No peace for individualists

Quoth the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church:

Those who proclaim themselves to be the sole measure of realities and of truth cannot live peacefully in society with their fellow men and cooperate with them. (CSDC §142)

Truth is one because reality is one; a given proposition is true to the extent that it conforms to what is. Consequently when men differ over truth, they are differing over more than trifles. They find themselves at odds over the way the world really is.

Now how can two such men live together peacably in the long run? The splintering of societies and fellowships amply testifies to the difficulties of these disagreements.

This is why it is so important for Christians to agree about doctrine, and why our failure to do so has spawned the fractured Christianity of our day. If we cannot agree about the truth, we cannot agree about the way things really are. If we cannot agree about them ourselves, why should any non-Christian believe anything that we say about Jesus?

We do not have the final say about the truth. Our consciences do not rule the day when it comes to how the world is. It’s the exact opposite: we have to think about the world rightly by conforming our thoughts to the way the world really is, and when it comes to supernatural things — the stuff of theology and revelation and dogma — the only way that we can hope to be in the truth is by believing what God has revealed (since by definition the supernatural transcends our natural powers of discernment).

We do not get to decide what God has said; I do not stand as an arbiter of supernatural truth. For this we need the help of the Church, to which God has vouchsafed His revelation. When we accept the Church’s authority about supernatural things we can be at one in our beliefs. There is no other possible means for unity about spiritual things, about supernatural things.

Individualism by its very nature fractures the unity of both spiritual and natural communion. This is why the Church warns us against it in the Compendium.

The Human Race is not a Competition

You wouldn’t know it from the way we sometimes behave, but it’s not about winners and losers. Love your neighbor; don’t compete with him for who has the fanciest yard or car or house or whatever. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; don’t trample people underfoot, don’t treat them as things to be used and then discarded when they’re used up or when they have served your purpose for them.

New Mother Nature

I type this on a new Chromebook. I have had splendid success over the years with destroying more expensive computers, so I opted for something less costly and yet completely external to the Microsoft ecosystem (which I do not like). So far I like it. There are some new things to learn, but the machine is zippy and has a decent variety of software tools. I haven’t had it for very long, but after just a few days I can heartily commend Chromebooks to others as an alternative to Microsoft and Apple.

Aquinas is Awesome

Unabashed Aquinas fanboy here. I could prattle on and on about the triumph that is the Summa Theologiae, a massive work that is astonishing for its lucidity, erudition, coherence, and comprehensiveness, or about the sheer brilliance of the Summa Contra Gentiles, an amazing extended argument for the truth of the Christian Faith. These are the works he is most famous for, and that is not unjust.

But St. Thomas was not just a brilliant theologian and philosopher. He was also a great commentator. I have been privileged to read a few of his commentaries on the works of Aristotle, and they are extraordinarily great helps in understanding The Philosopher. These commentaries also include some gems of his own wisdom from time to time, and it is one of these that I would like to present for your enjoyment today.

Secondly, we must keep in mind that certain “anomalies,” i.e., irregularities, appear with respect to the motions of the planets. For the planets seem to be now swifter, now slower, now stationary, now retrogressing. Now this does not seem to be appropriate to heavenly motions, as is evident from what has been said above. Therefore, Plato first proposed this problem to an astronomer of his time, named Eudoxus, who tried to reduce these irregularities to a right order by assigning diverse motions to the planets; a project also undertaken by later astronomers in various ways. Yet it is not necessary that the various suppositions which they hit upon be true – for although these suppositions save the appearances, we are nevertheless not obliged to say that these suppositions are true, because perhaps there is some other way men have not yet grasped by which the things which appear as to the stars are saved. Aristotle nevertheless uses suppositions of this kind, in what regards the quality of the motions, as true (Commentary on de Caelo §451; emphasis added).

Where to start?

In the first place it is worth repeating that Aquinas and Aristotle (among others) knew that the Earth is a sphere. It is a fiction to say that Columbus held groundbreaking notions about the planet’s shape. There is, I suspect, not mere ignorance but also a certain conceit in the modern error about ancient opinion about this: as though we are so much smarter than those Bronze Age and medieval dunces. Wrong-o. Yes, they lacked technology, but their brains were plenty well practiced to figure this stuff out.

The second thing to notice is that they knew the motions of the planets were a problem for their astronomy. Aristotle did, as he wrote in De Caelo, but Aquinas goes farther. Where Aristotle was willing to accede to the opinions of the astronomers of his day, Aquinas was only willing to do so provisionally. In other words, he accepted the geocentric model advanced by astronomers but immediately points out that their theory is only one explanation of the movements of the planets. There may be others, he says, which might do the job as well or maybe even better.

And this is today’s reason why Aquinas is awesome. He correctly distinguished astronomy from both theology and revelation, and seems almost to guess that a better explanation than the Ptolemaic one might exist. In the interim, he accepts the results of astronomy as far as they go. St. Thomas was not dogmatic when the facts did not support dogma, and the fact is that astronomy is not theology. It is not revelation. There may be improvements in the theories astronomers would someday formulate, and St. Thomas was able to see and accept this fact.

Another point that might be worth making is that his view separates Aristotle’s philosophy from the contemporary astronomy of their respective times. Astronomy and philosophy are separate things, and to disprove the science of his day or of Aristotle’s is a completely different thing from disproving their philosophy. The latter still stands as a towering achievement.

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?