Archive for October 2007

Faith and Philosophy

October 31, 2007

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything.  I’ve been swamped with my school work because it’s about time to get started on my papers.  Not only that, but I still have some midterms left to do.  However, enough about that.

I had a thought a few months ago, and I’ve been toying around with it on and off ever since.  I want to explore the theological commitments of the Orthodox and see if I can understand why Orthodox hold the view that there is a uniform theology underlying apparent differences among the Church Fathers.  As a Catholic, such a position seems absolutely foreign.  However, I do think that there is an important reason for this commitment on the part of the Orthodox (at least the ones I’ve talked to), one stemming from other theological commitments. 

Take the question:  is it possible for reason to examine the content of faith?  Catholics have always said that in some way it is possible.  True philosophy is the handmaiden of theology.  There are truths we can know about God through natural reason alone, and some even think we can say at least some things univocally about God and man, e.g. God and man both exist.  Even if philosophy must stay within certain limits i.e. it cannot declare some dogma of the Church false, there are many different methodologies that we can use to investigate the faith.  While there is tension between the two, ultimately there is a symbiotic relationship between the two.   

However, the entire way we view our theology depends on our philosophical assumptions.  Even though Scotists and Thomists agree on many things, they disagree heatedly on several important issues which I will not enumerate here.  Because the philosophies are different, the theologies come out very different as well.  The reasons are obvious:  if you view nature in two different ways, and you believe that nature reflects the God whose essence it imitates, then the way we view God will differ between the two theologies. 

Potentially, this can create a problem:  there is no singular philosophical framework that we can adopt, and hence any dogma can be read differently depending on what set of metaphysical glasses one is wearing (of course, this shows the importance of interpreting dogmas within their historical contexts to determine exactly what is being rejected or affirmed).  When the Church decides to intervene to settle a particular argument, she does; if she doesn’t decide to intervene, the question is fair game.  Dogmas become like boundary lines:  they tell philosophers and theologians where they cannot go while giving them ample freedom to explore new territory.  The Church Fathers are read with great respect, but theologians and philosophers can affirm what they teach while tweaking their metaphysical assumptions, and hence affirm the dogmas they developed without excepting the metaphysical baggage that they used to compose their arguments towards the dogma.

So that’s a very brief summary of the way Catholics (read:  me) views the relation between theology and philosophy in the Catholic Church.  But there are some people who seem opposed to the Catholic way of doing things.  The strong formulation might go something like this: natural theology is not possible.  We cannot discover truths about nature, and then use those truths to make claims about God.  Everything we know about God comes through revelation.  Obviously, this view differs greatly from the view presented above.  There is no symbiotic relationship between faith and reason.  Even though both this view and the former one would affirm that what is declared dogma ultimately trumps philosophy (because one is fallible and the other isn’t), under this view philosophy is incredibly limited in how it can clarify the content of faith.   

But this raises an interesting question:  as I pointed out above, differing philosophical assumptions produce differing theologies.  But if this is the case, then how is it possible to say that theology holds the trump cards over reason?  For whose theology are we talking about:  person x, who holds philosophical assumptions a,b,c, or person y, who holds philosophical assumptions A, B, and C?  Here’s the point I’ve been driving at:  the more strictly you adhere to the idea that faith trumps reason, the narrower the wiggle room is for philosophical variances.  The more you want to assert the dominance of theology over philosophy, the more you must moderate philosophical variances. 

Now I don’t want to claim to be an expert on Orthodox theology, but from what I gather they adhere more closely to the latter view than the former.  I haven’t met too many Orthodox, but every one that I have met has much distain for philosophy, seeing it as a skirge to be eliminated from theology instead of a complementary way of seeking Truth.  As Tertullian famously said, what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?  Several other Church fathers share the same sentiment.

And yet, every Orthodox I have met holds a pretty strong version of the latter thesis.  If this thesis is true, then there is very little room for philosophy being able to investigate theology.  What essentially happens is that a unified philosophical framework must be posited through which we view dogma:  the stricter the latter thesis is, the less freedom philosophy has.  I think my account explains something which I had always found a bit confusing:  why do the Orthodox whose debates I have read attentively keep insisting that the Church Fathers shared a very unified theology, including implicit essence energies distinctions, etc?  I think that this project of unifying the Church Fathers is a direct result of holding the latter thesis.  Such a program cannot tolerate large philosophical variances; the more such variances are tolerated, the more room there is to interpret dogmas differently, and thus philosophy slowly makes itself a sort of “equal” to theology. 

At least, that’s my take on things.  Any thoughts?

The Breakdown of Political Language

October 21, 2007

Arnold just did something very, very stupid.  He just signed a piece of legislation that bans anything that promotes a discriminatory bias against “gender.”  In effect, words like “mom” and “dad” will be taken out of the school lexicon, and text books must not give students the impression that heterosexuality is in any way a norm. 

Now if I remember correctly from my many debates with secularists of many stripes, us religious people should not be legislating morality.  This now common slogan is worthy of examination.  Contrary to what many Christians would like us to think, this Constitution was not written by Christians (for the most part), but deists.  These men–the paradigm case being Thomas Jefferson–had no problems citing some ambiguous divine Providence which ordered the world without interacting with it.  He famously had a Bible (which I saw in a museum this weekend, along with Kermit the Frog) in which he literally cut out all references to Jesus’ miracles and left only his moral teachings.  Religion, he argued, was a private affair.

However, this isn’t the whole story.  Although it can be conceeded that the founding fathers were not all Christians–and that the Constitution does not enshrine Christians values per se–it is also true that these men were natural law theorists; hence, so many documents cite divine Providence in several different ways and in several different contexts.  And while these men did not favor any particular religion, they did favor a certain type of morality.  All of them spoke in a common language as far as moral theories go.  They all thought that there is an objective right and wrong way to act.  They thought that this morality was ordered by God through how He created human nature.  And finally, they took it for granted that these objective good and evils were discoverable through rational discourse.   So while religion may have been private, morality was a very public beast.

And yet, this recently signed law in California is just another example of how the natural law theory assumed by the fathers of this country has been underminded.  Sure, there were moral disagreements between the founding fathers; but they were all arguing in the same language under a common set of first principles of moral reasoning.  But that just isn’t the case anymore.  Natural law theory has been jettisoned, and now we are left with special interest groups attempting to push a given agenda, not an attempt to conform the law to an objective moral reality.  There can be no discussions with people like the ones pushing this agenda in California.  Even when making the dubious assumption that they believe ethical discussions can be resolved rationally–which often isn’t the case–the first principles of the varying ethical paradigms involved are so different that we might as well be speaking different languages.  The only way to resolved such disputes is to find neutral ground common to all parties on which to settle the dispute.  However, this task is slow and arduous, if it is even possible at all.  The Enlightenment project also seems to have made the assumption that there is such thing as facts apart from an agent with a certain slant on the world interpreting those facts.  Thus, we can all just “set aside” our religion or our other beliefs and discuss policies on a completely level playing field of reason.  But as both medieval philosophers (“what is received is received according to the mode of the receiver,” for example) will tell you, there is no such thing as an uninterpreted fact. We cannot just set aside our value systems as if they did not color the way that we viewed the world (and hence how we reason).  This does not mean that there is no objective truth, of course, but only that it is much harder to get at than Enlightenment thinkers seemed to realize. 

In the mean time, since the different groups cannot discuss moral issues without begging the question in some way against their opponents, we are left in a political landscape in which we cannot have moral discussions across paradigms.  Consequently, the only thing left to do is for the differing parties to pass laws in their own interests at the expense of the other parties. 

While the argument may have been a good one up until a few decades ago that we should not “legislate morality” in the sense of pushing the tenents of a particular religious creed, the argument seems to have no weight anymore.  The Enlightenment project failed.  As much as we may want to sit back and debate ethical policies with one another, it is simply not possible anymore, no matter how hard we try. 

It’s obvious that the gays in California are having no qualms about legislating a morality, forcing it on a great number of people.  Now honestly, is this act okay just because it is being legislated by people with no religious agenda?  After writing all of this, I am at a loss as to why I cannot attempt to legislate my own morality no matter what its sources are, even if that source is religion.  It seems absolutely ridiculous that we should stand by and call foul because other people aren’t playing by the same rules as our founding fathers intended.  If we can no longer settle these disputes because we lack a common language, and some people are pushing their morality on the rest of us, why does it matter where my own moral principles come from when I push back? 

Not “legislating morality” based on religious principles is unfortunately a relic of the past.  I really wish that we lived in a society where even the non-believers believed that such things as gay-marriage is wrong.  But we don’t live in that society.  Therefore, the only thing we can do is push back with everything we have.  Even if that includes pushing back with “religion.”

The Political Compass

October 18, 2007

I began taking the political compass test about five years ago, and I have taken it maybe once every two years.  I think it is official that the test can no longer discern my place on the political spectrum.  I scored a 1.38 to the right, .92 authoritarian (on my last testing, I was 5.13 right and 1.94 authoritarian).  Then, when you look at the political compasses of the candidates for this year’s election cycle, I am further left than most of the democrats, including Hillary Clinton.  And yet, for moral reasons and political reasons, I would never vote for any of these democratic candidates, and while I find some of the Republicans good, most of them are not. 

Here’s the problem:  the more educated I become, the less my way of thinking conforms to the paradigm being proposed by the test.  In other words, I am no longer speaking the same language as the test.  For instance, when the test states, “the freer the market, the freer the people,” I balk at the question.  What kind of freedom are we talking about?  Political freedom?  Economic freedom?  Or moral freedom?  For the first two, one could probably argue that the freer the market is, the freer the people is.  In fact, I would probably agree.  However, in my mind those two freedoms are of lesser importance and ultimately ordered to moral freedom.  Since the definition of freedom is fuzzy, my answer cannot be expounded by merely filling in a bubble.  Do I mark disagree because I balk at their definition of freedom (like I did on this test), or do I mark agree because I think that it is true (a tautology, perhaps) that greater freedom of the market produces greater economic freedom? 

For many of the questions, I wish I could have marked an, “I agree/disagree with qualification” box.  I haven’t changed my opinions so much in the course of the year that I have gone from being a diehard Republican to a Clinton supporter by any stretch of the imagination.  Rather, the differences can be explained by my mindset at the time:  what objection to the question or what qualification to my answer did I have in mind as I marked the particular bubble?   

Of course, this isn’t anything new.  When Pope John Paul II died, I remember several commentators giving a synopsis of his life.  They called him a mystery man, a man of contradiction.  On the one hand, he hated Communism; on the other hand, he criticized democracies.  So where could he possibly stand on the issues, they would ask.  And I’ll bet that those who aren’t engaged in Catholic literature and culture would be confused.  There is no one book that you can read to become fully engaged in the Catholic mindset.  If the test doesn’t speak a person’s language, it cannot assess his position accurately. 

“Time” in Eternity?

October 17, 2007

A few of us seminarians were talking the other day about Thomas’ views concerning the heaven.  We were a bit puzzled because we could not figure out if there is time in heaven.  Sure, we will be with God for all eternity, but we are going to have bodies in heaven.  If we have bodies which are capable of moving around, it seems like the ability to walk from one place to another means that I am at one place at time T1 and at another place at T2. 

So for all of my many [ahem!] Thomist readers out there, what will the “status” of time be in heaven?  Will there be time, perhaps in an analogical way (if that makes any sense), or will we belong to an eternal present like God?

Is this Just?

October 5, 2007

Is this our justice system in action?  I am firmly opposed to downloading music illegally, but this woman was forced to pay $9250 for each song she swiped.  If she stole the equivalent 2-3 CDs from her local music store, would she be sued for so much? 

This is what you get when you remove natural law theory from our legal mindset (and when so many of our judges are determinists).  If justice is just a human invention, and people couldn’t do otherwise than they did, then there is no reason to make pains to make punishments fit the crime.  Justice becomes an instrument for deterrent rather than a means of giving each person his due.

Addendum:  hmm…

Choosing between Two Evils?

October 4, 2007

At the moment, Rudy Guiliani is the front runner for the Republican presidential ticket, and Hillary is the Democratic front runner.  This leaves pro-lifers in a very bad situation:  when both candidates are supporters of legalized abortion, are we supposed to just hold our noses and vote for the person who best reflects Catholic teaching?  Of course, we don’t live in an ideal world, and politicians are rarely virtuous people who conform perfectly to Church teaching.  Often, as in the case of George Bush, I voted for him as a clear lesser of two evils. 

However, given that there are only two candidates, there is also a controversial third option:  don’t vote for the presidency.  Last year I had a rather heated discussion with a family member over this point.  He argued that a non-vote for the Republican was essentially a vote for Hillary, and that if we are to choose the lesser of two evils the Republican would always be that lesser evil.  He also extolled Guiliani’s virtue of having a strict reading of the Constitution, so he would be less inclined to support abortion being enshrined in our laws, etc.

In the next 20 years, Social Security is going to become a living nightmare.  We will have 2-3 people supporting ever retired person in the nation.  And yet despite this being a very obvious and serious problem, politicians can’t even pull the trigger on ever nominal changes, such as raising the retirement age a couple of years.  Why?  Because old people vote and young people don’t.  Politicians listen to the elderly because they vote while other types of people don’t.  If a politician attempts to fix the problem, the old folk will drive him out of office.  The moral of the story:  the squeaky wheel gets the oil.  If people don’t make noise, politicians just assume that they are happy and focus on the groups which are making a lot of noise. 

So now let’s look at the pro-life movement.  As my family member stated, many pro-lifers have this implicit opinion that the Republican is always going to be the lesser of two evils, so we should always vote for them.  But as the examples above illustrate, this train of thought is problematic.  If pro-lifers simply assure one party of their votes no matter how little the candidate cares for their views, then that candidate will no longer see it necessary to woo them with appropriate action once they get into office.  The politician will spend all his time wooing other interest groups, and spend his term meeting their demands.  The pro-life stuff?  That can come later:  since he is assured of their votes no matter what he does in office, he is in no rush to push their agenda. 

So what’s the pro-lifer to do?  Some degree of dissention from pro-life issues can be overlooked if the candidate is good enough.  But the more a candidate disagrees with the pro-life position, the less tolerable he becomes until eventually he is so bad that he is not worth voting for, even if he is better than the other candidate.  Yes, a non-vote is ammunition in the hands of the opposing candidate, but the refusal to vote is a move with long term benefits in mind.  If the squeaky wheel gets the oil, pro-lifers can squeak very loudly if they don’t lend certain candidates the support which they desperately need to get elected. 

Take the following examples.  The federal government has no legal ability to mandate a drinking age of 21 or higher, and yet every state has such a drinking age (even Missouri, which has a very influential Brewery pushing against such legislation).  How did the Federal government get its way?  Simple:  during World War II the government wanted an interstate highway.  But since that is not in Congress’ power, they decided that they would give money to the states to build such roads.  The states, happy to get money, gladly obliged until within 20 years they came to expect such funding for their roads.  To get the drinking age raised, Congress simply threatened to take away funding for roads.  Every state had to obey, lest their roads go into disrepair.  St. Louis and the rest of Missouri tried to hold out, but eventually they had to cave.  Thanks to that incident, St. Louis has some of the worst roads of any US city.  Also, Hume had a similar idea on how to pacify Christianity in Europe.  He proposed that Europe get the clergy on the state’s payroll.  If the clergy ever began to do something contrary to some particular state affair, just take away his paycheck.  Getting hit in the purse strings often hurts more than getting hit in certain anatomical parts.

If pro-lifers do nothing and keep voting for the Republican no matter how bad they are, then their agenda will never be pushed.  But by not voting in this election, we can shock Republicans into realizing that they cannot win without us.  Between presidential elections, you will begin to see Republicans padding their pro-life resumes so that they won’t meet the same fate as their contemporaries. 

Thus, not voting is an immediate sacrifice in hopes of getting long term gains.  If Guiliani gets nominated for the Republican ticket, I will not vote for the office of the president.  Unfortunately, that will mean that Hillary will be in office, and that is certainly a trade-off to consider.  But the Democratic candidate is always going to be bad because they have Planned Parenthood in their pockets.  We must make a stand sometime if the Republicans start putting up trashy candidates.  In my opinion, now is just as good of a time to withhold my vote than ever.

The Human Experience

October 2, 2007

Grassroots films has done some very good work over the past few years.  They have made two outstanding videos promoting vocations, both of which can be found on youtube.  They are developing a new video entitled the Human Experience, which looks outstanding.  The details in the trailer are sketchy, but it looks like a documentary of two brothers looking for goodness amidst the poorest of the poor in a world which seems to have ignored its moral compass.  Hopefully, it will be as good as their other work.