Critiques & Controversies: April 2003 Archives

Okay, I'm Still Not There


As you will see in the comment box below, I still haven't refined what I really want to say to the point where I can express the intent, which I truly believe is not at odds with what John da Fiesole would say.

But why, you ask, am I concerned at all about the issue? Am I anti-intellectual? Do I want to see a return to the bad old days of confining Galileo for his views about heliocentrism (a myth, by the way)?

Not at all. I am concerned because personal experience has acquainted me with a great many people who began with all good will to study and who studied with all due humility, or so it would seem, and who came to the conclusion that all they had learned in the faith was false--that in fact, the only truths were mechanistic, logical positivist, demonstrable truths. I am concerned, perhaps beyond my need to be, for the safety of souls.

I think much may depend upon what you study and why. For example, the study of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas for the purpose of understanding one of the major influences of Catholic thought and philosophy for a great length of time, conducted in all due humility with respect to the magisterium, seems quite beneficial. If one stands ready to be corrected and to submit one's work to the teaching authority of the Church, then one stands in good stead.

What, then, might constitute "bad study." I don't know that there is any (apart from things forbidden us, such as occult ways). But there may be bad pursuit of study, or a fundamental lack of knowledge of one's self that would tend to lead one off track. Or there is the insidious possibility of being slowly pulled off-track by various influences. Most theologians who are now in disrepute started out as fairly orthodox. Few of them just went of the rails from the start. Many theologians whose works may be too easily misinterpreted by lay people--Häring, for example--were surely thoroughly Orthodox at the start.

I'm going to think and pray more about this to try to say clearly what I wish to articulate. But I think at the core, it amounts to a much, much greater emphasis on humility. "Above all else to thine own self be true. . ." if we interpret that line in conjunction with Socrates's injunction to "Know thyself." In other words--know who you are in Christ, respect the limitations of your intellect and personality. And that restated is the fundamental truth--exercise humility in all your actions.

This does not mean that you cannot take joy in your discoveries. I'm afraid I tweaked a very precious, very good Carmelite in the course of these comments, and she should not have been tweaked. There is great, deep, wonderful satisfaction in discovering the things of God, and there is a natural impulse to want to share these discoveries. We must watch ourselves, and as Carmelites particularly, we must be willing to allow these consolations to pass from us and back to God. But surely no harm comes from innocent delight and pleasure in the knowledge of God.

So it's back to the drawing board, and perhaps working with my good blogfriends, I will finally be able to say precisely what I am aiming at. Thanks to all for your patience and kindness in following this track.

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Clarifying Knowing About God


Clarifying Knowing About God

What are the aspects of knowing about God?

There is the good, right, and proper knowing about God, which John da Fiesole sees as a legitimate end in itself--and I cannot entirely disagree, if, as he posits, it is conducted under humility. And there is a "knowing about God" that serves the human purpose that all knowing can serve, namely, "Look at me! Look at me! Look how very, very clever I am!" It is this latter, this pursuit of knowledge of an object, not for the object but for our own self-aggrandizement that I am critiquing when I refer to a certain type of "knowing about God."

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An Old Debate Revisited


Warning: Maximus Quibblius follows. Please do not infer from this anything other than the deepest respect for the person whose work is so examined. I do this for a point I keep trying to make, somewhat unsuccessfully and that is--the validity of an argument depends for its success upon acceptance of the terms, definitions, and postulates upon which the argument is founded. And that acceptance is a good deal more slippery and less clear than might at first be thought.

From another blog I love (do you get the impression I am fickle--well I am--why do you think the blogroll is so long. There isn't anything on it that I don't love for some reason), Minute Particulars we get the usual incisive, quite intelligent commentary. In this case a remarkable meditation on action, object, and moral theology or philosophy. Explained with aplomb and lucidity, with one small faux pas that I must quibble over:

I raise this because I'm beginning to suspect that some folks have become inured to claims that human beings are substantially unique among all beings of the Universe. For Catholics, this inattentiveness would surely be a grave failure to contemplate and cherish the Incarnation and its inexhaustible implications for human beings, human nature, the human person, and the startling fact that every human being was willed freely and deliberately into existence by the Creator:

It is the first sentence that gives pause, and again, it is a matter of language. Which beings are not "substantially" unique as a class? One of the ways you determine the class and order of a group is to sequence the cytochrome C from the mitochondrial DNA (assuming the beings you are studying have organelles--but let us leave that aside for the moment). That difference in chemistry is indeed a substance-ial difference by any meaning of that term. Then we have the problem of what "substantially unique" might mean. Does it mean the substance of the creature (however one defines the term: mechanistically or philosophically) is unique, or does the term in fact mean that it is "nearly unique." If the latter, what then is nearly one-of-a-kind--there are merely two, three, or four of that kind? I must accept that I probably don't quite understand the term substantially unique because it may refer to a philosophical entity and set of propositions with which I am not sufficiently acquainted.

Now, what I have articulated above is a quibble that I wouldn't really bother with normally because it is perfectly clear from context the manner in which Mr. Mark (whose last name slips my mind at the moment, so please pardon the infelicity) places it. However, that argument will have implications for my overall quibble.

My real objection is of another sort. Who is to say that the incarnation did not have some substantial effect on other beings we know not of? We do not know all of the beings in the universe--we don't know even all of those on Earth--although we are sufficiently well acquainted to see that humans have no close correlatives here. We certainly don't know all of those in the Solar System--though here again, we are sufficiently aware to suggest the truth of our Blogmaster's proposition. However, we do not know that elsewhere in the Universe God did not see fit to create another similar form of life. Biblical revelation is silent on the matter, as is (at least presently) the universe.

So my quibble is that we can only speak substantially of what we know with some degree of intimacy and as the state of the entire universe is largely an unknown the first proposition can have only the contextual meaning and the effectiveness of the argument is thereby inhibited. Unless we define substantially in the first sense outlined above, we cannot know for certain if there is a substantial difference. If we do speak of substantial difference in the terms I outlined above, then the argument sinks of its own weight as there is no creature that is not substantially different from any other.

The solution is simple and consists of two parts: (a) Steven should stop quibbling; and (b) we need to limit the proposition above to what we know can be proven and is true. Therefore we can say, of all of the creature we know of in the universe, Human beings are substantially unique as a class.

Now all of this is what comes of being too much a reader of science fiction in my youth, and too hopeful that someday we'll encounter others "out there" who will help us to better understand our place in creation.

And the point of all of this is not that the argument is malformed, but that reason can and will produce constructs in which small errors gradually propagate to abrogate the entirety of the argument. The problem is the ability of any individual to recognize the inherent small errors in the articulation of the argument. We all say things the way we say them. For the person speaking, what is said is perfectly clear, but the person hearing may have no real understanding of what is said--or may have an understanding that is completely different from that of the speaker.

Now, our PoMo friends leap upon this incongruity and suggest that it is impossible to communicate--that meaning is substantially within the person making the expression and it is essentially incommunicable to others as they are quite differently constructed. I would take exception to this as well because refinement of the argument can produce an articulation that, unless we are being unbearably obtuse, most, if not all can agree upon the meaning of. Now, that does not mean that they will agree with the proposition, but they can at least agree that it has some meaning outside of their solipsistic ally constructed realities.

This is often how I feel in the sea of theological arguments. A says Rahner is heretical in his teaching on the Eucharist. I read Rahner and from what I can make out there is nothing particularly heterodox. I'm not sure I understand the need for the new articulation--but that is another matter entirely. B says Balthasar is heterodox in his articulation of the population of Hell. C says that Garrigou-Lagrange is ultramontane and irrelevant to any real philosophical/theological debate of the day. And so it goes. What does one who is substantially ignorant of all the niceties do? Research is nearly impossible because you must pick a place to stand, and the choice of that place will inevitably affect the outcome of your research. As an example, John da Fiesole (whose opinion on these matters I respect greatly) does not care for some aspects of the theology of Balthasar. Mr. da Fiesole may be accurate in his assessment. But might it not also be that Mr. da Fiesole is analyzing Fr. Balthasar's work as a Thomist facing a theologian who is not working from a strictly thomistic base? Might the lack of agreement be the result of different ways of argumentation and what constitutes "proof?" I can't say because I have insufficient grasp of either Aquinas or Balthasar to say one is right and the other wrong; however, my inclination would be to agree with a person whose judgment in these matters I trusted. On the other hand, Mr. Serafin, whom I respect and admire greatly, thinks a great deal of Balthasar's theology. Admitting my ignorance, I am now in a quandary--which opinion should I follow if I lack the time, ability, and discernment to properly articulate my own?

So I'm back to my question--how does the average layperson discover were the truth is in this thicket? And I must conclude that unless one is seriously dedicated to the pursuit either professionally, or as a serious part of one's vocation, it is a thicket better avoided. We walk in dangerous territory when we walk unprepared, and I can be swayed by Aquinas, Balthasar, Küng, or Cullen if I don't know where I'm going. I have read all of these, and I find that the reasoning of each is persuasive. I can rely upon the magisterium of the church to point me in the right direction (I can safely disregard select teachings of the latter two theologians--though one does risk tossing the baby out with the bathwater). However, the church rarely makes a statement about the correctness or lack thereof of a theologian whose work is not substantially flawed or in error. For example, I have read nothing from the Vatican with respect to Rahner, Balthasar, de Lubac, or any number of others who are, in various arenas attacked--justly or unjustly. And the sad part of this is that I cannot say whether the commentators are correct or incorrect in their assumptions.

Where am I going with this? I suppose I simply wish to say that one needs to be most selective and extremely careful when studying any aspect of theology--a caution to which I am sure no one would object. Obviously such study should be done after and as part of prayer, with guidance from the Holy Spirit. And finally, the results of one's researches should be laid open to the criticism of all and sundry and submitted to the authority of the Holy Mother Church (as is true of all of the great works of the Saints) and redacted and corrected according to authoritative teaching.

As all of that is far too exhausting to contemplate, I think I will read with great enthusiasm the wonderful defenses and analyses others propose. I will ask my ignorant questions and make my stupid statements to try to correct my own misapprehensions. And I'll stick with someone who I can understand and who speaks to me--St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of Lisieux. My brain is not a razor, and I put myself in danger when I try to use it as one. So expect the same speculations, ruminations, and sometimes simply idiotic meanderings that you have always seen here. But time and time again, I will return to this roost--the skeptic of theological speculation--occasionally poking a finger at it, but trying to avoid the tar-baby syndrome.

[Mr. Mark's (is it Sullivan?) complete argument which, despite the impression you might get from the nonsense above, is well worthy of your consideration, may be found (eventually) here. I say eventually because it is the first post on the blog right now, and until another crops up, the direct link does not work.]

Later: Correction incorporated to attempt to more truly represent Mr. da Fiesole's position--which, by the way, I do not fault.

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At Disputations


I've meant to say a few words regarding some of the on-going commentary at Disputations. Of recent date, John da Fiesole has been posting some interesting ruminations and aggravations at, toward, and about the theology of Hans Urs van Balthasar. Now, I am not a Balthasarian champion, neither am I a detractor. I do not think him a destructive modernist who, with fire in his eyes set about the deconstruction of all that we hold near and dear. On the other hand, I also do not hail him as Prince of Theologians.

Frankly, much of what he writes bores me to tears. I tried earnestly and with great vigor to plow my way through his treatise on Prayer--to no avail. This is not a failing on his part, but on my own. The digests I have read regarding his thoughts on the population of hell (among other things) have been intriguing and utterly fascinating--but I have against Balthasar the fact that the native language was German and nearly everything German in translation is leaden and dull. Even Thomas Mann is a labor in English. I can't imagine that if the wooden prose that represents itself as the translation of Thomas Mann actually reflected his felicity in German that anyone would ever have read a word. I have noted this same problem with the vast majority of works in translation from German.

But the case of Balthasar once again raises a point I often make and often get derided for from the Thomists and proto-Thomists out there. Thought and speculation about God is wonderful and good so long as it leads the thinker and those who can follow him or her toward God. But thought about God is not an end in itself. We will not be quizzed about whether the Father and the Son were or were not separated or united in the final moments on the cross. I suppose it is an interesting matter for theological speculation--but I honestly can't see how it would make an iota of difference in my life if I knew and truly understood the answer. And it does make a great deal of difference (or could if I would let it) to my present life because it is utterly frustrating, aggravating, and irritating not to know the answer and be able to apply it to something.

So, Balthasar, Rahner, Küng, Häring, you name whom you choose--even the remarkable St. Edith Stein in much of her work (The Problem of Empathy, for example), do not do much to enhance my love of God. And yet, I rejoice that they have written, as their work undoubtedly must move people of a certain bent closer to the Lord. Anything that does that is a good work--not to be denigrated or derided. But I would venture to guess that despite the pleadings of the few about the importance of such things, for the vast majority of us, the simple complexity of the words of our Savior and of the authoratative exposition of His teaching through the magisterium suffice. If we do not understand ever nuance of how we got to where we are, it is hardly a salvation matter. And if we do not care to do so, it is not a comment upon those who pursue such things with great vigor.

"In my Father's house there are many mansions." And I suspect that each of those mansions has as many libraries, courtyards, salons, ballrooms, and parlors. If some find themselves in at the desk one library, while others are on the window seat with a book of poetry--still there is room for us all.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Critiques & Controversies category from April 2003.

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