Wilco’s “Theologians”


Five-Cent Synthesis

I admit ignorance about Jeff Tweedy as a person, and only know him through his music. The long time frontman of Wilco has proved time and again to be musically curious while well moored in traditional folk, country and rock; a serious songwriter that occasionally has a touch of the chaotic. He also seems to have an eye on the divine, with songs spanning decades that at least tangentially muse upon the subject: Jesus Etc.Theologians, and I’ll Fight.

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Lip Service Is All You Ever Get From Me…


(Disclaimer: Elvis Costello likely would not support this post, but this song has a handy title. It’s a gem from 1978.)

One hears these days, more and more, pronouncements along these lines:

Religion is ok and everything, you know, it’s good for when you have problems and that sort of thing. But not when it permeates the rest of your life.

What drives this tepid endorsement? Can one be too Christian for his own good? It is actually a rather odd statement, because it seems religion is particularly not good at solving problems, if that is construed as giving you what you want. This attitude, which amounts to lip service, would seem to be a cocktail mixed from several prevalent spirits: an underlying theme that religion causes evil, a fear of being a “fundamentalist”, the acceptance of moral relativism, and the idea that religion curtails the individual’s freedom and pursuit of happiness. Starting in reverse order… Continue reading

The Invisible and Otherness


It hardly is worth repeating that Socrates spent a lot of time in dialogue with others. However it is worth repeating that he spent much of his effort to point out the difference between appearances and reality. As Plato’s interlocutor, one suspects his distinction tends toward the vertical relationship between the forms/ideas and matter that the former eventually articulated. The excesses of that conception excepted, the distinction between what appears and what really is is a perennial one that drives our striving to understand and to live well.

Two themes I have come to notice in Christianity, no doubt belatedly, is the importance of the invisible and presence of otherness. By invisible I mean those realities and their aspects that are essentially beyond our sensible recognition. Are these real? By otherness, I mean the emphasis on that which is beyond our control, the objective nature of the world we live in. It is in light of these two themes that life as a Christian can come into and remain in focus; following the Way, the Truth, and the Life only makes sense when one recognizes there is reality beyond which our eyes can perceive, and the swollen pride that deceives one into subjugating that which cannot be subjugated must be bled (or iced, if you prefer). Continue reading

Words and Scripture


Words as signs

One of the jobs and (occasionally) joys of thinking philosophically is to recognize the things that are overlooked; it is to recognize the forgotten; to highlight the “obvious”. Indeed this is true when considering the nature of our communication. We are a speaking species, and we use a most unique method to communicate with one another: words. No other species we know of uses words as an essential component of their interaction and being. We begin using words as quickly as our parents can make us, and it’s truly a necessary means of adjoining one mind to another and ultimately of forming society.

Every sentient species, or most at least, can communicate with others in some way. They use vocalizations, gestures, or some other means specific to their nature. For humans, our use of words are actually a use of signs: things that point to other things or realities. Indeed, they are a special class of signs that we created and may be thought of as conventional (as opposed to natural); language is natural, but the specific words that inhere are formed by us. As St. Augustine describes in his work On Christian Doctrine, words are used for “drawing forth and conveying into another’s mind what the giver of the sign has in his own mind” (Book II, Ch. 2). For instance, when one uses the word “horse” in conversing with another they are using that sign to point to the animal John Wayne rides on the Silver Screen. Words, in a similar way to thoughts, are intentional, and aim at some other thing.

As is evident, there are two modes of communicating via words, that being speaking and writing. Speech is of course when one vocalizes words normally to be heard by another, a hearer. The spoken word is one that comes in and out being rather swiftly, unless we have utilized some technology to record the moment. The written word is precisely the original technological innovation to do just that; however because it lacks the presence of the speaker and the auxiliary conveyance inherent in personal interaction it can be a more complex phenomenon. As it often transcends the paradigm in which it was etched, and can be read long after the author is gone, it adds further dimensions of concern for a reader. Beyond just knowing the language, the reader must deal with translations, foreign allusions, historical circumstances that illuminate meaning and the like.

But the purpose in using speech and the written word are the same: to allow the hearer or reader to grasp the meaning of the speaker or writer. One has to recognize the word-sign, and that directs him to the object or reality being addressed; in other words, there are two components that the hearer or reader must get in order to get the meaning of a statement: the sign and the thing-pointed-to. We can say there has been a successful communication when the receiver has recognized both. To utilize our example above, if someone says the word “horse”, in order to understand them we must know that “horse” is a sign that points to the four legged, long haired, apple-eating, seemingly complaisant man-carrier.

Because this is where the crux lies, if there is a mistake in either case the hearer or reader will suffer ignorance. For instance, if when the speaker uses the word “horse”, and the hearer recognizes the sign but has a quite insufficient knowledge of the thing-pointed-to, he will adopt or employ a false view. If his knowledge of horses is only gleaned from the Hollywood, he might arrive at the conclusion that horses are eagerly disposed from birth to be saddled and directed by man. But this, of course, is only achieved with great effort and time, with a taming of their nature. Under normal circumstances, his concept of a horse can be corrected by some equine expert or investigated via regular avenues of human reason. Also his ignorance probably doesn’t have much bearing on his livelihood.

Sacred Scripture

With these thoughts in mind, how does it impact our thinking about something that purportedly does have great impact on one’s livelihood? Sacred Scripture is recognized by Christians to be the inspired testimony of the Incarnation and full of the teachings of Christ and His Apostles; if that’s true, one’s understanding of Scripture might make an eternal difference. It is also claimed to be inerrant in its revealed truth concerning the Faith. Knowing what it means would seem to be of the utmost import.

Obviously it is composed of words, which means that if the above analysis is correct, there are at least two things the reader must recognize to come to an understanding. They must recognize the word itself, and the object it points to. They must interpret the signs on the page, and call to mind the realities or things pointed to. How can one know if they are interpreting the sign correctly, calling to mind to right thing-pointed-to, and if they understand the nature of the thing-pointed-to? Who has the authority to correct one’s interpretation, or one’s understanding?

Logically there seems to be these possibilities:

  • The individual himself
  • A learned individual (an expert or scholar)
  • A group of individuals (or a group of experts)
  • Some other entity that is particularly authorized to perform that role

For an individual to be the authority of determining the meaning, he will inevitably suffer from subjectivism, and tends towards solipsism. In this case, the individual who believes that horses are not born wild and untrained but domesticated has the authority to overrule reality. If he has the authority to think whatever he wants about the sign and the thing-pointed-to, he seems to be inconsonant with the demands of objective truth. He is wrong, but he “makes” himself right. The nature of something that is true objectively is that in order for one to recognize it, they must conform their minds to it, not vice-versa. Further, if two individuals read the same text and form two contradictory notions, they cannot both be right. The principle of non-contradiction, which underlies not only our minds but all of reality, would be overridden. This literally means the end of truth itself.

What about the situation with the imperfect understanding of a horse? We said an individual could perfect their concept via rational investigation to overcome their ignorance. Why not here in the case of Sacred Scripture? The difference lies in the fact that knowledge of horses is inherently something that can be discovered via human reason, while the objects of faith are beyond our rational penetration. The whole point of revealed truth is that we cannot come to know it on our own. We also said above that the equine-challenged person could consult an equine expert to correct his knowledge. Is this appeal to experts possible in the realm of understanding Scripture?

There are certainly many who are educated in the necessary fields to read Sacred Scripture well. They have mastered the ancient languages, and other disciplines required to read the texts how they were intended by the author. There is not doubt these skills are very helpful, and ultimately necessary to achieve understanding. As most will agree, the historical-critical method of Scriptural scholarship has yielded great return on better understanding the historical paradigm and intricacies therein. However, it is also true that no amount of education can overcome the limitations of the individual; hard as we try, we cannot become omniscient nor experts beyond a fault. Scholars are notoriously divided on essentially every issue they undertake to in study in history, philosophy, and even the physical sciences. The authority they would exercise in the matter would at root be tainted by the same problems as the above case. They would perhaps trip over higher-level issues, but trip they would (and do). In other words, while the expert has a good shot of recognizing the word-signs correctly in Sacred Scripture, they cannot be guaranteed of recognizing the thing-pointed-to.

What about a group of individuals? Can “strength in numbers” provide a basis of how to understand the meaning of Sacred Scripture? We know that individuals, whether learned or not, are not in the position of determining the meaning because they inevitably impose their own limitations on its meaning. But perhaps a group or majority of people can correct the problems one might have on their own? This seems to be a better option, because it does cohere with how we treat other disciplines. Science, history, philosophy, mathematics and others have their way of referring to their community in order to justify results, and that can head off implicit blunder or even aid in critical breakthroughs. However, if we notice, we have already undercut this option. While the democratic principle is useful to recognize how most people think, or even to correct errors in certain cases, it is in principle incapable of being a criterion for truth. If the majority believes something, that doesn’t make it true. We can list countless examples of the predominance of a given idea that was later proved to be false, or can be logically shown to be so. If sixty percent of Americans believe that two and two equal three, that doesn’t make it so; even if they think it is four, that doesn’t make it so.

If these options for safeguarding one’s interpretation from error are lacking, is there an entity that is capable of doing so? Is there a mechanism or authority that doesn’t suffer the limitations of the individual or groups of individuals? It would have to be something that is specially formed or accredited to avoid error in interpreting the meaning of Scripture. If there is objective truth to be had there, it seems the answer is yes. If the Church is what she purports to be, then that is obviously the suitable authority. She has the capability to adjudicate between disputes about the word-signs and the object or realities pointed to. This doesn’t imply that the mysteries of the Faith will be resolved or explained away, but precisely that they won’t. Nor does it imply the Church is right about everything, but only about the content of the Faith and deductions from it. Many Christians will agree with this, though there may by some disagreement about the nature of the Church. That is a discussion for another post, perhaps.

So far I’ve tried to suggest that it is in the nature of words to require a hearer or reader to interpret them in order to comprehend them; that they are signs that require one to recognize both the sign itself and that which it points to. In order to come to an understanding when dealing with words, one must be correct on both counts. In normal cases, this requirement can be met by abilities to gain knowledge and perfect our concepts through experience and reasoning. However, it is precisely not possible in the case of Revelation because it is in principle beyond our reason; it can be explored by reason but not attained by it. This means there must be some kind of authority in order to correct our interpretations if they are wrong or are lacking. It cannot be individuals, scholars, or majorities because all appear lacking in their competency. In the end, it seems the only way to safeguard the objective truth contained within Scripture is if there is some entity specially equipped to correct us. This entity seems to be the Church.

Hypocrisy and Belief


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We all have friends who profess a major obstacle to belief in God and Christianity because of the sinful behavior of the people that do believe. Who wants to associate with hypocrites and liars? How could God? This is truly a scandal, a road-block, for onlookers and outsiders. The quick rejoinder is, thank the Lord they are in the Church (or one of its traditions) or we’d have to suffer their true wrath divorced from any transcendent restriction and duty. This is of course a wisecrack, but perhaps more wise than it appears.

The first thing to be said is that belief in God and belief in Christian Revelation are two quite distinct things. God, the omnipotent, omniscient, un-moved mover and bedrock of all reality has been found a necessary inference by some of the brightest minds on record. This is first of all a philosophical question, which is to be considered by reason divorced from the specifics of the faith of Christianity, just as we would infer a quark based upon the observational data we collect in physics. To explain existence as we know it a first (highest) principle is required.

God is not thought to be a physical being, or a substance like water or fire or rock, a combination of chemicals, or even an old man in the sky. That idea is absurd, and every atheist who professes to not believe that the spaghetti monster exists is quite right in his suggestion. If that is absurd, then this is a question of a reality that we cannot see. To accept this should not be as difficult as it has become in our physical-science drenched perspective. We try to solve every quandary by measuring it and cutting it up, and if that doesn’t work, we deny it because we already think the real is always physical.

This is a seriously questionable position, which philosophy throughout recorded time has treated as such. Problems concerning universals, the mind or soul, propositions, mathematics, and morals cannot be resolved nicely into a material principle without damaging our raw data: we cannot explain them along physical lines without explaining them away. One must deal with Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas and Descartes, and many, many, many others in the great tradition before floating away blissfully on the materialist’s river. For they suggest that river ends in quite a spectacular fall. Otherwise, one is prematurely closing themselves to protect their desired preconception. How could absolutely brilliant and sober minds believe the invisible world is quite real and that it’s ultimately incoherent to disavow it? Simply because they couldn’t fly to the moon or study cellular biology? We should shudder at avoiding this profound question.

Philosophy in its essence is not some specialized, arid, desert where only oddball hermits should wander; in short, it is not its current academic face. Philosophy is simply the orderly attempt to make explicit and coherent what we know about allof reality, and it uses as its primary data our common and full experience. We would not be good scientists if in the study of all we pre-screened part of the allout of our purview. In philosophy we come to a determination about man and the universe. The praeambula fidei are the foundational propositions about reality that reason can attain, if considered carefully and patiently (to be clear, no one has said that understanding these is easy, or even attainable for everyone; consider, is understanding quantum physics attainable for everyone??). It is in the least true that, via reason alone, it is not absurd, illogical, patently false, or unreasonable to affirm the existence of that which we cannot see or sense and ultimately of God.

It is from this platform that one must begin to consider the possibility of revelation and the God of the Bible. Divorced from clear thinking about reality, how could we possibly undertake an examination of the essence of Christianity? If we do not have the truth about man from a natural perspective, how could we possibly grasp what it means to the “new man”; if we don’t have a good understanding about creation, how could we possibly come to understand the “new creation”; if we do not even understand the meaning of the word God, how possibly can we come to grasp (ever so slightly) the Trinity? Would it shock anyone to learn that faith per se, far from revolving around the existence of God, properly pertains to the promises of Christ about himself, the Father, the Holy Spirit and the eternal life we might attain a share of? We don’t have faith that God exists, but that God is three persons in one divine nature. And certainly, even with the clearest rational eyes, we cannot fully comprehend the transcendence of the revealed truth. While robust reason is necessary, it’s not capable of exhausting the mysteries of the faith because they are in their essence beyond our capacity to understand. A mystery is not wholly incomprehensible: we can know God is a Trinity, but we cannot know how this works or how this is. Our term “Trinity” is a flimsy sign to a deeper reality that we cannot articulate but is used by necessity for the sake of communication.

Belief in the Christian Revelation means one believes that God has reached out to man. In fact, it’s the more incredible Creator “coming down” to the level of man to rectify his seemingly impossible separation from Him. As Peter Kreeft says, it’s a divine rescue mission. It’s completely and utterly gratuitous, and done simply because of God’s love for mankind. To believe this, one must have some very good evidence; and in this case, it is primarily historical evidence that one must examine. To “believe” anything is to mean that you accept the testimony and the message of someone else’s knowledge; I believed my astronomy professor’s testimony about whatever physical principle he told us in class that day; and he believed his professors’ on and on until the discoverer of it “saw” it. One must judge the evidence to determine if Jesus was a credible witness, and if so accept his revelation about the divine.

Now on to the issue about hypocrisy. Man is a sinner. The Church is man’s seafarer to redemption, but there are rough waters until the very end. People in the Church are not sinless, and that is not apart of the content of revelation. They are obligated to seek perfection, and that means through grace to attain virtuous behavior like being just, prudent, humble, patient, etc. and to have faith, hope and charity. They will not, however, be without sin no matter how well they respond. The Catholic Church, acting in the person of Christ, offers the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession), precisely because man is going to be with sin even after he is in the Church. Being a Christian is an act of the will, to accept the grace that God has offered and to offer one’s self back in light of the incredible gifts one has received (starting with life itself). It is not a magical ticket to immediate reform of one’s behavior.

In the end, the scandal of believers’ sin should not be a real obstacle to faith, because if one is honest in examining the situation, one will see even more the need for relief from it. We have heard many telling us that sin is illusory, or that it can be cured by better education, or a more loving and prosperous home life etc. Ultimately, sin resides at the heart of man, the very center; the divide is so deep that it reaches the depth of his being; and there is no relief except through Christianity. Nothing proves original sin more clearly than the horrible behavior of people, within or without the body of Christ. Chesterton memorably stated that original sin is the only tenant of the Faith that can be proved by simply looking at the newspapers.

Further, if one only sees the hypocrisy of believers, then one is not looking at the full picture. There are saints among us and people selflessly forgoing comfort and even the “American dream” to spend their time in effort to help those least among us. Love, honesty, virtue, faith, compassion, sacrifice, suffering etc. These all exist here and now in believers. If one mistakes tenets of traditional Christian moral teaching as being “hate speech”, then they are regrettably confused about its true nature and true meaning. Christ absolutely never wanted us to hate another person; but he absolutely did want us to hate sin and evil behavior. If one denies the existence of sin and evil, then they are going to have quite a hard time understanding the Christian revelation. If, on the other hand, one doesn’t believe in the full veracity of that revelation (e.g. in some of its moral teachings), then they have a different issue altogether.

I will quote someone much more learned than I in nature of the human heart at length:

All your dissatisfaction with the church seems to me to come from an incomplete understanding of sin. This will perhaps surprise you because you are very conscious of the sins of Catholics; however what you seem actually to demand is that the Church put the kingdom of heaven on earth right here now, that the Holy Ghost be translated at once into all flesh. The Holy Spirit very rarely shows Himself on the surface of anything. You are asking that man return at once to the state God created him in, you are leaving out the terrible radical human pride that causes death. Christ was crucified on earth and the Church crucified in time, and the Church is crucified by all of us, by her members most particularly because she is a Church of sinners. Christ never said that the Church would be operated in a sinless or intelligent way, but that it would not teach error. This does not mean that each and every priest won’t teach error but that the whole Church speaking through the pope will not teach error in matters of faith. The Church is founded on Peter who denied Christ three times and couldn’t walk on the water. All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful. Priests resist it as well as others. To have the Church be what you want it to be would require the continuous miraculous meddling of God in human affairs, whereas it is our dignity that we are allowed more or less to get on with those graces that come through faith and the sacraments and which work through our human nature. God has chosen to operate in this manner. We can’t understand this but we can’t reject it without rejecting life.

Human nature is so faulty that it can resist any amount of grace and most of the time it does. The Church does well to hold her own; you are asking that she show a profit. When shows a profit you have a saint, not necessarily a canonized one. I agree with you that you shouldn’t have to go back centuries to find Catholic thought, and to be sure, you don’t. But you are not going to find the highest principles of Catholicism exemplified on the surface of life nor the highest Protestant principles either. It is easy for any child to pick out the faults in the sermon on his way home from Church every Sunday. It is impossible for him to find out the hidden love that makes a man, in spite of his intellectual limitations, his neuroticism, his own lack of strength, give up his life to the service of God’s people, however bumblingly he may go about it…

It is what is invisible that God sees and that the Christian must look for. Because he knows the consequences of sin, he knows how deep in you have to go to find love. We have our own responsibility for not being “little ones” too long, for not being scandalized. By being scandalized too long, you will scandalize others and the guilt for that will belong to you.

It’s our business to try to change the external faults of the Church — the vulgarity, the lack of scholarship, the lack of intellectual honesty — wherever we find them and however we can… You don’t serve God by saying the Church is ineffective, I’ll have none of it. Your pain at its lack of effectiveness is a sign of your nearness to God. We help overcome this lack of effectiveness simply by suffering on account of it.

To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness. Charity is hard and endures I don’t want to discourage you from reading St. Thomas but don’t read him with the notion that he is going to clear anything up for you. That is done by study but more by prayer. (Flannery O’Connor, December 8, 1958)