Thursday 30 January 2014

The difference between sleep and death

                                                         Not really...

OK!! This is a slightly self-indulgent post. My interest was piqued by a really interesting question on Jess’ blog from Quiavideruntoculi (which I reproduce below). In essence, it is about the difference between the mental life experienced during sleep and that after death but before the bodily resurrection. It’s probably of limited interest to anyone other than me and QV, except in that it underlines the fact that, for a Catholic, life after death is not simply like one of those Jehovah Witness eternal picnics, but something much stranger and better.

[Relevant Catholic Encyclopedia articles: Immortality; Resurrection of the Body.]

Why, given that we hold de fide that every soul will be conscious after death of the Particular Judgement, and be capable of enjoying the beatific vision, enduring purgatory, or suffering the torment of the damned, even before the Resurrection – that is, before the soul’s reunion with the body – do we all become utterly insensible during deep sleep every night?
How is it that we can seem to be the more ‘dead to the world’ while alive and asleep, than we will be when we are actually dead? What is it about the integration of body and soul that so limits our consciousness? Is this even a question that we can hope answer?

 The first part of the answer here depends on the nature of sleep. Aristotle holds sleep to be the result of a physical disablement:

Aristotles perspective in these essays is single-mindedly rationalistic. In On Sleep and Waking he identifies sleep and waking as diametrically opposed phenomena characterized, respectively, by the absence or presence of perception. Physiologically, Aristotle posits, sleep and waking result from the disabling and activation of the bodys primary sense-organ, which Aristotle took to be the heart. He describes how sleep is induced by the exhalations of ingested foods which thicken and heat the blood, rising to the brain where they are cooled before coalescing in the heart. Similar effects are ascribed to soporific agents, states of fatigue and certain illnesses. Aristotle distinguishes sleep from temporary incapacities of perception, such as fainting, and describes sleep as a form of seizure. [Joseph Barbera,  ‘Sleep and dreaming in Greek and Roman philosophy’, Sleep Medicine, Volume 9, Issue 8, December 2008, pages 906910 ]

So the state of consciousness (whether dreaming or simply unconscious) during sleep is the result of a suspension of perception due to physical causes. (Our understanding of the nature of the physical causes has of course changed since Aristotle, but the principle remains the same.)

In his commentary on STh Ia, q.84, a.7, Anthony Kenny summarizes the position thus:

…the thesis…is that phantasms are needed not only to take the intellect from potentiality to first actuality, but also from first actuality to second. Without the jargon, the thesis is that intellectual thought is impossible apart from a sensory context. (Aquinas on Mind, p.94).

To summarize, in sleep, the ability to think is suspended due to the suspension of our ability to perceive as a result of the disabling of the physical functioning of our body. (Dreams are the result of other physical disturbances. (See Barbera, citing De Insomniis.) As, absent our body, these could not occur, I put them aside.)

Turning to thinking post mortem, I think Ed Feser expresses the situation clearly:

HD [ie hylemorphic dualism –the Thomist understanding of the relationship between soul and body] explicitly denies that the soul thinks after death in the same way that it does when conjoined to the body.  For our intellectual powers only operate when we are alive because of the data we get from the senses and the mental imagery this gives rise to; as Aquinas says, “the soul united to the body can understand only by turning to the phantasms” [where for the sake of simplicity a “phantasm” can be thought of, roughly, as a mental image] (Summa Theologiae I.89.1).  That is its natural mode of carrying out intellectual operations.  And for HD, sensation and imagination, unlike intellect, have a material basis.  (This is why for HD neural activity is -- as I have explained in a previous post -- a necessary condition of everyday cognitive activity despite the immateriality of the intellect, even if it is not a sufficient condition.)  Hence, while we are alive it is only body and soul together which think, and not the soul alone.

Now, after death the soul no longer has available to it its normal input from sensation and imagination.  If it is to think while disembodied, then, it must do so in a very different manner.  What this involves, for Aquinas, is “turning to simply intelligible objects” rather than to phantasms, as an angel (a wholly disembodied intelligence) would.  (Think of pure concepts divorced from sensation or imagination.)  And this entails a difference as well in the kinds of things the intellect can know after death.  As George Klubertanz says in a once widely-used manual of Scholastic philosophy: 

Knowledge of singular material things will be naturally impossible for the separated soul, and likewise existential judgments about material or sensible things.  It will also be impossible to acquire knowledge of previously unknown material objects…  On the other hand, in this life the soul has no actual direct knowledge of itself, because it is the form of a body.  Once separated in death, it will be actually intelligible in itself, and so the soul will directly know itself as an actually existing singular spiritual substance… Communication between separated souls and between souls and angels should be possible, at least in so far as states of mind and will are concerned… Whatever other knowledge is necessary will be given by God, in a fashion similar to the mode of angelic knowledge.  (The Philosophy of Human Nature, pp. 317-18)

To borrow and develop an analogy from an earlier post, you might think of the postmortem soul like a hand which has been severed from the body and which is not only kept alive artificially, but caused to move its fingers (and in this way to carry out something like its normal operations) via electrical stimulation of the muscles.  The normal state of the hand is to be connected to and controlled by the body in such a way that it is the entire organism, and not the hand alone, that moves the fingers.  But that does not entail that the hand might not also move them apart from the body, after being severed, by non-natural means.  Similarly, the normal state of the intellect is to be connected to the body in such a way that it is the entire organism, and not the intellect alone, which thinks.  But that does not entail that the intellect might not also think apart from the body, after death, by non-natural means.

[Feser’s post here. ]

To summarize, in the absence of the body, the soul thinks in a different way.

In short, death is not like sleep. In sleep, the mind is deprived of its normal way of thinking by a disabling of the physical means of thought. (And being still embodied, it cannot avail itself of non-natural means of thought.) When it is dead, it is able to think in a non-natural way (but with the consequence that its mental life is very different from that of an embodied human being).

Wednesday 29 January 2014

Religious observance in Scotland's schools

                                   Mass protest of atheists clogs Parliament entrance

Sometimes it's hard for an evil minded Papist not to snigger...

The publicity hungry machine that is Secular Scotland must have thought it was onto a good thing when it submitted a petition to the Scottish Parliament suggesting that religious observance be made voluntary in Scottish schools. However, the Humanist Society Scotland seems to have outflanked them by teaming up with the Church of Scotland to water down religious observance to 'time for reflection'. This agreement in turn seems to have broken down into a squabble between the Humanists and the Church of Scotland about whether this amounts to a substantive change (per the Humanists) or merely a name change recognizing existing realities (the Kirk). (Kirk statement. Humanist statement.)

Looking at it from the sidelines, it's hard not to regard this as an attempt by a large Christian body (the Kirk) and a large atheist body (the Humanist Society) to carve up Scottish non-denominational schools between them. This is certainly David Robertson's view (a well known Free Church of Scotland minister):

The only answer I can think of, apart from sheer stupidity, is politics and self-interest.  The clergy and bureaucrats who make these kind of decisions, know full well that their congregations are declining, that they are losing 20,000 plus members per year, that their finances are in severe trouble (with the pension scheme being tens of millions in debt and a significant number of the larger evangelical congregations leaving).  But they don’t really care.  There is enough silver to be sold off to keep them in jobs for a few years.  What they really do care about is the fact that with the rapid secularisation of society, the nice cosy arrangement they have had with the secular state is under threat.  What will they do if they are not allowed to be schools chaplains or other religious functionaries of the state?  How can they maintain the illusion of importance and significance?  When Secular Scotland began their campaign I thought it had no chance of succeeding just now, but I had reckoned without the spineless Machiavellian leadership of the C of S.  In order to preserve their positions they have done a deal with the humanists (who in turn of course are aspiring to be humanist chaplains).   For the Humanist society this also has the advantage of giving one in the eye to the newish Scottish Secular Society, who have proved themselves far more adept at advancing the secular agenda.

A more charitable view would be that it's an attempt to achieve a compromise position which avoids the organizational nightmare that the Secular Society's nightmare would result in, but would reflect the loss of the centrality of Christianity in modern Scottish life. As I've previously blogged, the existing guidelines on religious observation are pretty wishy-washy, and the Church of Scotland already accepts that:

...all Religious Observance should be genuinely inclusive of people of faith and no faith.  The Church knows that this is no easy task but it believes that it can be achieved and that in achieving it, something very significant is brought to the creation of a genuinely inclusive society where we each move beyond tolerance to deep respect, understanding and common living based on real self-understanding about our own beliefs and values. [PDF: Background briefing to Public Petitions Committee]

It's therefore not entirely surprising that the Kirk thinks that a simple name change to 'Time for reflection' is sufficient to make explicit this existing reality. On the other hand, the Humanists regard this as a matter of substance:

This would be difficult to achieve on our own and the Church of Scotland have previously expressed a desire to bring in Time for Reflection (TfR) as an alternative. To be clear TfR is not just a name change. It has the clear objective of removing acts of worship and any confessional nature that current religious observance practises [sic] contain. [Here.]

As in so much, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. What will be allowed? What will be excluded? (The Kirk is proposing that only those who sign up to the 'equality and diversity' policy will be allowed in. As one of the commenters on David Robertson's blog noted, as worded, this exclusion prevents anyone holding -let alone preaching- views opposed to same sex 'marriage' from taking part in 'Time for Reflection'.)

I suspect that some sort of bland compromise is all that can emerge here. It makes for a pleasant daydream to imagine something with a genuine edge that might be acceptable to all parties (how about a selection of readings from Samuel Beckett on the awfulness of life without transcendent meaning?). Part of the problem is an evangelical antipathy to the idea of Christianity as a culture: if I were the Church of Scotland, I'd be tempted to argue for the historic importance of Presbyterian Christianity in Scotland and the impoverishment of the cultural experience of any pupil who had not encountered that culture through some sort of collective act of reflection in which it was privileged. Anyway, as I've previously said, if the choice is between time for reflection badly done and nothing at all, I'd go for the reflection badly done.

For Catholics, this will just reinforce the need for separate denominational schools. But the petition and the activities of Secular Scotland's campaign is not just against non-denominational schools. The Sunday Post recently featured an article on the appalling treatment of atheists in Catholic schools:

The Sunday Post has learned of a case in which a girl was told she would have to leave her Catholic school if she did not take part in a traditional church ritual.

Critics last night described the revelations as “very worrying”.

The Scottish Secular Society claim they are aware of “several” cases in which pupils have been forced to change school.

Caroline Lynch, the organisation’s chairwoman, said: “It’s awful. One girl was told that if she didn’t learn part of the catechism then she’d be excluded.

“In the last two months I’ve heard from three sets of parents whose children have been threatened with exclusion or told they were not at the ‘right’ school.”

Quite what these people expect from a Catholic school is not clear. Learning the Catechism? The spirit of Torquemada clearly lives on in Scottish Catholicism.

Anyway, in my never ending attempt to provide a helpful contribution in times of difficulty, my suggestion for a suitable 'Time for Reflection' hymn (or perhaps 'her'):

Monday 27 January 2014

Binyavanga Wainaina and being gay

The Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina, has received praise for his moral courage in 'coming out':

Mr Wainaina, one of Africa's leading literary figures, outed himself via a short story titled I am a Homosexual, Mum in which he imagined telling his mother on her deathbed that he was gay. "Nobody, nobody, ever in my life has heard this," Mr Wainaina wrote. "I did not trust you, mum."

One of the responses noted the lack of comments and speculated the reason for this 'was that even on CiF, no one wanted to be a dick enough to snipe at what he said'. Well, always up for a challenge...

Of course, there is much here that might be moving and interesting and courageous. There is the all too human story of not being with a parent on her deathbed. There is a story of exile from one's native land. There is the story of how our communication and self-revelation to parents is never adequate (and one might add, that of parents to children). There is a back story no doubt about deracination and validation by the West as an African writer is taken up and anointed as an African writer by academic awards and fellowships in western institutions. There is probably a story about how being gay in South Africa is not like being gay in Kenya. There is certainly a story about a wave of anti-homosexual legislation in Africa.

But let's just focus on the story: the actual short story. And let's put aside the question of courage and focus more on comprehensibility. The key moments are perhaps these:

I am twenty nine. It is 11 July, 2000. I, Binyavanga Wainaina, quite honestly swear I have known I am a homosexual since I was five. I have never touched a man sexually. I have slept with three women in my life. One woman, successfully. Only once with her. It was amazing. But the next day, I was not able to.

It will take me five years after my mother’s death to find a man who will give me a massage and some brief, paid-for love. In Earl’s Court, London. And I will be freed, and tell my best friend, who will surprise me by understanding, without understanding. I will tell him what I did, but not tell him I am gay. I cannot say the word gay until I am thirty nine, four years after that brief massage encounter. Today, it is 18 January 2013, and I am forty three.


I am five years old.

He stood there, in overalls, awkward, his chest a railway track of sweaty bumps, and little hard beads of hair. Everything about him is smooth-slow. Bits of brown on a cracked tooth, that endless long smile. A good thing for me the slow way he moves, because I am transparent to people’s patterns, and can trip so easily and fall into snarls and fear with jerky people. A long easy smile, he lifts me in the air and swings. He smells of diesel, and the world of all other people’s movements has disappeared. I am away from everybody for the first time in my life, and it is glorious, and then it is a tunnel of fear. There are no creaks in him, like a tractor he will climb any hill, steadily. If he walks away, now, with me, I will go with him forever. I know if he puts me down my legs will not move again. I am so ashamed, I stop myself from clinging. I jump away from him and avoid him forever. For twentysomething years, I even hug men awkwardly.

There will be this feeling again. Stronger, firmer now. Aged maybe seven. Once with another slow easy golfer at Nakuru Golf Club, and I am shaking because he shook my hand. Then I am crying alone in the toilet because the repeat of this feeling has made me suddenly ripped apart and lonely. The feeling is not sexual. It is certain. It is overwhelming. It wants to make a home. It comes every few months like a bout of malaria and leaves me shaken for days, and confused for months. I do nothing about it.

I am five when I close my self into a vague happiness that asks for nothing much from anybody. Absent-minded. Sweet. I am grateful for all love. I give it more than I receive it, often. I can be selfish. I masturbate a lot, and never allow myself to crack and grow my heart. I touch no men. I read books. I love my dad so much, my heart is learning to stretch.

I am a homosexual.

Now, I confess that I struggle to understand quite what is going on here. I think I'm meant to understand this as some primeval revelation of his homosexuality: the intensity of the male bonding as evidential of his nature. Except that I could probably write something similar and I suspect most other male heterosexuals could too: a child's feelings for male, parental, adult figures can be quite intense. (Many of us also masturbated a lot and read books.) On the other hand, perhaps it's the very normality that's meant to be revelatory: the poignancy of the intense inner life of a child that can never be shared with a parent. And thus a Shylockian moment: I am a homosexual and I too bleed if pricked/have an intense inner life.

We think we know what's going on here, but really all we know is that he knows, at five, he's homosexual. And despite all the emotion that are flying around, I'm not at all sure that the mechanism of that knowledge -how he knows- is any clearer at the end than it was at the beginning. (Perhaps that's the point? The smell of diesel. The firm handshake. Certain, powerful intense images: as certain and intense and primitive as the datum that I am gay.)

I confess to having a long standing problem with such narratives. When someone tells me that they have known they were gay since five or seven, I have no idea what to make of it. I certainly didn't know I was heterosexual at that age. I didn't know what a heterosexual was at that age. I was distinctly wonky on the precise details of copulation and the idea that one might find girls attractive was utterly bizarre. When someone tells me that they have always known that they were going to be an opera singer, or a writer or a doctor, I silently translate that as having had a strong desire plus some family or social reinforcement: I certainly don't think that such a claim is an unproblematic revelation of their true nature. If someone tells me that they discover they were gay over a long period of struggle and reflection during their adolescence, then, although I'd be interested in learning some more of the details, in principle, I can understand what they're talking about: most of my commitments and self-knowledge were built up over a similar period.

But at five? I really have no idea and the short story throws absolutely no light on it. That doesn't mean I absolutely dismiss the claim: people are indeed very different and sometimes very, very different. Yet the more the insistence on such unproblematic early certainties, the more either homosexuality sounds less like a human variation and more like some alien, incomprehensible  intrusion into human life; or the more it sounds like the product of bad faith and an ideologically motivated narrative intended to prove we were born this way...

Saturday 25 January 2014

Burns and Religion

I hope you all have your haggises purchased...? Child 1, who is resident in partibus infidelium (ie England) tells me that they can be ordered frozen from Tesco's, rejecting the tinned varieties even though I'm personally quite partial to the curried haggis from Grant's:

You really need to have a slight hangover to enjoy it properly...

Anyway, my current obsession is the way Secularists (ie New Atheists with a political agenda) tend to appropriate history, and particularly the Enlightenment. More of this, no doubt, in the future. But a local instance of this is how Burns is roped into the anti-religion, Secularist camp. Now I'm certainly not going to pretend that Burns was either a crypto-Papist or even a particularly devout Presbyterian. Much more plausible is that he fits into that pattern of Deism, not in the sense of the 'watchmaker-who-made-the world-and-then-walked-off' deism (although even that is many miles away from atheism particularly in its New Atheist variety), but rather (in broad terms) rational religion:

The deist instead relied on those truths which, it was claimed, prove their accord with universal human reason by the fact that they are to be found in all religions, everywhere, at all times. Therefore the basic tenets of deism—for example, that there is a deity, discoverable by reasoning from the creation to the creator, who deserves our worship and sanctions all moral values—were, in theory, the elements shared by all particular, or "positive," religions. Many thinkers assimilated aspects of deism while remaining professing Christians. [Here.]

This is not the place for a detailed exploration of the relationship between such deism, atheism and Catholicism, but it's worth remembering that, when you hear Secular Scotland and the like prattling on about excluding religion from the public sphere, such a deist would regard an exclusion as leaving a public space ruled by a God who should be worshipped and obeyed -and it is that sort of divinely ordered public space which actually produced whatever liberties and rational institutions we possess, rather than the religion free wasteland of which New Atheism dreams.

Anyway, let's leave it to Burns:

With all my follies of youth, and I fear, a few vices of manhood, still I congratulate myself on having had in early days religion strongly impressed on my mind. I have nothing to say to any body, as, to which Sect they belong, or what Creed they believe; but I look on the Man who is firmly persuaded of Infinite Wisdom and Goodness superintending and directing every circumstance that can happen in his lot - I felicitate such a man as having a solid foundation for his mental enjoyment; a firm prop and sure stay, in the hour of difficulty, trouble and distress: and a never-failing anchor of hope, when he looks beyond the grave. [Here.]

A Prayer, Under the Pressure of violent Anguish

O Thou Great Being! what Thou art, 
Surpasses me to know: 
Yet sure I am, that known to Thee 
Are all Thy works below. 

Thy creature here before Thee stands, 
All wretched and distrest; 
Yet sure those ills that wring my soul 
Obey Thy high behest. 

Sure Thou, Almighty, canst not act 
From cruelty or wrath! 
O, free my weary eyes from tears, 
Or close them fast in death! 

But if I must afflicted be, 
To suit some wise design; 
Then man my soul with firm resolves 
To bear and not repine!

[Read by Shirley Henderson here.]

Thursday 23 January 2014

Secularism: Robin Ince vs Cristina Odone

                               Robin Ince is so bright occasionally his head explodes

The comedian Robin Ince is apparently one of those New Atheists/Secularists that thinks being rational is simply a matter of saying you're rational ninety-nine times before breakfast:

I think it is a pity to live your life in ignorance and embrace that ignorance - for instance with ideas like intelligent design. We live in a world that is entirely powered by reason: everything in your office and my house exists because of reason. It is a very odd world where people reject reason and yet benefit from the riches of reason. [Here.]

Frankly, being stuck in a room with Robin Ince sounds rather like being buried alive: I'd probably wear my fingers down to the wrist trying to escape. As a comedian, I suppose we should expect his views to be striking rather than well thought through. But still. (And what's with his house? Mine is stuffed full of children and a wife and pets and art that arrived more by grace and imagination than reason. Does Ince eke out his wretched existence surrounded only by kitchen utensils?)

Anyway, Cristina Odone and he have been exchanging views in the New Statesmen. Odone, having complained that Christians are being driven out of public life, is criticized by Ince on the grounds that she's merely complaining about Christianity's losing its 'unfair advantages' [here]. As his article typifies a lot of the knee jerk reactions of New Atheists/Secularists, it's worth pulling apart a little more. (All quotes from the article.)

Ince replies to Odone's complaints:

 she has not lost the right to preach her beliefs or practise them. She regularly gets to preach her beliefs in the Daily Telegraph and – like many rabbis, imams and pastors – on television and radio, too. Religious leaders frequently appear on the BBC, that broadcasting network of the state oppressor.

As for practising her beliefs, Odone can do that, too. Same-sex marriage is not compulsory; it is very much an opt-in scenario. Cristina Odone will not be forced into a lesbian coupling, nor will she be forced to have an abortion – nor, should it become law, will she be made to embrace assisted dying, even if her death is agonising and the pain impossible to relieve.

Simply because Ince can point to some (comic and irrelevant) areas where Odone can practise does not mean that there are other (serious and relevant) areas where she cannot. But even in those areas he mentions, it's not clear that she can practise. Evander Holyfield cannot, for example, say that homosexuality is not normal on TV. If euthanasia becomes part of treatment in this country, alternative, costlier treatments will disappear: the pain will become impossible to relieve because no one will bother relieving it. (Much easier to bump Cristina off.) Ince will undoubtedly believe that this is simply the exchange of a right to be foolish with more rational behaviour. Perhaps. But it certainly isn't an increase in negative freedom: the opportunity to perform different actions will be diminished. At the very least, the worry that freedom to practise will be diminished is a perfectly reasonable one.

Moreover, the case that Odone specifically mentions -the refusal by various venues to host a conference on traditional marriage- isn't denied by Ince. Instead, he seems to think that it doesn't count in some way:

Whether you agree with diversity policies or not, you can see how Christian Concern’s “sober” discussion of marriage might have made the management a little edgy. I, too, do not have a given right to perform at any venue. A venue can say “no” to me on grounds of my opinions, but not on the grounds of my faith, race or sexuality. The venues’ uncertainty was not about hosting Christians; it was about hosting a political event covered in religious fairy dust.

The trouble is, of course, that Christianity is politics covered in religious fairy dust: Christians believe in certain moral and social arrangements and are enjoined to try to achieve them. If we cannot even advocate them, that simply is a restriction of negative freedom. Ince should admit that, and then argue that such restrictions are a good thing.

Ince's view is summed up in the strapline to his article:

Cristina Odone confuses a loss of advantage with an act of oppression. This is the shock of those who are losing their divine right to dominate.

There is some truth in this. Christians see a culture that was modelled on the Judaeo-Christian ethic switching to something else. That does not result in a shock at losing the divine right to dominate, but a shock at losing a coherent and true world view for something that is neither: the shock is not at the loss of power but at the loss of something that we believe to be true and good. Would Ince, for example, sum up rejection of Russia's laws on homosexuality as 'the shock of those [ie atheists] who are losing their divine right to dominate'? It is rather the shock at the introduction of a law they believe to be wrong. Loss of truth is not the same as loss of power.

Ince's worldview seems to be composed of two elements. First, there is an absolute faith in the rationality of his own Atheism and in the fideist basis of Christianity: there is no point in including Christianity in social debates because it is simply irrational nonsense. Secondly, there is a view of public debate as a struggle between groups rather than a struggle between arguments and ideas. If Christians have bishops in the Lords, that is an unfair advantage for that side rather than an attempt to stimulate discussion beyond the narrow confines of party politics and fashionable nostrums. In reality, the surviving 'privileges' of Christianity in the public sphere are less advantages for power hungry groups of Christians, and more wildlife sanctuaries for endangered ideas surrounded by the crass superficialities of political debates where comedians are taken seriously.

Monday 20 January 2014

University of Aberdeen Chaplain's conviction for sexual assault overturned

Reblogged from Seraphic:

Our hurt that a priest has (or may have) hurt one or more of us (again, Roman Catholic) laypeople or priests, behaving shamefully and sacrilegiously, is compounded by the media's salacious interest in the case, sometimes reviewing it again and again, giving the impression that there are more accusations than there actually are, and as many convictions as there are accusations. This leads to public contempt towards ALL church-going Roman Catholics, and public approbation for merely tribal Catholics who loudly declare themselves separate from "all that rubbish." And this is particularly painful in the United Kingdom, especially Scotland, where, since the Reformation, Roman Catholics have been a marginalized and very often reviled minority.

And for all these reasons, it is a matter of great joy that the Edinburgh High Court hasquashed the unjust conviction of Father Mark Paterson, O.Carm. Father Mark Paterson, former Catholic chaplain at Aberdeen University, did not sexually assault his accuser. Father Mark Paterson did not behave shamefully and sacrilegiously. And a short paragraph or paragraphs in a few British newspapers and blogs have briefly mentioned that the conviction was quashed.

Full post from Seraphic here.

Accounts of case: Laodicea ; Seraphic in Catholic World Report

Thursday 16 January 2014

O tempora! O mores!

Apologies for being rather quiet recently. (Not that, I suspect, such a blessed relief is the sort of thing one needs to apologize for...) Not only a large slab of work to be got through, but a slight detachment from the blooming buzzing confusion of the internet brought on by the normal emotional flatness after too much food and booze and too much squabbling on comboxes before Christmas.

Anyway, to ease myself gradually back into the white heat of the culture war that is Catholicism contra mundum...

I was flipping through The Oxford Book of Medieval Latin Verse in the loo (as you do), when I came across this rather optimistic passage in the introduction:

I have given references in a good many cases to easily accessible English translations, especially when they are to be found in the English Hymnal or Hymns Ancient and Modern (penultimate edition), as one or other of these is to be found in most cultivated English households.

Now putting aside any nationalist quibbles about suspected hints that we beyond the Border would be content merely with back numbers of the Broons annuals in our libraries, it is unimaginable that anything similar could be written today (the first edition of the Book of Medieval Verse was 1928 but my printing is 1946). It's difficult to know where to start. A book of music? A book of Christian music? Any book that all educated people would be expected to have? Would we even expect cultivated homes to possess a copy of the Bible these days? (I'm afraid when mulling this over that the only book I suspected most 'cultivated' Scottish homes might be expected to possess these days would be Trainspotting. I'm simply going to ignore this thought as a rather troublesome nightmare.)

Without a shared (and deep) artistic culture, the world we inhabit is diminished. Our ability to pass on accumulated wisdom and solidarities to our children is also diminished. Religion of course isn't just a matter of culture: it is primarily about an openness to a real intelligence and agency that transcends the world. But human flourishing is a matter of our natural as well as our supernatural end. And access to that supernatural end is itself restricted if we live in a culture that at best ignores and even actively frustrates that supernatural end.

It's pretty clear that Pope Francis is not an obvious recruit to the sort of conservative, culture warfare that I generally espouse on this blog. That doesn't really bother me: Popes don't have to do everything; and, moreover, culture warfare needs the corrective of a constant reminder that the centre of our concerns isn't Virgil but Jesus. Moreover, the sort of popular piety that Francis clearly does strongly favour is itself a conservative cultural tradition: the sort of simple trust in established forms that leads an illiterate peasant to a traditional veneration of a shrine ought to lead the 'cultivated' to a veneration for traditional high culture (but which also ought to include veneration of that shrine).

Grace does not abolish nature but perfects it. Christianity does not abolish culture but perfects it. It is easy for conservatives to get trapped in traditional forms for their own sake and not see beyond them. But there is an equal danger in thinking that you can abolish culture and get to God without it. And that danger is particularly acute when the culture we would do without is precisely one that was shaped with reference to that supernatural end of the Beatific Vision.

I'm not sure what the Catholic equivalent of the English Hymnal would be. But in any case, I've got a copy of it, so I guess that means I'm cultivated, innit?

Wednesday 1 January 2014

Happy New Year!

A busy year for Catholics particularly in Scotland...

We've had the Cardinal O'Brien 'affair' and his replacement with Archbishop Cushley, a major child abuse scandal at a (now closed) boarding school run by the Benedictines, the continued legislative process to introduce same sex 'marriage', as well as the little matter of an independence referendum fast approaching.

And then we had the resignation of Pope Benedict and his replacement by Pope Francis which has produced enthusiasm among many non-Catholics and some dental grinding among some traditionalist Catholics.

Not to mention the continuing strife in the Middle East, particularly Syria, and its effects, in particular, on the Christian minorities there.

Personally, I've had quite a pleasant year: nothing dramatic happening, merely the slow drip of time washing me a bit nearer to the grave. (We Scottish Catholics believe in preserving the best traditions of Calvinism and in particular a sprightly sense of seasonal jollity and optimism for the coming days.)

But really, my overwhelming feeling as I write this (apart from the immediate concern of  wondering what we're going to have for dinner) is what a great privilege it is to belong to a Church which, quite apart from its supernatural role as the Body of Christ, is the reservoir for much of the best in human culture. We don't always live up to that inheritance intellectually, artistically or morally, but high culture is there and available to the ordinary Catholic in a way that, outside the Church, few beyond the elites will experience it and few of them in a coherent, fully integrated harmony of truth, goodness and beauty. St Andrews Cathedral in Glasgow is not my favourite Scottish church, but even it offers the weekly or even daily experience of a coherent aesthetic space which gestures to transcendent values and which is a rarity in the modern age:

Morally, the techniques of the examination of the conscience, both privately and in the confessional, again offer to ordinary people a seriousness and depth in life that the modern secular world does its best to destroy. And intellectually, the Church offers a view of life that would be recognizable to Stoics, Neo-Platonists and Peripatetics and yet in a way that is livable by ordinary, non-philosophers. (And all this before we come on to the supernatural.)

For many non-Catholics, the Church seems to be viewed as a harsh discipline, borne simply because of an illusory promise of a pay off after death.  It doesn't feel like that inside: rather more like inhabiting a giant space with far too many rooms to explore in a lifetime. I really can't think of anywhere else I would rather live out my life and have my family live out theirs.

Ignore the occasional bits of grit. Being a Catholic is just great.

Happy New Year!