Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Apology to Tim Enloe

Upon further reflection, I was remiss in offering a critique of Tim's treatment of Catholics. My own behavior was more contentious than it ought to have been, and I therefore created an atmosphere that not only allowed but invited such a response. It was unfair of me to cry "foul!" for someone else's behavior. The right response would have been to ameliorate the situation by removing it from the field of contention and attempting to reason from a common perspective. Instead, I participated in an argumentative exchange that detracted from the substance of the discussion and, more importantly, from my own witness to the Catholic faith. Moreover, the charge of unfair tactics was itself unfair once I had stepped into the arena. I lost sight of my priorities, I behaved badly in exacerbating a bad situation, and I am sorry for it. If peacemaking is blessed, I certainly have some penance to do.

I ask your forgiveness, although I make no pretense of deserving it.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Review of _The Catholic Verses_ by Dave Armstrong

"Irenic" is not the first word that ordinarily comes to mind when a book is subtitled "95 Bible Passages That Confound Protestants," but in this case, it's just proof of the old adage about judging books by their covers. The only beliefs that come under attack in this book are the ones that have been frustrating ecumenical dialogue and poisoning discussions with anti-Catholic stereotypes for far too many years. For Catholics, this book will come as a reassurance that Catholicism is firmly rooted in the Scriptures. For Protestants, it will provide a valuable opportunity to reexamine the hard questions that every faithful Protestant should be able to answer. But for all readers, the lesson is that those who gloss over serious study of Scripture in making reckless attacks on fellow Christians do so at their own peril.

One feature that distinguishes this book from many other works is the genuine respect that Armstrong bears for the other side of the aisle. He cites arguments by famous Protestants from Calvin to Luther, Wesley to Kelly, not to tear them down but to demonstrate the amount of effort they put into forming their own conclusions. The point of these demonstrations is to illustrate that even thoughtful, devoted, and scholarly men can reason their way to different conclusions about these passages, and that in most cases, the Catholic view is no less thoughtful or reasonable an explanation. In an attitude of genuine intellectual humility, Armstrong constantly repeats a simple theme: "recognizing that reasonable men can disagree, here is why I believe what I do." Exercising the rare poise found in such writers as Jaroslav Pelikan, Armstrong makes his case strongly and convincingly while maintaining a profound respect for his opponents' intelligence.

The book covers a number of Catholic distinctives that frequently arise in Protestant-Catholic dialogue, such as ecclesiology, the role of tradition, the papacy, and justification. On these issues, there is no new ground covered that has not been discussed at length in a number of places, but the advantage here is that the presentation is clear and concise, focused particularly on developing the strength of the Biblical argument. This is extremely helpful for beginners in Catholic theology, but it also reminds more advanced students just how effective it can be to make a simple, focused Scriptural argument that goes back to basics. Time and time again, Armstrong demonstrates the power of such arguments to convey the Catholic message.

What impressed me most, though, was Armstrong's handling of sensitive moral issues in the final three chapters. In discussing clerical celibacy, contraception, and divorce, he bring an optimistic and idealistic perspective centered firmly in Christ to areas that have become overwhelmingly dominated by cynicism. Armstrong's positive view of human nature and the human condition is a refreshing change from the modern worldview that envisions people as being doomed to gross moral failings. His presentation is an excellent example of how sound moral teaching founded in the Gospel can truly be a light to the world.

I recommend this book without reservation, and I encourage my fellow Catholics to take the study of these verses to heart and to commit them to memory. They are excellent reminders of how the Catholic faith is rooted in the Word of God.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Well, I think it's about time I catch up on my reading

Look at the wonderful quotations that have come out of Christian discussion on GregK's board:
"It will be a cold day in hell when I profit from anything you have to say."

"I'd rather be skinned alive layer by layer than to be helped by you."

"You'd prefer I fondle little boys? Now there's an example of Roman Catholic maturity evidently."

"...there is a sizable contingency in the CRC that are fag lovers..."

And this was all from one Reformed pastor! The sad thing is that while the comments are completely unjustifiable, I can actually understand why he was irritated, what with his faith being called demon worship and all. It's one thing if you think a Christian has a defective conception of God; it's another thing entirely to say that they are worshipping a different God. Why discuss a meaningless hypothetical about what God would be like if their beliefs were accurate if you sincerely believe that they are not accurate? What good does it do to provoke a fellow Christian to this point, whether you are right or not?

Anyway, it seems overall like the dialogues in which I have been involved lately are shedding more light than heat, so I think I'm going to devote some time to reading some books that have come highly recommended, and posting my thoughts on them. I'm hoping that cooler heads will prevail in any dialogue, since we'll be dealing with more scholarly works. Quite honestly, arguments that don't appeal to such works seem to be miserable failures, and even the ones that do (like Dave Armstrong's and Tim Enloe's) don't get read as such, because people get too caught up in polemics. If nothing else, it will be an opportunity to give some electronic ink to some books that probably deserve more than they've received to date.

So anyway, that's my plan. We'll see if this proves any more constructive than the current Internet climate.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Nothing like a little Merton for getting some perspective

In the midst of pondering how difficult relations on the Internet can be, coming across this quote from Merton made me chuckle...

Hell is where no one has anything in common with anybody else except the fact that they all hate one another and cannot get away from one another and from themselves. They are all thrown together in their fire and each one tries to thrust the others away from him with a huge, impotent hatred.

[Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 123]

If you see this in yourself or you think that you see it in others, take a break from the web! :-)

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Reponse to Tim Enloe

Responding to comments made here.

If after two attempts you still don't comprehend what I'm saying, then there obviously aren't any good ways for me to explain it to you, so I'll just make some things clear for the record. I'm not saying that everyone who talks about someone else's mode of thinking is a liberal. I'm saying that everyone who *tells* someone else how he is thinking rather than letting that person explain it himself is a liberal. By and large, characterizations such as "nominalist" or "Platonist" or "dedicated abstractionist" are intended to be accurately descriptive, not prescriptive. If you find that the oversimplification of a certain label is interfering with its utility in historical research, then you take a more nuanced position. Similarly, if you learn through dialogue that you are inaccurately describing a person's view, then you modify the category to be more accurately descriptive. At least, you would do that if you are going to take that person at his word, which I consider to be pretty much essential to dialogue.

Now I have tried to be as accurate as possible in describing what your view is, and I have tried to explain why it is that I characterize them the way that I do. I have made it as plain as I can make it that I am strictly analyzing your method of communication with Catholics, not your personal motivation, not your own personal spiritual conviction, and not your own personal philosophy. Consequently, from my own perspective (and I can't imagine who has more insight into my state of mind), I haven't said a thing that could amount to "extremely dismissive statements about the motivation of other Christians."

My direct statements on the fact that I have no insight into your motivations were as follows:
"I certainly don't mean to characterize Tim's 'overall position' in this way."

"You simply cannot slap a label on the thought processes of another human being with whom you are talking without utterly disrespecting the concept of that person as a rational human being."

"I have absolutely no idea what Tim is thinking."

"I have no idea what you're 'all about.'"

Now if you are going to say that I am doing something after I have repeatedly and strongly said that I have not done it and do not even intend to do it, then you're basically putting your credibility on the line against mine. My guess is that lots of people may disagree with me and consider me naive or stubborn, but I seriously doubt that anyone considers me dishonest or incoherent. Moreover, there is at least one prominent example of me deliberately limiting my critique only to a person's style of argumentation, accepting that person's explanation of their motivations, and even modifying my own opinion of that style based on the person's explanation, that being when I spoke with James White on the Dividing Line. It's not as if there isn't a record of me having done exactly what I say that I am doing here (i.e., critiquing your method of dialogue rather than you personally). Consequently, if you are sufficiently rash to challenge my credibility on that issue with the evidence being what it is, I am perfectly happy to let you do so.

You've charged various Catholics with "absolutely flippancy" and the desire to "reach for the easy, and shallow, answers when someone says that something you deeply love isn't really 'all that.'" But the credibility of that charge really rests on your further assertion about "the EXTREME ignorance of 'conservative' Catholics of the historical sources and their contexts in REAL LIFE, FLESH AND BLOOD Christian society" and the unwillingness among Catholic apologists to "trouble themselves to read the primary sources." This is where I think you have crossed the line into errors of both fact and prudence.

With regard to the former, the reason I say that you have committed a factual error is that my hard drive alone is pretty strong counter-evidence. In addition to having read Tierney's The Idea of Natural Rights and select portions of the primary sources reproduced in The Crisis of Church and State (as they happen to come up), I still have a copy of your thesis, which I've also read. But that obviously wouldn't be enough in itself to give you a fair shake, so I also obtained access to as many of the references in your bibliography that my wife (whom I affectionately refer to as "Dr. Prejean") could obtain through her graduate school. Granted, there was a pretty remote connection to her own academic interest in Catholic health care, but since I helped her out with some legal research for her dissertation, she was a good sport about it. Also, there were those articles from Ken Pennington and Constantin Fasolt that I pointed out to you, not to mention reading your own translations on your own website. Even then, being a layman, I wasn't entirely convinced that I would be able to give them a fair reading, so I decided to contact an expert. Recalling that one of my law school professors (Charles Donahue) was one of the foremost authorities in the history of Roman law and its development through the Middle Ages, I contacted him for advice on things that he might consider interesting as well, and gained some insight from that correspondence as well. While you are entirely correct that I have not consulted primary sources, not being fluent in Latin myself, I would presume that the research that I have done corresponds fairly well to the most that a reasonable person would be expected to do.

Moreover, I have not limited myself to solely this area of study. While lacking a tremendous amount of time for theological inquiry, I am currently working to improve my understanding of divine simplicity and Palamite theology in order to better understand the roots of the East/West schism. In the interim, I have also invested some time in learning more about modern canon law and Catholic liturgy, as well as trying to follow the numerous online discussions about the history of sacramentology, iconoclasm, and Marian devotion. I am by no means expert in any of these things, but given the effort, time, and money I am investing in the subject, I think one would be hard pressed to consider me either prone to ease in theological or historical studies, nor would it be sensible to consider me unwilling to trouble myself with such matters.

That pretty much brings me to my latter concern of imprudence. If you want to actually have dialogues with Catholics, then it would be difficult to find anyone who was more open to finding common ground. Indeed, I was fairly optimistic about developing a common body of knowledge that could be used to explain views, much like finding a common language permits concepts to be explained between two people. In "real life," I am ordinarily drawn to people with different views far more than those with whom I agree, so this isn't unusual for me. Earlier this week, I spent an evening watching Handel's Messiah with a PCA member who was my online "nemesis" back when I was too dumb to know what I didn't know. We don't agree entirely even now, but we are genuinely friends, and we can even talk about theological differences (although far more often, common ground) without breaking that relationship. My best friend is a Jewish Democrat, putting us in drastically different places in both religion and politics, but we can even talk about those subjects without enmity. I don't let my beliefs get in the way of my friendships. Call it "gentle evangelism"; I have faith that if they come to understand me as a friend, they will receive the Gospel in that way, and if God wills it, they will be brought around to it.

Being that kind of person (i.e., one who is both willing and interested in dialogue with people who disagree), one would think that I would be very nearly your target audience. But in light of the way in which you interact with me and with others, I genuinely don't understand your motivation for conversing with Catholics. I don't know what you get out of it, and I really don't see what would draw a Catholic into wanting to understand your ideas and your perspective. In fact, I don't see why I would want spend my own time conversing with someone who isn't interested in knowing or understanding my perspective. I don't know what you hope to accomplish with your studies, but if it involves persuading Catholics to understand the subject from your perspective, I can assure you as a Catholic that the temperature of Hell will be far below zero before this type of rhetoric will achieve its goal.

Anyway, it's all just my opinion, and you can do what you like with it. For myself, I've lost interest in talking this out (as I said, I find conflict unpleasant). So, I will pass along these words from Bob Dylan that capture my feelings pretty well:
"Goodbye's too good a word, man
So I'll just say fare thee well
I ain't sayin' you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don't mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don't think twice, it's all right."

Thursday, December 02, 2004

The Liberal Game in Action

Jimmy Akin recently posted his analysis of an article by Harvard Law professor William Stuntz musing about the possibility of reconciling blue-state philosophy and red-state philosophy into a kind of purple-state philosophy. Stuntz writes from the perspective of an Evangelical Christian who teaches at a liberal New England school, which ought to give him some insight into the matter. Alas, it seems that he has still missed a great deal, and I would argue that it is because he doesn't understand the "liberal game" (described in the first paragraph of this entry) that permeates blue-state philosophy.

First off, I entirely agree with Jimmy's "It's abortion, stupid!" analysis. Even the most basic survey of legal history recognizes that there are issues that are so central to the basic dignity of human beings that they entirely dominate the political consciousness of large groups of people. Slavery was one, and so is abortion. So how does Stuntz miss this? Simple. He's bought into the notion of "polarizing issues" as being inherently bad things that are "too emotional" for rational discussion. In other words, he's started playing the liberal game.

There is some real irony here relating to my own personal experience, because Harvard is the place where I learned the rules of the liberal game (i.e., defining one's own view as "tolerant" and putting opposing views outside of the scope of "reasonable discussion" with pejorative terms like "intolerance," "bias," "emotional," "pure opinion," etc.). As I became better versed in ideas like "legal realism" and "neutral principles," I began to realize that religion was being viewed as something personal and irrational, like one's preference in music or food, unrelated to objective reality. As someone who had always considered theism to be a quite rational position, I was deeply offended by this notion (I even wrote a paper about how Stephen Jay Gould's attempt to put science and religion in separate "magisteria" in Rocks of Ages was an insult to both endeavors). In fact, it was the desire to fight against the concept of theism as pure subjectivity that led me to seek a more developed concept of my own faith and, ultimately, to return to the Church of my baptism.

By not recognizing the rhetorical modes of the blue-state philosophy, Prof. Stuntz naively comes to the conclusion that Christians have shut themselves out! Prof. Stuntz has a valid point about the anti-intellectual sentiment that permeates fundamentalism, which he uses as evidence to justify his position that Christians are simply unwilling to enter the academic fray of "tough-minded questions and arguments," but he seems to be completely oblivious to the vast number of thinking Christians who have had their philosophies defined out of the realm of reasonable debate. Contrary to his caricature, we would *love* to test our beliefs with "tough-minded questions and arguments" and to have them battle in the marketplace of ideas. It is the so-called "tolerant liberals" who are determined to protect people's ideas from "intolerance" to the point of excluding all religious discussion from societal debate, which is really nothing more than anti-Christian prejudice. And what's worse, people have bought into this tactic so thoroughly that we are now fighting to avoid having our ideas eradicated from society entirely in the name of tolerance.

Stuntz does demonstrate some awareness of this problem when he discusses the lack of humility among academics, and their willingness to "talk and act as though those ideas are not just right but obviously right -- only a fool or a bigot could think otherwise." But again, he just doesn't seem to get that it is an essential component of the liberal game to call people "fools" and "bigots" in order to make one's own view appear more "reasonable." The faux tolerance of liberalism is simply a rhetorical tactic to win points, and the only way to win this game is to refuse to play it. I sympathize with Prof. Stuntz in thinking that discussion is possible, but not while the liberal game is being used to exclude one of the parties. It's not simply a matter of the liberals learning to be humble; humility about whether one is right or wrong can lead someone into the false ideal of tolerance just as easily as it can lead to mutual respect and irenic discussion. The only way to cure it is to recognize that defining the parameters of reasonability to exclude reasonable people cuts off even the possibility of dialogue.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Can We Discuss This?

I'm an "argument junkie." That's not to say that I like disputes; I actually hate getting into them. What I like is the study of arguments, the what and why of rhetoric. Generally, my goal in any sort of discussion is to understand what the modes of argument are and what motivates people to use them. I don't expect to persuade or be persuaded in most of these, but I do expect to get a handle on how people try to persuade others and to explain what it is that persuades me. That is, I assume, one of the principal purposes of dialogue between individuals who have a reasonable disagreement with one another.

By and large, such disagreements aren't a bad thing. You may not (and probably will not) be able to get into someone else's head to the point of being able to empathize with their reasons, but you can at least get some insight into what he is thinking. Sometimes it's more challenging, probing, or critical (Socratic dialogue is a good example), but the goal is always to get people to articulate their own motivations, which may help them to know themselves just as it helps you to understand them. For this to work, you have to meet two conditions: you have to be honest about your own position (viz., you can't be a sophist), and you have to trust the other guy to be honest about his. Obviously, most of the time at the end of the day, you will not obtain any sort of agreement, but you may learn something nonetheless.

With that in mind, what I consider to be the worst dialogue-killer is not for someone to be zealous in the defense of his position (indeed, that is almost certainly the most honest way to be), but for someone to speculate about what is going through his opponent's mind. In an honest dialogue, you can't ever make those judgments; you can't characterize someone else's thought processes or presuppositions. You simply cannot slap a label on the thought processes of another human being with whom you are talking without utterly disrespecting the concept of that person as a rational human being. Sometimes, you may actually be willing to do that, but I sure as heck hope that it's rare.

Coming to the punch line, some people may now be saying "Wait a minute, didn't you just call Tim Enloe a liberal? Isn't that a little hypocritical?" Maybe it came off that way, but the clarification I gave on Dave's blog was directed exactly to this point. I have absolutely no idea what Tim is thinking. What I can say is what argumentative tactic he is using (which I think is consistent with what Fish criticizes in "liberals") and why it is corrosive to meaningful dialogue. And that argumentative tactic, which I characterized as the liberal game, is indeed inconsistent with the spirit of dialogue.

Here are my answers to Tim's questions that I think will help to clarify my position:

You think I'm all about abstract theories and being "right" even if it means I have to use "classic Fish liberal language" to play the poles of a bias / objectivity dichotomy?

No, I have no idea what you're "all about." The fact that you play the poles of a bias/objectivity dichotomy is a consequence of what you say about other people's thought processes.

Maybe you've missed all those blog posts of mine calling for a rejection of the One / Many dichotomy and a more holistic, Trinitarian approach to matters of truth.

I didn't miss those. In fact, that's probably the best example of what I am talking about. Essentially, you are arguing that one must "think correctly." That's liberalism in a nutshell.

Maybe you've missed the fact that I question BOTH sides of the Enlightenment subject / object split, and all the works of that split--including all that shallow "liberal" talk about attaining to a position of "open mindedness". I think it was that ruddy old papist Chesterton who said an open mind is only good if it actually closes on something (truth). I readily concur with his judgment on that point.

I didn't miss these either, but you seem to have missed what Fish found. The liberal tactic is to gain rhetorical ground by accusing the other side of thinking wrongly, of having a defective thought process (because nothing is more important that *right thinking* after all). It doesn't matter whether the word you slap on it is "intolerant," "pagan," "Platonic," or what have you.

Unfortunately for your slurs of me, the reason I'm so concerned with things like papalist "absolutism" is not because I'm trying to rhetorically play on the shallow "liberal" hermeneutical convention of "bias / open mind", but rather, because of said papal absolutism's disgustingly harmful effects on SOCIETY--that is, the thing that real, living breathing people create in their real live flesh and blood interactions with each other.

Then I suggest that you attempt to actually have a dialogue with those people in order to understand why those real, living, breathing people believe in papal absolutism, particularly people who are fully cognizant of the effects you describe.

The word "absolutism" is not an abstraction--it refers to the actual physical behavior of far too many popes throughout the Middle Ages, and the actual physical behavior of far too many self-styled "Catholics" today. On the contrary, I find that it is people such as you "conservative" Catholics--who all too easily appeal to "faith" when faced with serious difficulties to the rather outrageous claims your system of theology makes relative to every other system--who are in danger of sacrificing flesh and blood realities to mere abstractions. I don't see you people weeping over a sundered Church and saying "Yes, you're right. Our Tradition really sucks sometimes and we're willing to square our shoulders and take our licks like Christian men." Instead, I just see most of you thanking God that at least you're on the Right side of all the splits. (Ironic, since you accuse me of caring only about being Right).

If we considered the Church a "mere abstraction" or if it were simply a matter of "being Right" about some principle of papal infallibility and the Devil take any compromise, then I would completely agree with you. But I know of no Catholic who is Catholic solely for the sake of principle.

Not many moons ago I posted a piece from one Sigebert of Gembloux on Reformed Catholicism, which spoke of how the agents of the Gregorian reform program were travelling throughout the land murdering Sigebert's spiritual charges merely because they wouldn't bow and kiss the pope's ring in "matters of faith and morals". Now why would I care about some PHYSICAL PEOPLE who got killed a thousand years ago if my concern was a set of mere abstractions that I can frame on a wall and sit around admiring? "Thank God I'm a Conciliarist! Do I not have Haec sancta and Frequens memorized by heart?" That's hardly a fair reading of anything I've said or done. I'm not talking about mental abstractions here; I'm talking about FLESH AND BLOOD reality in both the past and the HERE AND NOW.

You raised a good question, and I'll ask it right back: why would we Catholics feel so strongly about our beliefs if our concern was "a set of mere abstractions that [we] can frame on a wall and sit around admiring?" "Thank God I'm a Catholic! Do I not have the Vatican I definition of papal infallibility memorized by heart?" Do you see what you're doing here? We are FLESH AND BLOOD people, and you are theorizing us out of existence!

You think I like the present situation of not being able to share communion with my Catholic brothers and sisters? You think I've dealt with the absolutely disgustingly slanderous garbage spewing from the keyboards of men like White, Svendsen, King against me just so I can defend mere mental abstractions?

You think we like the present situation of not being able to share communion with our Protestant brothers and sisters? You think we deal with even worse abuse from White, Svendsen, and King for the sake of mental abstractions? Can your theory of "conservative Catholics" survive if you put actual human beings in it?

I'm either an absolutely horrible communicator, or you simply haven't been listening to anything I've been saying. And once more I think most of these ridiculous appeals to "faith" that too many Catholics issue in the face of serious objections to the aforesaid SOCIETALLY-harmful consequences of their utterly abstract theological premises about "authority" and "jurisdiction", are the real candidates for tongue-lashings about elevating mental stuff over real life. I wonder sometimes if you Catholics ever look in mirrors, and if so if you ever come away from those mirrors not being absolutely dazzled by what you saw.

I'll leave this one as an exercise for the reader.

Anyway, I can't imagine that I'm being entirely even-handed in my criticism here. But as Dave mentioned, I have some sense of solidarity with my Catholic brethren, and so I'm more defensive about them than others. I've prayed and thought on it for a few days, and I still think that saying what I said and what I'm saying now is worthwhile. Maybe it won't help, but I would hope that it might encourage people to see through arguments to the human beings underneath them. It's harder on the Internet, but if we can get away from grand visions and start to evaluate our experiences here in terms of the individuals we come to know, I think we'd all be a lot happier.

My $0.02 + interest.