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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Two more flowers

- hollyhock

- trumpet vine

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The subtle bodies of angels

- the Archangel Gabriel, mosaic from Hagia Sophia

I came across an interesting book today online, Subtle Bodies: Representing Angels in Byzantium (also at Google books), and took a look. Here's just a bit of the introduction (sans footnotes) .....


Angel, literally "messenger," can designate all manner of negotiation between heaven and earth and refer to any member of God's spiritual host. Scripture is unequivocal in stating the existence of an angelic host and is full of diverse examples of the appearance of these transcendental creatures. But the difficulties of perceiving and identifying angels are signaled in scripture simply by the number of guises they assume and impressions they make. Angels appear in scriptural accounts as multiform, awful beings before whom such witnesses as Zacharias are overwhelmed and left speechless (Luke 1:20–22). They appear as clouds and fire (Ex. 13:21–22, 23:20–23), formless voices (Gen. 21:17) and, in the visions of Ezekiel (Ez. 10) and Isaiah (Is. 6), as complex and ultimately unfathomable creatures. The identity of these manifestations in scripture is often obscure; and Christian exegesis with its typological interpretation only compounded the difficulty when it discerned identities not overt in Hebrew scripture.

The scriptural definition of angelic nature as fire and wind (Ps. 104.4) established the belief in the immaterial and enigmatic qualities of angelic beings. Incorporated into the Epistle to Hebrews -- "And of the angels he saith, Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire" (1:7) -- this definition became the exegetical cornerstone of Christian angelology. But although the general definition was settled by scripture, the precise nature of the proportion and blend of elemental forces was never fully explained; angelic nature was held to be beyond humanity's ken.

Angelology — as historians have named patristic scrutiny of angels — is replete with uncertainties, and these uncertainties were the source of the special problems of access and familiarity in devotion. For Christians, many questions persisted about angels' nature, organization, duties and comprehension. Agreement among theologians about the specifics of angelic nature was not possible given the transcendence of the objects of speculation, but angels figure so large in scripture and devotion that the subject could not be avoided.

The fire and spirit composition posited a relative value for angelic nature that placed the angels somewhere between the radically different natures of humanity and God. Such theologians as Theodotus in the second century called the angels "intellectual fire, intellectual spirit," distinct in property from material fire and light. Theodotus thought that angels did have bodies -- at least they were seen as such -- although these bodies, compared to ours, were without form and without corporeality. Methodius (d. ca. 311) said that the angelic nature is equally composed of air and fire, like souls. A writer later identified as Macarius the Great (ca. 300 - ca. 390) said that the angels have subtle (λεπτός) bodies. Others stated that the angels are beings without body and without matter, but not completely so. Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 33– ca. 394) appears to put the angels out of all contact with matter. And Gregory of Nazianzus (329/30–ca. 390) said that the angels can only be perceived by reason because they are composed of pure spirituality or something approaching it — he could not say for certain. Complete agreement concerning the degree of participation of the angels in matter was never possible. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and John of Damascus (ca. 675–ca. 750) came down on the side of the essential spirituality of the angels .......


- The Miracle of the Archangel Michael at Chonae, fresco from Decani Monastery

Holy See v. John Doe

I've been following the Oregon sex abuse case (John V. Doe v. Holy See) in which the plaintiff asserts that priests/bishops are employees of the Vatican, a way around The Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act. That act prevents US courts from even hearing a a case against a sovereign state, but a sovereign state can lose its immunity through the Tort Exception if one of the sovereign state's employees has caused harm to someone in the US. The Vatican appealed to the Supreme Court (Holy See v. Doe) to dismiss the suit due to the Holy See's sovereign state immunity, but the Supremes declined to hear that appeal. Now arguments will proceed in the Oregon court, with the plaintiffs trying to prove the Vatican is indeed an employer.

It's a long shot that the court will rule the pope can be deposed, and even if it did, there would actually be no way to enforce that and I think there's not an ice cube's chance in hell that the pope would volunteer to give testimony. So is this all meaningless? I don't think so, I think it's a sign of changing perspective. Here's a bit from a news story on the subject ....

[...] Steve Rubino, a New Jersey attorney who has represented abuse victims since the 1980s, argued that the court could react differently now that the scope of clergy sex abuse is better known. The case against the Vatican is proceeding as European churches, Vatican officials and Pope Benedict XVI are engulfed by the latest crises over clergy sex abuse. Rubino said that when he first took up abuse cases, diocesan attorneys often won by arguing that First Amendment religious freedom protections meant that civil courts could not interfere in church business. That approach rarely works any more. "The world has been affected by a slow realization of the depth of the scandal," Rubino said. "Judges react the same way. People are tired of this."

Sunday, June 27, 2010


An interesting post (with some interesting comments) at dotCommonweal about the police raid of the Belgian church .....

Belgian probe of sex-abuse cover-up allegations
June 26, 2010, 12:09 pm
Posted by Paul Moses

The Vatican is stepping up its condemnation of an extraordinary raid by Belgian law enforcement authorities to search for evidence that clergy sexual abuse was covered up. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said that the detention of bishops for questioning smacked of communist governments’ practices. The Belgian police were also faulted by church authortieis for searching the graves of two archbishops in the cathedral crypt, apparently on a tip that documents were hidden in the tombs. “It looks like police were searching for the Da Vinci code,” Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard reportedly said.

Thursday’s search created these scenes: police with dogs sealed off the archbishop’s palace; investigators confiscated the personal computer of Cardinal Godfried Danneels; bishops were detained and questioned; a mountain of documents was seized from a church commission investigating 450 cases of alleged sexual abuse. Authorities said that they also raided St. Rumbold’s Cathedral, seat of the Mechelen-Brussels archdiocese, acting on an informant’s tip that documents were hidden there. (Nothing was found.)

According to news reports from Belgium, the search was based on allegations from several witnesses that church officials deliberately withheld information on sexual abuse. The search signals that prosecutors evidently suspect that the church’s investigative commission is holding back evidence from them – they seized all of the panel’s records. The head of the church commission, child psychiatrist and Professor Peter Adriaenssens, responds that the confiscated records include information meant to be confidential .....

Tech and prayer

- Walden pond in winter

There's a post by Fr. James Martin SJ at America magazine's blog about technology, our brains, and our faith. It has a video interview with Fr. Martin (see below) and references a few recent articles including 'The Shallows': This Is Your Brain Online (NPR), and Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price (NYT). What Fr. Martin, who is one of the most technically hooked up Jesuits I know :), is concerned about in his interview is that the facile form of communication fostered by technology will color the private time between us and God, if not completely doing away with it .... that given our technological connectedness, we're just not being alone with God deeply enough, if at all.

As a reader of science fiction, I'm not surprised at the continuing complexity of technologically inspired social interconnection, and I don't doubt that in time we'll be even more intertwined. I don't see that as scary but just inevitable. I'm not as plugged in as most people, I guess - I have no cell phone, no tv, don't belong to any social networks, I just blog. Being fairly socially isolated, I value the internet immensely, but I value alone time too. As for the relating-to-God thing, while I do understand the worth of being part of an online religious community, still I agree with Fr. Martin that there is no substitute for one-on-one interaction with God himself (not God in others).

Anyway, here below is the interview with Fr. Martin ....

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Decision-making: Ignatius and Jonah Lehrer

- the Charioteer of Delphi

Someone asked me what the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola are for and I thought that one of the purposes was to learn how to make good decisions (you can read all about this aspect here at

So today when I saw a video, Jonah Lehrer: How We Decide, I thought it would be interesting to see how different his take would be from that of Ignatius. Jonah begins the talk by mentioning Plato's Chariot Allegorys and also the trolley experiment - it's a really interesting talk.

What's kind of neat is that I believe he and Ignatius end up thinkin kind of the same thing - that discerned or mets-cognated emotion fuels good decisions.

Go to the link above to listen to the whole thing, but here below is the first part .....

Friday, June 25, 2010

Beauty and the brain

The latest Philosophy Bites podcast is Pat Churchland on Eliminative Materialism. For those who were interested in the past discussion of whether we have minds (or souls) apart from our brains, she goes into this, mentioning at about the middle of the interview something on visual perception, the valuation of what we are seeing, and the brain. I didn't understand it well, but it seems like it would touch on the subject of Beauty in theology. She said (sorry for any mistakes in transcription) .....

Here's a really interesting fact: very, very early in the visual cortex, that is in the first area in the visual cortex to which visual signals are sent, there is valuation, because there are projections from higher areas of the brain all the way back to V1 that attach a value to a signal, to this perceptual signal rather than that one. And so when philosophers say 'but you must separate fact and value', it's an interesting feature of the brain that before we're even conscious of a visual perception, it comes with a valence ...

I keep harping on this materialism stuff I guess because I'm so creeped out by the idea that my feelings, beliefs, values, etc., are not produced by a reflective mind/soul that exists semi-independently of my brain Yet, on the other hand, I do so respect the knowledge gained from science. Disturbing :( Maybe at the end of the day it doesn't matter? Must think more about this.

Trumpet vine is blooming

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Pope Joan

There's a post at US Catholic by Bryan Cones on the movie about a legendary past female pope ...

Hollywood on His, um, I mean, Her Holiness

[...] The UK Guardian headline suggests that the film will "spark a Vatican row" (Oh, the British--I love how they use "row" for fight). Belietnet blogger John Kennedy says the film is "stir[ring] Catholic controversy." Oh for God's sake.

Really? Anyone who gets their papal undergarments in a twist over this film should have their heads checked. In the first place, it's based on a legend so old that no one could ever establish its veracity. Second, the book by Donna Woolfolk Cross is as much a romance as a work of historical fiction. If you like either genre, you should read it because it's perfect light summer reading. And third, it's just silly to get all worked up over a movie ....

- part of the movie takes place at the Benedictine Fulda monastery

Wikipedia has an interesting page on the Pope Joan of history. Here's just the first paragraph ....

Pope Joan is a legendary female Pope who supposedly reigned for a few years some time during the Middle Ages. The story first appeared in the writings of 13th-century chroniclers, and subsequently spread through Europe. It was widely believed for centuries, though modern historians and religious scholars consider it fictitious ...

And here's a little about the film from Wikipedia ...

Pope Joan is a German, British, Italian, Spanish medieval epic film produced by Bernd Eichinger, based on American novelist Donna Woolfolk Cross's book of the same name. Directed by Sönke Wortmann, it stars Johanna Wokalek as Pope Joan, David Wenham as Gerold, her lover, and John Goodman as Pope Sergius .....

The movie has Joan disguise herself as John and casts her in the role of the real life Antipope John VIII (844), mixing up a bit the papa; line of succession involving Pope Sergius II (844-847), Pope Leo IV (847-855), Antipope Anastasius Bibliothecarius (855), and Pope Benedict III (855-858).

Here's a trailer for the film ...

The story sounds interesting enough, regardless of its adherence or lack thereof to actual historical fact, and hey, Faramir is in the movie :)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Karl Rahner and Ignatian Spirituality

A book I sent away for has finally arrived - Karl Rahner and Ignatian Spirituality by Philip Endean SJ. I've been getting more interested in Rahner lately and I've been interested in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola since that past online retreat, so I think this book will be helpful (saying I can understand any of it :).

Here's just the first few paragraphs from the second chapter, The Immediate Experience of God ......


In 1978 Rahner gave an interview about the Ignatian Exercises. At the outset he distinguished the Exercises in the full sense from two other styles of Christian formation -- styles often associated with the Exercises and easily confused with them. The first of these Rahner termed 'a course of theological instruction'. Ironically, perhaps ruefully, Rahner made a disclaimer: 'perhaps all the books I wrote about the Ignatian Exercises are, on the whole, not Ignatian Exercises in the full sense of the word, but theological treatises'. Rahner also distinguished the Exercises from 'practices of a meditative type, particularly in the style of Eastern meditation', in which 'it is a matter of becoming tranquil, of a certain silencing of purposeful thoughts, of quiet, perhaps also of a certain openness towards deeper existential layers of the human person'. In the Exercises, something different was at stake:

In contrast to exercises in self-awareness (so far as this is possible), and in contrast to a verbal theological indoctrination, however important this latter can be, the Exercises are concerned with something else. It is a matter here ... of letting the Creator and the creature, as Ignatius says, deal immediately with each other ... It is nothing other than this experience to which Ignatius in the Exercises wants to lead a person.

Quite evidently, the elderly Rahner associates Ignatius with 'the immediate experience of God' -- unmittelbare Gotteserfahrung. This kind of experience is deeper and more radical than the encounter with God fostered by liturgical prayer or mediated through Church structures. In a secularized, pluralist society, the survival of Christian commitment will depend on such an 'ultimate, immediate encounter of the individual with God' .......


This is what I like best about Ignatius - his idea that God will interact directly with us - and I'm looking forward to seeing how Rahner interprets the idea. May post more from the book later.


This week's movie rental was Avatar. I'd watched it at the theater (see my review) but I can see movies better on my computer than at the theater, so I was looking forward to renting it. I liked it just as much the second time around, especially the science stuff. One thing that was more impressive on the large screen was the special effect of the dragons, both in the way they looked and the sensation of them flying. I tried to screen capture some pics of them from the DVD but wasn't able to get much as they were always in motion (see below).

- Ex-marine and paraplegic Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) watches the cremation of his twin brother, a scientist who's upcoming job he's just been offered on Pandora, a lush, Earth-like moon in the Alpha Centauri star system

- he accepts the job and ships out

- Jake learns how to make video logs of his experiences on Pandora

- though Jake works as a scientist, the commander of the privet security forces for the Pandora project offers him a free operation to regain the use of his legs if he'll infiltrate and spy on the indigenous people

- the whole project exists for one reason only: to mine Pandora for Unobtainium

- Jake, in his avatar body, does infiltrate the Na'vi, and here tries to capture a flying dragon as a rite of passage

- the dragon resists :)

- but they come to an understanding

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A hole in the world

A couple of upsetting stories in the news today .... Under Pressure, Commission Discusses Lifting Whaling Ban, and Judge Blocks Deep-Water Drilling Moratorium.

Goodbye whales, goodbye sea birds and turtles and dolphins, goodbye oceans :(

Here's a bit from a story in The Guardian, Gulf oil spill: A hole in the world

[...] This Gulf coast crisis is about many things – corruption, deregulation, the addiction to fossil fuels. But underneath it all, it's about this: our culture's excruciatingly dangerous claim to have such complete understanding and command over nature that we can radically manipulate and re-engineer it with minimal risk to the natural systems that sustain us. But as the BP disaster has revealed, nature is always more unpredictable than the most sophisticated mathematical and geological models imagine .....

Thankfully, many are taking a very different lesson from the disaster, standing not in wonder at humanity's power to reshape nature, but at our powerlessness to cope with the fierce natural forces we unleash. There is something else too. It is the feeling that the hole at the bottom of the ocean is more than an engineering accident or a broken machine. It is a violent wound in a living organism; that it is part of us. And thanks to BP's live camera feed, we can all watch the Earth's guts gush forth, in real time, 24 hours a day.

John Wathen, a conservationist with the Waterkeeper Alliance, was one of the few independent observers to fly over the spill in the early days of the disaster. After filming the thick red streaks of oil that the coast guard politely refers to as "rainbow sheen", he observed what many had felt: "The Gulf seems to be bleeding." This imagery comes up again and again in conversations and interviews. Monique Harden, an environmental rights lawyer in New Orleans, refuses to call the disaster an "oil spill" and instead says, "we are haemorrhaging". Others speak of the need to "make the bleeding stop". And I was personally struck, flying over the stretch of ocean where the Deepwater Horizon sank with the US Coast Guard, that the swirling shapes the oil made in the ocean waves looked remarkably like cave drawings: a feathery lung gasping for air, eyes staring upwards, a prehistoric bird. Messages from the deep.

And this is surely the strangest twist in the Gulf coast saga: it seems to be waking us up to the reality that the Earth never was a machine. After 400 years of being declared dead, and in the middle of so much death, the Earth is coming alive.

The experience of following the oil's progress through the ecosystem is a kind of crash course in deep ecology. Every day we learn more about how what seems to be a terrible problem in one isolated part of the world actually radiates out in ways most of us could never have imagined. One day we learn that the oil could reach Cuba – then Europe. Next we hear that fishermen all the way up the Atlantic in Prince Edward Island, Canada, are worried because the Bluefin tuna they catch off their shores are born thousands of miles away in those oil-stained Gulf waters. And we learn, too, that for birds, the Gulf coast wetlands are the equivalent of a busy airport hub – everyone seems to have a stopover: 110 species of migratory songbirds and 75% of all migratory US waterfowl.

It's one thing to be told by an incomprehensible chaos theorist that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas. It's another to watch chaos theory unfold before your eyes. Carolyn Merchant puts the lesson like this: "The problem as BP has tragically and belatedly discovered is that nature as an active force cannot be so confined." Predictable outcomes are unusual within ecological systems, while "unpredictable, chaotic events [are] usual". And just in case we still didn't get it, a few days ago, a bolt of lightning struck a BP ship like an exclamation mark, forcing it to suspend its containment efforts. And don't even mention what a hurricane would do to BP's toxic soup.

There is, it must be stressed, something uniquely twisted about this particular path to enlightenment. They say that Americans learn where foreign countries are by bombing them. Now it seems we are all learning about nature's circulatory systems by poisoning them.

In the late 90s, an isolated indigenous group in Colombia captured world headlines with an almost Avatar-esque conflict. From their remote home in the Andean cloud forests, the U'wa let it be known that if Occidental Petroleum carried out plans to drill for oil on their territory, they would commit mass ritual suicide by jumping off a cliff. Their elders explained that oil is part of ruiria, "the blood of Mother Earth". They believe that all life, including their own, flows from ruiria, so pulling out the oil would bring on their destruction. (Oxy eventually withdrew from the region, saying there wasn't as much oil as it had previously thought.)

Virtually all indigenous cultures have myths about gods and spirits living in the natural world – in rocks, mountains, glaciers, forests – as did European culture before the scientific revolution. Katja Neves, an anthropologist at Concordia University, points out that the practice serves a practical purpose. Calling the Earth "sacred" is another way of expressing humility in the face of forces we do not fully comprehend. When something is sacred, it demands that we proceed with caution. Even awe ........


Integrative dualism?

Given my post of the interview with Nancey Murphy about bodies and souls, I thought I'd post a bit too from one of Keith Ward's past lectures that touches on the same subject ....


Superhumans? - Interfering with nature

[...] the view, which is certainly a traditional Christian one, [is] that human bodies must be seen as parts of one integral and unitary personal reality, and are not disposable bits of mechanism. Despite some popular beliefs to the contrary, the traditional Catholic view of human persons is that they are physical bodies, animals, that possess emergent properties of consciousness and volition. To speak of a 'soul' is to speak of the capacities of a type of physical body, capacities of a type of animal capable of abstract thought and responsible action. Souls cannot properly exist without bodies - a view Aquinas espoused.

The complication here is that the soul is often also spoken of by Aquinas as though it is a non-physical agent of thought, action, sensation and perception. Some form of embodiment may be essential to it, in order to provide information, and the possibility of communication and action. But perhaps the same soul could be embodied in different forms. Anyone who believes in rebirth must believe this.

Catholics, who do not share belief in rebirth, do nevertheless seem to be committed to the existence of souls, both in Purgatory and in Heaven, that have consciousness and experience, but do not have physical bodies. Moreover, whatever the resurrection body is, it is certainly not temporally or physically continuous with this physical body, and it may be significantly different in some respects (it will not be corruptible, and will not have exactly the same physical properties). Aquinas said that disembodied souls may exist 'improperly and unnaturally', by the grace of God, and will not fully be persons again until the resurrection. But it is obvious that a resurrected body will not be constituted of the same physical stuff as present bodies (it is said to be spiritual, not physical). The present physical universe will come to an end, and there will be 'a new heaven and earth'. What that means is that the physical stuff of this specific universe is not essential to the nature and continuous existence of persons, even though something analogous to this body must exist.

What is at stake in this discussion is whether human consciousness is an emergent property of a physical object - and so ceases to function or exist without that object. Or whether human consciousness, though it does originate within a physical body, and does require some form of embodiment, is nevertheless dissociable from its original body, and is capable of existence in other forms. Is the soul adjectival to the body, or is this body just one form in which this soul may exist? ...... it is fairly clear that it is the mental and spiritual capacities that are of primary importance ...... From a religious point of view, the goal of human life is not simply to survive or to reproduce. It is to know and love God for ever. The possession of some body is important to us, because we are embodied souls. But our bodies exist primarily to express the capacities of the soul, and for those who believe in the resurrection of the body, those resurrected bodies will be more glorious and incorruptible by far than our present bodies (see 1 Corinthians 15) .....


Monday, June 21, 2010

Photos from the yard

- if you click on the photo to make it bigger, you can see a little green bug on the Black-eyed Susan who seems to be carrying something. Ah, my sister tells me that's a baby praying mantis and the thing I thought he was carrying is actually his head :)

- some Boysenberries

- wild plums almost ready

- the old walnut tree is still hanging in, though it's seen lots of Mistletoe damage

Sunday, June 20, 2010

We have no souls :)

Today I read/listened to Nancey Murphy, Professor of Christian Philosophy at the Fuller Theological Seminary, discuss her 2006 book, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies?. She begins by asking a question ....

Which of the following accounts of human nature comes closest to your own view?
Option 1: humans are made of three parts, body, soul and spirit.
Option 2: humans are made of two parts, either a body and a soul, or a body and a mind.
Option 3: Humans are made of just one part, if you want to call it a part, that is a physical body [physicalism].
And then option 4 is “Who cares!”

I myself used to believe that people were made up of one part, just bodies, that the mind was really only a construct of the brain, and that there was no soul. Now, though, I vacillate in hope between two other views - that maybe we are two parts and that we have bodies which perish and souls which are immortal, or alternatively, that maybe we are just one part, bodies which are 'selves' but without souls, that in some way become changed and immortal after death. If that sounds unintelligible :) it might make more sense after you read (or listen to the mp3 files of) the three part interview (Christianity, Neuroscience & the Soul) with Nancey Murphy.

In the first part of the interview she discusses the biblical view of bodies/souls and the change in that line of thought due to the incorporation by medieval scholasticism of the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle which showed interest in the soul.

The second part of the interview deals with the blow to Aristotelian physics and Thomas Aquinas' interpretation of it, that integration of matter (bodies) and Form (souls), from the ideas of Copernicus, Galileo, and atomism. Some thinkers went completely atomistic like Hobbes (sort of the father of contemporary physicalism), others referenced Plato's idea of radical body/soul dualism for the sake of free will, like Descartes. Most interesting to me in this part of the interview was this bit ......

One of the things that happened with Descartes is that, while the Aristotelian synthesis claimed that plants, animals and humans have souls, for Descartes, only human beings have souls, and so that had come to be the accepted view between 1650 and 1850. And so Darwin comes along and points out this huge amount of continuity between humans and animals. Well, if animals don’t have souls, one line of reasoning goes, then why should we think humans must have them? And so on the one hand there was a strong movement towards physicalism on the basis of that argument. But on the other side people would say, oh, if Darwin is showing all of this continuity between humans and animals, how are we going to make it clear that there are major distinctions between us and the animals? And one common strategy was to say, well, we have souls and they don’t.

In part three of the interview, Physicalism, free will, and the promise of resurrection, she talks about how modern neuroscience seems to prove there is no soul in the Aquinas or Descartes sense of the word, and that some Christian theologians and biblical scholars have been saying for 50 to 100 years that "Christians don’t have souls, never needed them, and Christianity would be much better off if we never had thought we had them". The interviewer asks how, if we are just bodies without souls, we can escape determinism and achieve immortality. Her answer is interesting - that while being just bodies without souls, still we're more than the sum of our material parts, and that we do get resurrected. Here below is the text of the third part of the interview .....


Part Three

Interviewer: Well, that certainly leads us to a whole host of new problems, and maybe best brought to light by Francis Crick’s comment that he has “falsified” Christianity by proving there is no soul?

Well, if he had done his homework, he would know about the Christian theologians and biblical scholars who have been saying for 50 to 100 years that Christians don’t have souls, never needed them, and Christianity would be much better off if we never had thought we had them.

I recall a very amusing remark that you made at a conference last fall where you introduced yourself as someone who teaches at a graduate theological seminary and spends her time telling her students that they have no souls.

(Laughs) I do get their attention (big laugh). And I have a running debate with the president of the seminary, who is a dualist himself—he says primarily on philosophical grounds—but when I first started preaching physicalism, he would stop when we were singing hymns that had soul language in it, and he would tell me I was not allowed to sing those hymns (laughs).

Well, I know you’re using the word “preaching” figuratively when you say “preaching physicalism,” but it does seem to me that physicalism poses some very serious problems. Once you acknowledge that the brain is what’s doing it, you get back to some very serious stakes for Christians, do you not?

Yes. And serious stakes for the whole human race. It’s the problem that Descartes and Hobbes already recognized: if human bodies are controlled by the laws governing their parts, then everything that a human being does must be controlled by the laws of the natural sciences, and if that’s the case, then not only do we not have free will, not only do we not have moral responsibility, but we can’t even have rationality. And so if what you and I are saying is simply the product of the outworking of the laws of neurobiology inside our heads, then there’s nothing rational about what we’re doing: we’re just making noises.

Well, if I thought determinism was true I wouldn’t have spent so long preparing for this interview.

That’s right, you would have known that it was either going to come out well or badly!

Exactly! But how do we get out of this now? This is a tough spot.

I believe that, in contrast to Hobbes’ day, we are in a position right now where we can begin to unravel the knot. We have this image of the way the world is constructed, and an image about how the major sciences relate to one another, that I will call the “hierarchy of the sciences” with the corresponding “hierarchy of complex systems.” So we think that everything is made of subatomic particles, whatever the physicists say they are this decade, and atoms are composed of those, chemical compounds are composed of those, biochemicals are composed of vast complexes of those simpler molecules, and now you’re getting into the range of biology. You can start talking about cell walls and variously more complex tissues, and then organs, and then organisms, and then you can move to ecology to talk about the large systems in which the organisms live, or you can move to psychology and the social sciences to talk about the complex relations among human beings. It seems to me that the major assumption throughout the whole of the modern world view has been that the parts of any of these complex entities unilaterally determine the behavior of the whole. This makes sense in some kinds of systems. If you think of an ordinary mechanical watch, it’s just almost undeniable that the behavior of the parts of the watch determine the behavior of the whole.

And this is something that’s often called “bottom-up” causality.

Exactly. And in fact, if your watch doesn’t work that way, you throw it out and get another one. But we’ve also got lots of different kinds of different systems in our world that don’t work that way. For instance, if you look at a system like an ant colony, you find that the very character of the ants in the colony is shaped by their relationships to the other ants around them. They’re all genetically identical, but one ant will become a forager, and another ant will become a nest builder, and this depends on frequency of running into ants of the various sorts as it’s running around doing its business. And so the same little ant body is made into a forager, or a nest builder, or some other functional kind of ant in the system depending on how the system as a whole affects its experiences.

What we’re looking for here is higher-level ordering that is in some sense causally autonomous, or not “reducible,” whatever that means?

Yes, and so the ant colony is an example. You’ve got the genetic level, you’ve got the level of the organism as a whole—the ant—you’ve got the colony itself, and then you’ve got the wider environment, and so you’ve got four levels of complexity there, and so what you find when you get systems complex enough, with enough causal levels, the system as a whole will have holistic system qualities not manifest by any of its parts. For instance, colonies last about the same length of time as the queen does, and in some subspecies that’s about 15 years. If you find a young colony, the ants in it are going to be more aggressive and less predictable. If you find an older colony, the ants are less aggressive and much more predictable. The worker ants are replaced I think maybe once every year, so it’s not that you’re training the same ants. It’s that the system as a whole is going through a developmental phase that shapes the parts themselves and the roles that they play.

Now our goal in this intellectual endeavor is not just to understand ant colonies, but to give a sense of the human person, and some of the phenomena that we associate with being one, like subjectivity, a sense of having the ability to choose, of having free will, the sense of being responsible for our actions, of being moral agents, and of course, very importantly, the ability to have a relationship with God or the divine. So how do we get there from this?

Well, we are like the ant colony. We are complex systems with holistic characteristics. Some of those holistic characteristics are able to exert downward effects on lower level parts, and much of this is what’s going on in our cognitive systems. I have the ability to perform what I call self-transcendence. For instance, I find myself angry at a student, and I can then move to a level of evaluation and ask, “Why am I angry at that student? Should I be angry or should I not be angry?” and make a judgment about that. And if I think I should not have been angry, then I can go back and try to redesign my cognitive processes so I’m not so likely to be upset about students doing those sorts of things.

And when we get to the point where we can reflect on those higher order reflections in light of moral concepts provided by our culture, we’re at the level that we can become morally responsible agents. So I can decide that I was perfectly justified in being angry at the student. I treat the student badly as a result. But then I reflect on whether that was a Christian way to interact with the student, and Jesus’ enemy-love comes to mind, and I think, “Oh, whoops! I failed morally.” So we have to have these multilevel capacities for self-transcendence and self-evaluation. We have to have the cultural resources of moral evaluative language, and that is what gives us the capacity to be moral thinkers. Of course the capacity to make ourselves carry out what we decide is the moral thing to do, that’s a discussion for another whole day.

Now it does appear to me that some of our older notions of causality and the causality of the will are going to have to be reexamined here, because it doesn’t sound to me like the will is going to turn out to be some kind of “uncaused cause.” Right. But, also one has to wonder, if the self, the mind, the soul is just a manifestation of very complex meta-levels of organization of a physical system, then what happens to immortality? What happens to life after death?

Well, the Christian view, the early Christian view, and some scholars say the only suitable view for Jews also, is the view of the resurrection of the body. Jesus simply died. There was no soul going off to heaven. But three days later his body was, not just resuscitated, but raised in a transformed manner, suitable for some other world than this crass material world that we live in. And so what Christian preachers need to do is to reemphasize the resurrection at the end of time, rather than the sermons that say your loved-one’s soul has flown to God and is at peace in heaven and all that sort of stuff. And I think that’s much more authentically Christian than the souls-flying-away kind of image.

I must ask this skeptical question: why is it that the physical sciences and neuroscience have been able to chip away at dualism, whereas the seeming improbability of bodies being brought back to life is accepted? (That was a very poorly worded question!)

(Laughter) Well, actually there are a lot of Christians who accept pretty much all of the Christian teaching except resurrection. You can ask scholars, is there enough historical evidence available, and there is a small but strong minority of Christian scholars who say that we’ve got adequate evidence to conclude that something really strange happened on that third day. It was such a powerful event that it totally changed the lives of the disciples, who’d been hiding—turned them into fearless evangelists. We would all say that we can’t describe exactly what it was like. It’s not a ghost, it’s not a resuscitated corpse, it’s like nothing anybody has ever seen. But to be a Christian, Saint Paul would say, “If Christ be not raised then our hope is in vain.” So it’s a part of the package of being a Christian, and even if there isn’t enough historical evidence for it to stand on its own legs apart from the whole system, you have to ask is there enough reason to believe in the Christian system as a whole. And I could go on for ten days straight about why I think there is.

Well, I suppose my question really is, where do you draw the line? What aspects of your theology have to accommodate themselves to contemporary science, and what aspects remain matters, inviolable matters of faith?

Well, belief in God and God’s doings in the history of his people are not really the sorts of things that science could ever disprove. And I really want to emphasize again that, on this matter of the soul, although it’s been taken to be central to Christian thought for many centuries, I was convinced prior to looking at the science that physicalism was a perfectly okay understanding, and even a better understanding of the original biblical teaching. So biblical scholars beat the neuroscientists to this conclusion by almost a hundred years.

Well… right on!

(Laughter) But I would be really upset if I found some aspect of what I see as central to my Christian belief-set to be in radical conflict with science, and couldn’t find any way to resolve the conflict.

Professor Nancey Murphy, thank you very much.

Thank you very much. It’s been a delight.


Saturday, June 19, 2010

Priestly Duties: a Poem

by Stewart Henderson

What should a priest be?
All things to all
male, female and genderless

What should a priest be?
Reverent and relaxed
vibrant in youth
assured through the middle years
divine sage when ageing

What should a priest be?
Accessible and incorruptible
abstemious, yet full of celebration
informed but not threateningly so
and far above the passing soufflé of fashion

What should a priest be?
An authority on singleness
Solomon-like on the labyrinth of human sexuality
excellent with young marrieds, old marrieds,
were marrieds, never marrieds, shouldn’t have marrieds,
those who live together, those who live apart,
and those who don’t live anywhere
respectfully mindful of senior citizens and war veterans
familiar with the ravages of arthritis,
osteoporrosis, post natal depression, anorexia,
whooping cough and nits.

What should a priest be?
All round family person,
Counsellor, but not officially because of recent changes in legislation,
teacher, expositor, confessor, entertainer, juggler,
good with children, and possibly sea lions,
empathetic towards pressure groups.

What should a priest be?
On nodding terms with Freud, Jung, St John of The Cross,
The Scott Report, The Rave Culture, The Internet,
The Lottery, BSE and Anthea Turner,
pre modern, fairly modern, post modern,
and ideally secondary modern
if called to the inner city.

What should a priest be?
Charismatic, if needs must, but quietly so,
evangelical, and thoroughly
meditative, mystical but not New Age
liberal and so open to other voices
traditionalist, reformer and revolutionary
and hopefully not on medication
unless for an old sporting injury.

Note to congregations: If your priest actually fulfils
all of the above, and then enters the pulpit one Sunday
morning wearing nothing but a shower cap, a fez, and declares
“I’m the King and Queen of Venus, and we shall now sing
the next hymn in Latvian, take your partners, please”. -
let it pass – like you and I they too sew
the thin thread of humanity.
Remember Jesus in the Garden
- beside himself.

What does a priest do?
Mostly stays awake at Deanery synods
tries not to annoy the Bishop too much
visits hospices, administers comfort
conducts weddings, christenings,
not necessarily in that order,
takes funerals
consecrates the elderly to the grave
buries children, and babies
feels completely helpless beside
the swaying family of a suicide,
sometimes is murdered at night, alone.

What does a priest do?
Tries to colour in God
uses words to explain miracles
which is like teaching a centipede to sing
but even more difficult.

What does a priest do?
Answers the phone
when sometimes they’d rather not,
occasionally errs and strays into tabloid titillation
prays for Her Majesty’s Government

What does a priest do?
Tends the flock through time, oil and incense
would secretly like each PCC
to commence with a mud pie making contest
sometimes falls asleep when praying
yearns like us for heart rushing deliverance

What does a priest do?
Has rows with their family
wants to inhale Heaven
stares at bluebells
attempts to convey the mad love of God
would like to ice skate with crocodiles,
and hear the roses when they pray

How should a priest live?
How should we live?
As priests, transformed by the Priest
that death prised open
so that he could be our priest
martyred, diaphanous and matchless priest
What should a priest be?
What should a priest do?
How should a priest live?


Recently there's been a new creature in the yard - a little rat. He's pretty shy but I caught a photo of him eating sunflower seeds today. When we were in college and my mom was taking a physiological psych class, she one day brought home a rat from the class who had been attacked by his siblings and had lost most of his tail. She named him Ratso - he lived with us for many years and was smart and affectionate, loved to play with our homework and ride around on our shoulders, hiding under our hair :) My mom made a sculpture of Ratso which I still have. He's a little the worse for wear, lost his ears, but here he is ......

Friday, June 18, 2010


- Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis while the ship was docked in the port of Havana

A post at Denny's blog on Arizona's immigration policies and a movie I watched last night (Holocuast) made me curious about how the US reacted to Jewish immigration just before and during WWII. We may think (or maybe only uneducated I thought :) that the US policy on immigration has always matched the sentiments in the poem on the statue of liberty ....

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

... but that's not really so.

- James Woods and Meryl Streep in Holocaust

The movie I mentioned above was an old one (1978) and starred a strangely young James Woods and Meryl Streep :) It was criticized by some as being inaccurate but one reference made by James Woods' character, that the US was not accepting some of the Jewish refugees trying to get out of Germany, appears to be accurate. Here's a little from Wikipedia on the subject ....

In the years before and during World War II the United States Congress, the Roosevelt Administration, and public opinion expressed concern about the fate of Jews in Europe but consistently refused to permit large-scale immigration of Jewish refugees.

In a report issued by the State Department, Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat noted that the United States accepted only 21,000 refugees from Europe and did not significantly raise or even fill its restrictive quotas, accepting far fewer Jews per capita than many of the neutral European countries and fewer in absolute terms than Switzerland .....

U.S. opposition to immigration in general in the late 1930s was motivated by the grave economic pressures, the high unemployment rate, and social frustration and disillusionment. The U.S. refusal to support specifically Jewish immigration, however, stemmed from something else, namely antisemitism, which had increased in the late 1930s and continued to rise in the 1940s. It was an important ingredient in America's negative response to Jewish refugees .....

One of the most memorable examples of this was a German cruise ship, the MS St. Louis ......

St. Louis sailed from Hamburg to Cuba on May 13, 1939, carrying seven non-Jewish and 930 Jewish refugees (mainly German) seeking asylum from Nazi persecution. On the ship’s arrival in Cuba, the Cuban government under Federico Laredo Brú refused the passengers entry as either tourists (laws related to tourist visas had recently been changed) or under political asylum .....

Telephone records show discussion of the situation by Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, members of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's cabinet, who tried to persuade Cuba to accept the refugees. Their actions, together with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, were not successful. The Coast Guard was not ordered to turn away the refugees, but the US did not make provision for their entry. As St. Louis was turned away from the United States, a group of academics and clergy in Canada attempted to persuade Canada's Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to provide sanctuary to the ship, which was only two days from Halifax, Nova Scotia. However Canadian immigration officials and cabinet ministers hostile to Jewish immigration persuaded the Prime Minister not to intervene on June 9 ......

US officials worked with Britain and European nations to find refuge for the travelers in Europe. The ship returned to Europe, docking at Antwerp, Belgium, on 17 June 1939. The United Kingdom agreed to take 288 of the passengers, who disembarked and traveled to the UK by other steamers. After much negotiation by Schröder, the remaining 619 passengers were allowed to disembark at Antwerp; 224 were accepted by France, 214 by Belgium, and 181 by the Netherlands ...

I'm curious - I wonder what the US Bishops' stance was on immigration around WWII.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

From Brian Greene to Jonah Lehrer

I came across a neatly animated video of Columbia University string theorist Brian Greene discussing other dimensions ...

I only knew who Brian Greene was because he'd been mentioned in an episode of Stargate Atlantis (question asked, 'who would you rather fool around with: Neil deGrasse Tyson or Brian Greene?' :) but after watching the above video I was reminded of another place I'd seen him mentioned - the Templeton Foundation's Big Questions essay series.

But no, I was wrong I realized, as I looked in vain for his name there. Then I recalled I'd instead read about him at a NOVA page, Einstein's Big Idea: E = mc2 Explained that I'd seen mentioned in a post by Fr. Rob Marsh SJ.

But anyway, there I was, wrongly at the Templeton page where I came upon Jonah Lehrer, a Contributing Editor at Wired who writes on neuroscience. Looking him up, I saw he had a past article (Feb 2010) in The New York Times on the up side of depression, and being depressed a lot myself, I read it. It's a long article, so here's just the beginning of it .....


Depression’s Upside

The Victorians had many names for depression, and Charles Darwin used them all. There were his “fits” brought on by “excitements,” “flurries” leading to an “uncomfortable palpitation of the heart” and “air fatigues” that triggered his “head symptoms.” In one particularly pitiful letter, written to a specialist in “psychological medicine,” he confessed to “extreme spasmodic daily and nightly flatulence” and “hysterical crying” whenever Emma, his devoted wife, left him alone.

While there has been endless speculation about Darwin’s mysterious ailment — his symptoms have been attributed to everything from lactose intolerance to Chagas disease — Darwin himself was most troubled by his recurring mental problems. His depression left him “not able to do anything one day out of three,” choking on his “bitter mortification.” He despaired of the weakness of mind that ran in his family. “The ‘race is for the strong,’ ” Darwin wrote. “I shall probably do little more but be content to admire the strides others made in Science.”

Darwin, of course, was wrong; his recurring fits didn’t prevent him from succeeding in science. Instead, the pain may actually have accelerated the pace of his research, allowing him to withdraw from the world and concentrate entirely on his work. His letters are filled with references to the salvation of study, which allowed him to temporarily escape his gloomy moods. “Work is the only thing which makes life endurable to me,” Darwin wrote and later remarked that it was his “sole enjoyment in life.”

For Darwin, depression was a clarifying force, focusing the mind on its most essential problems. In his autobiography, he speculated on the purpose of such misery; his evolutionary theory was shadowed by his own life story. “Pain or suffering of any kind,” he wrote, “if long continued, causes depression and lessens the power of action, yet it is well adapted to make a creature guard itself against any great or sudden evil.” And so sorrow was explained away, because pleasure was not enough. Sometimes, Darwin wrote, it is the sadness that informs as it “leads an animal to pursue that course of action which is most beneficial.” The darkness was a kind of light.

The mystery of depression is not that it exists — the mind, like the flesh, is prone to malfunction. Instead, the paradox of depression has long been its prevalence. While most mental illnesses are extremely rare — schizophrenia, for example, is seen in less than 1 percent of the population — depression is everywhere, as inescapable as the common cold. Every year, approximately 7 percent of us will be afflicted to some degree by the awful mental state that William Styron described as a “gray drizzle of horror . . . a storm of murk.” Obsessed with our pain, we will retreat from everything. We will stop eating, unless we start eating too much. Sex will lose its appeal; sleep will become a frustrating pursuit. We will always be tired, even though we will do less and less. We will think a lot about death.

The persistence of this affliction — and the fact that it seemed to be heritable — posed a serious challenge to Darwin’s new evolutionary theory. If depression was a disorder, then evolution had made a tragic mistake, allowing an illness that impedes reproduction — it leads people to stop having sex and consider suicide — to spread throughout the population. For some unknown reason, the modern human mind is tilted toward sadness and, as we’ve now come to think, needs drugs to rescue itself.

The alternative, of course, is that depression has a secret purpose and our medical interventions are making a bad situation even worse. Like a fever that helps the immune system fight off infection — increased body temperature sends white blood cells into overdrive — depression might be an unpleasant yet adaptive response to affliction. Maybe Darwin was right. We suffer — we suffer terribly — but we don’t suffer in vain ..........


Wednesday, June 16, 2010



Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Katharine Jefferts Schori at Southwark Cathedral

- a sculpture from Southwark Cathedral

I saw mention of Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, in the news today. I feel weirdly proud of her, not because she's a woman in a position of power but because she wears it well, preaching (and acting out) the inclusive and unconditional love of Jesus/God for everyone.

She's in the news because she's been visiting in the UK and recently was invited to preach at Southwark Cathedral. Not everyone was happy about that. Conservatives sent a letter to the Times in protest, and .....

If the US Episcopal Church – still part of the worldwide Anglican communion despite having the temerity to elect gay bishops – feels nervous about the warmth of its welcome from the mothership that is the Church of England, perhaps there are reasons. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the presiding bishop of the US church and the first woman ever to lead an Anglican province, preached at Southwark Cathedral last weekend despite muted hisses of disapproval by conservative evangelicals. But close observers would have seen there was something missing: no mitre on her head. Who could be responsible? Step forward, Rowan Williams, Archbish of Canterbury, birthday boy (60 yesterday), who couldn't stop her preaching but said she could not wear the symbol of her office, or carry a bishop's crosier. Something to do with women bishops not yet being allowed in the C of E. A bit petty, some say, as Jefferts Schori is indeed a bishop and head of her national church – but in any event, she carried the mitre. And the subject for her sermon: God welcomes everyone, regardless of dress or condition. - Hugh Muir's Diary, The Guardian

You can read or listen to her sermon at the cathedral website, but here's just the end of it (the reading was Luke 7:36-8:3, Jesus eating with Simon and having his feet washed with a woman's tears) .....


[...] Jesus invites us all to his moveable feast. He leaves that dinner party with Simon and goes off to visit other places in need of prodigal love and prodigious forgiveness. His companions, literally his fellow tablemates, are the 12 and "some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities." Hmmm. Strong, healthy women, and three of them are actually named here: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna. Together with many others they supported and fed the community – they became hosts of the banquet.

Those who know the deep acceptance and love that come with healing and forgiveness can lose the defensive veneer that wants to shut out other sinners. They discover that covering their hair or hiding their tears or hoarding their rich perfume isn't the way that the beloved act, even if it makes others nervous. Eventually it may even cure the anxious of their own fear by drawing them toward a seat at that heavenly banquet. There's room for us all at this table, there are tears of welcome and a kiss for the wanderer, and the sweet smell of home.

Want to join the feast? You are welcome here. Love has saved you – go in peace. Lean over and say the same to three strangers: you are welcome here. Love has saved you – be at peace.


Monday, June 14, 2010

Who is the Beloved Disciple?

- One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved by Ary Scheffer

I was intrigued to see that Duke University NT scholar Mark Goodacre has a new podcast on the identity of the beloved disciple (NT Pod 38: Who is the Beloved Disciple in John's Gospel?) ....

It's one of those great enigmas in new testament criticism: try and work out who the beloved disciple is in John's gospel, or what it is that the author of John's gospel wants to do with this character ..... is he the key to the origins of John's gospel, and what is it about this character's witness that's so important?

I had a past post myself about the beloved disciple in 2006 (The Beloved Disciple) and thought I'd briefly quote me :) ...

One of the interesting things about John's gospel is that the author doesn't refer to himself by name, but only as the "other disciple" or more famously, "the disciple Jesus loved". Some scholars think the beloved disciple might have instead been Mary Magdalene, and others, like Ben Witherington, think Lazarus was the disciple Jesus loved (What Have They Done with Jesus?: Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History--Why We Can Trust the Bible). I'm sticking with John, though (The Disciple Whom Jesus Kept on Loving?)

And it appears that Mark kind of agrees with me :) In Mark's podcast he mentions the idea that the beloved disciple is an idealized example to readers of perfection in discipleship, but Mark also allows that the seeming intention of the author of John's gospel to have us suspect John as the beloved disciple is no accident - listen to the podcast to hear his reasoning.

Maybe it's fitting that we're not sure who the beloved disciple is - imprecise definitions, like poetry, give us room to imagine ....

The Beloved Disciple
- George MacDonald


One do I see and twelve; but second there
Methinks I know thee, thou beloved one;
Not from thy nobler port, for there are none
More quiet-featured: some there are who bear
Their message on their brows, while others wear
A look of large commission, nor will shun
The fiery trial, so their work is done;
But thou hast parted with thine eyes in prayer--
Unearthly are they both; and so thy lips
Seem like the porches of the spirit land;
For thou hast laid a mighty treasure by
Unlocked by Him in Nature, and thine eye
Burns with a vision and apocalypse
Thy own sweet soul can hardly understand.


A Boanerges too! Upon my heart
It lay a heavy hour: features like thine
Should glow with other message than the shine
Of the earth-burrowing levin, and the start
That cleaveth horrid gulfs! Awful and swart
A moment stoodest thou, but less divine--
Brawny and clad in ruin--till with mine
Thy heart made answering signals, and apart
Beamed forth thy two rapt eyeballs doubly clear
And twice as strong because thou didst thy duty,
And, though affianced to immortal Beauty,
Hiddest not weakly underneath her veil
The pest of Sin and Death which maketh pale:
Henceforward be thy spirit doubly dear!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

From Grace Cathedral

Here's a past (2008?) discussion from San Francisco's Grace Cathedral Forum between The Very Rev. Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral, and Peter J. Gomes (The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus) on Jesus. This is probably just the beginning of it and if you want to watch the whole thing, go here ...

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Who's your favourite heretic?

- Pelagius

This week's question in The Guardian is Who's your favourite heretic?

There were some interesting choices made in the responses, including Origen, The Ebionites, and Marguerite Porete (Tina Beatie's choice). I'd just seen Marguerite Porete mentioned a while ago in a post at America magazine's blog ... 700 Years Later: Marguerite Porete, Burnt at the Stake, but Unforgotten by Francis X. Clooney, S.J.

If I had to pick a favorite heretic, it would be the Celt Pelagius ....

Pelagius (ca. AD 354 – ca. AD 420/440) was an ascetic who denied the doctrine of original sin as developed by Augustine of Hippo, and was declared a heretic by the Council of Carthage. His interpretation of a doctrine of free will became known as Pelagianism ....

As they say, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, but I don't just like Pelagius because I hate Augustine :) I like what little I've read (and understood) of his ideas about free will, grace, and original sin. Here is the compressed version of the dust-up between Pelagius and Augustine from Wikipedia ....

[...] Pelagius wrote two major treatises which are no longer extant, "On Nature" and "Defense Of The Freedom Of The Will." In these, he defends his position on sin and sinlessness, and accuses Augustine of being under the influence of Manicheanism by elevating evil to the same status as God and teaching pagan fatalism as if it were a Christian doctrine.

Augustine had been converted to Christianity from the religion of Manicheanism, which stressed that the spirit was God-created, while the flesh was corrupt and evil, since it had not been created directly by God. Pelagius argued that Augustine's doctrine that humans went to hell for doing what they could not avoid (sin) was tantamount to the Manichean belief in fatalism and predestination, and took away all of mankind's free will.

Pelagius and his followers saw remnants of this fatalistic belief in Augustine's teachings on the Fall of Adam, which was not a settled doctrine at the time the Augustinian/Pelagian dispute began. Their view that mankind can avoid sinning, and that we can freely choose to obey God's commandments, stand at the core of Pelagian teaching, and comes through even in the writings of Pelagius' opponents. However, a careful reading of Pelagius' own statements indicates that he believed that God's grace assists all right action.

An illustration of Pelagius' views on man's "moral ability" not to sin can be found in his Letter to Demetrias He was in Palestine when, in 413, he received a letter from the renowned Anician family in Rome. One of the aristocratic ladies who had been among his followers, Anicia Iuliana, was writing to a number of eminent Western theologians, including Jerome and possibly Augustine, for moral advice for her 14-year-old daughter, Demetrias. Pelagius used the letter to argue his case for morality, stressing his views of natural sanctity and man's moral capacity to choose to live a holy life. It is perhaps the only extant writing in Pelagius' own hand, and it was, ironically, thought to be a letter by Jerome for centuries, though Augustine himself references it in his work, "On the Grace of Christ."

If interested, you can read Pelagius' Letter of Pelagius to Demetrias, and those who want to read more about Pelagius, try Pelagius: To Demetrias by Deacon Geoffrey Ready.

I, Morgan, whom the Romans call Pelagius
Am back in my own place, my green Cathures
By the frisky firth of salmon, by the open sea
Not far, place of my name, at the end of things
As it must seem.

- from Nine in Glasgow by Edwin Morgan

Friday, June 11, 2010

Smile or Die

Can we all change reality with our thoughts? This funny/scary video begins about how positive thinking is almost mandatory in the corporate culture, but it then moves into the areas of politics and even theodicy as well. I find creepy the championing of the notion that our thoughts and beliefs create our reality, and that a positive attitude about a bad situation, whether it's job loss or health loss (or the church sex abuse crisis), is actually more important than the situation itself .... this robs people of the chance to work for actual change.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

"This thing begins to eat into your soul after a while, doesn't it?"

I saw some stuff in the news today about the oil spill - this on the possible causes from New Scientist: BP ordered changes on day of Gulf oil disaster - and in the British press some think BP has been too criticized, that the criticism is anti-British: Backlash grows to 'anti-British rhetoric' in US. My negative feelings about the oil spill have nothing to do with BP being British but everything to do with the consequences of the spill. This short post from Andrew Sullivan today expresses my feelings well :( ....


The Birds, Ctd
- Andrew Sullivan
10 Jun 2010 12:06 pm

A gruesome new detail:

[A] bird has a natural repellent in its feathers that keeps the water out. That’s a little area - a little cushion - that keeps it cool. Well, this oil here gets on those feathers, and they lose that little insulation. And then, when you have this oil at 100+ degrees, the bird experts say, it begins to literally cook the birds.

This thing begins to eat into your soul after a while, doesn't it?

I sound like a goddamned hippie but you have to be emotionally and spiritually dead not to watch this and not feel some deep qualms about what our civilization is doing to its environment and to itself. The addiction metaphor - even used by George W. Bush by the end of his term - is the only apposite one. We're like junkies trying to find a new vein. It keeps us alive and growing, but that simply brings into sharper focus the moral and spiritual costs of exploitation of the earth rather than prudent stewardship.


Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Think less about what you ought to do and more about what you ought to be

- Meister Eckhart (paraphrase)

Is that like virtue ethics? Anyway, it's a quote made by Jesuit Anthony de Mello in the talk below ("Wake Up to Life" - three parts). I saw him mentioned by Denny a few days ago and I remember Cura especially likes him, but I've never read his books nor seen him give a talk. But I have to be interested in a guy who gets a reproof from the CDF, so I decided to see if I could find a video of him - mission accomplished :) I've only listened to parts one and two so far, but I was especially both disturbed and made wistful by the second part - food for discernment, I guess.

Here's the blurb for the program ...

Segment 1 - How to pray. Segment 2 - How to be real Segment 3 - How to love. In this program of three thirty-minute segments, Father Anthony de Mello gives a complete course on spiritual freedom. Using stories, anecdotes, and humor, he begins by focusing on prayer and continues with the topics of freedom and love. Father de Mello's approach mixes common sense, startling originality, and wisdom from many sources in the East and West. He gives his presentations to a studio audience and handles questions that will provide a beginning for your own group discussions.

More flowers in the yard

- rosebud

- columbine

- hollyhocks