Sunday, April 17, 2011

An Unconventional Palm Sunday Reflection

Shrugging off Atlas Shrugged. The Kingdom of God continues to be obscured for Pie in the Sky... or even less. Fighting the Hijacking of Christianity by Objectivism

Christ Driving the Moneychangers from the Temple, by El Greco (1570)

They make a lot of garbage films in Hollywood and elsewhere these days, but did anyone notice this weekend that the Drudge Report had a link cooing about the release of a film adaptation of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged? I guess it's been a long time coming, but I'm still surprised that someone made a movie out of that stack of trash. With the rise of the Tea Party, I suppose someone thought it was an opportune moment to make it. As distasteful as Tea Party values are to me on a purely secular and political level, what bothers me more is that it seems to have gained credibility and a certain cachet with Christians too, and sadly, young Catholics in particular. They'd never admit that they've bought into Objectivism (an atheistic and virulently anti-Catholic philosophy), but in effect, that is what they have done. By contrast, many young evangelicals seem to be coming to their senses in the opposite direction. They've been down that road enough times to know that they've been used by people who actually disdain them.

Time to dust off and re-present Supply Side Jesus:

By the way, Andrew Sullivan at The Dish absolutely nailed this with a post called Ayn Rand vs Jesus Christ. He reposts some great contrasts between Objectivism and the scriptures from another article, and makes this devastating observation of his own:
It is possible to read the Gospels as entirely a personal and not political message, and certainly not view Christianity as a short route to socialism. But it is impossible even in one's personal life to be a Christian and to be a Randian. The whole point of the Gospels is that Rand's value system leads to profound misery and spiritual loss. And the whole point of Rand is that Nietzsche was onto something.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Fear o' Hell: John Casey on the Biggest Change in the Catholic Church

Militant and Triumphant. No nonsense in Boston, 1943 (my mother, top-row, far-right)

I noticed the cover article in Time magazine this week - Is Hell Dead? It's about a book by evangelical pastor Bob Bell called Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Its universalist message isn't going down well with many of the other well-known preachers in the evangelical community. As for my own community, it just might.

A priest in my parish has been heard to say, "There are things that are important, and there are things that are only important on the internet." He would certainly know, as he himself is the subject of a rather strange blog that is uniquely dedicated to "exposing" him.

He's right, of course. Looking at the Catholic blogosphere you would think that the most important issue gripping the Church today is the reception of Summorum Pontificum and the availability of the Tridentine Mass. It's either that, or tales of liturgical abuse, as if every parish in the nation was inundated by wymyn-priests in clown wigs liturgically prancing across our altars every Sunday.

In your average parish, however, day-in and day-out, these issues are practically unheard of and count for nothing. Vatican II did usher in great changes, and I don't mean to totally underplay the impact of the changes in the liturgy, but I don't think that was where the biggest change in the life of the Church occurred. As I've said here before, my own catechesis was a combination of what was presented in the pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II Church. The council occurred during my childhood, and it took a while for things to change at the local parish level in any event. My training for my First Confession (before they called it Reconciliation) and First Communion were decidedly pre-conciliar. It was pretty tough stuff. Things changed significantly later.

During the 60's there were enormous changes in the role of women and young people in society. The introduction of the birth control pill changed the trajectory of human society more than any technological innovation that I can think of, and that's saying something. In the wake of the Viet-Nam War, the assassinations, and Watergate, there was an enormous loss of public trust, and authorities were not held in the same unquestioning esteem as they were before. Some would say Humanae Vitae had the same effect on the Church. As society changed, the life of the Church changed as well. Fr Andrew Greeley likes to say that The “Catholic Revolution” lasted most generously from 1965 to 1974, but was more accurately within the period from 1966 to 1970. In my own experience, I'd put if from 1968 to 1972. In my view, the world was one way before the pivotal year of 1968 and was completely transformed by the time 1972 came along. For all the sturm and drang over litugy, or Humanae Vitae, the role of the laity, the crash in the number of vocations, or whatever hot topic we want to bring up, it doesn't touch what the biggest difference is. Some traditionalists do like to mention it, and in at least this much they aren't wrong...

The biggest difference I can see, is that in the pre-conciliar Church, before 1968 or so, Catholics were deathly afraid of going to hell.

Hell was mostly what you heard about in Catholicism. It was a fire-and-brimstone church.

In the post-conciliar period, for whatever reason, after 1972 or so, nobody talked about hell anymore and nobody was afraid of going there. Well, perhaps I can amend that... They were no longer interested in hearing any priest telling them that they were going there.

I remember some people referring to themselves as "Recovering Catholics" a few years back. If they still do, well, I'm sorry. With the very important exception of people who've suffered from sexual abuse (I ignore that by no means), if you are under the age of 45, you haven't got much to recover from. You never got hit with the brimstone like we did.

A couple of years ago, Cambridge University scholar John Casey wrote a book called After Lives: A Guide to Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. In the introduction he summed up this sea-change in his own Catholic Church quite succinctly.
Beliefs held almost without question for centuries, and enforced by the authority of venerable institutions, can unpredictably evaporate.

For almost nineteen centuries the great majority of Christians had accepted, even embraced fervently, certain doctrines about man's final end.

These beliefs were at the center of the Christian imagination. Among Protestants in Northern Europe there had been some dilution of belief among intellectuals and the growth of liberal theology; but this did not begin to affect the masses until the early twentieth century.

The Roman Catholic Church preserved the orthodox teaching on heaven and hell with energy and rigor until the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), after which the deliquescence of serious belief in damnation (heaven remained an attractive, if vague, possibility) was astonishingly rapid. Although the doctrines remained officially in place, they were played down and lost most of the resonance they used to have with the faithful. It could be that the new model army of enthusiastically orthodox priests, which emerged during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II (1978-2005), will eventually reconvert Roman Catholics to a lively terror of the possibility of damnation—but at the moment that seems unlikely. You will rarely meet a Catholic who believes (to use Browning's words) that God watches him "As he believes in fire that it will burn, / Or rain that it will drench him...”

Yet in the nineteenth century, and even in the twentieth, people converted to Roman Catholicism in the conviction that by this means, and this only, could they save their immortal souls. Gerard Manley Hopkins was afraid that his favorite composer, Henry Purcell, was in hell because he was a heretic. Graham Green wrote novels in which damnation was the central them. A vivid assent to the reality of another world was everywhere to be found...

It is hard for modern Christians – at least in the West – to conceive how seriously all this was taken not much more than a generation ago… The integrity of the "deposit of faith" in the world of Darwin, Marx, Freud, Einstein, Stalin, and Hitler was preserved by an authoritarian, managerial discipline. That is why the valiant attempt of Rome to hold on to the ancient convictions is more striking than what happened in Protestantism.

It is also why the changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council were also of great significance. For although that council did not formally change any articles of faith, it produced a climate in which some central doctrines seemed to lose their purchase on the Catholic imagination, shaped as it had been by the Counter-Reformation. The cultural change is still working itself out and its full implications may not be understood until many more years have passed. Before the council, many even among those who rejected the faith were profoundly colored by it. In the early twentieth century there were those brought up in the Roman Catholic tradition who both intimately and imaginatively understood the doctrines about the next life, but who found them so at variance with modem experience that they could only treat them with a profound — if not necessarily unsympathetic — irony.
I'll let individual readers discern on their own whether or not this was a good thing. It's my own opinion that the actual theology discussed and presented in the Vatican II documents was excellent theology - much better than the legalistic neo-scholastic manuals that were in use in the period just prior to that. Can the subsequent collapse be blamed on good theology? Maybe. Maybe a lot of people really do prefer motivation by fear - or prefer "religion" over real faith. That would be a shame if was really the case.

To stress God's love and mercy over the pain of hell was probably the right thing to do, the healthiest thing to do and the truest to Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, in a materialistic, consumeristic society in which virtues have been largely forgotten, and the most elementary trust broken down between both individuals and groups, isn't it a tragedy that we've lost a collective sense of what sin is, and of our own sins?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

More on Male Team Aggression...

Just in case the last post on Team Aggression failed to convince, here it is in a nutshell...

Short of outright warfare, I'd say rugby epitomizes it at the the most primal level, even more than American football. Pretty cool... This is the way to work aggressions out.

Congratulations go out to England for winning the Six Nations Tournament last month, but they were denied the prestige of winning the coveted Grand Slam title (wins in all six matches) by the 2009 Grand Slam champs Ireland, who thumped them pretty good by a score of 24-8.

Italy did not fare very well, but they did have the honor of having the player of the tournament in Andrea Masi.
After receiving the award yesterday, Masi said: "It has been a championship of highs and lows for the Italian team, our win against France will go down in rugby history but to finish sixth frustrated us all. However, to be named the RBS Player of the Championship is a fantastic way to end what has been one of the most competitive Championships I can remember. We have worked hard this year and can be proud of our achievements. Italian Italian rugby continues to strengthen and we are very happy with our progress as a team."
A nice highlight reel of the tournament as a whole, featuring all the nations...

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Genghis XXXII ?

Temujin's progeny and the Founder Effect

A young boy in Kyrgyzstan

In a 2009 post called Is it the "Religion" Gene or the "Tribal" Gene They Should be Worried About? I explored the accusation made by the most prominent of the New Atheists that religion is the primary motivation behind human violence, or at least for war. I doubted this, and was more inclined to think that the primary motivation for war was a tribal instinct bequeathed to us by our evolutionary past. Looking at the raiding behavior to be found in pre-literate, hunting-gathering societies, and in our chimpanzee cousins, I cited author William F. Allman in making my case:
A comparison of the warfare patterns in forty-two foraging societies worldwide reveals that when people live near vital resources such as fertile land or watering holes, the group-against-group aggression is typically over control of these physical resources. Yet, ultimately, these resources are also tied to access to females: Those individuals in the society who accumulated the most wealth typically had the most wives, and so gaining resources is an important factor in access to women.
Recently I’ve been reading a book called Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World, by Malcom Potts and Thomas Hayden. Echoing William Allman, Potts and Hayden propose that the male of the human species is primarily to blame for warfare, and that human males have evolved to define, or, as primatologist Jane Goodall would put it, “speciate” between in-groups and out-groups, and that out-groups can become the dehumanized targets of our “team aggression.”
Human warfare and terrorism require a special sort of violence in men, which we will call team aggression. This behavior is not limited to humans and we will document how in a handful of social mammals, a highly specialized behavior has evolved in which teams of adults—almost always males—attack and kill individuals of the same species. In the process they enlarge their territory and increase the resources available to the group to which they belong, with the side benefit of eliminating potential sexual competitors. In the case of chimpanzees and human beings, the chief practitioners, males are the primary beneficiaries of this kind of team aggression.
Well, there you have it, and who can really argue with this? Perhaps St. Augustine had it mostly right in spite of the ever-increasing proof and acceptance of evolutionary theory. If evolution really did mark our DNA with a kind of “original sin,” it all basically comes down to the sex drive after all, just like Augustine thought (although he may have actually laid more of the blame on women than on men).

Anyway, one of the most intriguing things I’ve seen in the book so far is the assertion made by Potts that certain warlords of history have had a rather outsized effect on the gene pool. If it's true, no wonder we’re so warlike.
Ultimately, the evolution of every living thing has been driven by competition. It is a simple, universal fact that all living things, from bacteria to giant redwoods, reproduce more rapidly than the resources in their environments can support. And thus all living things must compete against not just other species, but also their own kind in order to survive. Competition was there, at the molecular level, when life first began literally billions of years ago, and it has continued to shape the evolution of life in increasingly complex ways ever since. Evolution as a result is a painful, callous process of separating winners from losers, driven by what Charles Darwin called the “war of nature.”
Actually, there are some evolutionary psychologists and primatologists such as Frans de Waal who would dispute this, saying that cooperation and empathy count as much as competition, but this is Potts’s theory we're exploring for the moment…
In complex animals, such as birds or mammals, this competition for survival is frequently associated with violent behaviors. This occurs between species, within species, and even between males and females of the same species. Nowhere is this war of nature made more explicit than in the battles males of many species must win in order to mate. The male deer or bull elephant seal that competes successfully against his brethren and impregnates many females will pass his genes on to future generatlions; his losing competitors will not. Human behavior is considerably more complex than that of deer or seals, but for our species, too, it appears that more competitive, aggressive males have often made outsized contributions to the gene pool—a contribution that inevitably reinforces our warlike tendencies.

Take Genghis Khan. In 2003, an international team of geneticists published a DNA analysis of central Asians. Remarkably, the authors found, 8 percent of the men in central Asia have virtually identical Y chromosomes. Much more than a curious biological footnote, this finding offered a profound insight into our collective past. The Y chromosome defines maleness, and men who share a Y chromosome are all descended from the same man.

The fact that one in twelve men in Central Asia has the same Y chromosome can mean only one thing: At some point in history probably within the last thousand years, one man had a vast number of offspring. And Genghis Khan, Mongol Emperor from 1206 A.D. until his death in 1227, is the one historical figure who fits this role.
Still revered as a great leader in parts of Central Asia and reviled elsewhere as the ultimate barbarian, Genghis Khan presided over one of the greatest military expansions of all time. In just over twenty years, he united the tribes of the Central Asian Plateau, and extended the reach of the Mongol Empire from the Sea of Japan in the east to the Caspian Sea some 6,000 kilometers to the west. He reinforced loyalty by sharing out the spoils of war—including vanquished women—after every battle, but the Great Khan saved the most beautiful women for himself, and he boasted of the pleasure of violating other men’s wives and daughters.

Just a century after his birth, a Chinese historian claimed that Genghis Khan already had 20,000 descendants, and whether that was an exaggeration or not, modern science suggests that today the number of his descendents has grown to 16 million worldwide. Put another way, fully one in 200 of all men now alive on this planet are likely descendants of Genghis Khan.
I’m just going to butt in for a second... If Genghis Khan really had that many descendants, I’ll venture to guess that one of them was certainly not John Wayne, who was horribly miscast as Genghis Khan in the 1956 film The Conqueror. What was “Duke” thinking in taking on this role? I can’t think of a worse case of Hollywood miscasting off the top of my head, except maybe Marlon Brando as a Nazi SS officer in The Young Lions.

Sez the Duke to Susan Hayward: Dance, Tartar woman!

I digress. Potts continues….
If Genghis Khan is the most dramatic example of this ‘founder effect,” he is hardly the only one. Another recent Y chromosome study, conducted on almost 800 men in Ireland, found that 20 percent shared a common genetic signature thought to show descent from a Middle Age king called Niall. In all, the study’s authors estimated that as many as one in twelve people in Ireland—and perhaps two to three million people worldwide— could be descended from King Niall...

If evolution judges success by the number of an individual’s progeny, then Genghis Khan, King Neill, and other, lesser warriors are among the most “successful” men in history (None of them lived long enough ago to be credited with the evolutionary invention of aggression or war, however. They, like all of us, were the products of evolution occurring over millions of years before their time on Earth.) Fortunately, human beings have also evolved as social animals capable of empathy, altruism, and love. But even if most of us would prefer to live in a world where the Genghis Khans do not win, we can’t begin to understand the raids and wars that still permeate our present world without understanding why they so often won in the past.
Throughout history and across cultures, rich and powerful men typically have had more sexual partners, and thus more offspring, than those lower in the social hierarchy The Bible tells us that King Solomon had 700 wives, and 300 concubines. Large harems were the order of the day for the Egyptian Pharaohs, the Aztec Kings, the Turkish Sultans, the African Kings, and the Chinese Emperors. Idi Amin, the Ugandan despot of the 1970s, had four wives and thirty children. Queen Victoria’s son, later King Edward VII, had several mistresses and many short affairs. From his box in a theater he would survey the women in the audience and send his equerry to invite the most attractive to join him—one hundred years later heavy metal bands echo the strategy, with roadies taking the place of squires. President John F Kennedy had several long-term extramarital sexual relationships and many one-night stands, aided by a kind of cultural acceptance that Bill Clinton must surely have envied.

Even if not all generals rape as did Genghis Khan, and not all kings and presidents are promiscuous—nor all philanderers violent—we still need to explain why in every society, across time and space, men on average are much more violent than women. We argue that our evolutionary history is the key, and that while. the different behaviors of men and women in relation to sex and violence are modified by our upbringing, they are also written in our genes.

The standard social science paradigm tells us that the differences between the sexes are almost entirely determined by culture.

An evolutionary paradigm, in contrast, recognizes biological differences in male and female behavior, put in place over millions of years of evolution.

This is not an argument that nature necessarily triumphs over nurture, nor that culture is unimportant and genes omnipotent: It is simply a recognition that humans are subject to the same biology as every other living species.

History demonstrates that a behavioral predisposition is not predestination, because we can choose to express the impulses and tendencies we have inherited in many ways, some of them peaceful or creative. Our genes certainly help to set our personalities and temperaments, but our behavior can be molded by our families, environment, and cultures—and by our own decisions—in a rich variety of ways.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Still Men and Women

Martin Luther King Jr was gunned down at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968. He was in town to support striking sanitation workers represented by AFSCME Local 1733.

A public employee union.