Wittgenstein vs. Scientism

 Philosophy  Comments Off on Wittgenstein vs. Scientism
Jan 252013

Wittgenstein’s forgotten lesson


Philosophy, he writes, “is not a theory but an activity.” It strives, not after scientific truth, but after conceptual clarity.


How does one demonstrate an understanding of a piece of music? Well, perhaps by playing it expressively, or by using the right sort of metaphors to describe it. And how does one explain what “expressive playing” is? What is needed, Wittgenstein says, is “a culture”: “If someone is brought up in a particular culture-and then reacts to music in such-and-such a way, you can teach him the use of the phrase ‘expressive playing.’” What is required for this kind of understanding is a form of life, a set of communally shared practices, together with the ability to hear and see the connections made by the practitioners of this form of life.


“Understanding a sentence,” Wittgenstein says in Philosophical Investigations, “is more akin to understanding a theme in music than one may think.” Understanding a sentence, too, requires participation in the form of life, the “language-game,” to which it belongs. The reason computers have no understanding of the sentences they process is not that they lack sufficient neuronal complexity, but that they are not, and cannot be, participants in the culture to which the sentences belong. A sentence does not acquire meaning through the correlation, one to one, of its words with objects in the world; it acquires meaning through the use that is made of it in the communal life of human beings.


All this may sound trivially true. Wittgenstein himself described his work as a “synopsis of trivialities.” But when we are thinking philosophically we are apt to forget these trivialities and thus end up in confusion, imagining, for example, that we will understand ourselves better if we study the quantum behaviour of the sub-atomic particles inside our brains, a belief analogous to the conviction that a study of acoustics will help us understand Beethoven’s music. Why do we need reminding of trivialities? Because we are bewitched into thinking that if we lack a scientific theory of something, we lack any understanding of it.


One of the crucial differences between the method of science and the non-theoretical understanding that is exemplified in music, art, philosophy and ordinary life, is that science aims at a level of generality which necessarily eludes these other forms of understanding. This is why the understanding of people can never be a science. To understand a person is to be able to tell, for example, whether he means what he says or not, whether his expressions of feeling are genuine or feigned. And how does one acquire this sort of understanding? Wittgenstein raises this question at the end of Philosophical Investigations. “Is there,” he asks, “such a thing as ‘expert judgment’ about the genuineness of expressions of feeling?” Yes, he answers, there is.


When Wittgenstein was once discussing his favourite novel, The Brothers Karamazov, with Maurice Drury, Drury said that he found the character of Father Zossima impressive. Of Zossima, Dostoevsky writes: “It was said that… he had absorbed so many secrets, sorrows, and avowals into his soul that in the end he had acquired so fine a perception that he could tell at the first glance from the face of a stranger what he had come for, what he wanted and what kind of torment racked his conscience.” “Yes,” said Wittgenstein, “there really have been people like that, who could see directly into the souls of other people and advise them.”


“An inner process stands in need of outward criteria,” runs one of the most often quoted aphorisms of Philosophical Investigations. It is less often realised what emphasis Wittgenstein placed on the need for sensitive perception of those “outward criteria” in all their imponderability. And where does one find such acute sensitivity? Not, typically, in the works of psychologists, but in those of the great artists, musicians and novelists. “People nowadays,” Wittgenstein writes in Culture and Value, “think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians, etc. to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them-that does not occur to them.”


At a time like this, when the humanities are institutionally obliged to pretend to be sciences, we need more than ever the lessons about understanding that Wittgenstein-and the arts-have to teach us.

 Posted by at 4:10 pm

The Questions

 Contemplation, Philosophy, Spirituality  Comments Off on The Questions
Jan 242013

What is it in us that seeks the truth? Why do we seek the truth? How do we find the truth? What is the truth?

What? Why? How?

I have heard many esteemed positivists who are far more educated and intelligent than I am proclaim that most “why” questions that we ask are really “how” questions and that we would do ourselves a great service in the name of progress and enlightenment to put aside questions of why as into the dustbin of of our evolutionary history, along with our prehensile tails.

For example, they say that when we ask, “Why is the sky blue?”  what we are really asking is not for the meaning or purpose of the blue sky, but rather, how is it blue, what causes it to be blue, for which chemistry and physics hold the answer. Positivists like to point this out because the how questions of the material world around us succumb well to the development of physics – so well, that some would desire to see that everything succumb to physics.

But is this a reasonable position to take? Is it even possible? Of all the matters most dear and most important to humanity, and to the heart of each individual, can physics really provide the ultimate answers and consolations we seek?

In short, is positivism enough?

I will quote someone with better credentials on this matter than I: It was William J Broad after all, the 2-time Pulitzer Prize winning science writer of the NYTimes who rightly says, “The scientific process is unable to answer the most important questions in life.”

And so to the positivists, we present a counter proposition and hold that the deepest yearnings of the human heart – that ethereal predicate for which we refer to when we use words like “humanity” – are never satisfied with the answers that the “how” provides.


The Teacher of Israel

Nicodemus makes the exact opposite mistake our positivist friends have accused us of when he comes to Jesus and asks him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter into his mother’s womb and be born?” (Jn 3:4). Nicodemus asks “how” but for what Jesus is describing there can be no how. When Nicodemus repeats his question, “How can these things be” (Jn 3:9) Jesus responds, “Are you the teacher of Israel and you do not understand these things?”

In this reference to Israel Jesus indicates that he is describing something more than “earthly things” (physics), something that transcends the physical. Just as you cannot ask “why” of love, you cannot ask “how” of the supernatural. You can deny love, and you can deny the supernatural (“heavenly things”), but you cannot ask these questions of them. The positivist is simply one who denies the reality of all things not bound to his question.

“We speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.” (Jn 3:11)


Philosophy, Science, and Religion

Philosophy wants to know the “what” of the world. Religion wants to know the “why” of the world. Science wants to know the “how” of the world.

  • What is it: philosophy
  • Why is it: religion
  • How does it work: science

Of these, is the God question a what, a why or a how? Is God a truth (a what) that you find, or is God why you look for truth in the first place?

According to the Catholic Church, the search for truth – the desire for truth, beauty, justice – is the very presence of God and this desire is what connects man to God and the things of this world to heaven.

According to the Catholic church, the world is both ordered and mysterious. It is both comprehensible and incomprehensible. It is both of these at once. Just as we are to ourselves. No amount of knowledge of how will ever answer why. Science will never discover God. This discredits neither science nor God. It merely states facts as they are. We can and cannot understand at the same time.

 Posted by at 10:50 pm


 Muse  Comments Off on Nirvana
Jan 242013

A poem by Charles Bukowski

 Posted by at 2:54 pm

The Summer Day

 Muse  Comments Off on The Summer Day
Jan 242013

“The Summer Day”

by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

 Posted by at 2:30 pm

Going All In

 Featured, Muse  Comments Off on Going All In
Jan 242013

How far would you go? Would you sacrifice everything? Would you go all in?

 Posted by at 1:44 pm

Hymn of the Universe by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

 Spirituality  Comments Off on Hymn of the Universe by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Jan 242013


Chapter 1: The Mass On The World


Since once again, Lord — though this time not in the forests of the Aisne but in the steppes of Asia — I have neither bread, nor wine, nor altar, I will raise myself beyond these symbols, up to the pure majesty of the real itself; I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer you all the labours and sufferings of the world.

Over there, on the horizon, the sun has just touched with light the outermost fringe of the eastern sky. Once again, beneath this moving sheet of fire, the living surface of the earth wakes and trembles, and once again begins its fearful travail. I will place on my paten, O God, the harvest to be won by this renewal of labour. Into my chalice I shall pour all the sap which is to be pressed out this day from the earth’s fruits.

My paten and my chalice are the depths of a soul laid widely open to all the forces which in a moment will rise up from every corner of the earth and converge upon the Spirit. Grant me the remembrance and the mystic presence of all those whom the light is now awakening to the new day.

One by one, Lord, I see and I love all those whom you have given me to sustain and charm my life. One by one also I number all those who make up that other beloved family which has gradually surrounded me, its unity fashioned out of the most disparate elements, with affinities of the heart, of scientific research and of thought. And again one by one — more vaguely it is true, yet all-inclusively — I call before me the whole vast anonymous army of living humanity; those who surround me and support me though I do not know them; those who come, and those who go; above all, those who in office, laboratory and factory, through their vision of truth or despite their error, truly believe in the progress of earthly reality and who today will take up again their impassioned pursuit of the light.

This restless multitude, confused or orderly, the immensity of which terrifies us; this ocean of humanity whose slow, monotonous wave-flows trouble the hearts even of those whose faith is most firm: it is to this deep that I thus desire all the fibres of my being should respond. All the things in the world to which this day will bring increase; all those that will diminish; all those too that will die: all of them, Lord, I try to gather into my arms, so as to hold them out to you in offering. This is the material of my sacrifice; the only material you desire.

Once upon a time men took into your temple the first fruits of their harvests, the flower of their flocks. But the offering you really want, the offering you mysteriously need every day to appease your hunger, to slake your thirst is nothing less than the growth of the world borne ever onwards in the stream of universal becoming.

Receive, O Lord, this all-embracing host which your whole creation, moved by your magnetism, offers you at this dawn of a new day.

This bread, our toil, is of itself, I know, but an immense fragmentation; this wine, our pain, is no more, I know, than a draught that dissolves. Yet in the very depths of this formless mass you have implanted — and this I am sure of, for I sense it — a desire, irresistible, hallowing, which makes us cry out, believer and unbeliever alike:

‘Lord, make us one.’

Because, my God, though I lack the soul-zeal and the sublime integrity of your saints, I yet have received from you an overwhelming sympathy for all that stirs within the dark mass of matter; because I know myself to be irremediably less a child of heaven than a son of earth; therefore I will this morning climb up in spirit to the high places, bearing with me the hopes and the miseries of my mother; and there — empowered by that priesthood which you alone (as I firmly believe) have bestowed on me — upon all that in the world of human flesh is now about to be born or to die beneath the rising sun I will call down the Fire.


Fire, the source of being: we cling so tenaciously to the illusion that fire comes forth from the depths of the earth and that its flames grow progressively brighter as it pours along the radiant furrows of life’s tillage. Lord, in your mercy you gave me to see that this idea is false, and that I must overthrow it if I were ever to have sight of you.

In the beginning was Power, intelligent, loving, energizing. In the beginning was the Word, supremely capable of mastering and moulding whatever might come into being in the world of matter. In the beginning there were not coldness and darkness: there was the Fire. This is the truth.

So, far from light emerging gradually out of the womb of our darkness, it is the Light, existing before all else was made which, patiently, surely, eliminates our darkness. As for us creatures, of ourselves we are but emptiness and obscurity. But you, my God, are the inmost depths, the stability of that eternal milieu, without duration or space, in which our cosmos emerges gradually into being and grows gradually to its final completeness, as it loses those boundaries which to our eyes seem so immense. Everything is being; everywhere there is being and nothing but being, save in the fragmentation of creatures and the clash of their atoms.

Blazing Spirit, Fire, personal, super-substantial, the consummation of a union so immeasurably more lovely and more desirable than that destructive fusion of which all the pantheists dream: be pleased yet once again to come down and breathe a soul into the newly formed, fragile film of matter with which this day the world is to be freshly clothed.

I know we cannot forestall, still less dictate to you, even the smallest of your actions; from you alone comes all initiative — and this applies in the first place to my prayer.

Radiant Word, blazing Power, you who mould the manifold so as to breathe your life into it; I pray you, lay on us those your hands — powerful, considerate, omnipresent, those hands which do not (like our human hands) touch now here, now there, but which plunge into the depths and the totality, present and past, of things so as to reach us simultaneously through all that is most immense and most inward within us and around us.

May the might of those invincible hands direct and transfigure for the great world you have in mind that earthly travail which I have gathered into my heart and now offer you in its entirety. Remould it, rectify it, recast it down to the depths from whence it springs. You know how your creatures can come into being only, like shoot from stem, as part of an endlessly renewed process of evolution.

Do you now therefore, speaking through my lips, pronounce over this earthly travail your twofold efficacious word: the word without which all that our wisdom and our experience have built up must totter and crumble — the word through which all our most far-reaching speculations and our encounter with the universe are come together into a unity. Over every living thing which is to spring up, to grow, to flower, to ripen during this day say again the words: This is my Body. And over every death-force which waits in readiness to corrode, to wither, to cut down, speak again your commanding words which express the supreme mystery of faith: This is my Blood.1


It is done.

Once again the Fire has penetrated the earth.

Not with sudden crash of thunderbolt, riving the mountain-tops: does the Master break down doors to enter his own home? Without earthquake, or thunderclap: the flame has lit up the whole world from within. All things individually and collectively are penetrated and flooded by it, from the inmost core of the tiniest atom to the mighty sweep of the most universal laws of being: so naturally has it flooded every element, every energy, every connecting-link in the unity of our cosmos; that one might suppose the cosmos to have burst spontaneously into flame.

In the new humanity which is begotten today the Word prolongs the unending act of his own birth; and by virtue of his immersion in the world’s womb the great waters of the kingdom of matter have, without even a ripple, been endued with life. No visible tremor marks this inexpressible transformation; and yet, mysteriously and in very truth, at the touch of the supersubstantial Word the immense host which is the universe is made flesh. Through your own incarnation, my God, all matter is henceforth incarnate.

Through our thoughts and our human experiences, we long ago became aware of the strange properties which make the universe so like our flesh:

like the flesh it attracts us by the charm which lies in the mystery of its curves and folds and in the depths of its eyes;

like the flesh it disintegrates and eludes us when submitted to our analyses or to our failings off and in the process of its own perdurance;

as with the flesh, it can only be embraced in the endless reaching out to attain what lies beyond the confines of what has been given to us.

All of us, Lord, from the moment we are born feel within us this disturbing mixture of remoteness and nearness; and in our heritage of sorrow and hope, passed down to us though the ages, there is no yearning more desolate than that which makes us weep with vexation and desire as we stand in the midst of the Presence which hovers about us nameless and impalpable and is indwelling in all things. Si forte attrectent eum.2

Now, Lord, though the consecration of the world the luminosity and fragrance which suffuse the universe take on for me the lineaments of a body and a face — in you. What my mind glimpsed through its hesitant explorations, what my heart craved with so little expectation of fulfilment, you now magnificently unfold for me: the fact that your creatures are not merely so linked together in solidarity that none can exist unless all the rest surround it, but that all are so dependent on a single central reality that a true life, borne in common by them all, gives them ultimately their consistence and their unity.

Shatter, my God, though the daring of your revelation the childishly timid outlook that can conceive of nothing greater or more vital in the world than the pitiable perfection of our human organism. On the road to a bolder comprehension of the universe the children of this world day by day outdistance the masters of Israel; but do you, Lord Jesus, ‘in whom all things subsist’, show yourself to those who love you as the higher Soul and the physical centre of your creation. Are you not well aware that for us this is a question of life or death? As for me, if I could not believe that your real Presence animates and makes tractable and endless even the very least of the energies which invade me or brush past me, would I not die of cold?

I thank you, my God, for having in a thousand different ways led my eyes to discover the immense simplicity of things. Little by little, though the irresistible development of those yearnings you implanted in me as a child, through the influence of gifted friends who entered my life at certain moments to bring light and strength to my mind, and through the awakenings of spirit I owe to the successive initiations, gentle and terrible, which you caused me to undergo: through all these I have been brought to the point where I can no longer see anything, nor any longer breathe, outside that milieu in which all is made one.

At this moment when your life has just poured with superabundant vigour into the sacrament of the world, I shall savour with heightened consciousness the intense yet tranquil rapture of a vision whose coherence and harmonies I can never exhaust.

What I experience as I stand in face of — and in the very depths of — this world which your flesh has assimilated, this world which has become your flesh, my God, is not the absorption of the monist who yearns to be dissolved into the unity of things, nor the emotion felt by the pagan as he lies prostrate before a tangible divinity, nor yet the passive self-abandonment of the quietist tossed hither and thither at the mercy of mystical impulsions. From each of these modes of thought I take something of their motive force while avoiding their pitfalls: the approach determined for me by your omnipresence is a wonderful synthesis wherein three of the most formidable passions that can unlock the human heart rectify each other as they mingle: like the monist I plunge into the all-inclusive One; but the One is so perfect that as it receives me and I lose myself in it I can find in it the ultimate perfection of my own individuality;

like the pagan I worship a God who can be touched; and I do indeed touch him — this God — over the whole surface and in the depths of that world of matter which confines me: but to take hold of him as I would wish (simply in order not to stop touching him), I must go always on and on through and beyond each undertaking, unable to rest in anything, borne onwards at each moment by creatures and at each moment going beyond them, in a continuing welcoming of them and a continuing detachment from them; like the quietist I allow myself with delight to be cradled in the divine fantasy: but at the same time I know that the divine will, will only be revealed to me at each moment if I exert myself to the utmost: I shall only touch God in the world of matter, when, like Jacob, I have been vanquished by him.

Thus, because the ultimate objective, the totality to which my nature is attuned has been made manifest to me, the powers of my being begin spontaneously to vibrate in accord with a single note of incredible richness wherein I can distinguish the most discordant tendencies effortlessly resolved: the excitement of action and the delight of passivity: the joy of possessing and the thrill of reaching out beyond what one possesses; the pride in growing and the happiness of being lost in what is greater than oneself.

Rich with the sap of the world, I rise up towards the Spirit whose vesture is the magnificence of the material universe but who smiles at me from far beyond all victories; and, lost in the mystery of the flesh of God, I cannot tell which is the more radiant bliss: to have found the Word and so be able to achieve the mastery of matter, or to have mastered matter and so be able to attain and submit to the light of God.

Grant, Lord, that your descent into the universal Species may not be for me just something loved and cherished, like the fruit of some philosophical speculation, but may become for me truly a real Presence. Whether we like it or not by power and by right you are incarnate in the world, and we are all of us dependent upon you. But in fact you are far, and how far, from being equally close to us all. We are all of us together carried in the one world-womb; yet each of us is our own little microcosm in which the Incarnation is wrought independently with degrees of intensity, and shades that are incommunicable. And that is why, in our prayer at the altar, we ask that the consecration may be brought about for us: Ut nobis Corpus et Sanguis fiat. . .If I firmly believe that everything around me is the body and blood of the Word,4 then for me (and in one sense for me alone) is brought about that marvellous ‘diaphany’ which causes the luminous warmth of a single life to be objectively discernible in and to shine forth from the depths of every event, every element: whereas if, unhappily, my faith should flag, at once the light is quenched and everything becomes darkened, everything disintegrates.

You have come down, Lord, into this day which is now beginning. But alas, how infinitely different in degree is your presence for one and another of us in the events which are now preparing and which all of us together will experience! In the very same circumstances which are soon to surround me and my fellow-men you may be present in small measure, in great measure, more and more or not at all.

Therefore, Lord, that no poison may harm me this day, no death destroy me, no wine befuddle me, that in every creature I may discover and sense you, I beg you: give me faith.


If the Fire has come down into the heart of the world it is, in the last resort, to lay hold on me and to absorb me. Henceforth I cannot be content simply to contemplate it or, by my steadfast faith, to intensify its ardency more and more in the world around me. What I must do, when I have taken part with all my energies in the consecration which causes its flames to leap forth, is to consent to the communion which will enable it to find in me the food it has come in the last resort to seek.

So, my God, I prostrate myself before your presence in the universe which has now become living flame: beneath the lineaments of all that I shall encounter this day, all that happens to me, all that I achieve, it is you I desire, you I await.

It is a terrifying thing to have been born: I mean, to find oneself, without having willed it, swept irrevocably along on a torrent of fearful energy which seems as though it wished to destroy everything it carries with it.

What I want, my God, is that by a reversal of forces which you alone can bring about, my terror in face of the nameless changes destined to renew my being may be turned into an overflowing joy at being transformed into you.

First of all I shall stretch out my hand unhesitatingly towards the fiery bread which you set before me. This bread, in which you have planted the seed of all that is to develop in the future, I recognize as containing the source and the secret of that destiny you have chosen for me. To take it is, I know, to surrender myself to forces which will tear me away painfully from myself in order to drive me into danger, into laborious undertakings, into a constant renewal of ideas, into an austere detachment where my affections are concerned. To eat it is to acquire a taste and an affinity for that which in everything is above everything — a taste and an affinity which will henceforward make impossible for me all the joys by which my life has been warmed. Lord Jesus, I am willing to be possessed by you, to be bound to your body and led by its inexpressible power towards those solitary heights which by myself I should never dare to climb. Instinctively, like all mankind, I would rather set up my tent here below on some hill-top of my own choosing. I am afraid, too, like all my fellow-men, of the future too heavy with mystery and too wholly new, towards which time is driving me. Then like these men I wonder anxiously where life is leading me . . . May this communion of bread with the Christ clothed in the powers which dilate the world free me from my timidities and my heedlessness! In the whirlpool of conflicts and energies out of which must develop my power to apprehend and experience your holy presence, I throw myself, my God, on your word. The man who is filled with an impassioned love of Jesus hidden in the forces which bring increase to the earth, him the earth will lift tip, like a mother, in the immensity of her arms, and will enable him to contemplate the face of God.

If your kingdom, my God, were of this world, I could possess you simply by surrendering myself to the forces which cause us, through suffering and dying, to grow visibly in stature — us or that which is dearer to us than ourselves. But because the term towards which the earth is moving lies not merely beyond each individual thing but beyond the totality of things; because the world travails, not to bring forth from within itself some supreme reality, but to find its consummation through a union with a pre-existent Being; it follows that man can never reach the blazing centre of the universe simply by living more and more for himself nor even by spending his life in the service of some earthly cause however great. The world can never be definitively united with you, Lord, save by a sort of reversal, a turning about, an excentration, which must involve the temporary collapse not merely of all individual achievements but even of everything that looks like an advancement for humanity. If my being is ever to be decisively attached to yours, there must first die in me not merely the monad ego but also the world: in other words I must first pass through an agonizing phase of diminution for which no tangible compensation will be given me. That is why, pouring into my chalice the bitterness of all separations, of all limitations, and of all sterile failings away, you then hold it out to me. ‘Drink ye all of this.’

How could I refuse this chalice, Lord, now that through the bread you have given me there has crept into the marrow of my being an inextinguishable longing to be united with you beyond life; through death? The consecration of the world would have remained incomplete, a moment ago, had you not with special love vitalized for those who believe, not only the life-bringing forces, but also those which bring death. My communion would be incomplete — would, quite simply, not be

Christian — if, together with the gains which this new day brings me, I did not also accept, in my own name and in the name of the world as the most immediate sharing in your own being, those processes, hidden or manifest, of enfeeblement, of ageing, of death, which unceasingly consume the universe, to its salvation or its condemnation. My God, I deliver myself up with utter abandon to those fearful forces of dissolution which, I blindly believe, will this day cause my narrow ego to be replaced by your divine presence. The man who is filled with an impassioned love for Jesus hidden in the forces which bring death to the earth, him the earth will clasp in the immensity of her arms as her strength fails, and with her he will awaken in the bosom of God.


Lord Jesus, now that beneath those world-forces you have become truly and physically everything for me, everything about me, everything within me, I shall gather into a single prayer both my delight in what I have and my thirst for what I lack; and following the lead of your great servant I shall repeat those enflamed words in which, I firmly believe, the Christianity of tomorrow will find its increasingly clear portrayal:

‘Lord, lock me up in the deepest depths of your heart; and then, holding me there, burn me, purify me, set me on fire, sublimate me, till I become utterly what you would have me be, though the utter annihilation of my ego.’5

Tu autem, Domine mi, include me in imis visceribus Cordis tui. Atque ibi me detine, excoque, expurga, accende, ignifac, sublima, ad purissimum Cordis tui gustum atque placitum, ad puram annihilationem meam.6

‘Lord.’ Yes, at last, though the twofold mystery of this universal consecration and communion I have found one to whom I can wholeheartedly give this name. As long as I could see — or dared see — in you, Lord Jesus, only the man who lived two thousand years ago, the sublime moral teacher, the Friend, the Brother, my love remained timid and constrained. Friends, brothers, wise men: have we not many of these around us, great souls, chosen souls, and much closer to us? And then can man ever give himself utterly to a nature which is purely human? Always from the very first it was the world, greater than all the elements which make up the world, that I was in love with; and never before was there anyone before whom I could in honesty bow down. And so for a long time, even though I believed, I strayed, not knowing what it was I loved. But now, Master, today, when though the manifestation of those superhuman powers with which your resurrection endowed you you shine forth from within all the forces of the earth and so become visible to me, now I recognize you as my Sovereign, and with delight I surrender myself to you.

How strange, my God, are the processes your Spirit initiates! When, two centuries ago, your Church began to feel the particular power of your heart, it might have seemed that what was captivating men’s souls was the fact of their finding in you an element even more determinate, more circumscribed, than your humanity as a whole. But now on the contrary a swift reversal is making us aware that your main purpose in this revealing to us of your heart was to enable our love to escape from the constrictions of the too narrow, too precise, too limited image of you which we had fashioned for ourselves. What I discern in your breast is simply a furnace of fire; and the more I fix my gaze on its ardency the more it seems to me that all around it the contours of your body melt away and become enlarged beyond all measure, till the only features I can distinguish in you are those of the face of a world which has burst into flame.

Glorious Lord Christ: the divine influence secretly diffused and active in the depths of matter, and the dazzling centre where all the innumerable fibres of the manifold meet; power as implacable as the world and as warm as life; you whose forehead is of the whiteness of snow, whose eyes are of fire, and whose feet are brighter than molten gold; you whose hands imprison the stars; you who are the first and the last, the living and the dead and the risen again; you who gather into your exuberant unity every beauty, every affinity, every energy, every mode of existence; it is you to whom my being cried out with a desire as vast as the universe, ‘In truth you are my Lord and my God.’

‘Lord, lock me up within you’: yes indeed I believe — and this belief is so strong that it has become one of the supports of nay inner life — that an ‘exterior darkness’ which was wholly outside you would be pure nothingness. Nothing, Lord Jesus, can subsist outside of your flesh; so that even those who have been cast out from your love are still, unhappily for them, the beneficiaries of your presence upholding them in existence. All of us, inescapably, exist in you, the universal milieu in which and through which all things live and have their being. But precisely because we are not self-contained ready-made entities which can be conceived equally well as being near to you or remote from you; precisely because in us the self-subsistent individual who is united to you grows only insofar as the union itself grows, that union whereby we are given more and more completely to you: I beg you, Lord, in the name of all that is most vital in my being, to hearken to the desire of this thing that I dare to call my soul even though I realize more and more every day how much greater it is than myself, and, to slake my thirst for life, draw me — through the successive zones of your deepest substance — into the secret recesses of your inmost heart.

The deeper the level at which one encounters you, Master, the more one realizes the universality of your influence. This is the criterion by which I can judge at each moment how far I have progressed within you. When all the things around me, while preserving their own individual contours, their own special savours, nevertheless appear to me as animated by a single secret spirit and therefore as diffused and intermingled within a single element, infinitely close, infinitely remote; and when, locked within the jealous intimacy of a divine sanctuary, I yet feel myself to be wandering at large in the empyrean of all created beings: then I shall know that I am approaching that central point where the heart of the world is caught in the descending radiance of the heart of God.

And then, Lord, at that point where all things are set ablaze, do you act upon me though the united flames of all those internal and external influences which, were I less close to you, would be neutral or ambivalent or hostile, but which when animated by an Energy quae possit sibi omnia subjicere7 become, in the physical depths of your heart, the angels of your triumphant activity. Though a marvellous combination of your divine magnetism with the charm and the inadequacy of creatures, with their sweetness and their malice, their disappointing weakness and their terrifying power, do you fill my heart alternately with exaltation and with distaste; teach it the true meaning of purity: not a debilitating separation from all created reality but an impulse carrying one though all forms of created beauty; show it the true nature of charity: not a sterile fear of doing wrong but a vigorous determination that all of us together shall break open the doors of life; and give it finally — give it above all — though an ever-increasing awareness of your omnipresence, a blessed desire to go on advancing, discovering, fashioning and experiencing the world so as to penetrate ever further and further into yourself.

For me, my God, all joy and all achievement, the very purpose of my being and all my love of life, all depend on this one basic vision of the union between yourself and the universe. Let others, fulfilling a function more august than mine, proclaim your splendours as pure Spirit; as for me, dominated as I am by a vocation which springs from the inmost fibres of my being, I have no desire, I have no ability, to proclaim anything except the innumerable prolongations of your incarnate Being in the world of matter; I can preach only the mystery of your flesh, you the Soul shining forth though all that surrounds us.

It is to your body in this its fullest extension — that is, to the world become through your power and my faith the glorious living crucible in which everything melts away in order to be born anew; it is to this that I dedicate myself with all the resources which your creative magnetism has brought forth in me: with the all too feeble resources of my scientific knowledge, with my religious vows, with my priesthood, and (most dear to me) with my deepest human convictions. It is in this dedication, Lord Jesus, I desire to live, in this I desire to die.

 Posted by at 8:52 am

The Inner Landscape of Beauty

 Featured, Muse  Comments Off on The Inner Landscape of Beauty
Jan 232013

“The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” St Irenaeus

From the On Being blog:

The late Irish poet and philosopher, John O’Donohue, is beloved for his book Anam Ċara, Gaelic for “soul friend,” and for his insistence on beauty as a human calling and a defining aspect of God. In one of his last interviews before his death in 2008, he articulated a Celtic imagination about how the material and the spiritual, the visible and the invisible worlds intertwine in human experience.

“In the Celtic tradition, there is a beautiful understanding of love and friendship. One of the fascinating ideas here is the idea of soul-love; the old Gaelic term for this is anam c.araAnam is the Gaelic word for soul and c.ara is the word for friend. So anam c.ara in the Celtic world was the “soul friend.” In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an anam c.ara. It originally referred to someone to whom you confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life. With the anam c.ara you could share your innermost self, your mind and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam c.ara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality, and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the “friend of your soul.

…In this love, you are understood as you are without mask or pretension. The superficial and functional lies and half-truths of social acquaintance fall away, you can be as you really are. Love allows understanding to dawn, and understanding is precious. Where you are understood, you are at home. Understanding nourishes belonging. When you really feel understood, you feel free to release yourself into the trust and shelter of the other person’s soul.”

Read more….

I thought of him there, felt his spirit, and was differently attuned to the meaning and working of beauty … and that a defining quality of beauty is that we feel more alive in its presence. I have spent time since pondering a wonderful statement he made, so true for me right now, that beauty isn’t all about “nice, loveliness like” but a “kind of homecoming for the enriched memory of your unfolding life.”

“It is strange to be here. The mystery never leaves you alone. Behind your image, below your words, above your thoughts, the silence of another world waits. A world lives within you. No one else can bring you news of this inner world.”

Read more….

In his book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, John O’Donohue writes,

“In Greek the word for ‘the beautiful’ is to kalon. It is related to the word kalein which includes the notion of ‘call’. When we experience beauty, we feel called. The Beautiful stirs passion and urgency in us and calls us forth from aloneness into the warmth and wonder if an eternal embrace. It unites us again with the neglected and forgotten grandeur of life.”


 Posted by at 9:11 pm

Knot Poem

 Math  Comments Off on Knot Poem
Jan 232013

Rule #1 Two knots are identical if and only if their complements are identical

Rule # 2 Two knots can have the same group yet not be the same knots


.           A knot and           .
.               another             .
.               knot may          .
.                 not be the       .
.   Same knot, though   .
.      The knot group of  .
.      The knot and the    .
.  Other knot’s                  .
.              Knot group       .
.     Differ not; BUT         .
.   If the knot group       .
.      Of a knot                     .
.  Is the knot group        .
.   Of the not                      .
.             Knotted                .
.              knot,                     .
.      The knot is                  .
.                not                       .
.              knotted                .

 Posted by at 8:19 pm

Risk and Adventure Retreat for Young Adults

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Jan 232013

Risk and Adventure Retreat for Young Adults

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one….Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket–safe, dark, motionless, airless–it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

–C.S. Lewis

 Posted by at 7:49 pm

A Festival of Faith and Reason

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Jan 232013

The New York Encounter is a cultural festival that takes place for two days and one night on Martin Luther King weekend in New York City. This year marked the third edition of the festival. It’s eclectic—there are science lectures, art exhibits, panel discussions on John Paul II. It’s full of people—13 guests, 180 volunteers, 5 folk dancing groups; 2 chamber orchestras; 3 children’s groups for kids’ show and approximately 2,000 attendees per day. It’s free of charge. What is it all about?

Having completed his presentation on the question, “What is Christianity?” to an audience of hundreds at the New York Encounter, the curtain fell before him and Fr. Julian Carron turned around to find his way off the stage. He found his path immediately blocked by a camera crew from the TV channel of the Brooklyn Archdiocese. Would he be available for a brief interview? They spoke to him in Spanish—they worked on a TV show catering to the Spanish-speaking population of the diocese and they knew Fr. Carron is a Spaniard. Of course! A brief one, but yes, of course.

After a few perfunctory questions, the crew asks Fr. Carron a question that most modern-day professional philosophers will never deign to ask: “What is the relationship between faith and reason?” This being television, the answer had to be expressed in ten seconds or less.

Fr. Carron didn’t need that much time. He said: “It’s an encounter.”

Show, Don’t Tell

Fr. Carron has a degree in theology from the Universidad Pontificia Comillas in Madrid, so he was perfectly capable of giving the type of textbook answer that would satisfy someone who is dissatisfied by the simple reply, “It’s an encounter.” But at that place and time a long answer would have been a moot point. The New York Encounter is meant to be a stage upon which the answer to the TV reporter’s question could be seen. Reason is what we use to understand the world. If faith is somehow reasonable, then it should help us to understand the world better—with visible results.

One way to look at the New York Encounter is as a showcase of those visible results. This is why there were, in the 2012 Edition (January 13-25), events on politics (Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon spoke about the vocation of politics), science (Massimo Roberto of the Space Telescope Science Institute of Baltimore spoke about star formation), art (Jane Milosch on the painter William Congdon), education (Ross Douthat, Matthew Kaminski, and Chris Bacich on secondary education and the meaning of life) and concerts of dance and music—in short, virtually every realm of human endeavor.

The Encounter was not all about lectures and panel discussions, however. There was food and drink and, most importantly, music. A concert on the last evening of the Encounter—Sunday night—became the concluding spectacle of the festival. It was called “Pure American Juice” and it was a celebration of American musical traditions, from jazz to rock.

Saxophonist and composer “Blue” Lou Marini (of Blues Brothers fame), songwriter and singer Vaneese Thomas headlined; they were backed up by a band who could play everything from blues to rock and roll. The lead guitar was played by a very young music student named Phil Faconti; at one point, he got so into a Beatles tune that he lifted his guitar to his mouth and played a few notes with his teeth, a la Hendrix. The program was MC’d by Joey Reynolds, host of the Joey Reynolds Show, and a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—a legendary disc jockey, his show was the highest-rated rock and roll program of all time.

So the Encounter is what happens when a group of people who experience life as Christians and pursue widely diverging interests and proclivities put their heads (and time, and strength) together, and launch a cultural festival. The cultural festival takes place in a building called the Manhattan Center near Penn Station. It is inspired by the Rimini Meeting, co-sponsored by Crossroads Cultural Center, and born out of the charism of Communion and Liberation.

These last few lines approach a question that the reporters did not have time to ask: Why put together an Encounter in the first place?

The Encounter is possible only because of a series of smaller encounters, which take place in many places around the world. Someone somewhere at some point in time and space met Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon, struck up a friendship, learned that she was writing a book about political vocation—The Forum and the Tower—and eventually asked her to give the keynote address of the NYE. The NYE does not count on the cultural cache of the Aspen Festival of Ideas or the money of the Venice Biennal, but even if it had both of those things, it would rely on the individual encounters between people and the actual, real-existing relationships that make exchange possible. “Encounter” is, through and through, part of the festival on every level.

But why do it? Angelo Sala, one of the founding members of both Crossroads Cultural Center and the New York Encounter, gave a speech in which he attempted to describe the reasons for doing what he does. The speech refers to Crossroads but—he tells us himself—it could be instantly applied to the NYE as well:

The main activity of Crossroads is the organization and promotion of public events on any topic that fascinates us. This was true at the beginning and it is still true today. It is a very important point for us: we choose our topics and speakers because of the way we’re struck by reality, not based on an ideology or a pre-determined agenda. When we started Crossroads, we had no intention of focusing on a predetermined subset of issues, people or ideas that fall under the “Catholic” label. On the contrary, for us, being a Catholic cultural center means precisely the opposite, that is, to be interested in everything, in the entire spectrum of reality. It means to have the ability – or at least the desire – to encounter people from all walks of life, and to look for and give value to everything that is true, good and worthy in various expressions of human life.

Here we can see, from another angle, how adequately the word “encounter” answers the TV reporter’s questions.

But more importantly, we can also see the beginnings of a new model—now, on the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council—of Catholic cultural engagement.

 Posted by at 7:42 pm

Living Curiously

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Jan 132013

I have been reading Sherry Weddell’s book, Forming Intentional Disciples and one section that caught my attention is called “Living Curiously”:

“The Catholic life is to be a “sign of contradiction” in this world. That doesn’t mean we are to be nay-saying curmudgeons. Rather, it means we are to live lives of such inexplicable joy, love, faith and peace (even in trial) that all the normal categories by which non believers try to classify us won’t work.”

Earlier in the book she uses a quote from Emmanuel Cardinal Suhard from “Priest Among Men”:

“To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.”

She says,

“Living curiously means more than being ‘nice.’ It means that we think and act in Kingdom-oriented and countercultural ways in our daily lives. For instance, forgiving and asking forgiveness of those who have betrayed and abused us are perhaps the most countercultural things we can do – far more difficult and far more radically wonder-evoking than the moral teachings concerning sexuality that the media assumes are the most difficult aspects of the Catholic faith.”

Now, this caught my attention because I have met people who were living mysteries, people who attracted me for that reason, and then only later did I find our that they were devout Christians. In the cases I am thinking of, these people were not preachy and did not give sermons but neither would they shy away from their beliefs. They were not trying to convert anyone, which is why people were able to trust them. They were not preaching to anyone, which is why people were able to listen to them. It was their behavior, the way they carried themselves, the way they responded to situations, the way they treated others, in short it was their very being that made them mysterious.

Of one friend and colleague, I can remember wondering, “how does he do it?” I was intrigued by him and wanted to learn his secrets. And then I discovered the secret. He was with God. And it was just as Emmanuel Cardinal Suhard put it: once I realized that he was a man of strong faith in Jesus, the mystery became clear and simple. Faith in God was the only explanation that fit. Faith in God made this person make sense to me. This was a profound revelation for me – so much so that at times when I have considered changing jobs, the loss of daily contact with this person has given me serious pause. What could I possibly gain in career or money to offset such a loss?

I don’t know that I would describe this person as “intense” or “passionate.” But full of joy, love, faith, and peace? Definitely.

And so that is the model I use. If I am so full of joy, love, faith and peace that someone wants to know my secret I have no fear in telling them. But if I tell them my secret and I have no joy, love, faith, and peace to show then what value will they place on such a secret?


 Posted by at 7:35 pm

The Persistence of Philosophy

 Contemplation, Philosophy  Comments Off on The Persistence of Philosophy
Dec 182012

This article (by a biologist) does a good job of rejecting the popular notion (known as scientism) that science can replace philosophy.

Scientism wrong on metaphysics:


The main fault of these arguments lies in their failure to distinguish between necessary and contingent being. A contingent being is one that might or might not exist, and thus might or might not have certain properties. In the context of modern quantum physics, or population genetics, one might even assign probability values to the existence or non-existence of some contingent being. But a necessary being is one that must exist, and whose properties could not be other than they are.

Multiverse theorists are simply saying that our universe and its laws have merely contingent being, and that other universes are conceivable and so also may exist, albeit contingently. The idea of the contingent nature of our universe may cut against the grain of modern materialism, and so seem novel to many physicists and philosophers, but it is not in fact new. Thomas Aquinas, for example, began the third of his famous five proofs of the existence of God (a being “necessary in itself”) with the observation of contingent being (“we find among things certain ones that might or might not be”). Whether or not one is convinced by Aquinas, it should be clear that the “discovery” that our universe is a contingent event among other contingent events is perfectly consistent with his argument.

Writers like Hawking, Mlodinow, and Smolin, however, use the contingent nature of our universe and its laws to argue for a very different conclusion from that of Aquinas — namely, that some contingent universe (whether or not it turned out to be our own) must have come into being, without the existence of any necessary being. Here again probability is essential to the argument: While any universe with a particular set of laws may be very improbable, with enough universes out there it becomes highly probable. This is the same principle behind the fact that, when I toss a coin, even though there is some probability that I will get heads and some probability that I will get tails, it is certain that I will get heads or tails. Similarly, modern theorists imply, the multiverse has necessary being even though any given universe does not.

The problem with this argument is that certainty in the sense of probability is not the same thing as necessary being: If I toss a coin, it is certain that I will get heads or tails, but that outcome depends on my tossing the coin, which I may not necessarily do. Likewise, any particular universe may follow from the existence of a multiverse, but the existence of the multiverse remains to be explained. In particular, the universe-generating process assumed by some multiverse theories is itself contingent because it depends on the action of laws assumed by the theory. The latter might be called meta-laws, since they form the basis for the origin of the individual universes, each with its own individual set of laws. So what determines the meta-laws? Either we must introduce meta-meta-laws, and so on in infinite regression, or we must hold that the meta-laws themselves are necessary — and so we have in effect just changed our understanding of what the fundamental universe is to one that contains many universes. In that case, we are still left without ultimate explanations as to why that universe exists or has the characteristics it does.

When it comes to such metaphysical questions, science and scientific speculation may offer much in fleshing out details, but they have so far failed to offer any explanations that are fundamentally novel to philosophy — much less have they supplanted it entirely.


Scientism wrong on Epistemology:


Natural selection can explain much about why species are the way they are, but it does not necessarily offer a specific explanation for human intellectual powers, much less any sort of basis for confidence in the reliability of science.

What van Fraassen, Quine, and these other thinkers are appealing to is a kind of popularized and misapplied Darwinism that bears little relationship to how evolution really operates, yet that appears in popular writings of all sorts — and even, as I have discovered in my own work as an evolutionary biologist, in the peer-reviewed literature. To speak of a “Darwinian” process of selection among culturally transmitted ideas, whether scientific theories or memes, is at best only a loose analogy with highly misleading implications. It easily becomes an interpretive blank check, permitting speculation that seems to explain any describable human trait. Moreover, even in the strongest possible interpretation of these arguments, at best they help a little in explaining why we human beings are capable of comprehending the universe — but they still say nothing about why the universe itself is comprehensible.


Scientism wrong on ethics:


Under Harris’s ethical framework, the central criteria for judging if a behavior is moral is whether or not it contributes to the “well-being of conscious creatures.” Harris’s ideas have all of the problems that have plagued utilitarian philosophy from the beginning. As utilitarians have for some time, Harris purports to challenge the fact-value distinction, or rather, to sidestep the tricky question of values entirely by just focusing on facts. But, as has also been true of utilitarians for some time, this move ends up being a way to advance certain values over others without arguing for them, and to leave large questions about those values unresolved.

Harris does not, for example, address the time-bound nature of such evaluations: Do we consider only the well-being of creatures that are conscious at the precise moment of our analysis? If yes, why should we accept such a bias? What of creatures that are going to possess consciousness in the near future — or would without human intervention — such as human embryos, whose destruction Harris staunchly advocates for the purposes of stem cell research? What of comatose patients, whose consciousness, and prospects for future consciousness, are uncertain? Harris might respond that he is only concerned with the well-being of creatures now experiencing consciousness, not any potentially future conscious creatures. But if so, should he not, for example, advocate expending all of the earth’s nonrenewable resources in one big here-and-now blowout, enhancing the physical well-being of those now living, and let future generations be damned? Yet Harris claims to be a conservationist. Surely the best justification for resource conservation on the basis of his ethics would be that it enhances the well-being of future generations of conscious creatures. If those potential future creatures merit our consideration, why should we not extend the same consideration to creatures already in existence, whose potential future involves consciousness?

Moreover, the factual analysis Harris touts cannot nearly bear the weight of the ethical inquiry he claims it does. Harris argues that the question of what factors contribute to the “well-being of conscious creatures” is a factual one, and furthermore that science can provide insights into these factors, and someday perhaps even give definitive accounts of them. Harris himself has been involved in research that examines the brain states of human subjects engaged in a variety of tasks. Although there has been much overhyping of brain imaging, the limitations of this sort of research are becoming increasingly obvious. Even on their own terms, these studies at best provide evidence of correlation, not of causation, and of correlations mixed in with the unfathomably complex interplay of cause and effect that are the brain and the mind. These studies inherently claim to get around the problems of understanding subjective consciousness by examining the brain, but the basic unlikeness of first-person qualitative experience and third-person events that can be examined by anyone places fundamental limits on the usual reductive techniques of empirical science.

We might still grant Harris’s assumption that neuroscience will someday reveal, in great biochemical and physiological detail, a set of factors highly associated with a sense of well-being. Even so, there would be limitations on how much this knowledge would advance human happiness. For comparison, we know a quite a lot about the physiology of digestion, and we are able to describe in great detail the physiological differences between the digestive system of a person who is starving and that of a person who has just eaten a satisfying and nutritionally balanced meal. But this knowledge contributes little to solving world hunger. This is because the factor that makes the difference — that is, the meal — comes from outside the person. Unless the factors causing our well-being come primarily from within, and are totally independent of what happens in our environment, Harris’s project will not be the key to achieving universal well-being.


The persistence of philosophy


The positivist tradition in philosophy gave scientism a strong impetus by denying validity to any area of human knowledge outside of natural science. More recent advocates of scientism have taken the ironic but logical next step of denying any useful role for philosophy whatsoever, even the subservient philosophy of the positivist sort. But the last laugh, it seems, remains with the philosophers — for the advocates of scientism reveal conceptual confusions that are obvious upon philosophical reflection. Rather than rendering philosophy obsolete, scientism is setting the stage for its much-needed revival.

Advocates of scientism today claim the sole mantle of rationality, frequently equating science with reason itself. Yet it seems the very antithesis of reason to insist that science can do what it cannot, or even that it has done what it demonstrably has not. As a scientist, I would never deny that scientific discoveries can have important implications for metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, and that everyone interested in these topics needs to be scientifically literate. But the claim that science and science alone can answer longstanding questions in these fields gives rise to countless problems.

In contrast to reason, a defining characteristic of superstition is the stubborn insistence that something — a fetish, an amulet, a pack of Tarot cards — has powers which no evidence supports. From this perspective, scientism appears to have as much in common with superstition as it does with properly conducted scientific research. Scientism claims that science has already resolved questions that are inherently beyond its ability to answer.

…One longs for a new Enlightenment to puncture the pretensions of this latest superstition.


 Posted by at 10:16 am

“Whoever is near me is near the fire.”

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Dec 102012

“Whoever is near me is near the fire.” The Christian must not be lukewarm. The Book of Revelation tells us that this is the greatest danger for a Christian: not that he may say no, but that he may say a very lukewarm yes. This being lukewarm is what discredits Christianity. Faith must become in us flame of love, flame that really fires up my being, becomes the great passion of my being, and so it fires also my neighbor. This is the way of evangelization: “Accéndat ardor proximos,” that truth may become in me charity  and charity  may lit up also the other. Only in this lighting up the other through the flame of our charity, evangelization really grows, the presence of the Gospel, which is no longer just word, but a lived reality.

St. Luke tells us that at Pentecost, in this foundation of the Church of God, the Holy Spirit was the fire that has transformed the world, but fire in the form of tongues, that is,  fire which is however reasonable, that is spirit, which is also understanding , fire that is joined to the thought, to the “mens.” And this intelligent fire, this “sobria  ebrietas,” is characteristic of Christianity. We know that fire is at the beginning of human culture, fire is light, heat, power to transform. Human culture begins when man has the power to create fire:  with fire it can destroy, but with fire it can transform and renew. The fire of God is transforming fire, the fire of passion – certainly – that destroys also so much in us, that leads to God, but fire especially that transforms, renews and creates a novelty in man, which becomes light in God.

 Posted by at 6:43 pm

“Man bears within himself the desire for God”

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Dec 102012

On the universal religious sense, by Pope Benedict XVI


Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today I would like to continue reflecting on how prayer and the religious sense have been a part of mankind throughout history.

We live in an age in which the signs of secularism are evident. It seems that God has disappeared from the horizon of many persons or that he has become a reality before which one remains indifferent. However, at the same time we see many signs that indicate to us an awakening of the religious sense, a rediscovery of the importance of God for man’s life, a need of spirituality, of surmounting a purely horizontal, material vision of human life. Analyzing recent history, the prediction has failed of those who in the age of the Enlightenment proclaimed the disappearance of religions and exalted absolute reason, separated from faith, a reason that would have dispelled the darkness of religious dogmas and dissolved “the world of the sacred,” restoring to man his liberty, his dignity and his autonomy from God. The experience of the last century, with the two tragic World Wars, put in crisis that progress that autonomous reason, man without God, seemed to be able to guarantee.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms: “In the act of creation, God calls every being from nothingness into existence. […] Even after losing through his sin his likeness to God, man remains an image of his Creator, and retains the desire for the one who calls him into existence. All religions bear witness to men’s essential search for God” (No. 2566). We could say — as I showed in the previous catechesis — that there has been no great civilization, from the most ancient times up to our days, which has not been religious.

Man is religious by nature, he is homo religiosus as he is homo sapiens and homo faber. “The desire for God,” the Catechism also affirms, “is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God” (No. 27). The image of the Creator is imprinted in his being and he feels the need to find a light to give an answer to the questions that have to do with the profound meaning of reality; an answer that he cannot find in himself, in progress, in empirical science. Homo religiosus does not emerge only from the ancient world, but he crosses the whole history of humanity.

To this end, the rich terrain of human experience has witnessed the emergence of different forms of religiosity, in the attempt to respond to the desire for plenitude and happiness, to the need of salvation, to the search for meaning. “Digital” man and the caveman alike seek in religious experience the ways to overcome his finitude and to ensure his precarious earthly adventure. Moreover, life without a transcendent horizon would not have complete meaning, and the happiness to which we tend, is projected toward a future, toward a tomorrow that is yet to be attained.

In the declaration “Nostra Aetate,” the Second Vatican Council stressed it synthetically. It states: Men expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in former times, deeply stir the hearts of men: What is man? What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does it serve? Which is the road to true happiness? What are death, judgment and retribution after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going?” (No. 1). Man knows that he cannot answer on his own his fundamental need to understand. Even if he is deluded and still believes that he is self-sufficient, he has the experience that he is not sufficient unto himself. He needs to open himself to the other, to something or someone, which can give him what he lacks, he must come out of himself toward the One who can fill the extent and profundity of his desire.

Man bears within himself a thirst for the infinite, a nostalgia for eternity, a search for beauty, a desire for love, a need for light and truth, which drive him toward the Absolute; man bears within himself the desire for God. And man knows, in some way, that he can address himself to God, that he can pray to him. St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest theologians of history, defines prayer as the “expression of man’s desire for God.” This attraction toward God, which God himself has placed in man, is the soul of prayer, which is cloaked in many forms and modalities according to the history, time, moment, grace and finally the sin of each one of those who pray. In fact, man’s history has known varied forms of prayer, because he has developed different modalities of openness toward the on High and toward the Beyond, so much so that we can recognize prayer as an experience present in every religion and culture.
In fact, dear brothers and sisters, as we saw last Wednesday, prayer is not linked to a particular context, but is found inscribed in every person’s heart and in every civilization.
Of course, when we speak of prayer as man’s experience in as much as man, of the homo orans, it is necessary to keep in mind that this is an interior attitude, rather than a series of practices and formulas, a way of being before God, rather than carrying out acts of worship or pronouncing words. Prayer has its center and founds its roots in the most profound being of the person; that is why it is not easily decipherable and for the same reason, it can be subject to misunderstandings and mystifications. Also in this sense we can understand the expression: it is difficult to pray. In fact, prayer is the place par excellence of gratuitousness, of the tension towards the Invisible, the Unexpected, the Ineffable. Because of this, the experience of prayer is a challenge for everyone, a “grace” to be invoked, a gift of the One whom we address.

In all the periods of history, in prayer man considers himself and his situation before God, from God and in regard to God, and he experiences himself as being a creature in need of help, incapable of achieving by himself the fulfillment of his existence and his hope. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein reminded that “to pray means to feel that the meaning of the world is outside the world.” In the dynamic of this relationship with the One who gives meaning to existence, with God, prayer has one of its typical expressions in the gesture of kneeling. It is a gesture that bears in itself a radical ambivalence: in fact, I can be obliged to kneel — condition of indigence and slavery — or I can kneel spontaneously, confessing my limit and, hence, my need for the Other. To Him I confess that I am weak, needy, a “sinner.”

In the experience of prayer, the human creature expresses all his awareness of himself, all that he is able to understand of his existence and, at the same time, he addresses himself wholly to the Being before whom he is, he orients his soul to that Mystery from which he awaits the fulfillment of his most profound desires and help to surmount the indigence of his life. In this looking at the Other, in this addressing “the beyond” is the essence of prayer, as experience of a reality that surpasses the sentient and the contingent.

However, the full realization of man’s search is found only in the God who reveals himself. Prayer, which is the opening and raising of the heart to God, becomes a personal relationship with Him. And even if man forgets his Creator, the living and true God does not fail to call man to the mysterious encounter of prayer. As the Catechism affirms: “In prayer, the faithful God’s initiative of love always comes first; our own first step is always a response. As God gradually reveals himself and reveals man to himself, prayer appears as a reciprocal call, a covenant drama. Through words and actions, this drama engages the heart. It unfolds throughout the whole history of salvation” (No. 2567).

Dear brothers and sisters, let us learn to spend more time before God, let us learn to recognize in silence the God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, to recognize in the depth of ourselves his voice that calls us and leads us back to the profundity of our existence, to the fount of life, to the source of salvation, to make us go beyond the limits of our life and to open ourselves to the measure of God, to the relationship with Him who is Infinite Love. Thank you!

 Posted by at 10:47 am

Absolute Transcendent Mind?

 Contemplation, Philosophy, Spirituality  Comments Off on Absolute Transcendent Mind?
Dec 062012

A few days ago I was listening to the Crossing the Threshold of Hope CD and JPII was explaining one big divergence between the classicist view and the modern. I brought this up with some friends because we recently got into a discussion about “paradigms” and it was Thomas Kuhn who first laid out a philosophy of science that brought in the importance of this idea of paradigm shifts in knowledge. Rather than a steady march forward where science gains knowledge and eliminates error through a process of disproving theory by means of empirical evidence, Kuhn argued that something very different actually occurs. His work on the notion of “paradigm shifts” was revolutionary in the philosophy of science and became a household concept.

What JPII was explaining was the basic ways that the modern “paradigm” (to use that word, which he didn’t) is different after Descartes – that instead of ipsum esse subsistens, or the absolute transcendent being, we now think in terms of absolute transcendent knowledge. Thought, rather than existence, has become primary in the modern paradigm. Reason itself, instead of a tool, becomes the very ground from which the tower of babel must be built, as I like to say. “I think therefore I am” reverses the order of things in a way. Existence must be measured and judged against the ultimate ground of thought. And if there is a God, this paradigm suggests, then that God is not absolute transcendent love but absolute transcendent mind.

I would actually trace the origins of this aspect of the Cartesian revolution (which ultimately set off the Enlightenment) back to Plato and Aristotle where the essence/existence split seems to originate – but the important point is that as result of this paradigm shift toward “pure thought” we begin to ask different questions, or perhaps old questions in new ways, because the framework of our worldview has different assumptions built into it. For example, we assume that “our ways,” or the ways of “reason” must be the ultimate measure of all things, including God. And so when God does not do things in a way that “makes sense” to us, it is very difficult for the modern mind to make it all add up. Dostoevsky asks, “Can a cultured man, a European of our day, believe, really believe in the divinity of Christ, the Son of God?”

It is the rationalist (now positivist) assumptions built into the modern paradigm that raises this question in this way. But therein is the point. It is the very assumption that everything must add up according to our way that causes this difficulty. Why is God hiding? Why is there suffering? Why is salvation history so complicated? These questions have always been with us (Job asks some pretty good ones), but the modern paradigm makes them especially difficult and pronounced. Would a modern man accept the answer Job was given? After all, Job was not given “an answer.” He was in fact an innocent man and his suffering was indeed “unjust.” No discourse can reconcile the conflict; no philosophy can provide the answer Job desires. But he received something much greater than “an answer,” something much greater than just another discourse to top the discourses of his friends. He received instead, God. He met God and this satisfied him in a way that no discourse, or “answer” ever could.

But for the modern man, discourse and theory is everything because thought, not existence, is the ultimate ground of the paradigm. The modern man, standing in Job’s place, rejects God when He appears, and goes on seeking a discourse. Why? Because modern man assumes that discourse is the ultimate ground from which everything arises and as such modern man finds himself utterly lost in the quest his heart has sent him on. But this is not entirely new, not really. We remember that when given the choice, the people chose Barabas, not Jesus. They wanted, not God, but political power. Then as now, man has his ideas about what he wants and there is that part of his nature to reject what God has offered. In this, nothing much has changed. Then, as now, man thinks he knows better than God.

 Posted by at 8:58 am

Philosophy as the Art of Living

 Books, Philosophy  Comments Off on Philosophy as the Art of Living
Dec 042012

A QUIET REVOLUTION may have taken place over the last three decades in our understanding of the history of Western philosophy. So quiet, in fact, that few have noticed it. Three recent books give us a sense of the significance and extent of this paradigm shift: Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, by James Miller; How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell; and The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life, by Bettany Hughes. What has this revolution brought forth? The realization that some of the most influential Western philosophers (primarily the ancient philosophers, but also Montaigne, Rousseau, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and others) intended their philosophy to be not just a body of doctrines, of pure intellectual content, but to be above all an “art of living.” It is immediately obvious that, like most revolutions, this one, too, is about how we relate to the past.

At the heart of the notion of philosophy as a “way of life” there lies the idea of a radical transformation. In Theses on Feuerbach (1845) Karl Marx famously challenged the way philosophy had been conceived of in the West: “Philosophers have sought to understand the world; the point, however, is to change it.” Yet, understanding philosophy as an “art of living” means not to change the world, but the philosopher herself. In a way, “changing the world” is a touch too easy, because nobody exactly knows what it means. Revolutionaries and spin doctors alike never stop talking about “changing the world,” which results in a social anesthetization of sorts; too much revolutionary talk is the best way to kill a revolution before it even starts. Soon enough we feel no discomfort living in a world that, in spite of all appearances, does not really change. Plus ça change… On the other hand, should one be unlucky enough to be visited by it, one will find it very hard to get rid of the relentless feeling that one has to change oneself. Rilke’s admonition, which Peter Sloterdijk borrowed for the title of one of his recent books, sounds now harsher than ever: Du mußt dein Leben ändern (“You must change your life”).

In this understanding of the Western tradition, the chief reason for studying philosophy is not a desire to know more about the world, but a profound sense of dissatisfaction with the state in which one finds oneself at a given moment. One day you suddenly, painfully realize that something important is missing in your life, that there is a gap between what you currently are and the sense of what you could be. And before you know it, this emptiness starts eating at you. In a way, you don’t even exist yet. (It must have been in this sense that Socrates used the term “midwifery” for what he was doing; by subjecting those around him to the rigors of his philosophy, he was bringing them into existence properly.) Philosophy thus presupposes a certain degree of self-detestation. It may well be that philosophizing begins in shame. If you are a bit too comfortable with yourself, if there is nothing you are ashamed of, you don’t need philosophy; you are fine as you are.

 Posted by at 8:37 am

Stoic Philosophy

 Philosophy  Comments Off on Stoic Philosophy
Nov 272012

Stoic philosophy is less about the nature of reality (metaphysics) or what can or cannot be known (epistemology) but rather, on how to live (ethics). The focus of these philosophers is to pursue what Aristotle called eudaimonia. Offten translated as “happiness” the meaning of the word is closer in meaning to “human flourishing.” Aristotle believed that the human being is fulfilled only when he satisfies his purpose, or ends, or “telos.” The stoic philosophers believed that this is accomplished through a “way of being” in the world; a way of acting and behaving that was in accordance with the virtues. Only in a life lived completely aligned with “the good,” in companionship with God, would the human being fulfill his destiny.

As for philosophy, Epicurus said, “Vain is the word of that philosopher which does not heal any suffering of man.” I think this sums up the stoic aim very well. Our study is not to win a victory or to have correct ideas merely; this kind of study is more practice than discourse; this kind of study is done not so much to win an argument, but so that in living our lives we may fulfill our destiny. As such, it often focuses on the sins of man which keep him from his destiny. It is this that the spirit of Socrates’ words are developed, for as he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Such a life would be a life devoted to pleasure, much like the life of a cow. Such a life would not fulfill the destiny of the human being, which is to flourish in companionship with God.

Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius are some of my favorite stoic philosophers:


* All cruelty springs from weakness.

* A physician is not angry at the intemperance of a mad patient, nor does he take it ill to be railed at by a man in fever. Just so should a wise man treat all mankind, as a physician does his patient, and look upon them only as sick and extravagant.

* Anger, if not restrained, is frequently more hurtful to us than the injury that provokes it.

* It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.

* We should every night call ourselves to an account: what infirmity have I mastered today? what passions opposed? what temptation resisted? what virtue acquired? Our vices will abate of themselves if they be brought every day to the shrift.

* Wisdom allows no man to be happy but he that needs no other happiness than what he has within himself.

* Success is not greedy, as people think, but insignificant. That is why it satisfies nobody.

* Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.

* Consider, when you are enraged at any one, what you would probably think if he should die during the dispute.

* Consult your friend on all things, especially on those which respect yourself. His counsel may then be useful where your own self-love might impair your judgment.

* God is the universal substance in existing things. He comprises all things. He is the fountain of all being. In Him exists everything that is.

* It is more fitting for a man to laugh at life than to lament over it.

* The first step in a person’s salvation is knowledge of their sin.

* You learn to know a pilot in a storm.

* One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood.


* The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.

* It is impossible to begin to learn that which one thinks one already knows.

* If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.

* To accuse others for one’s own misfortunes is a sign of want of education. To accuse oneself shows that one’s education has begun. To accuse neither oneself nor others shows that one’s education is complete.

* It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.

* There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.

* If thy brother wrongs thee, remember not so much his wrong-doing, but more than ever that he is thy brother.

* The essence of philosophy is that a man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things.

* Whenever you are angry, be assured that it is not only a present evil, but that you have increased a habit.

* There is nothing good or evil save in the will.

* Unless we place our religion and our treasure in the same thing, religion will always be sacrificed.


Marcus Aurelius

* Maintain a constant mildness of temper and a tranquility of mind in all things.

* Remain abstinent from mean and evil thoughts.

* Refrain from fault-finding.

* Practice a constant benevolence in nature.

* Look carefully after the interests of friends.

* Do not esteem yourself too highly; skill in expounding philosophical principles is the smallest of merits.

* Do not be opinionated.

* Tolerate ignorant persons.

* Be accommodating without false flattery.

* Never show anger or any passion.

* Be affectionate.

* Give to others readily.

* Cherish good hopes.

* Listen generously.

* Do not criticize.

* Be ready to forgive.

* Seek an agreeable humor.

* Avoid sarcasm and cynicism and all ironies.

* Nurture a love of labor and vigorous action.

* Perseverance against arrogance, pedantry, sophistry and pride.

* Be satisfied in all occasions, and cheerful.

* Throw away thy books; no longer distract thyself… cast away the thirst after books, that thou mayest not die murmuring, but cheerfully, truly, and from thy heart thankful to God.

* Put yourself in mind, every morning, that before that night you will meet with some meddlesome, ungrateful and abusive fellow, with some envious or unsociable churl. Remember that their perversity proceeds from ignorance of good and evil; and that since it has fallen to my share to understand the natural beauty of a good action and the deformity of an ill one; since I am satisfied that the disobliging person is of kin to me, our minds being both extracted from the Deity; since no man can do me a real injury because no man can force me to misbehave myself; I cannot therefore hate or be angry with one of my own nature and family. For we are all made for mutual assistance, no less than the parts of the body are for the service of the whole; whence it follows that clashing and opposition are utterly unnatural.

 Posted by at 10:28 am

Two types of people

 Math, Philosophy, Spirituality  Comments Off on Two types of people
Nov 182012

There are two types of people. Those who say that the decimal notation 0.999… is not equal to 1, and then there are mathematicians who have proven that 0.999… is equal to 1.

The Catholic theologian Bernard Lonergan developed a theory of what it means to understand – a theory of knowledge – much like the Catholic apologist and saint, John Henry Newman’s theory of knowledge, which is fully capable of dealing with this. These men present theories of knowledge to respond to the extreme skepticism of men like David Hume who present a radically negative view of knowledge that surpasses even Descartes (the father of modern philosophy) and Socrates, whose skeptical claim that he knew nothing is differentiated from Hume’s skepticism very well in Peter Kreeft’s book, “Socrates Meets Hume.”

Not a lot of people I have met are up for this sort of discussion, but I am always game. But if we are going to begin reading Lonergan, we should perhaps also take a look at the Catholic philosopher, Alasdaire MacIntyre, who is very influenced by St. Thomas Aquinas.

So we have before us a study of all of mathematics, an inquiry of “what is number,” an investigation into the history of the several theories of epistemology from Socrates to Descartes to Hume and on to Lonergan and MacIntyre and perhaps much more. In other words, an investigation for a lifetime. And meanwhile we shall ever ask, where are you, God, Lord of all? And shall we not ever hear, “I AM.”

And in all of this, I am always delighted to find souls who delight in discussing the mystery that is number, the mystery that is knowledge, the mystery that is being, the mystery that is God, and any other mystery that seizes the soul, which are legion.

Lonergan, Bernard

MacIntyre: Political Philosophy

 Posted by at 5:01 pm

What is the human being?

 Spirituality  Comments Off on What is the human being?
Nov 142012

From Pope Benedict XVI in the book, “In the beginning…”

“What is the human being? This question is posed to every generation and to each individual human being, for in contrast to the animals our life is not simply laid out for us in advance. What it means for us to be human beings is for each one of us a task and an appeal to our freedom. We must each search into our human-beingness afresh and decide who or what we want to be as humans. In our own lives each one of us must answer, whether he or she wants to or not, the question about being human.

“What is the human being? The biblical account of creation means to give some orientation in the mysterious region of human-beingness. It means to help us appreciate the human person as God’s project and to help us formulate the new and creative answer that God expects from each one of us.

“We are told that God formed the man of dust from the ground. There is here something at once humbling and consoling. Something humbling because we are told: You are not God, you did not make yourself, and you do not rule the universe; you are limited. You are a being destined for death, as are all things living; you are only earth. But something consoling too, because we are also told: The human being is not a demon or an evil spirit, as it might occasionally appear. The human being has not been formed from negative forces, but has been fashioned from God’s good earth. Behind this glimmers something deeper yet, for we are told all human beings are earth. …Thus the unity of the whole human race becomes immediately apparent.

“But in order for the human being to exist there must be a second element as well. The basic material is earth; from this the human being comes into existence after God has breathed his breath into the nostrils of the body that was formed from it. The divine reality enters here. The first creation account, which we considered in our previous meditations, says the same thing by way of another and more deeply reflective image. It says that the human being is created in God’s image and likeness (cf. Genesis 1:26-27). In the human being heaven and earth touch one another.”

“…The fate of all of us depends on whether the moral dignity of the human person can be defended in the world of technology, with all its possibilities. for here a particular temptation exists for our technical scientific age. The technical and scientific attitude has produced a particular kind of certitude – namely, that which can be corroborated by way of experiment and mathematical formula. This has given humankind a certain freedom from anxiety and superstition, a certain power over the world. But now there is a temptation to view as reasonable and therefore as serious only what can be corroborated through experiment and computation. This means that the moral and the holy no longer count for anything. They are considered to belong to the domain of what must be transcended, of the irrational. But whenever the human being does this, whenever we base our ethics on physics, we extinguish what is particularly human, and we no longer liberate the human being but crush him or her. We must ourselves recognize what Kant recognized and knew perfectly well – that there are two kinds of reason, as he says: a theoretical and a practical reason. We may call them the physical-natural scientific and the moral-religious reason. It is improper to refer to the moral reason as gross unreason and superstition simply because its contours and the scope of its knowledge are not mathematical. It is in fact the more fundamental of the two reasons, and it alone can preserve the human dimension of both the natural sciences and technology and also prevent them from destroying humankind. Kant spoke of a preeminence of the practical over the theoretical reason and of the fact that what is more important, more profound, and more determinative is recognized by the moral reason of the human being in his moral freedom. For it is there, we must add, that we image God and there that we are more than “earth.”

“Let us take this further. The essence of an image consists in the fact that it represents something. When I see it I recognize, for example, the person whom it represents, or the landscape, or whatever. It points to something beyond itself. Thus the property of an image is not to be merely what it itself is – for example, oil, canvas, and frame. Its nature as an image has to do with the fact that it goes beyond itself and that it manifests something that it itself is not. Thus the image of God means, first of all, that human beings cannot be closed in on themselves. Human beings who attempt this betray themselves. To be the image of God implies relationality. It is the dynamic that sets the human being in motion toward the totallly Other. Hence it means the capacity for relationship; it is the human capacity for God. Human beings are, as a consequence, most profoundly human when they step out of themselves and become capable of addressing God on familiar terms. Indeed, to the question as to what distinguishes the human being from an animal, as to what is specifically different about human beings, the answer has to be that they are beings that God made capable of thinking and praying. They are most profoundly themselves when they discover their relation to their Creator. Therefore the image of God also means that human persons are beings of word and of love, beings moved toward Another, oriented to giving themselves to the Other and only truly receiving themselves back in real self-giving.

Holy Scripture enables us to go a still further step if we again follow our basic rule – namely, that we must read the Old and New Testament together and that only in the New is the deepest meaning of the Old to be found. In the New Testament Christ is referred to as the second Adam, as the definitive Adam, and as the image of God (cf. e.g. 1 Corinthians 15:44-48; Colossians 1:15). This means that in him alone appears the complete answer to the question about what the human being is. In him alone appears the deepest meaning of what is for the present a rough draft. He is the definitive human being, and creation is, as it were, a preliminary sketch that points to him. Thus we can say that human persons are the beings who can be Jesus Christ’s brothers or sisters. Human beings are the creatures that can be one with Christ and thereby be one with God himself. Hence this relationship of creature to Christ, of the first to the second Adam, signifies that human persons are beings en route, beings characterized by transition. They are not yet themselves. Here in the midst of our thoughts on creation there suddenly appears the Easter mystery, the mystery of the grain of wheat that has died. Human beings must die with Christ like a grain of wheat in order truly to rise, to stand erect, to be themselves (cf. John 12:24). Human persons are not to be understood merely from the perspective of their past histories or from that isolated moment that we refer to as the present. They are oriented toward their future, and only it permits who they really are to appear completely (cf. John 3:2). We must always see in other human beings persons with whom we shall one day share God’s joy. We must look upon them as persons who are called, together with us, to be members of the Body of Christ, with whom we shall one day sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and with Christ himself, as their brothers and sisters, as the brothers and sisters of Christ and as the children of God.”


 Posted by at 11:18 pm

The Mathematician and the Calculator

 Math  Comments Off on The Mathematician and the Calculator
Nov 112012

Not being a mathematician I can say this with great arrogance that mathematics is something quite above and beyond mere calculation. Mathematics is much more than computation.

Yes, of course – but then again perhaps not “of course” but rather, “why?”

Why did Carl Friedrich Gauss say:

“Mathematics is the queen of sciences and number theory is the queen of mathematics. She often condescends to render service to astronomy and other natural sciences, but in all relations she is entitled to the first rank.”


Well, calculators simply follow rules. But mathematics determines those rules, yes? No? Yes?

Wait a minute.


But have we determined, or (merely) discovered?

Plato, we have not surpassed you and hardly do we even presume to begin to catch up to you.

Crap! And now we have unwittingly entered the quagmire know as philosophy! Yipes! We must be lost? How did we get here? I simply wanted to know whether the cow I traded to my neighbor was worth the triangle of corn crop in the field and now I have stepped into a predicament that though thousands of years of thinking have been applied to the task, no man has resolved.

Whether we invented number or discovered it, the question has split the mathematicians into opposing, murderous and warring camps. Bullets and blood tried but failed to resolve the cosmic argument:

And voila. From the most certain foundation that man’s feeble reason can produce we step immediately into the deepest mud which he cannot escape. War is upon the minds of men, even in mathematics.

But the calculators crunch their numbers in (ignorant?) peaceful bliss.

In the end, mathematics is ruled and determined by its usefulness. Therefore it is ruled by reality. And this is the reason why you cannot divide by zero and why a set cannot contain itself: it is just not productive. It is not a law of mathematics that determines this, but rather a bias that mathematics should correspond to reality. Mathematics is above all, pragmatic. The theory that grounds mathematics is not merely pie in the sky, but rather, the most practical thing man has ever set forth to do. It is this practicality that demands that mathematics be consistent and complete. And it is this demand that is threatened by Godel, which is why it is such a scandal. Which is why a resolution is not insignificant.

But calculators are of no help here. What is needed is something half mathematical and half philosophical. In the end, reality decides. When Paul Dirac told all the world’s most talented physicists that he, a mathematician, knew more about reality than they did, no one could believe him. But when his equations led to a reality no physicist had ever dreamed of, mathematics was confirmed queen indeed. The positron exits, just as the mathematician said it must.

 Posted by at 7:28 pm

Faith is not merely an intellectual decision

 Spirituality  Comments Off on Faith is not merely an intellectual decision
Nov 092012

Faith is not merely an intellection decision, it is a gift from God received at Baptism, and the soul has to have the disposition (continuity of sanctifying grace) to allow the gift to give certainty to the intellect.

This is contrary to Protestant theology which calls for a personal decision to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, which is why they reject the idea of infant baptism.

Thomas Aquinas gives us the explanation of the Catholic position in the Summa Theologiae ST II-II, Q6, a1

He begins with a quote from St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (2:8-9)

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.

For Paul “works” refers to obedience to the Torah Law, which is a kind of intellectual assent, only certain by maintaining one’s decision/obedience.) Thomas rightly points out that faith is attained in two steps, first matters of faith must be revealed by God and proposed to man. Secondly, is the assent to faith (the acceptance of the matters of faith as truth.)

This second phase may initially be an intellectual decision, but an intellectual assent alone is not enough for certainty. We see this happen as youth mature and are exposed to modern philosophy and a myriad of religions that are seen as an alternative to the religion of their (Catholic) parents. Even mature Catholics waver with doubt which is distinct from inquiry or wonder. (Faith seeking Understanding is not doubt seeking certainty.)

Here’s Aquinas’ explanation in excerpt:

Two things are requisite for faith. First, that the things which are of faith should be proposed to man: this is necessary in order that man believe anything explicitly. The second thing requisite for faith is the assent of the believer to the things which are proposed to him. Accordingly, as regards the first of these, faith must needs be from God. Because those things which are of faith surpass human reason, hence they do not come to man’s knowledge, unless God reveal them. To some, indeed, they are revealed by God immediately, as those things which were revealed to the apostles and prophets, while to some they are proposed by God in sending preachers of the faith, according to Romans 10:15: “How shall they preach, unless they be sent?”

At this point in Thomas’ discourse however, it may seem that the “gift” is revelation itself, and is preached. Still tending to an intellectual assent. It is in “regards the second” that he first touches on the internal supernatural gift:

As regards the second, viz. man’s assent to the things which are of faith, we may observe a twofold cause, one of external inducement, such as seeing a miracle, or being persuaded by someone to embrace the faith: neither of which is a sufficient cause, since of those who see the same miracle, or who hear the same sermon, some believe, and some do not. Hence we must assert another internal cause, which moves man inwardly to assent to matters of faith.

He concludes by referring back to the idea that matters of faith are beyond man’s natural ability to know and therefore man’s assent of faith must be moved by God’s gift of grace, an interior motion to assent that gives certainty to the intellect.

Since man, by assenting to matters of faith, is raised above his nature, this must needs accrue to him from some supernatural principle moving him inwardly; and this is God. Therefore faith, as regards the assent which is the chief act of faith, is from God moving man inwardly by grace.

In the context of the ongoing discourse on Faith and Reason, there are some who do not have the supernatural grace that gives certainty and their certainty can only come from “pervasive quantitative hegemony,” which only gives certainty to those things proven. In the Letter to the Hebrews Faith is defined as “The substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen.” (Heb 11:1) In Romans 8:22 the contrast is made and seems to speak directly to the positivists of today:

Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees?

You are right in saying they reject faith, a) because they don’t have the gift of grace and b) they want to believe only what is “seen” (proven.) In the context of Thomas’ theology and Catholic belief, the intrinsic (natural) desire for God can only be satisfied by God through faith. However, those who remain unbaptized or those who do not maintain sanctifying grace through the sacramental life, are in a constant state of doubt which requires proof.

To paraphrase from your email, the [call to] “faith is with us for good and it cannot be “severed” from the human.” Faith however is a gift that that once received must be maintained. In other words prior to the gift it is only the desire (which cannot be severed) and the unaided intellect directs that desire toward many things below the horizon of eternity.

ST II-II, Q6, a1

 Posted by at 12:02 pm

Celebrating Faith and Reason

 Philosophy, Spirituality  Comments Off on Celebrating Faith and Reason
Nov 062012

I wanted to share a few links this morning to highlight some organizations that seem to be doing a good job of “bridging the gap” so to speak, between cultures. I think John Henry Newman’s mission to bring faith and reason together is something that is well represented in each of these organizations.

The first organization, Crossroads Cultural Center, has many events here in Washington, D.C. each year and I think they do an excellent job of responding to the question, “If there were a Catholic culture alive and well today, what would it look like?”
The Crossroads Cultural Center website is here:

Here is a snippet about the mission of Crossroads from an article beautifully titled, “A Festival of Faith and Reason”:

The main activity of Crossroads is the organization and promotion of public events on any topic that fascinates us. This was true at the beginning and it is still true today. It is a very important point for us: we choose our topics and speakers because of the way we’re struck by reality, not based on an ideology or a pre-determined agenda. When we started Crossroads, we had no intention of focusing on a predetermined subset of issues, people or ideas that fall under the “Catholic” label. On the contrary, for us, being a Catholic cultural center means precisely the opposite, that is, to be interested in everything, in the entire spectrum of reality. It means to have the ability – or at least the desire – to encounter people from all walks of life, and to look for and give value to everything that is true, good and worthy in various expressions of human life.

This main event of the “festival” is held annually in New York. It is called the New York Encounter:

To the question of culture, Crossroads sees it like this:

Culture is a systematic and critical awareness of reality; it is the free development of our human need and capacity for knowing and interpreting everything in reality. Knowledge is a primary need of every person and not something that belongs to the experts. Culture is an activity proper to every person, because nobody can live without constantly developing and communicating to others a certain awareness of reality. Human curiosity is stirred by wonder – you walk out your door and things are there; life is given, a new and unexpected event that awakens the desire to know its meaning. This focus on reality as event (and not on ideas) determines the style, method, and priority of our cultural work.

This festival is based on the much larger festival heldin Rimini, Italy each year which attracts over 800,000 people. It is the world’s largest cultural event, which bills itself as “a place where Christian faith cries aloud to all the world its passion for the human intrinisic in it.”

Here is an article about how this festival came about and what it is all about:

The topics at this festival are as wide-ranging as humanity itself. Topics include “The Church,” “Politics,” “Economics,” “Science,” “Performing Arts,” and more. Speakers and appearances at this event have included very high profile Catholics including Pope John Paul II, Archbishops from all over the world, prominent theologians like Hans von Balthasar, and even Mother Teresa of Calcutta. But there is enough there for everyone, so much so that the event attracts Buddhists, scientists, artists, and just about every range of personality under the human umbrella.

The range of topics at both of these festivals is remarkable and is reflective of the “radical openness” to all of reality expressed by the charism of CL (Communion and Liberation) which was founded by Fr. Luigi Giussani in Italy:

Lastly, in terms of bridging the gap between the culture of science and the culture of faith, the Templeton Foundation does interesting work and this Saturday there is a seminar at the Washington Theological Union in DC – I think it is part three – from the Atom + Eve series, which is partly funded by the Templeton Foundation.

I attended the first in this series, which was very good. It began with a presentation from Dr. Stephen Barr, who is a prominent physicist, and Catholic. The Vatican awarded him a papal medal in 2007 for service to the Church

Physicist receives papal medal:

“At the time I wrote Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, there did not seem to be a book addressing the links, rather than the conflicts, between science and religion. I wrote the book for myself, actually my younger self when I was about 16, and wished there were a book like it,” Barr said.

In his book, Barr writes, “the conflict is not between religion and science, it is between religion and materialism,” whose basic tenet is that “nothing exists except matter and that everything in the world must therefore be the result of the strict mathematical laws of physics and blind chance.”

His talk from the atompluseve conference on the origins of the universe is up on the website:

So all of this is encouraging. Faith and reason are alive and well in the world and I am optimistic and hopeful.

 Posted by at 9:25 am

God Speaks to Each of Us Before We Are

 Muse, Spirituality  Comments Off on God Speaks to Each of Us Before We Are
Nov 042012

God speaks to each of us before we are,
Before he’s formed us —then, in cloudy speech,
But only then, he speaks these words to each
And silently walks with us from the dark:

Driven by your senses, dare
To the edge of longing. Grow
Like a fire’s shadowcasting glare
Behind assembled things, so you can spread
Their shapes on me as clothes.
Don’t leave me bare.

Let it all happen to you: beauty and dread.
Simply go —no feeling is too much —
And only this way can we stay in touch.

Near here is the land
That they call Life.
You’ll know when you arrive
By how real it is.

Give me your hand.


 Posted by at 7:35 pm

Spring and Fall – Gerard Manley Hopkins

 Muse  Comments Off on Spring and Fall – Gerard Manley Hopkins
Nov 042012

MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

 Posted by at 7:09 pm

The Man Who Was Thursday

 Muse  Comments Off on The Man Who Was Thursday
Nov 042012

A cloud was on the mind of men, and wailing went the weather,

Yea, a sick cloud upon the soul when we were boys together.

Science announced nonentity and art admired decay;

The world was old and ended: but you and I were gay;

Round us in antic order their crippled vices came–

Lust that had lost its laughter, fear that had lost its shame.

Like the white lock of Whistler, that lit our aimless gloom,

Men showed their own white feather as proudly as a plume.

Life was a fly that faded, and death a drone that stung;

The world was very old indeed when you and I were young.

They twisted even decent sin to shapes not to be named:

Men were ashamed of honour; but we were not ashamed.

Weak if we were and foolish, not thus we failed, not thus;

When that black Baal blocked the heavens he had no hymns from us

Children we were–our forts of sand were even as weak as eve,

High as they went we piled them up to break that bitter sea.

Fools as we were in motley, all jangling and absurd,

When all church bells were silent our cap and bells were heard.


Not all unhelped we held the fort, our tiny flags unfurled;

Some giants laboured in that cloud to lift it from the world.

I find again the book we found, I feel the hour that flings

Far out of fish?shaped Paumanok some cry of cleaner things;

And the Green Carnation withered, as in forest fires that pass,

Roared in the wind of all the world ten million leaves of grass;

Or sane and sweet and sudden as a bird sings in the rain–

Truth out of Tusitala spoke and pleasure out of pain.

Yea, cool and clear and sudden as a bird sings in the grey,

Dunedin to Samoa spoke, and darkness unto day.

But we were young; we lived to see God break their bitter charms.

God and the good Republic come riding back in arms:

We have seen the City of Mansoul, even as it rocked, relieved–

Blessed are they who did not see, but being blind, believed.


This is a tale of those old fears, even of those emptied hells,

And none but you shall understand the true thing that it tells–

Of what colossal gods of shame could cow men and yet crash,

Of what huge devils hid the stars, yet fell at a pistol flash.

The doubts that were so plain to chase, so dreadful to withstand–

Oh, who shall understand but you; yea, who shall understand?

The doubts that drove us through the night as we two talked amain,

And day had broken on the streets e’er it broke upon the brain.

Between us, by the peace of God, such truth can now be told;

Yea, there is strength in striking root and good in growing old.

We have found common things at last and marriage and a creed,

And I may safely write it now, and you may safely read.

G. K. C.

 Posted by at 7:07 pm