Saturday, November 27, 2010

What Science Knows, and How It Knows It

By James Franklin, 283 pages, Encounter Books.

Franklin shows that, more than ever, science and the Church need each other. Both scientists and theologians are fighting against the current lack of confidence in the existence of truth. Atheists batter the Church's teaching on the existence of God and the need for absolute moral truths, and many people batter the scientist's ability to build our understanding of physical reality.

Franklin discusses the extent to which some current thinkers, including American feminists, French philosophers, and many other academics, question even the mathematical truth of 3*2=2*3. These philosophers try to distort mathematical truth and scientific hypotheses regarding such discoveries as New Zealand being comprised of 2 major islands.

What Science Knows criticizes this kind of skepticism. Franklin notes that many thinkers have set up their own arguments against the truth in such a way that it's no use even arguing with them. No matter what you say in favor of the truth, they will accuse you of being overly-situated in your culture.

Certain sociologists, in other words, have argued that truth is only relative to the culture and sociological situation in which someone lives. The argument goes like this: Pre-industrial, pre-scientific people living near a volcano who believe that the gods live in the volcano, are every bit as truthful as scientists are about the nature of the volcano - and no one has the right to challenge this traditional theology.

Thus we have ended up in our culture with the fuzzy idea that everyone is entitled to their opinions, and that no one opinion is more correct than another. (This becomes problematic when we think of a neo-Nazi's views on Jews or Slavic people.)

What Science Knows takes the very strong position that truth does indeed exist. However, the author does not look to science for all answers. Refreshingly for a scientist, Franklin argues that ethical and religious truths also exist, and that science cannot always investigate these 2 exhaustively.

He is a humble scientist, who avoids the scientific arrogance which says that science will eventually know everything. He points to the problem of human consciousness, and how after more than a century of science and billions of dollars in research grants, we are no closer to scientifically understanding this basic human condition than we were 100 years ago.

Thus Franklin believes that the truth exists, but that more than science is needed to understand it. The greatest part of this book, however, is taken up with refuting the feminist and sociological attacks against the scientific method itself, and explaining how the method works.

What Science Knows argues that science is not so far-fetched and not unattainable to the common person: "Science agrees in large part with common sense on the role of space and time." As Franklin notes, it is the professional skeptics who knock every teaching on the truth, including ethical, religious, and scientific, who lack common sense.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Complete Julian of Norwich

Edited by Fr. John-Julian, 450 pages, Paraclete Press.

"For this is the reason why we are not fully at ease in heart and soul: because here we seek rest in these things that are so little, in which there is no rest, and we recognize not our God who is all powerful, all wise, all good, for He is the true rest," writes Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) in her Revelations.

As editor Fr. John Julian points out in the Introduction, Julian of Norwich was a theological optimist living in a century of great upheaval – starvation, plague, the 100 Years War, and, closer to home, the assassination of a king and archbishop.

She experienced a series of mystical revelations as an anchorite (a solitary individual living in a room attached to a parish church), and thus became quite well known and sought out by all sorts of people for her guidance.

The late medieval Church preached endlessly about sin and damnation, and how hard it was to enter heaven. While Julian never rejected that theology, she did believe that her showings revealed a merciful God who could never be wrathful. God is love, and “all shall be well,” Jesus showed her. She often compared the preaching of the Church on sinfulness, necessary to awaken people to their fallen nature, with the grace and love she experienced from God directly or through His Son.

Like her medieval counterparts, Julian focused on Jesus' Passion and strongly wished to share physically in that suffering. Physical and emotional affliction were redemptive because they made one share in Christ's pain.

Julian also writes of the spiritual pain which she wished for herself: "I conceived a mighty desire to receive three wounds while I was alive; that is to say, the wound of true contrition, the wound of kind compassion, and the wound of wish-filled yearning for God."

Like countless other fourteenth-century mystics, the Revelations represents the turn towards the individual. As Europe was urbanizing, Christians became less attached to the sacramental work of the Church (though the sacraments were still vital) and searched for an inner connection with Jesus. They became preoccupied with their inner state. Experts at diagnosing psychological and spiritual conditions, they believed in the complete interaction of the spiritual and physical world.

Given the medieval Church's preoccupation with hell and sin, Julian's theology is jarring. She emphasizes the joy of knowing God, who is motherly love and fatherly grace. No doubt, she connects with readers interested in more feminine imagery of God. Showing how consistent Catholic spirituality can be, her keen psychology previews not only St. Teresa of Avila's notions of the soul's relationship with God, but also St. Therese de Lisieux' practice of the Little Way.

Julian's deep belief in the unity of the human soul with God assured her of divine love rather than wrath: "[B]etween God and our soul is neither anger nor forgiveness.... For our soul is so completely one-ed to God by His own goodness, that there can be absolutely nothing at all separating God and soul." Herein lies the heart of Julian's optimistic theology.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Islam and the Men's Movement

Islam will do for the men's movement in the next 25 years what Marxism has done to the feminist movement in the past 40. The next 25 years will be as transformational as the last 40, and in the end men will be respected once again. This will happen first in Europe.

Christianity has so deeply feminized, that it stands little chance. Too many doilies at churches, ladies. The men are emasculated. An emasculated man might as well be 100 years old. Henri Nouwen was the final nail in the coffin, fully articulating the vision of a therapeutic, sentimental, moralizing church with no vigor whatsoever. He is possibly the most popular writer across the Protestant-Catholic, liberal-traditional-conservative divides.

Western men have forgotten what it means to be a man, and churches are largely to blame for this. A "good" Christian man is a useful idiot for a woman. He serves her. Does she ever serve him? Hell no. She's supposed to be "empowered." Empowered to do what? In any case, feminism and feminization destroy everything they touch. Churches need to become places where men can be men, or it's over. Perhaps we can learn from African Christians, where the pastors have some testosterone. Still, anyways.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Neither Beast Nor God: The Dignity of the Human Person

By Gilbert Meilaender, 118 pages, Encounter Books.

Humans are "strange, in-between sort of creatures," Mailaender argues, and this gives us our unique dignity. We are lower than God yet higher than animals. This leads to creative and ethical tension. Anytime we make ourselves into God, we take on ethical questions and power that overwhelm us.

Our relationship to death is of paramount importance, since death is the ultimate “No!” to our claims to divinity. We do not live forever. Death gives a finality to life, and a commonality to all humans. When we fail to acknowledge this defining aspect of the human condition, we begin to think we are gods. We try to master life and creation, and become like god ourselves.

Only God can choose when we live and die, yet we try to deny our Creator this power. We want to live forever. One of the major thrusts of contemporary medical science is the attempt to relentlessly push our death into the future. Mailaender reminds us of the importance of death: "Our ability to remain interested and engaged in life depends upon our knowledge that it will end."

In other words, our attempts to play god actually make us less than human, as we lose sight of the importance of our moral decisions and the sacredness and urgency of life. Mailaender explains well how this hurts our dignity. He warns that we must stop seeing death as evil, and start seeing it as a part of life – as a part of divinely-ordained life.

Neither Beast Nor God thus adds to the chorus of voices opposing the Culture of Death. We have been enraptured with the power of science and technology for so long that we have lost the sense of enchantment that should come automatically to us as humans. Life should be enchanting, but when we ask too much, it becomes empty.

The God-given life-cycle is itself a spiritual journey, Mailaender makes clear. The various stages of life, including childhood, are good in and of themselves, and we should have no agenda for each stage. Children should be allowed to grow at a healthy pace, rather than pushed into every sort of activity and schooling that will ensure a big career. We also need to respect the aging process as a significant part of the journey towards God:

"It is aging that keeps us from imagining that everything our hearts desire could be given through more of the same kind of life. And it is aging, wearing down, that enables us to cultivate within ourselves the capacity for self-giving and self-sacrifice that makes place for those who come after us."

Neither Beast Nor God offers a traditionalist view of the individual, community, and religion. Mailaender calls for us to be loyal to friends and family, since only by being responsible for our actions towards those closest to us can we hope to love humanity. Responsibility and loyalty give depth and a sacred sense to our love for humanity. Without these goods, in fact, love of the world is empty and impotent.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Christian & Western Thought: A History of Philosophers, Ideas, and Movements

By Alan G. Padgett and Steve Wilkens, 388 pages, Intervarsity Press.

This vast survey of twentieth-century Western secular and Christian thought gives the feeling that philosophy, having long ago shelved its Christian guide, is drifting and pointless. It no longer believes in anything, even in itself, as witnessed by thinkers such as Richard Rorty, who advocated an American pragmatism critical of any claims to truth.

In dealing with the succession of tragedies to hit the Western world in the last century, including 2 world wars and the deepening loss of faith, philosophers seem to have gone in circles, discarding much of tradition, including previous philosophical insights.

Christian & Western Thought shows how philosophers seem to have specialized in the same transient way of thinking that motors consumerism and marketing. They have become less serious and more faddish. Some thinkers, such as Jean Paul Sartre, pop stars in their day, quickly fell from the popular and academic imagination, to be replaced by the next round of thinkers hoping to cast aside Western civilization in another supposedly novel way.

Rather than the love of wisdom, philo-sophia, we have an anti-wisdom, a constant attempt at “correcting” the civilization in which philosophers no longer believe. Padgett and Wilkens keenly identify this “loss of the center” and “sense of anarchy” in philosophy.

The Frenchman Henri Bergson (1859-1941), the most famous philosopher of his day, has largely been forgotten. Influenced by Edmund Husserl, he tried to combine science with a vague post-Christian spirituality, as noted by Padgett and Wilkens:

“By intuition we grasp the dynamic, temporal aspect of reality which mathematics and science are incapable of communicating. This intuition is qualitative, while intelligence is quantitative. Intuition grants us knowledge of the most basic aspect of reality: its constant flux.”

This grew into the existentialism of other thinkers, but in its own right attempted to make sense of a world profoundly and rapidly changed by science and technology. People looked less and less to Christianity for answers, and fused science, philosophy, and spirituality. Bergson's thought, foreshadowing twentieth-century philosophy, contains an uneasiness with scientific and industrial progress, which led him to identify other forms of knowledge besides scientific without having to return to the old Christian model.

Philosophers such as the Englishman Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) rejected the all-encompassing German-inspired philosophical systems of the nineteenth century and turned to the close analysis of language, “to the circumstances in which truth can be expressed,” Padgett and Wilkens note. Russell was a famous atheist, penning the essay, “Why I Am Not a Christian” in 1927.

Yet he couldn't escape the need for certainty, and chose logic, math, and science to replace God. He limited his thinking about the world to one possibility, a rational, scientific worldview that did not consider any higher or spiritual forms of thinking. This typifies most of the century's philosophers.

Russell also attacked religion from a moral perspective, claiming that belief slows progress in scientific knowledge and in ethics, pointing to the Church's condemnation of Galileo and to the Crusades. These ideas eventually became widespread among the general public, and dominate the intellectual landscape today through the writings of such atheists as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Russell (like Dawkins) refused to admit that science had been used for evil, especially in his century.

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), widely remembered for his adherence to Nazism, has often been called the father of existentialism, though he disliked other existentialists. Influenced by his Catholic upbringing, he focused on Being in his writings, coming to the now-widespread belief that “Neither philosophy nor science is pure, abstract or neutral.” This challenged Russell's hopes for certainty in the sciences and logic.

This limited view of the sciences led Heidegger to a more spiritual search for the truth, but one that followed the Western emphasis on the individual. For Heidegger, “there is no 'generic' form of being.... Rather, each person owns their particular way of life, their own Dasein, within the manifold possibilities for human Being.”

Christianity & Western Thought is at its best in simplifying the complex, abstract, easily misunderstood thinking of philosophers such as Heidegger.

Heidegger also turned to the notion of authenticity, something that Sartre and other existentialists would likewise do. As individuals, we are confronted with choices that make us authentic or inauthentic: We either follow the herd or become our own independent person.

This idea led Sartre to dwell on the fearsome notion that we are alone in the universe and that freedom means that there is no true essence to being. Thus, modern philosophy reaches an absurd degree of separation between the individual and society, to the point where British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would, years later, remark, “There is no society,” and where Sartre himself had written, “Hell is other people.”

Unhinged from the truth of its Christian past, Western philosophy also unhinged the individual from society and tradition, something sketched out quite well in Christianity & Western Thought. The book concludes with the French deconstructionists Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.

Foucault saw illegitimate power coursing through history, rather than seeing structures that maintain community. Society's very institutions were about power alone, the hospital and the prison looking similar because they are both power institutions. Following Nietzsche and the “will to power” mentality, “Foucault makes the radical claim that divisions between truth and untruth, good and evil, pleasure and unhappiness, are always already implicit systems of power and individuation,” the authors note.

Padgett and Wilkens offer readers a good analysis of the modern/post-modern drift into nihilism and the fragmentation of culture at its highest levels.

Christianity & Western Thought includes much on the Christian perspective, including those theologians such as Karl Barth and Karl Rahner, who were at pains to speak to modern philosophy in their own theological reflections. While Padgett and Wilkens include a section on Thomistic theologians, such as Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain, they give this discussion short shrift, considering how important John Paul II's Fides et ratio has become to modern Catholic thinking. Catholic thinking just might end up being the ticket out of the West's intellectual morass, and needs to be developed further.

Except for this too-limited view of the wealth of Catholic philosophy in the century, the book is a hearty introduction to a most important, influential topic.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

On This Day in Christian History

By Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Much of On This Day tells the story of American history, and of how Christians played an enormous role in building the country. Their efforts sometimes seemed to exceed human capacity, as with Samuel Berry, who "worked tirelessly," making brooms in the day and working the fields until 2 a.m.

Readers can begin to appreciate, in other words, how much poorer their country would be without Christian sacrifice.

Other stories familiar to fans of Christian history are told, such as German Emperor Henry IV kneeling in the snow in repentance outside the castle of Canossa, begging the pope, Gregory VII, for forgiveness and reconciliation, something that Gregory, as a priest, was obliged to give.

Thus Robert Morgan offers readers American Christian history, Protestantism's beginnings, and the ancient persecutions of the Christians. He shows both sides of things. Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli had to fight many obstacles to achieve his reforming work in Geneva, yet Anabaptists were persecuted, even to death, by the Genevans under Zwingli's nose. He was both a victim and an agent of persecution.

The success of people such as Eric Liddell, who would become a prisoner of war in China from 1943-5, when he died, started each day in prayer and Bible reading. This was the source of his great strength and ministry to the other POWs.

This faith contrasts, the author notes, with the faith in reason for which the French Revolution is famous: "Liberty, equality, and fraternity deteriorated into fear, bloodshed, and the guillotine," he writes. Readers get a sense of the importance of faith to the building of people's lives.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Christian & Western Thought: A History of Philosophers, Ideas, and Movements

By Alan G. Padgett and Steve Wilkens, 388 pages, Intervarsity Press.

Christian & Western Thought, Padgett and Wilkens show that twentieth-century philosophy was deeply marked by the violence of 2 world wars and the rejection of the Christian past. The violent political and economic anarchy led many thinkers to reject any wide-ranging belief system. Skepticism of religion and philosophy itself became the byword.

Early in the century many philosophers, such as members of the Vienna School, adhered to scientism, according to which, "Science is the best, or only, form of rational knowledge," Padgett and Wilkens write. This group also believed in logic as a "pure instrument" to analyze language.

This exemplifies how philosophy became more and more enamored, even obsessed, with humans, and less concerned about God, eternal truth, and the meaning of creation and of life itself. These overarching questions were rejected for human-related concerns such as the relationship between language and reality.

Throughout the twentieth century, the scientific outlook influenced the way people thought. The social sciences, such as sociology and psychology, claimed to be sciences. They asserted that humans are a scientific rather than metaphysical subject to be studied like any other thing from nature. Philosophy led the way in the objectification of humans, though many Catholic thinkers such as Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson opposed this.

Christian & Western Thought gives a sneak peak at Catholic thought, especially Thomism, though the book's authors are unfortunately more enamored with secular thinkers. A longer discussion of papal thinking, such as John Paul II's Fides et ratio, which explores the tension between faith and reason, would have enriched the analysis.

The 2 world wars led to a drastic change in thinking. The French philosopher Albert Camus based his outlook on the belief that life is absurd; our only choice is rebellion. Like many thinkers of the century, he rejected the Enlightenment's idea that reason and science could solve all our problems, as Padgett and Wilkens note:

"Absurdity is what happens when this irrational world is inhabited by humans who attempt to subject it to rational thought. Our reason strives for understanding and unity, and the world thwarts this desire."

Christian & Western Thought sketches Martin Heidegger's life and philosophy quite well. Heidegger illustrates the struggles of philosophy, especially in its relationship with the tumultuous twentieth century. He joined the Nazis, probably fully aware of their murderous program, and saw himself as its spiritual or philosophical mind. He struggled throughout the 1930s with their violence, and later claimed that he knew nothing of their real plans. After the war, he isolated himself in his mountain chalet, focusing on mysticism and writing dense, unclear works.

Yet at bottom his concerns were the same as many: he rejected the technological reordering of society. First his solution was Nazism, and then withdrawal from academia and the world. In both decisions, we see the hopelessness of a philosopher who has rejected his society's Christian roots, which is an undercurrent of much of the philosophy discussed in Christian & Western Thought.