Friday, March 27th, 2009
I'm studying the Greek subjunctive right now. I studied it once long ago. I had studied the French subjunctive before that. Funny thing is, I don't think I ever studied this in an English class. I find that after studying something like this, I end up knowing the foreign grammar better than my own.
In English, even when we do cover things like this, it is often more piecemeal. We study "should...would" constructions.
Now there are times when I know exactly what is going on in Greek, even before I know how to translate it into English. My book tells me that the subjunctive is used in deliberative questions. Which one? You use the subjunctive because you are not stating that something has happened or will happen. You are considering the possibility of doing something. It is mental. So I know that the verb is about marching and there is a question of which road. I know from the subjunctive that someone is deliberating which road to march. Very good.
Then there are times in English when I have no idea what has been said. In some Episcopal parishes, I have heard the absolution stated, "The Lord God forgive you all your sins." Forgive? Not forgives? Not forgave? I could at least follow "may He forgive," even if I wouldn't like it. (If Jesus gave the authority to forgive in His name, then use it!) But no. Forgive.
I am set to wondering whether I just don't understand this because for all my foreign language study, I have never run into this English construction. Not as a current way of writing. The closest I could come was the hortatory subjunctive, which would mean "May He forgive." There are expressions where we all know how this works, as in the Aaronic benediction, "The Lord bless thee..."
But expressions with archaic constructions have to be of long usage for this kind of certainty of understanding. In Scripture we are given the context where this was commanded. Whether or not we can discern the mind of the pastor giving the blessing, we know what God meant when He told his priests to bless His people in this fashion. And even here, perhaps the reason this is safe is because few put as much stock in the benediction as in the absolution. I wonder if this is because the benediction is weaker, or because we have understood it to be so.
Then again, this was the Episcopal church, where they will offer multiple choice liturgical constructions. Obfuscation is often purposeful. This might have been formulated so that it would be equally confusing to Anglo-Catholics, Calvinists, and low church Evangelicals. Nobody could be offended because nobody could understand what was said. Or if they did it was because they supplied the (missing) words or letter(s).
I'm generally a liturgical conservative. I don't like change just for the sake of change. But I do like the English to make sense at key points. If you cannot use current English constructions, go back to Latin. We all know what "Ego te absolvo" means from the movies.
2:06 pm Pacific Standard Time
Tuesday, March 24th, 2009
I was reading a blog post today at another blog I have started to track. Casuistry was mentioned. I considered commenting, but decided to write my own post. I like the site, and did not want to start off as a contrarian. I'm not even sure that I disagree with his main point, though I want to put it in a broader context. He was writing about casuistry.
The Jesuits were said to be the ones who made casuistry odious, which prompted Pascal to write against them. Pascal promoted a rule based ethic where clear lines were drawn so that people could figure out their own answers and would not have to go to corrupt clergy who were, in the minds of many, skilled at making a bad argument look like the better argument.
I'm no expert in casuistry myself. But I have discovered something about it that is worth mentioning. It was often part of a larger Virtue ethic. And it can be contrasted with Deontology, which is a more Rule-based decision-making methodology, but also with Pragmatism, which focuses on consequences of actions.
It would be short-sighted to attack casuistry for muddying the clear waters of universal moral rules, if at the same time every time someone asked a question with a moral dimension to it, our first question was, "If you do that, what will be the consequences?" Pragmatism might be the camel with its nose in the tent.
Further, each ethical system has people who make the system odious. In Jesus' time, the Pharisees had corrupted a rule-based system given by God. They had figured all sorts of ways to live within the rules without being truly good. The Jesuits corrupted Virtue Ethics, if the standard account is to be believed. (Not having studied the situation, I might be vicious if I were to condemn them myself.) And Pragmatism can be corrupted by bean counters. Now let me say that I think Pragmatism is a faulty mode of moral reasoning. But having said that, I think its founders were better than some of its practitioners. And its key lights may be better at using it to good ends than most people who use it without being aware of it. My argument here is that even a Pragmatist would admit that it is possible to misuse the method by making the consequences of a decision you know to be good to look dire. Or by making the consequences of a decision you know to be evil to look attractive. Whatever its inherent faults, Pragmatism is made odious by "lies, damned lies, and statistics." So each moral system can be corrupted by an evil will. The fact that it is corruptible ought not, however, be taken as evidence that the system is corrupt in its very nature.
Finally, I think many would admit that the key elements of each system have some place in moral discourse. We need some focus on universal moral laws, some focus on the agent, and some focus on consequences to answer questions well. Each system probably has a way of incorporating elements from the other systems into it. The point is less to be so pure that only one type of question is asked, and more that each ethic finds certain questions always to be central.
Virtue ethics were so pervasive before the time of the Enlightenment that I am skeptical of claims that make it appear that they were rejected wholesale when certain practitioners came under fire. Even if Luther attacked Aristotle, it was probably for particular aspects of his Virtue ethic, rather than the system of thought as a whole. I don't know that many would have seen any other way of thinking to be viable at that point. And many elements of Luther's ethical thought might be quite compatible with a Virtue ethic.
3:11 pm Pacific Standard Time
Saturday, March 21st, 2009
I just saw the movie Doubt tonight. (Barely caught it before it disappeared, I think.) As I expected, I greatly enjoyed it. Not, however, in quite the way I expected to.
What I had heard was that the movie was so equally balanced that you didn't know what to believe. Having seen it, I can say it was so equally balanced that a viewer could come to various conclusions. I know many have. It is another thing to say that most viewers will end up neutral. I certainly did not. I may have come closer to neutrality later in the movie than I was earlier. But I knew which side I was on early on.
My favorite reviewers are Roger Ebert and Rex Reed. Overall I agreed more with Ebert's review. Rex Reed thought that Amy Adams delivered the best performance of the movie. Ebert thought the best moments occurred between Meryl Streep and Viola Davis. Both good observations.
The Adams character was more interesting to me than Streep's. Streep gave a strong (i.e. one-dimensional) performance most of the time, but her moments of believability were quite wonderful. Adams was always believable to me. She showed that a kind character could be truly interesting and dynamic.
I was also pleased to be watching a movie that could have been made in any of the last three decades.
10:55 pm Pacific Standard Time
Wednesday, March 11th, 2009
This is the fifth post in a series on Law. The last post on this topic was posted on February 12.
There are some interesting terms that sometimes float about in popular discussion. They are useful terms. I would not wish to see them abandoned. But I would like people to know the Biblical and Theological background of the terms so that they would be aware that the modern use, though useful, is unbuckled from the original meaning.
The terms are "letter of the Law" and "spirit of the Law." Popularly used, the letter of the law would be specific and exacting requirements as spelled out, with emphasis on the words. The spirit of the Law would be what the law was really getting at.
Conversations on this topic are common. Generally people try to emphasize the spirit of the law. Those who focus on the letter of the law are vilified as legalists, who are either unforgiving of those who unwittingly transgress something conforming to the verbal description of the law, or are trying to use exact definitions to get around the law. Instead we are told to notice that the law has a heart. It is about right relationships.
Some of this conversation is good. Though there are some times that those who tout the spirit of the law imagine that if they have good will, they need not think about ethics at all. But that is not what I wish to write about. I'm not solidly in one camp or another on this one. What I wish to write about is some past history of the concept.
We find these terms mentioned in Second Corinthians. The key verse is 2 Corinthians 3:6 which tells us that "the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." Well, some might say, could things be any clearer? When we focus on the picky demands like the Pharisees, that is deadly. But if we focus on the spirit of the law, we will be relational and everything will be good.
That might be a better recipe for living with your neighbor, but it is not what St. Paul is talking about. He defines his terms in the same chapter. What is the letter? In verse 7 he calls it a "ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones." That is, the Law of Moses. This is not contrasted with the spirit of the law, but with "the Spirit of the Lord" (verse 17). In short, this is a contrast between Law and Gospel. And we don't get to the Gospel by meditating on the inward meaning of the Law, as important as that is, and as often missed as that is.
Next time you hear someone contrast the letter of the Law and the spirit, note what the conversation is about. If it's about the civil law and whether or not a law is a good one or whether someone was treated too harshly or too leniently, go ahead and give your own opinion. But if the conversation is theological and about knowing God, open your Bible to Second Corinthians chapter three. Make sure the person you're talking to understands how St. Paul uses these words. Too often, people imagine that they can be keepers of the law through a focus on good intentions—intentions they are certain they have and their neighbors lack. But the Law was given so that EVERY mouth (including yours and mine) would be stopped and the whole world held accountable to God (Romans 3:19). When we focus on intentions, that should only become all the clearer. Thankfully, the Gospel is another message. It is about what Jesus did to reconcile us to God. That message is a ministry of the Spirit. It is that message that gives life.
12:32 pm Pacific Standard Time