The Myth of Autonomy

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Most of us are familiar with the famous phrase no man is an island. What many might not know is that it was penned during a time of extreme illness and suffering. Staring at his own possible death, John Donne famously wrote that “no man is an island,” that all mankind are connected in God, bound to each other like a continent. The death of one person then, like a bit of land swept out to sea, affects us all. Bioethicist Gilbert Meilaender would agree with Donne, writing that “the lives of fellow citizens may be bound together in such a way that all are aggrieved by the death of one.”[1] He goes on to note that such sentiments might seem strange to moderns, coming across like quaint relics from a time when religion was more than merely a set of opinions to be held in private. To think that what one does in private, especially if one dies, somehow has an effect on everyone? This seems to fly in the face of our experience today. This is because we live in an age that is preoccupied with autonomy.

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Abortion, Religion, and Science

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“In truth, there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogma and know it, and those who accept dogma and don’t know it.” ~G.K. Chesterton

Scene: Sociology 101 at a local community college.

Professor: Today, we will continue our discussion of religion and politics in America. I’m going to make an assertion that might offend some of you, but I will open the floor for discussion. Here it is: the Christian majority in this country has routinely sought to tear down the sacred dividing wall that separates Church and State and impose their religious views on others through the passage of laws. Perhaps the most egregious instance of this is the case of the so-called Pro-life voter and their desire to control women’s bodies.

Student, raising her hand: Professor, may I provide a rebuttal?

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Dostoevsky’s “Rebellion” and the Problem of Evil

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Dostoyevsky (2002) by Manuel Sandoval

 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

Romans 8:18

C.S. Lewis wrote that we often say of some instance of human suffering that “no future bliss can make up for it,” but this is only because we cannot see “that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.”[1] But what if there are some evils that are so blatantly egregious, so unrestrained in their dehumanizing cruelty that their very existence calls into question the reality of this future glory? In his book The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky offers the reader this powerful formulation of the problem of evil. In a chapter titled “Rebellion,” Ivan Karamazov recounts in excruciating detail incidents where young children were mercilessly tortured for fun. He challenges the idea that God could ever merge such evil with goodness into some sort of glorious, eternal harmony. Ivan even questions the morality of such an arrangement. “Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last,” he asks his brother, “but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?”[2] Ivan will not abide the sufferings of innocent children for, in his estimation, no future glory can make up for them.

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Dragons, Telescopes, and Treasure

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This is the remarkably true story of a flying telescope, dragons, adventure and an unfathomable treasure in the heavens.

by Daniel Ray

In October of 2013, a team of dedicated astronomers and astrophysicists took up a fantastical quest to push the Hubble Space Telescope to its limits, to see deeper into the heavens than any previous mission had done in Hubble’s nearly three decades of service. “How deep can we go?” they wondered. “What are the faintest and most distant galaxies we can see with the Hubble Space Telescope now?”[1] And from the imaginations of a core group of scientists was birthed the Frontier Fields mission, a grand celestial adventure that focused Hubble’s sights on the most ancient light in the universe; exotic and enigmatic light that will “set the scene” for the new James Webb Space Telescope to explore after its launch in early 2019.

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The Revival of Philosophy by G.K. Chesterton

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by G.K. Chesterton

“Some people fear that philosophy will bore or bewilder them; because they think it is not only a string of long words, but a tangle of complicated notions. These people miss the whole point of the modern situation. These are exactly the evils that exist already; mostly for want of a philosophy.”

From The Common Man: “The best reason for a revival of philosophy is that unless a man has a philosophy certain horrible things will happen to him. He will be practical; he will be progressive; he will cultivate efficiency; he will trust in evolution; he will do the work that lies nearest; he will devote himself to deeds, not words. Thus struck down by blow after blow of blind stupidity and random fate, he will stagger on to a miserable death with no comfort but a series of catchwords; such as those which I have catalogued above. Those things are simply substitutes for thoughts. In some cases they are the tags and tail-ends of somebody else’s thinking. That means that a man who refuses to have his own philosophy will not even have the advantages of a brute beast, and be left to his own instincts. He will only have the used-up scraps of somebody else’s philosophy; which the beasts do not have to inherit; hence their happiness. Men have always one of two things: either a complete and conscious philosophy or the unconscious acceptance of the broken bits of some incomplete and shattered and often discredited philosophy. Such broken bits are the phrases I have quoted: efficiency and evolution and the rest. The idea of being “practical”, standing all by itself, is all that remains of a Pragmatism that cannot stand at all. It is impossible to be practical without a Pragma. And what would happen if you went up to the next practical man you met and said to the poor dear old duffer, “Where is your Pragma?” Doing the work that is nearest is obvious nonsense; yet it has been repeated in many albums. In nine cases out of ten it would mean doing the work that we are least fitted to do, such as cleaning the windows or clouting the policeman over the head. “Deeds, not words” is itself an excellent example of “Words, not thoughts”. It is a deed to throw a pebble into a pond and a word that sends a prisoner to the gallows. But there are certainly very futile words; and this sort of journalistic philosophy and popular science almost entirely consists of them.

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Wonder and the Philosopher

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Prehistoric cave paintings from the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave (from about 35,000 years ago)

“Fairy tales founded in me two convictions; first, that this world is a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite delightful; second, that before this wildness and delight one may well be modest and submit to the queerest limitations of so queer a kindness.” ~G.K. Chesterton

“The beginning of philosophy is wonder,” and its end is divine worship.[1]  Yet since the end of the Medieval Era, philosophy has begun from a place that has ensured ends of uncertainty, dislocation, and despair. In his essay The Philosophical Act, Josef Pieper observes that modern philosophers adopt only the disillusionment aspect of wonder, never moving towards its positive ends—the ends that humble us, but also give us a cosmic location and identity. They interpret someone like Socrates as merely a gadfly, failing to see that his insistent questioning was founded upon assumptions that were deeply rooted in tradition, not merely doubt. Pieper notes that “under the impulse of a rationalistic and ‘progressive’ doctrine, the history of philosophy as it has been written in modern times, does the exact reverse and sets the beginning of philosophy at the moment when thought cut itself free from tradition.”[2] Modern man uses philosophy to break down what he sees as the confining walls of dogma without moving further up and further in, so to speak, to the wonder that will move him to praise. One such man was philosopher David Hume, the thinker that would awaken Kant from his “dogmatic slumber.”[3] Hume needed a good dose of the species of disillusionment that wonder evokes, for his doubt did not go deep enough. It merely uprooted the mind, leaving it to languish in an unexamined, skeptical dogma of its own. G.K. Chesterton’s Elfland is perfectly suited for this task, for it is built upon this more “elementary wonder” that reminds us the world is astonishing because it could have been different.[4] This is the true wonder that is the beginning of philosophy and whose end is gratitude.

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A Skeptic in Elfland

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“We need this life of practical romance; the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure. We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable.”[1]

The morning fog hung heavily about me as I waited for my appointment to arrive. He was late. “Miracles,” I thought to myself as I examined the surroundings. I had been in this part of London before, but something seemed new. The tall trees that lined the long street looked like hairy-headed giants or crowned kings in the morning mist, frozen in a sort of dignified expectation for the arrival of something or someone. Everywhere was gray and dull as the light from the early sun struggled to penetrate the air, deciding instead to let the fog win. I stood by the entrance to a gated park, the insides of which were completely obscured by the gloom. It was one of many such parks in London, but it was new to me. It must be private for the gate was locked.

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