Playing the Indian Card

Friday, December 31, 2010

Patron Saint Generator

A fun tradition for this New Year's Eve: let this patron saint generator pick a patron saint for you for the upcoming year. Your job, should you accept it, is to read about and pray to this saint throughout the year, taking him or her as a spiritual guide.

This is a modern adaptation of an ancient tradition. The core idea is not to choose a patron saint, but to let the saint choose you--for they know better than we who might be best for us.

Patron saint for this blog for 2011, based on the generator: Saint Katharine Drexel.

St. Kate of Philadelphia

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Biggest Biblical Blind spots of "Fundamentalist" Bible Christians

Biggest biblical blind spots of ‘Bible Christians’ « Divine Life – A Blog by Eric Sammons

New Year's Predictions

First, how did I do last year?

So-so. I think the future is, broadly, possible to predict. You can see where a trend is going. But not the timings. That's the tricky part.

1. Global warming is dead – Yep. This has become apparent over the past year.

2. The Chinese government will fall – Nope. I keep predicting it, and it keeps not happening. I predict it again for this year.

3. Also North Korea – Nope, but something is happening up there. Looks as lot shakier today than it did one year ago.

Iranian government will not fall unless Chinese and North Korean governments do. Yup.

5. More recession. Technically, the recession has been over for quite some time, but that's not what I meant. In real terms, yup.

6. Islamism in decline. Nope; looks as healthy as ever, based on number of incidents.

. A new story: the decline of the traditional university. Yup. I've seen multiple stories along this line over the past year.

8. The general move to homeschooling will accelerate-- yup

The traditional print newspaper will continue to decline rapidly, with print versions of magazines starting to disappear as quickly as newspapers – yup. Newsweek was sold this year for one dollar.

. Ebooks are starting to boom – yup. Apple and Google have both jumped into that market with both feet.

pulp and paper industry in decline – don't know. Can't find good figures on the web.

book publishing doing well- ibid.

Invest in Apple – would have been a good idea. The iPad has done very well.

14. Google also still looks strong. Check.

15. So does Amazon. Check.

The desktop computer is starting to look quaint. Check

Speaking of PDAs: big term for the new year will be “augmented reality.” This is going to be bigger than the Internet is now. Not this year.

18. There will be no big revival of the real estate market. Check. Still headed down in the US.

19. The West will continue to grow more conservative in outlook. Check. Conservative win in Britain; Republican win in midterms; the Tea Party; Rob Ford win in Toronto.
20. Like everyone else, I expect the Tories to win the next election in Britain. Check

21. and the Republicans to take the midterms in the US. Check

22. Nobody else seems to see this on the horizon, but another bubble that I think is ripe to burst is medicine. No sign of this yet, except that other writers have started predicting the same thing.

So: I was right on 16, wrong on 5, results unclear on 2. Not all that bad. Except that it ought to count if I also missed big stories—otherwise it is too easy to do well by picking really safe predictions. I missed the Euro default crisis.

How about next year?

Not having learned my lesson, I predict that at least one government on the following list will fall, perhaps two: China, North Korea, Iran, Cuba. Timing such things is tricky, but as the recession drags on, the thing becomes more likely. I add Cuba to this list for the first time this year. I'm calculating that, if Fidel Castro dies this year, it might trigger something. Same math applies to KJI in North Korea.

I still look for a “China bubble” to pop.

Teachers and teachers' unions are going to get mauled this year. Chric Christie has shown the way, and a lot of politicians are probably going to jump on this bandwagon. It's too popular. And they deserve it.

The world economy will remain bad. The financial problems of many US state governments will become more dramatic. Since the economy is not otherwise improving, I'd give better than 50-50 odds that Greece and Ireland will be followed in default by Portugal and/or Spain.

No election in Canada.

The higher education bubble, now commonly talked about, gets bigger as a story. I don't see bunches of big universities closing their doors yet, but online ed is going to grow by further leaps and bounds.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Questions from an Atheist

The original godfather.

A friend, more or less an atheist, having recently watched a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair, asks some questions on religion. I respond. 

How can you believe in God? I'd like to, but I can't. 

One of the biggest lies we are all handed these days is the claim that the existence of God is in some doubt. No faith is required on this score. Almost all the great philosophers since Aristotle, 2,300 years ago, have given proofs of God's existence. You can ignore them, but it takes a supreme effort of will to reject them all. We have far stronger reasons to believe in the existence of God than in the existence of the word we perceive through our physical senses, or in our own existence. Yet nobody ever questions those, do they? 

The real issue is usually that people do not want to believe in God. Look at Hitchens. He is clearly angry at God. How much sense would it make to be angry at a nonexistent entity? 

Pas le Dieu des philosophes.

Can't we at least keep religion out of politics? 

No problem. The concept of the separation of church and state is a specifically Christian one. It comes from the New Testament--”render unto Caesar what is Caesar's; render unto God what is God's.” “No man can serve two masters,” and so forth. The point, of course, is that true Christians should reject politics, not that true politicians should reject Christianity. The implicit suspicion of the political enterprise that this Christian idea produced has led directly to making governments in Christian countries more honest, less intrusive, and more respectful of human rights than governments anywhere else. 

But this separation of church and state necessarily does not mean religion should not be heard from in the public square. If that happens, we lose the true separation of church and state: there is no longer the independent check on government that the separation is meant to provide, and the religious are no longer free to be fully, expressively religious. And it certainly also does not mean that the devout should be excluded from public service. That, too, is not the separation of church and state, but its opposite, a belief system sponsored and enforced by the state. 

God's penmanship

Hitchens won the recent debate with Blair—arguing that religion has not been a force for good in the world. Not my opinion--by audience poll. Isn't he right? Look at the Indian parochial schools, the priest abuse scandals, September 11, Iraq, Afghanistan... need I go on? 

Taking your examples in turn: 

Indian parochial schools—the churches are being scapegoated now because they were the only folks back then who cared enough about Indian kids to give them an education. Those now levelling crazy accusations against the churches would have been the same “progressives” then forcing sterilization on the native people and leaving their children to starve or die of TB. There is precious little hard evidence of any kind of sexual abuse in the residential schools, and it is almost certain that the level of sexual abuse in the residential schools was lower than it is in the average public school, not to mention the average exclusive upper class residential school. 

The “priest abuse scandals”--any reputable studies show the rate of sexual abuse of minors among the Catholic clergy is lower than the rate of sexual abuse of minors among clergy of other denominations, which is probably lower again than the rate of sexual abuse of minors among the general population. The detected rate among Catholic clergy since about 1980 is very close to zero. The only reason Catholic priests are in the news in this regard is because journalists and the secularizing elites in general hate Catholicism, and are determined to pin something on them. This is payback for the Church opposing abortion. Secular elites always at least secretly hate religion, and will move against it whenever they feel they can get away with it—religions, with their insistence on moral behaviour, are checks against the will and the free rein of the powerful. It is interesting and not coincidental that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis used exactly the same charges against the Catholic priesthood: that they must be sexual perverts and child molesters. 

September 11—not to endorse the act or the people who committed it, who were common garden-variety assassins, losers just wanting to be famous, but Arab Muslims are fundamentally on the defensive here. It was Western secularism and Western feminism that attacked first, objecting systematically to pious Muslim traditions such as veiling and the separation of the sexes. Because they are relatively powerless, Muslims and Arabs resort to terrorism, as the relatively powerless have throughout history: as my Irish ancestors did in their day, or Ukrainian resistance fighters did under Nazi occupation, or John Brown in his. A nasty and a sad business, with many innocent victims; but it is not religion that has caused the conflict. It is secularism and feminism. If you wiped out religion, people would just find another fulcrum for their prejudices; and this result would itself be no more a just solution to the problem than wiping out the Jews would have been a just solution. Would you blame the Jews for the war? 

Iraq--Saddam Hussein's regime was a secularist regime that modelled itself first on Hitler, then on Stalin. Saddam himself modelled his public image on Stalin right down to the moustache. The official creed of his Ba'athist was not just secularism, but atheism; seems odd then to blame Iraq on religion. He made a show of embracing Islam late in his career, when it looked like enlisting the support of the devout might be to his political benefit. Same for Muammar

So the solution to the problem of war and conflict is obvious: get rid of secularism, and get rid of Marxism. 

Like World War II and the Cold War, it was secularism that caused the Iraq War. Sadly, though, the Americans, when they came in, thanks to feminism, failed to respect religious and cultural norms all that much better than Saddam did. Rumsfeld went on public record to say the Iraqis would not be allowed to have a religious government if they voted for it. If the Americans had not insisted on imposing secularism and feminism, I suspect the war in Iraq could have been over about when that famous banner on an American ship said it was (“Mission Accomplished”). 

Afghanistan is the same story, only more so: first the Soviets ploughed into Afghanistan attempting to wipe out all their religious and cultural traditions in the name of secularism, Marxism, and atheism. The Taliban formed in defence against this attack. As soon as the Russians were driven out, Western feminism almost immediately began demanding a new invasion. NATO finally did it, if not in direct response, and once there took up right where the Soviets left off, trying their best to wipe out the only two institutions in Afghanistan that still worked, the family and the mosque. Thank feminism and secularism for the deaths and the terrible financial cost. 

Somewhat similarly, the clericalist regime in Iran came to power as an immediate reaction to an aggressively secularizing, “modernizing” (and much less democratic) government under the Shah. 

You may go on. More anti-religious charges, by all means. This is fun. 

The bird is the word.

How do you see man, child, Holy Ghost? When I had faith I believed in a huge thumb just waiting in his vengeful way to crush me for any action, thought or deed done accidentally or on purpose. As I grew older, as a dictator. 

Christians have been given by God himself a very clear picture of God as God wishes us to think of him. We should see him as a thirtyish Jewish man, probably brawny, having been a carpenter, and bearded. And most perfectly portrayed at the moment that he died for us, nailed on a cross—the essential event of history. 

God is of course, pure spirit, and so does not really “look like” anything. If he has a physical body, it is the created universe as a whole, which, while fallen, still expresses his nature. But it is very useful to have a mental image for contemplation, and this is the one he has given us. 

He also chose to appear to us as a white dove, so that is necessarily a legitimate image. He has chosen to appear as a hand or finger pointing or writing, so your own image is pretty good. In Cebu, it is traditional to portray him as a child—as we do at Christmas. Also correct. A flame or a burning bush is also a good image. So is a lamb. All express some symbolic truth about him. 

Then there is the old man with a beard. The justification for that depiction is that the Bible refers to him several times as “the Ancient of Days”; and Jesus refers to God frequently as “Father.” It's okay, given that we are supposed to think of God as our father, but it seems to me it is actually much less defensible theologically. It flirts with breaking the OT prohibition against specific depictions of the Creator. Why go there? 

He is the opposite of a dictator. When Christopher Hitchens stood up in front of that audience in Toronto, and complained that God was a “kind of celestial dictator like Kim Jong-Il,” he was automatically disproving his point. If Christopher Hitchens stood up in front of a public audience in a real dictatorship, like North Korea, and complained about that dictatorship, do you think he would even have been permitted to finish his speech? Do you think you would ever see it on YouTube? And God is all-powerful. But what, exactly, did you see happen to Hitchens? Exactly nothing. 

God will never violate our free will. This is the opposite of a dictator; dictatorship is all about violating free will. And religion, unlike the state, never compels anyone to do anything. A human dictator is a being who has no legitimate claim to power, but exercises power in almost all possible circumstances. God is a being who has every legitimate claim to all power, but almost never exercises it. God is the absolute opposite of the human dictator. 

Despite this obvious truth, what becomes a problem for many people—and it was a problem for me too—is that, especially as we are growing up, unscrupulous and abusive powers, including politicians, parents, teachers, secular authorities of all kinds, bullies of all kinds, will whenever it is to their advantage co-opt for themselves supposed religious authority, and use falsifications of morality against the weak and impressionable to support their own control. Saddam is a good example: when a religious revival came along, he cynically tried to co-opt it, having a copy of the Qur'an written in his own blood, and putting the words “God is Great” on the Iraqi flag. Ghaddafi in Libya has done more or less the same. So, in effect, did the September 11 terrorists; in 1980, they would simply have done the same thing in the name of Marx. Precisely because he is not a dictator, God will not step in and prevent such abominations. 

For anyone who has been abused, therefore, it becomes essential to understand that they might have been fed a load of crap growing up, more or less precisely to separate them from the comfort and protection that God and religion can give. It is essential not to rely on what we might have been told as a child, or indeed as an adult, but to make our own careful examination with ears and eyes and minds and hearts open. The devil himself can and will quote scripture. 

Hell of a first step.

Who is He to say "I am not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under thy table"? How dare I be told I'm not good enough?? Who the hell (pun intended) was anyone to tell me this? 
I had to look up that quote. Catholics do not use it. Apparently Anglican. A bit over the top to my taste; smacks to me of exaggerated false piety. 

But, frankly, don't be silly. Of course you are not worthy to so much as gather crumbs from under his table. Reality check: he is God. You are not. The difference between being God and not being God is in principle infinite. 

Modern psychologists and educators have done incalculable harm by pushing a cult of “self-esteem.” This is purely the devil's council: Lucifer fell for pride. Most people demonstrably have too much self-esteem, not too little. I recall a poll run by Time magazine some years ago, asking the general US public who they thought would go to heaven. Oprah Winfrey came third on the list. Mother Theresa came second. And first, by a large margin? Themselves. 

Most people, in other words, have an opinion of themselves that is so high it is objectively delusional. They hardly need more encouragement in that direction. 

From my own experience, contrary to everything we have been told, a lack of self-esteem is not the problem even for those of us who are depressed, or depressive, or have been abused. We don't need to be told we are always right—in fact, this approach is guaranteed to make depression worse. What we need, always, is to be reminded that right is right, wrong is wrong, truth is truth and lies are lies. 
Bosch: Light at the end of the tunnel

How do you see heaven and hell? Real places where we are cognisant? Or otherwise? 
I have a lot of personal opinions on the nature of heaven and hell, but that is what they are, personal opinions. I don't want to go into it here, not because I think Heaven is impossible or even difficult to conceive, but because any descriptions are highly likely to be misunderstood. Jesus himself resorted to parables, so I am unlikely to be able to do better. 

They are real places, but not physical places as we understand “physical”--you are of course never going to see heaven with a telescope. They are outside of any limits of space and time. I believe we will be fully conscious in heaven or in hell, but “consciousness” will also be something different from “consciousness” as we use the term now. “We see now as through a glass darkly, but then face to face.” 

The essential feature of heaven, of course, is that we will be directly and completely aware of the presence of God. The essential feature of hell is that we will be directly and completely aware of the absence of God. 

Those who go to hell will actually choose to go there, just as Lucifer did.

Monday, December 27, 2010

A Peek Behind the North Korean Curtain

North Korea's undercover journalists reveal misery of life in dictatorship - Telegraph

A Graphic Display of Civilizational Decline

From the blog "First Thoughts."

To my mind, there is good news here. Whatever has happened in the past, the trend lines now seem to be reversing, post-millennium. At last at least we're back on track.

A comment on the original post at "First Thoughts" suggested doing the experiment with "faith" and "truth," to show that they share a common destiny. I did it; he is right. But this pair also shows a definite revival post-2000.

The times, they are a changing. We are perhaps waking up from a hundred-year-long bad dream.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Snow White Unveiled

MMM--pretty snow. I want a baby in those colours.

I have recently read the original Grimm's version of Snow White to my daughter as a bedtime story.

It is a great story—good enough to have kept me and her nine-year-old brother enraptured as well as our three-year-old girl. And she herself does not get enraptured by being read to all that easily.

In recent decades, there has been a strong push from feminists to get rid of all the old fairy tales. True, they can be violent. But they are not as violent as the cartoons; yet there is no similar campaign against the cartoons. The real problem is that the fairy tales pretty consistently go against feminist teachings. In fairy tales, the father is always good-natured, but relatively powerless. The mother has all the power; and she is often evil.

The soul awakens into the dream.

Not exactly what feminists want kids to be taught. Nevertheless, I submit that this motif is consistent in fairy tales because it is the consistent perception of real children themselves. If it did not ring true in some sense, after all, the fairy tales would not be able to enthral as they do, and would not have survived in this form over all the years.

From a child's perspective, I submit, the mother really does have all the power. The father is usually away at work; the mother has full control of the kids. If a father is bad, he is still more or less powerless,because he is rarely or never alone with the children. If a mother is bad, she has free rein, and the father may not even know what is going on. Moreover, we know from current stats that mothers are more likely than fathers to abuse.

Fairy tales convey important messages. Notably, they teach kids that they cannot trust their own parents to love them. This is a valuable lesson for children to learn, but obviously not one it is of advantage to parents to teach them—particularly parents who do not, in fact, love them. By the way, all those stories about wicked stepmothers? It turns out that, in the original, these were not stepmothers; they were the children's natural mothers. The Grimms were Victorians, after all—they were the first to bowdlerize the raw folk tales they heard.

In the Grimms' original story of Snow White, she is seven years old; and there is no indication that much time passed by the end of the story. The story ends, therefore, with her as a child bride. There would have been nothing wrong with this in her day, probably a dream come true for any little girl to think of growing up so quickly, but of course no longer politically correct in recent decades.

But all this is comparatively trivial to the true mission of Snow White. The true story of Snow White is the journey of every individual soul.

Who is Snow White? She is actually carefully defined for us as she is introduced, but in the form of a riddle.

ONCE upon a time in the middle of winter, when the flakes of snow were falling like feathers from the sky, a queen sat at a window sewing, and the frame of the window was made of black ebony. And whilst she was sewing and looking out of the window at the snow, she pricked her finger with the needle, and three drops of blood fell upon the snow. And the red looked pretty upon the white snow, and she thought to herself, "Would that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the window-frame."

So, who or what is Snow White? Well, what is black and white and red all over?

The white is expressly the white of midwinter snow. Combine this with the black window frame—that is, darkness at the window. Darkness, as much as snow, is a part of winter; winter, darkness, and night all go together as times of dormancy or suspension of the physical-sensory-natural world. And red is blood—blood falling, a hint at least of death, the separation of the soul from the physical body and the physical senses. All three are really expressions of the one principle, of a shutting off or down of the senses, of the body or the sensory world.

No wonder the queen fears her—so do we all. The Queen's fear of Snow White is the fear of her own death.

From the passage, we also immediately know something about the queen—and recall that, in the original, this queen is the same wicked queen who seeks to kill Snow White. She is easily and profoundly swayed by appearances: the mere prettiness of the red blood against the white of the snow makes her want to have a child with the same characteristics. Not a terribly worthy or respectful thought.

So the queen and Snow White are opposites: Snow White is the place in which the senses are absent, and the queen is all senses, all the time. That is also why she is queen—because she is completely invested in our shared social life. And hence, theoretically, being all senses, the queen is and must be the most beautiful thing there is—the most appealing to the senses.

And yet, she discovers in her mirror a dark paradox. It seems that there is a greater beauty, incipient, potential, hidden in the depths of night/winter/death. There is something non-sensory that is, in the end, more beautiful than this whole sensible world.

This, surely, is the beauty of the soul, and of the world perceived directly by the soul: of that kingdom that is “not of this world.”

Snow White, then, is the human soul, facing all the dangers that the sensory and social world contains.

It is because Snow White is the soul that she is so devilishly hard to kill. In the end, it seems it is categorically not possible for her to really die. The queen, seeking to kill her, only drives her deep into the dark forest. This classic destination of all fairy tales is the same “green world” Northrop Frye found in Shakespeare's comedies and romances—a place apart from society in which troubles are miraculously healed. Frye was wrong, though, to equate this with the world of “nature.” It is just the opposite; it is the world of “supernature.” Nature would be no place for the soul, Snow White, to sojourn, let alone to heal. No, the dark wood is primarily the world of darkness, and of no other people—hence the world of night, hence the world of sleep, hence the world of dreams. That's why magical things like gingerbread houses and caves of diamonds are to be found there. It is here, in the world of dreams, of the imagination, that the soul finds refuge within any 24-hour period, just as Snow White does in the forest.

It is also a good place for abused children to find refuge, and here the story offers useful advice: in the land of dreams, of stories, and of the imagination. That is your escape.

In the dream world, Snow White finds shelter with seven little men. In the first instance, they are dwarfs, which is to say, creatures of the imagination, of dreams, never seen in the waking world. Like her, they are outcasts from the social world—unknown and unseen, or if seen, seeming to this world small and ugly.

Such friendly, comic old helper figures, when seen in dreams, are, quite simply, angels, who can guide and advise us. The abused child can rely on them for help, when he or she cannot rely on any of the adults around them. They are seven, no doubt, from reliance on an old and universal folk concept, that the seven (visible) planets of the ecliptic are living spirits moving through the heavens, that represent the upper limit of the world of time, just before, rising heavenward, you reach the firmament of eternity. They mine diamonds—stars--in the mountains of dawn, returning home to Snow White every night, as the stars and planets do in the daily cycle. All lovely dream-associations. More importantly, like angels, the seven give Snow White good advice, essentially moral advice. They warn her not to talk to any strangers, not to let anyone in, not to buy any frivolities, to avoid the snares of passing witches. They model to her and teach her of the importance of responsible work and self-sufficiency. All good lessons, too, for the listening young soul.

The contents of mind emerge from sense experience.

The magic mirror is, let us say, the conscious mind—the mind which mirrors all that we see, as the moon in the night mirrors the light of the sun. Our conscious mind tells us, as it tells the queen, that there truly is something greater than we are in this universe; something behind the sensed, and beyond the seen. This always comes as a humbling shock; like a death. Original sin makes us all want to see ourselves as gods, masters of good and evil. The evil queen, like many, does not take it well.

Logically enough, the wicked queen tries to kill the soul, or rather paralyse it, with sensory temptations. First, in the Grimm version, the wicked queen tempts Snow White with a fancy dress with stays, supposed to make her figure more attractive. Clothes—outward appearances; what matters in the physical, not the spiritual, world. But putting it on cuts off Snow White's breath—“breath” being the word (in Latin) from which the word “spirit” is derived. Good advice for the young soul.

Perhaps a bit tighter than good health would suggest.

Then the wicked queen tempts Snow White with a poisoned comb, supposed to make her hair more beautiful. More of the same—earthly vanity, vanity of the senses. The comb accordingly poisons her head. Finally, this not being enough, the wicked queen reproduces Eve's apple itself. “Whoever ate a piece of it must surely die”-- the words of Genesis, here quoted from Andrew Lang's English translation of the German tale. A temptation, in the first instance, to the sense of taste; but the image of the reddening apple also carries its associations with the returning sun, the source of all light, and therefore a symbol, in appropriate context, as here, for all the senses. It cannot hurt the wicked queen, because she is all senses; but it is death to Snow White.

Or simulated death, pending the coming of the handsome prince.

And who is the handsome prince?

The original tall, dark, and handsome stranger.

You've already guessed, haven't you? Contrary to much neo-pagan wishful thinking, the old fairy tales are actually resolutely Christian.

Interestingly, first, he is not, in the original (as Lang translates it), actually a “prince.” the word seems to be avoided. Instead, he is, repeatedly, “a king's son.” This might amount to the same thing in practice, but it is odd that this awkwardness not only appears, but has been preserved, and not “corrected” through the years of oral transmission. But “king's son” seems intended by its slight awkwardness, oddly preserved through the oral generations, to suggest a reference to the most famous of all “king's sons,” Jesus the Christ—often referred to as “son,” rarely as “prince.”

Disney changed the ending in having the sleeping girl awakened by a kiss. Romantic touch, but not as apt allegorically. It is not romantic love that saves us. In the Grimm version, Snow White is awakened when one of the King's son's retainers trips on a tree stump, and the coffin is jolted. A bit of apple that was lodged in her throat pops out, and she revives.

To a Catholic, that bit about tripping must evoke echoes of the Way of the Cross, an oft-repeated devotion, in which Jesus stumbles three times on his trip through the streets of Jerusalem to Calvary. The more so since it is a tree root that trips the manservant: the tree, in turn, would be the cross, often referred to quasi-metaphorically as a tree, a tree reversing in its import the fatal tree of Eden, source of evil apples. As she awakes, and asks where she is, the King's son answers “You are with me,” as if his own identity should be, to her, self-evident.

And so the two really did, and really do, and really will, live “happily ever after”; for there really is a “happily ever after,” more real than anything outside of fairy tales. We will be joined to God forever in heaven.

Happily ever after. Really. Deal with it.

The wicked, worldly queen? Importantly, she is invited to heaven too—it is not God who excludes. But in the original, arriving at the feast full of envy, she is clad in shoes of red-hot iron, and dances until she dies. A fairly traditional vision, surely, of hell—but also I think suggestively self-imposed. She was, as we say, “burning with envy,” and dancing in eternal vain hope to draw attention away from the blessed soul and to herself.

A Virtual Tour of St. John Lateran

St. John Lateran - VR Tours

Friday, December 24, 2010

Current Bethlehem Temperature

It is now after dark on Christmas Eve, here in the Philippines. I just checked the current temperature in Bethlehem, in Palestine. It is 21 degrees Celsius.

I try to do this every year, because folks trying to debunk the Christmas story rely heavily on the fact that shepherds were out watching their flocks by night. They argue this means Jesus could not have been born in the bleak midwinter.

Right; perhaps not in Winnipeg; but I say they are simply ignoring weather conditions in the Middle East. So far, the reported ambient temperature when I've checked it has never been to cold to make a bit out out-of-doors herding impractical. Even in this winter of record cold temperatures in much of the Northern Hemisphere.

Interestingly, it turns out that the popular modern notion that the date of Christmas was selected in order to match the time of the Roman Saturnalia is full of large holes. There is, in fact, a more plausible and historical explanation, and it is entirely Christian.

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Joseph's Begats: Gospel Reading for Christmas Vigil

The gospel for the Christmas Vigil is mainly one of those lists of “begats” that are, notoriously, the most tiresome reading in the Bible:

Joseph's dream

From Matthew:

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ,
the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Abraham became the father of Isaac,
Isaac the father of Jacob,
Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers.
Judah became the father of Perez and Zerah,
whose mother was Tamar.
Perez became the father of Hezron,
Hezron the father of Ram,
Ram the father of Amminadab.
Amminadab became the father of Nahshon,
Nahshon the father of Salmon,
Salmon the father of Boaz,
whose mother was Rahab.
Boaz became the father of Obed,
whose mother was Ruth.
Obed became the father of Jesse,
Jesse the father of David the king.
David became the father of Solomon,
whose mother had been the wife of Uriah.
Solomon became the father of Rehoboam,
Rehoboam the father of Abijah,
Abijah the father of Asaph.
Asaph became the father of Jehoshaphat,
Jehoshaphat the father of Joram,
Joram the father of Uzziah.
Uzziah became the father of Jotham,
Jotham the father of Ahaz,
Ahaz the father of Hezekiah.
Hezekiah became the father of Manasseh,
Manasseh the father of Amos,
Amos the father of Josiah.
Josiah became the father of Jechoniah and his brothers
at the time of the Babylonian exile.
After the Babylonian exile,
Jechoniah became the father of Shealtiel,
Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel,
Zerubbabel the father of Abiud.
Abiud became the father of Eliakim,
Eliakim the father of Azor,
Azor the father of Zadok.
Zadok became the father of Achim,
Achim the father of Eliud,
Eliud the father of Eleazar.
Eleazar became the father of Matthan,
Matthan the father of Jacob,
Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary.
Of her was born Jesus who is called the Christ.

St. Joseph the father.

Inspiring, ain't it?

Two things stand out immediately as odd: first, this list traces the geneology of Jesus through his father Joseph—just before making the emphatic point a couple of verses later that Joseph was not Jesus`s natural father. So what's the point?

Second, it traces Jesus`s heredity from Abraham. Why not Adam? Or, if the point were to establish his claim to kingship, why not David?

This second anomaly, I think, helps explain the first. Abraham is not the founder of the human race, of our physical part; and he is not the founder of the Jewish state, our social part. He is the founder of our religious tradition, of ethical monotheism.

This is explaining the sense in which Joseph really was Jesus's father, and the sense in which his contribution as father was critical: in passing on the religious and moral traditions. In educating the child. The body, the nature, comes primarily from the mother; the spirit, the nurture, comes primarily from Dad. This in turn points up the father`s significance within the family, and to his children. It is not his physical contribution, and not his financial contribution from his work outside the home. His most important task is educating the children, in particular their moral education,”raising them up in the way that they should go.” Most folks I know, male or female, look to their fathers for exactly that: a moral model.

Father and son

In doing this for Jesus, therefore, Joseph really was Jesus`s father in the important sense. Joseph passed on to Jesus, by talk and by example, the long tradition of spiritual truth and righteousness passed from father to son since Abraham.

Note that four of Joseph`s female ancestors are also mentioned; and when they are mentioned, it is in three out of four cases a woman whose own morality was doubtful. Were moral education from the mother, this would be a spot on Jesus's heredity, and would have made this lineage less than optimum for the one chosen by God to be the Messiah. Specifically, Tamar and Rahab were prostitutes; Bathsheba was an adulteress.


The fourth ancestress named, Ruth, was of sterling moral character. On the other hand, she was not a Hebrew, but a Moabite; if blood rather than tradition were the significance of this geneology, her inclusion would be a disqualifying factor. Moreover, her own story illlustrates the very point that tradition and education comes from the father. As a model of the good woman, Ruth unhesitatingly abandons her own homeland nad her own traditions in order to adopt those of her husband's family: “wherever you go, I will go; And wherever you lodge, I will lodge; Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.” QED.

Ruth the Moabite.

The fact that it is the moral educaton, not blood ties, that matters, is far more emphatic, of course, in the Christian than the Hebrew covenant; and so it is central and foundational at this point.

David and Bathsheba

At the same time, this core significance of the father brings home the true depth of the current catastrophe of homes without fathers. At birth, the most important work of the mother is already done; it is now the father who is critical, for the proper spiritual growth of the child. In these times, in our culture, he is often gone, often indeed driven out, and the children forbidden even to see him. The latest figures I find on the Internet say 26% of all children under 21 in the US today are being raised by a single parent; that single parent is the mother in 84% of these cases. That is a perfect recipe for cultural death and spiritual disaster.

Yet that probably understates it: that is today, a one-day snapshot. Over the course of a childhood, the figure for single-parent children is apparently something north of 35%.

It were better if we were all tossed into the sea with millstones around our necks.

Even if every home had a father, this essential masculine part in education would also make it vital that teachers, of all professions, should be male. This becomes doubly vital if children are getting no male influence at home.

And guess what? Teachers are now overwhelmingly female. Men are actually systematically being driven out of the profession, by the risk of fake accusations of sexual misconduct.

This may be an overlooked and critical factor in the generally acknowledged overall decline in North American educational standards.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Very Interesting New Tourist Destination in the UAE

Ancient Christian monastery site in Persian Gulf opened to public :: Catholic News Agency (CNA)

Stats for Child Sex Abuse by Catholic Priests

Lisa Graas » Do Catholic Priests Abuse Children? Here Are the Stats

Exciting Proof That There Is a God

Snowflakes and Snow Crystals

Joseph the Fool

Advent is nearly over. The big day is almost here.

As we have perhaps come to expect, this week's Sunday gospel again includes something that, if we are listening intently, probably should strike us as comic. It's Joseph. Poor old Joe discovers Mary, his bride-to-be, is pregnant. He knows, of course, that he is not the father. He draws the inevitable conclusion.

Then an angel in a dream tells him that the conception was supernatural, involved no sex, that Mary is still a virgin, and that the father of the child is the Holy Spirit.

Well that's alright, then, isn't it? The very next morning, he takes Mary in as his wife, no problem, no questions asked.

Sounds like how most of us would react, right? Not. No, I'm afraid Joseph is an example of that classic comic type, indeed the classic comic type, the fool.

St. Joseph in his coat of many colours.

The decision requires no great reflection on his part, no mental or moral struggle—the gospel specifies that he took Mary back as soon as he awoke.

The gospel makes clear in detail how remarkable this act of Joseph's is. The claim of the angel in the dream violates, of course, everything we or Joseph know about the laws of nature, and all his and our previous experience of the world. It also expressly violates all social convention, which obliged Joseph to reject Mary at this point. As the gospel notes, this is what “righteousness” called for.

Nor is Joseph relying on religious authority. Yes, there is that passage in Isaiah, quoted in the gospel, about a virgin bearing a son—Joseph, if he were a learned man, might have known it. But note an important discrepancy: the prophet said the child should be named Emmanuel; the angel says instead that he must be named Jesus. If Joseph were relying on the prophesy as authority, this discrepancy should have been crucial—and at least would have dictated that he give his son the name Emmanuel.

But Joseph, like his biblical namesake, is a man of dreams. He automatically accepts the dream as authoritative against all knowledge of natural law, against all personal experience, against all social pressures, and against all established authority as well. The dream is real; nothing else is by comparison.

This is why Joseph of Nazareth, uniquely among men, was fit to be the father of the Christ.

It would be too much to say Joseph's attitude is incredible. I think there really are people like this, and we may have met them. But they are certainly comic figures: fools. We would think of someone who acted decisively in this way on the authority of a dream as simple, otherworldly, childlike. We would laugh at them. They are the ones who wear the coats of many colours, the motley, carry a bladder as a sceptre, and wear a coxcomb cap and bells.

This is what a good person is like. The wisdom of this world is folly; so true wisdom will appear as folly to this world. This is what it means to be in the world, but not of it. This is what it means to be one of the “little” of the Beatitudes. This is what Jesus meant when he said we are to be as little children.

In pure philosophical terms, terms accessible to unaided human reason, Joseph is right. It is the dream that is real. The dream is, almost self-evidently, a window into the spiritual world. It is only blind faith to assume that this spiritual world is not a real world that exists apart from our perception of it. As Bishop Berkeley beautifully demonstrated, the reality of the spiritual world is self-evident and impossible to doubt; it is really the physical world the reality of which is only arbitrarily assumed.

We ought all, like Joseph, to listen carefully to our dreams.

If God wished to say something directly to us, gently, without frightening us to smithereens in the process, how else would he say it, but in a dream?

And, when we lament that there is no answer to incessant prayer, only silence from heaven—

...are we listening?

15th century court fool. A tough job, but somebody has to do it.
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.
When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, 
but before they lived together,
she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.
Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man,
yet unwilling to expose her to shame,
decided to divorce her quietly.
Such was his intention when, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit
that this child has been conceived in her.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,
because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel, 
which means “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke,
he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him
and took his wife into his home.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Civilizational Struggle

A Canadian friend wrote recently to ask if it were not “terrifying” to be living in the Middle East. He noted that more and more Canadians—especially his Jewish friends--were beginning to suspect that Islam had a plan to take over the world.

My friend is a good man; but he labours under some unfortunate misconceptions common in the West currently.

It is not at all terrifying to live in the Middle East. Arabs are extremely hospitable and tolerant towards resident foreigners. And no, they are not all terrorists. Statistically, one seems to be in greater danger of being attacked by terrorists in London, Stockholm, Madrid, or New York. (An American friend says “Yeah, of course. Because in the Middle East they are all terrorists. Why would they attack themselves?” Maybe so, but the fact of relative security remains.) In the meantime, the countries of the Gulf have some of the lowest rates of violent crime anywhere in the world. So, on balance, I feel more secure day by day in the Gulf than I do in Canada or the US.

The big worry is a sudden war with Iran. That seems possible, and possibly devastating.

Islam does indeed have a plan to take over the world. Ironically, though, it is the same plan the Jews have. The only difference is that the Jews see the world as being ultimately ruled from Jerusalem, and the Muslims from Mecca. It's what the Jewish doctrine of the Messiah is all about. He will be a political and military leader, there will be a great battle at Armageddon, and he will subjugate all nations. His capital will be Jerusalem.

It is fundamental to Judaism and to Islam that the laws of the religion, the Mosaic law, are also supposed to be the laws of the state. The separation of church and state is a specifically Christian idea.

This obviously sets up a certain conflict—the rest of the world may have mixed emotions about being run by Islam and by Muslims.

But the matter is not one-sided. There is another doctrine, prominent in the modern world, that also makes claims to world domination. One can understand, surely, if Muslims have similar misgivings about being ruled by it. It is, roughly, the doctrine of liberal democracy and of human rights. When the US Declaration of Independence calls human equality and human rights “self-evident” and “inalienable,” this is a claim as absolute and universal as that of religion.

So we have not one ideology making a lunge for world conquest, but two competing ideologies. And, to be fair and honest, it was liberal democracy that fired the first shots in the current contest, not Islam. The United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were introduced in the 1940s; Islam became militant in the same way only in the 1980s.

Are these two competing creeds irreconcilable? Are we doomed to a struggle to the death?

Perhaps not. While Islam has pushed hard in the past, with little fiestas like the Battle of Roncesvalles, the Siege of Vienna, and the Battle of Lepanto, it has been rather quiescent of recent centuries. This is probably for the same reason that the International Jewish Conspiracy has not been taking itself terribly seriously over the last couple of millennia—the practical difficulties have seemed too great. Compromise might have been necessary.

And, in fact, Islam and Liberal Democracy can agree on a number of things—one might even see them as all the essentials.

Democracy, per se, is not a problem—not for Islam, in any case. Note that theocratic Iran is at least nominally a democracy—more democratic, actually, than most Muslim states. Early Islam was also democratic; the prophet and the first few Caliphs were all elected. In a sense, all the Gulf states, though nominally monarchies, even absolute monarchies, are model democracies as well. Because they are small and culturally identical, dissidents here have always been free to simply vote with their feet.

Human equality too is not contentious with Islam. Just the reverse: Islam believes categorically in human equality, for all the same reasons Christianity does. The doctrine is based on the understanding that all men are equally children of God, and so of equal value in His sight.

The liberal doctrine of a social contract is a problem; it assumes that government is a contract among men. For Islam, as for Judaism, government is a covenant with God, and God gets a veto. But this problem is probably of only theoretical, not practical, importance.

Human rights, too, are not a problem—for Islam, just as for Christianity, they derive automatically from the doctrine of human equality, and the dignity of all being God's handiwork. “Endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights”? Check; no problem, in concept.

The problem is with the specific interpretation the doctrines of human equality and human rights are being given currently; since, indeed, about the 1980s. This is why the conflict between Islam and the West showed up only at about that time.

It was when feminism went international.

Unlike all conceptions of human rights before its time, feminism sets itself against religion and religious traditions, and against established morality. In a fundamental way, this is actually destructive of human rights and human equality, because both are based on religious premises. In the West, feminism looked at the Bible, noted that it was incompatible with the current doctrines of feminism itself, and declared that the Bible must therefore change or be discarded. Feminism then decided that abortion was a woman's right, and conventional morality must therefore change or be discarded as well.

You will perhaps have noted that this did not go down well among religious people in the West at the time. Up to that point, to be Catholic in North America almost automatically meant to be “liberal" or “progressive.” After that time, to be Catholic in North America has meant to be “conservative” or “right wing.” Evangelical Protestants have traced a similar, if less obvious, trajectory—Baptist pastors and laymen like Tommy Douglas or Jimmy Carter used to be prominent on the left. More recently, it has become a safe assumption that all serious Evangelical Protestants are on the political right.

The inversion this involved is historic and striking. It was, after all, generally the religious who were in the forefront of the universal struggle for human rights up to this point: in the fight against slavery, in the fight against segregation. As in, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

It should be no surprise, therefore, that the attempt to export these new ideas of human rights set up exactly the same conflict with Islam. The demands of “liberal democracy” were now, for the first time, directly opposed to the demands of Islam, Shariah, and the Qur'an.

Why on God's earth would anyone not expect a fight? The amazing thing is that so few were prepared to defend the Bible, Christianity, or the accepted moral law in the West.

Adding a "human right" to homosexual sex added another major attack on Islam, just as on Catholicism or Evangelical Protestantism.

The celebrated cause of “oppressed” Muslim woman, supposedly forced to wear concealing clothing against their will, has been a standard complaint against Islam in the West—long before Muslim terrorism became a going concern. Long before Bush invaded Afghanistan because of the Taliban's refusal to cooperate against al Qaeda, as some with good memories may recall, feminists were persistently demanding just such an invasion, expressly for the sake of supposedly oppressed Afghan women—and that has apparently been a cause carried forward eagerly by the current NATO presence.

I submit that the war in Afghanistan should have been and was over, and won, in 2001; and would have stayed won were it not for this fact.

Afghans in general, males as much as females, are saddled with poverty, official corruption, ethnic strife, and bad, mostly inoperative government. The last thing in the world they need, men or women, is someone coming in and tearing apart the only honourable and relatively trustworthy institutions they have and the last shreds of peace, order, and happiness: the mosque, their prayer life, and the family. That is exactly what the Western “reformers” are doing, and it is exactly what the Soviets were trying to do before them. The Taliban arose as a predictable backlash the first time, and revived the second time for the same reason. A bad lot, no doubt, the Taliban, but in the end purely a defensive measure, and quite possibly for the average Afghan better than any available alternative. They were not and are not the aggressors.

Women in Afghanistan are not oppressed. Women in traditional Islam are not oppressed. It is illogical to imagine that women were oppressed always and everywhere before the present day and the West. By what conceivable mechanism could one half of humanity oppress the other half, for tens of thousands of years, consistently, in all known human societies? Yet that is what feminism requires us to believe.

Muslim women are simply following their cultural norms and traditions, the more fiercely right now because they seem threatened, and their consciences, as they have a right to do. As do Muslim men.

Men in the West, on the other hand, currently are oppressed, systematically. The fact that we depart from the historical norm ought to be understood as evidence that this is so.

Not incidentally, feminism is also destroying any society it has infected, by demographic decline. In feminist countries, women have broadly stopped having children. No surprise if Afghan or Muslim cultures do not particularly want to commit suicide.

As a Christian, all I can say is, God forbid that Islam fade away. For one thing, if it does, under the present circumstances, with it we will lose both Christianity and Liberal Democracy into the bargain.

There are of course other issues between Islam and Liberal Democracy, centring on the important matters of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. On these, I'd agree with Liberal Democracy. There should be freedom of worship, and no laws against apostasy, in Muslim countries as in Christian/Liberal Democratic countries. If there are to be laws against evangelizing, they should apply equally to Muslims and non-Muslims.

I am not a Muslim, so it is not my place to say whether these changes are ultimately compatible with Islam. They seem to me no more than the application of the Golden Rule, which Muslims endorse just as Christians do. This is not true of feminism or homosexual rights.

I dislike personally the idea of laws against blasphemy, as currently urged by Muslim nations; and fear that in practice we would end up with something as despicable and iniquitous as the current Canadian “human rights” tribunals. But blasphemy laws are in fact demonstrably historically entirely compatible with liberal democratic traditions. The British criminal code included the offence of blasphemy right up until 2008. It remains on the books, if not commonly enforced, in Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and parts of Australia. The trick is to ensure that prosecutions are even-handed, that the law apply equally to all religions, and cover only egregious insults.

Monday, December 13, 2010

What is a Religion?

 In a rapidly pluralizing world, governments are wrestling more and more with the issue of what is and is not a legitimate religion. This matters for matters of human rights, since, the instant a religion is recognized as legit, its followers are entitled to freedom of conscience. For example, Canadian courts are wrestling now with the issue of polygamy. If some breakaway Mormons are polygamous as an article of faith, then by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, no Canadian government can declare polygamy illegal. Muslim women are demanding the right to wear the hijab. But what about the government's legitimate interet in being able to identify, for example, a crime suspect?
To put a fine point on it all, what—ahem--what if somebody's religion, as religions certainly have done, calls for... human sacrifice?

Not good for tourism.

So the question of what does and does not constitute a legitimate religion is an important one. We are currently far too ready to acccept anyone's claim about anything they believe, or pretend to believe, being a religion, or a religious requirement. The problem with this is that it erodes real religious rights—as the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, for example, is deliberately duly constituted to do.
They have a clearer, and a different, concept in Korea. They profess to see no ambiguity. Ask, and anyone there will tell you that Confucianism is not a religion, Taoism is not a religion, and shamanism is not a religion. Christianity and Buddhism are religions.
So there really is aline that can be drawn. It is indeed easy to see that shamanic, pre-monotheist traditions, “paganisms,” once you have seen them up close (as in the case of Korea's surviving shamanism) are radically different things from the great universalistic faiths that emerged within the past 2,500 years.
Religion requires legal recognition and protection because religion can require certain things of us: freedom of religion is freedom of conscience. If and when, therefore, one's religion is not a matter of conscience, it does not need, and does not deserve, any legal recognition or protection. Shamanistic religions make no appeal to conscience. They do not therefore require legal protection, because they are by nature not ethical or moralistic. If they require obedience to any particular rules, it is not on moral grounds; it might be on ritual grounds, or on grounds of magical efficacy. Their demands may even be knowingly immoral. So nobody's conscience is violated by not being able to practice these ritual requirements.
So much for human sacrifice. “Do unto others” is universal, and no religion that violates it is a religion properly so-called.
Conversely, Confucianism, or Platonism, or Humanism, or atheism, are philosophical and perhaps also moral systems, but not religions. They rely on human reason as warrant for their judgements and decrees, as opposed to a supernatural agent. This being so, governments, as social contracts, have every logical and moral right to supercede them, since they too are based on human reason. For the individual, if one's government fails to see the logic of one's own ethical judgements, one can go along, with a clear conscience, on the grounds that the social contract is the higher good. Moreover, there is every likelihood that the government is right, and you are wrong.
I would see this as a fatal flaw in all non-religious moral systems. They can therefore permit such things as the Holocaust of the Jews. But that is as different issue: for our present purposes, it means that such philosophical systems are not worthy of special legal protections accorded to religions.
A true religion is different: one is obliged to follow its ethical dictates, and they are established not only by the light of this world, but of eternity and the absolute. Accordingly, governments have not the authority to violate them, they are not negotiable among humans as part of the social contract, and one is obliged, morally, to defy the government should it deny them.
Here's a fair test governments could use for deciding what is and what is not a religion: fair, and anything but subjective.
Does this belief have any martyrs? Has anyone ever died rather than deny it?

Bellini, The Murder of St. Peter, Martyr.
If even one person has been prepared to die rather than deny the given creed—given that that choice was clearly offered—then this is pretty definite proof that, for its adherents, that creed is making a demand on one's conscience.
Some genuine religions might be left out by this standard, if they are modern enough. But it would not matter, would it? If they have no martyrs, they have not been persecuted, or at least not severely. If they are not persecuted, they are not in need of legal protection. Once it is clear they are, the protection is extended automatically.