27 September 2010

The Mellifluous Doctor, II

You too, if you would make prudent progress in your studies of the mysteries of the faith, would do well to remember the Wise Man’s advice: “Do not try to understand things that are too difficult for you, or try to discover what is beyond your powers.” These are occasions when you must walk by the Spirit and not according to your personal opinions, for the Spirit teaches not by sharpening curiosity but by inspiring charity. And hence the bride, when seeking him whom her heart loves, quite properly does not put her trust in mere human prudence, nor yield to the inane conceits of human curiosity. She asks rather for a kiss, that is, she calls upon the Holy Spirit by whom she is simultaneously awarded with the choice repast of knowledge and the seasoning of grace. . .

But knowledge which leads to self-importance, since it is devoid of love, cannot be the fruit of the kiss. Even those who have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge, may not for any reason lay claim to that kiss. For the favor of the kiss bears with it a twofold gift, the light of knowledge and the fervor of devotion. He is in truth the Spirit of wisdom and insight, who, like the bee carrying its burden of wax and honey, is fully equipped with the power both of kindling the light of knowledge and infusing the delicious nurture of grace. Two kinds of people therefore may not consider themselves to have been gifted with the kiss, those who know the truth without loving it, and those who love it without understanding it; from which we conclude that this kiss leaves room neither for ignorance nor for lukewarmness.

From Sermon 8

23 September 2010

On Waking Up In the Middle of the Night with a Runny Nose

Me: [blowing my nose into the bedsheet] It's a good thing I have this big handkerchief here! This would've been a big mess otherwise.

Me: You idiot, that's not a handkerchief, that's a bedsheet. 

Me:  [sheepish]  Well, at least it won't get all over everything now . . .

Me:  You idiot!! Blowing your nose in a bedsheet means IT'S ALL OVER EVERYTHING

19 September 2010

Through the Lattice

From a sermon on the Song of Songs by Ronald Knox:

That voice at the window brings to my own mind a fancy which I have often had, which I suppose many of us have had before now, in looking at the Sacred Host enthroned in the monstrance. The fancy, I mean, that the glittering disc of whiteness which we see occupying that round opening is not reflecting the light of the candles in front of it, but is penetrated with a light of its own, a light not of this world, shining through it from behind, as if through a window, outdazzling gold and candle-flame with a more intense radiance. Such a visual impression you may have for just a moment, then you reflect that it is only an illusion; and then on further thought you question, Is it an illusion? Is it not rather the truth, but a truth hidden from our eyes, that the Host in the monstrance, or rather those accidents of it which make themselves known to our senses, are a kind of window through which a heavenly light streams into our world; a window giving access on a spiritual world outside our human experience?

... At the window, behind the wall of partition that is a wall of partition no longer, stands the Beloved himself, calling us out into the open; calling us away from the ointments and the spikenard of Solomon’s court, that stupefy and enchain our senses, to the gardens and the vineyards, to the fields and the villages, to the pure airs of eternity. Arise (he says), make haste and come. Come away from the blind pursuit of creatures, from all the plans your busy brain evolves for your present and future pleasures, from the frivolous distractions it clings to. Come away from the pettiness and the meanness of your everyday life, from the grudges, the jealousies, the unhealed enmities that set your imagination throbbing. Come away from the cares and solicitudes about tomorrow that seem so urgent, your heavy anxieties about the world’s future and your own, so short either of them and so uncertain. Come away into the wilderness of prayer, where my love will follow you and my hand hold you; learn to live, with the innermost part of your soul, with all your secret aspirations, with all the center of your hopes and cares, in that supernatural world which can be yours now, which must be yours hereafter.
Most appropriate given some of the influences on the name of this blog, meant to evoke the super-reality that lingers just outside our immediate existence, in the corner of the soul's eye.

16 September 2010

The Desk Chair Review of Books

Philosophy and Theology
by John Caputo

In an effort to renew the relationship between philosophy and theology, John Caputo traces the relationship between these rivals back to the source of the conflict between them. In the present day, philosophy and theology are commonly understood as different perspectives on the same set of questions. Philosophy is understood as driven exclusively by reason from its principles to conclusions, without reference to any external authority and universally accessible (at least in principle). Theology, on the other hand, makes use of rationality, but derives its foundational content from revelation, and is conducted by people already invested in the community defined by its belief. Attitudes about philosophy and theology are largely determined by whether they are seen as two modes of thinking that are mutually complementary and capable of coexisting “in the same head” or as defining two entirely different types of worldviews that are fundamentally at odds with one another.

The latter view being the more common, Caputo takes up the history of the conflict to discover its contours. In the Middle Ages, figures such as St. Anselm and St. Thomas exemplified harmony between reason and faith. Anselm proposed his ontological argument not so much as a proof for God but a way of “clarifying something intuitively obvious to all those who experience God in their daily lives.” Thomas was disposed to seek God more in outward, tangible manifestation. Under both accounts, faith sought understanding by way of the gift of reason. However, in this synthesis reason was subordinate to faith, and the rise of modern science in some sense proceeded as a backlash against faith’s supremacy.

According to Caputo, the development of modern thought allowed natural science to displace philosophy and enthrone itself in the cathedra once occupied by theology. Descartes severed the link between faith and reason with his foundationalist approach, building all knowledge on the certainty of the dubito and undermining the longstanding authority of theology to arbitrate valid insight. Reason was thereby elevated to unprecedented levels of independence and universality. Kant took this a step further by regarding philosophy as a mere “second order reflective science” that contributed nothing to the enterprise of reason; theology was to abandon historically mediated dogma and be constrained to the limits of reason alone. Finally, the atheist critiques of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche pushed theology into a romanticized interiority based primarily on feeling.

Caputo values the tutelage modernity offered to human reason, seeing the period as a traumatic transition to maturity. Nonetheless, he takes up Kierkegaard’s insistence that the overreaching scope of reason which sought to construct a totalizing system was faulty. Postmodernity emerged out of skepticism toward the Enlightenment project that arose from a recognition of the historically conditioned presuppositions of all reasoning. The paradigms of human knowledge, postmodernists insist, are not purely objective, but demand that facts be incorporated within plausible yet necessarily provisional accounts of reality. The effect of this awareness is to engender skepticism towards all-encompassing narratives.

The transition to postmodernity weakened the barriers behind which modernity had walled up philosophy and theology, giving them the chance to once again “assert their rights.” Wittgenstein saw each rational discipline as carried out according to its own proper rules that cannot be simply translated into some supreme way of knowing. Theology is just such a discipline, and the postmodern turn has given theology a credible voice again. The relationship theology has to philosophy is no longer one of hierarchy, with one exercising authority over the other, but of commonality, such that knowing and believing look more similar than ever before. For reasoning involves a reliance upon a kind of faith in the presuppositions of all thinking—such as the reigning paradigms of knowledge—while faith permits one to assume the pivotal interpretive “as” that bestows a perspective and a vocabulary with which to carry out the pursuit of insight. Philosophy and theology’s relationship isn’t so much “reason versus faith” as “philosophical faith along with confessional faith.”

The point is driven home with the example of Derrida. An Augustinian autobiographer who nonetheless “quite rightly passes for an atheist,” he refused to lay to rest the play between confident reason and inquiring faith. Caputo sees in this painful straddle a source of vital tension that nourishes a more vigorous and satisfying existence where philosophy and theology go hand in hand, as “fellow travelers” who “are not opponents but companions on dangerous seas, attempting to make their way through life’s riddles.”

13 September 2010

The Erudite Doctor

The order of redemption is therefore the radical reversal of the order of original sin: over against the ascent to God by man on his own powers (which results in the elevation of man, his assumptio, in God).  In the Verbum caro factum est and in the way it was accomplished, namely by accentuating and emphasizing the difference between God and man, all of mankind has been shown the exact place at which and from which alone its old longing for apotheosis can be fulfilled.  Christ is no “pointer,” no “perfected,” or “illumined,” or “spiritual” man, no “high sprinit,” or “great personality.”  Rather, Christ is God in the nature of a “normal man”.  From the paltriness of the human conceptus on: from the poverty of the crib, the invisibility and marginality of the thirty years as a manual laborer to the simplicity and fatigue of his life as an itinerant preacher, which was the only way he could obey his Father and fulfill his task, to the disgrace and torment of the Passion and the ultimate separation from the Father on the Cross and in death:  Everywhere the stress is put on “nature.”   

Of course not on a “naturalistically” understood nature, or on a “passionate love” for the “earth,” or on ecstatic and romantic association with the “human, all-too human.”  Rather, this stress is always on that illusionless, simple and unpathetic nature, as in the “simple people” who know how to accept the harshness of existence along with the occasional joys that come their way, not making much fuss about either, experiencing and taking in a great deal, sacrificing themselves and wearing themselves out with work without taking overdue notice of it or thinking it is “anything special,” keeping back in the lower ranks as simply a matter of course, and finally departing from this world without leaving any visible traces in world history, never really understanding why they, of all people, should be “the first.”
Hans Urs von Balthasar
"The Fathers, the Scholastics, and Ourselves"

09 September 2010

Cubans Have The Best Dolphin Shows in the World

"Do you like dolphins?" Fidel asked me.

"I like dolphins a lot," I said.

Fidel called over Guillermo Garcia, the director of the aquarium (every employee of the aquarium, of course, showed up for work--"voluntarily," I was told) and told him to sit with us.

"Goldberg," Fidel said, "ask him questions about dolphins."

"What kind of questions?" I asked.

"You're a journalist, ask good questions," he said, and then interrupted himself. "He doesn't know much about dolphins anyway," he said, pointing to Garcia. "He's actually a nuclear physicist."

"You are?" I asked.

"Yes," Garcia said, somewhat apologetically.

"Why are you running the aquarium?" I asked.

"We put him here to keep him from building nuclear bombs!" Fidel said, and then cracked-up laughing.
 Read the rest of Jeffrey Goldberg's account of his time in Havana over at the New Atlantic.  It will make you laugh like it made me laugh.  This guy reads like a Percy novel.

07 September 2010

The Mellifluous Doctor

If you look back on your own experience, is it not in that victory by which your faith overcomes the world, in “your exit from the horrible pit and out of the slough of the marsh,” that you yourselves sing a new song to the Lord for all the marvels he has performed? Again, when he purposed to “settle your feet on a rock and to direct your steps,” then too, I feel certain, a new song was sounding on your lips, a song to our God for his gracious renewal of your life. 

When you repented he not only forgave your sins but even promised rewards, so that rejoicing in the hope of benefits to come, you sing of the Lord’s ways: how great is the glory of the Lord! And when, as happens, texts of Scripture hitherto dark and impenetrable at last become bright with meaning for you, then, in gratitude for this nurturing bread of heaven you must charm the ears of God with a voice of exaltation and praise, a festal song. In the daily trials and combats arising from the flesh, the world and the devil, that are never wanting to those who live devout lives in Christ, you learn by what you experience that man’s life on earth is a ceaseless warfare, and are impelled to repeat your songs day after day for every victory won. As often as temptation is overcome, an immoral habit brought under control, an impending danger shunned, the trap of the seducer detected, when a passion long indulged is finally and perfectly allayed, or a virtue persistently desired and repeatedly sought is ultimately obtained by God's gift; so often, in the words of the prophet, let thanksgiving and joy resound. For every benefit conferred, God is to be praised in his gifts. Otherwise when the time of judgment comes, that man will be punished as an ingrate who cannot say to God: “Your statutes were my song in the land of exile.”

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux
First Sermon on the Song of Songs

06 September 2010

More on Human Evolution

 The Guardian has published of a book I'd like to check out at some point.  Basing his theories of human evolution on the influence technologies such as cooking and baby slings have upon physical structure (and therefore on the potential for larger brain capacity), British archaeologist Timothy Taylor offers some interesting hypotheses:

After the switch to an upright posture, probably the biggest single anatomical change on the journey from apes to humans was the weakening of the jaw. In apes, the jaw is large and protrudes way beyond the nose. It is attached by muscle to a bony ridge on the top of the skull and has a force many times that of a human jaw. Recent genomics research has shown that a large mutation about 2.4m years ago disabled the key muscle protein in human jaws. We still have the disabled protein today, and that weakened jaw enabled a raft of innovations. The ape brain could not grow because of the huge muscle load anchored to the skull's crest, and apes cannot articulate speech-like sounds because of the clumsy force of their jaws. This mutation allowed the increase in human brain size and the acquisition of language.

But why did it happen? Wrangham maintains that it was cooking that led to the change. Cooked food does not need strong jaws. In genetics a function that becomes redundant always leads to the gene being disabled by mutations. Around 2.4m years ago an ape switched to mostly cooked food. In the fossil record, a new proto-human appeared 1.8-1.9m years ago: Homo erectus had a much larger brain and no crest on the skull, indicating that the weakened jaw muscle was now standard.

Read the rest over at the Guardian.  I don't agree with all the author's conclusions, but I do find it of interest that many, many theories of human evolution are constantly being advanced.  Recent genetic research seems to be offering new avenues for helpful guesses at the prehistory of homo sapiens, and it is fun to stay in the discussion on terms other than one's own.  Thinking about things in a way different from my own certainly does assist in the ongoing task of broadening the mind.

h/t AL Daily

In other news, I've settled on the blog header that does the job right, and I'm sticking with it.  Possibly for months.