Thought for a Sunday

“Someday after mastering winds, waves, tides and gravity, we shall harness the energies of love. And then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will discover fire.”

- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

A Living Document?

I’m usually suspicious of binary thinking, but I think G. K. Chesterton was spot on precise when he said we could either be ruled by rules or by rulers. Our leaders will either govern by the law, to which they themselves are subject, or they will govern by their whims and what they decide at the present moment is the scope and degree of their power. It is in this context that I approach the question of whether or not the Constitution of the United States is a living document.

At least two of the potential candidates for the presidency, Kucinich and Paul, regularly refer to the Constitution, the former flashing his copy of the document during many debates. Despite their repeated reference and revealed respect for the document, these two congressmen have very different ideas about how the Constitution should be interpreted. Ron Paul won’t vote in favor of legislation unless it is explicitly allowed for by the Constitution. Implied meanings, or emanations from penumbras, generally are not going to figure into his interpretation. Dennis Kucinich, who advocates a single-payer not-for-profit healthcare plan, obviously thinks the Constitution, despite the Tenth Amendment, authorizes such a federal program. I think it’s safe to say that for Kucinich, the Constitution is a living document, whereas for Paul it is not. My understanding?

In a sense, I would have to say that the Constitution is a living document, for the simple reason that it is written in human language, a living language no less. It is written in more precise language than, say, the Bible, an intentional and prudent decision by its writers, but that doesn’t take away the historical-cultural character of the language in which it is written. Nevertheless, while philosophically I would defend the living character of its language, as a matter of prudent policy, I would advocate the most rigid, strict-constructionist, interpretation as possible. Why?

The founders of this country understood that either we are ruled by rules or by rulers. That is why in the Declaration of Independence they stressed that the power of government comes from the consent of the governed. In other words, the power in general, and specific powers in particular, that the government has over us are powers we voluntarily give it. The people decide what rules they and their leaders will follow. The alternative is that the leaders decide what powers they have, and the people are coerced into submitting to the will of their leaders, who are really not leaders at all but rulers. We call this tyranny.

If the Constitution is treated as a living document by the government, this opens the door for the government to usurp power and declare what powers it will rule by. A living document approach to the Constitution opens the door to tyranny. A strict-constructionist interpretation of the Constitution, while philosophically not the only valid interpretation, better keeps the government in check, its powers clearly defined. One of the primary purposes of the Constitution is to clearly define the powers of government and the division of powers. It is a tool against tyranny. Alas, it is not guaranteed tool for success. As Joe Sobran points out, the Constitution is no threat to our form of government.

Edwards' Education of Exposure

Presidential Candidate John Edwards revealed something of his philosophy of education in the latest Democratic debate. Asked if he would be fine with a second grade child of his own reading a book in school about two princes who get married, he responded, “Absolutely,” citing the importance of children being exposed to the hardships of homosexual people. He claimed he wasn’t God, and therefore couldn’t impose his ideas of what was right on his own children.

One needn’t have the authority of God to teach their children moral principles, virtues, or rights and duties; parental authority is enough. Edwards doesn’t seem to recognize that. He seems to think exposing his children to a plurality of ideas is enough for them to adequately form their own opinions. No guidance necessary? Even Hillary Clinton has the words “parental discretion” in her vocabulary. If Edwards refuses to “impose his beliefs” upon his own children, what kind of leader would he be to the nation?

Anything New Under the Sun?

Reflecting upon his own experience with postmodern thought, the Pertinacious Papist writes,
When all is said and done, however, whatever contributions can be found in these developments that are actually really interesting, there is very little that is actually substantially new. When A.N. Whitehead said that all of philosophy has been nothing but a series of footnotes to Plato, he was, of course, exaggerating. But only a bit. I realize that there are individuals, such as John D. Caputo, Jean-Luc Marion, and to some extent, perhaps, Marold Westphal, who have made personal careers out of endeavoring to demonstrate that something worth discovering may finally reside beneath all the superficial hype surrounding the now deceased Derrida and his deconstructionist reading of philosophical texts.
I can relate. One of the aspects of Derrida's thought that intrigued me and drew me into his way of seeing the world was that his philosophy really wasn't new. Philosophizing in his own situation, time, culture, and language, Derrida was illuminating the darkness of our minds with the bright torch of Socrates, who like Derrida knew that he did not know. Particularly enjoyable in those years after becoming acquainted with deconstruction was my reading of classic texts from Plato to Josef Pieper to Frank Sheed, and after coming upon a particular passage, remarking to myself that what they said kinda sounded like Derrida.

The Pertinacious Papist concludes:
When all was said and done, I found these thinkers -- as valuable as the have been for understanding where we are today -- utterly disappointing. In the beginning, they entice. They seduce. They draw one in with the promise of profundity. But their larders are empty, their cisterns dry, and they leave their victims empty, famished, parched with thirst. By contrast, I have found that turning back to some of the forgotten, neglected, rejected, derided "scholastic" sorts of thinkers that I have mentioned above has turned up an unexpected oasis within the deserts of modernity and postmodernity -- a place with fertile growth and deep wells where one can drink deeply and find satisfaction.
I can understand this dissatisfaction with postmodernism, which can tend to focus on how we don't know rather than on the being we can know. Perhaps it is a mental perversion of mine that I am equally fascinated with how we know and don't know as I am with being, truth, and goodness. I find much good wine in the wells of postmodernism. My defense is that I believe even philosophers have vocations, special callings to devote themselves to projects most others would find not to their liking.

New Book on the Inklings

What a group to have been in!

A Post on My Postmodern Philosophy

I have to thank blogger Counseling Kevin for his supportive and complementary response to my post on our being created lovers of God. He also, to my appreciation, gives a bit of background on my blog for his readers, and in doing so hits upon a topic on which I have for some time now been wanting to write: namely, what I mean by calling myself a postmodern papist.

First, there's the alliteration of the title, and I like alliteration.

Second, there's the connotation of the terms. Both "postmodern" and "papist" have a history of being used with a less than nice connotation. "Papist," from what I understand, is a derogatory term for Roman Catholic, alluding to the fact that the Catholics don't use that organ called the brain, but like obedient sheep unquestionably follow the dogmatic proclamations of the pope. I smell a wee bit of anti-Catholicism there. "Postmodern" is also used pejoratively, in reference to anything bad in contemporary philosophical meanderings. It's associated with an anything-goes relativism in which we don't seek the truth, but just make truth up. I deliberately chose the two terms because they are used pejoratively by different parties, in some cases in reference to each other. Why? That may become evident as my blog develops.

Third, the meaning of the terms. I'm a Catholic who's faithful to the Magisterium, hence a papist. I'm also what I'd call a postmodernist. Some postmodernists would say my being an obedient Catholic means I can't be postmodern and that I'm something closer to being a pre-modernist. Some devout Catholics would say my allegiance to church authority means I can't be postmodern. Well, I think both postmodern and papist are possible together, but that assertion takes some explaining. Or I may just need an advanced team of expert doctors of the mind.

The word "postmodern" is a rather stupid name, but I blame the enlightened modernists for that. When the postmodern era comes to an end, I hope the thinkers of that new dawn have the prudence and aesthetic affinity to conjure a more descriptive name, something precise and accurate, like Cuppism.

In one sense, "postmodern" is purely a historical category for thinking, art, music, etc., in a post-modern world. Modernity has past, God is still very much alive, the quest to contribute to knowledge continues. Of course, the modern world had some contributions, such as the concept of rights. To be post-modern is simply to be human in our present world. Any thinker today is thereby postmodern.

In a more particular sense, "postmodern" refers to peculiar philosophical (artistic, musical) projects. What separates philosophers is not what answers they give, as if all philosophers worthy of the name are merely giving their response to some elders-approved list of perennial philosophical questions. Philosophers are separated by the questions that they raise, their particular pursuits and passions. What unites them is the contributions that they give to our knowledge, to our understanding of the world. There are countless contributions in contemporary thought. There are also countless errors and bad ideas.

The postmodern project that fascinates me so is the branch of philosophy called hermeneutics, especially what John Caputo calls radical hermeneutics, which is a dialogue between hermeneutics and deconstruction. In a wholly inadequate nutshell, my being postmodern means that I think that we cannot know things as they are in themselves, and that that's okay (although some fear and trembling are in order). We know things in so far as they are contained and creatively shaped by our linguistic constructs. I am not a realist, but nor am I a relativist. I believe we can transcend ourselves and know objective things, but not in pure unmediated objective way. Neither is knowledge a purely subjective affair. Only God knows things as they truly are, unencumbered by the confines of our human, finite constructs and fragile little minds.

I have some older posts in which I relate my experience with this postmodern project, here and here, to which you may go if you are so inclined.

In short, similar to Counseling Kevin, I see postmodernism, at least in part, as a tool. A hammer would be my metaphor of choice, specifically a hammer for smashing false idols, which our constructs can become if we think they are what they express or that somehow the mystery of truth is entirely encapsulated by them. There is only one word which perfectly corresponds to the thing itself, which indeed is the thing itself, and that is the idea God has of Himself, which is the Word, Jesus, a Person, God, Truth itself. Every word besides the Word can be deconstructed; the Word of God is the undeconstructable. In a way, Derrida said as much himself.

Created Lovers of God

Reflecting on the humble heart of God, Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio writes:
The experience of love tells us that love can never be isolated or individual, love needs to be shared. The nature of God is to share love and that is why the word "God" cannot be abstract, devoid of meaning or individualized because the word "God" means relationship, a communion of persons-in-love. God is Trinity.
We are not little creatures who live down below in the valley of the earth. We are created lovers of God and even though we are finite and incomplete in our loving relationship with God, we are caught up in the eternal love of the Father and Son.
If there is a category that gives expression to the highest meaning of human existence, it is created lovers of God. To know the infinite meaning that this category contains is to live ever as lovers of God and lovers of each other. Being a lover of God and all that that entails is an identity that we must strive to keep in each and every circumstance of this life, in good times and in bad, in joyous occasions and in dreadful cataclysms. I hope and pray that all people may come to know and to love the God who is Love. I hope and pray that I may come to share in the divine love life of my Creator and give witness to that love in our shattered world.

Hopeful Prayers for War?

Norman Podhoretz, editor-at-large of Commentary magazine and author of World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism, is one of the chief defenders neoconservative philosophy writing today. He's known as being an advisor to President Bush and now to Rudy Giuliani. He has an article out called "The Case for Bombing Iran." In an interview about the piece, he says:
Well, if we were to bomb the Iranians as I hope and pray we will, we’ll unleash a wave of anti-Americanism all over the world that will make the anti-Americanism we’ve experienced so far look like a lovefest. On the other hand — that’s a worst case scenario, and worst case scenarios don’t always materialize. It’s entirely possible that many countries, particularly in the Middle East — the Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, who are very worried about Iranian influence and power — would at least secretly applaud us. And I think it’s possible that other countries in Europe, for example, and elsewhere, would be relieved to see the Iranians entirely deprived of the capability to build nuclear weapons, or at least have that ability retarded for five or 10 years or more.
He hopes and prays that we bomb Iran? Defending the use of military force in a particular situation is one thing. Hoping and praying for war is something else. Is Podhoretz's desire to bomb Iran is a religious passion?

I hope and pray for the miracle of peace. Wars should break our heart, even if they are just.

H/T: Andrew Sullivan

Progress or Regress?

Tinkering with the layout. Comments welcome.

Nominee for Best Opening of a Philosophy Book


"Everyone will readily agree that it is of the highest importance to know whether we are not duped by morality."

From Totality and Infinity, by Emmanuel Levinas

The best bread in Italy forces local McDonald's out of business

The Blue Boar celebrates news from Italy. I'm suddenly very hungry.

A Response to Education and the State

Responding to my post on education and the state, a reader emails:
The role of the state in democratic education should be limited simply to this: to set the rule that everyone be educated. No standards should be established, except perhaps that everyone be able to read. Comparing Athens and Rome, it seems that democratic (or at least partially democratic) societies leave education completely to the family. It was entirely privatized.

De Tocqueville's observations are also very interesting. He points out that the States merely made the law that everyone be educated. The establishment and administration of these laws (except in Connecticut perhaps) was completely a local matter. Thus the citizens in a small town raised their own moneys, built their own schools, and hired their own teachers. In Gatto's book Underground History of Public Education (which is all online and worth reading), he points out that the new System leveled all the old school houses to build prisonlike, bureaucratized, mammoth schools. The purpose was to centralize control and administration, to take the schools out of the hands of parents and teachers, neighborhoods and small towns; to put them under the control of "administrators" who never taught before but who implemented the new procedures of the self-appointed and altogether new educational elite. Gatto makes the convincing argument (even if it be a bit one-sided) that willy-nilly the purpose of the New System is not education but keeping the masses dumb, only smart enough to follow procedures required by industrialized and technologized society, not intelligent or ballsy enough to question them. They were Conditioners, in Lewis' sense of the term.

A Reader's Temptation

The number of books on my ever growing bookshelves that I have not read far outnumber the the books I have read. This, I think, it completely normal. Umberto Eco wrote a very funny essay on how to justify a private library: what to say to those who enter your abode, drop their jaw at the expansive collection, and ask, "Have you read them all?"

Nevertheless, I am constantly fighting the temptation to plow through the books as fast as I can while still acquiring a basic if mediocre understanding of what the author had to say. The blood and sweat required to really enter into the mind of another--to see the world as he sees it, to understand his projects, to empathize with his concerns--is more than I often think I can give.

I'm faced with the question: is it better to learn a little about a lot or a lot about a little?

Bureaucracy Woes

Stephen Bainbridge on why he is a small l libertarian. Money quote:
Today, we were informed by the City zoning department that they could not give us the necessary zoning information ... because, according to zoning records, our house does not exist! On top of which, the zoning folks also had no record of the street on which we live.
His story gets even better.

Thought for a Sunday


"Now, how do we experience the fact of language? Language is not a wholly individualized human reality; no one invents language. Its sources of diffusion and evolution are not individualized; and yet, what is more human than language? Man is human because he speaks: one the one hand, language exists only because each man speaks; but language also exists as an institution within which we are born and die. Is this not a sign that Man is not wholly individuated, but is both individual and collective?"

- Paul Ricoeur, The Image of God and the Epic of Man

A Chesterton-Based Curriculum

A new and promising Catholic school looks to G.K. Chesterton for inspiration.

Hat Tip: Nancy Brown

Ah, the Wondrous Programs of the Benevolent State

The Washington Post reports September 19th: "The U.S. military has introduced 'religious enlightenment' and other education programs for Iraqi detainees, some of whom are as young as 11, Marine Maj. Gen. Douglas M. Stone, the commander of U.S. detention facilities in Iraq, said yesterday." The story continues:
Stone said such efforts, aimed mainly at Iraqis who have been held for more than a year, are intended to "bend them back to our will" and are part of waging war in what he called "the battlefield of the mind." Most of the younger detainees are held in a facility that the military calls the "House of Wisdom."

The religious courses are led by Muslim clerics who "teach out of a moderate doctrine," Stone said, according to the transcript of a conference call he held from Baghdad with a group of defense bloggers. Such schooling "tears apart" the arguments of al-Qaeda, such as "Let's kill innocents," and helps to "bring some of the edge off" the detainees, he said.
So much for the separation of church and state.

More on Prudential Judgments

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus responds to criticisms from Vox Nova of his writings on the competence of Bishops to make prudential judgments on matters of public policy.

Dialogue with Evil?

Back in 2002, Father Frank Pavone, the head of Priests for Life, came under fire for being charitable, respectful, and (Gasp!) 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.

Due to Fr. Pavone's working with the enemy, his organization suffered 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."

Demonizing the opponents is common practice in the abortion debate. Pro-lifers are accused of not really caring for the unborn but using the issue to impose their religion or oppressive patriarchal systems on society. Abortion rights advocates are called assassins, baby-killers, abortion enthusiasts who fight for the right to butcher babies in death camps. In my opinion, this language is not helpful; it is a hindrance to building a culture of life.

A culture of life is is not simply a culture in which persist legal protections of the unborn. It is a culture in which people have an awe and respect for life and respond joyously and fervently to the holiness of life. If we have any hope of changing the culture, we must open hearts and minds to the beauty of all life. This will not happen if we alienate others either with demonizing language or by wielding truth as a weapon. I think Fr. Pavone was precisely right to befriend and try to persuade a powerful and effective advocate for abortion.

Thought for the Perpetually Late


"Punctuality is the virtue of the bored."

- Evelyn Waugh

Not Making Friends

Even The Nation despises Hillary Clinton's health care reform plan. John Nichols opines, "If the senator is nominated and elected, and if she advances the initiative she unveiled Monday, there will be no health-care reform."

Responding to the Holiness of Life

Reflecting on the humility of God, Franciscan sister Ilia Delio writes, "Incarnation we might say is God bending low to embrace the world in love. This makes the entire creation--all peoples, all mountains and valleys, all creatures big and small, everything that exists--holy because God embraces it." She continues, "Everything is sacred. The entire creation, including every person, is a sacrament of God because within each and every thing, in some way, God is hidden."

Philosopher Max Scheler noted that St. Francis of Assisi kissed festering wounds and did not kill biting bugs, not from a delight in pus or because of perverted instincts, but because he saw the holiness of life, even in a bug.

This awe and wonder and loving response to the holiness of life is what I think it means fundamentally to respect life or to be pro-life. A friend of mine pointed out this morning that any talk of the hierarchy of being and dignity must come after and be built upon this basic awe at the holiness of life.

Our response to the holiness of life comes easy when the life is near and dear to us. When the life is distant, either from our bodies or our minds, it is more difficult to respond to in love and awe. And when that life is the life of one who seeks to destroy our life, how are we to respond then? How should we respond to the shred of holiness left in one who is made in God's image and likeness and yet has embraced a life of spreading darkness, deceit, and death?

Man Dies from 3-Day Gaming Binge

May he rest in peace.

Presidential Candidates and the Kobayashi Maru

The Presidential Debates allow us to hear the words of the candidates declaring plans of what they would do, detailed explanations of what they are doing, and various interpretations of what they have done. What we really don't get to see is the candidates in real-time action. C-Span gives us some sense of their daily deeds, but for obvious reasons we can't have on location viewing of how they handle a crisis situation.

I therefore propose that we invent a holodeck like they have on Star Trek and put the candidates through test exercises like the Kobayashi Maru. It wouldn't have to be a no-win situation like the one faced by Saavik in Star Trek II, just a crisis situation that would give us citizens an indication of the candidate's leadership capabilities, moral fiber, real-time thinking, etc. There could be different situations that would show us the candidate's responses to the various issues.

Now I'm sure that some candidates would find ways to manipulate the system as Kirk did, but I still think it's a swell idea.

Send me money, and I'll get to work on that holodeck!

Silence and Love

"Silence is a language God can speak without being constantly interrupted because God is a mystery of incomprehensible love, and love speaks for itself. If we could really be attentive to the mystery of God in our lives we would realize that God is both beyond our thoughts and imaginations (although these can bring us closer to God) and very near to us. As St. Augustine indicated, God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. God is a mystery of silence and intimacy."

- Ilia Delio, The Humility of God

Sam Harris on Religious Sacrifice

Apologist for atheism Sam Harris reflects upon religious sacrifice and the doubts of Mother Teresa. He writes:
The notion that Jesus Christ died for our sins and that his death constitutes a successful propitiation of a “loving” God is a direct and undisguised inheritance of the scapegoating barbarism that has plagued bewildered people throughout history. Viewed in a modern context, it is an idea at once so depraved and fantastical that it is hard to know where to begin to criticize it. Add to the abject mythology surrounding one man’s death by torture—Christ’s passion—the symbolic cannibalism of the Eucharist. Did I say “symbolic”? Sorry, according to the Vatican it is most assuredly not symbolic.
Harris is unconvinced by the "strenuous theology" Catholics use to explain "how they can really eat the body of Jesus, not mere crackers enrobed in metaphor, and really drink his blood without, in fact, being a cult of crazy cannibals." His being unconvinced is not surprising, given that he doesn't understand Christian theology. Anyone who says that "Christianity amounts to the claim that we must love and be loved by a God who approves of the scapegoating, torture, and murder of one man—his son, incidentally—in compensation for the misbehavior and thought-crimes of all others," is in serious need of a Theology 101 class lecture on what God "approves of."

I wish Harris would at least try to understand Christians as they understand themselves.

Alan Keyes Joins the Fray

Does he believe he can beat Obama this time?

Binary Thinking Alert

Harvard Law student and scourge of liberal professors Ben Shapiro reflects on the "battle" over the legacy of 9/11. Here's his easily-digestible binary:
The ideological battle is the battle to define the lessons of 9/11. On one side stands the Vietnam-era left, which blames the United States (and in particular, its support for Israel) for the attacks of 9/11 and suggests that the American response to 9/11 demonstrated our boorish egocentrism and bigoted misinterpretation of world politics. On the other side stands the right, which sees Islamism, not American exceptionalism, as our true enemy. In the center, wavering, stands the bulk of the American people.

The legacy of 9/11 remains in doubt. A century from now, 9/11 will be seen either as the death knell of a crumbling civilization or a rallying cry for a renewed, American-led movement for freedom. The choice remains in our hands.
Despite (or perhaps because of) my more "progressive" philosophical views--you know, that whole postmodern deconstructionist thing--I am politically what I would call a Russell Kirk conservative, which is basically what conservatives used to look like before they shed their fears of unlimited government and adopted a messianic quest to make the world safe for Democratic Capitalism. And there are many on the political right, myself included, who think the causes of 9/11 are many and complex and that our reaction to 9/11 has been, well, bad.

Shapiro doesn't seem to see that though as it doesn't fit into his framework of liberals belief this and conservatives believe that. If he keeps composing articles like this, he'll go far as a conservative columnist.

Modern Day Sophist?

This headline cracked me up, in a dark, demented sort of way. But then, I am a philosopher, if a poor one, and my philosophical meanderings would not meet the approval of Michael Medved. He writes:
it’s hardly admirable that our generation concentrated on philosophical meanderings, nor is it in any sense regrettable that today’s students prefer to focus on economic progress and getting ahead. The kids today, in short, are closer to living and revitalizing the classic American dream, and they are serving the country while advancing themselves.
Plato would be proud.

False Analogy?

Here's an interesting analogy for understanding the Iraq War surge. Whether it is a good or bad analogy I'll leave to your deliberation. As always, comments welcome.

Thought for a Sunday

"Love is a mystery. When you love someone you know him in a deeper way; yet, the more you know someone the less you truly know him. The more the face of the lover is revealed, the more it is concealed. And so it is with God. The more we come to know the God of love, the more we are confronted with the mystery of God as a mystery of opposites: knowable and unknowable, ineffable and describable, utterly transcendent and supremely good."

- Ilia Delio, The Humility of God

Means and Ends in the Abortion Issue

Morning's Minion is annoyed. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus of First Things argues in a recent post that Bishop Thomas Wenski and his Committee on International Policy are exceeding their competence by working to forge U.S. policy in Iraq. Fr. Neuhaus writes:
Faithful Catholics listen attentively when bishops speak on faith and morals. My original point about competence is that Bishop Wenski and his committee are overreaching. Episcopal competence is related to faith and morals, not to faith, morals, and public policy—except when, as, for example, in the instance of abortion, specific public policies are entailed in the solemn magisterial teaching of the Church on faith and morals. That is decidedly not the case in this instance.
He continues:
Differences over American policy in Iraq are in the realm of prudential judgment. There are indeed moral questions involved in any policy of consequence. But when the bishops speak of “the dangerous and deteriorating situation in Iraq” and declare that the answer is to “end U.S. military engagement in Iraq,” they are making prudential judgments about eminently debatable circumstances. These are matters of fact and speculation about which people of equal or greater competence (meaning ability) disagree.
MM is highly critical of Fr. Neuhaus' position and wonders whether the editor of First Things believes the Church should stay out of public policy matters of prudential judgment.

I sure hope the Church can publicize and promote its prudential judgments on matters of public policy.

Contrary to the position of Fr. Neuhaus (and Karl Keating), how we work to end abortions in our society is a matter of prudential judgment. That abortion is an evil that we should eliminate is, for Catholics, a non-negotiable issue, as Karl Keating says. Nevertheless, the means by which we seek to eliminate abortion are matters of prudential judgment.

I recognize that this distinction is not widely held in the Respect Life Movement. For instance, when assessing the pro-life credentials of a politician, the standard is almost always where the politician stands on legislation and judicial decisions pertaining to abortion. In the political sphere, ending abortion means outlawing abortion. The end and means are the same.

I beg to differ.

The legal assessment standard is a good start, but on its own it is dangerously inadequate. Laws legalizing abortion allow abortions to occur, but the law is not the reason for their occurrence. The reasons are many and varied. Yet being pro-life on the abortion issue is equated with the desire to overturn Roe v. Wade and outlaw abortion.

Outlawing abortion is one means of working to eliminate abortion, and its a very important one. It is not the only one, nor is it the most fundamental one. It is perfectly conceivable to me that a public servant could desire to outlaw abortion, have the legal power to do so, and even succeed in outlawing abortion, and yet in the long term be detrimental to the pro-life cause. If he were to say, promote a philosophical outlook in which evil could under certain circumstances be done for good, he may change laws for the immediate future that protect the unborn, but he would also influence hearts and minds, creating the philosophical foundation for such laws to be reversed and remain reversed.

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. That may sound pretty bad to the ears of the Respect Life movement, but it's actually much worse. 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 under certain circumstances. This is a philosophical matter that the Respect Life Movement must address before it can hope to see any permanent legal protections of the unborn.

I therefore think the abortion issue should be seen as both a non-negotiable issue and a matter of prudential judgment, I think the end of ending abortion should be distinguished from the means of reaching that end, and I think the Church has a responsibility to be involved with both the end and the means, and therefore, with matters of prudential judgment.

Education and the State

Joseph Sobran likes to point out that in one hundred years we've gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to teaching remedial English in college. I've known English majors who couldn't identify a preposition in a sentence, and graduate students who had no rudimentary understanding of the structure of a paragraph. It is not unheard of to get a university degree having never written a paper.

I point our these examples of the decay of literacy in our society, but the problems of education fester within every discipline and within education generally. The crisis of our education arises from a whole host of problems, many more than I could get into here. Bad philosophy about the human person is not the least of the culprits (I'm looking in your direction, John Dewey). The removal of religious education from public schools has its share of blame. Man is a religious animal, and leaving him ignorant of religious ideas leaves him ignorant of his own history and identity. Untested theories of education being imposed by the State on a national level has had some disastrous results.

The problems of education are many, and the proposed solutions are many more. Given the urgent need to fix these problems, it is tempting to use the power of the State to execute the right solutions upon the whole of the nation (including upon private schools and homeschools). Problem is, there's much debate about what the right solutions are; some of those offered are good, some are bad, and some are just plain silly. It is also the popular theory of the day that usually gets imposed upon the education system. G.K. Chesterton wrote:
The trouble with too many of our modern schools is that the State, being controlled so specially by the few, allows cranks and experiments to go straight to the schoolroom when they have never past through the Parliament, the public house, the private house, the church, or the marketplace...The baby has to submit to a system that is younger than himself. The flopping infant of four actually has more experience, and has weathered the world longer, than the dogma to which he is made to submit.
That's one danger of State solutions to the problems of education. Christopher Dawson asserts another:
Once the State has accepted full responsibility for the education of the whole youth of a nation, it is obliged to extend its control further and further into new fields...Thus universal education involves the creation of an immense machinery of organization and control which must go on growing in power and influence until it covers the whole field of culture and embraces every form of educational institution from the nursery school to the university.
Unlike some, I do not wish to see the State separated from the schools. I believe every person has a unalienable right to an education, and I believe it is the duty of parents, the Church, and yes, also the State to help secure this right. The State, after all, has an interest in having a well-educated public.

The question is how much of a role should the State have in education? I have to admit that I don't know. I see the logic of society as a whole (through the State) setting the minimum standards that are to be met. But who sets the minimum standards? What do they include? Basic competency in reading, math, and science? The prevailing philosophical ideas, say about the nature of the family? The ability to divide all statements into the categories of fact (empirically verifiable) or opinion (all value judgments)? In a pluralistic society such as ours, I wouldn't want to give anyone the power to decide what those minimum standards are, and yet without such standards, how do we ensure quality education in our society?

I think there are a lot of good if differing ideas about creating excellent schools, but rather than impose a system or a philosophy, even if proven effective, upon the whole of the country (or even on a state level), I would prefer to see schools founded, developed and administered (though not necessarily funded) at the local level. Schools that do education well will likely be successful, and if so, then their ideas, policies, and practices can be adopted by others to meet the needs of their particular students and community. Oversight should be there, but how and how much I do not know.

Quote for Today

"I asked myself, why do I love, and what is the power of beauty, and I understood that each and every instance of beauty is a promise and an example, in miniature, of life that can end in balance, with symmetry, purpose, and hope--even if without explanation. Beauty has no explanation, but its right perfection elicits love."

- From A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin

Allusions of a One-Year-Old

When the name of Jesus is spoken in our home, my 13-month-old son smiles, points to the crucifix mounted on the wall, and excitedly says, "ball!" If I were a nerd, I would think he was alluding to Dante's Divine Comedy:

That light supreme, within its fathomless
Clear substance, showed to me three spheres, which bare
Three hues distinct, and occupied one space.

On Making Decisions

"If an important decision is to be made, they discuss the question when they are drunk, and the following day the master of the house where the discussion was held submits their decision for reconsideration when they are sober. If they still approve it, it is adopted; if not, it is abandoned. Conversely, any decision they make when they are sober, is reconsidered afterwards when they are drunk."

Herodotus, on the Persians

Thought for a Sunday

"Precisely because Derrida perceived the inability of a closed structuralism to admit genuine novelty, he developed a theory of language that would allow him to move beyond intrinsic socio-linguistic limitations. His philosophy of the creative word breaking through the given, whereby the signifier transcends the signified, appears, paradoxically, to reopen the way to religious transcendence."

Louis Dupre, Religious Mystery and Rational Reflection

The Bin Laden Ultimatum

The elusive Osama bin Laden has offered his own advice on how to end the Iraq War: we all embrace Islam; otherwise, al-Qaida will escalate the fighting and the killing. By Islam he means his version of it, which he can't even get the Middle East to embrace. I don't know how he'd ever manage to convert the whole of the secular West.

The truth is he can't. His stated goals are idealistic and Utopian, not to mention evil. Osama bin Laden may be a threat to our safety, but he's no threat to our civilization. He's a dangerous aggressor, especially if he were to acquire a weapon of mass murder, but his movement will die long before the West perishes.

President Bush, ever faithful to his ideology, places his hope and faith in supporting young democracies. To him Democracy is the answer to a dangerous world with monsters like bin Laden, never mind that Democracy has a history of producing or supporting monsters worse than bin Laden. At least George Weigel, never wavering from his cause against jihadism, has the sense to put his faith in more than flawed human institutions. Though even when speaking of prayer, he doesn't retreat from the metaphor of war.

I'd like to see an alternative to war myself, but I don't see that alternative being a world-wide embrace of either bin Laden-brand Islam or Bush-brand Democracy.

As for alternatives, Pope John XXIII was on to something.

An Admonishment for Someone Else

Pope Benedict XVI speaks:
Judicial and penal institutions play a fundamental role in protecting citizens and safeguarding the common good (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2266). At the same time, they are to aid in rebuilding “social relationships disrupted by the criminal act committed” (cf. "Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church," 403). By their very nature, therefore, these institutions must contribute to the rehabilitation of offenders, facilitating their transition from despair to hope and from unreliability to dependability. When conditions within jails and prisons are not conducive to the process of regaining a sense of a worth and accepting its related duties, these institutions fail to achieve one of their essential ends. Public authorities must be ever vigilant in this task, eschewing any means of punishment or correction that either undermine or debase the human dignity of prisoners. In this regard, I reiterate that the prohibition against torture “cannot be contravened under any circumstances” (Ibid., 404).
Of course, we don't torture as a matter of policy, so the pope is obviously not speaking with us in mind.

H/T: Andrew Sullivan

Umberto Eco and the End of Just Wars?

In my previous post, I raised the following question:
Is it possible that the character or conditions of war could change in such a way so as to make a just war impossible, and therefore, render war no longer a suitable means of self-defense?
Umberto Eco seems to think so.

In a 1991 essay written during the time of the Gulf War, Eco argues that some conditions in our century make war impossible. Eco writes,
Over the centuries, what has been the purpose of warfare? War was waged to defeat an adversary, in order to benefit from his defeat, and in such a way that our intentions--to act in a certain manner, to attain a certain result--were tactically or strategically conceived with a view to make our adversary's intentions impracticable. To these ends it was necessary to field all the forces at our disposal. At the end of the day, the game was played out between us and our adversary. The neutrality of the others, the fact that our war did not bother them (and that to a certain extent allowed them to profit from it) was a necessary condition for our freedom to maneuver.
The birth of the world war changed matters.
The discovery of atomic energy, television, air transport, and the birth of various forms of multinational capitalism have resulted in some conditions that make war impossible.
Among other conditions (he gave six), "war can no longer be frontal, because of the very nature of multinational capitalism," and
power is no longer monolithic and monocephalous; it is diffused, packeted, made of the continuous agglomeration and breaking down of consensus. War no longer pits two native lands against one another. It puts a multiplicity of powers into competition with one another. In this game individual centers of power gain advantage, but at the expense of the others.
Because of these conditions, war had become what Eco calls a "neoconnectionist" or parallel system, which, he says, "requires the individual cells in a network to assume a final configuration in accordance with a pattern of weights that the programmer cannot decide on or foresee beforehand, because the network finds rules that have not been received previously, modifies itself accordingly, and cannot distinguish between rules and data."

Everybody got that? Good.

Eco continues,
If war is a neoconnectionist system, it is no longer a phenomenon in which the calculations and intentions of the protagonists have any value. Owing to the multiplication of powers in play, war distributes itself according to unpredictable patterns of weights. It may resolve itself in a way that is convenient for one of the opposing parties; but in principle, since it defies all decisional calculations, it is lost for both parties.
Moreover,
it is the politics of the postwar period that will always be the continuation (by any means) of the premises established by the war. No matter how the war goes, by causing a general redistribution of weights that cannot correspond fully with the will of the contending parties, it will drag on in the form of a dramatic political, economic, and psychological instability for decades to come, something that can lead only to a politics "waged" as if it were warfare.
Because of the interconnectedness of the world, economic and otherwise, there are many unforeseeable (and therefore unintended) consequences to warfare. An invasion of a country by another causes unforeseeable or unintended evils and disorders not only to those countries, but to people living thousands of miles away who may have no inclination that a war has erupted.

To an extent, this unforseeablility and unintentionality have been present in all wars throughout time--indeed in every human act, but whereas in times past one could reasonably conclude that a particular state of affairs would result from a war, now the unforeseeable and unintended consequences are so many that speculation about the results of a war can no longer be reasonable. At least, so it would seem.

What, if anything, has Eco's argument to do with traditional just war theory?

Two of the conditions that must be met for a war to be just are 1) there "must be serious prospects of success" and 2) "the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated."

If Eco is correct in his interpretation of war as a neoconnectionist system in which calculation and intention lose their value, then do assessing success and calculating a use of arms to produce evils less grave than the evil to be eliminated both become exercises in futility? There would seem to be no way of knowing what the consequences across the world would be to a war against one regime, let alone the consequences of a global war on terror. We may have an idea of what success would look like, but with the complexity of possible outcomes, many beyond our foresight, what we think would be success may not be success in another sense. We may eliminate a grave evil only to empower a graver evil. We can never know whether or not graver evils would be produced, and we cannot reasonably calculate what powers will grow and diminish, what good will come, and what evil will plague us.

Even if Eco's analysis of war is correct, and if the two mentioned conditions for a just war cannot knowingly be met, that still doesn't change the fact that there are real and grave threats and powerful, aggressive evils in this world. Nor does this eliminate the right of self-defense. Are there, then, practical alternatives to war? Or can war still be justified despite its being "neoconnectionist"?

Once more unto the breach, dear friends?

When the principles of just war were formulated by St. Augustine and later by St. Thomas Aquinas, war looked very different than it does today, and so it is fair to ask whether or not those principles are even applicable to today's warfare. The Church, while promoting the avoidance of war, has firmly upheld the right of self-defense. Nevertheless, the question stands: Is it possible that the character or conditions of war could change in such a way so as to make a just war impossible, and therefore, render war no longer a suitable means of self-defense?

Harry Potter and its Critics

Mark Shea addresses the various misreadings of Harry Potter in this excellent summary of what is right about Rowling's books. Particularly insightful is the critical analysis of Snape's killing of Dumbledore and how it fits in with Rowling's thematic opposition to consenquentialism.

On Patriotism

Historian Howard Zinn argues that nationalism and all its symbols should be renounced. Zinn sees little value and immense danger in symbols such as flags, anthems, and pledges of allegiance, which he sees as tools powerful governments use to maintain and increase their power--with murderous and destructive results. According to Zinn, "we need to assert our allegiance to the human race, and not to any one nation."

I don't see flags, anthems, and pledges as mere tools of government power, even if they have a long, bloody history of being used as such. They may be symbols of genuine patriotism, which is a humble patriotism. The patriot is honest about his country's virtues and vices. Patriotism is the love of one's country; nationalism is the hatred of all others. Joe Sobran, following Chesterton, said it well: "You love your country as you love your mother — simply because it is yours, not because of its superiority to others, particularly superiority of power."

Power and Our Healthcare Woes

I get the idea of people getting preventative care in order to avoid costly procedures down the line, but requiring people to visit a doctor for this purpose? Such is the latest healthcare language from John Edwards.

I understand healthcare to be a right, part of the right to life. Universal healthcare should be the goal of an affluent and just society. How that goal should be reached is currently a matter of great debate, and the pathos is dispensed with sound and fury. For every horror story from our healthcare system Michael Moore can tell, there are terrifying tales about every other system told in response. Dennis Kucinich sees hope in a single-payer universal healthcare system; Ron Paul thinks less government intervention is the way to go.

Believing as I do that healthcare is a right, I am sympathetic to political plans that would give everyone adequate healthcare. Nevertheless, I am also very skeptical of such plans, especially those that would require a consolidation and centralization of power. When Edwards speaks of mandatory doctor visits, he doesn't ease my tensions about government run healthcare programs.

Whoever is in power over a universal healthcare system will have control over how the system is run, particularly over what requirements are made upon doctors, hospitals, and patients. This is scary. Nevertheless, we have an obligation to work for a society where everyone has access to quality heathcare.

What to do? What to do?

Quote for a Labor Day

"When separated from worship, leisure becomes toilsome, and work becomes inhuman."

- Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture

Thoughts for a Sunday


"For the Christian, faith in the Lordship of God dominates his entire vision of history. If God is the Lord of individual lives he is also the Lord of history: God directs this uncertain, noble, and guilty history toward Himself. To be more precise, I think that this Lordship constitutes a 'meaning' and not a supreme farce, a prodigious caprice, or a last 'absurdity,' because the great events that I recognize as Revelation have a certain pattern, constitute a global form, and are not given by pure discontinuity."

"Hence the Christian is the man who lives in the ambiguity of secular history but with the invaluable treasure of a sacred history whose 'meaning' he perceives. Likewise, his life accumulates the suggestions of a personal history wherein he discerns the link between guilt and redemption. The Christian meaning of history is also the hope that secular history is also a part of that meaning which sacred history sets forth, that in the end there is only one history, that all history is ultimately sacred. This meaning of history, however, remains an object of faith."

- Paul Ricoeur, History and Truth

Language of God

"Human language is not adequate to utter God, but it is the highest we have, and we should use its highest words. The highest words in human speech are not high enough, but what do you gain by using lower words? or no words?"

"It is of the very nature of partial seeing that we cannot see all the reconciliation of the parts we see, because it is only in the whole that they are one, and we do not see the whole. The words we form cannot wholly express God: only the Word he generates can do that. To be irked at this necessary darkness is as though we were irked at not being God. But none of this is any reason for not asking questions. We may not see the answer, but if we do not ask the questions, we certainly will not see even a glimmer of the answer."

- Frank Sheed, Theology and Sanity

The Reading of Philosophy

Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor wrote, "it is more than usual to find the attitude among Catholics that since we possess the truth in the Church, we can use this truth as an instrument of judgment on any discipline at any time without regard for the nature of that discipline itself."

It is a temptation for Catholics, like myself, to become locked into the idea that we "possess" the truth and that truth is an instrument that we can use as a weapon, a weapon we possess and others do not. As a Catholic, I believe that Catholics do in a sense have the truth, but this does not mean that the totality of truth is reducible to our feeble minds and our fragile concepts. Truth is infinite; we are finite, and even mysteries such as human nature, freedom, love, justice, and beauty allude our attempts at total understanding. Yet I know of one Catholic philosopher who said to his students, "Don't call it my philosophy, just call it true philosophy."

This temptation to become locked into the metaphor of possession in conceiving our relationship to truth can affect and shape the way we read philosophy (or any subject). When I first became interested in philosophy and began taking classes in the discipline, I was quick to find the "true perennial philosophy" from which I could judge all others. For me, reading philosophers was an exercise in showing how they lived up to my standard of what true philosophy was (this varied). If I read thinkers like Marx, Nietzsche, or Peter Singer, the goal was to show why they were wrong. Sure, they may have had a good insight here or there, but I could simply take that particular insight and attach it to my true philosophy, assuming the rare occasion that the insight was not already made or implied in my true philosophy.

Then I met the mind of Gabriel Marcel, a 20th century Catholic philosopher who lead me to the dark side. Marcel shattered my idea that truth was something I could possess in its totality. He spoke of truth as a mystery, which unlike a problem, could never be fully solved. Philosophy dealt with both, but mysteries especially. For Marcel, truth is a mystery because we are situated in time and space, in a particular culture and in particular ways of thinking. For this reason, it is impossible to completely stand back from things and see them in complete objectivity as they are in themselves. Our understanding of truth could never be fully objective; there is always a subjective aspect to our understanding. And that's okay! It's not relativism.

I also realized around this time that what separated philosophers from each other was not only the answers that they gave, as if all philosophers were answering the same questions, but also the questions that they raised and their particular projects. There could be no one true perennial philosophy, because the truth of philosophy was mysterious, objective and subjective, and particular to the particular questions raised by each philosopher.

Paul Ricoeur, a friend of Marcel, preferred the metaphors of hope and light when speaking of truth. He wrote that he hoped he and all philosophers were in the bounds of truth or within the light of truth. This hope did not prevent him from criticizing thinkers when he thought them in error, but he always began and remained in dialogue with a philosopher in hope that they both bathed in the light of truth. He wanted to understand and learn from them, and he did this not by alienating them with the truth he already possessed, but by trying to understand them as they understood themselves. He sought to understand their questions, their projects, their ways of thinking. He approached even thinkers he strongly disagreed with in a spirit of humility.

For Ricoeur, truth is bigger than he is. Truth is not something he can possess exclusively. Truth cannot be contained by any human formula. No one may write the perennial philosophy, he said.