Thought Notes

Busy week, oi. But I read/am reading a great little article on Aquinas’ account of mental representation – focusing on intentionality and the knower/thing known identity, which I’m going to read a bit more about. His account of how the intellect is informed by the form of the object known is pretty interesting as well – I personally find Aquinas’ epistemology pretty solid.

I’ve also read a good article on the concept of substitution/penal substitution in the early church fathers (here, which I’ll probably write a longer post on. Suffice it to say that attempts to locate a strictly penal view of the atonement in the early fathers fails pretty miserably – and as the article shows, by confusing substitution located in and under the larger themes of healing and Christus victor with penal substitution. I suspect I’ll be drawing on Irenaeus pretty heavily.

I’ve also thought a little bit about just war (those who argue that the Ten Commandments forbid war are simply wrong) and ethics more generally – using Tolkien as a bit of spring-board. I’m not a big fan of people mining Tolkien for ‘deep’ thoughts, but I think in the case of war it’s justified. A lot can be gleaned from his writings – not so much specific instances but moreso by taking his stories as wholes. Ethically, positively I fall firmly in the Bonhoeffer camp, negatively in the Nietzsche camp, as regards rationalistic modes of ethics.

Along with ethics I’ve had a few fleeting thoughts on freedom of the will – or rather, how misguided most contemporary discussions of free will are. Honestly, they can be pretty terrible (Sam Harris comes to mind). For my part, I’m convinced by Maximos the Confessor with regard to the will, as expounded by David Bentley Hart:

‘Of course, we are inclined (especially today) to think of freedom wholly in terms of arbitrary or pathetic volition, a potency made actual every time one chooses a particular course of action out from a variety of other possibilities. And obviously, for finite intellects, this is the bare minimum that liberty must assume; but it is also, just as obviously, a form of subordination and confinement. All possible choices are external to the will that chooses; they shape it from without, defining it before it has even chosen. Moreover  these possibilities are exclusive of one another: one makes a possible course of action real by rendering other courses of action impossible. And, as we all know, one can choose foolishly, or maliciously, or with a divided will. Freedom, so understood, would consist in no more than a certain kind of largely vacuous and limited potentiality dependent on other limited and limiting potentialities.

A higher understanding of human nature, however, is inseparable from a definition of human nature. To be free is to be able to flourish as the kind of being one is, and so to attain the ontological good toward which one’s nature is oriented; freedom is the unhindered realization of a complex nature in its proper end (natural and supernatural), and this is consummate liberty and happiness.’ (‘The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?’ p. 70-71)



Thought on Tolerance and Reactions

It’s ironic that in the name of tolerance, reconciliation and acceptance, boundaries have a tendency to be drawn very closely and very tightly. This reveals a trait about humanity very starkly: our default response to any given issue is one of reaction and overcorrection, with the result that the reaction becomes the exact same thing that was being reacted against, only more intense. For example, suppose organization X is seen as being intolerant, exclusive, with tightly drawn boundaries, by group Y. who are  committed to inclusive-ity and acceptance. The reaction of Y will be to draw its own boundaries in such a manner that X, or anyone affirming the beliefs of X, are excluded. Rather than being truly inclusive, Y becomes just as intolerant and exclusive as X only moreso, because the nature of reaction is to overcorrect for what is seen to a glaring fault or something to be avoided.

Note on Planning

Whatever you do, plan it out. This is an obvious truth that I learn nearly every day. I hiked part of the Appalachian trail this week, and poor planning resulted in sleeping outside during a snowstorm, an early departure because of weather, and a lack of toilet paper that was made up by frozen baby wipes. Yes, you read that correctly. Lesson learned. Plan ahead for every and anything.

Soundbytes and Culture

The idea that the immediate is better than the delayed is probably one of the most distinctive marks of our spirit of the age. This can be seen to be true in nearly every aspect of modern life – meals are microwaved in a matter of minutes, sometimes seconds. Technology allows one to view their favourite television programs immediately. Communication has not been immune – indeed, one could argue that no realm of life has been influenced by the culture of immediacy than communication.

Consider a simple conversation in which one is asked a question of some importance. If one has to pause to think, to gather thoughts, to formulate an answer, this is seen as negative – for example, it can be and is seen as a sign of something to hide, or a sign of unprepared-ness. To give a delayed answer is to give the wrong answer – to refrain from answering on the grounds that one would prefer to think over the answer is nearly unthinkable in the our culture today. In almost every case, the answer must be had now

There is another result, though. This second result is that all communication is essentially being reduced to soundbytes. More often than not, a conversation consists not in an actual interchange of thought-out viewpoints, or topics of interest around which a meaningful conversation can be had, but rather as an occasion to exchange soundbytes designed to (a) make clear each persons viewpoint and (b) prove the superiority of one viewpoint over the other. Conversations have become occasions to simply wait for one person to finish speaking so a rebuttal soundbyte can be given with nearly no regard for the content of the other persons speech. Give-and-take conversation, or conversation in which one really listens with the intent of learning are almost rendered obsolete (listen for five minutes to nearly any political discussion for a demonstration of this).

Of course, some communication must be brief. Obviously to take certain forms of communication, such as police radio communications, and insist that the length of conversations be increased would be absurd (one could add nearly any branch of civil service – hospitals, firefighting, the military, etc). If I call my stock broker to know when to sell, I need to know exactly when to sell what and for how much, and I need to know this now. These forms of communication, however, are not what I would define as actual discourse – an extended period of verbal communication between two parties. Even here, though, there are exceptions – legal defences often take the form of prolonged conversations and lengthy, well-crafted thoughts.

Discourse between two people for the sake of intellectual interchange of ideas requires, more than anything, leisure. It takes, obviously enough, time to have an extended conversation which does not consist of soundbytes. However, as I said above, it is increasingly the case that something that takes long is viewed less as a good and more of a negative.

The irony here, then, is that that which thrives only in a culture of leisure is seeing its death in a culture where immediacy is king. Immediacy is something that purports to be a way of maximizing the amount of usable time available – DVR’s, microwave meals, etc – all exist so as to eliminate wasted time so as to allow us more leisure time with which to enjoy any given thing. So maybe the irony isn’t so much that something which requires leisure is dying as a result of immediacy – it’s that, as a result of immediacy, leisure is dying.

Note on Strengthening Faith

When someone says something in regards to, say, a fact of science, that ‘it strengthened their faith’, what exactly does that mean? That acquiring this particular piece of empirical knowledge somehow increased either the quality or quantity of their faith? How would this work? I see statements like that often, but I’m not sure what is really meant by them. One believes in God – does learning X mean that now they really believe in God? Or that if there was any doubt, now there isn’t? But suppose X hadn’t been found out. Would said faith be weaker than if X had? I doubt that very much – I have a hard time imagining a devout Christian would have their faith shaken by not coming across a certain fact – if they did, then that would serve simply to show the folly of basing one’s faith in God upon a particular empirical fact.

Or suppose that the opposite of X, Y, had been found out. Would that have weakened said faith? I doubt that, because I don’t think what is meant by ‘strengthening faith’ is that X actually increases the quality of one’s spiritual confidence in God, or corrects a deficiency or weakness in said faith, but rather that X simply affirms what is already believed. I know my wife is a lovely person, but when she makes a nice dinner or cleans up the kitchen, I don’t say, ‘wow, that really strengthened my belief that she’s a nice person.’ I already know she’s a nice person – dinner simply serves to confirm what I already know. A poor analogy that’s best not pressed too far, but it serves the point.

Anyway, my point is that I don’t think most folks who say that X strengthens their faith actually mean that. From a theological perspective, God strengthens my faith – not any particular empirical or metaphysical fact. I think it was Newman who said, ‘I believe in design because I believe in God, not in God because I believe in design.

Things I Don’t Care About, But Other People Do, #1

I’m not really impressed when I read ‘deeply honest’ blog posts about people ‘wrestling’ with ‘tough issues.’ Maybe I’m just a cynical jerk, but most ‘crisis of faith’ posts, whether autobiographical or otherwise, just don’t make me care. I’ve tried, I really have. I’ve read a lot of different accounts of how people either left the faith or came to the faith. All of them are ‘honest’. I still just don’t care. People I know in person are a bit different, so maybe it’s just the medium.

Although I am somewhat cynical. When it comes to things like ‘wrestling’, I generally translate that as, asking dumb questions but trying to sound profound – almost without fail, whoever is doing the wrestling ends up making a mountain out of a molehill, or a grand crisis of faith where there isn’t one, and it ends up being lame. Maybe I’m just not very existential.

I don’t recall ever having to wrestle with anything in particular in my personal faith, not science, biblical literalism or any of that kind of thing. I find that most of these issues work themselves out, given enough time. People tend to try and make everything into a crisis of faith, so that it can be wrestled with, dialogued about, a conversation had – let’s talk about it, preferably with people of diverse viewpoints, so that we can be challenged, even if we don’t agree. Whatever it is, dialogue must be had. Then again, I’m pretty laid back. Most things that seem to be the cause of wrestling in others make me just go, ‘huh, interesting. I’ll think about that. Whatevs.’

But, once more, maybe I’m just a cynical, snarky dude who likes to rant a bit every now and then

Study Note

I’ve begun what will hopefully be an in-depth study of late 19th century/early-to-mid 20th century Protestantism of the more liberal stripe – this includes (and I realize this is not a super precise grouping) Tillich, Bultmann, Schleiermacher, Barth, Bonhoeffer, etc.

I just read ‘Kerygma and Myth’, by Bultmann -some first read/initial thoughts: Bultmann puts a lot of weight on the mythical world-picture assumed by te New Testament and insists we must demythologize it. In our modern age, we can no longer believe in the miraculous world of the NT. He sees terms such as ‘ascending into heaven’ and other dogmatic statements in our modern scientific age, and it’s here that I have a few questions.

Why, however, is this the case? How is the supernaturalism of the NT invalidated by modern science? Plantinga has forcefully shown that the idea that modern science does away with any supernaturalism is pretty much hopeless – I see no reason to reject supernaturalism because of our modern age even if it means that we cannot accept, say, every aspect of ancient Hebrew cosmology. It seems to be an all-or-nothing kind of deal for Bultmann, but I see no reason why it has to be so. Simply because the picture of the world is no longer accepted is no reason to throw out the supernatural element therein. The message of the New Testament and the supernaturalism it contains is not dependent on any particular world-picture even if a certain world-picture is used to express said supernaturalism.


I haven’t slept more than 4 hours a night for the last 5 or 6 nights – which is unusual for me. I was reading the Psalms last night trying to sleep, and I found this:

‘You held open my eyelids’. (Psalm 77:5)
I then did a bit of searching and found this:
‘Most remarkable and profound is the ancient church’s request that, when our eyes are closed in sleep, God may nevertheless keep our hearts alert to God. It is a prayer that God may dwell with us and in us, even when we feel and know nothing, that God may keep our hearts pure and holy in spite of all the worries and temptations of the night, that God may prepare our hearts to hear the call at any time, and, like the boy Samuel, answer even in the night, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10). (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘Life Together’, p. 79-80)
Perhaps God has a reason for ‘holding open my eyelids’.