Tuesday, November 13, 2012

On Not Apologizing

Part of me wants to find something to like in Jim John Marks's blog, The Life of Meaning. More commonly I despair of it. Maybe the twelve or so years between us adds up to a lot less patience on my part to his lack of patience in the other direction. Or maybe it's his declared lack of interest in discourse.

So we get to the inevitable post of every Orthodox convert blogger I've ever seen, the one where they declare how different Orthodox theology is compared to all that intellectualized western stuff. It is of course terribly easy to make theological potshots at the naive fundagelicals, and to sneer at the Anglicans, who are educated but spongy. But the ancient rivalry with Rome calls out to be defended.

And the usual defense is mounted: an attack on scholasticism. It is not a differentiation I find compelling. Orthodox writers, namely the church fathers, did not avoid the use of rhetoric and argument; they just were not as rigorous about it as Aquinas was. Moreover, the intellectual structures, the umwelt if you have Germanic academic pretentions, is something that Aristotle and the fathers shared; they implicitly worked from the same basis about how the world may be thought about that their medieval European successors started from. Of course what happened in the sciences is that the Baconian system triumphed and the Aristotlean system did not, because the former could withstand the discovery that much of what was assumed about the world happened to be untrue. And thus it became harder to make the same defense in theology.

Protestantism didn't really happen because of bad theology. It happened first because everyone could see that, whatever the theology, the church was terribly corrupt. And it then became clear that that corruption spread back into the theology, and the premodern picture of an infallible theologizing authority fell apart. Looking back, we see likewise eastern churches which were perhaps less corrupt only because the principalities never allowed the church to rival them (I doubt the patriarch of Moscow could have made the tsar stand outside his palace in the snow). But they were corrupt, and they are still corrupt.

Besides all that, though, it's patently obvious that the kind of categorization of the different churches is exactly the kind of intellectualizing and rationalizing that is supposed to be the bugaboo of the Catholics. If you're going to do that, you are obliged to use what works on real things, which is the Baconian empirical method and not this sort of "just so" ecclesiology.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

You shouldn't post when you are annoyed

... but that rule would kill off about 92% of the crap posted on religious blogs, so let's blow that off.

I never quite understood what John Beeler saw in Owen White's old blog, and I missed his sign-off message from that where I gather he had some rude things to say about his sojourn in Orthodoxy. So now he has decided to join Arturo Vasquez in the ranks of old cranky Catholic Marxists. Now I found a certain charm in Vasquez's messages about folk religion (calling it "Catholicism" is a stretch). Or perhaps I should say revelation. We intellectualized Anglicans just don't do that kind of thing. But then there's the running Marxist denunciad, helped along by White and a few hangers on. I am continually stupid enough to think that when people make these declarations and leave the comments open, that they are also open to a bit of pushback. When it comes to religion and economics, it seems, this is never the case; the followers of von Mises and of Marx indeed seem to far more fervent in their economic than their religious faith.

So I suppose in retrospect it was really a waste of time to engage either of them. I'm emphatically not an Austrian when it comes to economics; laissez-faire isn't ever going to be tried anyway so that's something of a moot point. Their refusal to acknowledge how economic power translates into political power is obtuse. That said, the Marxists have never manage to convince me either. Partly it's because I think the Marxist theory of classes is defective. Anyone can see, looking at a modern corporation, that ownership is not power; and by and large, the kind of people who can write articulately about Marxist thought are by that very capability rendered unrepresentative of the classes they write to defend. White dismissed this with the insistence that I read some Marxist theorist, which I suppose I eventually will. Around that time was when Vasquez started deleting responses.

We then moved on to a typically overheated denunciation of von Hayek. I've not read him, and I don't care to defend him. But eventually the hyperbole got to me. I don't know when von Hayek started having people shot to "introduce his policies" but people are having trouble counting how high the numbers various communist regimes had executed or starved or worked to death. The slaughter should give anyone pause, especially anyone educated. So when I expressed this, um, reluctance to embrace the revolution, Vasquez sneered:
You’re an Episcopalian, so you really don’t believe in anything, so I think you’re safe when the Revolution comes. Besides, isn’t most of your church Marxist anyway? I don’t see why you are on my blog *** about it. Get your own *** sandbox. Or better yet, get a real religion.
Well, the Anglican way is to sneer back, so let me just say that he passed up the opportunity to proclaim how the members of my bourgeois church would be shot first, I suppose because his Roman snobbery got a hold on the keyboard first. It's amazing how many Catholics are under this delusion that the Episcopalians have some sort of validity envy of the Roman church, when the truth is that we are more likely to hold it in contempt as boorish, irreverent, pagan, backward, crude, tasteless, heretical, and arrogant to boot.

About Mr. White I have less to say. I didn't follow his old blog as to me it read as something akin to performance art, not to mention that I didn't need him to tell me that I didn't want to join an Orthodox church. I found it repellent to agree with him. So now he's started over as an already jaded cultural Catholic, Marxism intact. And while there are a variety of reasons why I don't put up a picture of myself on my blog, Number Two of which is that I do not photograph flatteringly, it gives me pause to go to his front page and be confronted with the sort of visage that, seen in person, would give one the sinking feeling that one was about to be made a participant in a bar fight or some other such recreational violence. It makes me wonder that I, sometimes nicknamed Eeyore as a child, a perpetual pessimist, am made to feel quite chipper about the future of things when I read the two of them.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

There's Objective, and then there's Catholic

It has been a long time since I put up a new post here, partly because I have found it more, um, worthwhile (if not profitable) to talk primarily about theology and the Anglican Continuing Crisis, and partly because I hadn't really found much novel to comment on concerning general religious discussion on line. However here we have an amazing tendentious assertion from Hilary White:
But what is much more infrequently (ie. never) mentioned is the reason the Church teaches the things she does. And the reason she remains "intransigent" on things like women's ordination and same-sex marriage. Here's a little secret that we would like journalists to understand better: When a Catholic, from the pope on down to the parish tea-lady, says "the Church teaches..." they mean "it is objectively true that..." In other words, neither the Pope, nor the parish tea lady has any more power to change it than they have the power to change the rate at which gravity makes things fall down.

What is rarely understood is that the Church approaches these things like a scientist approaches an observable phenomenon. The scientist, when looking at something through a telescope or microscope, asks himself "What is this? What does it do? What is it made of?" He wants to know what is the actual, objective truth is about the phenomenon. He observes its characteristics and writes them down. He tests his observations by setting up experiments and repeating the experiments to see if the observations are always the same. He asks a set of questions about it based on axioms, things that are self-evidently true and are impossible to doubt. In the Laws of Rational Thought, an axiom is what you have to start with, to base your investigations on, if you want to understand anything.


The Church, similarly, when presented with a new thing, cloning and embryonic stem cell research for example, starts by examining it and asking a set of questions based on what we already know. Both the Natural Law and Revelation give us a set of moral axioms to build with.
Well, except not. First of all, most big scientific advances happen when some set of "axioms", which is to say, self-evident and undoubted principles, fail to account for observed phenomena. Looking for truly axiomatic principles in moral teaching is essentially hopeless; we have Nietzsche to thank for that revelation. What we have in Christianity are a basic set of principles which are in arguable, and in that sense are like unto axioms. But the set of the truly inarguable propositions is exceedingly small, perhaps consisting of a single sentence.

And beyond that, there are the metaprinciples upon which official Catholicism relies quite heavily. The chief of these is the assertion that it is possible to work out a systematic morality which gives definite answers. That is not necessarily a proposition that could be defended from scripture. But there are others that quite definitely cannot be derived from scripture, nor from any axiomatic basis which enjoys acceptance as such. Chief among these is the Thomistic reliance on Aristotle, whose approach to natural science has, to be blunt, failed miserably in the face of the Baconian methods we now use.

Catholic moral theology claims to be universal, and one can, I think, argue that scripture does not provide authority for more than a really limited relativism. But White's claims towards objectivity are belied by the reliance upon infallibility. Objective reasoning works when anyone does it, and the one thing that is abundantly clear is that Catholic moral reasoning only works in a Catholic framework, a philosophical structure which is widely criticized even within Christianity. Worse, the infallibility claims imply that it only works when the Roman magisterium uses it. That is the very antithesis of objectivity.

Also, it's manifestly obvious that they do have the "power" to change their teachings, inasmuch as one understands "power" to mean the raw capability to do so. We are given free will after all. And the analogy with science, otherwise flawed, shows in this light exactly where the fault lies. If one is to hold moral principles to have an objective existence in the same manner that scientific laws do, then the process of moral theology would appear to consist of the discovery of these principles in the same manner that we work out the laws of physics or whatever. But the history of science is, after all, the history of older, imperfect formulations being replaced by new and in some sense more accurate formulations. The reality is that we do change the laws of physics, when we find that the ones we have aren't good enough; thus Newtonian mechanics have been modified with the addition of relativistic effects, and on top of that we now have to deal with quantum mechanical rules of behavior. That picture is utterly unlike the Catholic picture of moral reasoning, and indeed the mainstream of Protestant moral theology would say that we do find errors in Catholic formulations that have to be corrected, or that new technologies present us with novel moral situations which may require modification of old rules. The point is that the analogy doesn't bring us to infallibility either; indeed, it leads in the opposite direction.

These issues are why the media pay no attention to these claims and continue to qualify their reports by saying that "the Catholic Church teaches". In the scope in which objectivity has to be established, Catholic moral reasoning is just one of a set of competing explanations, and as their reasoning enjoys no wide consensus, and indeed relies upon loyalty to the organization for its ultimate authority, no objective report would ever identify it as anything but Church teaching.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The M Man Was High

As sure as the swallows return to Capistrano, Time and U.S. News will have something reasonably reverential for Easter, and Newsweek will encourage us to apostasy. Well, this year they've been beaten to the punch: a professor of cognitive psychology at Hebrew U is suggesting that Moses was tripping when he saw the burning bush. Personally, I think James Lileks has the inside track on this one:
I called to say I didn’t believe it, because if Moses was tripping we wouldn’t have ten commandments. We would have three. The first would make sense, more or less; the second, written half an hour later, would command profound respect for lizards who sit on stones and look at you, because they’re freaking incredible when you think about it, and the third would be gibberish.
Actually, I think this is the sort of theory you come up with you are high, and a believer in one's own profundity.

It's utter rot, of course, and anyone who thought about it for five seconds-- or, like Mr. Lileks, was in college about the time I was, and therefore has seen stoned people in action-- can see that it's rot. It's more plausible to figure that somebody in the Jahwist tradition just made the whole thing up. And also of course, it is bouncing all over the news media; I got well over a hundred hits through Google News. Either the critical faculties of the media are completely shot (possibly through excessive use of the same drugs in journalism school), or they're just engaged in agitating to sell papers/pop-up ads. It remains to be seen whether this will settle into the vast mire of anti-religious claptrap which circulates sluggishly on the net. I suspect it is too stupid to make the cut, but then, it's hard to exaggerate how stupid an idea can remain in circulation.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I Learned All I Need to Know About Modern Sexuality at UMCP

Overt at Newsweek they have a column titled "My Turn", and for the January 14th issue it is occupied by an article by one Bonnie Eslinger: Yes To Love, No To Marriage. The subtitle: "I am committed to Jeff for life. I just don't need a piece of paper and a pretty white dress to prove it."

Not surprisingly, this has drawn a lot of dismayed (if not depressed) commentary, as well as some quite cogent observations on the seeming immaturity of the sentiments she expresses. Ironically, from a typical Anglican theology of marriage, she is but one step from marriage in writing the article; all she needs is for her "husband" to make the same commitments publicly.

There is little that one can add to the volume of words already written. She refuses to formalize her relationship, and therefore isn't committed enough. And she sees herself as having no obligation to society at large, for her "rejection" of marriage is in essence a refusal to guarantee to the rest of the world that she will make good on the commitments she says she has made. It is irresistibly tempting to predict the collapse of her commitments (and especially those of her husband, who after all offered to do the right thing) in the face of the difficulties marriages (or arrangements) inevitably face.

But let us go back to 1979, or thereabouts. Because of the vagaries of college scheduling, I ended up taking a session of summer school. It being a transient affair, we who chose to live in the dorms were cast together willy-nilly, and I ended up with this guy who every night brought in his girlfriend for coupling. I suppose it is a symptom of the impersonality of the whole affair that I haven't the slightest recollection of his name, and I'm not entirely sure I ever remembered it. But at any rate, we had something of a standing arrangement wherein I simply didn't come to the room in the evening before a certain hour. Nonetheless I did walk in on them a couple of times when their tryst-- well, "tryst" is way too civilized a word for it: when their copulation was not consummated sufficiently early.

This went on for several weeks, and then one day he announced to me that he planned to have his girlfriend in for the weekend, and that I needed to find somewhere else to sleep while they did this. This struck me as an unreasonable imposition, and when "no" wasn't sufficient, I was surprised to find that the Resident Director didn't share my opinion. I eventually bowed my head to the Spirit of the Age and found someone else who grudgingly let me move in with the for the week or so left in the session.

Thirty years on, it still epitomizes to me the surrealism of the weird mutation of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, with sexual urges placed on its own level below all else. Beds are for sex, not sleeping; walls and roofs are to keep staring eyes out, not the cold and rain. I wonder whether this fellow ever married his sex partner, and if they did wed, whether they are still married.

In that light, one sentence of Miss Eslinger's proclamation stands out. She is especially dismissive of the symbols of marriage, but then says all too tellingly, "If it's not a wedding, if there's no priest or piece of paper from the state, some people just don't give any weight to your commitment—despite high divorce rates that remind us that such formalities offer no guarantee the relationship will endure." Well, obviously they have even less obligation to play by Miss Eslinger's rules than she has to play by those that society sets forth; they could reasonably hold that Miss Eslinger is really obligated to play by society's rules, and that she will just have to live with the consequences of her defiance. But they could also say, "your love for your partner is limited, because you are unwilling to sacrifice your distaste for marriage as an institution in order to fulfill the commitment you claim to make." It's not paper or the priest or any of the trappings of a wedding that make the wedding, but the vows made before God and man to live in marriage. If one is not willing to make those vows, then others may assume that one's commitment isn't so permanent and so extensive. They will understand that one's commitment to the commitment isn't, well, committed.

Indeed, it is the fact that marriage is so sacred that it is written into societal structure. Society says, "put up, or shut up; make the vows and record them legally, or we will not take you seriously." And society is utterly correct. One's love, if perfected, consents to such bonds; their rejection is evidence of love's imperfection.

Monday, January 14, 2008

If You Can't Beat 'em, Crash 'em

Those who try to follow the Anglican mess probably know that the CaNN servers, which used to support T19 and a (ahem) host of other more conservative sites, started having big problems, and finally failed utterly. Most of the sites they supported have since migrated either to StandFirm or Wordpress, but recovery of the old material was attempted.

Well, it now comes out that this wasn't an accident. They were hacked. Twice, on top of what appears to have been a long term effort to knock them down. And the first attack, they claim, traces back to "an Anglican office".

Further comment seems superfluous.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Our Druidic Past

Remember the Melnyks? Well, for some reason, the matter is back. I'm not sure why bringing up a two year old book is timely, but perhaps it is to get in the following paragraph:

Melnyk’s problems within the Episcopal Church began when he was ‘exposed’ by a conservative Christian website seeking more ammunition for attacking the Episcopal Church’s consecration of a gay priest as Bishop. They accused Melnyk of taking part in rituals celebrating the Divine Feminine. Although he never practised anything but orthodox rites in his church, steadfastly maintained that he was not “in conflict with the Baptismal Covenant and the historical Creeds of the Church,” and had the support of the majority of his parishioners, he felt he had no option but to resign his ministry. ”I was told I could stay if I agreed to sever ties with my friends and never again write about Druidry,” Melnyk said. “But I knew The Apple and the Thorn was on the way, and I would not agree to being silenced.”

Not top put too fine a point on it, but this a misrepresentation to the point of being an outright lie. To recap:

  • Melnyk was not initially implicated; nor for that matter was his wife. The incident began when Christianity Today wrote up an anonymous rite on the pages of the Episcopal Church Office of Womens Ministry. The story may have started at IRD< but it was the CT version that got things rolling. In any case, no names were given.

  • The Melnyks entered the picture when the rite was traced back to another on-line copy with Ms. Rev. Melnyk's name on it. William Melnyk wasn't immediately implicated by this.

  • Mr. Melnyk was found out when various people poking around on the web found a lot of material identifying him as a Druidic priest doing business as "Oakwyse".

What is particularly offensive about the, well, lies about the history of the incident is that it's pathetically easy, even with the failure of the blog archives on the CANN website, to track down the truth about this. Try this GetReligion search, for starters. With the proliferation of blogs and other independent records, it is not almost impossible to make such a controversy permanently fade into the past. Anyone with Google can pull it back readily, even in the face of the many deletions and bad links. It's yet another example of a web post which in effect counts on people not exercising the research power which the net itself makes so readily available.