Sunday, May 10, 2015

Novena for Peace

Tomorrow begin the Minor Rogation Days: three days (the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday between the Sixth Sunday in Easter and Ascension Thursday) of prayer and fasting for God's mercy and protection, in preparation for the feast of the Ascension of Christ. Then comes Ascension itself, forty days after Easter; the next nine days are spent prayerfully preparing for the feast of Pentecost, which is the origin of  the novena; then comes Pentecost, the birthday of the Church as we know it, ruled by the Holy Ghost in the Apostles.

This sequence has been somewhat disarranged by the more flexible calendar allowed by the Second Vatican Council. The Solemnity of the Ascension (which is a holy day of obligation) is frequently transferred to the following Sunday, so as not to inconvenience the faithful; in that case, while one can of course still pray a novena in preparation for Pentecost, its tie to the Virgin and the Apostles praying in the Cenacle, waiting for the Spirit, is weakened by the Ascension being observed a third of the way in, rather than setting the whole affair off.


"Of course we're not going to call it the 'Gather' book. What kind of lame title is that?"

However, I have the good fortune of being part of a parish that usually celebrates the Ascension on its Thursday date: the Ordinariate of the Chair of Peter, being grafted in from the Anglican Communion, preserves an older calendar -- one descending, not from Trent through Vatican II, but from the Mediaeval Sarum Use* through the Church of England. Our ritual, the fasting particularly, is still a lot more simplified and restrained than it would have been before the Roman-Anglican division; but it's perfectly possible to observe the minor rogations privately, and the pre-Pentecost novena -- which is what I chiefly want to talk about.

The disturbances in Baltimore a couple weeks ago have served to strengthen my pacifist convictions (which I had been questioning as I read the reports of increasingly horrific behavior on the part of ISIS). Every act of violence contains within itself the seed of an act of violence that will take retribution against it. Hatred breeds hatred, injustice breeds injustice, chaos breeds chaos. The quasi-military repression was a response to rioting; the rioting was a response to police brutality; police brutality was a response to crime; crime ... until eventually you reach Abel being killed by Cain, and realize that even they aren't the root of the problem.

But picking who's to blame, or who's at least more to blame, is a fruitless exercise. Not because everybody is equally guilty; that certainly isn't true. If we insist on finding a category of people to blame, rich white people is going to be it, for a multitude of reasons (the slave trade, colonialism, capitalism, Jersey Shore). And while the responses to American supremacy, both here and abroad, have been grossly unjust in many cases -- perhaps nowhere more so than in the evils perpetrated by the Islamic State -- I do think that they are, to an extent, a judgment on us for our sins: i.e., the consequences of our history in a world ruled by cause and effect. Treat people as property, as our ancestors did by the slave trade, and one day they will make havoc of your property; treat people as our rightful subjects, as our forefathers did by the practice of colonial subjugation and the hideous doctrine of Manifest Destiny, and one day they will apply that same heretical reasoning to you. Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.

No, the reason the blame game is fruitless is that, while a man can certainly try to prophesy to a valley of dry bones, you can only convert people. I mean, you cannot convert categories, because categories do not have minds or hearts to appeal to. You can't rebuke Whitey, however just it would be to do so; you can only rebuke whiteys, and that must, necessarily, be done by interacting with them as individuals -- individuals who are members of a category, certainly, but that doesn't override their individuality.


And really, would you ever want it to?

Worse, you cannot force any individual to change -- with one exception.

The one person you can work directly upon is yourself. This can only be done in divine grace; or rather, it can absolutely be done outside of grace, and it'll turn you into the sort of self-righteous twat that people wish was a mere stupid racist.

Though their systems differed in many important ways, Gandhi and Jesus have one striking attribute in common: everyone loves Gandhi, until the time comes to actually do anything he suggested. His famous dictum, We must be the change we wish to see in the world, is thrown around on t-shirts and pintergrams, or whatever it is the kids are into these days, and I am sometimes perversely cynical enough to think that people like throwing it around merely to make themselves sound deep, rather than out of a disinterested love of sound ethics. No matter. It's true, even if its truth has been made to wear one of those ridiculous awards-show dresses that porn stars have more self-respect and modesty than to don.

The point is, if we want a just society and a just world, we must begin not by nagging others to change -- although the time for that does come, now and again -- but by choosing to do justly, ourselves, as often as we find such a choice before us. If we want peace, we must practice peace; if we are seized by conscience and want to be forgiven for the sins we have committed, we must forgive. We must choose to end in ourselves the cycle of violence, because someone else might or might not end it, but we can do so right the hell now, and if we don't do it it may not ever be done. That's the freaky thing about free will -- there is no surely predicting it.



Now, what that looks like in practice, I have to admit, I don't really know. I know a few things, like giving money** and food and clothes and stuff to homeless people; but I have no grand schemes that will solve everything from world hunger to getting the kids to listen up when their dad talks to them, come on, we've been over this every day of the week since you were five. Suggestions are welcome; and that's one of the things prayer is for: to get wisdom, to know what to do when the time does come that we can do something. It is a form of watchfulness, and if we aren't trained to watch, we're less likely to notice things.

It's for that reason that I would invite my readership to join me in praying a novena for peace as we advance toward Pentecost this year. The prayers are taken from those said by St John Paul II during his 1982 trip to Great Britain, and Pope Francis' pilgrimage to the Holy Land last year, translated and adapted slightly. (For my Protestant readers, if you want to pray along but don't feel comfortable asking the Blessed Virgin Mary for her intercession, I doubt God will mind if you leave that bit out.)


St John Paul II visiting and forgiving Ali Acga, who tried to assassinate him, in prison.

Daily Prayers

Come, Holy Spirit, send to us from heaven a ray of your light. Reprove us of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment. Guide us into all truth. Glorify Christ in us, receive of His, and shew it unto us. Bring all things to our remembrance, whatsoever He hath said unto us. Let not our hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.

May God convert the violent. May God convert those who have projects of war. May God convert those who manufacture and sell arms, and may He strengthen the hearts and minds of those who work for peace and reward them with every blessing.

Mary, Mother of Mercy and Queen of Peace, we entrust to you our prayers for peace: peace in our hearts, peace in our homes and families, peace in the world, especially in the Middle East. Hail Mary, &c.

Daily Intentions

May 15th: For pardon for all our own sins against justice and peace.
May 16th: For a firm commitment to peace in our daily lives.
May 17th: For the forgiveness and reconciliation of those we dislike.
May 18th: For peace, hope, and happiness for all who have suffered on our account.
May 19th: For an end to racism, and national repentance and harmony.
May 20th: For the repentance and conversion of ISIS and of all religious militants.
May 21st: For relief, strength, and joy for all who suffer religious persecution.
May 22nd: For love and graciousness toward all who treat us unfairly.
May 23rd: For reconciliation and unity among Christians.


*Sarum was the Latin name of the English city of Salisbury, where the Sarum Use developed and from which it spread. This variant of the Roman Rite was used in England by Catholics right through the sixteenth century, even after Queen Elizabeth I banned its use by law in an attempt to suppress Catholicism; thereafter, the underground Catholic Church gradually transitioned to the Tridentine rite, which was formally instituted when the hierarchy was restored. For more info, check this out.

**A lot of people object to the notion of giving money to homeless people. There is no space here for me to go into a full reply for why I am personally fine with it, but I would point out the following things:
- A poor person is a person who has not got much money. They aren't a specialized breed that, on getting fifty cents, immediately runs off to buy all of the crack that crack can crack because crack crack crack crack. Are some of them druggies? Sure. So are lots of well-off people, because there's fuck else to do in the suburbs. Give them money, and they may misuse it; but at least you can be sure you won't.
- If I give someone something, it's a gift. What business is it of mine what they do with it afterwards?
- I'd rather be duped than turn someone away who's legitimately in need. Does that mean you have to give to every person who asks you? Not necessarily, though it might not be a bad thing if you did, according to this neat Roman-era sage from the eastern Mediterranean basin. Regardless, if you give to someone and they didn't really need it, what does that prove? That your compassion glands work, and therefore you're somehow the loser in that transaction?

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Baltimore Spring

A White Bourgeois Pacifist's Thoughts on the Baltimore Riots


Surely this man's opinion will be ... something.

The city hasn't changed as much as I expected it to under the curfew. It's quieter, although there do seem to be a few more sirens than usual in the small hours; then again, maybe it's just easier to pick them out over the lack of background noise. I feel like I've seen a lot more people on foot, too, though that probably has more to do with the improved weather. I went walking around myself on Wednesday morning, and the air smelled like tulips and honeysuckle.

I didn't see that much damage from the riots. A few broken windows and boarded up storefronts, which aren't exactly uncommon in most of Baltimore. But of course, the neighborhood I live in wasn't in the thick of things -- it's in the center of the city, whereas most of the rioting and looting was in the west and southwest.


That's me, in between "Trust Fund Art Students," "Junkies," and "The Gayborhood."

The thing I've been most unsettled by has not been the riots. It's been the media reaction (both mass and social media). I try to maintain a healthy skepticism of my own insights on topics like this -- I'm white, I was raised in the middle class, I was out of the city on Monday night, and I've only lived in Baltimore for a bit less than two years, after all. But some of the responses to the events of the last few days seemed, to me, to be so off-base and bizarre that I felt a reply was worth making, for whatever my thoughts are worth.

First, it's important to note that, while the riots got a lot of attention, the vast majority of protesting in the wake of Freddie Gray's sad death has been peaceable. It started that way, and most of it stayed that way. I've seen it suggested that the looting and arson happened at the hands of crooks and delinquents who merely took advantage of the moment, rather than at the hands of any protesters at all; I'm not sanguine that that's completely true, but I'd be willing to bet that the overlap was a lot smaller than you'd think from watching the news. What's more, the cleanup seems to have gone swimmingly; I met a dude on Tuesday, the day after the worst of it, while looking to help with repair work and the like, and we couldn't find anything to do. (My suspicion is that what work was still left was in the areas where the roads were still shut down, which were too far out for either of us to walk, but still.) People have been coming out of the woodwork to put their city back together, and I gotta say, I'm kind of amazed. This place is more resilient than I gave it credit for.

And I believe it's that renewal that is going to triumph in Baltimore in the end, because that is the force of life, God's creation. And that creative energy isn't just a pleasanter thing than the anti-energies of destruction, oppression, and decay; it's a stronger thing. Rampage and violence cannot make, and they begin to collapse from within as soon as they come into being; they can only continue as long as the host in which they are burrowing parasites remains vital. Life, in God, is self-regenerating. That's why it's going to win.

Secondly, the riots may have been sparked by the Freddie Gray case, which is bad enough in itself -- a nearly-severed spine is no joke, especially after being stopped and searched for, um, running away from police (who weren't detaining him, or even talking to him), who took this as a reason to chase him. I feel like the Fourth Amendment got lost somewhere in here, since running away from police who happen to be around, as opposed to police who are actively detaining you, is not to my knowledge unlawful,* and seems to me more like plausible cause than probable cause, given the whole presumption of innocence thing and the "seriously, butt the hell out of private citizens' business" thing that the American law system is sort of based on ...


Hey, it's one of those fancy napkins people use for eating Irish babies.

Anyway, the riots may have been sparked by the Freddie Gray case. But they aren't, simply, about his death. Neither are they simply about the string of highly-publicized deaths of black persons at the hands of police over the last year, although I feel sure that's relevant. Nor can we simply say "Racism" and be done, though there is plenty of that to go around so no one has to feel left out.

The occasional remarks about "black protesters" and "black rioters" that I've seen on social media have kind of creeped me out, to say the least. It's not clear to me that looting the mall or setting fire to CVS would be somehow different if white people were doing it, or Latinos, or Asians. On the other hand, I've seen one or two people more or less excusing the violence as an expression of frustration on the part of the black populace, and even referring to it as some sort of just reprisal against the white, capitalist establishment.**

The problems with all this armchair activism are manifold. Does anyone seriously propose the belief that the only people who were out looting were all black? Or that, even if every single one of them was, their skin color was somehow gremlinizing their brains to make them do it? And conversely, if this was revenge against wealthy whitey, why is it that, of the damaged stores close to my neighborhood at least, all except one were owned, operated, and frequented by local African-American folks? Or, if we propose that the class element had more to do with it, why did they loot Mondawmin Mall (i.e., scary-yet-Target-having mall as above), as opposed to the banks or restaurants or businesses close to the Inner Harbor? It's questions like these that make me think that, though there was very possibly some overlap between protesters and purgers, the latter were for the most part taking advantage of the moment.

But besides that, this has prodded me to start trying to understand racism in America better. I think it's worth pointing out that it's this power to understand which is one of the great difficulties, but maybe not for the reasons that a lot of people think. Most conservatives seem to think that liberals just enjoy being moral indignant, while most liberals seem to think that conservatives are at least a little bit supremacist. I don't think either hypothesis is necessary -- or, insofar as we kind of need everybody working on this problem, productive.

A few years ago, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine, Nazim, a guy I knew from college, whose mother was white and whose father was Algerian; he looked pretty much Caucasian if he shaved, but when he grew his beard out he looked Arabic -- handsome dude. Now, I had always thought of racism as a belief, held consciously or (I could allow this) unconsciously, that one race was superior to others -- generally one's own.


With, uh, certain odd exceptions.

Nazim, however, talking about a class he'd had where they had been discussing the phenomenon of white privilege, and about his own experience of getting white privilege if he was clean-shaven, until people learned his name (after which he'd be treated as Arabic instead of white -- i.e., not necessarily worse, but perceptibly differently). As the conversation progressed, it came out that when Nazim's professor had spoken about racism, the point had not been about any beliefs at all, conscious or submerged, but about the systemic facts of who holds the power.

In other words, an imaginary city in which two-thirds of the people are black and also happen to be largely disadvantaged, while one-third of the people are white and also happen to be largely well-off, is still (by this definition) a racist city even if none of the white folks are intentionally being dicks about it. And honestly, while I think that a person's principles and intentions are even more important than what happens, what happens is still pretty damn important.

As far as white people intentionally being dicks goes, though, I think we have to allow that there's a great deal of that. I've kept fairly quiet on most of the recent, highly publicized cases in which a racist element has been proposed*** -- Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner -- because I haven't known many of the facts, and I don't want to be a bandwagoneer, to say nothing of wishing to believe in the innocence of the cops in question until their guilt is proven (partly due to my aforesaid ignorance, and partly because these deaths were bad enough even if they were the result of horrible misunderstandings, let alone if they were callous murders). But. While I don't propose to decide on any of these things individually, the Ian Fleming rule of thumb remains: Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action. Further examination -- of facts, and of consciences -- is warranted.

And what then? I haven't got a fucking clue. I can try to do right by my neighbor in a given situation; how to help with systemic racism, even in my immediate neighborhood, I simply don't know. I will, therefore, conclude with the following excerpts from Mahatma Gandhi's Non-Violent Resistance, asking my readers -- if there are any who have committed violence, approved of violence, or excused violence as a black reaction to white oppression, and also all my other readers -- to consider them carefully.

Reader: Why should we not obtain our goal, which is good, by any means whatsoever, even by using violence? Shall I think of the means when I have to deal with a thief in the house? ... You seem to admit that we have received nothing, and that we shall receive nothing by petitioning. Why, then, may we not do so by using brute force? ...
Editor [Gandhi]: ... I have used similar arguments before now. But I think I know better now, and I shall endeavor to undeceive you. Let us first take the argument that we are justified in gaining our end by using brute force because the English gained theirs by using similar means. ... [B]y using similar means we can only get the same thing that they got. You will admit that we do not want that. Your belief that there is no connection between the means and the end is a great mistake. Through that mistake even men who have been considered religious have committed grievous crimes. ... [T]here is just the same inviolable connection between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree. I am not likely to obtain the result flowing from the worship of God by laying myself prostrate before Satan. If, therefore, anyone were to say: "I want to worship God; it does not matter that I do so by means of Satan," it would be set down as ignorant folly. We reap exactly as we sow. ... If I want to deprive you of your watch, I shall certainly have to fight for it; if I want to buy your watch, I shall have to pay for it; and if I want a gift, I shall have to plead for it; and, according to the means I employ, the watch is stolen property, my own property, or a donation. ... Will you still say that means do not matter? 
Passive resistance is a method of securing rights by personal suffering; it is the reverse of resistance by arms. When I refuse to do a thing that is repugnant to my conscience, I use soul-force.**** For instance, the Government of the day has passed a law ... I do not like it. If by using violence I force the Government to repeal the law, I am employing what may be termed body-force. If I do not obey the law and accept the penalty for its breach, I use soul-force. It involves sacrifice of self. Everybody admits that sacrifice of self is infinitely superior to sacrifice of others. Moreover, if this kind of force is used in a cause that is unjust, only the person using it suffers. He does not make others suffer for his mistakes. ... If man will only realize that it is unmanly to obey laws that are unjust, no man's tyranny will enslave him. 
Reader: I deduce that passive resistance is a splendid weapon of the weak, but that when they are strong they may take up arms.
Editor [Gandhi]: This is gross ignorance. Passive resistance, that is, soul-force, is matchless. ... What do you think? Wherein is courage required -- in blowing others to pieces from behind a cannon, or with a smiling face to approach a cannon and be blown to pieces? ... Believe me that a man devoid of courage and manhood can never be a passive resister. This, however, I will admit: that even a man weak in body is capable of offering this resistance. One man can offer it just as well as millions. Both men and women can indulge in it. ... Control over the mind is alone necessary, and when that is attained, man is free like the king of the forest and his very glance withers the enemy. Passive resistance is an all-sided sword, it can be used anyhow; it blesses him who uses it and him against whom it is used. ... It never rusts and cannot be stolen. ... It is strange indeed that you should consider such a weapon to be a weapon merely of the weak. 
-- Non-Violent Resistance (Satyagraha), pp. 9-11, 17-18, 51-52


*It's true that Freddie Gray was found to have a switchblade in his pocket, which Maryland law only permits to be carried openly. Then again, it was his spine that got almost severed, not the cops'. And, again, the only reason they found the switchblade (which he shouldn't have been carrying) was because they searched him, and they were searching him without probable cause -- on the grounds that he ran away when he saw them, which is not proof or even very sound evidence of anything.

**I've been especially puzzled by the vitriol I've seen directed at Mayor Rawlings-Blake. Being an anarchist, I have no special attachment to the Mayor, but the hate she's gotten for her handling of the situation baffles me, especially for her remark that the violent looters were "thugs" -- a statement that one person I know literally equated with calling them niggers. We did all notice at some point, I hope, that Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is black, and therefore likely wasn't making a euphemistic racial slur? And as for thuggery, if smashing windows, stealing stuff, and setting buildings on fire doesn't count, I'd be both interested and a little scared to learn what does.

***I don't for one moment believe that the recent spate of cases that the media have latched onto are the only ones; and in fact I have difficulty believing that this string of putatively racist cop cases is even a new phenomenon. My personal hunch is that, for whatever reason, it's become sexy to report on these things, and so they found a trend that already existed and started to make a media sensation out of it.

****This translates the Sanskrit term satyagraha, a difficult word to render in English -- truth force or insistence on truth would be alternates to the translation used by Gandhi here. It is arguably the key concept in all of his thought, and was a major influence on the anti-racist and civil rights activism of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. A more extensive treatment of it can be found here.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Five Quick Takes

I.

I am sick as a dog right now; I've got one of those awful, blitzkrieg colds that abruptly sets up shop in your nasal passages and won't go away. My head feels like Keith Richards has been living in it: my throat is sore, my nose is running, my eyes are burning, and my sneezes have become that wretched hot-breath kind that build up beforehand and sort of linger afterward. On top of which, my roommate has already turned the heat off, but the cold snap Baltimore's gotten means my room feels like a broken fridge, so I'm slowly accumulating a sort of nest in my bed where the blanket is, with orange juice and bottled water beside me, as well as a rapidly increasing plateful of kleenex (stop judging me, I was having dinner and then when I finished the trash can was far away). I've also discovered that Safeway-brand generic Mucinex tastes like grape-flavored candy. Related: fuck you, twenty milliliters every four hours, I'm a grown-ass man, and I'm going to do what it takes to make this virus take a dirt nap.

I've also been marathoning Red vs Blue, which I never saw start to finish back in the Before time, and is now on Netflix. Watching Caboose and Donut and Grif kind of makes me feel smart, butch, and industrious.


"That guy Tex is really a robot ... and you're his boyfriend! So that makes you ... a gay robot."

Life is glorious.

Anyway, if you'd pray for me, I'd be grateful. Maybe give a shout out to St Blaise, if you're into that.

+     +     +

II.

You may already have seen in the news that a sizable earthquake struck Nepal near Kathmandu this morning. An avalanche also occurred, and the death toll currently stands at something like 1400 people, I understand. Prayers for them are earnestly solicited; UNICEF and Oxfam are already setting up relief efforts, as are Catholic Charities and a number of other humanitarian organizations.

+     +     +

III.

There have been some fairly good articles on the gay marriage controversy of late. Two that stand out, because of their fair-minded and courteous approach from one side to the other, are Frederica Mathewes-Green's post on why she hasn't been culture-warring against gay marriage (though she is an Orthodox Christian), and Damon Linker's piece at The Week in defense of Ryan T. Anderson and of respect for differing convictions generally (though he supports gay marriage). Reading thoughtful, even-handed essays like these makes me miss Andrew Sullivan being at The Dish again.

+     +     +

IV.


Sufjan Stevens and Florence + the Machine both have new albums out -- Carrie & Lowell and How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, respectively -- and I've fallen in love with them both all over again.

Florence Welch's sound is as magnificent as it was on Lungs and Ceremonials, and has a new, rock-like energy infused into it, notably on "What Kind of Man," whose music video incorporates her characteristically enchanting religious imagery and gripping violence. She's one of the few artists I've ever heard do justice to the ferocity that erotic love can have; many are content to write and sing merely of the joys and sorrows it imparts, and God knows there are enough of those. But romance would, in the end, be insipid if there were no sense of danger in the beloved, and Florence + the Machine's music is full of danger, and of the quasi-mystical exaltation that is so often connected with both danger and romance (the music video for "No Light, No Light" is a splendid example of this).




Carrie & Lowell, meanwhile, features a return to the indie folk of Sufjan Stevens' work before the experimental electronica of The Age of Adz, sounding almost like a throwback to Seven Swans, but with a buoyancy of its own, faintly reminiscent of Illinoise. The sheer volume of music he has put out in so short a span of time -- his first studio album came out in 2000, and since then he has released six more, plus two Christmas albums, a multimedia album, and a B-side album -- would suffice another musician for an entire career, and his craftsmanship is incomparable. His complicatedly Christian themes (which always remind me a little of Flannery O'Connor for their combination of devout faith with honest, gritty grappling with the anguish and mysteries of living) persist here, particularly in "No Shade In the Shadow of the Cross," "Drawn to the Blood," and "John My Beloved." I'm swimming in it.



+     +     +

V.

... Bleh. I can't think of a fifth thing. I just thought of four things. Isn't there any end to the things? It's like -- ehrmagehrd, there is a "Donut: The Musical" video!


I said stop judging me!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Lost In the Comsos, Part II: The Matter of the Ultimate Turtle

In order for any treatment of Catholic belief to make sense, we must begin with its most fundamental elements. The existence of the world as we know it, the thing that batters us about through our five-windowed senses, does not as a rule require a great deal of argument, unless one is talking to a sophomore philosophy major, and so I shall leave that aside. However, the existence of God -- i.e., of a Supreme Being, both self-existent and in some fashion the cause of all other existence, and in most religions believed to be in some sense a personal being -- does call for demonstration of some type, since most people don't find the existence of God to be self-evident.*

Bertrand Russell, contemporary of C. S. Lewis and author of the famous essay Why I Am Not a Christian, selected the classical cosmological argument or argument from causality for special censure. His rebuttal, I gather, has been taken up since by the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc.; but not all contemporary atheists fall into this group, such as Camille Paglia.)
Perhaps the simplest and easiest to understand is the argument of the First Cause. (It is maintained that everything we see in this world has a cause, and as you go back in the chain of causes further and further you must come to a First Cause, and to that First Cause you give the name of God.) That argument, I suppose, does not carry much weight nowadays, because, in the first place, cause is not quite what it used to be. The philosophers and the men of science have got going on cause, and it has not anything like the vitality it used to have; but apart from that, you can see that the argument that there must be a First Cause is not one that can have any validity. ... If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu's view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant upon a tortoise; and when they said "How about the tortoise?" the Indian said, "Suppose we change the subject."
Now, in deference to Mr Russell, I must admit that I'm not altogether clear what "the philosophers and the men of science" were doing about causality at that time, though I venture to suggest that whatever it was, it didn't succeed in eliminating the nature or fact of causes.



But the meat of the argument, of course, lies elsewhere. And it's quite true that, if everything requires a cause, the idea of a First Cause is -- well, in direct contradiction to the claim that everything requires a cause, QED. And not a few would-be apologists, when confronted with this terribly obvious fact, have indeed tried merely to change the subject, often by resorting to fideism. I make no secret of the fact that I have very little respect for this kind of philosophical legerdemain, and feel that it borders on dishonesty and intellectual cowardice even at its best.

However, it must be noted that Mr Russell apparently didn't grasp the real nature of the cosmological argument. As stated by St Thomas Aquinas, and maintained by his disciples (among others), the argument is most definitely not that everything has to have a cause; and that is not the form that Russell at first gives the syllogism, even in his own essay. What the argument states is that "everything we see in this world has a cause"; a crucial distinction. The idea is that there are two possible kinds of things: those whose existence is contigent, i.e. calls for some sort of explanation about its origin, and those whose existence is necessary, i.e. a self-existent being or class of beings. The Catholic contention is that the existence of contigent things -- "everything we see in this world" -- requires some necessary being to explain its existence, not that all things must have a cause, which would be a hopelessly self-defeating argument for the reality of God.

In brief, Catholics, and most monotheists, assert that if reality as we know it is to make any sense, there must be a minimum of one necessary being in order to cause contingent things to be.

Now, it's quite true that an Uncaused Cause, while consistent with the Abrahamic notion of the God, is a great deal less specific than the Mosaic thundercloud upon Sinai, the Crucified and Resurrected Logos, or the Exalted One who assumed Muhammad from al-Aqsa in Jerusalem. However, at the moment, we are dealing only with what the cosmological argument professes to demonstrate: not what it makes no claims of demonstrating, or how much more we were expecting it to demonstrate.

The difficulty about the alternatives proposed by Russell is threefold. To begin with, if we admit that a First Cause is necessary but posit that it is the world as a whole, rather than an independent being who made the world,** what we have actually arrived at is a form of pantheism, rather than atheism proper. This form of pantheism need not be of the specifically Hindu or Daoist type that peoples the universe with a plethora of particular deities, but, if "the whole show" is to be considered a self-existent entity, then it is, to that degree, a god, if an impersonal one. (The catch there is how an impersonal god could bring personal consciousnesses -- that is, ourselves -- into existence, since nothing comes from nothing, and correspondingly no agent can bestow what it does not possess; and if we allow the universe to have purposiveness or mind, then we have arrived again at a personal God, if a pantheistic one.)


A wild PANTHEIST DEITY has appeared!
[FIGHT]   [RUN]   [CAPTURE]

Another flaw in the argument is precisely in the contingency of the universe and the things in it. The first premise laid down by St Thomas and co. is that all the things we experience in this world are contingent, i.e. that any of them might not have existed and might cease to exist; and if everything is contingent, then nothing would exist, because, given enough time, everything would eventually "go out" -- and then there would be nothing to bring anything back.

Russell's reply was that he saw no reason why there should not be an infinite succession of contingent things, each caused by a predecessor -- things caused by other things, forever. The difficulty with this, I think, is the "turtles all the way down" problem:
After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, William James was accosted by a little old lady. "Your theory that the sun is the center of the solar system, and that the earth is a ball which rotates around it, has a very convincing ring to it, Mr James, but it's wrong. I've got a better theory," said the little old lady. 
"And what is that, madam?" inquired James politely. 
"That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle." 
... James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of her position. "If your theory is correct, madam," he asked, "what does this turtle stand on?" 
"You're a very clever man, Mr James, and that's a very good question," replied the little old lady, "but I have an answer to it. And it is this: the first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him." 
"But what does this second turtle stand on?" persisted James patiently. 
To this the little old lady crowed triumphantly, "It's no use, Mr James -- it's turtles all the way down."
I suppose we can only hope that Mack doesn't belch.


Elephants and turtles both seem pretty strong. I don't see what all the fuss is about.

This, of course, is not disproof. The fact that the human mind (or most human minds) will not accept a "turtles all the way down" explanation of existence, since it does not really explain anything, does not in itself show that this un-splanation is untrue. That said, I don't think I'd want to go up as a surety for it, even if I believed it. The thesis that there is something which necessarily exists, on the other hand, has the merit of being obviously rational (whether false or true), even if we don't see why a necessary being should exist; though, when you come to think of it, asking why a necessary being exists is probably a nonsense question.

Finally, there is the pesky little problem of getting something out of nothing. If the only things that exist are contingent, that is, caused (and thus unnecessary), how can "the whole show" be a necessary or uncaused thing?

I've let myself stray a bit into arguing, rather than merely stating Catholic belief, here. It's hard not to; analyzing things is terribly fun. But I hope this has, at least, clarified the difference between the idea of a First Cause and the idea (or failure of idea) that Russell rightly derided.


*Many people claim to find God's existence self-evident, including some saintly individuals; Bl. John Henry Newman, I believe, said so. I can certainly allow that some people have a natural, mystical gift, by which the reality of God is experienced as an immediate fact, rather than arrived at through reasoning or instruction or both; nonetheless, I do suspect that, when most people say that they consider God's existence self-evident, what they tend actually (if unconsciously) to mean is that they do not wish to argue about it.

**There are a few possible meanings for making the world here; the "emanations" of Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism, though wholly distinct from the Judaeo-Christian concept of creation ex nihilo, are still a consistent interpretation of the cosmological argument's implications.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Lost In the Cosmos, Part I: A Map of a Mountain

One of the hardest things in discussing Catholicism with most people, I find, is that they don't usually quite grasp the nature of Catholic belief. I don't mean that they do not know what Catholic doctrine is; that is also true, but is a separate and much simpler problem; I mean that the kind of belief Catholics espouse is unfamiliar to them -- whether in the sense of not having experienced it themselves, or of not expecting it of an institutional Church.


Honestly, by now, everybody expects you, guys.

Dorothy Sayers, who wrote a good deal (if half-incidentally) about Christian belief, ran into the same difficulty, and composed a short catechism indicating much of the problem. Take the following selections, for instance:
Q.: What is the doctrine of the Trinity?
A.: "The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the whole thing incomprehensible." It's something put in by theologians to make it more difficult -- nothing to do with daily life or ethics.
Q.: What is meant by the Atonement?
A.: God wanted to damn everybody, but His vindictive sadism was sated by the crucifixion of His own Son, who was quite innocent, and, therefore, a particularly attractive victim. He now only damns people who don't follow Christ or who never heard of Him.
Q.: What does the Church think of sex?
A.: God made it necessary to the machinery of the world, and tolerates it, provided the parties (a) are married, and (b) get no pleasure out of it.
Q.: What does the Church call sin?
A.: Sex (otherwise than as excepted above); getting drunk; saying "damn"; murder, and cruelty to dumb animals; not going to church; most kinds of amusement. "Original sin" means that anything we enjoy doing is wrong.
Q.: What is faith?
A.: Resolutely shutting your eyes to scientific fact.
I cannot help feeling that, as a statement of Christian orthodoxy, these replies are inadequate, if not misleading.*
I feel rather as Miss Sayers did, and, while the particularly American difficulties in the early twenty-first aren't exactly the same as those of Great Britain in the middle of the twentieth, they are closely related in both fact and genesis. It is a tragic irony that those nations which were thought to be, and in some ways were, beacons of Christian belief a hundred years ago, should have retained only the most degraded and nonsensical rags of what they once knew -- a more difficult prospect for evangelism than the merely unreached (which is why the dicastery for the New Evangelization was set up).

The difficulty is, people tend to think of Catholic theology, and Christian theology more generally, as a list of things one has to accept to be "part of the club." This misconception isn't helped at all by the massive number of Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, who also believe it. Indeed, the contemporary debate between evangelical and mainline Protestants, and between traditionalist and progressive Catholics, takes place wholly within this sphere. Evangelicals and traditionalists, legitimately concerned with the meaning and identity of the "club," wish all of the regulations to remain entirely the same; while mainliners and progressives, legitimately concerned with the openness and catholicity of the "club," want the rules relaxed or even dispensed with to expedite the functionality, inclusivity, and retention rate of the club. Both are right in their way, and both are mistaken.**

The rightness of each lies in what it is trying to defend. Conservatives, so-called, are perfectly right to treasure the theology, ethics, and ritual that the Church has maintained for so long. Meanwhile liberals, so-called, are perfectly right to be concerned about the tendency of Christians to be mere sticks-in-the-mud over trivialities or licit cultural differences, and to scandalize those outside by prioritizing rightness over love. (There are other theological debates that cut across and inflame the divide, of course, but these need not detain us.)

Where both sides, and many outside the faith, go wrong is precisely in thinking of the Church as something like a club, and of Christian doctrine as the terms of membership. That isn't it at all. What the Church professes to have is not a list of rubber-stamped ideas, like a political platform or a manifesto; what the Church professes to have is revelation -- that is, personal contact with the Maker of the cosmos, and His own instructions on what reality is and what's to be done about it.



In other words, as a Catholic, I value the Church because she tells me facts I couldn't have found out for myself, and gives me tools for dealing with those facts; I'm not simply accepting anonymous verbal formulas, and insisting that human happiness consists in repeating those formulas after saying "I believe that". For example, part of the reason that I ultimately converted had to do with the Catholic spirituality of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I found, in my own heart, and throughout religious history, a need for a "Great Mother," a spiritually maternal power; this need was, naturally enough, filled in most pagan societies by the worship of goddesses like Isis, Cybele, Hera, or Shakti. But if man is in the image of God, I reasoned, then the basic needs and impulses of the human heart -- however contaminated by sin -- are essentially in accord with reality; they reflect something of reality, even if they do so imperfectly. Evil and the devil cannot create, they can only distort, so that this longing for a "Great Mother" was precisely a reflection of something real and good. Returning my gaze to Christian history, it was precisely the Catholic and Orthodox traditions that did justice to this need, and did so with the only plausible candidate, the Mother of God. I accepted this as a mystery because I had already accepted it as a fact, and I accepted it as a fact because I had discovered it as a fact.

A few writers -- Dorothy Sayers, Ronald Knox, Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor, Charles Williams -- have succeeded in conveying this corrected approach to Christian belief. The Catholic Church teaches, not "Say such-and-such and you will be saved from hell, because for some reason God is a real stickler about saying such-and-such" but, "Reality is this kind of thing" -- and the necessary way of dealing reality is, therefore, built into its nature, not into any arbitrary divine fiat.***

This, incidentally, is one of the reasons that Catholicism can combine its adamant belief that it possesses the fullness of divine truth, with the thesis that those who are not professing Catholics can nevertheless be received into eternal fellowship with God. It isn't at all a matter of indifference to the truth. It's more like being able to climb a mountain without a map: it isn't a good idea exactly, and you'd do well to get a map and heed it, and if you deliberately go against a map you've got then you're going to hurt yourself; but it is, nonetheless, possible to reach the top without one. The Church's concern with truth -- from the great essential mysteries, like the Trinity and the Atonement, to the minutiae of imperfect contrition and the wording of the liturgy -- is wholly practical.



Now, the importance of any of this to a given person hinges on whether that person does, in fact, trust the Catholic Church. Plenty of people very naturally don't, for a multitude of reasons. However, I don't intend to argue the Church's trustworthiness in this series, not because the subject isn't important, but because I happen to be writing about something else at the moment. What I want to lay out is what the Church does, in point of fact, teach and believe. Her grounds for doing so I propose to leave aside, simply because doing both at once is probably beyond my powers, and has a tendency to muddy explanations. I may pick that thread up again later; we'll see. For the present, I want only to state what Catholic doctrine actually is, not in academic terms, but in terms of the reality that those academic terms were chosen to describe.


*Taken from Creed or Chaos?, "The Dogma Is the Drama," pp. 33-34. It is an outstanding collection of essays, and I warmly recommend it to everyone, particularly to inquirers into Christian beliefs, and to catechists and teachers of religion.

**Fortunately, I see round everyone and never make mistakes of any kind whatever.

***Especially since all the available evidence suggests that God drives a Toyota.
I'm not sorry.