Wednesday, August 31, 2011

On history repeating itself

It's a common theme that history repeats itself. Common but mistaken, and Mark Twain accurately corrected it to say that "History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme."

Less entertainly, and less accurately, Santayana said that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

(It's not worth quoting George Bernard Shaw, "If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience". Except to contrast his laboured effort with Chesterton's effortless paradoxes.)

Anyways, this post is to report a nice variation on the theme:
"Every time history repeats itself the price goes up" (per Anon).

Jewish World Review, August 31, 2011

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Oslo murders

So what motivated Breivik?

When a friend told me about the Oslo murders, my reaction was to ask if Muslim terrorists were responsible.

On being told the perpetrator was a "fundamentalist Christian", I thought this didn't seem likely. While some Christians have attacked abortion workers, Christians have not gone in for indiscriminate massacres.

What's the basis for this report? It comes from the Norwegian police, who noted that the murderer, Anders Breivik, had described himself as a "fundamentalist Christian".

As this description fits liberal sentiments, it's been widely disseminated. But, unsurprisingly, the story is more complex.

First, while Breivik identified culturally with Europe's Christian past, particularly with the crusaders, there is no evidence that he had a deeper faith.

In particular, there's no mention of him having attended a church, whether regularly or not.

Also, Breivik was apparently a mason. This is not to propose deep conspiracies, but simply to indicate that there's room for characterizing him in other ways.

In sum, like many people on the fringes, he had a jumble of ideas. And they did not include the Gospel message of redemption.

So how should we react?

Let's pray for the victims, for the repose of their souls or for their recovery.

Let's also pray for familes and others traumatized by these events.

But let's also pray for Anders himself. May he move beyond the cultural trappings of western Christianity and find salvation in Christ.

Something else to bear in mind

I used to occasionally speculate on how bad things would need to become, in order to justify taking violent action.

I discontinued this in 1996, after watching the movie, The Rock.

In the film, a group captures a nuclear weapon, to force the US Government into recognizing their concerns. The Government calls their bluff, but some of the activists reject the group's leadership and try to launch the weapons. (Only to be foiled by an ageing Sean Connery ...)

It got me thinking. Suppose someone with more enthusiasm than judgement (and I knew people like that) told me that he had just assassinated an objectionable politician, media person, or bishop? Might I be partly responsible?

In short, academic discussions about civil disobedience can have consequences. May I suggest an appropriate circumspection on this point.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Evaluating novel exegesis

Associating with fundamentalists, charismatics and traditionalists means that you encounter creative instances of scriptural exegesis (ie interpretations of what the Bible means).

My favourite is the Catholic charismatic who, refering to the creation of man on the sixth day, said this means that the Lord created all human souls in Paradise and that conception merely involves the incarnation of a pre-existing soul.

Though recognising his originality, I pointed out that Origen had also taught this back in the third century and that his theory had been condemned by the Church. But this cut no ice. My interlocuter merely said that we're bound by the clear teaching of Scripture ...

And the other day, a friend relayed an exciting exegesis that she had heard from a visiting preacher.

After thinking about it and other such novelties, I now offer Felix's first law of hermeneutics:

The plausibilty of a novel exegesis is inversely proportional to the excitement with which it is proposed.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Four Senses of Scripture

Aliens in This World (link below) has a discussion on a mediaeval rhyme about the four senses of Holy Scripture.

Here's the Latin:

Littera” gesta docet,
Quod credas “Allegoria”,
“Moralia” quod agas,
Quo tendas “Anagogia.”

And here's my suggested translation.

The Literal tells about the deed,
The Allegory about the creed.
The Moral tells you what to do,
And Anagogy what's in store for you.


Friday, June 24, 2011

Birthday of St John the Baptist

The birthday of St John the Baptist is celebrated on 24 June. Looking at St John, we can see him as a man of contrasts.

His vocation

An angel appeared to St John’s father, Zachary, and told him that he would have a son, even though Zachary and his wife, Elizabeth, were advanced in age.

Zachary did not initially accept this and was given a sign, that he could not speak until the child had been born. In contrast, St John’s mission was to preach to crowds and tell the Jews that the Messiah would be coming shortly.

St Zachary was a priest under the Mosaic Law, and the angel appeared to him while he was offering a sacrifice in the Temple. This meant that, as his son, St John was also a priest under the Old Covenant.

However, he did not serve as a priest and his vocation was to herald the coming of the Messiah. As the forerunner of the Messiah, he was not a priest under the new dispensation.

His sanctification

Mary came to visit Elizabeth and assist her with her pregnancy. Bearing the Divine Word in her womb, Mary brought the Savior to the unborn child whom Elizabeth was carrying. At that moment, as the angel had said, the infant St John was “filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born”.

Which is why St John is so different from other saints. The Church usually celebrates their heavenly birthdays, ie the anniversaries of their deaths. But the Church celebrates St John’s birthday as manifesting the triumph of God’s grace because St John was born sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

His asceticism

For most of his life, St John the Baptist lived a life of prayer as a hermit in the Judean desert. He practiced great asceticism, wearing a camel hide (the equivalent of the later hair shirt) and eating only locusts and wild honey.

So, after he started preaching in public, we might expect that he demanded considerable austerities from people who came to hear him.

But instead he taught alms giving - for those who could afford it - and obedience to basic moral laws. For example, Jews collaborating with the Roman occupation forces were told only, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely; be content with your pay.”

His prophetic role

St John also taught that the Messiah was coming and that the people needed to repent of their sins. He was in the line of the prophets of Judah and Israel, who had looked forward to the coming of the Messiah.

But St John was more than a prophet. He was given the privilege of actually seeing the Messiah and announcing that He had come.

Then, protesting his unworthiness, he baptized the Lord and had his message confirmed. He saw the descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus and heard the Father’s voice declaring that Jesus was the Son of God.

His martyrdom

The local ruler was King Herod, a son of Herod the Great who had murdered the Holy Innocents. Then, as now, it was a delicate political situation. Herod became afraid that St John might stir up the masses, and he had him arrested and thrown into prison.

Herod had an irregular union with Mariamne, who was both his niece and his half-brother’s wife. St John had denounced this breach of the moral law and Mariamne did not forget this insult. When the chance came, she persuaded Herod to have St John beheaded.

O God, who has made this day worthy of honour
by the birth of blessed John:
grant to Your people the grace of spiritual joys,
and direct the minds of all the faithful into the way of eternal salvation.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The road to Emmaus

Sunday’s Gospel reading (Novus Ordo) was about the Lord meeting with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. The sermon made the standard points that the disciples met the Lord in the “breaking of the bread” and that this alludes to the Eucharist.

We can look further at the liturgical aspect. First, there was the “Liturgy of the Word”, moving the disciples to a knowledge of Christ. This was followed by the “Liturgy of Communion”, when the disciples experienced the Lord as really present.

By the way, the evangelist identifies one disciple, Cleopas, but does not name the other disciple. Had the person been forgotten by the time St Luke made his enquiries? Had the person apostatized? Or is there some other explanation?

Or is the name left unspecified so that we can put ourselves in his or her place?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Modal logic

Me: … And that’s how you derive this differential function.

Ben: I would probably have worked it out if I had enough time.

Me: You’re probably right.

Ben: I’m definitely right.

Me, smiling: Definitely.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A joke for Lent

An Irishman moves into a tiny village in rural Ireland. He walks into the local pub, orders three drinks, drinks them, and then leaves the pub. And every evening he repeats this procedure.

Soon the entire village is talking about this. Finally, the bar tender asks, “I don’t mean to pry, but we were wondering why you order three pints each time you come in.”

The man says, “You see, I have two brothers - one in America and one in Australia. We promised that each time we have a drink, we’d order an extra two pints as a way of keeping up with each other.”

But one day, the man came into the pub and orders only two pints. The news spreads and the next evening the bar tender tells the man, “I want to offer our condolences on the death of your brother.”

The man says, “No, my brothers are alive and well, thanks be”. So the bar tender asks, “Then what is it with the two pints?”

“Well” says the man, “One pint is for Mick and one is for Dan. But as for meself, I’m giving up drink for Lent.”

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Catholicism and complexity

Traditional Catholic social teaching recognised the complexity of human affairs. An approach not taught these days.

First case. A young man chortling about the intervention in Libya. ”Gaddafi’s a tyrant and we’ve got to get rid of him”. So simple!

Let's look at the just war criteria. They require a just objective, legitimate authority, a force proportionate to the objective, and a reasonable chance of success.

But the second Gulf War showed the insuperable problems in setting up shining new democracies in the Middle East. Whatever our dreams, there’s no reasonable chance of success in Libya and the adventure is immoral.

Second case. The youth spokeswoman in the Canberra-Goulburn archdiocese wants men to be jailed if they patronize prostitutes. This is on the basis of “gender equality”.

Does she also want to criminalize adultery? Or telling dirty jokes? Or taking the Lord’s name in vain?

They tried all this in Calvin’s Geneva. But for a Catholic perspective, turn to St Augustine, who concluded that - though prostitution is immoral - the State should not try and outlaw it.

Monday, March 7, 2011

St Thomas Aquinas

March 7 is the feast of St Thomas Aquinas in the traditional calendar (it's January 28 in the new calendar). 

Let's be blunt.  St Thomas can appear a bit off-putting at first sight.  The man who produced the monumental Summa Theologica.  A man raised above earthly passions, always calm and logical.  Admirable, of course, but not attractive. 

Perhaps we can seek to humanize him.  Born of an aristocratic family of knights in the middle of the middle ages, he was a classic absent minded professor.  Invited to a feast by the king, he sat unmoved through the glittering occasion, the exquisite food, beautiful music, breathtaking jugglers, magnificent robes … Ignoring these delights, he meditated on a knotty philosophical problem until he had worked it out. 

(The pattern persists, of course.  A scientist sat silent all through a dinner with distinguished foreign guests.  Afterwards, washing the dishes with his wife, he announced the secret.  “I have solved the heat transfer problem!” And went on to win a Nobel Prize.) 

All this is true but it’s not the whole truth.  The central truth about today's saint is that he was also a passionate man of prayer.  Yes, during the day he used his left brain to meditate on the Faith.  And in the evening, he would pray passionately about these truths into the early morning.  A great saint, his sole desire was to know and follow Christ.  

St Thomas, pray for us. 

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Further on the Middle East

Let's take a conservative and natural law approach to the current events in the Middle East. 

First, let's not get swept along with euphoria about people power etc.  Sure, democracy is a good system: it reflects human dignity by giving a measure of participation in the government, and it provides a feedback system that operates in a legal and non-violent manner.  But let's remember that there's no intrinsic right to democracy (consider, for example, the non-democratic government of St Louis IX).  And recall that the merits of a democracy depend on the maturity of the governed to take informed and responsible decisions. 

Second, let's not expect the same outcome in each middle eastern country.  Pan-islamic rhetoric hasn't translated to a lasting pan-islamic state because different communities and countries have their own histories and cultures.  The likelihood is that the "people power" revolutions will produce different outcomes, perhaps with a repressive dictatorship in one, a somewhat democracy in another, and an islamic state in a third.

As the servant of God, G K Chesterton wrote, "human beings ... never have from the beginning of the world done what the wise men have seen to be inevitable".

And, remember Ps 121/122:6, which bids us pray for the peace of Jerusalem.  Sure, this refers primarily to the Church.  But the Catholic approach is to embrace all aspects of Scripture, and of reality, and so we are bidden to pray for the earthly Jerusalem also.  

One final point.  Consider Colonel Gaddafi's humility.  How come he or the Revolutionary Command Council didn't upgrade him to General or Field Marshal?  I guess it's too late now. 


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Middle East

From <a href="">Michael Danby MP</a>.  Mr Danby, who is Jewish, is a Labor member of the Australian Parliament:

"Counter intuitively to the perverse BBC/Guardian/Fairfax worldview about the Middle East, only Israel has seen the number of Christians increase from 34,000 in 1948 to 151,700 (according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics Report of 2010).  Where is World Vision, Care or the Uniting Church, off on the same tangent with Israel-obsessed radicals of the Middle East Council of Christians?"

And, by the way, let’s remember to do as Sacred Scripture bids us and to pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Ps 121/122:6).


Monday, February 7, 2011

Imperfect surroundings

James Deaton asks whether knowledge workers "need ideal conditions to do great work?”  He cites the views of many eminent scientists who believe that an “ideal situation” is actually detrimental.

Deaton's take is that “if you are not making progress where you are, believing better conditions are all that is holding you back is a convenient substitute for doing the actual work".

There are a lot of factors, of course.  For example, perfect surroundings can create a pressure to think only great thoughts or write only perfect prose, pressures which are in fact turn counter-productive.  

The piece is worth reading.  And perhaps a good corrective for people (like me) who are inclined to think that holiness would be easy if things were better. 

If we were in a monastery, or had better health, or weren't emeshed in family issues. But that it’s all a bit too much as things are  …


"It was a wise man who said that there is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals."
Felix Frankfurter
(h/t Jewish World

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Thoughts at Candlemas

The 2 February is the Feast of  the Presentation in the Temple, aka Candlemas.  The last day of extended Christmas tide.  And I was thinking about the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary while waiting for Mass to begin.

They're all about journeys.  In the first mystery, the Archangel Gabriel journeys from Heaven to Nazareth to announce the Incarnation. 

The second mystery has Mary on the road, travelling from Nazareth to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who lives down south near Jerusalem. 

Then the third mystery has Mary and Joseph both travelling south from Nazareth, to Bethlehem.  The Lord is born while they shelter in a stable. 

The fourth mystery is the Presentation.  Mary, Joseph and the Child travel from Bethlehem to the Temple in nearby Jerusalem. 

And in the fifth mystery, the Holy Family travels from Nazareth to the Temple for annual celebrations. 

They say that life is a big journey.  But what impresses me is how Mary's life was made up of lots of smaller journeys. 

A bit like St Therese of Liseux's "little way", achieving perfection through attention to trifles.  (And, as Michelangelo is supposed to have said, perfection is no trifle!)