Popular Atheism and Philosophy

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“How do you feel about Zeus? That is how I feel about your God.” This is one of the rhetorical questions that I presented in one of my apologetics talks to a group of homeschool students recently. The topic of the class was on contemporary forms of popular atheism and the goal was to expose these students to the arguments and claims of these atheists so that we could then proceed to examine what was lacking in these arguments. In the world that these students have grown up in religion is typically seen as a remnant of a bygone age of darkness and superstition. It is seen as a social phenomenon that sadly needs to be tolerated, lest we cause a greater evil by removing it; something that ultimately needs to be overcome if humanity is really going to achieve lasting progress. Members of the millennial generation, which consists of people born after the late 1980s, are exposed to this kind of thinking and tend to judge Catholic Christianity as some outdated relic of the past. Millennials are moved, in part due to the presence of religious fanaticism abroad and ignorance at home, into forms of atheism that stress the scientific method as the sole or most privileged path to truth. As a result they are led into skepticism regarding anything that could be considered supernatural or any kind of a God. It is timely then to talk to young people about atheism.

Today Holy Mother Church asks her children to perform a seemingly impossible task. She doesn’t just ask her children to hold the line against this flood of criticism, amidst genuine difficulties for faith and theology from current events. Rather she calls us to embark on the path of the New Evangelization which is to bring the Gospel again to a world which, at least in the West, has drifted away from this Gospel or even explicitly denounced it. Part of the effort of the New Evangelization needs to involve a critique of the surrounding culture through reason enlightened by faith and especially to give an explanation as to why Catholic Christianity is in harmony with reason.

An initial prelude to this cultural critique involves presenting Christianity to the world anew in explaining again what Catholic Christians mean by God and belief in God.  It may seem remarkable but in the Christian West and even in Christian theology there has been an obscuring of the idea of God. Catholic Christians have always professed faith in the true God, but in many places the true God has been replaced with an idol – the creator has been replaced with a creature.[1]  Reminding the world again what God is according to the faith of the Church is a very urgent task. When during Mass on Sunday we sing “Credo in unum Deum” – “I believe in one God” – Catholics today should ask themselves “what do we mean by this?”. This was a central theme in my talk on atheism to the homeschool students. As every one of the atheists today like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, do not correctly understand what we mean by God.  The followers of contemporary atheism, apart perhaps from some atheists in academia, who do actually know their material to some extent, think that Catholics say that God is just a super-powerful being in the world. He is the highest being, the supreme being, who created all things, observes all things, and controls all things.[2] So these atheists, believing they are very clever, ask rhetorically “How do you feel about Zeus?” to which they respond “This is how I feel about your God.” The implication is that they just go one god further. These atheists say that Christians reject all the Greek gods, the Norse gods, the gods of Hinduism but accept the Jewish God. Why not just reject the final God? What reason do we have to believe in the Jewish God any more than we have to believe in Zeus, other than perhaps the fluke that you happen to be in a family that taught you about the Jewish God and not Zeus?  If you were living in India you would feel much different and worship the gods of Hinduism.

The criticism of these atheists may apply to some forms of Christianity, but all their criticisms reflect a profound misunderstanding of what it means when Catholics say “I believe in one God” every Sunday.[3] Catholics do not believe that God is the highest being nor for that matter a supreme being, nor do they believe that a highest being created all things, observes all things and controls all things.  To the average person this would seem to be a shocking statement – how could you say that God is not a supreme being, not the highest being, and not a being? Is this not saying that God is weak, lowly, and not existent? Is this not blasphemy and a profession of atheism? Yet this is exactly a symptom of our having an obscured idea of God. A God which is a being, the supreme instance of being, that is, some supreme entity, would simply not be a god but rather an idol. Following Saint Thomas Aquinas, we don’t believe that God is a being or an entity, rather believe that God is subsistent Being itself, not some being in the world, not some highest entity.[4] As we can look around us and say of a particular object “this has being, this exists”. I am typing on my laptop for example and I can say “the laptop exists, it is be-ing”. This “being” that we find in created things we can say is not found in God.[5] Neither does God fall under a genus like humans fall under the genus “animal” or a hammer falls under the genus “tool” or my car falls under the genus “vehicle”.[6] God cannot be put in a category. Rather God is the Source of all categories; God is the cause of being in the world. The result is that, in the words of the Fourth Lateran Council (13th century): “between creator and creature there can be noted no similarity so great that a greater dissimilarity cannot be seen between them.” God transcends the world so profoundly that he can only be seen to be similar to the world in a certain respect, that is, as cause is seen in the effect. For example, if I saw an ancient cave painting I would instantly know that the painter was not just any animal but a rational animal. As I would see the effect of his intelligence in the fact that the structure and shapes are meant to convey certain abstract knowledge that non-rational animals are not capable of. In this case I can see the likeness of the cause in the effect – in the effect I see the presence of a painter who is rational – a painter that has a mind and wishes to express his mind.  Analogously, we can see the likeness of God in created realities and we can be lead through creation to a contemplation of God.  “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Psalm 19:1) Yet in all of these likenesses we can always find greater ways that God is unlike the created world. The result is that despite the fact that we can know God through creation, He is not a being in the world, but rather the Source of the world.

Due to this profound misunderstanding, most atheists that are popular today commit a category error when they try to criticize faith in God as it is found among Catholics. This means in this case that these atheists treat God like a creature rather than the Lord and creator of creatures. God is not like any of the pagan gods but rather is the reason why anything exists at all. The reason we believe in God is not because we have empirical evidence for His existence; empirical evidence in this case is impossible in principle because God cannot be subject to empirical observation as He is not a being in the world that could be an object for our senses. Rather we believe in God because nothing in the world taken individually or in totality contains in itself the reason for its existence and so this existence, here and now, moment to moment, needs to come from something that does exist in virtue of what it is. If this were not true then nothing would currently exist.  A boat for example floating on the water is prevented from crashing into the sea floor due to the water holding it up. Yet the fact that water allows objects to float on it is a result of its molecular composition. Yet this molecular composition is dependent on its atomic composition. Yet again this atomic composition is dependent on its subatomic composition. Even if we eventually recede back to some ultimate fundamental particle, this won’t exist in virtue of what it is, even if it is the basic building block of all of matter.[7] Yet take one of the items out of the chain that are present in the here and now, the result will be that boat will fly down and hit the sea floor. There needs to be something sustaining the floating of the boat in existence here and now. This is the case for all things in the universe, and since more perfect does not come from less perfect, God is going to possess all of these perfections of created things in a higher way. That is, God needs to contain in some respect the perfections that we find in the world because you cannot provide what you don’t have. If I stomped my foot on the ground, I wouldn’t cause an earthquake. The reason obviously is that as a mere man I do not have the necessary perfection of strength to be able to move tectonic plates. Only the powerful forces of the earth can do that. Likewise, all of the perfections of the universe can only be caused by something that has the necessary perfection to provide them. We are forced to conclude therefore that God possesses all goodness, intelligence, love, beauty more than the entities in this world do.

The task of explaining the Church’s teaching about the nature of God is difficult because it is not a simple and naive notion but rather one of exceptional philosophical depth. It is important however that we continue to grapple with the question of what it means to believe in God as there are grave misunderstandings of the Church’s faith in our society today and it results in Catholic Christianity being ridiculed and dismissed over our supposed superstition and backwardness for maintaining a belief in a “childish fancy”. Yet when we come to terms with what the Church professes to believe, we come to see the richness and splendor of the Catholic understanding of God that is far from a fancy but rather the locus of the highest wisdom.



[1] I am thinking specifically of forms of Christianity that hold a view of God that is incompatible with divine simplicity and the transcendence classically ascribed to God. These trends have also made a mark on Catholic theology to a more or less degree.

[2] See especially: R. Dawkins, The God Delusion (pp. 31, 50, 113-114)

[3] An atheist would rightly object at this point and say that even if we established the existence of a God, it would not follow that this God is the God of Christianity or any deity that belongs to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Establishing the “Christian God” or “Jewish God” as existing, as presented in Divine Revelation, is the proper task of the science of apologetics which has the task of establishing the credibility of divine revelation and by consequence the understanding of God as presented in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Adequately treating this topic would take us outside of the scope of this article. However, lest it be thought that the conclusions in this article do not follow, we can say that we treat in this article God insofar as He is a preamble to faith. (De veritate, q. 10, a. 12, ad s. c. 5) That is, we treat God as can be known by our own rational powers through philosophical speculation.  What makes up the “Christian God”, that is, God understood by Christianity, is this God that we can know through our own rational powers plus God as revealed to us – the revelation of God as he exceeds our natural powers such as the revelation of God as triune or having a plan of salvation. So this article of ours does establish the existence of the “Christian God” insofar as public revelation does not substitute some different reality for this God we have come to as the terminus of our speculation, but it does not establish the Christian God as reveled.

To summarize our point we can say that in response to the atheist who says that we have established the existence of a divine being but not the divine being of the Christian religion: we distinguish between 1).  the “Christian God” insofar as He is known by reason and is a preamble of  faith and 2). the “Christian God” insofar as this God is revealed in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. Thus we concede to the atheist that we have not established 2). in this article but we have established 1). and this is sufficient for our purposes. It is the position of the atheist that we do not know if thesis 1). is true or, perhaps more strongly, we know that thesis 1). is probably false. (Dawkins). So in this article, in a rudimentary form, we have attempted to show the truth of thesis 1) and consequently the falsity of the atheist position.

[4] Sent. 1.8.1.1.ad 4

[5] Although we remove from God being as it is found in creatures, Saint Thomas teaches, in ST Ia.13.11, that “HE WHO IS” is the most proper name of God. Yet even this name is predicated of God analogically and not univocally or equivocally as Saint Thomas instructs us in ST Ia.13.5.

[6] ST Ia.3.5

[7] It is not here merely assumed that a fundamental particle cannot exist in virtue of itself. Rather what exists in virtue of itself has no potentiality in it and therefore would not be able to come into composition with anything as part of some greater whole as a fundamental particle certainly would. The falsity of a fundamental particle existing in virtue of itself can be established by indirect proof. See:  ST Ia.3.8 

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What does it mean to know Jesus? — Br. Joseph

“My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” (1 John 2:1-6)

 

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The Crucifix: The Icon of God’s Essence — Br. Damien

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I think few people would doubt that the crucifix is a fitting image for the Lenten season. It reminds us of Jesus’ sacrifice and our own process of dying to self. However, some might see this image as unfitting for other liturgical seasons, especially Easter. After all, during Easter we celebrate Jesus’ conquest of the cross and resurrection from the dead. It is a time of great joy, so why do we leave Jesus on the cross? There are many possible explanations. I would like to offer one reason why the crucified Christ is a fitting emblem of our faith throughout the entire liturgical year. In the image of Jesus Christ crucified, God reveals to us his deepest identity and the very core of our faith.

Many of the world’s religions use their symbol to proclaim their central idea or principle. Taoists have the yin-yang which symbolizes the harmonizing principle of the universe. The dharma wheel of Buddhism expresses one’s role in the cycle death and rebirth.

For Catholic Christians, our lives are not based on an abstract principle, but on entering into a living relationship with the Trinitarian God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, “The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them.” (CCC 234) Our faith revolves around our Trinitarian God as the basis of our existence and the foundation for all we believe and do. The entirety of faith is centered on him, and when we reach heaven, we will participate in the very life and essence of the Trinity.

To know and love the Trinitarian God is the purpose of life, but we can only love that which has been revealed to us. Jesus came to save us through the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, but he also came to reveal truth: “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” (John 18:37) He came that we may know and love the most sublime Truth, God himself. Jesus accomplished this in many ways. He taught us much about himself, the Father, and the Holy Spirit. He described God as a loving father who cares deeply for the needs of his children, and Jesus spoke of himself as the shepherd who searches for the lost sheep. Over the centuries, the Church has expounded on this revelation so that we may better understand the Trinity.

Among these teachings, the most profound truth about the Trinitarian God is that he is Love itself. We hear this from St. John’s first epistle where he tells us, “God is love.” (1 John 4:8) St. Augustine elaborated on this doctrine by explaining that God is relationship, and therefore Love, in his very essence. The Father is the lover, the Son is the beloved, and the Spirit is the love between them. (On the Trinity VIII, 5) The persons of the Trinity are in a continuous, self-giving relationship of love.

The words of Jesus and the writers of Scripture certainly help us to understand this beautiful truth. However, God gave us something greater than explanations. He didn’t just tell us who he is; he showed us who he is. He revealed his very essence through the cross. It is at that moment of witnessing the crucified Lord that we truly see God’s nature. When we look at the crucifix, we see someone completely and selflessly pouring out himself in love. Jesus personified the grandeur of God’s existence as Love in a way that we could best perceive it. St. Paul tells us that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1:15) Nowhere else does Jesus better fulfill this role than when he is on the cross. The invisible essence of God’s Trinitarian nature becomes visible. The crucifix acts as an icon, a visible representation of a transcendent reality. At this point, Jesus’ Good News isn’t merely didactic; it becomes demonstrative. We graphically see and experience God as Love with our very eyes.

Even though the crucifix might initially seem to be more fitting for a penitential season like Lent, the crucifix exemplifies God’s perpetual and unchanging nature. The gratuitous love expressed through this sacrifice is always central to God’s identity. It is therefore fitting that we continually use the crucifix as the central emblem of our faith throughout the whole liturgical year. Our faith is centered on the Trinitarian God, a relationship of persons pouring themselves out in an overabundance of love, and the crucifix is one of the best means by which we can perceive this truth.

With all this considered, we could say that the crucifix is the perfect symbol of our faith, even during the Easter season. May we look to the crucifix as a perpetual reminder of God’s invisible essence as we participate in renewed life with him here on earth and look forward to life forever with him in heaven.

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Misericordias Domini in aeternum cantabo

“Misericordias Domini in aeternum cantabo” exclaims the psalmist – the mercies of the Lord I will sing forever.  For the Lord has said “My mercy is established forever; my faithfulness will stand as long as the heavens…”[1] The psalmist here is proclaiming a message that is at the very heart of biblical revelation, that is, the Lord is a God of mercy, a God who takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but rather desires that sinners turn from their evil ways and live.[2] It is unfortunately the case that the role of God’s mercy in the Bible often is overlooked and made somewhat of a side issue when it is rather it is the root of all of God’s saving action in history. Many people today feel a kind of distance from God, they feel as God is a nothing but an all knowing exacting observer that does nothing but constantly scrutinizes them.[3] This on top of the fact of all the suffering we experience in our lives makes us think of God as a kind of merciless tyrant out to get us, a kind of cosmic police officer just waiting for us to break the law so that he can punish us. Yet is this the image of God that we see revealed to us in the Bible? Is God without mercy? Is he out to get us? Or this image forged by sinful man, a projection of the wounds of his fallen nature onto God?[4]

The answer as to where this disordered image of God comes from is answered very early in the Bible. We are familiar of the Bible’s mythic account of the fall of man: Adam and Eve were told not to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil lest they die.[5] The serpent, later in the Bible identified as the devil, asks Eve a simple question: “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from any of the trees in the garden’?” Eve responds: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat it or even touch it, or else you will die.’” The devil then gives a twisted suggestion: “You certainly will not die! God knows well that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil.”[6] That is, the devil paints God as a cruel and jealous despot that is merely out to protect his own power. It is only after this that Eve reaches for the fruit. This disordered image of God is at the very root of the fall of man and we can say that Eve’s first sin which lead to the eating of the fruit was that she doubted the goodness and love of God. This lead to a prideful attempt to claim this power for herself – yet would this pride have welled up in her and her husband if God wasn’t turned into an enemy? Would they have tried to become gods if they didn’t believe that they needed to seize power to protect themselves from an oppressive dictator?[7]

The suggestion of the devil and the witness of biblical revelation could not be in greater contrast. The Bible reveals God to be “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” (Exodus 34:6)

If we turn again to Psalm 89, we notice that after the psalmist exclaims that he will forever sing of the mercies of the Lord, he connects God’s eternal mercy and faithfulness to His covenant with David. God promised to establish through David an eternal dynasty, as we read: “I have made a covenant with my chosen one; I have sworn to David my servant: I will make your dynasty stand forever and establish your throne through all ages.” The covenant with David therefore is an expression of God’s mercy and faithfulness. Yet the covenant with David doesn’t exist in isolation – it presupposes the covenant with Noah and Abraham and looks forward to the new covenant that is established in Jesus Christ. The series of covenants that God makes with mankind is a thread that ties together the entire Bible. In this psalm we see the psalmist “tapping in” so to speak to this connecting thread. This covenant with David is above all an expression of God’s mercy and faithfulness and provides us a jumping point to look at the other covenants to see that the origin of all of God’s relationships with mankind is mercy.

In the very beginning after the fall of man we see in Holy Scripture a movement on God’s part to save humanity piece by piece. The book of Genesis presents us with a picture of humanity after the fall which is characterized by increasing levels of depravity. After original sin we have the advent of murder (Cain), sexual promiscuity and superstition (Sons of God), and in the decrease of lifespans we can see represented symbolically man’s increasing departure from that state of innocence where he was intimately connected with the Source of Life.[8] All of this sin and disorder after the fall culminates in the flood in which Noah escapes through the ark. Here God punishes the wickedness of men by, in a sense, bringing the world back to that primordial chaos before God ordered the world. The waters are the same waters that we read about at the beginning of Genesis: “and the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters—” [9] God however does not allow man to perish but saves a remnant of humanity from the destruction. Noah and his family are saved from the flood and God makes a covenant with him and through him all creation. Cosmically an epoch has been crossed — we have moved from the sinful world after a fall deserving of judgement to the sinful world that is now to experience the mercy and redeeming action of God in its history.[10] The covenant with Noah and all creation, which still remains in force, expresses God’s caring love that He has for all the nations and marks the beginning of God’s saving action in history.[11] Here in the beginning with Noah we see God’s mercy expressed and prefigured in a single action. The meaning of all of history is contained here — God is going to work with fallen humanity, he is not going to destroy man. We are no longer in the ideal state which we were in paradise, but we can still have a relationship with God, we can still experience the mercy of the Lord.[12] He is fully within His rights to punish sinful mankind, but He shows mercy on us, He prepares the way for the satisfaction of justice through mercy.

The covenant with Noah prepares the ground for the gathering of a people by the Lord in Abraham and his descendants.  Later in the book of Genesis we read the account of the call of Abraham: “Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.”[13] Abraham was called out of his own land, from the worshiping of his local deities, to worship the true God. Abraham is not owed this initiative on God’s behalf, but rather the Lord reaches out to Abraham and calls him into a deep intimacy with Himself. The Lord swears a covenant oath to Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”[14] This sets the stage for the formation of the people of Israel and throughout Israel’s history, especially during times of crisis, they often look back at the tender mercy of God expressed in the call of Abraham and the covenant made to him: “Only your forefathers the Lord desired, to love them, and He chose their seed after them, in you, out of all peoples, as it is this day” This is described in the great Benedictus hymn of Saint Luke’s Gospel as a promise to “to show mercy to our fathers “ and “remember his holy covenant”[15].

It is not long however until the people of Abraham are in a very difficult predicament. In the 18th century BC a group led by a number of shepherd kings, called the Hyksos invaded Egypt from Palestine and took control of the northern kingdom of Egypt. In their wake came numerous Semite nomads to take advantage of the better agricultural environment. The coming of Joseph’s family into Egypt happened in this context and these Semites flourished in Egypt between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 13th century. Yet when the Hyksos were driven out by the Egyptians, these Semites that were settled in northern Egypt were looked upon with suspicion by the Egyptians because they appeared to be a remnant of a foreign invasion force. Since constructions for defense needed to be produced and there was a group of people left behind that were a danger to national security, these Semites were enslaved and put to work on defense projects.[16] This is the origin of the Hebrew slavery in Egypt and the backdrop for one of the most profound displays of God’s mercy in history. As for the people of Israel and the Old Testament, the exodus event was what defined them as a people and in this way the Jewish view of the exodus is similar to how the resurrection of Jesus is viewed by Christians. Here we see that the children of Abraham, who God promised to produce of them a great nation, enslaved and oppressed. Has God forgotten his promise? Has he been unfaithful to his covenant? The answer is quickly given when God reveals Himself to Moses and tells him: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob… Therefore I have come down to rescue them from the power of the Egyptians and lead them up from that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey”[17] Then the mysterious name of God is revealed to Moses: “I am who I am.” Then he added: This is what you will tell the Israelites: “I AM has sent me to you.”[18] Much has been written on this name, but it has been suggested that it is best interpreted as God revealing Himself as present for his people, being-for-his-people. [19] Just as a lover exists entirely towards his spouse so God exists entirely for his people. As we hear in the book of Isaiah:  “As a young man marries a young woman, so will your Builder marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.”[20] Whatever the real meaning of the mysterious “I AM” of Exodus, it is clear from the entire event that God reveals Himself as the one who cares for His people.

God delivers the Hebrews from the hands of the Egyptians and brings them through the Sea of Reeds to which the Hebrews sing: “I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea.”[21] God makes a covenant with Moses on Mount Sinai and expounds the Mosaic law and the Ten Commandments. All of these increasingly intimate relationships that man has with God lead to a purifying of mankind’s image of God and leads us closer and closer to the ultimate expression of the divine mercy that is expressed in Jesus. Yet already here in the Old Testament we have seen that God is filled with love for His people and is concerned about their misery. Again and again He reaches out to a fallen humanity to which humanity responds by turning their face away as a person would shield his eyes from the rays of the sun. In response to this hard heartedness, God sends his Beloved Son, born of a virgin, to redeem us from our sins and make us sons of God. He will then use the light that we mirror, the light of the sons of God, to illuminate the darkness of the world, to bring about conversion and salvation.

In the liturgy on Good Friday the “Improperia” is traditionally sung in which God provides a long list of His many mercies to his people and then chillingly asks: “My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you?” …”I brought you out of the land of Egypt, and you prepared cross for your savior.” The significance is impressive when we keep in mind the incarnation and we look back in our minds to the year’s celebration of Christmas, which is still in our memory. Yet this greatest atrocity, this complete ingratitude for past mercies is turned by God into the ultimate mercy and our redemption. The passion and death of Christ coupled with the resurrection of Christ results in death being destroyed and the birth of life eternal for us. “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”[22] Jesus Christ, along with being the suffering servant, is the messianic king, the heir to the throne of David who has risen to die no more. The eternity of the Davidic dynasty is therefore now the eternity of God –it will last forever as was promised. Abraham becomes not just the fathers of the Jews but the father of the Gentiles as well, their father in faith.[23] Christ mediates the eternal new covenant in His blood that the prophet Jeremiah prophesied:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah….for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”[24]

As we travel through lent experiencing the mercy of God and come to contemplate all of God’s mercies throughout history and in our own lives, our understanding and gratitude for all of God’s mercies ought to be renewed as we again come to celebrate the Holy Triduum . This should strike us profoundly during our veneration of the cross on Good Friday and the most solemn solemnity of Easter. Yet we must remember that the mercies of God demand of us to be merciful to the poor around us.  The word “mercy” in Latin is “misericors” and it quite literally means to have a heart (cor) for the poor (miser). Thus to show mercy is to attempt to eliminate the poverty and misery of those who are spiritually and corporeally poor. A commitment to catechesis and faith instruction is a way for us to be merciful, as well as commitment to social justice, clothing the naked and feeding the hungry. We need to remember the parable of the unforgiving servant in the Gospel, who was shown so much mercy by his master but then would not forgive his fellow servant. Our Lord has forgiven us so much—he is not a tyrant or a police officer who is out to get us but rather He loves us and wants a relationship with us. Therefore we should not be tyrants with others, we shouldn’t lord it over people just waiting for them to make a mistake so that we can jump in with condemnation. Shouldn’t we have mercy on our fellow human beings as God has had mercy on us?


[1] Psalm 189:1-2

[2]     Ezekiel 18:23

[3] It is true that the Bible presents God as a “watcher” who sees the unjust actions  of men and punishes them accordingly. We hear in Psalm 94 the criticism of those who “slay the widow and the stranger And murder the orphans” and then say “The LORD does not see, Nor does the God of Jacob pay heed.” (Psalm 94:6-7).Yet we should understand this “watching” as the watching of a loving father, as a father watches, protects, and disciplines his sons and daughters. The punishment of the wicked is reformative  because God does not desire the death of the wicked, but those who will not reform are given their just punishment and this is for the benefit of the poor and the needy as they have an advocate with God and there really will be justice for them.

[4] Dominique Barthélemy, O.P., God and His Image: An Outline of Biblical Theology, pg. 40-42

[5] Myth here does not mean “false” or “non-historical”. The first eleven chapters of Genesis are history in a true sense but the ancient Hebrews did not write history as we do nor did they even have the same conception of history.  Catholic scholars distinguish between what the Bible teaches from the way that it teaches it.  (Denz. 2329) See the General Audience of September 19th 1979 of Saint John Paul`s Theology of the Body lectures for a discussion on the literary character of the first chapters of Genesis and the 20th century conception of “myth”.

[6] Genesis 3:1-7

[7] Dominique Barthélemy, O.P., God and His Image: An Outline of Biblical Theology, pg. 27-30

[8] B. Vawter C.M., A Path Through Genesis, pg. 82, 86

[9] Genesis 1:2

[10] E.H. Maly, Genesis, Jerome Biblical Commentary, pg. 16

[11] CCC 56

[12] B. Vawter C.M., A Path Through Genesis, pg. 94-96

[13] Genesis 12:1

[14] Genesis 12:2

[15] Luke 1:72

[16] Dominique Barthélemy, O.P., God and His Image: An Outline of Biblical Theology, pg. 52-55

[17] Exodus 3:7-8

[18] Exodus 3:14

[19] Traditionally this name has been interpreted along the lines of Greek philosophy and has been used to identify the God of Israel with the God of the philosophers. (Aquinas, ST I-I, Q. 13, A.11) Yet some scholars object that what the ancient Hebrews mean by the word “to be” is different than what the Greek philosophers mean. (W. Kasper, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, pg. 48) Others argue that such a conclusion is to overlook Egyptian and Akkadian texts from the pre-Mosaic period. (J.E. Huesman S.J., Exodus, The Jerome Biblical Commentary, pg. 50) Joseph Ratzinger interprets this name given in the book of Exodus to be more of a refusal of a name than a giving of a name. (J. Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, pg. 128).I do not intend to take up any position in this article regarding this dispute; although I think the traditional view that there is a special connection between God and being (in the Greek conception) has a perennial validity. Something all of these views have in common is that they all admit that Sacred Scripture does identify God with being (in the Greek conception) in some fashion. (Kasper, pg.86), (Ratzinger, pg. 131), (Huesman, ibid)

[20] Isaiah 62:5

[21] Exodus 15:1

[22] 1 Corinthians 15:55

[23] Epistle to the Hebrews?

[24] “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

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The Southern Tour – Br. Damien

  • Getting reading to depart from San Francisco!
  • The famous Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles
  • The crypt of the LA Cathedral.
  • Saint Dominic's Church in Eagle Rock, LA (inside)
  • Saint Dominic's Church in Eagle Rock, LA (outside)
  • Our nuns in Hollywood. (Monastery of the Angels)
  • San Diego
  • Catholic Answers in San Diego
  • Catholic Answers in San Diego
  • Mexicali, Mexico
  • Mexicali, Mexico
  • Mexicali, Mexico
  • Mexicali, Mexico
  • Mexicali, Mexico

Every February, the novice class takes a tour of the southern half of the Western Dominican Province. We go on this trip to familiarize ourselves with our province as an aid for our discernment. We get to know these communities, and they get to know us. We join our Dominican brothers in their communal life and ministerial activities, and one of the novices shares his vocation testimony at each Sunday Mass. This tour lasts about one month as we travel down the California coast, into Mexico, back up through Arizona, to Las Vegas, and then finally returning to California and the Bay Area. Inevitably, with a whole month of travel, we came across some pleasantly surprising things. We encountered an enormous amount of generosity, saw some beautiful sights, and even had a few multicultural experiences.

Even before we started our tour, we had some unexpected excitement. A week before our departure, our “friar engine”, the Novitiate’s giant red van, finally went out of commission after nearly fifteen years of service. Luckily we were able to rent a replacement van for our tour. With that, we all climbed in and set off for Los Angeles.

Our first stop was at St. Dominic’s parish in Eagle Rock. St. Dominic’s is home to a large Filipino community with many vibrant ministries, including an elementary school. We received a very warm welcome, and we could see how much the parishioners adored the priests that ministered to them. During our stay, Father Paul Scanlon celebrated his birthday. The parish’s Hispanic community organized a wonderful celebration for him. They provided a great feast of homemade Mexican food and brought in a mariachi band to perform for him.

We concluded our stay at St. Dominic’s by visiting the classrooms at their school. It was a great opportunity to share our vocation stories with these young children and to see the great work that the Dominicans do in promoting good Catholic education.

Los Angeles is also home to a monastery of Dominican nuns. The Monastery of the Angels, located in Hollywood, is composed of about ten nuns dedicated to a life of prayer. We were privileged to meet with them and sit in on one of their classes taught by Father Jude Eli, one of our own Dominican friars.

From Los Angeles, we made our way an hour eastward to Riverside. Here the Dominicans staff a Newman Center campus ministry which serves the University of California Riverside. We joined the students for several activities, including a holy hour and a Mass on campus.

Our next stop was the Newman Center at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). We spent time there getting a tour of the campus ministry and visiting some parts of the general San Diego area. We stopped by Catholic Answers, where Father Vincent Serpa (a Dominican) works as a chaplain and apologist. We also toured the University of San Diego (USD), a Catholic university near the Dominican residence. This campus has some beautiful architecture, including several lovely chapels.

At USD, we had one of those humorous encounters that inevitably comes with being a Dominican friar. As the nine of us were walking along in our habits, a man stepped in front of us and said, “Whoa, stop! Are you guys popes?” We of course informed him what we were, but we were still a little puzzled as to how someone at a Catholic campus would think that we were “popes”.

From San Diego, we made our way down to our mission in Mexicali, Mexico. Mexicali is a city right on the border with the U.S. The area where the Dominicans minister is a particularly poor part of Mexicali. The area that this mission serves is enormous. There is one main church with three additional chapels and one school. We began by visiting each classroom at the school. The priests introduced us to the students who sheepishly shared with us some of their English. In one classroom, one little boy asked, “Por qué no tienen manos? [Why don’t they have hands?]”. We instantly realized that we had all instinctively placed our hands under our scapulars. Looking back, that certainly would look a little strange to someone not used to this gesture.

That evening, we attended an anointing Mass for Our Lady of Lourdes. It happened to be Father Martin Walsh’s birthday, so once Mass ended, a mariachi band paraded in. Waiting outside was a little party set up for Father Martin with food and dessert. Very soon, a man riding a horse came into the courtyard, and, to our surprise, the horse began dancing to the mariachi music. We had never seen a dancing horse before, so this was a great delight for all of us. After chit-chatting with the community, we joined Father Miguel for a high school confirmation class. They were tackling some tough questions about the Trinity, and we did the best we could to help.

We spent the next few days exploring the area. We got to the see the other parish chapels and went to a local graveyard. This graveyard was strikingly different than most in the United States. Some graves had gravestones, but many only had makeshift wood crosses or plaques. Ubiquitously dispersed throughout the graveyard were ornaments of affection left by loved ones. While this occasion was certainly somber, it also displayed the love and devotion of the local community.

After spending a few days in Mexico, we went back across the border to Tucson, Arizona where the Dominicans staff a Newman Center at the University of Arizona. We spent some time getting to know the Dominican community and the students. We joined them for a study session with Father Jacek and did some outreach on the campus quad. We also worked on our ping-pong and pool game in their rec room. Some of us got quite good.

During the course of our trip, we visited several missions in Arizona and California. One of the most striking was San Xavier del Bac Mission outside of Tucson. The church building has a beautiful white exterior with the inside vibrantly decorated with statues and frescos. The mission is surrounded by a hilly desert landscape. One of these hills was close enough to climb, which gave us a great view of the surrounding area.

After Tucson, we traveled up north to Phoenix. One of the our fellow novices, Brother Martin Maria, belongs to the Vietnamese Vicariate, which is a Dominican Province that serves Vietnamese Catholics in North America. One of their parishes is located in Phoenix. As we drove up to Vietnamese Martyrs parish, we were instantly struck by its unique design. At first glance, one might mistake it for an East Asian pagoda. The four corners of the church curve upward, and on each corner sits a dragon, a symbol of royalty. If you look at the dragons, you can see that they all face the cross at the top of the church. We found out later that the dragons, the wood pews, the crucifix, and many other features of the church were shipped from Vietnam and were generously assembled by the parish community.

Our stay at the parish coincided with the celebration of Ash Wednesday and the Lunar New Year. We did our best to learn some Vietnamese to give out ashes and Holy Communion. The eve of the New Year was quite the celebration. We began the day with one of the biggest breakfasts we’ve ever had. That night, the parish held a special Mass with the local auxiliary bishop in attendance. Before the Mass, the priest and some of the men of the parish performed a traditional Vietnamese ceremony to honor Christ, the Vietnamese martyrs, and the congregation’s ancestors. After Mass, everyone went out to the front of the church where we met some dancing dragons. During the Lunar New Year, everyone gets “lucky money” in a red envelope. Part of the festivities is to feed the money to the dragons as they dance (We think that it might be a scam… hahaha). We then joined the pastor, the bishop, and some of the parish community for a late celebratory dinner.

From Phoenix, we traveled to Las Vegas where the Dominicans staff a Newman Center and the St. Therese Center for HIV care. The St. Therese Center provides spiritual and material needs for those suffering from HIV. We were privileged to hear a testimony from one of the beneficiaries of this center. He has an amazing story of how God’s grace has transformed him in the midst of crisis. Even though his physical health is failing, he has become a man of great courage and faith.

That Sunday at the Newman Center, we spent some time getting to know the students at each Mass. In addition, we met up with Brother Josh’s parents who live in Las Vegas, and they fed us very generously.

On our way from Las Vegas to the California coast, we stopped by a Coptic Monastery in rural California. As we came upon their grounds, one of the monks warmly welcomed us and gave us a tour of their church. Many of us were unfamiliar with the Coptic Church, so this was a very unique experience.

The last of our ministries that we stopped at was Thomas Aquinas College (TAC) in Santa Paula where a Dominican priest serves as a chaplain. Brother Richard, an alumnus of the school, gave us a tour of the campus. TAC follows a Great Books program in which students study the classic works of western civilization. We sat in on a few classes and attended a daily Mass in their beautiful chapel.

As we continued to travel up the California coast, we met up with Brother John’s family in Paso Robles, who cooked a delicious lunch for us.

From there we stopped in Santa Barbara where a former parishioner from St. Dominic’s in San Francisco is studying as an aspirant with the OFM Franciscans. While there, we stayed at a retreat center run by Anglican Benedictines.

Our very last stop was the Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur. The Camaldolese are a group of monks who follow the Benedictine tradition. Their hermitage is in a beautiful location with a breathtaking view of the coast on one side and rolling green hills on the other. It was a perfect way to end our month-long journey. We were able to relax and spend some time in prayer, reflecting on the past month of travel.

It would be safe to conclude that the southern tour did exactly what it intended to do, and then some. The novices got a good sense of the diverse Dominican ministries south of the Bay Area. We saw what Dominican life looks like at a parish, at a Newman Center, in a mission, and in other specialized ministries. In addition, we had a great multicultural experience, seeing everything from dancing horses in Mexico to dancing dragons in Phoenix. We became more familiar with our Catholic heritage, stopping by the many missions on the west coast and spending time with the Church’s other religious communities. We all very much enjoyed our month long tour. It has greatly prepared us for the rest of the novitiate year as we follow God’s guidance in our religious discernment.

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How are your New Year’s resolutions coming along? — Br. David

How are your New Year’s resolutions coming along? We’re now in the middle of lent and perhaps a chance for us to reflect on the resolutions we have made for this year. In the video below, Br. David reflects on Christ and our personal resolutions. The video was recorded at the vigil for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God on Jan 1st, 2015.

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Holiday Season Preaching — Br. Damien

Matthew 2:1-12

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,
in the days of King Herod,
behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying,
“Where is the newborn king of the Jews?
We saw his star at its rising
and have come to do him homage.”
When King Herod heard this,
he was greatly troubled,
and all Jerusalem with him.
Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people,
He inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea,
for thus it has been written through the prophet:
And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
since from you shall come a ruler,
who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
Then Herod called the magi secretly
and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance.
He sent them to Bethlehem and said,
“Go and search diligently for the child.
When you have found him, bring me word,
that I too may go and do him homage.”
After their audience with the king they set out.
And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them,
until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.
They were overjoyed at seeing the star,
and on entering the house
they saw the child with Mary his mother.
They prostrated themselves and did him homage.
Then they opened their treasures
and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they departed for their country by another way.

“Lead, Kindly Light” by Bl. John Henry Newman (1801-1890):

LEAD, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home—
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see

The distant scene—one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor pray’d that Thou
Shouldst lead me on.
I loved to choose and see my path, but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,

Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile

Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

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For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. (1 Corinthians 3:19) — Br. Joseph

On the eve of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, in which the faithful gathered to adore the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament to mark the beginning of the new year,  Br. Joseph Selinger preached on the incarnation and the importance of humility as a response to this mystery. Check it out!

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Ahaz, the Incarnation, and Christmas – Br. Richard

As novices, we have ongoing opportunities for “preaching practice.” On the 23rd, Br. Richard preached at Vespers for the community and the laity; Br. Josh was able to capture some footage.

The reading was from the book of the Prophet Isaiah, 7:10-14

The Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying: Ask for a sign from the Lord, your God;
Let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky!
But Ahaz answered, “I will not ask! I will not tempt the Lord!”
Then Isaiah said: Listen, O house of David!
Is it not enough for you to weary people, must you also weary my God?
Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign:
the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.

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Christmas? So what?

Christmas_bauble_black_and_white

It’s almost Christmas…..so what? What does the incarnation even mean for today’s world? I think about this every time I start to hear the Christmas music starting to be played in the shops and supermarket. Coming from Canada, which nobody claims is a “Christian nation”, I marvel at the fact that in Vancouver throughout the year there is a complete lack of concern about religion and even downright hostility towards Christianity, but during Christmas time you hear sweet hymns to the baby Jesus ring out from the shops and supermarket.  Most of the western world has a historically Christian past – here in the United States the Gospel message took deep root, just as up north in Canada we Anglophones traditionally have been Anglicans while Quebec was the jewel of Roman Catholicism. Today, if western culture seems to develop a serious personality disorder in these long days of winter, it is not that the lack of sunlight has made us go over the deep-end, but rather this is just the remnants of a past that we haven’t been able to rid ourselves of. Indeed, since the 17th century it seems that we have had a steady march of a whole variety of anti-Christian philosophies which went on to radically transform our society into one that is quite hostile to Christianity.[1] Looking at history, one wonders why society from the very beginning didn’t just jettison Christianity and be done with it. In terms of moral values, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre correctly observes that the 17th century was a time of profound crisis such that the very basis of the moral order of things was undermined, but philosophers simply attempted to ground their conservative Christian morality on something else.[2] Some of those that caused the disruption even maintained some Christian beliefs. Descartes for example still admitted the existence of God and despite obviously being somewhat dishonest to avoid the authorities, likely adhered to a large number of Catholic beliefs.[3] Locke in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding tries very hard to preserve grounds for accepting the existence of God and was a Christian of some sort, while later in the 18th century Kant set out to critique reason in order to make room for faith and saw himself as a kind of vindicator of Christianity.[4] Only slowly did the west depart from Christianity and it seems that we are at the tail end of this movement. People today see that the foundation that supported the past Christian culture is not there and as a result many of the structures and moral axioms in our society simply seem arbitrary. Hence we are now beginning to tear down the final edifices – those edifices that nobody dreamed would be destroyed. Who would have thought, even a hundred years ago, that same-sex marriage could be legalized, abortion would be rampant, and fornication and sexual promiscuity would be an accepted part of society? Even recently we have a well-respected professor such as Peter Singer arguing for infanticide which is the killing of children after birth.[5] Our culture is starting to resemble pre-Christian Rome more and more and this means that the west’s rejection of Christianity is almost complete.

Yet in doing this we have cut our owns wrists as Christianity was the solution to the problem of man – that we are oppressed under the slavery of sin.  In the book of Deuteronomy (7:20) there is a passage which instructs Hebrew parents on what to say to their children when they ask what all the ordinances, statues, and decrees that they observe mean. Today we are in a similar situation – what do these edifices that are being torn down mean? What did the ones that previous generations tore down mean? Let us read:

“We were once slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with his strong hand and wrought before our eyes signs and wonders, great and dire, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and his whole house. He brought us from there to lead us into the land he promised on oath to our fathers, and to give it to us. Therefore, the Lord commanded us to observe all these statues in fear of the Lord, our God, that we may always have as prosperous and happy a life as we have today..”

The author speaks of “we” in terms of the parents and children who were subject to the saving power of the Lord. Yet we are not to think that the author is only speaking about the parents and children that were alive in Egypt at the time of the Exodus, but rather the parents and children of Israel for all time. This is especially true when we consider that the book of Deuteronomy is a later reinterpretation of the law and the primary audience are the Jews in exile in Babylon.  For ancient Israel, the solution to present difficulties are found in a return to the historical events of the past as communicated by their traditions which contain their collective memory of the wonders and saving actions that the Lord did for them in their history. The past is creatively appropriated and re-presented anew to face contemporary problems and thus reveals itself as not only the words of the past but a living and dynamic word that affect them in their “today”.[6] For us too, the word of God is perennially relevant, and in light of God’s Word and the record of His saving actions in history, a future full of hope opens up for us. So in Deuteronomy, the traditions of the past and the memory of the wonders that the Lord did in Egypt are actualized and brought to bear on the issues of the 6th century BC.  Egypt is a place of slavery and oppression and in terms of the Jews in exile in Babylon, Egypt also takes on the character of being a place of slavery due to sin because the exile was caused by the many abominations that the Israelites committed.  In the light of the New Testament, this theme can be taken up again and we see that Egypt is symbol of this sinful world that we live in – oppressed by sin and death. We need to be liberated by God’s strong hand and be taken to the Promised Land, that is, away from our sinful state towards freedom and happiness in God.

So we should recall: We were once slaves in Egypt but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with his strong hand, and wrought before our eyes signs and wonders. Society before Christianity was enslaved to their sins, we were in Egypt, and it can be admitted, a good portion of society during the time of Christendom was enslaved by their sins and in Egypt as well. Yet those who lived the Gospel faithfully were set free from this slavery and these free men went to shape the structure of society in the west. Just as the people of Israel discovered, to forget the Lord, to forget all he has done and his wondrous works, is to open oneself for exile – slavery. God let the people of Israel hit rock bottom in Babylon so that these rebellious children would realize how much they needed the Lord because He alone could satisfy them and give prosperity. So too our society will discover, and is discovering, what we can do with our own power. What can we do when we forget the words of Him who said: “Without me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)?

Christianity offers freedom from our sins, freedom to be happy, freedom to love and be loved. This is the meaning of the incarnation, not only for the past, but also for today. The incarnation is the beginning of the “signs and wonders”, the strong arm of the lord starting to force Pharaoh – our sins – into submission. Insofar as it gives us hope to be free from our ultimate malady it justifies history by giving us hope. We wouldn’t record history if we had no future and we really have no future, at least one worth having, without hope.  The fact that God would so abase himself, being born in poverty in Bethlehem, the creator looking up at his creations from below, in utter weakness, gives us hope. The fact that this creator would voluntarily die instead of us, as a father would rather give his life than to see the death of his son, this gives us hope.[7]  The incarnation, being the beginning of the life of Our Lord, is the very center of history and the defining moment of human civilization because it is the moment that man starts to be redeemed and it is only the redeemed life that is worth living. Jesus Christ is the center of history, the heritage of the western world, and the hope for the future of western civilization and beyond it. The earth may turn, ages may pass, but the incarnate God giving His life for us on the cross stands firm.



[1] Today this crisis is viewed as the triumph of scientific reason over faith and credulity and that the loss of faith since the early modern period is due to the steady advance of science which broke the shackles that Christianity put on reason. The real triumph is not the triumph of scientific reason but rather the triumph (apparent) of nominalism which had a deep root in the Middle Ages. Nominalism is the position that universals such as “humanity” and “whiteness” are simply common names describing certain concrete objects that have a physical resemblance with each other. This kind of thinking leads us to severe problems when it comes to a theory of knowledge and ultimately results in skepticism.  Hence, it is wrong to think that the modern world is a complete break with the preceding age. In fact, in many ways it is in profound continuity with it as nominalism was very much present in the Middle Ages in the work of philosophers such as William of Ockham.

[2] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, pg. 52-57

[3] See Meditations III, V and the letter of dedication to the faculty of theology at the Sorbonne in Paris.

[4] “…..I therefore had to annul knowledge in order to make room for faith…Solely by means of critique can we cut off, at the very root, materialism, fatalism, atheism, freethinking lack of faith, fanaticism, and superstition, which can become harmful universally…” Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (Pluhar), Preface [Second Edition] pg. 31-34

[5] Excerpted from Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics, 2nd edition, Cambridge, 1993, pp. 175-217 : “In Chapter 4 we saw that the fact that a being is a human being, in the sense of a member of the species Homo sapiens, is not relevant to the wrongness of killing it; it is, rather, characteristics like rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness that make a difference. Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings…..Infants are sentient beings who are neither rational nor self- conscious. So if we turn to consider the infants in themselves, independently of the attitudes of their parents, since their species is not relevant to their moral status, the principles that govern the wrongness of killing non-human animals who are sentient but not rational or self-conscious must apply here too.”

[6] The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, Pontifical Biblical Commission, II.1, IV.A

[7] “The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: ‘O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you–O Absalom, my son, my son!’” (2 Samuel 18:33)

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Everyone’s a Critic….A Review of Interstellar. *Spoilers*

Interstellar-Movie-PosterRecently some of the Dominican Novices went to see the movie Interstellar as an outing. For those who have never heard of this movie, it is a recent science fiction epic that focuses on a group of scientists attempting to find a new habitable planet to escape a dying earth. Now people may wonder why Dominican Friars would be seeing such a movie.  What could cinema offer to the Dominican preacher? The primary reason to see this movie, for me, is that popular movies often express different themes and outlooks that correspond to how most people see the world. Certainly, a single movie may represent the views of only a subsection of the population, but if we analyze many films in a given period and location, you can start to discern different patterns which correspond to the self-understanding of the culture. Furthermore, films are often used as “experiments” to explore different themes and to determine the consequences – they are “what if” experiments. For example, in the genre of “disaster movies” we can see an exploration of how human nature would respond to such drastic conditions. Would we be selfish? Everyman for himself? Would we preserve our humanity? These are questions that these movies answer and they reveal the contents of our cultural self-perception. Hence by looking at films we can gain a deeper understanding of the outlook and thought patterns of our culture and then proceed to evaluate them based on solid principles from reason and revelation. Films then can be a way to critique the surrounding culture and to lead people to a better way of life, and for the Dominican preacher, this way of life is Jesus Christ who is the way, the truth, and the life.

So what can be said about Interstellar? What does this movie reveal about the surrounding culture and what are we to make of these cultural trends from the perspective of reason and revelation?  We can proceed firstly by analyzing the overarching theme of the movie. Interstellar is set in the near future in which humanity is suffering from a serious global food crisis. The exact cause is not clearly given, and perhaps this is for the best. The premise is that for whatever reason humanity needs to leave earth. Now, this theme typically leaves a bad taste in my mouth as it is an expression of certain views that you get from popular science material and this material doesn’t reach deeply enough. The root problem that we have as a species is not locational and therefore it can never be fixed by merely changing homes. Neither can we expect that future technology will ever improve the situation. As the problem with man is anthropological which means that the problem man has is with himself. This is why along with the advancement of technology we have the risk for the abuse of technology. Even though in Interstellar it seems that an excessively large human population is the ultimate cause of the disaster, the immediate cause of the problem is an inordinate consumption to the point of causing global ecological catastrophe. Technology is used in order to provide for this excessive consumption and as a result becomes merely a means for an inordinate end — technology participates in the problem.  Any future inventions will always contain the possibility of misuse because technology is created and used by men who have free will.

Interstellar highlights this anthropological issue in three places and I was very pleased with this. The first instance was a brilliant discussion about the goodness of the cosmos and the place of moral evil in it. Matthew McConaughey’s character was speaking to Anne Hathaway’s character sometime at the beginning of their mission. Anne Hathaway’s character spoke of how there is no evil in the cosmos – it is violent and tremendous, but this does not make it evil. She asks: “Is a lion evil for eating a gazelle?” To which Matthew McConaughey’s character responded something to the effect of: “This is what we bring”.  This corresponds to a profoundly Christian view of the world. God created a good world, as we read in Genesis, but evil comes into the picture through man. This is to be contrasted with the ancient pagan view which considered the material world to be evil. It is man who brings with him evil, he is the only creature that doesn’t act how he ought to act and so the disorder he finds in himself he communicates to the entire cosmos.

The second instance was the theme of temptation that came up with the character of Dr. Mann. As one of my brothers pointed out, the name “Mann” seems to be a very deliberate choice. He is the everyman, the archetypal man, who really represents all of us in all of our weakness. He represents fallen humanity – man as weak and subject to temptation.  When it comes down to a choice between saving his own skin and offering himself for the greater good, he chooses to save his own skin.

The third instance was the reason that “Plan A” needed to be proposed as a deception. For those that don’t remember, Plan A was the plan to take a portion of humanity off of earth and save them while Plan B was to repopulate the species with artificially inseminated eggs that exist on the spacecraft. Plan A was merely a deception because, according to the view of Professor Brand, man is fundamentally selfish and not really caring about the common good but rather his own individual good. Hence in order to get anyone to do something good that transcends their own narrow perspective, they need to be tricked into doing it. Man is driven by instinct and really cannot transcend it to do something completely selfless. This I have mixed feelings about because a sharp separation cannot be made between concern for family and the common good – after all, the desire to be with and raise one’s family in the first place is ordered to the common good of the species. The point however remains that we cannot transcend our immediate concerns to do what we know we ought to do. All of this is true in part of man in his fallen nature without grace. As due to original sin we cave in on ourselves and our own concerns typically become the only concerns on our horizon. We are enslaved to inordinate self-love and we cannot come out of the sphere of our own egotism to do what we know is right. As Saint Thomas teaches, without the aid of God’s grace we could never avoid grave sin for a long time.[1] At the same time however we are certainly not completely ruled by our instincts such that we cease to be free to choose. Indeed, moral evil presupposes this freedom.

Ultimately however, the solution expressed to this anthropological problem in the movie Interstellar is quite naïve. At the end, it is man in the future that saves us. In the movie humanity advances to a certain stage in which we transcend this three dimensional world and then return back in time to save ourselves. We are our own saviors – we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. The anthropological problem is solved by us in the distant future after some unfathomable transformation.  Yet the issue with this is that the solution presupposes a magical fixing of the problem and is therefore not really a solution. The solution proposed by Interstellar, reflecting the view of modern society and especially popular atheism/scientism, doesn’t explain how to resolve the root-problem but just asserts that it is resolved. Humans can only save themselves if they are not humans, that is, they can only solve the anthropological problem if they are no longer subject to this problem. Hence, the movie Interstellar, albeit unconsciously on the part of the writers, exposes the fallacy in our modern thinking. We can only save ourselves if we are not ourselves and so when we transcend who we are then we will solve all our issues. Yet we know that we cannot change who we are – we remain humans just as we always were. So the fact of the matter is that has humans we are out of luck. We really can’t save ourselves and so long as we remain humans there is no hope for us unless aid can come from outside ourselves.

The theological solution of Christianity is this: Through Jesus Christ we can put away humanity as fallen and be transformed and elevated by grace. Here we are not just brought back in a certain sense to live a life on a purely human level without our weaknesses, but rather we are deified and made adopted sons of God. We are new creatures in Christ and it is in our life as these new creatures that we will have salvation. Through a critical analysis of the thinking of our culture we find ourselves open to transcendence, awaiting the life given to us through our Savior. Let us then accept the life of Christ every day until we reach that heavenly Jerusalem, which is our true place of refuge.



[1] “So, too, before man’s reason, wherein is mortal sin, is restored by justifying grace, he can avoid each mortal sin, and for a time, since it is not necessary that he should be always actually sinning. But it cannot be that he remains for a long time without mortal sin.” (ST I-II Q. 109, A.8)

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House Blessing

  • Father Felix blesses the kitchen.
  • The famous Father Felix

Last Saturday at Saint Dominic’s Priory we had a house blessing in which each of the friar’s rooms were blessed. This was a very special event for us novices because we were able to compose our own prayers for the occasion in order to ask God to bless and consecrate our rooms. We prayed that the time  spent our rooms might, by the aid of God, be used profitably for advancing in Christian perfection and seeking the salvation of souls.

The event began with a sermon preached by the prior Father Steven followed by the blessing of Holy Water according to the 1962 Rituale Romanum. The prayers in this older ritual for the blessing of Holy Water are quite beautiful. Blessed salt is used in the ritual and a minor exorcism is performed on both the salt and the water before the blessing: “God’s creature, salt, I cast out the demon from you by the living God, by the true God, by the holy God, by God who ordered you to be thrown into the water-spring by Eliseus to heal it of its barreness….” and “God’s creature, water, I cast out the demon from you in the name of God the Father almighty, in the name of Jesus Christ, His Son, Our Lord, and in the power  of the Holy Spirit…” The theology of performing an exorcism on the water before blessing it is expressed well by Saint Thomas in his Summa Theologiae: “Whoever purposes to do a work wisely, first removes the obstacles to his work; hence it is written (Jeremiah 4:3): “Break up anew your fallow ground and sow not upon thorns.” (ST Suppl. IIIae, Q. 71, A. 2) The work we were doing was consecrating our rooms to God and asking Our Lord’s protection against the snares of the devil, who as we hear in one of the readings for Compline, is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. We must stand firm against the serpent strong in faith and in order to do this we need the aid of God because we can only stand firm in faith by God’s grace. (1 Peter 5:8-9) So we bless our rooms – we set them apart to be holy places dedicated to the Lord.

The prayers that the brothers authored were quite beautiful and they all expressed their earnest desire to give everything to God and to use all of their time for the glory of His Name. We expressed our consciousness of our own weakness. We are sinners and as one brother said, we would rightly be condemned for our sins. Yet God in His great mercy has forgiven us, brought us conversion of heart, and called us to a deep intimacy with Himself. Oftentimes people have the mistaken idea that the religious is a “holy man” and that he has some sort of strength that others do not have. As if putting on the religious habit somehow made him more devout, more acceptable before God. This is not true, we are sinners in the same great field hospital for sinners, the Church. As Sacred Scripture makes abundantly clear, God does not care about externals but rather obedience, purity of heart, and a humble contrite spirit. Everyone is called to holiness – this is something that the Second Vatican Council asserted very strongly – but the religious commits himself to a more radical means to obtain holiness. So it is better to say that the religious is a sinner that has taken up a radical living of the Gospel in order to seek holiness in a radical way. This was expressed well in the prayers of the brothers – there is no illusion among us – we are in the same boat as everyone else. We are sinners on that same bark of Saint Peter, traveling towards Our Lord. We have weaknesses, we need prayers, but we know that our strength is in the Lord. Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made the heavens and the earth. We see in the saints that we invoked to pray for us a great many historical instances in which God used weak sinful creatures like ourselves and brought them to Christian perfection in addition to using them to share His love with others.

So let us walk together, let us work our salvation out together with fear and trembling. Let us work each day to put an end to the old man and put on the new, let us die to self so that we may no longer live but have Christ live in us. Pray for us novices and we will pray for you. May Our Lady, Mother of all Dominicans intercede for us and may we be benefited by the prayers of our Holy Father Dominic.

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Rosary Rally

Recently the Dominican novices were at the rosary rally with Archbishop Cordileone. There we participated in the praying of the rosary and the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the public square. We were honored to be able to listen to sermons by Archbishop Cordileone and Fr. Andrew Apostoli CFR which were greatly edifying. We left with a deeper appreciation of the place the rosary has in the Christian life and of our Dominican mission to propagate the rosary. This rally was especially significant because we had recently celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary which commemorates the defeat of the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto on October 7th 1571. Before this battle, our Dominican brother Pope Saint Pius V encouraged all of Christendom to pray the rosary to plead for our Lady’s intercession in order to prevent the invasion of Europe.

This is a painting of our Dominican brother Saint Pius V being given a vision proclaiming the defeat of the Turkish forces at the Battle of Lepanto.

This is a painting of our Dominican brother Saint Pius V being given a vision proclaiming the defeat of the Turkish forces at the Battle of Lepanto.

Today as in the past, Our Lady of the Rosary has the power to shape world events by her intercession. Throughout the world there are enemies of truth, justice, and peace that are causing crises both internationally and locally. Let us have recourse to the rosary to beg Our Lady’s intercession, as the holy Saint Pius V did, in order to obtain from Jesus an end to error, injustice, and conflict.

Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us!

 

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Transitus of Saint Francis

  • Scary people in the back alley.
  • Getting ready to start.
  • Br. Richard preaching.

Last Saturday the novices attended the Transitus of Saint Francis. This is the vigil of the Feast of Saint Francis in which the Franciscans celebrate the passing of Saint Francis into heavenly glory. Traditionally, the Dominicans would have a special presence at the Transitus just as the Franciscans would have a special presence at the feast of our Holy Father Dominic. This is an expression of close friendship between the two orders as they were formed at the same time and had similar forms of life. We were delighted to be joined by the Capuchins, some of whom study at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology.

Father Anthony Rosevear, OP presided at the transitus and Br. Richard preached his first sermon. Check out the pictures!

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Fruit of the vine and work of human hands

Recently the novitiate class spent a few days at the Ignatius Press retreat house near the Russian River in California for some time of recreation. This time away from the novitiate schedule gave us a period of rest with the Lord in His creation and an occasion to grow in Christian fellowship with each other. This trip was particularly special because we were given the opportunity to help with the grape harvest. Every day at Mass we pray “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the wine we offer you: fruit of the vine and work of human hands it will become our spiritual drink.” Servant of God Fulton Sheen wrote some very powerful words about this moment in the Sacred Liturgy:

“In the offertory, the people participate very often by bringing up bread and wine. The bread and wine represent the priest and the people. There has to be some symbol by which we all can stand at the altar, because we are offering ourselves to God. We are not attending a prayer. This is a sacrifice. So the good Lord has chosen something that does symbolize very well our life. Namely, bread gives us substance and wine is the very marrow of the earth, it gives us blood. When, therefore, we bring that which gives us our nourishment, we are equivalently bringing ourselves. We are on the altar. But we are not just there as offerers. The wheat had to be ground. The grapes had to be crushed. This is already an intimation of what is going to happen during the Eucharist.”  (emphasis mine)[1]

It is very special then to be able to participate in the “work of human hands” — the preparation of wine. In this “work of human hands” we already symbolically participate, by the crushing of the grapes, in what will really happen to us in the Sacred Liturgy. As in the presentation of the bread and wine, which will eventually become the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ at the words of consecration, all of creation, including ourselves, are brought in to be transformed. We are called to participate in the Mass, the sacrifice of Christ, by fully and consciously uniting ourselves to Christ’s offering of Himself to the Father.[2] This is foreshadowed in the crushing of the grapes because just as the grapes are transformed in the process of making wine, so too do we offer ourselves in the Mass, our whole being, and die to self in order for Christ to truly live in us. Thomas à Kempis described this way of participating in the Mass beautifully in The Imitation of Christ in which Christ says:

“As I willingly offered Myself to God the Father for your sins, with My hands stretched out upon the cross, even so you should will to offer yourself to Me daily in the Mass, as intimately as you can with your whole energies and affections, for a pure and holy oblation….Whatsoever you give except yourself, I regard not; for I seek not the gift but yourself…But if you will stand upon  self, and not offer yourself freely to My will, your offering is not complete, nor will there be an entire union between us”[3]

Let us offer ourselves then, grinding the wheat and crushing the grapes. Let us offer an interior sacrifice of all our heart, soul, and strength, in union with Christ at every Mass, even until our last day.    


[1] Through the Year with Fulton Sheen, pg. 171-172
[2] Three Ages of the Interior Life, Father Garrigou-Lagrange O.P., pg. 412
[3] The Imitation of Christ, Bk. IV, chap 8
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