Archie Says

Wolfe was in the office looking at television, which gives him a lot of pleasure. I have seen him turn it on as many as eight times in one evening, glare at it from one to three minutes, turn it off, and go back to his book.

— Rex Stout, The Golden Spiders

Discovering the Saints: Thomas Aquinas

My latest for CatholicMom.com: Discovering the Saints.

Anthony Esolen’s Word of the Day

Until this week I’d occasionally heard Anthony Esolen’s name here and there around the blogosophere, but hadn’t actually read anything by him. Turns out I’ve been missing something fun. He has a new blog at Patheos called “Word of the Day” where he discusses, in entertaining detail, the origin of some specific word, with ancillary anecdotes. Here’s his recent post on beer. Go give him a read.

Accidental Heretics and the Power of N

Last week I wrote a post in which I purposely used the emotionally loaded term “heresy” in its precise technical sense. And I did this not because I wanted to slam Evangelicals (I like Evangelicals) but because it’s a useful word, and I because I planned to say more about it.

The essential thing about a heretic isn’t what they deny, but what they affirm. Bishop Arius held that the Son wasn’t of one being with the Father, but was the first and greatest creature in all of creation. In saying this, he wasn’t so much trying to drag Christ down, but rather to protect the status of the Father as the one true God. He was mistaken; but he was mistaken because he took the part of the Gospel that he understood best and judged to be the most important and upheld to the exclusion of other Gospel truths.

I think we are most of us in the same position, even those of us who have every desire not to dissent from Church teaching. I think it’s unavoidable. We are parts of the Body of Christ, and different parts of the body have different functions. (I have sometimes thought that the Catholic blogosphere is the spleen of the Body of Christ.) And each body part is naturally most concerned with its function. You can’t blame a hand for being all about grasping. You can’t blame a nose for smelling.

Given that each of us has a call and particular gifts in support of it, we naturally emphasize it, and the theology that goes along with it. And that will naturally lead us, if we aren’t careful, into a kind of accidental heresy. I don’t mean anything intentional, mind you: but there it is. And when birds of a feather flock together, as they so frequently do, we can be strengthened in our accidentally heretical views of the world. I believe it was Chesterton who described orthodoxy as a kind of balancing act: and keeping your balance can sometimes be next to impossible.

So let’s think about this from Jesus’ point of view. You’ve come to Earth as a man, God-incarnate. You are, yourself, the fullest revelation of God to his people. You bring the Deposit of Faith, with the intent that it be passed down from generation to generation. And you’re dealing with people who are inclined to go off of the rails, even when they give you all of their love and devotion. What do you do?

What Jesus did was, he gave it to a group. And those apostles appointed successors, the first bishops, and passed on the Deposit of Faith to them. And they passed it on to their successors.

Now, each of these men was just a normal human being, and each of them had the same tendencies I described above to emphasize the parts that were most important to them, personnally. So how is it that the Deposit of Faith gets passed down without error? The Holy Spirit, of course, ensures that it will be; we’ve been promised that. But I’ve noticed that Jesus likes to work through simple human things. And here’s the thing about a group: individually, the members might go astray, but collectively they can correct each other. Bishop X emphasizes this while Bishop Y emphasizes that, and so both points of view are preserved. And when Bishop A goes too far and leaves the rails, bishops B through Z can call him on it.

It’s rather like a radio tower with guywires on all sides. Each wire pulls the tower in its direction, but collectively the tower stands vertically and can withstand the winds. Our natural tendency to emphasize one thing and ignore another becomes not a source of division, but a source of strength. I love it when that happens.

Archie Says

Winterhoff could have snagged a fee posing as a Man of Distinction for a whisky ad. He even had the little gray mustache.

— Rex Stout, The Silent Speaker

A Really Pinko Engine?

My kids never watched Thomas the Tank Engine, except for the horrible and incoherent feature film Thomas and the Magic Railway; and while my boys had a Brio train set with a few Thomas engines, they didn’t play with them much except to turn the curve pieces of track into bows to shoot pencils with. (No, really. Two sections of curved track, a rubber band, a pencil, and you’re good to go.)

But Calah Alexander has just begin to pay attention to the subtext of the Thomas cartoons her kids are watching, and she’s a little, hmmm, disturbed. And not unreasonably, it seems to me. See what you think.

The Heresy of Evangelicalism

OK, so you’ve read the title of this post and gotten entirely the wrong idea. That’s the problem with provocative titles; you lose people. So lemme ‘splain.

Heresy, properly understood, isn’t simply doctrinal error. Buddhists disagree with Christians about all sorts of things, but Buddhists aren’t heretics. More precisely, Buddhists aren’t Christian heretics: to be a heretic, you have to be a heretic with respect to something. Given that I’m a Catholic, and therefore believe in the Catholic Church’s teachings as the norm for Christian orthodoxy, Christians who dissent from the Church’s teachings are to some extent heretics. (That’s a technical description I’m making, not a moral judgement. The one person I’ve met who struck me as possibly being a genuine saint was an evangelical Anglican. She ate, drank, and slept intercessory prayer in a quite remarkable way. It really is who she was.)

But even in that context, heresy isn’t simply doctrinal error; it’s a particular kind of doctrinal error. Heresy involves taking one part of the truth to extremes, so that you abandon some other part of the truth. The Arian heretics emphasized the glory of the Father to such an extent that they refused to believe that Christ was truly God; rather, he was the greatest of all created beings.

In short, the interesting thing about a heresy, and the thing that drives everything else, isn’t so much what the heresy gets wrong, but what the heresy gets right.

In reading Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples, and in interacting with others who have read it, it’s clear that Evangelicalism is doing something right. Catholics who leave the faith usually leave either for no faith at all, or for some variety of Evangelicalism; and the latter usually leave because they’ve had a personal encounter with the rised Christ and nobody around them in church seems to get it. Then they meet an Evangelical, and personal encounters with Christ are a thing for them. They get it.

And then, many converts to Catholicism (or reverts, like me) have been greatly influenced by Evangelicalism. The Episcopal (later Anglican) congregation to which I belonged had a very Evangelical flavor to it, and my formation as a disciple owes a great deal to that. It’s through that experience (and others like it, earlier in my life) that I came to understand the importance of being a disciple. Mind you, I don’t feel like I met much success at it until I returned to the Catholic Church, and found all of the needed tools (the Divine Office, the aid of the saints, and most especially the Eucharist) ready to hand. It’s as though God’s using Evangelicalism to teach Catholics what discipleship means.

And so I think that discipleship is the truth that Evangelicalism is based on, the truth that gets emphasized so much that other truths are suppressed, or, at the least, ignored. They get discipleship right—very, very right. It’s a tribute to the loving power of Christ that it works so well for them in the absence of the helps I mentioned above. And it’s equally a tribute to the loving power of Christ that the Catholic Church is doing as well as it is without a strong emphasis on discipleship. I hope that with Christ’s help we’ll be able to change that.

On Kerfuffles

So recently there’s been a kerfuffle in the Catholic part of the blogosphere. Somebody made some harsh and uncharitable remarks about a Catholic organization that’s doing good work. Someone else called the first party on their harsh and uncharitable remarks, and defended the Catholic organization. Others are now criticizing the second party for his criticism of the first party, and anyway the second party hates Catholics like the first party and the Catholic organization is icky.

You’ll note that I’ve not given any names or links here, first because I don’t want to add to the feeding frenzy, and second because while I have my own sympathies with certain of those involved I have very little information of my own about the actual circumstances, and would be just repeating hearsay.

And third, and most important, I could have written the above two paragraphs at almost any time in the last five or ten years. This sort of thing goes on all of the time. And that’s what I want to write about: not the facts of this case, but about an attitude that can be spiritually corrosive.

Many years ago my then pastor told a story about a government agent who investigated counterfeiting operations and gave a talk about it. Someone suggested to the agent that he must spend a lot of time studying counterfeit bills. He said, no, he didn’t. Counterfeit bills are all different. Instead, he spent his time studying real bills so that he could readily see any differences.

My then pastor drew the moral that if we want to be able to spot falsehood we have to be thoroughly familiar with the truth. And that’s good advice, I think, but I want to extend it a little further.

As on-line Catholics, we can spend our time writing about what is true, good, and beautiful, or writing about what is false, bad, and ugly. We can look for uplifting links to share or for horrible things to castigate.

I’d like to suggest that we only do the former—but I won’t. We need to stand against error where we find it, and that will sometimes involve being critical. Standing against error isn’t spiritually corrosive.

But I would suggest that a constant and single-minded pursuit of error in order to stand against it can be. It can lead you to see error where there is none, or at the least to magnify molehills into mountains if it’s a slow news day. And if you’re spending all of time looking for errors, you can begin to forget what the truth looks like.

Don’t just stand against the false, the bad, and the ugly. Stand for the true, the good, and beautiful, not simply in principle but also in practice. It’s better for you, and you’ll have less to repent of.

Archie Says

I was glad to hear him laugh, because it seemed likely that if there really were ice-picks sticking in my head he, being a doctor, would be taking them out instead of laughing at me.

— Rex Stout, The League of Frightened Men

On the Proper Use of Terms

I was reading a thread on a Catholic forum about how the various people on the forum came to the Catholic Church. One lady objected to the use of the term “convert” as a general term for people entering the Catholic Church. In her view, only those who have never been baptized before are truly “converts”; those who were baptized in another Christian denomination are “entering full communion,” but are not converts. In other words, you can’t convert from Christianity to Catholicism because Catholics are Christians.

Now, I take her point—and I must emphasize that she was not at all strident about it. She just thinks that it’s a good distinction to keep in mind, and I agree, it is. The trouble is, the word “convert” has multiple meanings in the religious context, and one of the most common ones is “a person who entered the Catholic Church as an adult”, without regard to the tradition from which they came. Any attempts by a single person to redefine the word to suit themselves are going to lead only to frustration.

I saw a similar phenomenon on a blog I stumbled across a few weeks ago. The blogger was distressed because Pope Francis had referred to “gays”. In her view, the word “gay” means not only homosexual preferences, but also participation in a sinful lifestyle. The proper word for a Catholic to use when speaking of the former but not the latter, according to her, is “same-sex attracted”, and somehow by using the word “gay” in the way he did the Pope had stepped over some kind of line. (I’m not at all sure I completely understood her reasoning.)

When you’re writing an essay or an article or a blog post or a book, you’re naturally free to use terms however you like, provided that you’re careful to define your terms. In philosophy this is particularly common, and particularly necessary, because so many of the terms are heavily overloaded. (Note to atheists: when St. Thomas Aquinas proves the existence of God from motion, the word “motion” doesn’t mean what you think it does.)

And the same applies to commenting on forums or in comment threads: if you want to be understand, and you use a fuzzy word, you need to make it clear what you mean.

But to insist that a word in colloquial use must always have your preferred idiosyncratic meaning, and to stand athwart the world and cry “Stop!” when others use it in the normal colloquial way, is simply a waste a time.

(Oh, and a note to all of the entomologists out there: spiders are bugs. So are bees, scorpions, silverfish, millipedes, centipedes, and anything else creepy-crawly with more than four legs. Deal with it.)

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