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Human freedom at the heart of most contemporary issues

The human issues most frequently debated and differently resolved in contemporary moral reflection are all closely related, albeit in various ways, to a crucial issue: human freedom.

John Paul II

Veritatis Splendor

Katie van Schaijik

Thanksgiving as an interpersonal act

Nov. 19, 2009, at 1:05pm

A letter-to-parents from the headmaster at our sons’ prep school today includes this reflection-inducing item:

The Angelic Doctor [St. Thomas Aquinas] describes thanksgiving as being a process, rather than an event. This process consists of three parts. First, we recognize that we have received a gift. Secondly, we honor the person who has given us the gift. Thirdly, we desire to make a return for the gift we have received.

Do I go too far in thinking that this is an admirable summation of the structure of all deep personal and inter-personal acts? The essence of personhood can almost be described in this trinitarian way. Receiving a gift; giving honor to the giver; making a return.


Katie van Schaijik

Personalism in education administration

Nov. 17, 2009, at 5:55pm

An inspiring article in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education tells the story of a “turnaround artist” of a new president, Buck Smith, transforming a failing small college by focusing not on new technologies, distance courses or non-traditional students, but on personal relationships.

“The underlying thing for me is relationships—hardly anything important happens that doesn’t have to do with relationships,” he says quietly one afternoon in his office. He is not talking just about cozying up to a wealthy donor or board chairman. He is talking about building connections to needy students, the lowliest employees, the local community. “It’s getting to know people, being interested in them. … Life is built on genuine relationships, where trust and integrity are without question. When that is there, there are no limits.”

Nor is this just happy talk. Mr. Smith translates his conviction into concrete policy. For instance,

To improve communication, [he] instituted a policy allowing faculty and staff members to eat lunch free at the dining hall, in the hope that they would spend more time talking with each other and with students.

And his policies spring from a profound philosophical sense of the nature the person. Mr. Smith’s mentor and life-long friend, Howard Lowry, a tireless defender of small, liberal arts colleges, recognizes that their value comes from a basic truth about persons.

“The small college has a superb asset, one that is subtle and not easily measured or explained,” Mr. Lowry wrote. “It answers to one of the deepest human needs, the need for belonging. And the only way to do justice to the sense of community that a college can confer is to make an almost preposterous claim for it—namely, that this is something no larger institution, however excellent and richly blessed, can confer in the same measure.”

In any case, his approach seems to be working.

After years of stagnant enrollment at Davis & Elkins—which had developed a dismal local reputation, according to some local high-school counselors—the freshman class was up 50 percent this fall. As of November, the number of applications was more than seven times higher than at this time in 2007, and eight students had already put down deposits. Consider that those numbers came after the college had canceled its advertising campaign and done away with mass mailings in favor of a highly personal approach to recruiting students: getting to know their names, their parents’ names, their dogs’ names, and conveying the message that at this college of 700 students, you’re part of a family.

May it be the beginning of a long and broad trend!


Katie van Schaijik

The origins of religion

Nov. 16, 2009, at 5:02pm

The author of a recent New York Times Week in Review article, “The Evolution of the God Gene,” (who also authored a book titled, The Faith Instict: How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures”) takes pains to appear even-handed in his treatment of his religion.  He carefully prescinds from the question of the actual existence of God.  And, as over and against those who blame religion for most of the world’s ills, he is generous in elaborating the evolutionary benefits of religion for society.  For instance:

It is easier to see from hunter-gatherer societies how religion may have conferred compelling advantages in the struggle for survival. Their rituals emphasize not theology but intense communal dancing that may last through the night. The sustained rhythmic movement induces strong feelings of exaltation and emotional commitment to the group. Rituals also resolve quarrels and patch up the social fabric.

Still, the basic assumption on which his thesis rests is both unexamined and ineluctably hostile to the central tenets of religious faith as it is actually held by religious people. 

Religion has the hallmarks of an evolved behavior, meaning that it exists because it was favored by natural selection. It is universal because it was wired into our neural circuitry before the ancestral human population dispersed from its African homeland.

According to the author, atheists resist this idea because it involves acknowledging that religion is a by and large good for society.  For believers, “it may seem threatening to think that the mind has been shaped to believe in gods, since the actual existence of the divine may then seem less likely.”

Speaking for myself, I find the idea that religion “exists because it was favored by natural selection” not so much threatening as asinine. 

Who can take seriously a treatment of religion that 1) sets aside the question of truth, and 2) assumes its origins are entirely natural (i.e. non-divine)?  And who can really imagine that such a treatment is not unfavorable to religion or insulting to religious people?  I agree rather with Newman, who in his marvelous essay Milman’s View of Christianity, shows that in terms at least of psychological effect on readers, “to ignore the Almighty in ecclesiastical history is really to deny Him.”


Katie van Schaijik

An anger image

Nov. 15, 2009, at 8:51pm

A chapter about the passing of Cardinal Newman I came across tonight concludes with some description of his reputation among his Victorian English contemporaries. Some were dismissive or contemptuous. Others—clerics, men of letters and statesmen like Gladstone, revered him for his moral stature and literary genius.

But it is with the name of a poet, the only one of the Victorian converts to the Church with a vision in literature transcending his own, that I shall end my list of the lovers of Newman—even as in a procession the greatest figure is the last:

Sweetly the light
Shines from the solitary peak at Edgbaston,

sang Coventry Patmore, who understood that even the polemical disputant had “peace in heart” if “wrath in hand,” and that in his most trenchant moods he but displayed “the gold blazonries of love irate,” never “the black flag of hate.”

How I love that phrase “the gold blazonries of love irate” as a description of holy wrath!


Jules van Schaijik

Why a theology of the body?

Nov. 10, 2009, at 2:02pm

In the course of a previous TOB thread, a reader asked why John Paul II chose to elaborate a theology of the body instead of a theology of the person?

Let me try to answer this question from a philosophical point of view—in light of the developments in modern thought that so engaged the attention of Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II.

Karol Wojtyla, as both philosopher and priest, was keenly aware that the personalism so characteristic of the modern age, which contains many positive developments worth preserving and incorporating into the mind of the Church, is also seriously flawed because it is largely disembodied. Descartes, who can almost be said to have ushered in modernity by his famous turn to the subject (“I think, therefore I am”), perpetrated a so-called “dualistic” view of the relationship between body and soul. The self is a “thinking thing,” the body an “extended thing,” and the relation between them very extrinsic: the self is related to the body like a sailor to his ship, or a carpenter to his hammer. (This summary is not fully fair to Descartes, who explicitly denies these analogies. See footnote. But it is the view that perhaps follows most naturally from his premises, and the one, in any case, that followed historically.) Moreover, Descartes’ view of the body is excessively mechanistic. He thinks of it as an elaborate machine rather than as a living organism. Hence, Gilbert Ryle’s apt but unflattering description of Descartes’ position as the dogma of the “ghost in the machine.”

As a result, the deepening sense of the dignity of the person during the modern period has gone hand in hand with an increasing separation of the person from his body. The body is increasingly seen as a mere part of the biological order, devoid of any intrinsic meaning or morally relevant values. This is why many Catholic teachings, especially in areas such as bioethics and sexual morality, have become alien and incomprehensible to the modern world. That persons may never be used as mere means to an end is easily understood and granted. But what does that have to do with the body? Nothing, it seems, except that it must be put at the service of persons. As a Catholic feminist once put it, “God does not care what we do with each other’s bodies; He only cares whether we treat each other as persons.” If we can enhance the life of persons by manipulating the body in some way, this is not just okay, but morally good. Contraception, surrogate motherhood, in vitro fertilization, you name it: all of these things can be understood as a proper use of the body in the service the person.

What was needed to combat all this, KW/JP II judged, is a new way of showing that the body fully participates in the nature and dignity of the person. It is not just a machine or a tool, nor merely a biological organism, but an integral part of the human person, such that one cannot use the body as a mere means, without simultaneously using the person as a mere means. This, then, is why a theology specifically of the body is called for: to deepen and enrich the personalism already accepted by many, by showing how the body fits in.


—————-
Footnote:
Here is one instance, from his 6th meditation, in which Descartes explicitly repudiates the dualism so often ascribed to him: “Nature also teaches me, by these sensations of pain, hunger, thirst and so on, that I am not merely present in my body as a sailor is present in a ship, but that I am very closely joined and, as it were, intermingled with it, so that I and the body form a unit. If this were not so, I, who am nothing but a thinking thing, would not feel pain when the body was hurt, but would perceive the damage purely by the intellect, just as a sailor perceives by sight if anything in his ship is broken. Similarly, when the body needed food or drink, I should have an explicit understanding of the fact, instead of having confused sensations of hunger and thirst. For these sensations of hunger, thirst, pain and so on are nothing but confused modes of thinking which arise from the union and, as it were, intermingling of the mind with the body.”


Katie van Schaijik

Great movies about life behind the wall

Nov. 9, 2009, at 11:55am

There are many others, but for me, these convey the spiritual reality most brilliantly and movingly.

1. East/West
2. The Lives of Others
3. The Inner Circle
4. White Nights
5. Eminent Domain

Of these, White Nights is the easiest watching, and suitable for family viewing. East/West is devastating. Beautiful and brilliant and devastating. The Lives of Others (which—warning—contains some rather raw sexual images) is the newest, having been released to international acclaim in 2005, I believe.


Katie van Schaijik

The fall of the wall

Nov. 9, 2009, at 11:28am

Today is the 20th anniversary of the dismantling of the Berlin wall. I remember the day. Jules and I (just married in July) were huddled with other IAP students around the TV in the Studentenheim in Liechtenstein, watching and hardly believing our eyes.

Here is John O’Sullivan, author of The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister, writing about it in today’s New York Post.

There was a natural outburst of rejoicing throughout Europe — more from ordinary people on both sides of the Iron Curtain than from their cautious governments. In its 70-plus years of power, Soviet communism had murdered tens of millions of people; penned millions more in slave camps; corrupted those beyond its raw power; ruled through terror, censorship and lies; launched World War II jointly with the Nazis, and concealed its criminal rule behind a Potemkin façade of social idealism and scientific advance.


Katie van Schaijik

Continuing the TOB discussion (2)

Nov. 9, 2009, at 11:16am

The 2nd part of the comment thread from the previous post can be found under this post.

Katie van Schaijik

Continuing the TOB discussion

Nov. 9, 2009, at 10:16am

The discussion of CW’s defense of his work having overwhelmed the comment box below, I hereby open a new box, hoping we’ll be able to pick up the thread of that conversation here.


Katie van Schaijik

Continuing the TOB discussion (3)

Nov. 9, 2009, at 12:16am

The 3rd part of the comment thread from the previous post can be found under this post.

Katie van Schaijik

Christopher West breaks silence; answers critics (2)

Oct. 27, 2009, at 12:14pm

The 2nd part of the comment thread of the previous post can be found in the comment section below.

Katie van Schaijik

Christopher West breaks silence; answers critics

Oct. 27, 2009, at 11:14am

There will be more to say about this response to his critics, but for now let me only highlight some of it and urge everyone to read it in full.

The pivotal question as I see it is this: What does the grace of redemption offer us in this life with regard to our disordered sexual tendencies? From there, the questions multiply: Is it possible to overcome the pull of lust within us? If not, what are we to do with our disordered desires? If so, to what degree can we be liberated from lust and how can we enter into this grace? Furthermore, what does it actually look like to live a life of ever deepening sexual redemption?

It is abundantly clear from both Catholic teaching and human experience that, so long as we are on earth, we will always have to battle with concupiscence - that disordering of our passions caused by original sin (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 405, 978, 1264, 1426). In some of my earliest lectures and tapes, I confess that I did not emphasize this important point clearly enough. The battle with concupiscence is fierce. Even the holiest saints can still recognize the pull of concupiscence within them. Yet, as John Paul II insisted, we “cannot stop at casting the ‘heart’ into a state of continual and irreversible suspicion due to the manifestations of the concupiscence of the flesh… Redemption is a truth, a reality, in the name of which man must feel himself called, and ‘called with effectiveness’” (TOB 46:4).

Many people seem to doubt this “effectiveness” and thus conclude that the freedom I hold out is beyond the realm of man’s possibilities. From one perspective, these critics are correct. “But what are the ‘concrete possibilities of man’?” John Paul II asks. “And of which man are we speaking? Of man dominated by lust or of man redeemed by Christ” (Veritatis Splendor 103)? For those dominated by lust, what I hold out is impossible. But those who enter the “effectiveness” of redemption discover “another vision of man’s possibilities” (TOB 46:6).


Katie van Schaijik

Scientific evidence for the importance of fathers

Oct. 27, 2009, at 11:03am

Interesting new study featured in today’s Wall Street Journal: Missing fathers cause brain and behavior changes in offspring.

German biologist Anna Katharina Braun and others are conducting research on animals that are typically raised by two parents, in the hopes of better understanding the impact on humans of being raised by a single parent. Dr. Braun’s work focuses on degus, small rodents related to guinea pigs and chinchillas, because mother and father degus naturally raise their babies together.

When deprived of their father, the degu pups exhibit both short- and long-term changes in nerve-cell growth in different regions of the brain. Dr. Braun, director of the Institute of Biology at Otto von Guericke University in Magdeburg, and her colleagues are also looking at how these physical changes affect offspring behavior.

Their preliminary analysis indicates that fatherless degu pups exhibit more aggressive and impulsive behavior than pups raised by two parents.

More reason for distressing over the state of our culture. More reason for turning to God, our Father in heaven, for help and solace.


Katie van Schaijik

Christopher West breaks silence; answers critics (3)

Oct. 27, 2009, at 1:14am

The 3rd part of the comment thread of the previous post can be found in the comment section below.

Katie van Schaijik

Why Benedict did what he did

Oct. 26, 2009, at 11:37am

Ross Douthat, who I think means well—which is not nothing when it comes to the New York Times’ coverage of Catholic issues—pens a speculative piece about Pope Benedict’s “gambit” in establishing a canonical structure allowing Anglicans to enter full communion with the Catholic Church. He wonders out loud why the Pope would drop this “bombshell”? Why this “unusual effort at targeted proselytism” breaking with the recent ecumenical traditions of emphasizing unity and common ground over differences?
He wonders whether besides trying to increase Catholic numbers, the Pope may not have in mind a coming epic struggle with Islam.
Well maybe so. But if we’re trying to understand why the Pope did it, shouldn’t we begin by considering what he said about why he did it? Key from that point of view is the fact that this move on the part of the Pope came as a response to “the many requests that have been submitted to the Holy See from groups of Anglican clergy and faithful in different parts of the world who wish to enter into full visible communion”.
A further key—key to all things touching the Church and touching human persons—is the spiritual question. In other words, the Pope (being a good Pope) is surely less concerned with political questions—questions of strategy and tactics and numbers and concentrations of power—than he is with the care of souls. If he has many souls and many congregations of souls who have been expressing a longing for full, visible communion with Rome, is not reaching toward them and working to ease their way in simply the fatherly and priestly thing to do?


Katie van Schaijik

Two views on children

Oct. 21, 2009, at 2:52pm

From the Psalmist:

“Sons are heritage from the Lord, children a reward from him…Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.” (A quiver holds 12 arrows.)

From the environmental writer at the New York Times, as reported in an article in Investors Business Daily:

“probably the single most concrete and substantive thing an American, young American, could do to lower our carbon footprint is not turning off the light or driving a Prius, it’s having fewer kids, having fewer children.”

“More children equal more carbon dioxide emissions,” Rivkin has blogged, wondering “whether this means we’ll soon see a market in baby-avoidance carbon credits similar to efforts to sell CO2 credits for avoiding deforestation.” Save the trees, not the children.

There’s more:

Rivkin’s views are unfortunately shared by people with power and influence. Jonathon Porritt, chairman of Britain’s Sustainable Development Commission, believes that “having more than two children is irresponsible” and that people should “connect up their own responsibility for their total environmental footprint.”

Earlier this year, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi defended federal contraceptive initiatives as an effort to “reduce costs to the states and to the federal government.” For Pelosi, mother of five, the fewer the merrier.


Katie van Schaijik

Moral bankruptcy among the elites

Oct. 19, 2009, at 3:13pm

Naomie Emory has a great article in today’s Weekly Standard.  Hit tip Mark Steyn at the Corner.



Katie van Schaijik

The big difference between Mother Teresa and Mao Tse Tung

Oct. 19, 2009, at 1:54pm


The news emerged this week that White House’s Director of Communications, Anita Dunn, announced to high schoolers just this June that “two of her favorite political philosophers”, two of the people she “turns to most” are Mother Teresa and Mao Tse Tung. (Listen to the audio here.)
The endorsement of the single greatest mass murderer in history is beginning to attract the infamy it deserves. Not noted in the commentary so far, though, is the outrage-in-itself of the comparison between these two moral personalities.

Ms. Dunn identified the common ground between them—the ground of her admiration—by using a quotation from each. In response to someone who pointed out that Chaing Kai Shek had the army behind him, Mao had said: “You fight your war and I’ll fight mine.” And Mother Teresa had replied to a socialite who wanted to come to India to help her, “Find your own Calcutta.” You see the moral point? Both these highly impactful people had stressed the importance of finding your own way, following your own dreams. That’s all Anita Dunn wanted to say.

She may as well have held up Maximilian Kolbe and Adolf Hitler as two great example of men who were totally committed—committed to the point of death—to their respective causes. Mother Teresa and Mao Tse Tung are no less at moral antipodes with each other.

Mother Teresa’s entire life was a witness of her commitment to the dignity and preciousness of each and every human life—even the weakest, poorest social outcast. Each was infinitely beloved, infinitely deserving of care, more than worth sacrificing for.
Mao Tse Tung was foremost among the moral monsters of the 20th century whose ambition entailed, as Karol Wojtyla put it “the pulverization of the individual.” Persons, in the communist view, have no value in themselves. They deserve no respect; they are expendable on a grand scale. In fact, if we examine the history of Mao’s China, it becomes clear that, as with Stalinism, the destruction of individuality was its prime goal.


Jules van Schaijik

Man: the dressing animal

Oct. 13, 2009, at 1:38pm

Apparently, the Disney company is going to update its retail stores. One new feature, inspired by Apple’s “Genius Bar,” will be called “WWTD: What Would Tinkerbell Do?” It is a place where you can ask all sorts of Disney related questions. This, for instance, is the question Macworld reporter, Scott McNulty, has been dying to ask:

“Why does Goofy wear pants while Pluto doesn’t? They’re both dogs.”

That’s a question that never occurred to me. But now that it’s been pointed out, I find it rather interesting. It’s true: Goofy wears pants, Pluto doesn’t. Why the difference? Is Pluto a moral libertine? a nudist? Does Goofy have some sort of a hang-up about his own body? Not at all. It turns out, as Luis Alejandro, a Macworld reader, shows, that there is actually a personalist reason for it: “Pluto, as a character, is a dog. Goofy, as a character, is a person. Persons use clothes. Goofy uses pants.”

So, whoever at Disney came up with these two characters had a good intuition into the difference between persons and animals. Draw a dog with pants on, and it’s no longer just a dog. Perhaps we can make a new entry in the long list of lighthearted definitions for man:

• Man is the animal that dresses

The habit of wearing clothes is not as central or illuminating a characteristic of human persons as that of being rational or free. But it is revealing nevertheless, especially in light of the phenomenon of shame (as analyzed by Scheler or Wojtyla, for instance). It can be compared, in that respect, to other definitions such as:

• Man is a talking animal (C.S. Lewis makes much of this feature in the Chronicles of Narnia. Also Disney: i.e. Goofy can, whereas Pluto cannot, talk.)
• Man is a laughing animal
• Man is an animal laughed at (Cf. Bergson’s interesting essay on Laughter.)
• Man is a rational animal who always loses his temper when he is called
upon to act in accordance with the dictates of reason (Oscar Wilde)

Are there any others that I am leaving out?


By the bye, during my extensive research into the Pluto - Goofy question I discovered that the question has been asked before. See this page for some other answers.


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