Friday, May 23, 2003

Naked before God

I've had two Googlers show up in the last two days who were looking for something about "nude full immersion baptism." Is this the latest trend or something?

Thursday, May 22, 2003

Placing your bets

Mark at Minute Particulars provides his own answer to my resurrection question by reposting a piece he wrote last year on the same subject. Apparently, some scholar calculated a 97% probability that the resurrection happened. Mark begged to differ:
Reducing the event of the Resurrection to probability is akin to reducing it to a wager or bet. But anyone who does this either:
a) doesn’t understand the nature of a historical event
b) equivocates when using the word “Resurrection”
c) conflates reason and faith
d) or, commits all of the above

One “believes” in the Resurrection because the event is not simply historical, like Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, but because it is a historical event upon which Creation hinges. Such an event is impervious to reason because:
1) we can’t be there ourselves to witness it
2) we can’t gather evidence about it empirically (e.g. an attempt to find the bones of the historical figure Jesus Christ or some such silliness to disprove it)

On the contrary, we “believe” because this is the only mechanism by which we can have knowledge of the event. And by “believe” I simply mean “a participation in the knowledge of a knower,” to use Josef Pieper’s phrase. With the Resurrection, the first “knowers” are those who knew Christ and testified to his words, actions, and eventual resurrection from the dead. If we could “know” as these followers of Christ “knew,” we wouldn’t need to “believe” because we would have the more certain knowledge of seeing and hearing the Word Made Flesh in the flesh (albeit without the Grace of the Holy Spirit as promised at Pentecost). Hence, Aquinas's famous remark that “Other things being equal, seeing is more certain than hearing.”

To believe in the Resurrection is an eminently reasonable thing to do: not because it is reason exercising its powers to investigate the event, but because it is reason understanding the dynamics of such an event and concluding that we can only come to know it by believing the testimony of another and “participating in the knowledge of a knower.” In fact, as Pieper again points out,

the credibility of the witness whom we believe cannot also be the subject of belief; this is where real knowledge is required . . . if everything is said to be belief, then belief has been eliminated.
What this all boils down to is not a wager or bet, but knowledge of the credibility of witnesses and assent to the content of their testimony.

Thus, Aquinas writes:

Now, whoever believes, assents to someone's words; so that, in every form of belief, the person to whose words assent is given seems to hold the chief place and to be the end as it were; while the things by holding which one assents to that person hold a secondary place. Consequently he that holds the Christian faith aright assents, by his will, to Christ, in those things which truly belong to His doctrine.

I must admit this is making my head swim (not the first time an MP post had that effect on me) but I think he's making the same claim Telford does: you believe the witnesses wholly, completely, 100%. My complaint all along has basically been that I don't see how you can do this. It seems to be conferring godlike infallibility upon people of whom my knowledge is second-hand and sketchy.

His post reminds me, however, that I might have misled people when I referred to a "scientific" way of knowing back in this post. The word evokes a lot of different things for people, and I think Peter, for one, took it to mean something akin to "following natural laws." What I really meant, though, was taking a certain humility in one's approach to knowledge: that what we don't know greatly outweighs what we do, and we should be very cautious about saying, "We have enough evidence now that we KNOW what happened, and we don't have to inquire any further." Often, I think, such thinking says more about the limits of our imaginations than it does about reality. I gave the example of a geocentric model of the universe to illustrate how a perfectly reasonable explanation of things can turn out to be wrong when more data comes in. And on the imagination front, I don't think even Aristarchus or Copernicus imagined that not only does the earth orbit the sun, but the sun is one of billions of stars in one of billions of galaxies.

What this does is turn belief from the simple, "Either you believe it's true, or you believe it's false," to something like, "You believe it's probably true, but you recognize you could be wrong." I think that's where probabilistic thinking, which Mark finds so strange in this context, comes to permeate everything. You move from the binary true/false into multiple degrees of certitude.

Anyway, thanks to everyone who responded. As usual, it didn't resolve the problem, but it gave me lots to chew on.
Just close your eyes, dear

Had a dream this morning that I was in a room I've never been in before with my (in waking life, deceased) cat Ditto. He was heaving like he was going to vomit, but didn't. Woke up with nausea.

Fell asleep again and dreamed I was in the same room with my (in waking life, deceased) friend John. He was helping me make the bed. Woke up with Sarah McLachlan's Possession stuck in my head.

I think the orange juice I had last night was too old. Either that, or the Apocalypse is imminent.

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Turning to dust

Tonight was the end of the line for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I know there must be at least a few others out there who care (cough). That was the last show on TV I was actually watching regularly. Is there anything else out there that's good?

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Clean up the living room, get out the good wine...

...and welcome my blog-sister to the neighborhood. Not that I ever met her, but we have the same blogfather, so we must be siblings...

Monday, May 19, 2003

This is getting as good as the atonement thing

More feedback has been coming in about the resurrection. Tom of Disputations (correctly identified this time -- see the update to this post) says:
I think she's onto something. The historical fact of the Resurrection can be distinguished from its meaning. Apart from its meaning, I imagine accepting the historical fact is more like hearing of a curiosity, a Ripley's Believe It Or Not entry, than an epochal moment in a till-that-moment non-Christian's life.

For myself, I insist on the historicity of the Resurrection as a corollary to the existence of the Church -- that is, of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, not as a religious and cultural institution. The impersonal follows the personal: "If Christ be not raised," St. Paul wrote, "then our faith is empty." Since I know "personally" our faith is not empty, I know "impersonally" Christ was raised.

(Along the same lines, I consider denying the physical Resurrection to be foolishness for Christians, not apostasy.)

Reader John Hinchcliffe sent an email with a similar theme:
My comments below are some thoughts I've had
on your discussion of believing in the resurrection as an event (or
fact) and believing in it as something to believe in (something you can
stake your life on and trust in). I'm writing from a Catholic point of
view, but I can't guarantee that this is Sound Catholic TheologyTM, only
My Own OpinionTM. Also, none of it is an argument for why you have to
believe the resurrection happened. It's more how I think the
resurrection, and the ongoing christian community, and communion hang together, and why discussion about the resurrection turns into a discussion of trusting other people, especially the church.

Bridging the gap between "an impersonal event (the resurrection)" and
"a personal event (relationship)" is very important.

If you were an ardent Gallic nationalist, living in a Gaul still ruled
by the Roman empire, Caesar's conquest of Gaul would matter to you no
matter how long ago it happened. In that alternative universe, the
actually occuring event of Caesar's conquest would matter to you both as
symbol of hated Roman rule and as the first event in the continuing Roman
rule of today. It seems to me that the church is the main means by
which the good news of Jesus and the resurrection comes into our lives as
personally meaningful - as a Gallic nationalist movement might help to
make alternative-universe-you care about Julius Caesar, dead and turned
to clay.

It seems to me that there are two bad mistakes about the resurrection
I've heard people make: 1) a crudely-literalistic notion that the
resurrection happened, so the mere fact of it happening is enough to
underwrite the whole of Christianity, regardless of how any individual humans react(ed) to it: all impersonal event, no element of relationship. 2) a crudely-liberal notion of the resurrection as purely a symbol of how
the apostles felt better and more hopeful after Jesus' death. And
since the the actual state of Jesus' body is a pure irrelevancy, on this
view, it's all about the apostles and us feeling better about ourselves
and each other: all relationship, no event outside of people's

It seems to me that the bridge over this divide is the concept of
sacrament as "a sign that accomplishes what it signifies". (Thus, baptism
actually washes away sins by the symbol of washing with water, and thus
signifies what it does.) The resurrection is sacramental in that it is
a factual reworking of our/the world's relationship with God, and also
a sign of that reworking. This is why it takes the form it does: the
execution of an innocent man with heavy overtones of a sacrifice,
followed by Jesus appearing to his disciples in a glorified form and then
visibly ascending into the sky - it has to appear to be doing what it is
in fact doing.

In the mass the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is re-presented (made
present again), and in communion those who eat and drink his body and
blood become spiritually and, especially, physically close to Jesus.
(Which I think is a point you've made about communion yourself.) The mass
and communion are made possible by the facticity of the resurrection
(which is ongoing, in that Jesus is still raised) and in turn make it
possible for us personally to come into contact with the event and with
him. Thus, the resurrection is an event that makes it possible for us to
care about it.

I think both of these pieces do a good job of elucidating what I've been groping towards. Even if you could "prove" that the resurrection happened in an intellectual way -- something I still severely doubt -- spiritually it feels like trying to swallow dust. So God was here 2000 years ago, so he said he'll come back, but in my own life it leaves me as alone as ever. But with the added burden of trying to follow a new set of rules.

On the other hand, I can also see the problem with the second attitude John describes -- taking the resurrection as a spiritual/emotional event. As I've said here before, it's not enough just to say Jesus was good; you have to also believe he was God, or at least, that God was behind him. Otherwise, he was just another doomed idealist, and following him is likely to doom you too. Still, that doesn't seem to be as big a problem as problem 1). Lots of people continue to follow slain idealists -- witness the influence MLK Jr. continues to have after getting killed. And I suppose you could see God as visiting people without actually raising the physical body of Christ.

None of this helps me much with the big questions, but at least I know I wasn't completely nuts to resist Telford's urging to research the subject. I might do it anyway, just because he feels so strongly about it. Yesterday he remarked, "I wish you were my student, so I could just assign it to you."

Bah! Hulk SMASH puny theology professor! ... Oh sorry.:-)

Grief made the young Spring wild, and she threw down / Her kindling buds...

It's been a rough couple of months for Telford: first he has to deal with me losing a friend, then he has to deal with his children losing their hamster. And then he has to deal with a torrent of email about it.

By the way, the Minute Particulars post I referred to is here.
The May birthday onslaught goes on

A belated H.B. to Mark Kleiman and Matthew Yglesias, two of the leftward blogosphere's brightest lights. The former was born in 1951, the latter in 1981. That second date's kind of scary, isn't it? Reminds me of a line I overheard spoken to one of the youngsters in the newsroom: "I've got unopened mail that's older than you, pal!"

Sunday, May 18, 2003

More on faith and knowing

Lynn Gazis-Sax has a fine post on the resurrection that also touches on another old favorite, substitutional atonement.