Friday, August 31, 2007

Dark nights...

No, this is not a reference to first trimester nausea.

It is, however, a reference to what appears to be a major revelation for some news outlets: Mother Teresa of Calcutta (now a "Blessed") experienced for some 40+ years feelings of abandonment and the absence of God. TIME magazine recently had an entire article on the recent release of her letters and writings from this period: Come, Be My Light. A much more informative source is the May 2003 article from my very favorite periodical, First Things.

My thoughts? The "dark night" is nothing new in Catholic--or, I would even hazard, human--experience. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux (oh, they're all Carmelites!), and more (brain malfunction) all experienced a withdrawal of divine consolation at some point in their journeys to God.

Professional atheist Christopher Hitchins tells us that Mother Teresa's experience had nothing to do with God, but is simply a manifestation of her hypocritical denial of the fact that all religion is a human fabrication. She had seen the void on the other side.

Perhaps so. The Church's understanding of the "dark night" is one of a lover-beloved relationship. See the Song of Songs first. It is God, the lover, leaving the beloved alone in the "night" of the world. The beloved pines and longs for him, surviving only on an act of pure faith. Even her subjective proofs ("I feel He is with me" or "He comes to me in prayer") are gone, and her faith is purified.

The "night" is a scandal to the world, but also a great consolation (ironically?) to "we of little faith." Even in the darkness, we can serve and love the hidden God.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

more on atheism...

First Things has again alerted me to the ongoing debate with the "new atheists." Here they provide a link to a YouTube video clip ("clip" is a relative term--it's over an hour long) and brief analysis of the debate.

Most of the analysis focuses on the question of suffering, especially of innocents. Dawkins, in the debate, asks the Christian apologist how he can explain a God who allows thousands of children to suffer in disasters. The Christian dances and stumbles in an attempt to justify the ways of God to man. The whole question of suffering, though, must be grappled with: it is often the primary roadblock to faith, I've found. We must be able to "give an account of ourselves" that does not sound like a clock-work world of checks and balances that somehow justifies suffering...

So here's a link to get those thoughts flowing. It's a shorter version of David B. Hart's The Doors of the Sea, his work on the Christian response to the tsunami of Christmas 2004. Probably the best popular theology I've ever read on the subject (yes, even better than Lewis's The Problem of Pain).

Augustine of Hippo

Today the universal Church celebrates the feast of St. Augustine of Hippo. Doctor of the Church, saint, and preeminent philosopher and theologian, he articulated for all generations the deepest questions (and sketched some answers) of the human heart and intellect. And, remarkable for the ancient world, he wrote his deeply introspective Confessions for our pleasure and growth in charity.

Some commentators (which we all are) find him "dark" or "judgmental," but I can hardly understand this censure for a man so obviously aware of his own shortcomings as well as his outstanding brilliance of mind. One who can hold both extremes--wretchedness and greatness--up to the light of God in sight of all the world cannot be "dark."

Best reads: Confessions, On the Trinity, City of God, and any sermons/homilies you can get your hands on.

But here, from the mouth of the man himself:

"Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved
you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace." ~The Confessions, St. Augustine

Saturday, August 25, 2007

rejected paragraph from the thesis...

Christian theology is differentiated from pagan religious and philosophical reflection primarily by the introduction of a new distinction, the distinction between the world understood as possibly not having existed and God understood as possibly being all that there is.

The world, which is all created things, is now understood and analyzed as being the thoroughly contingent term of a distinction that might not have existed at all but, in fact, does. God is the necessary being; indeed, he is ipsum esse subsistens, the pure and unadulterated act of being itself. “To be God, God does not need to be distinct from the world, because there does not need to be anything other than God alone.” The context in which Pascal considers human nature, God, and eternal life, then, is one in which only God is necessary. The rest is, simply, not. This distinction is not merely cerebral, but elicits particular attitudes from its adherents: “The existence of the world now prompts our gratitude, whereas the being of the world prompts our wonder.”

Friday, August 24, 2007

body and mind

Fighting dualism in the classroom has been good fun. First of all, I incarnate in my own body the truth that mind depends and works in, to a great extent, the body.

"Now, let's turn to.... ah. Let's turn to... Well. Never mind. Er, let's go back to what we were just talking about. Yes. What were we just talking about?"

Yes, a simple backache brings all-powerful reason to its knees.

But seriously, we've been having great fun with dualism (Descartes) and utilitarianism (Mill) in the senior high school class. So, I thought I'd give the basic definitions the class has been working with.

Dualism, at least Cartesian dualism, says that all certainty is based in the "thinking thing," that is, me, "I." The foundation for clear and distinct knowledge is in the fact that I am. Now, that "I" is just mind. It's the thing doing the thinking. Bodies become a "probably conjecture" that we work with in science in order to master and possess nature. The mind and body are joined in a special way, but Descartes never really explains how they're joined and repeatedly insists that "I am essentially my mind." The body is non-essential to me.

Utilitarianism, in general, works on the principle that we ought to "maximize pleasure and minimize pain." Sounds great. John Stuart Mill made this a sort of cosmic principle: "Seek the greatest happiness (which he equates with pleasure) for the greatest number." I'm confirmed in my skepticism by none other than Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II), who says that inevitably utilitarianism becomes "greatest happiness for me."

Wojtyla wages a fascinating war on both dualism and utilitarianism in Love and Responsibility, his philosophical case for sexual ethics that predates the later, theological Theology of the Body addresses. It's probably my all-time favorite ethics book, and along the way it dabbles in metaphysics, aesthetics, and on and on. Here was a guy who did not believe in compartmentalization!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Teaching grammar ought not to quench the philosophical spirit. In my weak and fallen state, however, hours of explaining adverbs to eyeball-rolling 9th-graders reduces dramatically my desire and capacity for contemplation.

I just want to watch Law and Order reruns.

(NB: "I" is the subject, "want" is the action verb, "just" is the adverb answering the question, "To what extent?".... etc.)

Saturday, August 18, 2007

on barbarism...

The barbarism of the 2-year-old ballerina who does not wish to eat her rice is, upon reflection and when the "event" is over, amusing.

Other barbarisms are not. I am reading Night of Stone: Death and memory in twentieth-century Russia, by Catherine Merridale. I'm only to the great famines of 1932-1933 that murdered an estimated 5-7 million peasants in the Ukraine and Kazakhstan. That leaves another 67 years of the 20th-century left to kill. Literally.

Once again, what strikes me is the ordinariness of the men/women who engineered the conditions that led to the famine. Stalin was not mad. His followers were not some aberration on the stage of human history. Just bumbling ideologists who plunged their country from one barbarism to another. I am as capable of such barbarism as they.

Here is a civilized man's take on barbarism. Evelyn Waugh in a reflective mood:

"Barbarism is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly will commit every conceivable atrocity. The danger does not come merely from habitual hooligans; we are all potential recruits for anarchy. Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace; there is only a margin of error left over for experiment however beneficent. Once the prisons of the mind have been opened, the orgy is on. … The work of preserving society is sometimes onerous, sometimes almost effortless. The more elaborate the society, the more vulnerable it is to attack, and the more complete its collapse in case of defeat. At a time like the present it is notably precarious. If it falls, we shall see not merely the dissolution of a few joint-stock corporations, but of the spiritual and material achievements of our history."

Thursday, August 16, 2007

If I'm a handmaid, does that make my husband a butler?

"Philosophy: the handmaid of theology"

Thus began another year of Catholic Doctrine for the high school seniors at Regina Caeli Academy.

I asked them what it meant to be a handmaid.

"You take orders from the mistress." Yes.

"You cook and clean." Ye-es.

"You take care of the mistress." Ah-ha! And the course instructor (me) went into metaphysical raptures. That was a fascinating--and personally gratifying--way to think about the relationship between philosophy and theology.

Yes, philosophy is the handmaid: reason and common sense prepare the way for "the queen," theology. Reason must submit (a la Pascal) to the truths of revelation. Theological truth enriches and opens the horizons of human reason.

But is there a sense in which theology can't do without philosophy? The mistress needs her handmaids to flourish and grow. The more disciplined and thorough the philosopher, the more rigorous his/her concepts and arguments... the more (insert adjective) theology.

I think it has in part to do with the persuasiveness of theology and the attraction it has for the "natural man." If theology can speak to reason and the human heart (using philosophical terms to which the natural man is open), it can persuade. And if theology is not winning hearts, it's lost its purpose.

Ah, but the musings are endless...

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Cardinal Lustiger, RIP

Although it has now been a week since his death, I must recognize the passing of this great man of God. Born to Jewish parents in 1926 (his mother died in Auschwitz), he was the archbishop of Paris from 1981 until 2005, and invited Europeans and all Catholics to "open wide the doors to Christ."

Here is a link to George Weigel's tribute.

The new atheism

Have you noticed all the latest tracts on atheism in Borders and Barnes & Noble? Gracious.

Harvey Mansfield had an article in The Weekly Standard on the latest attacks on religion. They are different, he maintains, from the usual fare ("the usual fare" being the Enlightenment relegation of religion to the private sphere). Hard to believe, since atheism has been around since only shortly after gods and goddesses and God appeared on the historical scene.

The new atheists of the West live in a post-Christian society in which religion has largely lost its public influence (we're speaking here of Western Europe and the Americas, not of the East). It has been successfully quarantined in private lives, where its pernicious influences won't detract from human progress.

But! Mansfield writes:

"In our time, religion, having lost its power to censor and dominate, still retains its ability, in America especially, to compete for adherents in our democracy of ideas. So to reduce the influence of religion, it is politically necessary to attack it in the private sphere as well as in the public square. This suggests that the distinction between public and private, dear to our common liberalism, is sometimes a challenge to maintain. If religion, then, cannot be defended merely on the ground that it is private, what might be said in its behalf for the public good?"

This, I would contend, is the problem with submitting to the urge to confine "my religion" to my private home. It just doesn't work. Faith loses every time. The very idea of a "private world" in which I can do whatever I want without affecting the "public world" is tenuous at best. Even my decisions about my sexuality (will I reproduce?), my children's discipline (will I tell her it's wrong to steal?), my faith (do I believe in unlimited abortion license?), will bear on public life if I have any integrity at all.

So, of course it has become necessary for atheists to ridicule private religion. To our great surprise, there's no such thing.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

St. Teresa Benedicta, aka Edith Stein

And August continues its slough of saint-days in the Catholic Church. Today is another patron(ess) of philosophy: St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, OCD.

Born in Germany to a large Jewish family as Edith Stein, she grew into a brilliant student of philosophy and worked closely with Husserl. Husserl founded a particular school of phenomenology, which attempts to overcome the abyss of modern thought.

Like many of the members of Husserl's school of thought, Edith converted to Catholicism. Because she was Jewish, however, she was never allowed to teach at the university level in Germany. In her early forties, she entered the Carmel at Cologne. She and her sister, also a Carmelite and convert, fled to Holland early in the war but were arrested by the SS and sent to Auschwitz, where they died in the gas chambers.

Great reads from her life work:
The Science of the Cross (written from within Carmel just before her arrest)
Self-Portrait in Letters (letters to others from before her conversion until her arrest)
Essays on Woman (a series of lectures given in Germany before she entered Carmel)

"Learn from St. Thérèse to depend on God alone and serve Him with a wholly pure and detached heart. Then, like her, you will be able to say ‘I do not regret that I have given myself up to Love’." ~St. Edith Stein

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Philosophical Canon

Edward T. Oakes, SJ, has just posted a charming, witty, and insightful article on the First Things blog on the philosophical canon.

Among other fascinating questions he asks: How on earth did someone as verbally obtuse as Hegel get on to the "must read" list? Why is Descartes impossible to ignore while Cartesians are impossible to forgive? What qualifies an author or work as canon material? Why should we be familiar with the philosophical canon?

It's a fun read, though long, so get a cup of coffee first. But it is also especially appropriate for St. Dominic's day, since the latter half focuses on Thomism and the relationship of faith and reason. Enjoy.

St. Dominic, August 8

Today is the feast of St. Dominic, founder of the Order of Preachers (OPs). Since I went to Catholic University and lived in Gibbons, across the street from the Dominican House of Studies, and since three good friends have entered the Dominican Sisters of Saint Cecilia, and since St. Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican of great philosophical gravitas, I have been blessed to know and love a few of his sons and daughters. Here's a twitch of the veil/cowl to them all!

"To praise, to bless, to preach!"

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Shout out to true feminism.

This article is quite disturbing, but gives a blinders-off look at what abortion does to women. Particularly unborn women.

Shedding a little light...

I ran into a blessed philosopher yesterday and confided my frustrations with the thesis on Pascal. After ruefully recounting my attempts at clarity, I asked, "There's no right answer, though, is there? I'm not looking for the right answer, am I?"

"No," she said, "there's no right answer. Your job is just to shed a little more light on the subject."

Of course, I went immediately into mystical raptures over this revelation of the end for which I create the thesis at all. To illuminate--not definitively disclose--the truth of Pascal's project. Thank heavens.

This also allays many of the frustrations one feels in teaching history. Last year, I led a seminar in early modern history for high school juniors and seniors. The books we were assigned by the school's curriculum were determined to present the "right answer" to all historical problems; that means they sought to explain away all the awkwardness of the Inquisition, the conquistadores, Galileo, the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, etc. It was so easy and so nauseatingly comfortable to be able to say: "And that's why it all happened the way it did. And here's how we can justify the ways of God to man, and man to God."

But what is harder, in a way, to say is that the end for which we study history is not to find the definitive answers and justifications for "the good guys." The reason we read history is to shed light on, among other things, human nature, our own origins, and the rise and fall of human civilizations.

I also find history to be a particularly convincing lesson in original sin, but, again, it only sheds light on sin. History does not prove anything (such as, original sin) in the way the hard sciences can prove something (such as, the existence of microorganisms). It simply sheds a little more light on the truth of who we are, who God is, and where we are going.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Off again!

Once more, the Philosopher Mom is hitting the road. This time, slowly making their way south to the ATL and HOME!, the family will hit NY, PA, and VA.

Enjoy the dog days of summer. See you next week...

On Locke

The following is from the August 13 issue of National Review:

"Edward Feser is one of the best contemporary writers on philosophy, and his Locke (One World Publishers) is a lucid, short introduction to this architect of philosophical modernity. 'To understand Locke,' Feser writes, 'is to understand ourselves'--because the tensions within Lockeanism remain alive within, and indeed central to, today's intellectual life. John Locke was simultaneously committed to a political philosophy of natural rights and ... to nominalism: But how can rights be inherent in the human 'kind' if the very definition of a 'kind' is an arbitrary human invention? What Locke wants, according to Feser, is 'a natural law without nature, or at least without a "nature" that would have been recognizable to his medieval predecessors.... His basic philosophical commitments do in fact tend to undermine natural law and the conservative moral and political conclusions that follow from it.'"

This brief quote, by Auld Kirk, simply points out the importance of knowing where "the way we think" comes from. Modern political assumptions--about human rights, democracies, liberalism, tolerance-doctrine--are neither random appearances in history nor are they the final say in what's right and wrong politically. Get to know the sources of modernity--Locke, Machiavelli, Hobbes--and you'll get to know the world and, hopefully, truth a bit better.