Friday, March 28, 2008

Mailbag: Taoism

From a letter I just wrote to a student who was "raised Catholic" but now is more interested in Eastern Religions, espeically Taoism.


Our society doesn't really encourage people to think much about their religion, unfortunately not even in the Church. That's a real passion of mine, to try to change the culture at large and especially the culture in the Church to appreciate the riches of the Catholic heritage of thought in philosophers and theologians like Ambrose, Augustine, Anselm, and Aqinas (what I call the A-list). I mean these guys say amazing things. One of Saint Augustine's famous quotes is "O Lord our hearts are restless until they rest in thee." Why isn't our society, in and out of the Church, addressing the sense of restlessness of youth. What's more, this sense of restlessness is limitless, there's nothing on earth that can always satisfy, nothing that offers infinite bliss. So are we doomed either to finite existence/enjoyment or infinite restlessness? Augustine thinks not since exploring the infinite Mind of God offers infinitely many new facets every moment. God's mind has infinitely many limbs with infinitely many branches with infinitely many leaves... In the words of Saint Anselm, who as influenced by Augustine, God is "That than which no greater can be conceived." In one of his prayers he realizes that this being must exist because perfection includes existence. So if that than which no greater can be conceived failed to exist then it wouldn't *be* the greatest conceivable, but that's a contradiction so there must be such a being. Saint Thomas Aquinas then provides the resources for seeing why this must be true because, as he puts it, God's essence includes his existence. For all finite, contingent creatures our essence includes some properties, but not existence: we could be or not be, the would could have gone on even we hadn't existed. But God's essence and existence are one: God cannot not exist.

In my survey of Eastern religions I suppose I found certain kinds of Hinduism most plausible from a metaphysical point of view but abhorred its stratified ethics. I found Buddhism most plausible from an ethical standpoint (except inaction), but find its metaphysics implausible (guess what, I *do* exist, there's no denying that as Descartes taught us "Cogito ergo sum"). I do believe in a Tao, but I hold a view called Personalism which puts persons and personhood at the top of the metaphysical ladder (human persons are just one kind of person, I'm talking about any being with will, intellect, choice, rationality, creativity) and so I think the Tao is not an impersonal force but rather an abstraction of the mind of God. God thinks only perfectly harmonious thoughts containing the perfection of all things. When we think in harmony with God we grasp God's thoughts, the Tao. I think a Tao divorced from personhood is unintelligible. On the moral side I find the same flaws in Taoism as in Buddhism: the principle of inaction. Both are essentially Stoic, telling us we should accept things as they are rather than fight to bring the world into conformity with our ideals. I think that's the wrong way to think about the Tao. I think the Tao impels us to action to bring about that ideal to which the Tao stretches. Some Taoist's versions of active inaction come close to this, though I still find it unintelligible as an impersonal force and think it must be grounded in the Mind of a Person. I suppose I'm a Catholic Taoist although it's basic teachings were found in Judaism long before the writing of the Tao Te Ching. The Hebrew Scriptures taught that all humanity should be humble since we are somewhere in the middle of the Great Chain of Being, far from the most advanced creatures in existence. The Hebrew Scriptures taught compassion through all kinds of rules about gleaning and usury and hospitality. The Hebrew Scriptures taught moderation through its dietary constraints. So the "Three Jewels" of Taoist ethics and the Tao itself, the metaphysical centerpiece are already included in an informed understanding of the Judeo-Christian worldview.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Hail Mary!

Annunciation Of The Lord The time arrived for Jesus to come down from heaven. God sent the Archangel Gabriel to the town of Nazareth where Mary lived. The glorious archangel entered Mary's little house and found her praying. "Hail Mary, full of grace!" said the angel. "The Lord is with you, and you are blessed among women." Mary was surprised to hear the angel's words of praise. "Do not be afraid, Mary," said Gabriel. Then he told her that she was to be the mother of Jesus, our Savior. Mary understood what a great honor God was giving her. Yet she said, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord!" At that very moment, she became the Mother of God. And still she called herself his handmaid, his servant. Mary knew, too, that as the mother of Jesus, she would have many sorrows. She knew she would have to suffer when her Son suffered. Yet with all her heart, she said, "Be it done to me according to your word." This feast celebrates Mary's response to God, and the awesome moment of the Incarnation. Take some time today to reflect on how profoundly our lives have been changed as a result of Mary's "yes" to God.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

He is Risen!

Seven Stanzas at Easter

By John Updike

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that — pierced — died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

Telephone Poles and Other Poems © 1961 by John Updike.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

Sorry it's late, my picture posting function wasn't working!

Another great conversion story!

Check out this cool conversion story by my new friends, both of whom are grad students here at the University of Rochester.

From the email bag: Doctrines and Dogmas of the Church

Where can I find the list of 300+ or so doctrines of the Catholic Church? I was told there are about 300. Would you let me know the difference between dogma and doctrine, if there is a difference? I was told that there are about eight "different levels" of doctrine/dogma or "methods of declaring" the doctrine/dogma. I am just looking for succint list (without elaborate exposition).

LOL There might or might not be 300 doctrines of the Church, but there certainly is no such list. Depending on how you slice them there may be thousands!

Perhaps someone once tried to count assertions in the catechism or something, but that would be a fool’s errand (or a very bored Medieval scribe). I doubt anyone since about 1320 has had the patience required for such a task. There is just no principle way to individuate doctrines. Is the doctrine of divine simplicity a distinct doctrine from the doctrine of aseity? It’s not clear to me whether it is or not. I doubt there is any clear criterion of individuation possible.

As for the difference between dogma and doctrine that’s also ambiguous. The word “doctrine” is from a Latin root and just means “a teaching” (a “doctor” is one who teaches, to be “docile” is to be teachable). The word “dogma” is from a Greek root which means little more that “belief”. The words have evolved many different uses in different contexts. In connotation “dogma” typically denotes (these days) a more substantive property. The Church teaches many things in many ways. The totality can be called the Magisterium, though that term is often used to denote the teaching authority of the Church (so it’s used as a kind of synecdoche). The broadest division is the Ordinary Magisterium—primarily the Fathers and Doctors of the Church especially as synodically organized but extending all the way down to the local ordinary in some degree—and the Extraordinary Magisterium—the canons of full Ecumenical Councils and Ex Cathedra statements of the Bishop of Rome. It is arguable that there are subtler distinctions, but this is the place to start. You might want to call the doctrines taught via the EM “dogmas” (the real Greek plural or its anglicized counterpart is probably “dogmata”) but that would just be a convention of language. It’s common but not exclusive for “doctrine” and “dogma” to be used this way, although “dogma” having a more stringent connotation is a fairly recent phenomenon.

One might conceivably count up the doctrines taught via the EM by counting up the number of the canons of the ecumenical councils—which typically are numbered, at least in the MSS we have, though the primary data for some can be sketchy, there’s be scholarly quibbles even here. But suppose you went with the most conventional numbering and added them up and they summed to n. You could then plausibly add 2 to that to get the total number of dogmas. The two others being the Marian dogmas of the Immaculate Conception (Pius the IX I think, 1954) and the Assumption of Mary (Pius XII, 1950). The dates are the dates of the *promulgation* as revealed doctrines. They were, arguably, part of the ordinary magisterium prior to that. Items can go from the ordinary magisterium to the extraordinary when a Council or ex cathedra statement by a Pope promulgates something that was taught previously, but not via those means. For example in the last decade there has been some stir about the term “Mediatrix” being elevated from the OM to the EM.

Some people will argue that there are other than these two methods of EM, for example there is a statement somewhere that “it is not permissible to disagree with all of the Fathers.” But plausibly all they agree on with total unanimity are items already in a Council. It’s debatable, it would make a good Historical Theology dissertation. The same goes for whether there have been more than two ex cathedra statements. Still, all the debatable points leave a core idea intact which I hope you will find useful.


Frank Makes the News

In this video, starting at about exactly the 10 minute mark, the President of the Saint Louis Blues Hockey organization reads a letter from our own Frank Hogrebe, President of the Saint Louis Saints adult hockey team. He applauds Franks and the Saints community spirit.

Way to go Frank!

For backstory on the Saints see these prior stories.