Sunday, April 30, 2006

Is Your Savior Your Creator?

In this season of the Resurrection, it is important to take time to reflect that if Jesus did not in some way represent our Creator, the entire drama of our redemption would be a meaningless charade.

This is the reason St. John anchors his gospel in the identification of Jesus with the eternal Logos, or Reason of God:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. (1:1-3)

Likewise, St. Paul identifies Jesus with our Creator:

He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities -- all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Col 1:15-17)

Why is this indentification so important? Clearly no one knows better how a thing works and how to bring out its best than its creator. That the Way of Jesus leads to our happiness can be guaranteed only if He speaks for the Creator. (But more than simply speaking for God, He is God Himself.)

As we read at the beginning of the Bible, God created the world good. It is not as if in the Fall this world lost all goodness. Were that the case, Jesus' words could have no resonance with the human heart (one of the witnesses to his truth, cf. Jn 5:38) and as far as recognizing our Savior is concerned, it would have been just as well if some stranger were our creator (at least for us Gentiles).

In the Incarnation, God comes to reclaim his own. He comes to perfect what was broken but not destroyed, to heal the lame and the blind. That God became man means that matter can in some measure represent the Divine.

All this may well be elementary to you, but I make such a big deal of it because many Christians behave as if knowledge of the natural world through any means outside Sacred Scripture is a corrupting influence that can only lure them away from their faith. Quite the contrary: unrevealed knowledge of the natural world with a truly open heart leads to its Creator, as St. Paul forcefully affirms in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans:

Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. (v. 20)

To separate our Creator from our Savior is to play into the hands of the Enemy; it is to cast Jesus in opposition to God the Father. As if the grace of the Incarnation were not a perfection of creation's goodness, but its negation. What better way for the Enemy to clear the battlefield of God's people than to insinuate that no genuine believer ventures outside the fortress walls? What better way for the Enemy to possess the natural world than to insinuate that the natural sciences can only lead believers away from faith?

Sunday, April 23, 2006

No-Zombie Theorem

In this Easter-octave Sunday it is appropriate to reflect on the need for "resurrection from the dead" to have a benevolent supernatural Source. I am not here proving or even basing this discussion on the reality of the resurrection of anyone from the dead, but simply using it as an illustration. In fact the basis of my argument is purely natural.

This theorem is called "No-Zombie"1 because it explains why there are no evil "undead" beings, and their existence is, if not impossible, at least highly unlikely. This principle is in some sense the flip side of the principle of Super-Natural Selection. It is important to note that I'm not positing this principle as an iron-clad, mathematically inviolate law, but as a general rule that helps us make sense of the world.

The fundamental point to consider is the existence, or rather non-existence, of evil. While we might intuitively believe that evil exists, in fact it does not. What we call evil is in fact lack of a due good or due order.

For example, a man missing a limb is the subject of a physical evil: he lacks the arm or leg proper to a human being; but the man himself is not evil. The lesson to take is that physical evil has no existence in itself, but only exists in a subsistent thing; evil is parasitic.

Similarly with regard to human actions: evil acts are not ordered to man's ultimate good (i.e., the happiness of life as a whole), though they are ordered to inferior goods. Take bank robbery for instance: taking what belongs to others is clearly wrong; it does not conform to the good of society, and ultimately to the good of the thieves themselves. But notice that the thieves don't just out-of-the-blue choose evil for its own sake: they seek a good (gaining wealth), but their means are inconsistent with the overarching good of the just2 ordering of society, not to mention the just ordering of their wills. A more mundane example: a person may, despite being on a diet for health reasons, choose to devour a whole pint of ice cream: he is not positively choosing to violate his diet, but rather ignoring his diet to choose the more immediate good of ice cream. He has set aside the greater good of his health for momentary gratification: a disordered choice not consistent with the greater happiness of his life.

There are in fact a hierarchy of goods. Extrinsic goods, like monetary wealth, are at the bottom. Instrinsic physical goods, like health, are just above them, because one cannot gain or maintain wealth without health. Above these are spiritual goods, which are more integral to the human person and thus less easily lost; examples include education, good habits (i.e., virtues). (Notice that I mean spiritual in a purely natural sense.) These spiritual goods are what enable one to gain and maintain the inferior goods; for example, education in proper hygiene is necessary to maintain health; a people's habit of settling disputes peacefully is necessary to gain and maintain a wealthy society.

Despite our modern tendency to absolutize ideas and ideals by investing them in actual flesh-and-blood people (e.g., American Presidents are popular subjects for this), no human being (in fact no being) is fully evil.3 Bill Clinton or George Bush (or your favorite whipping-boy) may for you epitomize all that is wrong with the world, but he is not the incarnation of evil (nor for that matter is he the incarnation of good). To incarnate evil would be to incarnate all disorder: and the ways to be disordered are infinite. If whosie-bob incarnated evil, he would be unable even to get out of bed in the morning; he would lack the will-power to organize meetings, or even to maintain his own health. And clearly, for a man to achieve high public office, he has to possess some virtues (and for that matter it also seems he must have done something wrong).

Though it often happens that people use whatever good they posses (wealth, strength, discipline) to commit evil acts, such acts undermine their agents and make any power they possess fleeting.4 Evil has its moment; God has His eternity.

The bottom line is that evil, since it has no existence of its own, ultimately kills its host and neutralizes itself.

That is why there are no zombies, and rising from the dead (and especially in a glorified body) can only be the fruit of the power of the Creator.


1. Not to be confused with the "No Zombie" property of computer science.

2. A short definition of justice: giving each man his due.

3. The Devil is not completely evil: recall that he was once an angel, but turned against his Creator. Even now he still possesses some good: the existence he owes to God.

4. Only naively is this equivalent to "might makes right," or rather "right makes might". One must expand one's hosizon to long-range "might" to make the latter true.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Þe milde lomb isprad o rode

"The gentle Lamb stretched on the cross"

A medieval English hymn commemorating the death of Christ. The original language lacks the sophistication and standardization of modern English, and conveys the more childlike piety of a simpler age.

The lyrics themselves are poignant, and the music reinforces the heart-rending message. I know of two recordings, one by Sequentia and the other by Anonymous 4. The former includes simple accompaniment, the latter is a capella.

You can download a 30-second audio sample of the a capella version: here, or listen to a minute-long sample from Amazon.

Note: The parallel (tabular) layout was giving my browser some problems, as I imagine it would have yours, so I have alternated the original stanzas with their translations, with the original in italics.

The milde Lamb, y­sprad o rode,
Heng bi­ronnen al o blode,
For oure gilte, for oure gode,
For he ne gilte nevre nought.
Few of hise him were bi­leved,
Dred hem hadde him al bi­reved
Whan they sawen here heved
To so shanful deth y­brought.

The gentle Lamb, stretched on the cross,
There hung all drenched in blood,
And for our guilt and for our good—
He never sinned at all.
Few of his friends were left to him;
Fear had deprived him of them all
When they saw the man who'd led them
Brought to so vile a death.

His moder, ther him stod biside,
Ne let to ter other abide,
Whan she saw hire child bitide
Swich pine and deyen gilteles.
Saint Johan, that was him dere,
On other halve him stod eek fere,
And beheld with mourne chere
His maister that him loved and ches.

His mother stood beside him there,
Tears running down her face
To see her child endure such pain,
And dying guiltlessly.
Saint John, who was so dear to him,
Stood opposite—he was his friend—
And looked up with a sorrowing face
Upon the man who'd loved and chosen him.

Sore and harde he was y­swungen,
Fet and hondes thurgh y­stungen,
Ac most of alle his other wunden
Him dide his modres sorwe wo.
In al his pine, in al his wrake,
That he dreigh for mannes sake,
He saw his moder sorwe make—
Wel rewfuliche he spak hire to.

Beaten sore and hard he was,
Feet and hands pierced through;
But more than all his other wounds,
His mother's grieving caused him pain.
In all his pain, in all the agony
That he endured for mankind's sake,
He saw his mother grieving so,
And in compassion spoke to her.

He seyde, "Woman, lo! me here,
Thi child that thou to manne bere;
Withouten sor and wep thou were
Tho Ich was of thee y­born.
Ac now thou most thi pine dreyen,
Whan thou seest me with thin eyen
Pine thole o rode and deyen
To helen man that was forlorn."

"Woman," he said, "look, hear me now,
The child you bore in human form.
You felt no hurt, no sorrowing,
When I was born of you.
But now you must endure your pain,
And see me with your very eyes
Tormented on the cross, to die
And heal mankind who once was lost."

Saint Johan th'evangeliste
Hir understood thurgh hese of Criste;
Fair he kept hire and biwiste
And served hire from hond to fot.
Rewful is the mineginge
Of this deth and this departinge;
Therin is blis meind with wepinge,
For ther­thurgh us cam alle bot.

The evengelist Saint John
Supported her at Christ's command.
He kept her safe, looked after her,
And served her hand and foot.
Piteous is the memory
Of this death and this departing.
Joy is mingled with the tears,
For in this way we all were saved.

He that starf in oure kende,
Leve us so ben ther­of mende,
That he yeve us atten ende
That he hath us to y­bought.
Milsful moder, maiden clene,
Mak thi milce upon us sene,
And bring us thurgh thi swete bene
To the blis that failleth nought.

The man who died—as we will die—
Keep us mindful of it all,
That he may give us at the end
What he has bought for us.
Kindly mother, pure young girl,
Make your mercy seen in us,
And bring us through your sweetest prayers
The bliss that never fails.

Also of interest: Augsutine Club Lenten Resources
The Beginning and the End (on Good Friday, 2005)


1. That strange character "Þ" (thorn) reads as the "th" sound.

Text and translation from Tim Chilcott, "Þe milde lomb isprad o rode," English Medieval Religious Lyrics (Chilcott Literary Translations, 2004), 35-36. Special thanks to Mary E. for pointing out this valuable resource!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Billy Joel Against the Behaviorists

In what is arguably his greatest song, "Piano Man," Billy Joel captures a paradoxical facet of human nature:

Yes, they're sharing a drink they call loneliness
But it's better than drinkin' alone

How is it possible that people not only "share" lonliness, but feel better for doing so?

Along similar lines there's a widely known story that when Kafka read his tales of alienation aloud to his friends they laughed to the point of tears. (Percy, 83) How can "alienation" bring joy?

In his collection of essays on man's peculiar language ability, Walker Percy probes this and other paradoxes of human being. That we see this as a paradox points to the limitations of our modern sensibilities. The school of thought known as behaviorism typifies this sensibility. Behaviorism would reduce human language to a manifestation of the sign-response mechanism that explains the behavior of lower animals and forms a continuum with the spacetime events described by neurological electrical-colloidal chemistry and ultimately physics. But this explanation is inadequate. Percy describes the radical difference between the sign-using organism and the symbol-using organism:

A sign-using organism takes account only of those elements of its environment which are relevant biologically. A chick has been observed to take account of the shadow of a hen and the shadow of a hawk but not, I believe, of the shadow of a swallow. A two-year-old child, however, will not only ask for milk, as a good sign-using animal; he will also point to the swallow and ask what it is.

A sign-using organism can be said to take account of those segments of its environment toward which, through the rewards and punishments of the learning process, it has acquired the appropriate responses. It cannot meaningfully be described as "knowing" anything else. But a symbol-using organism has a world. Once it knows the name of trees—what trees "are"—it must know the name of houses. The world is simply the totality of that which is formulated through symbols. It is both spatial and temporal. Once a native knows there is an earth, he must know what is under the earth. Once he know what happened yesterday, he must know what happened in the beginning. Hence his cosmological and etiological myths. Chickens have no myths. (202; emphasis added)

Dr. Percy similarly contrasts responding to a sign with "responding" to a symbol:

But what is a symbol? A symbol does not direct our attention to something else, as a sign does. It does not direct at all. It "means" something else. It somehow comes to contain within itself the thing it means. The word ball is a sign to my dog and a symbol to you. If I say ball to my dog, he will respond like a good Pavlovian organism and look under the sofa and fetch it. But if I say ball to you, you will simply look at me and, if you are patient, finally say, "What about it?"1 The dog responds to the word by looking for the thing: you conceive the ball through the word ball. (153)

If a symbol is to communicate anything (between persons), and to communicate truly, it needs to have a significance apart from any particular individual thing or any particular context. Symbols must exist somehow apart from the flux of particulars we call the strictly physical world. The words I type on this keyboard on this particular spring Thursday in my particular corner of New England must have the same meaning for me as they have for you, wherever in the universe and whenever in history you may be reading them.

Symbols provide the link that allows interpersonal communication and ultimately communion. Man's symbol-making ability gives us a glimpse of the profound reason people need to "share loneliness":

When I am told as a child that this flower is a lupin, when you name something for me and I confirm it by saying it too—what I know now is not only that the flower is something but that it is something for you and me. Our common existence is validated. It is the foundation of what Marcel calls the metaphysics of we are instead of I think. (295)

Thus the people in the song have established an interpersonal connection through the commonality of loneliness. Kafka's story "names" alienation and allows it to become a public possession among his circle of friends. Naming the emptiness they hold in common validates their common existence, and makes that existence a little less empty.


1. You expect a meaningful statement about balls or a ball (a coupling), not simply the sound "ball."

Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle (New York: Noonday Press/Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1997).