This is just to let all you video and podcast lovers out there that several new items have been added to my Listen to Talks page.
I had already added the video of “What Do We Really Know About Right and Wrong?”, given at a Veritas Forum this April at Texas A&M University, but now you can also listen to the audio-only version recorded by Ratio Christi.
While I was in College Station, Ratio Christi also did an interview with me titled “Sex, Politics, and Natural Law,” and that item has been added to the page too.
Finally, at the very bottom of the page, I’ve added the video of a very old talk, “Breaking Silence: Faith-Based Scholarship and Academic Freedom,” given at a Veritas Forum at the University of California at Berkeley in 2003. I haven’t reviewed this one since giving it. Hope I still agree with everything I said!
Am I responsible for the historical sins of white folk against black?
Certainly not because I shared in them; I didn't.
Certainly not because my ancestors did; they hadn't arrived in the country yet.
Nor because my skin is the same color; if you insist on talking about ethnicity, I am of Polish and Ukrainian extraction, not English.
Nor because of "white privilege"; my immigrant grandfather lost his job on the railroad just for taking a day off to get married, I was mocked in middle school for being a "pollack," and I worked and took on crushing debt to go to college.
What is left?
There are three senses in which I do share responsibility for the sins of others.
The first is that I share in a national community, a commonwealth. This was Abraham Lincoln's reasoning when he argued that the North shared in the guilt of the South for the sin of slavery.
The second is that I share in the community of human nature, in descent from our first father Adam. This was Martin Luther King's reasoning when he said we are woven together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.
The third is that I am of one blood with all other men, equally descended from Adam. This was St. Paul’s reasoning when he spoke of Christ as the second Adam, and the source of our hope of forgiveness.
So I reject the views of those who say that I have no share in the guilt of others' sins – but I also reject the views of those who say that I share in them because of my color.
I am a citizen, a human being, a son of Adam, and a man for whom the Son of God died. So are those whose skin is darker than mine. We are all in this mess together.
For the same reasons, I reject the views of those of any tint or hue who preach anything but reconciliation, at least for those willing to be reconciled.
Let us all repent, and let us all have mercy. God knows we all need it.
I guess I am still be thinking about last week’s theme, the two kinds of discontent, because the curious saying in Robert Browning’s poem, Andrea del Sarto, came back to me the other day: "Ah, a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"
These days, to question a saying like that is almost considered heresy. Ambition is praised as a virtue. It used to be condemned as a vice, and taken in the usual sense, it is. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp -- so seek offices and stations above your ability and merit! A man’s reach should exceed his grasp -- so crave fortune beyond what you need! One might as well say that since a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, we should all take more cake than we can eat.
Yet if we take Browning’s saying to be about reaching for God, in hopes of being reached by Him, then it makes sense. He always exceeds our finite and natural grasp; now we see him darkly, as in a mirror. Then we will see Him face to face.
Was this actually what Browning was thinking? Something like that, maybe, since he was writing about a Renaissance painter’s attempt to represent something beyond representation.
Artistic aspiration reminds me of the old problem in ethics about the painter who is so keen to make things of unparalleled beauty that he neglects to take care of his family. One of my old teachers thought that in a case like that, it would just be tough for his family. After all, if he did take the time to care for them, the world would have lost all that beauty.
That view seemed wrong to me even then, but it wasn’t until years later that I realized what was wrong with it. The problem isn’t that such the painter is pursuing beauty too much, but that he is pursuing it in the wrong way. In itself, painting can be ordained to the uncreated Beauty in which all created beauty has its source. But neglecting one’s family in order to do it cannot be. Created goods should be pursued with temperance, not as though they were God.
For that matter, not even all ways of pursuing God really pursue God. The suicide bomber who screams Allahu akbar is pursuing not God, but a monster. The loveless legalist is not pursuing not God, but a dream of being perfect without grace. That, by the way, is how Thomas Aquinas thought Satan sinned: “Desiring, as his last end of beatitude, something which he could attain by the virtue of his own nature, turning his appetite away from supernatural beatitude, which is attained by God's grace.”
Hold on. Granted that created goods should be pursued with temperance, must we be temperate about all of them? Even, say, knowledge? Aren’t we made to know truth?
We are certainly made to know truth, especially the truth about God. But God is not just another created good; to know Him face to face will be to know the uncreated Good. Only by reflecting that glory can created goods even exist.
So there is no such thing as to much wisdom, too much wonder, too much longing to know Him. Yet there are certainly limits to the desire for other kinds of knowledge. I mean, for example, the eagerness to learn the ways of power, the craving to be more in the know than other people are, and the empty curiosity that draws ours eyes to the covers of the supermarket tabloids. “I want to know” can be as sinful as “I want to take, to keep, to have.”
I’m pleased to say that the video of my talk “What Do We Really Know about Right and Wrong?” is now online.
This was delivered at a Veritas Forum at Texas A&M University.
There are two kinds of discontent. If we endlessly desire material things, even though we have enough, this is intemperance. But if we endlessly desire God, for whom we were made, of whom we cannot have enough until the life to come, this is hope.
Oddly, some people confuse these two discontents. They think that always wanting more, more, more is the divine spark, and that if we ever ceased to be greedy and pugnacious, then life would flatten out. There are many variations on this theme.
Then again, it isn’t difficult to see how the confusion arises. Without realizing it, even the crassest worldling longs for God. His problem is mistaken identification. Why? Because he thinks his longing is for something he can find in this world.
St. Augustine taught that mistaken identification is the real reason for the fierce energies of every distorted desire:
“Ambition seeks honor and glory, although You alone are to be honored before all and glorious forever.
“By cruelty the great seek to be feared, yet who is to be feared but God alone: from His power what can be wrested away, or when or where or how or by whom?
“The caresses by which the lustful seduce are a seeking for love: but nothing is more caressing than Your charity, nor is anything more healthfully loved than Your supremely lovely, supremely luminous Truth.
“Curiosity may be regarded as a desire for knowledge, whereas You supremely know all things.
“Ignorance and sheer stupidity hide under the names of simplicity and innocence: yet no being has simplicity like to Yours: and none is more innocent than You, for it is their own deeds that harm the wicked.
“Sloth pretends that it wants quietude: but what sure rest is there save the Lord?
“Luxuriousness would be called abundance and completeness; but You are the fullness and inexhaustible abundance of incorruptible delight.
“Wastefulness is a parody of generosity: but You are the infinitely generous giver of all good.
“Avarice wants to possess overmuch: but You possess all.
“Enviousness claims that it strives to excel: but what can excel before You?”
“Anger clamors for just vengeance: but whose vengeance is so just as Yours?
“Fear is the recoil from a new and sudden threat to something one holds dear, and a cautious regard for one's own safety: but nothing new or sudden can happen to You, nothing can threaten Your hold upon things loved, and where is safety secure save in You?
“Grief pines at the loss of things in which desire delighted: for it wills to be like to You from whom nothing can be taken away.
“Thus the soul is guilty of fornication when she turns from You and seeks from any other source what she will nowhere find pure and without taint unless she returns to You.
“Thus even those who go from You and stand up against You are still perversely imitating You. But by the mere fact of their imitation, they declare that You are the creator of all that is, and that there is nowhere for them to go where You are not.”
Quoted from Augustine, Confessions, Bk. 2, Ch. 6, Secs. 13-14
I'm a young Finnish man studying for a graduate degree in Philosophy, among other things. First of all I want to thank you for your work, from which I have profited considerably. I refer both to your work as a researcher and as a blogger -- in them I've found a source of intellectual and spiritual nourishment. One of the reasons I am today committed to classical philosophy in general and to a rather orthodox Thomism in particular is because I stumbled upon a curious blog called “Underground Thomist” few years ago around the time I started to consider both as not only possible but very persuasive solutions to the numerous problems in modern philosophy.
Natural law demands private and public worship from a nation irregardless of divine revelation. How conscious would “minimally classically theist” worship need to be in order to be better than complete secularism with no worship at all? Obviously the worship of “Nature's God” requires does not yet have full specificity of Revelation, so for example you couldn't expect such pagan worshippers to worship God as Trinity.
To put it even more generally (and in this case question of worship's merit becomes much more dubious) from a natural law perspective is the worship of pagan gods preferable to the contemporary secular state, which invokes no divinities at all?
Before answering, let me prevent a possible misunderstanding by stating in what sense I do and in what sense I do not agree that the natural law requires public worship. We can know, even by reason, apart from faith, that as a matter of justice, we should acknowledge our debts to others. We can also know, even by reason, apart from faith, that we are indebted to God. Therefore we should reverence Him.
Now if each of us does reverence Him, then of course we will give expression to this reverence as a community, and this is good. From the beginning of our own republic, for example, we have established days of public thanksgiving. But notice that doing such things does not require establishing an official religion, enforced by the state, and I am sure that such enforcement is detrimental to true faith.
Civil law direct us to the common temporal good, but for direction to the supernatural good, we are given not the state, but the Church. The state must not treat the Church as a mere department of itself.
Now as to your first question: According to St. Thomas Aquinas, not every act that is good in the sense that it conforms to natural law is also good in the sense of having merit. Merit requires the transformation of motive which can result only from divine grace. This vast change affects all aspects of the human person, including intellect, appetite, and will. From this point of view, says St. Thomas, the virtues which are infused by grace, such as faith, hope, and love, “deserve to be called virtues simply,” since they direct us to our ultimate end in God. By contrast, the acquired virtues, such as temperance and fortitude, are virtues only secundum quid, “in a restricted sense,” because although they direct us with respect to a particular kind of action, in a way which is compatible with our ultimate end in God, they do not actually direct us to this ultimate end – at least they do not do so unless they too are transformed by divine grace. (I discuss all these matters in Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Virtue Ethics.)
Now although all grace comes through Christ, and the ordinary means of grace involve explicit faith in Christ, St. Thomas does not think God is restricted to the use of these ordinary means. In the Old Testament, the Patriarchs were saved by implicit faith in Christ who was to come. This encourages the further question of who else might be implicitly responding to the Christ whom they did not explicitly know. (I briefly discussed this question in the blog post “Anonymity.”)
Back to the question of the state. Putting the term “god” in lower case to indicate anything to which a person gives unconditional loyalty, I would say that it isn’t possible not to have any “god” whatsoever. The contemporary secular state, which pretends to have no god, actually does have gods – unfortunately, rather shabby ones. I tried to work out the implications of this fact in the article “The Strange Second Life of Confessional States.”
As to your second question, whether all worship of small-g pagan gods is equally worthless: If one clings to a pagan god in preference to the true God, then yes, such worship is worthless. But if one adores God just insofar as one knows Him, even though one’s knowledge is veiled by pagan mistakes, matters may stand differently. To know for sure which of these two things is going on in a person, one would have to see right into the soul, which we have no power to do. Even so, in speaking with the Athenians, St. Paul thinks it makes sense to quote from their own pagan poets and mention their altar “To An Unknown God” -- and St. Thomas does not hesitate to credit the pagan writer Marcus Tullius Cicero with a certain limited insight into what the virtue of “religion” entails, even though Cicero does not know the true God.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger once wrote some penetrating lines on this subject. You must be getting tired of my referring you to other things I’ve written – click here! click here! click here! -- but I’ve included that passage in the blog post “Is Believing in God Like Believing in Zeus?”
Recently I spoke with a student who was strongly attracted to the view of marriage maintained by the natural law tradition. He told me, though, that he had been cohabiting with the same woman for five years, and “we consider ourselves married.” His question: Isn’t this the equivalent of marriage? Does it matter?
He wanted to do the right thing and he asked me to speak frankly, so I did. Sure it matters. One enters into the matrimonial commitment by mutual consent. If we were living in anarchy, with no laws or customs, then that would be it. Human experience has shown, however, that such an arrangement is unstable. For this reason – even apart from sacramental considerations – the legal recognition of marriage requires that vows be exchanged in the presence of witnesses, and publicly registered. This not only solemnizes them, but makes it possible for them to be enforced.
Cohabitation deliberately avoids these things. So here is how you know whether you have a commitment: If you’re married, you do. If you aren’t married, you don’t.
“I’m not suggesting that you intend to leave her,” I asked, “but what if you did? She would be left high and dry, and so would any children.” I suggested to him that by not marrying her, he was doing her an injury, even if neither of them thought of it that way.