Spawn of Mars
Don't worry. If you like your religion, you can keep your religion.
Whence Then Hath It Cockle?
An Insight Into Theodicy
Thursday, March 7, 2019 10:00 pm
I'm not put out by the existence of evil. That is, I do not think it is some sort of terrible mystery, nor a thing to make one doubt the existence of God. You have heard it said: "A truly good God would never allow this! So there is no good God; indeed, no God at all." But that is not an argument. It is a kind of tantrum, really. 

Still, let me offer a response — a parable I recently heard at Mass. True, a parable is not an argument either; but at least it is not a tantrum.

Jesus said (Matt. 13:24-30):
The kingdom of heaven is likened to a man that sowed good seeds in his field. But while men were asleep, his enemy came and oversowed cockle among the wheat and went his way. And when the blade was sprung up, and had brought forth fruit, then appeared also the cockle. And the servants of the goodman of the house coming said to him: Sir, didst thou not sow good seed in thy field? whence then hath it cockle? And he said to them: An enemy hath done this. And the servants said to him: Wilt thou that we go and gather it up? And he said: No, lest perhaps gathering up the cockle, you root up the wheat also together with it. Suffer both to grow until the harvest, and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers: Gather up first the cockle, and bind it into bundles to burn, but the wheat gather ye into my barn.
There you go. God plants the wheat. It is not He who plants the cockle. And why does God not immediately uproot the cockle? Because doing so risks uprooting the wheat.


"Suffer both to grow."

Again, the point of a parable is not a QED. Parables illuminate. Simply see it: Removing the evil cockle would uproot the good wheat. Not because good requires evil; but because good would be ruined by the act of removal. And though one could here begin a great exegesis, leading to some great theodicean schema, that endeavor would be against the spirit of a parable; and of a post in a blog.

Superfluous in Heaven
Even Sacred Music Is Mundane
Saturday, February 4, 2017 12:36 am
In the mid '80s, when I was a college boy, I regularly went to the record stores near campus. This was just before CDs and long before MP3s. You wanted music, you flipped through an alphabetized bin and found an LP. Anyhow, one day, while I was browsing for something new, a classical work of some sort started playing on the store stereo. It was beautiful and unfamiliar. I listened for quite a while. I finally asked the clerk what it was. He showed me the sleeve and I went to the proper bin. The LP was in stock. I bought it. 

It was the Third Symphony of Jean Sibelius, as performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, recorded in June 1984. I know these details because, even when I eventually got the CD, I got the exact same recording. I am reading the liner notes as I write.

Now, I am profoundly susceptible to music. My reactions are acute. Sometimes I am infatuated only; sometimes I am ceaselessly bound. Sibelius's Third is still beautiful to me. It raises and stirs, thirty years on.

Beauty is not precisely in the eye of the beholder. All beautiful things are imperfect and being imperfect are not perfectly beautiful. Besides, one who beholds is imperfect, too, and cannot apprehend beauty perfectly. It is all piecemeal. So it is not surprising that we disagree on what is beautiful. That said, beauty is not a matter of opinion. We are moved by a beautiful thing because we are sensing Beauty Itself. A truly beautiful thing partakes of God.

That is why a beautiful thing makes life good. Living on Earth is a rotten business. A beautiful thing consoles and compensates. When I listen to Sibelius's Third I am glad I have ears. I am reminded that misery is a privation, not an end. I am glad that I am still breathing.

And then I wonder: Would the Third even matter to me in the afterlife?

Assume I get to Heaven. Assume I am granted the Beatific Vision. Seeing God fully means apprehending Beauty at Its Source. No need for reflections or consolations. Sibelius's Third Symphony is of the Earth and would be superfluous in Heaven.

I can tell myself that, being in Heaven, my understanding would be under grace and I would not even miss the Third, nor think it sad that I don't need or want to listen to it. I would understand that even a great work is unnecessary when there is no misery to counteract. I wouldn't even feel a loss, since loss cannot exist in Heaven.

Even after the Resurrection, when we would all be restored to our bodies and again in some sort of material life, the grace of Heaven would persist. We won't need symphonies nor any example of artifacted beauty. Presumably they wouldn't even attract us since we would have no unsatisfied appetites.

And yet.

Will we stop loving each other because we are immersed in grace? Will we stop enjoying what can be enjoyed, whether it is our family or the sun or the moon or whatever might constitute the consummated universe?

Maybe the Third will be superfluous. Or maybe you can never have too much beauty, and we will listen with an even greater joy than before.

Amid the Forests, Among the Stars
A Little Animism Might Help
Sunday, October 5, 2008 7:52 pm
When considering what has occupied thinkers until the modern age, it strikes me how unabashedly they ruminated on the non-material. For ancient and medieval thinkers, material things were not ultimate things, and truly ultimate things can and should be understood.

Modern materialists simply lack imagination. Maybe it is better to say that their imaginations cannot escape their machines and mathematics. Whatever strength of imagination they do have — to imagine, say, a warp in spacetime — they reject any concepts not reducible to the material.

Thus they are terribly hampered when it comes to thinking about the supernatural, let alone believing in God. Indeed, unlike the rest of us, they have no sense of the Divine. Perhaps they truly lack this sense. Rather than having plucked out their eyes, they were simply born blind. Either way, is it not amusing how they think themselves superior for being handicapped? It never occurs to them that they are in a minority not because they, as an elite, have transcended mankind, but because they are simply damaged. 

In any event, it seems that much of the difficulty in accepting God is rooted in an abandonment of philosophy. Natural science has progressively estranged itself from its parent. The modern materialist, at heart a scientist, no longer wonders about causes formal, efficient, and final. He simply doesn't wonder. They don't matter to him. He has, indeed, lost the very language to discuss them. All the terms and theories and modes and categories have been cast aside. And why? Because all of them were devised at first to explain the mundane: Why do things grow? Why do things fall? Why do things live? Why do things burn? Yet having explained the mundane with all his equations and having presumed there is an equation for everything, the materialist has no more need for philosophy.

Never mind Aristotle and Aquinas and their ilk. Consider animism. How is that things move? How is that some of them clearly move deliberately? Is there something that facilitates this animation of things? There is clearly a distinction between living and dead. Something enlivens. And is "living" restricted to beasts? Isn't the wind alive? Shouldn't it, too, have an animating spirit, as much as a mouse? Indeed, are any objects free of spirit? Is it not possible that all objects contain a spirit?

This is not an idiotic line of inquiry. It is reasonable. Just because we have since concluded that the wind has no spirit doesn't mean the evidence isn't there. What is unfortunate is that, having concluded via science that the wind is just an effect of the variously accelerated molecules in the atmosphere, the intuition at the core of animism has been lost. Did you know that the ancients even supposed that abstract emotions had spirits? Love was not only something experienced but something existent, an entity in possession of its own animating spirit. This is downright alien to modern thinking. It may be a refined animism far from the fields and forests, but it is still an animism.

Now, when we Christians say that God is Love, what are we saying, after all? We are saying that Love is an entity animated by a Spirit. Yet the materialist has so thoroughly discarded animistic thinking, he can't even suppose that Love might be more that just an affect of creatures. He can't imagine Love as Being. Sadly for him, so much of God is like that; and since he can't manage the tiniest bit of animistic thinking, he imagines God as only a kind of Spaghetti Monster. The materialist simply hasn't the philosophical disposition — the necessary cognitive tools — to transcend his inadequate notions of God.

Ages as Bright as Any
Michael Flynn's Eifelheim
Saturday, June 21, 2008 9:37 pm
In seeking science fiction that is neither left-wing nor Christophobic, I would have thought the worst place to look would be in a novel about aliens crashing in a medieval German town. O! the opportunities to condemn the superstitious villainies of the Dark Ages! Beleaguered aliens — so like ourselves in their adherence to Science! — against the base and ignorant Catholicism of dim-witted villagers! Goodness me, the cliches write themselves.

Eifelheim is absolutely nothing like that. This is a work that depicts medieval Catholics with sympathy, not by supposing them to be unwashed Episcopalians who would vote Democratic if only they could, but by eschewing condescension and hatred — and, more to the point, by depicting the faithful Catholics as fully rational. 

In trying to understand the alien Krenken, Pastor Deitrich does not struggle to accommodate his religion and his science. He doesn't overcome any "provincial" shortcomings nor abandon his beliefs. Rather, he quite intelligently employs the scholarship of his age — secular and religious — to explain the Krenken. His categories may be medieval and Catholic, but they are rational. Put simply, Dietrich is not forced into some sort of proto-Enlightenment. He remains medieval. Best of all, his understandings are never made to seem pitiful for being insufficiently post-Einsteinian.

So Eiefelheim plays upon the actual strengths — intellectual and technical — of the Middle Ages. Does that mean we get an apology for the Middle Ages, a novel of Medieval Boosterism? No. But we are spared any nonsense about "Dark" Ages. Although the villagers are, quite properly, depicted as 14th-century people, they are also depicted as human beings, fearful and wise.

And wonder of wonders, Christianity itself is presented well — not as a generic stand-in for Belief in God but as a precisely dogmatic view of things. I'll give you two significant examples of this.

First: The fervent, hard-line Franciscan Joachim, who like others of the villagers believes the Krenken to be demons and, at first, seems like he's going to be the stock Intolerant Bigot, instead proclaims: "Show these beings what a Christian is. Welcome them into your hearths, for they are cold. Give them bread, for they are hungry. Comfort them, for they are far from home. Thus inspired by our example, they will repent and be saved... Imprisoned in flesh, they can wield no demonic powers. Christ is all-powerful. The goodness of Christ is all-powerful... Now we may see that it will triumph over Hell itself!" And Joachim is as good as his word.

Second: Much as Dietrich uses his categories to understand the Krenken Science, the Krenken use theirs to understand Dietrich's Christian Faith. Of course, much as Dietrich's categories fail him a bit, the Krenken's fail them a bit; yet as time goes on, many of the Krenken are actually converted and baptized! Not frivolously, either, but — as Joachim had hoped — in reaction to the Christianity of Dietrich and the villagers. Yes, the baptized Krenken have their moments of doubt (Eifelheim is no more a booster for Christianity than it is for the Middle Ages), but they remain faithful — even unto their personal detriment.

Now, on top of its respect for and intelligent engagement with medieval Catholicism, Eifelheim is simply a beautiful story. As science fiction it is sound, if a little unremarkable. That is, don't come to it expecting any unprecedented ideas about aliens or interstellar travel. But as a story it is beautiful. It is not about aliens but about a medieval village confronted with non-human souls, and there are episodes and events and scenes and characters that are great and plentiful and excellently arranged. Even granting that I am a soft touch, Eifelheim moved me. I can't recommend it enough.

P.S. I'm currently deep into Flynn's novel The Wreck of The River of Stars. Believe the hype: It's masterful. Read it — before or after Eifelheim, it doesn't matter. Gosh and damn, I've never been happier being an SF geek than in the past six months! And all it took was well-written SF that doesn't hate on my beliefs...

A Bourne Rumination
On the Last of the Trilogy
Sunday, January 13, 2008 3:52 pm
Beware! Spoilers follow.

I can watch the first two Bourne movies repeatedly and still enjoy them. They really do succeed. In general I am annoyed that they, like too much out of Hollywood, find the greatest criminality among American spies; but hey, they are exciting and they aren't cartoons. Having heard that The Bourne Ultimatum was even more anti-American, I wasn't so sure I wanted to bother with it; yet I had also heard it was very good, and so I got it.

Yes, yes, one could argue that it's not anti-American as such but only anti-CIA; but, in the end, it is Americans who are the bad guys, so it's a bit sour. It also spins its wheels a bit, as far as the action goes; the variations on a theme were sometimes not so variant. Still, I really liked it — and unlike, say, Spider-Man 3, it doesn't crater and ruin its trilogy, but finishes things very well.

Now, two observations. 

First: The black-ops program of which Bourne is a part has the power to kill enemies of America without any red tape or real oversight. The movie is particularly outraged that even U.S. citizens have been terminated. Now, I am one who draws a distinction between citizen and non-citizen. It does make a difference whether the target of a black-ops assassination is a citizen or not. But I find it interesting that a Hollywood movie should try to raise our outrage by dealing in a distinction that, in most other contexts, it would sneer at. Asserting that we should especially not kill U.S. citizens is asserting that there is something special about U.S. citizens. A "citizen," in other words, is a real category, with real rights above the rights of non-citizens. How wonderfully true! Yet The Bourne Ultimatum is essentially championing nationalism, even — if you want to be crude — tribalism. Are we finally allowed, dear Hollywood, to favor our own people over others?

Second: The Bourne trilogy is, action aside, about Bourne's journey towards his origins as an assassin; more to the point, towards knowledge of his true identity. And here the movie does something that I so hope I am not misinterpreting.

In all three movies, we have been led to think that Bourne was programmed to be a killer, brainwashed simply; and the final movie emphasizes this idea, showing flashbacks of Bourne being broken down so that his old identity would be lost. Yet his true origin as an assassin comes in a single moment. He is calmly sitting in a room with the man in charge, who is essentially saying to him: "Now's the time; you can leave or stay;" and Bourne is hesitating, perhaps agonizing; and then Bourne stands up and shoots and kills a hooded prisoner, about whom Bourne knows nothing. That is when he becomes an assassin: When he chooses to kill.

In other words, he can't escape responsibility by saying he was brainwashed or tortured. He made the choice. It wasn't the evil CIA that corrupted him; it was he himself. Bourne misused his free will. And of course, in the present day, he chooses not to kill; notably he does not "take the shot" when he has another assassin in his sights. Bourne doesn't overcome the nasty CIA; he rejects the choice he made in the beginning, and restores himself. He has repented. Is it an accident that, in a movie indifferent to explicit religion, Bourne is identified (via his old dog tags) as Catholic? Is this a clue? Am I encouraged to give a Catholic interpretation to Bourne's original sin? Encouraged or not, I do; and it is a very satisfying resolution of the trilogy.

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