Archive for September, 2008

The Unlucky Chicken and Induction

Here’s how Bertrand Russell rather amusingly describes the problem of induction in his 1912 book, The Problems of Philosophy:

Experience has shown us that, hitherto, the frequent repitition of some uniform succession of coexistence has been a cause of our expecting the same succession or coexistence on the next occasion. Food that has a certain appearance generally has a certain taste, and it is a severe shock to our expectations when the familiar appearance is found to be associated with an unusual taste. Things which we see become associated, by habit, with certain tactile sensations which we expect if we touch them; one of the horrors of a ghost (in many ghost-stories) is that it fails to give us any sensations of touch. Uneducated people who go abroad for the first time are so surprised as to be incredulous when they find their native language not understood.

And this kind of association is not confined to men; in animals also it is very strong. A horse which has been often driven along a certain road resists the attempt to drive him in a different direction. Domestic animals expect food when they see the person who usually feeds them. We know that all these rather crude expectations of uniformity are liable to be misleading. The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken.

But in spite of the misleadingness of such expectations, they nevertheless exist. The mere fact that something has happened a certain number of times causes animals and men to expect that it will happen again. Thus our instincts certainly cause us to believe that the sun will rise to-morrow, but we may be in no better a position than the chicken which unexpectedly has its neck wrung.

The Otherness of the Holy

More from Paul Tillich; quoted from Dynamics of Faith (Harper & Row, 1957):

The original and only justified meaning of holiness must replace the currently distorted use of the word. “Holy” has become identified with moral perfection, especially in some Protestant groups. The historical causes of this distortion give a new insight into the nature of holiness and of faith. Originally, the holy has meant what is apart from the ordinary realm of things and experiences. It is separated from the world of finite relations. This is the reason why all religious cults have separated holy places and activities from all other places and activities. Entering the sanctuary means encountering the holy. Here the infinitely removed makes itself near and present, without loosing its remoteness. For this reason, the holy has been called the “entirely other,” namely, other than the ordinary course of things or – to refer to a former statement – other than the world which is determined by the cleavage of subject and object. The holy transcends this realm; this is its mystery and its unapproachable character. There is no conditional way of reaching the unconditional; there is no finite way of reaching the infinite.

One notes that some Catholics are also guilty of watering down the meaning of the word “holy”. The above paragraph also sums up why the altar and tabernacle areas in Catholic churches are considered so sacred. They are places where God in His Son, Jesus Christ, condescends to meet with us. It is a meeting between the infinite and the finite. For when God comes to meet us, how can we do anything but bow down in adoration?

Exodus 3:3-5 (RSV-CE):

And Moses said, “I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here am I”. Then he said, “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

And The Discussion Continues…

Well, they’re still at it. Or I should say, we’re still at it, since I’ve managed (against my better judgment) to insert myself into this discussion as well.

As I mentioned not too long ago, over at the Philosophia Perennis blog some excellent discussion has been had over the topic of the development of doctrine (DD for short). In the few comments that I put forward (both at PP and fides quaerens intellectum) I’ve been fairly insistent (annoying?) about bringing the issue of DD back to an assumption of authority. Now it seems Dr. Mike Liccione has done the same, albeit with much more intellectual acumen than I could ever muster.

It’s been noticeable in the comments made by Catholics regarding the issue of DD, not to mention in the original post by Mike, that a necessary assumption is being made that the Church can teach authoritatively and infallibly (under certain circumstances). This is simply part of the Catholic mind. I prefer to call it, joyful obedience. And that’s really what it is. Any faithfully committed Catholic can attest to this. And of course, this is not a blind faith, an ignorant faith, or mere fideism, as some Protestants have assumed.

Mike sums up the necessary assumption of authority in his concluding remarks:

What goes for orthodox christology and triadology goes a fortiori for the Catholic Magisterium’s claim to be infallible under certain conditlions. Whatever reasons might, collectively, constitute reason enough to accept that claim, they cannot themselves constitute proof for such authority, if by ‘proof’ one means a perspicuously valid deductive argument based on premises that all parties to the discussion would accept. If, contrary to fact, such proofs were available for dogmas, then in this case such a proof would retorsively obviate the need for the very authority it is meant to support. This means that, if there is some rational justification for the Catholic Magisterium’s claim to authority, it cannot, in the very nature of the case, yield a result that is intellectually compelling. It can only yield a result which can be seen, retroactively, to cohere with and illuminate the agreed-upon data, and thus supply reason enough to make an act of faith in the Catholic Magisterium—an act that would thus be one of informed faith, rather than blind faith.

Accordingly, the question whether there is reason enough to accept distinctively Catholic dogmas as de fide ultimately hinges on that of whether there is reason enough to accept the Magisterium’s claim to authority. Unless and until that question is settled, everything must remain purely a matter of opinion…

Notice what Mike says here; essentially that no argument for the Church’s claim “to teach infallibly under certain conditions” can be be proved deductively, for to do so would undermine the very authority the deductive argument would be trying to prove. In other words, why would we need authority if deductive arguments based on commonly held axioms would work? As someone flippantly (although, I think correctly) said in one of the comboxes, if this were true, why not just replace the Magisterium with a computer? Of course, the answer is because the “unpacking” of divine revelation (i.e. DD) is not linear. It’s much more dynamic and complex than that. Doctrinal development does not always derive from easily followed deductive arguments based on commonly held axioms. If this were so, theology would have been an exhausted project long ago.

Instead, in matters of faith some (at least implicit) claim to authority must be made. And both Protestants and Catholics do this. Whether it be the Holy Spirit working through the individual or the Holy Spirit working through the Church (however you define “Church”), a claim to authority is made. And this authority must of necessity have an element of infallibility (i.e. particular teachings that are considered irreformable such as the divinity of Christ). For if there is no element of infallibility, how could any Christian believe anything de fide?. It seems to me you couldn’t, and you’ve traded in your faith for a doubt. Authority is one of those theological axioms every “orthodox” Christian stands on, whether he be Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox.

It is for this very reason that I have long maintained that a belief in the authority of the Church to teach infallibly is foundational to Catholicism. And I assume this is why so many Protestants reject it out of hand. It’s, so to speak, the Protesters theological axiom that the Church cannot do so.

Glory To You, O Lord

The Canticle from today’s Morning Prayer, taken from I Chronicles 29:10-13:

Blessed may you be, O Lord,
God of Israel our father,
from eternity to eternity.

Yours, O Lord, are grandeur and power,
majesty, splendor, and glory.

For all in heaven and on earth is yours;
yours, O Lord, is the sovereignty:
you are exalted as head over all.

Riches and honors are from you,
and you have dominion over all.
In your hands are power and might;
it is yours to give grandeur and strength to all.

Therefore, our God, we give you thanks
and we praise the majesty of your name.

Scripture, Authority, and the Development of Doctrine

The small world of blogs that I visit regularly has been abuzz with the topic of authority and the proper understanding of the development of doctrine. It all started with C. Michael Patton over at his popular blog, Parchment and Pen. In his post entitled, Why I Believe That Our Canon is Fallible… And Am Comfortable With It, Patton (following R.C. Sproul) argues that while Scripture is infallible, the list of books which make up the canon is fallible. In other words, because there is no infallible human authority (according to Protestants) to determine which books should make the canon, we have “fallible cannon of infallible books”. In need not be said, that not all Protestants hold to this view as enunciated by Patton and Sproul.

However, this is all very confusing to a Catholic, so Fr. Alvin Kimel of Pontifications and Dr. Mike Liccione of Philosophia Perennis made all the necessary objections based on the meaning authority and interpretation, not to mention epistemology. This debate on sola scriptura leads quite nicely into the issue of authority and the development of doctrine. The debate of the canon, the nature of authority, and the development of doctrine flowing from that authority has even spilled over to the blogs, fides quaerens intellectum and After Existentialism, Light. It’s all been very interesting to read, but one gets the feeling this topic has been much debated through the years in the blogosphere. Overall, this has been a good discussion, and it should be noted that debates like this can (and often do) lead to a greater understanding between Protestants and Catholics, even if we still disagree. To summarize G.K. Chesterton, the purpose of debate is to come to the truth. We debate in order to learn and obtain knowledge, not to win an argument.

The issue of the development of doctrine also dovetails into the issue of reform in the Church. What does true reform look like anyway? Avery Cardinal Dulles takes up this issue in his Spring 2003 Laurence J. McGinley lecture given at Fordham University. In this lecture I think he nicely summarizes some of the points the Catholic participants in the aforementioned debate have been trying to make.

Quoted from Church and Society (Fordham University Press 2008):

Unlike innovation, reform implies organic continuity; it does not add something foreign or extrinsic. Unlike revolution or transformation, reform respects and retains the substance that was previously there. Unlike development, it implies that something has gone wrong and needs to be corrected. The point of departure for reform is always an idea or institution that is affirmed but considered to have been imperfectly or defectively realized. The goal is to make persons or institutions more faithful to an idea already accepted.

Reform may be either restorative or progressive. Restorative reform seeks to reactualize a better past or a past that is idealized. Progressive reform aims to move ahead toward an ideal or utopian future. Either style can run to excess. Restorative reform tends toward traditionalism; progressive reform, toward modernism. But neither direction can be ruled out. Sometimes the past needs to be repristinated; at other times, it may need to be transcended.

In any discussion of reform, two opposite errors are to be avoided. The first, is to assume that because the Church is divinely instituted, it never needs to be reformed. This position is erroneous because it fails to attend to the human element. Since all the members of the Church, including the pope and the bishops, are limited in virtue and ability, they may fail to live up to the principles of the faith itself. When guilty of negligence, timidity, or misjudgment, they may need to be corrected, as Paul, for instance, corrected Peter (Gal 2:11).

The second error would be to assail or undermine the essentials of Catholic Christianity. This would not be reform but dissolution. Paul rebuked the Galatians for turning to a different gospel (Gal 1:6). The Catholic Church is unconditionally bound to her Scriptures, her creeds, her dogmas, and her divinely instituted hierarchical office and sacramental worship. To propose that the Church should reject the divinity of Christ, or retract the dogma of papal infallibility, or convert herself into a religious democracy, as some have done in the name of reform, is to misunderstand both the nature of Catholicism and the nature of reform.

The Infinite in Man

Another one from the bin of “great Protestant theologians of the last century”. This one from Paul Tillich. He writes in Dynamics of Faith:

Faith is a total and centered act of the personal self, the act of unconditional, infinite, and ultimate concern. The question now arise: what is the source of this all-embracing and all-transcending concern? The word “concern” points to two sides of a relationship, the relation between the one who is concerned and his concern. In both respects we have to imagine man’s situation in itself and in his world. The reality of man’s ultimate concern reveals something about his being, namely, that he is able to transcend the flux of relative and transitory experiences of his ordinary life. Man’s experiences, feelings, thoughts are conditioned and finite. They not only come and go, but their content is of finite and conditional concern – unless they are elevated to unconditional validity. But this presupposes the general possibility of doing so; it presupposes the element of infinity in man. Man is able to understand in an immediate personal and central act the meaning of the ultimate, the unconditional, the absolute, the infinite. This alone makes faith a human potentiality.

Augustine on Pastors

From today’s second reading of the Divine Office, Saint Augustine’s Sermon on Pastors:

We have talked about what it means for a shepherd to “drink the milk of his flock.” Now, then, what does it mean when he “clothes himself in its wool”?

To give milk is to give sustenance; to give wool is to give honour. These are the two things that pastors demand when they want to feed themselves rather than their sheep: the fulfilment of their bodily wants and the pleasure that comes from honour and praise.

Clothing is a good image of honour because clothing covers nakedness. Now every man is weak – and whoever is placed over you is a man just like you. He has a body; he is mortal. He eats, he goes to sleep, he wakes up. He has been born and he will die. If you consider him in himself, he is nothing but a man; but by giving him honour you give him, as it were, clothing to cover up his human nakedness.
See what kind of clothing Paul received from the good people of God: You welcomed me as an angel of God. I swear that you would even have gone so far as to pluck out your eyes and give them to me. But with all the honour that was given to him, did he spare the feelings of those who had gone astray, so that he could avoid being contradicted or being praised less than before? He did not. If he had withheld correction from those who needed it, he would have been one of those pastors who feed themselves and not their sheep. He would have been saying to himself, “What has that to do with me? Let them do as they like: my food is safe, my honour is safe – I have as much milk and wool as I want, so let everyone wander wherever he likes.” But then, if you think like that, are all your goods really safe if everyone goes wherever he wants? If you think like that, I refuse to make you a leader and you will be like every one of your own people: If one part of the body is hurt, all parts are hurt with it.

So when the Apostle Paul is recalling how the Galatians behaved towards him, he does it because he does not want to seem forgetful of the honour they gave him. He remembers that they received him as if he had been an angel of God, that if it had been possible they would have torn out their own eyes to give to him. But despite all this, he has come to the sick, the rotting sheep to lance its abscesses and cut away its rotting flesh. He is driven to say Is it telling the truth that has made me your enemy?

Paul received the sheep’s milk, as we heard before, and he received their wool to clothe him, but he did not neglect the care of his flock. He did not seek his own interests but those of Jesus Christ.


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