Getting Wisdom (and other podcasts)

Wyoming Catholic College’s “After Dinner Scholar” podcast has published an interview with me titled: “Getting Wisdom in 2019 with Dr. Jeremy Holmes”.  If you are interested in the “wisdom books” of Scripture, have a listen for my two cents’ on the topic.

Looking through the archives, I find that the “After Dinner Scholar” has posted interviews with me quite a few times.  I haven’t always noted them as they came out, so here’s a list (in order from most recent to oldest):

“Old Testament Judges and Kings and the Question of Centralization”.  Wherein I relate the books of Judges and Kings to contemporary political and religious problems.

“The Splendor of Truth 25 Years Later”.  A quick introduction to the fundamental questions and teachings in JPII’s Veritatis Splendor.  To date, this is the most-downloaded of all “After Dinner Scholar” podcasts.

“Humanae Vitae: Contributing to the Creation of a Truly Human Civilization”.  This is an interview with me and with Dr. Kent Lasnoski, reviewing the central teachings of Humanae Vitae and talking about the usual objections.

“Hunting, Humanity, and the Liberal Arts”.  For something truly different, a reflection on the relationship between hunting and classical education.

“Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, and the March for Life”.  Wherein we discuss the relationship between contraception and abortion.

“The Word Became Flesh: St. Athanasius’ ‘On the Incarnation'”.  An introduction to this classic little work on the central mystery of faith.

“The Philosophical Side of Theology: St. Thomas’s Compendium”.  I talk about the relationship between philosophy and theology, and I introduce St. Thomas’s often under-appreciated little overview of theology, the Compendium Theologiae.  One person contacted me after this podcast to say he wanted to read the Compendium with his son and wondered if there were anything like a companion or commentary.  I’m working on it!

“Moses and Israel: From Exile to Freedom”.  A full-length lecture on the life of Moses, one of my favorite talks I have ever given.  The “After Dinner Scholar” also published an interview with me on the topic of the lecture.

“The Pope, Authority, and ‘Religious Assent'”.  A brief discussion of how we should handle cases where the Magisterium teaches something but does not teach it infallibly.  Still a hot topic today.  I have a very rough manuscript of a book on this subject, and maybe someday I’ll at least turn it into a series of audio posts.

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The Poetry of Isaiah

The prophet Isaiah dominates the season of Advent. Old Testament readings at Mass are taken from Isaiah, the Office of Readings draws almost entirely from Isaiah, and many of our hymns and carols are based on one or another passage from Isaiah. One reason is of course the clarity of Isaiah’s prophecies, but another is the beauty and power of his poetry.

Prophecy and poetry were not cleanly distinguished ideas in antiquity. All the biblical prophets are poets, pagan oracles spoke in short poems, and Plato referred to poets as “inspired” or possessed by a “divine madness”. Today we often meet poetry that makes no claim to inspiration—perhaps a mere advertising ditty—and our prophets tend to write blog posts or newspaper columns rather than verse. As a result, we turn to a biblical prophet looking for the “content” or the “message” behind the poetic medium rather than through it. We treat as separable something Isaiah would not have seen so.

So as we begin Advent, I would like to offer a few thoughts about poetry I have seen in Isaiah. Continue reading “The Poetry of Isaiah”

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Bringing Scripture back into the death penalty debate

Catholics debating the death penalty generally do a bad job with Scripture.  One side of the debate cites isolated texts, leaving themselves open to the accusation that they cannot see the texts in relation to the whole thrust of Scripture.  The other side of the debate refers vaguely to “the Gospel” as a way to avoid dealing with any particular text of Scripture at all.  Neither side appears to have a living relationship with God’s word.

I can’t work through all the relevant texts on this blog, but I would like to offer an example of what’s possible by dealing with the big text everyone mentions:  Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”  I have already dealt with the context of this verse at greater length elsewhere, but I was not talking about the death penalty then.  Here I’ll condense the discussion to highlight what is most relevant to the death penalty issue. Continue reading “Bringing Scripture back into the death penalty debate”

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Dr. John Joy on the new Catechism text

Dr. John Joy has written such a fine piece on the Catechism controversy that I wanted to dedicate an entire post just to linking to it.  He tracks my own thought quite closely:

It is hard to avoid the conclusion, therefore, that this text suffers from serious ambiguity (inasmuch as it seems to be open to multiple interpretations) or even incoherence (inasmuch as it seems to assert contradictory propositions).

Do read the entire article: The Magisterial Weight of the New Text of the Catechism on the Death Penalty.

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The Church’s merely prudential judgments

One thing I just love about Pope Francis is that he makes us think about how the Magisterium works.  I have seen more claims this way and that about what is or is not magisterial or authoritative since he began his pontificate than in the decade previous.

With regard to his recent change to the Catechism, my old classmate Alan Fimister has argued this way:  if it is not a change in doctrine then it is merely a prudential change, but if it is merely a prudential change then it is outside the purview of the Magisterium: Continue reading “The Church’s merely prudential judgments”

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Thinking hard about the Incarnation

I was near the end of my oral exams with the juniors when I began to realize how far I could push them. I would start from basic definitions regarding the Incarnation and gradually force them to think more and more, and they held up—not just the star students, but all of them. Actual excerpt from one of the orals:

What is a suppositum?

How does being a suppositum differ from being an individual?

What is the difference between the terms “suppositum” and “person”?

Are you a suppositum?

Is a tree a suppositum?

Is a dog a suppositum?

Is my nose a suppositum?

Is Christ’s human nature a suppositum?

Why not?

Is Christ’s divinity a suppositum?

Why is that?

Tell me about the heresy of “monoenergism”?

What does “energy” mean in this debate?

What did Maximus the Confessor mean by “theandric energy”?

What would happen to theandric energy if you were a Nestorian?

What would happen to theandric energy if you were a Monophysite?

…and so on.

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Happy . . . day!

Happy Ascension Sunday Thursday, everyone!

And what, you may ask, is Ascension Sunday Thursday?  It is the Thursday we observe while waiting for Ascension Thursday Sunday.  It is the day that was almost Ascension Thursday, and that still bears the minutest traces of its former character, like the almost-unobservable oddness of a picture in which someone has been photoshopped out.

We can’t help it.  Obedient children, we want to do whatever our Church is doing and have this be just another day in the Easter season.  But because of the way we experience sacred time, the transferal-here-but-not-transferal-there process leaves behind a snatch of music we can almost hear but can’t make out, a sense that this day is not Ascension Thursday but is also not a Thursday in Easter.  It is a day that lacks something of its own identity.

It is—Ascension Sunday Thursday!  Have a good one, y’all!

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How “Lucifer” became a name for the prince of darkness

One of my students needed to know how “Lucifer” became a name for Satan.  I thought there would be an easy dictionary entry somewhere, but neither she nor I could find one source that tracks the evolution of the name, so I spent a few minutes this morning pulling the facts together from various places.  It was an enjoyable time—I haven’t had many opportunities over the past decade to indulge in my specialization.

It all starts with the idolatry of the Babylonians.  They worshipped the morning star (Venus in her rising before the sun) under the name of Istar.  So when the prophet Isaiah speaks the rise and fall of the king of Babylon (Isaiah 14), he refers to him metaphorically as haylayl, ben mishawmayim, literally, “shining one, son of the morning,” that is, the morning star (Isaiah 14:12).  The Septuagint translated haylayl as heosphoros, “morning bearer,” another name for the morning star, which in Greek is also called phosophoros, “light-bearer.”  The Vulgate translated the word as Lucifer, which is a Latinization of phosophoros and also names the morning star as “light bearer”.  When the Bible began to be translated into English, this word was simply carried over, so that until 1611 English Bibles also rendered the term as “Lucifer” (so says the OED).

Early Jewish traditions, which seem to pre-dating Christ, understood Isaiah 14 as speaking about the rise and fall of Satan.  We can see this interpretation reflected for example in the Apocalypse of Elijah 4:11 and in Life of Adam and Eve 12:1 and 15:3, and many other places.  While the term “Lucifer” or heosphoros occurs in the New Testament only in a positive sense (2Peter 1:19), the Jewish traditions regarding angels and demons are clearly reflected, and the general Jewish interpretation of the meaning of Babylon in Isaiah 14 comes out in Revelation (see especially 18:12, but it’s present throughout).  In the early centuries of the Church, the name “Lucifer” was not yet exclusively associated with evil, so that we even have a “Saint Lucifer” from the 3rd Century who died for the Nicene faith (celebrated in the Church’s calendar on May 20).  But Jerome passes on the traditional interpretation of Isaiah 14:12, and Augustine takes “Lucifer” as a proper name for Satan in his description of how one who was enlightened became dark.  So at least by the 4th and 5th Centuries “Lucifer” had become one of the Adversary’s proper names.

And there we have it!  There is more to the story, for sure, but that’s what came to hand from my personal library.

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St. Thomas Aquinas on a bizarre marital situation

Amidst the Amoris Laetitia debates, one thing I have wondered about is how people find themselves in the difficult situations everyone is discussing.  How does it happen that someone (a) enters a second civil marriage and (b) is obliged to keep up sexual relations and (c) requires the Eucharist to keep going?  I don’t have the pastoral experience to rattle off examples.

But while editing a translation of St. Thomas’s Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, I came across one such case—not likely in this day and age, but a possible scenario nonetheless.  St. Thomas holds the position that exterior words expressing consent do not result in marriage if interior consent is lacking, but he raises this objection to his own view (Scriptum IV.27.1.2, quaes. 4):

Obj. 3: If someone is proved to have consented to someone else through words about the present, he is forced to have her as his wife, under pain of excommunication, even if he says that mental consent was lacking; even if he has afterward consented to another with words expressive of his mental consent. But this would not be the case, if mental consent were required for marriage. Therefore, it is not required.

Let’s pause and absorb this amazing scenario.  Billy Bob went through a wedding ceremony in which he did not intend to get married but managed to fool everyone there.  Despite all apperances, Billy Bob’s conscience requires him to admit that he did not marry that woman.  Later, Billy Bob went through a second wedding ceremony in which he did sincerely intend to get married, and his conscience requires him to admit that he is married to that woman.  But in the eyes of the law and of the Church, which can only go by what is perceptible from the outside, Billy Bob is married to the first woman and not to the second, and (at least under medieval law) he could be subject to severe penalties if he refused to live as a married man with that first wife—including physical intimacy.  He has not just a shadowy, self-judged duty to keep up his marital status with her, but an objective, legal, and ecclesially enforced obligation!

Now, surely Billy Bob is under unimaginable pressures.  The direction of today’s debates would suggest that he can arrange with his priest to receive communion while continuing in what his conscience tells him is an adulterous union:  this is the best that he can offer God in the circumstance.  But St. Thomas has a different pastoral suggestion:

Billy Bob could flee the country.  Or, if that’s too harsh, he could just submit to excommunication from the Church:

Reply Obj. 3: In such a case the Church compels him to stay with his first wife, since it judges based on what appears externally. Nor is it deceived in justice, although it may be deceived in fact. But that man should undergo excommunication rather than be intimate with his first wife, or he should flee to some other distant region.

Zowie.  I’m not sure how long the Angelic Doctor would last in today’s climate.

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Mysteries of the Holy Family

Immanuel Kant’s essay, What Is Enlightenment, explains for the modern world what “enlightenment” means.  To be enlightened, he says, is to become entirely independent in thought.  Children grow up depending on others for everything, of course, and even for their thoughts and opinions, but to be enlightened means that one throws aside childish dependence and thinks entirely for oneself. Something about the claim rings true, especially for our ruggedly individual age.

Yet without saying so explicitly, Kant’s position casts the family as a necessary evil.  We have to grow up in families, but they train us to live below our dignity by thinking like slaves.  To reach human perfection is to shake off the effects of family life.

Yesterday’s feast and today’s solemnity remind us that the family is a path to enlightenment; that childhood as such is a path to humanity and even beyond; that the bonds between parent and child are bonds indeed, but not fetters.

Along these lines, let me toss out three mysteries relating to the Holy Family:

  1. A parent can stand in for the child’s own will.

This is just a natural reality, but isn’t this a remarkable thing?  When my son had a life-threatening medical condition, I had to decide—on his behalf—what would be done to his body, what course would determine all.  Before my children were ever aware of their surroundings, I chose where they would live, and consequently what nation and what state would claim their citizenship, and as a result what laws they would be under.  Extending this natural reality, I even committed my children to God through baptism, and by so doing I brought on them all the obligations of a Christian.  It is an astonishing and wonderful thing that one human person can be so entrusted to another.

  1. The child Jesus had both a divine and a human will.

When I teach about the mystery of the Incarnation, students are typically ready with the formula they learned in their catechisms:  Jesus is one divine person in two natures, one divine and one human.  But they are typically shocked by the obvious implication that Jesus has a divine will and a human will, two roots of love, two ultimate centers of desire.  Of course, even Jesus’ human will is the human will of a divine person:  the life of the Word of God extends into time and space through the Incarnation, such that anyone who has seen the man Jesus has seen the Father.  Consequently, the love of the Word of God is replayed in the love of the man Jesus:  this man loving the Father is God’s own Son loving him through a human nature!  A human nature has been caught up into and, so to speak, included in the inner life of the Trinity.

  1. The previous two mysteries together make a third.

Joseph acted as foster father and Mary as the natural mother of the child Jesus.  When they circumcised him—an event commemorated as part of today’s feast, according to the current Martyrology—they chose God on behalf of the Word of God.  When they committed Jesus to the faith of Israel, they turned toward the Father on behalf of his own Son.  They were caught up into the mystery of the Incarnation, and for the brief period of his infancy they stood in for the theandric will of the God-man.  Now that just makes this parent break out in goose bumps.

God be praised for the family!  God be praised for the mystery of the Incarnation!  God be praised, I say, for the mystery of the Holy Family.

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