Very Underrated

In my opinion this is a terribly underrated movie. The problem, I think, is that Hollywood does not know how to market M. Night’s movies. He had massive success with The Sixth Sense and so everything he did was sold as horror or thriller material. The effect is that an appeal is made to the exact wrong audience. Lady in the Water is totally not a thriller. It is a fairy tale, and like all good fairy tales it has a moral. Like most good fairy tales, there are scary parts. This fact does not make Little Red Riding Hood a story about monsters, and Lady in the Water is not a horror movie either. Night’s movies are unique experiences, not the usual recycled formulaic Hollywood tripe, and they should not be marketed like cheap horror retreads. Okay, I reserve the right to criticize The Last Airbender, which was not up to par for the man. I consider Lady in the Water to be very creative rather than formulaic though, and I think it deserves more respect.

Perfect Mistake

Perfectionism is a blunder. It assumes that perfection is attainable by us imperfect creatures. Even the perfectionist knows he isn’t perfect. That is part of the pathology. It is what leads the average perfectionist to have a poor opinion of himself (I speak from experience).

A few minutes ago I happened to stumble across a couple snips from dear St. Thomas which speak indirectly to this very problem (As an aside I wonder if Aquinas was a perfectionist because the quality of his work is so astonishingly high. But I digress).

I think the problem is at least analogously related to a difficulty some people have with theism. Their notion is along these lines: if God exists and created this world, then He would have created it perfectly. The world is not perfect (inject the critic’s particular areas of dissatisfaction with the world as it is, which may very well be perfectly reasonable), and therefore God could not have created it. Now, what could Aquinas say that might address the perfectionist and the critic of theism?

First there is this:

As God is perfect in His works, He bestowed perfection on all of them according to their capacity. (ST I q.91 a.1)

And then this:

All natural things were produced by the Divine art, and so may be called God’s works of art. Now every artist intends to give to his work the best disposition; not absolutely the best, but the best as regards the proposed end; and even if this entails some defect, the artist cares not: thus, for instance, when man makes himself a saw for the purpose of cutting, he makes it of iron, which is suitable for the object in view; and he does not prefer to make it of glass, though this be a more beautiful material, because this very beauty would be an obstacle to the end he has in view. Therefore God gave to each natural being the best disposition; not absolutely so, but in the view of its proper end. This is what the Philosopher says (Phys. ii, 7): “And because it is better so, not absolutely, but for each one’s substance.” (ST I q.91 a.3; emphasis added)

St. Thomas explains why we are not made perfect in an absolute sense, but perfect for our specific nature and our proper end. (which may imply defects for other purposes: his example is that a glass saw would be more beautiful but less useful than an iron one).

The upshot for this blog post is twofold. First, the perfectionist pursues something unnecessary. Perfection is not required, but rather suitability for a thing’s purpose. This may still demand high standards of quality of course, but that is different than the paralyzing, demoralizing, unrealistic pursuit of something that I do not even need. I am not perfect myself—not in any way you could name—but that is perfectly okay. God made me suitably for the end He intends for me (which, ultimately, is to spend eternity with Him!) What more could I ask or hope for?

The second observation has to do with our skeptic’s objection above. He makes nearly the same error as the perfectionist, but he aims his demands at God: a perfect world would be different from this one in (some particular) ways, and the lack of perfection of our world means either that God does not exist or that He does not love us. But there are all sorts of mistakes here. The most glaring may be to suppose that one is right in listing off the alleged defects of the world and blaming them on God. Let us assume that God does exist, and that He is infinitely wise and intelligent. Where the heck do we get off thinking that we can stand in judgment of the way that God made the world? Are we smarter than He? Wiser? Do we know more? Ha. Ha. And again, Ha. So in the first place we are in no position to judge God’s purposes, because He is infinite in perfection, wisdom, knowledge, intelligence, and love. We, needless to say, are not. Our finitude makes it frankly absurd for us to say (with a know-it-all harrumph) that the world would be better in some other way.

This is not to say that there are not trials associated with life in the real world. Of course there are. But the vast majority of our problems are the result of flawed exercises of an essential human quality: our free will. We sin, or others do, and we expect God to clean up the mess. We forget, though, that free will implies the freedom to do evil, and that justice demands we receive the penalties or rewards due to us for the way that we exercise our freedom. We forget that the freedom of others (and our own freedom) can very well result in suffering for innocents. But God has a plan, and His plans cannot be thwarted. He even turns human evildoing on its head so that it works out for the fulfillment of His purposes. And His purposes are good.

Grace, grace, God’s grace

It has been a little while since I had anything to say about the fact that we are saved by grace alone. So I will just slip this little post in here to correct that. The Catechism teaches thus:

It is impossible to appropriate to oneself spiritual goods and behave toward them as their owner or master, for they have their source in God. One can receive them only from him, without payment. (CCC §2121; emphasis added)

See also §1578, where it says this about the Sacrament of Holy Orders:

Like every grace this sacrament can be received only as an unmerited gift. (emphasis added)

This is why St. Augustine once said that when God rewards our merits, He is really only crowning His own gifts to us. Our merits themselves are gifts of grace.

Dimes and their differences

So the GOP won big on Tuesday. Pardon me if I am not giddy with excitement. You see, I remember the last two times the GOP held both houses of Congress; the first time (under Clinton) the Republican Senate refused to impeach Clinton despite the fact that he had committed crimes (crimes for which he lost his law license).

The second time was in the 2000s when they held both houses of Congress and the White House. During those years they failed to pass any significant pro-life legislation (if they passed any at all). They did, however, expand the federal government faster than ever since the Depression. They did give us “Homeland Security,” which has been super for treating citizens like cattle and criminals. They did transform the USA into a practitioner of torture and accelerated the development of the surveillance state too.

I hope I may be pardoned for saying that the country is going to get what they voted for once again. And they will not like it.

The problems are perspicuous

A large hunk (but by no means all) of Protestantism’s appeal comes from its doctrine of the so-called perspicuity of Scripture, according to which (as the Westminster Confession of Faith, for one, puts it)

VII. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (WCF I.VII)

At first glance, I will grant you, that seems to be pretty straightforward stuff. But there are multiple problems with it. First: are they talking about the Greek and Hebrew originals? If so, then there is obviously zero clarity for the “unlearned” man who doesn’t know those languages. If the writers of the WCF aren’t talking about the texts in the original languages (as seems likely), then the clarity depends upon the translators, not upon the text. Quite obviously a bad translation can obscure an otherwise clear passage beyond the “unlearned” man’s comprehension. Or does God protect the translators from adding obscurity? (That is a rhetorical question: Of course He doesn’t, and no Protestant says otherwise.) So we see that perspicuity is crumbling under its own weight already.

But wait. There is more. What are the “ordinary means” and what constitutes “due use” of them? Presumably it includes literacy (perspicuity does not do the blind man much good, nor the man who cannot read), but do the ordinary means include knowledge of Greek and Hebrew? Or skill in exegesis, maybe? Exactly how many of the “unlearned” possess these skills?

As if that is not enough: what constitutes a “sufficient understanding” of these clear doctrines? Being able to name them, or explain them, or teach them, or something else? Well, we aren’t told.

At the risk of piling on there is one more serious problem: there is no universally agreed-upon catalog of these essential and clear doctrines. One would think that if they are so clear, then anyone with a college degree (being, presumably, unlearned at the very least) would be able to produce this list, and it would agree with everyone else’s list. I have asked Reformed people to provide such a list of these “clear” essentials. One fellow flatly refused! Another fellow couldn’t stop adding to his list, which contained things that other Protestants would not accept anyway.

So basically one is lucky if he can get a list. But if he does, it probably won’t be the same as some other person’s list, which pretty much demolishes the so-called perspicuity claim of the WCF.

This should not surprise us. St. Peter wrote (2 Peter 3:16):

[St. Paul] makes this point too in his letters as a whole wherever he touches on these things. In all his letters there are of course some passages which are hard to understand, and these are the ones that uneducated and unbalanced people distort, in the same way as they distort the rest of scripture—to their own destruction. (emphasis added)

Contrary to what the WCF says about the unlearned, Peter says the uneducated “distort” both Paul’s epistles and the rest of the Scriptures. So which is it? Are the uneducated up to the task of interpreting the Bible (says the WCF) or not (says the Bible itself)? Or is the doctrine of perspicuity not perspicuous?

Above my pay grade

St. John of the Cross has this to say about the meaning of Scripture:

Many things have been spoken by the Holy Ghost, the meaning of which is different from that which men conceive.
(Ascent Of Mount Carmel)

He enumerates a few examples from the Bible where man’s views of God’s Word don’t quite match up with what God meant, particularly concerning the nature of Christ’s kingdom (which the apostles were still getting wrong right up to Ascension Day).

This is exactly why reducing interpretation of the Bible down to grammatical-historical exegesis is a dead end fraught with mistakes and blunders. Even the Jews of the Old Testament and inter-testamental period, who knew Hebrew and Aramaic way better than we do, got things wrong. Witness how completely flummoxed they were by Jesus’s question about Psalm 110, where David calls his son Lord.

This is also why we need to read the Bible within the living tradition of the Church, as the Catechism tells us. Mere human exegesis will never go beyond the human authors’ intentions, and it is a huge a priori gaffe to assume identity between the human author’s intended meaning and the meaning that God intends. The church has always insisted that the two are not coextensive. God may mean one thing while the human author means something else entirely. This does not invalidate the so-called literal meaning of the text, but it does mean that we cannot stop there and presume that we have deciphered what God meant too.

Conditions revisited

I am returning to this subject (not for the first time) because it is important, and because there are at least some occasions when it seems very difficult. But given the severity of what Jesus has to say, I need to be reminded on a fairly regular basis. Maybe others do too. I have previously written on this topic here and here if you would like to take a look at my earlier scratchings about it.

Our union with Christ and eventual salvation depends upon certain things that we simply cannot neglect because Jesus makes it clear that failure to comply will be disastrous for us. The sole commentary that He gives us about the content of the Lord’s Prayer/Our Father is limited to this:

For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14-15, RSV2CE; emphasis added)

There is simply no getting around this. If we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven either. I do not have the luxury (strange word for it) of carrying around grudges against others because of things they have done (nor for things I merely think they have done). If I do not forgive others—if I do not forgive you (assuming, dear reader, that I have some inconceivable reason to suppose you have wronged me)—then God will not forgive me either. It is as simple as that.

Nor is this the only condition that the Lord lays upon us. I must also love my neighbor, whoever it is.

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matthew 25:41-46, RSV2CE; emphasis added)

“By this it may be seen who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not do right is not of God, nor he who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:10, RSV2CE).

Loving my neighbor is not a nice add-on for my Christian life; it is the second greatest commandment. And Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 (quoted above) what it looks like to love (or not love) my neighbor (and by extension, to love or not love Jesus): it is characterized by the extent to which we help him when he is suffering.

I think that there is a Scripture verse which says this, but it does not matter a whole lot for this truth (which I have seen in multiple books): if I do not love my neighbor whom I can see, how can I love God whom I can’t see? My love of God is shown by how I love my neighbor. I cannot expect to enter into the joy of the Kingdom of heaven if I harbor resentments or if I ignore my neighbor’s suffering. God expects certain things from His children, and I must attend to those things if I really am His son by adoption.

Salesian Quote of the Day

Here is St. Francis de Sales on how being inundated with a thousand small tasks is worse than one big one:

As flies trouble us, not by their strength but by their multitude, so affairs of importance give us not so much trouble as trifling ones when they are great in number. Undertake, then, all your affairs with a calm and peaceable mind, and endeavour to despatch them in order, one after another; for if you make an effort to do them all at once, or without order, your spirit will be so overcharged and depressed that it will probably lie down under the burden without effecting anything. (Introduction to the Devout Life III.10)

All I have to say to that is “Amen and amen.”

A foundation for private property

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (CSD) provides no genuine solace for either of the two economic poles we are offered as alternatives today: socialism and capitalism. It is easy — for a conservative — to find and give a great Huzzah to what the CSD has to say in condemnation of socialism, but it is surprisingly easy for these same folks to ignore, overlook, or explain away its criticisms of capitalism. In at least one sense this is somewhat understandable and even forgivable, given that the CSD affirms the Seventh Commandment and its implicit defense of the legitimacy of private property. Unfortunately, these same folks often ignore what the Compendium has to say about the necessary limits and regulation of capitalism, and even sometimes appeal to the “laws” of economics in defense of their rejection of the CSD’s critique of an unfettered capitalism. Still others will deny that today’s free market is free at all, and assert that a genuinely free market would not suffer from the moral defects present in our markets. But the Compendium really gives no solace nor refuge to these defenses, because it presents an alternative foundation for economic life. That rule is repeated over and over throughout the book.

the universal destination of goods: ‘God destined the earth and all it contains for all men and all peoples so that all created things would be shared fairly by all mankind under the guidance of justice tempered by charity’ (CSD §171, italics in original; boldface added).

The point to understand here is the definition of what the universal destination of goods actually is.

This principle is not opposed to the right to private property but indicates the need to regulate it. Private property, in fact, regardless of the concrete forms of the regulations and juridical norms relative to it, is in its essence only an instrument for respecting the principle of the universal destination of goods; in the final analysis, therefore, it is not an end but a means (CSD §177; emphasis added).

Private property, says the Compendium, is a means for achieving the end of the universal destination of goods. It must never be reckoned an end in itself. Part of what this means is implied in our first quotation above, from §171: the rights of private property must be tempered by charity. I do not have the right given to me by the Creator to accumulate as much of this world’s goods as I possibly can. I have the right to sufficient property to provide a decent living for myself. Beyond that, as the CSD quotes Pope St. Gregory the Great:

When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice. (CSD §184)

In short, the right to private property does not give me the right to more than my family and I need for a decent living. The rest belongs by right to the poor. Now of course one may fairly ask: what is a “decent living”? But on the flip side one may also ask: does a decent living consist in living in mean huts, eating dirt (as they do in Haiti), and being subject to exposure, starvation, and pestilence?

The right to private property is subordinated to the principle of the universal destination of goods and must not constitute a reason for impeding the work or development of others (CSD §282).

I suppose it is worth observing the obvious fact that the criticisms here apply to me no less than to most folks in the fabulously wealthy West. The question is not whether they apply to me or not; the question is: how do I respond to these criticisms? If I have more than I need for a decent living (and I daresay that I do), what am I going to do about it? The CSD provides a foundation (and even somewhat of a framework, really; but we have not looked at that) for answering the question. My surplus belongs by right to the poor.

The question I still have, and for which I remember no answer in the CSD is: what exactly constitutes a decent living? I am perfectly willing to live within such parameters, but what are they? I am sure that in a certain sense the question answers itself, at least in part. Whatever a decent living is, it is undeniable that a simply huge number of people in the world do not have it. So perhaps at least a part of the answer to the question is a follow-up question: why on earth am I worrying about that when there are people EATING DIRT in order to survive? Am I a dirt eater? If not, then maybe I need to think about just exactly how my resources are allocated.

There he goes

My friend Jason is asking some tough questions about some Reformed articles of faith. The Reformed may brush him off, but I do not see how they can pretend his criticisms have no teeth. The very best that they can do by way of answer is either appeal to their hermeneutical tradition (which is question-begging) or appeal to letting Scripture interpret Scripture. But in one of his posts Jason does exactly that, and things do not turn out so well for the Reformed, I think. The very act of letting Scripture interpret Scripture is fraught with baggage that never goes through the X-ray machines at the airport, and never gets searched either. The assumption behind the act is that we let the “easy” parts of the Bible guide us in the interpretation of the “hard” parts. Unfortunately what I think is easy and obvious may be something that you find obscure (and vice versa). We do not have a guide book that tells us which parts of the Bible are the official “easy ones” and so any specific attempt at letting Scripture interpret Scripture ultimately boils down to one of two things: either it is purely ad hoc and no one has any principled basis for accepting it, or it is done in terms of a presupposed hermeneutical framework or tradition. But this latter alternative is question begging, for it assumes the legitimacy of the underlying tradition, and I have no inclination (nor any good reasons) for granting any of the various Protestant traditons the benefit of the doubt. So as I see it, Jason’s questions are genuine posers for the Reformed.