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Fortinbras Armstrong

Fortinbras Armstrong's Journal
Fortinbras Armstrong's Journal
June 25, 2014

As W. E. B. Du Bois said, Marx "put his finger squarely upon our difficulties."

He explained the problems of his day very well. Marx did several things. He is considered to be one of the founders of modern social sciences, along with Émile Durkheim and Max Weber. Unlike many other intellectuals of his time, he insisted that social theories must be examined through a scientific method to see if they world work. Marx is also notable for writing mostly for the poor and disenfranchised, whereas his contemporaries wrote mostly for fellow intellectuals. A talented economist, Marx helped the world understand capitalism better than anyone since Adam Smith -- for example, he was the first to explain why the previously feudal countries of Europe became industrial economies and capitalist powerhouses. Much of what he wrote about how capitalism works stands up to scrutiny close to 200 years later, leading some to call him the father of economic history. The study of sociology was also highly influenced by Marx's writings.

Although many people today think of him as a dangerously misguided individual, the modern understanding of social science and economics - both liberal and conservative - owes an enormous debt to him and his theories. Similarly, his critiques of capitalism and advocacy of communism seem less applicable in the modern world (not that he is no longer relevant). However at the time he was writing, the conditions for the working class, especially in England (where he wrote Capital), were truly appalling, and much of the ideas and movements that would improve and reform it -- and, ironically, blunt so much of communism's power -- were still considered seditious. A year before he began his studies at the University of Bonn, England transported several men to Australia for forming a union.

Ultimately, what Marx didn't reckon on was the dynamism of democracy in order to effect change. Remember, Marx was writing during a time when there was no minimum wage, no worker protection, no welfare system, no laws against child labor, not anti-trust or anti-monopoly laws, no laws demanding truthful advertising, no laws banning unsafe products, no laws guaranteeing rights to women and minorities (and, in a lot of cases, for Europeans and men, too), and, for most of the world, no voting rights for most people. We have come a long way since Marx's time, and he is arguably vindicated by history.

A good way to understand Marx is that he was a lot like a medical doctor of his time: By the end of Marx's life, medicine had discovered germ theory and understood what caused disease, but although it could now prevent the spread of illness (through quarantine, sterilization of operating rooms, and good public health/sanitation policy), when it came to treating people who were already ill, the doctors couldn't do much better than their grandfathers. Marx figured out what was wrong with the new industrial capitalism, but as far as how to handle it, he couldn't do much better than proposing the kind of utopian socialism that had been presented in the early 19th century, rather than the somewhat odd and piecemeal form of modern social democracy.

June 3, 2014

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.)
March 12, 2014

"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.

January 13, 2014


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."
September 9, 2013

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.

May 9, 2013

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&quot , 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&quot and then said that the marital union was a "mystery" (or "sacrament&quot 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.
April 2, 2013

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?&quot 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.
March 25, 2013

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?

March 16, 2013

Well, I won't bash atheism

Indeed, I can well understand why some people are atheists. If I wanted to, I could write a really forceful book on exactly what is wrong with the Catholic Church.

Is there much to dislike about the Catholic Church? Certainly. I could recommend Garry Wills' Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit for some examples. (I know Garry, and while I don't agree with everything he says -- and I have discussed his book with him at length -- I do agree with much of it.)

As a Catholic, I am just as outraged as anyone else about pedophile priests and the bishops who cover up their crimes. But how can I let the horrific actions of a few drive me from a tradition I find that, at its core, has beauty?

Do the actions of corrupt politicians shake my faith in democracy, whose core idea is that every person has a voice in government? No. I have more faith in it than that. When the economy dips, do I pull my money out of the bank and hide it in my mattress? No. I have more faith in the process than that.

The very basic core of the Catholic tradition is this: The Creator, something bigger and grander than us, who made the sunsets and the mountains and the stars (whether directly or through natural processes... it doesn't matter) looks upon imperfect humans, who kill and hurt each other, greedily locking ourselves away instead of sharing our talents and resources with everyone for the greater good, have the potential to possess a beauty within us. God looked upon that beauty with a love incomprehensible and decided to insert himself into human history by sending his son to live, suffer, and die just like one of us. He did that so that we could feel that love with the Creator for all of eternity. He told us that we could live forever in those loving arms of the Father if only we embrace that love not only for him, but for each other as well. I believe it was that love that gave life back to this Jesus of Nazareth.

That's my paraphrase. Note that there is nothing in there about popes or bishops or priests. But ask any pope or bishop or priest, or any of us who find that beautiful hope real, and we will tell you the same (more or less. Many will just quote John 3:16 from the Bible, but it's much the same message). It is that beauty and hope of that love that makes me a believer.

It is also a reality that nobody is perfect. Some are even down right monstrous. But that core message never changes. My faith in that message rides out the bumpy times, like when I ride out the bumpiness in the economy, or the times when my trust in my fellow humans falters, as when a corrupt politician is uncovered. Deep down, the core message of love and freedom is pure and true for me.

When I am angry, I yell and shout. I hold errant priests and bishops responsible for their acts. But nothing they do can shake the fact that I still view that love and beauty between myself and my God. It makes me angry that the arrogance of a few to hold on to power. Most of us Catholics simply separate the crap from the beauty, and go on, like we have for nearly two millennia, recognizing the crap (and we Catholics have produced a LOT of crap) but trying every day to celebrate the beautiful things with each other.

For those who would have me go elsewhere, I respond with Peter, "Lord, where shall we go?" My trust, my faith, my love is in Jesus, the sacraments, the traditions of the Catholic Church. It is a faith that calls me. Yes, there are evil people in it. Evil people get into everything. The Catholic Church is an oligarchy. It is not that I love.

But how can I give up Ignatius Loyola and his spiritual exercises? How can I give up Francis of Assisi's love for the poor and all of God's creation? How can I give up the beauty I see in Theresa of Avila's writing? Or turn my back on Cardinal Newman? If I give up Roman Catholicism, I give up all that and much more.

Yes, I know that Cardinal Law et al have acted in ways that disgrace the Church. Many of the current leaders of the Institutional Church are corrupt thugs, from the parish right up to the Vatican.

This is nothing new. Torquemada torturing people to save their souls, popes preaching crusades, Pius XII remaining silent on the Holocaust and then pretending he wasn't, the whole career of St Cyril of Alexandria, the blatant anti-Semitism of St John Chrysostom, etc, etc, etc ad nauseam. The Church is subject to the mischievousness, sinfulness, and frailty of its members and leaders.

But the Church is more than just the institution. It is a fellowship of the people of God, the Body of Christ. Vatican II's document on the Church has a helpful phrase, "The Church, or in other words, the kingdom of Christ now in mystery, grows visibly in the world through the power of God." The Church is, in T S Eliot's phrase from "The Dry Salvages", "The point of intersection of the timeless with time."

In the Nicene Creed, we proclaim that the Church is "holy". This refers to the power of sanctification that heals and justifies in the face of our unholiness. The medieval theologian Albert the Great, commenting on this part of the Creed, said

This article must therefore be traced back to the work of the Holy Spirit, that is, to "I believe in the Holy Spirit", not in himself alone ... but also as far as his work is concerned, which is to make the Church holy. He communicates that holiness in the sacraments, the virtues, and the gifts that he distributes in order to bring holiness about, and finally in the miracles and graces of a charismatic type such as wisdom, knowledge, faith, the discernment of spirits, healing, prophecy, and everything else that the Spirit gives in order to make the holiness of the Church manifest. Thus, the Church does not claim holiness because its members, individually or collectively, are holy. The Church's holiness is an expression of divine love that will not be defeated by our willfulness and weakness. God's covenant is not a contractual arrangement that ceases when we sin, it abides despite everything.

Ephesians 2:20-22 describes the Church as "members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is held together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God."

The Church as Body of Christ makes the holiness of God a reality in the world. The Church's holiness is inseparable from Jesus' holiness, and the Church manifests its holiness in much the same way in which Jesus manifested his. Living in the world, Jesus drew sinners -- tax collectors, prostitutes, fishermen, thieves -- to himself. Although they were not always fully able to respond to Jesus' call for repentance, they were attracted to his promise of mercy and forgiveness. The taproot of the Church's holiness is not to be found in its attempts to flee from the world into some never-never land untouched by impurity, compromise, or corruption. Rather, it is in embracing Jesus, through whom God embraces the world.

To I agree with Martin Luther, Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders. Gott hilfe mir! -- "Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me!"
January 27, 2013

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

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About Fortinbras Armstrong

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).

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