Pseudo-Dionysius’ Divine Names: Ch.4, 1-2; A Consequentialist Account Divine Goodness?

In chapter 4, Pseudo-Dionysius finally gets to considering specific divine attributes.  All of Chapter 4 is devoted to making sense of the various ways in which God is called “good.” The first reason to think God is good is given in the first section of this chapter.  Pseudo-Dionysius compares the divine to the sun again:

<blockquote>Think of how it is with our sun.  It exercises no rational process, no act of choice, and by the very fact of its eistence it gives light to whatever is able to partake of its light, in its own way.  So it is with God.  Existing far above the sun, an archetype far superior to its dull  image, it sends the rays of its undivided goodness to everything with the capacity, such as this may be, to receive it.–Pseudo-Dionysius,DN4,1</blockquote>

Today I will point out two different ways to interpret Pseudo-Dinonysius’, both of which will have issues to address.  The first, and most strikingly problematic, is the suggestion that this passage gives a Consequentialist argument  for Gods goodness.  God is the cause of all the goodness in the world, and thus, by definition, God is good.  That is, on this interpretation, God is good, simply in virtue of being the cause of all of the good in the world.  That is, what is meant by goodness when it applies to God is just that he causes all of the goodness in the world.

This is deeply dissatisfying, and seems at least somewhat inconsistent with the general attitude toward our knowledge of the attributes of God expressed earlier in the divine names.  If all that goodness, on the part of the deity, amounts to is his causing good things, then we can have full and unproblematic knowledge of what P-D calls one of the most important divine attributes.  This doesn’t seem to be what Pseudo-Dionysius wants to be getting at in his text.  Further, if we are taking a consequentialist approach to justifying belief in divine goodness, P-D will have to take head-on the issue of God’s involvement with evil.  Evil exists, and presumably (on most theistic views), God has some kind of indirect causal responsibility for this evil (or at the very least allows it).  If divine goodness is going to amount to some consequentialist calculation, then we need to factor this in such a calculation.

This issue may come up eventually anyway, but it will be quite a bit worse on this view of divine goodness.  Luckily, if we take a look at the passage, we will see that the beginning of section 2 of chapter 4 we will be able see a strategy taking shape.  Pseudo-Dionysius immediately starts talking about the goodness of the angels.  I think the strategy here is to take a look at the highest goods that God is responsible for, and use these as part of an argumentative strategy to show just how good God is.  But tune in next time for further discussion of the Divine Names.

Peace be with you.
-JS

Fourth of July Post: The Wings of the Republican Party

The Wings of the Republican Party

I figured that, since it’s America’s Independence day, I should write something political.  So today I’m going to write about the different wings of the Republican Party.  The Republican Party is an interesting, and perhaps self-imploding, beast.  Donald Trump, if he can be credited with anything, has shined a spotlight on the deep divisions within the party.  So today, on this celebration of our ability to self-govern, let’s talk about something interesting about the republican party.

The people in power for the longest time in the republican party are the centrists.  The republican centrists basically have positions marginally different from the democrats in congress, but without the overarching philosophy or goal toward which to make progress.  The centrists’ biggest problem is that, unlike centrist democrats, they seem to have positions that are piecemeal.  At some times it seems that the overarching goal of centrist republicans is to keep the democrats from achieving their overarching goal of (if I’m reading them correctly) a radically egalitarian collectivist society.

But that’s just the centrist wing of the republican party.  The weird thing is that the republican party cannot be thought of as a strict continuum that can be represented with a line.  There isn’t some one view on the far right that the “extreme” ends of the party hold.  No, instead I think that the republican party should be represented with a triangle, with one point representing the centrist republicans.  One of the two extremes of the party is what I will call the protectionist wing of the party.  This is the wing that is staunchly anti-immigration, favors ‘protective’ tariffs, and seems to think that muslims are a unified block of people who hate America for her freedom.  This is one of the two extremes of the party that the republicans in washington have ignored.  This wing is the reason that Trump has done well in the party.

If there’s one thing the left has done much better than the right in America, it’s in successfully showing its ideological base that it’s committed to the same principles.  The left has continually done little things that make progress toward the ideal world that many of the more ideologically pure members of the party want to exist.  The right, instead, throws little crumbs while not communicating a coherent progress toward the goals of the extremes.  Trump, finally, has really appealed to the protectionist wing of the republican party.

Now, people are saying that Trump is showing the true nature of the party, but they ignore that there is another extreme of the republican party.  There is the libertarian wing.  To some extent due to Ron Paul and people like Barry Goldwater, there is the laissez-faire, peace-loving, private property is king, leave me alone with my guns and pot wing of the republican party.  This is a little smaller wing of the party, but an important one nonetheless.  While the republican party has been ignoring its ideological base, there has been a battle for the party’s heart going on behind the scenes.  There has been a war between these extremes.  But most right-wing ideologues fall somewhere between the libertarian and the protectionist wing of the party.

One of the great tragedies of the Trump era republican party is the perceived victory this gives for the protectionist wing of the party over the laissez-faire wing.  Hopefully this victory doesn’t taint what’s good about the republican party.  If it does, I hope that the libertarian party can become something major and America can get past the two-party system.

But that’s my opinion, for what it’s worth.  Happy Independence Day!

Peace be with you.
-JS

Good Old Fashioned Religion: Doldrums and the Sunday Obligation

There are all sorts of things we might discuss regarding the Sunday obligation.  We might discuss the source of the church’s authority to require such a thing.  We might discuss how the obligation makes sense and even discuss how a daily obligation might make sense.  But today I’m going to discuss something different I’m going to discuss how great the Sunday obligation is for spiritual doldrums.

Everyone goes through some spiritual doldrums.  You know those times where the emotional aspect of the sacraments and the religious life just aren’t there, and you just feel like you’re going through the motions a lot of the time?  The Sunday obligation functions perfectly for people in the spiritual doldrums.

Spiritual doldrums are a drag.  There are times when, emotionally, the catholic life is very fulfilling.  But there are also times that are not.  Sometimes life is just difficult and boring and it’s hard to concentrate.  Sometimes you’re just not that into it.

But your relationship with everyone you know has doldrums.  Even close friendships and marriages do so.  But this is why the sunday obligation is so good for doldrums.  Obligations allow a person to get through doldrums.

Obligations get you there.  Obligations put your butt in the seat, and make you listen.  And the Mass is a place where seat where you want to get your butt.  Further, in the context of fulfilling this obligation, you will engage in the mass.  The mass is a deeply affecting thing, but even in the absense of this special kind of affect which the mass often gives rise to the mass is first of all an act of will and an act of intellect.

In the mass we (at least those parts which we perform on our own) is primarily an act of intellect, recognizing the truths about the divine which are revealed, and it is an act of will, bringing our volitions in accord with the truths which we know with our intellect.

But if you’re not obligated to go, it’s hard or a person in the doldrums to see why they should go.  Why should I go to a thing that I’m not that into?  Why should I go and sit uncomfortably in my hippy-dippy parish that doesn’t have kneelers because they recently moved and can’t afford the incredibly expensive building project that would be required to have a proper worship space?  Why? Because you are obligated, in virtue of being a Catholic, to do so.

And how does it help? Because however little you think you get out of it, you’re getting something out of it (as long as you’re there with a willing heart) something out of it.  At worst you’re getting the sacrament.  And that’s nothing to sneeze at.  So, please fulfill your Sunday obligation.

Video Rental Reviews: 400 Days

Welcome back to the feature where I review movies and tv series that are at my local in my local video rental place.  Previously, I have reviewed 10 Cloverfield Lane and the SyFy Series 12 Monkeys.  Today I will be reviewing the indie scifi thriller called 400 Days.

First, I’m going to say this.  After your first watch of this movie you may be a little pissed off to start.  It’s sudden and difficult to understand.  But after thinking about it for a little while, I think this is intentional.  I will get to this after a brief synopsis.

400 Days is set mostly in a mocked-up spacecraft.  We are led to believe that the four astronauts we have just met are being put into the ground as a test of the effects of long-term space travel on the human mind.  There is some drama as the main psychological officer has just dumped Brandon Routh, our main spaceman.

There is some interesting character work in this movie, with Dane Cook, Brandon Routh, and Tom Cavanagh making for some interesting character work.  There is a twist at the end of the first act where something seems to have gone wrong with the experiment.  This generates much of the drama for the rest of the story.  We see various things happen that stretch these individuals to the breaking point through the course of this experiment.  But there is a third act twist that I won’t ruin for you.

I think this is trying to be one of those trippy psychological thrillers which plays with your perception and then leaves you with a question.  Were the events of the movie real or were they all in the character’s minds.  It doesn’t pull it off perfectly, but oddly the last twist of the movie, although it may piss you off, will leave you wanting to watch the movie again very carefully.  Ultimately the last series of twists makes some sense, but there is still some missing in the film.

If you are a fan of the psychological thrillers this movie is worth watching.  I found it quite enjoyable despite the rage-inducing ending.  The rage will wear off and curiosity will set in.  Ultimately the story has some holes, and you’ll be left scratching your head even after the second viewing, but I still think genre (and love story) fans will get enough enjoyment out of this to drop the dollar or two it takes to watch 400 days.

Southern Evangelical Seminary’s Disappointing Response

I hoped this kind of misconstrual by SES wouldn’t happen. But this response is sadly necessary.  If you’d like to hear the true story from the horse’s mouth, check out the book Evangelical Exodus.  Don’t believe the conspiracy theories.  Here is my friend Doug taking a quizzical look at the response. I will have some more to say on this issue friday.

Evangelical Exodus

Southern Evangelical Seminary Response to Evangelical Exodus

Southern Evangelical Seminary Response to Evangelical Exodus

Introduction

I knew that sooner or later Southern Evangelical Seminary would respond to Evangelical Exodus. While disagreement and perhaps even opposition was expected (albeit unnecessary), SES’s reaction was disappointing in numerous ways. I had hoped that a school claiming to be committed to teaching people to “think clearly, critically, and rationally while engaging people in meaningful dialogue” would have done so in their response to the book. However, rather than carefully and considerately interacting with its content  (or even getting its two-word title correct), SES’s response amounted to little more than a couple links to general articles on Catholicism and to a course that was recorded before the book was even written.

Worse, however, were the few items that related to the book. Instead of engaging actual arguments made in the book, SES has responded with misleading implications, red herrings, and personal attacks that border on libel. My requests to remove these latter statements were rebuffed, but…

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Pseudo-Dionysius’ The Divine Names: Summary to end of Chapter 1

He was a neo-platonist. Get it?

The end of chapter 1 leading into chapter 2 of the divine names spends some still hasn’t begun the bulk of the inquiry.  Really, most of chapters 1 and 2 are devoted to a defense of the project in general.  Pseudo-Dionysius is grappling with a problem that all Neo-Platonists have to grapple with.  The Neo-Platonists had a view of God that deeply raises the question of whether God-talk can even be coherent or meaningful.

The crux of this problem is the extreme transcendence that the Neo-Platonists attribute to God.  God, for the classical neoPlatonist view, is the One beyond all being or differentiation.  He transcends everything, except perhaps unity.  He even transcends being, which brings up its own host of issues.  So, understandably, our author feels the desire to justify attributing things to a God that seems so beyond human comprehension.

In the beginning of Chapter 1 he primarily appeals to the need, for Christians, to reconcile this view of God with the fact that scripture attributes all sorts of things to God.  Scripture makes all sorts of claims about God, so we should figure out how to understand these claims as true without giving up this incredibly trascendent view of God that we hold.

But starting toward the end of chapter 1 there is a bit of a shift in tone and a different line of defense.  He argues that there are things we can attribute to God in virtue of God’s having caused all created things.  This is a natural way to go, and is deeply influential in the history of theological thought.  Attributing things to God in virtue of His having created the world allows one to attribute things to God in terms of how things are related to Him.  This will allow us to avoid attributing anything intrinsically to God, and thus will be easy to square some true God-talk with a God which is fairly radically unknowable.

P.S. The pic above is Plato in matrix-code.  Because Pseudo-Dionysius was a Neo Platonist?  Get it? Neo?  Platonist?  I’ll just end this article now so as not to get in the way of your guffaws.

Tune in every MWF for more interesting stuff on Catholicism, philosophy, society, and pop culture.

Peace be with you.
-JS

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Bad Reasons to Prefer Star Trek over Star Wars

Star Trek and Star Wars are in many ways incomparable.  One is a series of movies and the other is a long running set of TV shows that also happen to have movies made from them.  They are also very different kinds of scifi.  Each, while being versions of space opera, is very different in flavor.  Star Trek often flirts with hard scifi, trying to keep their show grounded in extrapolations from current science (or at least as grounded as a show with faster than light travel can be), while being difficult to shoe-horn into one scifi category in virtue of being a long-running TV series.  Star Wars flirts with fantasy tropes, sword-and-sworcery, and Shakespearean and mythological themes.  Both are great.

But then let’s ask Bill Nye which is better:

(First, can I just mention as a side-note that this is probably the first time I’ve ever heard the word shakespearean used as an insult?)

So Star Trek is better because Star Wars has magic and is Shakespearean.  He then goes on to praise Star Trek for (basically) its flirting with hard scifi.  So he likes hard scifi better than science fantasy.  But this is part of what frustrates me about the science popularizer turned new atheism evangelists that are populating the world now and have won the world over.

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They’re fundamentalist atheists.  The fact that the Star Wars universe features a religion is enough to put Bill Nye off of Star Wars.  Really?  That a work of fiction features a religion is a knock on that work?  No interest in understanding what the function of the religion might be in this work of fiction, it features a religion and that makes it stupid.  It’s like a fundamentalist baptist swearing off a movie that has a sex scene in it without taking the time to think about the function of the scene in the narrative of the film.  Bill Nye is going to have a bad time if he dislikes any fiction that has religion, magic, or ghosts.

Now, maybe there is a way Bill Nye could have expressed a similar sentiment about Star Trek without coming off sanctimonious and idiotic. He might talk about how since he has a passion for science he likes hard scifi as well as utopian views of the future and thus likes Star Wars better, but from his response he takes the very presence of any of these elements in a work of fiction is a knock against it.

But there’s a broader point here to discuss than Bill Nye having adopted fundamentalist atheism.  When we’re talking about which set of works is better in some set of works, is liking the setting of one more than the other any reason at all to think that the one is better?  Maybe you can give this as a reason you like one thing rather than another.  But the setting is nothing without the rest of the work.  The setting might contribute to the quality of a work.  And you might prefer things in a particular setting (I really enjoy future dystopia and post-apocalyptic settings).  But the setting alone a work does not make (or break: you can probably pick any possible setting and there has been really bad and really great work that takes place in that setting).

In an upcoming blog I will be discussing some really great aspects of Star Trek as a series and the interesting points it raises.  But today, I’m just ranting about Bill Nye’s discussion of the issue.

Tune in every MWF for new and interesting things that I have to say.

Peace be with you.
-JS

Pseudo-Dionysius and Others: Academic Dishonesty?

I’m reading some Pseudo-Dionysius this summer.  Pseudo-Dionysius had a deep effect on the development of medieval philosophy.  But Pseudo-Dionysius is a fake.  He wrote his works masquerading as Dionysius the Areopagite, a Greek philosopher converted by Paul’s sermon on Mars hill in Paul’s discussion of the unknown god.  The medievals didn’t know this, and payed deep homage to Pseudo-D’s work.  Pseudo-D wrote beautiful mystical theology that was influenced deeply by neo-Platonism, a philosophical movement that emphasized the otherness and unknowability of God.

I think his work has a lot of value and should be appreciated by anyone looking to understand medieval theology and philosophy in any sort of deep way.  But this raises the question: Ought Pseudo-Dionysius to have written his works?  At first it seems like a clear case of academic dishonesty that we, in the modern world, are ultra-sensitive to.  But before the modern era such issues were less stringent.  There were all sorts of categories of work that were accepted in pre-modern times as perfectly honest works that were derivative works.  For example, there were whole genres of work that would be illegal today that were accepted as important forms of literature in the middle ages.  There were commentaries, in which you heavily quoted from another work and then gave original thoughts about the arguments (like a reaction video but in text).  There were even works where you just collected a ton of quotes on the same subject together, being a curated collection of quotes from others.  These are all fine, and I think a reasonable person would consider them ethical.

But then there are works like Pseudo-Dionysius.  If we are looking at it from the outside in terms of whether it should exist, it’s tempting to place it in the same kind of category as the other fake works from the first several centuries of the church like the various gnostic “gospels”.  It seems we instinctively see these very late gospels that falsely claim authorship as dishonest  works.

But I’m not so sure with Pseudo-Dionysius.  Pseudo-Dionysius work is very important in western history.  But can a work be both academically dishonest and deeply important to the history of western philosophy?  Next time I’ll talk about what’s good about Pseudo-Dionysius’ work, and consider this more closely

Tune your dials to jsententiae.com every MWF for more content!
Peace be with you.
-JS

Good Old-Fashioned Religion: Why Latin?

It seems, in the wider world, the move from Latin to the colloquial language in the Roman Catholic liturgy has been nearly universally praised by the wider world.  One of several main historical critiques of Catholicism have been based on Catholicism’s particular fondness for this particular dead language.  With the liturgy (and the bible), when under Catholicism’s charge, being entirely in Latin, Catholicism is charged with intentionally keeping the word out of the hands of the people in order to retain power over them.  This motivation,  I fear, was probably true for part of the church’s history.

But there are legitimate reasons to have a single language, not tied to any particular local area, for one’s liturgy.  This is especially so for a Catholic liturgy.  This is because the Catholic liturgy is centered on the Eucharist which, among other things, is a sacrament which is centered on both celebrating and causing a profound unity amongst Catholic participants.  Having the liturgy in a single language all over the world and cross-culturally encourages one to see the profound unity one has with the church all over the world: one in creed, code, and cult.

Also, in fairly well educated countries, there used to be little to the charge of making the liturgy difficult to understand.  Especially prior to the tragic downfall of classical language education in the west, people were largely able to understand basic Latin.  Further, many were educated in the Latin they needed to know in their religious education.

Over the history of being in Latin, the practice of the mass in Latin also became about being connected to the history of the church and its practices.

But the church isn’t just for the educated.  The church is for everyone.  So the church decided it was okay to have the mass in colloquial languages.  This way more people can understand the mass in a more profound way whether they understand Latin or not.

Nevertheless, for those that understand Latin, the Latin mass remains one of the most fulfilling kinds of experiences one can have in terms of Catholic liturgy.  Nevertheless, making the mass more accessible by allowing colloquial language in the liturgy has its cost.  The Latin mass is no longer as profound an expression of church unity.

What do you think?  Is the move to colloquial language mass last century a good move?  Is it worth the accessibility to everyone?  Let’s talk about it in the comments.

Check back every Monday Wednesday and Friday for new content!

Peace be with you
-JS

Rey’s Journey Doesn’t Echo Episode 4

Star Wars Episode VII is often accused of paralleling Episode IV too closely.  But it seems to me that Rey’s journey in Episode VII actually more closely parallels the journey of a character in another (less well respected) episode of the Star Wars saga.  Further, the parallel will make sense of the fact that everything seems to go so easily for Rey in the movie.

Rey’s journey parallels Anakin’s journey in Episode I  more closely than it parallels Luke’s journey in Episode IV.  Okay, so Rey’s journey starts out on a desert planet, where Rey is less than content with her life situation.  Rey even has her own twin sun moment (check out this podcast from loading ready run for a discussion of this moment and other interesting aspects of the movie) in the moment where she stares at the incredibly old woman cleaning parts and realizes she has to get out of there.

But she doesn’t lose her family.  She has a murky, confusing relationship with  her family which is keeping her on the desert planet.  This situation doesn’t change, and she must consciously give up her last connection to her family in order to leave on her adventure.  But the thing really keeping her from leaving the planet isn’t just a family situation.  She’s a slave.  This is exactly the situation with Anakin Skywalker.  It is, at the very least, much closer to Anakin Skywalker’s  situation in Episode I than to Luke Skywalker’s in Episode IV.

Let’s look at a few other parts of the Reys’ journey.  Luke is partially trained by Obi Wan Kenobi, but Anakin and Rey get no force training and are thrust into crucial situations in the struggle against the big weapon of destruction held by the enemy with no force training at all.

Nevertheless Anakin/Rey just succeed and succeed with little struggle (presumably due to their being incredibly strong in the force).  In many ways their journeys for the episode end when they find a trainer, whereas Luke’s journey for the episode is all struggle and ends when his trainer dies.

Now, all this is to ignore the fact that the journeys of all three protagonists closely parallel each other in many ways.  But I think that a close look makes it clear that Rey’s story in Episode VII is a self-conscious parallel of Anakin’s journey in Episode I.  What do you think? Let me know in the comment section below.

Check back every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for new content.

Peace be with you.
-JS