Monday, January 29, 2007

Film Recommendation

Peronal note: My post on Christian unity is taking a little longer to gel than I had hoped. In the meantime I thought I'd offer a recommendation.

Last Monday, I was fotunate to attend a preview of a film called Bella. It won the 2006 Toronto Film festival. I can understand why: the story, direction, and acting were all excellent. It really makes you realize how precious life is.

I can't find the general release date online, but I seem to recall that the filmmakers said March 2007. It's a film worth going way out of your way to see.

IMDB entry

Here's a clip of reviews from the Wikipedia entry:

ABC NEWS: A romantic drama….Mexican director Alejandro Gomez Monteverde's Bella tells the story of two people whose lives converge and turn upside down on a single day in New York. It has won the People's Choice Award, which is often an indicator of future Academy Award nominations. (An Oscar Website) Bella marks the debut feature of Alejandro Gomez Monteverde, a truly humble man in awe of the fact that he's actually made it here. It's better to know as little as possible about this film before going into it but let me tell you that it feels both sincere and loving. It's great to see a film that legitimately moves the viewer without being drowned in sap. And it does this in just 90 minutes. If it comes your way, see it. You won't regret it.

FOX NEWS: I am very pleased that the Toronto Film Festival chose Bella to win their top audience award over the weekend…. It's incredibly charming, with terrific performances by Tammy Blanchard and Mexican star Eduardo Verastegui and Manny Perez. It's directed by Alejandro Gomez Monteverde. It's too easy to say this is the "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" of this season, because "Bella" is far more complex and sophisticated while losing none of the humor. Whoever decides to release Bella will have a nice little hit on their hands. The freshness and lack of affectation in Bella must have appealed to audiences who had to endure a number of big-name films that seemed contrived, stale or calculated.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Right to Life

I'm posting today because tomorrow morning I depart for Washington, D.C., where I will participate in the March for Life. (See below for other noteworthy pro-life sites.)

The entire current issue of Touchstone revolves around the right to life and includes many excellent articles. Among them is "The Silent Witness Speaks: Abortion & Richard Hays’s Moral Ambiguity" by W. Ross Blackburn. The nub of the article is captured in the following selection:

In Scripture, people are distinguished (or categorized) in a number of ways: as Jew or Gentile, master or slave, male or female, and even in terms of their stage in life, as children, young men, men, widows, elders, young women/virgins, and so forth. However, nowhere in Scripture is the unborn child distinguished from other children. Nowhere is he set apart as a separate category.

In other words, there is no word for “fetus” in the Bible. The observation is crucial, for this imposition of the category “fetus” upon the Scriptures is the foundation of Hays’s [pro-abortion] position.

Also noteworthy on abortion and politics is an article in The Atlantic Monthly, "Closing the God Gap" by Hanna Rosin, which traces the electoral success of Democrats who are Christians to a firm called "Common Good," headed by Mara Vanderslice and Eric Sapp. The basic idea, as expressed in the concluding paragraph, is good:

At the very least, such a change [shift of religious voters to the Democrats] might take the sting out of the culture wars. If religious voters come up for grabs nationally, both parties will have to try to win them over the old-fashioned way: using substance and politics instead of just rhetoric.

I wholeheartedly endorse this sentiment, but it rings rather hollow, given the content of the article, in particular:

Vanderslice and Sapp helped the candidates create a new language to use in talking about faith and values, aimed in part at neutralizing hot-button issues. On abortion, for instance, they banned the word choice and pushed reduction, going one step further with Clinton’s idea that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare”: “We must work together across our differences to reduce the need and numbers of abortions by reducing unplanned pregnancies and helping women and families get the support they need when facing a crisis pregnancy,” read a brochure for Sherrod Brown, the Democratic Senate candidate in Ohio.

(Say, empty rhetoric like repackaging "choice" as "reduction"?)

Given the whispered report that many people who claim to be anti-abortion have a secret desire to preserve the "right to choice" as an escape plan for their sexually promiscuous lives, it seems tragically plausible that Christian voters will let themselves be seduced by such insincerity.

Tomorrow I'm flying, which is to say, entering the maw of the national-security apparatus (ah, the joys of the TSA sock hop!), an Atlantic article on the past-glamour of flight hit close to home, and contained a penetrating insight into the chimerical nature of glamour:

Today air travel is just a more or less enjoyable way to get from place to place, not an emotionally resonant symbol of something greater than itself. We frequent flyers forget how unnatural it is to zoom through the air in a metal tube, and we imagine that airline glamour was all about real silverware and perfectly coiffed stewardesses—the experience on the plane. But glamour is always an illusion, an imaginative picture with the blemishes removed. With experience comes disillusionment, no matter how luxurious the reality may be.

I'm reminded of the question in the renewal of baptismal promises, "Do you reject the glamor of evil, and refuse to be mastered by sin?" The attraction of glamour, like that of evil itself, is an illusion. Evil has its day, but it too will pass. The laws of this nation will not forever sanction the killing of the unborn.

W. Ross Blackburn, "The Silent Witness Speaks: Abortion & Richard Hays’s Moral Ambiguity," Touchstone (January/February 2007), 39.

Hanna Rosin, "Closing the God Gap," The Atlantic (January/February 2007), 39. [subscription required for full text access]

Virginia Postrel, "Up, Up, and Away," The Atlantic (January/February 2007), 161. [subscription required for full text access]

Noteworthy pro-life sites:
Silent No More
Black Genocide
Canadian Center for Bio-ethical Reform

Note:I apologize for not having a more original post this week. Next week my post will be substantial and on the subject of Christian unity, the octave dedicated to which we are celebrating now.

Friday, January 12, 2007

God's Resplendence in Creation

The faith that I love the best, says God, is hope.

Faith doesn't surprise me.

lt's not surprising.

I am so resplendent in my creation.

In the sun and the moon and in the stars.

In all of my creatures.

In the stars of the firmament and in the fish of the sea.

In the universe of my creatures.

Upon the face of the earth and upon the face of the waters.

In the movements of the stars in heaven.

In the wind that blows upon the sea and in the wind that blows in the valley.

In the peaceful valley.

In the hushed and hidden valley.

In the plants and in the beasts and in the beasts of the forest.

And in man.

My creature.

In peoples and in men and in kings and in peoples.

In man and in woman his companion.

And especially in children.

My creatures.

In the gaze and in the voice of children.

Because children are more my creatures.
Than men are.

They haven't yet been defeated by life.
On earth.

And of them all they are my servants.
Above all.

And the voice of children is purer than the voice of the wind in the calm of the valley.

In the hushed and hidden valley.

And the gaze of children is purer than the blue of the sky, than the milky sky, and than a star's rays in the peaceful night.

Yes, I am so resplendent in my creation.

Upon the face of the mountains and on the face of the plains.

In bread and in wine and in the man who tills and in the man who sows and in the harvest of grain and in the harvest of grapes.

In the light and in the darkness.

And in the heart of man, which is what is most profound in the world.

The created world.

So profound it is impenetrable to all eyes.

Except my own.

In the tempest that rocks the waves and in the tempest that shakes the leaves.

The leaves of the trees in the forest.

And conversely in the calm of a beautiful evening.

In the sands of the sea and in the stars that are grains of sand in the sky.

In the stone of the threshold and in the stone of the hearth and in the stone of the altar.

In prayer and in sacraments.

In men's houses and in the church that is my house on earth.

In my creature the eagle who flies upon the peaks.

The kingly eagle who has a wingspan of at least two meters and sometimes three.

And in my creature the ant who creeps and who hoards pettily.

In the ground.

In the ant, my servant.

And even in the serpent.

In my servant the ant, my tiny servant, who hoards greedily like a miser.

Who works like one unhappy and who has no break and who has no rest.

But death and but the long sleep of winter.

shrugging his shoulders from so much evidence
before so much evidence

I am so resplendent in all of my creation.

In the tiny one, in my tiny creature, in my tiny servant, in the tiny ant.

Who hoards greedily, like man.

Like tiny man.

And who digs tunnels in the dirt.

In the cellars of the earth.

For stingily gathering his treasures.

His worldly treasures.


And even in the serpent.

Who tricked the woman and who for that crawls on his belly.

And who is my creature and who is my servant.

The serpent who tricked the woman.

My servant.

Who tricked man my servant.

I am so resplendent in my creation.

In all that happens to men and to peoples, and to the poor.

And even to the rich.

Who don't want to be my creatures.

And who take refuge.

From being my servants.

In all the good and evil that man has done and undone.

(And I am above it all, because I am the master, and I do what he has undone and I undo what he has done.)

And unto the temptation to sin.


And in all that happened to my son.

Because of man.

My creature.

Whom I had created.

In the conception, in the birth and in the life and in the death of my son.

And in the holy sacrifice of the Mass.

In every birth and in every life.

And in every death.

And in eternal life that will never end.

That will overcome all death.

I am so resplendent in my creation.

That in order really not to see me these poor people would have to be blind.

Charity, says God, that doesn't surprise me.

It's not surprising.

These poor creatures are so miserable that unless they had a heart of stone, how could they not have love for each other.

How could they not love their brothers.

How could they not take the bread from their own mouth, their daily bread, in order to give it to the unhappy children who pass by.

And my son had such a love for them.

My son their brother.

Such a great love.

But hope, says God, that is something that surprises 'me.

Even me.

That is surprising.

Charles Peguy, Portal of the Mystery of Hope trans. David Louis Schindler, Jr. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman's, 1996), 3-6. Another edition available here.

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Reality of Non-physical Causes

There are three parts to this post. First I want to explain the four ways we speak of causes. Second I want to relate these four ways to the causes that are the subject of modern science. Third, we will see how it is possible for God to act in ways to which modern science modern science cannot even relate, let alone comprehend.

First: there are four ways that we speak of causes or explanations. The goal of science (in both the broad and narrow senses) is to explain, and to explain is to discover causes. Aristotle observed that four general categories of cause are present in all changes of our everyday experience. This will be clearer with an example. To explain the existence of a lamp, we need to know

  1. what is it made of? —brass (material cause)
  2. what or who made it? —the lamp maker (efficient cause)
  3. what is it? —a lamp (formal cause)
  4. what is it for? —to illuminate the room (final cause–purpose, end, goal)

The material, efficient, formal, and final causes are just a more systematic way to use ordinary language, the possible exception being the formal cause, which may seem so obvious as to be pointless. But it is important to clarify: the formal cause is not just the shape of the thing, but something much more radical: it is what the thing is. In common experience, lamps come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but yet they all possess a commonality we’ll call “lampness” that we all know and recognize but could never capture in a drawing.

As Aristotle says, humans and their human productions are a subset of natural things, so it makes sense to ask analogous questions about nature. In nature, the four causes are more difficult to distinguish. We find that the agent that makes a natural thing is the thing itself. The tomato plant as a whole itself gathers the elements (solar energy, water, and carbon dioxide) and assembles them into itself. Likewise the purpose of a natural thing is the thing itself, for example, the purpose of the reddening of a tomato is the redness itself. (This coincidence of the formal and final causes fits nicely with the theology of Genesis, where God declares his creation, “Good,” that is, fulfilling its purpose simply by existing.)

Higher in the hierarchy of being, we find increasingly articulate manifestations of teleology or purpose. Purpose in human action is the most obvious, because it is external to the agent, e.g., a man saves money to buy a house. It’s also not too hard to see that other living things also act for ends. The roots of a tomato plant take up water and magnesium from the soil in order for photosynthesis to take place in the leaves. What almost everyone misses is that purpose extends even deeper. In the most basic sense, the very regularities of nature manifest purpose. That confetti is always attracted to the static electric charge on a balloon shows the order and purpose of nature. Teleology or purpose is not limited to the immediate action of intelligence, but has deep roots that penetrate all creation.

Now that you (hopefully) understand Aristotle's four causes, we will turn to understanding how modern science deals with but a very limited part of this schema. Michael J. Dodds's explanation is without peer:

The noton of "action" can be ascribed not only to efficient cause, but also to formal and final causes. In Aquinas' understanding, to act means "to make something to be in act." This can happen in a number of ways. When the artist shapes the clay into a ball, we can say that the artist (the efficient cause) makes the clay round. But we can also say the form of "roundness" makes the clay actually round. For all the artist's efforts, the clay will remain only potentially round until it possess that form or shape. We can also say that the final cause or end "acts" on the agent or "moves" the agent to act. If the artist works in order to make money, money (as a good to be attained) somehow induces the artist to work.

The action of an efficient cause may sometimes, but not always, be described in terms of quantitative force. The action of an artist on a block of clay, for instance, can be described in terms of how many pounds of pressure per square inch is exerted on it. The efficient causality of the teacher in directing the activity of the artist, however, cannot be so described.

Formal and final causality can never be described as quantitative force. The formal cause acts on the clay to make it actually round, but it does not act as a quantitative force. The clay is not actually round until is possesses the form or shape of "roundness," and that form in some way makes it actually found. But it does not make it round by exerting any sort of force on it. It acts according to the mode of formal causality by causing something (in this case the clay sphere) to be actual. Its action is quite different from that of efficient causality, especially from that brand of efficient causality known as "force."

The final cause acts on the agent to influence or induce her to act. If the artist works "to make money," making money is in some way the cause of her action. But we cannot describe this influence in terms of quantitative force. The final cause acts, but it acts according to the mode of final causality, as an end or good that induces the efficient cause to act. The mode of causality proper to the final cause cannot itself be reduced to efficient causality, much less to the mode of efficient causality we call "force."


Of the four causes in the philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas, only the efficient cause remains in Newtonian science. The formal and final causes disappear since they can neither be quantified nor empirically observed. Matter is not viewed as a "cause" or anything so unmeasurable as a principle of "possibility." Instead, it is viewed as the fundamental actuality or "stuff" of the universe (the atoms or ultimate particles). Only the efficient cause remains since it alone can be empirically observed, quantitatively represented, and experimentally manipulated.

We have seen causes completely beyond the ken of modern science, so now we can turn to explanations of how God acts in such ways. One type of formal cause is the exemplary cause. In terms of the sculpture analogy, the exemplary cause is the idea of the formed sculpture in the mind of the artist. Similarly, the exemplary cause of the universe is the form of creation in the mind of its Creator.

In the context of Christian theology, the mind of God is the Logos, the Word1 of God, which St. John identifies with Jesus. This is clearly what St. John intends in the prologue of his Gospel, "In the beginning was the Word...," which parallels the beginning of Genesis ("In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.... And God said"). God's speech or Word, not only made the universe, but also made it intelligible.2

Beside exemplary causality, there are other ways invisible to modern science that God is a cause. God acts as an efficient, though non-physical, cause. As St. Augustine says, God created time along with the universe. Science can only measure (and treat) movable things, that is, things that exist in time, so we know that God must act as an efficient cause that cannot be measured by modern science. Additionally, he is the ultimate final cause ("the Omega" of Revelation) for which everything acts, the ultimate good that all creation seeks. There is no need for special scientific methods to see the signs of God’s rational power, as the world manifests it to all, as St. Paul says in Romans 1:20.

It strikes me that today's Christians shouldn't fall into the trap of letting the secular world dictate the terms of discussion. Instead of letting God be boxed into the Enlightenment's one-dimensional notion of causation, modern Christians should reclaim their ancient patrimony in which God (through Jesus Christ) is the atemporal cause of all that is temporal, the reason by which anything is intelligible, by which everything is, and for which it exists.


1. Jaroslav Pelikan lists several other meanings of the Greek Logos: mind, power, deed, reason, structure, purpose (58). The ideas of creatures within the Logos are the logoi. See the book cited below for a great exposition of the history of notions of the Cosmic Christ.

2. Cf. Col 1:15-19; John Paul II, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 3: "Eternally begotten and eternally loved by the Father, as God from God and Light from Light, he is the principle and archetype of everything created by God in time."

Mortimer J. Adler, "The Four Causes," (chapter 6) Aristotle for Everybody.

Michael J. Dodds, "Science, Causality And Divine Action: Classical Principles For Contemporary Challenges," CTNS Bulletin 21:1 (Winter 2001), 3-12.

Jaroslav Pelikan, "The Cosmic Christ," (chapter 5) Jesus through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture