Friday, December 30, 2011

Prayers for the New Year

I'm not pessimistic about the Arab Spring because I think that whenever there's a revolution, the most violent people will come forward and take control at first. The question of whether they will stay in control is another question. So, despite the inauspicious start, it may have a positive effect in the long term.

Nevertheless, this does not allow us to ignore the atrocities that are taking place. The Middle East Forum has summarized Muslim persecution of Christians for the month of November, and it is pretty horrifying. Please pray for them.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Quote

My friend Syd told me about the following intriguing quotation from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King:

When Sam awoke, he found that he was lying on some soft bed, but over him gently swayed wide beechen boughs, and through their young leaves sunlight glimmered, green and gold. All the air was full of a sweet mingled scent.

He remembered that smell: the fragrance of Ithilien. 'Bless me!' he mused. 'How long have I been asleep?' For the scent had borne him back to the day when he had lit his little fire under the sunny bank; and for the moment all else between was out of waking memory. He stretched and drew a deep breath. 'Why, what a dream I've had!' he muttered. 'I am glad to wake!' He sat up and then he saw that Frodo was lying beside him and slept peacefully, one hand behind his head, and the other resting upon the coverlet. It was the right hand, and the third finger was missing.

Full memory flooded back, and Sam cried aloud: 'It wasn't a dream! Then where are we?'

And a voice spoke softly behind him: 'In the land of Ithilien, and in the keeping of the King; and he awaits you.' With that Gandalf stood before him, robed in white, his beard now gleaming like pure snow in the twinkling of the leafy sunlight. 'Well, Master Samwise, how do you feel?' he said.

But Sam lay back, and stared with open mouth, and for a moment, between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer. At last he gasped: 'Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What's happened to the world?'

'A great Shadow has departed,' said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known. But he himself burst into tears. Then, as a sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from his bed.

'How do I feel?' he cried. 'Well, I don't know how to say it. I feel, I feel' -- he waved his arms in the air -- 'I feel like spring after winter, and sun on the leaves; and like trumpets and harps and all the songs I have ever heard!' He stopped and he turned towards his master. 'But how's Mr. Frodo?' he said. 'Isn't it a shame about his poor hand? But I hope he's all right otherwise. He's had a cruel time.'

'Yes, I am all right otherwise,' said Frodo, sitting up and laughing in his turn. 'I fell asleep again waiting for you, Sam, you sleepyhead. I was awake early this morning, and now it must be nearly noon.'

'Noon?' said Sam, trying to calculate. 'Noon of what day?'

'The fourteenth of the New Year,' said Gandalf; 'or if you like, the eighth day of April in the Shire reckoning. But in Gondor the New Year will always now begin upon the twenty-fifth of March when Sauron fell, and when you were brought out of the fire to the King. He has tended you, and now he awaits you. You shall eat and drink with him. When you are ready I will lead you to him.'

Syd pointed out an interesting thing about this passage. The day when "everything sad [is] going to come untrue" and when "A great Shadow has departed" is the 25th of March, a day we do not celebrate. Instead, we celebrate nine months later. And now the King who has tended and will tend us, and with whom we shall eat and drink, awaits us. "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests".

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Spiritual Disciplines, Edgar Allan Poe, and South Park

The idea behind the spiritual disciplines, I gather, is to practice certain behaviors that develop one's personality in a positive direction. It's similar to an athelete's physical training: not only does he practice the specific activity he is planning to undertake (hitting the baseball with a bat, throwing a shotput, etc.) but he has to exercise to keep himself in good shape and to develop the muscles that will help him accomplish the specific activity more successfully. And even though the bench presses, squats, and shrugs may not seem to have any direct relevance to that activity, they do in fact help him to do it better. It's not a matter of trying so much as it is training. So it may not appear obvious how some spiritual disciplines will develop your character in a positive way (like fasting) but other people older, wiser, and further along in their training than you recommend it highly, just as the coach may tell the long-distance runner that he has to do a lot of crunches. We can't expect to do the right thing on a particular occasion if we haven't trained and built up the kind of character capable of doing it, anymore than we can expect to win a weightlifting competition if we've never built up the right kind of body capable of doing it.

Now the idea behind this idea is that we can, through little things, become capable of doing great things or horrific things. If we want to become capable of committing a terrible crime, we can perform little steps which incrementally make it easier. Of course, most people who commit crimes have not intentionally engaged in such a program. But you can see how it would work. Through our daily choices we are making ourselves more capable of great things or terrible things. The further down one road we go, the less able we are to do the things down the other road. If we choose to be angry or bitter or sad, we will eventually reach the point where we can no longer choose not to be angry or bitter or sad. Slowly, as we live our lives, we are taking away our own freedoms. This doesn't mean that the end result involves the removal of our free will, just that if we choose to do the things that develop good character, we will eventually be unwilling and unable to commit terrible acts. If we do not develop good character, our sphere of freedom could still include terrible acts. Of course it's different for every person: some people have an innate disposition for goodness or badness; some people are genuinely satisfied at one level while others will want to travel further down the path; some people will have a wider sphere of freedom so that they can encompass more of the opposite path than they have chosen. And of course, most people do not really choose their path, they just drift through life without going very far down either one -- or perhaps being unaware that they are going down one. Nevertheless, as a general truth we are, by our daily choices, becoming the people we will forever be. We are choosing to have a character that is good or bad or just passive. If we take the idea of eternal life seriously, we will want to have a good character; we will want to be capable of great things, not evil things. Eventually the sun will rise on our characters and turn them to stone, so we'd better make sure they're in a position you wouldn't mind being in forever.

We all want to indulge ourselves. When an opportunity presents itself, we will find excuses why it's appropriate to give in to this particular occasion. The problem with this is that if you don't practice not giving in to such temptations, you'll eventually be unable to refrain from doing so. When I was in the Marines I had a friend who slept around all the time, even though, at any given moment, he had a serious girlfriend. I told him one time that I felt sorry for whatever woman he would eventually marry because she would have a cheating husband. He was (understandably) offended by this. He insisted that he would be completely faithful to his wife. The reason this seemed so implausible to me is that he couldn't even be faithful to a girlfriend. He didn't practice being faithful, he didn't build up within himself the strength to turn women down when they offered themselves to him, so how could he seriously start doing it successfully for the first time once he was married?

This is the idea behind Edgar Allan Poe's wonderful short story "The Imp of the Perverse". Click on the title and read it first, because there are spoilers below, and it's not too long.

Done? OK, so the narrator enjoyed the feeling of rebellion we get when we are told we should or shouldn't do something. We instead want to assert ourselves and do the opposite of what we should or shouldn't do -- this is the imp of the perverse. The narrator enjoyed this so much he committed himself to never denying himself the pleasure of doing something that he felt he shouldn't and vice-versa. Not that he would do it unthinkingly; he would take his time, making sure he wouldn't get caught. But he would do it. So when he realized he "shouldn't" kill a relative for the inheritance, he went ahead and did it, and did it cleverly enough that he got away with it.

Then, years later, he feels very satisfied with himself, realizing that no one will ever be the wiser about his crime. Unless, of course, he were to confess it. But that's crazy, he shouldn't do that.


He had indulged himself for so long in doing whatever he shouldn't do, that he was unable to withstand this occasion. He didn't have the muscles built up to do what he should and not do what he shouldn't. He had taken away his own freedom, his own ability to disobey the imp of the perverse.

A more profane example comes from South Park. In the episode "Le Petit Tourette" Cartman discovers Tourette's Syndrome and pretends to have it so that he doesn't have to filter what he says. This is funny, partially because Cartman isn't really starting from a position of strength on this issue. Anyway, he swears, yells racial epithets, etc., and not only does he not suffer any negative consequences from it, but receives compassion and attention from everyone. Eventually, he manages to get himself booked on a national television show to talk about Tourette's. Of course, for him the only reason to do it is to have a national audience forced to hear whatever he wants to say. But before he goes on TV, he starts saying things he doesn't want to say. Personal things, embarassing things. He has spent so much time just yelling whatever he felt like yelling, that he was no longer able to filter it. Anything that popped into his head popped out of his mouth. Chaos and alleged hilarity ensue. You can watch the whole episode here.

The point is the same. Indulgence is very tempting, but the more we give in to it, the less able we are to refrain from it on occasions where we should, where we want to. This fits into the general perspective of the spiritual disciplines. We should exercise those faculties so that we are not compelled to do the wrong thing because we simply aren't strong enough to resist it. But again, the disciplines aren't about trying to do the right thing when the occasion presents itself, but of training yourself so it's not difficult to do the right thing on those occasions.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A sure indicator of philosophical achievement

Alvin Plantinga made the pages of the New York Times. I'll bet he's sitting at home thinking to himself, "I've finally made it big."

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Quote of the Day

First, who is going to assure us that the Epistles of Paul are themselves genuine? It is foolish of believers to resent these perpetual questions. Nothing was thought in those days of putting a respected name on your essay or epistle. Early Christian literature includes a number of spurious Epistles and Gospels. And, since Paul's style is so characteristic, the ordinary apparatus of literary criticism enables us to say that some of the Epistles which bear his name were not written by him. They have not the same style and ideas.

This does not matter so very much for my purpose, but I will take those Epistles of which Professor Drews admits the genuineness. He says that in these Paul never refers to Jesus as a human being: that his Jesus is a deity only, whom later Christians supposed to have lived on earth at one time: that the apparent references to earthly experiences are really quotations of the things attributed to the Messiah in the prophets.

It seems to me that the whole argument of Professor Drews, Professor Smith, and others breaks down before one statement which runs from end to end of Paul's Epistles: the emphatic statement that Christ died on a cross and rose from the dead, and that this is the very basis of faith in him. It is little use recalling that Osiris or Tammuz rose from the dead. Ignorant Egyptians could believe that a god, as such, had a body, which could be killed. To a man like Paul such an idea would seem monstrous. He distinguishes quite clearly between God and Jesus. God, a purely spiritual being, takes human shape in Jesus, and sheds his blood on a cross, is buried, and then, in human shape, comes to life again. I do not see how anybody not obsessed by a theory can fail to recognize that, less than ten years after the alleged crucifixion of Jesus, Paul fully accepted that part of his story. "Being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross." With infinite variations of expression, that formula is found in every Epistle, and it is Paul’s fundamental belief about Jesus.

Now this single statement carries us a very long way. No one has ever suggested that Paul had any doubt about the divinity of Jesus. it would follow, though Paul merely says that Jesus was "born of a woman," that he accepted some sort of miraculous story about the actual birth and childhood of this God in human shape. He refers repeatedly, in all Epistles, to Cephas or Peter and other Jews who boasted of some superior mission to his, because they had seen and known the Lord. He represents that Jesus preached and taught in Judea. In one place (I Cor. ix 14) he quotes as a saying of the Lord something ("They which preach the gospel should live by the gospel") which Matthew (x 10) and Luke (x 7) give, in other words, as the actual teaching of Jesus. He says nothing plainly about healing miracles; but is it likely that Paul believed Jesus to be God himself in human form and did not credit him with signs and wonders as he went about Judea? Finally, there is a passage (I Tim. vi 13) in which he speaks of his trial before Pontius Pilate: there are a hundred passages in which he says that Jesus was crucified, and by the Jews (I Thess. ii 15): and there are a thousand references to his physical resurrection.

We may put aside as spurious or interpolated such isolated statements as that the Christian supper is founded upon the actual last supper of Christ (I Cor. x 16 and xi 23-26): though no one will doubt that there was such a supper among the earliest Christians. We may similarly set aside the isolated references to Pontius Pilate, to Peter's claim to have seen Jesus after the resurrection, and to the ascension (Eph. iv 10). But there remains one unshakable story about Jesus which is found in every single Epistle. I run over them and for the convenience of the reader indicate these passages, one or more in every Epistle: Rom. i 3-4, iv 24, v and vi in full, etc.; I Cor. x 16, xi 23-6, xv, etc.; II Cor. iv 10; Gal. i 4, iv 4, vi 14; Eph. i 7, 20, etc.; Philipp. ii 8; Coloss. i 20, 22, etc.; I Thess. i 10, ii 15; I Tim. vi 13; II Tim. i 10, ii 18, etc.; Titus iii 4-6; Hebr. i 2-3, ii 9, ix 14, etc.

It is, therefore, no use (from our present point of view) arguing that this or that Epistle is not genuine. Unless we follow the eccentric opinion of Van Manen, and say that they are all spurious, Paul bears definite witness to Jesus. He lived on earth, in Judea, for at least two or three decades; because he was "born of a woman," yet lived to be a teacher. He was put to death on a cross by the Jews; and it was an article of faith with his followers that he rose from the dead. Just as consistently, from end to end, Paul repeats the assurance of Jesus that the end of the world is at hand, and the Lord will judge the living and the dead.

Farther, the Epistles uniformly and entirely depict the early Christian world in a manner which must interest us. Paul's great period of activity was from about 45 to 65 A.D. Let us say that the Epistles were mainly written between 50 and 60 A.D. There were then groups of believers in Jesus, on the same lines as Paul, in every large center from Jerusalem to Rome. Many of them were old enough to have lost their first fervor, and he describes them as much given to fornication. His persistence and emphasis also indicate that there is some reluctance to believe in the resurrection, which is, he says, "foolishness to the Greeks" -- thus clearly showing that he means a physical resurrection. The little "churches" or communities are full of dissensions, but they are not on Gnostic lines. They are about the Jewish law, the way in which Christ saves from sin, the resurrection, and the question of authority. There is repeated reference to a group of men, chiefly Cephas, who are described as the living companions and appointed apostles of Jesus. Their center is Jerusalem. They are intensely Jewish and have many a fiery conflict with Paul.

The witness of Paul is, then, that from about 40 A.D. to 60 A.D. there were, scattered over the Greco-Roman world, small groups of followers of Christ, and they were visited occasionally by Jews who had, they claimed, known Jesus in the flesh and received instruction from him. They all believed that he was the Son of God, who had assumed a human form and died on a cross to atone for the sins of men. This atonement by blood was of the very essence of their faith. It was the common idea of the time in the east that bloody sacrifice was the best atonement for sin, and it was a magnificent idea to some of these mystic Orientals that God himself should take human form and become a human sacrifice. To work out that belief they had to give God two aspects (which later theology would call "persons"), Father and Son; but Jewish religion had already plenty of references to Sons of God, and Greek mysticism also spoke of a Logos of God.

We will see later what this witness of Paul proves -- if it proves anything. For the moment it is enough to establish that Paul does believe in the human historicity of Christ. He never ceases to repeat that Jesus was a teacher in Judea, who died on the cross and rose from the dead. The condescension of God in taking human form, the shedding of real human blood in the ignominious punishment of the cross, are the quintessence of his gospel. The Jesus of Paul was a divine human person, who was put to death at Jerusalem somewhere about 30 A.D.

Joseph McCabe
"Did Jesus Ever Live?"
The Myth of the Resurrection and Other Essays

Sunday, December 11, 2011

How to Read a Blog

Here's the list of great books you can find at the end of Mortimer Adler's How To Read a Book. Don't go through them too quickly.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Classical Global Skepticism and the EAAN

Update (Sep. 12, 2015): I'm temporarily taking this post offline -- like for a year or so -- because it inspired me to write a more detailed article that is being published in an academic journal. Even though a blogpost doesn't (or at least shouldn't) count as a prior publication of something, and even though the article and blogpost are only similar in very broad strokes, I'd like to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

70 years

since the Pearl Harbor attacks. I was stationed on Oahu 20 years ago at K Bay, and a friend of mine and I planned to go to Pearl Harbor on the 50th anniversary of the attacks to get bombed. We ended up going to a movie instead. I'm slightly more respectful nowadays.