Thursday, December 31, 2009

Can Science Explain Religion? - The New York Review of Books

The NYRoB reviews the Evolution of God where Robert Wright uses game theory and materialism to explain the emergence of the world’s religions. While game theory can be used to explain incentives in behavior for very specific circumstances that often never appear in the real world, its assumptions and inherent limitations prevent the author from engaging in meaningful analysis. Game theory’s weakness is that it cannot account for history and assumes that all human activity is economically determined. Wright uses an ahistoric model with a flawed anthropology that is closed to reality and he dismisses all ontological considerations. This philosophic framework does not allow him to approach or even perceive his subject. Game theory is a poor methodological tool even in the social sciences and Wright’s account is predetermined by his philosophic approach. His conclusions are ideological, methodologically determined, and ultimately irrelevant.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Jesus "the myth"

Canadian composer and singer Mark Mallett posted an interesting entry in his blog to comment on a sign placed in front of the Christmas display at the Illinois Capitol.

Read his piece Jesus "the myth"

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Pope Benedict's Advent Talk to University Students

Pope Benedict's annual Advent address to university students focuses on Wisdom and the responsibility to remain little as we move forward in our studies. Here is a portion of his speech:

At this point I cannot omit to reflect on something a bit disquieting but nevertheless useful for us here who belong to the academic world. Let us ask ourselves: who was present on Christmas night at the grotto in Bethlehem? Who welcomed Wisdom when he was born? Who hurried to see him, to recognize him and adore him? They were not doctors of law, scribes or sages. There were Mary and Joseph, and then the shepherds. What does this mean?

Jesus was one day to say: "Yes, Father, for such was your gracious will" (Mt 11: 26); you revealed your mystery to the little ones (cf. Mt 11: 25). But then is there no use in studying? Or is it even harmful counterproductive in understanding the truth?

The two thousand-year-old history of Christianity excludes the latter hypothesis, and suggests to us the correct one: studying entails deepening one's knowledge while maintaining a spirit similar to the "little ones," an ever humble and simple spirit, like that of Mary, the "Seat of Wisdom". How often have we been afraid to draw near to the Grotto in Bethlehem for fear that doing so would be an obstacle to our critical sense and to our "modernity"!

Rather, in that Grotto, each of us can discover the truth about God and about humanity, about ourselves. In that Child, born of the Virgin, the two came together: mankind's longing for eternal life softened the heart of God, who was not ashamed to assume the human condition.

Carrón: That Nostalgia for the Infinite

Father Julián Carrón wrote an editorial published in Italy on Christmas Eve. The English translation is available on the CL website. Here is the translation:

Dear Editor,
There is a phrase of Dostoevsky that accompanies me these days, when I have to speak of Christianity to all kinds of people in Italy and abroad: “Can an educated man, a European of our time, believe—truly believe—in the divinity of the Son of God, Jesus Christ?” This question rings like a challenge for all of us. It is precisely on the answer to this question that the success of the faith depends today. In an address given in 1996, the then cardinal Ratzinger answered that faith can have this hope “because it finds a correspondence in human nature. In man there is a nostalgic hope for the infinite that cannot be extinguished.” In this phrase he indicated the condition necessary: that Christianity needs to find the humanity that pulsates in each of us in order to show all the greatness of its claim.
Yet how many times are we tempted to look at the concrete humanity in which we find ourselves—for example the unease, the dissatisfaction, the sadness, the boredom—as an obstacle, a complication, an impediment to the realization of what we desire. Thus we get angry with ourselves and with reality, succumbing to the weight of circumstances, in the illusion of going ahead by cutting away a piece of ourselves. But unease, dissatisfaction, sadness, and boredom are not symptoms of a illness to treat with medicines; this happens more and more often in a society that mistakes disquiet of the heart for panic and anxiety. They are rather signs of what the nature of the “I” is. Our desire is greater than the whole universe. The perception of emptiness in us and around us of which Leopardi speaks (“want and emptiness”), and the boredom of which Heidegger speaks, are the proof of the inexorable nature of our heart, of the boundless character of our desire—nothing is able to give us satisfaction and peace. We can forget it, betray it, or even deceive it, but we cannot shuffle it off.
So the real obstacle on our journey is not our concrete humanity, but disregard for it. Everything in us cries out the need for something to fill the void. Even Nietzsche perceived this; he could not but address the “unknown god” that makes all things. “Left alone, I raise my hands/ … to the unknown god / I want to know you, you the Unknown,/ Who penetrate deep into my soul, / Shake up my life like a storm,/ Beyond my grasp and yet so close to me!” (1864).

Christmas is the announcement that this unknown Mystery has become a familiar presence, without which none of us could remain a man for long, but would end up overwhelmed by confusion, seeing his own face decompose, because “only the divine can ‘save’ man, that is to say, the true and essential dimensions of the human figure and his destiny” (Fr. Giussani).
The most convincing sign that Christ is God, the greatest miracle that astonished everyone—even more than the healing of cripples and the curing of the blind—was an incomparable gaze. The sign that Christ is not a theory or a set of rules is that look, which is found throughout the Gospel: His way of dealing with humanity, of forming relationships with those He met on His way. Think of Zacchaeus and of Magdalene: He didn’t ask them to change, but embraced them, just as He found them, in their wounded, bleeding humanity, needful of everything. And their life, embraced, re-awoke in that moment in all its original profundity.
Who would not want to be reached by such a look now? For “one cannot keep on living unless Christ is a presence like a mother is a presence for her child, unless Christ is a presence now – now! –I cannot love myself now and I cannot love you now” (Fr. Giussani). This is the only way, as men of our time, reasonably and critically, to answer Dostoevsky’s question.

But how do we know that Christ is alive now? Because his gaze is not a fact of the past, but is still present in the world just as it was before. Since the day of His resurrection, the Church exists only in order to make God’s affection an experience, through people who are His mysterious Body, witnesses in history today of that gaze capable of embracing all that is human.
Thank you.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Peggy Noonan on the Adam Lambert Problem

From The Wall Street Journal

America is good at making practical compromises, and one of the compromises we've made in the area of arts and entertainment is captured in the words, "We don't care what you do in New York." That was said to me years ago by a social conservative who was explaining that he and his friends don't wish to impose their cultural sensibilities on a city that is uninterested in them, and that the city, in turn, shouldn't impose its cultural sensibilities on them. He was speaking metaphorically; "New York" meant "wherever the cultural left happily lives."

For years now, without anyone declaring it or even noticing it, we've had a compromise on television. Do you want, or will you allow into your home, dramas and comedies that, however good or bad, are graphically violent, highly sexualized, or reflective of cultural messages that you believe may be destructive? Fine, get cable. Pay for it. Buy your premium package, it's your money, spend it as you like.

But the big broadcast networks are for everyone. They are free, they are available on every television set in the nation, and we watch them with our children. The whole family's watching. Higher, stricter standards must maintain.

Read it all.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The News Not To Hush

Below is a translation of a recent piece by Italian poet Davide Rondoni published in the weekly e-newsletter ClanDestino Zoom. A real encouragement to all of us to proclaim the true meaning of Christmas.

At Christmas let's talk about Christmas.
This is a simple little rule, to strengthen brains and souls, if one still has them and they're not in a comatose state. Because at Christmas almost no one speaks of Christmas.
Priests in church do a little, but often one wishes they didn't, because it might be better. But, in the end, it's better than nothing.
Let's speak of Christmas, at Christmas, maybe while drinking something, or better, while eating among friends and relatives. Let's speak of Him, of Jesus. As if we were talking about soccer. Or movies. Or better, not as if you were talking about soccer or movies: but as if we were talking about what makes soccer and movies beautiful. Of what gives pleasure to the being here and now.
Because without Christmas, life where we are would be only "a little vessel of sadness sailing in this muffled silence through the autumn dark" as the great Irish writer John Banville wrote. Instead no, life is no longer "a little vessel of sadness". The news is not a news made of words, or thoughts. It is a news in flesh and bones, a present news.
Without Jesus, Christmas could be the saddest holiday in the world, and for many it is. Let's speak of Him, then, in His holiday. Let's speak of Him, of the captain that has inverted the route of the little vessel.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Question on the Economy

A friend from graduate school wrote to get my thoughts on the economic crisis. He sent a series of questions wondering if there was a way out for the United States and what the consequences of recession will be.

Here was my response:

Do you remember people claiming that this recession was the worst since the Great Depression? There is a reason this claim is being made. Last year we were asked to bail out banks by literally giving them hundreds of billions of dollars to prevent them from closing, something that took place during the Great Depression. This means we are experiencing a crisis of the same magnitude that caused the depression, but we have taken preventative actions to reduce or delay the negative consequences. This action consisted of the government giving banks over $2,000 for every American citizen. If we had failed to act, the consequences would have been grave. The banks would have shut down and people would have had a difficult time getting cash… While this may not sound like much, there are serious consequences as the economy would have come to a stand-still. People would not have been able to do simple things like buy gas or groceries. When you hear the comparison to the Great Depression you have to acknowledge that without the first bailout we would be in the same circumstance today. While this may sound bad, it gets worse.

The U.S. has lost control of the dollar and given China and other Asian states the responsibility to maintain its value. We have officially given up trying to maintain our currency's value and have passed the responsibility to countries of the East who have a lot of positive investments in the dollar. Our official policy is to tax Asian states to keep our government open and financially solvent. Well, eventually China and other states will get sick of this and do something. It is clear that this cannot go on for the long-term. No one knows how they will react, but they will not continue to allow this indefinitely. We are so broke that we are literally resorting to the policies of the Weimar Republic. The only thing is that we are not forced into this by another country, we have chosen it for ourselves.

What really concerns me is the call to form a new international order, one that would allow global governance. It may address some irregularities, but overall it would only serve to reduce democratic governance in the world and would create larger institutions. To solve one problem, we would create a larger one. The larger the institution, the greater its potential for evil. My fear is that our action in response to this crisis could put into place an institution that, in trying to do good, would bring about harm on a greater scale than humanity has witnessed. The warning of Orwell is growing more relevant every day. A new global government would have power so great that it would be incomparable to anything we currently have. And, given our past, we have to be concerned with the lessons of history. Human persons have not changed. Larger institutions create the opportunity for bad things to be done on a greater scale than ever. The largest political sovereign should be the state. Many would consider this statement passé, but I am a realist. Human beings working with the best of intentions can rarely produce a world that is better; often our good ideas only make things worse. Do you remember Flannery O’Connor and have you ever heard of Walker Percy? In different works, these Southern writers wrote the same sentence, “tenderness deprived of the source of tenderness leads to the gas chamber.” These global institutions have every intention of improving the world, but I worry that they will do the opposite.

I also fear to see how democratic states will react to this depression. The risk to the U.S. is that people will be willing to give up individual liberties in order to eat. We have already given up our privacy as a people and consented to domestic surveillance. What else will we give up to survive? Increasing governmental power always comes with a price. Democracy becomes very vulnerable when the economy weakens. Think about what the Great Depression did to the states of Europe…

The world needs a strong U.S. and this economic crisis is only serving to facilitate the transfer of power in the international system to Asia. I fear for the world that will emerge in the wake of our decline. The United States will not be the only country in the world to suffer. A new, Orwellian world may fill the gap. Let's hope and pray that the U.S. is able to make the difficult adjustments and survive as a great power. Freedom will suffer globally if we decline. What does this mean for the future of our country and the world? We shall soon find out.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Aesop on pop-culture


A Wolf hung about near a flock of sheep for a long time, but made no attempt to molest them. The Shepherd at first kept a sharp eye on him, for he naturally thought he meant mischief: but as time went by and the Wolf showed no inclination to meddle with the flock, he began to look upon him more as a protector than as an enemy: and when one day some errand took him to the city, he felt no uneasiness at leaving the Wolf with the sheep. But as soon as his back was turned the Wolf attacked them and killed the greater number. When the Shepherd returned and saw the havoc he had wrought, he cried, "It serves me right for trusting my flock to a Wolf."



Aesop embodies an epigram not uncommon in human history; his fame is all the more deserved because he never deserved it. The firm foundations of common sense, the shrewd shots at uncommon sense, that characterise all the Fables, belong not him but to humanity. In the earliest human history whatever is authentic is universal: and whatever is universal is anonymous. In such cases there is always some central man who had first the trouble of collecting them, and afterwards the fame of creating them. He had the fame; and, on the whole, he earned the fame. There must have been something great and human, something of the human future and the human past, in such a man: even if he only used it to rob the past or deceive the future. The story of Arthur may have been really connected with the most fighting Christianity of falling Rome or with the most heathen traditions hidden in the hills of Wales. But the word "Mappe" or "Malory" will always mean King Arthur; even though we find older and better origins than the Mabinogian; or write later and worse versions than the "Idylls of the King." The nursery fairy tales may have come out of Asia with the Indo-European race, now fortunately extinct; they may have been invented by some fine French lady or gentleman like Perrault: they may possibly even be what they profess to be. But we shall always call the best selection of such tales "Grimm's Tales": simply because it is the best collection.

The historical Aesop, in so far as he was historical, would seem to have been a Phrygian slave, or at least one not to be specially and symbolically adorned with the Phrygian cap of liberty. He lived, if he did live, about the sixth century before Christ, in the time of that Croesus whose story we love and suspect like everything else in Herodotus. There are also stories of deformity of feature and a ready ribaldry of tongue: stories which (as the celebrated Cardinal said) explain, though they do not excuse, his having been hurled over a high precipice at Delphi. It is for those who read the Fables to judge whether he was really thrown over the cliff for being ugly and offensive, or rather for being highly moral and correct. But there is no kind of doubt that the general legend of him may justly rank him with a race too easily forgotten in our modern comparisons: the race of the great philosophic slaves. Aesop may have been a fiction like Uncle Remus: he was also, like Uncle Remus, a fact. It is a fact that slaves in the old world could be worshipped like Aesop, or loved like Uncle Remus. It is odd to note that both the great slaves told their best stories about beasts and birds.

But whatever be fairly due to Aesop, the human tradition called Fables is not due to him. This had gone on long before any sarcastic freedman from Phrygia had or had not been flung off a precipice; this has remained long after. It is to our advantage, indeed, to realise the distinction; because it makes Aesop more obviously effective than any other fabulist. Grimm's Tales, glorious as they are, were collected by two German students. And if we find it hard to be certain of a German student, at least we know more about him than We know about a Phrygian slave. The truth is, of course, that Aesop's Fables are not Aesop's fables, any more than Grimm's Fairy Tales were ever Grimm's fairy tales. But the fable and the fairy tale are things utterly distinct. There are many elements of difference; but the plainest is plain enough. There can be no good fable with human beings in it. There can be no good fairy tale without them.

Aesop, or Babrius (or whatever his name was), understood that, for a fable, all the persons must be impersonal. They must be like abstractions in algebra, or like pieces in chess. The lion must always be stronger than the wolf, just as four is always double of two. The fox in a fable must move crooked, as the knight in chess must move crooked. The sheep in a fable must march on, as the pawn in chess must march on. The fable must not allow for the crooked captures of the pawn; it must not allow for what Balzac called "the revolt of a sheep" The fairy tale, on the other hand, absolutely revolves on the pivot of human personality. If no hero were there to fight the dragons, we should not even know that they were dragons. If no adventurer were cast on the undiscovered island—it would remain undiscovered. If the miller's third son does not find the enchanted garden where the seven princesses stand white and frozen—why, then, they will remain white and frozen and enchanted. If there is no personal prince to find the Sleeping Beauty she will simply sleep. Fables repose upon quite the opposite idea; that everything is itself, and will in any case speak for itself. The wolf will be always wolfish; the fox will be always foxy. Something of the same sort may have been meant by the animal worship, in which Egyptian and Indian and many other great peoples have combined. Men do not, I think, love beetles or cats or crocodiles with a wholly personal love; they salute them as expressions of that abstract and anonymous energy in nature which to any one is awful, and to an atheist must be frightful. So in all the fables that are or are not Aesop's all the animal forces drive like inanimate forces, like great rivers or growing trees. It is the limit and the loss of all such things that they cannot be anything but themselves: it is their tragedy that they could not lose their souls.

This is the immortal justification of the Fable: that we could not teach the plainest truths so simply without turning men into chessmen. We cannot talk of such simple things without using animals that do not talk at all. Suppose, for a moment, that you turn the wolf into a wolfish baron, or the fox into a foxy diplomatist. You will at once remember that even barons are human, you will be unable to forget that even diplomatists are men. You will always be looking for that accidental good-humour that should go with the brutality of any brutal man; for that allowance for all delicate things, including virtue, that should exist in any good diplomatist. Once put a thing on two legs instead of four and pluck it of feathers and you cannot help asking for a human being, either heroic, as in the fairy tales, or un-heroic, as in the modern novels.

But by using animals in this austere and arbitrary style as they are used on the shields of heraldry or the hieroglyphics of the ancients, men have really succeeded in handing down those tremendous truths that are called truisms. If the chivalric lion be red and rampant, it is rigidly red and rampant; if the sacred ibis stands anywhere on one leg, it stands on one leg for ever. In this language, like a large animal alphabet, are written some of the first philosophic certainties of men. As the child learns A for Ass or B for Bull or C for Cow, so man has learnt here to connect the simpler and stronger creatures with the simpler and stronger truths. That a flowing stream cannot befoul its own fountain, and that any one who says it does is a tyrant and a liar; that a mouse is too weak to fight a lion, but too strong for the cords that can hold a lion; that a fox who gets most out of a flat dish may easily get least out of a deep dish; that the crow whom the gods forbid to sing, the gods nevertheless provide with cheese; that when the goat insults from a mountain-top it is not the goat that insults, but the mountain: all these are deep truths deeply graven on the rocks wherever men have passed. It matters nothing how old they are, or how new; they are the alphabet of humanity, which like so many forms of primitive picture-writing employs any living symbol in preference to man. These ancient and universal tales are all of animals; as the latest discoveries in the oldest pre-historic caverns are all of animals. Man, in his simpler states, always felt that he himself was something too mysterious to be drawn. But the legend he carved under these cruder symbols was everywhere the same; and whether fables began with Aesop or began with Adam, whether they were German and mediAeval as Reynard the Fox, or as French and Renaissance as La Fontaine, the upshot is everywhere essentially the same: that superiority is always insolent, because it is always accidental; that pride goes before a fall; and that there is such a thing as being too clever by half. You will not find any other legend but this written upon the rocks by any hand of man. There is every type and time of fable: but there is only one moral to the fable; because there is only one moral to everything.


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Bishops, Healthcare, Compromise, and Truth

One criticism that can be leveled against our bishops in the health care debate is that they have failed take into account our current cultural environment. They have indicated certain minimum guidelines that the policy must contain, such as no funding for abortion and a conscience protection for pro-life health care workers. This approach is dangerous and could be self-defeating in the long-run. Given the direction our civilization is moving, it will be dangerous to pass a national health care plan in any form. The problem with the bishop’s approach is that the pro-life provisions accepted today will likely be dismissed tomorrow. The bishop’s strategy is short-sighted because it creates an opportunity for the federal government to advance abortion rights beyond what is possible at present. Through their good intentions, our bishops may have strengthened the culture of death.

By their short-sighted approach, our bishops may have inadvertently made it possible for the national health care bill to be passed without the elements that protect life and conscience. Once the Stupak amendment was included, the bishops gave their approval to the House version of the bill. A critical threshold was met through this support that allowed the bill to clear the first hurdle and move to the second stage where it will be transformed by the Senate. It is very unlikely that this version will contain the pro-life provision. The danger is that after the Senate changes the bill, the House may reconsider it without the pro-life amendment. While the outcome is unknown, it is possible that the bishop’s initial support may come back to haunt them. They permitted the bill to advance and this may eventually allow it to pass without pro-life amendments. If this happens, the bishops may have given their blessing to a bill that may advance the culture of death.

Our bishops' actions suggest a profound political naiveté. When the bill was being considered in the House, the bishops advised cooperation with political adversaries that do not recognize the intrinsic worth of every human life. We cooperated with those who would temporarily use us and then dismiss our concerns at a later time. We can honestly say that our bishops may have hurt the cause for life by failing to recognize our cultural and political reality. Their failure allowed the House to pass the first draft with the Churches blessing and this gave momentum to a bill that may ultimately become law without the provisions that protect life. In retrospect, you should never make a deal with those advocating a culture of death in hopes of defending life. This seems obvious and let’s hope it is not too late… If so, we must give our bishops the credit they have unfortunately earned. Their good intentions may make abortion easier and for this they deserve criticism.