Saturday, September 05, 2009

From out of the past

Noodling around Google I recently found an old post of my from Slashdot that I had posted on a wiki (that I had almost forgotten), part of a discussion about a Jon Katz /. article. I found it as good as statement as I have made as to why I bother with religious belief, even after all this time.

This was a response to a message that included the statement: atheism is NOT a religion; it is based on logic and reason; religion is based on faith and presumption.

Well, I don't know about atheism being a religion, although it has seemed to be one for some atheists I have known personally. If atheism is not a religion it is most definitely a belief --

a mental attitude of acceptance or assent toward a proposition without the full intellectual knowledge required to guarantee its truth. ...Belief in someone or something is basically different from belief that a proposition is true.


When those of us who are theists (those who believe in a personal supernatural being that intervenes in history -- that covers a lot of territory, religiously -- Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Hindus perhaps, I'm not sure) discuss God, we are not talking about Santa Claus, some magical figure that "defies the laws of physics" as you put it. I think you may misunderstand the word "supernatural" as it applies in this kind of a discussion, as opposed to the Blair Witch Project. "Supernatural" is not magical, weird, or necessarily occult: it comes from the latinate terms meaning above or greater than nature. Or in another way, outside of nature, and therefore, the "laws of physics".

Here's an example from physics. For more than a thousand years, the accepted "laws of physics" were understood to be the body of Greek and Hellenistic theories about observations of the natural world that is often referred to as Aristotelean physics. Based on the experience of phenomena that was available, these theories worked just fine. Much later on, observations from astronomy, coupled with much better mathematical tools, allowed Newton to rework physics completely once again, based on a wider base of experience. Incidentally, the Newtonian theories still work just fine for the phenomena they were intended. Starting in the 19th century, new phenomena such as radioactivity led theorists such as Planck, Maxwell, Einstein, Bohr, Dirac, et. al. to construct brand new "laws of physics", some of which seemed then (and often seem now) nonsense, unless you understand the domain of phenomena they were intended to make sense of. But they are very practical -- the computers that you and I are using depend on a knowledge of quantum mechanics.

To us, God is a person outside the natural world, and is the person who created it. This set of theories or beliefs are what we use to make certain phenomena -- our experence of our own human experience, of values such a truth or beauty or justice, make sense. Can we "prove" the existence of God? Well, to some extent, it is a meaningless question, if you mean can I prove the existence of God the same way I prove the existence of Peoria or Phobos. If God is outside the frame of natural experience in the manner I state above, I can no more "prove" his existence than Einstein could have meaningfully discussed the truth of Special Relativity before such experiments as the Michaelson-Morley demonstration.

In the very same way, you cannot disprove the existence of God either, you can just choose whether or not it makes sense for you to believe that there is a God. The issue is not whether or not religious persons use reason or logic (I would say about the same percentage do as non-religious persons - too few) but the body of experience that religious persons apply logic and reason to in evaluating their beliefs.

Why do I believe? Because when I consider all of my life's experiences, I can make more sense of what I know by believing in God. In making the important decisions of my life, I believe that those decisons made in light of that belief have been good decisions. But comfort has little to do with it. As you move from simple theistic belief to true religion, you move from simple intellectual assent, to a relationship that involves trust, accountability, and cost. I am a Christian, and a Roman Catholic, both by choice. I would be much more comfortable (in some ways) as the agnostic I once was, than having to face up to the responsibilities that result from confronting what I see as the truth.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Quote: Walter Bruggeman

People notice peacemakers because they dress funny. We know how the people who make war dress - in uniforms and medals, or in computers and clipboards, or in absoluteness, severity, greed, and cynicism. But the peacemaker is dressed in righteousness, justice, and faithfulness - dressed for the work that is to be done.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Conservation Law

One of the big temptations when digging through this kind of a document is to put in big block quotes to react to instead of sending people back to the text. I will give into that temptation from time to time, like today.

Chapter 1 is titled The Message of Populorum Progressio presenting the case for continuity between that letter and Vatican II as well as other teachings from Pope Paul VI. There has been a great deal of comment concerning the direct links Benedict describes between Populorum Progresso and Humanae Vitae. Linking these two letters is not as novel as some commenters seem to think.

Some years ago I studied public administration and policy, and often encountered programs that were very effective in their original or pilot form, but much less effective when scaled up. In particular, a small project in one city would be much less sucessful when either scaled up to a large project, or scaled out to many cities. Sometimes this is just regression to the mean -- the pilots or experiments that seem to work out tend to be picked to scale up, and somtimes the early good results are dumb luck, results that aren't likely to be repeated. Another problem is that poor results in later efforts is likely to be seen as bad compliance with program guidelines or bad management. Translation: "If you only did this exactly the way we told you, it would have worked!"

We Americans like to trust in process -- if you just do the right things in the right order, things will work out. If we properly set up the office or program or agency or volunteer group, results are guaranteed. Sometimes we would really like a good franchise approach to social action. We like a kind of automatic development or justice. Benedict agrees with Paul -- this is a fallacy.

from § 11

In the course of history, it was often maintained that the creation of institutions was sufficient to guarantee the fulfilment of humanity's right to development. Unfortunately, too much confidence was placed in those institutions, as if they were able to deliver the desired objective automatically. In reality, institutions by themselves are not enough, because integral human development is primarily a vocation, and therefore it involves a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity on the part of everyone. Moreover, such development requires a transcendent vision of the person, it needs God: without him, development is either denied, or entrusted exclusively to man, who falls into the trap of thinking he can bring about his own salvation, and ends up promoting a dehumanized form of development. Only through an encounter with God are we able to see in the other something more than just another creature, to recognize the divine image in the other, thus truly coming to discover him or her and to mature in a love that “becomes concern and care for the other.”

When I studied these social programs, I wondered if there was some kind of basic principle to be discovered, something like the Law of Conservation of Mass/Energy, or perhaps the venerable geek expression, "Garbage in, Garbage out." If you want justice, peace, and human development to be the output, love and sacrifice must be the imput. Technical or managerial competence is not enough. The founders of programs or movements often act from personal conviction and love for who they serve, and are willing to sacrifice time, talent, and security to see it happen. Sometimes this disapears with time and expansion.

Now institutions, even bureaucratic institutions are needed. If you don't think so, consider the private and public organizations here in the U.S. that ensure that we have power, and clean water and sanitation. Very routine stuff, but try to keep a modern society together without them. These are difficult institutions to get going from scratch and that lack is often the main barrier to economic and social development. But again the point is that is not enough for the full development of human persons:
§19. Finally, the vision of development as a vocation brings with it the central place of charity within that development. Paul VI, in his Encyclical Letter Populorum Progressio, pointed out that the causes of underdevelopment are not primarily of the material order. He invited us to search for them in other dimensions of the human person: first of all, in the will, which often neglects the duties of solidarity; secondly in thinking, which does not always give proper direction to the will. Hence, in the pursuit of development, there is a need for “the deep thought and reflection of wise men in search of a new humanism which will enable modern man to find himself anew”. But that is not all. Underdevelopment has an even more important cause than lack of deep thought: it is “the lack of brotherhood among individuals and peoples”. Will it ever be possible to obtain this brotherhood by human effort alone? As society becomes ever more globalized, it makes us neighbours but does not make us brothers. Reason, by itself, is capable of grasping the equality between men and of giving stability to their civic coexistence, but it cannot establish fraternity. This originates in a transcendent vocation from God the Father, who loved us first, teaching us through the Son what fraternal charity is. Paul VI, presenting the various levels in the process of human development, placed at the summit, after mentioning faith, “unity in the charity of Christ who calls us all to share as sons in the life of the living God, the Father of all”.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Who knew?

When I read the reactions to George Weigel's ill considered response to Caritas in Veritate I was reminded of Henry's message to the Dauphin in the first act of Henry V, delivered by Exeter:

Scorne and defiance, sleight regard, contempt,
And any thing that may not mis-become
The mightie Sender, doth he prize you at.
(Brian Blessed's Exeter preferred.)

I guess the hermaneutic of continuity and reform isn't supposed to apply to Pope Paul VI.

Respect where it is due, or overdue

There are several parts of the Introduction (§ 1-9) I found interesting, but particularly the last half of §8:

At a distance of over forty years from the Encyclical's publication, I intend to pay tribute and to honour the memory of the great Pope Paul VI, revisiting his teachings on integral human development and taking my place within the path that they marked out, so as to apply them to the present moment. This continual application to contemporary circumstances began with the Encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, with which the Servant of God Pope John Paul II chose to mark the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Populorum Progressio. Until that time, only Rerum Novarum had been commemorated in this way. Now that a further twenty years have passed, I express my conviction that Populorum Progressio deserves to be considered “the Rerum Novarum of the present age”, shedding light upon humanity's journey towards unity.
Two observations:
  • A core concept of this encyclical is integral human development. More on this later.
  • The writings of Pope Paul VI deserve more respect than they have been getting.

As I grew up as an Episcopalian, the popes were John XXIII and Paul VI. When my family visited Rome in the summer of 1970, it was Pope Paul that we saw carried into St. Peter's one Sunday. When we entered the Catholic Church in the early 1980's, it was Pope John Paul II.

Many Catholics, as long as I have been in the church, have complained about Paul VI. Either he did not fully implement Vatican II, or he went too far. Some complain that he wrote Humanae Vitae, some complain that he did not enforce it as strongly as he should. Only a fringe element directly attack the documents of Vatican II, but almost everybody wants to criticize what has or has not been done to follow them.

Which generally results in either explicit or implicit criticism of Paul VI. On the fortieth anniversary of Populorum Progressio, Pope Benedict is presenting a different view of his predecessor from the one many Catholics hold, especially American Catholics.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Before we get started

OK, some ground rules. Not just for me, but for you as well.

More than two years ago, I posted that I was going to reduce, if not stop, my blogging becausez of a new job, working for the the Diocese of Fresno. At that time I shared one of my concerns:

One thing that does not appear on the Office of Ministries web page, but is on my formal job description, is that work to see that detention ministry policy set by the bishop of Fresno is followed. I have had policy jobs before, and one reality is that some people find it hard to make a distinction between your opinions and the policies you support, especially when public statements are involved. And there are few things quite so subversively public as a blog. Also, the amount of confidential information involved is challenging. We need to protect people's privacy, whether in or outside of prison, and there are questions of personal security involved.
All this is still true and limits what I will post.

I am not speaking for the diocese or any other part of the Catholic Church other than myself. I am a layman with a philosophy degree (from quite a while ago) and some formation in ministry. The rule for me is to make clear what I am not, and the rule for you is not to take my remarks too seriously.

Of course I can't stop you if you do, but you have been warned.

Some posts - perhaps

Well, at least it hasn't been an entire year.

There simply has not been enough time, between working for the Diocese, trying to revise the diocesan web site, and just living in the current environment.

Well, I am going back to the roots of blogging for me -- wanting to write about some things, but with the discipline that publishing (no matter how limited in scope) brings. The reason is Pope Benedicts latest encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate.

I have only made it a third of the way in, but am already wearing out a highlighter. There is a lot of substance here. What I do want to do is to try to read it naively -- read it while consciously trying to concentrate on what Benedict is writing as opposed to my reaction. As it concerns matters economic and political, even trying to bracket your own opinions is quite difficult, but in this case, essential.

There is no schedule for this (how can there be after this hiatus) but I hope to make and post comments as I get through this. More later, I hope.