Saturday, January 21, 2006

Obadiah's Vision

Obadiah is the shortest book in the Hebrew canon, and the third shortest book in the Bible (after II and III John); and that perhaps accounts for the fact that it is so often ignored. It's a great little book, though, all 21 verses, that deserves a bit more recognition than it usually gets. I think if people recognize the work as being a powerful little discourse on pride, they might find it worth more of their attention. This theme has been recognized before; some of the things Calvin says about the book, for instance, suggest the fruitfulness of reading it in this light. From Calvin's Commentary on Obadiah:

To me it appears probable, that the Prophet reproves the Idumeans, because they became arrogant, as it were, against the will of God, and in opposition to it, when, at the same time, they were confined to the narrow passes of mountains. It is said elsewhere, (Mal. 1: 2,) 'Jacob and Esau, were they not brethren?' "But I have given to you the inheritance promised to your father Abraham; I have transferred the Idumeans to mount Seir." Now it is less bearable, if any one be elated with pride, when his condition is not so honorable. I therefore think that the Idumeans are here condemned because they vaunted so much, and arrogated to themselves more than what was right, when they yet were contemptible, when their condition was mean and obscure, for they dwelt on mount Seir. But others think that the punishment, which was impending over them, is here denounced, "Lo, little have I made thee among the nations", and Jeremiah says, 'and contemptible among men'; he omits the two words, thou and exceedingly; he says only, 'and contemptible among men'. But as to the substance, there is hardly any difference. If then we understand that that nation was proud without reason, the sense is evident, that is, that they, like the giants, carried on war against God, that they vaunted themselves, though confined to the narrow passes of mountains. Though I leave to others their own free opinion, I am yet inclined to the former view, while the latter has been adopted nearly by the consent of all; and that is, that God was resolved forcibly to constrain to order those ferocious men, who, for no reason, and even in opposition to nature, are become insolent.

Seen in this light, the basic course of the prophecy is this. We open with rumors of war (v. 1); and God begins to speak to Edom (Idumea), saying that they will be made small (v. 2). The prophet then points out that the pride of Edom has led to self-deception (v. 3) which will be violently overturned (v. 4-9). The prophecy then goes into greater detail about the particular type of pride of which Edom was guilty (vv. 10ff.) and affirms God's moral providence, which comes with judgment against the proud (vv. 15-16) and salvation for the just (vv. 17ff.). The whole makes a very striking little sermon on pride, and will leave phrases ringing in your head:

For near is the day of the Lord for all the nations!
As you have done, so shall it be done to you,
your deed shall come back upon your own head....

There's more to Obadiah than meets the eye; and the book is worth more attention than it usually gets.

Heresy, Slavery, Natural Law

Jonathan Rowe has an interesting post on the history of religious freedom at "Positive Liberty." In the process, however, he implies some things about Thomistic natural law theory that are not quite right. He says, "The 'old' (Thomist) version of the natural law justified such things as slavery and burning heretics at the stake and knew nothing of the concept that men existed in a 'state of nature' and possessed unalienable natural rights."

Burning heretics at the stake is not justified in Aquinas by appeal to natural law, but difficult as it may be for us to wrap our post-medieval minds around the idea, by appeal to public safety: if any capital punishment is justified, it must certainly be justified for those who, having previously committed themselves to the saving faith, have broken their obligations (e.g., baptismal vows) and promises and are leading the community to eternal damnation, and refuse, after several opportunities, to repent. Aquinas explicitly denies that slavery is justified by natural law, since he holds, as indeed was traditional, that all men are equal by nature; slavery only arises through positive law. It is true that he does allow it to be consistent with natural law if it is imposed by positive law as punishment for crimes, and if it does not violate the slave's rights to food, sleep, marriage (or celibacy), raising of their children, and religious worship (and anything else that pertains to natural law); but it's worth remembering that when we make prisoners do community service we are imposing slavery (servitus) in Aquinas's sense (i.e., forfeiture of the free disposal of one's person as a punishment for a crime or by contract -- Aquinas's term can, but does not always, include hired domestic service). However that may be, natural law was not, and could not, be a justification for slavery, because slaves are not subject by nature.

As to unalienable natural rights, we can set aside 'unalienable' (since it just means 'not able to be transferred') and ask about natural rights, since anything natural in a Thomistic sense would be unalienable. Aquinas does, in fact, hold that we have natural rights; they are things that can reasonably be expected as a matter of justice (for Aquinas 'right' is synonymous with 'just'). When we engage in just action we are rendering someone his or her right. Where he falls short of Jefferson and the like in this regard is not in lacking such a notion but in not developing this in the direction they do. It's also true that natural law theory has no state-of-nature notion; but it's also true that by the time of Jefferson et al. the notion of a 'state of nature' had begun to fall out of favor: Hume, for instance, attacks it as an absurd fiction.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Cooking for Engineers

One of the best cooking sites you can find on the web:

Cooking for Engineers

WAB Homophobia Scale

An interesting homophobia quiz at PBS (HT: ADPR). I ranked a 25, 'high-grade non-homophobic', which is unusually low for a hetersexual male of religiously conservative views (or, indeed, any heterosexual male); but I suspect a lot of it is just that I have a strong aversion to being rude and crude to anyone. And, of course, there's a sense in which any score on a test like this means nothing without context -- comparison to others, etc.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Top 20s for Theologians

Top 20 Essential Paintings for Theologians at "Faith and Theology"; or, to put it another way, Kim Fabricius's list of the Christ-themed paintings (and one sketch) that everyone should be able to recognize. Philistine I am, I only recognized half of them, and, faced with the painting, could have named the painter in only a handful. It would be a hard list to make, and the ones chosen are all great choices; but in any list like this there really should be something by Fra Angelico, either The Last Judgment (which is the usual favorite) or the Transfiguration (which would get my vote). Christ in Limbo, in which, as demons cower in the corner, Christ bursts the door of death to lead the patriarchs and prophets to glory, is pretty cool, too. Friar John the Angelic is the theological painter, and certainly should be on the list.

At the same weblog, there was an interesting post on essential (post-medieval) philosophy for theologians. Hume is rightly on the list, but the work should be either the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion or the Natural History of Religion; likewise, Kant is rightly on the list, but the work should be either the Critique of Practical Reason or (preferably) the Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, which is a beautiful little book. My list would be, in no particular order:

1. Joseph Butler, The Analogy of Religion
2. J. H. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent
3. David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
4. Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone
5. Benedict Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus
6. Soren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments
7. Jean-Luc Marion, God without Being
8. Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy
9. H. H. Price, Belief
10. S. L. Jaki, The Road of Science and the Ways to God
11. Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals
12. Martin Buber, I and Thou
13. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity
14. Edith Stein, Finite and Eternal Being
15. Simone Weil, The Need for Roots
16. Jacques Maritain, Distinguish to Unite (a.k.a. The Degrees of Knowledge)
17. Herman Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought
18. Blaise Pascal, Pensees
19. Pierre Duhem, German Science
20. George Berkeley, Alciphron

Several of these are off the beaten track, but in each case they are either (1) a more accessible and usable alternative to a better known work; or (2) are so much more useful for theologians than the standard philosophical curriculum that they need to be on a list like this.

UPDATE: fixed some typos.

Which Party?

The Globe and Mail has a voter analyzer for the upcoming Canadian election, which is interesting to go through. It is a common fallacy to assume that politics ever carries over perfectly across an international border. There might be general similarities between a Tory in Canada and a Tory in Britain, for instance; but there are going to be some stark differences. And so it is with every other country; each country has its own governing issues, and the political spectrum is generated by those, and not the issues dominant in another country. If you were to propose the elimination of private schools almost anywhere in Canada, to take a fairly small political issue, it would be regarded seriously even by the many who would disagree with the proposal, since in Canada it's not uncommon; if you were to propose it in the United States, most people would look at you as if you were proposing to abolish education, -- it's an extreme proposal. Private schools don't have the same role in the two countries, whatever the other similarities in educational systems. And so it is with many other things. I tend a bit Libertarian and a bit Green in my politics in the U.S.; were I a Canadian there is no question that I would fall squarely in the center of the Conservative party. I'm centrist in the U.S., leaning 'left' on some things and 'right' on others; in Canada I would be solid 'right'. The political spectra are just different. In any case, the analyzer gave me 6 marks for the Conservatives and 1 for the Bloc Quebecois.(HT: NWW)

Various Links of Interest

An interesting paper by Branden Fitelsen on the ID controversy: Some Remarks on the "Intelligent Design" Controversy (PDf; hat-tip: OPP)

A very good paper by Helen Steward on the locution 'could have done otherwise' and Frankfurt-style examples: 'Could have done otherwise', action sentences, and anaphora. She's exactly right; and the fact that she is will turn out, I think, to be a serious problem for people who rely on Frankfurt-style examples to reject PAP.

An essay on St. John of the Cross by Hans Urs von Balthasar

A good discussion of Aquinas's theory of virtue by John O'Meara: Virtues in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas.

George Berkeley's philosophical/economic text, The Querist, can be found online at McMaster University. From the introduction:

I apprehend the same censure on this that I incurred upon another occasion, for meddling out of my profession; though to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, by promoting an honest industry, will, perhaps, be deemed no improper employment for a clergyman who still things himself a member of the commonwealth. As the sum of human happiness is supposed to consist in the goods of mind, body,and fortune, I would fain make my studies of some use to mankind with regard to each of these three particulars, and hope it will not be thought faulty or indecent in any man, of what profession soever, to offer his mite towards improving the manners, health, and prosperity of his fellow-creatures.

Also, the following is a very good webpage on The Analyst controversy: The `Analyst' Controversy. In The Analyst Berkeley sharply criticized mathematicians of the time with regard to the foundations of the calculus (analysis). It is Berkeley in his most polemic mode; its subtitle is "A Discourse to an Infidel Mathematician," and it is an all-out attack on this mathematician (probably Halley) as irrational. As he says:

Whereas then it is supposed, that you apprehend more distinctly, consider more closely, infer more justly, conclude more accurately than other Men, and that you are therefore less religious because more judicious, I shall claim the privilege of a Free-Thinker; and take the Liberty to inquire into the Object, Principles, and Method of Demonstration admitted by the Mathematicians of the present Age, with the same freedom that you presume to treat the Principles and Mysteries of Religion; to the end, that all Men may see what right you have to lead, or what Encouragement others have to follow you. It hath been an old remark that Geometry is an excellent Logic.

It's also brilliant, since Berkeley, who had always had some knack for and interest in mathematics, pounds some genuine problems people at the time faced when it came to giving the calculus a coherent basis. The work stirred up considerable controversy; several mathematicians rose to defend Newton's theory of fluxions, but couldn't always agree on what it was.

Absolute Master of the Passions

Since I am about to discuss an eminently philosophical subject--whether pious reason is absolute master of the passions--I would duly advise you to attend diligently to the philosophy here set forth. For the subject is essential to the path to knowledge for everyone, and, furthermore, embraces the praise of the greatest virtue: I speak, of course, of prudence. If, then, it is apparent that reason prevails over the passions hindering [temperance], namely, gluttony and lust, then it is also plainly apparent that it holds sway over the passions impeding [fortitude], namely, anger, fear, and pain. Some might perhaps ask, "How then, if reason overcomes the passions, does it not master forgetfulness and ignorance?" Their attempt at argument is ridiculous. For reason does not overcome its own passions but those opposed to justice, [fortitude], and [temperance]; and it overcomes these not so that it destroys them, but so that one does not give way to them.

4 Maccabees 1:1-6, NETS (PDF), except for the words in brackets, where I have substituted the more traditional philosophical terms for 'courage' and 'self-control'.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Condign and Congruous Merit

Not every sort of earning is the same sort of earning. Suppose you buy a lottery ticket, picking five numbers. And suppose your numbers are chosen in the lottery, so that you win the million-dollar jackpot. Did you earn the money?

In one sense you did. There was a system (the lottery system) with rules; you followed the rules, and did the work that the system requires you to do to qualify for the money. So you earned it.

In another sense you did not. There was nothing about your particular action, considered in itself, that was worthy of a million dollars; all you did was pick five numbers and buy a ticket. Would that all our money came so easily. There is no proportion between service and return in winning the lottery. So you didn't earn it.

Consider another sort of case. Suppose you receive your million dollars because (God forbid) your brother dies, leaving it to you in his will on condition that you scatter his ashes on the open sea, which you do. Did you earn the money?

In a sense we would all allow that you did; your brother had it set in your will that you could receive a million dollars by following a procedure, and you followed that procedure. Your brother had the right to do what he did; and you did what you were supposed to do. So you earned it.

But, of course, in a very obvious sense you didn't earn it at all. There is no proportion between service and reward. So you didn't earn it.

In each of these cases we come up against a basic distinction about types of merit. There are two major types of merit, and each of them is very different.

Adequate merit, also called condign merit, is merit in the strictest sense of the term; it requires proportion between service and reward. It is the sense in which you can't earn windfalls like lotteries or inheritances or gifts, even if they come with requirements such that, if you fulfill them, you are rewarded. In cases of adequate merit, you receive your reward by strict commutative justice. For someone not to receive a reward they have merited condignly is a violation of personal justice -- the one who fails to reward them has wronged them, simply in virtue of the fact that they did what they did.

Nonadequate merit, more commonly called congruous merit, is merit in a weaker sense of the term; it merely requires that conditions be set up so that if you do a given thing you get a reward. You receive your reward not by commutative justice but by equity or by distributive justice, depending on the case. For someone not to receive a reward they have merited congruously is not a violation of personal justice; it is at most inappropriate or a violation of justice given the particular circumstances of the case.

Chalcedon Compliant

You scored as Chalcedon compliant. You are Chalcedon compliant. Congratulations, you're not a heretic. You believe that Jesus is truly God and truly man and like us in every respect, apart from sin. Officially approved in 451.

Chalcedon compliant




























Are you a heretic?
created with

But note my Apollinarian, Pelagian, and Monophysite tendencies; this is because I allow a bit of verbal leniency to certain of their formulas, as able to be taken in a completely orthodox sense.

A Dozen Dangerous Ideas

Loren Rosson III recently collected 'dangerous ideas' in the field of biblical studies, and selected twelve of them. You can find the results here. I find it interesting reading -- more interesting, in fact, than the Edge question which inspired it, in part because the suggestions are more sober. It's also interesting to get the perspective of biblical scholars on a point like this. One of the nice things about blogging is getting bits of insight into the workings of disciplines other than one's own.

Logos and Fonts

As some of you may know, the Canadian election campaign is underway, and has been for a while. Paul Denton at "Ravishing Light" reviews and criticizes the campaign logos and typefaces of the contending parties.

Death of Turpin

One of my favorite death scenes in all of literature:

When the Archbishop beheld him swoon, Rollant,
Never before such bitter grief he'd had;
Stretching his hand, he took that olifant.
Through Rencesvals a little river ran;
He would go there, fetch water for Rollant.
Went step by step, to stumble soon began,
So feeble he is, no further fare he can,
For too much blood he's lost, and no strength has;
Ere he has crossed an acre of the land,
His heart grows faint, he falls down forwards and
Death comes to him with very cruel pangs.

The count Rollanz wakes from his swoon once more,
Climbs to his feet; his pains are very sore;
Looks down the vale, looks to the hills above;
On the green grass, beyond his companions,
He sees him lie, that noble old baron;
'Tis the Archbishop, whom in His name wrought God;
There he proclaims his sins, and looks above;
Joins his two hands, to Heaven holds them forth,
And Paradise prays God to him to accord.
Dead is Turpin, the warrior of Charlon.
In battles great and very rare sermons
Against pagans ever a champion.
God grant him now His Benediction!

Song of Roland CLXIV-CLXV

There's something very poignant about the death of a man who, despite his own serious wounds, has as his last thought to help another. And it's beautifully written, too -- very dramatic.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Catching Up on Things of Note

* A little late, but always timely: My favorite statement by Martin Luther King, Jr.: Letter from a Birmingham Jail

* Nicholas Steno, the least adequately appreciated great scientist in history, gets a mention in a recent op-ed on science and religion.

* "The Rhine River" received a well-earned Cliopatria blogging award.

* I thought this discussion at "Uncertain Principles" of the differences between the way mathematicians and physicists approach mathematics to be very interesting.

* There's a review of Dennett's Breaking the Spell at Scientific I'll eventually get around to reading it at some point, but it doesn't look particularly interesting--old ideas rewarmed, and (as is too often the case) without regard for the real anthropological and historical facts that need explaining. I hope it's better than that, and not a waste of my time like some of Dennett's more recent work has been.

* In Truth and Truth II Miriam Burstein has a good discussion of truth in historical fiction.

* The History Carnival and the Teaching Carnival are worth browsing.

Chesterton on Democracy

This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common. Falling in love is more poetical than dropping into poetry. The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one's own love-letters or blowing one's own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly. I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses. I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them. In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves -- the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, chapter 4

Not-so-dangerous Ideas and Very Dangerous Hyperboles

You may have heard by now of The Edge's Annual Question for 2006 (HT: Mixing Memory):

The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?

I find this a rather absurd sort of question; a serious look at almost any answer that might be given to a question like this will make clear to the impartial observer that all the ideas are actually fairly tame (and, indeed, in most cases weren't even new), and most of the revolutions are not in the ideas (even assumed true) but in the means of showing that they are, in fact, true. What's dangerous instead is the hyperbole used to make them sound dangerous. One finds this in Dennett, for instance; the theory of natural selection, in its basic scientific formulation, is actually not particularly dangerous to anything. If half the poorly-supported and extreme claims Dennett makes for it were true, it would, indeed, be the 'universal acid' Dennett claimed it was; but, in fact, the claims rest on nothing but Dennett's very vague, purely imaginative, and inadequately analyzed sense of analogy between the theory of natural selection and various metaphysical positions. I have complained of this analogical leap, which is extremely common, before. The answers to The Edge's question serve as a reminder that in matters of science and fundamental questions we should never rest with the vague sense of analogy but demand serious analysis. We would never accept an inference like the following as legitimate:

Bats flap around; fish out of water flap around; therefore bats are fish out of water.

And yet the ability of reasonable people to accept without any critical thought similar inferences (or inferences that would turn out to be similar if anyone bothered to work them out carefully) when science is involved is utterly astounding -- and, needless to say, disturbing. Scientific discoveries should not be ways of avoiding serious rational analysis; they should be sparks inspiring it. But the desire to take shortcuts prevails, and we get the philosophical equivalent of quackery and snake oil. Give people a scientific discovery and they start making wild philosophical claims, without the slightest recognition that they are doing exactly the same thing Eddington did when he claimed that modern physics proved idealism (and more culpably, too, since Eddington was a serious enough thinker that he eventually caught his mistake, whereas many of these never do). The answers to The Edge's question show this in spades. We have Pizarro's answer, which confuses together the positions of moral realism, moral sense theory, and moral infallibilism (one can be a moral realist but not a moral sense theorist, or a moral sense theorist but not a moral realist, or both, or neither; and one can be either without believing that there is a 'royal road to moral truth'); or Anderson's bizarre argument about the probability of God's existence; or Kosslyn's odd talk about God and Supersets; or any number of others. We need rational thought, not mush. (Of course, it's easy to criticize scientists for the trait; but one can hardly expect otherwise. Not every scientist has the philosophical acumen of a Darwin or a Planck. And when ordinary people do it, it is still unfortunate, but it is an entirely understandable mistake. The real shame is when philosophers do it; and it is, alas, no less common there.)

But it must also be said that there's hope, since some of the answers are actually pretty good, given the absurdity of the question. (Like Chris, I really enjoyed Gopnik's, for instance.)

[Incidentally, why is it that everyone thinks that the revolutionary aspect of the Copernican revolution was that it removed the earth from the center of the universe? The real revolution, it has always seemed to me, which was due more to Galileo's Copernicanism than to Copernicus himself, was in demolishing the distinction between terrestrial and celestial matter. With that distinction, something like Aristotelian cosmology is a necessary truth; that distinction gone, Aristotelian cosmology collapses completely. Sir John Herschel, if I remember correctly, recognizes this in his Preliminary Discourse; but it's a point that should be more generally considered. It seems to me that the primary scientific significance of removing the earth from the center was at the time just one of measurement; which is perhaps why instrumentalism about Copernicus's theory was so often considered reasonable. Just a thought.]

Monday, January 16, 2006

Beauvoir on Egalitarianism

It is nonsense to assert that revelry, vice, ecstasy, passion, would become impossible if man and woman were equal in concrete matters; the contradictions that put the flesh in opposition to the spirit, the instant to time, the swoon of immanence to the challenge of transcendence, the absolute of pleasure to the nothingness of forgetting, will never be resolved; in sexuality will always be materialized the tension, the anguish, the joy, the frustration, and the triumph of existence. To emancipate woman is to refuse to confine her to the relations she bears to man, not to deny them to her; let her have her independent existence and she will continue none the less to exist for him also: mutually recognizing each other as subject, each will yet remain for the other an other. The reciprocity of their relations will not do away with the miracles--desire, possession, love, dream, adventure--worked by the division of human beings into two separate categories; and the words that move us--giving, conquering, uniting--will not lose their meaning. On the contrary, when we abolish the slavery of half of humanity, together with the whole system of hypocrisy that it implies, then the "division" of humanity will reveal its genuine significance and the human couple will find its true form.

Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex. Parshley, tr. Random House (New York: 1989) p. 731.

Expect a few posts on The Second Sex in upcoming days; I had a chance to read it through again while I was away from the web.


I'm back (to blogging, that is; I'm still in Cedar Park, and will probably continue to be for the next several months). I've been away from email as well as this weblog, so things may be a bit slow for the next few days while I work through the backlog of posts and email I haven't read.