Kwagunt: Creek and Canyon

When I was 18 I was fascinated with American Pragmatism and its theory of truth. I devoured the works of William James and Charles Peirce, the founders of that epistemological school (most of them, anyway; when it comes to scholarship, I’m a hopeless dilettante). They are two of the most amiable minds I have ever encountered. They argued that we come to believe that propositions are true, not so much because they really are, as because they are expedient for us to believe. So, what we call truth is what it is expedient for us to believe – whether or not what we believe really is true.

This notion raised a firestorm when it was proposed in the late 19th century. James and Peirce both expressed themselves strongly, so it was not perhaps unnatural that they were widely understood to mean that truth is nothing but what it is expedient for us to believe. They did not; they meant only that we are so made as to feel that a proposition is true, or likely to be true, or “close enough for government work,” when it works out well in practice – in mundane life, or in scientific experiment, or when tested by logic, or when fitted to our other well-tested beliefs. So, Pragmatism is not so much an epistemological theory, properly speaking, as it is psychological. This has not stopped later generations of Pragmatists from insisting that there is no final Truth, no terminus ad quem of intellectual inquiry, but rather only one waypoint after another in an endless process of searching that is designed only to get us through life, from one approximation of a good understanding to the next.

I was thinking about all this one day as I hiked along the slick muddy bed of Kwagunt Creek, which flows down a canyon to meet the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, where I was then sojourning as a whitewater boatman. Pragmatism’s insights into our intellectual operations – or mine, anyway – seemed undeniably accurate. How then could I ever know that I had understood a real truth? I mean, there would be nothing to prevent me from such a veridical discovery, but absent any objective criterion of truth – such as, you know, whether or not a notion was true *in fact* – nothing to show me that I had ever achieved it, either.

It was then that I slipped in the mud, very nearly falling on a small boulder and hurting myself quite badly. I thought first, chuckling, about Dr. Johnson’s retort to Bishop Berkeley’s Idealism, which was to kick a stone and demand whether the pain that resulted were merely ideal. I thought then about pain, and what it tells us about our relation to the world. It occurred to me suddenly that pain would be totally useless, indeed worse than useless, unless it conveyed veracious information. There would be no reason for an animal to be equipped with pain, and good reason for it to be insensible thereto, unless the pain conveyed knowledge. Indeed, if an animal’s perceptions of any sort were not at least mostly veridical, its survival prospects would be terrible. So, there can be no way that animals – including man – that have survived millions of years of testing by nature can be poorly set up to apprehend those aspects of the environment that are really important to their lives, to their prosperity, survival, and reproduction. On the contrary.

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The LORD is a Man

One of the most amazing and scandalous things about Christianity is its insistence that in Jesus of Nazareth, God is become Man. Theologians struggled with the Incarnation for centuries; indeed, I doubt whether that struggle may ever end. Probably, not. For, how to comprehend the infinite, compassed in a baby?

The Incarnation is categorically different from all other types of divine participation in history. The countrymen of Jesus tried to apply all of them to him, but without particular success. They are all more or less familiar to us, because they have occurred to us as we ourselves have struggled to understand the Incarnation; and while they all capture a bit of the truth, they are all Christological heresies.

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Usury versus Reality

To take usury for money lent is unjust in itself because this is to sell what does not exist.

This is not to rule out lending per se, but to rule out usurious lending. It is not to rule out interest per se, but usurious interest. These distinctions obtain, even granted that money can operate as a store of value (although I would point out in respect thereto that money’s capacity to function as a store of value depends entirely upon its general acceptance as a medium of exchange; “stored value” is just a way of saying “deferred exchange”).

Perhaps the distinction might be made clearer by tracing the aetymology of “usury,” which derives from the Vulgate usare, “to use.” A usurious loan is one in which the lender expects to continue to enjoy the value of the use of his money, *in addition* to his enjoyment of the value of his equity interest in the project for which his money has been lent.

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Hell, revisited

Atheists think Hell is a problem, and sure proof that God is the cosmic sadist of whom Antony Flew wrote. In response, Christians have endeavored to redefine their understanding of Hell, as a place freely chosen. I suspect this is motivated in part by the pastoral desire to appeal to liberal atheists, for whom nothing is worse than being made to do something or be somewhere against one’s will; and if Hell is chosen, after all, it can’t be all that bad.

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Zippy Catholic has been interested in usury for some time now, and I have learned a lot about it from talking to him about it over the last few years. We’ve been having a colloquy over the last few days about whether government bonds constitute usury, which he has put up over at his site (here).

The basic thing to understand about usury, at least as St. Thomas approaches it, is that usury is selling what doesn’t actually exist. Zippy tried to explain this notion to me in a horribly long thread last year over at What’s Wrong with the World. The example that finally drove it into my understanding was this:

Zippy sells Lydia a $10K bond he has written, secured only by his promise to pay principal and interest (and not by any actual assets). Lydia in turn sells Kristor a similar $10K bond that she has written, again secured only by her promise to pay. Kristor then sells Zippy an exactly similar $10K bond that he has written. Note that no change has occurred in the real wealth – the real productive capacity, the causal power – of any of the three. If any one of them defaulted, they’d all default, and they’d all be in the same situation they had been in before any of the notes were sold.

This is more or less what happened in the Crash of 08.

When the Treasury sells you a bond that is backed only by its own promise to pay, does that constitute usury? Those of you who are into this kind of thing might want to check out what Zippy has to say on the subject. I’m not quite sure he’s convinced me, but neither am I sure I yet know exactly why I feel that way. Working on it!

Thanks for the honesty, anyway

French socialists — still pretty weird:

A French cabinet member announced that the government will monitor certain groups for “religious pathology,” including a traditionalist Catholic organization, and will shut them down if it is discovered.

“The objective is to identify when it’s suitable to intervene to treat what has become a religious pathology,” Interior Minister Manuel Valls told a conference on the official policy of secularism, according to Reuters.

“The aim is not to combat opinions by force, but to detect and understand when an opinion turns into a potentially violent and criminal excess,” he said at the Dec. 11 conference.

Valls’ remarks come in the wake of President Francois Hollande’s announcement Dec. 9 that he would create the “National Observatory of Secularism” to promote France’s policy and to “formulate propositions for the transmission of ‘public morality,’ giving it a dignified place in schools.”

According to Reuters, Valls offered radicals Islamists, traditionalist Catholics, and ultra-orthodox Jews “who want to live separately from the modern world” as examples of religious extremists.

My favorite part:

“Secularism is not about simple tolerance … it is a set of values that we have to share.”

If only someone had warned us years ago!

More on the degeneration of modern churches

Speaking of modern churches sliding into degeneracy, here’s a funny story out of Wisconsin (h/t Fr. Z.):

St. Andrew Lutheran Church, 5757 Emerald Grove Lane, sought to attract people put off by the rituals and trappings of traditional worship services. Parishioners ripped out the church’s pews, pulpit and communion rail four years ago and installed coffeehouse tables, easy chairs and a cappuccino machine.

The Middleton location continued to hold traditional worship services, while the Waunakee site experimented with a more laid-back structure. [Pastor Rev. Randy] Hunter served both sites. His early morning sermon in Middleton was videotaped, then shown on large screens later in the morning at Waunakee.

Afterward, Waunakee parishioners discussed the sermon topic in small groups. The church motto was, “Casual about church, serious about God.”

Sort of like the utterly atrocious agape cafe idea Kristor rightly roasted a while back. Thankfully, this story has a happy ending:

Sunday attendance peaked at around 50 a couple of years ago and had been dropping. Services have ceased and the church building is for sale.

Why do people keep doing the exact same thing, over and over again, thinking that this time, somehow, it’ll work?

Peter Drucker’s Key Role in the Corruption of Evangelicalism

I recently watched a fascinating two-hour online video titled Church of Tares: Purpose Driven, Seeker-Sensitive, Church Growth & New World Order.  [On the linked page, scroll down a bit to find the embedded video.  There is also a longer “director’s cut,” which can be viewed here.] It describes the so-called “seeker-sensitive” (or “purpose-driven”) movement within Evangelicalism. If you have the time, or can listen while doing work which will not be disrupted while you listen, I highly recommend the video. It helps make sense of much of the foolishness and apostasy that plagues Evangelicalism.


I want here to focus on one part of the documentary: the decisive role played by Peter Drucker. [Drucker’s contribution is discussed beginning at the 1:04:00 mark.] Drucker, born in Vienna in 1909, moved with his family to America in the 1930s and became a professor and public intellectual. But, unknown to most people, Drucker played a key role in the seeker-sensitive church movement. Continue reading

Defining Christianity: Why Be a Christian? Part IV

In part I, we saw that the sine qua non of Christianity, as taught by the Apostles, is the salvation of individuals from God’s wrath against their sin by their repentance and faith in Christ. In parts II and III, we saw a fuller biblical account of these doctrines. Now we will see the mechanism that makes God’s forgiveness of our sins work.


How it Works

“How can this be?” you might ask. “Why does salvation come only from trusting Christ?”  There is a mechanism that makes it work, and this mechanism requires a bit of theology.  We can only give here a brief introduction to the very long discussion that would be necessary fully to establish this doctrine.

But please note: The mechanism of how God saves is different from the fact that God does save. Even if you cannot fully grasp, or agree with, the mechanism, the fact remains that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, as the Bible repeatedly emphasizes. The Christian believer begins with just enough understanding to have faith in Christ, and then this faith seeks greater understanding, in the words of Anselm.


The basic reason Jesus saves is that he takes the punishment for sin that we deserve. Therefore our debt to God, caused by our sin, is paid in full, so we no longer need to pay it. Furthermore, Christ also gives us His (perfect) righteousness. Continue reading