February 27, 2008

Well, Now ***

My musing on Lent yesterday prompted a loooong challenging comment from our pal Zendo Deb, which she also turned into an even longer post over at her own place. Go on over and read it.

Now Deb has been a lloyal Llama reader for a very long time, and although we disagree about some things, she is no troll. Nonetheless, I feel that at least some of her response is, in fact, a straw-man argument that mischaracterizes my belief. For example, just because I think that "Influence X" has a corrosive and even evil influence on people who are swayed by it, that does not mean that I think such people themselves are "evil". And it certainly doesn't mean that I think they should be strung up from trees or nailed to fence-posts or, to use Deb's own Osama analogy, blown up with bombs.

More importantly, however, in damning what she sees as a dichotomy between reason and belief in the West, Deb slips the Creationist brickbat into the debate:

The big issue is, of course, evolution. It contradicts the fundamental idea of Genesis, so it must be wrong. In Genesis, Man's creation is strictly separate from the creation of the rest of the world. No evidence will ever prove evolution right,* no one will ever move the creationists one inch from their current understanding. And when you try to discuss it with them, they usually resort to the "No true Scotsman" version of ad homenem attacks. "No good person" or "No true Christian" holds with evolution.

So in the end, [Augustine] is just another bat to hit people over the head with. [Augustine's] position is that if you agree with him, and live your life according to the precepts he follows, you will be happy and society will be the just society. That is exactly the same position as Bin Laden, except that Bin Laden backs up his opinions with explosives and death for anyone who dares disagree. Now granted, that is a big difference, perhaps even a qualitative difference between the two positions, but the positions are akin. (Like it or not, both men are arguing from dogma.)

Now [Augustine] probably got a lot right - most "serious thinkers" do, even if they also get a lot wrong. (See Aristotle.) But his view of the workings of the universe isn't the only one out there.

With all due respect, this is applesauce, but in Deb's defense, it's applesauce that comes from the superficial and inaccurate popular conceptions of Catholicism prevalent in much of the culchah these days.

I won't get into the assumptions about Millenialism here except to say that Augustine was certainly not one of those We-Need-To-Bring-About-The-Kingdom-of-Heaven-On-Earth-By-Next-Tuesday-And-God-Help-Anybody-Who-Gets-In-Our-Way types. Nor, properly understood, does HMC suggest anything of the sort. But that's a post for another day.

As far as evolution and dogma go, curiously enough the passage I quoted from Augustine (who Deb labels as Aquinas) was aimed at the Manicheans, whom Augustine came to loathe specifically because the dogma about Good and Evil in the world that they preached as the Truth (and which seems to bear some relationship to the concept of Yin and Yang) could not be supported by empirical observation and common sense. Augustine thought them a pack of frauds and charlatans for failing to deal with this and said so.

And indeed, despite bad patches in its history (which, I understand, have generally been distorted in the popular imagination into comic book form, although I don't know enough to comment), the Church herself recognizes that Faith and Reason are not enemies, but are to work with each other. Here is what the Catechism has to say about Creation:

282 Catechesis on creation is of major importance. It concerns the very foundations of human and Christian life: for it makes explicit the response of the Christian faith to the basic question that men of all times have asked themselves:120 "Where do we come from?" "Where are we going?" "What is our origin?" "What is our end?" "Where does everything that exists come from and where is it going?" The two questions, the first about the origin and the second about the end, are inseparable. They are decisive for the meaning and orientation of our life and actions.

283 The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers. With Solomon they can say: "It is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements. . . for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me."121

284 The great interest accorded to these studies is strongly stimulated by a question of another order, which goes beyond the proper domain of the natural sciences. It is not only a question of knowing when and how the universe arose phy

DIVINE VENGENCE? UPDATE: I have no idea what happened to the rest of this post, which seems to have stolen quietly away into the night. Sorry 'bout that, y'all. The short version of the rest of it was that I'm not a Creationist and that I don't believe there is a split between Truth as revealed by, well, Revelation and Fact as revealed by reason and inquiry, but that the two in fact work hand in hand with each other.

Oh, and in case you're wondering about the quote in the title, it's what Mal said when he faced off against Patience on Whitefall.

WHOOPSIE YIPS from Steve-O: It might have been me, as I made a St. Clippy "In the beginning was the WORD, and the WORD was with Gates, and the WORD was Gates" joke that seems to have disapeared as well. I looked for the Airplane! clip of the guy accidentally unplugging the landing lights, but found this instead:

Posted by Robert at February 27, 2008 11:58 AM

True enough on evolution; Catholics especially (among Christians) tend to be receptive to arguments that allow for a metaphorical interpretation of Genesis and the allowance of evolution to explain man's physical evolution. While one can hold that the world truly was created in 6 actual days (and the fossil history that suggests otherwise is either a work of the Devil or God's sense of whimsy) and be a Catholic (I don't know of anything in the catechism to prohibit such a view), it is certainly not a common view among Catholics. We hold that scriptural has several layers to it: historical truth, pedagogical truth, and so forth. The best explanation I've seen on how Catholics view/ought to view Scripture can be found in Leo XIII's encyclical Proventissimus Deus, which is on the Vatican's site.

As for "Jesus saves", everytime I see it I'm reminded of the Dungeons and Dragons convention where they were selling bumper stickers that read "Jesus Saves -- takes half damage", which still gives me a chuckle.

Just because an expression is Christian does not mean it has to be simpleminded; I read Aquinas and am struck by two things -- his largeness fo spirit and his ability to make subtle disntinctions among all the Aristotelian/Platonic concepts (forms, essences, accidents, etc.). He's a fine thinker, well educated and large minded. That being said, he certainly holds certain things to be true and certain things to be false.

We live in an age where, in Benedict XVI's phrase, there is a tyranny of relativism. To proclaim something as "truth" is seen as either bad form, or intellectually inadmissible. Yet we live in a world that certainly doesn't behave as if there is no truth -- jump off a high building, and truth is, you'll get killed. For some reason, we accept "truth" in the physical world but reject it out of hand in the intellectual world. Why is that? Perhaps it is a kind of humility that we think our own powers of reason so faulty that we cannot assert any truth with confidence, but I certainly wouldn't want to live my life asserting there is no truth, because then I am incapable of walking any kind of path. We assert physical truth, and are agnostic about metaphysical truth? That's an empty world, to be sure.

Posted by: The Abbot at February 27, 2008 12:32 PM

Several things; first, let me say how enlightening I have found Robert's posts about his conversion. Early on, I posted a rather ugly comment about my association (by family) with the Catholic church. As the months have gone on, I have been tremendously happy to read the "upside" of Catholicism, as it is my heritage.
Jumping off a tall building you will be killed. Yes, some things are just true and some not. Our current state of western discussion troubles me greatly as we seem to be forced into saying that maybe you might not be killed so, go ahead if it suits you. In fact, anyone that tells you otherwise is some kind of (insert slur here.)
I have been accused many, many times of viewing things in a "black or white" context. In our own personal relationships, I could not abide stauatory rape... I took a rather bold stance which caused no end of "problem" for those that thought me rather shallow minded. After all, I needed to take the "circumstances" and the "devotion" into account. Phooey, said I; right is right and wrong is wrong and I fought my corner like a blessed pit bull...
I also think the short discussion about evolution has probably been the most illuminating I have ever read. Yes, there was a big bang but, God directed it. I'm willing to buy into that or at least consider it. More on evolution from a Catholic viewpoint would be greatly appreciated.
I know that when people are at funerals of their loved ones they can make all kinds of things out of the event. I will say however, that when my father's ashes were poured into the Penobscott Bay and I watched a million tiny sparkles rising, I knew he was headed to a reuniting with the universe. I guess that's as close as I can get right now to a belief in God.

Posted by: Babs at February 27, 2008 01:01 PM

Wiki's discussion isn't a bad place to start.


My understanding of science -- which is admittedly limited -- is that it is tending toward Monogenism at least with regard to an Eve; that all human life originated from one human mother, but I haven't read much on evolution in the last 10 years or so. My understanding, too, is that evolutionary theory is now generally in agreement that human life as we know it originated in one p1ace (Africa) and then spread throughout the world (i.e., man did not spring up in several locations at the same time), but I don't claim to be current.

Polygenism seems to me is a harder theological case to reconcile with Genesis.

I myself don't see any contradiction between Genesis and evolution if we assume a primordial human couple suddenly made self-aware by a benevolent God, and that the gifts of understanding and awareness he bestowed upon them to be largely spiritual in nature (Adam is generally not held to be a brute, but to be created with a much greater understanding than we have, who have subsequently had our minds darkened by sin).

That being said, I do not discount the possibility that indeed, it was all created in 6 days, because certainly I attribute to God the power to do so if he chose, and do not claim to understand his motivations beyond asserting that he loves us. It could all be a fabulous jest that we do not understand, but is merely meant to keep us all occupied. I don't reject that possibility, as utterly unlikely as it seems.

Posted by: The Abbot at February 27, 2008 02:47 PM

"What if the label said "Jesus saves." Would you view that as "pop spirituality" or something else?"

"Something else".

It may indeed be trite and gimmicky, but it has a foundation in meaning that the mushy phrase "Recognize that you are the truth" does not. "Recognize that you are the truth" is "pop spirituality" in the same way we speak of "pop psychology"; a slick little motto that sounds profound but is shallow, pulled out of a sketchy acquaintance with the principles of the philosophy in question, watered down through countless reiterations in self-help books, banal and fuzzy and mindlessly 'affirming'.

It comes out of and is attached to no recognisable tradition; it can be spouted off equally by an air-headed vaguely-Christian, a Western-type Buddhist, an agnostic, a 'I'm spiritual but not religious' type or even an atheist. It can be defined however you want to define it; it can mean whatever you want it to mean. It involves no affirmation of doctrine or dogma, it doesn't require you to choose one option and reject others.

"Jesus Saves" is trite, but it has meaning. If you say this, you are committing yourself to a definite meaning, and all the corollaries that follow on from it: that we need saving, that there is a saviour, that there are not other saviours, that this saviour is Jesus, and so forth.

There are consequences to this that are not there for "Recognize that you are the truth".

Posted by: Fuinseoig at February 27, 2008 05:42 PM

Heh... "Jesus Saves" was a neon sign that was a landmark during my childhood. A church along route 110 in Melville, NY had the "Jesus Saves" neon sign. We used to use it as a landmark like "about 1 mile past Jesus Saves."
Anyone that thinks that putting a neon sign out for religion will increase their viability in an intellectual sense is a moron. Never the less, I hope their sign is still there.

Posted by: Babs at February 28, 2008 12:55 AM

My point about the teabag and had it said, "Jesus Saves" is that you may have dismissed it pop spirituality, but I doubt it would have set you off enough to write a post on the "corrosive effects on the soul" such things have.

The comment above proves my point. "Jesus Saves" is Christian hence True, and therefore not "pop spirituality." "You are Truth" is not Christian, hence not true, and therefore AT BEST "pop spirituality."

"It comes out of and is attached to no recognisable (sic) tradition." Funny, I recognized it right away. Given that it was on a bag of green tea helped, but it is clearly Eastern, probably Taoist as a direct translation, though perhaps not from the I-Ching itself, and certainly in line with Zen. So if you don't recognize it, it comes from no recognizable tradition. I guess that is literally true in this case. But does that mean that all other religions (or traditions) should stop printing their slogans on their teabags while Christians go about printing theirs?

'I fail to see any conflict between the questions of "how did it work" and "why did it happen".'

There isn't - or there shouldn't be - unless of course you are one of the millions of people in the world (10s of millions?) who hold the literal truth of every word in the Bible. In fact you can make a decent creation story about the lead up to the big bang. But calling into question the literal interpretation of Genesis is a problem for a lot of Christians. Hence the mess we've been in ever since the Scopes trial. (Look up the problems the intersexed have in this country… intersex births are almost always treated with surgery in the US to "assign" a gender either male of female. The rest of the world doesn't do that. Comes back to the same thing – only 2 sexes were created in Genesis, anything else must be stamped out.)

I think I know you well enough through your writing Robert to know you aren't one of those literal interpreters. You think more about your faith than any ten people I know (combined). If I gave the impression that I thought you were closed minded about things, I apologize. But even Martin Luther had his writing twisted by those who came after him.

The Vatican Observatory is an interesting organization. It was started around the same time as Galileo was doing his work, - actually before he published any of his writings and maybe a lot sooner, and his findings were confirmed by that body before his trial. In trying to find the date of the founding I did run across an interesting fact that Galileo cited Augustine's writing in his defense. (But to no avail).

And yes, I did read Aquinas where you wrote Augustine. I spent more time than I care to remember struggling with Aquinas at one point in my life. I obviously haven't recovered yet.

Posted by: Zendo Deb at February 28, 2008 09:17 AM

OK, another long post - another mu.nu error message... I give up.

Posted by: Zendo Deb at February 28, 2008 09:19 AM


I won't overstate the case, but within Catholic tradition, one usually ends up as an admirer of Augustine (and hence Plato), or of Aquinas (and hence Aristotle). If you struggle with Aquinas, it may be that you are, at heart, an Augustinian, and vice versa.

There is (unfortunately) no Hogwarts style sorting hat to determine what parts of Catholic tradition work for a certain person; I used to not care for Augustine so much when I was young but am drawn to him more as I get older.

Protestant, especially Lutheran, tradition, tends toward the Augustinian rather than the Scholastic tradition of Aquinas. If you like Luther's writing, you'd probably like Augustine.

Although of the two, Aquinas is the sunnier one, who ascribes more power to human reason's ability to perceive God than Augustine does. Aquinas is therefore more a friend of science.

But like I said, there is no sorting hat. Certain writers appeal to one for their style as much as their substance. Aquinas is a hard read to the modern eye because he assumes one is intimately familiar with Greek philosophy, expecially Aristotle; the Summa is really a work for professional philosophers; I don't claim to be able to assess it on its merits. He certainly seems bold in his assertions of what can be known of God through reason. I admite him more for his prayers and hymns; they are truly beautiful.

Augustine is much more approachable, and I would even say psychological, in his writing, particularly the Confessions; though I always find his writing to be a bit brooding.

Augustine is Beethoven to Aquinas's Bach, if you will.

Posted by: The Abbot at February 28, 2008 12:07 PM

"You are Truth" is not Christian, hence not true

More like, "You are Truth" is not true, hence not Christian.

That is to say, Christians, whether we be RC, another liturgical tradition, Evangelical, whatever, hold as part of our faith that there is such a thing as absolute truth, that God is the author of all truth and is, in fact, by His very nature truth itself, and that all truth is revealed to us by God (whether revealed generally through nature or specifically through scripture). We also therefore believe that anything that contradicts the truth that God has revealed to us is necessarily UNtrue.

Posted by: Boy Named Sous at February 29, 2008 01:53 PM

Thank you, all of you, very much for your comments.

Posted by: Robbo the LB at March 1, 2008 04:56 PM