Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Saint of No Excuses

The other day I broke down and called the washer repairman. We'd been ignoring the rattling of the washer for a long time, and though we kept adjusting the feet they kept unadjusting. It was shaking so badly that one of the daily assigned chores was for someone to sit on the washer as it went through the rinse and spin cycles. The shaking got gradually worse, until one of the feet started coming off because the threads of the screw were getting stripped.

The washer repairman worked on the thing and came out shaking his head. "It's not good to let the feet get worked out like that," he said. "You need to keep the loads balanced and not overfill it. When it starts shaking like that, it makes itself worse and worse because of how heavy the machine is."

Well, thanks for telling me that! Darwin and I had just been wrestling with the feet the night before and had been unable to get them back in. The repairman had gone at them with a pair of pliers to screw them back in and realign them. So I paid $80 to hear something I already knew. But that's the point: I already knew I shouldn't be overfilling the washer in the first place. I knew the shaking wasn't good, and I took a year to call anyone about it. We knew it was bad for the feet, and every now and then we'd give them a cursory adjustment, but we kept ignoring the problem in hopes it would just work itself out. The repairman didn't make this stuff up to make me feel bad or to accuse me. He was telling me what I already knew. The fact that I have six kids, including a baby, and mountains of laundry to work through each week, and that I'm tired and want to get through the clothes in as few loads as possible doesn't actually change the nature of the washing machine and what it can handle. That's not the universe thumbing its nose at me. It's just reality.

The other day was St. Josemaria Escriva's feast day, and several acquaintances were reflecting on how they really disliked the saint, finding his advice unhelpfully condemnatory or elitist or patronizing. This particular quote gave rise to a long discussion of how St. Escriva was placing heavy and unreasonable burden on women:

4. What would you advise married women to do to ensure that their marriages continue to be happy with the passing of the years and that they do not give way to boredom? This question may not seem very important, but it is one asked by many people.
“I think it is in fact an important question and therefore the possible solutions are also important even though they may seem very obvious. If a marriage is to preserve its initial charm and beauty, both husband and wife should try to renew their love day after day, and that is done through sacrifice, with smiles and also with ingenuity. Is it surprising that a husband who arrives home tired from work begins to lose patience when his wife keeps on and on about everything she thinks has gone wrong during the day? Disagreeable things can wait for a better moment when the husband is less tired and more disposed to listen to them.

Another important thing is personal appearance. And I would say that any priest who says the contrary is a bad adviser. As years go by a woman who lives in the world has to take more care not only of her interior life, but also of her looks. Her interior life itself requires her to be careful about her personal appearance; naturally this should always be in keeping with her age and circumstances. I often say jokingly that older facades need more restoration. It is the advice of a priest. An old Spanish saying goes: ‘A well-groomed woman keeps her husband away from other doors.’

That is why I am not afraid to say that women are responsible for eighty per cent of the infidelities of their husbands because they do not know how to win them each day and take loving and considerate care of them. A married woman’s attention should be centered on her husband and children, as a married man’s attention should be centered on his wife and children. Much time and effort is required to succeed in this, and anything which militates against it is bad and should not be tolerated.

There is no excuse for not fulfilling this lovable duty. Work outside the home is not an excuse. Not even one’s life of piety can be an excuse, because if it is incompatible with one’s daily obligations, it is not good, nor pleasing to God. A married woman’s first concern has to be her home. There is a Spanish saying which goes: ‘If through going to church to pray a woman burns the stew, she may be half an angel, but she’s half a devil too.’ I’d say she was a fully-fledged devil.”
(Conversations with Saint Josemaria Escriva, 107)

I read this, and as with so many of St. Escriva's writings, I think: he is talking directly to ME. People can (and did) argue over the saint's unscientific 80% assessment, but I understand completely what he is saying, because sloth is a great failing of mine, and I know personally how easy it can be to just let it go because I'm so frustrated at the work needed to keep myself in good repair. This isn't for everyone, obviously -- note well the caveat that "naturally this should always be in keeping with her age and circumstances" -- but in my own experience, he's right! My own older facade does need more restoration, and frustration and fury ensue when I don't take into account that I'm 35, not 22, and that my body doesn't respond as easily and quickly to what used to work. This isn't to say that I ought to look like I'm 22, but that I shouldn't be discouraged and disgusted if the low-effort, fairly painless fitness routine that worked for a 22-year-old doesn't have the same effects on a 35-year-old, grand multipara body. That's not the saint trying to make me feel bad or accuse me, and it's not the universe thumbing its nose at me; it's just reality.

I'm a step down from Escriva's advicee; I don't neglect myself because I'm striving for some form of holiness. I do it out of pique. Am I responsible for every thought of my husband's? Of course not, and with St. Escriva's emphasis on personal responsibility, I don't think that's what he's saying. But my husband isn't some random guy off the street assessing me. He's someone I love and have given myself to, including my body and my appearance. He actually thinks I'm beautiful when I don't, and I want to be very careful in how I respond to that, because although I find it frustrating sometimes when our perceptions don't line up, I have to ask myself: do I really want him to stop finding me beautiful? I want to feel like it doesn't matter, but do I really want him to feel like it doesn't matter? He's responsible for his own thoughts, but it's not really consistent with my saying that I love him so much for me to make his path harder, to put up obstacles and make him prove the love I don't even doubt, because I can't be bothered.

As I say, this is for ME. Other saints speak more directly to other people. (I personally can't get anything from St. Padre Pio's spirituality, though he seems to have great wisdom and comfort for many others, and since he's canonized I accept that and move on.) There are saints for all temperaments. St. Escriva is the saint for me: a saint for the psychologically healthy, a goad to the one who knows what she ought to do but doesn't do it, a saint who doesn't put up with my personal laziness or sloth, a saint who challenges me to rise beyond my cradle Catholicism and my basic "good person" mindset, a saint who expects more from the one who has been given more. He's the saint of no excuses from people who have no excuses. And whether or not anyone else in the world fits that description and needs that kick in the pants, I do. I'm more blessed than anyone else in the world: I have my own personal saint.

The church is a big tent. Thank God we have mild saints and vinegary saints and patient saints and acetic saints and saints who know when to give leeway and saints who know when not to.  Thank God that everyone is not a carbon copy of me, because what a dull and impoverished church that would be. Thank God that he cleanses the filth from the temple but does not quench a smoldering wick. And thank God for St. Escriva, whose mission is to kick me out of my complacency and smack me right into heaven.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Breaking News from 1914

Tomorrow makes 100 years since Slavic nationalist Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo. The assassination began an at first slow-moving diplomatic crisis which would result a month later, July 28th, in Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia.

The BBC is putting a lot of work into covering the anniversary, and they have an announcement up that they will be covering the assassination tomorrow as live news, giving viewers a flavor of how such an event would be covered if it happened now. News-from-the-past efforts can be kind of hit or miss, but I'm always a bit fascinated by them, so I'll be doing my best to catch some of the coverage. Here's the trailer:

If you'd like to see how it was covered at the time, check out the coverage in the June 29th New York Times.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

In Marriage, Ideas Do Matter

My commute-read lately has been Emile Zola's Nana, a novel about an actress and courtesan after whom the novel is titled. It's not for nothing that Zola's school of fiction is called naturalism, and as with The Belly of Paris, which I read a while back, this translates into a writing style which both provides huge amounts of sensory description and also takes a very frank and realistic approach to people's emotions and motivations.

Nana is too much a force of nature to be a likable character, but she's fascinating to watch, though at times also painful because of her bouts of self destructive impulsivity. It's probably no great shock, in a novel dealing with the high end courtesans of 1860s Paris and the men in their orbit, that one sees a lot of bad relationship models. The marriages we observe are universally unhappy ones, and many of the characters or yearning for a permanence and security which their actions are not likely to achieve.

This reminded me of some thoughts that I had not got around to forming into a post during a discussion of marriage a while back. The theme which many people felt called upon to write on at that time was that having a Catholic understanding of marriage is not a talisman against marital problems. This is most certainly true. A proper understanding of what marriage is for and how spouses should treat each other does not protect you against mistakenly marrying someone with great either great personal failings or who simply turns out to be hard to get along with. It does not protect you from marrying someone with hidden faults, or un-hidden ones that prove more difficult than you expected. It does not protect you from the shadow of your own or another's past. In short: ideas are not magic.

Nonetheless, ideas do matter -- in marriage as in the rest of life.

A couple who believe that marriage is simply a relationship of convenience which should last no longer than they find it adding to their happiness may, by chance, end up having a fairly successful marriage. And a couple who believe that marriage is meant to be a permanent and loving relationship for the purposes of bearing children and providing companionship may have a tragically unhappy marriage. But the latter set of beliefs is more conducive to happiness than the former.

This should be so obvious that it hardly needs arguing. Would we argue in relation to any other part of life that it doesn't impact the quality of your relationships whether you act well or act badly?

Where people get hung up, however, is on turning these things into absolutes: If you have incorrect ideas about marriage, your marriage will be bad. If you have good ideas about marriage, your marriage will be good.

It should be obvious that both of these are far too simplistic. People, both those with good ideas and those with bad ideas, often don't live up to their professed standards. Some people have good fortune, other have bad. A host of things contribute to the relative success or failure of a marriage. However, none of this means that ideas don't matter. They do.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Do Nursing and Drinking Mix?

Medical science admitted some years ago what most Europeans would have told you all along: While heavy alcohol consumption is seriously dangerous for a developing baby, it's okay for a pregnant mother to have a little bit of wine or beer once in a while. However, it seems all pregnant mothers have at least one story of a bystander saying, "You're drinking? But that can't be good for the baby!"

Nor does the helpful advice stop when baby is safely born. Nursing mothers are also often warned that it can't be good for baby to get "all that alcohol" in mommy's breast milk. Books and articles tend to take the "better safe than sorry" line as well. Advice website Baby Center answers the question thus:
Will it harm my breastfeeding baby if I drink wine, beer, or hard alcohol?

It could if you don't take precautions. The same amount of alcohol that makes it into your bloodstream makes it into your breast milk.

While the amount that's transferred if you drink a glass of wine is relatively small, your baby is tiny and has an immature liver. That means she can't process the alcohol as well as you can. Infants younger than 3 months process alcohol at about half the rate of adults.
While no one knows the true effect that alcohol has on breastfed infants, it's probably wise to abstain – at least in the very beginning. Some experts recommend breastfeeding moms avoid drinking alcohol until their baby is 3 months old.

How can I safely have an occasional drink?

Wait at least two hours after you finish a drink before nursing your baby to give your body a chance to clear the alcohol.
You can time your drink so that your baby won't be nursing for a few hours afterward by having it right after a feeding, for example, or during one of your baby's longer stretches of sleep.

Or you can pump and store your milk before having a drink, then feed your baby expressed milk from a bottle. (Pumping after you drink won't clear alcohol from your system any faster – it will still take at least two hours.)

Another option is to feed your baby formula in the hours following your alcohol consumption.
Pretty serious stuff, eh?

This sounded wrong to me, especially given that they start off by saying "The same amount of alcohol that makes it into your bloodstream makes it into your breast milk."

Alcohol does indeed get absorbed into the bloodstream relatively quickly after you drink it. It then circulates with the blood until the liver metabolizes it, something the liver does at the rate of 0.015 of blood alcohol concentration every hour. However, there's a lot of blood in the human body, and so the alcohol that you drink quickly gets diluted to a much lower level -- aside from the fact that even as it's being absorbed into the blood the liver is already metabolizing it out.

A common legal definition of intoxication is 0.08% blood alcohol concentration. By comparison, the concentration of alcohol in wine is often around 12%. In other words, the concentration of alcohol in wine is 150 times higher than is the concentration of alcohol in the blood in an intoxicated person. So saying that breast milk absorbs alcohol at the same rate as blood, and thus that your "milk alcohol concentration" is the same as your blood alcohol concentration, is not actually saying all that much. Compared to any kind of drink, blood alcohol concentration is just not that high.

Still, babies are small, and at least some sources say that they metabolize alcohol only half as fast as adults, so perhaps the small amount of alcohol has an outsize effect. Let's run the numbers.

Blood alcohol concentration can be estimated using a formula called Widmark's Equation after the Swedish physician who developed it. The formula is:

([constant for body water in blood = 0.806] x [number of standard drinks containing 10 grams of ethanol] x [factor converting grams to Swedish standards used for calc = 1.2]) / ([body water constant = 0.49 for women][body weight in kg]) - (metabolism rate = 0.017 for women) x (drinking period in hours)

I've assumed a very small mother (130lb) who drinks two 5oz glasses of wine in one hour. This puts her at 0.08% BAC, right at the legal definition of intoxication -- she should not drive. Now, mommy sits down to nurse her new baby. I've assumed a very tiny baby at 8lbs. I've also cut the rate of metabolization by half per the mentions of babies metabolizing more slowly.

Baby consumes 5oz of Mommy's milk, which now as an alcohol content of 0.08%. I ran the same equation for baby and got a negative number. Why? Because the tiny quantity of alcohol (the same amount that is in one fifth of a teaspoon of wine) would be metabolized by the baby in less than the hour it would take to get fully into the blood stream. If we take away the effect of metabolization, we get a blood alcohol level for baby of 0.005%

Looked at another way, the effect that drinking the milk of Mommy (who as a light weight who's slammed two full glasses of wine in one hour is now legally intoxicated) would have on baby is the same as the effect that drinking one half ounce of wine would have on a 130lb woman.

In other words, if Mommy is drinking moderately, there should be no discernible effect upon her nursing baby.

Translation: Beer is nourishing.  This one drinks it.  That one doesn't drink any.

UPDATE: A friend provided this link where a mother takes an empirical approach, measuring the alcohol content of breast milk after drinking varying amounts of alcohol.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Meanwhile in Iraq

With the election of President Obama, the US public made it pretty clear that it didn't want to hear about Iraq any more, and in general the media has complied. As a result, the recent explosion of sectarian violence bordering on civil war has seemed comparatively out of the blue. I found this New Yorker piece by Dexter Filkins helpful in catching up on recent history and how things came to this pass.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Not My Book

I was checking out a pile of books at the library a few days ago, and something on the counter by the librarian's elbow made me catch my breath:

I was utterly flabbergasted. No! My title! How could anyone take my title?

So I checked it out, and I read it. It's a historical, set in the titular Minnesota town, ca. Civil War era. It has twins separated shortly after birth, and escaping slaves, and a whorehouse, and a bad mother, and a priest and a nun and an orphanage. The author reaches for lyricism, and sometimes achieves it, but the style can give a reader whiplash: the POV jerks back and forth too quickly, especially in the early dialogue scenes. Also, less is more with characterization: I felt like so much information was poured out at once that it made the characters too slippery to grasp.

The author depends a bit much on a certain vulgarity to set the historical tone. Everyone stinks, or has bad breath, or scratches lice or whatnot. I started blocking it out about the time that the author signaled how bad a corrupt judge was by having him scratch a hair from his armpit to study. The structure is episodic, and the characters are all mysteriously bound up to one another, whether they ever intersect or not. Connections are made or missed, but there's a frustrating lack of development that made me wonder why some of the stories were even being told. One character dies so arbitrarily that I wondered if the author was drawing from a historical source, because it made so little dramatic sense.

But what really made me raise my eyebrows was the portrayal of historical Catholicism. I did a bit of searching around and discovered that the author had been raised Catholic, and there's some of that flavor to it: a more contemporary Catholicism just moved back in time, with some oddly unconvincing details thrown in for color. A priest visiting a brothel weekly to hear the prostitutes' confessions, and then lining them up to distribute Communion, in the 1840s? The priest shouting up general absolution to the prostitutes on the balcony because the streets are too muddy for him to come in? The priest hearing the nun's confession face to face in a closet (a closet? in the 1840s?), with absolutely no reference to the historical form of confession? Indeed, confession seems to be the main sacrament of the Church, though there's little enough feel for what confession actually is. The nun, a sympathetic character, gives cliched advice about how Catholic women should make lots of good Catholic babies. The priest and the nun doubt in strangely modern language. The Rosary makes a historical-color appearance. The priest has mildly lascivious thoughts and takes the discipline with a horsewhip. Come on. There's simply no sense that Catholicism is actually an institution with its own history, with practices that have had different forms at different times. For all I know, every incident that rang false was meticulously researched, but in that case it helps to signal why something was being done differently than the norm. Otherwise it really does read as if the author really doesn't know what she's talking about and is making a lot of unforced errors.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Manufacturing Data: School Shootings

Someone I slightly know wrote on Facebook the other day with the comment, "Every day my husband has to go teach high school, I worry all day. Teaching is becoming the most dangerous job in America."

This comment was inspired by a map that's been making it around social media which purports to show "the 74 school shootings since Sandy Hook". The map is based on a running list compiled from news reports by Everytown for Gun Saftey, a Michael Bloomberg affiliated "grassroots" advocacy group for gun control.

The interesting thing about these kinds of data manufacturing efforts by advocacy groups is that at times when there is no other "data" available about some topic which catches the public imagination, such informal efforts at statistics can catch on with media venues and become received wisdom. And yet, the criteria for putting together such a list is often highly influenced by the fact it's an advocacy organization doing the compilation work. In the case of the "74 school shootings" list, the criteria listed are:
Incidents were classified as school shootings when a firearm was discharged inside a school building or on school or campus grounds, as documented in publicly reported news accounts. This includes assaults, homicides, suicides, and accidental shootings.... Incidents were identified through media reports, so this is likely an undercount of the true total.
Part of what makes this kind of advocacy work is that people have an idea of a "school shooting" is: Some disaffected student decides to go out in a blaze of media glory and blazing guns, or else some insane adult decides to go to a school and slaughter as many innocents as possible before turning his gun on himself. There are a few famous incidents (Columbine, Sandy Hook) which fit this model very nicely, and the "74 school shootings" claim gives the idea that there are many other similar incidents which just haven't received as much news coverage.

However, when someone goes through the list of school shootings and starts to look up the news stories, a much wider range of events starts to emerge.

For instance, #10 on the Everytown list is a shooting at Hillside Elementary in San Leandro, CA. The actual news report says:
Investigators in the East Bay say they have leads, but no suspects, yet in the murder of a 19-year-old Laney College student. Travion Foster was shot and killed just before 9 p.m. Wednesday in the field behind Hillside Elementary School.... Foster was shot and killed Wednesday night in the field behind San Leandro's Hillside School. The Alameda County Sheriff's Department say it appears Foster was involved in a game of dice with several others, when gunfire erupted.

#9 is a shooting at Indian River State College in Florida, which resulted from police chasing a man brandishing a gun in a pickup truck around town until cornering him in a parking structure on the college campus, where a shootout ensued which injured a college-student bystander before the suspect was successfully arrested. The news story reports that police chief Sean Balwin "said he believes the man ending up at the college was just a coincidence."

Gun control advocates could certainly point to these as incidents showing that guns do show up in crimes frequently in the US, but they certainly don't fit the profile of "school shooting" which exists in the public's imagination. And yet the argument that more needs to be done to reduce gun crime in general is somewhat problematic for gun control advocates because gun crime has reduced by around 50% over the last thirty years, even while gun laws have generally been relaxed and gun ownership has risen. Thus, it becomes necessary to produce a "trend" towards some specific kind of gun crime which demands legislative action. And so we have this effort to produce "data" by collecting news reports around a term which everyone thinks they know the definition of, but using a set of criteria which does not match that definition.

The effort also takes advantage of people's inability to think very well about unlikely events. "Almost one school shooting per week!" is the claim being made based on this somewhat inflated "data". Allow the count for a moment and consider what the denominator to that numerator is. There are around 125,000 schools in the US and around 4,000 colleges. If there are 52 "school shootings" per year, that means there is a 0.04% chance of any given school experiencing a shooting any given year. In other words, the average educational institution can expect to experience one shooting every 2,480 years. And that's only if we count events like murders over late night dice games in the field next door as "school shootings". A tighter filter could easily push that number out to a school shooting every 5,000 to 10,000 years. Please check your laser pistols and flint axes at the door, children.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Myth and Reality: Orphanages and Mass Graves in Ireland

In one of those examples of a story which could be easily packaged to provoke strong emotion getting instant world-wide circulation regardless of the merits, the world was swept last week by the story of a 800 children supposedly dumped in a septic tank in an Irish "mother and baby home" -- a sort of combination maternity home for unwed mothers and orphanage for their children.

The image of 800 little bodies left in a septic tank is unquestionably horrific, and soon outraged editorialists and bloggers were comparing the home, run by the Bon Secours order of nuns, with the crimes of Nazi death camps and the Rwandan genocide. Then more news stories began to come out suggesting that the outrage was to a certain extent the result of mis-reporting:
Is it true that the skeletons of nearly 800 babies and children have been discovered in a septic tank in Ireland?

No. Contrary to a great deal of reporting, including two stories published by The Washington Post, it doesn’t appear that there are 800 skeletons in a disused septic tank. Many of the early stories appear to have conflated two different sources of information. One comes from a local historian, Catherine Corless, who has discovered death certificates for nearly 800 babies and children at the home, which was run by the Bon Secours order of nuns from the 1920s to the 1960s. The other comes from two local men, who say that they found some kind of crypt beneath a concrete slab in the area containing a number of skeletons when they were playing as boys in the early 1970s. One of the men estimates that 20 skeletons were contained in the space. These two different sources have been conflated into the claim that a mass grave of babies and children was found in a septic tank. Corless, who appears to have been the crucial initial source of information, has since claimed: “I never said to anyone that 800 bodies were dumped in a septic tank. That did not come from me at any point. They are not my words.”

Sorting through the many news stories, the story that seems to gradually emerge is one with a sort of everyday darkness rather than the horror story initially suggested. The mother and child home was not run as a death camp, and there is not evidence that children were killed deliberately or that their deaths were covered up. Indeed, the reason why we know the exactly number of children who died at the home, 796, is that a local amateur historian went through the process of requesting death certificates from the government for all children who died at the home during its years of operation from 1925 to 1961. This average of 22 children per year died of infections and communicable diseases -- ailments that today could easily be treated but which in the third world conditions that prevailed in Ireland in the first half of the 20th century. Infant and childhood mortality was high in Ireland during the time the home was in operation and death rates among illegitimate children and orphans were 3-5 times higher than the general population.

The relationship of the Catholic Church to the harsh conditions and high death rates in these sort of institutions is a complex one.

In poor countries, people without the protection of family often suffer horribly. In poor countries such as India today, the fate of unmarried mothers and their children is distinctly harsh -- and clearly in that case this cannot be blamed upon repressive Christian morality. The mother and baby homes were state institutions funded by county taxes, but given the poverty of the country and the perception that "fallen women" were among the undeserving poor, the funding provided was very low. In 1954, funding for the home was apparently 26 Irish Pounds per resident (mother or child) per year. Translating such prices across nations and times is difficult, but if the historical currency converters I'm playing with are right that's something under $2,000/yr in current US dollars.

There's a sense in which the fact that these homes were all run by religious orders simply underlines the the Church's tradition of serving the poor and needy. Unmarried mothers and their children were otherwise in danger of living on the streets, if they lived at all, and it logically follows that if you set out to serve the poor and marginalized and an already poor country, you'll end up dealing with people who live in pretty bad conditions.

At the same time, in a country in which the Church is as dominant as it was in Ireland in 1925-1961, few people are going to question the behavior of religious, particularly when it comes to how they treat people who are poor and marginalized anyway. So there was little other than their own consciences to keep the nuns who ran the home from treating mothers or children badly, and plenty of social prejudice which might have made it seem that they "deserved" it.

It may well be that religious orders ran such homes more more humanely than one might have expected secular authorities in a similar environment with similar funding to do -- and yet the fact remains that it was Catholic orders who did the work. In a country which has seen incredibly rapid improvements in living conditions during the last sixty years, Catholic run institutions and the suffering that was at times associated with them seem like part of a receding nightmare, and it is far easier to indulge in broad anti-clericalism than it is to understand and reckon with the ways in which the experience of poverty led the whole society to behave in ways (and suffer lacks) which in modern affluence seem unimaginable.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Do We Worship the Same God?

On Pentacost, Pope Francis held a meeting at the Vatican with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli president Shimon Peres in which each prayed for peace. This has caused angst in some quarters on the theory that an inter-faith prayer meeting smacks of religious indifferentism. As such things go, it seems to me that this was actually very thoughtfully managed by the Vatican. The three leaders assembled together outdoors, and each then offered a prayer separately on the theme of peace. Given the obvious doctrinal differences between Judaism, Christianity and Islam, this seems a far better way to do things than trying to somehow compose a prayer or service which members of all three faiths can wholeheartedly participate in.

One of the claims which I saw come up in a number of discussions of this among Catholics, however, is: Muslims don't even worship the same God as we do.

Father Longenecker wrote a fairly good piece responding to that claim. His argues that the fact that someone's understanding of God is defective or incomplete does not mean that person is not worshiping "the same God". There is, after all, only one God:
The real heart of your question is that you can’t get your head around the idea that Muslims worship the same loving Father in heaven that we do.

It’s a problem you share with many Muslims who are horrified not only at the Christian idea of the Holy Trinity (they think it is polytheism) but they are also very resistant to the idea of God as Father. Allah is completely transcendent and any idea that we impose human characteristics on to him they find abhorrent.

So how can we say that they worship the same God?

Simply because there is only one God.

If someone worships God as he conceives of him he is worshipping the one, true God.
One can see Fr. Longenecker's affection for C. S. Lewis coming through here, as this line of thinking will be very familiar to readers of Lewis's The Last Battle. It's not a bad way of looking at things, but I think there are a couple other elements of this which are worth thinking about.

In the sense that Fr. Longenecker is speaking, someone who sincerely worships Zeus is worshipping God. In the sense that there is no Good but God, I think that's clearly true. But it is still possible to worship false Gods. Whether one holds that Zeus simply didn't exist, or that he was some sort of non-human being who was not God, it was certainly possible to worship him and in worshipping him, one was worshipping something other than God.

Is Allah a false god?

It seems to me that we have to say "No." Muslims worship the one God of Abraham. They take the Old Testament of our Bible to describe God's relationship with man. They believe (wrongly) that Jesus was a prophet rather than God. But then, Jews do not believe that Jesus was God. If we hold that Muslims do not worship "the same God" because they do not believe in the Trinity, then we have to hold that Jews do not worship the same God either -- and that's rather problematic given that we believe God Himself came to earth as an observant Jew.

Another concern I've heard expressed is that Islam stems from the revelation which Mohammad allegedly received from God via the Angel Gabriel. Obviously, as Christians do don't believe that a "revelation" which denies the divinity of Christ and our salvation through His sacrifice on the Cross is a true revelation. With the end of Apostolic times came the end of general revelation. There will, if Catholicism is true, be no more prophets. So, if this revelation which we must consider false is the source of Islam, and God would never have sent a false revelation, must this not mean that Muslims do not worship the same God?

I don't think that necessarily follows. Clearly, as a Catholic, I do not believe that the Koran is the word of God. That means that I would have to conclude that Mohammad was either either deceived or lying when he claimed to receive a revelation through the Angel Gabriel. If deceived, this could be either the result of some kind of natural delusion or a result of some real supernatural creature (but not one of God's faithful angels) giving him a false message.

However, it's entirely possible to tell an untruth about a real person. By telling an untruth about a person, we don't somehow create an alternate, false person. We just tell a distortion of the truth. Even if we take the position that Mohammad was spoken to by a fallen angel, this would not mean that Islam worships some other God. There is, after all, only one God who revealed Himself to Abraham, and this is the God that Islam names as Allah. Lies always exist in reference to truth, they don't exist on their own. If the father of lies or one of his servants was the source of Mohammad's revelations, what could be more mischievous than to base his lies in the obvious truth of God's revelation of Himself to Israel and the Incarnation?

Friday, June 06, 2014

D-Day and the Intense Dramas behind Difficult Odds

Today marks the seventieth anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy: June 6th, 1944. In memory, it has become one of the defining images of the World War II: American GIs wading ashore against machine gun fire.

Some years back I read a book entitled The Bedford Boys, which chronicled the experience of a group of men from the small town of Bedford, VA -- population around 2,000. The town's National Guard unit had been incorporated into the army for the war, and as a result 34 men from Bedford were in the first wave of soldiers to land on the stretch of French coast planners had designated "Omaha Beach". Omaha was the most heavily defended of the landing beaches, and of the 34 men Bedford men who went ashore, 19 died in the first hours of D-Day.

The book provided a detailed account of the experiences of those men, dead and survivors. One of the astounding things reading that kind of detailed history is the way in which a seemingly impossible task like storming a beach under machine gun fire could work. Or not.

Given the sheer number of men storming the beaches, the difficult odds of an amphibious attack on a strongly defended position played out one person at a time in the stories told. Some seemed simple and predictable: Killed by machine gun fire while trying to wade ashore. But then would come the story of someone who managed to wade ashore despite bullets hitting on every side, approach a bunker, thrown a grenade in, clear the bunker, and thus make is safely off the beach.

This, somehow, is deeply fascinating to me. There is a certain tendency to think in probabilities. On a flat beach, with defenders on the cliffs above raking the landing area with bullets and artillery, the normal thing is to be killed or wounded. We turn "normal" into "everyone". And yet, for some, the extraordinary is what happened. Some managed to run through a kill zone untouched. Some saw the shell land right before them only to find that it was a dud that did not explode. And these happening are not small flukes with no impact on history. It is these flukes who made it close to the emplacements, cleared them of attackers, and made it possible for others to land more safely. The story of 20,000 men landing on a beach is not of each man experiencing the average, but of some experiencing the exceedingly unlikely.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014


Darwins, why no post for so long? you ask. Because it's WRITING TIME. Not post writing time. FinishTheNovel writing time, kids-go-watch-Looney-Tunes writing time, school's-out writing time. This is the point in the project where I realize what I thought would only take about 10K more words is going to take a lot more K than that, based on what's shaping up now. My kids walk in to find me making the same face as Kuzco up there, and they say, "Mooom! You're not writing!" But I am, kids, I am. That is my Writing Face.

Hoping to have something up by this weekend, but I still haven't steeled myself to the 4 am marathon yet. Still, there's progress, and the whole thing would go faster if I were willing to offer you a junky outline scene. But you, my readers, don't want a junky outline scene, and I'm all talk anyway because it's polish or nothing here.

So, time to put away distractions -- Facebook, email, yesterday's newspaper, the back of the cat food can, my son's library book, my daughter's crochet project, the pitcher of iced tea -- and write like the wind, if the wind looks like a dissatisfied llama staring at a screen.

For any new readers (if we even have those anymore) wondering what is going on, here: take and read Stillwater.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Growing Food Non-Seriously

Friday afternoon through Sunday night was beautiful early summer weather here in central Ohio, and I was out in it for most of the weekend tilling the garden and getting everything planted. Between a cold spring and general busy-ness I war running a couple weeks late this year, but I tried to make up for it by expanding the garden strip it it longest form yet. It now runs five feet wide and fifty feet long, running the whole length of the driveway down towards the garage.

All together I put something like $150 (plants, seeds, new potting soil for the pots out front, garden soils amendments, etc.) and twelve hours of fairly strenuous labor into the endeavor. If all goes according to plan, we should get as many tomatoes as we can eat all through the late summer and early fall, plus peppers (hot and bell), egg plants, three kinds of squash, cucumbers, sweet corn and lots and lots of basil. Oh, and the multi-colored radishes and carrots the young man insisted on, and the peas and chives our oldest started in her own garden.

I don't know if I'd exactly say that I garden for the fun of it. I like having done it, and in a sense I even like doing it, but when I'm hot and sweater and grimy and someone is badgering me about whether she can pleeeeeeease plant this nooooooow, I'm a fairly grouchy fellow. And yet the fact remains that unlike the vast majority of humans throughout history, my prosperity and nutrition in no way depend on my ability to cultivate food. Indeed, while I always object to the idea of paying $5/lb for fancy heirloom tomatoes at the store, it would probably be cheaper in dollars (definitely if you count labor too) if I simply bought the nicer varieties of produce that I grow. I spend my scarce free time growing vegetables that I could more easily buy.

The idealist in me wants to say that I do this in order to have a connection with all those other people throughout history who have grown their own food -- to maintain a connection with the earth and root myself in the cycles of nature. But let's be honest. Gardening is not farming, much less subsistence farming. The fact that I got things in two to three weeks late this year does not mean that we'll be missing meals. Indeed, I just came back from the grocery store tonight where I picked up bananas which were grown thousands of miles away, potatoes grown more than a thousand miles in a different direction, and lettuce safely encased in a plastic bag. Gardening is not like farming because no matter how far into it one gets, at a certain level, like any hobby, it is not serious. When a picturesque caterpillar killed my potato plants, I shrugged it off. The year most of my tomato plants succumbed to mold, I simply bought more tomatoes at the store.

And yet, even though at a subsistence level gardening is in no way necessary to me, and it is doubtless not the most efficient means to getting the food it provides, I do find a very real value in the simple act of tilling, planting and harvesting vegetables. Even if it is now a sort of vestigial urge, and a non-practical one, I think that I lead a better and more rooted (if you will excuse the pun) life for putting in the manual work to grow food in my back yard. It may no longer be necessary to the stomach or the wallet, but at a certain level it seems conducive to the soul.