Why does the Church have to be apostolic?

There must be some necessity of the Church being apostolic – the Nicene creed insists on it, and Scriptural books are canonical only when apostolic. But why insist on “coming from the Apostles” as a necessary trait? Why not just say it comes from Christ and leave it at that? IOW, “Christian” seems to make “apostolic” superfluous. 

But not if one considers the Church as successive. In the Catholic tradition, for example, we speak of the pope as the “successor of Peter” and the other bishops and Patriarchs as successors of the other Apostles. They are emphatically not successors of Christ – for you have only succeeded someone who has lost the power and authority you now have, and no Christian claims that Christ can lose any of the authority he once had (cf. especially the cross-references). Whether one is Catholic or not, the Church only seems to be necessarily apostolic if it has some power or charism from Christ that must be passed on, that is, to be held by one person who loses it and is replaced by another. Such power is essentially historic, which seems to be the sole reason why it must be apostolic – it must date to the first set of followers Christ gave it to. 

Political common goods are of a fixed size

Robert George and Michael Hannon revisit the perennial modern question of political society and the common good. For George, government is a instrumental good that is entirely ordered to individual ends; for Hannon political life (and therefore some government) is a common good which transcends the particular good of any individual and, in so doing, provides a more lofty good than any that is peculiar to him.

One factor that continually gets overlooked in these debates is that the size and degree of complexity of the thing you call “government” has an essential role to play in the question, since governments – at least those that are political common goods – are of a fixed size. For Aristotle and St. Thomas, a political society was something made of a few thousand citizens, but with the advent of the modern nation state and the extension of suffrage, a political society started to be measured in units that were larger than a polis by several orders of magnitude, at which point Aristotle says they can no longer be considered political societies. They’re just too big. One can’t scale up the polis forever and keep it as a common good, since when it becomes too big it can no longer facilitate the political life of the citizens. This happens for three reasons:

1.) The action of any citizen is so disproportionate to the whole that it is not experienced as meaningful political action. An Athenian citizen in a 500 person assembly could have a positive sense of contributing to a verdict or a law; and he could know that he could persuade enough persons to have a real effect on the outcome of the vote. No one who knows his vote counts as one out of a hundred million – or even one out of a hundred thousand, which is the size of a smallish American county – can experience the same thing.

2.) The government itself becomes so labyrinthine and complex that no individual citizen knows how to live a political life within it. As a consequence, government falls to specialists as opposed to citizens since to figure out how government works in the concrete case is a full time job. In fact, it is doubtful to me that even the small groups at the top of representative governments know enough about the workings of the Leviathan to live a genuinely political life within it. What senator understands the budget? Does anyone?

3.) The number of well-intentioned regulations reaches a point where a reasonable man is no longer a standard for what should be done, at which point he is replaced by consultants and court scribes. In response to many of the significant organizational problems of social life, we no longer think “what would a reasonable person do?” but “We ought to check with our lawyers to see whether this is okay”. But as soon as  political life ceases to cultivate the standard of the reasonable man, it ceases to be an expression of genuine human flourishing.

Though there is no bright yellow line marking where it happens, at some point the size of the government hits a tipping point where it no longer is the action of us but an of an It; and we can no longer look to it as an institution within which we exercise political life but only as a Leviathan that we must appease with tax-offerings and paperwork and exploit for whatever resources it might offer us. If, after it has reached such a tipping point, we still insist on calling it a “government” then Robert George is right that it seems to play only an instrumental role in human happiness. But if we insist with Hannon (and, famously, Dekoninck) that government is a real common good, then it seems to me we ought to agree with Aristotle that it is impossible for it to have as many citizens as the things we now call governments. We will not so much look to what we call governments to give us a political life, but more to a Church parish, a platoon, a company, etc..

The causality of ideas

Empiricism – at least the non-Berkeleian or Aristotelian kind – tends to overlook or minimize the extent to which ideas are causes of things in the world. All art reduces to an idea, and to understand any form or pattern is to get the idea behind it.

But it’s not exactly empiricism that misses the causality of ideas – not all empiricists miss this and some non-empiricists do. Plantinga’s claim that abstract entities are not causes, for example, is hard to square with a robust awareness of the causality of ideas. If anything, we seem to be dealing with different personality types: the idea tends to be missed by what Jung or Myers-Briggs called the “sensation” types, and accorded primacy by those they call “intuitive” types.

Note on the Economic Trinity

The Christian experience of the Trinity is in praying to the Father, in union with the Incarnate Son, through the power of the Holy Spirit; or in experiencing the new life which consists in likeness to the Son, which therefore comes forth from the Father, and exists only in the context or environment of the Holy Spirit; but in each of these divisions one experiences the entirety of the divine life – that is, in praying with the Son one experiences the fullness of divinity even though the prayer is to the Father; in experiencing the atmosphere of the Holy Spirit one experiences the entirety of the divinity even though there is no such environment apart from the Son, etc. Again, there is nothing of divinity that one fails to see in seeing the Son: Jesus saith unto him… he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Show us the Father? Neither is there anything of God that one fails to see when he sees the Spirit, for God alone can guide one to all truth, but when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth. 


Epistemology in light of mysticism

In their neurological account of mystical experience (book/ article), Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili draw attention to a portion of the brain responsible for orienting the person in space. As you approach anything the angle of your perspective on it is constantly changing, and it takes a remarkable number of calculations to orient yourself to it. This portion of the brain makes all the world a three-dimensional grid with the person at the center and origin, and so it seems to have two effects: it recognizes all nature as dimensional in space and time, and defines this dimensionality in relation to the self. Newberg and D’Aquili’s brain scans of persons having mystical experience showed a suppression of activity in this area, allowing the mystics to experience a non-dimensional reality that was not defined in relation to themselves. The self, remaining what it was, merged into an absolute unity of all being, which was no longer seen as spatio-temporal.

Mystical experience is collectively though not distributively universal, and there might be, for all I know, those who stand to mystical reality the way tone deaf people stand to melodies or the color blind are to various shades.  But there does seem to be a great number of entities that we do not channel through the part of the brain that orients things dimensionally: laws of logic or science, ideas, the rules of a game, proper nouns as such, etc. all seem to be routed around the grid we place on the world. Drinking seems to blur the lines on the grid a bit too, and so falls somewhere on the declension of mystical experience (cf. the magisterial chapter XVII of Varieties of Religious Experience) Dreams, which play by their own logic of space and time, also suggest the mystical experience, which is one way to understand St. Thomas’s repeated appeals to dreams as intimations of mystical things.  When broadened to include all these senses, mystical experience is only at the summit of a set of experiences that seem even distributively universal.

So what does epistemology have to look like, given it has to take account of all this?

Horace on the disappointment of following the Masters

Ode IV no. 2 (for a sense of the meter, stretch out the bolded syllables and trip lightly though the others. Pause at the slashes.)

Pindarum quisquis // studet aemulari,
Iulle, ceratis // ope Daedalea
nititur pinnis, // vitreo daturus
nomina ponto.

The sense, though not the letter:


Whoever tries to emulate Pindar

strives with wax wings of the sort Daedalus made

And his words will drop upon the glassy surface of the ocean.

The best short description of the moment of realization that one actions will never be equal – never even be comparable to – the persons that inspired him to act in the first place. Morever, it is not vanity or even pure naivety that makes us want to attain the heights we see in the masters – all eros is a desire for the immortal, viz. an acorn would not drop except for a desire to be an oak tree. Still, it is better for the order of things that almost none of them become so.

Christian philosophy as critical

One  version of Christian Philosophy is negative and critical, and stresses the likeness between metaphysics and paganism. Just as paganism, though it had the benefit of concrete expression in sublime poetry and ecstatic rites, also had the downside of caring little about the truth of the things it was doing, so too metaphysics has the benefit of concern for the real natures of things but the downside of having no concrete objects manifest make it manifest to sensation. This is Chesterton’s critique (though it as clear biblical and patristic precedents) only the Incarnation can preserve the benefits of paganism and philosophy while providing the remedy for their defects.

At times it seems like the thrill of the modern sciences is that they have found a new way to affect this Incarnational synthesis: for they seek the natures of things through the collection of precisely defined facts in opposition to the metaphysical emphasis on generalization. But a little refection shows that this is not a new mode of synthesis but (what is also interesting) a sort of third area in opposition to both paganism and philosophy, taken as a single set. The art and ritual of paganism and the abstraction of metaphysics both humanize knowledge in a way that sciences cannot – which is why we lump together epic poetry and philosophy as “humanities” in spite of the fact that, say, Homer and Karl Marx don’t seem to share a lot of common conceptual space. This humanizing  vision is essentially a vision of a totality, whether through the manifestation of the ideal in a concrete image, sound, performance or ritual or through a conceptual abstraction that serves as a standard for and thus an anticipation of an infinitude of concrete experience. The accumulation of facts can never have this humanizing vision of the totality – all scientific wholes  (laws) are essentially provisional and rest on a finite collection of facts within the sphere of infinite possible facts. Indeed, even the finite collection of facts is infinite in a practical sense – no one can ever succeed in knowing all the concrete facts in even a subset of scientific knowledge. Who has ever done all the relevant experiments in chemistry, or even the most refined and specialized area in physics? These double infinities put something inhuman at the heart of the sciences: we continually act for something that cannot be attained either speculatively or practically. Here too Christian philosophy has a negative and critical role to play by pointing to the balance that needs to be struck between the sciences and the humanities. The Christian simply cannot say we were not meant to see the whole – this is the same as to say that the Incarnation is not a vision of God.

Note on the Clayton/ Dennett debate

The debate between Philip Clayton and Dan Dennett has two parts: the second, which is far too painful for anyone to watch, begins with Dennett’s claim that, in effect, scientists are critical of establishment science while religious persons are not critical of establishment religion. That he could say this to Philip Clayton without the latter falling out of his chair was embarrassing enough (Clayton’s critique of establishment religion and his desire for religious revolution make Luther look as Catholic as the pope).

The first part of the debate was more interesting. In it Dennett concludes to the idea that non-naturalist accounts of truth and intention  invoke “spook stuff” or “ectoplasm” or “mind stuff”. Tendentious, to be sure, but there is an element worth paying attention to. Truth or falsity, intention, or even objectivity are not explained by positing some additional object or determination of an object. One cannot appeal to an object as given to account for why there are objects, which is why neither the animal nor intellectual soul explain intellection in the mode of a scientific or causal explanation. Soul does not explain objects the way that energy explains motion or a thief explains why there is no bike in your garage. The intellectual soul is a condition for the possibility of objects;  Kant, in fact, can be read as taking this as the very reason why we can say nothing objective about the soul, and irrespective of what we think of this, without some critique of what “object” means we end up thinking of the soul as ecoplasm or spook stuff. Knowledge of soul requires a different mode of knowledge than the objective mode modeled on the relation of a sense organ to an object: it requires a reflexive action that is impossible for a sense organ.

Anna Karenina on contraception

“What children?” Anna said, not looking at Dolly, and half closing her eyes.

“Annie and those to come . . .”

“He need not trouble on that score; I shall have no more children.”

“How can you tell that you won’t?”

“I shall not, because I don’t wish it.” And, in spite of all her emotion, Anna smiled, as she caught the naive expression of curiosity, wonder, and horror on Dolly’s face.

“The doctor told me after my illness . . .”

* * * * * * * * *

“Impossible!” said Dolly, opening her eyes wide.

For her this was one of those discoveries the consequences and deductions from which are so immense that all that one feels for the first instant is that it is impossible to take it all in, and that one will have to reflect a great, great deal upon it.

This discovery, suddenly throwing light on all those families of one or two children, which had hitherto been so incomprehensible to her, aroused so many ideas, reflections, and contradictory emotions, that she had nothing to say, and simply gazed with wide-open eyes of wonder at Anna. This was the very thing she had been dreaming of, but now learning that it was possible, she was horrified. She felt that it was too simple a solution of too complicated a problem.

“N’est-ce pas immoral?” was all she said, after a brief pause.

Part VI, c. 23.

A Catholic’s view on contraception and solidarity

Kyle Cupp argues that most Catholics do not believe that contraception is a sin because sin has to harm human life and solidarity and few believe that contraception does this. For my own part, I’m convinced that it is a sin, though I don’t know that I could ever come up with an argument that would be as convincing as I am convinced. But here it goes:

1.)  All human happiness and solidarity will ultimately be in the Church, and contraception separates one from the Church. The argument will obviously only convince already convinced Catholics, but this was Kyle’s target audience. Human solidarity is not national or tribal or sectarian, but rather is only actual to one who is actually incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ, which Catholics identify with the Church. This does not give any reason why the Church thinks that contraception is a sin – it doesn’t even require that they have any reasons of the sort that could be given in philosophical argument, and given the intimacy and profundity of the sort of desires and we are dealing with here it is not obvious that philosophy is the best tool to reach them – but it does draw a connecting line between separating oneself from the Church and the rejection of ultimate human happiness and solidarity.

This solidarity if the Church is not simply eschatological, as though we did not have some participation in it even now. The Church has proved itself a uniquely well-suited instrument to affect solidarity among peoples and nations. One would be hard pressed to identify any institution that has proved itself as good at maintaining a uniform character while managing to adapt to different nations, races, cultures, ways of life, and diverse eras spread over centuries.

2.) One cannot have solidarity with something while crippling and frustrating the source of its continued existence. One who  contracepts differs from those who abstain* and/or are infertile in that he actively cripples and frustrates the source of continued human existence. Human existence isn’t maintained by storks, after all, and even if it were it would be pretty easy to see the act of shooting storks or clipping their wings as an act against the source of human life.

This argument more suggests the direction of critique rather than taking one all the way – to keep up the stork metaphor, one might object that shooting a few might make good prudential sense, something like a controlled hunt or a pruning of an overgrown ecosystem. I don’t dispute that this is necessary, I only think that abstinence as opposed to contraception is the morally preferable way to do so, not just for the reason just given, but also because contraception is a degraded and inhuman way to deal with the problem. We spay and neuter pets because we take it as given that they don’t have the power to control their desires, still less that, like human beings, they can come to take pleasure in controlling them. But even though contraception is in some sense a control of ones fertility, it is not a control of desire – contraception, in fact, is an obstacle or impediment to learning to control desire and so an obstacle to the virtue that alone makes for human happiness. Chesterton’s observation still bears repeating: “the problem with birth control is that there’s no birth and no control”.

3.) Contraception frustrates and cripples sexual unity between spouses.  All solidarity is a sort of unity, but sex only unifies by joining two persons into a single reproductive entity.  This single entity might happen to be unable to reproduce, but there is all the moral difference in the world between being infertile and causing infertility – the two are as different as someone dying and causing someone to die.

4.) My experience. Even after I try to correct for my own confirmation bias and the limits of my own experience, I’m still pretty convinced that contraception and surgical sterilization warp and wound ones character.  The contraceptors I know tend to betray a horror and disgust with children. This does not mean they fail to love their own kids, but I’m uncomfortable with the number of times I hear them talk about escaping from childbearing as though they narrowly escaped from some terrible catastrophe.  There is something grotesque in the couple saying “Oh, we’re done” without a hint of sorrow and without even a thought for what they passed up on. Maybe it’s true that it would be imprudent to have more, but why no sadness about it? Do you really think that if you could meet and live with the children that you are passing up that  you would be so emphatic about making sure they could never exist? Why is it that it is so common for people to look at a large family as though it were an oppressive burden resulting from bovine stupidity about “where they come from” and not as a group of endlessly fascinating different personalities whose presence gives one so much to live for?


*Throughout the post, this refers both to those who abstain continuously or periodically.

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