Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Is Santa Real?

Is Santa Real? I think it is an interesting question given the Christmas/Advent season. Maybe not for the reasons you might think. There are so many 'Santa' traditions and depictions, varying from country to country and family to family, that one could spend a great deal of time on what is even meant by 'Santa'. My answer on whether Santa exists or not will arguably hold regardless of the iterations or riffs on him.

For most people (or scrooge-y adults), the knee-jerk answer is "of course Santa is not real. He is a legend that represents the spirit of Christmas, generosity, benevolence, child-like wonder and hope..." and so forth. When we get down to brass tacks, if we framed the question in a very clear way, something along the lines of "is there an individual, spatially extended, animate, rational being occupying space and time corresponding to the name and properties of Santa Claus?" then probably most people would answer in the negative. Or at least they would say there are no good arguments or evidence to think this is the case. In any event, I would argue it is wrong to say "Santa does not exist" or to say "Santa is not real". As I alluded to in my admittedly terse definition above, the real question should be "In what way does Santa exist?"

Santa most certainly does exist in a particular way. He 'exists' at least in terms of what some philosophers would say is a 'being of reason'. By this, I mean that Santa is a complete concept or idea, commonly understood, within the intellect of rational creatures. If this were not the case, we could not speak about Santa, make movies and songs about him, and children could not come to expect gifts (or coal) from him. Santa exists in the same way other fictitious characters do, like Batman or Superman. The human intellect is able to apprehend and reason with and about certain universal ideas. These 'ideas' are not merely subjective constructs of each individual person. Rather, they are like the concept or idea of a triangle or square, or a number or letter. These ideas are conjoined together in various ways, which is how we are able to speak to one another about them and each person perfectly understands the other. When I say there are nine reindeer, you understand the concept of nine in the same way as another person. Again, if this were not the case, there would be no intelligible communication with one another. 

The meaning of Santa Claus is understood by people who are familiar with the terms and properties making up what is said about him. In perhaps a more technical philosophical sense, Santa has an essence but does not have an individuated act of existence. Here I am adopting a fairly standard Thomistic distinction between essence and existence (as Aquinas does in De Ente et Essentia with the example of comparing a man and a phoenix). To press the point a bit further along these lines, we might say that Santa exists as an apprehended essence within individuated acts of existence (of the human essence). We know 'what' Santa is, and 'that' he is not except that which is within my intellect and yours. I argue that the same essence can be within your intellect and mine. As Aquinas says, we can both understand what a phoenix is without knowing whether one is flying around or molting (or whether we have reason to think one is). Likewise, we can understand what Santa is without knowing whether he is riding a sleigh or making toys at the North Pole. 

Now, we may have good reasons to think that there is no man riding a flying sleight at night on Christmas Eve and that there is no toymaking factory within the Artic ice. Despite this, we should not say that Santa does not exist or that he is in some way not real. Doing so threatens to reduce our language and concepts to unintelligibility. It also quite possibly threatens to bring sadness to those who cherish the virtues of Santa and his mission. Far better to bring a smile 

Monday, May 23, 2022

Moral Unsurpassability and Worth in Worship

In an erudite 1982 book chapter, "God, Moral Perfection, and Possible Worlds," Philip Quinn argues that if God is to be worthy of worship, then He must make a world that is morally unsurpassable. Against those who think that God could make any world, one better or worse than ours, without impugnation, Quinn posits that an agent that would make a morally inferior world would be inferior to another agent that could/would make a better one. I would like to briefly explore this idea and see what kind of traction it might have. 

The context of these arguments is the problem of evil. Leibniz and his followers would hold in some way that the world that exists is the best possible world. As I touched on in a previous post, this notion is often very misunderstood and caricatured. Quinn's argument is sympathetic to the general thrust of Leibniz. Theists should take the strong position that, if God exists, then the world He created is the best of any possible world that could have been actualized. Quinn approaches the topic not necessarily from the PSR, though he may be presupposing some version of it to a certain extent, but from the standpoint of what being would be worthy of worship. A very good or great being might be a wonder, but would we owe our allegiance and obedience to something than which a greater could be conceived (borrowing a bit from St. Anselm)? 

As I understand Quinn's argument, if there are two possible worlds, w1 and w2, and w1 is morally inferior to w2, and the agent actualizes w1, then there must be a better agent who would actualize w2. There is a deficiency in the agent actualizing w1 instead of w2. If w2 could be actualized, and the agent does not, then that agent is not one who is worthy of worship. There is, at least in principle, something higher or better than that agent. It seems to be Quinn's belief that any agent in this context would do their best in actualizing a world. An omnipotent and worship-worthy agent would not actualize something inferior. If what we have is w1 and an agent actualized that world, that agent would not be 'God' in the sense theists should understand and defend. For Quinn, theists should have a view of 'God' such that we owe the dedication of our lives to Him and owe a duty of fidelity and supreme obeisance. To say that God could have created a morally surpassable world would essentially be contrary to a proper understanding of 'God'. 

Quinn leaves an open question about what it means to speak about a morally surpassable world. We cannot quantify moral goodness or badness. Sure, we might look out the window and think the bad outweighs the good in terms of observed human conduct, or vice versa. But this is highly subjective and prone to the winds of rapid change. 

One way to think about moral unsurpassability is to think about the overall purpose of creation. If God were to create, then it seems there would be a reason for that action. There would be a goal for the creature(s) and the cosmos. All rational agents act for an end/goal. Rational creatures would therefore exist for a purpose. The purpose would be bound up in the very understanding of a rational creature (maybe a Leibnizian predicate/subject relation). That purpose might be union/harmony/relationship with the Creator. For the creature to be the most full and complete version of itself, actualizing all its potentials, it would need to be within the closest possible nexus to its source of being or existence. The closeness would pertain to the thoughts and actions of the creature, the more congruity, the better and happier the creature would be. If this is correct, it would be better for more creatures to have a relationship with the Creator than fewer. A morally unsurpassable world might therefore be one where the highest possible number of free rational creatures come into a loving relationship with the Creator. Without freedom, the creaturely potential cannot be truly and fully actualized. The intellection and volition of the creature is necessary for its achievement of happiness and harmony with the Creator.

If we follow Quinn's reasoning and the above sketch of moral unsurpassability, then theists must think God has in fact actualized such a world. For an agent to actualize a world without the highest number of creatures, or perhaps even all creatures, coming into a loving relationship with the agent, the agent would not ultimately be worthy of the totality of worship of all its rational creatures. Thus, if God exists, and if by 'God' we mean that to which we owe a duty of worship, then the world that we inhabit, actualized by God, must be morally unsurpassable. 

Of course, one might argue the world we inhabit is morally surpassable. They might offer up reasons for why this is the case. There is much more ground that could be covered on this, but for the time being, I shall leave it here. I think Quinn's argument has some traction if we accept the idea of moral unsurpassability and the principle that there is a deficiency in any agent that does not actualize (if they are able) a morally unsurpassable world. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Philosophical Reflection: God and the Best World

That God exists and there are instances of evil and suffering in the world are propositions many take to be contradictory. Much of the intuition driving this is the conceptualization of God. If God is all good, then He would desire to bring about a state of affairs for sentient creatures without the evil and suffering we experience. And if God were all-powerful, He could bring about such a state of affairs. 

In the early 18th-century, Leibniz argued that when God created the world, He created the best of all possible worlds. Reason demonstrates that God exists and illuminates many divine perfections. Since God is perfect in every way, to create less than the best would be a contradiction. Leibniz thinks that God and evil can be reconciled if we keep in mind the dictates of reason and avoid anthropocentrism. I think Leibniz's Theodicy is sound and should be taken more seriously as an option by theists. I believe his notion of determinism in light of his theory of action are more agreeable than commonly thought. 

Leibniz's position has been subject to severe ridicule. Voltaire famously lampooned the idea of 'best possible world' in Candide. Many thinkers from Leibniz to the present day have had a field day criticizing Leibniz for his Theodicy. I would argue the consensus is that Leibniz steps too far in asserting this is the best possible world. Surely, it is not a contradiction to think a world we inhabit could have had one less human or animal death. Most would think that such a (slightly different than ours) world would be better. And from here the reasoning proceeds that there is a possible world with no suffering and evil, or at least a world without gratuitous (inexplicable) evils, and God (if He were all good) should have actualized that one. 

In response, some theists argue that it is possible God could not have actualized a world containing morally free creatures without any evil, and this is sufficient to show no contradiction with our experience. I think Leibniz would only sympathize with this reasoning to a certain extent. He would agree with the 'no contradiction' approach to resolving the tension, but would not agree with the speculative or agnostic (skeptical) nature of the approach. 

Leibniz adopts what has been called a strong principle of sufficient reason (PSR). This means that "No fact can hold or be real, and no proposition can be true, unless there is a sufficient reason why it is so and not otherwise" (Monadology). This means there is no truth for which a reason does not subsist. For Leibniz, this principle helps lead us to the conclusion that God exists. Further exploring this conclusion, we affirm divine perfections such as wisdom and goodness. When we recognize that God has created the world, we must think that He technically had a choice as to which possible world to actualize, and that He brought this one into being for a reason. Being Supreme Reason itself, God could not act without a reason. It is therefore wrong in a certain sense to say God could have actualized another world because that would attribute caprice to the divine decree. There were other worlds that were logically possible, in the most strict sense prior to the divine decree to create. However, subsequent to God's decision to create, He must create the best. 

Leibniz attributes to God the same type of action theory as rational creatures. Reason requires us to affirm this. The conclusions here follow closely in the Scholastic tradition, heavily informed by Aristotle, viz. the intellect of the rational agent apprehends the good and the will moves the agent to act toward the good. Because God is all-good and perfect, the divine intellect knows the best of all the possible worlds to actualize given the overall purposes of creation. The divine will then actualizes the best world. None of this is meant to predicate time, movement, or learning/discursive reasoning to God. Rather, it is a way of partially explaining things in humanly understandable terms. Leibniz is unclear (to me) regarding the type of predication applied to God (univocal vs. analogical), but I think either side can take his general points. For Leibniz, things are determined in the sense that they happen for a reason, and the reason they happen is the rational action of an agent (God or creature). Leibniz is very careful to distinguish his view of determinism from fatalism, which holds that there are no genuine creaturely causes and everything that happens is not a result of rational choice. 

In Theodicy, Leibniz distinguishes between the antecedent and consequent will in God. Prior to creation, and in general, as an outworking of His nature, God desires the good. Part of this good entails free rational creatures. In light of the creative decree, God wills there to exist evil and suffering as the logical consequence of creaturely freedom. This would be the consequent will of God. It seems to me Leibniz sides with more of a Molinist view on foreknowledge and creaturely freedom, which holds that God knows all counterfactuals of creaturely existence and choice. Prior to creating, God knows what any free creature would do in any circumstance in which they would come to exist. In the world God actualizes, He thus knows what every free creature will do because He knows the circumstances that will be actualized. 

Given the strong PSR, which I think is defensible (although controversial), and what follows from that (leaving aside Leibniz's views on the material vs. immaterial), we can conclude that God has a reason, bound up within His own demonstrable nature of perfect goodness and wisdom, for actualizing the world we have. The world entails suffering. There is a reason for it. We may not know the reason. But all arguments to the contrary must fail because they ultimately violate reason by denying God or His attributes. We must not reduce God where His sole concern is temporal human happiness or lack of suffering. The horrendous evils we experience can be reasonably subsumed under the divine providential plan that takes into account the perpetuity of the spiritual existence of human souls as well as the totality of the cosmos, which includes other spiritual creatures, animals, plant life, and possibly extraterrestrial life in sundry forms. Indeed, God loves and has provided a means of salvation from sin and its ravages. The evil we experience is the result of sin in some way (whether moral or physical). Sin was wrought by the illicit use of creaturely freedom. 

What seems unpalatable for those opposed to Leibniz is that it seems intuitive that God could have done better. Leibniz concedes that it's not contradictory to think that there could be a world with less suffering for sentient creatures. But that world would not be the best overall world. For humans, it might be better. Or at least for some humans. A world actualized without any evil for humans might be one without any creaturely freedom or it could be a worse one for plant and animal life or life as it extends beyond the temporal. What Leibniz means by the 'best' is with regard to the totality of possibility before God as He creates. Leibniz does not mean best in terms of the best God could do for human comfort. I admit this is tough medicine, but it forces us to confront the latent anthropocentrism by which we often approach the philosophical problem of evil. To avoid Leibniz, I think one must deny his arguments for God's existence, which would entail confronting the PSR. If one agrees with Leibniz's starting points in the conversation about reconciling God and evil, then his conclusions seem to follow reasonably well. I believe Voltaire, Hume, Kant, and other interlocutors up through today fail to sufficiently address Leibnizs' underlying arguments and therefore are not able to truly defeat or undermine the Theodicy. Kant comes the closest, but I believe appropriates and rearranges before changing the conversation more than he does refute Leibniz, at least on the central points at issue. 

Christians should do more to leverage the work of Leibniz on the problem of evil. His work is fairly readable and systematic. Leibniz is not the only approach, or even necessarily the best one, to take on the problem of evil and suffering, but I believe he can be a helpful ally. 

Friday, May 13, 2022

Gospel Reflection John 14:1-6

Today's Gospel captures another intimate teaching moment in Jesus' Farewell Discourse. One thing that particularly jumps out at me is when Jesus says "I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be." 

When we read the Bible, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish what applies to the immediate audience of the speaker only, versus what applies to subsequent readers of the account. Christians believe the Gospels and other canonical writings were inspired by the Holy Spirit and have been faithfully transmitted and preserved for the next generation of believers. If this is true, then there is a reason the Holy Spirit willed these things to be passed down to us. It could simply be to increase our knowledge of the Lord Jesus and what His final moments were like with the disciples. It could be that there is contained within the words what we would consider a timeless teaching, such as found in the Sermon on the Mount. Scriptural passages often present a multi-faceted jewel by which the light of divine teaching is refracted in various ways. 

With this in mind, how should we understand John 14:3, when Jesus says "I will come back again and take you to myself..." Does the 'you' refer to just the eleven disciples? Does it refer to believers today? 

I think what Jesus says to the disciples in the Farewell Discourse fits more with teachings elsewhere, such as the famous sermons given to larger audiences. What Jesus says, He intends for us to hear just as we were there in front of Him. 

He has prepared a place for us and will, in one way or another, come back and take us to Him. Christians have always confessed eager anticipation of the Lord Jesus' return. We also eagerly await the transformation of our earthly bodies and the remaking of the cosmos. It is difficult to be particularly dogmatic about the specific 'how', and even more so the 'when', of Jesus bringing us to Him. We do know for certain that He is the way, that by following Him and the teachings of His Church we will be guided home to the Father by the gift of the Spirit. 

May these words comfort us today and each day forward until He takes us to Himself. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Gospel Reflection John 10:22-30

Today's Gospel reading continues with Jesus' teaching about being our Shepherd. 

It is interesting to note that Jesus was in Jerusalem during the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah), presumably to celebrate and remember the great victory God gave to the Maccabees. Although not prescribed in the Torah, the Feast of Dedication was part and parcel of the life of devout Jews, among whom Jesus was chief. The Scriptures tell us Jesus was without sin (Hebrews 4:15, 1 Peter 2:22, 2 Corinthians 5:21, et. al.). This is important because His antagonists were constantly trying to catch Jesus in direct violation of the Torah or for speaking against the Law. The opponents of Jesus continually tried to make Him in their own image. 

That Jesus is asked by the Jews if He is the Messiah (Christ, the Anointed One) during the Feast of Dedication is instructive. The Maccabean revolt had successfully driven the pagan occupiers from at least the Temple area and re-claimed it (cleansing) for God's people to worship. The Maccabees used brute force and the tactics of warfare to accomplish their objectives. Given the circumstances and possibly historical precedent (i.e the conquest of Joshua), the Maccabees were blessed by God to achieve victory. Judas Maccabeus, his family, and his followers were thought to be the quintessential 'types' of the Messiah; a military conquerer boldly cleansing the Holy Land of Israel's enemies and ushering in an age of peace and prosperity for God's people to worship and live in theocratic harmony. As the Romans came to take over the land after the Seleucids, many Jews once again looked forward to another Maccabean moment. I think this is one of the reasons Jesus is asked about His identity as the Christ during the Feast of Dedication. They wanted to know whether He was building up to something 'bigger' with the signs He had done and the profound teaching He was expositing. But Jesus had a bigger mission in view: the will of the Father. 

I believe Jesus' opponents are quite frustrated by His claims because their expectations were so contrary to what was happening in front of them. It was not merely the expectation of a military conquerer. It was the latent disregard for their own inward, myopic disposition. Their ostensibly 'low' view of God and His overall purposes in the election and preservation of Israel. It was their blatant forgetting of who the true Shepherd was and becoming deaf to His voice. 

Yet the same holds true for us today. We can easily start to ignore the voice of the Good Shepherd as we get caught up in the fancies of far-flung hillsides. We can turn inward, only thinking of our next meal, and completely ignore the direction of the Shepherd. He is constantly calling us. His rod and staff guide and correct us. We get stuck and He pulls us out. Despite our best efforts to stay in one place, He beacons us forward toward Himself and the goodness of eternal life. 

Monday, May 2, 2022

Gospel Reflection John 6:22-29

John 6:22-29

"Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you." 

Today's Gospel reading brings us these amazing words from the Lord just after some disciples seek Him out. This was soon after the crossing of the sea, and after Jesus fed the five thousand. 

Jesus is not saying we should never labor for our next meal. Rather, we must prioritize Him - the food that provides eternal life. In giving us Himself, through the sacrificial death and now through His presence in the Eucharist and heavenly intercession, we receive eternal life. Much of what we will read in John 6 is a further exposition from Jesus about how He is the bread of life. The bread that comes down from heaven. The bread by which we partake for eternal life. 

Sometimes 'eternal' is a difficult concept to grasp. It has been conceived as an unending duration or a different type of duration. It may even be thought of as durationless, in the sense that God is said to be eternal and unchanging. Duration and the measurement of change and mobile being are intertwined with chronology or sequential passing. However, I think what the New Testament writers have in view is more than just the passing of time. Rather, the 'eternal' term is connected with aiónios (where we get the term aeon). This precisely means age or age-long. Eternal life in the New Testament more closely speaks to something like 'life of the Age'. The life of the Age, the age to come, is one that is qualitatively different than what we now inhabit. 

Jesus adjures us to nourish ourselves for the age to come, the age that God is bringing about which will be quite different from this one. It will be an elevated state. It will be a spiritual state. It will be one where our present concerns and limitations will no longer apply. This calling to a higher plane of existence is one we should take seriously. The choice is a stark one, for the god(s) of this age continually try to shackle our souls. They want us to think that what see and experience now is all there is to the story. Although they cannot ultimately succeed, the specter of their activity distracts us from the truth of the Age to come. By filling ourselves with the Word of God and the words of life, our strength is restored, our faculties are acute, and we progress onward. 

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Gospel Reflection John 21:1-19

Toil is part of life. This word often gets a negative connotation. Like doing something useless and ultimately futile. But toil really just means hard work. Hard work is not an intrinsically bad thing. The major question is whether we are toiling in the right direction, toward a worthy goal or objective. 

In today's Gospel reading, several of Jesus' disciples toil through the night to catch fish. They are unsuccessful. The morning comes. Jesus tells them to cast their net on the other side of the boat. In come the fish! And not just a few. 

Sometimes we toil and see no fruit of our labor. We work hard at what seems to be a worthy objective, such as providing for our families or helping others in church ministry, and yet we come up with only an empty net. 

One thing that today's passage can help us understand is that our toil for the Lord's Kingdom will not be in vain. There could be no better goal than to 'catch men'. Jesus knew the disciples needed to catch fish for their sustenance. He knew He was going to help them. Yet, there was some value in going through the toil of the night to see the catch that God had in store. 

There can be no higher purpose than to work hard for the Lord's sake. Colossians 3:17 tells us to do all things for the glory of God. St. Paul also says that we should not grow weary in well-doing (Galatians 6:9). 

Life in the Christian faith is often filled with many thankless tasks. Much of our toil is unseen and not appreciated by our fellow laborers in the Lord and the world at large. At least, thanks are rarely given from our fellow man. But should we really be toiling principally for our fellow man? I would say that we should insofar as we express our love for God. Whatever we do, we do first and foremost for God. This helps us to not be surprised or discouraged if we only see empty nets and few fish, without the notice of onlookers. The Lord will bring the harvest on His timetable, we need only concern ourselves with the work He has given us. Leave all else to Him.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Gospel Reflection John 6:16-21

Today's Gospel reading presents St. John's account of Jesus walking on the sea. We read that after the disciples hear from Jesus "Do not be afraid," they wanted to take Him into the boat. Yet, the boat immediately arrived at the shore. The calming presence of Jesus assures the disciples a peaceful passage to any destination, wherever that may be. 

In this case, it was a trip across a stormy lake. In other cases in our life, the voice of Jesus says "Do not be afraid" and, if we are careful to listen, we will realize that He has granted the storms raging within our minds to be calmed. The storms of uncertainty. The storms of anxiety. The storms of persecution and violence. Each of these can be weathered when we realize that Christ is alongside us, having already conquered the worst. As the divine Son, Jesus' authority is over all things; visible and invisible. He has authority over the powers of nature and the powers within our own nature that cause us dread. 

Friday, April 29, 2022

Gospel Reflection John 6:1-15

John 6:1-15

Jesus said, "Have the people recline." 

How often are we anxious about our life? All the time. We are anxious about what the future will bring and where our next meal will come from. We worry about what others think of us. We worry about how we will be remembered. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that our Heavenly Father will care for us, just as He cares for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field (Matthew 6:25-34). Our needs will ultimately be met, one way or another, through the Lord's provision. 

In today's Gospel, Jesus provides a meal for thousands of people. Much more than this one meal, we see a wonderful signification of His identity as the giver of all life and nourishment, He provides us with a profound truth of everlasting value, eloquently captured by St. John. 

When we are in Christ, we can 'recline'. We can cast our worries upon Him. We can relax and let go of the anxieties that drive us to all sorts of distress. If we can be confident in anything in this life, we can be more than confident that God will keep His promises. He will fill us and sustain us. Of course, this can sound like a platitude. Our cynical minds might cause us to either over or under spiritualize this teaching. But if we are honestly reflective, we can find more than enough occasions in our own life to test the truth of what Jesus says. The real challenge is whether we will cling to our own way or take the way provided by the Lord. 

There is also a great deal of Eucharistic typology in the passage today. Jesus took the bread, gave thanks, and distributed it to the people. The people have food for the journey. Further, there was more than enough, for in Christ exists the unlimited reality of divine grace. 

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Gospel Reflection John 3:31-36

Today's reading continues with the important self-revelation of Jesus throughout St. John's Gospel. It follows a short discourse from John the Baptist. After the Baptist exalts Jesus, we learn more about the Son of God. We learn that the one who comes from above, Jesus, is above all. He is not merely one among many, not an instance of a kind. Rather, He is the very God who creates all things. Nothing could in principle be higher or better than the divine Son. 

The Son speaks to us about things which we could never know about on our own. Key elements of the Christian faith, including the inner life of God, are not discoverable via unaided human reason. Many things are within our capacity to discover, things within the world on the same plane of existence and subject to discoverability beginning with the senses. But there are so many things beyond this that God has graciously shown us. He creates within us the capacity to know these heavenly things and then actualizes this capacity in the Person and Work of the Divine Logos (Son). Through the Son, the Father speaks to His creation. He speaks in a plenary way, via the creation itself - the very calling into being of the finite. He speaks to us through the words of the Son and through the words of the prophets. All voices of truth speak the words of God. 

Being the infinite plentitude of Being, God does not ration His gift of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit, as true God, pours out over creation at the beginning (Genesis 1:2) and pours out into the cosmos. The Father gives everything to the Son. Another example of the limitless love within the divine essence. Love is non-competitive, inexhaustible giving for the sake of the other. The limitless giving of the Spirit and the giving of everything to the Son testifies to the nature of God as Goodness and Love. 

Receiving and, in turn, pouring out the love and existence given to us by God ratifies our reception of it. In this very reception of divine love, we are drawn up into the divine life, becoming partakers of the divine nature itself (2 Peter 1:4). The rejection of this great gift is perilous, it is to reject life itself and therefore to experience a dearth of it. To disobey the Son is to disobey the Father, it is to turn away from the unrationed gift of the Spirit and to spurn that which is meant to actualize the fullness of our being. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Gospel/Theological Reflection John 3:16-21

Today's Gospel reading brings us several power-packed verses. One could spend a great deal of time on each of them. In the reflection yesterday, I briefly touched on John 3:16. Since it was not actually in the set of readings, I did not dwell for very long. And since so much has been written on it over the years, I will only add that 3:16 must be read in the overall context. It must be read from within the dialogue with Nicodemus, and with the surrounding verses in view. 

Yet, even within the most famous verse itself, there is something quite profound that can often escape our attention. 

God so loved the world. 

The term used for 'love' in the original Greek is agape. This is sometimes called self-sacrificing love, for it refers to the love of God exemplified by giving His only begotten Son. Agape is often contrasted with eros and phileo (or philos), which are different kinds of loves, affections, or dispositions (romantic and friendship, respectively). In the Christian context, it is often said that, at the most fundamental level, to love is to will the good of the other, as other. To love is to will what is good for the other's own sake. 

When we think about who and what we are as rational creatures, we affirm or explicate certain qualities or attributes of our nature. Within our nature is an intellect (capacity for intellection, the ability to reason, order, and apprehend universals or formal causes). We are also endowed with a will. The will is the rational appetite for the good. The will moves us to act for what the intellect judges as good. True goods are what is desirable. 

The attainment of (genuine) goods or the Good itself is desirable because it perfects the rational creature; it is what we are made to do, it is who and what we are. Our will seeks fulfillment of desire for the good until there is nothing left to seek. Only by recognizing various goods can we be moved toward the Good. In this context, 'good' is ultimately convertible with being (existence), for something can only be desirable insofar as it exists and is understood in some way in the intellect of the creature. 

In loving, we properly judge was is good for the other and are moved to act in the attainment of that. When we love another person, we realize that what is most desirable for them is true happiness, and beatitude. We realize the Good is what is ultimately desirable for all. The most loving thing we can do is help someone toward God, who is the summum bonum (highest good). God is not one good among many. Rather, He is Goodness itself. 

Now, anything that is in an effect must exist pre-eminently in the cause. For creatures to have the capacities and attributes described above, there must be something within the cause of creatures bestowing that upon them. Since God is the First (primary) cause, all effects exist in Him in some way and are made to exist in creatures in accordance with the nature of the creature. Ultimately, creatures can love because God is love. 

From what has been said, I hope it will be slightly more evident how profound it is for the Evangelist to tell us "God loved the world." The Greek term for 'world' is kosmos, which generally refers to the created order en toto. If the scope is brought to its most narrowly plausible, the reference would be to worldly inhabitants. In other words, we might say that the Creator of the entire cosmic order, of all reality, so wills what is good (ultimately perfective) for that order and its inhabitants, that He gave His only begotten Son so that those who believe in the Son will enjoy the Highest Good. The way to the Good itself, the way to true happiness where our wills can desire nothing more, is through the Son. 

God wants us to be happy in the truest sense. He wants us to enjoy beatitude. The disordered state of the cosmos is coming to an end by the power of the Eternal Son entering into it. John the Baptizer proclaims that the "lamb of God is taking away the sin of the cosmos." Beatitude is given to us in Jesus Christ. It is the desire of God that the broken created order be fixed. It is the desire of God for us to fully participate in the divine life. It is the desire of God for us to enjoy Him forever. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Gospel Reflection John 3:7-15

Today's Gospel reading recounts a wonderful exchange between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus. It is in the context of these verses that we get perhaps the most famous passage in all of Scripture, John 3:16 ("for God so loved the world..."). As a child, I remember seeing someone in the crowd at an NFL game holding up a cardboard sign with only "John 3:16" on it. My father explained to me that it was a Bible verse. Holding the sign up was that person's way of evangelizing. It may have been effective for others at the game, but it certainly made an impression on me. I wondered what it really meant. 

Jesus tells Nicodemus that we must be "born from above." The birth that comes from the lineage of our earthly parents, following all the way back to our first parents, is wonderful in so many ways. All part of God's providential ordering of the cosmos. It also comes with certain finitude. There is no escape from the fact that, if God had not decisively acted in a magnificently gracious way to us, we could not see the Kingdom of Heaven. Our earthly grave would be the end. Life would be just what the modern materialist and hedonist think it to be, a cosmic accident devoid of any transcendent purpose. But God says differently. 

In the wilderness episode referenced in John 3:14, the Israelites had to look at what afflicted them. They had to see the result of being cast away from the paradisical presence of God into a world without that nearness, into a world fraught with mortal peril. They looked upon the serpent which reminded them of how man came to fall from grace. Looking at the serpent on the pole was a means of acknowledgment and repentance from sin. 

It was in looking at the source of their finitude they found life. Thus, in looking at Christ lifted up - Christ on the Cross and then Christ ascended on high - we see the defeat of our finitude in the very Person and work of Christ. What should have been a shameful event became a glorious event. What should have been the end is actually the beginning. 

To be born of the Spirit is to be born 'from above'. It is to be made into a new creation by the work of God. Only God could do this, for only He has the power to create. Just as the Israelites looked upon the bronze serpent held aloft by Moses so that they would survive the serpents, so we look upon the Jesus held for our eternal life. Looking upon Jesus, believing in Him, brings us into the spiritual rebirth from above by which we enter the Kingdom of God.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Gospel Reflection Mark 16:15-20

In today's Gospel, we read St. Mark's account of Jesus giving the Great Commission to His disciples. What I take from these passages is an unqualified boldness; the Gospel will go forth into all regions of the earth despite the inherent dangers in that exercise. This reminds us of the confession of St. Peter after which Jesus tells him that the "gates of hell shall not prevail against [Jesus' church]." 

We can be tempted to take this in a defensive way, wherein the besieged Holy City of God will not be breached. But I think the Lord Jesus means to tell St. Peter, and us, that we are to be on the offensive. We will smash through the gates of hell, obliterating the powers of evil and death by the power of Christ. This is what I find in today's Gospel reading. Despite great effort, the enemy will not prevail. No demonic power, no physical danger, will thwart the Good News and the consummation of Christ's Kingdom. The onward march upward and onward continues unabated by the opposition. 

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Gospel Reflection John 20:19-31

Today's Gospel gives us the famous passage about 'doubting Thomas'. We have all heard the saying "don't be a doubting Thomas." While usually well-intentioned, I think this saying can be misunderstood, by both those inside and outside the Christian faith. 

When someone says "don't be a doubting Thomas," I suspect they mean to not have a skeptical or cynical attitude toward the elements of the Christian faith. But this saying is commonly misunderstood to mean "just believe no matter what." Of course, the modern skeptic has a field day with this, taking it that the Christian message is one that should be believed contrary to all reason, evidence, and clear thinking.  The 'doubting Thomas' saying is also interpreted as an impugnation of the faith of a person who sometimes (or often) struggles with doubt. 

If we are honest, we all struggle with doubts about things. Perhaps even certain aspects of Christianity. We pray and the answer from God is 'no' when we desperately want it to be 'yes'. We face withering criticism from all sides, challenging the rationality of our beliefs. Doubt is a normal part of life. In the progress of our growth in holiness, we still face crises of faith and may wonder if God is there after all. 

Many times doubt arises out of emotions, frustration, or confusion. We tend to steer off the path of truth often and start to see things only from our own perspectives. Sin can blur our vision. Evil and suffering bruise our souls to the extent that we keel over as if kicked in the stomach. 

We do not know much about Thomas' psychological state at the time he expresses his desire to touch the wounds of Jesus. I think it is safe to say he was not a skeptic in the modern sense of the term. But he was struggling. Thomas had seen Jesus perform many signs and wonders. I also think it is fair to say Thomas did not repudiate his belief in God from the time of the crucifixion until the moment he saw Jesus alive again. Still, there was something inside of Thomas that perhaps did not believe Jesus rose bodily from the grave. Thomas had a hurdle to get over. Hence the desire for physical contact with Jesus. Biblical scholars have established that Second Temple Judaism did not have a real conception of resurrection other than the last day(s) when God would bring everything to final and full consummation and judgment. So perhaps Thomas thought the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus he heard about were simply an apparition or a ghost. Thus, he maintains that he will not believe Jesus rose bodily unless he can see and touch. Thomas' doubt mirrors our own in many ways.

Out of an abundance of grace, Jesus offers Thomas the opportunity to touch His wounds. Thomas's response is one of the great doxologies of the New Testament "my Lord and my God! (I like the word-for-word in the original Greek "the Lord of me and the God of me!"). Thomas cannot but acknowledge Jesus as Lord of creation after experiencing the bodily resurrection. None by God can do (and be) what Jesus was right there, staring Thomas in the face. 

Yet what we have today is, I believe, much more than what Thomas had to on in terms of the foundation of faith. Yes, Thomas walked with the Lord Jesus and saw the many signs. But we also have the gift of the Holy Spirit, the ever-present indwelling of God Himself. We have the testimony of the Apostles, the inspired writings of the New Testament. We have the great Fathers and Doctors of the Church. We have a united fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ from all across the world and across time. We have the great communion of the saints. We can be strengthened by the testimony of the martyrs and missionaries. We need to look no further than experiencing the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It is in these and so many other ways that we can happily acknowledge the reality of what Jesus says to Thomas "blessed are those who have not seen and have believed." This is not a blissful ignorance, but a blissful realization of the multi-faceted ways in which the presence of God in Christ permeates our existence. God gives us these graces out of the abundance of His love. May we receive them with gladness. 

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Gospel Reflection Mark 16:9-15

Today's Gospel reading comes from what is called the longer ending of St. Mark's Gospel. The reason it is called this is because verses 9-20 of chapter 16 are not found in the earliest extant manuscripts. There is good evidence these verses were considered canonical in the second century, as writings from Justin Martyr and Tatian indicate. The church has included them as canonical, and we find strong consistencies with the other post-resurrection accounts and sources. One of the most obvious similarities is the call to proclaim the Gospel to the whole of creation. 

What is entailed in proclaiming the Gospel? Ask 10 different Christians this question and you might get 10 different answers. Some might say preaching about sin and repentance. Some might say catechesis. Some might say charitable works. There are perhaps other options that might emerge. Yet, what is at the core? 

To get at a good answer we need to ask ourselves what the Gospel really means. Gospel comes from the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον (transliteration: euaggelion, phonetic: yoo-ang-ghel'-ee-on). We tend to translate it into our modern English as "good news," but it more specifically means "glad tidings." This word was used in the ancient world to announce a military victory or successful conquest. Thus, I think in the New Testament context the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the glad tidings of the victory that He has won. It is the proclamation that Christ won over the powers of evil, darkness, and even death itself. The second Adam has come from heaven so that we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven instead of the image of the man of dust (1 Corinthians 15:48-49). 

No longer would humanity be in perpetual bondage to sin and decay. No longer would malevolent spiritual powers hold sway over people and nations. In the fullness of time, the King set out and decisively defeated all those who oppose Him. By the power of Jesus' death, our sins are forgiven. By the force of His resurrection, we know our own bodily death is not the end. 

To go into the whole of creation and proclaim the Gospel is to announce what Christ has done and to teach others about Him. It is about God keeping His promise and the upward thrust of human history toward union with God. It is the very best news imaginable. 

Friday, April 22, 2022

Gospel Reflection John 21:1-14

In today's Gospel reading, Jesus visits His disciples by the sea. He again breaks bread with them and shows Himself literally, bodily raised from the dead. There is another time of fellowship. The resurrection of Jesus completes the picture of our reconciliation with God. When we were once far off, we are drawn near to the Father through the Son. Alienation is replaced with close intimacy. 

In the passage today, the disciples catch a huge quantity (some translations refer to a 'draught', which I very much like) of fish at the very word of Jesus. This hearkens back to when Peter was first called to follow the Lord (Luke 5:1-11). As Peter's future comes more clearly into view, he is reminded of how he first came to see that Jesus was calling him to something more than fishing in the Sea of Galilee. Jesus was calling Peter to be a 'fisher of men'. 

Peter would indeed lead the disciples in taking the words of eternal life out into the world. They would drag a net over the earth, harvesting more disciples. I think the draught of fish symbolizes what will happen as the Gospel of Jesus goes forth. There will be such a huge haul that they would scarcely be able to handle it. And all this by God's grace. The harvesters, the net, and the sinews holding together not by human power, but by the continual act of divine love and mercy. From the day many years ago that we read about in John 21 until this very moment, the 'net of grace' has been roving too and fro across the earth. 

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Gospel Reflection Luke 24:35-48

Today's Gospel passage records a significant post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to His disciples. It is not merely an appearance, but a substantive interaction. Here again, He breaks bread with them. And again, the encounters are stated to be physical, not merely psychological states or subjective experiences of the disciples. He very clearly shows them how He is not a ghost or apparition. Although in a glorified body, Jesus still eats with them and spends time teaching them. He opens their minds to understand the Scriptures. 

I think it is significant that Jesus repeatedly returns to fellowship with the disciples, offering a greeting of peace. He harbors no resentment toward those who abandoned Him. In these intimate teaching moments, Jesus is very clear about His identity and mission. Equally clear is the commission given to the disciples. They are to proclaim repentance for the forgiveness of sins, going forth to the nations. The resurrection of Jesus after His sacrificial death was for the benefit of the world (John 1:29). 

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Gospel Reflection Luke 24:13-35

In today's Gospel reading, we take a journey with some of Jesus' disciples on the road to Emmaus. To me, these passages help reinforce the authenticity of the Gospel accounts. The disciples are not heroes. They are lost and confused. Frustrated and bewildered. Jesus offers a mild rebuke but then takes up the task of Rabbi and interprets the Scriptures for them. He walks with them and no doubt takes pleasure in the time spent. How often have we been in one of those 'face-palm' situations in life, where the cold truth or fact of the matter was right in front of us, yet we missed it? All of what is recorded does not at all smack of fabrication or conjecture, nor does it evoke legend or mere folk tale. 

After what was no doubt an enthralling stroll, with typical middle-eastern hospitality, the two disciples implore Jesus to eat with them. What happens when we break bread with Jesus? That is when we enter into communion with Him. What happens when we experience Him in the Eucharist? Just like these two disciples, our eyes are opened! We realize why our hearts again burn within us! Jesus Himself, His presence, is the very nourishment and sustenance of life. In John 6:35, Jesus says "I am the bread of life." When Jesus gives us His life, which is nothing less than Himself, the crusted scales fall from our eyes and see what we have been missing. The potentials within us are actualized. Deadness quickens to life. As we progress through our earthly pilgrimage, we are increasingly sanctified by these divine encounters. 

Whether we have been away from church or altogether drifting about, Jesus calls us to walk beside Him and to communion with Him. As the compelling finish to the passage today says, "...he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread." After communion with Jesus, the disciples are energized to go forth. They are powered for mission. We need food for the journey just like they did. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Philosophical/Theological Reflection: Maimonides and Being Like Elohim

In his Guide for the Perplexed, Moses Maimonides (also called Rambam, an acronym for his full name with title) briefly explores what happened in the Genesis 3 account of man's rebellion. This is sometimes called The Fall. I think there are some fascinating nuggets from the Rambam. What I find especially compelling is how we can use these writings and principles to help us better understand the human condition and the need for redemption. What happened and why is always a great explanatory context for the εὐαγγέλιον of Jesus the Messiah.

First, Rambam explores what Gen. 3:5 means in more detail. The Hebrew Elohim is used "...and ye shall be like God [Elohim]." The meaning of Elohim is contextually dependent and could mean God (Yahweh), angels, judges, and the rulers of countries. In this passage, Ramban argues that it should be understood as "and ye shall be like princes." It is not clear to me if this refers specifically to earthly princes or possibly to spiritual creatures having domain/jurisdiction over certain geographies. The latter interpretation of bene Elohim in the Scriptures is controversial in some ways but seems plausible to me (Heiser's work on this topic is tremendous). So, what the author of Genesis tells us is that man was tempted to be like princes or royalty, some station about their own. Rambam's reading is that they were not necessarily tempted to be like Yahweh the Most High, but still something above or beyond their nature or station. What we have is a rupture of rectitude.  

Next, Rambam returns to a point he has made earlier about what it means for man to be made in the image of God. This primarily involves the capacity for intellectual perception, the exercise of which does not employ the senses. The intellect judges what is true and false. Rambam distinguishes the true and false from right and wrong. The former are necessary truths, and the latter are moral or apparent truths. The function of man's intellect before his rebellion was to discern between the truth and the false. At this time, there was no intellection of apparent truths, no weighing of good or bad (in the moral sense, not the metaphysical sense, as I take it). After man gave in to his passions, he was punished by "the loss of part of that intellectual faculty which he had previously possessed." After the 'fall', man no longer has a faculty exclusively dedicated to judging the true and the false, the highest truths. Man is now mired in lesser or lower truths, those concerning the good and the bad. In his felicity, man did not occupy his mind with anything but God and divine truth. Now, man is occupied with what is proper and improper, and his passions interfere with the correct judgment of these.

After God announces the punishment, man realizes he will now be occupied with something lesser. He will be like elohim, thinking about the good and the bad instead of the true. Thus, man realizes he is naked and should have clothing. The combination of giving over to the passions and contemplation of right and wrong raises this awareness. Man finds things wrong he did not previously find as wrong. For they were not wrong in the absolute sense, but in the relative sense after losing part of the highest intellectual faculty. I think this means to be banished from the presence of God involves losing (or forfeiting) the faculty of being able to perceive or experience the fullness of God. The punishment for seeking lower goods was to receive those lower goods. Man changed his aim away from God, and God sent man away toward this other aim. The alteration of his thoughts and intentions toward what was forbidden is punished with getting just those things. Rambam says this was "measure for measure," consistent with proportional justice. 

Further, in his banishment, man becomes more like non-intellectual creatures. He must toil for his food and eat by the sweat of his brow. Man trades the heavenly meal for the earthly meal, abundance is given up in lieu of mere sustenance. 

With the preceding in mind, the failure of the intellectual creature to hold fast to truth and reason, we can better understand why St. John tells us about the Logos coming to make things new again (John 1:1-3, 14). The Logos becomes flesh to reunite us with God, to bring us back to paradise. He comes to fix the rupture, to restore us to proper rectitude of inellect. In the Logos we are made, and by the Logos we return to Him.

Gospel Reflection John 20:11-18

In today's Gospel, we find Mary Magdalene at the tomb of Jesus. What is particularly striking to me in these verses is Mary's love and dedication to the Lord Jesus. Yes, the Sunday School answer is the repeat what Jesus says in Matthew 22:37 ("you shall love the Lord..."). We all know this answer, but it is quite another to live it in the midst of the unthinkable. 

Mary first goes to Jesus' burial site to pay homage and respect. Distraught at the empty tomb, she presses on with her mission. Determined to be reunited in some way with her Rabbi, she persists through the sadness and confusion and asks where she might find the Lord's body. Then, she encounters the Risen Lord. And what a wonderful encounter! 

Hebrews 11:6 says that God rewards those who seek Him. The prophet Jeremiah writes that we will find God when we seek Him (with all of our heart). I think what we learn from Mary Magdalene in the passage today is this very thing. She would not stop seeking the Lord no matter what. Even though she thought He was dead, she still could think of nothing but finding Him somehow and being united to Him. 

"Sir...if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away." Just to see Him again, no matter how marred His appearance might be, to properly anoint and mourn Him, were all Mary could think about. She was a true disciple. May our faith be such that we can think of nothing but being united with Christ.