Sunday, May 29, 2016

Corpus Christi: To Whom Shall We Go?

"The Savior" by Juan de Juanes
    It’s so hard for us to fully accept that the Infinite God of the Universe could fully inhabit a human body, and be both True God and True Man. I’m reminded of how thorny a problem this is for us every year when I discuss the Christological Heresies with my adolescent religion students.  The Arians could accept the human Jesus, but not his Divinity; the Docetists had no problem with Christ the Son of God, but they were sure his Humanity was just a show; the Monophysites could understand that Jesus was both man and God, but insisted that he had only one, Divine, nature . . . and so on.  
    These and numerous other incomplete answers to the puzzle presented to our finite minds by the Incarnate Second Person of the Trinity have been with us from the earliest days of the Church to the present day.  The Council of Chalcedon gave a definitive answer in A.D. 451, when it declared that Christ is

made known in two natures without confusion [i.e. mixture], without change, without division, without separation, the difference of the natures being by no means removed because of the union, but the property of each nature being preserved and coalescing in one prosopon [person] and one hupostasis [subsistence]--not parted or divided into two prosopa[persons], but one and the same Son, only-begotten, divine Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.

    As hard as it is to accept that Jesus Christ is both fully God and a true man with a human body, however, we are asked to accept an even harder teaching: that the same body is truly present in the Eucharistic bread and wine offered up at every Mass.  Furthermore, as Christ Himself tells us,

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.  For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. (John 6:55-57)

Many of his disciples found this teaching too hard to accept, and went away.  Today’s Solemnity of The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ reminds, however, as Peter points out (John 6:68), that we have nowhere else to go, and only by eating the Body and Drinking the Blood of the God-Become-Man can we share in his eternal life.  
    There’s the wonder.  Christ has a human body, and so the Infinite God shares in our humanity; not only that, He shares that body with us in the Eucharist, and thereby lets us participate in His divinity.  No wonder we call it “Gospel”, that is, “Good News.” Yes, it is hard to believe, but, as today’s feast reminds us, it’s The Truth.

Links For The Week

I have been doing most of my blogging at Nisi Dominus lately.  This past week saw a couple of inspiring women who gave their lives for the faith, the final installment of my series on the Liturgy of the Hours, and more.  Please feel free to explore the links below:

Monday May 23rd: The power of Christian witness - “St. Julia of Corsica: A Saint For Our Time

Wednesday May 25th: We can find at least a few minutes during the day to pray with the whole Church - “Daytime Prayer Sanctifies Our Labors

Thursday May 26th: With a little help from (non-Catholic) authors Henry Adams and Ursula LeGuin we consider the Church’s power of endurance: “Those Who Love Him Will Follow His Commandments

The assault on the family is nothing new: “Blessed Margaret Pole, Martyr For Church And Marriage

A beautiful musical celebration of the True Presence: “William Byrds’s ‘Ave Verum Corpus’”

Thursday, May 12, 2016

We Won't Find God In A Test Tube

(An earlier version of the Throwback below titled "To Love God Is To Know Him" was first published 31 March 2015 on the blog Nisi Dominus)

How do we know He’s there?

     In our present skeptical age Christians are often asked: "How we can know that God is there?" What and how we know is, of course, the matter of epistemology and related branches of philosophy, and the vast majority of us don’t have the academic training to engage in high-powered epistemological debate.   Nonetheless, we all conduct our lives guided by things we know are true, and reject others as false, and we Christians stake everything on certain very definite truth claims.  How can we justify our confidence in Christian Truth in a clear but comprehensible way that does not require formal philosophical training?

How do we know at all?

Does "science" have all the answers?
    We need to start with the understanding that the prevailing world-view today, even among many people who don’t consciously embrace materialism, is materialistic.  It’s just assumed that we can only know about things that can be observed, measured, and be proven using what is commonly called “scientific” proof.  
     How does one respond to the common near deification of science?  I’ve discussed a number of approaches to this problem on previous occasions (see below); here’s a more comprehensive tack.  We can start by pointing out that the materialist argument above arbitrarily limits “knowledge” to a very narrow class of things.  There is no scientific proof, for instance, for justice (an example used by St. Augustine), or for love.  Nevertheless, even strict materialists can be certain that they know when justice has been done (some of them are particularly vocal about injustices that they are convinced have been committed by the Church), or when they are loved.  Scientific knowledge (knowledge about things) is what philosophers call “propositional knowledge”, but that doesn’t apply at all to an abstract reality such as love, which is a matter of “acquaintance knowledge”. The question, then, is whether knowledge of God is a question of propositional knowledge, or knowledge of another sort.
     Before moving on, it’s worth pointing out that even scientific knowledge is not as straightforward as it may seem.  People often say things like “Science tells us that . . .”, but “science” itself can “tell” us nothing: it is simply a method by which we, with our limited and fallible intellects, interpret the phenomena of the natural world. The accuracy of our interpretation can be limited by human factors such as our incomplete knowledge, limited powers of cognition . . . or attachment to sin.  And however carefully we have formed scientific propositions, they can only be considered knowledge when they have been confirmed by repeated experiment.  Even then, scientific “truths” can be displaced by newer discoveries.  Scientific knowledge, then, is very often more a matter of evidence than of iron-clad proof.

Proof, or Evidence?

"What proof do you have of this 'God' ?"
"Why, the heavens proclaim the Glory of God!"
     We also need to recall that there are different kinds of evidence.  For instance, how can we be sure enough to convict somebody of a crime, even condemn them to long imprisonment or death, without direct physical proof?  The answer, of course, is that the evidence of witnesses, if they are known to be reliable, can secure a conviction (and it’s hard to conceive of an adequate system of criminal justice that does not admit eye-witness testimony as evidence).  We can also make reasonable conclusions about something we can’t detect directly, based on its effects on things that we can apprehend (I discuss this kind of evidence at greater length in my post “A Dark Matter: ‘Proving’ God in a Materialist World”). 
    At this point, we can consider the question of how we can have knowledge of God.  If God is the creator of nature, he cannot be part of it, just as no matter how hard we look, we will not be able to find a painter inside his painting. God is therefore necessarily outside the scope of scientific inquiry, as he necessarily is not part of the natural worild (see “Looking For God In All The Wrong Places”).  We might expect, of course, to see evidence of the artist in his work (characteristic brush strokes, a certain use of light or color, etc.), which brings us to the other, indirect, kinds of evidence we looked at above. The first converts to Christianity, for example, were convinced by the eye-witness testimony of the Apostles and other Disciples who had known Jesus personally, and were convinced of these witnesses’ reliability both by their manifest integrity, and by their willingness to suffer excruciating deaths for the Gospel (the word “martyr” itself comes from the Greek word for “witness”).  Over the intervening centuries, countless others have been drawn to the Church by the testimony of Christian witnesses to the power of the Risen Christ (often, like the Apostles, witnessing with their lives: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”, as Tertullian said).  Having accepted Christ, they see the fulfillment of his promises in their own lives, thus gaining experiential knowledge.
     We should also consider whether the Christian explanation fits reality better than the materialist one.  The better fit is more likely to be true (see "The Geometry of Faith").  Societies and individuals who embrace the Christian worldview tend to be more successful by any number of objective measures (see “What Would Darwin Do? Random Selection Favors Religion”).  The evidence shows that Christianity is more conducive to human flourishing, and so is more likely to be true.

God is Love

The Holy Trinity
   There are some genuinely scientific arguments that can play a supporting role (see Fr. Robert Spitzer's Magis Center), but we should avoid trying to rely on science to prove the existence of God (notice that the discussion of Dark Matter to which I link above is an analogy, not proof).  Theological truths, as we have seen, are simply beyond the scope of scientific inquiry and an argument based only on science is unlikely to be persuasive.  We should also want to avoid conceding the false (and unscientific premise) that "scientific" proof is the only proof.     

   Not that any purely intellectual argument is going convert many people. Let’s go back to our discussion above about kinds of knowledge.  As Christians we understand that God is a Trinity of Persons, that God is Love (1 John 4:8): knowledge of God, therefore,  is  “relational knowledge” , and we know him through the God/Man Jesus Christ, Second Person of the Holy Trinity.  Father Larry Richards is known to wind up discussions of this sort by saying that he knows that God is there because he knows him.  For every one of us, that’s the only kind of “proof” that will lead to real faith.  We can show through our arguments that belief in God is reasonable, but we can only really “know” when we return his loving embrace.


Thursday, May 5, 2016

Our Eternal Destiny: Armed Robbery, or A Warm Place By The Fire?

Today is Ascension Thursday; click here for my Ascension Thursday post on the blog Nisi Dominus. The throwback below, which first appeared on Nisi Dominus April 19th 2015, examines the (apparently) vexing question as to how Eternal Salvation differs from a mugging.. 

  Analogical thinking, it would appear, is a dying art.  I recently heard Catholic apologist and scholar Peter Kreeft on Catholic radio, and he was pointing out that brains which spend a lot of time interacting with video games and various other electronic devices simply don’t develop in the same way as those formed by extensive reading.  Among the those things that are undernourished are linear and analogical thinking.  Professor Kreeft has found that this makes it difficult to teach a subject like Theology that requires dealing with a lot of difficult and abstract ideas.

Is this your image of God?
     Over my own nearly 30 years of teaching high school students I’ve observed the same trend.  Fortunately, we still have a long way to go: while many people, especially young people, may not be as quick to grasp them as they might have been several decades ago, analogies are still the most effective way to communicate many ideas.  They have always been a preferred way of explaining Christian Doctrine: think of the parables of Jesus, or St. Paul's comparison in 1st Corinthians of the Church to a body, with all the members working together at their own assigned tasks; not only that, but one of the four traditional Levels of Meaning in scripture, the Allegorical, relies very heavily on analogical thinking.  Analogy is often the only reliable way for us who are composed of both spirit and matter to understand spiritual realities.
     Not surprisingly, analogies are also an essential tool in any dialogue with atheists and agnostics.  I recently became aware of the following analogy, which is appears to be in vogue in atheist circles: God, as we Christians envision Him, is like an armed robber with a gun to our heads, and he is offering a choice between giving him all our money (i.e., living according to the Gospel and spending eternity in Heaven), or having our brains blown out (which is spending eternity in Hell).
     Now, clearly, there are some very obvious problems with this analogy.  The vast majority of people, even many non-Christians, will have a hard time seeing going to Heaven as equivalent to getting mugged, even if we accept the premise that living a Christian life “robs” us of pleasures we might otherwise enjoy: Heaven promises something infinitely better than anything available here, whereas an armed robber does not even pretend to make our life better than it was before we met him.  And of course there is quite a lot of secular, sociological evidence that following God’s law actually makes us happier in the here-and-now.  Also, the robber analogy depicts Hell as something that God imposes on us, in which we take no initiative at all, when in fact the Catholic conception of Hell is that it is something that we choose for ourselves, contrary to God’s wish, by our rejection of his freely offered love.

Wouldn't you rather be inside?
     I propose a better analogy to communicate the eternal choice which God presents to us.  Imagine that we are standing outdoors on a cold, rainy night.  Somebody opens a door and invites us to come inside with them, where it is warm and dry (although, of course, we need to take off our wet muddy boots and our wet, dripping coats).  That’s God’s offer of eternal salvation.  We can say yes, although we are equally free to say no.  In fact, we can say “No, you can’t tell me what to do! Besides, can you prove it’s really warm and dry in there before I go in?”  and remain out in cold, wet darkness.  That’s Hell, the product of nothing but our own pride and stubbornness.

     The second analogy presents a much more accurate image of the Catholic view of our eternal destiny.  Not only that, when juxtaposed to the “armed robber” scenario, it also casts light behind it, as it were, giving observers a vivid illustration of the different worldviews that have generated each analogy: the atheist worldview which is concerned with power, force, and will, and in which one party must be the loser, and the Christian perspective, which envisions a reality in which love can triumph, and everyone can win.  Which is likely to appeal to more people in the end?

Monday, May 2, 2016

Charpentier's Te Deum - Praise the Lord!

     Last week I posted a clip of Haydn's Te Deum [here] on the Blog Nisi Dominus.  Many other composers before and since have written beautiful musical settings for this ancient hymn of praise, which probably dates back to the 4th century A.D.  
     One of the best known setting is a motet (clip below) by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, composed a century before Haydn's piece.  Well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the prelude to Charpentier's Te Deum is well known, as it has been used extensively by the European Broadcasting Union as intro music to broadcasts such as the Eurovision Song Contest for many decades, and has been part of several movie soundtracks.  As we are now celebrating the Resurrection of Christ during this joyful Season of Easter, I think it's a good time to hear this magnificent musical prayer in its entirety.  The Lord is truly risen, allelujah!

Te Deum laudamus:
te Dominum confitemur.
Te aeternum Patrem
omnis terra veneratur.Tibi omnes Angeli;
tibi caeli et universae Potestates;
Tibi Cherubim et Seraphim
incessabili voce proclamant:
Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus,
Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
Pleni sunt caeli et terra
majestatis gloriae tuae.
Te gloriosus Apostolorum chorus,
Te Prophetarum laudabilis numerus,
Te Martyrum candidatus laudat exercitus.
Te per orbem terrarum
sancta confitetur Ecclesia,
Patrem immensae majestatis:
Venerandum tuum verum et unicum Filium;
Sanctum quoque Paraclitum Spiritum.
Tu Rex gloriae, Christe.
Tu Patris sempiternus es Filius.
Tu ad liberandum suscepturus hominem,
non horruisti Virginis uterum.
Tu, devicto mortis aculeo,
aperuisti credentibus regna caelorum.
Tu ad dexteram Dei sedes, in gloria Patris.
Judex crederis esse venturus.
You O God, we praise:
You, Lord, we acknowledge to be.
You are the eternal Father.
All the earth venerates you.To you all Angels;
to you the heavens and all the Powers.
To you Cherubim and Seraphim
with unending voice proclaim:
Holy, Holy, Holy,
Lord God of Sabaoth.
Full are heaven and earth
with the majesty of your glory.
You the glorious chorus of Apostles (praise),
You the praiseworthy number of the Prophets (praise),
You the white-clothed army of Martyrs praise.
You throughout all the world
are acknowledged by the holy Church,
Father of immense Majesty:
Who is to be worshiped, your true and only Son;
Also the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.
You are the King of Glory, O Christ.
You are the everlasting Son of the Father.
When you took upon yourself to deliver man,
you did not abhor the Virgin’s womb.
You, by overcoming the sting of death,
opened to all believers the Kingdom of Heaven.
You sit at the right hand of God, in the glory of the Father.
Our Judge we believe that you will come to be.
Te ergo quaesumus, tuis famulis subveni:
quos pretioso sanguine redemisti.
To you therefore we ask you, help your servants:
whom you have redeemed with your precious blood.
Aeterna fac cum sanctis tuis in gloria
[added later, adapted from Psalm
Salvum fac populum tuum, Domine,
et benedic hereditati tuae.
Et rege eos, et extolle illos usque in aeternum.
Per singulos dies benedicimus te;
Et laudamus Nomen tuum in saeculum, et in saeculum saeculi.
Dignare, Domine, die isto sine peccato nos custodire.
Miserere nostri Domine, miserere nostri.
Fiat misericordia tua, Domine, super nos,
quemadmodum speravimus in te.
In eternity with your saints make them in
glory to be numbered.
[added later, adapted from Psalm
Save your people, Lord,
and bless your heritage.
And rule them, and lift them up for ever.
Every day we bless you;
And we worship your Name forever, and forever for all ages.
Vouchsafe, O Lord, this day without sin to keep us.
Have mercy upon us, our Lord, have mercy upon us.
Let your mercy be upon us, O Lord,  since we have
trusted in you.
In te, Domine, speravi:
non confundar in aeternum.
In you, O Lord, I have trusted:
may I not be confounded forever

Sunday, May 1, 2016

St. Joseph the Worker - The Laborer Is More Than His Work

     They say that necessity is the mother of invention but, as today's feast of St. Joseph the Worker shows us, sometimes measures taken for practical purposes can point to deeper truths.

Holy Family Father and Son, by Corbert Gauthier
     St. Joseph the Worker is a very recent addition to the liturgical calendar. Pope Pius XII, who wanted to present a Catholic alternative to the Communist celebration of May Day, instituted it in 1955.  Who better to counter the self-proclaimed "vanguard of the workers" than a great Saint who was also a laborer, a man known for his patience and perseverance, but also his piety?  As such, St. Joseph is also the ideal embodiment of the Dignity of Work.  He shows us that work is not simply something we do to survive, or that connects us to a certain economic class, but is an essential part of our humanity, a way in which we act, at least in a small way, as co-creators with God (see St. John Paul II's Laborem Exercens).
     At the same time, we can see that while a worker may be honored for his work, he is not defined by it.  Here the Catholic view stands in sharp contrast to the outlook of Marxism, where a working person's primary identification is with his class, and he finds meaning by working toward the "workers' paradise" of a fully communist society; since the realization of the workers' aspirations is the Greatest Good in this worldview, those who are seen as obstacles (such as members of the Capitalist Class) deserve to be extirpated.  Western market-driven societies have their own false anthropology in the phenomenon of the workaholic, whose whole life centers on his career, and who sees no meaning beyond it.  
     Christians, however, see our primary identification as adopted sons an daughters of God: equal in dignity (regardless of externals such as class, sex, race, etc.), called to love, and all of us part of the One Body of Christ.
     Now look at St. Joseph.  There have probably been carpenters more skillful than Joseph, or more productive, but none of them have feast days. We honor him today in his role of worker, but that's not why he is a Saint.  He's a Saint, and a great Saint, because he cooperated in God's great work of salvation.  Today's feast reminds us that we can all aspire to sanctity, even humble laborers, and that whoever we are, and whatever we do in this world, what we do for the Kingdom of God and who we are in the eyes of the Father is what matters in the end. 

(See also: "Fighting Dragons, Inside And Out" on Nisi Dominus)