Tuesday, April 19, 2005

"The Church Has not Disappeared but Is Continuing . . ."

This is some great stuff from an interview with the then Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, in September 2003. (HT to Hugh) The context is discussing what the faithful of the Catholic Church should do in the wake of the sexual abuse scandals in the USA. To say these comments are encouraging would be understatement. One of the things that I have heard comment on most often from protestants about liturgical tradiations is the lack of emphasis on and acknowledgement of "personal relationship" with the Divine. Against that compare these comments from the new Pope. Pretty exciting I say.

Raymond: You, I know, have been closely involved with the continuing crisis in the United States, trying to bring closure a healing in the wake of terrible sexual abuse in the United States. My question is, “What do you identify as the root causes of this crisis that we continue to live through in the United States?”

Cardinal: I will distinguish perhaps between 2 different elements – a general element and a specific element of this time and of this scandal of today. The general element is, as I said, is a weakness of human beings, even of priests. Never will we have all this end, but always the temptations of human beings are present also for the priests. So always we have to accept that. Even in the communion of priests and bishops, we have to know that these things can happen. The second point is more specific, why at this time it was so often and it was more than in past times. And I think the essential point is the weakness of faith, because only if I am really in confidence personally with the Lord; if the Lord is for me, not an idea, but the Person of my deepest friendship; if I know personally the Lord and be in contact of love everyday in the Lord, if for me faith is the reality. It is the ground of my life; it is a most sure of reality, and not some possibility – in this case, if I am really convinced and really in contact of love with the Lord, the Lord will help me in these temptations and I can even win what seems impossible. If the faith is not everyday realized, if the faith is weakened and begins only to be an hypothesis, so it’s not a fundamental of your life and so begins all these problems. So, I would say the essential point is for me, weakness of the faith and not a sufficient presence of the faith in the Church. I think it was the problem of the last 40, 50 years. That the idea was we have common ideas with all the world and that faith is very personal and a universal gift of the Lord was not so present. So, I think the first point is re-learn, re-convert to a deepened faith and education in the faith. I think also that in the last perhaps 40, 50 years, it was not so clear the validity of the moral teaching of the Church. We had so many masters in the Church that teach in other ways, and said, “No, this is not a sin. This is not a sin. This is common and what is average of doing is also permitted.” And with this idea, we do not have a clear moral teaching. We have to learn from the normal actions of human beings. So, we also will be in the normal actions and even …

Raymond: Fall prey unto the things of the world.

Cardinal: Yes. Yes. Yes. So, I think that 2 things are essential – conversion to a profound and deep faith with the life of prayer and the sacraments, and clear moral teaching and conviction of these teachings that the Church, has the Holy Spirit and can give this way.

Raymond: What would you say to the faithful, who in the United States are so despondent at this hour, and not sure who to look to? What would you say to them?

Cardinal: Yes. On the one hand, look to the Lord is the first point. He is always present and He’s always near to us. Look also to the saints of all the times, and so find in our times the saints. The humble, faithful persons are present, perhaps not so visible because they are not appearing on the television. But the humble, praying people are present today and this is a confidence of the Church and of all our people find these people, finds that with all the problems of today, the Church has not disappeared; but is continuing, especially in not so visible personalities. So, I think this is essential – find the Lord, find the saints of the times, but also find the not canonized, simple persons who are really in the heart of the Church.

The Entire Interview

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Something New for the Classicists to Do

Smart people at Oxford have invented a way to recover the text of papyri from an Egyptian dump. The papyri were discovered about 100 years ago, but no one has been able to read them until now.

Apparently, they've already recovered some Sophocles that was previously completely unknown. I'm pulling for a copy of Plato's lecture on the good to be among the papyri. If that's not available, some dialogues of Aristotle will do.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Edna St. Vincent Millay: Christian Poet?

I've been an admirer of the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay for a while. She is a modern master of the sonnet. Consider this:

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply . . .

Or her poem "Grown-up":

Was it for this I uttered prayers,
And sobbed and cursed and kicked the stairs,
That now, domestic as a plate,
I should retire at half-past eight?

I did not know what kind of person she was, and I always assumed she was something like Sylvia Plath. So I was bit surprised to see her described by Dallas Willard as a "Christian poet." Intrigued by this possibility, I read her biography by Nancy Milford. It turns out that unless the seven deadly sins have been repealed, Millay's standing among the saints is nonexistent. Of course, when one says this, it must always be with the caveat that only God knows the heart. Perhaps her behavior belied her Christian beliefs, but if Milford's biography is comprehensive (which I think it is), then Millay never seems to have had much interest in Christianity.

Her life was full of impropriety, but no life is untouched by that, so hers is not distinguished in that respect. But contrast her life with that of another public figure, Johnny Cash, and one sees that the unpleasantness and impropriety of her life seemed to mount at the end of her life, as if her life had been propped up by youth and vigor then fell into disarray at the end. On the other hand, Cash's youthful antics are well-known, but he eventually renounced them for a life of virtue, and his later work seems to have been just as good (if not better) than his earlier. This is due, I think, to the fact that he corralled his dissipation in middle age. Millay did not, and her work seems to have suffered from this, though I am no expert on her work. Cash's happiness at the end of his life is plain; Millay's life did not end very happily. (There may also be something to Cash's being raised by devout Christian parents whereas Millay was not. Cash's wife, June Carter, also strikes me as more virtuous, perhaps because more stubborn, than Millay's husband, Eugen Boissevain.)

Now I think it is possible for Millay to have written Christian poetry without having been a Christian herself. Her poetry does contain Christian symbolism and themes, and the poem Willard cites ("Feast") seems to be evidence of this. So she may be a Christian poet in that respect. I would prefer to say that her poetry is Christian while she herself may not have been. (Note that her middle name, "St. Vincent," is a reference to the hospital where she was born. Many of her close friends called her "Vincent" or "Vince.")

Milford's biography, by the way, was a good read, but she seemed to commit what C. S. Lewis called the "personal heresy" quite a bit: the clue to understanding Millay's poetry is to understand part of her biography. I disagree with this principle, but that's for another day.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Scientists Talking about Ethics

It usually doesn't provide sound results. Consider, for example, an excerpt of an editorial from the recent Science, ominously titled "Twilight for the Enlightenment?"

Finally, certain kinds of science are now proscribed on what amount to religious grounds. Stem cell research is said by its opponents to pose a "moral dilemma." Yet this well-advertised dilemma does not arise from a confrontation between science and ethical universals. Instead, the objections arise from a particular belief about what constitutes a human life: a belief held by certain religions but not by others. Some researchers, eager to resolve the problem, seek to derive stem cells by techniques that might finesse the controversy. But the claim that the stem cell "dilemma" rests on universal values is a false claim, and for society to accept it to obtain transitory political relief would bring church and state another step closer.

It's difficult to determine the exact target of this paragraph, or what the objectionable statements the author has in mind are. But a few things are clear. The author thinks that a proposition expresses an "ethical universal" only if it is believed by all people. This is false. A statement expressing a universal (or objective) fact about ethics is either true or false regardless of who believes it. It is similar to the universal law of gravity. The law of gravity is still universally valid even if not everyone believes it to be true. The same goes for ethical facts.

Our author ignores this point when he states that objections to stem-cell research (presumably of the embryonic kind) "arise from a particular belief about what constitutes a human life: a belief held by certain religions but not by others." But if there is a fact of the matter about what a human being is, then a human being will have certain properties regardless of whether everyone believes that human beings have those properties.

The author also suggests that these universal facts of ethics can only be tenably held by religious people. This is also false. Many facts of ethics can be known apart from the special revelation of a religion. For example, one does not need to believe in the veracity of the Bible in order to know that kindness is a virtue, not a vice. Whether or not the ethical facts relevant to the debate over stem-cell research fall into this category is an open question, but one should not assume that objections to embryonic stem-cell research must be made on religious grounds. Realizing this obviates the worry that agreeing with objections to stem-cell research legitimizes the position of "the church." (One should also note the assumption that science is part of the state. Since when is science identifiable with the state?)

Scientists often claim that philosophers or theologians wrongly impinge upon scientific territory and make pronouncements about science without being qualified to do so. Since the problem is a lack of qualification, it is just as wrong for a scientist to speak about matters of ethics when they are not qualified to do so, and in light of the basic mistakes noted above, the author of the Science editorial is clearly not qualified to speak about ethics.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Lives Well Spent

There has been a lot to think about recently. The imminent passings of Terry Schiavo, Pope John Paul II, and my sinful self (Forgiveness Sunday ... yes YOU ALL celebrate Easter on the wrong date) have been on my mind for at least the last two weeks. So much has been said so well, that I will not pretend to have anything to add, specifically on the life of the Pontiff, who surely falls in the short list of greatest men of this century, and perhaps the Greatest Christian Leader my generation will see. [[On that note, I would be interested to hear the personal reactions of my evangelical friends: sad event, happy event, etc.]]

Ran On. Back to subject. Because this has been on my mind, I was surprised yesterday to awake with great joyful anticipation. I was able to relax and have more joy playing with my daughter than I think I have experienced in at least two months. (This is not counting the screaming fit that I was in charge of at 4:30 a.m.)

Today my Beloved and I explored the very large park behind our home, to a greater extent than we have done before. It was a sublime day: idyllic spring weather. High clouds, stunning deep blue, smell of recent rain, slightly muddy trails, clear air, distant sea, song birds, soaring hawks, bees, wildflowers. Hills. I got to hike 2 miles longer than the others (we forgot about the car ... don't ask), and it gave me a chance to think in the way that is natural to me.

It is my goal as a father, and eventually will be as a teacher, to teach others how to die well. To do this one must have a dual approach: to teach how to live, and to hold up as models those who have also died well.

For the Christian, dying is the beginning of life. Dying is the opening of our eyes and soul. It opens to us the Undiscovered Country. If it is life actualized, then by learning life we will prepare ourselves for it. But this is where things get confusing.

The one element that is of course the most important and least mentioned is that to live one must die. Here, I realized, is the mystery of Christian teaching on life. Here is why those who demand life for themselves have produced a "culture of death", while those who demand the acceptance of death to themselves produce the "culture of life." The Christian does not fear death because he has truly died already in baptism.

This is why baptism MUST be sacramental, and why it MUST initiate entry into the covenantal life of the Church.

The Christian parent teaches their children about life by showing them the true meaning of death, and the waking death that is called suffering. In the Antiochian Vespers, Psalm 104 is always read at the beginning of prayer. I quote the last half of the Chapter:

19. He appointed the moon for seasons: the sun knoweth his going down.
20. Thou makest darkness, and it is night: wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth.
21. The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God.
22. The sun ariseth, they gather themselves together, and lay them down in their dens.
23. Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour until the evening.
24. O LORD, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches.
25. So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts.
26. There go the ships: there is that leviathan, whom thou hast made to play therein.
27. These wait all upon thee; that thou mayest give them their meat in due season.
28. That thou givest them they gather: thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good.
29. Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled: thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust.
30. Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth.
31. The glory of the LORD shall endure for ever: the LORD shall rejoice in his works.
32. He looketh on the earth, and it trembleth: he toucheth the hills, and they smoke.
33. I will sing unto the LORD as long as I live: I will sing praise to my God while I have my being.
34. My meditation of him shall be sweet: I will be glad in the LORD.
35. Let the sinners be consumed out of the earth, and let the wicked be no more. Bless thou the LORD, O my soul. Praise ye the LORD.

There is too much here to provide a detailed analysis--and I have used too many words to say too little already, but note especially v. 29 to the end. All die, and then they are created by His Spirit. My mind stuck here for the entireity of the service.

The Sustainer of Life, and Lord of Creation brooks no rival in any corner of His creation: not the Leviathan in the sea, nor sin in the heart of man.

Die, O my soul. Repent, Die, and Live.

Friday, April 01, 2005

"Normal Activities"

Legendary rocker Neil Young underwent minimally invasive brain surgery on Tuesday. His agent released a statement:

"The procedure corrected the problem and has been characterized as a complete success with a total recovery. And resumption of normal activities by the 59-year-old rock legend is predicted for the near future."

My question: Exactly what are "normal activities" for a 59-year-old rock legend?

Also, Brian Kruse, if you're out there, I hope you weren't too panicked about Neil's surgery. You were almost apoplectic when he cut his finger and had to cancel a few shows.

"Clinging to Life"

This is the description of the Bishop of Rome given by CNN. I beg to differ. John Paul II is not clinging to life. He is about to enter the larger life, as some Christians say. For many people living today, death is the great evil to be avoided at any costs. I think that is why people would rather live longer than live well. The Bishop of Rome does not, I think, share that delusion.

I've always liked D. L. Moody's remark about his death, which has been paraphrased so often, it's difficult to know his exact words, but they were something very close to this:

"Someday you will read in the papers that D. L. Moody of East Northfield is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it! At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now; I shall have gone up higher, that is all, out of this old clay tenement into a house that is immortal -- a body that death cannot touch, that sin cannot taint; a body fashioned like unto His glorious body."