Harry Potter and its Critics

Two good reads:

Sean P. Dailey of The Blue Boar invites people to read and responds to a post on Harry Potter by Fr. Alfonso Aguilar in the National Catholic Register.

Nancy C. Brown discusses her own experiences with the novels.

I thoroughly enjoyed the novels; my wife and I are in the process of re-reading them. I'll have commentary to offer myself when I have re-finished the series.

Henry V: Non Nobis and Te Deum

Warning: Images of battlefield death.

O Vile Pez

Years ago a fellow student on a bus ride to a marching band contest opined that pez dispensers promoted violence in children: the children rip someone's head off, and they get a treat. Being a nerdy high school student, I immediately set to work composing a poem on the idea. I was...very weird then.

I am of course very normal now, which is why I'm posting the poem. Just think of James Earl Jones reading it in the manner that he read The Raven in that early Simpsons Halloween episode.
O vile Pez! I cry to thee!
Horrid dispenser of more than candy.
For from you spring such contaminant thought
To youths whose minds should never ought
Think on such vile deeds
Brought on by your unholy seeds.
O dreaded Pez block,
O how the youth flock
To taste the bitterness rused as sweet.
Deceiving untainted minds you meet.
A murderous deed they must perform:
A horrendous morphing of your form.
Tearing back the dispenser's head
Mirrored on the living, they would be dead!
Would that now the corrupted says,
O vile, O evil, O wicked Pez.

A Humane Economy

"The crucial things in economics are about as mathematically intractable as a love letter or a Christmas celebration. They reside in moral and spiritual forces, psychological reactions, opinions which are beyond the reach of curves and equations. What matters ultimately in economics is incalculable and unpredictable."

"Man, in the words of the Gospel, does not live by bread alone. Let us beware of that caricature of an economist who, watching people cheerfully disporting themselves in their suburban allotments, thinks he has said everything there is to say when he observes that this is not a rational way of producing vegetables--forgetting that it may be an eminently rational way of producing happiness, which alone matters in the last resort."

- Wilhelm Roepke

A National Smoking Ban?

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee courts the Puritan voters.

What were they thinking?

What did Amnesty International hope to gain from beginning to support "abortion rights"? Given the controversy over whether there is such a thing as an abortion right, I think they would have done themselves and their cause better service by not making the move to promote access to abortion. Cardinal Keith O'Brien of Edinburgh, Scotland has left the group, and many more members will undoubtedly follow. Is the organization now gaining new members and contributions because of this decision?

Language and Truth

"We do not believe in formulas, but in those realities they express, which faith allows us to touch." - Catechism of the Catholic Church, 170

The Messes Misconceptions Make

In an interview, the philosopher Jacques Derrida, known as the father of deconstruction, had this to say about misconceptions about his work:
I never said everything is linguistic and we're enclosed in language. In fact, I say the opposite, and the deconstruction of logocentrism was conceived to dismantle precisely this philosophy for which everything is language. Anyone who reads my work with attention understands that I insist on affirmation and faith, and that I'm full of respect for the texts I read.
I first read Derrida in grad school with the idea that he was the latest "bad guy", the newest nihilist and most recent relativist, whose thought I would expose as false with the true philosophy that I had in my possession. I had heard from many sources that Derrida was an enemy of truth. I soon discovered, however, that Derrida was neither a relativist nor a nihilist; he did not wish to tear down tradition and truth. He was not an enemy to be defeated, but a humble lover of truth who didn't think in the same concepts, categories, and frameworks to which I was accustom and with which I was comfortable. I even learned a thing or two from him, particularly that we not only use language to speak about our perceptions and interpretations, but language allows us to have the perceptions in the first place. When ever we perceive a thing, we perceive it as something. Derrida, among other projects, drew out what he saw were the ramifications of what he called the play of language that allows for and shapes our perceptions.

I better learned from reading him that truth was not something I could possess, something that could be encapsulated and exhausted by my pet philosophical systems. And I learned from him that the constructs by which I understand things are in need of deconstruction, are already in a sense deconstructing before the "undeconstructable," which Derrida also called the name of God.

Is this nihilism? I call it humility. If truth is ultimately infinite, and our language is finite, then we will always be revising our formulas--if the pursuit of truth is really our aim.

Good Catholic Advice

"Indeed, if I had power for some thirty years I would see to it that people should be allowed to follow their inbred instincts in these matters, and should hunt, drink, sing, dance, sail, and dig; and those that would not should be compelled by force."

- Hilaire Belloc

Err on the Side of Life

Even if we cannot know via reason that a unique living human person is present at the moment of conception, I think the mere possibility of there being personal life at that moment obligates us to err on the side of life. I therefore do not see it as "imposing one's religion" on public policy to insist on legal protection of the unborn human being's right to life.

Where do we go from here?

The U.S. bishops respond to Amnesty International's recent decision to promote access to abortion. Bishop William S. Skylstad writes:
This basic policy change undermines Amnesty’s longstanding moral credibility and unnecessarily diverts its mission. In promoting abortion, Amnesty divides its own members (many of whom are Catholics and others who defend the rights of unborn children) and jeopardizes its support by people in many nations, cultures and religions who share a consistent commitment to all human rights.
He ends his statement by calling AI "to act in accord with its noblest principles, reconsider its error, and reverse its policy on abortion."

I am glad to see the bishops continue to engage Amnesty International with hope that its leaders will reconsider and reverse its policy on abortion. I believe our best hope in ending abortion (as much as humanly possible) lies in conversing with those we are inclined to label enemies. The legislative and judicial battles pertaining to abortion will continue to be fought until the hearts and minds on all sides are open, with each side understanding the others as they understand themselves. The temptation on all sides right now is to demonize the other and present its side as the only one with real moral concerns.

I have little doubt that the movers and shakers in the abortion rights movement are preparing for the aftermath of Roe v. Wade's being overturned. Such an event will mean little until there is effectively no abortion rights movement. That will come when there is no perceived need for one. If we want a world without abortion, then we need to be talking humbly, charitably, and respectfully with those who see abortion as a right. And we need to listen. Otherwise, they will not listen to us.

There is not enough silence

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.


From Ash Wednesday by T.S. Eliot

Stop the Presses!

Mother Teresa was human! Alexham responds.

Thought for a Sunday

"...I recognize that life does not take a single step forward without faith, that if we are going to get anywhere, faith is first, last, and constant. I know that if I wait for all the results to come in, for definitive information to settle the matter, life will have long sense left the station without me...God is served in spirit and in truth, not in propositions."

- John D. Caputo, On Religion

Opening Hearts and Minds

A Townhall Presentation delivered October 20, 2007

At this point in history, it is no longer unthinkable that the Supreme Court could potentially overturn Roe v. Wade. As necessary and marvelous as this turning point will be, in and of itself it will neither establish nor preserve a culture of life. Legislative and judicial victories will be fleeting unless we open hearts and minds to the dignity of life and form and culture of life that shapes our perception and response to life in the world.

Moreover, if we are to have any hope of building a permanent culture of life, then we must communicate with and persuade the members of the Abortion Rights Movement, particularly the movers and shakers, the leaders, those who have power to shape our culture and our thinking. There are many people and groups who shape our culture, they are among them, and they are formidable and intelligent. If we are to establish a culture of life, they cannot be removed from the equation, nor can they remain as they are. They must be engaged and persuaded and come to a personal conversion. We must hospitably and lovingly engage them with hope and faith in the power of truth and grace. Unfortunately, there are obstacles and hindrances to this goal, one of which is the way we use language in this debate, and by "we" I mean everyone on all sides of the abortion issue.

This evening I will be addressing why it is imperative to talk to the Abortion Rights Movement, how our use of language shapes and hinders the abortion debate, and how we can improve the accuracy of our language so as to open hearts and minds to the beauty, truth, and goodness of life and from that to build a permanent culture of life. What I will advocate is not a prescription for certain victory; it is not "The Plan" that if we only follow we'll end abortion once and for all. Nevertheless, what I propose this evening is a prerequisite for any lasting-success.

Why is it necessary to engage in hospitable discourse the leaders and influential members of the Abortion Rights Movement? Simply put, protecting the right to life of the unborn requires right thinking on the part of all those who shape the culture. The legislative and judicial battles pertaining to abortion will continue to be fought until abortion is no longer seen as a right and the unborn person's right to life is acknowledged--by effectively everyone.

As important and necessary as sound legislation and judicial practice are in the process of ending abortion, the tools of this fight are not limited to them. Abortions don't occur merely because they are legal; they occur for reasons that are personal, philosophical, cultural, economic, and social. Abortion also occurs with such perpetuity because "the procedure" is socially permissible. Consider that according to Gallup's annual Values and Belief survey, conducted May 10-13, 2007, 49% of Americans consider themselves pro-choice, and 45% consider themselves pro-life. According to the same survey, 26% of respondents said abortion should be legal under any circumstance, 15% said legal under most, and 40% said legal under a few circumstances. So really, despite what people consider themselves, 81% of Americans are pro-choice given certain circumstances. Some of those acknowledge the humanity of the unborn but see abortion as licit in some circumstances; others deny the humanity and personhood of the unborn and so have little qualms about abortion. So while we may be close to overturning Roe v. Wade, we are very far from having a cultural mentality that respects the life of the unborn. The abortion rights advocates seem to be winning the hearts and minds of most Americans.

Opening hearts and minds to the truth about abortion necessitates opening hearts and minds to the complexities of the abortion debate. Aside from the metaphysical debate over the nature and personhood of the unborn child, and the ethical debate over whether evil can ever be justified, our cultural mentalities and economic philosophies contribute to the complexity: consider our consumerism, our worship of convenience and efficiency, our moral individualism, our cultural pluralism, our distrust of those with big families, our understanding of sexuality, and our devotion to profit over people. These mentalities contribute to what John D. Caputo calls the bloodiest form of birth control the world has ever seen.

Any debate with the opposition will need to take place in light of the complex and manifold causes of abortion. Currently though, I find that we tend to think of the abortion debate in a way that edges toward legalism. Take, for example, the way we ascertain whether or not a public official is pro-life. The standard is almost always a measure of what he has done or would do through legislation or judicial appointments. Would he outlaw abortion or make abortions legally more difficult to obtain? What a public figure does through legislation or judicial appointments strongly indicates where he stands on the abortion issue. It's the most logical and practical standard of assessment, but we can go beyond that in assessing how successful a public servant would be in eliminating abortion. We need to. It is perfectly conceivable to me that a public servant could desire to outlaw abortion, have the legal power to do so, or even succeed in outlawing abortion, and yet in the long term be detrimental to the pro-life cause. How so?

Because public servants and their pundits in the media have power to shape public philosophy, the philosophical views of a public servant are very worth considering. So consider a public servant who objects to abortion, would outlaw it through the land, yet on other issues, would defend and promote a consequentialist ethic. Consequentialism is the ethical philosophy that the morality of an action is determined exclusively in light of the consequences. In short, as long as the results are good, deeds of evil can be done and justified. Now imagine such a public servant comes to power and both outlaws abortion and successfully promotes a consequentialist ethos. In the short term, yes, abortion is made illegal, but if a consequentialist ethos pervades in society, legal protections of the unborn are not long for the world. Abortion is likely to be legalized even in a society where 90% of people see abortion as evil, if the majority of people think certain circumstances justify doing evil. I am here not advocating the position that we can vote for a candidate who promotes abortion; what I am saying is that a public figure can promote abortion by promoting bad philosophy, even if he wants to outlaw the particular practice.

All of this is to say that legal policy will persist only if accompanied by cultural changes, changes in mentality and philosophy. To change the culture, we must change hearts and minds, and that requires that we do what we can to open hearts and minds to what we have to say. However, we won't get far telling people how they must think about abortion. We may advance our message of life if we show them, persuade them; and persuasion requires dialogue. And a real dialogue is an intimate and hospitable meeting of hearts and minds. Debate isn't about winning or defeating the opponent; debate is about two or more sides communicating so as to arrive at the truth. Real debate, real discussion, real persuasion requires a meeting of hearts and minds, and that means that hearts and minds on all sides must be open. We have to open our hearts and minds as well. We have to welcome the other in hospitality, listen to him, consider his thought and concerns, and engage his ideas in charity and respect.

Now it may be said that the pro-choice side is not going to listen to us, so why should we bother listening to them. Well, they may not listen to us. We may not convince them. We may be stuck with a culture that does not respect the life of the unborn. That is the price of not trying to open hearts and minds. In such a culture that has little respect for the life of the unborn, policy battles over abortion will continue till doomsday. To be sure, a mutual opening of hearts and minds isn't magic. It isn't a guarantee of success. It isn't THE PLAN. It is prerequisite hope.

So now then, we come to the question: How do we open hearts and minds, those of ourselves and our opponents in this debate? There are many ways, I am sure, but I will focus on one this evening: We improve the accuracy and hospitality of our language.

Now language is a big subject, and I don't want to bore you with a long, dry lecture on language arts or tiresome philosophical speculations about the nature of language. I must accept that not everyone is as nerdy as I am. (It's a long process; I'm working on it). Still, I think it would be beneficial to highlight a point about language that pertains to the abortion issue. What I'm asking you to do is to think about thinking, which, I assure you, is as tedious as it sounds.

We see what fits into our concepts, and the clearer are our concepts, the clearer will be our perceptions; moreover, the concepts in which we think shape the way we see and understand things. This is especially true if the concepts we think in terms of are figurative, metaphorical. I am sure you have all heard of the expression "the culture war." When we use the expression "culture war," we are using the metaphor of war in our language about cultural issues. We therefore perceive and understand those cultural issues within the context of a war, and we use terms of war when speaking and thinking about cultural issues like abortion. We fight to end abortion. Overturning Roe v. Wade would be a victory for the pro-life cause. Abortion is an evil that must be defeated. These are some examples. The point here is that if we want to use language effectively to open hearts and minds, and I'd say that's a given in a debate so grave as the debate on abortion, we have to be aware of and reflect upon the ways that our perception and understanding of the abortion issue is shaped by the language that we use. I will return to this metaphor momentarily.

I see at least three problems with the use of language in the abortion debate, problems that hinder our communication with the other. 1) The framework of the debate is illogical. 2) Each side uses uncharitable language to present itself as the only side with any legitimate moral concerns. 3) We can get locked into thinking exclusively in terms of one metaphor, which on its own is insufficient.

In many of our cultural debates over moral issues, the oppositional language makes sense: one may be pro-cloning or anti-cloning, pro-homosexual marriage or against homosexual marriage, supporting of a war or opposed to a war. There are nuances in the debates, of course, but generally the language used by the debating parties relates to the same object: war, cloning, marriage, stem-cell research, etc. In the abortion debate, however, the oppositional language does not refer to the same object, and so the language framework of the debate is not a logical opposition. One side identifies itself as pro-life; the oppositional side calls itself pro-choice. So the debate becomes one of life versus choice. Each side presents itself as making moral arguments, but in favor of different values.. Each side fights against different perceived evils: one, killing the innocent; the other, oppression of women's rights. In a sense, we're not speaking the same language in this debate over abortion, and so genuine communication is very difficult. Instead of talking with the other, we're talking past the other.

Another hindrance to genuine communication is that each side often presents itself as the only side with legitimate moral concerns, demonizing the other to that end. On occasion each side in this debate assumes or explicitly states that the other has no good cause from which his stance on abortion arises. I have heard advocates for abortion claim that the anti-abortionists really are not concerned about babies but are using the abortion issue to impose upon women their religious ideas about the morality of reproduction or oppressive patriarchal systems. From pro-life advocates I have heard the abortion rights movement described as assassins, death-peddlers, predators, and abortion enthusiasts who fight for the right to kill babies in death camps. Putting the veracity of such statements aside, they are certainly not conducive to a hospitable and charitable debate. Such language tends to offend, anger, and alienate, as opposed to softening hearts and opening minds.

The third hindrance to communication arises from the limitation of language itself. As I mentioned, the language we use to think about things shapes the way we perceive and understand those things. This is especially evident when we have to rely on metaphorical language in our thinking. Earlier I mentioned the metaphor of the culture war. I think the metaphor of war has its uses in thinking about cultural conflicts. It's difficult to retreat from it. I don't suggest we completely abandon it in our thinking and discourse. The problem is not the use of that metaphor or any revealing metaphor in general. The problem occurs when we limit ourselves to thinking in one particular metaphorical framework. When that happens, we blind ourselves to whatever doesn't fit into that framework. Every metaphor is incomplete. Every metaphor conceals what it is used to reveal. When we get locked into a metaphorical framework, like "culture war," we severely limit our understanding and our ability to communicate. The metaphor of war, for instance, has its uses. It also has its dangers. In a mentality shaped by a metaphor of war, truth can become a weapon that we wield as an instrument of alienation. We think that because we are fighting a war, our objective is to defeat our enemies. Yet, in the culture wars, the objective is not the defeat of our enemies so much as the defeat of their arguments, and not simply for the sake of defeating them and feeling right about our cause, but in hopes that our enemy, so to speak, may become our friend. The metaphor of war is perhaps better applies to the spiritual battles in our hearts and souls. "Put on the whole armor of God," wrote St. Paul to the Ephesians. "For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places." The enemy in the culture wars is the demonic, the diabolical, and the battlefield is our hearts, minds, and souls.

Alas, the very idea of opening hearts and minds doesn't quite fit in with the metaphor of war. In a war, you generally don't seek to talk to your enemies, at least not until they're defeated. What I am arguing this evening is that the only way "defeat" our opponents is to talk to them. Indeed, I think we should cease to see them and speak of them as "enemies," for the darkness they defend should concern us as it concerns there own souls and the lives of the unborn. Our objective in the abortion debate is to create a culture of life. A culture of life means that those who shape the culture have, among other things, a life ethic. Given that necessity, our goal must be to persuade those who do not acknowledge or respect the personal life of the unborn to do so. I believe a prerequisite for that is improving the accuracy and hospitality of our language.

So how do we improve the accuracy and hospitality of our language? I suggest at least four ways. 1) We can seek to understand the Abortion Rights advocates as they understand themselves and use language that they would agree accurately defines their position. 2) We can use language that communicates with and doesn't merely talk past the language of the Abortion Rights movement. 3) We can use language that more accurately corresponds to the moral complexity of the debate. And 4) we can use language that is respectful and charitable. I will take each in turn.

First, I think we can safely assume that advocates for abortion rights don't see themselves as assassins, death-peddlers, predators, or abortion enthusiasts who fight for the right to kill babies in death camps, anymore than those who are against abortion see themselves as oppressors of women or enemies of freedom. Of course, that an abortion rights advocate does not see himself as defending the killing of innocent life does not mean that he is not defending such a practice. Our goal in the Respect Life movement should be to help him see that evil reality of what he defends, but openly labeling him with loaded categories he wouldn't apply to himself, even if truthful, is more likely to close him off to our message. We alienate when we could be embracing. By using language to depict those we disagree with accurately but also in accordance with how they understand themselves increases the possibility that they will be open to hearing what we have to say.

This brings me to the second means of changing our language. Without ourselves justifying abortion, we would do well to recognize that those who do often have legitimate moral concerns from which their position on abortion arises. Let's face it: Western Civilization is not immaculate in its defenses of rights, especially women's rights (and today the rights of the unborn). In a broad sense, both the abortion rights people and the respect life people want the same thing: a just, good, and life-affirming society. We disagree on whether certain rights exist, but this is not a debate between one group that thinks people have dignity and another that thinks people have no dignity worth respecting. We both want a moral society, a just society, and so it is possible, based upon that common desire, to formulate--to a degree--a common framework, to speak a shared moral language. Having a shared moral language means that we can, without participating in evil, work together to build a just and moral society. There are bridges that must be crossed, but let us cross them and brothers and sisters, not as enemies.

Having a shared language, even if only in part, will help us to build a common culture. I don't expect nor would I desire that we all think and speak exactly the same way. There is no one universal philosophy to which we should all swear allegiance. We may, however, come to an agreement as a people on certain core principles. Left and Right need not be rancorous foes, even if we disagree.

Third, I have spoken this evening of the abortion debate as being morally complex, and by that I do not mean that there are circumstances that would justify abortion. However, abortions occur for a variety of reasons, some graver than others. A contraceptive mentality, for instance. A fear of not being able to feed existing children. A concern that a child would have a life of suffering and misery. A consumeristic philosophy that sees children as an inconvenience. There is a difference in culpability between a teenager who procures and abortion because she will be tossed from her home if she wants to carry her baby and a woman who receives an abortion because another child would be a minor inconvenience. Also, the reasons why the members of the abortion rights movement defend the legalization of abortion are many and complex. Rarely, I think, are they pro-abortion or pro-death or even against life. They don't push abortion as a wonderful thing, but as a sad necessity. Or they see abortion as evil but not a crime meriting a prison sentence. The abortion rights advocates do not have a respect or reverence or love for abortion in the way that we have a respect and love for the life of the unborn. They are seeking to do what they see as good. They are trying to build a just society. They are attempting to defend the rights and interests of women. Their indifference to the life of the unborn does not translate into murderous intent.

Finally, we can improve the accuracy of our language and better open hearts and minds by using language that is respectful and charitable. Back in 2002, Father Frank Pavone, the head of Priests for Life, came under fire for being charitable, respectful, and even friends with abortion facilitator Bill Baird. Fr. Pavone and Baird had released a joint statement calling all sides on the abortion debate to use respectful rather than dehumanizing rhetoric. Despite their ardent disagreement on abortion, they worked together for a noble cause. Unfortunately, due to Fr. Pavone's working with the "enemy," his organization suffered a loss of contributors, one of whom wrote to Pavone admonishing him for talking with evil. Fr. Pavone's response: "I do not dialogue with evil. I dialogue with persons and Bill is a person."

Due to the gravity and bloody brutality of the "abortion procedure," it is easy to think of those who have the audacity to defend such a practice, or worse support it, as being depraved, irrational, evil people. Some defenses of abortion are depraved, irrational, and evil. Others are gravely mistaken but well-meaning. The personhood of a week old fetus is not obvious. Someone is not thereby the incarnation of evil because he doesn't see the unborn child's personhood and therefore defends abortion. Nevertheless, even those people who fully recognize the unborn child's humanity and personhood, but would support abortion nonetheless, are still human beings, made in the image and likeness of God. They may be evil people, but they are still people, and what should most motivate our response to them is that the evil they do or defend contradicts their dignity as human persons. The fact that they are evil should motivate the Christian to work for their conversion. Being a Christian means participating in God's plan of salvation, which means we participate in God's plan to make people holy. We set an example for how one should respond to dignity of life in the way we treat defenders and practitioners of abortion.

Due to our living in a fallen world, abortion and other sins against life will be with us until the heavens and the earth are made anew. We cannot completely eliminate the sin of abortion, anymore than we can eliminate the sins of murder, theft, or hatred. We cannot be perfect, but we still strive for perfection, and rightly so. We cannot purge the world of abortion, but we work for such a freedom for life. There are many ways of working for a culture of life: sound legislation, prudent judicial appointments, joyously helping families and families-to-be. This evening I have recommended that we work to persuade the powerful in our culture who advance the cause of abortion rights, and that we would be better served in such an endeavor by using language that is hospitable, accurate, understanding, respectful, and charitable. Nevertheless I have cautioned that there is nothing magical about this strategy. It is not a prescription for certain success. I believe, however, that using language well to open hearts and minds to the truth, beauty, and goodness of life provides a great hope, a hope for ourselves, a hope for the unborn, a hope for our posterity, and a hope for those we are inclined to label enemies.

Redeem the Time

This past July (06) my wife and I became the delighted parents of our firstborn son, whose entry into the world was made possible by an earlier tragedy: the unexpected death of our first child at ten weeks into pregnancy. We thought we had lost our firstborn as well to the same fate, and when we went to verify the second loss, certain to see no remaining sign of life, we were overjoyed to witness a healthy-beating heart! Having experienced the loss of our unborn child's life, and knowing the reality of the personhood of the unborn, a reality made known to us all the more by the power of science, my mind boggles at the willful destruction of innocent human life in our society. I am sickened that such destructive power and deadly practice has become acceptable in our time. I pray with hope the prayer of T.S. Eliot: "redeem the time." In our time and culture, redeeming the time means returning as a people to a true and lived respect for life.

The causes and conditions that allow the destruction of life to persist in our society, and we would do well to be open to what these really are, are beyond the scope of this Respect Life essay. Nor do I intend to explain here why abortion, euthanasia, and other such practices are horrific and evil. My aim is to reflect upon our response to these evils. Specifically, I wish to address the means by which we work to establish a culture that celebrates, cherishes, and cares for life.

Ours is an age in which faith in the efficacy of war far surpasses faith in the power of love, discussion, prayer, and grace. Unfortunately, in our defense of life, we are sometimes tempted to fight the "culture wars" as though we were fighting a military war. Our weapons are not famine, sword, and fire; but ostracism, words, and politics. When we fall to such temptation, we are prone to paint the opposition in the darkest and most terrifying hues. We cast them to fringes of the political spectrum as evil extremists, as if we could gain nothing from engaging them in discussion. Remaining ignorant of our own participation in perpetuating a "culture of death" and indifferent to any respect for life our opponents have, we call them assassins, death-peddlers, predators, and abortion enthusiasts who fight for the right to kill babies in death camps. We focus on their moral corruption, their sin, their evil ways. We wield truth as an instrument of alienation and cast our opponents away to weep and gnash their teeth.

I fear that this antagonism will bring about neither an end to abortion nor a culture of life. The battle to defend the sanctity of life, if it is even proper to call it a battle, is one to be fought with the mind and the heart and the instruments of each. The objective is not the elimination or "disarmament" of our enemies, but their and our conversion and deepened respect for life, and through those and especially the power of grace, the redemption of the time. Only by this road is there hope to establish a culture of life and consequently end the unnatural practices which assail our bodies, plague our land, and sicken our souls.

The front of this culture war is extensive, ranging from the expressions of disordered cultural and social systems to the executions of immoral laws and judicial opinions to the very souls of ourselves and of our adversaries. The spiritual front is the true front, for the former evils are the weeds of poorly gardened souls. They are the symptoms of a sickness, not the sickness itself. Reaping away the weeds with not reap away the causes that nourish their roots.

A redeemed culture is a culture of life, a culture founded upon a respect for life. This truth presents a difficulty: what does it mean to respect life or to be pro-life? Potential answers come immediately to mind. It means to protect life against unjust attacks. It means to oppose murder. It means that we vote for candidates who will initiate the overturning of Roe v. Wade. It means we devote ourselves to those non-negotiable issues.

If these answers are true, then why do I present this question as a difficulty? Because the answers given above sidestep the question: while protection, opposition, voting, and attention to issues may be actions done out of a respect for life, they do not mean the same thing as respecting. So the question stands: what does it mean to respect life?

Exploring this question may open up a path to a culture of life that we and our "opponents" in the culture war may walk together. The proponents of abortion, euthanasia, and other attacks upon life are not pro-death, by which I mean they are not intending to promote a culture of death, although that may be the effect of their actions. Indeed, some of them are among the most passionate practitioners of the corporal works of mercy. They are mistaken, gravely so, about certain truths concerning life, and these errors have inspired egregious moral judgments and horrendous moral actions. Still, let us not cast them aside as devils. There are many people and groups who shape our culture, they are among them, and they are formidable and intelligent. If we are to establish a culture of life, they cannot be removed from the equation, nor can they remain as they are. They must be engaged and persuaded and come to a personal conversion. We must lovingly engage them with hope and faith in the power of truth and grace.

What does it mean to respect? The word itself is derived from the Latin word respectus, which means to look back at. The adverbial phrase back at is important here, for it denotes re-looking, reflection, reconsideration of the object perceived or considered. Respect in contemporary English means to feel or to show deferential regard or esteem. Is there a connection between these two meanings of the word, the meaning of the Latin root and the English word we use?

The word respect, when used as a verb, is a transitive verb: it has an object. We respect something or someone. While the object does not necessitate respect, the object respected either should or should not be respected based on what the object is and what value it has. Reflecting upon or contemplating the object to be respected is an integral part of the process of respecting. We see here that the meaning of respectus is present in the meaning of respect. To respect something, we first come to know it by looking back upon it.

Given what we have said about respect, it follows that to respect life, we must look back upon life. Respecting life requires education. By education, I mean with tradition both the education of the mind and the education of the heart. Education for thinkers like C.S. Lewis and Aristotle means teaching students to like and dislike what they ought. Proper affective responses require learning. "Teach us to care and not to care," writes T.S. Eliot.

If we are taught and believe that our value judgments are mere opinions, no more true or false than another's judgment, then we become incapable of responding properly to the world. We become incapable of respecting life, for we cannot see its value. Even we who know in our hearts and minds that life is sacred and honorable are called to order our affections and further discern the meaning of life. Life is a mystery, its meaning and value inexhaustible by our finite minds and hearts. All of the collected wisdom of philosophers, theologians, poets, story-tellers, historians, and scientists has not and will not encapsulate the total meaning and value of life. Nevertheless, the more we know of life's truth, beauty, and goodness, the more we are capable of respecting life. Hence respect for life is not something we simply have or don't have. Our respect for life can grow; it can be cultivated. It can also dwindle.

The education that is necessary for increasing our respect for life is focused on more than the planks of the pro-life platform; it includes the cultivation of the mind and the heart to see the inexhaustible mystery and to appreciate the wondrous value of life. How may we accomplish it? I mentioned before the collected wisdom of the ages. We may turn to that heritage for guidance and growth. Reading poetry and sharing the great stories, where the mysteries of life are beautifully manifested before our imagination. Exploring our history; learning about the lives of others, their struggles, joys, and sufferings. Studying the work of scientists to better see the order and marvel of creation. Entering the world of art and music where truth, beauty, and goodness are expressed in ways words cannot communicate. Pondering in prayer what the best minds have said about God and his creatures and what God has said about himself and us.

We also learn of life by living it as it is meant to be lived. To be able to respect life, we must live our lives in keeping with the moral law, which points us to what we ought to be. We learn by doing. We must build the good habits of body, mind, and heart, which are called the virtues, for we get to know truth and goodness by being true and good. We are whole when we are holy. Our respect for life will deepen when we understand life by living it well. We must also live with a responsibility for the lives of others, a responsibility that takes shape through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. These in particular are acts that nourish life, both of the body and of the soul.

Now, we would not for a moment propose that reading poetry or studying history should be done as substitutes for legal, economic, and social initiatives aimed at reducing and ending abortion and other attacks upon life. That said, the problem is far graver and dreadful than bad laws or tyrannical court decisions. The underlying problem is philosophical. Like Boromir in Tolkien's tale, we make errors in judgment because we hold erroneous ideas. If the problem is philosophical, then education and discussion are valid solutions.

Educational activities, while they do not necessitate a pro-life philosophy, will, if done rightly, lift our souls to the recognition that life--in all its beauty, pain, tragedy, comedy, crisis, and triumph--is honorable, sacred, full of wonder, and worth living. From that vantage point, we will then be all the more capable of respecting life. We will know what life is and will strive to know it even better. Educated in mind and heart, we may serve as educators, and teach others to know and to respect life. We may begin within our families and from there to our parishes and to our neighbors, with whom we can no longer afford to be strangers. We must soon reform our schools so that they are institutions that preserve a respect for life. By shaping ourselves, our families, our communities, and our world to know, to appreciate, and to respect life, we set the groundwork necessary to sustain a culture of life. All attempts to establish laws or overturn abominable court decisions will be of no avail in the long run unless we as a whole people have a deep and ever-growing respect for life. Overturning Roe v. Wade will not be akin to the fall of the Dark Tower of Mordor, magically vanquishing the pro-choice movement. Much more is needed.

Establishing a culture of life based on an ever-renewing respect for life establishes a common goal among us and proponents of abortion, euthanasia, and other offences against life. Instead of picturing ourselves as reaping angels and them as engineers of a culture of death, a picture in which it is only we who care for life and only they who ever harm it, we should recognize our shared goal. Abortion and other such procedures are not ends in themselves done for their own sakes. They are evil means adopted by those who are mistaken about life but nevertheless care deeply for life. There is a striking moral difference between a woman's decision to have an abortion, fearing poverty or an inability to care for a child, and a person's decision to kill to expand his power or spread his ideology. Both killings take innocent life, and both are evil choices, but the will of the latter is far more dreadful, sinister, and hell-bent.

Too often in debates and discussions over life and death issues, the opposing sides talk past one another. The differences in language, thinking, and values hinder fruitful discussion and consequently fruitful action. The debate is seldom framed between a pro-life side and a pro-death side, but between sides that disagree on the meaning of life and the meaning of freedom and whose hierarchies of values are quite incompatible. There is, of course, no way of synthesizing our philosophies. We want them (and ourselves) to think rightly about life, but we will never see that come to fruition until we hospitably recognize that they, in their own way, respect life (imperfectly, to be sure) as well. We may even learn to respect life from those we are inclined to label enemies. The respect for life is born and nursed from an education that teaches us to think and to feel accurately about life, and this education must be shared in hospitality, though not in tolerance of evil.

To mature and to shape our lives, society, and culture, the respect for life must be lived and lived with grace. Respect for life is not a respect for an abstraction, and it is something deeper and more significant than a label for how someone votes or would arrange the seats on the Supreme Court; it is a lived responsibility for all life, the life of persons most of all. The lived respect for life is perhaps exercised most perfectly in the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. These must not be foreign to the ways of those who work for a redeemed culture, and ultimately, for the Kingdom of God. Nevertheless, the question of how we establish a culture of life and by extension end attacks upon life must remain open as a question, lest we fall into a false dogmatism that prevents us from reaching prudent solutions. Answers may come from those we least expect to offer wisdom; God works in mysterious ways. Let us pray with hope for the redemption of the time.

Big Words for Small Things

Having political and philosophical views all over the radar, I tend to dislike the totalizing terms liberal and conservative, but more so the terms right-wing and left-wing. And don't even get me started on the far-left and the ultra-right.

Joe Sobran ponders:

I often ask liberals to explain what they mean by right-wing, a term they apply to everything they dislike, even principles that have nothing in common, such as anarchism (opposition to all government) and fascism (government without limits), as well as conservatism (government within carefully defined limits), not to mention monarchism, oligarchy, plutocracy, nativism, militarism, laissez-faire capitalism, theocracy, libertarianism, feudalism, neoconservatism, and a hundred mutually incompatible other things. What common denominator can they possibly share? How can they all be “right-wing”? No liberal has ever been able to tell me.

To add to the confusion, no matter how bitterly all these right-wing people disagree amongst themselves, they are always a single thing: “the” right wing. And no matter how much President Bush increases the size of government, no matter how far to the left he moves the Republican Party, all liberals agree that he is “right-wing.”
As much as I admire Sobran and generally agree with his point here, I must admit that he falls prey to his own pet peeve.

A Literary Videogame? Vagrant Story

Vagrant Story is, in my opinion, the best videogame I have ever played, and its script rivals that of the best fantasy movies.

The Arrogance of Consequentialism

Morning's Minion at Vox Nova has been arguing that consequentialism, defined as "the notion that the morality of an act depends solely on a calculation of foreseeable consequences," is endemic in our society. Minion's latest on the subject lists seven examples of consequentialist argumentation and notes that most people would object to some but not all of the seven. Conclusion: "We are a consequentialist culture."

Consequentialist moral thinking goes beyond simply factoring in foreseeable consequences into the discernment of the morality of an act. I am sure Minion would have no problem with someone considering the effects his action may cause and avoiding an action if those effects would be bad. The key word in the definition of consequentialism is the adverb solely.

What a consequentialist morality admits is that any action can be justified based on the foreseeable consequences: abortion, stem-cell research, torture, nuking cities, you name it. It also assumes an arrogant pseudo-omniscience, an impossible certainty about the future. That acts have foreseeable consequences I grant, but I also know that our acts often (if not always) have unforeseeable and unintended consequences, thus making a consequentialist ethic and exercise in guess-work and gambling. Hardly a reliable system for ascertaining the morality of an act.

Thoughts on Moral Relativism

In the land of orthodox moral philosophers, the scourge that threatens to plague and devastate the countryside is moral relativism. Moral absolutists like Peter Kreeft have written books debunking the claims of a relativistic outlook, and rightly so. I wonder, though, whether or not moral relativism is really the dreadful affliction it is often claimed to be. I wonder if its pestilence is so widespread.

I can think of a handful of actual defenses of moral relativism. J. L. Mackie's Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong and Joseph Fletcher's Situation Ethics come immediately to mind. Nevertheless, many of today's defenses of moral evils seem based not on a relativism but on a misguided moral absolutism.

The pro-choice position is not relativistic, but a position based on an absolute right. Terrorism is justified on grounds of religious or political creeds. Torture is defended as obligatory when millions of lives are at stake.

I don't recall knowing anyone who thought that certain actions were not always and everywhere wrong and others not always and everywhere right. What I have encountered are serious differences in moral languages and moral values. I have heard many differences of opinion on what a correct hierarchy of values should be (most don't say hierarchy of values, though, and rightly so).

Some people believe safety is more important that justice. Others believe personal freedom is of higher value than life that may be personal. Some people believe same sex marriage is a greater threat to the family than unavailable heath care. Others believe that comfort is more important than health. Yet I think each of these folks would hold that safety, justice, freedom, life, love, health care, comfort, and vitality are all good things.

In short, I think there are worse diseases of thought than moral relativism.

More on this to come.

Because It's Cool

Audio of J. R. R. Tolkien reading from The Lord of the Rings.

Vox Nova Debates the Death Penalty

Vox Nova, a group blog of Catholic perspectives on culture, society, and politics, has been debating the death penalty. This post has links to all of the posts in the debate so far, so I've linked to it.

Worth the read.

A Tale of Two Takes

National Review approves of President Bush speech yesterday. Andrew Sullivan is less impressed.

A Military Coup in the Works?

Juan Cole reports.

Theodor Adorno, Call Your Office

Scientific research is exploring empathy in certain brain cells. Critical theorists should take note:

And if researchers in Europe and the U.S. are correct, these cells are subconscious seeds of social behavior that also can be manipulated to boost sales, generate fads or influence political beliefs.


This doesn't surprise me:

Already, Dr. Iacoboni is assessing how mirror neurons react to commercial advertising, effectively turning brain circuits into focus groups. Later this summer, he plans to study how mirror neurons in the brains of independent voters react to campaign speeches by Republican and Democratic candidates.

It will be his second foray into the neurobiology of politics. During the last presidential election, he tried and failed to detect the activity of mirror neurons among loyalists of both parties as they watched political ads.

"Frankly, the campaign was so nasty," he said, "that the empathetic response had completely disappeared."


In our many debates over politics, morality, and religion, I don't think we should compromise our principles, but we would do well to empathize with those we disagree with, at the very least try to understand them as they understand themselves.

I think we'd accomplish more good that way.

Binary Thinking Alert

President Bush attended the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention today and gave a speech arguing once again for the War on Terror, the war in Iraq, the cause against tyranny, and the fight to spread Democracy throughout the Middle East. He concluded his speech thus:

The greatest weapon in the arsenal of democracy is the desire for liberty written into the human heart by our Creator. So long as we remain true to our ideals, we will defeat the extremists in Iraq and Afghanistan. We will help those countries' peoples stand up functioning democracies in the heart of the broader Middle East. And when that hard work is done and the critics of today recede from memory, the cause of freedom will be stronger, a vital region will be brighter, and the American people will be safer.


The president framed the current conflict against Islamic extremists within the larger narrative of America's battles with evil ideologies, naming Nazism and Communism and discussing World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. He stressed instances during which the naysayers were wrong about foreign lands with foreign cultures not being able to adopt democracy.

He and others have made these arguments before, but, to Sean Hannity's frustration, the president must continually remind people why we're fighting this fight. The barrage of bad news from the media weakens our will and emboldens our enemies, and so our cause must be defended again and again not just abroad but here at home. At least that's what they say.

I'm no expert on Middle East affairs, and I don't know what chance there is of democracy succeeding in that part of the world. I do know that liberty and democracy are not the same thing (odd that a Republican says otherwise), that democracy has its own potential for tyranny, and that the conflicts in Iraq are far too complex, volatile, and intricate to pacify simply by killing terrorists and establishing a particular system of government. If Bush's speeches are any indication of how he sees and thinks about the world, then he thinks simplistically and in concealing binary oppositions, using big words for small matters, as Joe Sobran argues. He speaks of Iraq as one front in the War on Terror, seemingly ignorant of the (at least) eight fronts currently present. He warns us that we must fight the extremists over there else we'll have to fight them here, illogically assuming that our enemies can't do both.

President Bush seems to see the world primarily in broad categories: good, evil, liberty, tyranny, democracy, dictatorship, safety, and terror; and he divides the world into these very real categories. Unfortunately his dividing the world in such a rigidly binary manner blinds him to the minute matters that should demand his attention as the most powerful man in the world.

The War Faithful Yell

Here's a video from a group of folks I'd call among the War Faithful. I'd say the metaphor of war pretty much shapes their outlook on evangelizing.

War and Double Effect

Is the principle of double effect misused to justify killing innocents in war? The question is raised over at Vox Nova.

Is this the End of English Literature?

I'm not a smoker, but here's a unique, and for me, pertinent argument against government smoking bans.

Teachout on Wikipedia

Terry Teachout says it's okay to edit your own Wikipedia entry. He edits his own, but after admitting this on his blog, he promptly found the entry vandalized.

For Whit Stillman Fans

For those of you who have seen and enjoyed the three films of Whit Stillman--Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco--here is a link to some journal articles on Stillman's art from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

To those of you who haven't seen Whit Stillman's marvelously brainy comedies, I recommend tracking down copies. Metropolitan has recently been released on Criterion DVD, Barcelona has been on DVD for a while. Finding a VHS copy of Disco is daunting, but well worth it.

The Training of Belligerent Brats

Reading library books to my one-year-old son this morning, I come across a book called Baby Talk by Margaret Miller. A handsome baby smiles on the cover. Turning the first page, we read the word "Hi" typed next to a cordial looking lad. The next page, however, features the word "No!" and a stubborn-looking baby with puckered lips, looking as if he's about to administer the kiss of death. On the next page a baby plays with his lip and says, "Mine!" The remaining pages present typical baby words. "Yes," makes no appearance; instead we read the ambivalent "Okay." "Please" and "Thank you" must be too advanced for the intended audience.

A baby's first words well set the stage for how he sees the world. I find Miller's emphasizing disobedience, bad manners, and possessiveness far more alarming than any ill effects of an adolescent reading Harry Potter.

Thought for a Sunday

"We are spouses when the faithful soul is united by the Holy Spirit to our Lord Jesus Christ. We are brothers, moreover, when we do the will of his Father who is in heaven; mothers when we carry him in our heart and body through love and a pure and sincere conscience; and give him birth through a holy activity, which must shine before others by example."

- St. Francis of Assisi

What Literature Does

"In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do."

- C. S. Lewis

On Marriage Amendments

I am strongly opposed to a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, for the simple reason that I don't think government should be defining marriage at all. Such an amendment would establish a dangerous precedent. The definition of marriage would become something for the State to decide and to coerce citizens into accepting. Bad idea.

The Vocation of Rick Santorum

As a senator, Rick Santorum was known as a champion of the unborn, traditionally defined marriage, and other causes close to the hearts of cultural conservatives. Now he writes "The Weekly Threat Roundup" for the Ethics and Public Policy Center, focusing on threats foreign rather than domestic, and has broadened his audience by giving speeches and contemplating becoming a movie producer.

Michael Brendan Dougherty in The American Conservative details what Santorum has been up to these days. He thinks Santorum is preaching paranoia. That analysis is not surprising coming from the war-weary magazine founded by Pat Buchanan.

I don't see a problem per se with Santorum focusing his attention on issues of foreign policy. We each have our own vocation; not all are meant to make abortion or any one issues their primary concern.

Nevertheless, I am alarmed by aspects of his new cause.

First, I have noticed a trend in conservative thought since the jingoistic neo-conservative ideologies took center state in aftermath of 9/11: the ascension of war policy to the throne of conservative issues. Indeed, being strong on national defense (on which we spend more than the rest of the world combined) is viewed by many conservatives as more important than a leader's stance on any other issue. We may have a choice between two pro-choice hawks in 2008! Santorum may not wish to be a part of this trend, but he'll have to tread carefully to avoid his own contribution to the reduction of conservatism into militarism.

Second,while undoubtedly a cultural conservative, Santorum does not seem to fear the growth and concentration of government power when it's used to fight foreign foes (or make metaphysical pronouncements on the nature of marriage). I don't doubt that we have real foes and real threats, both foreign and domestic, but I don't doubt either that we are a real threat to ourselves if we wield power imprudently in responding to these dangers. I hope Santorum preaches a prudent foreign policy, but given the magnitude of his mission, that doesn't seem likely.

A New Take on the Assumption

John Zmirak on the Vatican Space Program. With recipes!

Mencken on Puritanism

"Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."
- H. L. Mencken

On Dogmatic Education

We should not be dogmatic about education, for such dogmatism would require being certain about human nature, and human nature is something far too mysterious for our systems of thought to contain.

Changing Their Tunes

The internet and sites such as Youtube have made it much more difficult for politicians to leave their past statements behind. Anything they say or do in public may be recorded by an unsuspected cell phone or digital recorder and posted on the internet in a matter of seconds. As comedian Jon Stewart remarked, don't they know we're filming everything they say?

Here are two videos showing politicians making statements very different from what they're saying today.

In the first, key Democrats make claims with certainty that Saddam is pursuing or has weapons of mass destruction.

In the second is Dick Cheney in 1994, arguing why we shouldn't go into Baghdad: would create an occupation, would see pieces of Iraq fly off, would create a quagmire, would cause additional casualties that the removal of Saddam wasn't worth.

Of course, there are legitimate reasons for someone to change his mind on an issue. Videos such as these may hold politicians accountable, provoking them to explain why they changed their minds.

Bill Kristol on the Daily Show

Here's a discussion between neoconservative Bill Kristol and comedian Jon Stewart, who obviously strongly disagree on the Iraq War, but who can nevertheless have a jovial exchange.

Strange Priorities

It is a miracle that Christianity survived its infancy (assuming it's not still in its infancy). The small group of followers of a vanished leader faced torture and death for proclaiming their beliefs, and yet they didn't hide away and keep to themselves, fearful of discovery and annihilation. They didn't take arms against the forces who sought their destruction. They were more concerned about spreading the Good News to those who hated and wanted to kill them than they were about saving their own skins. Here was a threatened community who could have very easily been wiped off the map, and yet, while not altogether imprudent, they preached publicly for love of God, love of their neighbors, and love of their enemies. They cared more for their enemies' souls than for their own lives, and they knew that enough of their deaths could mean the death of their religion. They had strange priorities, and they were triumphant.

The Impressive and Irritating Mr. Prager

When Dennis Prager invites on his show very intelligent thinkers who have very different views from his own and has a civilized discussion with them, I am impressed. Prager has engaged such thinkers as the historian Howard Zinn and the atheist Sam Harris.

When Mr. Prager argues that we should hope some people are in Hell, I'm quite irritated. Actually, my jaw dropped when I read that argument.

Mr. Prager's latest column irritates me. In, "If It's Bad for America, It's Good for Democrats," he makes the case that...well, the title kinds says it all. He seems to think that what he says is particular to the Democrats when really it's applicable to anyone making the case that a current policy is bad and needs improvement.

If you're Ron Paul and think that many of our public institutions ought to be privatized, then your argument is helped when public institutions do a poor job. If you're Christopher Hitchens and you think religion poisons everything (even the root word of your first name, Mr. Hitchens?), then when religious people do bad things, your arguments are more persuasive.

If you declare yourself the guy who's going to fix things, you'll get a lot more business if things really need fixing.

Not that I trust the Democrats to fix things!

From the Top Drawer

Taki thinks President Bush is an honourable man who would have made a great commander in chief were it not for the cancerous influence of neoconservatives. That's probably a hard sell, to admirers and detractors of Bush alike.

Faith and Culture

Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I. on why not to use the adjective countercultural.

Monday Morning Ministration

"Drink to the point of hilarity."

- St. Thomas Aquinas

A Thought to End the Day

"The first problem of the media is posed by what does not get translated or even published in the dominant political languages."

- Jacques Derrida

Good and Evil

Following 9/11, the usage of the words good and evil increased within our discussions of foreign policy. They were, of course, not unheard earlier in our discussions of foreign tyrants and their brutal regimes. Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union the evil empire. 9/11, however, brought such foreign evil within our home. We saw it first hand, and called it by its true name.

I was, for the most part, glad to see the concepts of good and evil spoken about in mainstream discourse. We don't hear much about Hell these days, and so our hellbent deeds often go unnoticed or excused. Nevertheless, I have been and remain concerned that our usage of good and evil is somewhat inaccurate. Two concerns stand out for me:

1. The overly broad application of good and evil, where we are good and our opponents are evil. To be sure, it would be equally inaccurate and equally dangerous to assert that we are all equally good (and equally evil), but nor are we completely free of evil, and nor are our enemies completely devoid of good. There is a battle between good and evil in each of our souls, and by our own power we are no more worthy of heavenly victory than the terrorist or genocidal tyrant. To think free people are incapable of great evil is presumptuous, and to think our enemies cannot be reasoned with our talked to because they are pure evil is a form of despair.

2. Our having too much faith in our own instruments (war, democracy, etc.) to defeat evil. True evil cannot ultimately be defeated by any instrument of man. If we are forced by necessity or by justice to destroy evil by destroying the evildoer, then we have failed to live up to the divine call of love. To love our enemies means to pray, to hope, and to the extent we are able, to work for their salvation. The greatest weapon against evil is love, expressed most powerfully in the sacrifice of love--specifically the loving sacrifice of Christ. It is through our love that we are most open to and able to communicate to others the divine life we call grace.

What would bring more rejoicing in Heaven: the annihilation of Al-qaeda or the conversion and redemption of its members? Which are we more devoted to?

Tolkien on the Eucharist

Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love upon earth: the Blessed Sacrament…..There you will find romance, glory, honor, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man's heart desires.

- J.R.R. Tolkien, in a letter to his son

The Language of War

America has been in a state of war for some time now. Gore Vidal noted and documented not long after 9/11 that we've been involved in over two hundred military operations since the end of World War II. Some of these are ongoing. I am not here concerned with the justice of these operations; I make the point because the world we are situated in does influence our thinking, and our perpetual state of war, especially in the last decade, has not left our minds untouched.

For the most part, 9/11 being an obvious exception, the fronts of these wars have been far away, over there, distant from our daily lives. We experienced terror on 9/11 that many places in the world know only too well. For us and in our much of our thinking, the enemy is distant, far away, yet a threat that must be faced--faced over there lest the enemy enter our daily routine and fight us over here. At least that's what we're told. I doubt those who live "over there" find such arguments of ours comforting. Callous, I'd say.

The language of war is not only used in reference to actual wars, but also in reference to the conflicts in our culture. The phrase "culture wars" is common among those who believe that our culture is infected with evil ideas and practices, ideas and practices that must be fought and defeated in order to redeem our culture. "Culture warrior," one popular journalist calls himself.

I agree that there is much evil in our culture, and much good also. I also agree that such evil must be fought against, and so I am understanding of the language of war used in reference to our cultural conflicts. Nevertheless, this language, while expressing truth, conceals truth as well.

In a war, the objective is to defeat the enemy. Certainly we should want to "defeat" erroneous ideas and evil practices tolerated or celebrated in our culture. But here we come to the limits of the language of war. For what is necessary for the redemption of our culture is not the defeat of those who harm the culture, but their conversion and redemption. We don't change a person's ideas by destroying him, by ignoring his dignity as a person, or by disrespecting his dignity as a person. We can change his mind and heart through charitable engagement, persuading him to embrace and proclaim the truth.

Perhaps no cultural issue is more passionately fought over than abortion. The language of war is wielded with full force in this debate. From each side we often hear the debate framed as a battle between good and evil, justice and injustice, with each side arguing or asserting its side as the only good one. Often we hear voices on the pro-life side depicting those in the abortion rights movement as pro-death or evil baby killers. From the abortion rights side are heard claims that those on the pro-life side are fanatically religious or oppressors of women. Locked into the language of war, many on each side seldom listen to the other side or consider the possibility that each may have legitimate moral concerns.

If each side has any hope of fruitfully addressing its moral concerns, it will need to learn to think and communicate beyond just the language of war. A pro-life culture won't appear just because Roe v. Wade is overturned. It will take persuading the abortion rights movement, including and especially the movers and shakers, of the personhood of the unborn (or at the very least, that the mere possibility of their personhood obligates us to act on the side of life). Such persuasion is unlikely to occur unless the pro-life side is open to and willing to do something about the the moral concerns of the the abortion rights side.

What hope we have in these cultural conflicts lies in charity, and charity is a virtue that closes the distance, drawing us closer together, where we cease to see the other as an enemy "over there," and where we may see them as one made in the image and likeness of God, made to be with God, and given the power of mind and heart to see that destiny.

I'm not prepared...

Any man who afflicts the human race with ideas must be prepared to see them misunderstood.

- H. L. Mencken

Getting the word out...

Technorati Profile

A Matter of Purpose

While I enjoy blogging about a variety of topics from current events to literary possibilities of videogames, I am particularly intrigued by how people interpret reality, specifically how the language we use reveals and conceals the reality about which we speak. To speak technically, I am interested in analyzing our hermeneutic frameworks.

A purpose I'll be returning to again and again in the blog is the analysis and exploration of how language opens, reveals, shapes, creates, limits, and conceals our understanding of reality (even the word reality does these things). Readers of Postmodern Papist will know I have already begun this task, though it remains still in the embryonic stages.

This is a task I believe to be very important, for how we interpret reality, how we understand truth, is intimately tied to how we act. I hope to put into practice what in philosophy is called hermeneutics, a philosophy that could be considered postmodern--hence the cheesy alliteration of my blog title. It is a philosophy that is neither a realism nor an idealism, neither an objectivism nor a subjectivism, neither outside these nor a synthesis of these.

Hermeneutics? It is a matter of interpretation...

The Language of Victory and Defeat

Anyone who has listened to the rhetoric about the Iraq War from the administration and the war's supporters in the media should have noticed the occasional change in the language used to argue for the war's justification. I would say the most common language used today is the language of victory and defeat.

I don't often hear anymore the moral arguments for our invasion of Iraq, such as the threat posed by Saddam's regime in aiding terrorism or pursuing weapons of mass murder, or the prudence of our spreading democracy throughout the Middle-East. Though there are those who still hold adamantly to the those justifications, but they're not the majority. The popular language now is that of victory and defeat.

As early as December of 2005, President Bush mentioned the defeatist attitude and established the rhetorical binary of victory and defeat for talking about Iraq. He was for victory; those who opposed our actions in the Middle East were for defeat. Search the websites Townhall.com or Human Events and you'll find a good number of articles from dutiful subjects repeating the victory/defeat binary.

Like most any binary used to categorize everyone into one side or the other, the binary of victory and defeat is false while expressing some truth. Nevertheless, it is a very effective manipulation of language in the political arena. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and others have taken full advantage of the binary in their charges against those who, in their words, "own defeat" or have "bought defeat" or have "taken hold of defeat."

I find it very fascinating that these pundits think of victory and defeat in Iraq in terms of ownership. A revealing metaphor, that.

Language shapes the way we perceive and interpret reality. Controlling the language allows one to control the thinking and seeing of those who uncritically adopt that language.

Warming to Hillary?

Bruce Bartlett reflects upon recent complimentary comments by prominent conservative writers about a Hillary Clinton presidency.

Deconstructing Left and Right

When asked whether I am a conservative or a liberal, I am at a loss as to how to respond. A decade ago I would have eagerly called myself a conservative, and while I have since been heavily influenced by such "liberal" thinkers as Jacques Derrida, Paul Ricoeur, and Herbert Marcuse, my political and moral views haven't moved much on the spectrum. My thinking has been formed just as much by Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, and J.R.R. Tolkien (not to mention Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas).

Aside from having my own strange concoction of philosophical influences that seems to place me outside the conservative/liberal binary (I'm no synthesis of them, which is impossible), the meaning of the two terms has changed in the past decade, especially the meaning of conservative. Many conservatives today define themselves in terms of a particular position on concrete issues (Iraq War, Illegal immigration, Judicial appointments, etc.); whereas being conservative used to mean working to conserve the permanent things in an ever changing world. Conservatives generally held to the same principles, but they could disagree on how those principles were applied in concrete situations. Today their principles are vaguely defined, and their stance on the issues is what defines them. I speak generally here.

I find myself at home neither on the Left nor the Right, neither under the banner of conservatism nor of liberalism. Such terms, of course, have their inherent limitations, but these days I'm not even sure what they mean.

Quote of the Day

"If we repudiate liberal education, we will be saddled with illiberal education; we will exchange a disciplining of free minds for an indoctrination of servile minds."

- Russell Kirk

Hilarious

Context is everything.

Hat tip: Mark Shea

Decay of Literacy

Joseph Sobran laments:
In one century we went from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to offering remedial English in college.
Might this have something to do with the problem?

How often do students learn to diagram sentences these days? Grammar is the structure by which we understand reality. Lose sight of the structure, lose touch with reality.

Ode to My Hairbrush

When my hair was much shorter
my black comb was the porter
to the door leading me to an elegant do.

But now that it's longer,
I need something much stronger,
to ram through the gates of hair ever so new.

O brush! Please untangle, shine, and not mangle,
my immaculate hair into an illustrious hue!

Safety, Sacrilege, and the Hierarchy of Values

From what I hear about the Iowa "debate," Republican presidential hopeful Tom Tancredo defended his statement that we should be willing to bomb Mecca and other holy sites of Islam in order to deter terrorist strikes on our soil.

His argument is that as president his highest priority would be the defense of this country. President Bush has made the same claim, thankfully without the threat to obliterate sacred places. It's an erroneous and dangerous idea nonetheless. If safety really is the highest value to which our president must respond, then all other values can be sacrificed for the sake of safety. A person who values his own or others' safety more than he values justice would be willing to commit injustice for the sake of safety. Given the size and scope of power that the president wields, the degree of injustice capable of being committed in the name of protecting us from terrorists is frightening indeed.

Tom Tancredo's willingness to destroy a holy city and kill a large population of religious believers may not be a mainstream position, but it's not a new position in our history. The intended target of our atomic bombing of Nagasaki was the largest Catholic Cathedral in Japan, and I've known devout Catholics who have justified, in the name of safety, bombing the Blessed Sacrament and many innocent Catholic faithful. Russell Kirk said that raw power in our hands is just as dangerous as raw power in the hands of any other nation.

No amount of danger and threat to our safety justifies our entering into evil. Why am I hearing conservatives say otherwise?

Illogical Attributing

One of my pet peeves is the attributing of statements made by a fictional character to the author who wrote the story. It doesn't follow that because a character, even a hero, says something, that the author believes the statement to be true.

It's especially irritating when the nihilistic statements of Hamlet or Macbeth (both villains) are attributed to Shakespeare. This is akin to quoting the Machiavellian moral arguments of Saruman and citing Tolkien, or quoting the lies of Satan in the Bible and attributing them to God.

The Torture Question

"Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity." Such is the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, and Catholics as diverse in their moral thinking as Mark Shea and Andrew Sullivan have criticized the current administration for what they see as a torture policy at use in the War on Terror. (As of yet, Karl Keating has not added torture to his pet list of non-negotiables).

The official line, of course, is that we don't torture; that our sometimes harsh interrogation techniques do not constitute torture, and that recorded abuses and clear violations of human dignity were the sins of a few bad apples.

Is the official line accurate, or are we really practicing torture as a matter of unofficial policy?

Here are some of my concerns:

1. President Bush has admitted that he doesn't know what "outrages against human dignity" means, yet in a recent Executive Order, he says the following:
On February 7, 2002, I determined for the United States that members of al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces are unlawful enemy combatants who are not entitled to the protections that the Third Geneva Convention provides to prisoners of war. I hereby reaffirm that determination...The Military Commissions Act defines certain prohibitions of Common Article 3 for United States law, and it reaffirms and reinforces the authority of the President to interpret the meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions.
If the president doesn't know what constitutes an outrage against human dignity, how is he to be an accurate interpreter of the laws prohibiting torture? He also claims the power to define who counts as an unlawful enemy combatant, those who, according to him, are not protected by the laws prohibiting torture. Even if President Bush would never authorize torture, he's paved the way for his successors to torture with impunity. There seem to be loopholes.

2. The acceptance of torture by prominent conservatives, including some of the Republican presidential candidates. Justice Scalia has praised Jack Bauer's torture techniques. Charles Krauthammer has argued for torture (by that name) in the Weekly Standard. Michael Ledeen had this to say:
My point--Machiavelli's point, actually--is that real decisions in real life are almost never easy, and those called upon to make those tough decisions have to be willing to "enter into evil." Sometimes by doing that--as briefly as possible, he implores us--means doing things we know to be morally wrong. I gave the Hitler example because Machiavelli knows, as every grownup thoughtful person knows, that it is also possible to do the morally right thing, and by so doing, we unleash great evil. Life is tough. And the abstract moralists are not a very good guide for leaders, at least not all the time.


3. These 14 documents originating from the White House, the Pentagon and the Justice Department concerning the Administration's interrogation policies.

4. What does "Take the gloves off" mean in this memo?

5. The administration's unwillingness to outlaw particular techniques like waterboarding, despite President Bush's complaints about the vagueness of the Geneva Conventions.

6. The underhanded way Cheney's Office went about crafting the policy for "robust interrogation" techniques.

7. The speculative reporting of Seymour Hersh on Abu Ghraib, The Special Access Program run by Stephen Cambone, and the concerns of Major General Antonio M. Taguba. Hersh relies heavily on interviews with anonymous sources, so one should not think his reporting is cold hard fact. See his book Chain of Command.

Do these concerns mean we have a torture policy? That may be debatable, but it seems clear to me that the door has been opened for one. I pray that I am wrong.

Flannery O'Conner, meet Harry Potter

Few writers possess the concise and intelligent style of Flannery O'Connor. He are three of her famous quotes, which I post now for I find them applicable to the controversy over Harry Potter. Enjoy!

"When a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that for the writer to worry is to take over God's business."

"The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location."

"I am not afraid that the book will be controversial, I'm afraid it will not be controversial."

For those interested in O'Conner's non-fiction, I recommend The Habit of Being and Mystery and Manners.

My Litmus Test

I don't consider myself a single-issue voter. I'm not even an issue voter. Issues change, and politicians are more than voting machines. What I look for in a political candidate, first and foremost, is his or her prudence and judgment, especially because our "leaders" today wield more power than King George III ever dreamed of in all his tyrannical ambitions.

For me, the central question of politics is the question of power and its relation to freedom. I therefore look for candidates who understand that raw power is a grave danger to their souls and to our freedom. I look for candidates who know that they are sinful and capable of corruption, and who seek safeguards against their own abuse of power. I look for candidates capable of prudential judgments, who are principled but not ideological. In short, I look for virtue, especially the virtue of prudence.

Pleasant Surprise

I was shocked but very pleased to read a piece in National Review favorable to Ron Paul. Dr. Paul has made both friends and enemies due to his anti-war positions; despite his desire to eliminate just about every government program, he finds support among some big government anti-war progressives!

I am pleased not because I think all conservatives ought to be against the Iraq War, but rather because I think conservatives ought to be able to disagree about the justice of any particular war. Conservatives should conserve principles, not ideologies. Unfortunately, since 9/11, conservatism has become synonymous with militarism; one's stance on war is seen by many conservatives as the litmus test for determining political persuasion. Hence the acceptance and popularity of Rudy Giuliani. National Review has contributed to this association of conservatism with militarism, so I'm glad to see some willingness on their part to support an anti-war candidate.