Monday, December 03, 2007

A change in the Crimson (Catholic) tide

I've been quieter than usual both at my blog and the other blogs I read. Those who know me as a college football fan might write this off to the time of year. And to be fair, as a fan, I've had a pretty stunning run of luck lately.

For starters, when the Crimson collided with Yale this season, both were undefeated in conference for the first time since The Game of 1968. For those unschooled in the history of The Game (or indeed, college football), the '68 Game was the one in which Harvard scored 16 points in the last 42 seconds to tie a vastly more talented Eli team, inspiring the immortal Crimson headline "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29." This year, however, it wasn't nearly that close: Harvard 37, Yale 6.

Then there's my beloved Texas Aggies. Despite having a lame duck coach, we still managed to beat the hell outta t.u. for the second straight year. And to replace said lame duck, we got an extraordinarily high character guy (and devout Catholic) in Mike Sherman. Good times are coming in Aggieland, and I've got scoreboard against both of my archrival schools for a year. Hard to complain.

Heck, even the missus got in the act. Following one of the craziest seasons in college football history, it was only fitting that the craziest coach, who had both won and lost the craziest games all season long, somehow managed to fall into the national championship after the craziest of upsets: both #1 and #2 losing in the last weekend of the season. So Dr. Prejean's Bayou Bengals get to duel the Stinking Buckeyes in a Bourbon Street Battle for all the marbles, and the crazy coach is even staying put in Cajun Country, which is fitting because we Cajuns tend to be a little crazy ourselves. That's a pretty cool ending to an emotional roller coaster of a season. And, apropos to the title of this post, the gris-gris the state of Louisiana put on Little Nicky Saban appears to have worked (it's not just War Eagle; it's WarHawk!).

Alas, while I could blame my Internet ebb on those pleasant distractions, that wouldn't be the truth. The truth is that I got sick, mostly because I couldn't seem to avoid any of the microbes my kids kept bringing home. I hate being sick, and I really hate missing work from being sick, so naturally I tried to work through it, and that just left me laid out for my days off. Of course, that meant I had no time for the Internet or much of anything else, which caused me to have time to think about how I was spending my time generally. Providentially, on one of the days I was stuck in bed musing about how much time I was wasting in bed, I had a chance to watch Flock of Dodos. I liked the documentary the first time I saw it, but it left even more of an impression at a time when I was consciously pondering whether I was spending my time in a productive manner.

For those who aren't familiar with Flock of Dodos, filmmaker Randy Olson's thesis is essentially that the intelligent design movement, despite being thoroughly unscientific, still manages to succeed in persuading people because of its intuitive appeal, the skill of presentation brought to bear by its proponents, and the lack of any fundamental commitment to a discipline that keeps them honest about reality. He says that ID remains at the level of intuition, but it fails to progress to the level of actual scientific discipline, so it competes instead at the level of uncritical acceptance of "common sense" beliefs. The problem is that actual scientists are woefully inadequate at competing on this level, which threatens them with extinction for failure to adapt to their adversaries (hence, they are a "flock of dodos"). Olson repeated the observation in response to Ben Stein's Expelled, which attempts to portray the attack on intelligent design as some sort of conspiracy by Darwinist, an ironic charge given that the production company staged an elaborate charade to get interviews with scientists.

Given the subject of my thoughts at the time, I immediately perceived that Scriptural authority without the infallible authority of the Church is the same sort of premise as intelligent design: an intuition that simply cannot be advanced into any sort of coherent explanation of reality. It cannot be judged by meaningful metaphysical standards; indeed, it refuses even to operate on that level. Instead, it is simply advanced as an intuitive appeal to common sense. In the end, that simply doesn't mean anything as a description of reality, just as the notion of Scripture as an ultimate authority or the only infallible authority doesn't mean anything as a description of reality. Likewise, the "internal witness of the Holy Spirit" is thoroughly vacuous as a description of theological revelation. An identical argument could be made for this notion of canon as something "self-authentication" or received only passively rather than by the ratifying act of the Church. These assertions appeal to the intuition, but they are senseless as a description of reality; they refer to no real thing. As Zubiri says, "Infallibility is the organ of the historical identity of revelation. It is an organ of historicity. And this is precisely what makes it possible that there be a progress. The opposite would be to leave revelation in the hands of a motion, without knowing what it is going to give of itself in the course of history. Clearly, there is no progress except where we have a substrate of identity, whether in revelation or anything else." And just like the so-called scientific hypotheses based on intelligent design, what is built on a premise unfettered by any discipline to reality cannot be connected to reality either.

As I explaned over at Sarabitus, I don't see how ad fontes or any sort of Reformation of the Church can possibly have the nature of revealed theological dogma. It is an amusement for intellectual historians trying to develop a theory, though for the Reformers the game was deadly serious. But ultimately, the very attempt at using this method to re-form the Church disconnects the understanding of revelation from what it actually is in its historical reality. It can provide nothing as revealed, because it defines what is revealed based on intuition rather than a given reality, thus giving no basis for reform. It fundamentally misunderstands the ontological nature of divine authority.

I don't say this to suggest that there is no theological understanding in Protestantism. Michael Liccione explained how it is possible for Protestants to believe in certain revealed truths as revealed by recognizing the authority of the source implicitly. The problem is that they have no way of knowing when their intuition happens to be right or wrong. They can believe error as divinely revealed, and with no discipline to ground the speculation in metaphysical reality, they are in a perpetual state of doubt. Like the ID movement, it is nothing but a testimony to the biographical state of one's own mind. And for my money (or more properly, for my soul), I don't think that religion can be a matter of not really knowing.

What that suggests to me is that as a scientist, ecumenism is simply not my place. I have been forced to consider the fact that I have been spinning my wheels and exhausting my energy attempting to address apologetic concerns, when that is not my expertise. I am a scientist, and that is the method in which I am proficient. Subjective motivations to accept or reject these sorts of intuitions and receptivity to the Gospel and are the realm of apologetics, not science, and scientific methods are inapt for dealing with those concerns. Nonetheless, Olson's criticism is well-taken; I think there needs to be a better explanation of why scientific disciplines produce true knowledge. I hope to be able to provide some of those explanations, particularly by explaining where lack of clarity about these disciplines has led to problems. For now, at least, that is what I see as the most productive use of my blog, so that is what I will endeavor to do with it.


At 9:48 PM, Blogger the Cogitator said...

Hi Jonathan,

Sorry to hear you've been ill. Lots of grapeseeds, oranges, hot water and light stretching upon waking and bedding will do wonders.

I am trying to work through some issues in Palamism over at Processions. Would you mind peeking in and assessing or redirecting or whatevering my comments there? Especially the latest post I made in reply to Photios about the beatific vision and John 15.

Many thanks!

At 8:16 AM, Blogger Arturo Vasquez said...

I guess I am more and more grasping the Church as an existential fact and not just a neat set of ideas. That really is something to chew on.

At 1:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been forced to consider the fact that I have been spinning my wheels and exhausting my energy attempting to address apologetic concerns, when that is not my expertise.

Who, then, would qualify as apologist if not someone such as yourself who is well-versed in those areas that intimately touch on the subject?

I don't think that there is actually any such professional field out there that exists which is officially defined as "apologetics" or that there is actually the discipline "apologetics" taught in academia.

Remember what St. Peter had said:

1Pt 3:15:

15 But sanctify the Lord Christ in your hearts, being ready always to satisfy every one that asketh you a reason of that hope which is in you.

I do not believe that he had restricted this duty to those officially designated "apologist", but rather to each of the faithful.

Although, I must admit that only those well-versed in the topics that comprise apologetics should actually engage in these matters; given the knowledge and understanding you have on such things, I don't believe you should terminate all such efforts for want of an official title "apologist".

At any rate, although I admire your modesty, your apologetic efforts will leave a void for many who look forward to your in-depth knowledge of such apologetic concerns as those dealing with Patristics, Church History, Church Teaching and Theology.

I hope you will re-consider.

God Bless,

At 2:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Further to the above, keep in mind that such knowledgeable individuals as yourself help to keep the ignorant at bay as well.

At 2:49 PM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

I view "apologetics" in this context as the attempt to confer hope and motivation toward Christianity to those in the grip of error. I just happen to think, after more than a little experience, than science is a poor instrument for accomplishing that goal. Science is essentially surgery for error, and surgery without consent is violence. Apologetics is attempting to educe from someone the consent to recognize that they really are in need of healing and that what they have is inadequate. There's a limited sense in which apologetics simply responds to apparent difficulties by providing explanations, and I might do that implicitly, but where there is some underlying commitment to the will in place that fundamentally conflicts with rational discussion of the matter, then I think this is futile as directed to one's opponent, so it provides no benefit to them.

I certainly have no problem with providing explanations of such difficulties to fellow Catholics. I'm just saying that I don't see the point of responding to critiques that don't even seem to even mean anything. Responding to Catholic doctrines with the "authority of Scripture" isn't an argument if the authority of Scripture doesn't mean anything. Unless people can say what they mean in some clear and definite way, then even the application of science to resolve difficulties won't work. And realistically speaking, there IS no apparent difficulty if someone can't formulate the objection in some philosophically definite and coherent way, and that is a lesson that I would like to drive home to Catholics who are easily troubled by these attacks on the Church. My point is that I am shifting my focus to addressing other Catholics directly rather than responding to non-Catholics, since I think this will be more effective.

At 9:24 AM, Blogger the Cogitator said...

Hi Jonathan,

Thanks for your reply on the beatific vision (above).

As for the shift you're making from practical apologetics (for doubters or heretics, ad extra, as it were) to apologetics of natural reason (for Catholics, ad intra), I can only second it. You've poured tremendous effort into Prot debates but I see much of it as time lost. Zou can benefit Catholics better directly and aid non-Catholics just as well obliquely.

At 2:57 PM, Blogger Tim Enloe said...

LOL, so you've decided not to be "ecumenical" anymore? I don't see how you can honestly believe you were being ecumenical up to this point, what with all that "Calvin sucks, Warfield sucks, Machen sucks, Reformed theology is another religion, and anything that isn't radically empirical Thomism is absurdly stupid" stuff. That's what you call being "ecumenical"?

There are days when I actually understand and sympathize with the hard line attitude taken by, say, the folks at Beggar's All. With so much Catholic fanaticism around, why shouldn't a Protestant be a fanatic too? Why bother trying to cut through my own prejudices and take my own people to task for their numerous follies toward Catholicism when the Catholic Internet has no intention of cutting through its own prejudices, but only of reinforcing its inbred perspective through "kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out" polemics? Why bother trying to understand Catholicism? Just nuke the damn thing and be done with it. Trying to be irenic, trying to listen to others on their own terms, trying to remove beams from my own eye first, leads only to lot of wasted time and frustration. "Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war!"


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