Revelation and the Shape of the Church

As I read through the Catechism yesterday, I was struck by the comment that the revelation of the Trinity–the most fundamental doctrine of our faith, and the highest in the “hierarchy” of doctrine–was not complete until the mission of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  This led me to the following thought:

The giving of revelation constitutes its recipient, the Church, while the growth of the recipient makes possible the giving of revelation:  the two go together.  To spell out the consequences of this idea: as long as revelation is incomplete one should expect the Church to be growing and changing in fundamental shape; and as long as the Church is growing and changing in its fundamental shape, one should expect new revelation.  So it was not incidental the the fundamental doctrine of our faith was revealed completely when the Church was in a way completed.  Or to put it the other way around, anyone who claims to receive new public revelation is implicitly claiming that the Church is still developing toward its fundamental shape.

This led me to a further thought, which extends and qualifies the above:

The Church could not attain its entire fundamental shape before the apostles had exercised their ministry.  For example, there could not be a hierarchy in the Church before there were enough converts to have multiple congregations, and Peter had to get to Rome before the Pope could be the bishop of Rome, and somebody had to get sick before the Apostles could administer last rites, and so on and so forth.  So as long as the apostles were still active, the Church was still in some way in formation and new revelation was to be expected; with the completion of the apostles’ ministry, the Church had its entire fundamental shape and so no more revelation was to be expected.

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The Gifts of the Spirit

Sorting through old boxes of junk, I found this hand-written poem titled “The Gifts of the Spirit,” from my early graduate school days:

The Angelic Doctor self-described
was a “bat in the sunlight”;
Oh, to feel the warmth of the sun!

I am a bat in a blizzard,
fighting every gust of wind
– but who knows where the wind blows,
whence it comes, and whither it goes?
Perhaps to somewhere good.

God send right wind!

That was scrawled quickly during the last week of the semester, as I slapped together the dismal last in a series of required essays.  Five teachers waited until only four weeks were left in the semester to assign their ten-page papers; knowing that it took me one week to write a good ten-page essay, I saw right away that I would turn in four good papers and one stinker.  The above poem was written as I churned out the stinker.  It was a hard time in other ways as well.

The funny thing is, all these years later I still resonate with the message of that poem.  Life still sends things to all-at-once, I still don’t know where it all goes or where it comes from.  God send right wind!

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Music and Morality, part 2

Picking up the theme of music and morality, I want to jot down a few thoughts about how to talk to people about a morality of music when they lack the self-awareness needed in general for conversation about ethics, or when they lack the self-awareness in this particular area for an Ignatian discernment of spirits.

Lacking interior, subjective evidence, one must point to objective, sensible data.  And the first of these is that people get angry if you call their music bad—very angry.  People don’t blow a stack if you hate the seafood they love, or if you hate their favorite baseball team—most people, that is—but if you say you hate their music, those are fighting words.  Their anger shows that they identify their own person with the music; the music is an outward sign of what kind of person they are, so that an attack on the music is an attack on the person.  (Paradoxically, my conversation partners have proceeded from anger to the assertion that music is morally indifferent, a mere matter of taste.)

But it is probably not a good strategy to attack a man’s music, let him get angry, and then point to his anger as a sign that he is wrong.  No, better to point far away, to others whom he sees as very, very other.

So a second datum is the fact that extremes in music create recognizable populations:  heavy metal fans dress and walk alike and are often pale and thin; huge belt buckles and hats pick out the serious country music buffs; rap consumers fit a stereotype; and on it goes.  Along with the visible similarities go internal resemblance:  heavy metal folks are brooding and angry, rap people are bouncy but irascible, country music people are cheerful and loyal, and so on.

Few things create visible populations the way music does:  drugs do, jobs can, religious vocations do.  Sports don’t, foods don’t—you can’t pick out baseball fans from hockey fans in a crowd, or lovers of Italian cuisine as opposed to French cooking.  Living in a certain region can produce a particular “look,” but the effects of music will override regional differences.

The fact that extremes in music create visible populations of people who morally resemble one another indicates that less extreme musical forms—light jazz, pop, classical music, and so on—are also forming populations in less visible ways.  After all, if factor X produces an extreme difference when applied heavily, wouldn’t factor X produce some difference if applied more lightly?  If extreme musical forms like heavy metal produce extreme visible and moral differences, then wouldn’t jazz or Baroque music produce real but less extreme moral differences in men?  Certainly, the hypothesis that music is morally indifferent doesn’t predict the observed results of the extremes.

In fact, the observed facts say that music is a powerful moral force:  it is used in ecstatic cults for a reason!

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Music and Morality

Music has loomed larger in life of late for the Mrs. and me, as a result of our visits to Norcia and Vienna.  Its increased role in our life has to do, I hope, with our moral life, so I’d like to set down a few thoughts that have developed over the years about music and morality.

The initial challenge is to persuade people that music has anything to do with morality, that is, with right and wrong in action.   Music is as subjective as anything could be:  what music I like depends entirely on how I feel at the moment and on how the music makes me feel—it’s all about my feelings.  On the other hand, morality has exactly to do with how I feel about things:  an evil man will feel good about bad things, while a good man will feel bad about bad things, and this is precisely because the one man is morally good and the other morally bad.  But it is hard to make this point manifest.

The source of the difficulty seems to be a lack of self-knowledge:  Talk about morality requires a certain minimum level of awareness of what goes inside of us.  The Office of Readings for the feast of St. Ignatius recently brought this back to my attention.  While recovering from war wounds in a hospital, Ignatius would sometimes think on worldly things and romantic novels he had read before, and sometimes he would think about the lives of the saints and of Christ such as he was reading in the hospital:

But there was a difference. When Ignatius reflected on worldly thoughts, he felt intense pleasure; but when he gave them up out of weariness, he felt dry and depressed. Yet when he thought of living the rigorous sort of life he knew the saints had lived, he not only experienced pleasure when he actually thought about it, but even after he dismissed these thoughts, he still experienced great joy. Yet he did not pay attention to this, nor did he appreciate it until one day, in a moment of insight, he began to marvel at the difference. Then he understood his experience: thoughts of one kind left him sad, the others full of joy. And this was the first time he applied a process of reasoning to his religious experience.

I had a similar experience with music.  At some point in college I realized that after listening to some kinds of music I had a hard time praying or focusing on homework, while after listening to other kinds of music I prayed better and focused better.  That, to paraphrase the life of Ignatius, was the first time I applied a process of reasoning to my musical tastes.

Years before that, I began to notice that some music makes me want to move this way while other music makes me want to move that way.  It’s a real difference in the music, but I only noticed the difference when I began performing it or dancing to it.  If I just listened, I didn’t notice the impulses created in me by the music; they only made themselves known when I acted on them.  From this perspective, musicians and dancers are in a better position than most to talk about the morality of music.

But if someone lacks the self-awareness necessary for an Ignatian discernment of spirits then it is hard, if not impossible, to have a conversation about music and morality.  There are some things one can say—but more on that next time.

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Paul’s favorite ism.

I found a neat instance of how punctuation or the lector’s reading can change the meaning of a biblical text.  The Nova Vulgata of 1Tim 5:21 can say:

Testificor…ut haec custodias sine praeiudicio, nihil faciens in aliquam partem declinando.  (“I adjure you that you keep these things without prejudice, doing nothing by favoring one side.”)

Or it could say:

Testificor…ut haec custiodias, sine praeiudicio nihil faciens, in aliquam partem declinando.  (“I adjure you that you keep these things, doing nothing without prejudice, by favoring one side.”)

So you get to pick which one Paul said!  But you should probably read Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana first….

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Having a ball

I recently picked up a copy of BXVI’s Caritas in Veritate in Latin.  Paragraph 5 states that “societas” today “universaliter conglobatur”.  Literally, that means that society today is everywhere turned into a ball—it’s all balled up.  But I take it as a way of referring to the phenomon of “globalization”.

Speaking of which, I’d be happy to publically honor and applaud the reader who can define “globalization” succinctly and intelligibly.

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The Reality Distortion Field and the Empathy Cliff

My theme over the past several posts has been how we decieve ourselves:  Reality Enhancement, the Filter, and Inner Collapse.  To complete the series, I turn to the most extreme form of self-deception, the Reality Distortion Field.

The phrase was coined by one of Steve Jobs’ employees to describe how Jobs would simply will the facts to be other than they were, and will it so powerfully that others around him would see as he did, to such a degree that often the facts fell into line with Jobs’ willful perception of them.  Although a more apt term has never been found to describe it, the phenomenon is not unique to Jobs:  a person so strongly wills something to be true that (a) he actually sees the facts to be other than they are, and (b) those around him fall into line with his vision, and (c) this group delusion often overcomes the very facts themselves.

None of the other forms of self-deception actually do violence to the facts, warping into the opposite of the truth.  And while the other forms are common, almost universal, the RDF is rare:  few are so inwardly wilful, so self-centered, as to lie to themselves convincingly.

If step (a) were the whole picture, then RDF would be interesting only to psychologists, but step (b) is fascinating for anyone:  how does anyone acquire Jedi-like powers of mind control to cause others actually to see the clothes on the emperor?  Could such power be used for good?  What’s more, since an RDF acts on everyone around it, any one of us could accidentally wander into one.

The key to (b) seems to be the fact that all communication requires at least a bit of empathy.  Simply to understand a sentence, one has to reconstruct the sentence in one’s head and try for a moment to think what the speaker was thinking, to get inside of his head.  Normally we are able to run a kind of virtual mind inside of our own, rather as a computer can run a virtual operating system within the main operating system, and we keep the speaker’s thoughts separate enough from our own to avoid confusion.  But two things can short-circuit the separation.

The first is what I’ll call the Empathy Cliff.  Besides the simple fact of what someone says, he communicates his confidence and conviction by his phrasing, tone, expression, body language, time, and all the rest of the cues that go into personal communication.  As we recreate his thought inside our own head, we incorporate his conviction as part of the reconstruction.  If his conviction comes across as unlimited, as utter and without qualification, it becomes nearly impossible to reconstruct the thought in our heads as a tidily contained simulation separate from our own thoughts.  The reconstruction bursts its bounds, runs into our own thoughts, and we find ourselves thinking in line with him.  It’s as though the depth of his conviction creates a sheer cliff for our empathy to fall over.

This comes out in weird ways when someone is convinced of an absurdity:  a madman utterly convinced that an invisible monster is in the room right now can freak out the sane folks around him as it becomes difficult to stay in the real world while he’s talking.

But it’s not always a bad thing:  a man can gain so clear an insight into a truth that he takes on this magnetic effect by legitimate conviction.  Whereas we soon shake off the madman’s ravings as a bad dream, the sustained and consistent communications of one who has the truth can realign our vision such that we actually see the truth for ourselves in a stable way.  If his conviction has to do not some minor detail in life but an encompassing vision that is bigger than himself and bigger than his listeners, then he takes on the charisma of a John Paul II and changes the world for the better.  (Thanks for Jonathan Rensch’s senior oration for some the details in this last paragraph.)

I mentioned that the mental separation between our own thoughts and the thoughts of the speaker can be short-circuited in a second way as well—but it has nothing to do with the RDF, so I’ll leave it for another post.

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Interior Collapse

By now, my readers—if readers there be—must be wondering:  what do Reality Enhancement and the Filter have to do with the subtitle of this blog, “the story of a Catholic marriage”?

Everything, really.

Nowhere does RE come more into play then in our dealings with other people.  A facial expression, a gesture, a tone of voice—like the scattered gleams of light in a dark but familiar room, these minute cues are “enhanced” to offer a complete view of a spouse or friend’s moods and motives.  This interpretation, which we do not even realize is an interpretation, then acts as a theory to drive the Filter, further and further confirming our “understanding” of the situation.

The only way out is to realize that this person is a mystery, much less known to us than we assume.  Over time, with a spouse or very close friend, one gains enough experience to know that this frown does not really mean displeasure, or that grin is not meant to mock.  But rarely do we generalize this experience to say of those we don’t know as well:  This expression may not mean what I take it to mean; this person is more mysterious to me than my first reaction admits.

But before we can take the one way out, we have to want to get out.  And that brings us to our next means of self deception:  the Interior Collapse.

The inner man, taken broadly in contrast to the outer, visible-to-others man, includes many layers of higher and lower:  sensation is somewhat inner, but above that is memory and imagination, and above that is reason and understanding using the imagination as a tool, and even above that is the understanding not engaged with the imagination—one could probably divide the inner man even further, but the point here is simply that there are layers.  When we are young, however, we are only aware of the basic distinction between inner and outer:  the “I” that others see and the “I” known to me alone.  Scripture speaks this way of the “heart,” the whole inner man taken without differentiation.

Part of growing up is learning to distinguish the layers within ourselves.  Kids think that whatever they feel like is what they want; at some point, they desire something powerfully but do not will to do it, or find our will overcome by desire, and they realize that desire is not the same thing as will.  As young adults, they fall into a more subtle trap, confusing the emotion of sadness with not willing something any more; with luck, they commit to something so strongly that they fight through their emotions to persevere, and so realize that emotion is neither desire nor will.

Most people take the first step; many take the second; but the further step of distinguishing the imagination from reason is rare indeed.  The experiences that distinguish desire and emotion from will happen to most people because they are sufferings imposed on us from the outside, but the interior experiences that would separate picturing from thinking are not imposed—they have to be pursued.  Classical philosophy can do it, as can advanced theology; the dark night of the soul will turn the trick as well.

So the general failure to distinguish layers within the inner man, which I call Interior Collapse, is a kind of immaturity.  Unlike RE or the Filter, it does not seem to have a good side.  Failure to distinguish emotion from will means that when we are upset at someone, we can’t pull back and realize that we actually want to solve the problem constructively.  Failure to distinguish imagination from reason—well, that’s a whole ‘nuther post!

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The Reality Enhancement Factor

Once in a while, some random messenger from heaven gives to us the gift to see as we really see.  A strong expectation is overthrown, or a prediction turns out false, or a long-held view finally breaks down under objections, and for a moment the mind’s eye focuses enough to see—a blur.

Because that’s what we actually see most of the time.  Human persons—friends, family, enemies, whatever–are the most vivid realities around us, and yet every sage who ever was said that to know oneself is the work of a lifetime, so of course our actual understanding of other people—whose thoughts we don’t think, whose feelings we don’t feel—is an even slower project.  Despite a high school grasp of science, most of us interpret the world through physical theories half a century outdated, and even the scientists at the front of their fields grasp their own theories by way of metaphors—space bends, or is made up of strings, or other phrases that have no literal meaning—and fully expect their own ideas to be outdated eventually.  We go forward in life like backpackers in a fog-shrouded valley, working by the feel of the ground, dim impressions of trees overhead, and the general direction of the light.

To see the blur as blur all the time would not only drive us crazy but nearly immobilize us.  Focused on the blurriness of the blur, we would be afraid to act and would probably underestimate how much we really know:  it is too difficult to stay exactly balanced all the time, so if we did not overestimate what we know then we would underestimate it.  Mercifully, therefore, God has made us such that we fill in the gaps in our knowledge.

For example, if I enter a dark room in which in reality I see only a few stray gleams of light, my familiarity with the room combines with my imagination to generate a view of the walls and the furniture and so on as though I really saw it all.  If someone moves the furniture or puts the vacuum cleaner in the middle of the room, my familiarity with what should be in the room combines with my imagination to generate a clear view of a witch or a goblin—again, as though I really saw it!

The same thing happens in personal relations.  What we actually know of a person are a few outward actions and a few words, all of which admit of many interpretations.  But our imagination of what it would be like of we did and said those things combines with our general view of that person to generate a view of their motives and beliefs seemingly even clearer than our vision of the goblin in the dark room.

The same thing again happens in the most intellectual pursuits.  Any time I think about something that has very little being in itself, such as prime matter or electrons, I endow it with more being than it has:  prime matter surreptitiously becomes a bland, grey stuff; atoms and electrons become balls with smaller balls moving in circular orbits about them.  Being is light to the mind, and just as the imagination fills out the gaps in a dark room, so the mind fills out the gaps in being.

Taken all together, this Reality Enhancement Factor transforms the blur of our lives into a clear, sunlit meadow at noon.  It’s a blessing:  our creative guesses are in fact true enough often enough that they can be taken as at least one artist’s rendering of the truth, and in the meantime we don’t slip into the fallacy of skepticism.  But it’s also a curse:  if we truly believe our sight to be as clear as it feels most of the time, then we stubbornly cling to our unjust perceptions of a person, or we refuse honestly to consider plain evidence against our theories and dismiss as stupid or dishonest everyone who disagrees.  Recognizing the REF is crucial.  Humility without skepticism is a mark of the educated man.

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How bad imagination can kill final causality

For this post, the Dr. is in. Although family doings are better blog material than academic musings, nonetheless academic music is much of what happens inside my head. From that perspective, academic musing is in fact family doing–it’s about my life, just not about the part you would have caught with a camera.

At any rate, for many years I have passed on to others what I myself received from Francis Bacon, namely that modernity is built on a rejection of formal and final causality, matter and efficient causes being approved. Recently, as I meditated on ST 2-1.1.2, new light was granted me from Renee Descartes about what Bacon’s maxim means. It begins with the distinction between substance and accident.

In the modern imagination—only early theorists like Descartes really thought about it, so now it’s passed down by way of unexamined habits of imagination—a “substance” is an inert thing like a Mr. Potato Head doll, while all of its accidents are “qualities” attached to it, as the ears, eyes, and nose are attached to Mr. Potato Head. This means that everything active about a substance derives from accidental “qualities” rather than from the substance itself.

This makes sense, given the denial of substantial form. Because every inclination to action arises from form, matter without form would be inert; in the terms of Aristotle’s Physics, because nature is a principle of motion and of rest in the thing, to deny that substances have natures is to deny that they have any principle of motion in them. All inclinations to action would come from accidental forms, but these accidental forms would all be only incidental to the substance—attached like a Mr. Potato Head part—because the only essential connection between prime matter and accidental forms comes through a substantial form.

It follows that no substance has a natural motion, but all motion comes from something extraneous to the substance. Or to put it another way, even the motions arising from a substance’s own accidents are only incidental to the substance itself, something like violent motion. Or to put it still a third way, all motion is like the outcome of different causes interacting with one another—chance—because every motion arises from the incidental combination of accidents and their inert host.

This means that a non-intelligent substance acting for an end is entirely unintelligible. Of course, this is exactly what Bacon meant when he denied the existence of final causality, but I think I’ve made some forward progress: I have discovered a source in the imagination of modern resistance to nature acting for an end. Once a person imagines substance itself as inert—which is what matter without form would mean—then he will simply not understand what anyone is talking about when it comes to natural motion toward an end.

If we undo the error by embracing form, then the substance itself (a) has something fundamentally active about it and (b) gives rise to “properties” or accidents that are not incidental to the essence of the thing. So the substance itself gives rise to its motions and to the accidents by which it carries out those motions. In other words, the substance itself is fixed on moving toward a definite thing that is relevant to the substance—to its good. Now, a good which is the terminus of a non-random motion is an end. So movement following on a fixed inclination toward the good is action for an end.

Just as final causality vanishes when substance is imagined one way, so it intuitively reappears as soon as one grasps that being is a kind of act. As Aristotle remarked upon making the act/potency distinction, “Had they grasped this nature, all their difficulties would have been solved.”

P.S. In the second-to-last paragraph, the phrase “to its good” sparked a long and fruitful conversation with my brother-in-law. I hope he’ll write down the results for everyone to enjoy!

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