John Schwenkler proposes an excellent idea which may appeal to some of this blog’s readers:

So … anyone out there interested in reading the new encyclical together, a chapter or two at a time? I should acknowledge right away that I’m no expert on Catholic social teaching (though I did once research and write a long but unsigned encyclopedia article on the topic, and came away with very few sympathies for the standard Novak-Weigel-Neuhaus line), and of course I do have my own biases that I should be better about allowing documents like this one to challenge, but then again remedying such defects would be very much the purpose of the exercise.

What I’d do is post some very general talking points – perhaps on Sunday afternoons? – and then let the discussion unfold in the comments from there. I see six chapters, plus an introduction and a conclusion, which would mean about two months to get through the whole thing if we really took our time. Leave a note in the comments if you’re interested; if enough people are, we can get started on the introduction for this coming weekend.

I’ve been puzzling over where to begin in writing over this thing, so fingers crossed this’ll provide adequate impetus…


For today’s dose of apocalyptic rhetoric, we turn to Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, explaining to the Pro-Consul Demetrianus why Christian disdain for the pagan gods isn’t to blame for the empire’s decline:

You have said that to us should be attributed the calamities by which the world is now shaken and distressed, because your gods are not now worshipped by us. Now, since you are ignorant of divine knowledge, and a stranger to truth, you must in the first place realize this, that the world has now grown old, and does not abide in that strength in which it formerly stood.  This we would know , even if the sacred Scriptures had not told us of it, because the world itself announces its approaching end by its failing powers. In the winter there is not so much rain for nourishing the seeds, and in the summer the sun gives not so much heat for ripening the harvest. In springtime the young corn is not so joyful, and the autumn fruit is sparser. Less and less marble is quarried out of the mountains, which are exhausted by their disembowelments, and the veins of gold and silver are dwindling day by day. The husbandman is failing in the fields, the sailor at sea, the soldier in the camp. Honesty is no longer to be found in the market-place, nor justice in the law-courts, nor good craftsmanship in art, nor discipline in morals… This is the sentence that has been passed on the earth, this is God’s decree: that everything which has had a beginning shall hav an end, that everything which as flourished shall fall, that strong things shall become weak, and great things shall become small, and that when they have weakened and dwindled they shall be no more. So no one should wonder nowadays that everything begins to fail, since the whole world is failing, and is about to die.

-Excerpted from Rebecca West’s Augustine.

Stray thought: One of the more interesting points Popper raised in The Open Society and its Enemies was how Platonism, despite its emphasis on the eternal and undying forms, contained in itself the grains of a historicist outlook in its insistence on the inevitable decline of the material world.  Popper claimed this put it at the beginning of the line of thought that eventually led to Marxism, though he did relatively little exploration of the very complex role those kinds of views played in the early Middle Ages. Though I’m not really convinced Popper’s take is really a fair read of Plato, its still interesting to see how that kind of pessimism showing up in the mindset of the Early Christians, and how they employed it against the powers of the day… And what an intriguing contrast it’s emphasis on physical decay makes to the moral reversals of the Sermon on the Mount…

Not to mention longer format newspaper articles:

Like others in the so-called good-food movement, Allen, who is 60, asserts that our industrial food system is depleting soil, poisoning water, gobbling fossil fuels and stuffing us with bad calories. Like others, he advocates eating locally grown food. But to Allen, local doesn’t mean a rolling pasture or even a suburban garden: it means 14 greenhouses crammed onto two acres in a working-class neighborhood on Milwaukee’s northwest side, less than half a mile from the city’s largest public-housing project.

Nerdery Ctd.

July 6, 2009

Now that I’ve wasted a good 200 words qualifying myself, this online version of the Codex Sinaiticus is quite neat. From the CNN article:

Discovered in a monastery in the Sinai desert in Egypt more than 160 years ago, the handwritten Codex Sinaiticus includes two books that are not part of the official New Testament and at least seven books that are not in the Old Testament.

The New Testament books are in a different order, and include numerous handwritten corrections — some made as much as 800 years after the texts were written, according to scholars who worked on the project of putting the Bible online. The changes range from the alteration of a single letter to the insertion of whole sentences.

Darwin Catholic on the threat of nerdery overwhelming faith:

And yet for those of us who make reading, talking and writing about the Catholic Church a hobby of sorts, this presents a serious danger. Those of us who are “Catholic geeks” need always to recall that however much the more abstruse corners of Catholic history or theology may fascinate us, that Catholicism is not a hobby or field of study — the exclusive territory of those with sufficient levels of detailed knowledge and experience. Rather, the Church is the Body of Christ on earth, and the source of the sacraments which are channels of grace to those of us in the Church Militant.

The Church is no stranger to intellectualism and knowledge, and there is much benefit to knowing the Church’s teachings and history in detail. And yet, knowledge itself is not our end as Catholics. In the simple yet powerful words I was made to learn as a child, “God made us to know, love and serve Him, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.” The rest is all details. Important details, to be sure, to the extent that they help us to love and follow our faith. I’m sure that all of us know many people (often members of our own family) who were easily lead away from the Church because they never really knew and understood it.

This is something I’ve often had to remind myself as I wander around the edges of Catholicism, intellectual and otherwise.  Mistaking the accidents of faith with its substance is a error that is shared just as much by those outside the faith as inside it, and to my mind its a particularly easy error in Catholicism’s case, thanks to its extremely rich history and practice.  It would be untrue to say that there’s nothing to be gained from appreciating the vibrancy of the tradition, the beauty of the rituals, or the intellectual acomplishments of the Church’s founders. Clearly, there’s a great deal to be had by it, and indeed, that richness is much of what makes Catholicism preferable to, say, puritanism.  But as inspiring as its depth may be, appreciation of Catholicism’s surface can’t be a substitute for faith in its depths.  Good aesthetics does not salvation make.

And yet I keep showing up, doubts and all.  I continue to find those images and songs inspiring, despite knowing them to be empty.  I still get a huge kick out of Augustine and Chesterton, even though their arguments are so unsatisfying. And occasionally in all this exploration, I feel something I imagine approximates faith;  that sense of being grasped, or being in the presence of the greater, or of being mortal in all the complexity that entails.  But to think that the feeling is enough, I’d hazzard, would be just too modern.  It would put Christianity’s existential burden on par with rock and roll or generalized anxiety disorder, a move at least as dumb as scientizing the Bible’s mythology or building creation science museums.  Faith requires more, though exactly what I’m not really sure.

I recognize this is all rather self-indulgent. Apologies. It’s monday, Arvo Part is up in iTunes, and I’ve already mocked Sarah Palin. (And really, what else is there worth talking about?)

Oooh man, the New York Times is pondering Minnesota’s electoral politics… Good f-in luck, my friend:

Minnesota was settled by agrarian, church-going folks — Norwegians and Swedes, with many Germans as well, whose subsequent generations continue to take a dim view of political corruption and vote accordingly. The habits of civic life are baked in at early age, with churches and unions — historically strong in Minnesota — reminding members that voting is both an obligation and an opportunity. The presence of distinct regions with separate needs and political agendas — the average union member from the Iron Range has very different expectations from government than a mother from the populous suburbs that ring the Twin Cities — means that each regional constituency shows up at the polling place to make sure its interests are seen to.

Later on, Lambert throws in his bit:

“Because we think we’re such shrewd judges of human nature we’re intensely skeptical of everyone who looks and sounds like us and because we’re so proud of our broad-mindedness, we make a big show of embracing everyone who doesn’t seem like us,” said Brian Lambert, a radio personality and former media critic at The St. Paul Pioneer Press.

I’m inclined to say that the state’s electoral funkiness has more to do with the form of ethnic and religious allegiance than it does with being broad-minded or skeptical.  The relative homogeniety of the state means that its constituent identities are only rarely defined against those of outsiders… This was a big part of why the state was able to lead during the Civil Rights era, and also why Jewish canidates have been so successful; ethnic or religious outsiders are perceived as oddities rather than competitors. (Though that doesn’t mean the state’s flawless by any means. The largest lynching in U.S. history, for example, happened here.)

Ah, freedom:

Palin Speaks

July 3, 2009

I’m only just now watching the video.  I’d forgotten how incapable she is as a public speaker. Its not just grating, its weapons-grade grating.  The ill-timed gasping breaths… The drawl… The rushing… The snide winky dumb jokes… And it continues on her website. Note the imaginative use of capitalization to really emphasize her emphases that make no sense:

Alaska’s mission – to contribute to America. We’re strategic IN the world as the air crossroads OF the world, as a gatekeeper of the continent. Bold visionaries knew this – Alaska would be part of America’s great destiny.

Our destiny to be reached by responsibly developing our natural resources. This land, blessed with clean air, water, wildlife, minerals, AND oil and gas. It’s energy! God gave us energy.

Kvetching aside, there’s no question in my mind this is a run-up to a presidential run. Consider to the points she’s raising: Trig, her overseas trips, the importance of the military, the non-existence of climate change (snidely hinted at), her family life, the crumminess of the MSM, “rights,” “safety”… These are her talking points, not the rhetoric of someone about to go down in a flaming scandal.

Friday Linkage

July 3, 2009

Because I am writers-blocked like nobody’s business:

1.) I imagine many readers already know about A Supposedly Fun Blog, a group blog on Infinite Jest.  So far it looks quite good. (Now that I have outside stimulus, its probably safe to say you’ll be seeing more posts like my very first in the future.)

2.) Having written my undergrad history thesis on the University of Chicago’s neo-Thomistic turn during the Hutchin’s years, I was tickled to see First Principles posting a profile of Sidney Hook.  That’s probably the most press the man’s gotten this decade.

3.) Hit by a car? Having an existential crisis? Hike up your skirts and move to Uzbekistan!

4.) The first in a series of posts on Nietzsche and the New Atheists.

Two Small Milestones

July 1, 2009

Small celebratory note: not only is this my 100th post here, but today also marked the 2000th view of this blog. So, um, hurrah, I suppose. Here’s hoping its here in another three months!