Saturday, July 31, 2010

Feast of Saint Ignatius of Loyola

It's amazing that, in a few weeks, I'll celebrate my sixth anniversary (8/13/04) of entering the Society of Jesus. I remember thinking, six years ago, that the eleven-year formation process was terribly long. Priesthood, then, seemed a far off and distant goal. Now that I'm over the half-way point in my formation, this goal is coming into clearer focus.

I think these are hard days to be a Catholic or to be a part of the clergy. Moral is low, anxiety is high, and there is a pervasive air of suspicion that taints the way Catholics see other Catholics, Catholics view others from varying traditions, and the way others perceive Catholics.

Karl Rahner once wrote on the Ignatian Mysticism of Joy in the World. As I remember it, the key insight is that Ignatius understood Creation to be an ongoing story of becoming, of God's activity in the world as Creator. When Hopkins writes that "The world is charged with the grandeur of God," he means exactly this: the world sings forth God's creative activity, a divine light shines forth from the goodness of the created order and guides into the very heart of God's reality. The "God in all things" is not an idle, boring deity. Rather, God is working, straining (Recall Romans 8!), and groaning in creation and we are, each of us, invited to participate in it. Hence the reason for joy: each of us has been and is invited to throw ourselves headlong and recklessly into the event of creation.

To be sure, people do this in varying ways and to greater and lesser degrees of success. Thus, it might pay us dividends to recall the counsel of Saint Ignatius, on this his feast day, to those preparing to give the Spiritual Exercises: should be presupposed that every good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor's statement than to condemn it. Further, if one cannot interpret it favorably, one should ask how the other means it. If that meaning is wrong, one should correct the person with love; and if this is not enough, one should search out every appropriate means through which, by understanding the statement in a good way, it may be saved. [22]
I write this and feel the pang of conscience: I fail at this a lot. There are some people I find it enormously difficult, if not almost impossible, to give a charitable ear. This being said, I don't think Ignatius wanted milquetoast thinkers: if a person is dead wrong, it is an act of charity to offer correction. Still, the style by which such correction is offered can embody greater and lesser degrees of the charity that Ignatius hearkens us to recall.

I wish everyone a blessed Saint Ignatius Day. Be assured of my prayers and I ask for prayers for the mission and men of the Society of Jesus.

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Friday, July 30, 2010

Can I Practice Yoga if I am a Catholic?

I stop by my old friend Joseph Fromm's blog - Good Jesuit, Bad Jesuit - from time to time to see what new nugget he has mined from the Internet. On my latest foray into the thicket, I came upon this little gem:

Father John Hardon, S.J. On the Incompatibility of Yoga and Hinduism with Catholicism

Joseph has taken this post from the website of Patrick Madrid. I have no idea who Patrick Madrid is, but he does seem to have a nice blog and I appreciate his focus on the topic of atheism and its proponents.

That Mr. Fromm finds this an important nugget is not surprising. In an exchange with Joseph several years ago, he decried my practice of Yoga. Now, citing the backing of Father Hardon - a Jesuit of my own Detroit Province - he surely sees this as a ratification of his own position concerning the incompatibility of Yoga practice with the Catholic Faith.

Scripture Study

Students frequently ask me why it is that we have to study the Scriptures. They seem to think that the Bible is very clear in its meaning and that if they just put in the time reading it (the first hurdle for most students!), they'd arrive at a very clear understanding of the text.

This sort of naive approach, while dismaying, is not uncommon. The Bible is seldom clear and reading and interpreting it requires a certain sophistication, a certain set of tools, to give one a fighting chance of staving off deranged interpretations. One such tool, of which I wrote earlier this year, is the distinction I make between "literal" and "literalist" interpretations of Scripture. On this account, I hold that Catholics do take the Bible literally. By literal I mean exactly what the Catechism of the Catholic Church means: "The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation..."(CCC, 116). 

Thursday, July 29, 2010


While enjoying my coffee this morning, I came upon this fascinating story at America Magazine's Blog. It appears that Geoffrey Berg, a British fellow with a Master's degree in philosophy, has challenged Pope Benedict XVI to a debate on the existence of God during the Holy Father's visit to Great Britain. His challenge comes in the form of an open letter that he has published on his website and, if nothing else, does provide for some humorous reading.

I have a passing familiarity with Berg's little book The Six Ways of Atheism. Last Fall, I spent several days discussing the topic of religious belief with my senior philosophy students. Berg is kind enough to post adumbrated forms of his arguments for the non-existence of God on his website, so I printed them off and presented them to my students as an opportunity for them to 'think through' the question of God's existence.

To be perfectly honest, I didn't have to do very much prodding for my students to pierce Berg's sophistry.

Take, for instance, the first of six arguments he articulates:

Argument 1: The Aggregate of Qualities Argument

1. If God exists, God must necessarily possess all of several remarkable qualities (including supreme goodness, omnipotence, immortality, omniscience, ultimate creator, purpose giver).
2. Every one of these qualities may not exist in any one entity and if any such quality does exist it exists in few entities or in some cases (e.g. omnipotence, ultimate creator) in at most one entity.
3. Therefore it is highly unlikely any entity would possess even one of these qualities.
4. There is an infinitesimal chance that any one entity (given the almost infinite number of entities in the Universe) might possess the combination of even some two of these qualities, let alone all of them.
5. In statistical analysis a merely hypothetical infinitesimal chance can in effect be treated as the no chance to which it approximates so very closely.
6. Therefore as there is statistically such an infinitesimal chance of any entity possessing, as God would have to do, all God’s essential qualities in combination it can be said for all practical and statistical purposes that God just does not exist.
 Point #1 isn't really problematic. But the argument sputters out at Point #2. Look at what I put in bold typeface: "Every one of these qualities may not exist in any one entity." If you look at my post from Monday, you'll see why this is a problem. Berg, it appears, assumes that God is some very large thing, some being or entity in the universe that has these attributes. Now if we believed that God lived in a condo on a sacred mountain, I could see Berg's point. But God's not a thing. God's not a being. God is the reason that there are things, or beings, at all.

If creation is an ongoing drama, God's not one more actor on the stage. Rather, God is the reason that there is a stage at all.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Devil's Desire (The Genealogy of Desire)

On the flight home from Amsterdam, I was able to enjoy several in-flight movies. The first movie I selected was the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada. I’d seen parts of the movie before but hadn’t watched it in its entirety, so I figured this was as good a time as any to watch it.

The plot of the movie is simple: An idealistic woman comes to New York hoping to find a job as a journalist. She gets a job at Runway, a prestigious fashion magazine, working as the assistant to Miranda Priestly. Andrea, played by Anne Hathaway, is slowly seduced by the riches and honors of the world she once detested: the former “free spirit” becomes, literally and figuratively, a slave to fashion.

One scene that struck me, in light of my recent immersion in the thought of René Girard, occurs during a run-through of clothing that is to be featured in an upcoming issue. One of the designers holds up two seemingly identical belts – both of an identical bluish hue with slightly different buckles – and proclaims that choosing between the two is difficult because they are “so different.” When Andrea snorts in unbelief at this dilemma, Miranda (brilliantly played by Meryl Streep) launches into arguably the best summary of the thought of René Girard I have ever heard:

This...stuff? Oh... ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean. You're also blindly unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St. Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.

It is the profound insight of René Girard that “we desire according to the desire of another.” Think about this by way of an example: if you set out an array of toys before two children and allow one child to choose, what are the odds that of all those toys that the first will choose the very toy that the second child wanted? Even if the stuffed animals, for instance, were identical, there is a strong probability that “THAT’S the one I wanted.” This insight is one well understood by marketing executives who peddle goods using celebrities. If Sarah Jessica Parker wants it, so do I.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

You Run Into the Strangest People

It's amazing who you'll run into when in Amsterdam!
If they hand't given me a sissy bike with a basket, I probably would have won.

I think I was just ordained a bishop...
Sarah Gorman and I served as the Irish-American delegation.

What God Does

It's hard to believe that my time in the Netherlands has come to a close. I count the last two weeks as a profoundly grace-filled time of learning and questioning with some of the great expositors of the thought of Rene Girard. At some point in the future, I'll try to say something more of the "mimetic insight" Girard so powerfully - and controversially - articulates. Let it be said that, while I might not mention it explicitly, you can be assured that many of the concepts we thought-through these last two weeks will be percolating in my mind and will, no doubt, surface in these posts.

Commenting on an earlier post, someone wrote:

God, as the author of all that exists, is how I myself understand God. But where I have difficulty, a fact that became apparent during a conversation with an atheist, is simply, if God is not concerned with the "how', what then does God do in the real world? If God does not meddle with physical constants, the continuity of cause and effect, putting it rather bluntly, why would we even pray? I pray for grace, for myself and others. But beyond that, in terms of God's involvement with the concrete, I could not say what God does with any conviction, and so had no clear answer for my acquaintance. Any comments would be very welcome.
This, I think, is an integral question in the debate between atheists and theists: What is God's Job? What is it that God is supposed to do?

The poster quoted above has, to my mind, the right intuition: God is the author of all that exists. Think about this for just a moment. As you stare out into the heavens, probe the deepest recesses of the sea, the belief of the theist is that God makes this entire universe to exist, makes it to be at all. As I am fond of saying to my students, I cannot make a glass of vodka to be (so I'm out of the running for the job of God). God, on the other hand, is responsible for making the whole bloody thing to exist. That's a tall order to fill, in my mind.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Away for Two Weeks

I'm leaving tomorrow for the Netherlands. I don't know if I'll have much time to blog while I am away, but please be assured of my prayers while I'm gone!

Sunday, July 04, 2010

A Brief Pause in the Action

After arguably the best retreat I've had since I made the Spiritual Exercises (January '05), I am now back in Detroit. These are, to be sure, very busy days: I have a lot of odds-and-ends to take care of before I leave for the Netherlands next Saturday.

I have been meaning to share with my readers a little suggestion on some summer reading. Over the past few months, I have been very much taken with the writings of Josef Pieper, especially three lovely texts: Guide to Thomas Aquinas, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, and The Silence of St. Thomas. Just a few little nuggets I thought worthwhile to share:

But of course [this] listening is not concerned solely with grasping the substance. It is also directed fully at the interlocutor as a person; it draws its vitality from respect for the other's dignity, and even gratitude toward him - gratitude for the increase in knowledge which is derived even from error. "We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject. For both have labored in the search for truth and both have helped us in the finding of it."
  The plain text conveys the voice of Pieper. He writes clearly and elegantly using prose that is readily digestible and often arresting in its beauty. The boldfaced type is a quote drawn from Saint Thomas Aquinas (in his Commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics). How timely to hear this again when some of our nation's best-selling books bear titles such as Arguing with Idiots, If Democrats Had Any Brains, They'd Be Republicans, and Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot. I could go on, but you get the picture. I think it's funny that Pieper's command of Thomas Aquinas enables him to grasp a single, incisive observation from the Angelic Doctor and deploy it in a way that helps us to realize that the ceaseless march of progress in technology may be masquerading a corruption of charity. Maybe it's high time we recover a bit of the charity of Saint Thomas!

Perhaps you might consider this quote: "One does not only work in order to live, but one lives for the sake of one's work." Taken from Max Weber, most of us recoil at the suggestion that we live only for our work. Yet, is that not the case these days? Traditional liberal arts colleges are hacking away at core courses so that students can focus more and more on pre-professional courses; high schools have begun to consider if they mightn't offer more 'practical' courses of study. In short, it appears that the expectation is that our education must do something, rather than contribute to our humanity. The message sent to students is clear: you are what you do, you are worth only what you earn. I can't help but note the irony that I observe on Independence Day that a growing consensus in education is that you are truly free only to the extent that you make yourself a cog in a corporate wheel.

Pieper observes that we have become ensnared by the artes serviles - that we accomplish something through our action, through our hard work. This is not to say that we do not need action or that we do not need to accomplish things. Surely, we do! Yet when our accomplishments are the sole measure of our humanity, when we have been reduced to being functionaries of a larger corporate apparatus, we lose something of our humanity. Hence Pieper's call for a reclamation of the artes liberales, the liberal arts, as offering humans an opportunity to take a wider look at the world. The "liberal arts" enable humans to contemplate and reflect, to stand in wonder at creation, and gives them the space to be still.

Having just returned from retreat, after a very busy year teaching, this insight echoes in my heart. It was so refreshing to have eight days to rest, pray, read, walk, and just be one with God. I could look back upon the entirety of the year and make a personal assessment of it; I didn't have to measure it against metrics or in terms of job performance. I could ask, "was this year satisfying, nourishing, exciting?" In other words, the leisure of my retreat - truly a vacation with God - gave me the chance to ask what the year had meant rather than what the year had produced.

I should think that this is not "ivory tower" nonsense. Each one of us can, with some effort, shut off the computer and silence the cell phone and take a little bit of time for reflection. Perhaps a nice walk without the Bluetooth attached. Maybe coffee with a friend where you just chat. An evening spent with a loved where you watch a movie or see a performance and then discuss what it meant. Even a family activity can turn into an opportunity for leisure, for the rest that makes us truly human, if we explore the meaning of an activity together.