Monday, 24 March 2014

A Reformed Wedding

A friend of mine got married on Thursday. I’ve known him from the time we both attended a Reformed secondary school, and as we belonged to the same group of friends, we’ve stayed in touch. His bride comes from another part of the country. Her family name is De Pater, but since women traditionally acquire a double surname on their wedding day, her last name is now Brand-de Pater – which translates as ‘Burn the Friar’.

I was unable to make it to the civil ceremony and the church service, but I did attend the wedding reception. While standing in line to congratulate the bride and groom, I had a conversation with someone I had not seen since secondary school, about seven years ago. Back in the day we had had only casual contact.

We exchanged news on what we were doing these days; he had gone into graphic design, I think. On hearing that I was in formation for the priesthood, he remarked that there was an ongoing rapprochement between Catholics and Protestants. ‘The main lines are the important thing,’ he thought.

‘Yes, those too,’ I said.

More confidentially he went on, ‘I don’t know how [the groom] stands in the faith; do you? I couldn’t make it out from the sermon either.’

‘I don’t know either,’ I said. ‘But what do you mean by ‘how he stands in the faith’?’

‘Well, whether he is converted,’ he answered, ‘whether Jesus Christ is his Redeemer. I don’t know how that is with you…’ (This was in the plural form and thus referred more generally to the Catholic perception on conversion. ‘Yes, certainly,’ I said.)

‘But I’m afraid to ask him now,’ he said. ‘I haven’t really talked to him since secondary school and it might be strange to ask the question now, when I haven’t brought it up all those years. You do feel that you’ve fallen short…’

I agreed today might not be the best day to ask, and excused myself on the ground that I still had to write my card.

The bride and groom were radiant and cordial, and I managed to extend my congratulations just past the point of awkwardness; for which I take full responsibility.

Once inside, I joined two old friends at a table and asked, ‘How was the church service?’

Before the answer was given, we were joined by a young couple. The husband also belonged to our group of friends; he had always maintained a near-complete silence at our gatherings, but had still managed to get married in January, whereas the two others did not even have girlfriends on the horizon. His young wife was with him, and being married seemed to agree with them both.

One friend told them I had just asked how the sermon had been.

‘Technically speaking I was asking about the church service,’ I said.

The couple said that the sermon had been mostly inaudible where they were sitting; the sound installation had not been properly synchronized with the minister’s speech.

The friend had been seated more towards the front and had not experienced these problems. He said: ‘It was good, it is always good when the Gospel of grace for sinners is preached honestly.’ Or words to that effect.

‘Hm-mm,’ I said.

Some time afterwards, we were joined by another person I hadn’t seen since secondary school, though I knew he had gone on to study theology. He was accompanied by a girlfriend. The last three years of school, we had had heated but friendly debates about all sorts of topics. When I converted to Catholicism during my first year of college, the first question he asked me on MSN was whether I had already returned to Protestantism. I was insulted because he seemed not to take me seriously, and stopped responding.

Today the six-year silence was broken. One of the first questions he asked was, ‘Are you Reformed yet?’

‘I am in a process of daily reformation,’ I said, ‘in the context of Cornelis semper reformandus.’ This made him laugh.

Studying God’s revelation as an academic subject has a way of generating rather than arresting conversations, and so my talk with him was longer and more spirited than the ones reported above. It turned out he was in his final year of his Masters in Theology. ‘And then?’ I queried. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘What would you do if you were me?’ ‘I haven’t seen you in seven years,’ I said. ‘What would you do if you were you?’ ‘I really don’t know,’ he said.

Though he had been a math-and-science type at school, he had started specializing in Semitic languages, studying not only Biblical Hebrew, but also Ugaritic and Syrian on the side, and who knows what else. Also he had started reading The Lord of the Rings, after having seen the first movie. ‘Only now I begin to understand what kind of world you were living in back at school,’ he said, not unkindly. He praised the masterful writing of the book, its Christian themes and the way it conjured up an authentic medieval worldview, but still saw the danger of getting too involved in a fantasy world.

He asked: ‘What do you think about Luther? What do you think about the justification of the sinner?’ I struggled to give just answers. He said, ‘The answer is, Does not this doctrine make men careless and profane?’ (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 64)

It was good to chat with him again. His girlfriend was nice too; she studied English at Leiden University, so I asked about her favourite author. It turned out she was less interested in literature than in grammar and phonetics. Knowing her boyfriend, perhaps I should have guessed.

Around 7.30pm the reception ended. I shook hands with the bride, walked out, realized I had overlooked the groom and walked back to shake hands with him. My theologian friend called out, ‘It’s nice to see you retrace your steps. You should do that more often.’

Monday, 10 March 2014

The Pope and the Bishops

On Friday evening, the rector of the seminary e-mailed us with the optimistic announcement that we were going to discuss Evangelii Gaudium on Monday evening, so would we please read it over the weekend. Saturday was a day of silent reflection, so not the time to do ‘homework’, even reading a beautiful papal exhortation. On Sunday, however, I was able to read most of it. What struck me most about the document, aside from its personal tone and invigorating character, was the Pope’s performance (in the document) of what he himself encouraged, namely processes of participation:

Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others, I too must think about a conversion of the papacyThe Second Vatican Council stated that, like the ancient patriarchal churches, episcopal conferences are in a position “to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit.” Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated. (32)

Pope Francis does his best to remedy this defect by frequent reference to the teaching of the bishops from around the world. Here is as full a list as I can make it:

missionary outreach is paradigmatic for all the Church’s activity. Along these lines the Latin American bishops stated that we “cannot passively and calmly wait in our church buildings”; we need to move “from a pastoral ministry of mere conservation to a decidedly missionary pastoral ministry”. (15; reference to the Fifth General Conference of the Latin American and Caribbean Bishops, Aparecida Document, 2007)

The African bishops, for example, taking up the Encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, pointed out years ago that there have been frequent attempts to make the African countries “parts of a machine, cogs on a gigantic wheel. This is often true also in the field of social communications which, being run by centres mostly in the northern hemisphere, do not always give due consideration to the priorities and problems of such countries or respect their cultural makeup”. (62; reference to Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Africa, 1995)

By the same token, the bishops of Asia “underlined the external influences being brought to bear on Asian cultures. New patterns of behaviour are emerging as a result of over-exposure to the mass media… As a result, the negative aspects of the media and entertainment industries are threatening traditional values, and in particular the sacredness of marriage and the stability of the family”. (62; reference to Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Asia, 1999)

As the bishops of the United States of America have rightly pointed out, while the Church insists on the existence of objective moral norms which are valid for everyone, “there are those in our culture who portray this teaching as unjust, that is, as opposed to basic human rights. Such claims usually follow from a form of moral relativism that is joined, not without inconsistency, to a belief in the absolute rights of individuals. In this view, the Church is perceived as promoting a particular prejudice and as interfering with individual freedom”. (64; reference to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care, 2006)

[T]he indispensable contribution of marriage to society transcends the feelings and momentary needs of the couple. As the French bishops have taught, it is not born “of loving sentiment, ephemeral by definition, but from the depth of the obligation assumed by the spouses who accept to enter a total communion of life”. (66; reference to the Conférence des Évêques de France, Élargir le mariage aux personnes de même sexe? Ouvrons le débat!, 2012)

The Bishops of Oceania asked that the Church “develop an understanding and a presentation of the truth of Christ working from the traditions and cultures of the region” and invited “all missionaries to work in harmony with indigenous Christians so as to ensure that the faith and the life of the Church be expressed in legitimate forms appropriate for each culture”. (118; reference to Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Oceania, 2001)

The Aparecida Document describes the riches which the Holy Spirit pours forth in popular piety by his gratuitous initiative. On that beloved continent, where many Christians express their faith through popular piety, the bishops also refer to it as “popular spirituality” or “the people’s mysticism”. It is truly “a spirituality incarnated in the culture of the lowly”. Nor is it devoid of content; rather it discovers and expresses that content more by way of symbols than by discursive reasoning, and in the act of faith greater accent is placed on credere in Deum than on credere Deum. It is “a legitimate way of living the faith, a way of feeling part of the Church and a manner of being missionaries”; it brings with itself the grace of being a missionary, of coming out of oneself and setting out on pilgrimage: “Journeying together to shrines and taking part in other manifestations of popular piety, also by taking one’s children or inviting others, is in itself an evangelizing gesture”. Let us not stifle or presume to control this missionary power! (124; references to the Aparecida Document)

In all places and circumstances, Christians, with the help of their pastors, are called to hear the cry of the poor. This has been eloquently stated by the bishops of Brazil: “We wish to take up daily the joys and hopes, the difficulties and sorrows of the Brazilian people, especially of those living in the barrios and the countryside – landless, homeless, lacking food and health care – to the detriment of their rights. Seeing their poverty, hearing their cries and knowing their sufferings, we are scandalized because we know that there is enough food for everyone and that hunger is the result of a poor distribution of goods and income. The problem is made worse by the generalized practice of wastefulness”. (191; reference to the Conferência Nacional dos Bispos de Brazil, Exigências evangélicas e éticas de superação da miséria e da fome, 2002)

Here I would make my own the touching and prophetic lament voiced some years ago by the bishops of the Philippines: “An incredible variety of insects lived in the forest and were busy with all kinds of tasks… Birds flew through the air, their bright plumes and varying calls adding color and song to the green of the forests… God intended this land for us, his special creatures, but not so that we might destroy it and turn it into a wasteland… After a single night’s rain, look at the chocolate brown rivers in your locality and remember that they are carrying the life blood of the land into the sea… How can fish swim in sewers like the Pasig and so many more rivers which we have polluted? Who has turned the wonderworld of the seas into underwater cemeteries bereft of color and life?” (215; reference to the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, What is Happening to our Beautiful Land?, 1988)

Diversity is a beautiful thing when it can constantly enter into a process of reconciliation and seal a sort of cultural covenant resulting in a “reconciled diversity”. As the bishops of the Congo have put it: “Our ethnic diversity is our wealth… It is only in unity, through conversion of hearts and reconciliation, that we will be able to help our country to develop on all levels”. (230; reference to the Comité Permanent de la Conférence Épiscopale Nationale du Congo, Message sur la situation sécuritaire dans le pays, 2012)

Interreligious dialogueis in first place a conversation about human existence or simply, as the bishops of India have put it, a matter of “being open to them, sharing their joys and sorrows”. (250; reference to the Indian Bishops’ Conference, The Role of the Church for a Better India, 2013)

Eleven quotes, or a set of quotes in one case, which are presented as coming from the bishops. I say ‘presented’, firstly because some of them are Pope John Paul II’s reworking of the bishops’ remarks, and secondly because they are quite explicitly introduced as the teaching of local bishops. Various parts from the whole world are represented, speaking on themes near to the hearts of the speakers.

Thus the exhortation from the Bishop of Rome has taken on the form it wished to take, not smoothing over differences, but incorporating them into a multifaceted whole:

Here our model is not the sphere, which is no greater than its parts, where every point is equidistant from the centre, and there are no differences between them. Instead, it is the polyhedron, which reflects the convergence of all its parts, each of which preserves its distinctiveness. Pastoral and political activity alike seek to gather in this polyhedron the best of each. (236)

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Communing with History

Substance metaphysics, that much-maligned, apparently ‘static’ conception of thought, can lead us to a deeper appreciation of phenomena, an understanding of how all aspects of a being tensely coexist in one singular point.

The Eucharist sheds light on this. It is not simply the Body and Blood of Christ, but it is (in the traditional phrase) his ‘Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity’ – that is, all there is to Him. When the bread is broken, Christ is not divided: his Person resides completely in every part of the sacrament, just as, before, every part of the bread was equally completely bread. It is not the matter but the being that is changed; and the being is unbreakable, indivisible.

It is indivisible even through time. During Mass on Christmas Day, it occurred to me that Christ in the sacrament was not only the crucified Christ, but also the infant Christ, the child Christ, the risen Christ, the Christ in Heaven now. All the phases of the unending life of the Messiah belong to one Being, and that Being is among us.

Substance metaphysics sheds light also on our own life. I was reminded of the final chapter in The Great Divorce, the vision of the chessmen moving on the board of Time, watched by the unmoving souls whom they represent; and also of a striking passage in the Benedicto-Franciscan encyclical:

This trustworthy truth of God is, as the Bible makes clear, his own faithful presence throughout history, his ability to hold together times and ages, and to gather into one the scattered strands of our lives.
(Lumen Fidei, 23)

Monday, 6 January 2014

It's Been a Long Ride

On the 4th, it was ten years ago since I joined the Lord of the Rings Fanatics Plaza. My cousin had made me aware of it; he was an early fan, as appears from the fact that he was still able to take the name ‘Denethor II’. I registered on the forum while my family had gone to church and I was left behind to take care of my baby sister. Some of the names I tried were taken, including ‘Turgon’, so I came up with a variant: Turgonian.

I owe a big debt of gratitude to the Plaza. It stimulated my curiosity, taught me to think in an interdisciplinary way, and awakened an interest in the history of ideas (a preoccupation that helped lead me home to the Catholic Church). Moreover, at the Plaza I was continually encouraged to keep writing poetry, knowing that people would read it and leave a potentially valuable review. Gerontian and Silendra in particular would write in-depth reviews that helped me to improve.

Another Plaza poet was Scea. At her blog At the Wicket Gate, she impresses on her readers that they should not get too complacent or stuck in a comfort zone. There is value, for instance, in travel that is accompanied by ‘uncertainty and discomfort’.

Because Saturday seemed to be an entirely free day, I decided to take Scea’s advice and do a bit of cycling. Before lunch, I looked up how to go from the seminary to Leiden, then to Alphen aan de Rijn, on to Aalsmeer and back again to the seminary. A trip of approximately 80 km, or 50 miles, through flat country. It was an excellent day, since the weather was mild for January and it wasn’t raining.

I had intended to go after lunch, before 2pm. Unfortunately, I got too involved in a game of Battle for Middle-earth, and therefore didn’t leave until almost 3.30pm, when the sky was already getting darker. Life Lesson One: don’t dawdle; favourable circumstances are not permanent.

Not very far along the way, the rain started and I sought shelter against a wooden shed. Thankfully, it lasted only a few minutes and did not return to trouble me further.

Because of the anniversary, I thought of a poem to post on the Plaza by way of commemoration. What came into my head, I jotted down on my Samsung mobile (the postmodern equivalent of the breast-pocket notebook). The poem automatically took the form of a sonnet; its familiarity makes it easy to write while you’re doing something else, such as cycling. I had one line before the rain started:

This womb, this playground of inquiring minds

I remember sitting at our garden table in Summer, with a Tolkien book and a college notebook, writing down every question that popped into my mind for discussion on the Plaza. This was before I went to university. My mother said that if I would approach my future studies the same way, I’d be a good student. I never got so involved in my studies, though.

The path to Leiden stretched alongside a canal. Before the trains came, horse-drawn boats would use this passage to ferry between Haarlem and Leiden. To my left was a line of water, with the occasional boathouse or boat. Fields lay to my right. All very flat.

I arrived in Leiden around 4.45pm. When I got to Central Station, it was completely dark. It would have been easy to take the train back to Hillegom and ride home; this would have taken about twenty minutes. But I was not tired yet, only a little hungry, and I had decided to make a longer journey. As Gimli said, ‘Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.’ Besides, I only had three lines of my poem.

When I had visited the place in Leiden that holds special memories for me, my road turned east, towards Alphen. One long and curving high road lies between the two towns, a dyke built to contain the Rhine. Somewhere halfway, I got rather tired, slowed down and started huffing and puffing. As Alphen came closer, I regained my motivation and speed.

It felt good when I finally got there (about 6.15pm), and I took a detour into the town to get something to eat. At first it was difficult to find something; all I saw were big shops, closed and dark, that sold cars and furniture and other inedible things. After some more deviations, I finally hit upon a Subway. Joy! I devoured a tuna sandwich and a bag of chips. Then I asked for a coffee. The girls behind the counter were talking about how dark it was outside, ‘as if it’s night’. I sat back, stretched my legs, enjoyed the coffee and wrote another stanza for my poem. Halfway there.

But I could not linger forever at this Lothlórien Subway; I had to go on to Aalsmeer. It’s a place where I’d never been before and which I knew nothing about, except that a community of Benedictine sisters had recently taken up residence there. Mounting my bike again, I felt a certain soreness in my saddle parts, not having much of a natural cushion there.

I went on and got lost. At least, I could not find my way. Since I knew that part of the path lay between the Aarkanaal and the Zegerplas, however, it seemed safe to follow the signs to Ter Aar and Zegersloot. Later it turned out that this was a roundabout way, but at least the cyclist path ran parallel to the main road; the shortcut might have been a bit dodgy after dark, though no doubt beautiful by day.

At one crossroads, I did not know what to do. Here my breast-pocket notebook became my guide, as I connected to the Internet with my Samsung mobile. It was the first time I used it without WiFi; my brother had disabled the data connection for me to prevent me from accidentally spending a lot of money. To tell you the truth, I was astounded that it worked: there was a sudden awareness that there were all sorts of invisible powers and signals in the air around me. Life Lesson Two: even in solitude, we are never out of the range of the Great Network.

After a few kilometres, I was able to consult a map. It turned out that I had taken the East Canal Road rather than its Western counterpart. I was going north, in the right direction, and the next town would be Papenveer (Papists’ Ferry).

Between Papenveer and Kudelstaart, the path veered away from the highway and got very dark. It was nice and quiet and I was able to think of a few more lines for the poem. In Kudelstaart I stopped to write them down. It was very still; I heard only distant airplanes, flowing water and a faint ticking noise. A couple of silent ducks floated on the canal.

The most beautiful part of the Dutch countryside, by the way, are the old houses. They seem to say: ‘Here is a broad space to live the good life.’ With gardens, fences, little stone steps, pools and a proper distance from the road, they are a pleasure to behold.

Finally: Aalsmeer! I rode into its shopping centre, brightly lit with Christmas decorations, and out of it again. It was around 10pm; time to go home.

But that was not so easy. For what seemed the longest time, I rode on the Aalsmeerderdijk, with a growing fear that I’d missed the only road that would take me home in a straight line. Finally I came to its end, where the Aalsmeerderdijk became the Leimuiderdijk at a T-intersection. Neither of those was the road I was looking for.

For some moments I was at a profound loss, until my eyes fell on an inobtrusive sign that bore the saving name: the third road of the T-intersection was the Bennebroekerweg I wanted. Excellent! I had no stomach left for a long detour, and thankfully the architect who planned this road had no sense of the beauty of curves. We’ll do your ‘Five miles meandering with a mazy motion’ some other time, Coleridge.

Straight though it was, it was also very long – long enough to finish the poem. I stopped halfway to write the last lines down, pleased with the Milton quote that sounded like a Tolkien allusion. When I got back on the bike, the saddle soreness was more evident. If John Keats could have seen me, he might have remarked that I made sweet moan.

Through Hoofddorp and Zwaanshoek I went, on to Bennebroek – almost home! Vogelenzang … the last curve … the last yard … and thankfully I got home before midnight, around 11.30pm: just in time to post the finished poem on the Plaza. Here it is:

Ten years Plaza

This womb, this playground of inquiring minds,
I found ten years ago: much did it teach
Of dialogue and wordcraft of all kinds,
Applied to lands safely beyond the reach

Of felt perplexity and direct fear.
Wise and good friends I found in these abodes
Gave aid to shape my soul in words, and here
Began some truly unexpected roads.

And on these roads I came on something strange:
Some of the icons vanished into faces,
Revealing greater depth and further range,
Beauty and kindness in the widening spaces.

To Tolkien and the Plaza, friends. Be blessed!
Let’s go our ways; our circuit meets full West.

(P.S. The very same night I found my old ‘Plaza sister’ again on Facebook!)

Thursday, 26 December 2013

The Desolation of Jackson

‘You don’t normally think of Dr. Rozema as fierce,’ said the husband of the aforementioned Nebraskan couple, ‘but…’

I don’t normally think of Dr. Rozema as fierce. He is a patient, smiling man, always trying to get his students to understand why philosophical questions are asked and what happens between the asking of the question and the giving of the answer. But rumour has it that he was seen fierce on one occasion: while publicly debating the merits of the Lord of the Rings movies with the English department.

After seeing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug for the first time, I could understand why. I have now seen it two times (due to circumstances) and the initial disappointment has lessened. Yes, it is a visually superb movie. Yes, the dragon is very satisfying. Yes, some parts are hilarious (though usually not very Tolkienesque). And the use of Elvish and Black Speech was very nice, I thought. (Although they should really have made more of an attempt to pronounce Thráin and Dáin correctly.)

Nonetheless, the movie is just not the book. I know that movies and books are two different genres, but it seems to me that the makers of the movie have simply failed to grasp or capture some essential elements of Middle-earth. Like the following (in no particular order):

1) The Free Kingdoms are worth fighting for. In The Hobbit, places like Rivendell and especially the Halls of Mirkwood appear as semi-deserted military bases. They are decors for action scenes, not places with their own vibrant life. True, there are references to a Feast of Starlight going on while the Dwarves are imprisoned at Mirkwood, but nothing is shown of this feast. Beorn, too, is not a jovial bear fellow (in the etymological sense of the word ‘jovial’), but a tortured skinchanger. Laughter appears as something incidental in Jackson’s Middle-earth.

2) Heroes are vulnerable, not demi-gods who remain completely unscathed while torrents of fire rage about them, or while they are sailing down a river of molten gold. Oh, and talking of demi-gods: the contest between high powers is intellectual, not an exchange of conjurors’ tricks. Compare the battle of Gandalf and Sauron, as depicted by Jackson, with that of Finrod and Sauron, as poetically described in The Silmarillion.

3) Fate, and something more elusive, governs the course of history. In Tolkien’s Middle-earth, the intention of the Creator and of other higher powers remains firmly between brackets. The Dwarf-king’s inference that the possession of the Arkenstone betokens a ‘divine right to rule’ (as the first movie says) runs counter to the Free Peoples’ reserve in speaking too freely of the One’s intentions.

4) Beauty, not power, is the prime mover of events in Middle-earth. In the book, Thorin’s longing for the Arkenstone is a natural Dwarvish response to the gem’s beauty. This response is a fundamental recognition that can be shared by other races: in The Lord of the Rings, Gimli takes a rather airy Legolas into the Caves of Aglarond, and the Elf comes out unexpectedly impressed by the halls of stone. In the movie, however, Thorin’s desire for the Arkenstone is mostly extrinsic: he wants it to bolster his claim to lordship.

5) Elven-lords, even those less wise, are not vampires. They do not sinuously coil around their captives or show off their plastic surgery. Nor is heartless elegance an Elvish trait; there are Elven-lords who become rather heartless, but they are not very elegant (Thingol Greymantle). Moreover, they would never promise a captive freedom, then decapitate him and resort to equivocation in order to justify themselves.

6) Vice and insanity are two different things. Thorin Oakenshield is arguably too attached to the treasure beneath the Mountain, the Arkenstone in particular, but that does not mean he would force a frightened Hobbit at swordpoint to go back to a waking dragon. In the book, even when Bilbo gives the Arkenstone to Thorin’s enemies, Thorin does not lose his mind (though he is understandably enraged).
(Edit: While we’re on the subject of vice, I should add something that I forgot earlier, but that did bother me a lot in the movie. This is the degree to which Bilbo is affected by the Ring in The Hobbit. He fights for it like mad, and takes it out to look at it addictively. For some reason, Smaug senses that Bilbo has the Ring; he mentions the word ‘precious’, at which point the Eye of Sauron flashes on the screen and Bilbo takes off the Ring. If all this could happen in a year, how is it credible that Bilbo keeps the Ring for decades and still remains the same? Not to mention that the movie rather detracts from the theme of Hobbit innocence.)

7) The seventh judgment is the climax and summation of all dooms: Tauriel. Tauriel feels like a character that could have been invented by a teenager writing LotR fan fiction. An attractive, invincible warrior, a self-made she-Elf who attracts the prince’s attention but develops an independent interest in someone from another race, and runs across wild country to save her newfound beloved – I mean, really? Really?

There is no romantic interest whatsoever between Tolkien’s Dwarves and Elves. None. In rare circumstances, however, something different blossoms between them: a seed of mutual reverence. To indicate the chasm that ultimately yawns between Tolkien and Peter Jackson’s gang, consider the difference between the following dialogues, and contemplate the Tree that has died and the Jewel that has been lost:

(Fili is searched by an Elvish guard and relieved of his last knife)
Kili: ‘Aren’t you going to search me? I could have anything down my pants.’
Tauriel: ‘Or nothing.’ (Locks the door)

(Galadriel is giving parting gifts to the Company)
‘And what gift would a Dwarf ask of the Elves?’ said Galadriel, turning to Gimli.
‘None, Lady,’ said Gimli. ‘It is enough for me to have seen the Lady of the Galadhrim, and to have heard her gentle words.’
‘Hear all ye Elves!’ she cried to those about her. ‘Let none say again that Dwarves are grasping and ungracious! Yet surely, Gimli son of Glóin, you desire something that I could give? Name it, I bid you! You shall not be the only guest without a gift.’
‘There is nothing, Lady Galadriel,’ said Gimli, bowing low and stammering. ‘Nothing, unless it might be – unless it is permitted to ask, nay, to name a single strand of your hair, which surpasses the gold of the earth as the stars surpass the gems of the mine. I do not ask for such a gift. But you commanded me to name my desire.’
The Elves stirred and murmured with astonishment, and Celeborn gazed at the Dwarf in wonder, but the Lady smiled. ‘It is said that the skill of the Dwarves is in their hands rather than in their tongues,’ she said; ‘yet that is not true of Gimli. For none have ever made to me a request so bold and yet so courteous. And how shall I refuse, since I commanded him to speak? But tell me, what would you do with such a gift?’
‘Treasure it, Lady,’ he answered, ‘in memory of your words to me at our first meeting. And if ever I return to the smithies of my home, it shall be set in imperishable crystal to be an heirloom of my house, and a pledge of good will between the Mountain and the Wood until the end of days.’
Then the Lady unbraided one of her long tresses, and cut off three golden hairs, and laid them in Gimli’s hand. ‘These words shall go with the gift,’ she said. ‘I do not foretell, for all foretelling is now vain: on the one hand lies darkness, and on the other only hope. But if hope should not fail, then I say to you, Gimli son of Glóin, that your hands shall flow with gold, and yet over you gold shall have no dominion.’
(The Lord of the Rings, Book II, Ch. VIII)

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Free Will

Sometime in November, I went visiting a Nebraskan couple in Utrecht. They are both very good people and philosophically inclined, he from a background in medical studies, she with a creative and literary bent of mind. They looked exceedingly happy together, and it was very good to be there; of necessity I must summarize this part briefly, for, as Tolkien remarked, it is much easier to tell a story about bad times than about good times (I paraphrase).

At table, we talked about our lives and our studies. I mentioned my desire to investigate, at some point or other, our capacity of making free decisions. This has become problematic in light of neurological discoveries (of which I admittedly know little). It is all very well to say that the human person is capable of self-determination, but our physical infrastructure seems externally determined through and through.

The lady from Nebraska said that she believed in free will, and that her stories involved people making truly momentous ethical decisions that changed their lives. Some universitarians (those gowned cogs in the 21st-century machine) considered her too much a Romantic. I cordially sympathized with her outlook, myself undergoing enthusiasm; then went home and tried to make the best case I could make against free will, so that a more skilful philosopher could blow it to bits and perpetually reroute the depraved neurons responsible for this intellectual atrocity.

Consider yourself invited.

The argument:

1. Every act of the will has a mental and a material component.

2. The mental and the material components are in proportion to each other.

3. The material component follows the laws of matter.

4. At the molecular level, the motion of matter does not deviate from Newtonian patterns.

5. The material component of the act of the will occurs in the brain at the molecular level. (*)

6. The motion of the material component does not deviate from Newtonian patterns. (from 3, 4 and 5)

7. The mental component is in proportion to a material component that does not deviate from Newtonian patterns. (from 2 and 6)

8. One and the same material component is in proportion to one mental component only. (**)

9. The mental component cannot deviate from a pattern that stands in proportion to the Newtonian pattern governing the material component of the act of the will. (from 7 and 8)

10. A will that cannot deviate from a pattern is not a free will.

11. Hence, there is no free will. (from 9 and 10)

(*) Though the act of the will involves more than a motion of the brain, yet that motion is decisive for human movement.

(**) There is a certain indeterminacy to the material component, but I find it difficult to believe that one motion of the brain would correspond to multiple essentially different acts of the will (e.g. to repay an insult with another, or to suppress one's anger; to take a walk, or to read a book).

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Negation, and Running

In mid-October, a discussion evening took place, attended by five seminarians and eight others of varying backgrounds and religious beliefs. The topic was the origin and development of man, whether Darwinian evolutionary theory offered the best explanation for it. Like most Catholics, I’m not an opponent of physical evolution per se (Pope John Paul II called it ‘more than a hypothesis’), but I do think that the breakthrough of humanity is not adequately explained by Darwinism. The minor differences in DNA between humans and chimpanzees do not account for the vast difference in rational capacities.

In the course of the discussion, I brought up a point that has fascinated me for some time: negation. This seems to be a phenomenon beyond the reach of animals. They have signals to indicate that something is edible or dangerous, but they cannot express that something is ‘not-dangerous’.

The point was missed by people who argued that animals were quite capable of designating something as not dangerous, or indicating that they themselves posed no threat. The point is that animals have no negative particles or prefixes. The debaters seemed to think this a matter purely of symbolic conventions, but I think it goes deeper than that. Human reason is capable of understanding that something can be or not be: this is pure abstraction. They understand that a thing can have properties or lack them – which is different from the manipulation of the properties of things, which animals do every day.

Animals make boundaries for their territories, but only man can conceive the un-bounded, the in-finite. Man reaches up to God not only through his imagination or his memory (remembering divine interventions, supposed or real), but also very powerfully through his capacity of negation.

This capacity is powerfully exercised by anyone who reads the Summa theologiae, First Part, Questions 3-13, with comprehension. For me, a time of sustained wonderment, a revelation – with the emphasis on ‘revel’.

On Saturday, I went running with a priest and a friend of his. We started at 6.30am with a cup of coffee, then ran just over 8 km (5 miles) in 50 minutes, not without conversation.

The priest in question found it difficult to remain hopeful about the Church’s future. Whole dioceses were being reorganized, but very little was done to bring lost sheep back into the fold. There were (almost) no vocations, and the priests whom he had seen coming out of seminary were remarkably unproductive and stressed out after five or ten years. He had hoped that the new generation of priests would forge a new connection with the youth, because the young, including young priests, are naturally approachable and non-threatening (oh our capacity for negation!). Besides, they were the peers of the youth, they came out of the same world.

(I thought: me, out of the same world as today’s youth? Really? Of the seminarians who actually were in touch with youth culture, almost all were dismissed or ran into problems towards the end of their studies.)

Part of the problem he blamed on seminary formation. We were still being prepared for an orderly situation, for parishes as they existed a few decades ago. Instead of learning to administer the sacraments and preach the Gospel to ever-dwindling communities, much more focus should be on establishing relationships (of the ‘mustard seed’ type: no poorly-disguised, result-oriented ‘conversion projects’, but actual friendships). Our missionary drive, though patient, should be urgent.

He gave me food for thought, and for breakfast he baked us an egg. When I got up to make tea, my legs hurt. I limped for the rest of the day. Next week I might go again, but pay more attention to the cooling-down.

Physical exercise is actually good for the spirit. It gives one renewed vigour.

Later in the day I went to Confession. Also known as the Sacrament of Truth. The truth makes us free indeed.