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Fortinbras Armstrong

Profile Information

Gender: Male
Hometown: Suburban Chicago
Home country: UK
Current location: Suburban Chicago
Member since: Thu Apr 12, 2012, 09:54 AM
Number of posts: 2,942

About Me

Retired computer security expert/programmer. Married for 40 years, three sons, two dogs. Interested in history, music, religion -- mostly Catholic -- and cooking. MA in History of Religion (Harvard) and MS in Computer Science (U of Wisconsin).

Journal Archives

Mostly books on spiritual growth

The Confessions of St. Augustine, which details how he came to faith. I was also struck by Augustine's quite graceful Latin style. (The translation by Henry Chadwick is good if you do not read Latin.)

Apologia Pro Vita Sua -- either "a defense of his life" or "an explanation of his life" -- by Cardinal Newman. In the 1860s, Charles Kingsley (best known for the novel The Water-Babies) attacked Newman for repeatedly saying one thing at one time, and another -- even the opposite -- at another time. Newman wrote about how he grew spiritually and intellectually, explaining how and why he came to change his mind on various subjects. Considerably later, and in quite different circumstances, G. K. Chesterton wrote, "A man may well be less convinced of a philosophy from four books, than from one book, one battle, one landscape, and one old friend." This echoes throughout Newman's Apologia.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship. About what the Christian is called to do if his or her claim to being a Christian is genuine. Bonhoeffer himself was executed by the Nazis, basically because he took his Christianity seriously. The section on "cheap grace" is particularly noteworthy.

Several books by Thomas Merton, especially Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, which taught me much about Christian mysticism; and Zen and the Birds of Appetite, which introduced me to Zen.

One not on spiritual growth is Papal Sin by Garry Wills. This is about honesty and the lack of it in the Vatican. It confirmed many of my own ideas -- basically that all too often, the papacy does not teach or preach honestly. I know Wills, and he and I see eye-to-eye on this subject. (Wills, interestingly enough, is quite conservative politically. But I forgive him his lapse in judgment.)
Posted by Fortinbras Armstrong | Tue Jun 3, 2014, 09:41 AM (0 replies)

"So, basically, the Church condemned Galileo because he was a pain in the ass."

Actually, that is a perfectly legitimate statement.

Galileo told a longstanding friend of his, Pope Urban VIII, that he was going to write on the Ptolemaic system versus the Copernican system in his Dialogue on the Two World Systems. Urban, who was well aware that Galileo was an advocate of heliocentrism, asked (not ordered, asked) Galileo to treat the geocentric model with respect and not ridicule. When Galileo did not do this, Urban was displeased. Moreover, Galileo quoted Urban, and put Urban's words in the mouth of a man named Simplicius -- "simpleton" is a good translation. Naturally, Urban really did not appreciate being called an idiot in print. So he had Galileo called before the Papal Inquisition to explain himself. Remember that Henry VIII of England had people executed for less.)

Before I go on, let me say a few words about the Papal Inquisition. Don't confuse it with the Spanish Inquisition, a wholly separate organization. The name Inquisition comes from the Latin inquirere -- to look into, or to examine ("inquire" is from the same root). In the Papal Inquisition, defendants had such things as the right to counsel, the right to be told the specific charges against them and their property would not be seized by the Inquisition. Torture was permitted, but only when specifically authorized by the Pope or the head of the Inquisition (at that time, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine) and was to be used only once.

One thing that should be pointed out is that a major part of the Dialogue on the Two World Systems was concerned with a basically flawed theory about tides. Galileo believed that tides were caused by the sloshing back and forth of water in the seas as a point on the Earth's surface sped up and slowed down because of the Earth's rotation on its axis and revolution around the Sun. He advanced this theory because Cardinal Bellarmine called for evidence that the Earth circled the Sun, and Galileo thought this would suffice. Unfortunately for him, the theory is flat-out wrong, and could be shown to be wrong -- for one thing, it said that there should be only one high tide per day, not two. Galileo clearly knew of this problem, but essentially blew it off.

Another thing that should be pointed out is that the Vatican assigned two Jesuits, Christoph Scheiner and Orazio Grassi, to look into Galileo's science. Both had solid credentials as astronomers. However, Galileo had managed to alienate both of them. Schiener was one of the first astronomers to observe sunspots and was, as far as he knew, the first to describe them in a scientific paper. (In fact, the first paper on sunspots was published the previous year by David Fabricius, but his paper was unknown outside of Germany.) Galileo attempted to grab the glory of having first seen sunspots from Scheiner, and compounded this by plagiarizing Scheiner in his own paper.

Grassi and Galileo disagreed on the nature of comets. What made things worse was that Grassi was right and Galileo was wrong. Grassi had observed a comet over a period of time, and had noticed that the moon moved faster in the sky than the comet did; Grassi reasonably (and correctly) assumed that the comet was further from the earth than the moon was. Galileo believed that they were optical illusions in the atmosphere. After several rounds of argument in various pamphlets, Galileo wrote an essay, Il Saggiatore -- "The Assayer" -- attacking Grassi and his theory. This essay is still taught in Italian schools as a masterpiece of polemical writing. Naturally, having been held up to ridicule, Grassi was no friend to Galileo.

No, calling Galileo a pain in the arse is founded solidly on the facts.
Posted by Fortinbras Armstrong | Wed Mar 12, 2014, 01:25 PM (0 replies)


I posted this in another thread, and a couple of people said it should be an OP

I have maintained for years that libertarians can only maintain their ideology through ignorance of history, economics, politics and the real world. Real world problems needing practical solutions. In the US, that was the reason for such things as the EPA, the FDA, the SEC, Social Security and so on -- all set up to deal with real problems. Are they perfect? Of course not, this is the real world, after all.

Libertarianism is superficially appealing, but it does not stand up to even the slightest scrutiny. Here are some quotations from the platform of the New Jersey Libertarian Party:

Individuals who are unable to fully support themselves and their families through the job market must learn to rely on supportive family, religious institution, community, or private charity to bridge the gap.

Whoever wrote this does not know why government got into social welfare. It was because in too many cases, "family, religious institution, community, or private charity" was unable to do what was necessary.

We support repeal of minimum wage laws, mandatory state unemployment insurance and disability insurance, so-called “protective labor” legislation for women and children, and governmental restrictions on the operation of private day-care centers. We should eliminate the government’s role in the social-welfare system, including AFDC, DYFS, Food Stamps, and subsidized housing.

In other words, go back to the bad old days of the 12-hour work day, child labor, and Dotheboys Hall. The person who wrote this obviously does not give a damn about others, nor does he know why the laws he rails against were passed. For example, when then-President Theodore Roosevelt read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, he sent a couple of men to Chicago to see if Sinclair was exaggerating about conditions in the meat packing industry. They reported that, if anything, Sinclair understated things. The Pure Food and Drug Act followed shortly afterwards.

Rather than making taxpayers pay for toxic waste cleanups, the polluters should be held liable for material damage done by them. This includes, but is not limited to, any adverse health consequences as well as cleanup and remediation.

Sounds good in theory, but let me give a specific example. In the 1920s, on the boundary between Geneva and St Charles, Illinois, there was a factory which produced watches with radium dials. The company went out of business in the 1930s, and the factory was demolished. About 25 years ago, it was discovered that the soil around the old factory was polluted with radioactive compounds, which were leeching into the groundwater. Now, who is to clean up this pollution? The company which caused it no longer exists. The people who currently live near there simply can't afford it.

We oppose government control of resource use through eminent domain, zoning laws, building codes, rent control, regional planning, urban renewal, or purchase of development rights with tax money. Such regulations and programs violate property rights, discriminate against minorities, create housing shortages, and tend to cause higher rents.

So if I decide to put a hog farm on my suburban property -- currently forbidden by zoning laws -- there is no way to stop me. Once more, the person who wrote this is unable to think through what his idiotic declaration actually means.

We call for the dissolution of all government agencies concerned with transportation, including the New Jersey Department of Transportation, and the transfer of their legitimate functions to competitive private firms.

So the street passing in front of my house should become a toll road?

We call for an end to all forms of government intrusion into family life.

So if I beat my wife and children, the government cannot stop me. The next paragraph says "We call for the repeal of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act of 1991"

We call for the abolition of the juvenile court system. Juveniles should be held fully responsible for their crimes but they should not be prosecuted for offenses that are only offenses by virtue of their youth.

So ten-year-olds should be treated as adults. Bring back the days of hanging children as pickpockets.

We advocate the complete separation of education and the state, and believe that government ownership, operation, regulation, and subsidy of schools should be ended.

A great example of libertarian ignorance of history. Public schools were started so that everyone could get an education. Apparently, the libertarian who wrote this thinks that having an educated populace is A Bad Thing.

We oppose government attempts to regulate private discrimination, including discrimination in employment, housing, and privately-owned so-called public accommodation. The right to trade includes the right not to trade — for any reasons whatsoever.

So if a privately owned hospital wants to deny you treatment because you're gay, that's fine with them. "No dogs or Jews allowed." "No n*ggers will be served." Libertarians claim they believe racism is bad, but also believe that having the government do something about it is worse. In other words, they actually support racism.

Libertarians claim that the sort of discrimination would disappear when the people practicing the discrimination understood that it was not profitable, it would disappear. The appropriate term for this is "wishful thinking".

We support a clean and healthy environment and sensible use of our natural resources. Private landowners and conservation groups have a vested interest in maintaining natural resources. Pollution and misuse of resources cause damage to our ecosystem. Governments, unlike private businesses, are unaccountable for such damage done to our environment and have a terrible track record when it comes to environmental protection. Protecting the environment requires a clear definition and enforcement of individual rights in resources like land, water, air, and wildlife. Free markets and property rights stimulate the technological innovations and behavioral changes required to protect our environment and ecosystems. We realize that our planet's climate is constantly changing, but environmental advocates and social pressure are the most effective means of changing public behavior.

Before passage of the Clean Water Act and creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio used to catch on fire because of pollution. It wasn't corporations or the free market that cleaned up the Cuyahoga, it was the government. So their pretense that government "has a terrible track record when it comes to environmental protection" is a lie. Libertarians saying that corporations would act to clean up their own pollution is simply more evidence that libertarians prefer fantasy over reality.

Here is one of my favorite bits:

The individual's right to privacy, property, and right to speak or not to speak should not be infringed by the government. The government should not use electronic or other means of covert surveillance of an individual's actions or private property without the consent of the owner or occupant. Correspondence, bank and other financial transactions and records, doctors' and lawyers' communications, employment records, and the like should not be open to review by government without the consent of all parties involved in those actions.

If they really mean what this seems to say, then seeking documentary evidence of criminal acts would be impossible, since a suspect would have absolute veto power over any searches. Libertarians claim to oppose fraud, but the person who wrote that -- and the members of the party who passed that platform -- clearly do not mean it when they say it.

The late Iain Banks defined libertarianism as "A simple-minded right-wing ideology ideally suited to those unable or unwilling to see past their own sociopathic self-regard."
Posted by Fortinbras Armstrong | Mon Jan 13, 2014, 03:07 PM (12 replies)

Actually, the Just War Theory says a lot more than that

Augustine of Hippo, circa 400, considered the question, "Under what criteria can war be morally justified?" He drew up a series of criteria, called "Just War Theory," all of which must be satisfied to make a morally acceptable war. The first set covers the declaration of war, or jus ad bellum.

• Legitimate Authority. Essentially, only a legitimate government may declare war. This disqualifies revolutionaries or terrorists. Whenever I have mentioned this in a class, at least one student will say that this one means that the American Revolution was not a just war. I quote Patrick Henry, "If this be treason, let us make the most of it" and Benjamin Franklin's "We must all hang together, or most assuredly we will all hang separately."

• Just Cause. This disallows war for economic gain, land seizure or strategic position. Self defense is generally accepted as a just cause.

• Proportionality. For Sylvania to go to war with Freedonia because of a minor violation would be unjust. Consider the War of Jenkins' Ear.

• Probability of Success. You cannot lead your country into a war it has no chance of winning. National suicide is inherently unjust.

• Last Resort. Every possible effort should be made to settle differences without war.

After the war starts, it must be conducted justly, jus in bello.

• Discrimination. The acts of war should be directed towards the inflictors of the wrong, and not towards civilians caught in the middle. Prohibited acts include bombing civilian areas with no legitimate military targets. Acts of terrorism or reprisal against ordinary civilians. Many believe that weapons of mass destruction for any reason (such as the use of an atomic bomb) are forbidden.

• Proportionality. The force used must be proportional to the wrong committed, and to any possible good outcome.

• Minimum Force. Excessive and unnecessary death and destruction must be avoided. It differs from proportionality because the force proportionate to the goal may exceed the force necessary to accomplish it.

Brian Orend, from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, wrote an article, "Justice after War". This article suggests an additional set of criteria governing the ending of a war and the immediate post-war period, jus post bellum.

• Just cause for termination. A state should end a war if there has been a reasonable vindication of the rights that were violated and if the aggressor is willing to negotiate. The terms of surrender may include a formal apology, compensation, war crimes trials and perhaps rehabilitation.

• Right intention. Revenge is not permitted. Also, the victor must investigate and punish war crimes committed by its own armed forces.

• Proper authority. The peace terms must be set out by a legitimate authority, and the terms accepted by a legitimate authority.

• Discrimination. The victor must differentiate between political and military leaders, and between combatants and civilians. Punitive measures are to be limited to those directly responsible for the war and its conduct.

• Proportionality. The surrender terms must be proportional to the wrongs that set off the war. Draconian measures, absolutionist crusades and attempts to deny the losers the right to participate in the world are not permitted.

This just touches the surface of what is actually a quite complex subject.

Incidentally, no war in history has met all the criteria for a just war.
Posted by Fortinbras Armstrong | Mon Sep 9, 2013, 07:36 AM (1 replies)

Augustine of Hippo and sex

In another thread in this group, some statements were made about Augustine of Hippo's views on sex. I promised a thread on it, but first I had to reread De Bono Conjugali and parts of the Confessions.

As a young man, Augustine had managed a neat piece of doublethink, he was simultaneously a Manichee and a hedonist. For those one or two of you unfamiliar with Manichaeism, it was a gnostic, dualistic religion, which means that secret knowledge (gnosis in Greek) was required for salvation; and that there was a struggle between the good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness.

Manecheism started with the Problem of Evil, by saying that the good power (God) was opposed by the evil power (Satan). Humanity is the battleground for these powers, under the influence of both light and dark. Neither the Earth nor the flesh are intrinsically evil, but rather consist of both light and dark. Evil is a flawed creation God took no role in forming, the result of Satan striking out against God. There is a decent introduction to Manecheism on Wikipedia. Most Manichees believed that creating new life was acting on behalf of Satan, so they practiced what the Catholic Church would nowadays call "Natural Family Planning", AKA the Rhythm Method.

After his conversion to Christianity, Augustine became hostile to the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake. He saw excessive pleasure seeking as a distraction in what should be one's true purpose, the search for union with God.

He was flat-out wrong when he wrote that the original sin of Adam and Eve had introduced a fundamental disorder into human sexual desire. Augustine believed that Adam and Eve's choice to disobey God had led to disobedience within their own bodies. Sexual desire, because it operates independently of the human mind and will, became for Augustine a symptom of the sinful human attempt to assert autonomy against God. The result of the original sin, Augustine argued, was that human beings lost control even over themselves. When one Pelagian attacked him on this point, Augustine became almost obsessed with demonstrating the supposed linkage between sex and sin. (Note, I am not going to go into the Pelagians, since their beliefs do not really enter into this discussion. I may bring them up later in this thread.)

The starting point of any discussion of Augustine's views on sex and marriage must be his personal experience, at least in so far as that experience is presented to us and interpreted by Augustine himself in the Confessions. There he observed that his youthful sex drive led him to confuse the search for love and friendship with the satisfaction of his sexual desires: "The bubbling impulses of puberty befogged and obscured my heart so that it could not see the difference between love's serenity and lust's darkness." What is not often noted is that Augustine blames his parents for not arranging an early marriage for him. "That would have transformed to good purpose the fleeting experience of beauty in these lowest things, and fixed limits to indulgence in their charms. Then the stormy waves of my youth would have finally broken on the shore of marriage" (2.2.3). Marriage would have provided a disciplined way of life in which sexual desire could be directed towards producing and raising children -- something which Augustine praised. In book 6, he noted that at the time he failed to appreciate the value of marriage. When speaking to a friend,

Neither of us acknowledged that the beauty of having a wife lies in the obligation to respect the discipline of marriage and to bring up children. To a large extent what held me captive and tormented me was the habit of satisfying with vehement intensity an insatiable sexual desire.

Augustine says that if his desires had been directed towards procreation within a legitimate marriage, then something good would have come of them. The problem, as Augustine saw it, was that the "concupiscence of the flesh" had led him to seek sexual satisfaction just for its own sake: apart from love, apart from permanent commitment, and, above all, apart from procreation. He saw marriage as a legitimate way to manage the difficulties presented by unrestrained desires.

At the heart of Augustine's treatise De Bono Conjugali -- "On the Good of Marriage" -- was his teaching that there are three distinct "goods" in marriage: the procreation of children, the fidelity of the couple, and the sacramental bond. It was not at all unusual in the ancient world to see procreation as the primary purpose of marriage. It was a typical view in Augustine's day that the household should serve as the foundation of the city, while the city served as the foundation of the empire. Augustine drew on this tradition in the opening paragraph of De Bono Conjugali, where he presented marriage as fundamental to human community:

Every human being is part of the human race, and human nature is a social reality and possesses a great and natural good, the power of friendship. For this reason God wished to create all human beings from one, so that they would be held together in their social relationships not only by the similarity of race, but also by the bond of kinship. Therefore, the first natural bond of human society is the union of husband and wife.

Augustine's starting point is significant, for he grounds the marital relationship, and sexual reproduction in particular, in the social nature of the human race. From the beginning, God intended human community to be knit together by the closest possible bond, that of blood relationship. Therefore, God determined that sexual reproduction should be the natural means of producing individuals who were, quite literally, born for friendship in community. This, Augustine says, was the significance of God's taking of Eve from Adam's side. It signified the union of two people who walk side by side, with their eyes fixed ahead of them, focused on the same goal.

By starting his discussion of marriage with this emphasis on the social character of humanity and the social value of friendship, Augustine linked sexual intercourse and procreation to God's original intention at the beginning of creation. This might not sound surprising to us today, but many of Augustine's contemporaries tended to see sexuality as an inessential adjunct to human nature, something made necessary only because of the first sin. Many early Christians believed that sex was introduced only after the fall had led to death and made the reproduction of humanity necessary. Augustine did not agree. Rather, he saw sexual union and the procreation as natural and God-given. In Augustine said in his De Genisi ad Litteram (this title does not translate well; literally it's "On Genesis to the Letter", and a common translation is "The Literal Meaning of Genesis"), the "original blessing" which God bestowed on the first human beings, to "increase and multiply," is a blessing that has never been revoked, despite the sin and punishment of the human race.

Another implication of Augustine's emphasis on the social character of humanity is that while sex and procreation are good, they are not ends in themselves; they exist, rather, as the means to make friendship possible, which he describes as a good to be sought for its own sake. Sex is a "good necessary for the sake of something else," as he puts it. In other words, friendship and community are the primary goods, and sexual activity is a means to these ends. No matter how much Augustine insisted (especially in his later writings) that original sin damaged human nature, he maintained that sexual union itself and procreation were the good creations of a good Creator.

He wrote in De Bono Conjugali:

Marriages also have the benefit that sensual or youthful incontinence, even though it is wrong, is redirected to the honorable purpose of having children, and so out of the evil of lust sexual union in marriage achieves something good. Furthermore, parental feeling brings about a moderation in sexual desire, since it is held back and in a certain way burns more modestly. For a kind of dignity attaches to the ardor of the pleasure, when in the act whereby man and woman come together with each other, they have the thought of being father and mother.

Here Augustine states a theme often overlooked by those who see him as entirely hostile to sexual activity. He clearly regards sexual intercourse between married persons, when engaged in for the sake of procreation, as something good. The good consists not only in the production of children, but also in a change that occurs within desire itself. The evil of unrestrained sexual desire can be directed towards a good purpose when the intent is procreation.

Augustine suggests that procreation is necessary for the health of the human race, just as food is necessary for the health of the individual. "Neither activity is devoid of pleasure for the senses, and when this is regulated and put to its natural use under the restraint of moderation, it cannot be lust." In his review of his writings at the end of his career, the Retractions, Augustine provided an explanation: "I said this because the good and right use of 'lust' is not 'lust.' For just as it is evil to use good things in the wrong way, so it is good to use evil things in the right way." Although Augustine asserted that there was something "evil" about unrestrained sexual desire, he maintained that in respect to intercourse within marriage, the evil of lust ceased to be evil when it was directed to its proper purpose, procreation.

But procreation was not the only good of marriage that Augustine treated. There is a second good, which Augustine called fides -- "fidelity" or "faithfulness". Fidelity had several meanings for Augustine. It includes the rudimentary faithfulness that all married people owe each other, the duty to abstain from adultery. Fidelity is also the positive duty of married persons to engage in sex in order to help each other avoid adultery. Augustine spoke not of sex for the purpose of procreation, but of sex purely to satisfy desire. Such fidelity, Augustine wrote, is "a great good of the soul, even when manifested in the small and insignificant matters of the body." He does say, however, that such use of sex is venially sinful.

Augustine's point was that fidelity is a good quality of human relationships even in a context in which evil is present. In the case of a man and a woman, this fidelity establishes a union that can legitimately be considered a marriage, even if there is no intention to have children. Here Augustine took a stand virtually unique among early Christian writers. He acknowledged the value of a relationship that had come into being purely out of a desire for sexual pleasure, and not for procreation. He even called it a "marriage." What made such a marriage good, Augustine indicated, was the good of fidelity. "For the reason why such couples were married," he wrote, "was so that concupiscence itself might be directed towards a legitimate bond and not flow in a disordered or haphazard way. Concupiscence in itself has the unrestrained weakness of the flesh, but from marriage it receives the permanent bond of fidelity; in itself it leads to unrestrained intercourse, but from marriage it has the restraint of chaste procreation."

In this remarkable passage Augustine suggests that the good of fidelity can be present even if the couple's primary aim is not to produce children, but simply to enjoy sexual pleasure. Fidelity is "a sort of mutual servitude," in which spouses agree to support each other in their weakness. Augustine distinguished between the spouse who seeks to have intercourse primarily out of sexual desire and the spouse who agrees to have intercourse primarily out of the duty of fidelity. The one who acts out of lust (that is, out of greed or selfishness) is guilty of what he calls a "forgivable fault." But the one who engages in sex to support his or her partner is acting out of love and compassion, therefore, no sin is involved.

In addition to the good of procreation and the good of fidelity, Augustine spoke of a third good in marriage, the "sacrament." Augustine was one of the first Christian writers to use the language of "sacrament" in regard to marriage, although his usage of the term is different from the later Catholic idea of the seven sacraments. For Augustine, "sacrament" was related to the Greek word mysterion, or "mystery," which was translated as sacramentum in early Latin versions of the bible. A sacrament was a "mystery" in the sense of a sacred symbol, and the term was frequently applied to liturgical rites, as well as to the symbolic or allegorical interpretation of scripture. In Ephesians 5:31-32, Paul quotes the words of Genesis 2:24 ("A man will leave his mother and father and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh") and then said that the marital union was a "mystery" (or "sacrament") which referred to Christ and the church.

Perhaps the most important feature of Augustine's notion of the "sacrament" in marriage is that it is a way to think about a transcendent significance in human relationships. For Augustine, Christian marriages were meant to be indissoluble because they symbolized a unity that transcended their own fragile humanity, a unity that is realized fully only in the kingdom of God. Augustine's notion of the sacrament in marriage, therefore, acknowledged that of all human relationships marriage was the one that was capable of bearing a unique meaning in salvation history. Put simply, the "sacrament" in marriage meant that marriage was an eschatological sign, a sign of the ultimate unity of God and humanity, as embodied in the union of Christ and the Church.
Posted by Fortinbras Armstrong | Thu May 9, 2013, 08:38 AM (11 replies)

James Joyce defined Catholicism as

"Here comes everyone!"

Catholics are, all too often, lacking in humility and charity. We argue. We fight. We wrangle. But, to each of us, this faith of ours is worth fighting over. It is a major part of what we are. And, in our passions, we sometimes get so angry and so frustrated that we forget the Christian virtues that we should be practicing. For all of us, most certainly including myself, who have fallen short of the Christian ideal, I wish to apologize.

As far as leaving the Church, I am sometimes tempted to do just that. I was originally baptised into the Anglican Church, and I sometimes wonder if I would be happier there. (I hear one or two people saying "Yes, why don't you go there?") So why do I stay? As Tevye in the opening to Fiddler on the Roof says, "We stay, because Anatevka is our home." And the Catholic Church is my home. My favorite definition of "home" is from Robert Frost's poem, "The Death of the Hired Man":

"Home is the place where,
When you have to go there,
They have to take you in."

And where would I go if I were to leave? In John 6:67-68, Jesus asks the apostles "'Do you also want to leave?' Simon Peter answered him, 'Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.'"

The Church is my family. A large, sometimes dysfunctional, often unruly family. A family of drunks and liars, whores and advertising men (but I repeat myself), saints who make people wonder how they ever got canonized (read about Cyril of Alexandria sometime -- if you would like me to post on him, just ask).

I stay because I sometimes get glimpses of Jesus in my fellow Catholics -- enough glimpses to keep me hungering for more and also keep me convinced that this is the path that I must follow if I am to see Jesus eternally. I stay because I do find enough faith, hope, and especially love to sustain me on my pilgrimage along that path. Is it always easy? No, of course not. I often stumble. I sometimes get angry at the officious bureaucracy of the Church, who seem to be far more interested in power than they are in love. I often get angry with my fellow Christians for not living up to the ideals that they profess. I get angry with myself for the same reasons. Sometimes I get angry with God, who is the Malek Haolam -- the master of the universe --but seems to be doing a rotten job of running the place.

The Apostle Paul put it: "Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice!" (Phillipians 4:4) I do not rejoice always -- I have far too many demons infesting my soul to permit this -- but I rejoice enough of the time that it is worth staying the course.
Posted by Fortinbras Armstrong | Tue Apr 2, 2013, 11:28 AM (0 replies)

It's an old question

This is taken from an essay I wrote in graduate school.

The classic New Testament account of judgment is Matthew 25:31-46. This is full of apocalyptic imagery, with Jesus as judge. He is arbiter of the fate of those who appear before him; and their attitude towards him determines their fate. Elsewhere, people’s destiny hinges on their faith in Jesus, on their witness to him, and on their fraternal love. Here, however, charity towards the needy is love for Jesus himself. While the wording suggests that the text originally referred to members of the Christian community, the context extends it to the whole world. Matthew 25 is central to the notion of "anonymous Christians," those who, never having heard the Gospel, nevertheless struggle to live its ideals.

The earlier Jewish writings have nothing similar to the punishments associated with hell. In the Old Testament, the spirits of both good and bad people inhabit a nether world, Sheol, in a pallid, shadowy existence. Punishment for Israel's enemies was an old idea, but this was a direct, immediate, and earthly punishment. The idea that there would be retribution for all the wicked came later, during the Hellenistic period, when personal immortality was accepted.

Then, the image of everlasting fire came to describe the punishment of the wicked. The apochryphal book of Judith has "Woe to the nations that rise against my people! The Lord Almighty will requite them; on the day of judgment he will punish them: He will send fire and worms into their flesh, and they shall burn and suffer forever." The New Testament picks up this imagery: "Anyone whose name was not found in the book of life was hurled into the pool of burning fire." (Revelation 20:15) In the second century, Justin Martyr argued that hell fire is eternal, otherwise there would be no sanctions regulating one's life.

In the third century, Origen maintained the opposite view. He denied hell, feeling that it frustrates God's plan of universal salvation, and thus is repugnant to a God of love. Origen's central idea is the restoration of all things in Christ. At death, the souls of sinners enter a purifying fire where they are cleansed and restored. Although Origen taught that when this restoration occurred, it would be the result of the sinner’s conversion; his ideas were repeatedly condemned.

Origen’s "universalism" -- all people are saved -- is at best a minority opinion, at worst considered heresy. Many Church fathers in the East and West, medieval theologians, and Catholics and Protestants from the Reformation to the present held that most are damned. Augustine in particular championed this view, maintaining that original sin condemns us all. He cited texts such as "Many are called, few are chosen" (Matthew 22:14) and "Many … will try to enter and will be unable." (Luke 13:24) See Augustine's The City of God, book 11.

Modern theologians are less eager to condemn everyone. Some present a version of universalism; while others, who accept an eternal hell, question if anyone is actually there. The late Anglican Bishop John A T Robinson acknowledges that judgment is necessary, but argues that its only function is to show God's mercy, which thus renders judgment superfluous. That a human could resist divine love and frustrate God’s will is unthinkable. To admit the possibility that some persons may be lost is for Robinson an impossible concession to a power outside God.

It is hard to reconcile this with human freedom. Free will implies the choice of eternal separation from God. If God overrides our free decisions, then freedom is a sham. If there is a connection between our acts in this world and our fate in the next, we must be allowed to make even a wrong choice in something so definitive as our final destiny. The late Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner gives the common position when he says that a time comes when each person either ratifies or reverses the fundamental choice lived throughout life, and accepts the consequences. C S Lewis agrees: "There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, 'Thy will be done.' All that are in Hell, choose it." (The Great Divorce, p 69)

Whatever the torments of hell may be (fire is obviously a metaphor), they are not tortures imposed by a vindictive judge. Modern psychology is more helpful than medieval penology in understanding the suffering of the damned. Hell is a projection of the person, not a punishment imposed for sins (perhaps) bitterly and belatedly regretted. Hell is an extreme narcissism turning the sinner in on self and causing unending turmoil and frustration. Hell is estrangement from God and alienation from the created universe -- a renunciation of love. The suffering of hell is compounded, according to Augustine, because God continues to love the sinner, who is not able to return this love.

Although modern theologians differ on the possibility of an eternal hell, they generally agree that God wills to save all humanity. This is a departure from the Augustinian tradition of salvation only for the few. Jesus said at the Last Supper: "This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, to be poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." (Matthew 26:28) The reference to the "many" must be interpreted in the broader context of Paul’s classic witness to God’s will: "I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgiving be offered for all men … Prayer of this kind is good, and God our savior is pleased with it, for he wants all men to be saved and to come and know the truth. And the truth is this: God is one, one also is the mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all." (1 Timothy 2:1, 3-6)

Would the coming of the Son of Man represent a triumph over sin and hell in any significant way if most of the human race is lost?
Posted by Fortinbras Armstrong | Mon Mar 25, 2013, 11:53 AM (0 replies)

You're right, it did bring joy.

Here's another, at the Gare du Nord in Paris

But I like the one in Sabadell better.

One more, Verdi in Amsterdam

Posted by Fortinbras Armstrong | Sun Jan 27, 2013, 10:06 AM (0 replies)

If the minister is of the Calvinist tradition

It's quite easy. There is an acrostic, TULIP, that sums up the major points of Calvinism:

T - Total Depravity. Humans are unable to turn to God on their own, and are unable even to perform any good works at all. See Romans 3:10-18

There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one. Their throats are opened graves; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of vipers is under their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery are in their paths, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.

U - Unconditional Election. God chooses those whom he desires to save. This election is without regard to the merit of the individual so chosen. The converse is that God chooses some to be eternally damned, again without regard to the merit of the individual.

L - Limited Atonement. Christ died only for the sins of those he has unconditionally elected.

I - Irresistible Grace. If you are among those chosen to be saved, God's grace is irresistible and you will come to a knowledge of God. In other words, God is like the Borg, "Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated!"

P - Perseverance of the saints. Once you are saved you cannot lose salvation. Interestingly, this doctrine also embraces the idea of a life-long sanctification process.

One of my professors, a Baptist, summed it up as:

T = We're scum.
U = God chooses which scum goes to heaven and which to hell.
L = Jesus died only for the heaven-bound scum.
I = God doesn't give the heaven-bound scum a choice in the matter.
P = Nor does he allow scumminess to interfere with the process.

This makes a bit from Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience to run through my mind:

Take of these elements all that is fusible,
Melt them all down in a pipkin or crucible,
Set them to simmer and take off the scum
And a Heavy Dragoon is the residuum!
Posted by Fortinbras Armstrong | Mon Dec 17, 2012, 12:00 PM (1 replies)

Here's my take on Sheldrake

This is from something I wrote in the mid-1990s.

Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist who brought out his first book, A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation, in 1981. Sheldrake developed his ideas further in The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature (1988) and The Rebirth of Nature: The Greening of Science and God (1991).

His basic argument is that natural systems, or morphic units, at all levels of complexity -- atoms, molecules, crystals, cells, tissues, organs, organisms, and societies of organisms -- are animated, organized, and coordinated by morphogenic fields, which contain an inherent memory. Natural systems inherit this collective memory from all previous things of their kind by a process called morphic resonance, with the result that patterns of development and behaviour become increasingly habitual through repetition. Sheldrake suggests that there is a continuous spectrum of morphogenic fields, including behavioural fields, mental fields, and social and cultural fields.

Morphogenesis -- literally, the "coming into being" (genesis) of "form" (morphe) -- is something of a mystery. How do complex living organisms arise from much simpler structures such as seeds or eggs? How does an acorn manage to grow into an oak tree, or a fertilized human egg into an adult human being? A striking characteristic of living organisms is the capacity to regenerate, ranging from the healing of wounds to the replacement of lost limbs or tails. Organisms are clearly more than just complex machines: no machine has ever been known to grow spontaneously from a machine egg or to regenerate after damage. Unlike machines, organisms are more than the sum of their parts; there is something within them that is purposive, directing their development toward certain goals.

Although modern mechanistic biology grew up in opposition to vitalism -- the doctrine that living organisms are organized by nonmaterial vital factors -- it has introduced purposive organizing principles of its own, in the form of genetic programs. Genetic programs are sometimes likened to computer programs, but whereas computer programs are designed by intelligent beings, genetic programs are supposed to have been thrown together by chance. Sheldrake has suggested that the misleading concept of genetic programs be abandoned in favor of terms such as "internal representation" or "internal description". Exactly what these representations and descriptions are supposed to be has still to be explained.

To Sheldrake, the role of genes is vastly overrated biologists. The genetic code in the DNA molecules determines the sequence of amino acids in proteins; it does not specify the way the proteins are arranged in cells, cells in tissues, tissues in organs, and organs in organisms. As Sheldrake remarks:

Given the right genes and hence the right proteins, and the right systems by which protein synthesis is controlled, the organism is somehow supposed to assemble itself automatically. This is rather like delivering the right materials to a building site at the right times and expecting a house to grow spontaneously.

The fact that all the cells of an organism have the same genetic code yet somehow behave differently and form tissues and organs of different structures suggests to Sheldrake that some formative influence other than DNA must be shaping the developing organs and limbs. (The general consensus among biologists is that this is determined by "homeobox genes", which are a special sort of gene that controls such things -- and there is considerable experimental evidence for this consensus.)

According to Sheldrake, the development and maintenance of the bodies of organisms are guided by morphogenetic fields. However, the nature of these fields has remained obscure, and they apparently cannot be described in conventional physical and chemical terms. According to Sheldrake, they are a new kind of field so far unknown to physics. They are localized within and around the systems they organize, and contain a kind of collective memory on which each member of the species draws and to which it in turn contributes. The fields themselves therefore evolve.

Each morphic unit has its own characteristic morphogenetic field, nested in that of a higher-level morphic unit which helps to coordinate the arrangement of its parts. For example, the fields of cells contain those of molecules, which contain those of atoms, etc. The inherent memory of these fields explains, for example, why newly synthesized chemical compounds crystallize more readily all over the world the more often they are made.

Before considering other types of morphogenic fields, it is worth examining exactly it is supposed to be. Sheldrake describes them as "fields of information", saying that they are neither a type of matter nor of energy and are detectable only by their effects on material systems. However, if morphogenic fields were completely nonmaterial, that would imply that they were pure nothingness, and it is hard to see how fields of nothingness could possibly have any effect on the material world. In a discussion with physicist David Bohm, Sheldrake does in fact concede that morphogenic fields may have a subtle energy, but not in any physical sense of the term, since morphogenic fields can propagate across space and time and do not fade out noticeably over distance. In this sense morphogenic fields would be a subtler form of energy-substance, too ethereal to be detectable by scientific instruments. Sheldrake also suggests that morphogenic fields may be very closely connected with quantum matter fields. According to Sheldrake and Bohm, the universal quantum field forms the substratum of the physical world and is pulsating with energy and vitality; it amounts to the resurrection of the concept of an ether, a medium of subtle matter pervading all of space.

The reason Sheldrake uses the term "formative causation" to refer to his hypothesis of the causation of form by morphogenic fields is precisely to distinguish it from "energetic causation", the kind of causation brought about by known physical fields such as gravity and electromagnetism. Formative causation is said to impose a spatial order on changes brought about by energetic causation. The dualism Sheldrake introduces with his distinction between energetic and non-energetic causation is all the more remarkable given that Sheldrake criticizes other forms of dualism, such as the idea of a nonmaterial mind acting on a material body (Cartesian dualism), and the idea that the material world is governed by nonmaterial "laws" of nature.

Instinctive behaviour, learning, and memory also defy explanation in mechanistic terms. As Sheldrake remarks, "An enormous gulf of ignorance lies between all these phenomena and the established facts of molecular biology, biochemistry, genetics and neurophysiology." How could purposive instinctive behavior such as the building of webs by spiders or the migrations of swallows ever be explained in terms of DNA and protein synthesis?

According to Sheldrake, habitual and instinctive behavior is organized by behavioral fields, while mental activity, conscious and unconscious, takes place within and through mental fields. Instincts are the behavioral habits of the species and depend on the inheritance of behavioral fields, and with
them a collective memory, from previous members of the species by morphic resonance. The building up of an animal's own habits also depends on morphic resonance. It is possible for habits acquired by some animals to facilitate the acquisition of the same habits by other similar animals, even in the absence of any known means of connection or communication. This explains how after rats have learned a new trick in one place, other rats elsewhere seem to be able to learn it more easily.

Sheldrake suggests that memories are associated with morphogenic fields and that remembering depends on morphic resonance with these fields. He says that individual memory is due to the fact that organisms resonate most strongly with their own past, but that organisms are also influenced by morphic resonance from others of their kind through a sort of pooled memory, similar to the concept of the collective unconscious put forward by Jung.

According to Sheldrake, morphic resonance involves the transfer of information but not of energy. But it is difficult to see how the one can take place without the other, though the type of energy involved may well be supraphysical. Sheldrake, however, rejects the idea of morphic resonance being transmitted through a "morphogenetic ether", saying that "a more satisfactory approach may be to think of the past as pressed up, as it were, against the present, and as potentially present everywhere

Social organization is also explained by Sheldrake. Societies of termites, ants, wasps, and bees can contain thousands or even millions of individual insects. They can build large elaborate nests, exhibit a complex division of labor, and reproduce themselves. Such societies have often been compared to organisms at a higher level of organization, or superorganisms. Studies have shown that termites, for example, can speedily repair damage to their mounds, rebuilding tunnels and arches, working from both sides of the breach that has been made, and meeting up perfectly in the middle, even though the insects are blind.

Sheldrake suggests that such colonies are organized by social fields, embracing all the individuals within them. This would explain the behavior of shoals of fish, flocks of birds, and herds or packs of animals, whose coordination has so far also defied explanation. Social morphic fields can be thought of as coordinating all patterns of social behavior, including human societies. This would throw light on such things as crowd behavior, panics, fashions, crazes, and cults. Social fields are closely allied with cultural fields, which govern the inheritance and transmission of cultural traditions.

According to Sheldrake, then, human beings consist of a physical body, whose shape and structure are organized by a hierarchy of morphogenetic fields, one for every atom, molecule, cell, and organ up to the body as a whole. Our habitual activities are organized by behavioral fields, one for each pattern of behavior, and our mental activity by mental fields, one for each thought or idea. Sheldrake also suggests that our conscious self may be regarded either as the subjective aspect of the morphogenic fields that organize the brain, or as a higher level of our being which interacts with the lower fields and serves as the creative ground through which new fields arise.

However, Sheldrake's fields are subject to question: What are the physical properties of these fields? I dunno. How do these fields pass information? I dunno. Are these fields detectable by any sort of instruments? Apparently not. How are these fields generated? I dunno.

Because of things like this, Sheldrake is regarded as a quack by the overwhelming majority of scientists. If there was one scintilla of hard evidence for the existence of these fields, then Sheldrake's theory might be accepted. The problem is, there is none. You can't just point to mysterious "fields" in order to answer a question.
Posted by Fortinbras Armstrong | Tue Dec 4, 2012, 08:24 AM (1 replies)
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