Sunday, January 16, 2011

Book Review: "The Rite"

I read this book without knowing precisely what to expect.  I was interested in learning about spiritual warfare, especially from a Catholic perspective.  I knew that Father Thomas Euteneur (currently of the diocese of Palm Beach, formerly of Human Life International) had written a well-received book on the subject, Exorcism and the Church Militant. That book was unfortunately out of print, but Euteneur did recommend another work as a resource: The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, by Matthew Baglio.

Among the Catholic rites and practices, exorcism is decidedly the black sheep -- ignored whenever it's possible, and marginalized whenever it can't. Due to an explosion of reported possessions and instances of demonic warfare in Europe, specifically in Italy, the Vatican had decided to debut a course in exorcism for interested priests.  This naturally attracted a good deal of attention from local and international media, including by American journalist Matt Baglio.  Shortly after the course began, Baglio met Father Gary Thomas, a priest from San Jose, California, who had been sent by his bishop to Rome for training. Father Thomas had never witnessed an exorcism and knew virtually nothing about the subject, but was eager to learn and was soon apprenticed to a practicing exorcist, Father Carmine.

Baglio wrote The Rite as the story of Father Thomas' training. The narrative conceit is stunningly effective. Both Baglio and Father Thomas begin as a skeptic, but the book conveys their gradual exposure to the Rite and acceptance of the reality of spiritual warfare.  Baglio packs the book chock-full of anecdotes, not only from Father Thomas' experience, but from other exorcists around Italy, and various sufferers.  He also covers the theology of spiritual warfare, a historical survey of Catholic and Christian demonology, and (most intriguingly) modern medical and psychological views on demonic possession.

In an article published in The American, Baglio stated that he "wanted to take an unbiased, non-macabre, almost scientific approach to determine just what the Church actually taught about exorcism." The Rite was quite successful in this regard.  There are occasional sensational details, but on the whole Baglio conveys the surprising banality of the rite, and dispels many misconceptions that accompany the subject.  The Rite may have been too successful, in fact. It attracted the attention of Hollywood (the source of many of those misconceptions), and is the basis for the upcoming film "The Rite" (starring Anthony Hopkins as Father Carmine). Based on the trailer, I have little doubt that this film will be a typical Hollywood bastardization of the source material, but that hardly disqualifies the book as a splendid and invaluable resource for those who seek real theological and scientific content on this much-disputed area of Christian doctrine.

This was cross-posted at my book review blog, Worthy of Note.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Book Review: "Will Catholics be 'Left Behind'?"

When I was younger, I had a pretty strong interest in eschatology (from eschaton - the study of the "end times").  I think my interest was primarily motivated out of a love for storytelling.  The book of Revelation has so many wonderful and terrible images that it really does draw you in to the cosmic portrait being drawn, even if the portrait is as indecipherable as modern art.  This storytelling aspect was amplified by the "Left Behind" series, which now seems ideally suited for an impressionable young mind -- a thoroughly engaging plot featuring two-dimensional characters and absolutely abysmal writing.

As I grew older, I grew more familiar with some of the views on the book of Revelations, and I realized that "Rapture theology" was far from the only orthodox approach to eschatology.  My own views were shaped decisively in my freshman and sophomore years of college, when I engaged in a study of millennialist heresies in the Middle Ages and the Reformation.  For many years prior I had studied the history of economic thought, and I was frankly stunned by the many correlations I discovered between heretical eschatology and later utopian ideologies that had secularized these false millennial doctrines. This historical background helped demonstrate to me not only the theological dangers of over-emphasizing the eschaton, but the social and philosophical ramifications as well.

This book, "Will Catholics Be 'Left Behind'?", skilfully dissects the doctrines of "Rapture theology" that are so familiar to certain Protestant circles. The organization is a bit scatter-shot, surveying historical millennailists (focusing on the proto-dispensationalist heresies of Joachim de Fiore), major dispensationalist figures (such as Darby, Scofield, and Chafer), and finally the popularizers of the Rapture (especially Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye).
The book analyzes and evaluates some of the crucial doctrinal underpinnings of "the Rapture," and offers considerable clarity in defining various schools and camps of Christian eschatology. The distinctions between pre-millennialist, post-millennialist, and amillennialist interpretations, along with the divisions within Rapture theology (pre-Tribulation, mid-Trib, or post-Trib), are offered and explained. Finally, from the perspective of a historically orthodox Catholic (relying on church dogma and papal encyclicals), the authors presents a critique of dispensationalist theology and a positive affirmation of Catholic doctrine on the millennium and the eschaton.

I am not a Catholic, but I found the arguments both intriguing and compelling. It taught me a good deal about the doctrinal underpinnings of dispensationalism, especially the sharp dichotomy between the nation of Israel and the Church, a "two covenants" approach to eschatology that practically entails two separate "Second Comings" -- a preliminary Rapture alongside the final Parousia. That answered one of my main questions about dispensationalism: why the Rapture was considered a doctrinal necessity in the first place. The book also surveyed some of the more vitriolic strains of anti-Catholicism among dispensationalist writers, a bigotry that almost makes me ashamed to be a Protestant. On a more positive note, the author's case for the Catholic doctrine of eschatology also delved into issues of the Church as the Body of Christ, and the role of church tradition. This work is an engaging read, and an immensely valuable resource for studying Christian doctrines of eschatology.

This was cross-posted at my book review blog, Worthy of Note.

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Reflection on Certainty: #6

Why must you be sure?

Having lavished paragraph on paragraph to do the theme of certainty some degree of justice, I want to take a step back and ask the question: why?

Why must our knowledge be certain?  Why do we guard our storehouses of knowledge to only let in those statements to which no possible objection or counterargument may be raised?  Why does true knowledge only extend to those things which cannot possibly be doubted?

This assumption is common to both modernism and postmodernism; it is the framework in which this debate has been conducted.  But it is an assumption, and over the course of these notes I've begun to realize it is utterly unwarranted.

By definition, only God can be omniscient, and therefore only God can be certain.  We cannot see a painting that is hidden from our eyes; we cannot draw blueprints of a jail when we only see our cell.  On the contrary, we are human.  Our intellects operate on reason, on our capacity for critical judgment.  Only rarely do we grasp truth intuitively, as though we were perceiving an object or sensing a smell.  We analyze, we infer, we evaluate, and we deal with a variety of logical possibilities.  To such minds as ours, uncertainty is natural and inevitable.

Our desire for certainty is fundamentally a desire to transcend our own humanity: to become like God, knowing good and evil.  It's more than a little ironic that the most recent fallacy of the modern mind are precisely the same as the first fallacy, the first sin to which man succumbed.

Why seek what cannot be found?  I don't think even in heaven will we "know" with certainty.  Omniscience is not in our nature.  But the quest for certainty is even beyond futility.  It is an unhealthy obsession, not merely for flattering our sense of pride, but also for distracting us from our sense of self.

We are not pure minds. We are tripartite beings: body, soul, and spirit.  The mind (soul) is meant to guide us, but we are ultimately defined by our choices -- that is, our will (spirit).  Our obsessive focus on certainty distracts us from this fact. It permits us to identify ourselves with our mind and thereby justify our atrophied will.  We want certainty because we are cowards -- we want to be forced into Truth without having to judge for ourselves or face the consequences of our decisions.

God preserve us from such sin.  Let us be content with what resources we have been given, and let us be courageous enough to act on them.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Reflection on Certainty: #5

Are you sure?

Knowledge is regressive.  Every conclusion we reach relies on some prior shared premise.

Is there any piece of knowledge we can point to that is not grounded on prior knowledge?  Is anything truly self-evident?  I'm honestly not sure.  The axioms we often call self-evident, such as the law of non-contradiction, do not in fact seem to be self-demonstrating. They are merely so far above (that is, prior to) other statements that standard deductive proof becomes a practical impossibility. Self-evident axioms are so called not because they are demonstrated, but because they are so foundational to our rationality that rejecting them would be rejecting the very idea of rationality.

In short, the basis for what we call certainty is not our positive knowledge of something, but rather our inability to conceive of its opposite.

As humans, we are rational creatures.  Our minds work in certain ways, and don't work in others.  It is physically impossible to operate outside of those constraints.

This is what I call methodological certainty. We are allowed to feel and express certainty, by this standard, for those ideas without which we would not be able to function.  Methodological certainty concerns the sine qua non of our rational humanity: statements without which we are not. 

For instance, we might be able to deny the law of non-contradiction by our words, but it would not have the force of rational belief.  We could not defy it in action, much less in actual processes of reasoning.  Our minds don't function in that way.  We can conceive of these limits on our mind, but we can no sooner transcend them than we can transcend the intrinsic limitations of our physical bodies.

One danger is that humans are eminently capable of self-deception. We might deny a given statement, and we may even live and reason based on our denial of that, without ever encountering the logical consequences of that idea that would throw other aspects of our worldview in jeopardy.

What principles can we categorize as methodologically certain?