Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A gift of life

It might be proper to put down something on Easter.

As if it were an easy thing to do!

First of all we should recollect what we are celebrating; or better, where our celebration stems from.

Why, you could say, it is clear: the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Yes, but wherefrom do we know about it? The answer is less obvious than it should be: the Church – i.e., the first witnesses, whose testimony was on one side written down in the New Testament, while on the other was kept alive in the community of their successors.

Let's recover the marvel of it: in the old times of Tiberius, second Roman emperor, a little bunch of Jews started going around preaching, by telling a strange story.

Everybody can read it in St. Peter's words at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles. On my side I like to put it in this way:

Our teacher, who had done and said great things, and from whom we expected still greater ones, was taken prisoner and put to death. We were dumbfounded, utterly discouraged, thinking that was the end of all our hopes. And yet… three days later we saw him alive again, he stayed with us and ate with us.

Quite marvelous, isn't it? To see a man who had been dead, alive again.

Mind me well: they didn't say "we saw his ghost", but "we saw him in the flesh".

Today we might be prone to attribute it to their credulity. But no, for them it was as incredible as for us, men of a disenchanted world. Otherwise, if he had been just a ghost, there wouldn't have been much to marvel about, nothing to preach about.

Besides the marvel, what did that mean for them? That a priestly king had offered himself in sacrifice, once and for all.

Do you know what is a sacrifice, and how it pertains to a king? If you don't, try to think of the gift of life that men make for those whom they love; and, in Jesus' case, multiply by infinite.


Thursday, March 25, 2010

Democracy: a creeping civil war?

It pains me strongly the profound division that affects our western democracies.

Now Obama had his law on health reform passed. But at what price!

I do not enter in the merit of the thing. From what I read on the newspaper I trust, it isn't a radical thing, on the contrary, it is rather moderate, to the point, it suggests, that it could have won a bipartisan consensus. Instead, it was passed without a single republican vote. And it left the country more polarized than ever.

Why to do it this way?

All of Obama's talk in electoral campaign about wanting to reconcile the country revealed itself just hot air.

Is it possible, I ask, that our democracies have to be some sort of creeping civil war among at least two opposing factions?


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Abortive Attempt to Reform Health Care

I recently had an exchange with an old and dear friend, who, as a result of a comic case of mistaken identity, engaged me in a discussion of abortion, its legality, and the best way to help assure that abortions do not happen.

My friend encouraged me to support adoption, rather than decry abortion, saying that time and resources are better spent in positive rather than destructive work.

Below is an excerpt from my reply, revised and expanded for present purposes:

Dear ________,

I share in your dismay over many pro-lifers' incessant and often seemingly exclusive desire to condemn, decry and denounce.

I do believe that people who hold in the sanctity of life have a duty to allow their conviction to inform their action.

I often find myself saying to fellow pro-lifers: "Well, why would you expect the folks on the other side of the issue to listen to what you have to say, after treating them as you have? Are you generally well disposed to total strangers who accost you on the street and call you a murderous monster? Screaming and shouting invective may make you feel better for five minutes, but if what you want from your pro-life advocacy is a fleeting feeling of righteousness, or worse, a permanent sense of moral superiority, then I am afraid I cannot come with you."

The thing is, the vast majority of pro-life people see it as I do, and act accordingly. You and most folks hear only the loudest, and not the best or most representative voices in our chorus. This is very sad, for it leads many people, as it has apparently led you, to believe that people in the pro-life camp are angry, self-righteous prigs perpetually in peril of tumbling permanently into full-blown hypocrisy. When you have for your interlocutors such people as I have described, and only such as I have described, it is easy to avoid asking yourself whether the position they espouse may have some small grain of merit, their convictions a crumb of truth.

Too easy, if I may.

More important, however, and much more disappointing, is your apparent inability to distinguish the question of personal witness, which is essentially private, from the essentially public question of policy, and the debate of the relative merits of various public policy positions, and the more basic issues on the ground of which those questions of policy are debated.

Take Roe, for example: I think it is a bad opinion, and ought to be overturned. I think it ought to be overturned in a way that returns the question to the states, where the power to police the medical profession has traditionally been and generally is lodged in our system.

I think Roe is bad because it is based on the notion that the absolute liberty of opinion, which we have by nature and in which we are protected under fundamental law, circumscribes a whole area of conduct and segregates it from the oversight and regulation of legislatures - and so on grounds that the area is "private".

There are two problems with this:

1. Nothing involving more than one person is private: abortion involves at least the pregnant woman and a doctor. The claim to protection under privacy constructions, even granting these last, mus appear to you to be utterly absurd, when you consider that abortion clinics and providers are subject to all public health laws.

2. While it is true that no man-made law can compel a person’s assent to a given opinion, yet a government must be able to regulate conduct in order to fulfill its duty to protect life; in a regime such as the American one, where the power to make law rests with elected legislatures, such bodies must be assumed not only competent, but duty-bound to enact laws based upon the informed consensus their members reach regarding opinable questions such as the proper age to drink, the maximum permissible speed at which a motor vehicle may move, and when human life begins.

Now, you may not ever come to agree with my way of thinking. You may not dismiss it as religiously motivated, let alone as the raving of a religious fanatic.
Let me offer the following appeal to everyone involved in public policy debate, and especially to those in public intellectual life: as we engage each other, let us always remember to ask our interlocutors to share their their position(s), and let us never foist personal caricatures upon our interlocutors.

At Long Last: a reply to the HP in re Prophet

It has been too long, since I appeared in these pages, if I do say so myself.

A good deal of water has passed under the bridge in that time, and I have much to say about it all, especially about the health care reform legislation that just passed, about the debate over it, and the consequences of it.

Before I get to those things, however, I owe a reply to the HP, who has kept the hearth admirably in my absence.

The issue is one of closed versus open witness, articulated in two separate posts (part 1 & part 2).

Specifically, the question is whether the description of Mohammad as "the prophet" in journalistic pieces is a violation of the neutrality that ought to attend the practice of that profession.

I tend to think it is, generally.

Coupled with journalists' and editors' naked references to Jesus, i.e. to Jesus sic et simpliciter, rather than as, "Christ", the appellation, "the prophet", is definitely inappropriate when attached to the founder of Islam.

The reason for this is that the two claims are basically incompatible: if Jesus is the Anointed One of the Lord, in the sense His followers claim He is, then the founder of Islam is a false prophet. Conversely: if Mohammad is a prophet in even the loosest possible interpretation of the sense he claims to be, then the claim of Jesus' followers, i.e. their participation in the confessio petri, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God," is utterly vacant and completely false.

So, to call Mohammad a prophet is to violate the spirit of journalistic neutrality.

I would propose referring to Jesus as Jesus, and to Mohammad as either Mohammad, or as the founder of Islam.

As the HP points out, to call Him by name is not to deny His nature.


Monday, March 22, 2010

An invitation

I am waiting for the Lazy Disciple's repartee on my recent comments on how to call the founder of Islam and why.

I know in fact that, while in agreement with the general intent of what I said, he doesn't agree with my granting Muhammad the title of "prophet".

I tried to explain in the last post the why of a possible granting of that title to that man: everybody is a "prophet" for that in whose name he is claiming to speak.

Probably, by saying so, I strand away from the current use of the word, to which we should after all stick, if we don't want to engender confusion.

The trouble is that confusion is already there in our current use of words. Taking words – like prophet – in their simple etymological meaning, is just a way to befuddle the reader, inviting, nay, provoking him to question the current use.

Who knows, it might help to make some clarity and dispel the present confusion!


Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Iàve been under a rock with work for a couple of weeks. I have lots to say to my stalwart fellow, the Humbly Presumptuous, and will be doing so starting tomorrow morning.


Monday, March 15, 2010

Closed and open witness II

It's a week that I am brooding over the conclusions of the previous post, and consequently the title I gave to it, thinking they need some explanations, while, taken by other business, I didn't find the time to give them.

The other business is my teaching cultural anthropology. Now, we all know how close the question of culture is to that of religion, to the point that I dare say that religion is nothing else than culture, i.e. the understanding of the world out of which we live in its ultimate implications.

Multiculturalism is therefore nonsense. Even to declare all cultures equally legitimate, it's a way of affirming one's understanding of the world, and hence one's culture.

So, these days I was trying to introduce my students to cultural anthropology by explaining them this simple fact: simple, and though hard to accept in our liberal society, where what we call science is actually the culture by which we are taught to understand the world.

Thus, believe it or not, the problem we face with science is specular to the one raised by the religion of the book.

With the name of science it is brought forward a knowledge that is claimed to be based on evidence, and not on faith in someone, let's call him a prophet.

From Thomas Hobbes in the Seventeenth Century to Karl Popper in the Twentieth Century, the objection advanced to any talk of revelation is the same: you claim to have had an experience of God speaking to you; I don't say you didn't, but neither I can say you did, because I have no way to tell, being the evidence you appeal to foreclosed to me.

That's because you don't want to see the evidence available to you as proof of where my words come from – could the prophet retort, and throw the ball back to the scientist: your evidence is good enough to build atomic bombs, but not to prove that by so doing we achieve control of nature, because there is no such thing, but only God's will, to which we submit ourselves even when building such bombs.

Here it is the result of direct witness for alleged evidence: two kinds of "prophesy", speaking in the name of God or in the name of Nature, set the one against the other.

Reciprocally closed.

Cultural anthropology, instead, at least as I understand it, withdraws from such a confrontations of opposing prophetic claims. It's task is to take comparatively into exam men's witness. By way of this, the evidence it appeals to is neither immediately of God or of Nature, but of what human beings represent for each other.

Should we say their divine nature? God's potentia present in them and among them?


Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Closed and open witness

How should the press refer to the son of Mary, in comparison, say, to the founder of Islam?

An article I run into sounded rather appalled by the familiar Jesus often used in recent articles instead of Jesus Christ; while the same newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, etc.) would preface the name of Muhammad with the title of Prophet.

Does this mean to recognize in Muhammad the "prophet of God", and make of Jesus a simple historical figure? And the same goes with Moses, equally mentioned without titles?

I don't think so.

Perhaps this use shows a concern to be over respectful of Muslim sensibility; but there is also something else.

I remember when I was in America, and I had at times occasion to deal with the kind of evangelicals who would ask, "Do you believe in Jesus?"

They didn't say: Jesus Christ, simply Jesus.

No way to be mistaken: nobody else bears his name.

Jesus is only him, that unique historical figure of whom it is witnessed that lived in Palestine about two thousand years ago, said and did formidable things, suffered under Pontius Pilate, died and was buried and… it is not the end of the story, because it is also witnessed to have been seen again alive.

On the contrary, Muhammad is a very common name among Muslims. By itself, this might not justify the adding of the prophet to the name, which, when used without specifications, shouldn't engender confusion. It would unequivocally refer to that historical figure who…

Who did what? Well, proclaimed himself "prophet", and, with those who believed him, waged war against those who didn't believe him.

Does this sound too reductive? It might be, but I don't think it is; if anything, it is just too short a summary of his life.

So, I willingly grant the title of "prophet" as part of the name. After all, that is the one Muhammad demanded for himself, and a detached observer can concede it. With the mental reserve of keeping the right of asking what it means: whom or what he speaks for.

The answer one gets, by reading the Quran, is quaint.

The book reports in writing Muhammad's words, uttered in trance as coming from out of him. What is quaint is the short circuiting of the witness so given. As prophet, Muhammad should bear witness to God; but, to the question how one knows to be so, he has no better answer than saying that it is so because God bears witness to him.

The detached observer, that I am, cannot help feeling a pang of dissatisfaction: he is left with the unavoidable doubt, whether Muhammad isn't actually bearing witness, through God's name, just to himself.

How much better, then, that simple familiar Jesus, naming someone who nothing wrote, and about whom we know that he bore witness to the Father because others bore witness to him. This way, doubts are open to reasoning on the nature of witness.


Tuesday, March 02, 2010

To account for knowledge

You are always asking questions, and rarely give answers. It's right, how could I if there were no questions raised? After which anybody could see that at the heart of all political debates is the understanding of religion and science: what science is, and, correlatively, religion.

Let me give an answer: science is
a knowledge capable of accounting for itself.

Everyman, to whatever society he belongs, is convinced to have knowledge of the world he lives in, and accounts for it to the other members of his society. Are we able to do the same and to account for the knowledge of world in a society become planetary?

Well – so runs the average reply in liberal society – we have to distinguish: yes, for science, no, for culture and religion.

The trouble is that such an answer contains a petitio principii: it presupposes that there is a knowledge for which it is already reserved the name of science, while it is precisely the use of such a name that is in question.

We saw a couple of years ago, in occasion of the sentence of a tribunal in Harrisburg Pennsylvania, where this leads to: the demise of any rational discourse, by which knowledge could account for herself. As the sole justification for his sentence, stating that only the most accredited theory of evolution by chance is scientific, while any talk of intelligent design is a matter of religious faith, the judge gave the fact that such is the current use of the two words, science and religion.

It was like saying, on his part: I am competent to judge of a similar question because after all even the experts have no reasons to give, one way or the other.

Because there are no reasons to be given, not just for culture and religion but even for science, so called, all knowledge remains unaccounted for.

If the definition given above is correct, as I think it is, present day Western society appears, in spite of all the boasting for scientific achievements, very poor of real science.

To close, just a hint to further answers: only by turning to the Word made flesh, as the key to a comparative study of culture that includes together science and religion, so called, we can achieve a knowledge capable of accounting for itself.


Monday, March 01, 2010

An European and an American question

The main difference between Europe and America…

Wait a minute, which Europe and which America do you mean here? Easy, America and Europe as they stand today, as political entities called EU and USA.

However, if you insist, I'll qualify them, from the cultural bias prevailing in one and the other, as new Europe and old America.

Funny thing, to qualify them in this way, one would rather think the reverse: Europe being old and America new!

It's not really so, because America appears to be closer to the overall European tradition than Europe, where the fashion of the day appears to be the detachment from her own tradition, often rejected with venomous hatred. It is there to prove it what I started saying:

the main difference between Europe and America is that in the USA nobody taking a radical anti-religious stance, say, with open declarations of atheism, would have any hope of being elected to high office. Not so in the EU, where it is quite the opposite, and declaring oneself a man of faith might even be politically an handicap.

Therefore the first, European question is: who, between an atheist and a theist, has a better claim to be a thinking man with the science necessary to govern?

The second, American question is: does any theism whatsoever enables to such a science?