Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Father of Modern Philosophy

Do you ever wonder why the study of philosophy got a bad reputation? Or why it came to be viewed as something that has nothing to do with life?

Well, I blame the Father of Modern Philosophy and devout Catholic (darn it!) Rene Descartes. Descartes can be likened to the nice guy who had good intentions who really screwed things up. We can thank him for the bad philosophy that was to follow from David Hume, Immanuel Kant, etc.

Descartes was a brilliant mind and mathematician but he should have stayed in the mathematics department and left philosophy alone to Aristotle and St. Thomas who had it right in the first place. Unfortunately, Descartes was taught corrupted teachings of the Angelic Doctor through manuals instead of reading his works directly. (How does that make you feel about all the most likely corrupted textbooks we were taught from? We learn about people's thoughts by other people's thoughts about them...we need to return to a classical educational model...but that's another story for another blog..)

So here was where Descartes went right in philosophy: he sought to prove God's existence and the immortality of the soul. He is correct that God exists and that the soul is, indeed, immortal.

He wanted to do the Church a favor by proving these truths in an age of skepticism post-the division of Christendom in the 16th Century. However, he did not do the Church a favor in the end and actually did quite a bit of damage by embracing the skepticism in order to prove the skeptic wrong. He, in fact, made the skeptics more skeptical. He also contributed to the dualistic notion of the soul and body that many embrace today in attempting to define the human person. Some believe as Plato and Descartes did that we are essentially a soul. Plato believed that the body was even a kind of prison for the soul. However, the human person is uniquely body and soul and both as a composite are what comprise a human being.

So how did he open this can of worms? By attempting to rebuild the foundations of philosophy--a pretty big job for one person. Especially when you had the minds of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas previously. But where Aristotle erred in scientific matters, Descartes erred in philosophical ones.

There is a point in reading this because you will learn how to approach knowledge and truth in your own life! I promise you philosophy done RIGHT is helpful!

Here's what happened: Descartes like math so much because the conclusions one gets in math are certain and self-evident: 2+2=4 You can't argue with that, right?

However, math is REALLY abstract, especially geometry. Descartes actually discovered algebraic geometry. (Thanks a lot, I hate high school because of you...just kidding...I did have fun poking my friend Jasmin's back in class.) Math does not deal with actual things, matter, etc. You can "do" math in a classroom, never using anything tangible, in your head, etc.

Descartes liked the certainty and decided to apply the mathematical model of abstraction to rebuild philosophy and to come to the knowledge of truth with that method. So instead of looking at the things of the world (how do I learn about an orange? Well, I find one and examine it!), he relies on his ideas. That is where he begins: in his mind.

He first begins by doubting everything, even his own existence. He comes to the conclusion that he does, in fact, exist because he is thinking and if you can think, you exist. This is where we get his famous, "Cogito ergo sum;" I think therefore I am.

Um, DUH. Aristotle said that it is foolish to seek a reason for what evidence shows to be fact.

He goes on to demonstrate the existence of God and says that he has this idea of a perfect, infinite being so therefore there must be a God. The error here is that just because I have an idea of God, does not make Him real. This was essentially the weak argument St. Anselm put forth positing that God is the "the being greater than which cannot be thought," allowing him to conclude that an existing "greatest" is greater than a non-existing "greatest," therefore God must exist. Well, I have an idea of a purple unicorn right now but that doesn't prove diddly-squat. (Sorry, Anselm.)

Descartes didn't really prove the existence of God. He goes on to "prove" the existence of the external world (which really should have been his starting, not ending point) by saying that if such a perfect being as God existed than he would not allow for this mass deception of my sense perception and therefore I and the world must exist.

This abstract method of Descartes is one of the idealist. The idealist claims to prove God's existence from his idea of God. This is contrasted with realism which seeks to look at what's in front of our faces and traces the effect back to the cause which is God. The idealist believes reality is in his ideas, the realist asks the question, "What is this in front of me? How did it get there?"

St. Augustine said, "I inquire in order to know something, not to think it."

Descartes method of knowledge, a method of doubt, is unreasonable and contrary to what is obviously in front of him: the world. He ends with the world, but in order to gain knowledge and discover truth, it is more convincing for the world to be the starting point.

The mistake Descartes made was that he chose the method and then tried to make the object conform to the method. Instead, one should look to the object to determine the method. What works for math ("mathematicism") will not work for all sciences. The human person is body and soul as a composite and so a completely abstract method will simply not work. Descartes denied sense skepticism which is self-refuting and contradictory because, as my professor puts it, "you only know sense error through sense truth, it can't be all error."

I agree with Aristotle it is foolish to prove what is evident and the existence of the world is clearly evident unless you are a madman where you have lost everything but your reason. (G.K. Chesterton)

Luigi Giussani says, "Realism requires a certain method for observing and coming to know an object, and this method must not be imagined, thought of or organized and created by the subject (ahem, Descartes!): it must be imposed by the object.

Why do I care? I care because by imposing the method he made our ideas superior to the object itself. Descartes made our ideas the object of knowledge instead of the means of knowing the actual object itself. Thought and reality are not identical. Reality should be the starting point. Thought is about reality, not reality itself.

I end thanking Father Giussani who really helped me understand all of this. Descartes just confused me. (He confused a lot of people and he is blamed for the increasing skepticism that modernity is, dualism, denial of the mind and athiesm.)

Giussani says in his book The Religious Sense, regarding our age of ideologies,

"Instead of learning from reality in all its aspects and building on it, man seeks to manipulate reality according to the coherent schemes fabricated by the intellect; 'thus the triumph of ideologies ratifies the defeat of civilization.'" (Alexis Carrel in his Reflections on Life)

Monday, January 26, 2009

Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul

Yesterday, January 25, the Church celebrated the conversion of St. Paul.

Yesterday, January 25, 2009, my friend Tara Hernandez entered the Poor Clares in Santa Barbara, California.

It is unlikely that for the reminder of my life I will see Tara more than once or twice. She will be cloistered and will be spending the majority of her day in prayer for the world. Her family will be able to visit her once a month (behind the cloister grill) until she takes her final vows where they will walk her down the aisle and then after her "wedding" to Christ (as we will be wedded to Christ in Heaven) she will only be able to see them four times a year (behind the cloister grill) for approximately an hour and half each visit.

Through the consecrated, virginal life she is choosing (love is choice or it is not love) to be a sign and witness to the reality of the life believers will enjoy in eternal life.

After the Great Persecution of Christians by Diocletian ended (305 A.D.), martyrdom by blood ceased in the Roman Empire with the Edict of Milan declaring the Christian Faith legal by the Emperors Constantine and Licinius. Christians were no longer shedding blood for Christ and through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit the "white" martyrdom began: the monastic movement. It started in Egypt, my mom and dad's mother country!

When we visited Egypt in the summer of 2007, we were able to visit some of these monasteries from the first recorded centuries in history. We met monks who were following in the legacy of their predecessors for 2,000 years.

The Christian Faith is either true or we are lunatics.

It must be very meaningful for my dear friend to enter the monastery on the Feast of St. Paul's conversion. She found her faith in her mid-twenties and now in her late twenties is participating in her ongoing conversion to Christ. We are saved, we are being saved, we will be saved.

Salvation is not a one-time event but an ongoing, dynamic process. Christ reminds us to always be vigilant through St. Paul's words,

"Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified." (1 Corinthians 9: 24-27)

St. Paul, alive in Heaven, pray for us.

Tara, my friend alive on Earth, pray for us.

I will miss you.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Latin Mass

Last Sunday, I experienced my first Latin Mass.

Surprisingly, I would not have thought to go unless my roommate was not such a huge fan of the Tridentine mass. She gets sparkles in her eyes when she talks about it. I was curious to see what the sparkles were all about. As it is, I feel spoiled at my current parish in Alexandria, Virginia Our Lady Queen of Apostles.

First, it's right across the street from where I live.
Second, the choir is great. (I sing in it, too.)
Third, the priests are orthodox.
Fourth, the homilies are *never* fluffy.
Five, we have Latin parts in the mass such as the Sanctus, Sanctus (The Holy, Holy...) and the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God...).

That's already a huge difference from (ahem) going to mass in Southern California. But I figure I should go, check it out, be in the know.

I've come to realize out here that choosing a mass can almost be just as complicated as ordering a drink from Starbucks: I'll have a tall soy one-pump sugar-free vanilla latte no whip extra hot.

There is Latin mass. There is high Latin mass and low Latin mass. There is solemn high Latin mass, too. Of course, there's the regular-old English mass. There is the English mass with traditional hymns and the mass with other "this should get me time out of purgatory"-type music. (Architecture, music, all of it--the 70s must go people!) I have gone to a charismatic (Praise and Worship-type) mass and it was a most amazing experience because it was still solemn (not banging on the guitar or drums) and done with respect and reverence. I have never seen a congregation so respectful and engaged in the mass until then. There is also the Norvus Ordo which is English mass with Latin parts. Interestingly enough, an Assemblies of God friend of mine preferred the Latin version.

The alter was beautiful. It had the Latin words Et Verbum Caro Factum Est engraved on it in large letters. It translates to "The Word was made flesh." I only knew that because one of my dearest friends just told me that in Bethlehem there is, I am assuming in the Church of the Nativity, engraved Et Verbum Caro Factum Est Hic, the added word "Hic" meaning "here, in this place." It is a powerful reminder to me that on the alter, during the liturgy of the Eucharist, the word does become flesh, that Jesus is really present. Further, the reminder that the Christian event is a fact and that it really did happen.

The Latin mass is an indisputably beautiful spectacle and this one had the best choir I have ever heard in my life. But while it was beautiful, it was hard for me. First, I don't know Latin (I'm enrolled in a class right now though, required for my degree) and following the mass was tough. Plus, as an American, I am used to things being quick, dumbed-down and the attention on me. This mass was two hours, the homily was long (but very good), and the priest had his back toward the congregation during the liturgy of the Eucharist, the second half of the mass. A lot of the women wore head veils, the concelebrating priests (one of them was Fr. Scalia--our Supreme Court Justice's son) wore their funny old-school hats (which I like because I like old-fashioned things and theatrical things as well, anything with character really...), we had to kneel at the communion rail and wait for communion, etc. etc. etc.

I left very appreciative of the beauty but assured that while I support Latin mass, it's not for me. It would be too hard to learn the Latin, it's too much work. The Latin mass is very eloquent and demands too much intellectual attention. I go to mass to worship God. Plus, people will judge me if I don't veil up.

And then...

I couldn't stop thinking about the mass. Seriously. I felt as though I received more graces from the mass than regular ones. I can't tell you if that's theologically-correct but that is my feeling on it. Even though it was paradoxically frustrating, it was light, too, in a sense. I had really gone to mass. I hadn't rushed. The mass was conducted at a proper pace. Nobody was rushing to leave the church afterward. Mass was a priority and...a pleasure.

I was reflecting on this paradoxical feeling and that is what inspired me to share the experience. I really feel drawn to return to Latin mass. Is mass supposed to conform to me? Or am I supposed to conform to it? Of course, the latter is true. Simone is not the center of the universe and neither are you. And since when do I cower from intellectual engagement? We are told to love God with our whole "heart, mind, and soul," if not at mass, then where?

I noticed the Latin mass more closely reflects the reality of our relationship with God. Not mine. Our. Even those people who do not worship or even acknowledge His existence. In the Latin mass, the priests are doing most of the work. At English mass, I get to do a lot. I get to do a lot of work in my life, too. I was a tad uneasy at the Latin mass because I was not doing much. But later, upon further reflection, I realized I kind of liked that. Sunday is not about doing, but being. Being still. Resting. In my life, I may think I do a lot and am in control. But that's not true. God is blessing me and in control and giving me more gifts than I can even imagine or thank Him for. I didn't even ask to be born, to be given life. It is a pure gift. Every second, every moment of the day. The things I "expect" out of life shouldn't be. Everything I am given, is a gift. I can't control it, take it, or possess it. I didn't plan to meet my friends, but God gave me such amazing people in my life. I am simply following and receiving. The priest does not have "his back to me," but is leading me to God. It is not about me, but about all of us facing our Lord together. We are not turned inward but outward toward the Infinite, the Mystery, who is proposing and calling out to us. This is especially evident during communion. I don't go up there and take communion. I have to kneel, be patient, and wait to receive the Eucharist. It is a gift and the form of the Latin mass, the structure, the beauty is so intentional as to make that relationship of God to Man, Giver to Receiver, very evident.

I'm not here to convert anyone to the Latin mass. I'm just happy when people go to mass. And I'm trying not to get too attached myself as who knows where I'll find a Tridentine mass in Southern California closer than a two-hour drive. But we'll see what happens. Beauty has spoken and it's hard not to follow what one finds attractive.


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