Ash Wednesday: A Feast for the Soul

Today is, of course, Ash Wednesday on which we begin the holy season of Lent. This past Sunday I was struck by the reminders that this is a day of fasting and abstinence, and at the same time by how little was said of the meaning of fasting.

Today the Church invites us to spend the coming weeks in prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We are asked to deny ourselves of legitimate pleasures in the weeks leading up to Easter. Self-denial is certainly a hard sell in our consumerist culture. We are accustomed to fulfilling our every whim, whether it be for food or entertainment, not to mention the constant presence of illicit pleasures like excessive alcohol, the forthcoming legalization of marijuana, or casual sex. In this climate the Church’s call to take up the cross and deny yourself daily to follow Jesus is understandably hard to hear.

This also indicates that we cannot just assume that it is self-evident that the Christian should do these things. We may have a vague sense that we should avoid capricious indulgences that are widely recognized as immoral, but why should we also give up the legitimate pleasures in life? Why should we put ourselves out in this way? That is surely a counter-cultural practice, and one might be forgiven for wondering if it is merely a carryover from a past age that comforted people who had to go without, by conveniently suggesting it was pious to do so. What is needed to make sense of this seems to be a theology of Lent.

Lent is, at its root, an invitation to every Christian to unite him or herself more deeply with Jesus, specifically to unite with him in the forty days of fasting in the desert that he practiced in preparation for his public ministry. The temptations of Christ are described in all three synoptic gospels. It is striking that it occurs immediately after his baptism (although Mathew gives the genealogy of Jesus between the baptism and the fast). Once Jesus is baptized, all three accounts say that the Spirit “drove” him into the wilderness. This forty days of fasting culminates in the temptations.

The Fathers of Church see this episode in Christ’s life as recalling the forty day fasts of Moses and Elias. The fast of Moses culminated in receiving the Ten Commandments, while that of Elias gave rise to prophecy. In a similar way, Jesus’ fast ushers in the age of the New Law. In his Against Heresies St. Irenaeus reflects on the temptations of Christ at length. While also noting that Christ’s forty day fast is reminiscent of the fasts of Moses and Elias, his emphasis is on seeing Christ as the new Adam. Where Adam was tempted by Satan and fell, Christ is tempted by Satan and emerges victorious.

St. Irenaeus notes that Christ fasted for two reasons. His hunger after forty days of fasting shows that he was truly human, for all of us hunger and suffer when we fast. Secondly, it gives Satan the opportunity to tempt him. He ties these temptations into the theme of Jesus as the new Adam by pointing out that just as Adam fell by being tempted through food, Jesus is taunted through an appeal to food when he refuses to turn stones into bread. “The corruption of man, therefore, which occurred in paradise by both [of our first parents] eating, was done away with by [the Lord’s] want of food in this world.” In the second temptation Satan has appeal to scripture noting that it says the angels have charge of him, and that he should therefore be able to throw himself down the cliff without worry. Christ’s response is also scriptural, since he is human he should not “tempt God”. Accordingly, St. Irenaeus notes that the pride of reason found in the serpent is destroyed by the Jesus’ humility. Jesus replies to the third temptation, to fall down and worship his tempter, by identifying him as Satan and ordering him away. Throughout these temptations St. Irenaeus sees that Satan is defeated by Christ through an appeal to the law, this same law that our first parents had transgressed in falling to the serpent’s temptations.

St. Irenaeus’ treatment of Christ’s temptations situates his action in the context of a grand supernatural struggle that underpins all of history, from Adam’s fall to today. In this battle Jesus’ response brings victory over Satan deciding in a definitive way for God and ushering in the kingdom of God in his own person. Our means for joining ourselves in this victory are the age old ones of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

These means are powerfully explained by St. Augustine in his Sermons on Lent. Throughout these Sermons Augustine emphasizes that the Lenten practices that unite us to Christ crucified are simply an intensification of what should be found in the normal Christian life. “In fact, the Christian ought to be suspended constantly on this cross through his entire life, passed as it is in the midst of temptation.” We are invited to a cross not of forty days, but of our whole life. (Sermon, 205)

He also insists that it does no good to give up things in Lent, but replace them by indulging in other luxuries that are extraordinary.  If we give up meat on Friday only to have fish at the best restaurant in town of forego wine only to indulge in exotic liquors we usually wouldn’t drink, then we simply changing rather than eliminating the pleasures in question. If we do this we are missing the point and value of the exercise.

Genuine fasting involves giving up legitimate pleasures. It is not a question of things that are prohibited, in which we should never indulge. Rather, fasting involves a free decision to abstain from what is licit and in itself good. Why would we do this? The most obvious reason is that if one never deliberately refrains from things that are permitted, we develop a habit of self-indulgence. The practice of fasting and moderate mortification of the body trains our will to say no to things that we want. This will make it all the easier to say no to ourselves when we are tempted by something sinful. If we always enjoy the legitimate luxuries that present themselves, how can we expect to suddenly have the fortitude to turn away from the illicit ones that cross our path?  Fasting is a particularly appropriate form of penance as in denying legitimate food, we symbolically sseparate ourselves from that fault of original sin at the root of our illicit desires that has its source in Adam and Eve’s indulgence in the food that was forbidden.

This fasting is integrally related to almsgiving and prayer. As we have said when we fast and abstain from legitimate goods, this should not lead us to spend on other luxuries. Rather, this savings should be given to help those who are in need. Assistance to the poor is a grave obligation. As St. Augustine argues, a person who doesn’t help the poor, but expects a generous response from God is like a farmer who sows no seed but expects a bountiful harvest. In the person of the poor we are, in fact, feeding Christ, who no longer has any hunger or need. “Therefore, let us not spurn our God who is needy in His poor, so that we in our need may be filled in Him who is rich.” (Sermon, 206) St. Augustine also points out that forgiveness is itself a form of almsgiving. Servants can be reconciled with one another, and thus they too can practice a form of almsgiving in which no one is poor. Even the person without any possessions can give this alms of forgiveness.

This suggests that the Lenten fast should also give rise to prayer. We are, after all, not merely to fast from food but also from “strife and discord”. As St. Leo the Great says:

Enter then with pious devotion upon these holy days of Lent; and prepare for yourselves the works of mercy, that you may merit the Divine Mercy. Extinguish the fires of anger, wipe away all hate . . . give way to each other in the simplicity of true humility.” Let offenses be forgiven. Let harshness be changed to mildness, disdain to gentleness, discord into peace . . . so that our fasting may be pleasing to God.

True fasting naturally gives birth to prayer. In building the virtues that are cultivated in a spirit of penance through self-denial and mortification we put ourselves in a situation that allows for prayer. We are better able to implore mercy from God when we have been merciful to our neighbors and our intention will be pure when our mind is not enslaved to desires for food and pleasure.

Fasting and almsgiving frees us from the worst parts of ourselves, leaving us open to God. “Just as we are rendered fit for prayer by almsdeeds and fasting, so our prayer itself gives alms when it is directed and poured forth not only for friends but for enemies as well and when it refrains from anger, hatred, and harmful vices.” (Sermon, 207)

This type of fasting offers “feasts for the soul” (Sermon, 210, 3) “For Prayer, supported as it were, on the wings of the virtues, speeds upwards and is easily borne into heaven wither Christ, our peace, has preceded.” (Sermon, 206)



The Impoverishment of our Discourse (Part II: Cures)

In my last post I analysed some of the phenomena associated with, and reasons for, a current crisis in our discourse. Increasingly, dialogue and healthy debate is being replaced with invective and polemics. People not only disagree about fundamental matters, they no longer understand how any reasonable person could hold positions radically opposed to their own. In this situation disagreement cannot be intelligently addressed. The one who disagrees is not just in error but wilfully obstinate, unamenable to persuasion. The only solution to such disputes is recourse to law or violence: in short, to force. Accordingly, in this post I would like to suggest three priorities that can help inoculate us against the increasing polarization of our discourse. Each of these has to do with elementary critical thinking, but each is easy to forget in the heat of a passionate dispute.
1. Seek truth before usefulness
The most notable characteristic of the polemicist is his or her disregard for truth. Here I don’t have in mind any technical philosophical notion of truth, but merely that of common sense. Neither am I particularly concerned to show how we know we have found the truth. That is something to be determined by the subject matter and the methods of the appropriate discipline’s inquiry. Rather, I am concerned with the intention of the inquirer. When we enter a discussion on something important we may have two very different attitudes. The person whose priority is truth is concerned to figure out what the hell is going on in the matter under discussion. The person who is only concerned with how he or she might use information or aspects of the discussion to further his or her own interests is not concerned to find the truth, but to use whatever appears to be the case to further a cause. To such a person, every fact, every turn of logic is assessed and brought to bear to further one’s own interests or those of one’s ‘team’.
If we are to get beyond the polarization that plagues us today the first task is to purify our intentions in order to seek what is true before what is useful. As the great Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain liked to point out, “We do not need a truth to serve us, we need a truth that we can serve.”

This is not to take on an idealistic altruism that ignores one’s own best interests. It is just to say questions of interest and benefit need to arise only after we have determined what is relevant, what the significance of various factors is, and what we take to be true. If each interlocutor begins from what is in his or her interest, and evaluates the truth of what is under discussion only in light of those pragmatic concerns, we can scarcely be surprised if intractable conflict results. The very fact that our interests are not aligned will inevitably lead to unmanageable disagreement, an all too familiar phenomenon.
2. Criticize oneself before others
Whenever we engage a contentious topic it is prudent to begin with a deep and critical examination of our own presuppositions, biases, and convictions. The medieval method of disputation is a model of this. This approach is exemplified in a work like Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, in which the treatment of every question begins with a list of objections that argue against the position that Aquinas prefers.


Every position adopted by reasonable people has its strengths and weaknesses and we do well to try to carry out an honest appraisal of them. Likewise we need to extend this critique to the positions of others who agree with the positions that we reach. All too often people assume that a person’s argument makes sense because the conclusion agrees with their own prejudices. Likewise, it is easy to take for granted than an opponent’s reasoning is faulty just because they have a view we find untenable. Yet, it is obvious that one can find fault with the cogency of someone’s reasons for believing a claim that one actually agrees with. I once had an unfortunate student who on a philosophy exam wrote that St. Thomas Aquinas was an atheist since he rejected St. Anselm’s argument for God’s existence. This would be an odd saint indeed! Of course, the reality was that Aquinas rejected the coherence of Anselm’s reasons, not the truth of his conclusion. To this student, it was simply inconceivable to agree with a person’s conclusion without lining up behind the reasons presented for it.

Science has taught us the existence of confirmation bias. If we expect to find a certain result, we tend to unconsciously interpret the evidence in a manner that supports our expectation. We can guard against this by attempting to apply the same rigor to the reasoning of our friends as we do to those who disagree with us. Until we know the weaknesses of our own position we have no business lecturing others on the limitations of theirs.


Here the motto of the University of Alberta Quaecumque Vera “Whatsoever things are true”, itself a reference to Philipians 4:8 is instructive of the attitude that we ought to have. Our concern should be whether what is said is true, not who happened to say it. This entails that even those we disagree with most passionately may also take on the role of teachers from whom we would do well to learn from time to time. The Church Father Justin Martyr famously made this point surveying conflicting schools of ancient philosophy he found that each had some aspect of the truth. In view of this he argued that Christians should accept everything that is true, regardless of the source. This is undoubtedly a good practice, for anyone who sincerely inquires will be right at least some of the time, and those who differ from us the most are likely to discover things to which our own presumptions often blind us.

3. Evaluate reasons before conclusions
The greatest cause of polemics is the tendency to stop thinking once we have established that our interlocutor agrees or disagrees with our conclusions. If I am pro-life it would seem all I need to know is that the one I am engaging is pro-choice to know that we are going to disagree and vice versa. However, as any credible professor who has graded argumentative essays knows, a person’s reasons are usually far more important than his or her conclusions. As we have seen one can certainly hold a true conclusion for illegitimate and irresponsible reasons. Likewise, one may be led to hold a false position for perfectly understandable reasons. Accordingly, it is critical to avoid rejecting a person simply because they disagree, or worse yet because they are on another ‘team’. We have to look at why he or she disagrees. Perhaps if we had the information or experiences that he or she does we would feel the same way?

As philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has eloquently shown, the underlying obstacle in this effort is the deeply ingrained emotivism prevalent in our culture. Emotivism is a moral theory that holds that moral judgments and reasons for acting are really just expressions of feelings. On this view, to say that a kind of action is right or wrong is not a statement of fact that can be good or bad, but a statement of one’s preference. To say ‘stealing is wrong’ is not to make some statement of fact, but simply to express your moral sentiments about stealing. It is the logical equivalent of howling “Down with stealing!” If true, this theory would explain why moral arguments are intractable, for there would simply be competing sentiments. In a similar way, I might say “Chocolate ice cream is the best”, and it sounds as if I am making a factual statement that should be true or false.
However, if someone inexplicably replies “You’re crazy clearly strawberry is the best,” we obviously have no way to resolve the dispute. This is because when I call chocolate the best, all I mean is that I like it the most. Those who have different preferences will clearly disagree and there is nothing that can be done about that.


For Emotivism arguing whether a theft was justified or not is merely expressing an emotional feeling about the matter. However, if this is true, one’s reasons for acting in this or that way become irrelevant and it becomes impossible to subject them to criticism. We can only point out that we don’t like them or that they are inconvenient. This theory presents a serious problem when it comes to moral and social discourse, for if my moral and political positions are merely sentimental preferences, there is no way of arbitrating between them. The only mode of resolution left to us is force, whether that of law or of violence.

Furthermore emotivism twists the meaning of ordinary moral discourse beyond recognition. Quite clearly the person who says “rape is wrong” does not merely intend to convey a personal distaste for rape, the way one might turn one’s nose up at the thought of wearing an unfashionable outfit. Surely, he or she intends to signify that the action is always wrong irrespective of the circumstances or the feelings of anyone in particular.  Likewise, if I say “The holocaust was a horrific injustice”, I’m not just expressing my emotions about this, I expect others to recognize this as a fact, and would find someone who did not either blameworthy or inexcusably ignorant.  Moreover, as MacIntyre has argued at length the mere fact that I have a desire to do something is never a sufficient reason to think that the action should be done or that it is morally praiseworthy, for the fact that I have this desire calls for an explanation. Clearly, there are reasons why I find this course of action desirable, and those reasons may be good ones or poor ones. To simply say I am doing it because I want to is to cut short the inquiry and obscure the real reasons motivating my actions.

The polemics of our contemporary discourse shows no signs of abating any time soon. I am not so naïve as to think it can be subverted easily. In all likelihood the person who practices these priorities will merely provide new occasions for ridicule to those they dispute. However, the human person seems designed to inquire and seek after the truth. A broad view of history shows that while demagogues arise, they do not tend to last. Other cultures have opted for ridicule and Machiavellianism for a time, but sooner or later they tend to wither and die.  In itself this is reason to hope that saner minds will eventually prevail.

The Impoverishment of Our Discourse (Part I: Diagnosis)

It is no secret that there is a profound sense of disagreement and polarization in our society over moral and political issues. While the election of Donald Trump and the subsequent polemics on all sides of the political spectrum are notable signs of this, the symptoms had been emerging decades before. There is a sense that something new has been happening in our moral and political discourse for the past several decades and that its implications are rapidly getting more severe.
Certainly every society and historical age has experienced moral disagreement in various ways. What is it that is so unique and difficult about the way this surfaces in the contemporary world? One key element is that in the past interlocutors could have profound disagreements with one another, and yet still accept that their opponents’ position, as wrongheaded as it may be, was an intelligible position for which reasons could be given.
Consider the noteworthy debates between the renowned playwright and atheist George Bernard Shaw and the journalist and author G.K. Chesterton. It is hard to imagine two more opposed positions on any number of religious, moral and social issues. Yet there is no doubt that each had a decent understanding of what the other argued and why.

Compare this with the more recent debates between “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris and any number of Christian apologists and theologians. In these more recent cases the views of the opposing party appear to be utterly unintelligible to the other party, and what passes for argument tends to be lists of accusations of historic wrongs when it does not descend to downright name-calling.
In this respect it is quite interesting to note that Vatican I at the close of the nineteenth century had to warn against a rationalism that threatened to eliminate any role for faith, while at the end of the twentieth John Paul II in his encyclical Fides et Ratio needed to marshal a defence of reason against the forces of relativism.
In the face of this problematic situation two questions present themselves: first, why has this unfortunate situation come about? Second, what can be done about it? Today I will simply address the first. My next post will address the second.
One of the key factors in this development is the growing Machiavellianism of our social discourse. There seems to be a growing pessimism that underlies this inability to understand the other. Our society is one in which there is a general sense that people are bad. We seldom pause to reflect that when we act on this often unarticulated presupposition, that we generally mean other people, those who are not part of the group or community which with I most readily identify, are bad, duplicitous or not to be trusted. This conviction is the basis of Machiavelli’s original advice to rulers:

“A prince must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves. Those that wish to be only lions do not understand this. Therefore, a prudent ruler ought not to keep faith when by so doing it would be against his interest, and when the reasons which made him bind himself no longer exist. If men were all good, this precept would not be a good one; but as they are bad, and would not observe their faith with you, so you are not bound to keep faith with them.”

One might initially think that his position is that a ruler need not keep faith because circumstances change, i.e. the reasons he made a commitment no longer exist. But clearly he means more than this, for he says that if people were good the rule wouldn’t apply. But surely circumstances change in a community of the good every bit as much as in a community of the bad. What he is suggesting is that since people are bad, the ruler’s commitments are only binding insofar as they serve his or her interests. On this view every political commitment is ultimately contingent; in society everyone is fundamentally out for number one. It is safe to assume that others will not keep faith with us, so we are entitled to not keep faith with them. Nothing could be further from the Catholic view of the person as fundamentally good, created in the image of God, living in the gift of grace, yet in spite of the fundamental vocation to goodness, a subject of competing desires and inclinations to selfishness and evil to be overcome.

Machiavelli’s position is problematic enough. It is his principle that rulers “ought not to keep faith” when it is inconvenient that gives birth to the politics of “alternative facts”. But this approach has extended beyond rulers, for whom there has always been a healthy cynicism, to society in general. Where there are passionately held commitments we don’t agree with or understand, we stop looking at the reasons and instead only note the fact of agreement or disagreement.
This has its roots in a distrust of reasoning itself. In a media based culture in which every view is presented alongside the opposing view, it is easy to believe that the differences between any strongly held position is a matter of opinion. In this context, reasoning comes to be seen as just a way of thinly veiling our biases and allegiances which, it is suspected, are what are really determining our positions.
In some ways this is not a new problem. The ancient Greek sceptics held that for any thesis equally compelling arguments could be constructed on either side of the issue. Yet, unlike our contemporaries who see this either as a reason to be more partisan and disregard the reasons of opponents as irrational, the sceptics argued we should suspend judgment with respect to any position. Unfortunately this is not a tenable solution. Theoretically it is self-refuting, for should be not also suspend judgment about whether suspending judgement is best? Further, it is not very practical as life requires that we make decisions about all sorts of circumstantial matters, so the sceptic finds him or herself in a lived contradiction.
Notwithstanding the ancient roots of scepticism, I do think it is fair to say there is something new and dangerous about our contemporary situation. Our scepticism is so often partial. We find it easy to be sceptical of the positions of others, while being dogmatic about our own. This is, of course, only to diagnose the problem. I have yet to engage the more important task of proposing a cure. That will be the topic of the next post.


The Hiddenness of the Ever-present God

Having completed the liturgical year with the celebration of Christ the King and looking forward the First Sunday of Advent, it is an appropriate time to reflect on the need to break from the “ordinary”, the sense of routine which can often accompany our spiritual life and religious practice. This regularity no doubt has its place. It provides order and carries us through the highs and lows of enthusiasm, tragedy and monotony. But, it can also obscure.

God has not called us to be Christian for the sake of attending mass, saying the rosary, reading scripture or even doing good works. Rather, these are all important means to human fulfillment, the life of the blessed, towards which we are genuinely called. As Christ constantly reminds the scribes and Pharisees people were not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for people. In the midst of routine, and the struggle to fit our spiritual life into what remains of the day when our work and family obligations are completed, it is easy to lose sight of the grandeur of an authentic Christian life. Advent reminds us that we are called to be saints. We are called to make a home for the transcendent God here on earth, here in our hearts.

The theological vision of Pulitzer Prize winning writer Annie Dillard often highlights this paradoxical tension between divine hiddenness and the expansive awe-inspiring power of God. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek she reflects on Pascal’s pessimistic phrase Deus Absconditus that describes God’s creating the universe only to turn away from it. Dillard asks rhetorically: “Is this what happened? Was the sense of it there, and God absconded with it, ate it, like a wolf who disappears around the edge of the house with the Thanksgiving turkey?”

In our lonelier moments we might, no doubt, be tempted to think this could be the case. But, she presents an alternative thesis: “It could be that God has not absconded but spread, as our vision and understanding of the universe have spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and so subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly of its hem.” It seems to me that much of our life wavers between these two visions of God, and it is all too easy to fall into believing, if only implicitly, Deus absconditus, God has left the building, all the while carrying on the external trappings of our prayer, our ministry, our good works…

In her later collection Teaching a Stone to Talk, Dillard returns to this notion in a provocative way. In one of her most quotable passages she writes:

Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.

This hidden God lies just below the surface, and even a glimpse of him can unleash dangerous and unforeseeable forces. C.S. Lewis captures the same notion in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when he describes the lion Aslan, who is presented as a figure of Christ: “He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion”.

annie dillard

How often do we try to tame God’s action in our life? If we truly heard what we profess in the Creed and lived out what we read in the Gospel, how different would our lives, and indeed our world, be? As Dillard continues:

It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.

Reading this passage always reminds me of my own conversion. As an atheist in grad school I became fascinated with the thought of St. Augustine. Eventually I realized I knew nothing about his life as a Bishop. I had no experience of the Church that gave the genuine context to his thought. To remedy this deficiency I asked a friend and colleague who I knew was Catholic if I might tag along with him for mass sometime. Experiencing the liturgy for the first time was quite moving, so the next week I looked up the Church nearest to my apartment and went on my own.

As I was leaving after the celebration I happened to pass by a priest in the lobby greeting parishioners and when we shook hands, without any prior intention of doing so, I found myself saying, “Can I talk to you sometime about joining the Church?” To this he gave an answer I will never forget: “The forms are over there.” From the expression on my face he quickly realized I meant something deeper than how to sign up in the parish and get tax receipts. He paused in a moment of prayer and we arranged to start meeting to discuss how I could become Catholic.

This was a moment in which God awoke, drawing me to a place from which I could never return.  Yet, it is just a small example of the way God can burst into one’s life and unleash profound grace when one opens up to the possibility that new and unexpected things can and should happen.  But it also reminds us how these tremendous moments in one can be seen as utterly ordinary from another perspective.  In a paradoxical way God’s presence can’t be separated too much from his absence; they tend to be a package deal.  It is a matter of our own habitual outlook and disposition, a matter of keeping an alert awareness to the fact that the supernatural is more real and powerful than the comfortable and familiar world of what comes naturally.

The Incarnation did not shrink the divine to human scale, rather it elevated Christ’s human nature through a unique union with a Divine Person, the Son. The time of Advent will be well spent if we draw closer to him, making a deliberate effort to cultivate a more supernatural perspective. If we look beyond our routine and expect that Christ can and will enter into the fabric of our lives and world, moving them in new and wonderful ways, he just might begin to do so.

Teaching One’s Convictions

Finding consensus on anything beyond the obvious is a difficult task in today’s world. In fact, even on matters that one might take to be obvious it can be a challenge. Nowhere is this difficulty more present than among professors, particularly in the liberal arts. Jacques Maritain once quipped that agreement is so rare among philosophers and theologians that it is only by a rare miracle that one even agrees with oneself on these matters.

Curiously, one area where professors do seem to agree quite widely is in the conviction that they should not reveal their own personal views to their students on the subjects that they teach. Over the years I’ve heard many colleagues take pride in the fact that their students could not figure out what views they held on the topics they presented in class. In fact, this seems to be a pedagogical approach that is largely taken for granted in the humanities and social sciences.


There are certainly some excellent pragmatic reasons in favour of such a method. Most importantly a professor who shares his personal convictions on the topics being taught risks undermining students’ efforts to think through the subject for themselves. Once the professor has pronounced judgment on a position or interpretation, students may understandably be reluctant to take up a competing point of view. This would, indeed, undermine one of the most important goals of a liberal arts education. Moreover, it may raise questions of fairness in the mind of students. Those who disagree with the professor’s preferred approach and do poorly may well wonder if bias played a role in determining their grade.

While I certainly respect my many colleagues in academe who take this approach to teaching, it is one that I have always been uncomfortable with. Instead, I tend to think that students have a right to their professors’ personal synthesis of the material they teach. While I don’t want to underestimate the risks of teaching in view of one’s own philosophical and theological judgment, I think the risks of not doing this are likely much greater.

In subjects such as philosophy, theology, history, sociology and so forth students are expected not only to master a certain amount of content, they are also expected to analyze and assess it. This means that their professors expect them to judge the cogency of the arguments and evidence put forward for the various views under consideration. How then does the professor who withholds his or her personal assessment from students teach this?

Clearly, simply teaching “content” without any assessment is not viable. A philosophy professor just can’t teach Plato and Aristotle, and then move on to the Sceptics and Stoics, reciting what they said without ever making assessments of their arguments, if for no other reason than what they say is often criticism of competing viewpoints alive in the intellectual culture. Nor is this a peculiarity of philosophers, who admittedly provide us with an unusually argumentative body of work. Historians, sociologist, literary critics and others all take issue with the work of their peers and present competing explanations that students have to grapple with.

It is also curious that most professors who take the position that they should withhold their personal views from their students, nevertheless, do not take this to mean that they shouldn’t point out the more significant and obvious weaknesses in the arguments they teach. I don’t imagine that even the most impersonal professor thinks that while teaching St. Anselm’s controversial argument for the existence of God that he is obliged to make no mention of the widely accepted criticisms of it. Of course, such professors might protest that these criticisms are not their own, but those of Gaunilo, Aquinas, Kant, etc. Indeed, but why stop there with these objections and not look at attempts to refute these objections made by various scholars as well? Perhaps there is no time given the rigours of the undergraduate curriculum, but it is more likely that the real issue is that extending the debate indefinitely in this way would not yield fruit, because the argument is generally thought to be unpersuasive.

The professor who hides her or his personal judgment on the topics under discussion as a matter of principle has a limited number of options. First, to present arguments without any assessment at all, which, as I have said, would be to abdicate an essential part of the task of any discipline or, second, to present arguments along with objections, but without giving a judgment about the success or failure of either, which inadvertently gives priority to the objections and makes the discipline appear to be nothing other than a studied of failed theories.

The only remaining alternative would appear to be to present arguments and provide objections only when they appear cogent, following out the argument to what the faculty member sees as the logical conclusion. But then the teacher is just refraining from sharing the personal judgment, which has nonetheless already been argued for, that the view in question is right or wrong. However, in this case withholding one’s personal opinions is rather artificial, for the professor’s personal judgments are fully operative here; they just aren’t explicitly spoken.

a medieval class

This points to the most significant concern I have with the notion of holding back one’s own personal judgment in teaching. Such a pedagogy poses a significant risk of making the entire process appear to the student like an intellectual game. One theory after another is articulated and defended, but only to be knocked down by a set of objections. No theory is ever found to be cogent, for no positive assessment that flows from the professor’s own personal judgment is allowed to enter into the discourse. This seems to me to be not only a recipe for scepticism or relativism, but to undermine the very intellectual life about which faculty in the humanities and social sciences are rightly so passionate.

A professor of mathematics or physics could hardly expect to keep her or his job while professing not to know the truth of the subject he or she is commissioned to teach. Yet, a professor of humanities or the social sciences is thought to be a fanatical extremist if he or she claims knowledge of the subject. As the great historian of philosophy Etienne Gilson once noted “The only dogmatic tenet still held s valid in such philosophical circles is that, if a philosopher feels reasonably sure of being right, then it is a sure thing that he is wrong.”

This prejudice is by no means restricted to philosophy alone, but can be found throughout the social sciences and humanities. While in such disciplines it is certainly the case that the truth is only arrived at progressively and in varying degrees, unlike the truths of arithmetic that can be discovered definitively, certainly progress can be made in them as well. But this progress can’t occur without risk and personal commitment. The professor who holds back from sharing his or her personal judgment about the subject takes a matter that calls for personal engagement and turns it into a merely logical or descriptive exercise. These are important parts of the academic process to be sure, but they can hardly claim to exhaust it.

A preferable alternative to pedagogical neutrality, I would suggest, is to simply accept that a bias free classroom is a utopian impossibility. Since there will inevitably be different points of view when teaching the liberal arts, it is far better if the perspectives of all, including (indeed especially) the instructor, be explicitly stated. This should, of course, be accompanied with a sincere indication that the point of a liberal education is surely not just to agree with the judgments of the professor, but to master the modes of reasoning of the disciplines studied in order to make one’s own judgments and to engage intelligently with the range of views on offer in the discipline. This, I would suggest, is an approach which is more intellectually honest and likely to better serve the aim of a liberal arts education than feigned neutrality.

Does Hell Exist?

In contemporary theology few topics give rise to as impassioned yet ill-informed discussion as the topic of hell. The traditional position, with roots in St. Augustine, holds that not only is hell real, but it is likely the destiny of most of us. (Enchiridion, Ch. 24.  City of God, Bk. 21) The path to heaven is the “narrow gate”, while broad and easy is the path to destruction. Aquinas, following in this tradition, went so far as to suggest that the punishments of the damned would be a source of rejoicing for the saints, who would see in it the manifestation of God’s perfect justice. (ST, Suppl. q. 97, a. 1 c.)  It is not surprising that this somewhat dark vision of the general lot of humanity is out of fashion in these kinder, gentler times.

Hell bosch

In the twentieth-century we find great theologians in the Protestant tradition, such as Karl Barth, questioning the very existence of Hell. While his position on the question is complex (some argue he leaves undecided the question of whether all actually are saved), Barth seems to argue that the power of the Cross puts a definitive end to the debt owed due to sin. He writes, “All pain, all temptation, as well as our dying, is just the shadow of the judgment which God has already executed in our favour. That which in truth was bound to affect us and ought to have affected us, has actually been turned aside from us already in Christ’s death.”

The Anglican philosopher of religion and renowned Ockham scholar Marilyn McCord Adams provided one of the most compelling arguments against the possibility of hell, by claiming that it would not only be contrary to divine mercy, but also contrary to divine justice. Any human sin is merely a finite violation of the divine law, as no human being is capable of performing an act that is infinite in nature. Yet, the doctrine of hell holds that some sins are punished for eternity. This would mean that God imposes an infinite punishment for a finite transgression, a view that presents God as manifestly unjust.

While Adams’ argument sounds very persuasive, I think it is in the end unconvincing. In discussing the gravity of sin, St. Thomas Aquinas notes that a sin against another becomes more serious in proportion to the greater dignity of the one we offend. For example, to strike a peer is a serious matter, but to strike someone in authority such as the Prime Minister or a Bishop is even worse. This is relevant to the present problem, since all grave sin is an offence against God, in addition to any others who may be affected. Since God’s dignity is infinite, this entails that all serious (i.e. mortal) sin is of infinite gravity, and thus deserving of infinite punishment. This seems to show that Adams’ argument is insufficient to prove that a universalist theory of salvation is the only position compatible with Divine justice.

In a much discussed work, “Dare we Hope that All Men be Saved” the renowned Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar rejects the possibility of affirming definitively a universalist position. His argument is, rather, that an analysis of scripture makes it reasonable for us to hope that all will be saved. He insists we cannot know if this will be so or not, as Hell is a real possibility. However, it is reasonable to hope that God’s mercy will lead all to be saved. While I don’t think we can rule out this position as impossible, I find it improbable. It seems to me more logical to suggest that it is reasonable to hope that any particular individual can be saved. When we are speaking of the totality of humanity throughout human history, I find it harder to say that it is reasonable for all to be saved. Why would Hell have such a prominent place in scripture, particularly in the teachings of Jesus, if it were merely an abstract possibility? Scripture exists to teach us what is necessary for salvation, not theoretical possibilities that in all likelihood will never be realized.  Further, while it is certainly correct that the Church has never taught that we can know that a particular human person however evil has been condemned, the Church does teach that a plurality of spiritual beings, angels, did definitively turn away from God and have been condemned. Thus, some beings are in hell, it is just a question of whether any human beings will end up there are not.  But presumably divine justice must be just as fair to angelic beings as it is to humans. So a doctrine of universal salvation with regard to humans doesn’t solve the problem after all.

el greco hell

However, speculating on the population of Hell is not a very profitable enterprise. Of more interest is the nature of Hell. On this score, I think it is safe to say Christianity has moved far past the view of hell as a place God throws sinners to undergo torture and fire. In the Confessions St. Augustine makes an astute observation when he suggests that the greatest punishment of a disordered mind is its own disorder. This fits well with St. John Paul II’s famous, if somewhat oblique, teaching that Hell is “more than a place”. Far from being a fiery pit, Hell is more profoundly the state of separation from God. This state is the necessary and inextricable consequence of serious sin. It involves precisely that unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit, the refusal to accept God’s merciful and forgiving grace. This is a critical point, as it shows that regardless of what the population count happens to be, the condition of being in hell is none other than the condition of the person who freely and knowingly has separated him or herself from God and his loving mercy. The punishment is none other than the very condition that one has embraced.

In keeping with this the damned do are not punished as much by external agents sent from God as by the free acts of their own will.  Their greatest punishment is to get what they want.  Neither does this frustrate the divine plan.  While God does not will evil or that anyone should be lost, this is permitted through his respect for human freedom.  Yet, in his providential will for the world even the lost have a role to play.  One of the greatest recent poets in the English language, Geoffrey Hill expresses this evocatively in the second stanza of his poem “Ovid in the Third Reich”:

I have learned one thing: not to look down
So much upon the damned.  They, in their sphere,
Harmonize strangely with the divine
Love.  I, in mine, celebrate the love-choir.

This, it seems to me, seems to fit well with Aquinas’ position that God permits evil, in part, because the world is better if every degree and kind of goodness is allowed to exist and flourish, rather than merely the perfect good alone. I think that this provides a way to respect the place of the teaching on hell in Scripture and the Church’s magisterium, while showing in a profound way how even God’s justice is a reflection of His merciful love.

The Challenges of Ecumenism

When we think of Church teachings that are uncomfortable to discuss and difficult to live up to these days our minds tend to go to controversial issues like that of contraception, homosexuality, gender and so forth. Yet, in many ways the Church’s views on ecumenism are for many even more uncomfortable. On this topic, however, it is all to easy to say yes, yes with one’s lips, while denying and undermining this teaching in practice.


Ecumenism is the attempt to strengthen unity between the diverse Christian Churches through dialogue about doctrine, prayer in common, cooperation in good works and other means that deepen mutual understanding and growth. In the case of the Catholic Church these endeavours are also motivated by a desire that our Churches may unite in full communion, however remote that hope may seem to our eyes here and now.

A key to the possibility of any ecumenism lies in a few basic realizations. The first is that we are all genuinely Christians, baptized into the body of Christ. This entails that there is always more that unites us than what divides us. The important essentials of the faith: the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the role that baptism plays in drawing us into the participation of the divine life are all unifying features of Christian life. In this respect we should be grateful for the profound unity that already does exist among the majority of Christian communities. (Unitatis Redintegratio, 3)

A second important requirement for ecumenism is the conviction that we can learn from one another. That in some respects our Christian sisters and brothers in other communions have achieved solutions to our shared problems that transcend our own, that paths of holiness have been nurtured there, in some instances, more effectively than in our own home. We have much to offer, but we also have many things to learn. It is undoubtedly this claim that can be so challenging for us as Catholics.

Here our language, which is true as far is it goes can also hold us back. We are accustomed to saying that the fullness of truth subsists in the Catholic Church, while other Christian churches possess aspects of the truth. Likewise the Catechism states:

“Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church.” (CCC, 819)

These statements could be misread to mean that whatever truth has been discovered already exists within the Catholic Church as the earthly institution we witness here and now, or that whatever holiness is found in other Christian Churches is already present within the Catholic Church as a human institution and brought about by it in all the others. Such a reading would, however, make ecumenism irrelevant and unnecessary, a fact that likely accounts for a good deal of the discomfort some of the Catholic faithful feel with it. On such a view the Catholic Church has nothing to receive or learn from its sister Churches, and what we call ecumenism could be nothing other than a kinder and gentler proselytism.

The key to resolving this problem is to be found in two further facts. First, the Catechism’s recognition that the truth and grace of all Churches, Catholic or otherwise, flows from Christ. Whatever truth or goodness any of us possesses has been received through the life, death, and resurrection of our Saviour. Second, the Catholic Church that possesses the truth of revelation and the means of sanctification and salvation is the Church in her subsistent and supernatural personality which transcends that of her members. (See Ut Unum Sint, 3, Maritain, Church of Christ, Ch. 3)


Just as we can profess in the Creed that the Church is holy and one without denying the sins and division that exist among her members here on earth, so too we can assert the Church has the fullness of truth in its supernatural reality, while recognizing each of us as her members is lacking in many areas that our fellow Christians may understand better. Likewise we can recognize that the Church herself is holy, yet each of us as her members falls short of being “perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect”, and can find examples of holiness in our fellow Christians that outstrips our own, even while insisting that this holiness has its origins in Christ and is transmitted in mysterious and wonderful ways through the Catholic Church understood in her supernatural fullness.

These are, I take it, a few of the principles necessary to understand if ecumenism is to function well. They are considerations that I’ve had occasion to reflect upon often as I have co-chaired a local ecumenical dialogue between the Archdiocese of Edmonton and Edmonton members of the Lutheran Church of Canada, as well as through the process of developing a Certificate in Anglican Studies at Newman in collaboration with the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton. Such encounters simply are not possible or fruitful if begun from the assumption that we have the fullness of truth and the means of salvation and that whatever small share our partners might have in these really comes from us.

Such misconceptions can be fostered by our tendency to point to the ecclesial institution. We are never, after all, claiming that it is ourselves personally who have the fullness of the truth and the means of salvation. But, then the Church as it is present in this world consists precisely of the individual members who make it up and the grace that animates them, and none of us however saintly are so filled with truth and holiness that we are the source of it in all others. It is only the Church as the body of Christ in her supernatural personality that can make this claim, and all of us are merely a part of this glorious reality.


This can also be confirmed if we look at instances of ecumenism closer to home. It is all too easy to think that ecumenism is a matter for professional theologians and leaders in the Vatican or Archdiocese. But, a moment’s thought makes it clear that ecumenism is a daily task we are all engaged in a variety of ways. Who among us doesn’t have a family member with a spouse from another denomination? Which of us doesn’t have friends and neighbours who belong to other Churches? When we relate to these people we know as fellow Christians we are engaging in ecumenical acts in which any personal claim to have the fullness of the truth and holiness would be unimaginable for us. We have no trouble learning from a Baptist mother-in-law or an Evangelical colleague at work who we know to be more learned and earnest than ourselves. In a similar way our ecclesial community as an earthly body learns from and can grow through the example of other Christian Churches. They have lessons to teach us and gifts to provide that genuinely come from Christ (CCC, 819), and which we could not learn from our fellow Catholics.

This of course has nothing to do with watering down the faith or seeking to find a lowest common denominator to which everyone can agree. That would be a cop-out and defeat the very purpose of authentic ecumenism, for it would undermine the possibility of the genuine learning and unity that can come from dialogue with our fellow Christians. Genuine ecumenical engagement should lead us to become more fully immersed in our own faith, not less; for only if each is fully committed to their faith, and genuinely interested in learning and living the truth come what may, can true dialogue occur. Only then can we hope to realize Jesus’ wish that “they may all be one”.