Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Apollo 8's 1968 Christmas Message

Forty years ago, broadcasting from lunar orbit, the astronauts William Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman read the first ten lines of Genesis in a live television broadcast.

Writing from the good Earth, forty years later, I too wish a Merry Christmas to you all!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Happy days ahead

Looking at my posting statistics, I was surprised to find that 2008 marks the least active year for Philokalia Republic since its first year in 2002. There are perhaps a dozen half-finished posts in the queue and perhaps five dozen blog comment debates I’ve started but never completed.

I thank my long-time readers for continuing to patronize this blog, and I assure newcomers that more productive days lay ahead.

For friends, acquaintances, and strangers curious about my situation, I offer the following explanation in a spirit more of bewildered amusement than of self-pity.

My surprise healing two years ago was followed by an intense ear infection, a bruised facial nerve from a foolish attempt at pain relief, a jaw cramp, and later a full body cramp following an unwise decision to ignore my stiff body’s warnings and push a stalled car.

Adequate attention from medical professionals probably would have addressed this problem. Unfortunately, my complaints were ignored, misunderstood, or dismissed.

One year ago I was quite optimistic. This was in part because even minor advances made me feel like normality was in reach.

Feeling like a character in a Far Side cartoon, I fear my guardian angel has been baiting the Almighty into pressing the Smite button.

As it is, I have been stretching to the point of distraction with little benefit for the past year. I have only received competent expert attention in the past two months.

However, the immense improvement in recent weeks has left me cursed with the hope that 2009 will be my year of return to full-time work. Yes, right when the economy has tanked.

So I ask for your prayers for the New Year, that I may be free from spite and from stiffness, and that a redemption may result from this persistent, if minor, cross.

And again, I thank you for reading.

Friday, December 19, 2008

'Critical Thinking' is making us stupid II

Perhaps R.R. Reno and Patrick Deneen have been reading each other.

In his November entry Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking Deneen echoes Reno's concerns about that educational buzzword and its admirers.

Likewise lamenting critical thinking's self-exemption from critique, he delivers a reflection on the "Canon Wars" of the 1980s:
...those debates have been decidedly won by the party that was ultimately devoted not to an alternative curriculum, but to its absence. What was sought was not the abandonment of certain books in favor of certain other books, but the abandonment of the idea that there were normative standards or moral lessons that could be drawn from books at all. What was sought was the defeat of the idea of education that involved moral formation based upon an inherited tradition discoverable by inquiry and reflection encouraged by the reading of great books, and instead its replacement by an ideal of a free-floating liberated “subject” who was capable of “thinking critically” about any and all subjects except the basic presuppositions of what constituted “critical thinking” and associated substantive commitments.

As I see it, both Deneen and Reno suggest critical thinking is the preferred educational method of a simplifying globalist or careerist ideology:
“Critical thinking” is a form of intentional deracination and displacement. Its basic assumption is that students enter college or university with a set of under-explored moral commitments that they have inherited from the broader culture...

The implicit opposite of “critical thinking” is faith, understood as an unreflective set of commitments to pre- or anti-rational beliefs. An education in critical thinking takes on the appearance of contentless inquiry, but is in fact deeply informed by a considerable set of Enlightenment beliefs, including the effort to inculcate deracinated reason, a conception of the individual as a monadic “self,” antipathy to culture and religion, philosophical skepticism, a deep-seated materialism, and a devotion to a cosmopolitan outlook that permits one to be comfortable everywhere and nowhere in particular.


The charge to engage in limitless and even promiscuous forms of critical thinking runs up against a basic feature and aim of Catholic teaching: that there is a limit on what can be critically regarded.

Deneen, a professor of political science at Georgetown, goes on to examine the effects of "critical thinking" on Catholic higher education and its relevance to debates on academic freedom.

He also suggests how the concept can be redeemed through its self-application in, and not against, the context of a vigorous Catholic education.


For a less intellectual, more conspiracy-minded attack on critical thinking, there is Dealing with Resisters.

It is notable for its attacks on Rev. Rick Warren's Purpose-Driven Church:

Don’t minimize the significant parallel between the school [of critical thinking] and the purpose-driven church. The words and phrases used by the two systems may differ at times, but the manipulative management methods and change processes are the same. Both fit into the “seamless” structure of the global management system. Both would agree that it’s okay to criticize and tear down the old ways of thinking and believing. But it’s not okay to criticize the global vision for a utopian future or the march toward solidarity in a new world order.

In the selective portrayal of this site, Warren is a "change agent" who has traded Christianity for managerial techniques.

This critic has a point. What kind of preacher gives this kind of advice:
When a human body is out of balance we call that disease... Likewise, when the body of Christ becomes unbalanced, disease occurs... Health will occur only when everything is brought back into balance. The task of church leadership is to discover and remove growth-restricting diseases and barriers so that natural, normal growth can occur.

Church growth advocates are indeed paralleling the personal growth advocates we see in education schools and daytime talk shows, not to mention the financial advice columns.

Behind all this "critical thinking" does there lurk the malign influence of the MBA?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

'Critical Thinking' is making us stupid

Back in September, Creighton University’s Prof. R.R. Reno lectured at the University of Colorado at Boulder, discussing how “critical thinking” can actually corrupt intellectual life.

Of course, this is counterintuitive on its face. What intelligent person doesn’t want to be a critic in some area of expertise?

But Reno, with depth and insight, subjected critical thinking itself to criticism.

He began his lecture by asking whether relativism is truly an affliction of academic life. Obviously not all standards are rejected. Excellence in sports and a modicum of ethical standards are widely acknowledged among all. The faculty judge and rank both students and peers by the standards of their specialty.

Yet these standards are not shared between disciplines. In part, this is because few generalists are capable of truly inter-disciplinary work. Further, the standards of one field of inquiry by nature cannot be the same in another.

This lack of communication helps to fracture intellectual life. This sometimes results in relativism, and other times in scientism.

In Reno’s telling, scientism is the order of the day. While the methods of science are fantastically powerful within its own domain, mistaken efforts at duplicating its success in other fields results in the decline of wisdom and any other integrating intellectual force.

One specialty of scientific reasoning is analysis—which we should remember literally means “breaking-up.” In applied science, nature is analyzed in order to be manipulated for the advancement of both research and economic profit.

“Critical thinking,” in Reno’s understanding, treats societies, persons and artistic works also as something to be analyzed and understood in terms of cultural, psychological, economic, and even biological processes. This places the student in a position of being a critical “master” of all cultures, rather than a participant in and beneficiary of a culture.

This position dovetails with globalist or careerist goals of emancipating people from economic poverty and common social restrictions by displacing indigenous cultures, including our own.

As Reno wrote in an earlier essay on the First Things web site:
"The basic existential thrust of postmodern cultural study is to relax the power of any particular culture over the minds of students. The goal is obvious. A Harvard man or woman is not to be a member of a culture. He or she navigates cultures. With a critical grasp of the factory of meaning, he or she sets about to oversee production...

“Will a person in a position of power who ‘reads’ his fellow man, rather than listening to what he actually says, end up manipulating rather than serving?"

(Worrisomely, this sounds like descriptions of President-elect Obama and many another politician: while appearing considerate towards an interlocutor’s objections, he will size her up and make conciliatory comments meant to please but also to silence, after which he will proceed to do what he already had planned.)

In his remarks at CU-Boulder, Reno said the poor state of critical thinking is a result of rejecting or twisting the virtue of docility, that is, the virtue of being easily taught.

If Reno’s critique is accurate, our system of education actually hinders people from being touched and enlightened by people, cultures, and works they wrongly presume already to understand.

While Churchill and Lincoln, to take two examples, are overly revered, too many students arrogantly act like the great men’s intellectual and political superiors simply because they can tell a story in which both figures are products of processes and biases beyond their own control.

This presumption extends to whole fields of academic study.

Under a malign form of critical thinking, ethics is re-envisioned as merely an evolutionary survival strategy, religion is discarded as a psychological eruption, and great art is sidelined as a product of oppressive, pre-critical societies.

For “critical thinking,” reverence is an obstacle to thinking. (Note the renaming of theology departments as departments of religious studies.)

Students of such a method, which is better called a style, find themselves sealed off from wisdom.

“Nearly two centuries ago, John Henry Newman saw that it was a conceit of the modern age that truth may be approached without homage,” Reno writes at First Things. “The mechanisms of critique destroy piety and in so doing diminish our capacity to love and obey truth once found. Moreover, as John Paul II pointed out again and again, responsible human freedom is not possible outside a more basic loyalty to the commands that can come to us only in and through culture.”

Can critical thinking be saved from itself? Perhaps not.

But the best form of inquiry begins with taking reality as a given, that is, as a gift. And as Hans Urs von Balthasar reminds us, one never receives a gift in a critical spirit.

Such an intellectual life is perhaps not an exercise in critical thinking, but so much the worse for critical thinking.

Docility in studies is far more compatible with thanksgiving, a word which some Christians will recognize in its Greek form: Eucharist.

In this confluence, we see how religion does not oppose but assists intellectual inquiry. Rightly practiced, the worshiper’s docile openness to God can reveal self, man and the world to him.

Recall Jesus’ words in John 8: “You shall know the Truth and the Truth shall make you free.”


While Reno’s advocacy for reviving the virtue of docility is certainly necessary, there are a few curricular changes which may better instill and nourish rational capabilities in students than our present system does.

First, students should be educated in grammar and language to increase their ability to express themselves and to understand others. Second, they ought to be educated both in recognizing logical fallacies and in correcting or rejecting bad logic. Third, they should be schooled in making and analyzing arguments, instead of learning how to dissect societies which they cannot yet understand.

Students must abdicate any presumptive position as a “master of culture” and become students of an actual tradition, rather than devotees of a cultural analysis of that tradition.

By an unintended coincidence, these curricular recommendations mirror the Trivium of the early European university. But this allows us happy clarity about in which actual tradition students ought to receive their education.


Reno’s CU-Boulder lecture was followed by some memorable interactions with the audience, a largely Catholic one which had gathered under the auspices of the Thomas Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought.

One young co-ed, self-professedly ill-equipped to wrestle with the content of his speech, asked Reno a general question about how students might bring passion to their indifferent campus.

“I think there is far too much passion as it is,” was the wry gist of Reno’s reply. “Aren’t you sick of people being in your face about everything?”

Another student question depicted the local Catholic parish as being a welcome outpost of certitude in the wilderness of college confusion. With gentle and sympathetic mockery, Reno rebuked this sentiment for its pretense.

Ridiculing the image of The Lone Torchbearer of Truth in a Cave of Darkness (while also confessing his desire to be such a torchbearer himself) Reno reminded the student questioner that he should acknowledge his own inner doubts and be wary of false certitude.

Reno brought students and others in the audience to recognize some flaws in the modern university while also guiding the youngest to shed their more naïve opinions. For an inaugural lecture, it is hard to ask more.

Friday, December 12, 2008

So Barack Obama calls up Gov. Blagojevich to ask him to spare the nation grief and step down.

“Yeah, I can resign…” the governor said. “But it’ll cost ya!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Newsweek embarrasses itself with 'biblical' gay marriage essay

Lisa Miller’s amateurish Newsweek opinion piece arguing for a Biblical basis for same-sex “marriage” has deservedly attracted much criticism. Miller’s essay, Our Mutual Joy was an easy takedown.

Representative of the quality of her argument is this passage: “It probably goes without saying that the phrase ‘gay marriage’ does not appear in the Bible at all.”

That “probably” is an unintentional, comical touch. The ancient Hebrews were more advanced than we are in this respect: they didn’t waste time tiresomely pondering whether a man and a man or a woman and a woman could marry each other.’s Mollie Hemingway penned two capable critiques, Sola scriptura minus the scriptura and What’s the Standard?

The American Conservative’s Daniel Larison also weighed in concerning Newsweek editor Jon Meacham’s vacuous remarks expressing his poor theology.

Courtesy of Baylor University’s Prof. Francis Beckwith, who notes other good responses, we find Rob Bowman’s solid critique at Religious Researcher.

Bowman particularly responds to Miller’s dismissive remarks about Leviticus.

Gay activists cite Leviticus with frequency and stupidity. Using analysis fit only for a bumper sticker, they cite the only passage they know: one which forbids shellfish.

Miller follows their shallow example, writing: “Most of us no longer heed Leviticus on haircuts or blood sacrifices; our modern understanding of the world has surpassed its prescriptions. Why would we regard its condemnation of homosexuality with more seriousness than we regard its advice, which is far lengthier, on the best price to pay for a slave?”

Bowman responds:
In the very chapters condemning homosexual acts (in 18:22 and 20:13), Leviticus also condemns incest (18:6-18; 20:11-12, 14, 17, 19-21), adultery (18:20; 20:10), child-sacrifice (18:21; 20:2-5), and bestiality (18:23; 20:15-16). The texts condemning homosexual acts are sandwiched immediately between texts condemning child-sacrifice and bestiality in chapter 18 (18:21-23) and between texts condemning different types of incest in chapter 20 (20:12-14).

In the intervening chapter, Leviticus contains what used to be its most famous injunction: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18), quoted by Jesus as the second of the two greatest commandments (Matt. 22:39; Mark 12:31, 33; cf. Luke 10:27).

He charges that the main problem with Miller’s “stock objection" to Leviticus' teaching about homosexual conduct "is not that it pays attention to their context but that it does not pay sufficient, close attention to their context.”

Miller's appeal to the "length" of biblical passages as a measure of their authority is also sophomoric. The gravity of the acts under discussion was so obvious to their audience that the biblical authors would have had no need to go into the obscene details.

The journalistic take on Miller’s essay is also devastating.

“It is no exaggeration to say the piece was an embarrassment,” remarked’s Mollie Hemingway. She said pieces like Miller’s essay have helped make Newsweek “more or less the laughingstock of the journalism world.”

Referencing Miller’s essay, she accused Newsweek editor Jon Meacham of “trading journalism for hackery and propaganda."

"There was precisely no one provoked to think in any meaningful sense by that last cover story. People were simply provoked to drop subscriptions or otherwise think less of Newsweek. It didn’t engage the Scriptural arguments in favor of traditional marriage fairly or honestly. The only people who would even remotely enjoy that story or find it thoughtful are people who were already inclined to believe it.”

While Newsweek has acknowledged its critics, it remains to be seen whether it will provide a platform for a competent advocate of marriage as a union between man and woman.

As evidence this platform might not be forthcoming, we note comments made at the annual conference of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, held in Washington, D.C. in August.

There David Waters, editor of the “On Faith” blog which appears on the Newsweek web site, urged reporters to avoid prominent Christian leaders and focus only on “real people.”

According to the Culture and Media Institute, at the conference “the discussion quickly degenerated into a seminar on how journalists can ‘conquer’ the religion debate to advance the homosexual political agenda.”

Waters remarked:
I think, as journalists, our No. 1 obligation is obviously to the truth, and if we’re going to be about the truth then we have to fight and we have to fight for space and for time to tell the right story and to tell the real story, and I think the best way to go about that, at least I’ve found in my experience with my own reporting and with other reporters, is to take time and not go to the Pat Robertsons and the James Dobsons of the world but to find the real people who are really struggling with this issue.

People who are “struggling with this issue” are people of no clear opinion. Waters advocates shutting out those clearly opposed to his agenda, a plausible but wicked strategy. He would make the muddle-headed out to be moderates and reserve clarity only for his political allies in advocacy, who could then define the range of acceptable debate.

Another speaker at the conference, defrocked United Methodist minister Jimmy Creech, advised that journalists not make themselves “complicit” in popularizing the comments of religious leaders Creech considers to be “fringe” and “radical.”

Newsweek is quickly learning that there are real people who are not “struggling with this issue” and who don’t want to pay for predictable and poorly-argued religious opinions (which blogs provide for free).

Its future does not look bright.

Last year, the magazine cut its subscriber number guarantees to advertisers from 3.1 million to 2.6 million. Now the Wall Street Journal reports that Newsweek “could subtract anywhere from 500,000 to one million copies from its current guarantee of 2.6 million.”

They say money follows quality. Judging from recent events, Newsweek is missing both.

Newsweek's website has posted a response, awkwardly titled
No Case for Homosexuality in Bible, written by Joseph Bottum, John Mark Reynolds, and Bruce D. Porter. Will Newsweek publish this in its print edition?

Monday, December 08, 2008

Counting hate crimes, one year after the shooting stopped

This Tuesday marks the anniversary of the attacks on the Youth with a Mission dormitory (not three miles from my Arvada home) and New Life Church in Colorado Springs. Had Matthew Murray not been stopped by a security guard’s bullet, the number of victims slain could have reached the double digits.

Some of us went to church that Sunday evening wondering if the violence was over. “Could an unknown accomplice of the shooter be prepared to add Christian blood to Christian worship?” we thought to ourselves.

In the attacks’ aftermath, the killer’s self-pitying laments and his and Christian-hating rants posted to the internet attracted considerable media attention.

The media narrative soon focused upon his strict upbringing, too often granting prima facie credibility to Murray’s self-serving claims to have been warped in childhood by his Pentecostal parents.

A former roommate’s comments also helped media dismiss the gunman as mentally disturbed.

Last December I intuited that Murray’s reported claim to hear voices was meant to entertain himself and shock his peers. Reports that he claimed to have committed a sexual assault for “shock value” only confirm me in that opinion.

For those of us unable to ignore the attack as a mere psychological eruption, Murray’s own words linger.

“You Christians brought this on yourselves!” read one of his messages posted between attacks. Another declared “Christian America… this is YOUR Columbine!”

There is no question of his malice, and there is no question about whom it targets.

Thus it is disturbing to discover that Murray’s crimes were never classified as hate crimes in the reports of both the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the FBI. This despite the FBI’s definition of a hate crime as one that is motivated “in whole or in part” by bias against a religion or other protected categories.

Catholic News Agency quotes a sergeant at the Colorado Springs Police Department who said “I think that the general feeling [at the department] was that it was not so much bias but retaliation.”

It is easy to criticize police officials for not checking the right boxes on a report after they’ve explored the mind of an aspiring mass murderer. However, had an ex-Muslim shot up a mosque while ranting about the evils of Islam, it is hard to believe his murders would not be classified as hate crimes.

In my view, hate crimes should not stand in their own legal category. Difficulties in establishing motive are obvious, while any necessary penalties may be assessed in sentencing based upon prosecutorial or judicial discretion.

But state and national statistics concerning bias crimes are used to understand good and bad trends in society. If we must have such statistics, we should at least insist they be minimally consistent. That’s the whole purpose of the FBI’s Unified Crime Report.

Minority groups such as Jews are understandably very vigilant about bias crimes. This vigilance is perhaps not shared by people from more popular denominations, who are more likely to dismiss various crimes as outliers rather than consider them a portent of something worse.

Local officers too might think with such habits. Are bias crimes against well-populated religious denominations more likely to be underreported because they are not “vulnerable” minorities? That’s a story in itself.

New Life Church has a national profile, but that doesn’t render it impervious to hate crimes. In fact, the prominence and the criminal antics of its disgraced former pastor Ted Haggard probably made the attacks more likely.

But Haggard should not distract us from those who died.

Murray attacked strangers who had nothing more than a religious affiliation in common. If Murray’s murders do not qualify as hate crimes, it is hard for the lay observer to say what would.