Friday, February 28, 2014

"Why Study Philosophy? 'To Challenge Your Own Point of View'"

Here's an interesting article from Hope Reese in The Atlantic.  It's an interview with philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein; she makes the same points I like to make with regard to A.A. and religion:  that their primary purpose is exactly to "to challenge your own point of view."   This is something we actually need outside help with, because we very likely wouldn't do it on our own - and it's a formula for the most exciting adventure of growth and change.  Also, that "scientism" isn't really a very complete worldview, and we're not doing ourselves any favors at all by jettisoning either philosophy or religion.  (In fact, as I pointed out in my last post, I think religion - and philosophy, too, probably, exactly because of this "challenging one's point of view" aspect - are the counterparts to the scientific method in the realm of human life and experience.)

I always point out that, in the course of getting to know and understand religion in a deeper way in these past 10-15 years, I have by necessity had to get to know something about many, many other things:  history especially, but also culture, anthropology, and philosophy.   I've also become aware over time that religion is fascinating because it's actually a highly speculative process - and further, that Anglicanism is perhaps the version of Christianity most open to speculation, because of its "minimalist" approach to doctrine.   (This is why it's so frustrating, to me, that we have very few really good theologians in the Episcopal Church - but Anglicanism can claim Rowan Williams, at least.  Perhaps TEC just went too minimalist.)  More on that later, probably.

Anyway, here's the interview:
At a time when advances in science and technology have changed our understanding of our mental and physical selves, it is easy for some to dismiss the discipline of philosophy as obsolete. Stephen Hawking, boldly, argues that philosophy is dead.

Not according to Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Goldstein, a philosopher and novelist, studied philosophy at Barnard and then earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Princeton University. She has written several books, won a MacArthur “Genius Award” in 1996, and taught at several universities, including Barnard, Columbia, Rutgers, and Brandeis.

Goldstein’s forthcoming book, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, offers insight into the significant—and often invisible—progress that philosophy has made. I spoke with Goldstein about her take on the science vs. philosophy debates, how we can measure philosophy’s advances, and why an understanding of philosophy is critical to our lives today.

You came across The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant as a kid. What were your first thoughts?

I grew up in a very religious Orthodox Jewish household and everybody seemed to have firm opinions about all sorts of big questions. I was interested in how they knew what they seemed to know, or claimed to know. That’s what I would now call an epistemological question. I was allowed to read very widely, and I got book The Story of Philosophy out. I must’ve been 11 or 12. And the chapter on Plato… it was my first experience of a kind of intellectual ecstasy. I was sent completely outside of myself. There were a lot of things that I didn’t understand, but there was something abstract and eternal that underlay all the changing phenomena of the world. He used the word “phantasmagoria,” which is one of those words I had to look up, and probably one of the few times I’ve encountered it. I couldn’t quite understand what I was reading, but I was hooked.

When did your formal education in philosophy start?

I didn’t think I was going to study philosophy. I also loved science, and took out lots of books about science as a kid, and, oh gosh, I ruined my mother’s kitchen by trying to do do-it-yourself chemistry experiments. There were all kinds of things that interested me. One of the things about philosophy is that you don’t have to give up on any other field. Whatever field there is, there’s a corresponding field of philosophy. Philosophy of language, philosophy of politics, philosophy of math. All the things I wanted to know about I could still study within a philosophical framework.

What did your religious family think about your pursuit of philosophy?

It made my mother intensely uncomfortable. She wanted me to be a good student but not to take it too seriously. She worried that nobody would want to marry such a bookish girl. But I ended up getting married at 19. And I wasn’t an outwardly rebellious child; I followed all the rules. The problem was, I was allowed to think about whatever I wanted to. Even though I decided very early on that I didn’t believe in any of it, it was okay as long as I had freedom of mind. It was fine with my family.

How early do you think children can, or should, start learning about philosophy?

I started really early with my daughters. They said the most interesting things that if you’re trained in philosophy you realize are big philosophical statements. The wonderful thing about kids is that the normal way of thinking, the conceptual schemes we get locked up in, haven’t gelled yet with them. When my daughter was a toddler, I’d say “Danielle!” she would very assuredly, almost indignantly, say, “I’m not Danielle! I’m this!” I’d think, What is she trying to express? This is going to sound ridiculous, but she was trying to express what Immanuel Kant calls the transcendental ego. You’re not a thing in the world the way there are other things in the world, you’re the thing experiencing other things—putting it all together. This is what this toddler was trying to tell me. Or when my other daughter, six at the time, was talking with her hands and knocked over a glass of juice. She said, “Look at what my body did!” I said, “Oh, you didn’t do that?” And she said, “No! My body did that!” I thought, Oh! Cartesian dualism! She meant that she didn’t intend to do that, and she identified herself with her intentional self. It was fascinating to me.

And kids love to argue.

They could argue with me about anything. If it were a good argument I would take it seriously. See if you can change my mind. It teaches them to be self-critical, to look at their own opinions and see what the weak spots are. This is also important in getting them to defend their own positions, to take other people’s positions seriously, to be able to self-correct, to be tolerant, to be good citizens and not to be taken in by demagoguery. The other thing is to get them to think about moral views. Kids have a natural egotistical morality. Every kid by age three is saying, “That’s not fair!” Well, use that to get them to think about fairness. Yes, they feel a certain sense of entitlement, but what is special about them? What gives them such a strong sense of fairness? They’re natural philosophers. And they’re still so flexible.

There’s a peer pressure that sets in at a certain age. They so much want to be like everybody else. But what I’ve found is that if you instill this joy of thinking, the sheer intellectual fun, it will survive even the adolescent years and come back in fighting form. It’s empowering.

What changes in philosophy curriculum have you seen over the last 40 years?

One thing that’s changed tremendously is the presence of women and the change in focus because of that. There’s a lot of interest in literature and philosophy, and using literature as a philosophical examination. It makes me so happy! Because I was seen as a hard-core analytic philosopher, and when I first began to write novels people thought, Oh, and we thought she was serious! But that’s changed entirely. People take literature seriously, especially in moral philosophy, as thought experiments. A lot of the most developed and effective thought experiments come from novels. Also, novels contribute to making moral progress, changing people’s emotions.

Right—a recent study shows how reading literature leads to increased compassion.

Exactly. It changes our view of what’s imaginable. Commercial fiction that didn’t challenge people’s stereotypes about characters didn’t have the same effect of being able to read others better, but literary fiction that challenges our views of stereotypes has a huge effect. A lot of women philosophers have brought this into the conversation. Martha Nussbaum really led the way in this. She claimed that literature was philosophically important in many different ways. The other thing that’s changed is that there’s more applied philosophy. Let’s apply philosophical theory to real-life problems, like medical ethics, environmental ethics, gender issues. This is a real change from when I was in school and it was only theory.

In your new book, you respond to the criticism that philosophy isn’t progressing the way other fields are. For example: In philosophy, unlike in other areas of study, an ancient historical figure like Plato is just as relevant today.

There’s the claim that the only progress made is in posing problems that scientists can answer. That philosophy never has the means to answer problems—it’s just biding its time till the scientists arrive on the scene. You hear this quite often. There is, among some scientists, a real anti-philosophical bias. The sense that philosophy will eventually disappear. But there’s a lot of philosophical progress, it’s just a progress that’s very hard to see. It’s very hard to see because we see with it. We incorporate philosophical progress into our own way of viewing the world. Plato would be constantly surprised by what we know. And not only what we know scientifically, or by our technology, but what we know ethically. We take a lot for granted. It’s obvious to us, for example, that individual’s ethical truths are equally important. Things like class and gender and religion and ethnicity don’t matter insofar as individual rights go. That would never have occurred to him. He makes an argument in The Republic that you need to treat all Greeks in the same way. It never occurs to him that you would treat barbarians (non-Greeks) the same way.

It’s amazing how long it takes us, but we do make progress. And it’s usually philosophical arguments that first introduce the very outlandish idea that we need to extend rights. And it takes more, it takes a movement, and activism, and emotions, to affect real social change. It starts with an argument, but then it becomes obvious. The tracks of philosophy’s work are erased because it becomes intuitively obvious. The arguments against slavery, against cruel and unusual punishment, against unjust wars, against treating children cruelly—these all took arguments.

Which philosophical arguments have you seen shifting our national conversation, changing what we once thought was obvious?

About 30 years ago, the philosopher Peter Singer started to argue about the way animals are treated in our factory farms. Everybody thought he was nuts. But I’ve watched this movement grow; I’ve watched it become emotional. It has to become emotional. You have to draw empathy into it. But here it is, right in our time—a philosopher making the argument, everyone dismissing it, but then people start discussing it. Even criticizing it, or saying it’s not valid, is taking it seriously. This is what we have to teach our children. Even things that go against their intuition they need to take seriously. What was intuition two generations ago is no longer intuition; and it’s arguments that change it. We are very inertial creatures. We do not like to change our thinking, especially if it’s inconvenient for us. And certainly the people in power never want to wonder whether they should hold power. So it really takes hard, hard work to overcome that.

How do you think philosophy is best taught? I get very upset when I’m giving a lecture and I’m not interrupted every few sentences by questions. My style is such that that happens very rarely. That’s my technique. I’m really trying to draw the students out, make them think for themselves. The more they challenge me, the more successful I feel as a teacher. It has to be very active. Plato used the metaphor that in teaching philosophy, there needs to be a fire in the teacher, and the sheer heat will help the fire grow in the student. It’s something that’s kindled because of the proximity to the heat.

What is it like teaching philosophy to students from a variety of backgrounds?

A good philosophy professor needs to be very aware of the different personalities in her class. I’ve had students who’ve become so very uncomfortable. They needed a lot of handholding. Some came from very religious backgrounds, and just the questioning sent them into a free-fall. We made our way through. Some of them ended up being my strongest students. Two of them are very successful professional philosophers. But they required a lot of extra time because they felt it so deeply. You’re being asked to rethink all sorts of opinions. And when you see that the ground is not very firm, it can distance you from your own family, your upbringing. I went through this. My own philosophical journey distanced me from my family, the people I loved most. That was very difficult, so I know what they’re going through. It can be a very intense journey.

What’s happened to the popularity of philosophy as a subject since you studied it?

It’s gone down. Our college students today are far more practical. When I was in college, which was in the last hey-day of the radical movement, it was a more philosophically reflective time. Now, they want to get good jobs and get rich fast.

Despite this, and the fact that so many students are facing massive debt and a bleak economy, how can you make the case that they should study philosophy?

I wouldn’t say that they must go into philosophy, and frankly, the field can’t absorb that many people, but I would say that it’s always a good thing to know, no matter what you go on to study—to be able to think critically. To challenge your own point of view. Also, you need to be a citizen in this world. You need to know your responsibilities. You’re going to have many moral choices every day of your life. And it enriches your inner life. You have lots of frameworks to apply to problems, and so many ways to interpret things. It makes life so much more interesting. It’s us at our most human. And it helps us increase our humanity. No matter what you do, that’s an asset.

What do you think are the biggest philosophical issues of our time?

The growth in scientific knowledge presents new philosophical issues. The idea of the multiverse. Where are we in the universe? Physics is blowing our minds about this. The question of whether some of these scientific theories are really even scientific. Can we get predictions out of them? And with the growth in cognitive science and neuroscience. We’re going into the brain and getting these images of the brain. Are we discovering what we really are? Are we solving the problem of free will? Are we learning that there isn’t any free will? How much do the advances in neuroscience tell us about the deep philosophical issues? These are the questions that philosophers are now facing. But I also think, to a certain extent, that our society is becoming much more secular. So the question about how we find meaning in our lives, given that many people no longer look to monotheism as much as they used to in terms of defining the meaning of their life. There’s an undercurrent of a preoccupation with this question. With the decline of religion is there a sense of the meaninglessness of life and the easy consumerist answer that’s filling the space religion used to occupy? This is something that philosophers ought to be addressing.

This conversation was edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Religion and the scientific method

I've been finding it really interesting lately to see the argument made, in the course of the "science vs. religion" debate, that the problem with religion is that it's unfalsifiable - and thus is not open to correction.  This, the argument goes, is why science is far to be preferred.

And actually, there's quite a lot to be said for that; the scientific method is self-correcting, and has the ability to get at truth for that reason alone.  The bias of the scientist is easily swept away by the process of experimental repetition in the effort to duplicate results.

Not so, for ideas about God!   There's no question about it; thoughts about God are emphatically not testable.   We can infer certain things about God from creation, and we have what we take to be  revelation about God - but we have no way to test these ideas.

Which makes it all the more interesting, really, that religious and spiritual practices are in fact completely centered on the testing and correction of human thinking and behavior!    It's amazing to me, in fact, that this point isn't made more often - and that apparently people don't even recognize it to be true.

Because it's starkly plain in A.A.'s 12 Steps; these are entirely focused on the testing of thought and action, and the correction of self-defeating ways of living.  And the Steps came out of religion to begin with, and borrow heavily from - and openly credit - religious practices that have been around for thousands of years:
  • Prayer and meditation
  • Self-examination on a continuous basis
  • Confession
  • Reconciliation
  • Spiritual  direction
 Here's what Step 10 ("Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.") says about the process itself:
A continuous look at our assets and liabilities, and a real desire to learn and grow by this means, are necessities for us. We alcoholics have learned this the hard way. More experienced people, of course, in all times and places have practiced unsparing self-survey and criticism. For the wise have always known that no one can make much of his life until self-searching becomes a regular habit, until he is able to admit and accept what he finds, and until he patiently and persistently tries to correct what is wrong.

So to me it's really fascinating that (for instance) online atheists and anti-religionists have such contempt for religion itself - when in fact it makes heavy and central use of the very methods they say they admire in science!

Religious practices are, quite simply, the scientific method applied to the workings of the heart, mind, and soul.  And in fact, they are the only formal means of doing this that exist at the moment, as far as I can tell.

More on this topic later, I think....

Thursday, February 20, 2014

"Preparing for Lent"

This past Sunday - the third Sunday before Ash Wednesday - would have been Septuagesima  in the old Calendar: the beginning of the "pre-Lent season."  In honor of that fact, here's an import from my old blog: an article on "Preparing for Lent" from Full Homely Divinity ("a website for the Anglican at the Altar and especially for the Anglican in the pew").   It's good to have the reminder ahead of time, since (as the article points out) we no longer have the 'Gesimas to help us prepare.  For my part, committing to the church's own prescriptions for Lent - i.e., prayer, fasting, study, and almsgiving - is the best way to avoid any last-minute (or otherwise) worry about "what to do for Lent."  But even the Orthodox "get ready," via changes in diet over these next few weeks, for their very strict Lenten fast.

(And in fact, an Orthodox prayer for "Monday Vespers of the First Week" says:
Let us fast with a fast pleasing to the Lord. This is the true fast: the casting off of evil, the bridling of the tongue, the cutting off of anger, the cessation of lusts, evil talking, lies and cursing. The stopping of these is the fast true and acceptable.
So the physical fast is really just a reminder of and pointer to this greater kind of fasting.)

FHD also offers other articles for the season as well: check out A Full Homely Lent, and Lenten Customs and  Easter Customs, too.  Meantime, here's "Preparing for Lent":
"The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord's passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting (The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, pp. 264-265). By the middle of the fifth century, the Church had taken a similar approach to preparing for Advent, then known as "St. Martin's Lent."  Much of what follows may also be profitably applied to Advent.

Since Lent is itself a season of preparation, it may seem like overkill to have to prepare for Lent.  Yet, how will we take full advantage of the opportunity of Lent if we wait until the last minute to decide how to keep it?  Both the Eastern and Western Churches have long traditions of a pre-Lenten season that is designed to set the stage for keeping a productive and holy Lent.  In Orthodoxy, the Sundays of the Publican and the Pharisee, the Prodigal Son, and the Last Judgment lead up to Forgiveness Sunday, the day before Lent.  In the West, for many centuries we observed Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, a kind of liturgical count-down of the Sundays nearest the 70, 60, and 50 day marks before Easter, with the actual 40 days of Lent beginning on Ash Wednesday, 40 days before the Feast.

We hasten to point out that we do not believe that the elimination of the formal pre-Lenten season in the West has been a bad thing in itself.  It has allowed the reshaping of Epiphanytide as a more intentionally focused season.  This is particularly evident in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and in the Revised Common Lectionary in America, where the season is clearly defined at its beginning and end with the major manifestations of our Lord, the Visit of the Magi on Epiphany and the Baptism of our Lord on the First Sunday, and the Transfiguration on the Last Sunday.  Not only does this give Epihanytide a greater integrity as a season in itself, it provides a clearer line of thematic material in the larger movement from Christmas to Easter, with the Transfiguration serving as the turning point, both temporally and theologically, from the Christmas cycle to the Paschal cycle.

Nevertheless, all of this leaves us with a major bump in the road from the point of view of personal devotion.  With the celebration of the Transfiguration on the Last Sunday after Epiphany, the faithful are raised to the rarified height of Tabor, and then, just three days later, on Ash Wednesday, they are plunged into sackcloth and ashes.  It may be that this transition is too sudden.  And it is certainly the case that it fails to provide any formal or liturgical impetus to have a Lenten rule in place and ready to go on the very first day of Lent.

Lent is sometimes referred to as a pilgrimage or a journey.  Very few people set out on any kind of journey without packing a bag.  What are the things that we need to include in our Lenten luggage?  The invitation to the observance of a holy Lent in the 1979 Prayer Book provides a packing list.  The list may not be exhaustive, but it is a good start:
self-examination and repentance
prayer, fasting, and self-denial
reading and meditating on God's holy Word.
Another way of describing this luggage is to call it a rule of life.  Many Christians have a formal rule of life which they observe throughout the year.  Their Lenten rule will usually add a few seasonal exercises.  For those who do not already have a formal, year-round rule, Lent is a good opportunity to begin one.  The purpose of a rule of life is not to set impossibly high standards that might be admirable but are not practical.  A rule of life must fit the person.  A new Christian or someone new to the whole idea of a rule of life will have a more modest rule than an older, more proficient Christian.  So, the elements in the invitation above need to be tailored to the maturity of the individual.  (A spiritual companion or director can be very helpful here.)  A runner might hope someday to run a marathon, but it may take years of training at shorter distances to build the stamina and strength to achieve that goal.  Holiness of life is the goal of every Christian, but progress towards that goal is a lifelong task, not the accomplishment of a single Lent.  At the same time, the basics of a Lenten rule can set a pattern for a lifetime of spiritual growth.

Self-examination and Repentance
Orthodoxy calls the day before the first day of Great Lent "Forgiveness Sunday."  Anglicanism calls the day before the first day of Lent "Shrove Tuesday."  Both traditions call us to do the same thing:  to seek reconciliation with God and our neighbor.  Today, many parishes sponsor all-you-can-eat pancake suppers or Mardi Gras ("Fat Tuesday") parties with a symbolic last chance for unrestrained revelry and rich food before the austerities of Lent begin.  But this is to miss the point, unless they also schedule an opportunity for the faithful to make their confessions to a priest and be shriven (absolved). Our Ash Wednesday liturgies include a rite of penitence, confession, and absolution, but how many of us take advantage of the Sacrament of Penance (Reconciliation of a Penitent), and make a full, personal confession, and receive the counsel of a priest and sacramental absolution?  The traditional guideline regarding private confession in Anglicanism is, "all may, some should, none must."  The Anglican way of responsible freedom leaves it to the individual conscience to decide, but those who do avail themselves of this sacrament attest to its power to renew all of life in a profound way.

One of the reasons sacramental confession is such an effective tool for spiritual growth has to do with its very personal nature.  A communal rite of confession tends to generalize and depersonalize sin.  Private confession helps to particularize and personalize not only the confession but the forgiveness that is conferred.

Ultimately, confession is not about a list of offenses that need to be forgiven.   Rather, it is about relationships that need to be healed.  It is about reconciliation with God and our fellow human beings.  Private confession is a most effective means of reconciliation with God, but we often need to follow that up with specific acts of reconciliation with our neighbor.  Here we might borrow something from our Orthodox friends.  On Forgiveness Sunday, it is the custom to approach other members of the congregation, as well as neighbors and friends who may not be members of the Church, and to ask them very simply to forgive any injury or offense one may have caused them in the past year.  Our 1979 Prayer Book provides an opportunity for us to do something similar.  On page 407, it says that at the time of the exchange of the Peace at the Eucharist, "In the exchange between individuals which may follow, any appropriate words of greeting may be used."  Here is a simple application of that rubric which may be used on Ash Wednesday or the First Sunday of Lent.
A Rite of Personal Reconciliation
Directions to the congregation, given just before the Peace, should be simple, clear, and minimal, because the action and the four words speak for themselves.  The Celebrant ought to stand on the nave level at the center of the main aisle facing the people, is the architecture of the building permits.
The people approach the Celebrant on the right side of the aisle.  The exchange should be made with both hands--not a handshake.  The words,"Forgive me, a sinner", are said first by the Celebrant and the same words are given in response by each person.
The first person then goes beyond the Celebrant on the right, facing the other line, ready to make the exchange with the next in line, after her or she has made the exchange with the Celebrant.  As each new person finishes making the exchange with the Celebrant, he or she then makes the exchange with the others who have gone before and joins their line.  This continues until all have participated, making the exchange with everyone else.
After that, if there are any remaining in the congregation because of handicaps, the Celebrant goes and makes the same exchange with them.No one should be overlooked. 

The members in the line may do the same.

The Liturgy then proceeds as usual. 
Self-examination and repentance should not end on Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, or even the First Sunday in Lent.  One way of incorporating this piece of Lenten luggage into a daily Lenten rule is to include a confession of sin in the recitation of daily Evening Prayer or Compline, always taking time to review the day and recollect those thoughts, words, and deeds which were occasions for sin and alienation from God or our neighbor.

In addition to reconciliation on the personal level, we must also endeavor to heal the divisions among others.  This involves identifying and repenting of corporate sins which all of us, as individuals, share responsibility for.  Parishes and other groups of Christians might also use Lent to focus on reconciliation among races, nations, members of different religious or ethnic groups, etc.  Here is a Liturgy of Reconciliation which could be used as part of a regular Lenten program.

Items for a Lenten rule:  Commitment to a specific discipline of self-examination and repentance, and to specific efforts to achieve forgiveness and reconciliation with those from whom one has been alienated.

An ancient definition of prayer is "keeping company with God."  During Lent, we focus on our emptiness, our need to be "oned" with God.  Keeping Lent & Eastertime, a little booklet from Liturgy Training Publications (an arm of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago), comments that "the full and the satisfied will not recognize Lent.  It is a season of needs, of emptiness, failure, absence.  Only when we know we need to pray can there be Lent for us."  Someone else has written, "our prayer time should be some of the best time of each day, every day."  It may include Bible reading, intercession, Psalms and hymns.  It should include silence and quiet listening.

In the Anglican tradition, personal prayer is firmly supported on a foundation of corporate prayer:  the Daily Office and the Holy Eucharist.  The Eucharist is obviously corporate prayer, but so is the Daily Office. 

Though Morning and Evening Prayer (and Noonday Prayer and Compline for those who choose to add them) may be said in private, they are nonetheless the prayers of the whole Church.  The Book of Common Prayer  assumes that all Christians, or at least all Anglicans, pray the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer daily.  Practically speaking, for many this is a goal, not yet a reality, but Lent is an appropriate season to make progress towards that goal.  If you have never made this a part of your spiritual discipline, do not take on too much at once.  Make a commitment to read one office a day:  set a regular time and stick to it.  Or if the traditional offices seem too complicated, use the simpler forms of Daily Devotions found beginning on page 136 of the Book of Common Prayer, 1979.  Church Publishing Inc., has published 40 Days:  The Daily Office for Lent, which has the entire Daily Office for Lent, including the readings, all under one cover. 

This is a very practical introduction to private recitation of the Daily Office for those who have never done it before.

It is especially valuable for people who live together (whether families or other shared living arrangements) to pray together.  Christianity is always about community--the community of God with humanity, and the community of believers one with another in Christ.  Prayer must always be at the heart of that community.

Whether it is the Daily Office, Daily Devotions, or Table Grace, a communal fellowship of disciplined prayer is always to be desired.

Here is an ancient prayer that is used daily in Lent by many Orthodox Christians.  It is rich in themes which are profitable for Lenten meditation.

The Prayer of Saint Ephrem the Syrian
O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despondency, lust of power, and idle talk; But grant rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to thy servant.

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother; for blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages.  Amen.

Items for a Lenten rule:  Commitment to a daily discipline of prayer, including some form of the Daily Office with time for silence to listen as well as to speak to God.  Commitment to more frequent participation in corporate prayer, such as participation in a weekday Eucharist, Stations of the Cross or other Lenten devotions in the parish, and/or regular prayer with other members of one's household.

"The following days are observed by special acts of discipline and self-denial:  Ash Wednesday and the other weekdays of Lent and of Holy Week...." (Book of Common Prayer, 1979, page 17).  A true fast is total abstinence from any food for the period of the fast.  The Prayer Book defines two days, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as Fast days and it is the custom for all who are able to give up food entirely on both of those days.  In some traditions, all forms of self-denial relating to food are called a fast, but in the West it has generally been the custom to refer to many of these practices as "abstinence", a modified fast which means giving up particular foods, such as meat on Fridays.  If we think of fasting as a form of self-denial, it is also possible, and appropriate, to extend the notions of fasting and abstinence to include activities other than eating.  Any form of self-denial may qualify as a fast, if it is undertaken in the spirit of fasting.

So, what is the spirit of fasting?  Why do we fast?  For fasting to make any sense, it must have a constructive purpose and be defined in positive, not negative terms.  Put most simply, fasting is about freedom.  Fasting frees us from slavery.  Fasting is not about "giving something up", fasting is about freeing ourselves from the control of outside forces and temptations.  Fasting can even be about saying no to ourselves when we have surrendered control of our lives to bad habits and dependencies.  Fasting is about taking control of those things that threaten to control us.  Some people suffer from addictions that rob them of their freedom.  But for many who are not clinically addicted, life still has many distractions that take control of our lives in subtle ways.

A loss of electrical power for more than a day recently, reminded us not only of how dependent we are on resources beyond our control, but also of how different our lives might be without television, email, light to read by late at night.  There are many good things about modern technology--much labor is saved, for example, by heating systems that work automatically, as opposed to having to cut wood and keep a fire going.  But if we replace those savings with other things that start to make demands on our time and energy, what have we gained?  Food, or certain kinds of food, can be a major problem.  Do we eat to live, or live to eat?  This is not to say that food should not be enjoyed.  But in our culture eating disorders, dieting, weight loss pills, liposuction treatments, stomach stapling are all symptomatic of the way that food can be a hindrance to all of life, the spiritual life included.

Giving up candy, or dessert, or cigarettes may be good for us--but if they are good for us in Lent, they are also good for us through the rest of the year.  In any case, the "giving something up for Lent" syndrome trivializes fasting.  Fasting is about taking control of our lives in a positive way.  Fasting is rarely a real sacrifice for people living in developed countries, and it should not be equated with sacrifice, in any case.  Rather, fasting is about getting life back in proper balance:  eating what we need and ensuring, inasmuch as we are able, that others also have what they need; using the natural resources of the world that we need and doing our best to ensure that future generations will have what they need; organizing our time around activities that are productive of good health, physically, emotionally, intellectually, and, of course, spiritually--again, both for ourselves and for others.  A serious Lenten fast might also include reduced use of resources, such as fuel.  Is it possible to accomplish some of the tasks of daily life without driving, or could errands be planned more efficiently so that fuel is conserved?  Could we survive, in cooler climates, with the heating thermostat set a degree or two lower or, in warmer climates, with the air conditioning set a degree or two higher?  And, in addition to saving fuel, since we would be saving money could the savings be directed to a worthy cause, such as the local soup kitchen or disaster relief efforts?

Items for a Lenten rule:  Commitment to a specific discipline regarding food and other resources:  a true fast from all food, if physically able, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; abstinence from meat on Fridays in Lent and abstinence from particular foods daily in Lent; a more frugal use of other resources inasmuch as possible.  (Note:  Sundays are never fast days.  They can be exempt from the fasting rules of Lent, but should still maintain the spirit of Lent and should not be occasions merely to break the rules.) 

The invitation to Lent omits one of the major traditional components of a Lenten rule:  almsgiving.  Almsgiving is, in fact, a form of fasting, a form of self-denial.  As God says to Israel:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
                                                           Isaiah 58:6-7
Prayer helps us to see as God sees.  Fasting frees us.  We are given more time, more energy, more resources.  "All year we tolerate the intolerable:  that there are adults and children without nourishment, sick and elderly people and prisoners without visitors, refugees without homes.  The gospel we believed shapes a church that gives alms of every kind:  bread for the hungry, time for the lonely, energy to change systems that oppress and torture and kill people.  Freed by our fasting and formed by our prayer, we have alms to give during Lent.  Lent is not to make up for our sins but to battle with evil, with sin.  It is not to be gotten over with, but to shape the church into the kingdom of God.  That's why we do it gladly."  (Keeping Lent & Eastertime)

We have already suggested that the proceeds of our self-denial might be directed to helping the needy.  True almsgiving goes beyond sharing our surplus and is not an alternative method of raising funds to support the institutional church.  True self-denial trusts God to fill our needs and does not count the cost of helping those in need.  From assisting a needy person or family in our own community to contributing to agencies that minister to the poor, the sick, and victims of disaster and war, we have many opportunities for almsgiving. 

Furthermore, as Isaiah suggests, our fasting, self-denial, and almsgiving should not be limited to sharing our bread. The establishment of justice for all, in the peaceable kingdom of God, must be the ultimate goal of all our prayer, fasting, and self-denial.  Giving time and effort to the reform of unjust institutions and nations is a most Christian, and very Lenten, endeavor.

Items for a Lenten rule:  Commitment to feed the hungry by contributing to local charities such as food pantries and soup kitchens.  Commitment to aid the needy throughout the world by contributing to agencies that address those needs.  Commitment to active support of particular efforts to end injustice and establish peace.

Reading and Meditating
Scripture is the record of God's ongoing love affair with his people Israel--the first Israel who descended from Abraham in the flesh and were redeemed from slavery and were led to freedom through the waters of the Red Sea, and the new Israel who are redeemed by the sacrifice of the Son of God himself in the flesh and freed from sin by the water of Baptism.  A people without a history is a people without an identity.  To know who we are and, even more importantly, to know who God is and what his will is for us, we need to know our history.  We hear much about Biblical orthodoxy these days, but we should be even more concerned about Biblical literacy.  And the truth is that a lifetime of reading and meditating on God's holy Word can never fully disclose, let alone exhaust, the riches of his steadfast love and constant attention to us.  In other words, the Bible is a book we must never tire of reading.  In fact, it is a story that, quite literally, has no end, at least from the perspective of our present mortality.  Ultimately, it is our story and, though the written portion was completed many years ago, the story continues in us.  It does not end in us, but we cannot fully play our part without entering fully into the part that has come before us.  And so, we read, and read, and read again.  And as we read and read again, as we reflect and meditate on what we read, we do indeed enter more fully into our own part in the story.

Reading and meditating on God's holy Word, is a year round task.  But, like most year-round tasks, it is one that we need to be renewed and refreshed in from time to time.  Lent is such a time and our goal should be simply to renew (or, for the newcomer, to establish for the first time) a regular discipline for reading Scripture every day.  For this, the Church has provided most admirably.  We do not need to invent a scheme because we already have one.  The Lectionary for the Daily Office in the Book of Common Prayer provides a systematic system for reading the Bible over a two year cycle.  There is no particular beginning point.  One can begin anywhere one likes, though the beginning of a season like Lent is a good place as modern Lectionaries are organized somewhat thematically around the seasons.  This was not always so.  Thomas Cranmer's first Prayer Book lectionary began with Genesis 1 and Matthew 1 on January 1st and read straight through in one year, without reference to the liturgical season.  Later versions of the lectionary changed that.

Scripture is the essential reading material that should be in every rule of life.  But there is also a good deal of non-scriptural writing available that helps with the understanding of Scripture and of the Christian life in general.  The season of Lent, with its intentional focus on renewing the Christian life, is a natural season to add some additional reading to our daily rule.  This does not have to be, indeed it should not be, complex scholarly dissertations.  It might be a good book on prayer, such as one of those by Anthony Bloom.  It might be a reflection on Christian community such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together.  It might be a spiritual classic, such as the writings of FHD's patroness, Julian of Norwich.  Or it might even be a good work of Christian fiction, such as C.S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces or the Chronicles of Narnia.   All of these help to illuminate the Christian experience and are worthwhile material for reading and reflection for Lent, or any time of year.

Items for a Lenten rule:  Commitment to daily reading of Scripture and to a modern book on Christian themes.

Monday, February 17, 2014

"Catholic confession’s steep price"

From the Boston Globe:

Collapse is not too strong a word. Fifty years ago, the great majority of
Catholics in this country confessed their sins regularly to a priest.
Confession, after all, is one of the seven Catholic sacraments. But now
only 2 percent of Catholics go regularly to confession, according to the
Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a nonprofit organization
affiliated with Georgetown University—and three-quarters of them never
go, or go less than once a year. In many parishes, the sacrament is
currently available only by appointment, and in Europe it has declined
to such a degree that groups who study Catholic practice there have
stopped even asking about it on their questionnaires. Visit a Catholic
church today, John Cornwell writes in “The Dark Box: A Secret History of
Confession,” and you’re likely to find that church janitors have
transformed the box into “a storage closet for vacuum cleaners, brooms,
and cleaning products.”
To traditionalists, this might seem like yet another sign of decline
in the post–Vatican II era, but Cornwell shows that this isn’t the first
time Catholics have largely abandoned confession. The practice, it
turns out, has evolved dramatically over the centuries, from a rare
communal event to a regular private one, and at a number of points in
this evolution has broken down specifically because of concerns about
sexual abuse. The box itself is a relatively late innovation, designed
in the 16th century to keep priests and women apart.

Cornwell thinks it’s time to reform confession again, in large part
because he sees it as a key—and underappreciated—enabler of the recent
sex-abuse scandals that have rocked the church.  A former seminarian who
has written extensively on the papacy and is perhaps best known for his
1999 bestseller “Hitler’s Pope,” Cornwell knows his subject well: He was
raised Catholic, went to confession every week from the age of 7 to the
age of 21, and was himself propositioned by a priest in the
confessional. He ended up leaving the Church for decades, but has
returned into the fold late in life, with some ambivalence.

Cornwell’s book moves briskly through the many phases of the history of confession: from its earliest manifestations, in the first centuries of Christianity,
when it was a rare communal event; through the late Middle Ages, when it
became a private act that profoundly affected, as he puts it, “the
development of Western ethics, law, and perceptions of the self”; and
into the 20th century, when, he argues, Pope Pius X’s momentous decision
to lower of the age of confession, in 1910, opened the way to the
sexual abuse of children.

Today, Cornwell believes, confession could still be of great value, but only if church leaders are willing to reimagine its role.

Cornwell spoke to Ideas from his home in England.
IDEAS: What are the origins of confession?

CORNWELL: In the first centuries of Christianity, there
was no such thing as confession. There was just “reconciliation” with
your congregation or your Christian community, if you’d committed a huge
crime like murder or idolatry or adultery. The presiding bishop or
clergyman would say, “Do we allow this person back in?,” and it was
either thumbs up or thumbs down. It was very communal. That broke down
with the breakup of the Roman Empire, but then something new starts to
take place within monastic communities in Ireland and Wales and places
like that. An abbess or an abbot would have private conversation with
somebody, give spiritual direction, and so forth. Confession grew out of
that. But it wasn’t until 1215, at the Fourth Lateran Council, that all
Christians in the Latin Church were bound under mortal sin to go to
confession once a year, and it had to be private, and you had to tell
all of your sins.

IDEAS: So that’s where the story of confession as we know it starts?

CORNWELL: Yes. I see three great enthusiasms for
confession after that. The first runs through the Middle Ages and
collapses very largely through the sexual abuse of women in the

IDEAS: You describe confession in those days as a very
personal experience, with penitents sitting at the feet of confessors,
and touching—holding hands, even embracing—as part of the encounter.

CORNWELL: That’s right. The dark box was only invented
in the 16th century, during the Counter-Reformation, and it was
specifically to keep penitents separate from their confessors, and to
preclude the seduction that this kind of touching made possible. But now
a new kind of seduction becomes possible. You have these women in the
dark, whispering into the priests’ ears. It paved the way for abuse, and
by the 19th century, the practice had again largely broken down because
of that.

IDEAS: But not, as you say in the book, before helping to fundamentally change Western notions of ethics, law, and even the self.

CORNWELL: Yes. Confession in the box had an amazing
shaping effect on the way that people thought about themselves. It
helped foster a very private, and very modern, sense of interiority and
guilt, and even new ways of articulating ideas about the body and
sexuality. There’s a new focus on the idea of intention, too....You go
into the dark box, deep into your disembodied soul, and consider the
degrees of intentionality in your actions. The emphasis is on the
private rather than the public nature of sin.

IDEAS: What’s the third period of enthusiasm?

CORNWELL: It starts with Pius X, who came in in 1903
and died on the eve of the First World War....He was a great pessimist.
He observed the great rise of materialism and communism that was taking
place, and believed that the church within itself was suffering from a
kind of decay. In response, with the best of intentions, he launched an
antimodernist campaign, and reformed the seminaries so they were much
more austere and cut off from the world. But then you have this killer
fact: He lowered the age of confession and made it something that had to
be done weekly. This was a real game-changer. It redefined the church
in the 20th century. It’s the narrative center of my story, and it ends
with the abuse of not women but children.

IDEAS: How so?

CORNWELL: After confession was made a sacrament, in the
13th century, you didn’t make your confession until puberty or
afterwards, at age 12, 13, or 14. And you went maybe once a year. Pius
changed that in one fell swoop, by introducing weekly confession and
insisting that it start at the age of 7. This made children of that age
group suddenly accessible to priests on a routine and frequent basis,
which had never happened before.

IDEAS: You make a direct link in the book between confession and the sex-abuse scandal.

CORNWELL: Many priests in the wake of the scandal have
admitted to using it as a way of grooming and testing children for their
vulnerability. This is something that the great John Jay Report, on
pedophile priests, which was done in the US in the early part of the
last decade, missed out on. They didn’t see the importance of
confession. That’s why I think my book is important in an investigatory
sense. I’m bringing that out. The statistics in the report show that a
third of all of the crimes of abuse occurred in a confessional
setting....The interesting thing is that from the late 1950s, when all
of this started to rise, to the mid 1980s—this was the period in which
priests were going outside the box. So you get confession as something
that takes place in the privacy of a priest’s room, or in the sacristy,
or in his car. But something else happens that is very important: Many
priests squared the circle of their offending lives and their pastoral
lives by going to confession themselves. There you have the morally weak
aspect of confession: this belief that you can commit terrible sins and
then go and get them washed away....There was a case in Australia not
so long ago when a priest on trial admitted that he had confessed to
sexually attacking children 1,500 times. He’d confessed it 1,500 times!

IDEAS: Does confession still have a future?

CORNWELL: Perhaps. I’m hoping that this book will
encourage people high up in the church to rethink the whole theology of
confession, to accept that it’s been trivialized, and to do some work to
bring it back. I think confession should offer reconciliation to people
who have gone through something big, a great trial in their life, and
have lapsed. It should be there to allow them to share that with a
priest, and it shouldn’t be downgraded to a 7-year-old’s perception of

IDEAS: Can you imagine a revival of confession, maybe again as public act?

CORNWELL: That’s the big question. Hundreds of people
wrote to me while I was writing the book to say that they favor a return
to general absolution [the public and communal absolution of sin
without private confession to a priest, an ancient practice revived in
the 1970s, under Paul VI]. But John Paul II put a stop to that. If
Francis were to make a change there, I think you’d find a lot of people
coming back to Church. It could happen—but people have got to ask for

Toby Lester, a contributing editor to The Atlantic, is the author of
“Da Vinci’s Ghost” (2012) and “The Fourth Part of the World” (2009).

"Good-faith learning and the fear of God"

A wonderful 2005 (!) article by James Alison, originally appearing in the book Opening Up: Speaking Out in the Church.

Absolutely worth reading in its entirety - note the amazing amount of care Alison takes here! - but here is the kernel of his argument, my bolding:
Currently the Church, including its gay and lesbian members, finds itself in a situation where there is a serious conflict between two elements of Catholic doctrine which hadn’t appeared to be in conflict before, but which for a few years now have been producing a very strong disturbance in the life of many of the faithful. The two elements are as follows: on the one hand the Church’s traditional teaching about Original Sin and Grace, and on the other, the traditional teaching about sexual acts between people of the same sex.

The first element is well known. The Church teaches that at the Fall, and therefore in the real living out of all of us, our human nature was very seriously damaged, but that this damage did not destroy our human nature. The distinction is important. If our nature had been destroyed,that is, if we are radically depraved, as is taught by some of the churches which are heirs to the Protestant Reformation, then salvation would come to us as something without any continuity with our nature, with our past, and there would be no organic continuity between “who I was” before accepting salvation and “who I will turn out to be” when all is revealed. However, since our nature was seriously damaged, but continues to be human nature, salvation does reach us in the form of a process of the perfecting of our nature. As a result of this, “who I will turn out to be” has, according to the most traditional Catholic teaching, reaffirmed at the Council of Trent, an organic continuity with “who I was”.

Thus, what is normal within the living of the Catholic faith, what is normal in the process of growth in grace, is always starting from where one is, knowing that no part of human desire or living out is intrinsically evil, that is to say, incapable of being ordered or healed, only capable of being wiped out. Nevertheless, all our desire is damaged in the way we receive it and live it out: it is seriously distorted. But we can trust that even what is most base within a person’s life is capable of being transformed into something which will be a reflection of the divine splendour. What is normal, then in Catholic anthropology, is to regard no human desire, heavily distorted or addicted to evils of various types though it may be, as a radically perverse entity but rather to see it as something which can in principle be returned to flowing towards what is good.

This, I should say, is an essential part of the Catholic Faith. Without this, the whole of Catholic teaching concerning grace, mercy, forgiveness and the sacraments would have to be altered radically. Furthermore, it seems to be part of that sensus fidei which Catholics have as an instinct that we understand that the mercy of the Church consists above all, and always, in starting from where one is, and not causing an obstacle to grace by insisting that one has to become something else before being able to receive grace.

The second element in this conflict is the teaching about sexual acts between people of the same sex. Until fairly recently it did not appear that there was a conflict between this teaching and the doctrine of Original Sin and grace, since the teaching about sexual acts was just that: a teaching about acts and nothing else. It was taught that what were forbidden were any sexual acts whatsoever between people of the same sex, with different reasons brought forth, in different periods, to justify the prohibition. However, what all the reasons took for granted was that such acts would be a perversion of a human nature which tended of itself, and always, towards what we would nowadays call some form of “heterosexuality”. In prohibiting the acts, nothing was being said about the condition or being of the person, and it was understood that the prohibition didn’t affect the being of the person, only the acts. That is to say, it used to be possible to say in good conscience to a person who had engaged in such acts that they should desist, and instead seek their flourishing, which they would only achieve if their desire were to return to its normal river bed. It was, for example, normal to suggest to young men who had confessed acts or thoughts of this nature that they should hurry up and get married so as to be cured. At a time when “gay” hadn’t yet been invented, and there were only “sodomitical acts”, there didn’t seem to be a conflict between the teachings about grace and about those acts.

The problem is that over the last several decades these two teachings do appear to have entered into conflict. And the reason is a change in society which has come upon us all, Catholics or not. The change consists in the ever increased recognition during the second half of the twentieth century that it is really not possible to make such a clear-cut distinction between acts and being as had been traditional. That is to say, it seems that there exist some people, a minority which occurs more or less regularly in all societies and cultures, as well as in the groupings of other animals, who just are “like that”. This doesn’t appear to be an individual aberration, but it just appears to be the case that there is a class of people with the common and recognisable characteristic of a lasting and stable emotional and erotic attraction towards the members of their own sex. At the same time, it seems to be the case that if you remove from the psychological profiles of a hundred people only the detail concerning each one’s sexual orientation, there is absolutely nothing in the profiles which would allow you to indicate in a regular and accurate way what the orientation corresponding to the profile in fact is. That is to say, the presence of an orientation towards a person of the same sex does not appear to bring along with it any emotional or psychological configuration, even less any deformation, which is not found equally among people of the majority orientation.

The conflict between the two elements of Christian teaching raises its head, then, because while the discussion was about acts and not being, it was thought possible to say to someone at the same time “Don’t do that!” and “Flourish, brother!” because it was thought that the acts didn’t flow from what the brother was. However, it has become ever more problematic to bring together in the same phrase “Don’t do that!” and “Flourish brother!”, since if it is understood that someone is just “like that” then in part, at least, his flourishing will be discovered starting from what he is.

Now this conflict is by no means a merely academic matter. It is lived, very intensely, by many young people for whom working out whether it is a matter of “I’m just like this, and so I must be this in the richest way possible” or whether it is rather a matter of “I’m not like this, but I suffer from very grave temptations which in some way I must overcome” is a gravely tortured experience. Evidence suggests that more and more young people are overcoming this conflict by working out that they just are “like that”, and it is starting from this that they are going to risk constructing a life.

Faced with these conflicts, the Vatican Congregations decided to respond. If they conceded that “being like that” is simply part of nature, which is to say, part of God’s creative project, then it is evident that the acts which flow from that way of being could not be intrinsically evil, but that they might be good or bad according to their use and circumstances, as is the case with heterosexual acts. So, they were faced with one of two possibilities: either we recognise that “being like that” is neutral, which means, in the case of everything created, positive, in which case the absolute prohibition of the acts falls; or we deny that “being like that” exists, except as a defect of a radically heterosexual being, and because of this the traditional absolute prohibition of the acts can be maintained.

Please notice that there are two logical barriers which the ecclesiastical argument cannot jump without falsifying it’s own doctrine. The first is this: The Church cannot say “Well, being that way is normal, something neutral or positive, the Church respects it and welcomes it. The Church only prohibits the acts which flow from it”. This position would lack logic in postulating intrinsically evil acts which flow from a neutral or positive being. And this would go against the principle of Catholic morals which states that acts flow from being – agere sequitur esse. The second barrier is this: the Church cannot say of the homosexual inclination that it is a desire which is in itself intrinsically evil, since to say this would be to fall into the heresy of claiming that there is some part of being human which is essentially depraved – that is, which cannot be transformed, only covered over.

Faced with these two barriers, ecclesiastical logic did a backward double-flip worthy of an Olympic gymnast so as to arrive at the following formulation: “The homosexual inclination, though not itself a sin, constitutes a tendency towards behaviour that is intrinsically evil, and must therefore be considered objectively disordered.” With this phrase, the Vatican Congregations sought to maintain the absolute prohibition of the acts without describing the desire as intrinsically evil. Nevertheless the price of this definition is very high. It obliges its defenders to insist that the homosexual inclination, independently of any acts flowing from it, is something objectively disordered. And the kind of objectivity they have in mind is deduced not from what can be known through experience, but is an a priori which depends on the Church’s teaching concerning marriage. That is to say, the a priori of the intrinsic heterosexuality of all human beings. In other words, from the presupposition of the intrinsic heterosexuality of all human beings, it is deduced that the person whose inclination is towards those of the same sex is a defective heterosexual.

Well, let us not delude ourselves here. This characterisation of the gay or lesbian person as a defective heterosexual is absolutely necessary for the maintenance of the prohibition, as the authors indicate with the “must be considered” of their phrase. The problem is that, for the characterisation to work properly within the doctrine of original sin and grace, it would have to be the case that the life of grace would lead the gay or lesbian person to become heterosexual in the degree of his or her growth in grace. That is to say, in the degree to which grace makes us more patient, faithful, generous, capable of being good Samaritans, less prisoners of anger, of rivalry and of resentment, just so would it have to change the gender of the persons towards whom we are principally attracted. The problem is that such changes do not seem to take place in a regular and trustworthy way, even amongst the United States groups which promote them with significant funds and publicity. As the senior representatives of such groups indicate: at most, and in some cases, a change in behaviour is produced, but the fundamental structures of desire continue to be towards persons of the same sex. [3]

This then is the conflict: for the prohibition of the acts to correspond to the true being of the person, the inclination has to be characterised as something objectively disordered. However, since the inclination doesn’t alter, unlike desires which are recognisably vicious, the gay or lesbian person would have a desire which is, in fact, intrinsically evil, an element of radical depravity in their desire. And we would have stepped outside Catholic anthropology. Or, on the other hand, the same-sex inclination is simply something that is, in which case grace will bring it to a flourishing starting from where it is, and with this we would have to work out which acts are appropriate or not, according to the circumstances, and we will have stepped outside the absolute prohibition passed on to us by tradition.

What I want to underline here is that this is a conflict between elements of Catholic doctrine lived by many people. That is to say: when people say to gay and lesbian people “You should just be obedient to the teaching of the Church” it is no frivolity to reply “Sure, but which one? To the uninterrupted teaching about grace and original sin? Or to the recent characterization which the Vatican Congregations now consider necessary in order to maintain the traditional prohibition? Because both together, at the moment it’s not clear how that can be done.” And since all parties to the discussion are in agreement that the teaching on Grace is the most important, the conflict is reduced to one concerning the characterization. Either it is true to affirm that the homosexual inclination is objectively disordered, or it is not.

That is to say, one side has got it wrong, and one side has got it right. And the field of possible error is in the area of what really is. The whole argument turns on the veracity or otherwise of the characterization of what is. Either being gay is a defective form of being heterosexual, or it is simply a thing that just is that way.

And this brings us to the next step. If it were the case that the homosexual inclination truly were a disfiguration of a fundamentally heterosexual structure of desire, then there would be no conflict between the two teachings. There would only be a conflict between the truth and the grave disfiguration of desire in people who don’t want to recognise their perversity, a very deeply rooted conflict, of course. However, if it were the case that the homosexual inclination is simply a thing that just is “like that”, and is not a disfiguration of anything, in that case the official characterization, and along with it the absolute prohibition, is false. And the deeply rooted conflict would be one between the truth and the grave disfiguration of the intelligence and desire of the forces which do not want to recognise this emerging truth.
There are so many problems with the Church's current understanding that these defects in logic show up everywhere.   And not only in the teaching on homosexuality;  I've heard people claim that 90% of the Western Catholic population (and some similarly high percentage - I've read 78% - worldwide) is "living in mortal sin," because these people do not agree with their Church on the matter of birth control.  And it's obvious that the current teaching on homosexuality is inseparable from the Church's teaching on "generativity."

Clearly, those who want to maintain these teachings are willing to go to almost any length to do so, rather than to look at the teachings themselves to see where the Church might have gone wrong - or might need to adjust given present-day realities.  It seems utterly crystal clear to me that every single problem instantly goes away once you teach that "lifelong monogamy" is the actual core of the teaching.

And "lifelong monogamy" brings along with it some very key things:
  • It's a "type" of the faithfulness to God which is, as far as I can tell, the central teaching of Scripture; this is by far the most important factor, but there are others, too.
  • It teaches and inculcates this faithfulness and the value of stability
  • And "stability" is, we believe, the best possible foundation for the procreation and raising of children
  • It offers a path to emotional and psychological depth - AKA "flourishing."
This is not to disagree, either, with the obvious fact that in some cases divorce is the best solution; we aren't going to replace one form of absolutism with another. "Lifelong monogamy" is the ideal - just as "faithfulness to God" is the ideal.   It's Scriptural, too.

There are a couple of good (and feminist!) arguments for the Catholic teaching on birth control, I concede. 
  • First, it does remind people that sex is not a toy or a game - but a means to procreate, and to bind monogamous couples together.   It shouldn't be used lightly or carelessly - and especially not to the detriment of one member of the couple.  But don't faithfulness to God, and "lifelong monogamy," also cover all that?
  • Second, it could help make people more aware of their own acts and actions, which is usually a good thing for a wide variety of reasons.   Of course, women are almost always well aware of the possible ramifications of sex - so this is mainly a teaching for men.
  • Third, it nullifies any possible dangers from hormones and implants - all of which are dangers for women only and not for men; there are other highly reliable birth control methods, though.  And there are "non-generative" sexual acts also.
But again:  "lifelong monogamy" - and other Christian teachings, such as those found in 1 Corinthians 13 (for instance) - cover all those issues.   Birth control rode in on the shirttails of the marked decrease in infant mortality, and in the mortality of women in childbirth; the Church is, I'm sure, very much in favor of these latter facts.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

"New Course: Lent for Families with Kim Baker"

I'm delighted to report that ChurchNext sent out this email this morning.   This, to me, is exactly the right path for the church to follow now:  an emphasis on the Great Church Year and on how individuals and especially families can observe it on a daily basis.  For me at least, "daily" is the whole point of the thing; "church services" once a week just won't do it.   (In A.A. terms:  people would never get sober if they attended only one meeting each week; transformation is a daily habit that includes reading, talking to others on the phone or in-person, working on the Steps - self-examination, confession, prayer, meditation, etc. - and in general learning an entirely new way to live life.)

I've been yammering about this for years, and pointing often to Full Homely Divinity for all its wonderful at-home (i.e. "homely") suggestions; this looks like another terrific step in just the right direction.  Here's the content of the email; my bolding:

Lent is a great opportunity not only for personal spiritual growth, but for the growth of the spirituality of families. This course is filled with practical tips from long-time educator and canon to the Washington National Cathedral Kim Baker who tells us how Lent offers an unparalleled opportunity for families to grow in Christ.

One blessing of the Church calendar is the cycle of life if mirrors in the lives of all Christians.

Lent is our wilderness because we all experience this time in our lives.  In this 45-minute course, Kim Baker shows us how Lent can be used to tap into these wilderness times as families.  Lessons include:
Why Lent Is for Families
Lenten Themes for Families
Lenten Activities for Families I
Lenten Activities for Families II
 This course is ideal for families and educators looking to make the most out of Lent for families.

Find out more about Lent for Families here.
The Rev. Canon Kim Baker is the canon pastor at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. She is a lifelong educator specializing in children and families.


Saturday, February 15, 2014

"Breviary Offices: The Night Hours, Volumes 1-2"

From Google Books, this is the companion volume to Breviary Offices, from Lauds to Compline Inclusive (Society of St. Margaret, Boston).    The book says "Catholic Church" on the cover, but that's wrong; the SSM is an Anglican religious order for women.  Publish date for this volume was 1899.

As noted, the book contains the "Night Hours" - AKA Mattins, or the Office of Readings.  St. Margaret's very likely doesn't pray Mattins today - few modern orders do - but this is certainly of historical interest.   John Mason Neale founded this order during the revitalization of Anglican Orders in the 19th Century.  Perhaps more on that interesting topic later.

I thought I'd include the whole Preface to this volume here; I have a great deal of respect for monastics and religious - and I find it fascinating to take a look back into the history of these orders and see things from the point of view of earlier generations.
The third instalment of Night Hours, now at last completed, must be prefaced by a few words in explanation of its variations from the two former volumes.

So difficult and so tentative is the whole work of preparing ancient offices for English use at the present day, that mistakes and imperfections could hardly be avoided, especially on the part of editors so inexperienced as those to whom the task, since Dr. Neale's death, has been committed; although much valuable help has most kindly been afforded them. But the history of the book is as follows.

On first founding his Sisterhood at East Grinsted, Dr. Neale felt it of the first importance to supply its members with offices of prayer. He considered the use of S. Osmund to be that alone, which, as English, it was our duty to adopt, but the Sarum Breviary was not within his reach, except in the partial reprint, by Mr. Leslie, which included the Psalter and ferial office, but not much more. He seems, therefore, to have translated the ferial day office from Mr. Leslie's book; but he took the Night Hours from the reformed Roman, inserting a Gallican office here and there when it pleased him better than the Roman. As long as the work was manuscript, and intended only for the use of one House, this eclecticism was, of course, perfectly allowable.

Not long before his death, he planned the publication of a translated Sarum Breviary, in which, however, the Lectionary was to be exchanged for that of the reformed Boman, on account of the revision undergone by the latter, to which the former, from the circumstances of the sixteenth century, never was subjected.

This plan, however, was not carried into effect. After our Founder was taken to rest, we were urged to publish the Matin offices he had given us; and we did so, filling up the blanks left by him with insertions from the same (Roman) book from which he had translated (as, for instance, the lessons of the third nocturns, which he had been wont to turn into English extempore, when saying the office). And thus we prepared the first and second volumes, and proposed, in a third, to print the offices for black-letter days.

After a time the Sarum Breviary was placed in our hands, and we were requested, on behalf of other Beligious Houses, to render its Day Offices into English, as exactly as might be practicable. Dr. Neale had laid the foundation for this by his abridged translation of the ferial and Sunday office over twenty years ago. Propers of Seasons and Saints were now added, and an office book was produced, essentially Sarum, though containing, as noted in its Preface, certain modifications which appeared desirable.

This being done, a considerable discrepancy became visible between our Night and Day Offices, and chiefly in the Services for Saints' Days. The Night Office for the Common of Seasons may be considered as nearly identical in the Roman and Sarum books, except that the responsories do not follow in the same order, that every Sarum office of nine lessons has nine responses, and that no office throughout Easter-tide has more than one nocturn of three psalms, three lessons and three responses: and as far as the Common of Seasons is concerned, the Roman Night Office can, quite practicably, be used together with the Sarum Day Office. But this cannot be done in the case of Saints' Days without producing a sense of dislocation. The present offices, therefore, are so arranged as to fit those for the day hours in our Breviary Offices, and have the same identity with Sarum and the same divergencies from it; the Lectionary being taken, in great measure, from the Boman Breviary, but supplemented from other sources and containing some of the old Sarum lessons, especially in the Octave of the Holy Name.

It will be a satisfaction to those who use this book if we set down in order the sources of the various offices.

From the Sarum, except usually the lessons, are: S. Andrew, Conversion of S. Paul, Annunciation, S. John Baptist, SS. Peter and Paul, Commemoration of S. Paul, S. Peter's Chains (except Invitatory), Transfiguration, Holy Name, S. Laurence, Repose of the Blessed Virgin, (abridged), Beheading of S. John Baptist, SS. Matthew and Luke, S. Michael and All Angels and All Saints. In the Conception of the Blessed Virgin, Invitatory, Antiphon, and Responses are Gallican. S. Thomas of Canterbury has the Common of a Martyr, instead of his Proper: S. Agnes, the Common of a Virgin Martyr, instead of Proper: (lessons of the second nocturn, from the Roman office for her feast). Purification; Inv. and Ants., Gallican: Responses; Sarum, (last Response abridged). Invention of the Cross. first Nocturn, Sarum. This festival falling in Easter-tide, has but one nocturn according to Sarum; but ae this practice is not carried out in the Easter-tide offices of vols. 1 and 2, other two nocturns are added: the third from the office of the Exaltation of the Cross, on which feast the second nocturn is devoted to the commemoration of a martyr: the second nocturn is therefore here drawn from a Carmelite breviary assimilating strongly with the Sarum. Visitation: Ants. and some Responses and lessons, Sarum: the rest Roman and Gallican. S. Mary Magdalene: Hymn and Ants., Sarum: Responses, Gallican, except Response 9, which is Sarum. Nativity of the Blessed Virgin: Gallican: except Response 9, which is Sarum. Guardian Angels: Roman. The rest are of the Common.

The Rev. Gerard Moultrie has been good enough to translate several hymns for this book, in their original metre.

A suggestion respecting the Kalendar was made and carried out by our learned friend, the Rev. F. LI. Bagshawe. It was his idea that, without presuming beyond our province, a Kalendar might be introduced into these office books which should present to the mind some view of Church history, and more especially of the history of the British Church: containing the names of Saints of primitive times and universal celebrity, of those who most notably taught and upheld the faith in our own country; and of the founders and reformers of religious orders. These added names are commemorated, by memorial only, at Vespers and Lauds in the forthcoming edition of the Breviary Day Offices; in which also the black-letter days of the Prayer Book Kalendar are similarly commemorated, when their full office does not occur in this present volume. It has seemed desirable to prefix the Kalendar, as thus arranged, to this book as well as to the Breviary Offices, in order to assimilate them for the convenience of persons in the habit of using the latter. Matin offices are given in this volume for those festivals alone which are commemorated with full day office in the other.

When a second edition of the first and second volumes of Night Hours appears, a body of Sarum rubrics will, it is hoped, be inserted : meanwhile, those in the Breviary Offices may suffice for the use of persons desirous of following Sarum practice; while others will without difficulty continue to use the Roman rubrics as already set down in volumes 1 and 2.

A few points should be mentioned.

The Sarum hymn for Common of Apostles is Annue Christe. This is inserted here for optional use : the Roman hymn, Eterna Christi munera, is to be found in the Common Office, vols. 1 and 2.

A ninth Response is supplied throughout, also for optional use, and a note at end of Appendix points out that which belongs to the Common of Apostles.

Te Deum, said on festivals in Advent according to the Roman use, was wholly omitted in the Sarum book during that season.

S. Margaret's, East Grinsted.
Feast of S. Osmund, 1877.

Here's a link to the SSM's website.  Here's an image from their home page:

The Doctor Angelicus is not in

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, under the "Homosexuality" entry; my bold:
The most influential formulation of natural law theory was made by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. Integrating an Aristotelian approach with Christian theology, Aquinas emphasized the centrality of certain human goods, including marriage and procreation. While Aquinas did not write much about same-sex sexual relations, he did write at length about various sex acts as sins. For Aquinas, sexuality that was within the bounds of marriage and which helped to further what he saw as the distinctive goods of marriage, mainly love, companionship, and legitimate offspring, was permissible, and even good. Aquinas did not argue that procreation was a necessary part of moral or just sex; married couples could enjoy sex without the motive of having children, and sex in marriages where one or both partners is sterile (perhaps because the woman is postmenopausal) is also potentially just (given a motive of expressing love). So far Aquinas' view actually need not rule out homosexual sex. For example, a Thomist could embrace same-sex marriage, and then apply the same reasoning, simply seeing the couple as a reproductively sterile, yet still fully loving and companionate union.

Aquinas, in a significant move, adds a requirement that for any given sex act to be moral it must be of a generative kind. The only way that this can be achieved is via vaginal intercourse. That is, since only the emission of semen in a vagina can result in natural reproduction, only sex acts of that type are generative, even if a given sex act does not lead to reproduction, and even if it is impossible due to infertility. The consequence of this addition is to rule out the possibility, of course, that homosexual sex could ever be moral (even if done within a loving marriage), in addition to forbidding any non-vaginal sex for opposite-sex married couples. What is the justification for this important addition? This question is made all the more pressing in that Aquinas does allow that how broad moral rules apply to individuals may vary considerably, since the nature of persons also varies to some extent. That is, since Aquinas allows that individual natures vary, one could simply argue that one is, by nature, emotionally and physically attracted to persons of one's own gender, and hence to pursue same-sex relationships is ‘natural’ (Sullivan, 1995). Unfortunately, Aquinas does not spell out a justification for this generative requirement.

It's a house of cards, I tell you....

Friday, February 14, 2014

Why there's no sodomy in Sodom

Here's what Ken Collins - a Disciples of Christ pastor with no apparent gay axe to grind at all - has to say as he attempts to rescue the church from its own insanity.  Obviously, this project is going to be next to impossible, but let's give it a go anyway.

He calls his article "The Rescue of Lot."  Here's the intro; my bolding throughout:
The story of the destruction of Sodom and its sister city of Gomorrah is of compelling interest today because of the current debate in the churches over homosexuality. In the course of this debate, these two chapters of Genesis have been degraded from a story of God’s justice and providence to a diatribe against specific sexual acts, rendering the story repugnant and useless for any other spiritual purpose. Our intent here is not to formulate a position on sexual morality, but to rescue this Bible text from the crossfire of dispute, restoring its original theological significance and devotional value. 

He discusses the story and its current interpretation - then offers a "fresh look," summing up the opening section of the story this way:
God and the two angels came to Abraham in the heat of the day (mid-afternoon), ate a large meal which required extensive preparation (the main course was on the hoof), and had a lengthy conversation. Then the two angels set out for Sodom on foot and arrived there at dusk the same day. Later on in Genesis 19:13, the angels explain to Lot that they have been sent to Sodom to destroy the city. It is obvious that the investigation was completed and the fate of the cities determined before the angels were dispatched. The angels were not sent on a fact-finding mission, they were sent to execute a sentence. Therefore the conversation between God and Abraham could not have had any effect upon the fate of Lot and his family or the people of the city of Sodom. The purpose of the conversation was to educate Abraham about righteousness and justice, as God stated in Genesis 18:19.

Here's where things get good.  In a section titled "What Does it Mean to 'Know' Someone?," Collins begins:
The traditional interpretation of this story is that the phrase “that we may know them” means that the men of the city desired to rape the angels who were guests in Lot’s house. The Hebrew word translated “know” in the above text can either mean “be acquainted with” or “have sexual intercourse with,” so both are possible translations at this preliminary stage. Because of tradition, and because an alternative interpretation of this passage is lacking, most modern language Bibles interpret this word as indicating rape. However it must be pointed out that in the 936 occurrences of this Hebrew word in the Old Testament, “know” with the meaning of sexual intercourse only occurs about a dozen times, and then it only describes marital sex. Those who interpret the Hebrew word “know” in this verse to mean homosexual rape should have a lot of explaining to do. Normally when an interpretation depends upon one word having a unique, unlikely and unprecedented meaning, most scholars are inclined to discard the interpretation as contrived and as serving some unspoken purpose of its proponents. In this case, the fact that this is the traditional interpretation spares its advocates a lot of work.
Collins believes, instead, that since Lot is a newcomer to the city, and:
Since the strangers entered the city at dusk in an era with limited artificial lighting and went straight to a foreigner’s house, it is much more reasonable to believe that the entire male population of the city would be interested in cross-examining potential spies about their intentions in town. Thus the men of the city have a stronger motivation for wanting to “get to know” the strangers than they do for wanting to rape them. The story reads more logically and plausibly if we interpret the men of Sodom as belligerently desiring to interview suspected spies. 

He later notes that "the only reason for maintaining that “know” means “rape” is a desire to preserve the perceived purpose of the story." 

He continues:
Therefore the title of the story is not “The Sin of Sodom”; rather it is “The Rescue of Lot.” God already knew there were less than ten righteous people in town and sent the angels to remove the few righteous who were there so that it could be destroyed without unfairly punishing anyone. The fate of the city was sealed before the events of Chapter 18. God’s rescue of Lot taught Abraham about divine justice. The difficulties involved in the rescue are related as a consolation for righteous people who are in difficult straits. 

In the next section, "The Difficulties of Persisting in Error," Collins writes:
If the traditional view of homosexual rape is accepted, then we are puzzled as to why Lot would address an angry rapacious homosexual mob as “brothers” —especially considering the usage of this word in the Old Testament. Also we are confronted with a very uncomfortable moral problem: Lot’s offer of his virgin daughters as a substitute can then only be construed as permission for the mob to gang-rape them! (It is obvious that the daughters were “acquainted with” their father and their fiancés, so the word “know” in this verse must refer to marital intercourse. Thus we are informed that the daughters are virgins.) Earlier, God stated that His purpose in this story was to show God’s righteousness and justice. According to the traditional interpretation, the men of Sodom threatened Lot’s guests with homosexual rape, but were prevented from doing so by the angels’ intervention. The traditional view also has it that Lot offered his daughters for a gang-rape by an angry mob, but this offer was never taken up. Therefore, the traditional view would have us believe that the men of Sodom were spectacularly destroyed for a crime they planned but did not commit, whereas Lot was mercifully spared despite the fact that he also planned an uncommitted crime! This does not square with God’s purpose in the incident, which was to demonstrate righteousness and justice! The traditionalist’s only way out is to assert that gang-raping women was of no import in that age; an assertion which flies in the face of the evidence in archaeology and in other parts of the Pentateuch. All the traditional view could demonstrate is that Abraham’s friendship with God got his nephew Lot over a rough spot... that is, connections in the right places are more important than a moral character. In addition, Lot’s action in allegedly volunteering his daughters as a substitute for the men in the gang rape is irrational: how could anyone who lived in an exclusively homosexual community, as Lot is reputed to have done, be so naive as to offer girls to homosexuals intent upon raping men? Lot’s offer is not only immoral, it is demented! The traditional interpretation presupposes that Lot came from a culture that severely deprecates homosexuality and exacts spectacular, even cruel penalties for it; yet in his attempt to avoid it, he betrays total ignorance on the most superficial level of the nature of the offense. Many commentators who advocate the sexual interpretation of this story confess that they are at a loss to explain Lot’s conduct. The liberals explain it away by alleging a second class status for women. Not only are they flagrantly reading twenty-first century social concerns into the distant past, their theory is flatly contradicted by God’s insistence in Genesis 20-21 that the heir of the promise to Abraham be born of the proper mother. The conservatives explain it by avowing that homosexuality is such a horrible sin, that offering one’s daughters for rape (otherwise a serious crime) becomes virtuous in comparison. Some even interpret it as a sex education lecture: a graphic demonstration of how the men should direct their sex drives! This desperate argumentation is repulsive even to its advocates. 

And let's remember, too, that "the alleged “sin of Sodom” never took place!"

Finally, Collins writes: the end of the story, we find a summary of what it was about: the Rescue of Lot. In rescuing Lot, God remembered Abraham’s desire that the innocent not perish in the punishment of the wicked. It is true that some innocent people did perish, but only because they took matters into their own hands and disobeyed. God’s righteousness and justice are demonstrated by the rescue, which was God’s purpose for the story from the very beginning. 

He then adds a few "Puzzles for Eisegetes":
A few questions for those who still hold to the traditional “homosexual rape” theory:
  • Why didn’t the angels make an effort to seek ten righteous people?
  • Why did God allow the angels to judge the city contrary to His promise to do it Himself?
  • Why did the women of Sodom die in the destruction?
  • If the altercation at the door caused the destruction to be unleashed, why did the people of Gomorrah and the other neighboring towns die?
  • If the men of the city were destroyed because they wanted to rape the angels, why wasn’t Lot destroyed for offering his daughters for rape?
  • How does the story demonstrate God’s righteousness and not just simple favoritism?
  • Why was Sodom destroyed if the men of the city never committed the alleged sin?
  • Why would God’s angels prefer to spend the night in the street since in doing so they would be blatantly tempting the men to sin?
  • Why would God send His angels to entrap people into sinning?
  • If God’s discipline and control over His angels is so lax, what hope does this story give us?
  • If the angels destroyed the city in reaction to the mob’s alleged rape attempt, why did they wait until the next morning to do it? If they were waiting for a prearranged time, it means that the time of the destruction (as well as the destruction itself) was set before the angels were dispatched.

And finally argues "Why the Current Interpretation Must be Abandoned With Alacrity":
It is clear that the traditional “homosexual rape” theory involves too many theological difficulties and presents us with too many discrepancies and contradictions. We are given a haphazard God who plays favorites; we are given holy angels who follow orders so loosely they should have been placed on probation; we see a man rescued for “righteousness” whose character is as questionable as the criminals from whom he is rescued. This murky mess cannot be explained away by asserting that there were lower moral standards in the distant past or that the writer had an unenlightened concept of God—the mess is caused by the interpreter, not the text. The traditional interpretation is theologically defective because of its characterization of a haphazard God. It is morally offensive because some crooks get punished and others get off because they have friends on the outside. It is scripturally unsound, because it requires conduct on the part of God’s representatives that other parts of the Bible assure us is impossible. It is logically inconsistent because it requires people to react absurdly and ignores chronology. It is intellectually dishonest because it inserts the interpreter’s meaning instead of extracting the author’s meaning. It is, from a literary standpoint, unwarranted because it ignores parts of the story in interpreting other parts. The traditional “homosexual rape” theory must therefore be discarded as theologically defective, morally offensive, scripturally unsound, logically inconsistent, intellectually dishonest, and unwarranted.

So how about it, Church?   Do you want to persist in this inanity so that you can  maintain your anti-gay teachings?   Is loathing of homosexuality so very important to your theology (so to speak) that you end up presenting a picture of an insane, irrational, morally offensive God - at a time when the church instead needs to show why it should continue to exist at all?

Give it all some thought, how about it?