belongs, but alas not everyone has read the Chronicles of Chaos.  I improvised accordingly.

Last but certainly not least comes a second contribution from the same fellow who entered Strong-Badowser's Ship.  It turns out, for those curious, that he actually didn't get an F on the test.  Aliens > Harry Potter.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Contemplata Tradere: A Reflection on Being a Dominican

Contemplari et Contemplata Aliis Tradere
(study and hand on the fruits of one's studies)

On Monday night, my wife and I made our temporary commitments to live according the rule of Saint Dominic as lay members of the Order of Preachers. Having had a fairly busy week, I haven't been given much in the way of an opportunity to think and then write, to record my thoughts about this event. Why did I become a member of the Order of Preachers, so-called Dominicans?  Perhaps a more important question is, "what are my duties and responsibilities as a member of the Catholic Laity?"  The answer to this latter question looms large in my decision to become a lay Dominican.

So, what are my responsibilities as a lay person?  There are the precepts of the Church, but these only go so far as concerns actual daily living. Although being a good Catholic requires weekly attendance of Mass, observation of the appropriate Holy Days, fasts (and periods of abstinence), and reception of the sacraments (that is, of the Eucharist and of Reconciliation), these do not represent the sum total of what is required to be a good Catholic. Nor does supporting the Church financially--there's more to the practice of the faith than writing a check once a week (or month)--though this is again something which all Catholics should do to the best of their abilities. While these things are all very important, none of them really touch upon what it means to live faithfully, that is, on the concept of being a Christian daily (as opposed to weekly). To be sure, that time spent in Mass can give spiritual strength for the week to come, as can the sacraments; but what we do once we leave Mass (or the confessional) is also a part of our Faith. Ours is a Faith which needs to be lived, not merely thought or believed.

How then should we live?  What does it mean to be a Christian?  Obviously, there is quite a bit to the answer to this question:  as with anything else, the theology of the Faith is both simple enough that even a humble child can understand it, and yet paradoxically is deep enough for even the greatest mind to drown.  But as a starting point, I will turn to the words of the LORD Himself, from His Sermon on the Mount:

"You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its strength, what shall it be salted with? It is no longer of any use but to be thrown out and trodden underfoot by men. You are the light of the world….let your light shine before men, in order that they may see your good works and give glory to God." (Matthew 5:13-14,16).

These words follow immediately after the Beatitudes in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. What is relevant about them, as opposed to many of the other things which Jesus said, is that He spoke these to His disciples upon seeing the multitudes (Matthew 5:1). They are spoken to every one who follows Him, not merely to a specific group of His followers (e.g. the apostles and their successors the bishops, or by extension to the clergy).  To be "salt of the earth" and "light of the world" is therefore an exhortation not merely to the priests within the Church, but to all followers of Christ, to all the disciples. 

We are, in other words, all called to bear witness to the truth.  This is not a duty only for the clergy, but for all faithful Christians.  There are, of course, many ways of doing this, from the contemplative lives of the monks and hermits who renounce worldly riches to spend their lives in prayer*, to the Franciscans, not to mention such saints as Vincent de Paul, who dedicate their lives to helping the poor; there are those who do so through various apostolates, and those who do so by the important daily task of handing on the Faith to their children.  The way in which I try to bear witness to the Truth is through preaching, both in actions and in words, sometimes (or even often) failing, but always striving to be a light for the world.

But what, exactly, am I doing as a light for the world?  Father James Schall, a Jesuit professor of philosophy at Georgetown university discusses the Dominican formula, which he shortens to contemplata tradere, in The Unseriousness of Human Affairs.   He calls to mind that a light is not so much useful in its own right, but as a means to illumine something else.  Yes, a light is useful in the darkness, but it is only useful if there is something beyond itself to which it points.  I hope in my own case that something is the source of all Truth:  to God.

Of course, I did not need to join the Order of Preachers to do all this.  I could have joined some other order, or none at all.  However, it is the Dominicans whose way of life seems to me to best fit with my desire to be a light illuminating truth.  Indeed, that is another of the mottoes of the order:  veritas, truth.  Our local Promoter, Fr Ralph Ragowski O.P. often jokes that we are the order of talkers, but it is precisely because we are more than that that I was first attracted to the order.  We may be an Order of Talkers, but it is only because there is something worth talking about.  If we are indeed an Order of Talkers, we are at least not an Order of Babblers, talking much while saying little, rambling on about a tale filled with sound and fury which signifies nothing.

Our preaching serves an end, and that end is geared not towards ourselves, but to others.  Here then is the last of our mottoes:  Laudare, Benedicere, Praedicare; to praise, to bless, and to preach. The order of this last motto is fitting, since it brings to mind the first things first (praising God) and then then the second things (blessing others) and the last things last (our own preaching).  This ordering of priorities parallels the two greatest commandments:
"Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." (Matthew 22:37-39)
Our preaching serves the end of praising God and blessing others.  We bless others with the charity by which we preach, even when this takes the form of admonishing sinners.  Charity and truth are, in turn, inextricably linked together, for they share a common source (God).  As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in  Caritas in Veritate,

"To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity....Truth needs to be sought, found, and expressed within the 'economy' of charity, but charity in its turn needs to be understood, confirmed, and practiced in the light of truth" (emphasis mine).

If the Order of Preachers is faithful to its principles, as articulated in its three mottoes, then it follows that the Dominicans will continue to bless with their preaching, to work in charity and truth.  This in turn is itself a form of praise to God.

There is one more thing which I would like to address in this reflection, and this is the question about truth.  If my preaching is to serve the Truth, then I must spend time reflecting upon the truth:  hence, the first of the Order's mottoes, cited above.  This is also the meaning of the four pillars of Dominican life:  prayer, study, community, and preaching.  The first three are all necessary for the fourth one to be successful.  The study is important, because to preach the truth we must first know it and be able to articulate it;  a significant part of the task of a preacher is to instruct the ignorant, that is, to catechize.  Prayer is even more important, because without this we lose the purpose of our preaching; perhaps the most important thing to pray for in this regard is humility.  On the other hand, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom are among the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, all of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit are important to preaching, since we must have fortitude (the courage to speak the truth), prudence (to present the truth tactfully and in an appropriate manner), piety (to serve God confidently and joyfully), and a fear of the Lord (here we've come full circle to both humility and Wisdom).

As for community, this is the final reason for joining with the Order.  Although I have a strong sense of fellowship and community outside the Order, and though much of this community helps support me in the Faith, very little of it is actually dedicated to preaching.  We draw strength through prayer, but support comes through the community.  For me, that vocational community is the Order of Preachers.

*Not that this is the only way in which the monks have born their witness to the Truth.  It was they who preserved the ancients texts of classical learning, but also who kept the faith alive in Europe as it was ransacked by barbarians during the dark ages.  It was the monks, diligently preserving the works of Rome and Greece, who also copied the Bible for Europe prior to the invention of the Printing Press.
Note: this also appears on my Nicene Guys website. However, because there have been some bugs in that site of late, it's been republished in its entirety here.
If you enjoyed this post, here are some other similar posts which I have written:
Saint Thomas Aquinas:  A Reflection (Nicene Guys)
Contemplata Tradere:  A Reflection on Being a Dominican
Saint Thomas Aquinas and a Foretaste of the Beatific Vision
Contemplata Tradere (A Black and White Order)
Reflection on the Spirit and Abba (Nicene Guys)
Preaching to the Preachers: My Reflection Concerning Preaching (Nicene Guys)
Metaphor and Allegory in Saint Dominic's Nine Ways of Prayer:  A Reflection (Nicene Guys)

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Personal Nature of Kindness and Civility

In writing stuff online, I've always found it easier to be civil, kind, and tactful (as appropriate) when I'm writing to someone in particular, specifically to someone I know. This can be seen in a good number of my posts: most of my rants are directed against the writings, philosophy, or worldview of people I don't interact with, be it in real-life or via email and facebook. I find that roughly 99% of the people I regularly interact with ultimately compliment my "civility," "decency," and/or "tactfulness" (or say nothing either way)*.

On the other hand, those whom I don't know and don't interact with are more likely than not to be treated to a rant when they get on my bad side. I suppose I put in more effort when dealing with friends and family directly than with anonymous folks indirectly. I also suppose, from reading many comments on the internet, that most other people probably behave in the same way. It's simply easier to show kindness when there's a face (and a name) at the other end of the internet.  This is why we used to present our essays to each other when the Inklings group at UT was active, for those few brief months:  it gave an element of tact to the essays.  This, I suspect, is also why the commandment is "love thy neighbor" (Matthew 22:39) or even "love thy enemies" (Matthew 5:44) and not "love the anonymous masses," most of whom neither I nor anyone else will never meet and will moreover never know existed (at least not in this life).  We can love individual men, but not necessarily all of mankind.
*Note that this is not to say that "tact" is an excuse not to call a sin a sin, for it is after all an act of mercy to admonish sinners.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Commercial Commentary: The Windows Phone 7

I know this commercial has been out for a little while, but I don't have a television, so I only recently encountered the commercial for the Windows Phone 7:

The commercial is perhaps good for a few laughs, but at the same time it is good social commentary.  How often do we slip into a sort of technology bubble, whether with i-so-smart phones, mp3 players, the internet, and so on.  The problem is bad enough that several cities have enacted "no texting while driving" laws--which should be common sense--as a matter of public safety.  Despite our priest's constant warnings about cell phones going off during Mass, I can count on one going off at least every other service (and ours is one of the better parishes in this regard):  to say nothing of how many times one of my students' phones chimes during one of my lectures during any given class.

We walk around in our insulated technology bubble, distracting our minds with noise, static.  We forget that there are others around us, or forget that there is beauty in nature, even in areas like the campus of UT, where nature has been mostly (though not entirely) shut out.  We enter the technology bubble to avoid thinking, or interacting, with those around us, and to avoid appreciating the world which surrounds us in all its beauty.