Song of the Day

The blog Siris has an occasional feature called “Music on My Mind,” where he apparently just posts a song that he likes or happens to be listening to or thinking about. So I’m ripping off the idea from him. I don’t want to go so far as to call it by the same name, so I’ll just call it “Song of the Day” until I think of a better name. This doesn’t mean that I’m planning to post a song every day, only when one really strikes me for one reason or another.

Today’s song is “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” by Robert Flack. I’d never heard it before today and thought it was a really nice song.

Holy Saturday a profile of our time

There is a Gospel scene which in an extraordinary way anticipates the silence of Holy Saturday and which …, therefore, seems to be a profile of the moment in history we are living now. Christ is asleep on a boat which, buffeted by a storm, is about to sink. The prophet Elijah had once made fun of the priests of Baal who were futilely invoking their god to send down fire on their sacrifice. He urged them to cry out louder in case their god was asleep. But is it true that God does not sleep? Does not the prophet’s scorn also fall upon the heads of the faithful of the God of Israel who are sailing with him in a boat about to sink? God sleeps while his very own are about to drown – is not this the experience of our lives? Don’t the Church, the faith, resemble a small boat about to sink, struggling futilely against the waves and the wind, and all the time God is absent? The disciples cry out in dire desperation and they shake the Lord to wake him but he is surprised at this and rebukes them for their small faith. But are things any different for us? When the storm passes we will realize just how much this small faith of ours was charged with stupidity. And yet, O Lord, we cannot help shaking you, God, you who persist in keeping your silence, in sleeping, and we cannot help crying to you: Wake up, can’t you see we are sinking? Stir yourself, don’t let the darkness of Holy Saturday last for ever, let a ray of Easter fall, even on these times of ours, accompany us when we set out in our desperation towards Emmaus so that our hearts may be enflamed by the warmth of your nearness. You who, hidden, charted the paths of Israel only to become a man in the end with men – don’t leave us in the dark, don’t let your word be lost in these days of great squandering of words. Lord, grant us your help, because without you we will sink.


Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, 30Giorni magazine, Easter 2006.

Is the physical higher than the spiritual? (yet again)

Bruce Charlton again argues that bodies are “better” than spirits (posted on Junior Ganymede with a link to the full article on his personal blog). (See previous installments on this topic here and here.)

• Contrasting Mormonism with traditional Christianity

He begins as usual by contrasting the Mormon position on the physical versus the spiritual, with what he takes to be the traditional Christian view. He thinks traditional Christians believe that it’s “better” to be a spirit than a body, indeed that bodies are bad while spirits are good. Accordingly Christians secretly wish, even if we won’t admit it, that we could be pure spirits floating freely, and not weighed down by physical bodies.

But the fact that one thing is higher than another, doesn’t imply logically that the lower thing is bad. We hold beings of pure spirit to be higher (more excellent) than composite beings of spirit and matter. Nevertheless we hold composite beings of spirit and matter to be marvels of God’s creation.

Similarly, composite beings of spirit and matter are higher than beings of matter only; but it doesn’t follow that beings of matter only are bad. We hold plants and animals to be marvels of creation and sources of beauty and wonder as well.

In fact we hold all of God’s creation to be very, very good, from the highest and most powerful creature of pure spirit, to the very ground we walk on, and the atoms of which it’s composed. We don’t wish rocks could become plants; nor plants animals; nor animals human beings. And for the same reason we don’t wish human beings to be angels (unembodied creatures of pure intellect). All creatures have their respective, and perfectly respectable, places in the hierarchy of creation.

• God envy?

Possibly, Bruce himself wishes to be the highest form of creature in existence, and will never be satisfied with anything less — and therefore assumes that traditional Christians take the same view. If pure spirits are considered higher, then ipso facto, traditional Christians must wish to be pure spirits. But taken to its logical conclusion, this would require all Christians to wish that they were God himself, the unique and all-powerful Lord of creation. Yet surely the wish to be God has no part in traditional orthodox Christianity. Nor does the wish to be an angel.

I can say with absolute sincerity that my religion has never led me to wish I were anything but fully human. Certainly I’d like to be freed from my body in its fallen state and burdened with concupiscence — but not so that I can be free-floating and disembodied. What fulfillment would that hold? For me, fulfillment is a body in its prime, healthy and strong, with all its needs met, not always trying to tempt me to sin but obeying my will.

• Are spirits physical?

Bruce asks, “Why bother mucking-around ‘confined’ in bodies [after the resurrection] when we might we free-ranging spirits…?”

Speaking of spirits as “free-ranging,” Bruce apparently conceives of them as material beings, albeit of a more “diffuse” type. He also speaks of their needing to be “insulated” from one another lest they become commingled; all of which betrays a material understanding of spirit. This echoes Joseph Smith’s understanding of the nature of spirit, when he wrote that “All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; we cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.” (D&C 131:7-8.)

I suspect therefore that what Bruce is actually comparing is the Mormon notion of spirit with the Mormon notion of bodies. I might in fact agree with Bruce, that solid, earthly bodies are superior to spirits made of much weaker stuff. A spirit of this type I suppose might be weaker both mentally and physically than an embodied personage.

But this has no relation to the traditional Christian understanding of spirit as an immaterial intellect. To such a being, words like “diffuse” and “free-ranging” are flatly inapplicable. Since a spirit has no parts, there is nothing in him to diffuse. Since he is not located in space, there is no “where” in which he may range, nor would he feel confined to one place such that he might feel the wandering urge.

• Are thoughts physical?

Bruce contends that “the spirit mind is permeable” (“permeable” being another term implying materiality). Therefore, “when a spirit thinks, the thoughts may not be his or her own thoughts”. Bodies, then, are “methods or mechanisms by which minds are ‘insulated’ from other minds, and concentrated” (note again the implication of materiality in these terms).

Bruce seems to be conceiving of thoughts as material things which, if not contained within a body and thereby “insulated” from other spirits, will wander about and get mixed up, like radio signals, with the thoughts of other spirits, and no one will know whose is whose. Perhaps he is again projecting his own, human experience of thought onto immaterial beings.

Embodied humans can’t help but think in terms of phantasms — mental representations of physical things, whether pictures or sounds, or spoken or spelled-out words. We constantly imagine the things that we think about and put them into some sort of physical form in our minds.

Any phantasm that enters our mind we assume to have come from within, since we don’t know how else it could get there. Therefore Bruce, when he imagines spirits roaming free without boundaries, can’t help but imagine stray phantasms strewn about here and there, intermingling with the phantasms emitted by other unbounded spirits. In which case, how would a spirit know whether a phantasm entering his mind was his own or that of another?

But what if spirits (as held by traditional Christians) don’t think in phantasms? In that case no stray phantasms would exist that might be strewn about and broadcast, as a spirit wandered about among his fellows.

Another way to think of it, is that Bruce seems to conceive of a spirit’s thought as an item of common currency, in the way that material things are common currency among you and I. We can both look at the same sunset or eat the same food, or hear the same words, and often have the same reaction to it, or understand the same thing by it. It’s something external to both of us, which we both can access through our senses.

But are the thoughts of spirits common currency in this sense, such that either of two spirits who happen to be in close proximity (assuming the applicability of that term) can share the same thought, in the way that two embodied humans can share the experience of hearing the same spoken word? Or can a spirit very well distinguish his own thoughts from  those of other spirits? Are the thoughts of each spirit, in fact, private to himself?

St. Thomas Aquinas argues that each individual angel is a species unto himself. In which case, maybe the thoughts of one angel are not immediately translatable into the thoughts of another, even assuming that each angel’s thoughts were not private to himself.

• Phantasms an advantage?

Bruce’s point in all this, is that embodied beings are better because they have “greater agency” than disembodied beings, partly because their thoughts don’t get confused with those of others.

But I might argue that a spirit has greater agency, since he is not limited to acquiring his knowledge through his senses, nor by a discursive reasoning process. A spirit sees all sides of a problem or issue at once, and grasps its implications immediately, without having to work through it step-by-step.

It’s possible that a resurrected human being could do the same. Since Jesus after his resurrection could walk through walls and appear and disappear, maybe the limitations we experience due to our materiality don’t exist in the resurrected state. Nevertheless, even if we do shed some of our earthly, bodily limitations in heaven, why believe that we will surpass beings of pure spirit in our ability to think quickly and clearly? In what way could a body, especially an earthly body — itself lacking intelligence and always demanding a part of our attention — be a help rather than a hindrance to quick, clear thinking?

• ‘Better given certain premises’ versus ‘better per se’

Bruce also makes the following argument for “why bodies are better”:

“To answer this seems to require a sense of divine limitation which is anathema to most Christians – even though the Bible is full of it… full, that is, of an apparently accepted implicit assumption that God can only achieve certain purposes by certain linear and sequential actions – that God is limited in how he can achieve things, and that God achieving things requires time as well as the consent of Men.”

This argument seems unintentionally ironic: Once one accepts that God is limited, it becomes easier to understand why bodies are better. Doesn’t this assume that a body is a limitation?

Another way of stating the argument is that assuming all things, including God himself, are not separate from, but must act within a material universe, then it’s better to be a material being. But isn’t this just a truism?

Working under the assumption that you have to make things happen in a step-by-step manner — i.e. in a material manner — then a material body is an advantage. But that’s just saying that in a material environment, concrete bodies are better than wispy bodies or no bodies. If you assume that all things having to do with salvation must be carried out within such an environment, then a material body is better, or even necessary.

Indeed. That would explain why God gave us bodies on this earth, and why Jesus became incarnate. It was his will that his plan of salvation should be enacted within his own material creation.

But it doesn’t follow from this premise that bodies are higher and better than spirits per se. Nor does it follow that it’s better for God himself to be an embodied personage — unless you assume at the start that he needs a body to work out his salvation within a material environment, like us.

In short, Bruce fails to distinguish between “better for us given God’s purposes and the environment in which he has placed us,” and “better per se.” As St. Thomas writes,

“All natural things were produced by the Divine art, and so may be called God’s works of art. Now every artist intends to give to his work the best disposition; not absolutely the best, but the best as regards the proposed end; and even if this entails some defect, the artist cares not: thus, for instance, when man makes himself a saw for the purpose of cutting, he makes it of iron, which is suitable for the object in view; and he does not prefer to make it of glass, though this be a more beautiful material, because this very beauty would be an obstacle to the end he has in view. Therefore God gave to each natural being the best disposition; not absolutely so, but in the view of its proper end.”

ST I, Q. 91, A. 3.

There have been groups of Christians — condemned by the Church as heretics — who made Bruce’s mistake in reverse: They assumed that because our bodies were stricken with concupiscence owing to the Fall, that bodies, and all matter, were bad per se. Happiness, they thought, consisted in liberation from the physical. But this is the same error as Bruce’s: They said that because bodies are bad within this particular environment, they’re bad always and everywhere; whereas Bruce says that because bodies are advantageous, indeed essential, within this particular environment, they’re advantageous always and everywhere.

But the traditional Christian view of spirits being higher than bodies assumes not the contingent perspective of creation, but the absolute perspective of eternity.

Sin and (non)procreation

This is in response to a post and comment on the Junior Ganymede blog, regarding the way to “right” the world, which, according to the post, is for good people to raise families and teach their children to do the same. Along the way, the post makes the point that any religion that isn’t having kids is a failure, and “Any institution that isn’t reproducing itself with children is sick.”

Bruce Charlton, in a comment, states that this is a good litmus test for a healthy institution. Basically, if it’s reproducing it passes the litmus test, and if it’s not it doesn’t. Passing the litmus test doesn’t mean that the institution is healthy, since it may be unhealthy in other ways. But failing that litmus test means it is definitely unhealthy.

I don’t disagree that an institution that is not reproducing itself is unhealthy, in the sense that it’s less likely to survive and grow than one which is constantly replenishing itself; though on the other hand, the Christian Church started out very tiny, and look at it today. It may shrink for a generation or two but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will die. Still, for a living thing to shrink rather than grow, even if only temporarily, may fairly be called an illness.

However I’m not so sure that procreation per se is the issue. I think the issue is rather moral laxity in general. And moral laxity in the Christian Church ultimately means the loss of the sense of sin and the fear of God, the failure to realize that sin displeases God, and that sin, and God’s displeasure with sin, is that from which Jesus came to save us.

We have instead adopted the idea that God is never displeased with us, for any reason, and although he would like it if we would be good, he likes us regardless, so no biggie.

Procreation is not a thing that needs to be encouraged by religion or otherwise. People will engage in the procreative act, and the procreative act will result in children. The reason people are having no kids is due to thwarting the natural results of that act. This is what is new in our age which bears directly on reproduction; this is the elephant in the room: We’re procreating less because we have invented new ways of thwarting the natural results of sex, and legitimized others, allowing us to experience its pleasure without its main consequence.

Catholic morality is set up in such a way that if it’s followed seriously and faithfully, procreation will happen virtually automatically.

Catholics at one time (pre-1960s) were known for having large families. The reason for this, mainly, was the prohibition against birth control — which at one time was common to all Christian religions, but after about 1930 became a peculiarly Catholic thing. The prohibition against extra-marital sex was still common to all faiths, so the main thing distinguishing Catholics from most other Christians was their refusal to limit family size through the use of birth control within marriage.

What is the difference between Catholics of that time, and those of our own? Not the Church’s teaching. The moral strictures which resulted in Catholics having unusually large families in the past, are still on the books. The main difference is the moral laxity which has infected the Church’s hierarchy and priesthood. No longer is sexual morality preached from the pulpit (or in religious ed. classes), nor the need to abstain from Communion while in the state of mortal sin. As many have noted, since Vatican II the Communion lines are long, while the Confession lines are short. The focus is on mercy to the exclusion of justice.

If the Church recovered its seriousness in this regard, would large families again be the result? Certainly. Granted, the Church might suddenly lose half its membership. But those who remained would be those who took their faith seriously, and these would either procreate or remain celibate — and most people don’t feel called to celibacy. If you forbid the thwarting of the natural results of sexual intercourse, you will have procreation aplenty, because there is always sexual intercourse aplenty. If the only morally licit way of indulging your sexual appetites is within marriage and in a manner which presents no barrier to procreation, then people who care about morality but don’t want to live celibately, will most certainly procreate.

For the Protestant churches, the answer isn’t so cut-and-dried. For Protestant churches to get serious about their own morality would not necessarily result in more procreation, since for them sex and procreation are morally divisible: It’s perfectly allowable to have sex while thwarting its natural result. So while they will continue having plenty of sexual intercourse, this won’t result in plenty of children.

Some Mormons argue that their religion is uniquely positioned to survive and thrive in our age, because of their emphasis on eternal marriage and family. But they too have no moral objection to thwarting the natural results of sexual intercourse; at least, it’s not categorically forbidden, and is left to the discretion of individuals. Overagainst this obstacle to procreation they place their emphasis on eternal marriage and the family, and other doctrines which provide positive encouragement to procreate. It’s for these reasons, they believe, that they manage to procreate at a higher rate than other Christians generally. Still, their rates of reproduction are lower today than they used to be, just like everyone else’s, and by the same cause.

I submit that it’s the Catholic Church’s moral teachings that would result in the largest increases in procreation, if only they were again seriously and earnestly preached, since they rely not on encouragement or the hope of future blessing as incentives to procreate, but simply on human nature as God made it.

Credit where it’s due

Pope Francis has spoken out against transgender ideology, calling it “a global war against the family” and “the great enemy of marriage.” He distinguishes between transgendered people, whom Christians must “accompany”, and transgender ideology, i.e. “teaching in school about this, to change mentalities.” The latter he calls “ideological colonization.”

He also warned reporters, “Please don’t say that the pope will sanctify trans [transgender people], because I read the headlines in the newspapers.” At least he’s not completely oblivious to the effects that his public comments sometimes have. “I want to be clear, this is a problem of morals. It’s a problem. It’s a human problem that has to be resolved as it can, always with God’s mercy”.

Quotes from “Pope says walk with trans persons, but fight gender theory” by Inés San Martín, Crux, October 2, 2016.

The Pope, through the Congregation for the Clergy, also recently reaffirmed the Church’s ban of candidates to the priesthood who “practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture,'” saying that “such people are ‘in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women'”, and that “‘[o]ne must in no way overlook the negative consequences that can derive from the ordination of persons with deep-seated homosexual tendencies.’”

Congregation for the Clergy, “The Gift of the Priestly Vocation“, December 8, 2016.

For this he is, of course, catching flak.

I criticize him a fair bit so I wanted to give credit where it’s due.

The limits of rationality

“Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.” ~ John Henry Cardinal Newman.

“As Chesterton tells us, the purely rational man will not marry and the purely rational soldier will not fight.” ~ per Jonah Goldberg’s “News”letter, July 29, 2016.