Monday, March 17, 2008

Foolish Genealogies (Thinking about Entropy)

Titus 3:9
But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels over the law, for they are unprofitable and futile.

In preparation for St. Patrick's Day, I did a bit of digging into my Irish ancestry. I knew about my great-great-grandmother Sarah Jane O'Neal, but I found at least one other ancestor of Irish descent: Daniel Malone, purportedly of County Westmeath, but more probably born to parents of Irish ancestry in Yorkshire or thereabouts. Oh, and his son might have been married to Scottish royalty in hiding (don't you love crazy family legends that can never be proved or disproved?).

I also found a couple of lines of descent from Irish Quakers, who probably shouldn't really count as Irish, since they were really English folks who moved to Ireland for about a generation to avoid persecution while they made arrangements to get over to Pennsylvania. The Irish Quaker names ended in my line when my 5x-g-grandfather James Lindley was hanged as a British loyalist in Georgia, which seems like a hard end for a guy whose dad Thomas had died as a pacifist helping to tend the wounded of both sides in the "Battle of Lindley's Mill." Being a Quaker, Thomas couldn't rightly pick a side among the guys who were firing guns on account of his mill being a good location for ambuscade, so he tried to ameliorate the misery created by the situation and got shot for his trouble. James's daughter Mary ended up marrying a Scotsman named Abercrombie (alas, not a royal in hiding this time, though his ancestor was a royal falconer). They seemed to have done well for themselves, although after the tragic end of her father and grandfather, most anything would have been a step up. Mary's daughter married another hard luck case, an orphan raised by a kindly aunt and uncle, but misery seems to have bypassed the family after that.

To explain why this hasn't just been an excuse to tell family stories, this inquiry got me thinking about what it is that fascinates us about genealogy and how it pertains to St. Paul's warning against stupid genealogies. From a metaphysical standpoint, the problem of genealogies goes straight back to Adam. Since Adam, we have had human souls from a multiplicity of people, not just one or two. These lives are therefore fragmented, the human nature being scattered in time and space into all of these individual people in their limited historical circumstances and individual biographies. The quest for genealogy is really a quest to gather up the pieces of this smashed picture and to collect them into something recognizable. It is trying to rebuild a human nature that we recognize is somehow broken in this vast separation between people, trying to recapitulate all that brokenness in ourselves.

But we can't do that. There is only one person in history who was capable of doing that, and it was Jesus Christ. His particular genealogy also matters in that regard, because His recapitulation of the human nature also recapitulates the whole biography of Israel. Attempting to find that sort of wholeness outside of Him is doomed to be a futile exercise. Only in Him does all of humanity with the biographies of every one of us make sense. This is not to say that natural genealogies are somehow a bad aspect of humanity, as if the command to be fruitful and multiply were a curse. Our families, our parents, and our culture are all blessings from God in their own limited way. It is only when we attempt to stretch, when we attempt to procure immortality through our offspring (as St. Maximus the Confessor warned) or otherwise attempt to extend these natural blessings beyond what they can bear that we fall into the trap of "stupid genealogies" that St. Paul disdains. The rabbis of his time were trying to find an answer that in their personal descendancy that could only be found in Christ, and we should beware of doing the same.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Death, Naturally (Thinking about Entropy)

There has been no small amount of thought dedicated to the philosophical proposition that death is somehow "unnatural." I suppose that there is some truth to that idea if by "nature" one means ousia, in the intensive sense of the universal principle causing a thing to be what it is, but that is a tautology at best (eternal ideas can't die). But on this Passion Sunday, I hazard to say that it cannot possibly be true as applied to the human physis, the ousia as actually embodied in human beings. We are dying from the moment of birth; our life as humans entails this.

The physis, the embodied nature of humanity, is both finite and material, and it is in this that our death becomes certain. Our causality might best be described as the causality of dust. We make nothing, and every sort of action we take, even merely persisting in existence, destroys something else. There is no option for stasis; even our inaction is destructive, and we are always on the clock. The ONLY way that this destruction becomes purposive is if it serves the purpose of making a transition into a higher order (N.B., I have heard that Scotist metaphysics organizes form in terms of orientation to higher order, and that would seem to be in the same spirit). But the destruction is inevitable; the only question is whether what we break is broken in order to make something better.

St. Augustine, the Doctor of Grace, understood this concept of ordo as well as anyone else. I believe this is what underpinned his notion of grace, in that it was not that nature was evil so much as limited. It would never suffice to merely focus on any created thing for its own sake, which would simply turn the creature to its own destruction. On the contrary, the capacity for this higher order can only be found in the use of things for God in His divine providence (see this excellent lecture by Vernon Bourke for St. Augustine's explanation of enjoyment, use, and delight in use). Ultimately, divine providence orders everything, even the acts of evildoers, which is the manner in which even evil is turned to greater good. Indeed, this simply reveals the true nature of what evil does by embracing its own destruction; what the evildoer sought to accomplish is destroyed in the very act.

The difficulty is that we lack even the possible capacity to grasp the full implications of our own destructive power. That is the inherent difficulty involved in the difference between ousia and physis that I mentioned earlier. The man as particular and material is knowable only indirectly with respect to some act, but destruction is built into our nature. Again, St. Augustine knew this, but his knowledge in this regard has ironically been used to charge him simultaneously with Platonism and Manichaeanism. He is charged with Platonism for arguing that it is only through some divine infusion of sapientia in the form of the divine ideas themselves that people can have knowledge (see this example). Then, he is charged with Manichaeanism for supposedly asserting that evil is built into the material nature of man. As against both extremes, I elect the middle: I believe he is speaking of nothing other than the real finitude of man's mode of existence. The virtues themselves might well be eternal, but our mode of realizing them certainly is not. Our causal mode is both finite and destructive, and those sorts of elements require not merely scientia but sapientia to regulate well in their application.

This also opens up the possibility of inculpable inadvertence, where our will is turned wrongly simply because we did not know the way to turn it. Unintentional sin is not a notion that receives much favorable press, because we immediately assume that inculpable acts do not bear guilt. And perhaps this is true, but perhaps they were also our (foregone) opportunity to make the world a better place. Perhaps we squandered our destructive causality in such a way that something was broken without anything being fixed.

My personal example comes from this very Palm Sunday Mass. On the way, my wife was packing snacks to keep my little ones occupied, knowing that the Passion Sunday Gospel was liable to exhaust their attention span. I saw her putting some juice into the bag, and I questioned whether we needed to bring juice, primarily because I thought it had a higher mess potential than, say, Cheerios, which are relatively easier to pick up. Truth be told, I can't say that it wasn't also in my mind that it is much easier for me to supervise children with more controllable snacks and that it might spare me some irritation when my son decides he enjoys the juice box more as fire hose than source of sustenance. But she said it would be better for the kids as compared to the risk to carpet and pew if we were diligent, so I went along. It turned out that a diabetic lady two rows in front of us fainted during Mass, and her family had brought no snacks along, so we ended up giving her my son's juice box before the paramedics arrived.

Of course one could not attribute to me knowledge of this at the time, but without my wife's wisdom, that little tendency toward inattention and lack of effort on my part could have been the difference between this woman being conscious or comatose when the paramedics arrived. Now I don't think that this was sinful lack of effort (my objections could even be considered reasonable even apart from consideration of my own personal effort). But pace Fr. William Most, it gave me a much better understanding of how John of St. Thomas might well have been right when he said that inculpable inadvertence in response to sufficient grace, not by way of fault, could justify God in depriving one of efficacious grace later. We give too much credit to knowledge in the moral sphere and not enough to wisdom, and God only knows what sorts of particular situations we might encounter. This has only been multiplied in the circumstances of original sin and the multiplicity of the human nature, in which we are all born into human nature in variegated occasions completely beyond our control, subject to a death sentence from birth.

St. Augustine's point then seems to be a quite simple one: since we don't know what or why these opportunities comes to one and not another, and since God has no obligation to give any particular set of opportunities to us, we ought to pray sincerely that we are given not only what we need, but even the guidance to do the best when we are given it. This is no different in kind between the answer that Mike Liccione gives and has given with regard to the mystery of evil and the particular historical biography, so I will not belabor the point further. I simply note the the finite and destructive nature of our causality and the inability to know enough analytically to guarantee that we are not disrupting order uselessly means that humility and prayer is never out of order, so that we will not even squander what little we have.

And so, we heed the words of the Gospels:
Matthew 25:24-30 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, `Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' But his master answered him, `You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.'

Mark 4:24-25 And he said to them, "Take heed what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to him who has will more be given; and from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away."

Luke 19:20-27 Then another came, saying, `Lord, here is your pound, which I kept laid away in a napkin; for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man; you take up what you did not lay down, and reap what you did not sow.' He said to him, `I will condemn you out of your own mouth, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking up what I did not lay down and reaping what I did not sow? Why then did you not put my money into the bank, and at my coming I should have collected it with interest?' And he said to those who stood by, `Take the pound from him, and give it to him who has the ten pounds.' (And they said to him, `Lord, he has ten pounds!') `I tell you, that to every one who has will more be given; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them before me.'"

This brings me to the (literal) subject of Passion Sunday: Jesus Christ. For it seems that He ought not be subject to this infirmity of these unprofitable servants who gain no good from their lives, and indeed, He is not. That is not to say that He is not subject to death as a human being, because He certainly is. But His hypostasis is subject to death only voluntarily and without separation from the divine will. Unlike us, He had control over the circumstances of His own birth, and this is why He assumes the entirety of the human nature that He received in particularity from Mary. On the other hand, what He destroys through His particular exercise of the human causality is never destroyed uselessly or pointlessly but always for the use of God. His personal exercise of human will is in perfect conformity to the will of the Father; thus, from today's Gospel reading of Matthew 26, He says "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt." Once again, I credit another blogger(Scott Carson this time) for having elaborated the theme so well that I can simply repeat the conclusion without the explanation. Christ does not will His destruction for its own sake (He has a genuine will to self-preservation; He truly does not want to drink the cup) but He wills with the will of His Father that there is a purpose for this destruction, which can only be known through divine grace that surpasses human understanding. That is a sublime understanding of the human condition, and one that only the Son of God could experience in its full depth.

There are at least two elements of protest against this understanding that I have heard from time to time. Some suggest that there was no necessity of Christ's death but for the action of evil men. Had Adam not sinned and fractured human nature into a needless multiplicity, perhaps this would have been true, because then Adam's own death might have been the path to resurrection for humanity (I leave as beyond by theological and metaphysical competence whether Christ's Incarnation would have nonetheless been necessary, and perhaps some supernatural intervention like bodily assumption might have accomplished the transition from morality to immortality). But given the condition of humanity, I must concur with Gregory of Nyssa that Christ had to assume not only the ousia of human nature but its physis. Human nature, collectively, was subject to death as individuals, and so Christ had to have all four stages of humanity: generation, growth, death, and resurrection. Jesus might have died peacefully of old age, rather than violence, perhaps with His Body and Blood being broken and poured our metaphorically by the destructive nature of material existence. This is why I suggest that it seems at least more fitting to hold the tradition of the Dormition in that Mary suffered death in solidarity with Jesus and all of humanity, even though there are occasions of people being spared (as in Enoch and Elijah).

The other objection is that if humanity could miraculously be made immune to sin, death (by assumption), and the like, then it immediately follows that this should be done for everyone by a loving God. I think it evident from the presentation above that this simply misunderstands the cause of sin and death and the real situation of humanity as actualized in individual persons. These matters are so bound up with the individual situation that it would be impossible to generalize from one case to the whole, and I have pointed out that one would not be so presumptuous with one's own children. One could know to a moral certainty that a baptized child killed before the age of reason would go to Heaven, but one would never slay one's own children in infancy to avoid the risk of damnation for them, God has the judgment over life and death, not us. Besides, Jesus Himself did not encourage His disciples at Gethsemane to pray that they would be like Him in perfectly knowing the will of the Father, because He knew full well that this was impossible. Just as we have finite capacities for realizing the timeless and eternal virtues, so we have finite capacities in the mimesis of Christ. Instead, Jesus says in today's Gospel reading "Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." That is more than adequate as an answer to any objection to what I have said here, and thus ends the meditation.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The archbishop of Babel (Thinking about Entropy)

I had the occasion to deal with a concrete instance of the Babel-ing I described in my last post. Dr. Scott Carson had recommended taking a look at a work of Joseph P. Farrell that had recently become available. Dr. Carson rightly chastised one commenter for mentioning that since Farrell was goofy on historical matters like Nazi flying saucers and the Giza Death Star, since it doesn't follow that having a flawed methodology in one area makes you incompetent in other areas. In response to Dr. Carson's statement that "it does not follow from that, of course, that his theological views are as insane as his physics," I pointed out that much of what Farrell says is little different than similar goofiness he had previously identified (e.g., romantic visions of the Confederacy, John Hagee's wacky apocalyptic theology) and that both methodologies suffer from the same fundamental flaw (what I called Babel-ing in the earlier post). I am reproducing my comments here to provide some additional context for those earlier reflections:

While I agree with the principle, I think they are in this case. I've read the Giza books just to see if it were the case that both were insane. Based on his take on paleophysics, the various references to Christianity, and his rejection of the "Western" critical textual method, the two conclusions (theological and scientific) appear to be rooted in the same fundamental goofiness. IMNSHO, one might glean that from his historical fiction. If there were a metropolitan of Babel, it would be Farrell. His is an idea beyond the possibility of feedback from reality, speculation without evidence or experiment, and I do not plan to fund that sort of nonsense any further than I already have.

The problem I see is that Farrell's anti-Catholicism doesn't seem to be different in kind from John Hagee's anti-Catholicism or the romantic view of the Confederacy, for example. It's just a matter of degree. Zionist conspiracy theories aren't much different than Frankish conspiracy theories in the end. And Hagee's madness has a pedigree in historical Protestantism, just as Farrell's has a pedigree in anti-Western Orthodoxy. One might argue that the Protestants misunderstood Catholicism just as badly as Mark of Ephesus et al. did. But if that's the case, then one might as well not beat up Hagee for uncritically accepting crazy beliefs either. Farrell may be more polite and educated, but I don't think that excuses him for being wrong.

At this point, I just regret that so many smart people have been sucked into pseudo-scientific, quasi-mystical gobbledygook about "dialectic" and whatnot. Everything I have seen suggests an extremely selective disregard for the clearest historical counter-evidence, and I don't know how to deal seriously with people who can't deal in reality. Hagee and Farrell suffer from the same brand of delusion, and I'm not inclined to give Farrell a pass because he's more educated and articulate. Well-spoken insanity is still insane, and possibly the more diabolical for it.

I mention all of this because you strike me as a guy who is willing to call "bullshit" on anybody, be it a "very promising young scholar and theologian" for his "redolence of Bultmann," a priest for his "dreamy-eyed longing for one of the most despicable periods in American history," or your own employer for dragging people halfway across the country when they don't have a chance of being hired to fulfill a diversity quota. Unlike the previous commenter, I am not hiding behind any cloak of anonymity, and I am not attempting to poison the well. I think Farrell's uncritical acceptance of both his own sheerly speculative premises and the unfortunate prejudices of his historical subjects (e.g., Photius) is just irresponsible, and it is the same M.O. at work in his historical and scientific works. Moreover, if Asher Black's assessment at Energetic Procession is correct, the current spate of anti-Western Orthodoxy, with its concomitant urination all over the prospects of Catholic-Orthodox ecumenism, comes "not from the fire started by Fr. John Romanides ..., not from all the anti-Augustine thinkers out there, but from the planting of these things all over the English-speaking world by [Farrell]...." I would add on a personal level that there are two guys whom I happen to like a lot who are, in my view, squandering the best years of their intellectual life on anti-Western bigotry. We can write off Farrell, Hagee, and every other historical revisionist as "eccentric," but it hasn't been your habit to do so, and I'd encourage you not to give Farrell the benefit of the doubt when he has done little to deserve it.

At least consider that the noticeable stultification in thought on the issue of the filioque and the "beyond being" stuff, which you yourself have noted more than once, is directly connected to Farrell's work, based on a similar uncritical and revisionist methodology. Farrell's pseudo-profundity has been the lead lemming for more than a little of this intellectual cliff-diving.

In response to a request for more specific information concerning Farrell, I mentioned the following examples:

As to Farrell, I can pinpoint the moment the Farrellites lost me; it was when I read an article linked off of Asher Black's Filioque webpage (the same Asher Black who is currently publishing GHD). I scrolled down to this article on The Frankish Papacy's Involvement in Judeo-Masonry (my favorite gem of anti-Semitism: "The hidden hand of Talmud and Kabbalah is revealed wherever the Jewish people are made the objects of veneration and sanctity"). Asher Black's link section includes the disclaimer "At the same time, we freely list and annotate resources we may have serious qualms about - we don't accept the fallacy of guilt by association - nor does any rational creature." But I assume that to say "see especially X" is not indicative of any such serious qualms. And besides, if what's sauce for McCain's goose is sauce for Asher Black's gander in this instance. It doesn't suffice to indicate disagreement when the person in question has specific ideas that make him appear crazier than a bedbug, and you haven't gone out of your way to deal with that. And this is a close confidant, even a disciple, of Farrell's.

Perhaps you think that this brand of Franco-Roman conspiracy is a bit more extreme than the strain endorsed by Romanides and Farrell, so I picked another serious political example just to point out that it isn't just Hagee who has odd opinions about world politics.

I read this letter that John Romanides wrote to President George H. W. Bush in 1992. To be fair, he doesn't actually accuse the Pope of collaborations with Nazis; he just implies it:
"The Frankish bishops described herein by Saint Boniface in 741, as well as "Saints" Lanfranc of Canterbury (1070-1089) and Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) were, by civilised standards, common criminals. Yet the latter two, and others, who support their positions on killing by religious orders in the name of Latin Christendom, are still considered great saints by the Vatican. This raises the question of whether the Vatican simply tolerated or also supported the World War II massacres of Serbs by Croats and of Jews by Nazis. So long as the Vatican does not officially reject the practises and theories of such 'saints,' the Balkans will continue to be in turmoil, especially when coupled with the Islamic Jihad."

Romanides ties this back to his Franco-Roman conspiracy theory:
"However the Croats became Latins after the Roman Papacy was abolished and replaced by the current Franco-Latin Papacy, having at the time also come into dependency on Ostmark East Franks and the Hungarians. The Serbs, together with the Romans of the West Balkans and Southern Italy, reacted by joining the church jurisdiction of New Rome. The Saxon and Celtic bishops of England also refused to accept this Franco-Latin Papacy and were exterminated by the Normans."

I assume the fact the one takes this stuff sufficiently seriously to write a letter to the President indicates that one's belief has political implications, even though it doesn't have the traction here that it would in Greece. To me, this whole "Franco-Latin papacy" idea is about a basic anti-Teutonic animus that dates back to hostility between the Byzantine empire and the Franks. It is Romanides's quackery that causes him to see the modern situation as "Dark Age Crusades in modern garb under the cover of Western Civilisation," when he is the one living in a (mostly mythical) past of his own devising. The fundamental notion is not just that Catholicism (the "Franco-Latin papacy," as Romanides puts it) is wrong, but that it is so wrong that it inherently produces these bad results. It isn't merely the accusation that people are in heresy, but that Catholic dogma actually *produces* socialists and Nazis, as if they are entailed as a logical consequence of the dogma.

That is essentially the idea here: that Catholic dogma has built-in defects inherited from barbarians (read: Teutonic culture) that causes us all to behave like barbarians. It is based on this conspiracy theory about the Franks coopting the papacy in the 11th century. And because we Westerners lack the enlightenment of the East on Greek philosophy, we have simply latched on to the worst aspects of "Hellenism" from which the Eastern Church was purified, particularly in the acquisition of Aristotle in the West.Now one might say that that was Romanides and not Farrell, but I think it relatively clear that Romanides's political understanding and the position of Farrell on the so-called "Second Europe" found in this excerpt from GHD simply isn't that different.

This is sort of reasoning is not analysis (how does one reason from calling St. Bernard a saint to suspicions of collboration in the Holocaust?). It's just name-calling, and name-calling with a disturbingly ethnic character. I'm not going to excuse the deals the papacy made with the Franks and the abuse of the Eastern Church during the Crusades. But there is a HUGE difference between viewing that as a significant lapse in judgment (in the same way that I take you viewing much of Christianity as having lapsed into heresy) and some conspiracy theory that views it as the pernicious influence of a barbaric ethos in the very psychology of being an obedient Catholic. That is, in my view, the result of the same pseudo-scientific rendering of ancient history that Farrell practices, and indeed, it is the sort of name-calling that Farrell himself licenses.

The fact that these folks are fewer in number than Hagee is simply one of the God-given blessings of self-restricting insanity: even if lots of people are crazy, it's hard to convince them to be your particular strain of crazy. On the other hand, I can't see any way around the notion that this whole "history and dialectic" routine is, in fact, crazy. When you see things like "filioque is the sum of all heresies," "ecumenism is a cabal (literally) between liberal rabbinic Judaism, Freemasonry, and the Pope," and vague adumbrations about fictional entities like the "Frankish papacy" and the "Celtic Orthodox Church," that's crazy.

If people want to make some purely metaphysical or even historical argument about the untenability of some specific theological belief (as David Bradshaw does), I have no qualms about listening, because I can respond to that and disagree based on some real facts. I can say "no, you've got Aquinas wrong" or "no, that doesn't follow." But when this historical speculation completely severed from close textual analysis and specific historical evidence of intellectual derivation starts coming down the pipe, the place starts looking like a pig sty, and I have no desire to wallow in the muck. And that's what you get with Farrell: a bunch of mudslinging about the Second Europe that basically accuses the Western mind of being "aberrant" without evidence. Maybe they're right; maybe Orthodoxy really does hold this stuff as dogma in the Synodikon or whatever. But that is hardly to Orthodoxy's credit if true.