Archive for January, 2011


Philosophizing within Faith — Etienne Gilson

January 31, 2011

The Lamentation Over The Dead Christ, Jusepe de Ribera, 1621


I was thinking of Father Ritt whose Fundamentals of Theology class I enjoyed so much I repeated it for the sheer joy of being in his class. If I were to retake it yet again I would come primed with this essay. The good Father would have us run through the various proofs of God’s existence but we never covered this very strategic and necessary piece of the pie.

Sed contra est quod dicitur Exod. 3 ex persona Dei: Ego sum qui sum
(Summa theologiae 1.2.3).
["On the contrary, the book of Exodus (3:14) presents God as saying I am who am."]

Theologians often quote this statement of God to establish, on the basis of belief in divine authority, that Being is the proper name of God. Here, however, it is found in the second question of the Summa theologiae, in the sed contra of Article 3: “Is there a God?”; or, as we usually say, “Does God exist?”

Since it is taken from scripture, the statement certainly means that God himself has given an affirmative answer to the question of his existence. To assent to his word is to believe that God exists because he himself has said so. In this sense the existence of God is held as true through an act of faith in the word of God.

The knowledge of God’s existence thereby acquires a universal significance and absolute certitude. Indeed, even those who do not understand the philosophical proofs of the existence of God are informed about this truth by divine revelation. Philosophers or not, everyone to whom his word is communicated through the preaching of scripture and who receives it as coming from him, in this way knows that God exists. Philosophers themselves need to remember that God has revealed his existence and to hold onto that truth by faith.

There are rational proofs by which we can know with certitude that God exists; but the certitude of faith, which is based on the infallibility of the word of God, is infinitely more reliable than all knowledge acquired by natural reason alone, no matter how evident it may be. In matters of revelation, error is absolutely impossible because the source of the knowledge of faith is God Himself, who is the Truth. 

“… much more is a person certain about what he hears from God, who cannot be mistaken, than about what he sees with his own reason, which can be mistaken” (ST 2-2.4.8 ad 2m). [Gilson then adds the following quotation:] “In reply to the third objection we say that understanding and science are more perfect than the knowledge of faith because they have a greater clarity, but not because they have a greater certitude. For the whole certitude of understanding or science, as gifts [of the Holy Spirit], comes from the certitude of faith, as the certitude of the knowledge of conclusions comes from the certitude of principles.

But insofar as science, wisdom, and understanding are [natural] intellectual virtues, they are based on the natural light of reason, which falls short of the certitude of God’s word, on which faith is based” (ST 2-2.4.8 ad 3m). So it seems impossible to acquire in the light of principles of knowledge themselves certitudes equal to those given by faith in the word of God, for this word expresses the certitude that God himself has. Now this certitude is infallible, whereas that of the finite natural light is not. Hence in no case would reason be substituted for faith without changing the less infallibly certain for the more infallibly certain. Important consequences follow from this, the first of which is that the theologian, as he begins his work, by calling upon the word of God affirming his own existence, asserts in the name of faith the existence of the proper object of theological science. In this sense the whole of theology hangs upon that first truth — a point worthy of meditation.

There were prophets who in certain respects could have been greater than Moses, but absolutely speaking Moses remains the greatest of all: Non surrexit propheta ultra in Israel, sicut Moyses (And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses; Deuteronomy: 34:10). Scripture immediately gives the reason for this judgment. There has not arisen in Israel a prophet equal to Moses, “he whom Yahweh knew face to face.” St. Thomas will look no further for the first reason for his own position that Moses excelled all the prophets (ST 2-2.174.4).

There are four special signs of prophecy: knowledge both by intellectual and imaginative insight, the promulgation of revealed truth, and the confirmation of that promulgation by miracles. The first two of these four signs should hold our attention here. First, Moses excels the other prophets by his intellectual vision of God, since, like St. Paul later in his rapture, “he saw the essence itself of God.” But he also had the sensible perception of it to a degree attained by no other prophet, for he enjoyed it so to speak at will, not only hearing God’s words but even seeing God himself speak, either in sleep or even while awake. In the face-to-face vision of the divine essence Moses saw that God exists. Hence it is by an act of faith in that existence of God revealed to Moses in an immediate vision that the theologian first answers the question, Does God exist? Nothing will ever replace for us the assent to that intellectual vision of the divine essence that Moses had face to face and in which we ourselves can share, obscurely but infallibly, by faith.

St. Thomas never doubted the necessity of believing in the existence of the God of Moses at the beginning of all theological inquiry. According to him, faith consists principally in two things: the true knowledge of God and the mystery of the Incarnation. Now, there can be no hesitation about what he calls the true knowledge of God. By that he understands what all the faithful are bound to believe explicitly and always in order to be saved. These are the truths spoken of by the Apostle in the Epistle to the Hebrews, 11.6: “Without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” To which St. Thomas adds, “Consequently everyone (quilibet) is bound to believe explicitly and always that God exists (Deum esse) and that he exercises his providence over human affairs” (QDV 14.11). So all our theological knowledge of God begins with an act of faith in God’s revelation of his own existence. The Ego sum of Exodus is indeed in its right place in the Summa theologiae, before all the rational and properly philosophical proofs of the existence of God.

At this point we should carefully avoid a confusion that is all too prevalent. How, it will be asked, could the theologian at one and the same time believe that God exists and rationally demonstrate his existence? The question seems to be all the more in order as St. Thomas himself explicitly teaches that it is impossible to believe and to know the same conclusion at the same time and in the same respect. Will it be necessary, then, to stop believing that God exists after having demonstrated his existence five times; or, on the contrary, will we pretend to continue believing what we already knew? If we remove belief in the existence of God, we assign to theology an object whose very existence is established by philosophy, but if we keep it after the demonstration we are asked to believe what we know, which is impossible.

In order to clear up this difficulty, we must remember first of .111 what the object of faith is, namely the substance or foundation of the whole spiritual edifice. Faith is not directed to the formula of the proposition that calls for our assent. Beyond the intelligible meaning of the words it directly reaches the very object which these words signify. For this reason alone no rational proof of the truth of the proposition “God exists” could dispense us from believing in the existence of him in whom we believe on the word of God. Affirming God by faith is specifically different from affirming him by philosophical reason. The truth of the conclusion of the philosopher is justified on its own rational ground; the affirmation of the faithful is a sharing in the knowledge that God himself has of his own existence and of which he instructs us by way of revelation. Faith is a properly theological virtue which has God for its cause and object

Accordingly, the knowledge of faith and the knowledge of reason do not belong to the same species, not even to the same genus. Knowledge of the existence of God as an assent to the revelation made to us about it is entirely different from that which philosophy conveys about it, because for the believer it is a first real possession of God and his first step on the road to his final end — the beatific vision. Between the face-to-face vision of Moses and that of eternal life, faith offers to believers an obscure but certain road that does not lead to metaphysics but to salvation.

Hence God only revealed his existence to us because he began, in that free initiative, to give us already in an obscure way a sort of laying hold of our final end: accedentem ad Deum oportet credere quia est (whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists: Hebrews 11:6). No philosophy, no natural knowledge of God, could put us in possession, whether it be by one or five ways, of a knowledge of God’s existence that belongs to the economy of salvation. Philosophy is not a doctrine of salvation. We should not lose sight of this absolute transcendence of theological knowledge and of faith: “The principal object of faith is the First Truth, the vision of which gives the happiness of heaven and takes the place of faith” (Principale objectum fidei est veritas prima, cujus visio beatos facit et fidei succedit: ST 2-2.5.1). Hence the relation of belief in God’s existence to the certain knowledge of it given by philosophical demonstrations does not truly raise any insoluble problem.

Some are upset to hear that natural reason is fallible, even when it makes use of first principles. It is simply a fact that it makes mistakes. It is certain that the existence of God is rationally demonstrable, but not all the demonstrations of it that are offered are conclusive. Suppose a philosopher like St. Anselm holds it for certain that God exists on the ground of the purely rational conclusion that we cannot know the meaning of the word “God” without being compelled to admit his existence, not only in thought but also in reality.

The least we can say is that the proof is not certainly conclusive. If it were not, what would be the position of a philosopher, in this case one who is also a theologian and a saint, who would think himself dispensed from believing that God exists, with the excuse that he knows it with certainty by a rational demonstration whose value in fact is uncertain? He would no longer believe in the existence of God, but he would believe he knows it, and since he would neither believe it nor know it, that person would be completely ignorant of the existence of God. That truth is then no longer recognized except in the confused way described by St. Thomas (ST 1.2.1 ad 1m), or by a belief that takes itself for knowledge: partim ex consuetudine (CG 1.11.1). Certitude, which is our concern here, does not belong to judgments of this sort, and that is why the only infallible and supremely reliable certitude remains that of the act of faith. It is always present and is never mistaken.

So we must try to distinguish between two questions that are often confused in this discussion. Is the existence of God a truth demonstrable by natural reason, so that it is knowable and known with certitude? Without a doubt the answer to this first question is “yes.” The second question is whether everyone can consider his natural reason infallible in its effort to demonstrate rationally the existence of God? The merciless criticism of the proofs of St. Augustine, St. Anselm, Descartes, Malebranche and many others are timely reminders of the need for modesty. Are we keener philosophers than they? That is the whole question. Modesty is not skepticism. So we should not be afraid to let our mind pursue the proof of God’s existence until we reach the greatest possible certitude, but we should keep intact our faith in the word that reveals this truth to the most simple folk as well as to the most learned. Here it is well to meditate on the very complex and nuanced passage in ST 2-2.2.4: “Is it necessary to believe what can be proved by natural reason?” The answer is in the affirmative: “We must accept by faith not only what is above reason but also what can be known by reason.”

Others are also concerned that if we adopt this attitude, we are once again involved in the contradiction already mentioned, that is, knowing and believing one and the same proposition. But this is not the case. By a supernatural act of faith we cannot believe that God is the immovable Prime Mover, or the First Efficient Cause, or the First Necessary Being. All this, which the philosopher demonstrates, belongs to natural reason, not to faith. These conclusions, moreover, have been discovered by men like Aristotle and Avicenna; they have not been revealed by God.

It is true that if the God of revelation exists, he is the Prime Mover, the First Efficient Cause, the First Necessary Being, and everything reason can prove about the First Cause of the universe. But if Yahweh is the Prime Mover, the Prime Mover is not Yahweh. The First Efficient Cause never spoke to me by his prophets, and I do not expect my salvation to come from him. The God in whose existence the faithful believe infinitely transcends the one whose existence is proved by the philosopher.

Above all, he is a God of whom philosophy could have no idea, for all the conclusions of natural theology only reveal to us the existence of a First Cause of the universe. They are affirmed as the crowning point of science, but along the same line, whereas Yahweh reveals his existence to us in order to raise us to the vision of his essence and to share his own happiness with us. The God of reason is the God of science; the God of faith is the God of salvation. All the philosophical demonstrations can easily unfold below that divine revelation; no one of them could reach it or even conceive of its object

So we believe all the knowledge that directs us to beatitude, and all knowledge is the object of faith insofar as it directs us to beatitude. All scibilia are alike in being objects of knowledge, but because all do not equally direct us to beatitude not all are equally credenda (ST 2-2.2.4 ad 3m). Knowing the existence of God because it can be proved in the Aristotelian manner does not even start us on the road to salvation; believing that God exists because he has revealed it sets us on the road to our final end. Then there is nothing to prevent the theologian from directing all his knowledge toward that end, including Aristotle, Avicenna, Averroes, and the storehouse of their proofs. Philosophy can and ought to be saved, but it could not save itself any more than the philosopher could. As philosophy, it cannot even conceive the simple possibility of its own salvation.

We can recognize the absolute transcendence of revelation by the curious fact of the philosophical and theological multiple meanings of the texts of scripture. When St. Thomas was looking for a sed contra for his question on the existence of God, he does not seem to have found a text in which Yahweh says in so many words, “I exist.” So he had recourse to the statement of Exodus: Ego sum qui sum. But that statement is a reply to the question Moses put to God: When the people ask me who has sent me to them, what shall I answer?

So the passage in question also contains the reply to another query: What is the proper name of God? This question will be raised later in the Summa 1.13.11, and the sed contra will simply appeal to another part of the same text (Exodus 3:14): “Say this to the children of Israel: ‘I Am’ has sent me to you.” The text of the Summa reads: “… respondit ei Dominus: Sic dices eis: Qui est misit me ad vos. Ergo hoc nomen Qui est est maxime proprium nomen Dei” (The Lord answered him, ‘This is what you shall say to them: He Who Is sent me to you.’ Therefore this name, He Who Is, is the most proper name of God). Hence the sed contra that guarantees the existence of God has a wealth of meaning of which none of the five ways of proving that existence could give the slightest idea. The God of the sed contra is someone, a person, who reveals his name while revealing his existence. These matters do not come within the scope of philosophy. It is not called upon here to prove the truth of scripture. The theologian asks for its help only to put humankind on the track of an order of whose existence it itself has no suspicion and consequently to which it will never have access. (Meditate on ST 2-2.2.3 and ad 3m)

A written statement almost incidentally casts a still more instructive light on what the mind of the theologian can read in a single word if it is spoken by God. In the article of the Summa in which St. Thomas asks if the degrees of prophecy vary with the passage of time, he answers in the affirmative, and he offers the following proof: “The Fathers who had gone before had been instructed in the faith about the omnipotence of the one God, but afterward Moses was more fully taught about the simplicity of the divine essence when he was told Ego sum qui sum, the name the Jews represented by the term ‘Adonai’ out of respect for this ineffable name” (ST 2-2.174.6).

Thus the same statement that guarantees that God exists and that his most suitable name is He Who Is, also reveals to us the perfect simplicity of the divine essence. And indeed, God did not say: I am this or that, but simply I Am. I am what? I am ‘I Am.’ So, more than ever, the statement of Exodus seems to soar above in a kind of empty space, where the attraction of the weight of philosophy can no longer be felt. The work of reason is good, healthy, and important, for it proves that, left to itself, philosophy can establish with certitude the existence of the primary being whom everyone calls God. But a single word of the sacred text at once puts us in personal relations with him. We say his name, and by the simple fact of saying it, it teaches us the simplicity of the divine essence.

If we reflect on the significance of this last remark, it will make us even more aware of the absolute transcendence of a science such as theology, and in what sense it is true to say that natural reason, which it makes its servant, never empties it of faith.



January 28, 2011


Dr. Ralph M. McInerny

I read this the other night and got about half of it on first pass. But of course it lingered on so that I knew I would transform it into a post. And now after scanning and reforming it for web readers (more paragraphs, titles, bolding to emphasize the good stuff) I can tell you that this little selection is a gem. Take the time and read it so after you read it and understand it you can tell yourself just how much better you are for having known it. God bless Ralph McInerny who passed away last year at age 80. One of his parting comments on the Notre Dame controversy the previous year: “Barack Hussein Obama, enabler-in-chief-of abortion, has agreed to speak at the 2009 commencement and to receive an honorary doctorate of law,” he wrote on the Web site of the conservative magazine National Review. “That abortion and its advocacy violate a primary precept of natural law reinforced by the Catholic Church’s explicit doctrine is a mere bagatelle. Wackos of all kinds will kick up a fuss, of course, but their protest will go unnoticed in South Bend. The pell-mell pursuit of warm and fuzzy Catholicism will continue.” We miss your voice Ralph so much, it brings tears to my eyes and I never knew you.

Philosophy and Theology
From at least 1148, Thomas devoted himself to the study of theology. Once he had become a master, he held teaching positions in theology for the rest of his life. Of course so many of the major medieval figures were theologians that it has seemed to some that nothing significant in philosophy proper went on during the Middle Ages. This charge has been made by Bertrand Russell, Will Durant and Emile Brehier, among others, and annoying as many have found this, important issues are raised by the judgment, some having to do with latter-day assumptions, others with the medieval master’s self-understanding.

The twentieth-century professional philosopher is apt to think of his discipline as not only different from theology but as immune to any (if the assumptions of that benighted discipline. The theologian is in thrall to religious beliefs, whereas the philosopher starts with an unadorned mind, at square one, and follows the argument whither it goeth, obedient only to the exigencies of reason — that is, of pure reason. This charming myth has captured the imagination of many philosophers, despite the fact that it cannot account for why they raise the questions they do, in the order they do, and with the quite palpable professional passion that they do.

Such a thinker’s charge against the Christian philosopher is of course just, or can be restated so as to make it just. One who accepts Christian revelation as true will no doubt be influenced by that fact as he goes about his philosophical work. Let us call this an antecedent influence on, and the continuing ambience of, his thinking. Those who profess to be shocked by this seem to imagine a philosopher who has no antecedent convictions and no cultural ambience within which he does his professional work.

Perhaps this would be possible for pure reason in East Prussia or a disembodied spirit but it is manifestly impossible for any flesh and blood human thinker. Doubtless this is why modern philosophers wearied themselves in the task of finding a method with which to disencumber themselves of all antecedent beliefs. It may seem to amount only to a Johnsonian kick but Kierkegaard’s Johannes Climacus: or De omnibus dubitandum est (of everything doubtful be ) is the best purgative for this ailment.

Relativism in Philosophy
Recognition of the inescapable existential setting of any human activity, including thinking, may seem to relativize all philosophical positions, as if each can be reduced hack into its existential antecedents. But these antecedents are manifestly different in the case of the non-believer and believer. Does this mean that what each of them says is thought to be true only because it jibes with the antecedent assumptions of his inquiry? Are truth and falsity to mean only `true within the assumptions of Christian belief’ or `true within the assumptions of, say, reductive materialism’?

That such unexamined if workaday relativism explains a good deal of the failure to communicate between philosophers has been observed by many, not least by Alasdaire MacIntyre. If such relativism were absolute, so to say, philosophical agreement, or disagreement, would be explained by features extrinsic to what is being said.

The way out of utter relativism is to maintain that, whatever one’s antecedent existential assumptions, a philosophical position must obey criteria which are public and intrinsically independent of one’s motives for philosophizing. Lord Russell set out to show that free love is morally acceptable; he was looking for arguments on behalf of that amorous position. But if his arguments are convincing only to those who share his antecedent dispositions, they may be called rationalizations and not philosophy. So too a Christian sets out to show that God can be known to exist from the world around us, prodded, let us say, by Romans 1:19. But his arguments have to hold in the public philosophical forum and be cogent to those without as well as with faith.

Thomas’ Two Truths About God
It seemed well to begin with this problem, the problem of Christian Philosophy, because it is often confused with what Thomas meant by theology. There are two kinds of truth about God, Thomas observes. First, truths which can be known by anyone employing his natural capacity to think about the world around us; second, truths which God has revealed about himself and which are accepted as true on the basis of a gratuitously granted disposition of mind called faith.

The whole aim of philosophy, as it was begun by the Greeks, is to achieve wisdom; wisdom is knowledge of the first principles and causes; but the first principles and causes are divine. Philosophy by definition strives towards knowledge of the divine, and if it is successful, ends as theology. Truths about God do not begin where philosophy ends; they are the telos of the whole philosophical enterprise. On this basis, Thomas distinguished two kinds of theology, one philosophical, the other Christian theology. On what basis? There are two kinds of truth about God.

In the Summa contra Gentiles 1.3 Thomas writes: “For there are some truths about God which quite exceed the capacity of human reason, for example, that God is three and one, but there are others to which even natural reason can attain, for example, that God exists and that he is one, and others like them, which in fact philosophers have demonstratively proved about God, led on by the light of natural reason.” This distinction between the theology of the philosophers and that of believers provides the basis for a general distinction between philosophy and theology.

Philosophy takes as its starting point knowledge that is in the public domain, which any human mind is in principle capable of knowing. A philosophical position, no matter how sophisticated, is characterized by the implicit promissory note that it can be shown to follow from what we and everyone else already know. Indeed, if this cannot be done, it is the philosopher who loses. In the Aristotelian methodology, it is assumed that latent in ordinary thinking there are certain truths of a necessary kind. Sometimes these are of breathtaking scope, such as, `It is impossible for something to be and not to be at the same time and in the same respect,’ and, `Two things equal to a third are equal to one another.’ These are such that they immediately claim our allegiance once we know what is being said. They are judgments known to be true of themselves, as opposed to being known in dependence on other truths.

Acquired knowledge is such that a judgment is seen to be true because of its connection with other judgments already taken to be true. This is the nature of discourse, the Greek term for which is syllogismos. Scientia, knowledge in the strict sense, is discourse whose conclusion shares in the necessity of the premises from which it follows. That is, not only does it necessarily follow from them that would be a feature of any successful discursive reasoning or syllogism but what follows is necessary, that is, it could not be otherwise. Thus science is demonstrative reasoning or apodictic discourse.

Attaining the Ideal of Knowledge
This ideal of knowledge is variously attained. Mathematics was taken to exemplify it in an obvious way and the ideal of science thus seems to be simply a suite of demonstrations. Most subject matters do not permit this, needless to say, although Thomas, like Aristotle, thought that there were constitutive demonstrations in our knowledge of nature that permitted us to speak of natural science, even though most of the reasoning in the science falls short of being demonstrative, that is, necessary. Besides mathematics and natural science, there is a theoretical science that Aristotle called theology or first philosophy, and that came to be called metaphysics. If natural science has being as subject to change as its subject and mathematics has quantified being as its subject, metaphysics was assigned being as such, or being as being, as its subject. It is in this culminating intellectual effort that the philosopher achieved some knowledge of God. This is what made it wisdom, according to Aristotle, and that is the goal of philosophizing. [Book of Causes, Prologue]

Thus when Thomas speaks of two kinds of truth about God, he is comparing the culminating achievement of philosophy as he found it in Aristotle with the starting point of Christian reflection on revelation. A believer who holds, as Thomas did, that the pagan philosopher Aristotle achieved such truths as that God exists and is one and the like, will then of course notice that such truths are included in revelation, implicitly or explicitly. That is, some truths about God which are in principle knowable — Aristotle knew them — have none the less been proposed for our belief or revealed.

The Role of Scripture
Of course Scripture is characterized by those other truths about God — the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the like. Thomas called truths of the first kind, as they figure in revelation, “preambles of faith”, and truths of the second kind, “mysteries of faith. He derives a very important result from the fact that some truths about God that are knowable have been included in revelation. If some of the truths about God that have been revealed can come to be known (the preambles), then it is surely reasonable to accept other truths about God found in revelation that cannot be comprehended or understood in this life (the mysteries). This is not a proof of the truth of the mysteries of faith, but rather an argument on behalf of accepting those mysteries as true.

This comparison of philosophy and of “the science of Sacred Scripture” is not merely adventitious. The discourse that is found in the theological writings of Thomas is unintelligible without acknowledging the influence of Aristotle. The very first question asked in the Summa theologiae is, `What need is there for any science other than the philosophical ones?’ This question only makes sense to a reader already acquainted with philosophy.

Moreover, the questions that are posed at the outset of sacred science are only meaningful against the background of Aristotelian methodology. To ask what the subject of a science is, what its principles are, how it should make truths about its subject known — these questions only begin to be formulated by the theologians of the thirteenth century. If one looks at the theological work on which they all commented, the Sentences of Peter Lombard, he will find no comparable discussions. Peter follows St Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine in saying that all the things considered in his four volumes are either divine things or signs of them — res et signum. This is a far cry from Aristotelian methodology.

The Very Heart Of Thomas Thought
The suggestion that a knowledge of the philosophical sciences is presupposed by Christian theology is not merely a pedagogical aside. It points us to the very heart of Thomas’s thought. From his earliest theological writings he is employing what he clearly regards as the achievements of Aristotelian philosophy in his reflection on the mysteries of Christian faith.

His knowledge of Aristotle, we have noted, would have begun at Monte Cassino, been deepened at Naples and, under the tutelage of Albert the Great, become a comprehensive command of the Philosopher. Impressed as we can be by his grasp of Aristotle when he returns to Paris from Cologne and writes On Being and Essence and On the Principles of Nature and comments on Peter Lombard, that knowledge grows over the course of his career. When, in the final phase of his academic life, at Rome in 1268 and then during the second regency at Paris and continuing when he returned to Naples, Thomas produces his amazing book by book, chapter by chapter, line by line, word by word, analyses of the Aristotelian corpus, we are getting the fruit of a lifetime’s meditation on the works of the magnificent Macedonian who became simply the Philosopher. For others, this may have been merely a conventional sobriquet; for Thomas it was the literal truth.

Key Aristotelian Doctrines Of Thomas Thinking
It will be well to say a few things about some of the key Aristotelian doctrines that define Thomas’s thinking:

  1. 1.       All our intellectual knowledge takes its rise from the senses.” This fundamental Aristotelian assumption pervades Thomas’s intellectual work, both philosophical and theological. The commensurate object of human thinking is the nature of sensible reality. That is, what anyone what anyone can be taken to know are the things around us that we see and touch and ~smell and hear. Our ideas are in the first instance ideas of them. Since we name things as we know them, our language will reveal this priority of the sensible, the palpable, the visible. The trajectory of human knowing is a movement from what is obvious to us, though hardly most real, to knowledge of the more real but less obvious to us. Things most obvious to us are not obviously the most important things there are. The order of our learning does not match the order of things, as Aristotle took Plato to be saying. It is not subsisting Ideas or ideal Forms with which our mind is most at home, but rather with what we can grasp of the things we see and touch and hear. Knowledge of these sensible things can lead on to knowledge of the less obvious in the sensible world and even beyond the sensible world, but the order of our learning, like the priorities of our language which express our knowing, will reveal the primacy of the sensible.
  2. “Whatever comes about as a result of a change is a composite of stuff and form.” It is scarcely an accident that one of the first philosophical works we have from Thomas’s pen — and indeed one of the few purely philosophical works he wrote — is devoted to an exposition of the composition of natural things, that is, of things that have come to be as the result of a change. Written while he was yet a student, On the Principles of Nature cannot be read simply as an account of what Aristotle taught. The opusculum (vocab: A small, minor work) is clearly a laying out of what its author regards as the truth of the matter. The least we can say about the end result of a change is that something which did not have a certain characteristic has come to have that characteristic. When Agatha went to Miami she was not tanned, but look at her now. Some subject which was not-P is now P. A lump of clay that previously did not have the shape of my mother-in-law, after minimal manipulation now does. Shapes and forms are ways of discriminating things, of classifying them. The term “shape”, forma, comes to be used to talk of temperature and texture and even place, such as Agatha’s being in Miami.

This progression and extension of terminology already exhibits a movement from the more to the less obvious. If the subject or matter of such forms as shape and temperature and weight and place is substance — a lump of clay, my mother-in-law, Agatha — the question arises as to how we can speak of substances themselves coming to be. Not just coming to be such-and-such, that is, white or light or over there, but coming to be tout court (vocab: and nothing else… briefly: without qualification or additional information). What could be the subject of the becoming of the subject? We come to know it by an analogy, Aristotle said.

If there are substances, and if substances come to be, and if coming into being involves a subject or matter as well as a form, then we will seek the subject and form of substantial becoming on an analogy with the subject and form of accidental or incidental becoming. In substantial change, the subject cannot be itself a substance, since then the change would be an incidental one; that is, a change in which the subject acquires a form that does not account for its being a substance so much as a tanned, tired and impecunious substance. In the change whereby a substance comes to be a substance, the form must be of a kind that makes a substance to be a substance, not a form that makes an already existing substance to be such-and-such: in Florida, tanned, up to no good.

The Same Aristotlian Vocabulary
This pressing on to the principles of substantial becoming from reflections on the way things change color and place and size and temperature is already a rich lesson in the development of philosophical terminology as Thomas learned it from Aristotle. And like his mentor, Thomas will use this same vocabulary to talk of sensing and imagining and thinking itself, and indeed to speak of the principle of life in living things. The soul is a substantial form. Ultimately, and by a vast stretch of imagination and understanding, he will be able to speak of separated forms. That is, forms of the kind with which Plato blithely began are the hard-won achievements of prolonged philosophical analyses for the Aristotelian. Along the way, thinking about thinking becomes an analysis on the model of physical becoming. Coming to know will thus be spoken of as acquiring a form, but whether in sensing or imagining or understanding, the form will be more unlike than like its physical counterpart, though sufficiently alike to form a pedagogical bridge.

These central tenets concerning progress in knowledge and the mirroring progress in language sank deeply into the mind of St Thomas Aquinas. His Aristotelianism is not a patina over something more basic, or a terminology to express what he knows on some other basis. In learning from Aristotle Thomas does not of course think of himself as conforming his mind to another’s, but rather as conforming his mind to the ways things are, aided in the task by his great precursor, the Philosopher.

Christian Faith Mysteries Seen From Thomas’s Aristotelianism
Seen from this philosophical perspective, the mysteries of the Christian faith take on an awesome character, unimaginably exceeding the range of human reason. Nonetheless, as the distinction of preambles and mysteries in revealed truths makes clear, Thomas sees philosophy as the necessary instrument for a meditation on faith that exemplifies the Anselmian motto: fides quaerens intellectum (vocab: faith seeking understanding). Faith is the acceptance as true of what the mind cannot comprehend in this life; theology is the inevitable effort to diminish the strangeness by putting what is believed into juxtaposition with what is known. Theology comes to mimic the methodology of the philosophical sciences, but this never results in knowledge in the usual sense, that is, philosophical knowledge. The starting points of theology are not truths in the public domain, but truths that God has revealed which can only be accepted on his say-so. The theologian will defend those truths against attack, he will undertake to show that nothing we know is in conflict with them, and he will draw out the implications of what has been explicitly revealed, thereby contributing to the development of doctrine of which Cardinal Newman and then Vatican II have spoken. Theology in this sense is not addressed to just anyone; it can be a vehicle of truth only for one who accepts its starting points, and that acceptance has a name, faith.

Thomas’s Aristotelianism is obvious in his insistence that God reveals Himself to us through images and likenesses. Scripture is figurative and metaphorical, which is a concession to what is easily grasped by the human mind. “The creator makes himself known through his creation first of all, and then through the Book, those inspired writings that come to us from the Chosen People. In Christ himself, there is the ultimate concession to our mode of knowing: God becomes man, he walks among us and speaks to us and shows us the way to salvation. And he speaks in parables and stories so that we can be led on from the obvious to the mystery beyond. The sacraments of the Church are also seen as making the spiritual palpable: outward signs of inward grace, in the phrase.

When Thomas undertook his commentaries on Aristotle, he was in part continuing a practice of his mentor Albert. If Thomas’s commentary on Aristotle’s On the Soul does date from 1268 when he was teaching at Santa Sabina in Rome, it could not have been prompted by the controversies raging in Paris. But when Thomas did go back to Paris, his Aristotelian commentaries multiplied and this at a time when he was busy about the many tasks of the regent master of theology. Doubtless the spur was what the so-called Latin Averroists were making of Aristotle. Thomas had long expressed discontent with the commentaries of the Commentator and now he called Averroes the distorter rather than the expositor of Aristotle. These commentaries cannot in any way be seen as a cynical or well-intentioned effort to tailor the Aristotelian text to alien demands, shaping it so that it conformed with Christian doctrine, baptizing Aristotle.

It is simply libel to say that Thomas twisted Aristotle for polemical reasons, whether the twisting is taken to be conscious or unconscious. No one who reads On Whether There Is but One Intellect, a polemical work of this period, can have any doubt about what Thomas as commentator is doing. The task proceeds on two levels, guided by two overriding questions. First, what does Aristotle actually say? Second, is it true or false? The first question cannot be terminal for Thomas, but it is the first question. In this massively impressive effort, Thomas is every bit as much the defender of Aristotle against misreading as he is a defender of the Christian faith.


The Divorce Between Faith And Science — C.T. Mallek

January 27, 2011

Meister der Paraphrasen des Pentateuch 11th century

A nice, short, right-to-the-point essay from the website Catholic Champion which appears to do a lot of what I do here.

The bad metaphysics of modern philosophers such as Descartes, Kant, and Hume affects the divorce between faith and science on a broad level simply in that it replaces an open Aristotelian metaphysical foundation with a closed mechanistic metaphysical foundation. By replacing the Aristotelian metaphysical foundation with a mechanistic foundation, philosophers — to remain consistent in this kind of “closed system” — had no room for a presupposed first mover as a starting point.

Thus, faith and science were thought of as existing in separate spheres, one of which had little to do with the understanding of the other. Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Faith and Reason, not only addresses the fallacious assertions of these modern philosophers, but offers a remedy by demonstrating the truth of the Aristotelian or Tomistic worldview, showing that faith and science are by no means contrary to one another, but that it’s essential for the progression of humanity — of any kind — that faith and science (or reason) be used together.

While Aristotle pointed out the importance of looking at the whole of something before looking at its parts, the mechanist stresses the importance of observing the parts of a thing rather than the whole. Aristotle believed that once the whole is understood, an understanding of its parts will eventually also be understood. The metaphysics of Descartes, Kant, and Hume, in a sense, start opposite of where Aristotelian metaphysics start.

Descartes, widely regarded as the father of modern philosophy — skeptical about claims to knowledge, trusted reason while distrusting the idea of empiricism. After dispensing with everything “not yet proven” — needing some kind of presupposition to establish a first principle — Descartes came up with the well known and fallacious concept, “I think therefore I am”; thus ultimately leading to a philosophy that separated or divided reality into separate spheres, creating a kind of dualistic worldview, contrary to the predominantly Aristotelian worldview of the medieval scholastics.

Descartes set out to establish a rational universal science to take the place of scholastic metaphysics; ultimately establishing the idea that, as Benedict Ashley O.P. puts it, “what we are most certain of is not the external “objective” world of the senses but our own introspective knowledge of our thoughts as self-conscious and free “subjects.” Descartes’ philosophical position, being partially mechanistic, helped open the doors for a whole mechanistic worldview; a worldview contrary to the teleological understanding of nature as espoused by Aristotle. The machinists viewed the world in a kind of “closed system” from the bottom up as opposed to from the top down, leaving out the presupposition of there being a creator as first cause. Benedict Ashley puts it this way:

This uncritical mechanistic view of the foundations of natural science has ever since left modern science open to the confusions of the extreme epistemologies of idealism and empiricism and placed science in opposition to belief in God as spiritual first cause of physical reality.

Contrary to the popular belief that modernism liberated science from the shackles of religion, this “bottom up” model, led science down a path of perpetual confusion. Avery Dulles writes, “Faith assists reason by extending reason’s sphere into the realm of supernatural mysteries and by delivering reason from errors, thanks to the surer light of revelation.”

The problem escalated with David Hume who rejected Descartes dualistic worldview, taking things further into the realms of confusion by denying the human capacity to really know anything at all. To Hume, impressions and ideas are the only things that really exist. Hume argued that there is no external reality at all but just internal perceptions of such realities. So in essence, Hume denied the already fallacious idea of being able to know God simply, and only, on dogmatic terms.

William Wallace writes, “The great genius of Immanuel Kant was to transcend the Enlightenment division and renew the main philosophical task of integrating experience and reason.” Immanuel Kant, originally a rationalist, attempted to find common ground between the two philosophies; however, ultimately burying the truth just that much further under the mound of misunderstanding by continuing to hold to a certain subjective understanding of things. Thus, both Hume and Kant reinforced the separation of faith and science, and moreover the idea that human intelligence really can’t know anything. This brought about, as Ashley puts it, a “hermeneutic of suspicion that undermines all trust and claims one opinion is as good as another.”

John Paul the II, in defense of both human reason and faith, wrote the Encyclical Fides et Ratio. In Fides et Ratio, John Paul II addresses the situation brought about by years of poor philosophy, defending reason and the power of human intelligence while demonstrating how reason and faith work together, not in separate spheres as some of the earlier philosophers taught. John Paul II points out how the divorce between faith and reason has led to a “crisis of meaning” in culture. That years of bad philosophy has led modern man to question whether or not “meaning” is even worth searching for. John Paul II points out the importance of viewing the world through a Thomistic based lens; and further, that both faith and science suffer when viewed through the prism of bad philosophy.

John Paul II writes, “ … Therefore, reason and faith cannot be separated without diminishing the capacity of men and women to know themselves, the world and God in an appropriate way …There is thus no reason for competition of any kind between reason and faith: each contains the other, and each has its own scope for action.” John Paul II goes on to point out the need for “a philosophy of genuinely metaphysical range, capable, that is, of transcending empirical data in order to attain something absolute, ultimate and foundational in its search for truth.” Regarding scripture John Paul II points out that, “What is distinctive in the biblical text is the conviction that there is a profound and indissoluble unity between the knowledge of reason and the knowledge of faith.” John Paul II address’ scientist directly in his encylical when writing, “I would urge them to continue their efforts without ever abandoning the sapiential horizon within which scientific and technological achievements are wedded to the philosophical and ethical values which are the distinctive and indelible mark of the human person.”

The bad Metaphysics of modern philosophy have affected the divorce between faith and science by creating a model without any apparent need for presuppositions, by drawing a circle around things, so to speak, and viewing the parts before the whole; however, by returning to a Thomistic understanding of the world, and reestablishing a top down way of looking at things, the divorce of faith and science would come to a quick end, and as John Paul II puts it, human beings will be able to “come to a unified and organic vision of knowledge.”


Relativism by David Oderberg

January 26, 2011


Truth does not limit genuine freedom, but it does limit license. For instance, one does not have the “freedom” to murder or steal. Why? Because, principally, doing so is against the truth of the dignity of the human person. No sensible person would argue that genuine freedom has been limited by this truth. Find this and more at


Skepticism about ethics is widespread. There is a pervasive belief that there is simply no objective good and bad, or right and wrong. By `objective’ I mean the feature a statement has when it is true (or false) independently of whether anyone believes it to be true (or false). By far the most common form that moral skepticism takes is the espousal of one or another version of relativism.

There are numerous varieties of relativism, but what they all share is the central dogma that moral propositions, instead of having objective truth — truth for all people in all places at all times — are true relative to one standard but not another. While it is impossible to examine all the species of relativism, the doctrine is so common that some of its general features and problems should briefly he stated, problems that affect every specific version.

David Hume, Again
Perhaps the most widespread form of relativism, again deriving from the philosophy of David Hume, is what I shall call personal relativism, more usually called subjectivism. The central claim of personal relativism is that the truth or falsity( truth value) of moral statements varies from person to person, since morality is merely a matter of opinion. Now there are various ways in which subjectivists have elaborated this basic thought, developing more or less sophisticated semantic theories linking moral judgments with statements of opinion.

It is impossible to look at them all, but since the sorts of objection I will raise can be applied in modified form to different versions, let us take just one kind of subjectivist theory. It is one of the more simple varieties, and while many philosophers would say it was too simple, it also happens to be the sort of subjectivism that the vast majority of students of moral philosophy believe; and it is an approach that many will continue to believe even after they have finished studying philosophy!

According to this version of subjectivism, there is no objective truth to the statement, for instance, `Child abuse is wrong’: all that a person is entitled to claim is something equivalent to ‘I disapprove of child abuse.’ Instead of saying ‘I disapprove of child abuse’, Alan may say ‘Child abuse is wrong for me’, or ‘Child abuse is wrong from my subjective viewpoint’, but he is not then allowed to say ‘Child abuse is wrong, pure and simple’, since it might be right from Brian’s subjective viewpoint — he will say `Child abuse is right for me, though it is wrong for Alan, who personally disapproves of it.’

Generally speaking, moral judgments can never be considered apart from the question of who makes them. A moral judgment, `X is wrong’, made by a person P, can only be assessed for truth or falsity by relativising it to P: The subjectivist says that `X is wrong’, uttered by P, is equivalent in meaning to `I disapprove of X’ uttered by P. If an observer were to report on P’s opinion, the subjectivist would say, `X is wrong for P, or as far as P is concerned; in other words, P disapproves of it.’ But the observer can still say, `However, I personally approve of it, so “X is wrong” is not true for me.’

For the subjectivist, to claim that there is a fact about the morality of child abuse, which transcends mere personal opinion, is a philosophical mistake. Certainly, there are facts about what is wrong for Alan, right for Brian, and so on. These facts are genuine — they are reports of the opinions (or `sentiments’, to use Hume’s term) of individual moral judges – but since each judge makes law only for himself, he cannot impose his view of things on others. For the subjectivist, once the facts are in concerning the moral opinions of those engaged in a disagreement, there is no room for further argument.

More accurately, there might be room for argument over other facts: Alan might claim `I approve of child abuse’ because he does not know the psychological damage it does to children. Had he known, he would have claimed `I disapprove of child abuse’; and another person might change Alan’s mind by pointing out the relevant facts. But what the personal relativist holds is that as long as there is no dispute over the facts, two people can make opposing claims about the morality of a certain action or type of behavior with no room left for rational dispute. They have, as it were, reached bedrock.

As was said, the version of subjectivism just outlined is a simple one and all sorts of refinements can be added. Still, it is the view held by very many philosophy students, not to say quite a few philosophers (and certainly vast numbers of the general population), and should be assessed in that light. Further, as was also noted, the general kinds of objection that can be raised against it apply to the more sophisticated versions. We can only consider a few devastating objections here, but it should be noted that the validity of any one on its own is enough to refute subjectivism, whatever the strength of the others. Given the weight of all the objections, however, it is surprising that personal relativism should be so widely held.

Arguments Against Personal Relativism
First, there is a semantic problem. A proposition of the form `Doing X is wrong’ uttered by P (for some action or type of behavior X and some person P) is, according to the personal relativist, supposed to mean no more nor less than `P disapproves of doing X’: the latter statement is claimed to give the meaning or analysis of the former. But `P disapproves of doing X’ cannot, on this analysis, be equivalent to `P believes that doing X is wrong’, since `Doing X is wrong’ is precisely what the relativist seeks to give the meaning of; in which case the analysis would be circular. On the other hand, the relativist might again analyse the embedded sentence `Doing X is wrong’ in `P believes that doing X is wrong’ as `P believes that doing X is wrong’, and so on, for every embedded occurrence of `Doing X is wrong’, thus ending up with an infinite regress: `P believes that P believes that P believes … that doing X is wrong.’ This, of course, would be no analysis at all, being both infinite and leaving a proposition of the form `Doing X is wrong’ unanalyzed at every stage.

Such an obvious difficulty might make one wonder that any relativist should support such a way of trying to analyze `Doing X is wrong’; but if he is committed to the idea that morality is a matter of opinion or personal belief, it seems that he tacitly invokes just such a pseudo-analysis. The only other route the relativist can take is to assert that `P disapproves of doing X’ needs no further gloss: it is a brute statement of disapproval that does not itself invoke the concept of wrongness (or rightness, goodness and the like). But then personal relativism collapses into emotivism, the theory that moral statements are just expressions of feeling or emotion and only appear to have the form of judgments that can be true or false. Emotivism is a different theory from relativism, however.. Unless the personal relativist can give an analysis of disapproval that is neither circular, nor infinitely regressive, nor collapses his theory into emotivism, he is in severe difficulty; and it is hard to see just what such an analysis would look like.

(2) Second, the concept of disapproval is inherently incapable of capturing the various kinds of moral statement that one can make. In particular, there are three broad types of proposition concerning moral obligation: one of the form `Doing X is wrong’ (or bad, impermissible, and the like); another of the form`Doing X is right’ (or good, obligatory, and so on); and another of the form `Doing X is permissible’ (neither obligatory nor it perhaps neither good nor bad). (Note that this is highly simplified)

The personal relativist might analyze ‘Doing X is right’ uttered by P as ‘P approves of doing X’ add thing X.’ He might also analyze P’s utterance of `Doing X is wrong as ‘P disapproves of doing X.’ But what about P’s utterance of Doing X is permissible’? One obvious possibility is `P neither approves nor disapproves of doing X.’ But this is also compatible with P’s not knowing whether doing X is right, wrong, or permissible, which is different from the settled opinion that it is permissible. P might neither approve nor disapprove because he is confused about the issue, or feels he has not gone into it far enough, or simply does not have an opinion.

The relativist might reply that we can indeed analyze `Doing X is permissible’ uttered by P as `P neither approves nor disapproves of doing X’, but also analyze P’s state of uncertainty, confusion or lack of opinion as `P both approves and disapproves of doing X.’ But this will not do, since one cannot both approve and disapprove of something at the same time: it is logically impossible. What about the possibility of mixed feelings? But mixed feelings do not involve simultaneous approval and disapproval; rather, they involve first approving, later (perhaps almost immediately after) disapproving, then perhaps approving again, and so on. But a series of statements of approval followed by disapproval will not do as an analysis of P’s lack of certainty, lack of an opinion, or whatever: for on the relativist view each statement corresponds to a distinct and unequivocal opinion by P: first P disapproves of doing X, then he approves, then he disapproves, and so on.

These are not states of uncertainty, nor do they collectively add up to a state of uncertainty, any more than variations of opinion between people. For the relativist, the varying states of approval and disapproval, both between people and within one person’s mind, correspond to distinct facts about the wrongness of doing X: it is wrong for Alan, but right for Brian, but wrong for Charles; and it is wrong for Alan on Tuesday, but right for Alan on Wednesday, and so on. In short, then, the personal relativist cannot distinguish between an opinion that something is definitely permissible and a lack of opinion or state of uncertainty as to whether it is permissible.

(3) Third, the personal relativist wants to give a complete analysis of all moral statements into statements of approval and disapproval; and he must, or else he will not have given an analysis at all. What, then, does the relativist say about the principle of tolerance, or the freedom of each person to express whatever moral opinion he likes? Relativism is traditionally motivated by this very idea: if morality is simply a matter of personal opinion, then no one can be allowed to impose his sincerely held belief on someone who believes differently. But is the principle of tolerance itself simply a matter of opinion? Alan might disapprove of tolerance: is he then allowed to impose his moral beliefs on others, even by physical coercion? Either the relativist says that he can, or that he cannot: but it is hard to see which view the relativist is logically bound to take, in which case relativism is compatible both with tolerance and with oppression, which is not a conclusion the vast majority of relativists would countenance. Suppose, however, that the relativist bites the logical bullet and says that, logically speaking, tolerance or oppression is open to each individual in respect of others. Then relativism collapses into moral nihilism, the view that there are no objectively valid moral rules whatsoever governing interpersonal behavior. I do not propose to give a critical analysis of nihilism here, merely to note that relativism could not then be seen to be a stable alternative to the view that `anything goes’ in morality, which, again, is not how relativists see their theory. Further, the view that anything goes is quite simply morally repugnant, which should be sufficient to deter rational people from giving it, or any form or relativism that leads to it, further consideration.

Suppose, on the other hand, that the relativist is able logically to resolve the problem of tolerance versus oppression, and opts — one would hope — in favor of the view that you may not coerce others to believe what you believe; and that this is an objective moral truth. Then the relativist will have countenanced at least one objective moral truth, contrary to his own theory that all morality is a matter of opinion. Now he might say, `But tolerance is the only objective moral truth I recognize.’ Why, however, should we believe him? If tolerance is objectively right, this is a big principle to concede — why are there no others? Why should there be only one moral truth? To reply, `But that’s what my theory implies’ is no answer. Rather, it is the theory itself which then comes into doubt. One would need a convincing explanation indeed as to why there is only one moral truth, as much as if a physicist were to say there is only one truth of physics (which would not be the same as saying there is only one `supertruth’, say a grand equation, from which all the other distinct truths can be derived); or the historian that there is only one historical fact. In the words of the philosopher W.V. Quine (himself a relativist of sorts both in ethics and other areas of philosophy, and here speaking about cultural relativism, though his remark apples to all forms of relativism: ‘He (the cultural relativist) cannot proclaim cultural relativism without rising above it, and he cannot rise above it without giving it up.’

The other primary form of relativism is not personal but social (usually called cultural relativism). The social relativist holds that morality is not a matter of personal opinion, but the opinion of society. More precisely, ‘Child Abuse is wrong’, for example, uttered by person P in society S, means `S disapproves of child abuse.’ Often the social relativist will say, `Child abuse is disapproved of in such-and-such a culture’, or such-andsuch a group, or such-and-such a country, and so on. This gives rise to a problem that will be mentioned shortly, but what must be noted at once is that whatever the social relativist’s favorite word, the theories are all variations of one another and of the general theory that morality is relative to a social standard.

Social Relativism The Case of Margaret Mead
Fortunately, we can be brief in our discussion of social relativism, because all the above problems — each one on its own being fatal to personal relativism — apply equally to social relativism. Some further remarks, however, are in order. First, there is a purely factual point worth making because of its historical and continuing importance. The rise of social relativism to its prominent place today was motivated in large part by the huge influx of information this century concerning the behavior, customs and habits of cultures around the world. A prime example of this is the work of the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead, whose book Coming of Age in Samoa had a remarkable influence both on social science and on philosophical thinking. It was (and still is) widely thought that she had proven that there was nothing sacrosanct about Western moral standards by adducing evidence of wide divergence from them in the case of the Samoans. She concentrated, among other things, on sexual behavior, family arrangements, warfare and rituals, and she seemed to show that the Samoans were an example for the West of an almost idyllic form of social arrangement – peaceful, trouble-free and unrepressed, lacking the taboos and strict moral code that hindered the personal development of Western man.

Influential though her work was, it has now been effectively demolished. Most notably, the anthropologist Derek Freeman has demonstrated that Mead’s research was shoddy, ill-informed and painted a far from accurate picture of Samoan life, one that was almost patronizing in its depiction of the Samoan as a `noble savage’ (to use Rousseau’s expression ). Contrary to Mead’s alleged findings, for instance, the Samoans condemned adultery and premarital promiscuity, and practiced warfare on a far wider scale than she claimed. Freeman concludes, `We are thus confronted in the case of Margaret Mead’s Samoan researches with an instructive example of how, as evidence is sought to substantiate a cherished doctrine, the deeply held beliefs of those involved may lead them unwittingly into error.’ Indeed, Freeman even goes so far as to claim that Mead was hoaxed by the Samoans, having been fed spurious tales of their sexual .and other behavior!

Problem For The Social Relativist
A grave conceptual problem for the social relativist is the determination of the standard he is using. Is morality relative to the beliefs of a culture, a society, a nation, a country, an ethnic group, a religious group, a tribe? None of these necessarily coincide, though sometimes they do. Certainly, in the world as it is today, with greatly increased migration and multiculturalism, it is even harder to find a well-defined `unit of measurement’ that the social relativist should use. Is the morality of adultery, for instance, to be identified by reference to the common opinion of each member of the UN? Does `the West’ count as a standard, and if so, which countries are included? If Alan is in the United States, does he speak truly or falsely when he says `Abortion is wrong where there is no threat to the mother’s life or health’? This statement might be denied by the majority of US citizens, but it is also affirmed by significant and well-defined subgroups, both religious (for example, Christians of various denominations, Moslems, orthodox Jews) and geographical (large parts of the Southern states).

Does Alan speak falsely when he is in California, but truly in Georgia? Or is his standard the group he belongs to? In which case, if he is an orthodox Jew, does he speak truly even in California because he has the common opinion of the majority of orthodox Jews around the world on his side? What if he is in Africa, where the multiplicity of tribes and systems of belief makes it almost impossible to speak of a single moral standard? Make the relevant unit of measurement small and one result is obtained; larger, and another is obtained. The social relativist cannot dismiss this problem by saying that it shows how moral standards vary greatly: the problem is of identifying a moral standard in the first place, especially in an age of enormous diversity of opinion; and also of avoiding contradiction or hopeless vagueness when someone utters a moral statement. The identification of standards seems, then, to be an arbitrary matter that can yield whatever result the relativist wants. And this is a good reason why the personal relativist insists that all measurement should come down to the beliefs of the individual.

Further, even if a particular standard is identified, what is the quantum of measurement to be? Is abortion wrong in society S if 50 per cent of the population has that opinion? Or 50.1 per cent? Perhaps in grave moral matters a larger threshold is required — say 75 per cent? Do we look at the laws of that society and say that abortion is wrong if it is illegal, because legality best reflects S’s belief system? But it is a common fact that what the law says and what a society thinks often diverge. Do we look at S’s practices as well as stated beliefs (perhaps as expressed in opinion polls)?

There is no sociological reason why practice as opposed to stated beliefs should be excluded — but again, what the members of a society do is often different from what they say they believe (obvious cases being adultery or promise-keeping). Social relativism, then, is arbitrary both with respect to the determination of a standard and the degree of measurement within that standard.


A Rational World by Paul Davies

January 21, 2011

Paul Davies

 Paul Davies is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist by profession, but these days he also works in astrobiology, a new field of research that seeks to understand the origin and evolution of life, and to search for life beyond Earth. He was born in London, and spent most of his life in the UK. From 1990 to 2006 he lived in Australia, but in September 2006 he moved to Arizona State University to establish BEYOND: Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science. Because his interests are very broad, extending from the highly mathematical to the deeply philosophical. Paul has pondered the big questions of existence: How did the universe begin? What is the destiny of mankind? Is there a meaning to the universe? He has written several books and articles on these topics, and even made a couple of television series.

The claim that the world is rational is connected with the fact that it is ordered. Events generally do not happen willy-nilly: they are related in some way. The sun rises on cue because the Earth spins in a regular manner. The fall of a heavy object is connected with its earlier release from a height. And so on. It is this interrelatedness of events that gives us our notion of causation. The window breaks because it is struck by a stone. The oak tree grows because the acorn is planted. The invariable conjunction of causally related events becomes so familiar that we are tempted to ascribe causative potency to material objects themselves: the stone actually brings about the breakage of the window. But this is to attribute to material objects active powers that they do not deserve.

All one can really say is that there is a correlation between, say, stones rushing at windows and broken glass. Events that form such sequences are therefore not independent. If we could make a record of all events in some region of space over a period of time, we would notice that the record would be crisscrossed by patterns, these being the “causal linkages.” It is the existence of these patterns that is the manifestation of the world’s rational order. Without them there would be only chaos.

Closely related to causality is the notion of determinism. In its modem form this is the assumption that events are entirely determined by other, earlier events. Determinism carries the implication that the state of the world at one moment suffices to fix its state at a later moment. And because that later state fixes subsequent states, and so on, the conclusion is drawn that everything which ever happens in the future of the universe is completely determined by its present state.

When Isaac Newton proposed his laws of mechanics in the seventeenth century, determinism was automatically built into them. For example, treating the solar system as an isolated system, the positions and velocities of the planets at one moment suffice to determine uniquely (through Newton’s laws) their positions and velocities at all subsequent moments. Moreover, Newton’s laws contain no directionality in time, so the trick works in reverse: the present state suffices to fix uniquely all past states. In this way we can, for example, predict eclipses in the future, and also retrodict their occurrences in the past.

If the world is strictly deterministic, then all events are locked in a matrix of cause and effect. The past and future are contained in the present, in the sense that the information needed to construct the past and future states of the world are folded into its present state just as rigidly as the information about Pythagoras’ theorem is folded into the axioms of Euclidean geometry. The entire cosmos becomes a gigantic machine or clockwork, slavishly following a pathway of change already laid down from the beginning of time. Ilya Prigogine has expressed it more poetically: God is reduced to a mere archivist turning the pages of a cosmic history book already written.’

Standing in opposition to determinism is indeterminism, or chance. We might say that an event happened by “pure chance” or “by accident” if it was not obviously determined by anything else. Throwing a die and flipping a coin are familiar examples. But are these cases of genuine indeterminism, or is it merely that the factors and forces that determine their outcome are hidden from us, so that their behavior simply appears random to us?

Before this century most scientists would have answered yes to the latter question. They supposed that, at rock bottom, the world was strictly deterministic, and that the appearance of random or chance events was entirely the result of ignorance about the details of the system concerned. If the motion of every atom could be known, they reasoned, then even coin tossing would become predictable. The fact that it is unpredictable in practice is because of our limited information about the world. Random behavior is traced to systems that are highly unstable, and therefore at the mercy of minute fluctuations in the forces that assail them from their environment.

This point of view was largely abandoned in the late 1920s with the discovery of quantum mechanics, which deals with atomic-scale phenomena and has indeterminism built into it at a fundamental level. One expression of this indeterminism is known as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, after the German quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg. Roughly speaking, this states that all measurable quantities are subject to unpredictable fluctuations, and hence to uncertainty in their values. To quantify this uncertainty, observables are grouped into pairs: position and momentum form a pair, as do energy and time. The principle requires that attempts to reduce the level of uncertainty of one member of the pair serves to increase the uncertainty of the other.

Thus an accurate measurement of the position of a particle such as an electron, say, has the effect of making its momentum highly uncertain, and vice versa.

Because you need to know both the positions and the momenta of the particles in a system precisely if you want to predict its future states, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle puts paid to the notion that the present determines the future exactly. Of course, this supposes that quantum uncertainty is genuinely intrinsic to nature, and not merely the result of some hidden level of deterministic activity. In recent years a number of key experiments have been performed to test this Point, and they have confirmed that uncertainty is indeed inherent in quantum systems. The universe really is indeterministic at its most basic level.

So does this mean that the universe is irrational after all? No, it doesn’t. There is a difference between the role of chance in quantum mechanics and the unrestricted chaos of a lawless universe. Although there is generally no certainty about the future states of a quantum system, the relative probabilities of the different possible states are still determined. Thus the betting odds can be given that, say, an atom will be in an excited or a non-excited state, even if the outcome in a particular instance is unknown. This statistical lawfulness implies that, on a macroscopic scale where quantum effects are usually not noticeable, nature seems to conform to deterministic laws.

The job of the physicist is to uncover the patterns in nature and try to fit them to simple mathematical schemes. The question of why there are patterns, and why such mathematical schemes are possible, lies outside the scope of physics, belonging to a subject known as metaphysics.

Metaphysics: Who Needs It?
In Greek philosophy, the term “metaphysics” originally meant “that which comes after physics.” It refers to the fact that Aristotle’s metaphysics was found, untitled, placed after his treatise on physics. But metaphysics soon came to mean those topics that lie beyond physics (we would today say beyond science) and yet may have a bearing on the nature of scientific inquiry. So metaphysics means the study of topics about physics (or science generally), as opposed to the scientific subject itself. Traditional metaphysical problems have included the origin, nature, and purpose of the universe, how the world of appearances presented to our senses relates to its underlying “reality” and order, the relationship between mind and matter, and the existence of free will. Clearly science is deeply involved in such issues, but empirical science alone may not be able to answer them, or any “meaning-of-life” questions.

In the nineteenth century the entire metaphysical enterprise began to falter after being critically called into question by David Hume and Immanuel Kant. These philosophers cast doubt not on any particular metaphysical system as such, but on the very meaningfulness of metaphysics. Hume argued that meaning can be attached only to those ideas that stem directly from our observations of the world, or from deductive schemes such as mathematics. Concepts like “reality,” “mind,” and “substance,” which are purported to lie somehow beyond the entities presented to our senses, Hume dismissed on the grounds that they are unobservable. He also rejected questions concerning the purpose or meaning of the universe, or Mankind’s place within it, because he believed that none of these concepts can be intelligibly related to things we can actually observe. This philosophical position is known as “empiricism,” because it treats the facts of experience as the foundation for all we can know.

Kant accepted the empiricist’s premise that all knowledge begins with our experiences of the world, but he also believed, as I have mentioned, that human beings possess certain innate knowledge that is necessary for any thought to take place at all. There are thus two components that come together in the process of thinking: sense data and a priori knowledge. Kant used his theory to explore the limits of what human beings, by the very nature of their powers of observation and reasoning, could ever hope to know. His criticism of metaphysics was that our reasoning can apply only to the realm of experience, to the phenomenal world we actually observe. We have no reason to suppose it can be applied to any hypothetical realm that might lie beyond the world of actual phenomena. In other words, we can apply our reasoning to things-as-we-see-them, but this can tell us nothing about the things-in-themselves. Any attempt to theorize about a “reality” that lies behind the objects of experience is doomed to failure.

Although metaphysical theorizing went out of fashion after this onslaught, a few philosophers and scientists refused to give up speculating about what really lies behind the surface appearances of the phenomenal world. Then, in more recent years, a number of advances in fundamental physics, cosmology, and computing theory began to rekindle a more widespread interest in some of the traditional metaphysical topics. The study of “artificial intelligence” reopened debate about free will and the mind-body problem. The discovery of the big bang triggered speculation about the need for a mechanism to bring the physical universe into being in the first place. Quantum mechanics exposed the subtle way in which observer and observed are interwoven. Chaos theory revealed that the relationship between permanence and change was far from simple.

In addition to these developments, physicists began talking about Theories of Everything — the idea that all physical laws could be unified into a single mathematical scheme. Attention began to focus on the nature of physical law. Why had nature opted for one particular scheme rather than another? Why a mathematical scheme at all? Was there anything special about the scheme we actually observe? Would intelligent observers be able to exist in a universe that was characterized by some other scheme?

The term “metaphysics” came to mean “theories about theories” of physics. Suddenly it was respectable to discuss “classes of laws” instead of the actual laws of our universe. Attention was given to hypothetical universes with properties quite different from our own, in an effort to understand whether there is anything peculiar about our universe. Some theorists contemplated the existence of “laws about laws,” which act to “select” the laws of our universe from some wider set. A few were prepared to consider the real existence of other universes with other laws.

In fact, in this sense physicists have long been practicing metaphysics anyway. Part of the job of the mathematical physicist is to examine certain idealized mathematical models that are intended to capture only various narrow aspects of reality, and then often only symbolically. These models play the role of “toy universes” that can be explored in their own right, sometimes for recreation, usually to cast light on the real world by establishing certain common themes among different models. These toy universes often bear the name of their originators. Thus there is the Thirring model, the Sugawara model, the Taub-NUT universe, the maximally extended Kruskal universe, and so on. They commend themselves to theorists because they will normally permit exact mathematical treatment, whereas a more realistic model may be intractable.

My own work about ten years ago was largely devoted to exploring quantum effects in model universes with only one instead of three space dimensions. This was done to make the problems easier to study. The idea was that some of the essential features of the one-dimensional model would survive in a more realistic three-dimensional treatment. Nobody suggested that the universe really is one-dimensional. What my colleagues and I were doing was exploring hypothetical universes to uncover information about the properties of certain types of physical laws, properties that might pertain to the actual laws of our universe.


Dostoevsky and the Catholic Church — David Allen White

January 20, 2011


David Allen White is a professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland and provides here an introduction to Dostoevsky and his relationship with the Catholic Church.

“Dostoevsky absorbed the New Testament in prison. He also learned an important life lesson. Earlier, in a letter to his brother Mikhail, he had written, “Man is an enigma. This enigma must be solved. And if you spend all your life at it, don’t say you have wasted your time; I occupy myself with this enigma because I wish to be a man.” Part of the enigma clarified for him during his prison years. He discovered that not all the underprivileged were high-minded or good. Many were degenerate scum. He rejected the “noble peasant” idea found in most of Tolstoy’s writing and realized men must be judged one by one, on their individual merits. Social class could not be used as a key to defining character.

He also learned from experience something about the savage nature of human beings. Through observation of his fellow prisoners he saw that we are disordered creatures, subject to outbursts of irrational passions and destructive action. The more the individual personality was confined and controlled, the more subject it became to these frenetic explosions of willfulness. Part of this turbulence could be defined as a desire of the individual will to express its own freedom. Human freedom had a compulsive need to demonstrate its own existence. Dostoevsky’s great biographer Joseph Frank puts the idea this way, “To fulfill this drive, men will sacrifice all other goods and values; and if they are unable to satisfy it in any way, the results can be disastrous.”

Dostoevsky himself proved this “disastrous” freedom by making a bad marriage in 1858 and giving in to his temptation for gambling, a vice that haunted him for his entire life but did produce his brilliant dissection of the addiction, The Gambler. He also came to be afflicted with epilepsy. He distanced himself from his old friends as his political views became more and more conservative. He saw clearly that man does not above all need material well being in this world, but rather spiritual redemption. What Christ taught mankind, he now knew, was that salvation can come only through suffering. Man must be ready to share the sufferings of Christ in order to find salvation. In a world increasingly absorbed with progress and utopias and comfort, Dostoevsky shouts, “No! Christ lives and what He teaches us is that we must suffer.”

Such belief could be neither easy nor constant in the modern world. “I will tell you that I am a child of the century, a child of disbelief and doubt. I will remain so until the grave. How much terrible torture this thirst for faith has cost me and costs me even now which is all the stronger in my soul the more arguments I can find against it. And yet God sends me sometimes instants when I am completely calm. At those instants I love and feel loved by others and it is at those instants that I have shaped for myself a Credo where everything is clear and sacred to me. This credo is very simple. Here it is: To believe that nothing is more beautiful, profound, sympathetic, reasonable, manly, and perfect than Christ. And I tell myself with a jealous love that not only is there nothing more but there can be nothing more. Even more, if someone proved to me that Christ is outside the truth and that in reality the truth were outside of Christ, then I should prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth.”

Joseph Frank summarizes Dostoevsky’s view of modern man in this way, “Not to believe in Christ and immortality is to be condemned to live in a senseless universe and the characters in his great novels who reach this level of self-awareness inevitably destroy themselves because by refusing to endure the torment of living without hope they have become monsters in their misery.”

This great struggle between belief and disbelief informs all the great novels from Notes From Underground through The Brothers Karamazov. After nursing his wife through her fatal illness and then losing his beloved brother Mikhail, Dostoevsky was granted the grace of a devoted second wife, Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina. Hired to be his secretary, she became his spiritual consolation. He dictated to her the vast fictional canvases on which an array of recognizable human souls struggle with grand passions and high ideas. Dmitri Karamazov says God and the devil are fighting and the battlefield is the heart of man. The novels of Dostoevsky come closer to the core of the modern dilemma than any other body of modern literature and his knowledge of human beings is the keenest in art since Shakespeare.

But some great artists may also be graced by God with another gift. Some artists have oracular flashes, offering up profound prophetic pronouncements. Such instances stretch from the vision of Vergil in his Fourth Eclogue (37 B.C.) which suggests the coming of Our Lord as a child who will bring a reign of peace to a troubled world to the chilling example of the Japanese man in Strindberg’s play The Great Highway (1909) who announces that he is named for his native town Hiroshima just before he steps into a furnace and is incinerated. No artist ever set down more accurate prophetic pronouncements than Dostoevsky.

In his great novel about the revolutionary movement, Demons (1872), Dostoevsky accurately predicted not only the coming of socialism to Holy Mother Russia, as he termed his country, but also the devastating consequences. At more than one point in the novel, he has characters pronounce the cold fact that the revolution will triumph “by radically lopping off a hundred million heads.” Shigalyov, the character presenting the plan, admits a problem, for “Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism.” Dostoevsky seemed to witness the abyss into which his country would descend in the twentieth century. He combines his vision of the nightmare looming over Russia with the incident of the Gadarene swine from the Gospel of Luke, a passage he uses as one of the epigraphs for the novel. He again quotes the passage from Luke when a character in the novel, Sofya Matveevna Ulitin, a woman who travels from town to town passing out Gospels, reads the words at the request of the dying liberal professor, Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, the man whose soft socialist teaching has unleashed the “demons” in the next generation. After hearing the passage, the dying professor says:

Terribly many thoughts occur to me now: you see, it’s exactly like our Russia. These demons who come out of a sick man and enter into the swine it’s all the sores, all the miasmas, all the uncleanness, all the big and little demons accumulated in our great and sick man, in our Russia, for centuries, for centuries! Oui, cette Russie que j’aimais toujours. But a great will and a great thought will descend to her from on high, as upon that insane demoniac, and out will come all these demons, all the uncleanness, all the abomination that is festering on the surface…and they will beg of themselves to enter into swine. And perhaps they already have! It is us, us and them, and Petrusha…et les autres avec lui, and I, perhaps, first, at the head, and we will rush, insane and raging, from the cliff down into the sea, and all be drowned, and good riddance to us, because that’s the most we’re fit for. 

Russia is presented as a possessed madman, out of whom demons will rush, infect others and push multitudes of those so “possessed” into destruction. The connection with Our Lady’s message to the shepherd children at Fatima on the eve of the Russian revolution is unmistakable: “Russia will spread her errors throughout the world.”

Dostoevsky makes many Catholic readers uncomfortable. In many of his novels he rails against the Catholic Church. His knowledge of the Catholic Church, however, came largely from the French socialists who had such a profound influence on him in his youth. Dostoevsky viewed the Catholic Church as an institution that had abandoned its spiritual beliefs in a quest to give mankind earthly happiness. He has the Catholic Grand Inquisitor state to Christ in The Brothers Karamazov, “You promised them heavenly bread, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, eternally depraved, and eternally ignoble human race?”

Dostoevsky related his sense of how the Catholic social preoccupation worked. “The Catholic priest searches out some miserable worker’s family and gains their confidence. He feeds them all, gives them clothes, provides heating, looks after the sick, buys medicine, becomes the friend of the family and converts them to Catholicism.” This sense of the socially obsessed Catholic Church which places earthly comfort before redemptive suffering and peace on earth before peace of soul must make any post-Vatican II Catholic uncomfortable in its precision. The only error when applied to the Novus Ordo Church is that the priest would no longer attempt to convert the family. The sentimental socialism of the nineteenth-century French intellectuals whom Dostoevsky came to despise found a happy home in the post-conciliar Church.

With his insistence on suffering and salvation, the supernatural and sacrifice, Dostoevsky echoes many of the teachings of the Catholic Church. With his prophetic vision of a possessed Russia unleashing her demons into the world, he echoes the prophecies of Fatima, and not only those prophecies that already come to fruition. The above quoted words from the deathbed of Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky in Demons conclude with the following remarks:

But the sick man will be healed and “sit at the feet of Jesus”…and everyone will look in amazement…. Dear, vous comprenez apres, but it excites me very much now…. Vous comprenez apres…. Nous comprendrons ensemble.

David Allen White is a professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland and provides here an introduction to Dostoevsky and his relationship with the Catholic Church.

“Dostoevsky absorbed the New Testament in prison. He also learned an important life lesson. Earlier, in a letter to his brother Mikhail, he had written, “Man is an enigma. This enigma must be solved. And if you spend all your life at it, don’t say you have wasted your time; I occupy myself with this enigma because I wish to be a man.” Part of the enigma clarified for him during his prison years. He discovered that not all the underprivileged were high-minded or good. Many were degenerate scum. He rejected the “noble peasant” idea found in most of Tolstoy’s writing and realized men must be judged one by one, on their individual merits. Social class could not be used as a key to defining character.

He also learned from experience something about the savage nature of human beings. Through observation of his fellow prisoners he saw that we are disordered creatures, subject to outbursts of irrational passions and destructive action. The more the individual personality was confined and controlled, the more subject it became to these frenetic explosions of willfulness. Part of this turbulence could be defined as a desire of the individual will to express its own freedom. Human freedom had a compulsive need to demonstrate its own existence. Dostoevsky’s great biographer Joseph Frank puts the idea this way, “To fulfill this drive, men will sacrifice all other goods and values; and if they are unable to satisfy it in any way, the results can be disastrous.”

Dostoevsky himself proved this “disastrous” freedom by making a bad marriage in 1858 and giving in to his temptation for gambling, a vice that haunted him for his entire life but did produce his brilliant dissection of the addiction, The Gambler. He also came to be afflicted with epilepsy. He distanced himself from his old friends as his political views became more and more conservative. He saw clearly that man does not above all need material well being in this world, but rather spiritual redemption. What Christ taught mankind, he now knew, was that salvation can come only through suffering. Man must be ready to share the sufferings of Christ in order to find salvation. In a world increasingly absorbed with progress and utopias and comfort, Dostoevsky shouts, “No! Christ lives and what He teaches us is that we must suffer.”

Such belief could be neither easy nor constant in the modern world. “I will tell you that I am a child of the century, a child of disbelief and doubt. I will remain so until the grave. How much terrible torture this thirst for faith has cost me and costs me even now which is all the stronger in my soul the more arguments I can find against it. And yet God sends me sometimes instants when I am completely calm. At those instants I love and feel loved by others and it is at those instants that I have shaped for myself a Credo where everything is clear and sacred to me. This credo is very simple. Here it is: To believe that nothing is more beautiful, profound, sympathetic, reasonable, manly, and perfect than Christ. And I tell myself with a jealous love that not only is there nothing more but there can be nothing more. Even more, if someone proved to me that Christ is outside the truth and that in reality the truth were outside of Christ, then I should prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth.”

Joseph Frank summarizes Dostoevsky’s view of modern man in this way, “Not to believe in Christ and immortality is to be condemned to live in a senseless universe and the characters in his great novels who reach this level of self-awareness inevitably destroy themselves because by refusing to endure the torment of living without hope they have become monsters in their misery.”

This great struggle between belief and disbelief informs all the great novels from Notes From Underground through The Brothers Karamazov. After nursing his wife through her fatal illness and then losing his beloved brother Mikhail, Dostoevsky was granted the grace of a devoted second wife, Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina. Hired to be his secretary, she became his spiritual consolation. He dictated to her the vast fictional canvases on which an array of recognizable human souls struggle with grand passions and high ideas. Dmitri Karamazov says God and the devil are fighting and the battlefield is the heart of man. The novels of Dostoevsky come closer to the core of the modern dilemma than any other body of modern literature and his knowledge of human beings is the keenest in art since Shakespeare.

But some great artists may also be graced by God with another gift. Some artists have oracular flashes, offering up profound prophetic pronouncements. Such instances stretch from the vision of Vergil in his Fourth Eclogue (37 B.C.) which suggests the coming of Our Lord as a child who will bring a reign of peace to a troubled world to the chilling example of the Japanese man in Strindberg’s play The Great Highway (1909) who announces that he is named for his native town Hiroshima just before he steps into a furnace and is incinerated. No artist ever set down more accurate prophetic pronouncements than Dostoevsky.

In his great novel about the revolutionary movement, Demons (1872), Dostoevsky accurately predicted not only the coming of socialism to Holy Mother Russia, as he termed his country, but also the devastating consequences. At more than one point in the novel, he has characters pronounce the cold fact that the revolution will triumph “by radically lopping off a hundred million heads.” Shigalyov, the character presenting the plan, admits a problem, for “Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism.” Dostoevsky seemed to witness the abyss into which his country would descend in the twentieth century. He combines his vision of the nightmare looming over Russia with the incident of the Gadarene swine from the Gospel of Luke, a passage he uses as one of the epigraphs for the novel. He again quotes the passage from Luke when a character in the novel, Sofya Matveevna Ulitin, a woman who travels from town to town passing out Gospels, reads the words at the request of the dying liberal professor, Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, the man whose soft socialist teaching has unleashed the “demons” in the next generation. After hearing the passage, the dying professor says:

Terribly many thoughts occur to me now: you see, it’s exactly like our Russia. These demons who come out of a sick man and enter into the swine it’s all the sores, all the miasmas, all the uncleanness, all the big and little demons accumulated in our great and sick man, in our Russia, for centuries, for centuries! Oui, cette Russie que j’aimais toujours. But a great will and a great thought will descend to her from on high, as upon that insane demoniac, and out will come all these demons, all the uncleanness, all the abomination that is festering on the surface…and they will beg of themselves to enter into swine. And perhaps they already have! It is us, us and them, and Petrusha…et les autres avec lui, and I, perhaps, first, at the head, and we will rush, insane and raging, from the cliff down into the sea, and all be drowned, and good riddance to us, because that’s the most we’re fit for.  

Russia is presented as a possessed madman, out of whom demons will rush, infect others and push multitudes of those so “possessed” into destruction. The connection with Our Lady’s message to the shepherd children at Fatima on the eve of the Russian revolution is unmistakable: “Russia will spread her errors throughout the world.”

Dostoevsky makes many Catholic readers uncomfortable. In many of his novels he rails against the Catholic Church. His knowledge of the Catholic Church, however, came largely from the French socialists who had such a profound influence on him in his youth. Dostoevsky viewed the Catholic Church as an institution that had abandoned its spiritual beliefs in a quest to give mankind earthly happiness. He has the Catholic Grand Inquisitor state to Christ in The Brothers Karamazov, “You promised them heavenly bread, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, eternally depraved, and eternally ignoble human race?”

Dostoevsky related his sense of how the Catholic social preoccupation worked. “The Catholic priest searches out some miserable worker’s family and gains their confidence. He feeds them all, gives them clothes, provides heating, looks after the sick, buys medicine, becomes the friend of the family and converts them to Catholicism.” This sense of the socially obsessed Catholic Church which places earthly comfort before redemptive suffering and peace on earth before peace of soul must make any post-Vatican II Catholic uncomfortable in its precision. The only error when applied to the Novus Ordo Church is that the priest would no longer attempt to convert the family. The sentimental socialism of the nineteenth-century French intellectuals whom Dostoevsky came to despise found a happy home in the post-conciliar Church.

With his insistence on suffering and salvation, the supernatural and sacrifice, Dostoevsky echoes many of the teachings of the Catholic Church. With his prophetic vision of a possessed Russia unleashing her demons into the world, he echoes the prophecies of Fatima, and not only those prophecies that already come to fruition. The above quoted words from the deathbed of Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky in Demons conclude with the following remarks:

But the sick man will be healed and “sit at the feet of Jesus”…and everyone will look in amazement…. Dear, vous comprenez apres, but it excites me very much now…. Vous comprenez apres…. Nous comprendrons ensemble.


Reading Selections from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

January 19, 2011

[From an review] The narrator, John Ames, is 76, a preacher who has lived almost all of his life in Gilead, Iowa. He is writing a letter to his almost seven-year-old son, the blessing of his second marriage. It is a summing-up, an apologia, a consideration of his life. Robinson takes the story away from being simply the reminiscences of one man and moves it into the realm of a meditation on fathers and children, particularly sons, on faith, and on the imperfectability of man.

The reason for the letter is Ames’s failing health. He wants to leave an account of himself for this son who will never really know him. His greatest regret is that he hasn’t much to leave them, in worldly terms. “Your mother told you I’m writing your begats, and you seemed very pleased with the idea. Well, then. What should I record for you?” In the course of the narrative, John Ames records himself, inside and out, in a meditative style. Robinson’s prose asks the reader to slow down to the pace of an old man in Gilead, Iowa, in 1956. Ames writes of his father and grandfather, estranged over his grandfather’s departure for Kansas to march for abolition and his father’s lifelong pacifism. The tension between them, their love for each other and their inability to bridge the chasm of their beliefs is a constant source of rumination for John Ames. Fathers and sons.

The other constant in the book is Ames’s friendship since childhood with “old Boughton,” a Presbyterian minister. Boughton, father of many children, favors his son, named John Ames Boughton, above all others. Ames must constantly monitor his tendency to be envious of Boughton’s bounteous family; his first wife died in childbirth and the baby died almost immediately after her. Jack Boughton is a ne’er-do-well, Ames knows it and strives to love him as he knows he should. Jack arrives in Gilead after a long absence, full of charm and mischief, causing Ames to wonder what influence he might have on Ames’s young wife and son when Ames dies.

These are the things that Ames tells his son about: his ancestors, the nature of love and friendship, the part that faith and prayer play in every life and an awareness of one’s own culpability. There is also reconciliation without resignation, self-awareness without deprecation, abundant good humor, philosophical queries–Jack asks, “‘Do you ever wonder why American Christianity seems to wait for the real thinking to be done elsewhere?’”– and an ongoing sense of childlike wonder at the beauty and variety of God’s world.

As is my custom, reading selections, those times when you pinch yourself, or think “Isn’t that splendid?” follow:

I really can’t tell what’s beautiful anymore. I passed two young fellows on the Street the other day. I know who they are, they work at the garage. They’re not churchgoing, either one of them, just decent rascally young fellows who have to be joking all the time, and there they were, propped against the garage wall in the sunshine, lighting up their cigarettes. They’re always so black with grease and so strong with gasoline I don’t know why they don’t catch fire themselves. They were passing remarks back and forth the way they do and laughing that wicked way they have. And it seemed beautiful to me It is an amazing thing to watch people laugh, the way it sort of takes them over Sometimes they really do struggle with it I see that in church often enough. So I wonder what it is and where it comes from, and I wonder what it expends out of your system, so that you have to do it till you’re done, like crying in a way, I suppose, except that laughter is much more easily spent.

Writing Has Always Felt Like Praying
There was more to it, of course. For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone. I feel I am with you now, whatever that can mean, considering that you’re only a little fellow now and when you’re a man you might find these letters of no interest. Or they might never reach you, for any of a number of reasons. Well, but how deeply I regret any sadness you have suffered and how grateful I am in anticipation of any good you have enjoyed. That is to say, I pray for you. And there’s an intimacy in it. That’s the truth.

Ludwig Feuerbach says a wonderful thing about baptism. I have it marked. He says, “Water is the purest, clearest of liquids; in virtue of this its natural character it is the image of the spotless nature of the Divine Spirit. In short, water has a significance in itself, as water; it is on account of its natural qua1ity that it is consecrated and selected as the vehicle of the Holy Spirit. So far there lies at the foundation of Baptism a beautiful, profound natural significance.” Feuerbach is a famous atheist, but he is about as good on the joyful aspects of religion as anybody, and he loves the world. Of course he thinks religion could just stand out of the way and let joy exist pure and undisguised. That is his one error, and it is significant. But he is marvelous on the subject of joy, and also on its religious expressions. … That mention of Feuerbach and joy reminded me of something I saw early one morning a few years ago, as I was walking up to the church. There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet.

On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.

Great Grandfather
When someone remarked in his hearing that he had lost an eye in the Civil War, he said, “I prefer to remember that I have kept one.

Putting On Incorruptibility
I have been thinking about existence lately. In fact, I have been so full of admiration for existence that I have hardly been able to enjoy it properly. As I was walking up to the church this morning, I passed that row of big oaks by the war memorial —  if you remember them — and I thought of another morning, fall a year or two ago, when they were dropping their acorns thick as hail almost. There was all sorts of thrashing in the leaves and there were acorns hitting the pavement so hard they’d fly past my head. All this in the dark, of course. I remember a slice of moon, no more than that. It was a very clear night, or morning, very still, and then there was such energy in the things transpiring among those trees, like a storm, like travail. I stood there a little out of range, and I thought, It is all still new to me. I have lived my life on the prairie and a line of oak trees can still astonish me.

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.

Water II
You and Tobias are hopping around in the sprinkler. The sprinkler is a magnificent invention because it exposes raindrops to sunshine. That does occur in nature, but it is rare. When I was in the seminary I used to go sometimes to watch the Baptists down at the river It was something to see the preacher lifting the one who was being baptized up out of the water and the water pouring off the garments and the hair It did look like a birth or a resurrection For us the water just heightens the touch of the pastor’s hand on the sweet bones of the head, sort of like making an electrical connection I’ve always loved to baptize people though I have sometimes wished there were more shimmer and splash involved in the way we go about it. Well, but you two are dancing around in your iridescent little downpour, whooping and stomping as sane people ought to do when they encounter a thing so miraculous as water.

Echoes Of The Incarnation
They say an infant can’t see when it is as young as your sister was, but she opened her eyes and she looked at me. She was such a little bit of a thing. But while I was holding her, she opened her eyes. I know she didn’t really study my face. Memory can make a thing seem to have been much more than it was. But I know she did look right into my eyes. That is something. And I’m glad I knew it at the time, because now, in my present situation, now that I am about to leave this world, I realize there is nothing more astonishing than a human face. Boughton and I have talked about that, too. It has something to do with incarnation. You feel your obligation to a child when you have seen it and held it. Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it. But this is truest of the face of an infant. I consider that to be one kind of vision, as mystical as any. Boughton agrees.

Growing Into The World
This morning I have been trying to think about heaven, but without much success. I don’t know why I should expect to have any idea of heaven. I could never have imagined this world if I hadn’t spent almost eight decades walking around in it. People talk about how wonderful the world seems to children, and that’s true enough. But children think they will grow into it and understand it, and I know very well that I will not, and would not if I had a dozen lives. That’s clearer to me every day.

Each morning I’m like Adam waking up in Eden, amazed at the cleverness of my hands and at the brilliance pouring into my mind through my eyes — old hands, old eyes, old mind, a very diminished Adam altogether, and still it is just remarkable. What of me will I still have? Well, this old body has been a pretty good companion. Like Balaam’s ass, it’s seen the angel I haven’t seen yet, and it’s lying down in the path.

And I must say, too, that my mind, with all its deficiencies, has certainly kept me interested. There’s quite a bit of poetry in it that I learned over the years, and a pretty decent vocabulary, much of it unused. And Scripture. I never knew it the way my father did, or his father. But I know it pretty well. I certainly should. When I was younger than you are now, my father would give me a penny every time I learned five verses so that I could repeat them without a mistake. And then he’d make a game of saying a verse, and I had to say the next one. We could go on and on like that, sometimes till we came to a genealogy, or we just got tired. Sometimes we’d take roles: he’d be Moses and I’d be Pharaoh, he’d be the Pharisees and I’d be the Lord. That’s how he was brought up, too, and it was a great help to me when I went to seminary. And through the whole of my life.

Man Is Born To Trouble As The Sparks Fly Upward
Once when Boughton and I had spent an evening going through our texts together and we were done talking them over, I walked him out to the porch, and there were more fireflies out there than I had ever seen in my life, thousands of them everywhere, just drifting up out of the grass, extinguishing themselves in midair, We sat on the steps a good while in the dark and the silence, watching them. Finally Boughton said, “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” And really, it was that night as if the earth were smoldering. Well, it was, and it is. An old fire will make a dark husk for itself and settle in on its core, as in the case of this planet. I believe the same metaphor may describe the human individual, as well. Perhaps Gilead. Perhaps civilization. Prod a little and the sparks will fly. I don’t know whether the verse put a blessing on the fireflies or the fireflies put a blessing on the verse, or if both of them together put a blessing on trouble, but I have loved them both a good deal ever since.

The Sin Of Covetise
I believe the sin of covetise is that pang of resentment you may feel when even the people you love best have what you want and don’t have. From the point of view of loving your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19: 18), there is nothing that makes a person’s fallenness more) undeniable than covetise — you feel it right in your heart, in your bones In that way it is instructive I have never really succeeded in obeying that Commandment, “Thou shalt not covet.” avoided the experience of disobeying by keeping to myself a good deal, as I have said I am sure I would have labored in my  vocation more effectively if I had simply accepted covetise in myself as something inevitable, as Paul seems to do, as the  thorn in my side, so to speak “Rejoice with those who rejoice.”  I have found that difficult too often I was much better at weeping with those who weep I don’t mean that as a joke, but it is kind of funny, when I think about it.

As I have said, I think she (his wife, his son’s mother) experienced a good deal of sorrow in those years. I have never asked, but one thing I have learned in my life is what settled, habitual sadness looks like, and when I saw her I thought, Where have you come from, my dear child.  She came in during the first prayer and sat in the last pew and looked up at me, and from that moment hers was the only face I saw. I heard a man say I once that Christians worship sorrow. That is by no means true. But we do believe there is a sacred mystery in it, it’s fair to say  that. There is something in her face I have always felt I must be sufficient to, as if there is a truth in it that tests the meaning of what I say. It’s a fine face, very intelligent, but the sadness in it is engrafted into the intelligence, so to speak, until they seem one thing. I believe there is a dignity in sorrow simply because it is God’s good pleasure that there should be. He is forever raising up those who are brought low. This does not mean that it is ever right to cause suffering or to seek it out when it can be avoided, and serves no good, practical purpose. To value suffering in itself can be dangerous and strange, so I want to be very clear about this. It means simply that God takes the side of sufferers against those who afflict them (I hope you are familiar with the prophets, particularly Isaiah.)

Setting Things Apart So That Their Holiness Will Be Perceived
What the reading yields is the idea of father and mother as the Universal Father and Mother, the Lord’s dear Adam and His beloved Eve; that is, essential humankind as it came from His hand. There’s a pattern in these Commandments of setting things apart so that their holiness will be perceived. Every day is holy, but the Sabbath is set apart so that the holiness of time can be experienced. Every human being is worthy of honor, but the conscious discipline of honor is learned from this setting apart of the mother and father, who usually labor and are heavy laden, and may be cranky or stingy or ignorant or overbearing. Believe me, I know this can be a hard Commandment to keep. But I believe also that the rewards of obedience are great, because at the root of real honor is always the sense of the sacredness of the person who is its object. In the particular instance of your mother, I know that if you are attentive to her in this way, you will find a very great loveliness in her. When you love someone to the degree you love her, you see her as God sees her, and that is an instruction in the nature of God and humankind and of Being itself. That is why the Fifth Commandment belongs on the first tablet. I have persuaded myself of it.

Grandfather’s Preaching
Here is what he wrote and what he said:


When I was a young man the Lord came to me and put His hand just here on my right shoulder. I can feel it still. And He spoke to me, very clearly. The words went right through me. He said, Free the captive. Preach good news to the poor. Proclaim liberty throughout the land. That is all Scripture, of course, and the words were already very familiar to me at the time. But it is clear enough why he would feel they needed special emphasis. No one lives by them, unless the Lord takes him in hand. Certainly I did not, until the day he stood beside me and spoke those words to me.

I would call that experience a vision. We had visions in those days, a number of us did. Your young men will have visions and your old men will dream dreams. And now all those young men are old men, if they’re alive at all, and their visions are no more than dreams, and the old days are forgotten. We fly forgotten as a dream, as it says in the old hymn, and our dreams are forgotten long before we are.

The President, General Grant, once called Iowa the shining star of radicalism. But what is left here in Iowa? ‘What is left, here in Gilead? Dust. Dust and ashes. Scripture says the people perish, and they certainly do. It is remarkable. For all this His anger is not turned away, but His Hand is stretched out still.

The Lord bless you and keep you, etc

Only a few people seemed to have been paying attention, Those who did came very near taking offense at the notion that they were perishing even though the terrible drought has begun to set in that would bankrupt and scatter so many families, even whole towns. There was a little laughter of the kind you hear when the outlandishness of a thing is being generally agreed on But that was the worst of it. My grandfather stood there on the stage in his buzzard-black preacher’s clothes, eyeing the crowd with the dispassionate intensity of death itself with the banners flying around him. Then the band struck up and my father went to him and put his hand on his left shoulder, and brought him down to us. My mother said, “Thank you, Reverend,” and my grandfather shook his head and said, “I doubt it did much good”

I have thought about that very often — how the times change — and the same words that carry a good many people into the howling wilderness in one generation are irksome or meaningless in the next. You might think I am under some sort of obligation to try to “save” young Boughton, that by inquiring into these things he is putting me under that obligation Well, I have had a certain amount of experience with skepticism and the conversation it generates, and there is an inevitable futility in it. It is even destructive. Young people from my own flock have come home with a copy of La Nausée or L’Immoraliste, flummoxed by the possibility of unbelief; when I must have told them a thousand times that unbelief is possible And they are attracted to it by the very books that tell them what a misery it is. And they want me to defend religion, and they want me to give them “proofs.” I just won’t do it. It only confirms them in their skepticism. Because nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.

The Attempt To Defend Belief Can Unsettle It
In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things. We participate in Being without remainder. No breath, no thought, no wart or whisker, is not as sunk in Being as it could be. And yet no one can say what Being is. If you describe what a thought and a whisker have in common, and a typhoon and a rise in the stock market, excluding “existence,” which merely restates the fact that they have a place on our list of known and nameable things (and which would yield as insight: being equals existence!), you would have accomplished a wonderful thing, still too partial in an infinite degree to have any meaning, however

I’ve lost my point. It was to the effect that you can assert the existence of something – Being — having not the slightest notion of what it is. Then God is at a greater remove altogether — if God is the Author of Existence, what can it mean to say God exists? There’s a problem in vocabulary. He would have to have had a character before existence which the poverty of our understanding can only call existence That is clearly a source of confusion. Another term would be needed to describe a state or quality of which we can have no experience whatever, to which existence as we know it can bear only the slightest likeness or affinity. So creating proofs from experience of any sort is like building a ladder to the moon. It seems that it should be possible, until you stop to consider the nature of the problem.

So my advice is this — don’t look for proofs Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp. And they will likely sound wrong to you even if you convince someone else with them That is very unsettling over the long term “Let your works so shine before men,” etc. It was Coleridge who ~said Christianity is a life, not a doctrine, words to that effect. I’m not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment.

Existence Is The Essential And Holy Thing
Now here is the point I wish to make, because this is the thought that came to me as I was putting all this before the Lord. Existence is the essential thing and the holy thing. If the Lord chooses to make nothing of our transgression then they are nothing. Or whatever reality they have is trivial and conditional beside the exquisite primary fact of existence. Of course the Lord would wipe them away, just as I wipe dirt from your face, or tears. After all, why should the Lord bother much over these smirches that are no part of His Creation.

Well, there are a good many reasons why He should. We human beings do real harm. History could make a stone weep. I am aware that significant confusion enters my thinking at this point. I’m tired — that may be some part of the problem. Though I recall even in my prime foundering whenever I see the true gravity of sin over against the free grace of forgiveness. If young Boughton is my son, then by the same reasoning that child of his was also my daughter, and it was just terrible what happened to her, and that’s a fact. As I am a Christian man, I could never say otherwise.

Controlling Anger
My father was telling himself and all the rest of us that Edward’s transgressions were trivial beside his own. He was also saying, to himself and to the rest of us, that there was an aptness in this present embarrassment and disappointment which• made it valuable and instructive to him — that there was seeming design in it that might mark it in fact as the Lord’s benevolence, a sort of parable meant to deepen his own understanding. This construction of the matter would certainly have forbidden, or at least discouraged, any impulse he might have felt to blame Edward. The thoughtlessness of any individual, when it is seen to be in service to the mindfulness of the Lord, cannot justify anger.

I have used this line of reasoning any number of times myself, when I have felt the need and found the occasion. And the fact is, it is seldom indeed that any wrong one suffers is not thoroughly foreshadowed by wrongs one has done. That said, it has never been clear to me how much this realization helps when it comes to the practical difficulty of controlling anger. Nor have I found any way to apply it to present circumstance, -though I have not yet abandoned the effort.

We Are Secrets From Each Other
So we were quiet there for some time. Your mother came out with a pot of hot cider and cups, and she sat there quiet right along with us, the dear woman And I spent the time thinking how it would be if Jack Boughton were indeed my son, and had come home weary from whatever life he had, and was sitting there still and at seeming peace in that peaceful night. There was a considerable satisfaction in that thought The idea of grace had been so much on my mind, grace as a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials There in the dark and the quiet I felt I could forget all the tedious particulars and just feel the presence of his mortal and immortal being. And a sensation came over me, a sort of lovely fear, that made me think of Boughton’s fear of angels

Now, I may have been more than half asleep at that point, but a thought arose that abides with me. I wished I could sit at the feet of that eternal soul and learn. He did then seem to me the angel of himself, brooding over the mysteries his mortal life describes, the deep things of man And of course that is exactly what he is. “For who among men knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of the man, which is in him (1 Corinthians 2:11: “For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God.”) In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable — which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.

Maybe I should have said we are like planets. But then I would have lost some of the point of saying that we are like civilizations. The planets may all have been sloughed from the same star, hut still the historical dimension is missing from that simile, and it is true that we all do live in the ruins of the lives of other generations, so there is a seeming continuity which is important because it deceives us. I am old enough to. remember when we used to go out in the brush, a lot of us, and. spread out in a circle, and then close in, scaring the rabbits along in front of us, till they were trapped there in the center,. and then we would kill them with sticks and clubs. That was during the Depression, and people were hungry, and we did what we could. I am not finding fault. (We didn’t take the jackrabbits, only the cottontails. We all knew there was something objectionable about jackrabbits, though I don’t remember anyone saying just what it was.) There were people eating groundhogs. The children would go to school with nothing in their lunch buckets but a boiled potato or a scrap of bread with lard smeared on it. In those days the windows of the church used to get so pelted with dust that I’d get up on a ladder and sweep them down with a broom so there would be light enough inside for people to read their hymnals.

The times were dreadful, but it was just how it was, and we got very used to it. That was our civilization. The valley of the shadow And it might as well be Ur of the Chaldees for all people know about it now. For which I thank God, of course, though, since it had to happen, I don’t regret having been here for it. It gives you another look at things I have heard people say it taught them there is more to life than security and the material comforts, hut I know a lot of older people around here who can hardly bear to part with a nickel, remembering those hard times. I can’t blame them for it, though it has meant that the church is just now beginning to come out of its own Depression.  “There is that scattereth, and increaseth yet more, and there is that withholdeth more than is meet, but it tendeth only to want.” Much in this very town proves the truth of that proverb. Well, the church is shabby for the same reason it’s still standing at all. So I shouldn’t really complain. It is a good thing to know what it is to be poor, and a better thing if you can do it in company.

Prodigal Renunciations
I’ll tell you, if my grandfather did throw his mantle over me, so to speak, he did it long before I came into this world. The holiness of his life imputed a holiness to mine, or to my vocation, that I have tried to diminish as little as I could. I have tried to be careful of my reputation and also of my character. I have tried to keep the Gospel before me as a standard for my life and my preaching And yet there I was trying to write a sermon, when all I really wanted to do was try to remember a young woman’s face.

If I had had this experience earlier in life, I would have been much wiser, much more compassionate. I really didn’t understand what it was that made people who came to me so indifferent to good judgment, to common sense, or why they would say “I know, I know” when I urged a little reasonableness on them, and why it meant “It doesn’t matter, I just don’t care” That’s what the saints and the martyrs say. And I know now that it is passion that moves them to their prodigal (yielding abundantly, profuse) renunciations. I might seem to be comparing something great and holy with a minor and ordinary thing, that is, love of God with mortal love. But I just don’t see them as separate things at all. If we can be divinely fed with a morsel and divinely blessed with a touch, then the terrible pleasure we find in a particular face can certainly instruct us in the nature of the very grandest love. I devoutly believe this to be true. I remember in those days loving God for the existence of love and being grateful to God for the existence of gratitude, right down in the depths of my misery I realized many things I am at a loss to express. And of course those feelings become milder with time, which is a mercy.

I Do Wonder Where It Will End
Two or three of the ladies had pronounced views on points of doctrine, particularly sin and damnation, which they never learned from me. I blame the radio for sowing a good deal of confusion where theology is concerned. And television is worse. You can spend forty years teaching people to be awake to the fact of mystery and then some fellow with no more theological sense than a jackrabbit gets himself a radio ministry and all your work is forgotten. I do wonder where it will end.


A Guide to Philosophy by Ralph M. McInerny

January 14, 2011

In 1997 someone approached the great Notre Dame writer and scholar, Ralph McInerny and asked if he might write an overview for the field of philosophy.  The result is a very slender volume with some wonderful asides and throw away comments that even the most advanced scholar might treasure. The first of several reading selections below:

An Introductory Note
TO ASK WHETHER OR NOT one should philosophize is already to philosophize.” When Aristotle said that he might have meant that doing philosophy is something like speaking prose — although you have been doing it all along, it still comes as news to be told that you are. Inevitable though it may be, philosophy has had a long and checkered career since its beginnings in the sixth century B.C. How a philosopher regards that history can tell you a lot about what kind of philosopher he is.

Modernity begins with the assumption that philosophy has yet to begin. Descartes first doubts everything he has been told. No judgment can cease to be suspect until it has passed a number of methodological tests that he devises. It is not sufficiently emphasized that this means that no one can claim to know anything until he has subjected it to methodic doubt. If methodic doubt begins with Descartes, as he claims, then philosophy had Ill) pre-Cartesian history. Or its history is simply a record of error and deception.

Since Descartes, philosophers have vied with one another to seek an originality that would distinguish them from the rest of the pack. The drive for originality usually entails a very negative attitude toward one’s predecessors, and the history of philosophy inevitably loses its interest. When I was a graduate student I was urged to read Hans Reichenbach’s The Rise of Scientific Philosophy. For Reichenbach, philosophy began with Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century since all pre-Kantian philosophy involved a fundamental mistake. More recently, we have been told that moral philosophy is based on a mistake and, in 1903, G. E. Moore showed to his own satisfaction that all previous moral philosophy was fallacious. In the 193os A. J. Ayer looked back a few years to when philosophy had really begun. Later still, a linguistic turn was taken and, we were assured, philosophy could now at last get started.

From this and my opening remark, you can conclude that a sure sign that one is doing philosophy is to claim that it has never been done before. There is a tradition of denying tradition, in other words. There are inventive ways of handling previous attempts, however. Heidegger undertakes a destruction of the history of ontology in order to work his way back to the point where things first went wrong. This suggests that, while the past of philosophy was brief, it did occur.

In the Nietzschean phase we have now reached, philosophers are urged to forget about truth and become “strong poets.” The remark suggests an odd conception of poetry and an even odder one of philosophy. The implication is that poets simply emote and philosophers should follow suit. Leszek Kolakowski has written that “A modern philosopher who has never experienced the feeling of being a charlatan is such a shallow mind that his work is probably not worth reading.” You will of course wonder how Kolakowski was feeling when he wrote that.

Perhaps in the tradition of such remarks — I think of the Liar’s Paradox (In philosophy and logic, the liar paradox or liar’s paradox (pseudomenon in Ancient Greek), is the statement “This sentence is false.” Trying to assign to this statement a classical binary truth value leads to a contradiction (see Paradox). If “This sentence is false” is true, then it is false, which would in turn mean that it is actually true, but this would mean that it is false, and so on ad infinitum. Similarly, if “This sentence is false” is false, then it is true, which would in turn mean that it is actually false, but this would mean that it is true, and so on ad infinitum.) — the speaker is implicitly exempted. There is a more cheerful estimate of the history of philosophy that is captured by the phrase “perennial philosophy.” This is meant to suggest that, beneath and beyond the wrangles and differences and diversity of philosophies, there is a subtle progress being made such that every philosopher contributes malgre lui (vocab: in spite of himself) to a cumulative achievement of the race.

These few introductory remarks indicate the circumstances in which one sets about writing a student’s guide to philosophy at the end of the second millennium. Philosophy has come to see itself as winding down, reaching the end of its rope on a gallows of its own construction. One might attempt a wertfrei (vocab: value-free; nonjudgmental ) account of the terrain, giving a narrative of what philosophers are doing here and there, staying above the battle, and accepting the by now mandatory disdain for philosophy’s past. That is not how I intend to proceed.

What follows will be an effort to direct the beginner to the great sources of philosophy as to fonts of truth. Newman said of Aristotle that he had expressed our thoughts before we were born. And of course Dante called Aristotle the master of those who know. Accordingly, this guide will concentrate on Aristotle and the later developments of his thought. I share Pope John Paul Il’s dismay, expressed in Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), that philosophers seem wary of the big questions, the questions that in a sense define us. What does it all mean? Does life have a purpose? Is death the end? Is there a God? This little guide will give directions on where philosophical help can be found to address such questions as these.

The Pursuit Of Wisdom
There is a theory about the dialogues of Plato — at least some of them, the “Socratic” ones — that their function was to stir up interest in potential members of the Academy so that they would want to devote their lives to the pursuit of philosophy. Literary recruiting posters, as it were. The Greek adjective here is “protreptic.”The idea is that there is a desire that precedes and guides the pursuit of wisdom.

In his phlegmatic way, Aristotle put it thus: All men by nature desire to know.” To be a human being is to have a built-in natural thirst for knowledge. A bent is natural if we have it whether or not we choose to. We become aware that it is already at work in us. Now this can seem a rather exalted thing to say about everyone. You might have an acquaintance or two, perhaps a relative, of whom it would seem outlandish to say that he has a natural desire to know. He might seem to have a natural desire not to know.

Was Aristotle carried away by his intellectualistic and Macedonian tendencies? Not at all. He goes on to say this about our natural desire to know: “A sign of this is the pleasure we take in our senses….” The general claim is verified in this modest and convincing way. Sensing is something we are engaged in without taking thought, so it is natural in the sense required, and it is by and large pleasant to sense, particularly to see, to take a look: “[F]or even apart from their usefulness they [the senses] are loved for themselves; and above all the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differ between things.”

We find already adumbrated in this account of sensation the distinction between the practical and theo retical. Our senses are instrumental — we call them organs, after all — and their most obvious role is in helping us live our lives. We look out. We are on the lookout. The outlook is favorable or not. But surely Aristotle is right that just looking is sometimes its own reward. For all that, the pleasures of sense are dangerous if they become an end in themselves, but that is only because the human good embraces and transcends them. Experience retains (i.e., records) the history of perception and may give way to art. The experienced person has know-how, but it is the mark of the artisan that he knows both How and Why. When it is a question of the specifically human, Why marks the spot.


SOCRATES (469-399 B.C.), an Athenian war veteran, loved to discuss philosophical topics in the marketplace. He wrote nothing and is known to us only indirectly — in a play of Aristophanes, in Xenophon, and, most importantly, as the hauntingly wise interlocutor of many dialogues of Plato. The Crito and Apology provide us with moving portraits of a comrade “who was, we may fairly say, of all those whom we knew in our time. the bravest and also the wisest and a most upright man” (Phaedo, 118).The Apology professes to be Socrates’ reply to the judges who have falsely accused him of corrupting the young. It ends thus: Now it is time that we were going. I to die and you to live, but which of us has the happier prospect is unknown to anyone but God” (42).

When Plato observed that philosophy begins in wonder, he was thinking of two senses of wonder — the wonder that is awe and the wonder that comes from not yet knowing why. The Athenian who witnessed a solar eclipse two and a half millennia ago felt much the same awe we do. His understanding of what was happening may strike us as risible, but a true explanation does not take away our wonder. The wondering involves the wonderer as well. What does it all mean? And what does it mean for me to be in this world?

We are these questions, in a sense, and the pursuit of them, often latent in everyday activities, sometimes absorbing us completely, draws us through and beyond the world to the source of ourselves and all the rest. From its beginning, theology was the ultimate business of philosophy. When Plato said that philosophy is learning how to die he was not being morbid. It is the inescapable fact of our mortality that provides the horizon for our thinking. “All men by nature desire to know.” This truth is a great leveler; it leaves no one out. It prevents us from thinking that some are thinkers and the rest are, well, the rest, the many, the hoi-polloi. Everyone is already engaged, well or badly, in thinking and in that sense is already a philosopher. Potentially, as Aristotle would add. Latently. But the capacity is therein every human. the questions are inescapable. Perhaps we have to learn not to philosophize, making a real effort to put our minds to leading mindless lives. If being dumb is the achievement, one is not likely to preen h i mself on being a philosopher.

If I seem to protest too much this is because of the gall of Descartes. How could he induce us to doubt everything when all along we have to remember how to read French or Latin? What the return to Aristotle gains us is the realization that everybody already knows things for sure. Of course the observation is banal, but that is only one of its attractions. It is also true. Philosophy starts where everybody already is. The principles of philosophy are in the public domain. The modern tendency is to say, “Hang on to the brush, I’m taking away the ladder.” With Arisototle, we will keep our feet firmly on the ground.

PLATO (427-347B.C.), an Athenian aristocrat whose thought pointed in the direction of active political involvement, spent much of his life, at home and abroad, seeking to bring the practical into line with the ideal. Athens was conquered by Sparta and put under the control of  the Thirty Tyrants, among them relatives of Plato. The restored democracy condemned Socrates whose student Plato had been. Plato departed for southern Italy. There wear Pythagoreans there and, in Syracuse, the tyrant Dion. When Plato returned to Athens in 387, he founded a school, the Academy. Several times be returned to Syracuse, in the hope of making Dion into a “philosophical king,” but with disappointing results. The last thing Plato wrote was the Laws, far less known than the earlier Republic,, but the fruit of bitter experience Twenty-six dialogues of Plato have been preserved, in many of which Socrates is featured. Plato remains the most accessible of philosophers, at east it his early works and his influence is only rivaled by that of Aristotle.


An Introduction to the Work of René Girard By Peter Stork

January 13, 2011

Over the years, several authors have written comprehensive summaries of Girard’s oevre as well as book-length introductions. This article does not seek to repeat their work. Instead, Peter Stork attempts to introduce Girard by selectively engaging with his work. Beginning with the trajectory of Girard’s intellectual quest, Stork outlines first the main features and implications of his theory, followed by an account of his recognition as well as typical criticisms. Then he relates Girard’s anthropology to the Judeo-Christian tradition, and lastly — albeit briefly — address the question of relevance of Girard’s theory for the severity of the current global crisis. There are several articles about Girard and his theories on this site and I hope this article becomes a jumping off point for you to explore more of them.

The Trajectory of Girard’s Thought
The milestones of Girard’s intellectual quest are reflected in his major publications: Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (1961), La violence et le sacré (1972), Des choses cachées dépuis la fondation du monde (1978), and Le bouc émissaire (1982). In Mensonge, Girard links mimesis with desire and discerns its triangular structure or derivative nature. This discovery enabled him to unravel the hidden plot behind the human drama. Having located the motivational centre of humanity in mimetic desire and rivalry, Girard uses this insight to re-read cultural history in its entirety.

In La violence he proposes the theory of the sacrificial crisis and the collective killing of a victim as its resolution. He then claims that this mechanism lies at the root of all religion and culture. In his exploration of this anthropological phenomenon and its socialization, he acknowledges his indebtedness to Freud (but also criticizes him) and discusses the relation between mimesis and rivalry and how overcoming difference (which is the object of acquisitive imitation) also leads to rivalry.

From this he concludes that, for the imitator, the end of mimetic desire is the appropriation of the identity of the model. Because the imitator re-presents this appropriated identity as distinct or different from the original, such appropriation “eliminates” the other. According to Girard, this inevitable result of mimetic desire and its escalation becomes the defining act of humanity. Tragically, this cuts across the grain of social formation. Since conflict once unleashed will run its course until a victim is slain, sacrifice becomes the saving event in communities threatened by mimetic violence. The mechanism of mimesis assures that victims are seen as “monsters” responsible for the crisis. Their lynching thus promises a new beginning for the community after the chaos. Once slain, victims also become the saviors of the community.

In his later works, especially in Le bouc, Girard is no longer concerned with the definitive act of humanity or the “originary scene” but with testing his theory as he relentlessly probes many texts in relation to the scapegoat mechanism and the mythical concealment of violence.

In Des choses cachées and also in Le bouc, Girard turns his attention to the Judeo-Christian scriptures. In his view, the Old Testament begins a prophetic process that critiques the ancient mythological mindset of the sacrificial culture which always tells the story from the perspective of the persecutors. For Girard, this process comes to full fruition in the New Testament.

 Main Features and Implications
In Girard’s proposal, the “scene of [human] origin” lies in the horror of an outbreak of unstoppable violence within the archaic community. It is the internal crisis, the spilling over of violent reciprocity into the “interior” of their social space that fills the group with dread and now brings about the perception of an encounter with the “sacred”. This notion has important implications for Girard’s interpretation of the origin of sacrifice and the nature of religion.

First, sacrificial ritual originates with a human victim, not with animal sacrifices. For Girard, animal sacrifices belong to later substitutionary development. Second, Girard perceives violence as a reciprocal phenomenon, which, like vengeance, lends violence its self-perpetuating and interminable character. Therefore, the function of sacrifice and victimary substitution is the transmutation of reciprocal violence into a culturally “safe” ritual by venting it on a victim from whose death no one needs to fear reprisals. As long as this act is perceived by all as “sacred violence”, it breaks the destructive momentum of vengeance and transposes it into a protective one.

In other words, in primitive society sacrifice holds the impulse for revenge in check in the guise of religious violence. Third, this understanding throws light on the choice of sacrificial victims. To be “sacrificiable”, victims had not only to be sufficiently similar to allow substitution, but also sufficiently different and marginal to make them legitimate targets of collective violence that would draw the focus away from the community proper. This explains why slaves, prisoners of war, the deformed and children qualified. As they were not fully integrated into the community, their slaughter would not pose a reciprocal threat of revenge or blood feud.

Anthropologists have often related sacrifice to the notion of guilt. Girard denies this link. For him, sacrifice is ritualized vengeance, not an act of expiation. In primitive society, the orientation is not towards a wrongdoer but towards a victim designated to absorb the communal violence. Girard argues that the question of guilt only arises in judicially structured societies with their orientation towards the concepts of transgression and a guilty party.

Girard draws attention to the similarity between the sacrificial system of earlier civilizations and the judicial system of more advanced societies. He argues that they are functionally identical in that both fulfill the same purpose: to save society from its own violence. However, both will “work” only as long as they are perceived as having exclusive access to the means of vengeance. In the case of the sacrificial system this is established by the centrality of the “sacred”, and in the case of the judicial system by the “independent authority” of the law.

While each system declares its own violence “holy” and legitimate over and against any other source of violence, each equally obscures the fact that human beings need protection from their own reciprocal violence. Should this veil be lifted, both systems lose their efficacy. In another way, demystification robs both systems of their power to break the cycle of reciprocal violence. The ensuing weakening of the victimage mechanism leaves society open to loss of identity and to outbreaks of undifferentiated violence or anarchy. Under such conditions, society enters what Girard calls the “sacrificial crisis”.

When the notion of legitimate violence is lost, society is exposed to the irrepressible powers of reciprocal violence and its contagious escalation. Then, writes Girard, “man’s desires are focused on one thing only: violence”. The key to an understanding of this startling conclusion lies in Girard’s notion of desire and its relation to violence. To understand Girard’s notion of desire, it is important to grasp that in his scheme desire is “mimetic”. With this qualifier Girard means, on the one hand, that desire is distinct from appetite or biological needs such as hunger or thirst. On the other hand, it is to say that human beings imitate each other. They copy not only gestures, language and other cultural expressions but also each other’s desires. Conflict results when this process leads to convergence of desires on the same object.

If desire is mimetic, the conflictual nature of human interactions may be explained. It is a well-known tendency in ethology to extrapolate animal behavior into the human sphere. The idea that human aggression and violence are “instinctive” owes its existence to this tendency. However, violence in animals rarely leads to the death of an opponent or rival. A built-in mechanism terminates the combat before it reaches the lethal stage. Such a constraint is lacking in humans. Consequently, when faced with a rival, humans are defenseless against their own impulses which they do not know how to control. However, before we can understand Girard’s notion of “desire”, we need to trace his thoughts about the pivotal role he ascribes to the “rival” in relation to desire and its violent manifestations.

In Girard’s thought, desire does not arise in a subject as an autonomous and spontaneous attraction to an object, neither is a rival defined as the result of two autonomous desires spontaneously and concurrently converging upon the same object. Rather, “the subject desires the object because the rival desires it.” In other words, the desirability of an object for the subject lies not in the object itself, but in its desirability in the eyes of another. Girard explains: In desiring an object the rival alerts the subject to the desirability of the object. The rival, then, serves as a model for the subject, not only in regard to such secondary matters as style and opinions but also, and more essentially, in regard to desires.

We will not understand the intensity and significance of this “imitation of desire” until we see its essential motif. Desire not only seeks to possess the object to which the model points, but also seeks to be “possessed” by it, for the acquisitiveness of desire is not primarily directed at the object itself but at what it signifies, namely the model proper. In other words, this acquisitiveness aims at the very being of the one who finds the object so desirable.

According to Girard, it is the imitator’s perceived lack of being or his sense of ontological emptiness that drives the intensity of acquisitiveness. An existential void which the successful acquisition promises to remedy appears at the core of human desire. This acquisitiveness is therefore, as Fleming explains, “merely a path, the perceived privileged route, to the attainment of the ontological self-sufficiency detected in the rival”.

This dynamic renders desire essentially conflictual, and the ensuing conflict is irreconcilable, except at the expense of the model or a substitutionary victim. What is more, the outworking of this conflict locks both model and imitator into what Girard has called the double-bind in which they constantly signal contradictory messages to one another – “imitate me, but don’t desire my object”. This phenomenon, Girard contends, forms the basis of all human relationships and is, in the final analysis, the instigator of the sacrificial crisis where desire and violence are no longer distinguished. At the point of a mimetic crisis, violence begets more violence as each participant resorts to more violence to overcome the violence of his opponent. Under the dynamics of the double-bind, the distinction between model and imitator vanishes so that the mimetic crisis becomes a crisis of non-differentiation that threatens the cohesion of the community (which is built on distinctiveness) unless at the height of undifferentiated violence a surrogate victim is arbitrarily slain.

The unanimity of the collective murder causes the violence to subside and the vicious cycle of mimetic violence to be broken. This death and the ensuing peace (absence of violence) transmute the energies of reciprocal violence into sanctioned ritualistic forms so that their later performances occur as re-enactments of the scene of origin through which the cultural order is preserved. Religion is thus not an attempt to contact “the gods” but ritualized vengeance that prevents its uncontrollable outbreak.

The five chief elements of Girard’s “mimetic anthropology” may be summarized as follows:

  1. Mimesis In Girard, mimesis is not the copying of actions but the imitation of desire, or the replication of another’s attraction towards an object. In this definition, mimesis is acquisitive and desire is “suffered desire” that arises spontaneously when the object is valued by a mediator. Girard distinguishes between external and internal mediation. The greater the distance between the subject and the mediator, the freer is the relationship between them from the possibility of rivalry. In that case, Girard speaks of external mediation. If the distance diminishes, not only does the possibility of rivalry increase but its intensity also rises proportionately. Then Girard speaks of internal mediation, in which case the model or mediator has also become the obstacle. He or she now obstructs the desired acquisition while constantly signaling the desirability of the object. This model/obstacle dynamic shifts the value from the object itself to the obstruction which also explains why prohibition heightens the object’s desirability.
  2. Metaphysical Desire and Transcendence When mimesis progresses towards rivalry, the object becomes less and less important as desire focuses on the mediator become obstacle. At the height of the conflict the object is forgotten altogether. At this point, desire has become metaphysical and now seeks to possess not the object but the being of the other, in fact to become the other. The conflict is over recognition and prestige. Since human desire is mediated desire, i.e. it does not arise from within but from an external source, Girard interprets its triangular nature to mean that human beings are structured towards transcendence. Human desire is to be mediated by a truly transcendent spiritual source. Therefore, mimetic rivalry is the pathological variant of desire awakened by a false transcendence, that is, by the proximity of the desire of another human being.
  3. The Mimetic Crisis A further progression of mimetic conflict leads to the formation of doubles. The subject and the mediator of desire become more and more like each other. In this instance, the rivals copy each other’s desire and in the process erase their differences. Girard calls this point in the progression the “mimetic crisis”. Since mimetic desire is highly infectious, it affects groups and society to the point where it can spin out of control and threaten the existence of community. However, the operation of mimesis ensures that at the extreme the total reciprocal violence is vented unanimously on a surrogate victim which is killed. The murder of the victim brings peace. But if the cause for their unanimity is misattributed to the victim rather than to the function of mimesis aroused by the victim mechanism, the peace is based on a delusion. Because the resolution of the crisis demands the blood of a victim, the mimetic crisis is also called “sacrificial crisis”.
  4. The Victim and the Sacred According to Girard, this misattribution occurs spontaneously at the height of the crisis when the group transfers its violence to the victim. Violence is not repressed, but through the process of transference it becomes “detached”. This turns the victim into a god who miraculously transforms the destructive violence of the conflict into legitimate violence for the sake of peace in the community. The result is a double delusion. The victim is seen as “supremely active and powerful”,9 while its corpse has become the transcendent signifier of the “sacred” whose violence, like a double- edged sword, cuts both ways: it ensures the order of society but also has the power to destroy it. Under this delusion, the “sacred” masquerades as the cause as well as the cure of mimetic violence and as such represents “the transcendental pole of primitive religion”.
  5. The Scapegoat The term relates to the unconscious transference of violence onto another along with its associated guilt. In myths, the scapegoat is represented by “texts of persecution”, similarly in stories which tell the tale from the perspective of the persecutors. It is both a term in common language as well as a ritual act that communicates the dynamic and result of transference. By pointing indirectly to the need for transference, however, it partly discloses the underlying problem of the human subconscious which, since the originary scene is structured on the basis of a lynching, seeks to rid itself of violence and guilt by laying it on others. In short, Girard rejects the idealistic notion that it is natural for human beings to live in peace with each other.

Acclaim and Criticism
Girard’s seminal thinking has had wide-ranging impact on the debate about the origins of civilization and religious theory. Other disciplines have also found his thoughts attractive as the growing secondary literature indicates. On the other hand, his sweeping claims (all violence is rooted in mimetic desire, and human civilization is a prophylactic structure, a form of organized, albeit sophisticated, victimage that prevents mimetic violence) have understandably not met with universal acceptance.

Girard’s theory has caught the attention of a growing number of scholars. Not only has his work been widely read in his native France, where he was honored by being admitted in 2005 to the Académie Française, but also the English-speaking academy has begun to draw on his insights across a range of disciplines. International conferences have explored his ideas and the interpretive literature is growing. Girard’s collaboration with French psychologists Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort has produced a psychology of the “interdividual” that radicalizes the social dimension of the human self. Ourghourlian even attributes phenomena like hypnosis to human mimesis. Economist Paul Dumouchel and others have applied Girardian thought to such issues as market competition and scarcity.

The Journal of the Colloquium on Religion and Violence, Contagion, regularly publishes findings of research conducted with and on Girard’s theory. Biblical scholars Hamerton-Kelly and James Williams have applied Girard’s theory to the interpretation of the Bible, while Catholic systematic theologian Raymund Schwager makes wide use of the Girardian grid in his theological project. James Alison has examined the doctrine of original sin from a Girardian perspective while Gil Bailie has undertaken to bring Girard’s theory to a wider readership outside the academy.

While Girard has, no doubt, presented a most intriguing and compelling hypothesis, it is also controversial. When he and his followers proffer it as the ultimate explanation for all institutions of culture and religion, questions arise about the validity of assumptions, the nature of the evidence and the scientific method by which his arguments are sustained. One of Germany’s foremost Catholic theologians and Guardini-Award winner, Eugen Biser, dismisses Girard’s theory as an “absurd thesis”. German scholar Markwart Herzog has criticized Girard for drawing the Totalität der Geschichte from a single event-type. While he concedes that Girard has assembled much empirical material from mythology to support his “Kultopfer”-theory, Herzog remains skeptical whether the same material is capable of validating the assumption of an “Uropfer” the historicity of which cannot be validated. He also argues that Girard’s system is scientifically unsound in that is not open to critical evaluation and cannot be falsified by empirically grounded objections. This immunity comes at the price of being unscientific.

In an attempt to answer these charges, James Williams and Raymund Schwager have come to Girard’s defense. If Girard has called his theory “scientific”, it should be understood in the sense that it is “analytic” and not positivistic. Girard himself admits that his theory is not verifiable by the criteria of Karl Popper. James Williams has been careful to avoid the term “scientific,” and presents Girard’s proposal as a “heuristic model”, whose interpretive power should be tested rather than its factual accuracy. Similarly, the demand that it should account for every cultural detail is absurd simply because traditional variations inevitably develop over time. In this light, the charge of monism does not hold. Moreover, Girard has not claimed to write as a theologian, but has attempted to present an “anthropology of the cross”. Schwager has also defended Girard along anthropological lines and taken Girard’s model deeply into his dramatic theology.

Peter Oberhofer has taken up the question of the scientific status of Girard’s hypothesis again and observed that to pose the antithesis of a “scientific” and an “hermeneutical” reading of mimetic theory must remain unsatisfactory because the “scientific” issues raised are not likely to be cancelled by treating the theory as a heuristic model. This, however, is not to say that the latter negates the scientific character of the theory. It only draws attention to the inadequacies of its “scientific” categories to deliver on its own an adequate anthropological interpretation of its findings.

Bruce Chilton has been much more reserved in his evaluation of Girard, especially in respect to the notion of sacrifice. He also noted that Girard is frequently charged by his critics with “an excessively genetic concern with origins”. But Chilton credits Girard’s genius with the brilliant insight that mimesis is a renewable resource, which prompts the question whether humanity is inexorably tied to violence. Girard denies it. While scapegoats may be found as required, it is mimesis, not violence, that plays a primordial role.

Cheryl Kirk-Duggan, after examining Girard’s proposal from a blackfeminist perspective, echoes the concern that Girard’s theory is reductionist and onedimensional. Despite its claims to universality it lacks the capacity for an “adequate critique of women as protagonists and victims.” Theophus Smith has observed that Girard is disinclined to enter the realm of praxis and seems to leave the emergence of non-violent cultures to chance, while John Darr appreciates Girard’s unique approach that has “altered the landscape of such diverse fields as sociology, psychology, philosophy, literary theory, and religious studies”.

These are important observations. Most scholars acknowledge the significance and provocative nature of his contributions, while rejecting the universal nature of his claims. Girard has certainly provided the discourse on violence and religion with many profound insights and with a useful vocabulary. As the emerging literature shows, he has stimulated many disciplines including Christian theology to rethink certain areas that have been left unattended or excluded from the discussion. Therefore, Girard’s insights into mimetic conflict and the scapegoat mechanism must be ranked among the most penetrating intellectual discoveries. At the same time, I note that Girard’s theory, while elucidating the phenomenon of collective violence and envious murder, does not account satisfactorily for the depth of human evil.

Girard and the Judeo-Christian Tradition
In approaching the thought-world of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Girard has rigorously maintained his anthropological focus. This section traces his thoughts about religious relativism and the truth claims of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Already in antiquity paganism tried to relativize Christianity’s claim to uniqueness by pointing to the similarity between biblical stories and mythical accounts. The Passion account of Christ, it was asserted, differed little from the myths. Members of the pagan pantheon like Dionysus, Osiris and Adonis also suffered martyrdom at the hands of a frenzied mob. This violence too occurred at the height of a social crisis, and was followed by the triumphal reappearance of the slain victim. This “resurrection” was then interpreted as a revelation of its deity.

In search of a global, unifying theory of religion, ethnologists of the 19th and early 20th century drew similar conclusions. Although such attempts never succeeded, they displayed a form of intellectual imperialism reflective of the political and colonial imperialism of their time. Girard notes, that although many of these ethnologists were anti-colonialists, they were nonetheless motivated by the double passion typical of Darwinism: a passion for science coupled with a passionate antireligious bias. Both motivated their search for the essence of “religion” in order to discredit Christianity’s claim to uniqueness, to un-repeatability and particularity. The contemporary relativist claim that insists on the similarity of all religions has identical roots.

From Girard’s view point, even when differences between religions are discussed, they tend to miss the point because they omit the one difference that really counts, so that the conversation always ends with the similarity between myths and Christianity. Since these are too numerous and too obvious, the possibility that Christianity is unique is rejected.

What is then the essential difference between Christianity and myths? In the Christian presentation the victim is innocent and collective violence is self-evidently guilty, while in mythology the crowd is always innocent (even when the victims – as is sometimes the case – are also portrayed as innocent). Oedipus is really guilty and the crowd of Thebes has good reason for expelling him. But the Servant of God (Isaiah 53) and Jesus are indeed innocent. Their death is portrayed as an injustice.

According to Girard, Nietzsche has overlooked something decisive. The morality on which the Judeo-Christian defense of the innocent victim is based is not “slave morality”, that is, the malicious lust for vengeance of the weak against the strong. It is instead a morality which correlates to the truth that the victims are indeed innocent. This congruence of truth and morality escaped Nietzsche and those who follow him in his anti-Christian bias. What these critics of Christianity overlooked is the unanimity that the scapegoat engenders and its moral implications.

In other words, mimetic theory lays bare what goes on behind the superficial similarity of myths and the Judeo-Christian tradition. The chaos that precedes collective violence is the disintegration of human society which is the fruit of mimetic rivalry. To this all people are prone and, because it is contagious, rivalry and thus violence escalates. But mimesis also unites society against the “scapegoats”, who are thought to be responsible for the disorder. This apparent lucidity as to who is responsible is in fact the result of a delusion derived from mimetic contagion. The myth then is a phenomenon of the crowd. This delusionary construal is incapable of unveiling even the most improbable accusations which always centre on “oedipal” crimes, patricide, incest and plague-transmission. These crimes are projected on victims in an attempt to cover the crowd’s persecutor mentality.

Myths deceive in that they reverse the real and inescapable relation between isolated, powerless victims and society which persecutes them. The Judeo-Christian texts, however, unveil the truth of that relation which the myths seek to conceal. These texts re-establish the right relationship. Thus the Judeo-Christian tradition shakes the mythical system in its entirety. But this lie so exposed plays an important role in culture. Anthropologically, both the myths and the Christian story have their home in the same type of crisis. It is the same mechanism that produces the victims. What distinguishes the Christian tradition is its reaction to the crisis.

In the myths, the mechanism (Girard calls it “the machine”) works so efficiently that the unanimity it generates is total. No one is exempt from the violent contagion of the mob so that every opposition is excluded. The results are portrayed by the myths as “pure truth”. But under the impact of Judeo-Christian revelation, the “machine” no longer works efficiently. Indeed, in the Gospels it works so badly that the whole truth of the scapegoat mechanism is exposed. Girard argues that the extraordinary nature of the revelation is not undermined by the fact that in a global sense neither Jewish nor Christian communities have been more efficient than mythical communities in their resistance against violent contagion. That small minorities were, however, able to achieve it, testifies to the effectiveness of the revelation in a twofold way: it lends uniqueness to the tradition itself and then comes to life at its very centre when minorities resist contagion with mimetic violence.

While they were too small to carry the victory in history, they were nevertheless powerful enough to influence the redaction of the Christian texts decisively. Compared with mythical presentations, which always seek to preserve the unifying and purifying effect of violence, the Judeo-Christian narrative reveals that collective acts of violence lead to a “division” even in the gospel text itself. For instance, the synoptics let Jesus say that he brings war not peace, while the fourth Gospel depicts Jesus as bringing division wherever he presents his message. In other words, the revelation deconstructs a social harmony that is based on the lie of violent unanimity.

In respect of the crisis, the myths only represent the passive reflex, while the Judeo-Christian tradition actively reveals the collective scapegoat-producing machine behind it. This truth is inaccessible to myth. At the same time, Girard notes that the Judeo-Christian tradition is fully conscious of it. That tradition is, he writes, neither an ethnocentric stupidity nor rivalry with other religions from which it monopolizes and cashes in this truth claim. Nietzsche was correct on this point: No other religion defends victims in the same manner as the Judeo-Christian tradition. But if Nietzsche saw in it the mark of inferiority, we see in it an expression of superiority. Religious relativism is thus defeated on its own turf – anthropology.

However, from the perspective of incarnational religion, this anthropological emphasis cannot be thought of as independent of the theological dimension. As far as desacralization is concerned, Christianity is itself somewhat problematic. Is not the Passion story a throwback on archaic patterns whereby the saving activity of Jesus is mediated through a rehabilitated scapegoat, and is not Jesus himself a René Girard „Mimetische Theorie und Theologie“ in Vom Fluch und Segen der Sündenböcke, eds. Jospeh Niewiadomski und Wolfgang Palaver (Thaur: Kultur Verlag, 1995),  sacralized scapegoat?

If this were the case, argues Girard, the deity of Christ would have its roots in violent sacralization, the witnesses to his resurrection would have been the crowd that demanded his death rather than a small group of individual followers who protested his innocence, and the peace of Christ would be the same peace the world gives, namely the surrogate peace that follows the slaying of an innocent victim. The contrary is true. The Gospels proclaim an undermining of that false peace and the fragmentation of a sociality built on violent unanimity. In other words, the NT completes the process of desacralization by revealing the mimetic genesis of scapegoats and their founding and structuring function in human culture.

Mimetic Theory and Historical Christianity
As we have seen, Girard’s theory understands the effect of the Judeo-Christian tradition on history as one of a progressive desacralization of culture. This process is gradual and comprises several components. Myths are no longer being generated and give way to texts of persecution, sacrificial practices disappear, and surrogate victimage fails to bring social order even when the violence committed by persecutors is regarded as divinely ordained. But it would be a serious mistake to understand Girard’s argument as an apologetic for historical Christianity. For that, argues Fleming, Christianity had too readily absorbed into its own practices the sacrificial structures unveiled by the Gospels so much so that historical Christianity became “one of the principal mechanisms for hiding its own revelation”.

That the non-violent praxis of the early Church fell victim to the interests of the Empire under the fourth-century Constantinian alignment of state and church, is historically documented. In the context of examining the violence committed in the name of Christianity, this phenomenon has recently received renewed critical attention, stimulated largely by Girard’s anthropology.

Fleming’s comment that “Christianity absorbed Christ’s teaching in perhaps the only manner that it could: through the doctrine of the sacrificial atonement” may serve as an apt summary of these findings. This discovery does not excuse or minimize the atrocities of Christendom. The fact, however, that in the course of history Christians should have badly mistaken the message of Jesus does not subvert the message but rather corroborates it. : Yet the fact that the Gospel desacralizes the culture does not mean that scapegoating has come to an end. What it means is that the power of the scapegoat mechanism to unify the community and to hide its true origin has been permanently subverted manifesting as an inability to resacralize violence.

This powerlessness Girard attributes to the constraining influence of the Judeo-Christian scriptures. However, this influence will not lead to a reduction in violence or of its intensity in the foreseeable future. To the contrary, the ongoing failure of victimage will engender more violence as the “mechanism of the scapegoat” needs to function at higher levels of intensity as the social cohesion of collective violence loses efficacy. Because desacralization engenders a social environment where vengeance is more readily possible, humanity will experience heightened polarization and fragmentation. At this point in the discussion questions may be raised that highlight the severity of the current global crisis. If the generative mechanism of victimage has been unveiled, what is there to restrain the full revelation of violence? If rules of law are what holds modern society together, will they avert the crisis which the revelation of the victimage mechanism has let loose? Will such social constructs such as international human rights law prevent society from falling into apocalyptic violence and anarchy?

Today, humanity has at its disposal technological weapons capable of planetary destruction. For the first time in human history, the possibility of “limitless violence” exists. Girard calls it “absolute vengeance, formerly the prerogative of the gods”. According to strategists, this “pending” violence will – under the auspices of the United Nations and various non-proliferation instruments predicated on the values enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – keep global violence in check. Yet in the light of the foregoing, this looks like a fallacious conclusion. Modern victimage no longer unifies society. Such “unsuccessful victimage” leads instead to increasing tribalization. This demythifying result of Christian revelation generates concomitant pressure to use more violence. However, growing concern for victims – especially in the age of annihilation – also leads to political pressure to renounce violence altogether. It is from this perspective that we must understand Girard’s argument that humanity faces the fundamental choice between total destruction and the total renunciation of violence.


The Sacred Meal In The Life And Ministry Of Jesus by Fr. Robert Barron

January 12, 2011

Jesus Points To Matthew

A reading selection from Fr. Barron’s wonderful little book, Eucharist. For ten bucks how can you go wrong? 

For Christians, the most important thing to note about Jesus is that he is not simply one more in a long line of prophets and teachers. He is not merely, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Moses, or David, a good man who represents God. Rather, he consistently speaks and acts in the very person of God. In the words of N. T. Wright, Jesus is like a portrait of Yahweh, in all of its richness and complexity, sprung to life. When he claims interpretive authority over the Torah, when he forgives the sins of the paralyzed man, when he calls his disciples to love him above mother and father, indeed above their very lives, when lie cleanses the temple, Jesus says and does things that only Yahweh could legitimately say and do.

In its later creeds and dogmas, the church expressed this biblical conviction, speaking of Jesus as the incarnation of the Word of God, as “God from God, light from light, true God from true God.” One of the principal desires of Yahweh was to reestablish the sacred meal, to restore the community and fellowship lost through sin. Thus it should be no surprise that Jesus would make the sacred meal central to his messianic work. Throughout his public ministry, Jesus gathered people around a table of fellowship. In the Palestine of his time, the table was a place where the divisions and stratifications of the society were particularly on display, but at Jesus’ table, all were welcome: saints and sinners, the just and the unjust, the healthy and the sick, men and women. This open table fellowship was not simply a challenge to the societal status quo, but also an expression of God’s deepest intentions vis-a-vis the human race, the realization of Isaiah’s eschatological dream. In fact, very often Jesus’ profoundest teachings took place at table, calling to mind Isaiah’s holy mountain where a festive meal would be spread out and where “instruction” would go forth.

Let us examine just a few instances of this meal fellowship in the New Testament, beginning in a perhaps surprising place, the story of Christmas. The account of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke is not, as Raymond E. Brown reminded us, an innocent tale that we tell to children. Instead, all of the drama and edginess of the story of Jesus are adumbrated there. We are meant to notice a contrast between the figure mentioned at the outset of the narrative — Caesar Augustus — and the character who is at the center of the story. Caesar would have been the best-fed person in the ancient world, able at the snap of his fingers to have all of his sensual desires met. But the true king, the true emperor of the world, is horn in a cave outside of a forgotten town on the verge of Caesar’s domain. Too weak even to raise his head, he is wrapped in swaddling clothes and then “laid in a manger,” the place where the animals eat. What Luke is signaling here is that Jesus had come to be food for a hungry world. Whereas Caesar —  in the manner of Eve and Adam — existed to be fed, Jesus existed to be fed upon. He was destined to be, not only the host at the sacred banquet, but (how like Babette here) the meal itself. And to Christ’s manger came the shepherds ;evocative of the poor and marginalized, the lost sheep of the house of Israel) and kings (evocative of the nations of the world), drawn there as though by a magnet. Thus commenced the realization of Isaiah’s vision.

A story that can be found in all three of the synoptic Gospels is that of the conversion of Levi (or Matthew) the tax collector. We hear that as Jesus was passing by, he spotted Matthew at his tax collector’s post. To be a tax collector in Jesus’ time — a Jew collaborating with the Roman occupying power in the oppression of one’s own people — was to be a contemptible figure, someone akin to a French collaborator during the Nazi period. Jesus gazed at this man and said, simply, “Follow me.” Did Jesus invite Matthew because the tax collector merited it? Was Jesus responding to a request from Matthew or some hidden longing in the sinner’s heart?

Certainly not. Grace, by definition, comes unbidden and without explanation. In Caravaggio’s magnificent painting of this scene, Matthew, dressed anachronistically in sixteenth-century finery, responds to Jesus’ summons by pointing incredulously to himself and wearing a quizzical expression, as if to say, “Me? You want me?” The hand of Christ in Caravaggio’s picture is adapted from the hand of God the Father in Michelangelo’s depiction of the creation of man on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Just as creation is ex nihilo, so conversion is a new creation, a gracious remaking of a person from the nonbeing of his sin. Matthew, we are told, immediately got up and followed the Lord.

But where did he follow him? To a banquet! “While he was at table in his house … ” is the first thing we read after the declaration that Matthew followed him. Before he calls Matthew to do anything, before he sends him on mission, Jesus invites Matthew to recline in easy fellowship around a festive table. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis comments, The deepest meaning of Christian discipleship is not to work for Jesus but to be with Jesus.” The former tax-collector listens to the Word, laughs with him, breaks bread with him and in this finds his true identity. Adam was the friend of Yahweh before becoming, through his own fear and pride, Yahweh’s enemy. Now Jesus, Yahweh made flesh, seeks to reestablish this lost friendship with Adam’s descendants.

The Gospel then tells us that many other sinners and tax collectors, inspired, we presume, by Matthew’s example. “came and sat with Jesus and his disciples.” This is but one example of how Jesus embodies the Isaian vision of all the nations of the world streaming to unity around Mt. Zion. Christ himself is the meeting of divinity and humanity and hence he is the temple, the place of right worship. And thus it is around him that the nations will gather to he fed “juicy red meat and pure choice wine.” The same grace that summoned Matthew now, through Matthew, summons the rest, and a community of sinners-become-diners is formed.

Naturally, this coming-together stirs up the resentment of the Pharisees, who ask the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” In our dysfunction, having lost contact with the God through whom all are one, we tend to order ourselves in exclusive and domineering ways, determining the insiders precisely in contradistinction to the outsiders. But this is just the kind of phony, self-destructive community that Jesus has come to interrupt. And so he responds to this criticism: “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do…. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” Here we find a theme that will be developed throughout the tradition, namely, the sacred meal as medicine for the sin-sick soul. In light of Jesus’ observation, we can see that the inclusion of sinners is the very heart and raison d’etre of the meal that he hosts.

The miracle of the feeding of the thousands with a few loaves and fishes must have haunted the imaginations of the early Christian communities, for accounts of it can be found in all four Gospels. These narratives are richly iconic presentations of the great theme of the sacred meal that we have been developing. In Luke’s version, crowds began to gather around Jesus when they heard that he had retired to Bethsaida. Moved with pity, Jesus taught them and cured their sick, but as the day was drawing to a close, the disciples worried about what this enormous crowd would eat. “The twelve approached him [Jesus] and said, `Dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the surrounding villages and farms and find lodging and provisions; for we are in a deserted place here.’ ” The twelve, symbolic of the gathered tribes of Israel, act here in contradiction to their own deepest identity, for they want to scatter those whom Jesus has drawn magnetically to himself.

So Jesus challenges them, “Give them some food yourselves.” But they protest: “Five loaves and two fish are all we have, unless we ourselves go and buy food for all these people.” Oblivious to their complaint, Jesus instructs them to gather the crowd in groups of fifty or so. Then, taking the loaves and fish, Jesus said a blessing over them, broke them, and then gave them to the disciples for distribution. Everyone in the crowd of five thousand ate until they were satisfied.

There is no better exemplification in the Scriptures of what I have been calling the loop of grace. God offers, as a sheer grace, the gift of being, but if we try to cling to that gift and make it our own (in the manner of Eve and Adam), we lose it. The constant command of the Bible is this: what you have received as a gift, give as a gift — and you will find the original gift multiplied and enhanced. God’s grace, precisely because it is grace, cannot be held on to; rather, it is had only in the measure that it remains grace, that is to say, a gift given away. God’s life, in a word, is had only on the fly. One realizes this truth when one enters willingly into the loop of grace, giving away that which one is receiving.

The hungry people who gather around Jesus in this scene are symbolic of the hungry human race, starving from the time of Adam and Eve for what will satisfy. In imitation of our first parents, we have tried to fill up the emptiness with wealth, pleasure, power, honor, the sheer love of domination, but none of it works, precisely because we have all been wired for God and God is nothing but love. It is only when we conform ourselves to the way of love, only when, in a high paradox, we contrive to empty out the ego, that we are filled. Thus the five loaves and two fish symbolize that which has been given to us, all that we have received as a grace from God. If we appropriate it, we lose it. But if we turn it over to Christ, then we will find it transfigured and multiplied, even unto the feeding of the world.

At the outset of the story, the disciples refused to serve the crowd, preferring to send them away to the neighboring towns to fend for themselves. At the climax of the narrative, the disciples become themselves the instruments of nourishment, setting the loaves and fishes before the people. Within the loop of grace, they discovered their mission and were, themselves, enhanced, transfigured. The little detail at the end of the story — that the leftovers filled twelve wicker baskets — has an eschatological overtone. We are meant to think, once more, of Isaiah’s holy mountain to which the twelve tribes of Israel and, through them, all the tribes of the world would be drawn.

All of these themes are summed up, drawn together, recapitulated (if I may use St. Irenaeus’s language) in the meal that Jesus hosted the night before his death. Luke tells us that, at the climactic moment of his life and ministry, Jesus “took his place at table with the apostles.” At this last supper, Jesus, in a culminating way, embodied Yahweh’s desire to sit in easy intimacy with his people, sharing his life with them. He said, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” As we saw, Yahweh established the Passover meal as a sign of his covenant with his holy people Israel. Thus Jesus, Yahweh made flesh, gathered his community around the Passover table. All of the familiar Passover motifs of liberation, redemption, unity, and festivity are at play here, but they are being redefined and reconfigured in relation to Jesus.

The Isaian vision of the sumptuous meal on God’s holy mountain is described as “eschatological,” implying that it has to do with God’s deepest and final desire for the world that he has made. At the commencement of the Last Supper, as he settled in with his disciples, Jesus explicitly evoked this eschatological dimension: “For I tell you, I shall not eat it again until there is fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” And when he took the first cup of Passover wine, he reiterated the theme: “For I tell you that from this time on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God conies.” It is most important to remember that this meal took place on the night before Jesus’ death, which is to say, at the moment when he was summing up his life and preparing for his own passover into the realm of the Father. Therefore, insisting that he will not eat or drink again until the kingdom arrives is tantamount to explaining that this meal has a final and unsurpassable symbolic significance, that it is his last word spoken, as it were, in the shadow of the eternal and thus redolent of the divine order. The room of the Last Supper is Isaiah’s holy mountain, and the meal that Jesus hosts is the supper of juicy red meat and pure choice wine. It is as though the longed-for future has appeared even now in time.

What stood at the heart of this event? Jesus took the unleavened bread of the Passover, the bread symbolic of Israel’s hasty flight from slavery to freedom, blessed it in accord with the traditional Passover prayer of blessing, broke, it and distributed it to his disciples saying, “This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me.” And then, after they had eaten, he took a cup of wine — traditionally called the cup of blessing — and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you.”

Acting once more in the very person of Yahweh, Jesus fed his friends with his very substance, affecting the deepest kind of co-inherence among them because of the radicality of his own co-inherence with them. To say “body” and “blood,” in the non-dualist context of first-century Judaism, is to say “self,” and thus Jesus was inviting his disciples to feed on him and thereby to draw his life into theirs, conforming themselves to him in the most intimate and complete way possible. We must never keep the account of the fall far from our minds when we consider these events. If our trouble began with a bad meal (seizing at godliness on our own terms), then our salvation commences with a rightly structured meal (God offering us his life as a free gift). What was foreshadowed when Mary laid the Christ child in the manger came, at this meal, to full expression.

It is of great moment that, immediately after this extraordinary event — this constitution of the church around God’s gift of self — Jesus speaks of treachery: “And yet behold, the hand of the one who is to betray me is with me on the table.” In the biblical reading, God’s desires have been, from the beginning, opposed. Consistently, human beings have preferred the isolation and separation of sin to the festivity of the sacred meal. Theologians have called this anomalous tendency the mysterium iniquitatis (the mystery of evil), for there is no rational ground for it, no reason why it should exist. But there it stubbornly is, always shadowing the good, parasitic upon that which it tries to destroy. Therefore, we should not be too surprised that, as the sacred meal comes to its richest possible expression, evil accompanies it. Judas the betrayer expresses the mysterium iniquitatis with particular symbolic power, for he had spent years in intimacy with Jesus, taking in the Lord’s moves and thoughts at close quarters, sharing the table of fellowship with him, and yet he saw fit to turn Jesus over to his enemies and to interrupt the co-inherence of the Last Supper. Those of us who regularly gather around the table of intimacy with Christ and yet engage consistently in the works of darkness are meant to sec ourselves in the betrayer.

What follows is a scene that, were it not so tragic, would be funny. Having experienced at firsthand the intense act of love by which Jesus formed a new humanity around the eating of his body and the drinking of his blood, having sensed that the deepest meaning of this new life is self-sacrificing love, the disciples quarrel about titles and honors: “An argument broke out among them about which of them should be regarded as the greatest.” In the table fellowship that lie practiced throughout his ministry, Jesus, as we saw, consistently undermined the systems of domination and the social stratifications that marked the culture of his time.

His order (God’s kingdom) would be characterized by an equality and mutuality born of our shared relationship to the creator God, “who makes his sun to shine on the good and the bad alike.” Therefore, games of ambition and claims of social superiority are inimical to the community that finds its point of orientation around the table of Jesus’ body and blood. And this is why Jesus responded so promptly and unambiguously to the disciples’ childish preoccupations: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them and those in authority over them are addressed as Benefactors; but among you it will not be so. Rather, let the greatest among you be as the youngest and the leader as the servant.”

If, as Feuerbach said, we are what we eat, then those who eat the flesh of Jesus and drink his blood must constitute a new society, grounded in love, service, nonviolence, and nondomination. Reminding them of their crucial importance as the first members of the church, Jesus said, “I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father has conferred one on me. .  and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” The order of love that obtains within God became flesh in Jesus and, through Jesus, was given to the community that he founded. That community in turn, the new Israel, would be, in accord with Isaiah’s prediction, the means by which the whole world would be gathered to God.

Here the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes comes to mind. Initially, as we saw, the disciples refused their mission to be the new Israel and feed the crowd, but then, in light of the miracle of grace, they became the distributors of grace. A very similar dynamic is on display in the account of the Last Supper. It is never enough simply to eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus; one must become a bearer of the power that one has received. The meal always conduces to the mission.

The Last Supper preceded and symbolically anticipated the terrible events of the following day, when Jesus’ body would indeed be given away and his blood poured out. In the next section of the book, I will speak much more of this sacrificial dimension of the Supper, but for now I would like to focus on what followed the dying of Jesus. If Jesus had died and simply remained in his grave, he would be remembered (if he was remembered at all) as a noble idealist, tragically crushed by the forces of history. Perhaps a few of his disciples would have carried on his program for a time, but eventually the Jesus movement, like so many others like it, would have run out of steam.

N. T. Wright, echoing the opinion of the church fathers, argued that the single most extraordinary fact of early Christianity is the perdurance of the Christian church as a messianic movement. There could have been, in the first century, no surer sign that someone was not the Messiah than his death at the hands of the enemies of Israel, for one of the central marks of Messiahship was precisely victory over those enemies. That Peter, James, John, Paul, Thomas, and the rest could announce throughout the Mediterranean world that Jesus was in fact the long-awaited Israelite Messiah and that they could go to their deaths defending this claim are the surest indications that something monumentally significant happened to Jesus after his death. That something was the resurrection. Though too many modern theologians have tried to explain the resurrection away as a wish-fulfilling fantasy, a vague symbol, or a literary invention, the New Testament writers could not be clearer: the crucified Jesus, who had died and been buried, appeared alive again to his disciples.

The risen Christ was — as all of the accounts attest — strange. On the one hand, he was the same Jesus with whom they had eaten and drunk and to whom they had listened, but on the other hand, he was different, in fact so changed that frequently they didn’t immediately recognize him or acknowledge him. It was as though he stood on the borderline between two worlds, still existing in this dimension of space and time, but also transcending it, participating in a higher, better world. Through certain hints in the Old ‘testament, some first-century Jews had begun to cultivate the conviction that at the end of time God would bring the righteous dead back to life and restore them to a transfigured earth. In the risen Jesus, the first Christians saw this hope being realized. In Paul’s language, Christ was “the first fruits” of those who had fallen asleep, that is to say, the initial instance of the general resurrection of the dead. In him, they saw the dawn of the promised restoration. And thus they began to see that the sacred banquet was not simply an expression of full-flourishing in this world, not simply about justice, peace, and nonviolence here below, but also the anticipation of an elevated, transfigure , perfected world where God’s will would be completely done and his kingdom completely come.

One of the most beautiful evocations of this heavenly meal is found in the twenty-first chapter of John’s Gospel. The author of John’s Gospel was a literary genius, and his work is marked by subtle and intricate symbolism. Therefore, we must proceed carefully as we examine this story. He tells us that the risen Christ appeared to his disciples by the Sea of Tiberias in Galilee. Throughout the Gospels, beautiful Galilee, Jesus’ home country, is symbolic of the land of resurrection and new life. After the Paschal events in Jerusalem, the disciples of Jesus had returned there and taken up, it appears, their old livelihood, for John tells us that seven of them, under the leadership of Peter, were in a boat heading out to fish.

But we must attend to the mystical depth of the narrative. When he appeared to them after his resurrection, Jesus, according to John, breathed on these disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” and “as the rather has sent me, so I send you.” Therefore, we should appreciate this fishing expedition as a symbol of the church (the barque of Peter), across space and time, at its apostolic task of seeking souls. At the break of dawn, they spied a mysterious figure on the distant shore, who shouted out to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” When they answered in the negative, he instructed them to cast the net over the right side of the ship. When they did so, they brought in a huge catch of fish. The life and work of the church, John seems to be telling us, will be a lengthy, twilight struggle, a hard toil that will often seem to bear little or no fruit.

But after the long night, the dawn of a new life and a new order will break, the transfigured world inaugurated by Jesus. The catch of fish that he makes possible is the totality of people that Christ will gather to himself; it is the new Israel, the eschatological church. We know this through a subtle bit of symbolism. When the fish are dragged ashore, John bothers to tell us their exact number, 153, a figure commonly taken in the ancient world to signify the total number of species of fish in the sea.

After the miraculous haul, the disciple “whom Jesus loved,” traditionally identified as the author of the Gospel, shouted, “It is the Lord.” St. John, the one who rested on the hreast of the Lord at the Last Supper and who had the greatest intuitive feel for Jesus’ intentions, represents here the mystical dimension of the church. Up and down the centuries, there have been poets, preachers, teachers, liturgists, mystics, and saints who have an instinct for who Jesus is and what he desires. They are the ones who, typically, see the working of the Lord first, who recognize his purposes even before the leadership of the church does. John’s cry in this story anticipates their intuitions and discoveries.

What the mystics and poets are ultimately sensing is the eschatological purpose of the church, the shore toward which the barque of the church is sailing. When Peter hears that it is the Lord, he throws on clothes. What seems like an incidental detail is symbolically rich. After their sin, Eve and Adam made clothes for themselves, for they were ashamed. So Peter, who had three times denied Jesus, felt similarly ashamed to appear naked before the Lord. He therefore represents, in this symbolic narrative, all those sinners across the centuries who will, in their shame and penitence, seek forgiveness from Christ. As the disciples come ashore, they see that Jesus is doing something altogether in character: he is hosting a meal for them. “They saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread…. Jesus said to them, `Come, have breakfast.’ ” Symbolically, they have arrived at the end of time and the end of their earthly mission, and they are, at the dawn of a new age, ushered into the definitive banquet of which the meals from Eden through the Last Supper were but anticipations. Disciples, mystics, saints, and forgiven sinners are welcome at this breakfast inaugurating the new and elevated manner of being that God had wanted to give us from the time of the Garden of Eden.




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