Thursday, May 31, 2007

Prayer for the Departed

Why does the Church pray for the departed? Simple: because they, like us (or, better, along with us), have not yet experienced the full redemption of their beings, which will take place at the resurrection. The Church on earth, entrusted with the care of souls of all the faithful, pleads the mercies of God in solidarity with all of its members, both living and dead. This implies nothing at all about the "state" of the dead before the resurrection apart from the acknowledgement that BEFORE the resurrection neither they nor us have reached the goal, and reaching that goal depends completely and utterly on the mercy and grace of God.

Non-specificity characterizes the Church's prayers for the departed; that is, the Church does not pray for temporally-bound "needs." Rather, the Church prays for the departed within the general intercessions for the whole Church, that they, along with us, may share with all God's saints in his eternal kingdom. Someone might ask, what profit lies in such prayers for the departed? But one might just as well ask, what profit lies in such prayers for those of us who still live here on earth? One will find the same answer for both questions.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Darwin's Pope?

Darwin's Pope?"
by Kenneth R. Miller

"Intelligent design," the notion that living things are too complex to have been produced by evolution, has gotten a cold shoulder in the scientific community. Not so in the popular imagination, where its advocates have convinced much of the public and even an Austrian cardinal that it deserves a place alongside Darwin in science classrooms.

The public-relations successes of what's being widely called "ID" reflect the skillful way in which its proponents have framed the debate to place God and Darwin in direct opposition. As Phillip Johnson, the movement's most respected leader, has candidly described it, the principal strategy followed by the "design" movement "is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism vs. evolution to the existence of God vs. the non-existence of God." That, the ID folks are convinced, is a winning argument, at least in the United States.

Unfortunately for ID, for years there has been a dramatic, highly visible, well-known contradiction to this claim—the Roman Catholic Church's acceptance of evolution as being entirely consistent with Christian teachings. From Pius XII's first cautious but positive words in 1950, in Humani Generis, to John Paul II's recognition that evolution was now "more than just a hypothesis" and was supported by "discoveries in various fields of knowledge," in a 1996 address, the Church has made it clear that the scientific conclusions of evolution need not contradict the core teachings of the Christian faith. Indeed, reflecting on the broad scientific support for Darwin's theory, John Paul II stated flatly that "truth cannot contradict truth." The "truths" he had in mind were the empirical scientific truth of evolution and the eternal truths of faith. Powerful stuff.

Why, then, did Benedict XVI, on the day of his coronation, preach a homily saying: "We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary." And echoing Benedict's words, on July 7, 2005, Christoph Cardinal Schönborn wrote in The New York Times that "neo-Darwinian" theory is not "compatible with Christian faith." Incredibly, his essay bore the provocative headline "Finding Design in Nature."

In the United States, those words caused hearts to leap in the breasts of the anti-evolution movement. To hear the ID folks tell it, it's just a matter of time before the new pope places the influence of the Catholic Church squarely into the fight against godless Darwinism. A few have even suggested that Benedict will invite the champions of ID to the Vatican for a private audience.

While no one should be foolish enough to state categorically what the Holy Father will or will not decide on any issue, I'd urge the ID crowd to wait a while before booking those first-class tickets to Rome.

Although Benedict is widely viewed as a theological conservative, with respect to science, his conservatism fits squarely into the mold of Augustine and Aquinas, and follows the long Catholic tradition of respect for scientific rationalism that shaped John Paul II's 1996 endorsement of evolution.

So, what are we to make of his assertions that we are not the "casual and meaningless products" of evolution? We can start with Benedict's own writings, and in particular, I'd point to his book In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall.
After describing the scientific elements of neo-Darwinian theory, then-Cardinal Ratzinger asked: "What response shall we make to this view [evolution]? It is the affair of the natural sciences to explain how the tree of life in particular continues to grow and how new branches shoot out from it. This is not a matter for faith. But we must have the audacity to say that the great projects of the living creation are not the products of chance and error."

Ratzinger, like John Paul II and Puis XII before him, is not at all concerned about the emerging evolutionary account of humankind's material origins. As he makes clear, "this is not a matter for faith." However, he draws the line at any suggestion that we are the mere products of "chance and error," and the reason is the Christian teaching that humanity is not here by accident, but as the intentional result of a Divine plan. As he explains later, the point is: "Human beings are not a mistake, but something willed; they are the fruit of love."

Does this rule out evolution, with its emphasis on chance and necessity, and leave room only for the intentionality of "design"? Cardinal Schönborn certainly seems to think so. But to find the true answer, we need only to look at "Communion and Stewardship," a 2004 Curia document produced under Ratzinger's watch by the International Theological Commission. Paragraph 63 of this document carries a ringing endorsement of the "widely accepted scientific account" of life's emergence and evolution, describes the descent of all forms of life from a common ancestor as "virtually certain," and echoes John Paul II's observation of the "mounting support" for evolution from many fields of study. But just like Ratzinger, it draws the line at any theory of evolution that might "deny to divine providence any truly causal role in the development of life."
I don't doubt for a second that the advocates of ID would be tempted to pencil in their "designer" for the "causal role" that the document reserves for God. But that would be a great mistake, as the document points out a few paragraphs later. Specifically addressing the arguments made to support ID, the commission writes that the argument between ID and evolution concerns "whether the available data support inferences of design or chance, and cannot be settled by theology. But it is important to note that, according to the Catholic understanding of divine causality, true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence. Divine causality and created causality radically differ in kind and not only in degree. Thus, even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God's providential plan for creation."

As the late Stephen Jay Gould was fond of pointing out, evolution is indeed a truly contingent natural process. To a nonbeliever like Gould, the inherent unpredictability of a contingent process was proof that the result of the process could not be the handiwork of a gracious God. But Gould, like many in science, seriously underestimated the philosophical depth of religious thought. As Aquinas wrote: "The effect of divine providence is not only that things should happen somehow, but that they should happen either by necessity or by contingency. Therefore, whatsoever divine providence ordains to happen infallibly and of necessity happens infallibly and of necessity; and that happens from contingency, which the divine providence conceives to happen from contingency."

The key insight, which sits at the very heart of Benedict's thoughts on the matter, is that "neo-Darwinians who adduce random genetic variation and natural selection as evidence that the process of evolution is absolutely unguided are straying beyond what can be demonstrated by science."

Precisely. The point of the pope's homily was not to take issue with evolution itself, but with the philosophical view that humans are nothing more than the casual and meaningless products of that process. Schönborn's ill-considered op-ed made the same point, but erred in its mistaken assertion that these philosophical views are an inherent part of neo-Darwinian theory. The authentic lesson to be stressed is that "divine causality can be active in a process that is both contingent and guided," a process like evolution.

Pope Benedict may never be seen as "Darwin's Pope," but his writings and homilies place him squarely in the tradition of scientific acceptance established by his predecessors. The Holy Father's concerns are not with evolution per se, but with how evolution is to be understood in our modern world. Biological evolution fits neatly into a traditional Catholic understanding of how contingent natural processes can be seen as part of God's plan, while "evolutionist" philosophies that deny the Divine do not. That was the point of the pope's coronation homily.
Despite claims to the contrary by the ID camp, a careful reading suggests that the new pope will give quarter neither to the enemies of spirituality nor the enemies of evolutionary science. And that's exactly as it should be.

--Kenneth R. Miller is Professor of Biology at Brown University, and author of the book Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution (Harper).

The Word of the Lord? Indeed, yes, thanks be to God!

Should one ever end a first lesson reading from the Apocrypha (sic) with "The Word of the Lord?"

For much of my time as a teacher of liturgy I would have answered this question firmly in the negative, appealing to Article VI (39 Articles of Religion). And for pastoral reasons I still do prefer the optional acclamation, "Here ends the first lesson," (or simply, "The first lesson," which goes better with the response "Thanks be to God"), when reading from the Deuterocanon (as I prefer to call it). However, I no longer hold that opinion so firmly. Why? Simply put: the Church should rightly affirm the deuterocanonical books as belonging to the Canon of Scripture.

Before I proceed with my argument, I will caution the reader to keep in mind that "canon" and "inspiration," though obviously related theological concepts, should not be confused or equated. Christians affirm that God inspires the writing of scripture. However, God does not canonize scripture; rather, the Church does. Canonization means the process of recognizing and authorizing those books for public worship where the Church has heard, and continues to hear, God speaking to his people. Hence, the Canon includes those books that the Church confidently affirms (defines) as those where it hears the voice of God. These in turn are authorized for public worship.
Historically, the debate centers around two competing views of canonicity with regard to the Old Testament, and consequently two understandings of scriptural inspiration: what I term the "narrow vs broad" and the "hard vs soft" views respectively. Each understanding employs different, though (I would argue) not necessarily conflicting, criteria.

Those who affirm the narrow canon position reckon as canonical only those OT books that (1) the Jews receive as scripture, and thus (2) no one in the Church disputes. Naturally, then, the Church confidently employs these books for the confirmation of doctrine (a la Jerome), which fact tends to harden (or restrict) inspiration to only those books that meet these criteria.

The broad canon view uses a different criterion to determine an OT book's canonicity: authorization for use in public worship. Thus, in practice, this broad canon view recognizes the Septuagintal Old Testament tradition, both in form and content, as canonical scripture. However, this view does not preclude an important distinction within the Old Testament between the Hebrew (or "Proto") Canon and what Article VI refers to as the "other books" (i.e., deuterocanon). Advocates of this position have ranged from those who recognize no or very little distinction in degree of inspiration between the "protos" and the "deuteros" (e.g., Trent), to those who give first place of honor to the Hebrew Canon and second place to the deuteros. Naturally, those who hold this latter position favor "softer" or less restrictive categories of scriptural inspiration. Throughout history, the broad canon (along with the soft view) has been the predominent position, commended by the continuous and unbroken use of the Septuagintal tradition in the worship and devotion of the Church.

Interestingly enough, Jerome's distinction between those books used to confirm doctrine (protos) and those books read only for edification (deuteros) has co-existed comfortably within the broader canonical view (despite the fact that Jerome argued for a narrow canon!). Cardinal Cajetan (yes, Calvin's nemesis) sums up the matter quite succinctly when he states: "...these books (or any other like books in the canon of the bible) are not canonical, that is, not in the nature of a rule for confirming matters of the faith. Yet, they may be called canonical, that is, in the nature of a rule for the edification of the faithful, as being received and authorized in the canon of the bible for that purpose" (Comments on Esther).

I do realize, however, that the Protestant mind seems hardwired to think only in terms of either/or categories of scriptural inspiration: i.e., either a book is inspired or it is not. Indeed, for many, the whole notion of sola Scriptura stands or falls on this very consideration. However, the ancients quite comfortably and aptly thought in terms of degrees of scriptural inspiration and/or importance. For instance, Jews to this day venerate the Torah (i.e., Pentateuch) in a manner that underscores their belief that only the books of Moses constitute the immediate Word of God; relegating the Prophets and (even to a lesser degree) the Writings to the lesser status of books where God spoke mediately through human beings. In similar manner, many church fathers (e.g., Augustine) readily accepted the deuteros into the ranks of canonical scripture, while admitting their inferior status, or lesser degree of inspiration. Even the "hardliner" Athanasius did not hesitate to afford the deuteros a certain level of scriptural dignity.

In the final analysis, in an Anglican context, I think how one defines the Canon boils down to preference. I can happily accept the assertion that Article VI does not admit to the canonicity of the deuteros, because I know the Article employs the narrower definition that limits the term to only those books within the biblical corpus that are used for the confirmation of doctrine. However, in liturgical praxis, I would argue that the Anglican tradition fits more comfortably in the broader canonical tradition, which would admit into the Canon of Scripture all the books of the biblical corpus that are authorized for publich worship. The crucial distinction between those books used for the confirmation of doctrine and those books read only for purposes of edification remains operative in both understandings. But to my way of thinking, God inspired both the protos and the deuteros, albeit for different purposes and to different ends.
Thanks be to God!

P.S. - The illuminated text above pictures Tobit being blinded by the droppings of a sparrow - an apt metaphor for many contexts.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Emerging from the depths of despair...

...Actually, just emerging from a long hiatus, an even longer soul-searching, some honest reappraisal of my priorities, and some annoying health issues. Nuff said.

Over at Stand Firm, frequent contributor Sarah Hey articulates the Anglican state-of-affairs quite well when she states: "There are only two real options for the Anglican Communion: discipline, and thus a restored, clear, boundaried identity, or fracture and an incoherent, undisciplined identity for what remains of the Anglican Communion."

I very much concur with this statement (though not very frequently with much else over at Stand Firm, I should note). I also have to admit that, of the two options, our present struggles will probably yield the latter outcome. If so, then (personally speaking) I will have to prepare for an existence in "what remains of the Anglican Communion," for (at this time) I cannot see myself joining the much anticipated Nigerian-led exodus!

Despite my hiatus and soul-searching, I wish my readers to understand that my essential understanding of Anglican Catholicity has not changed. I believe the Church Catholic always lives within the tension between its struggle to maintain fidelity to its creedal commitments and the need for the application and adaptation of those commitments to the unique set of contextual pressures that face the Church of every age and in every culture. Into this tension we are obliged to mix the advances of learning (theological, scientific, societal, hermeneutical, etc.), along with the scholarly reappraisal of time-honored formularies and traditions that inevitably takes place in each age. Sometimes such inquiries prove harmful and end up hindering progress (like mutations in the genetic code). Much of the time they prove benign. But sometimes (and I believe ultimately) the process of inquiry, testing, and affirmation produces the very theological adaptations necessary to articulate and communicate the "faith-once-delivered" from generation to generation. In short, the Church Catholic must inevitably experience conflict, often tumultuous conflict, as it balances out these factors. We live in just such an age.

P.S. - Written diligently in "E-Prime".