Wednesday, February 28, 2007

I didn't have time to write much about the fascinating life of Cardinal Mercier for my book. But the man's role in inspiring Lemaitre to study relativity is crucial.

Example: Infoplease writes:
Mercier, Désiré Joseph: 1851–1926, Belgian churchman, cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. He was ordained in 1874 and eight years later became professor of philosophy at the Univ. of Louvain, where, under the auspices of Pope Leo XIII, he organized an institute for the study of the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas.

He became a foremost leader in the 20th-century revival of interest in Thomistic scholasticism and in its integration with modern developments. He was made archbishop of Malines (1906) and cardinal (1907).
Cardinal Mercier worked to secure greater cooperation between the Catholic clergy and the laity and to promote social well-being.

In World War I, Cardinal Mercier became the spokesman of Belgian opposition to the German occupation, for which the Germans placed him under house arrest.

Now...what's interesting is that Mercier created an intitute for the study of Thomas Aquinas. Pope Leo appreciated this... as he obviously appreciated science in a way that is hard to find among the current crop of cardinals.

Is it a coincidence that Mercier is the man who recognized Lemaitre's mathematical talent and urged the young seminarian to study Einstein (and also that engineering--especially as it related to the family coal mining industry--was a waste of his talent)?

All of which makes me wonder--why? Why was Mercier attuned to Einstein? Had they ever met? Or perhaps, is it possible Mercier himself was an excellent student of mathematics and always felt its allure?

What is certain is that such an inspiration--such a meddling, if you will--to the degree of urging a seminarian to pursue the study of a hot topic in science... seems as likely to happen in the culture of today's religious training as it is likely for pigs to fly.

Put another way: Can you imagine a Cardinal pulling aside a brilliant biology PhD candidate and telling him, "Don't waste your time on Intelligent Design. It's a dead end. Look into Evo Devo. It's the cutting edge. More worthy of your talent."

Can you imagine that happening today?

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Apparently...this is me:

Your Dominant Intelligence is Linguistic Intelligence

You are excellent with words and language. You explain yourself well.
An elegant speaker, you can converse well with anyone on the fly.
You are also good at remembering information and convicing someone of your point of view.
A master of creative phrasing and unique words, you enjoy expanding your vocabulary.

You would make a fantastic poet, journalist, writer, teacher, lawyer, politician, or translator.
Wiley has a superb rendition of How Intelligent Design works...

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Great. Just great. In a further contribution to the ever widening fragmentation of our culture, a group of morons conservatives has decided that we have to have our own online encyclopedia.

Predictably, the site is coming in for abuse. Deserved abuse, I would add.

Whatever happened to Leo Baeck?

In his introduction to Leo Baeck’s (out of print) God and Man in Judaism, Leonard G. Montefiore wrote, “Baeck is never easy reading.”

I don’t know why he said this. If he meant that Baeck is not easy to understand, he is wrong, for I understood him clearly when I was an intellectually flabby twenty-one year old. If he means that Baeck is intimidating, then he is right.

I was certainly not used to reading anything particularly difficult at the time I pulled Judaism and Christianity off the shelf at Lamont Library. I was on the third floor, if memory serves--but it’s hard to tell with Lamont because of its staggered architectural design. It could have been the lower fourth floor or the higher second. In any case, I found Leo Baeck in my junior year at Harvard, over 24 years ago, one evening when I wasn’t particularly in the mood to read another tedious passage from The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper for English 171. I looked over at the stack and saw the collection of essays by Baeck. At the time, I was smitten with a Jewish girl I had met in class, and anything to do with her background aroused my attention (or distraction). I leaned over and pulled out the book.

It is long since out of print. The copy I now have the pleasure of re-reading at home was the fruit of a three-year search by a North Carolina book-dealer whom I commissioned back in the late 80s from time to time to locate the masterpieces of Baeck, and others such as Christopher Dawson, Etienne Gilson, and Josef Pieper. This is how I managed to collect most of my Baeck books.

Last November marked the 50th anniversary since the rabbi’s death. He was eighty-three years old.

I know nothing of the hardships he endured; his internment in the concentration camp at Theresienstadt; his lifelong service to the Jews in Germany, before Hitler destroyed them; or his status as their intellectual leader.

What I do know is that his words were the first to arouse my sense of religious honor. There’s no other way to put it. There is an undilutable strain of masculinity that runs through Judaism and Christianity--and it was meant to summon men to a sense of themselves, to a sense of the masculinity of the law, and the masculinity of fulfilling it. Baeck’s writing brought that home to me in a way that –up till that time—no Christian writer had. (Chesterton and Knox were still in my future.)

That is what happened to me when I opened the cover of Baeck’s book. I heard someone remind me what my long-neglected duty was. The fact that I was a Christian made his words even more impressive, for I was full of doubts at the time. In retrospect I would say that I was intellectually unexercised, untested. A flabby cradle-Catholic whose deepest acquaintance with theology up to that time was C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. Much as I like Lewis, that doesn’t say much for my spiritual formation.

The words of Leo Baeck tested me. And they still do. He had sharp, critical words for the dangerous tendency of religion—particularly Christian religion—to lapse into romantic passivity in the face of the world’s challenge. He didn’t have to add that just one of those dangerous times of passivity was during the Holocaust.

In his prime, Baeck became known for a single book, Das Wesens des Judentums, The Essence of Judaism. It was written in answer to a trendy book (trendy at the end of the 19th century anyway) called The Essence of Christianity by Adolph Harnack, translated into English as What is Christianity?, and at the risk of sounding flip, I must say that one is tempted to retort, Not much, if Harnack’s interpretation is to be taken seriously.

Baeck did take it seriously, and he answered for Judaism with his book, which first appeared in 1922. I still have that and copies of his other books on my shelves, which I enjoy re-reading when I feel the spiritual well running a bit dry in my soul.

If you’re wondering why I haven’t linked to any of his books on Amazon, here’s the reason. Unbelievably, the man’s work is just not to be found. Search on Amazon and all you’ll find are out-of-print versions. Forget Barnes & Noble and Borders. You can still find Martin Buber in the Judaica sections there, but not Baeck. It is beyond my comprehension why Leo Baeck’s work is no longer in print. Not even in reprints from the Institute in New York that bears his name, apparently.

What does it say about the climate today that a Catholic wonders out loud on his blog... whatever happened to the wisdom of this man, this rabbi, this saint?
Orr gives it right back to Dennett.

2) Dennett asks me to identify some allegedly serious thinkers on religion. I named two in my review but am happy to name them again: William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein. I chose these two as both wrote after Darwin and had training in science or engineering; both were, then, presumably in a position to recognize the challenges posed to religion by science. One may or may not find convincing James's attempt to discern whether religion is possible in an age of science or Wittgenstein's interpretation of religious practice. Indeed I myself have reservations about their claims. But I find it shocking that someone writing at book-length on religion would fail to discuss, or even mention, their views or those of their intellectual equals. What, for instance, does Dawkins think of Wittgenstein's picture of religion? Does he reject Wittgenstein's idea that believers sometimes use language in a way that differs from (and is incommensurable with) how we normally use language? Would he even count Wittgensteinian-style religion as religion? And, if not, is it still child abuse? Is it evil? (For more on Dawkins and Wittgenstein, and from a bona fide philosopher, see Simon Blackburn's superb review of Dawkins's earlier book, A Devil's Chaplain (The New Republic, December 1, 2003).)

The bottom line is that Dawkins, by ducking serious thought on religion, made things far too easy for himself. One result is that the naïve reader of The God Delusion can walk away from the book wholly unaware that serious post-Darwinian thinkers have wondered if religion is really so simple as Dawkins pretends.

William F. Buckley, that grizzled old lion of conservatism, opens an eye to consider Darwin once more, waves a paw...and repeats the obvious.

Thereby further trivializing it.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

From an Open Letter to Home:

Prior to 9-11, The United States had tolerated terrorists’ attacks and threats far too many times. We launched a token missile here or we talked tough there. It took a terrorist’s attack on our own soil before we became decisively engaged. And it was about time. I remember the outrage and the resolve of a nation to fight for our country right after 9-11. If we stop now, we will most assuredly open ourselves to future attacks at home and abroad.

I am not so naïve to think that we will ever eradicate terrorism. However, we can, and we will win this fight, but we have to remain proactive. Proactive means hunting down terrorists, those who support terrorists, and those who tolerate terrorists and killing them. Fighting in Iraq means fighting an Insurgency, but it means fighting terrorists as well. Believe me, there are plenty in Iraq who meet the criteria noted above. If we back away from Iraq, the terrorist will have won.

When I remember the scenes we all saw on September 11th, 2001, I am reminded that I am still one pissed off American and Texan. This war is just, and I stand steadfast behind it and our President. And I will remain in the Army fighting this war until our President tells me to stop, or I get too old to continue. We need our nation’s support and prayers, not criticism, second guessing, and Monday morning quarterbacking.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Pet Peeve Department.

I've finally cleared away enough of my reading duties to get to Gene Wolfe's Nightside the Long Sun (first of his four volume Long Sun series).

Okay...there's something that bugs me about this cover right off the bat, and it takes me a while to figure out what it is. Not a surprise. Tor Books, in my opinion, does not design Wolfe's books the way I think an author of his calibre deserves. (The reprint of Peace looks like a rip-off from Mad Magazine.) On the other hand, Gene Wolfe probably thinks they're fine, so if he doesn't complain, why the heck should I?

But in this case?

Ever seen Errol Flynn's classic Sea Hawk? Great movie.

Great poster. I guess the artist for Nightside thought so, too, and was dumb enough to think no one would notice. (For all I know, this caused a minor storm back when the book was first issued.)

I mean, sheesh! Right down to the stance of Errol's boots. Talk about 'cut-and-paste.'

To be fair, this is from the 1993 hardcover and paperback...and since then, Tor has done better by Wolfe. They mercifully decided not to use this cover in the two volume omnibus edition.

But... can you imagine Penguin kissing off William Trevor with this kind of cut-rate junk cover design? Or Harper kissing off Neal Stephenson?

No, I didn't think so.

I've seen this kind of thing before. Some other relatively recent science fiction paperback had a cut-and-paste job of Clint Eastwood ripped right off the poster of Kelly's Heroes.

And science fiction readers still wonder why the genre isn't taken seriously....

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Daniel C. Dennett has stepped up the pressure with an Open Letter to H. Allen Orr. I hope Orr responds. I also hope this is more than two egos with scores to settle. I'm enjoying the debate.

My own feeling is that many of the reviewers are right, and that Dawkins' coverage of philosophical arguments was superficial. His misreading, for example, of Aquinas's Fifth Argument, I found all too predictable. (What's fascinating is that Dawkins often makes the same error that Intelligent Design types make. Aquinas was not talking about Design in his Fifth Argument; he was talking about order.)

But it will be interesting to see how Orr responds to Dennett's charges.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Monday, February 12, 2007

H. Allen Orr sums up why thin-skinned atheists should stop whining about the critical reviews that Dawkin's vastly over-rated God Delusion received.
The second thing wrong with Dennett's objection is that it's simply not true that The God Delusion was merely a popular survey and "not an attempt to contribute to ...philosophical theology." Dennett has apparently forgotten that the heart of Dawkins's book was his philosophical argument for the near impossibility of God. Dawkins presented his so-called Ultimate Boeing 747 argument in a chapter entitled "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God," branded his argument "unanswerable," and boasted that it had stumped all theologians who had met it. I can see why Dennett would like to forget about Dawkins's attempt at philosophy—the Ultimate 747 argument was shredded by reviewers—but it's absurd to pretend now that The God Delusion had no philosophical ambitions. It also won't do to claim, as Dennett does, that Dawkins's book was concerned only with arguments "that waft from thousands of pulpits every week and reach millions of television viewers every day." Dawkins explicitly stated that he was targeting all forms of the God Hypothesis, including deism, and insisted that all were victims of his arguments.
I like Daniel C. Dennett, but Orr is absolutely right. Cries of No Fair just won't cut it.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Mark Shea:
Modern atheism is almost entirely a reaction to Christianity (and to a lesser degree, Judaism). Atheists focus their ire on Christianity, not on Thor or Zeus. But in their attempt to reject Christianity, they wind up either borrowing from assumptions that fundamentally presume some sort of supernature, or by insanely rejecting those assumptions and making themselves madder still. So. You can pretend you are not doing this if you like. In which case, I will simply change the terminology slightly and point out that you are borrowing from "supernaturalism". It makes no big difference to me fo[r] the point is still the same: Materialism is in ruins the moment you admit the existence of something beyond nature.
Just one reason why chez-ami is on my daily reading list.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Cardinal Schoenborn evolves:
Tonight he delivered a 62-minute lecture here in Manhattan outlining a judicious middle ground on the controversy, accepting the scientific evidence on evolution but rejecting the philosophical claims that evolution disproves the existence of God or of purpose in the universe. (He said that it was time to reclaim Darwin from Darwinism.) The evening's fireworks came when a representative of a traditional Catholic group called the Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation asked the cardinal whether he would be interested in scientific evidence that disproves evolution. The cardinal dismissed the notion, replying that "I'm sorry," but creation did not take six chronological days. He added that the same sort of biblical exegesis that led to such a conclusion would also require belief that the sun literally stood still in one of Joshua's battles (Jos. 10:13).

Good for him. Hat Tip, DarwinCatholic.

Update: on the other hand, as John Lynch points out (sigh), he's still giving entirely too much credence to the Discovery Institute...

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Just another reason why archeology is cool.
Steve Jobs against DRM?
The WSJ is touting a breaking news item that “Steve Jobs calls on music companies to drop antipiracy software.” This would place the onus directly on the labels but still allow Apple to continue business as usual. You’ll know more when we do.
Turns out the Jobs’ comments are in a statement posted at He calls it Thoughts on Music but it’s more like the Jobs Manifesto. I’ve never seen anything like this from him but Apple-ologists will know better.
Here’s the gist of the DRM gosopel according to Steve: iPods already play DRM-free music but music sold on iTunes has to have DRM because the major labels want it that way. If the majors didn’t demand DRM, we wouldn’t have it and the Europeans wouldn’t have to pass laws demanding interoperability. He points out that “two and a half of the big four music companies” are European: “Convincing them to license their music to Apple and others DRM-free will create a truly interoperable music marketplace. Apple will embrace this wholeheartedly.”

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

I disagree with Pat Buchanan on a number of issues, but on this score, he's right on the money.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Clive Crook makes a good point:
My point is this. The awesome obtuseness of the administration on the issue has created a falsely confident and passionate opposing consensus. Attitudes on that side can be just as tyrannical as they are within the White House. In both camps, the view is: You are either with us or against us -- and if you're against us, by the way, you're an idiot. Focused on opposing Bush, the global-warming consensus has no appetite for complications and doubts of any sort, about how big a problem this is going to be, or about the best ways of addressing it, even though some of those ways might be immensely expensive.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

John Kerry does us all a favor...
Kerry was clearly directing his criticism at the Bush administration, but the Kyoto Protocol, the international climate treaty, was first rejected by the U.S. in 1997. Ten years ago, President Clinton wisely chose not to refer the treaty to the Senate. Even that was not enough for outraged senators, who went ahead anyway to vote 95-0 to oppose any international agreement on climate control like Kyoto in which China, India and other developing countries would remain exempt. Kerry himself cast one of these votes -- an ironic example of what Kerry now calls "duplicity and hypocrisy."
By deciding not to run in '08.