Friday, January 30, 2004

The difficulty of talking about evil in a Manichaean world

Why is it that people get so upset when they or something they like is called "evil?" Why do they take it personally?

Recently in a forum for Byzantine Catholics, we have been discussing whether or not our churches should tear out the pews. See, the Byzantine liturgy is designed for a room where people can move, walk around, do prostrations, and go venerate icons as they desire. To put pews into such a church is to handicap the Liturgy. We can still do it, but not as easily.

One eager young man started the discussion by calling pews "heretical" and "evil." Others complained, saying that their parents and grandparents who built the pews weren't evil. Now, those who were offended have doubly missed the point. To say that pews are evil isn't to say that those who installed them were evil. But to say that pews are evil isn't even, really, to say that they are evil.

We live in a world that when it acknowledges evil, can only think of it in Manichaean (Star Warsian) terms. There is Good, and there is Evil. Both are existent powers that fight. There are those who fight for good, and there are those like Hitler or Martha Stewart who are warriors for evil, Pure Evil.

The problem is that there really isn't any such thing as pure evil. Do a thought experiment: what would pure evil be like? Is it intelligent? Oops, intelligence is good. Is it brave? Bravery is good too. Is it tenacious? Sorry, that's good also. Does it exist? Existence is good. Pure evil can't exist, except as a parasite on good.

When theologians and philosophers use the word "evil", what we usually mean is "a privation of good." Evil is a lack of something that ought to be there. It is like a pothole: a gap in the pavement, or a spot where pavement should be. But the evil itself doesn't exist. You can't scoop up potholes and throw them in the back of your pickup, after all.

So, if something like pews, or Marty Haugen's music, or a homosexual orientation is described as an objective evil, what we don't mean is that pews or Haugen or homosexually oriented people are signed up in Satan's army. What we mean is that they aren't as good as they should be.

An Eastern church that has pews can be a marvelous church. But what we are arguing is that it is not as good as it could be, since the Liturgy of John Chrysostom can be prayed better in an open space.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Kids dig God

I am teaching a class on Aquinas and Duns Scotus, and we were going over the five ways to prove God's existence yesterday. We got to talking about God's eternity versus the temporal succession of events in the world, and how all evens are present to God, and I was very amused to see students looking up to the ceiling and exhaling in thought and wonder.

As Aquinas says, following Aristotle, even a little knowledge about the highest things is better than lots of knowledge about lower things. A little bit of good theology is a wonderful thing.

I always forget that Amy Welborn is southern

until I hear her on the radio.


I got my copies of Duns Scotus' commentaries on Aristotle's Metaphysics today. Lots of good chunky scholastic Latin to wade through.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

Why are men always stupid?

In commercials, especially. My pastor pointed out that if you watch television commercials, almost without exception, the man is portrayed as a buffoon. Think about it. When is the last time a man was presented as a good father and provider?

In fact, if you do watch television, watch it with a squint: see if you can discover the patterns at work. Not only are men always stupid, but women are almost invariably reduced to their sexuality. Children are few and sardonic. One might even think that there was a plot afoot to destroy the family.

Oh wait. There is. It started in Eden.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Did I mention that I'm teaching Medieval Philosophy (Aquinas) this year?

What fun! I like teaching introductory classes, but teaching one of one's main areas of interest is a real joy. Today we're going to go over the table of contents of the Summa and then prove that God exists. What could be better?

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Remember how I said we're all blind?

Look at this picture:

It's not what you think. It isn't a heartfelt note from a woman who has given her child up for adoption, but is a note from a woman who has had an abortion!

My mind boggles. In what universe is this kind of moral thinking rational? "I can't take care of my kid, which I believe is a kid, and to whom I write notes, so I will kill the child?" How could anyone possibly think that way?

It's one thing to support abortion if you obstinately refuse to admit the humanity of the child. It is unbelievable that anyone would do it who writes love notes to the child!

We must stop abortion. It's making people insane, unable to see what's right in front of their faces.

Click here for link

Thanks to Kevin at HMS Blog for the story.

Monday, January 19, 2004

We're all blind

The gospel reading for us Byzantines this past Sunday was the story of the blind man outside Jericho. I don't remember which of the Synoptic versions we used, but they are very similar. Here is Luke's version:

As he drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging;
and hearing a multitude going by, he inquired what this meant.
They told him, "Jesus of Nazareth is passing by."

Consider the blind man. Is this story merely a tale about a miraculous cure? I don't think so. Think about the blind man in connection with Matt 5:8: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. If you are pure of heart, you will see, but what if you aren't pure of heart? Isn't it reasonable to suppose that if purity causes vision, sin causes blindness?

When one sins, one no longer sees the world as it is, as God made it, but one sees the world through sin-colored glasses. When sin becomes a habit, one's whole world-view can be distorted in order to make that sin seem good. For example, consider Andrew Sullivan's well-known illogic on matters of sexual morality and faith. He looks at the world, but sees only what his sins allow him to see. Or consider so-called conservative Catholics who love God, but do not see that such love demands action for the sake of the poor, or even (God forbid) a substantial contribution to their church. All is viewed through the narrow blinders of market economics. Sin is blinding.

The sinner cannot see the world clearly. But think about the blind man in the story again. He can't see, but he is not entirely insensate. He can still hear, and notices the commotion of the crowd. He hears that Jesus is passing by. Just as the blind man can hear Jesus, so the man blinded by sin can hear the Gospel proclaimed.

Note, however, that the blind man makes no long prayers, no specific demands. Even if he made such demands and got them (for wealth or power, or prosperity) he is still too blind to make good use of them. He asks the only thing he can "Son of David, have mercy on me!" Lord, you know what I need, whereas I don't.

And he cried, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"
And those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent; but he cried out all the more, "Son of David, have mercy on me!"

How appropriate, how timely that the man seeking aid from God must fight against those who think such concern for one's soul is rude

And Jesus stopped, and commanded him to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him,
"What do you want me to do for you?" He said, "Lord, let me receive my sight."
And Jesus said to him, "Receive your sight; your faith has made you well."
And immediately he received his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.

The man asks for his sight to be restored--surely this represents for us the restoration of purity in our hearts, that allows us to see the world as it is, without the blinders of sin.

This story represents the core of Eastern spirituality, I think. We are lost in a culture of sin and death, blind to the true dignity of both man and creation, but we hear the marvelous news proclaimed to us that God is with us. Our response can only properly be "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of David, have mercy on me a sinner!"

P.S. Let me make a scientific suggestion to prove that sin makes you blind, and purity makes you free. Go to confession. Go every week for a month or so. Make every effort to remain perfectly in a state of grace. Continually ask God to have mercy on you. Then note how different your perceptions of your fellow man are. See how the world looks. See God!

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Adventures in Ecumenism

I'm adding a link to Karl Thienes' "St. Stephen's Musings," an Orthodox blog of note.

I wanted to add this link with much fanfare and a thoughtful analysis of things Orthodox and Catholic, but I have not the time. Let me sum up:

1) Although I am firmly convinced of the validity of the claims of the pope of Rome, I am also firmly convinced that we need the Orthodox. Christianity is incomplete without Eastern Christianity.
2) Although I love Orthodox spirituality (and live it in my own Ruthenian Catholic parish), the Orthodox need us. They need the office of Peter to be exercised for them, to heal schisms and protect the faith.
3) Our ecumenical efforts should be spent less on reaching out to Anglicans, Lutherans, Baptists, and Evangelicals, and more on reaching out to Orthodoxy. Mainline Protestantism needs evangelization with true New Testament Christianity more than it needs ecumenism. Rome needs to turn East.
4) Our evangelization of our Protestant brethren will be more succesful if Eastern Christianity is more prominent, since it is clearly a Gospel Church, with Apostolic succession and true sacraments, but without all the historical entanglements that turn off so many Protestants to anything "Romish" or "Popish."
5) We should drop the filioque. It is true as Catholics understand it, but it is out of place in the creed and a barrier to reunion.

There's more, but it is late. Let me close by saying I hope to live long enough to see the great Reunion Council. Perhaps another Council of Constantinople? Or maybe Moscow would be a good place to hold it? Christ prayed that we all be one. May it happen!

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

We should all be monks

For Advent, my pastor recommended all in the parish read a book called "The Mountain of Silence," which is a sympathetic look at the spirituality of monks in Cyprus and Mt. Athos. I heartily recommend it.

One thing you must understand about monks: they aren't weird. They aren't some sort of freaks. Rather, monasticism is a way to live more fully like Christ. It is a time-tested method for theosis, for sharing in the divine nature. Monks are not weird; if they are good monks, it is they who are sane and we who are weird. The regular cycle of prayer, silence, and work is a training regimen for spiritual perfection, and we all are supposed to seek spiritual perfection: You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matt 5:48).

So, what are we who are not monks to do? May I suggest adopting a bit of monastic discipline in your own life? Here are a few rules that Mrs. Athanasius and I have made in our house: 1) No television unless it is the weekend, or one is working out. (Of course, since we work out a lot, this is not much hardship. It is harder on me, since I am home on MWF.) 2) Read scripture together. We have begun to read the epistle for the day at the dinner table.

These are just a few simple rules, but already they provide the house with much more silence, and they also bring us together to pray and listen to the word of God at least once a day. The change has been remarkable.

Thinking of going into teaching?

I wouldn't. James 3:1: Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.


Sunday, January 11, 2004

Pray for me, will you?

A new semester is starting, and I will have a new batch of students, probably close to a hundred. I even have eleven students for Medieval Philosophy, which is delightful, but which will make it more difficult to have them do seminar papers.

Pray that I don't screw any of the students up too much.

Friday, January 09, 2004

Just Say Gno to Gnosticism!

I was browsing through my university's bookstore yesterday, and noticed that one of the Religious Studies professors (we don't have a theology department) has as assigned reading The Da Vinci Code.


I hope and pray that the book is being read simply to show what sort of silliness can happen when people look for the esoteric rather than the salvific. I will investigate further. If the professor is sympathetic to the book, I may have to send a copy of this.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

Howard Dean is Dumb

Candidate Dean, who may or may not have actually performed abortions, was asked about same sex marriages, and said that he supports legal unions, saying that his faith tells him to do so: "The overwhelming evidence is that there is very significant, substantial genetic component to it," Dean said in an interview Wednesday. "From a religious point of view, if God had thought homosexuality is a sin, he would not have created gay people."

Often the best way to show the absurdity of an argument is just to keep the form but change the terms. So, rather than explaining what sin really is, I'm just going to ridicule Dean. Here goes. what if he had said: "The overwhelming evidence is that there is very significant, substantial genetic component to it," Dean said in an interview Wednesday. "From a religious point of view, if God had thought promiscuity is a sin, he would not have created men."

Let's try again: "The overwhelming evidence is that there is very significant, substantial genetic component to it," Dean said in an interview Wednesday. "From a religious point of view, if God had thought drunkeness is a sin, he would not have created alcoholics."

One more? "The overwhelming evidence is that there is very significant, substantial genetic component to it," Dean said in an interview Wednesday. "From a religious point of view, if God had thought pederasty is a sin, he would not have created pedophiles."

Maybe one more. "The overwhelming evidence is that there is very significant, substantial genetic component to it," Dean said in an interview Wednesday. "From a religious point of view, if God had thought ignoring the poor is a sin, he would not have created greedy people."

The whole mystery of the Fall, to which Christianity is the answer, is that somehow human nature was damaged. Our feelings, whether genetically based or not, are simply not a good guide to behavior. If Dean's Christian faith brings him to the conclusion that there is no sin, then for what purpose did Christ come at all?

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Bene venias in paginas Nuntiorum Latinorum!

I can read two languages somewhat well, and three or four poorly. But it is difficult to keep up a language when one is not actively working in it. Thus, websites like this are useful. One reads the news every day already, so why not do it in Latin?

My wife had a dream

that she gave birth to a child at 11am, and then had a meeting at noon.

Such are the pressures of working motherhood. I've said it before (mostly to unthinking feminists, to get a rise out of them): if we are going to allow women in the workforce, we need to give them lots of parental leave.

On a related note, if anyone in the audience has a part-time somewhat lucrative job in the Chicago area for a very smart Northwestern MBA with experience in the banking field, lately working in corporate communications (designing annual stockholder reports), let me know.

Defacing the Book of Mormon?

Old Oligarch tells of an entertaining squabble with his wife, Zorak the Embittered Mantis.

Response from Mrs. Athanasius: "They're bigger nerds than we are!"

Me, I just steal fake scriptures when I find them in hotel rooms. I've got a book of Mormon and a Christian Science book on my shelf already.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

Did you ever notice

That we are commanded to love God and neighbor in the Bible, but we are never commanded to love ourselves? Sure, we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves, but it is presumed that we already love ourselves. It is in fact natural to do so. Our focus shouldn't be on ourselves, but on God and neighbor.

Perhaps we should think about that, the next time we are exhorted to have more self-esteem.

Thursday, January 01, 2004

It's 1:47 am, and I've already satisfied my Jan 1 obligation

At my parish we celebrate the new year with vespers and liturgy starting at 11pm. This year my pastor timed it perfectly: people could hear fireworks outside the church at the consecration. What better way could there be to celebrate the new year than praising God?

It also marked my first time as cantor at this parish. Lots of fun.