Showing posts with label theology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label theology. Show all posts

2.11.14

Why "All Souls Day" Has a Special Place in My Heart



Poets in Limbo (1890), Gustav Doré
All Souls Day gets little attention compared with yesterday's feast of All Saints and the eve prior to All Saints popularly called Halloween.

As a secular Catholic — or whichever epithet you prefer to call me (I prefer "Cajun Queen") — there is a special place in my heart for All Souls Day.


I think All Souls Day must have a place for me.


21.10.11

Blaise Pascal On The Contradictory Nature of Human Beings

What follows is a short analysis of fragments 164, 19, 142, and 80 from Blaise Pascal's philosophical work Pensées.
 “What a chimera is man! What a novelty, what chaos, what a subject  of contradiction.”- Blaise Pascal, Pensées (1657-58)  

Beginnings: Fragment 164 of Pascal's Pensées


Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
Let us begin with fragment 164 of the Pensées where Pascals likens human beings to a freakish chimera, an amalgam of different natures: a monster with the combination of lion's head, goat's body, and a serpent's tail (p. 41). Pascal's thesis is the human condition is contradictory in nature. Subjectivity emerges out of conflict. Knowledge emerges out of paradox. A "cesspool of uncertainty" and "storehouse of truth," the modern subject is a novelty and a monster, the "glory and reject of the universe" (p. 41). "Man is beyond man," Pascal writes (p. 42). In his ability to see himself as mere man, as finite, contingent, yet uniquely novel and independent, man is able to transcend himself through self-awareness. But, as we will see, despite the human capacity to reflect on our own condition we become distracted by the banal and mundane and are bored easily. We often prefer distraction to thinking but we realize that through thinking we are little more than the animals but less than the gods. What makes us who we are as humans is an oscillation back and forth between our greatness and our wretchedness, our distractibility and our insightfulness; in effect, we are a mixture of sense, natural reason, and the ways of the heart.

Pascal and Montaigne

The truth of man's condition is not revealed solely by natural reason nor is it based on dogmatic assertions. Similar to Montaigne, Pascal argues truth is "neither within our grasp nor is it our target" (p. 42). Truth lies in the lap of God. For Pascal to be a skeptic is to deny incarnate nature. To be a dogmatist is to "repudiate reason." For Pascal, the answer lies somewhere in between these two, between nature and reason.
     The incarnation is a key theological point for Pascal (barely mentioned by Montaigne). Jesus is an ideal concept for Pascal, both fully human and fully divine, "begotten not made," "one in being with the Father." Christ is the new man - a manifestation of man as he would have been in his preternatural state. Because of original sin, ordinary man has lost his divinity except for a fragmentary shard which still remains. Unlike Christ, who revealed himself as God through his divine humanity, Man is a shard of a lost divinity; his greatness lies in his lack, his wretchedness. Pascal’s uncanny psychological insight gleaned from a traditional Catholic Christology becomes a radical statement on the human condition. Man's greatness lies in his capacity to recognize his wretchedness. Unlike a tree man is endowed with a capacity to both recognize his futility and simultaneously derive greatness from it. When Pascal writes, "Within this gnarled chasm lie the twists and turns of our condition," he is acknowledging man's in-betweenness (p. 43). Our animality is mechanistic and made redeemable through the operation of grace, a concept Pascal employs to explain how man is able to understand God at all. Grace makes man "as if on the level of God, participating in his divinity." Without grace we would be "deemed equivalent of brute beasts" (p. 43).
This is the copy of the text
I used to write this post.

Man Doesn't Know What Level to Put Himself

In fragment 19 Pascal says man's quandary is that he does not know what level to put himself (p. 8). Resonating with later existential themes concomitant with Kierkegaard or early existential writing, Pascal paints a modern picture of man lost and unable to find himself. Pascal modifies Augustine's thought that man is restless until he rests in God by stating man is restless and looks for God in “impenetrable darkness” (p. 8). We are neither Protagoras's ideal of "man is the measure of all things" nor are we the scum of the earth, either. We are thinking scum. What makes human beings great is the capacity to acknowledge our fallible, fallen nature. Pascal writes, evoking the Psalmist: we are a "thinking reed". Our wretchedness is a "felix culpa" (happy fault).
Pascal writes, "...without this most incomprehensible of all mysteries we are incomprehensible to ourselves" (p. 43). The oracle of Delphi with its inscription "know thyself" is too naive for Pascal nor is the promise of idle distraction the answer either. Reason cannot untangle the mystery of our wretched human condition, Pascal contends, but through "simple submission" can "we truly know ourselves" (p. 43). Humility is crucial for knowledge. Humility is counter to the claim of an all-encompassing logos that can know everything. Pascal equates total submission to logos as hubris. Access to knowledge does not depend on mental acuity or even keen understanding, but possession of a "humble heart and [those] who embrace lowliness" (p. 7).

Our Entire Knowledge is Not Made Uncertain

Pascal argues in fragment 142 that reason is not enough. Just because reason reveals the fallible nature of the mind, Pascal insists that "our entire knowledge is not made uncertain." Pascal is not a skeptic in the negative sense. He does not distrust reason outright. It is rather that he sees reason as part of the larger story of what constitutes thinking. The ancient skeptics taught we cannot know reality. Montaigne's skepticism is suspicion of scholasticism while Pascal is a skeptic of univocal reason. Reason, Pascal claims does not have to reveal knowledge of first principles: time, space, numbers, etc. We know first principles through the heart (p. 35). The "reasons of the heart" ground knowledge. Pascal's concern is faith in empirical reason. A plank wide enough to hold a philosopher yet suspended over a precipice will be unable to quell panic and -- "his imagination will prevail" -- and he will go pale and start sweating (p. 17). Even with the certainty of clear and distinct reason, we become powerless when our imagination takes over. 

Everyone Should Study their Thoughts

In fragment 80 Pascal writes that "Everyone should study their thoughts," but he leaves the impression, apparent in the immediacy and the urgency of his prose style, that humanity has not taken thinking seriously. Our reading for today ends with disappointment in humanity: "How hollow and full of filth man's heart is" (p. 49). Pascal is keen to see how diversion and distraction intertwine and disrupt a path to knowledge (see fragments 170, 171, and in other places).
Diversion is a promise of happiness man makes for himself. Man knows he is not a God. He knows he is mortal. In spite of this, man still wants to be happy; so he entertains himself. Man cannot stop himself from wanting to be happy even though he knows he is wretched so he chooses to not think about it: "Not having been able to conquer death, wretchedness, or ignorance, men have decided to stop himself from thinking about it" (p. 44). We are equally incapable of either absolute happiness or total access to truth. Pascal's diagnosis is man lives in despair. Pining for happiness, man searches for it through distraction and diversion. Yet he remains hollow and empty. The task of giving up diversion is likened to a king who has many courtiers filling up his empty moments. A king left alone would think. If we removed duty, preoccupation, diversion, distraction, and work from man he would "then see and think" about himself, removed from superfluous duty man would think about what he is, where he comes from, and where he is going" (p. 49).

References

Pascal, Blaise, Honor Levi, and Blaise Pascal. Pensées and Other Writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth, Adult Education, Homeschooler, Not Grade Specific - TeachersPayTeachers.com

19.7.07

Generosity as Gift of Self: Short Reflection Written Before Hurricane Ivan Made Landfall

I recently took the Carrollton streetcar to grab a bite to eat at a restaurant on St. Charles Avenue the night before hurricane Ivan skirted Louisiana. In New Orleans, everything is usually open, all the time, so it was unusual to see places boarded up and the streets bereft of people. The place I found was the only place open, besides bars, so I got a seat for one and sat down with a book. No sooner had I sat down, when a woman’s voice above me asked, “What book are you reading?” For a brief second, I was surprised at being interrupted, but I looked up and told her; she asked me if I would not mind eating with her and her boyfriend. For a second I hesitated, but then said, “sure” and joined the couple. It was a delightful supper, replete with redfish, red wine, and delectable conversation.

24.4.05

A response to a new pope

The following is a brief response to 
newly elected to the papal throne.
Ratzinger squashes individuality; Roberts questions his rash stamp-out.
Papal Conclave, photo credit: reuters

 
It is true; the church is not immune to the laws of human nature, but according to the church, strict individualism that is separated from objective truth, that attempts to construct its own truth denies human nature.  Roberts champions individuality, the freedom to express one's point of view, to be an individual; Ratzinger sees individuality as a threat, liable to "dissent," tantamount, for him, to infidelity.  
Is individualism to be respected? - or seen as a suspicious slight to Christianity? Has modern individuality silenced human communication with the gods?
 

We are individuals, unique beings created in the image and likeness of God.  God gave us a mind and a heart so we should use it to stumble upon goodness and truth.  I disagree with  Cokie and Steven's use of the word "condemn"; It is not true that this pontiff condemns individuality, but he and his predecessor worry that unbridled individuality separated from truth will cause more damage than good in this world. I can see unbridled individuality divorced from reason as a poison, like an inexperienced student who thinks they know more than the teacher, but really they know nothing, or the kid who spouts out ideology his parents taught him rather than speak for himself.

But, I disagree with Ratzinger more; It is not true that individuality serves only "ego and desires".  The Church needs to realize that individuality is not going away, and maybe honor individuality a little more (just like the Copernican Revolution never went away) and the rest of the world needs to realize that objective truth and goodness should never be separated from individual conscience.

1.3.05

Theology: On Augustine and Pelagius

A Review of Gerald Bonner on Augustine and Pelagius

        Gerald Bonner has written extensively on the Pelagian Controversy in books and scholarly articles. Two chapters of his book on Augustine are dedicated to the Pelagian controversy. He also has two later articles on the subject in Augustinian Studies, “Pelagianism and Augustine,” a two-part series.  Also, his article “Rufinus of Syria and African Pelagianism” in the same journal is worth reading.  In these writings, Bonner writes on the origins of Pelagianism, not as a negative force in the church but rather as a positive movement that had intentions of building up, not destroying.  Bonner’s thesis is that if we begin from this positive point of view then, in the end, we can see if there are negative attributes of Pelagianism.[1]  It is a certain methodology Bonner follows: to start from “seeing what is right” about the Pelagians to a conclusion about what may be wrong about their positions; how they themselves would have looked at their movement, from the inside out, not outside in.[2]
        The problem is that we view Pelagianism through the lens of Augustine which distorts what Pelagianism actually stood for.  Looking back at a centuries-old problem, we can fail to see the man who began it all, Pelagius himself.  What did Pelagius actually say and what has been merely been attributed to him?  This is the task of the historian, to be as objective as she can be in the presentation of the facts, to steer clear from any biased retelling of history as far as possible and to sometimes relook history from the lens of another key figure.  In this case, let us look at the Pelagian controversy through Pelagius’ eyes rather than Augustine.  Of course, this task is never perfect; for, even the historian, merely reporting the story, informs history from their own vantage point, not only personal vantage point but the perspective of her time in history, the culture the historian writes from and the intent of the article.  Bonner is suggesting that history has been in favor of Augustine; so, do we get any new insights taking a retrospective look in the shoes of Pelagius?  

The Life of Pelagius

        From 408 - 431 are the years of Pelagianism, but it must be remembered that Pelagianism was not like other theological movements that found disfavor in the church because it was a local phenomenon and not systemic to the entire church at the time.  It basically sprung up in Rome, northern Africa and other pockets of Europe where Pelagius’ followers traveled.[3]   Bonner calls the modern retelling of Pelagianism “the demolition of what may be called the monolithic view of Pelagianism”.[4]   Nascent Pelagianism was not as grand a scheme as people make it out to be. Really, it is Augustine who brought the teachings of Pelagius into more universal awareness.  If it were not for Augustine’s extensive writings against Pelagius we probably would not know about it, but because Augustine spoke out against it so vehemently it has stood the test of time.[5]       
        In 408 Pelagius first comes onto the stage in Rome.  It arose first in aristocratic circles of women in Rome because Pelagius was a spiritual advisor to many women there. Demetrias, the daughter of Anicia Faltonia Proba.  Melania the Younger. All devout women of high rank -- like Jerome before him Pelagius courted single, young women of the bourgeoisie.[6]     About 410, around the same time as the Donatist movement (which is closely related to Pelagianism, sometimes confused with one another) is when Augustine began to preach against Pelagius.  Actually, in 415 The synod at Diospolis declared the writings of Pelagius to be orthodox but in 417 Pelagius was condemned in Rome.  The final stake in the Pelagian coffin was in 418 at the Council of Carthage, with over two hundred bishops under Augustine's leadership, Pope Zosimus pronounced Pelagianism heretical.[7] 
        Pelagius was a monk (although it is not quite clear whether he really was a monk or not) from the present day British Isles and came to Rome where most of his influence was felt; he was well-educated with “a profound knowledge of the bible” so he attracted the higher echelon of female society in Rome.[8]   He was probably born in the latter half of the of the fourth century.  He is different from other infamous dissidents in that there are no scandalous accounts attributed to his name, no grisly tales, and lecherous behavior: He did not die a horrible death, nor was he accused of licentious behavior with the young.[9]   Even Augustine, at one time, attested to his character.[10] Probably Pelagius was not searching for glory and fame; he was not a rabble-rouser dissident but actually a quiet man who tried to stay out of the public eye as much as he could and avoided publicity.[11] Augustine was quite pastoral in his letters to Pelagius which were later used to conclude falsely that Augustine was favorable to Pelagius’ cause.[12]   It is good to note here that Pelagius himself was probably closer to the truth (to orthodoxy) than the followers who took up his name. The third council of Ephesus condemned Caelestius, not Pelagius, who was considered apart of the Pelagian party (but to call the Pelagians a party is misleading because there is no evidence to support that they represented a strongly connected band).[13]   Maybe in the eyes of Augustine, but in reality, the movement was much more provincial than widespread.  Sometimes we tout certain ideas as from Pelagius but when really they are words from his admirers, like Caelstius and Rufinus.[14]
Actually, this is true of many movements in the church.  Jansens is less Jansenistic than Jansenists. Luther was less a Lutheran than the Lutherans.  Pelagius himself did not deny the need for grace nor did he dismiss baptism as essential.[15] 

25.1.05

Review of the Papal Encyclical "Veritatis Splendor": John Paul II and Moral Theology

Book Cover of John Paul II's papal encyclical Veritatis Splendor (Splendor of Truth)
Veritatis Splendor is John Paul II's 
papal encyclical outlining the 
Catholic Church's moral teaching.
Why is Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor so hard on  "teleological", "consequentialist" and "proportionalist" ethical theories?
    John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor places emphasis on the good rooted in a divine, or eternal law.  In saying this he is advocating a moral system based on the principles of Natural Law Theory, even though in the encyclical he states that the Church does not support a particular theological or philosophical system, it is precisely natural law that he advocates in this encyclical.  The Pope doesn’t like the systems he calls “teleologismand “proportionalism”.  About Teleologism and Proportionalism, he says, “Such theories however are not faithful to the Church's teaching, when they believe they can justify, as morally good, deliberate choices of kinds of behavior contrary to the commandments of the divine and natural law.” So, again, it seems John Paul II doesn’t like it when a moral system does not place commandment over love, for example, or personal responsibility.  It makes sense that he would argue in this manner, considering the Gospel passage he chose to set the stage for this encyclical, the story of the rich young man, which he uses to set up the standard for moral norms.  The Pope wants to place certain ethical norms in place, based on an ethics of divine commandment.
Using "Object - Act - Consequence" When Evaluating Moral Decision-Making
     The Pope tries to work out a system that claims certain actions are evil, because their objects, in of themselves are evil. He claims that the so called proportionalist and teleological systems do not claim the “object” of an act  such as contraception  as evil in of itself, but instead attempt to examine the intention or circumstances of the act, invariably “letting people off the hook”.  For the Pope, an evil act is evil, regardless of the circumstances or intentions. For example, contraception is evil, because the object of preventing life to form in a woman’s womb artificially is always an intrinsically evil act  even though in Humane Vitae, Paul VI tried very hard to steer clear from such wording, the Pope seems to have no qualms in doing so.
Is There a Middle Ground in Moral Teaching that Still Stays True to Catholic Teaching?       
    It seems to me that instead of point-blank condemning these moral systems the right thing to do would be able to form some kind of compromise between the two or to discover a moral theologian that seems to be able to form a really good systems based on something rather than the object in of itself and still remain true to Catholic teaching.  I myself do not consider myself a proponent of Natural Law. I am too Platonic, too much of a Romantic, to get into the Aristotelian flavored ethics of Thomas. Although, it seems to me the Pope should be more like Thomas in attempting to incorporate “pagan” ideas into Christian thought.  Maybe there is something good out there that we really have not integrated well into our Catholic moral teaching. If Thomas could do what he did with Aristotle, why can’t we do the same with Existentialism  or even Phenomenology?
Billboard in front of Canadian Memorial Centre for Peace
Should the Church's moral teaching be more open or closed?
  
Are All Immoral Acts Equal Evil?
     The Pope is a phenomenologist, I understand, but this encyclical does not seem to be written in a phenomenological vein, instead, it is much more steeped in the language of law and norms, especially in regards to sexual ethics. Wouldn’t it be okay to sanction certain objectively evil acts?  Doesn’t the church in a way use proportionalism when it attempts to justify war? I may be wrong, but it seems that the Pope is unyielding when it comes to matters of sexual ethics, when in fact, the parable of the rich young man is more about wealth. There seems to be a trend in moral theology that condemns without reserve evil acts such as abortion but allows wiggle room for war and deportation, for example. Again, I believe we should be able to reach a compromise.
On Some Criticisms
      When I read Veritatis Splendor I also read Häring’s criticism in the Tablet.  I also looked at op-ed pieces that were written at the same time and was amazed at the flood of criticism.  Melina is right; most of the critics focused on chapter two of the encyclical, the part about the sources of Moral of Theology and intrinsic evil and not on the other chapters.  Chapter two of the encyclical is the most important part of the encyclical, I agree, but Melina argues that the document should be looked at in its entirety.  Melina wants renewal in Moral Theology too, new Gospel wine, a new, comprehensive outlook yet profoundly traditional (6).  Melina knows that one cannot get rid of the the moral norms but at the same time he realizes that morality should not be governed by a legalism so prevalent in older systems.  There has been a “rupture of the bond between freedom and truth” and there is a crisis in Moral Theology.
     The subject has been fractured and takes on the guise of whatever social environment it finds itself in.  The fractured “I” is not truly free because it is bound to the truths of disconnected moral systems, never really able to “become a free subject of action”.  He points a finger at the bourgeois society of the “rich young man” as the result of the shipwreck in morality.  He also sees technology as destructive to man when disconnected from conscience.  He quotes Heidegger and Rabelais.  Our computers and super-fast jets are nothing without conscience.  I passionately believe this; that technology can remove us from a “connect”, not only from a guiding conscience but from the connect of the other as well, thus a disconnect from God.  I am reminded of Fahrenheit 451, the novel about a dystopia where firefighters burn books to keep people from thinking and feeling.  Maybe there needs to be an embrace of the more profound questions of human existence, rather than just “What must I do”?   

       How is Melina going to recontextualize Moral Theology yet remain profoundly traditional?  It seems he is going to bring in the virtues to put together the pieces of the shattered ego.  I don’t know how he is going to do this, but noticing that he has already quoted Alistair McIntyre (After Virtue) and C.S. Lewis and Aristotle in the first thirty-three pages I can see that Virtue Ethics will play a large role in resurrecting the fragile “I”, the wounded subject that seems to be the cause of the crisis in Moral Theology.  He will also bring in the necessity of community in creating a moral realm that is aesthetic and good.  Beauty is necessary for salvation, I believe.  Beauty is the splendor of truth.  If we lose the beautiful then we have lost humanity.  If we lose the community, the need for friends, that Aristotle so beautifully wrote about in the Nichomachean Ethics, then humanity will surely be at lost, no matter how technologically advanced we become.  Melina asks a beautiful question that I hope he expounds upon: “What kind of community will help me to attain the values to which I am called”.  I get frustrated in thinking about what I should do; I am asked about what I do in my life, so much so, that I wish sometimes people would ask me, ‘how will you attain the values to which you are called’?  There has to be a return to the virtues, to an aesthetic, and a re-tethering of freedom and truth, I agree and the moral life must find a home.   
      But, still, I wonder what he means by remaining profoundly traditional?  He mentions that he is going to address the nexus between freedom and truth, which may bring a profoundly traditional Moral Theology, yet, still I do not know what he means by that statement.  He is also going to bring in the connection between faith and morality.  I can see how this will also be profoundly traditional because Melina does not want the attitude of faith lost to morality; he wants to affirm that to believe is also a profoundly moral assertion.  So, I hope that these books provide some insights into bringing back the human family, so we can more authentically say to one another, “What?  You too?  I thought that no one but myself  ...” (32).

7.12.04

Theology: Reflection on the Vatican II Document Sacrosanctum Concilium

Second Vatican Council convenes in St. Peter's Basilica
It has been over thirty years since the Vatican Council began, since the renewal of the liturgy and the subsequent changes that have affected Catholic worship as we know it was first set into motion. I was born in 1979, more than a decade after these changes. I grew up knowing nothing different than the Mass that I know today, in the vernacular, which for me was the familiar language of English. I only know Mass where the priest faces the people, not the other way around.
     Little did I know as a boy in Catholic grammar school that the liturgy and worship of my time and place had had a long and tumultuous history, a journey spanning two millennia, from the the breaking of the bread recorded in Acts (2:2), to the Greek concept of koinonia, the Orthodox liturgy of the East, to the dramatic Papal displays of Medieval Europe to the Tridentine Mass so familiar to a whole generation of Catholics who came before me.
     So, reading the document on the liturgy from the Council today, more than three decades later, is very interesting, because it is important to go back to the source of what changed dramatically a liturgy that had been practically unchanged since the Council of Trent. What has really changed and what has really stayed the same? What did this document have to say and how have we been faithful to it in our interpretations?

11.7.04

Of Carmelites and African Greys

Brother Gabriel Rivet, OSB
In a mostly abandoned seminary building I climb a flight of stairs, pass two meowing cats and knock on the door of an old prefect’s office to rendezvous (as I do every Saturday afternoon) with Gabriel Rivet, a monk of Saint Joseph Abbey, a Benedictine monastery on the outskirts of Covington, Louisiana, a bedroom community of New Orleans. The office is musty, retired parrot feathers garner the air and there is a strong scent of vegetables, parrot mix and the lulling hum of daytime television. “Mostly to entertain her,” Gabriel tells me pointing to the African Grey who does, in fact, seem to be watching TV, her head cocked to one side, intent, soaking it all in. Newspapers line the bottom of Jocko’s cage, old Times Picayunes and church bulletins; Br. Gabriel is exceedingly insistent that I place three layers of print to cover Jocko’s cage and to make sure I secure the edges with scotch tape. While he prepares Jocko’s egg – a treat the avian companion gets every afternoon – we talk about Saint Thérèse, Saint Benedict and monasticism. “You want your egg, Jocko?” Gabriel croons, motioning to the bird with a plate he places on top of the cage. Jocko knows the routine and determinedly climbs up to eat her fill of the yellow yolk. Usually, the monk, who will celebrate his fiftieth year of monastic profession this summer, offers me the white of the egg. “It’s not good for her. No nutritional value.”