5 reasons I love the scholastic “question”

These days, anyone familiar with the medieval “question” format has probably met it through the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas.  To the modern eye it seems stuffy or even pretentious, with its stilted language and logical distinctions and its appearance of completeness.  We prefer the humble “essay,” a word that means an “attempt,” an effort in the right direction.

But over the years I have come to love the “question” format.  Each “article” within the “question” is a dehydrated debate.  Just add imagination, and you have a rowdy crowd of objectors who even disagree with each other and an enthusiastic team of supporters whose support is sometimes as embarrassing as the objections, and in between them the master whose mental agility alone can keep order.  Here are just a few of the things I like about the “question” format: Continue reading “5 reasons I love the scholastic “question””

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Amoris Laetitia: Pope Francis on Marriage and Family

By chance, I received a copy of the Pope’s new apostolic exhortation yesterday, about nine hours before it was published.  So of course I started skimming it, if only to enjoy my brief time of being “in the know”:  never forget, all you bloggers and blog readers, that when it comes to Amoris Laetitia I’m nine hours ahead of you.  And I always will be.  😉

On a quick first-skim, I think there are two things to say about the document: Continue reading “Amoris Laetitia: Pope Francis on Marriage and Family”

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The universal call to theology?

Today a friend asked me about the distinction between philosophy and theology. In the course of responding, I said what I have said before on this blog, namely that theology is what happens when faith gets to follow its own impulses. He then asked me, reasonably enough, whether it is not important to distinguish between faith and theology.

Yes, I said, of course it is: you can’t be saved without faith, but you can be saved without “doing theology.” Similarly, everyone is capable of faith, but not everyone is capable of becoming a theologian.

But one must be careful about drawing these lines too sharply. Trying to distinguish between theology and faith is a lot like trying to distinguish between the religious life and the universal call to holiness: Continue reading “The universal call to theology?”

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The real secret to preventing atrocities

“Certainty is dangerous; it makes people do terrible things to each other.” I’ve heard this view in the learned discourse of scholars and in the rough-and-tumble commentary of day laborers; it comes up in academic journals, at the local book club, and in the social media. Everywhere it is brought forth as something obvious: People who doubt their convictions cannot go to war or kill people for disagreeing. We need to doubt even our sincerest convictions, for the sake of civilization.

CCI04252009_00006The claim appeals in part because it contains a grain of truth: certainty in and of itself leads to action, while doubt in and of itself leads to inaction. As a result, certainty brings the advantages and disadvantages of action, while doubt brings the advantages and disadvantages of inaction. Consider:

  • Did slavery in America end because people came to doubt whether the black man was inferior? Or did it slavery in America end because people became certain that the black man was equal?
  • Did the push for women’s rights draw strength from uncertainty about whether women should have a different status from men, or did it draw strength from a growing conviction that they should have the same status as men?
  • Does an addict kick his habit because he has come to doubt whether he should keep it, or does he kick his habit because he has become convinced that he should drop it?

Continue reading “The real secret to preventing atrocities”

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The place of theology in liberal education

A friend and former classmate from my grad-school days recently wrote to me about the role of theology in a liberal education. He explained that he has been turning over in his mind an old, familiar argument for why theology should be the heart of a liberal education, but he has begun to wonder whether this argument is after all the best one. The argument goes like this:

A genuinely liberal education will principally consist in the study of sacred theology. For liberal education aims at the knowledge proper to the free man. Now the free man, in contradistinction from the slave, is one who lives not for the sake of another, but for his own sake; hence his life consists in activities choice-worthy in themselves. The kind of knowledge that he will pursue, therefore, will be knowledge worth exercising for its own sake, and this will be theoretical knowledge rather than practical knowledge. But theoretical knowledge is desirable because it perfects the knower as a knower; to engage in it is to exercise one’s intellect in the most perfect way. But knowledge, considered in itself, is defined by its object; hence the most perfect knowledge will be knowledge of the most perfect object. And this is God. Hence liberal education will principally consist in the acquisition of the knowledge of God. But the science whose proper object is God is sacred theology. Hence liberal education will principally consist in the study of sacred theology.

My friend’s unease with this seemingly ironclad reasoning is that the motive for studying theology ends up being so that I can perfect myself—while the real motive for theology seems to come from the supernatural virtue of charity, of love for God. As it happens, in our efforts to define the role of theology at Wyoming Catholic College my friends and I have wrestled with the above argument for a long time. Continue reading “The place of theology in liberal education”

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It’s all downhill from Damasus

While the Catholic blogosphere explodes with news of the Synod, I have tried not to think much about it. “It gets darker and darker,” a friend wrote on Facebook, “worse than the worst of the Dark Ages or the Renaissance.”

To keep my mind off the present, I read about the past. I have finally found a biography of St. Jerome that I like: Saint Jerome and His Times, by Jean Steinmann. The major critical biography by J.N.D. Kelly and the shorter but more recent work by Stefan Rebenich both suffer from the same problem: the authors despise St. Jerome. It’s like reading Ann Coulter’s biography of Hillary Clinton.

But Steinmann reveres the great doctor. He also does a marvelous job of setting the scene around Jerome, with all its drama and brilliant characters. Yesterday I chanced upon this manly bit about Jerome’s one-time employer, Pope Damasus:

The death of Pope Liberius in 366 saw the Christian community in Rome divided. The die-hards, who were in the minority, met in the basilica of St. Mary Trastevere, where seven priests and three deacons elected the deacon Ursinus Pope and consecrated him. Meantime, the majority of the clergy and the faithful were meeting in the basilica of St. Lawrence of Lucina, where they elected the deacon Damasus Bishop of Rome. When they heard of Ursinus’s election, the supporters of Damasus attacked the occupants of St. Mary’s. For three days Rome was torn by riots in which people were killed. Damasus won the day. He was consecrated, and the Prefect of Rome took his side, possibly as a result of Evagrios’s representations to the Emporer, and exiled Ursinus. When Ursinus’s supporters went on meeting and holding services in the Trastevere basilica, the Prefect had his priests arrested. Their congregation set them free. The followers of Damasus made up their minds to settle the question once and for all, and stormed the basilica of St. Mary again, and this time more than a hundred people were killed in the rioting.

A year later, Ursinus came back to Rome, and the trouble started all over again. The faithful of the two conflicting churches were involved in constant and sometimes bloody clashes, and the pagan Pretextatus, the new Prefect of Rome, disdainfully commented that this was a curious way of showing charity. The feud put the Church to shame.

Oh, for the good old days, when prelates killed each other with actual knives and clubs! In my imagination I see our wimpy modern cardinals at the Synod’s opening Mass, exchanging the sign of peace with fingers crossed behind their backs. Their backstabbing is so metaphorical! Silly redhats, proud of their “cutting” remarks. How have we fallen so far?

You can learn a lot about a man by locating his “downhill point”: where does he think the slide began? Everything in the Church started going downhill—at what point? Do you put it at Francis? Vatican II? Trent? One historian I know says everything has gone downhill since the Council of Florence in 1439.

Maybe the “downhill point” was the election of Pope Damasus in 366. Or maybe the Robber Council of Ephesus in 449, where bishops voted on doctrine with spears in their backs. Somehow, we’ve just never recovered that spirit.

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Marriage and Martyrdom

As you may have noticed, the blog is on the back burner these days.  We began the home school year here in the house, classes begin at WCC next Tuesday, and baby Matthew continues to be an intense little man.

Nonetheless, I want to toss up at least a quick thought on the feast of the beheading of John the Baptist.  Liturgically, he is celebrated as a martyr, as one who died for the faith, and traditional commentators explain that because he died for the truth he also died for the Truth, which is Christ.  One wonders how far the argument can stretch, and whether anyone at all who dies “for the truth” is a martyr.

But before we go too far in that direction, let’s recall the specific truth for which John died.  John, who called himself “the friend of the Bridegroom” (John 3:29), was beheaded because he said loudly and publically that Herod Antipas should not have divorced his wife and married another woman who herself had been in a previous marriage to his own half-brother.  He died for the truth about marriage.

The close connection between marriage and Christ is worth pondering in our day–as is the connection between a public stance and martyrdom.

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Theology at thirteen

Photo credit: Hannah Voboril

If I were a carpenter, I hope my kids would have hand-crafted furniture; if I were a shoe-maker, I hope all my kids would have wonderful shoes. Since I am a theologian, I try to make sure my kids don’t miss the one thing I have to offer them. I often talk about the faith at the dinner table or on Sunday mornings before Mass, and I bring up current issues and talk about them in light of Catholicism. But because I work for a living, my wife ends up doing their catechesis. My contribution tends to be spontaneous rather than planned.

While I was driving a trailer load to the dump today, one of those spontaneous moments popped up. My thirteen-year-old son David usually talks non-stop about programming and tech news, but today he suddenly began to talk about how strange it is that God does not make decisions: God knows everything that is going to happen, David reasoned, including what he himself is going to do. Continue reading “Theology at thirteen”

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Three ways to manage your “inner other”

[This is the third in a series: 1. The “Inner Other”; 2. Discovering the “Inner Other”; 3. Three ways to manage your “inner other”.]

My posts about the “inner other” may come across as despairing, as a lament of the human condition, but they are not meant that way. In the end it’s a beautiful thing that we are built for relation even in what is most human about us.

But clearly, the “inner other” needs managing. Anything that boosts objectivity in thought will help to counteract the problems I have outlined in this blog series, so one could go on and on about what to do. In this last post, though, I just want to note three tactics that work directly on the “inner other”:

1. Move in more than one circle.

If the “inner other” is a composite of the people we interact with, we can make it a better and better conversation partner by interacting with people who think very differently from one another. We can make friends in different circles, or just make a habit of reading authors who think very differently from one another. The different circles don’t necessarily have to hate each other or disagree with each other about everything; they just need very different ways of getting to their conclusions. Round him out, make him complex, and talking to the “inner other” may be more profitable than talking to yourself.

2. Silence

The “inner other” comes into play in our moments of interior talking, so we would do well to have periods where we avoid all chatter, exterior or interior, and simply gaze at reality. My own experience has been that the more exterior talking I do, the more interior talking I do, so it is useful now and then simply to shut up for a while. If I am working on a particular question, I need to take some time to look at reality in silence. This always leads to more honesty with myself about what I really think, and sometimes it leads to a breakthrough: the mind has ways of working without words, if we will only let it.

3. Prayer

Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange once wrote that as our spiritual life progresses, our interior conversation should tend more and more to be conversation with God. Besides contributing to holiness, a habit of talking to God does wonders for your “inner other,” for several reasons.

First, God is not imaginary but real. I don’t mean that he “talks back” in the usual way, although I know several people who have heard God speak to them audibly at least once. But the fact of God’s reality makes him more satisfying to speak with than an imaginary interlocutor, even when we don’t notice a direct response. In itself this doesn’t contribute to objectivity of thought, but it does contribute to happiness.

Second, the more we refine our understanding of God, the more we come to see how far removed his way of thinking is from everyone around us. Early in life, talking to God may be a lot like talking to anyone else, because we think of him as a very big but somehow invisible human, but for a mature Christian talking to God takes the conversation away from the usual reference points and above the usual horizon. Instead of cramping our viewpoint, God expands it. The same is true of speaking to Jesus as God Incarnate: the more we meditate on the mysteries of his life and his glorification, the more we see the degree to which he rises above the current concerns of Democrats or Republicans or any other merely human group.

Third, we know that God actually sees right through us. Unlike our family or our friends or the authors we read, God sees our thoughts and our desires directly, and we imagine him as doing so. Consequently, we are less likely to let ourselves get away with crap when speaking to God. Even with nothing supernatural going on, when we are just interacting with God as we imagine him, we still imagine God as stopping us short, cutting us off, giving us “the look,” when we say something blatantly selfish or lie about our feelings or thoughts. He doesn’t wink-wink nudge-nudge the way the standard “inner other” is wont to do.

So there you have three ways to live with that natural phenomenon, the “inner other”: make him better, shut him up, or baptize him. But if you don’t do anything else, at least become aware of his existence and you will be better off for it.

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Discovering the Inner Other

[This is the second in a series: 1. The “Inner Other”; 2. Discovering the “Inner Other”; 3. Three ways to manage your “inner other”.]

In my last post, I spoke about the mystery of the “inner other” and the power it exercises over our interior life. And I asked, Where does this shadowy figure come from? We make him up ourselves, but how do we do it?

Usually the answer is fairly straightforward: the imaginary, interior interlocutor is a composite projection of our real, exterior interlocutors. He reflects the circle that makes up our lives, and he changes when we change from circle to circle. In fact, that is how I first became aware of him.

When I was young, my family and my friends were conservative and religious. This remained true when we transitioned from Protestantism to Catholicism, throughout my college years and all the way up to the completion of my masters degree. To the extent that I dealt more than superficially with people of a different persuasion, it was through reading.

When I began my doctoral program, however, I suddenly found myself in a completely new world: my professors and my fellow students were religiously liberal and sometimes not religious, they all focused on the same professional conferences and talked about the same books, and in general they had a coherent but entirely foreign set of priorities. What my social circle considered important and acceptable was suddenly different.

Part of this transition was helpful. I realized after a while that I had accepted certain arguments about Scripture not because they were strong arguments but because they had satisfied my interior interlocutor. When I imagined myself speaking argument X, in my imagination the results were great: Yes, of course, triumph! It was like making an argument against climate change in a room full of petroleum executives. So in certain respects my thought gained a new rigor from the transition to a new social group.

But not all the results were happy. In spite of my personal inclinations and background, I found that my own mental horizons swung slowly around to a closer match with that of the new group. I was aware of it at the time, and I could even feel the effects spike when I attended a conference: temporarily, the kinds of things likely to make for publication in such-and-such a journal seemed REALLY important while other things shrank. While I myself remained religiously conservative, my “inner other” was becoming a liberal biblical scholar.

I even noticed the effect when I tried to read the Bible devotionally. To read the Bible subjectively was anathema in the group, the worst thing one could do. But the objective meaning of Scripture was not what you might think: biblical scholar John Meier famously wrote that the objective meaning of a Scripture passage is what you would get if you locked a Catholic, a Jew, a Protestant, and an agnostic—all biblical scholars—in the basement of Harvard Divinity School and did not let them out until they reached a consensus. I felt that committee always judging me, even in my most private moments. The loose and comfortable feel of spiritual reading vanished.

During this period I also struggled with my Catholic faith. Because my own beliefs differed drastically from those of my “inner other,” my interior conversation turned into a never-ending debate: Oh yeah, prove this! Oh yeah, prove that! I felt that I was on trial every hour, and it was all the harder because the only evidence acceptable to this inner other was the kind of evidence that would have been acceptable to my professors and fellow students and all the people at the conferences. I found myself replaying and replaying and replaying arguments for the existence of God, parrying and thrusting, meeting objection after objection, running over the same ground again and again.

A number of things fell together for me around this time and saved me from mental exhaustion and possible loss of faith. My academic advisor was a true believer, a very important witness; I came to a new understanding of faith, as I have described in my blog series on faith; other things I will probably never write down. The relevant part for the present post is this: I realized that I had been trying to convince the “inner other” instead of trying to convince myself. When I honestly asked myself what persuaded me, Jeremy Holmes, I saw that the existence of God is actually easy to prove, stupidly obvious: the facts are apparent and the arguments clear. What is hard is not demonstrating the existence of God; what is hard is persuading an atheist. As soon I escaped the limitations my shadowy interlocutor imposed on the conversation, I found that I was not in anything like the trouble I had thought.

As I have gone on in life, I have observed the “inner other” phenomenon in myself time and time again. When I move to a new job and find new friends, suddenly I see the world against a new horizon; a new set of things seems to loom large and some things that seemed important before suddenly seem to shrink. When I withdrew from work this past year for my sabbatical, I found that I was able to reshape my horizon and realize that some things that seemed like big problems at work were neither big nor really my problem at all. When I am reading more of a particular set of authors, those authors shape my “inner other” for a while.

While my experience is pretty typical, not everyone reacts to a new social group the way that I do. I have met people who seem to be immune to transition because their “inner other” does not readily change, so that when they move on to a new social circle they retain the old interior conversation partner. The ongoing mismatch between their own priorities and those of their group create the impression that they are objective, above influence, free-thinking. But over time I have realized that their “inner other” is no less present, just more stubbornly persistent.

Similarly, I have known people of a less social disposition who form their “inner other” largely from books. They read constantly, and the “group” formed by the authors they read serves as a basis for the “inner other,” again creating the illusion that they are free of such influences because they don’t seem to measure their thought against the people actually around them.

In both cases, the impression of objectivity makes the situation more dangerous, because we tend to notice things when they move or change. When your “inner other” remains the same over time then you are less likely to notice “him” as something other than “you”.

So are we hopelessly and helplessly chained to the “inner other,” incapable of objective thought? By no means. In my next post, I’ll describe three approaches to making your “inner other” not an obstacle but an ally in the pursuit of truth.

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