On the Creation of the Universe: Acts of Faith and Love on All Things

Acting again to post Bossuet’s Elevations on the Mysteries, III, 6:

You are all powerful, of God of glory!  I adore your immense and voluntary generosity.  I pass all the centuries, and all the evolutions and revolutions of nature; I see you as you would be before all beginning and all eternity; that is to say that I see you as you would be; the creature has changed, but you, Lord, are always what you are.  So I leave behind all creature and I see you being alone, before all the ages.  O the beautiful and rich gift which you made in creating the world! The earth was poor under the waters and was void in her dryness, before you made the plants germinate, with all their different fruits and faculties; before the birth of the forest, before you made like a painting grass and flowers, and before you covered the earth with animals! That the earth was poor in the vastness of its womb, before she made the retreat with so many fish! And what was less living and more void than the air, before you filled it with flying things? But how much was the sky itself poor, before you sowed it with stars, and before you lit the sun to preside during the day, and the moon to preside in the night? All the mass of the universe was unformed and the chaos was frightful and poor, when light was missing! Before all that, that the nothingness was poor, as it was a pure nothing! But you, Lord, who would be and who carries everything in your all powerfulness, you only have to open your hand and you have filled with blessing the heavens and the earth.

O God, that my soul is poor! It’s a true nothing from which you pull little by little the good which you want to spread: it is only a chaos before you began to sort out all thoughts.  When you began by faith to begin the light, it was imperfect, until you formed it with charity; and that you are the true sun of justice, as intense as bright, you embraced me with your love! O God! Be always praised for your own works.  It is not enough to enlighten me one time; without your help I fall in my first darkness, because the sun is always necessary to the air it brightens so that it can stay bright.  How much more do I need that you do not stop enlightening me and that you always say: That the light be made?

Book Review: Daniel-Rops’ A Fight for God

One of the things Americans politicians endlessly yammer about is the way they’re “fighting” something or someone.  It never ends–they fight special interests, they fight the President, and when they want to be more positive they’re “fighting for you”.

The result of this mentality is obvious these days.  But what if there’s really something–or someone–worth fighting for, against a real enemy?  The answer to that, from a Roman Catholic perspective at least, is Daniel-Rops’ A Fight for God, which details the history of the Church between 1871–the beginnings of the French Third Republic and the unification of the German Second Reich–and 1939, when the Third Reich invaded Poland and began World War II.  It’s an eventful and trying era for the world in general and the Roman Catholic Church in particular, although the “separated bretheren” didn’t escape unscathed.

Daniel-Rops opens with a sweeping view of the secularist age which he writes about.  In this “goose who gets up in a new world every morning” age we live in, his description of the various enemies of Christianity has a very contemporary feel to it, and it’s hard to see that much has changed in the half century since he wrote it.  An example of this comes when he gets to the effect secularism had on sexual morals:

No less evident was the disruption of Christian society, the second factor which marked the process of dechristianization.  The collapse of Christian social structures was both case and consequence of that process.  It was not by chance that in all countries one of the first aims of anticlerical governments had been to secure the passing of laws to legalize divorce.  Indeed one of the most flagrant signs whereby the ebb of religion might be recognized was the progress of divorce.  It gained ground wherever it was made legal.  At the same time there was a marked increase in the number of purely civil marriages.

While ecclestiastical law was thus flouted, Christian morality itself was undermined.  This becomes clear when one looks at the sexual life of countries which still called themselves Christian.  The strict principles of the Church were openly defied.  The number of children born outside of marriage steadily increased; at Paris it rose from 22 per cent in 1877 to 39 per cent in 1937.  But even that was not the most serious feature; abortion was common, and adultery, fostered by a certain type of literature, was frequent among the middle classes.  The whole western world was gliding towards that obsession with sex which is so characteristic of our age; and the cinema from its very beginning contributed largely to encourage such an outlook.

He then outlines the lives of the four Popes whose reigns span the era: Leo XIII, Pius X, Benedict XV and Pius XI.  In the American church it has been fashionable to forget the era before Vatican II as a pious monolith that was blown apart by Vatican II and the 1960’s.  But each pontiff had a different personality and handled their situation differently.  Because of both the nature of the Catholic Church and the era, each pontiff also had to deal with both spiritual and temporal matters.  Daniel-Rops is careful to note that, if Vatican I had proclaimed the pope’s infallibility in spiritual matters, same did not extend to temporal ones, although he shows that in many cases the Vatican used wisdom and discretion.

He then launches into the main body of the book, the history of the Church, largely in Europe.  Secularism–and Daniel-Rops does not fail to include Freemasonry as central protagonists of that idea–was on the offensive in the last part of the nineteenth century, but how this played out relative to the Church depended upon the country.  In Germany and Switzerland, both governments launched  kulturkampfs which, if successful, would have severely curtailed the activity of the Church.  The Church managed to fight the state to a draw in both cases.

France was a more serious situation, but some of that was the result of French Catholics (lay and clergy) belligerently overplaying their hand (sound familiar?) in the early years of the Third Republic.  That led to a backlash that came to a head with l’affaire Dreyfus.  The result of that was that most of the Catholic educational system in France was forced to close, the Concordat revoked and state and church officially separated.  “Separation of church and state” meant something entirely different in France and many other parts of Europe; it generally meant the state was free of ecclesiastical control to the extent that the state controlled the activity of the church (sound familiar too?)

The situation in Italy was complicated by the fact that, in the process of unifying the country, the Kingdom of Italy had the bad taste to take over most of the Papal States.  The Pope became a “prisoner” in the Vatican.  It took more than half a century to finally straighten out this mess with the Lateran Treaty, and that signed with Benito Mussolini’s government.

In the early years of the era the Church took a dim view of the development of democratic institutions in Europe, but reality slowly sunk in.  Another reality that sunk in was that the Church had largely lost the working class.  A large part of that response was the papal formulation of Catholic social teaching and the beginning of Catholic Action movements, which included Catholic trade unions and political parties, the mix and nature of which varied from country to country.  American Catholic conservatives have expressed shock that the current pontiff has reminded the world of Catholic social teaching; part of the problem is that American Catholicism never had to develop a truly independent social action movement from the main political parties and trade unions.

Relationship with hostile states wasn’t the only difficulty the Church experienced in this period.   Pius X especially dealt with the problems posed by Modernism.  It may seem strange that Daniel-Rops is himself concerned with this after some of the things he says in books such as Sacred History, but there’s no doubt that people such as Alfred Loisy and George Tyrell went further than the church–and even Daniel-Rops–were ready to go.  Some Catholics may still be sore at the outcome of this, but it beats the outcome of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy in Protestant churches–on both sides.

World War I (where the Pope was accused of taking sides) saw a softening of attitudes towards the Church, especially in France, where many priests died during the war (and that in an army without official chaplains).  This is a similar result to the one we saw in Stalin’s Soviet Union during and after World War II.  But that leads us to the last part of the history: the rise of the totalitarian states such as the Soviet Union, Italy and Germany.  Concerning these Daniel-Rops has this to say:

Whatever their respective ideologies, all those new regimes were totalitarian.  According to them the State, the collectivity, was the sole legitimate reality.  Under State direction all living forces must be united in order ensure growth of the collectivity.  The State therefore had a righ to dominate man from his birth to his death, to impose upon him the principles, activities, ways of life and even opinions which it considered useful.  In such a system man is nothing: the State alone counts.  That doctrine was charcteristcs of the Soviets no less than of National Socialism, and indeed of Fascism, whose theorists coined the very word ‘totalitarian’.

The Church adopted a two prong strategy to deal with this.  One the one hand, it signed concordats with regimes such as Mussolini’s Italy (1929) and Hitler’s Germany (1933).  Daniel-Rops defends such a practice by basically stating that a concordat gave it status within such states without necessarily approving of that state; one would hope that the Vatican is taking that approach with its recent recognition of the Palestinian State.  On the other hand the Church opposed many moves of both states, especially Germany, to integrate the Church into its general program; Daniel-Rops rightfully characterises Nazism as “fundamentally antichristian.”  The book’s time scope ends with Pius XI dying as Germany prepared to invade Poland and once again drown Europe in blood.

But all was not in Italy, Germany and France; Daniel-Rops spends time on the smaller countries such as Belgium, Austria and Spain.  But he also casts his view abroad.  This is where the book really looks to the future, now our present, more than anywhere else.  He details both the Church’s situation in traditionally Catholic areas (such as Latin America), countries that transition from mission field to home front (such as the United States and Canada) and true mission fields such as Africa and Asia.  He notes the pastoral issues in Latin America and warns that they could give an opening to Protestants, which they have done in a big way.  He also notes that Islam’s “revival” and renewed opposition to Christianity started in the years leading up to World War II, something that the West was slow to realise (and, especially in the case of Britain, actually fomented that revival with its policies).

Roman Catholic missions have always been hampered by the rigid structure of the church and its priesthood.  One thing that offset that was an important decision by the Vatican shortly after World War I: the decision to actively open up the priesthood and episcopacy to non-European people.  In that regard they were ahead of just about every Protestant church out there except for the Pentecostals, whose own mission was just getting started.  The success of the Catholic mission is in no small way attributable to that decision.

The United States occupies an interesting place in his history.  It is introduced in a negative way as Daniel-Rops considers “Americanism” as a precursor to Modernism.  It’s sometimes hard to figure out what he means by Americanism, but what it boils down to is that the practical way in which the American church operated came out as something entirely different when put in front of a European (especially French) audience.

In spite of a good deal of anti-Catholicism in American society, Daniel-Rops recognises that the Roman Catholic Church had almost ideal conditions to operate in the United States.  Without an agressively secular government interfering in its affairs, it could carve out its own destiny.  Part of that destiny was the Vatican’s rejection of the concept of different systems of parishes and dioceses for the various ethnic groups.  The practical result of this was that the Irish came to dominate the life of the American church.  As was the case with Evangelicalism, Celtic Christianity set the agenda, something that doubtless needs some revision for the present situation.

The book ends with a brief biography of St. Thérèse de Liseux, who became the Church’s patron saint for missions within a few years after her death in 1897.  That may seem strange for an author as scholarly as Daniel-Rops, but he uses the simplicity and austerity of her life and the single-mindedness of her faith as a response to Friedrich Nietzsche’s proclamation of ‘God is dead’ which he starts the book with.

Protestants are generally loathe to make a positive spin on Catholic history such as this.  However, with corporatist states breathing down Christianity’s neck in so many places and in so many ways and with other types of persecution rearing their ugly heads, the relevance of his narrative of this era leaps out at you.  People decry  the decline of Christianity in Europe, but reading Daniel-Rops we should be thankful it survived at all, and we who are elsewhere should be neither so smug nor short-sighted about our own situations.  Instead we should be concentrating on the conflict we really need to be waging: A Fight for God.

On the Creation of the Universe: The Six Days

Another day, another post from Bossuet’s Elevations on the Mysteries, III, 5:

The design of God in the creation and in the description which his Holy Spirit dictated to Moses, is first to make himself known as the all-powerful and very free creator of all things, who without being limited to another law except for his will, had done all without need or constraint, only by his pure will.  It is thus why he who could do all, who could by a single decree of his will, create and arrange all things, and by a single wave of his hand, to say so, to make the outline and the end of his canvas and at the same time to draw it, to paint it, and to perfect it.  Nevertheless he wanted to suspend in order the efficacy of his action and make in six days that which he could do in an instant.

But the creation of the heavens and the earth, and of all of this unformed mass which we saw in the first words of Moses, preceded the six days, which did not begin until the creation of light.  God wanted to make and mark the outline of his work, before showing his perfection; and, after having made first as the foundation of the world, he wanted to make the ornament with six different steps which he wanted to call six days.  And he made these six days one after the other, as he made all things; to make visible that he gives things being, form, and perfection as pleases him, as much as it pleased him, with an entire and perfect liberty.

Thus, he made the light, before making the great heavenly lights where he wanted to put them together; and he made the distinction of days, before creating the stars which he used to perfectly regulate them; and the evening and the morning were distinguished, before their distinction and the perfect division of day and night were well-marked; and the trees and bushes and grasses were seeded on earth by the order of God, before he made the sun which ought to be the father of all the plants; and he explicitly detached the effects with their natural causes, to show that all, naturally, only holds to him alone, and only depends on his will.  And he was not content to approve all his work when it was done, in saying that it was very beautiful and very good; but he distinguished each work in particular, in remarking that each was good in and of itself; he shows us that each thing is good in particular, and that the assemblage is very good.  For it is in this way that he distinguishes the beauty of all with those of particular beings; to make us hear that if all things are good in themselves, they receive a beauty and new goodness by their order, by their assemblage, by their perfect assortment and addition one to another, and the admirable help which they give each other.

Thus, the creation of the universe, as God wanted to do it, and as he inspired the narrative to Moses, the most excellent and first of his Prophets, gives us true ideas of his power; and makes us see that, if he constrained nature to certain laws, he did not constrain himself, for as much as he wished, reserved to himself the supreme power to detach the effects which he desired, the causes which he gave them in the common order, and to produce the extraordinary works which we call miracles, according to what pleased his eternal wisdom to dispense them.

On the Creation of the Universe: Efficacy and Liberty of the Divine Command

Marching on in Bossuet’s Elevations on the Mysteries, III, 4:

God says: Let there be light, and there was light.  The King says: March, and the army marches; that one makes such an evolution, and it is made; all the army moves at one command of a Prince, that is to say at a single small movement of his lips.  It is among human things, the most excellent image of the power of God; but, at its base, this image is defective! God has no lips to move; God does not beat the air with a tongue to produce some sound; God only has to want in himself, and all which he eternally wants is done as he wished and when he has marked.

He then said: And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.  Let there be a firmament, and there was one.  May the waters be assembled, and they were assembled.   Let great lights be lit , and they were lit.  Let animals come forth, and they came forth, and so one with the rest.  He spoke, and things were made; he commanded, and they were created.  Nothing resisted his voice, and the darkness did not follow the body more rapidly, as all followed the commandment of the All-powerful.

But bodies necessarily shed their shadow; the sun itself sends its rays; the waters themselves gush forth from one source, without which the source could hold them; the heat, to say so, forces fire to produce it; because all is submitted to one law and one cause which dominates it.  But you, o supreme law!  O cause of causes! Above your works, master of your action, you do not act outside of yourself except when it pleases you.  All is equally nothing in front of your eyes; you owe no one anything; you need no one; necessarily you do not produce that which is equal to you; you produce all the rest by pure goodness, by a free commandment, not this changing and irresolute liberty which is the lot of your creatures, which do not make you greater nor happier, and of which all together only have the right to exist which you give them.

Thus, my God, I owe you all.   I would owe less to your goodness, if you owe me something, if your liberality be necessary.  I want to owe you everything, I want to be to you in a way most absolute and entire; because that fits best with your supreme perfection, to your absolute domination.  I consecrate to your free and sovereign empire, all which you have given me in freedom.

The @ourCOG Tweet That Said More Than It Meant To

Yesterday I was scrolling through my Twitter feed when this jumped out, from @ourCOG, the social media outlet of the Church of God:vercingetorix


The painting they used is “Vercingetorix Throws Down His Arms At The Feet Of Julius Caesar” by Lionel-Noël Royer.  Having just re-read Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, it leaped out at me.  I doubt the people at @ourCOG really grasp what it means, but for Evangelical Christianity in general and the Church of God in particular it isn’t pretty.

Vercingetorix was the leader of the Gauls in their last major revolt against the Romans under Julius Caesar.  Beyond the famous “three parts” which Caesar describes at the start of his classic, the Celtic inhabitants of what is now France were divided into a number of tribes, some loyal to the Romans, some not, some going back and forth.  Vercingetorix managed to get most of them on board a general revolt against Caesar.  He experienced initial successes and a victory at Gergovia, but then did something that can only be described as stupid: he decided to make his “big stand” at Alesia.

It was stupid because Alesia, hilltop fortress though it was, was a sitting duck for the strong point of the Roman military: siege operations.  (The Jews also learned this the hard way more than a century later at Jerusalem, when Titus sacked the city and tore town the Temple).  Caesar promptly laid siege to the town and the Celts on the outside were unable to relieve it.  So Vercingetorix and the Celts were forced to surrender, as shown in the painting.  (Well, not really; Royer embellished it considerably from Caesar’s account).   Gaul passed to Roman rule, which would remain until the Franks conquered it five centuries later.

This is significant because the Church of God’s “core” ethnic group in this country is the Scots-Irish, another Celtic group who panicked a century and a half ago and broke away in the Confederate States of America.  That conflict had some equally stupid moments such as Pickett’s Charge, where the Confederates threw themselves against entrenched Union position.  As was the case with the Gauls, no match for the methodical and well-supplied Romans under Julius Caesar, the South saw its brave men in grey beaten down by an opponent with greater numbers and industrial might.

Today Evangelical Christianity–largely centred in the South–is up against it with things like same-sex civil marriage.  And the temptation once again is to whip up an emotionalistic rally and plough into a great battle which should result in triumph.  I guess that’s part of the “prophetic voice” that the tweet refers to.  It drives a great deal of our idea about worship and church life; we’re always looking for “breakthrough”.

But all too often what we’ve ended up with it not breakthrough but breakdown.  Our quest for glory may start at Gergovia and Manassas but usually ends up at Alesia and Appomattox.  It’s time we seek the counsel of others in the Body of Christ and take a fresh approach to this problem before we run headlong into another disaster, because no wrapping it in spiritual rhetoric will change the reality.

We can’t work our way to heaven, but face it: God deserves better than this.

On the Creation of the Universe: God Had No Need Either to Find a Location to Place the World or to Fix the Beginning of All Things

Getting back to Bossuet’s Elevations on the Mysteries, III, 3:

Weak and imbecile that I am, who only sees mortal artisans whose works are subject to time, and who choose certain moments to be the start and end of their work, and who also need to be in a certain place to act and to find a location to fashion and set up their work!  I want to imagine the same thing where something similar in this all-powerful worker who made the heavens and the earth; without dreaming that, if he had made all, he made the time and the place, and that these two things, which any other worker ought to find set up, were themselves part of his work.

Afterwards I want to imagine, there are six or seven thousand years, and before the world was made, as an infinite succession of revolutions and moments one after another, of which the creator had chosen one to fix the beginning of the world; and I do not want to understand that God, who made all, did not find anything that God who made all did not find anything done in his work before he acted.  Thus before the beginning of the world, there was nothing but God alone; and in the nothing, there was no succession, no duration, nothing that is, nothing that exists, and nothing outside of God which God has made.

Lift up my thought above all image of sense and custom, to make me hear in your eternal truth, that you who are him who is, is always the same without succession or change; and that you make change and succession everywhere where it is.  Consequently you make all the movements and all the circulations of which time is the measure.  You see in your eternal intelligence all the different circulations which you can make; and, naming them to call them all by their name, you have chosen those which pleased you to make them so one after the other.  Thus the first revolution which you have made was the course of the sun, was the first year; and the first movement which you have made in material, was the first day.  Time began according to your pleasure and you made the beginning as it suited you, as you made what and when came after, that you do not stop to develop the changeless centre of your eternity.

You made place in the same idea that you made time.  For you, of God of glory and majesty, you have no need for any place.  You live in yourself entirely, without another extent except those which you know, you know all; either that of your power, you can do all; or that of your being, from all eternity you are all.  You are all is necessarily so; and that which cannot be and which is not eternally with you, adds nothing to the perfection and fulness of the being which you alone have.  Who added to your knowledge, to your power, to your grandeur, what type of local space is there?  Nothing at all.  You are in your works by your strength which forms and sustains; and your strength, it is yourself, it is your substance.  When you stop acting, you are no less than what you are, having no need to extend yourself, neither to be in your creatures, neither in some location or space which might be.  Because the place where space is extended, and a space and an extension, proportions, distances, equalities are nothing; and if one wants that you might find all these distances done, these extensions, these proportions that you did not make yourself, one falls back into the error of those who place something outside of you, which would be necessarily co-eternal and not your workmanship.  O God! Dissipate these false ideas from the spirit of your servants.  Make them hear that without having need to be any part, or to make yourself a dwelling place, you are all to yourself; and that, when it pleased you without any need to make the world, you made with the world time and place, all extension, all succession, all distance; and to the end that from all eternity and before the beginning, there was nothing but you alone: you alone then one time, you alone not needing anything but yourself.  All the rest is not; there was neither time nor place, since time and place were something; there was only pure possibility of the creature you wanted to make, and that possibility existed only in your omnipotence.

You are thus eternally, and because you are perfect, you can do all you want; and because you can do all you want, all is possible for you; and it is only possible radically and originally because you can.

I adore you, o you who can do all!  And I submit to your all-powerfulness so that I eternally want only what you want of me, and only reserve the power to carry it out.

The Southern Baptists Bite the Dust on Cessationism and Speaking in Tongues

Well, at least for their foreign missionaries:

After decade-long resistance, the Southern Baptist Convention will admit missionary candidates who speak in tongues, a practice associated with Pentecostal and charismatic churches.

The new policy, approved by the denomination’s International Mission Board on Wednesday (May 13), reverses a policy that was put in place 10 years ago.

It’s major that an SBC agency has swallowed its pride on this one.  And I do mean pride too: Southern churches have a distinct socio-economic and cultural pecking order, and not speaking in tongues has been as much a part of that as it has been a doctrinal stance.  Perhaps they’ll leave the pride to the LGBT community and get on with sharing the Good News.

There’s been a lot more cross-fertilisation between Baptist and Pentecostal than either admits.  I’ve lamented Pentecostals’ uncritical acceptance of Baptists view on the Lord’s Supper (or what I call Bill Clinton’s Eucharistic Theology).  But with Baptists now setting forth missionaries that speak in tongues, all things are possible.  (With God, they always have been, we just don’t like to wait).

But there’s one thing I wish Pentecostals would adopt: the Southern Baptists’ organisational skills, which (like their committees) are the stuff of legend, especially with disaster relief.  This is a major step up in their home turf.  Unfortunately Pentecostal churches, for all of their strong points, have not quite got the knack of this.  The result sometimes is like Jack Kennedy’s description of Washington, DC: Northern charm and Southern efficiency.

The Country Where Merit is Run Down, Part II: The STEM Curriculum Dilemma

In the March/April 2013 issue of GeoStrata, the official publication of the Geo-Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the following was noted in its review of geotechnical (soil mechanics and foundations) education:

The national trend of falling credit requirements for the attainment of a bachelor’s degree was cited by many as a challenge facing geotechnical engineering education. On average, in 1920, 151 credit hours were required to obtain a BSCE or equivalent, compared with 130 credit hours today. This downward trend, coupled with greater emphasis being placed upon teaching professional or “soft” skills, such as the ability to work on teams and communicate orally at the undergraduate level, has placed tremendous pressure on civil engineering departments to cut credits and technical content. The result of these trends is that most students have only one required undergraduate course in soil mechanics, and geology and foundation design are often electives.

This is an issue that doesn’t get a great deal of publicity, but it’s one that, with current trends, could adversely affect the quality of undergraduate engineers in the U.S.  And it’s not unique to civil or geotechnical engineering either.

Let’s start with the credit hours limitation, which is primarily an issue with state universities (and most engineering schools are state schools).  Most states give varying levels of subsidy to their universities, and the general trend of that share is declining.  Usually the level of subsidy is based upon the number of credit hours being pursued at any given time.  One way of limiting that subsidy is to limit the number of credit hours a student needs to get an undergraduate degree, and that limit is usually around 120.  (A wrinkle on that solution is to allow students to take more courses but pay the out-of-state rate for them, but that gets very expensive very quickly).

Most engineering schools are clever enough to work with that limitation per se.  But when they organise their curricula, they run into another roadblock to success: the upward creeping “GenEd” (General Education) requirements.  As the quotation above noted, the virtue of these is touted as inculcating “to work on teams and communicate orally”, but this is also touted based on the need for “well-rounded” undergraduates, a phrase that’s haunted this blog before.  Engineering colleges periodically go to the mat and oppose further expansion of GenEd requirements to keep their own space in the curriculum; it’s an ongoing issue.

To look at this from another perspective, consider the saga of the Brit (I can still say that, the SNP hasn’t succeeded just yet) David Clements and his saga of obtaining a Professional Engineering license in the U.S..  One impediment in his quest was the following, from the State of Florida:

So my evaluation essentially noted that I had more than enough hours is mathematics and engineering, but that I was slightly deficient in basic science (this is the stuff we learnt in secondary school, which doesn’t count in your accreditation) and deficient in humanities and social sciences. Apparently, history really is an important aspect of becoming an engineer!

An aside: he ends up getting his license in Texas.  About this he says the following:

For a state that most of us might see as relatively archaic, they’re actually quite forward-thinking thinking when it comes to their board of Professional Engineers.

The reason for their progressive thinking is simple: the oil industry, which has been a multi-national affair from the start, as I noted here.

But I digress…a reasonable question is this: why is it that other parts of the world (and the UK isn’t alone in this regard) don’t see humanities at the undergraduate level as important for engineers (and presumably others in the hard sciences) as we do?  Anyone who has contact with graduate engineering students in the U.S. who come from other places (and that’s about half of them) and were educated there know that they have high technical competency, which is the point of undergraduate engineering education.  Their biggest obstacle is their English proficiency, which widely varies.  So why are we so obsessed with larding their curriculum with the arts and social sciences the way we are, especially with the emphasis on STEM we have today?

The answer to that question isn’t simple but it isn’t very encouraging either.

The single biggest problem–and Clements unintentionally touches on it–is that much of our university curricula are designed to make up for the deficiencies of our primary and secondary education system.  The ability to read and write effectively, to work in teams (if that’s a big deal, there are situations where it is not) and to learn about the world and culture around them, are things that should be done deals by the time students walk for their high school diploma.  That’s especially true since even public schools have a “college prep” track.  But that’s not happening, not to the extent it needs to.

Part of the problem, of course, is the trade unionisation of our teachers, which took place at the beginning of the last century, complete with sequestration of their higher education system.  But another part of the problem is the way public schools in the U.S. are governed.  If you’ve ever read American prose from the nineteenth century, it’s tough going.  It’s even tougher when one considers that most of the writers never made it to university.  As time has gone on and the country prospered, I think that complacency has set in with many of the long-time residents who inhabit the school boards.  They just don’t see the value of a rigourous education at the (especially) secondary level, which itself is a way to run down merit.  Americans have never been ones to define their culture by their literature and arts, so the forces that make Europeans pull their socks up and stand straight, so to speak, are very weak here.  Unfortunately what we have now is a vast throng of functional illiterates, and the universities, who have sold the country on the idea that college is essential, struggle to bring people up to speed when it’s too late to do it right.

With engineering schools deficiencies in incoming reading and writing skills are compounded by deficiencies in math skills.  Coupled with the limited curriculum space and you have the makings of a serious problem.

But there’s another factor at work here.  For all the lip service people give to STEM these days, we’re not as scientifically minded society as we’d like to think we are.  The left’s endless bawling over climate change and evolution come to mind, but there are plenty of other Luddite causes out there: anti-vaxxers, nuclear power fear-mongers (which make doing anything about climate change all that much harder), GMO fanatics, religionist environmentalists, and so on.  One of the things the “New Atheists” promised us was the abolition of all else but science.  I don’t think they’ve done a very good job of achieving that goal, but I think that, in the heart of hearts of the non-scientific community in and out of academia, there’s a fear that smart STEM people really could fix much of what they tell us is unfixable, or see things a different way and come up with a different solution (and turn some sacred cows into hamburger in the bargain).  So they try to water down the curriculum to take the edge off the people who doggedly pursue an engineering education (and, trust me, it takes persistence to get through it).

The result is yet another levelling of a group of achievers.  Throw in the fact that many of those achievers are Asians, and you have the making of yet another way in which merit is run down in these United States.

It’s tempting to round out this piece by calling for the restoration of STEM courses to STEM curricula, but as impervious as our political and bureaucratic system is to common sense, it’s probably not very useful.

Book Review: Daniel-Rops’ Sacred History

In the Nazi-Occupied France of 1943, the Gestapo visited the French publishing house Fayard to break the plates of a new book they were publishing. So what was the Gestapo stopping the presses on? How to Help the Allies When They Finally Get Around to Invading France? Hardly. The book they were so concerned about was entitled Sacred History, by the Catholic author Daniel-Rops, the nom de plume of Henri Jules Charles Petiot (1901-1965). There were many Catholic books being printed in those days, so why this one?

The answer to that question is what makes this book one of the most intriguing that any Catholic author has ever written. In a church which began and perfected “replacement theology,” the idea that Christianity in general and the Church in particular replaced the Jews and their temple sacrificial system with a new people and system, Daniel-Rops produced a sweeping treatment of the central role of the Jewish people from their father Abraham all the way until the time of Jesus Christ. This kind of emphasis on the Jews may have been distasteful to some of Daniel-Rops’ fellow Catholics, but it was anathema to the Nazis, who were busy with their “Final Solution” of the Holocaust. In a way the book was resistance literature, and the Nazis didn’t miss its import. It was not published in France until after the war and, translated into English, published in the U.S. in 1949.

Daniel-Rops begins his history of the Jews in this way:

At Ur in Shinar, a local capital of the Lower Euphrates, about four thousand years ago, a man called Abram was visited by God and, without hesitation, believed the promise: “I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great” (Genesis XII:2).

This is the point of departure assigned in the Bible to the whole historical development of which the people of Israel were both the agent and the witness. It is an event of an essentially mystical order, no less mysterious in its essence and no less tangible in its results than was, for example, the mission of Joan of Arc for France. That a small Bedouin clan, nomads wandering, like many others, across plains and steppes, should be the source of a destiny so fraught with significance, the distant heirs of the Patriarchs were to understand as a fact that cannot be explained by the logic of history; it is explainable only as the will of God.

He uses the fruits of archeology—much of which involved his fellow Frenchman, Roland de Vaux—to explain and illuminate the “Sacred History” from Abraham through the coming and going from Egypt, Moses and Joshua, the time of the Judges, the turning point when Samuel anointed first Saul and then David as King, the zenith of the nation under Solomon, its division and long road to disaster, captivity in Babylon, return under the Persians, revolt under the Greeks and at last the various aspects of Judaism that were in place at the time of the coming of the Saviour.

The historical aspect of the Old Testament is one that many people, both its supporters and detractors, struggle with. The detractors decry the cruelty they see in God and the way his people advanced themselves (although they are by and large content to allow the cruelty of the present Middle East pass them by without substantive action.) The supporters, whose principal interest is to apply the Scriptures directly to their own lives, either gloss over much of the sacred history, pick and choose episodes that are easy to understand, or spiritualise it using a sensus plenior based hermeneutic. Daniel-Rops addresses both. To the former, he calls on the concept of progressive revelation, the idea that the way God deals with his people varies according to their state of development. During the conquest he describes the Israelites as “people in their infancy,” carried away by “all the energy and the illogicalness of impetuous youth.” He describes the development of the way the Israelites matured in the way they looked at themselves and their relationship with God through the calamities and triumphs they went through.

To deal with the latter, Daniel-Rops is emphatic: the monotheism of the Jews is the cornerstone of Western civilisation. He makes that point in discussing the name of God given at the Burning Bush and in other places. That may not be spiritually edifying for immediate application, but it’s central to God’s message to the world. The Nazis, who were busy remaking Europe in general and Germany in particular with a pagan construct, didn’t miss the import of Daniel-Rops’ point, another reason they broke the plates.

Sacred History was written by one of Roman Catholicism’s premier authors of the twentieth century, and yet it is not a particularly “Catholic” book as most non-Catholics would understand the term. He uses the deuterocanonical books from time to time, but mostly to catch the pulse of Judaism in the years between the return from exile to Herod. English speaking readers will probably have more trouble with his references to French history and literature than to a Catholic frame of reference. But the one place where his Catholicism comes out is the way he handles the truth content of the Scriptures.

He makes frequent and generally disparaging reference to Protestant Biblical scholarship; neither higher critic nor fundamentalist comes off particularly well in his pages. He is completely convinced of his title: as the quotation above shows, he believes and is convinced (to use Origen’s phrase) that the sweep of Old Testament history is a God-directed process. He is not afraid to consider human events in the process. For example, in Abraham’s call to leave Ur, were there migrations across vulnerable Mesopotamia that made God’s call more credible and motivated him to move himself and his family elsewhere? (Mesopotamia/Iraq’s vulnerability to foreign invasion is certainly something we have seen in abundance lately.)

On the other hand, he takes a breezy, informal approach to the truth content of the details of the Scriptures. He is no inerrantist, but he does not let that stand in the way of his faith. In a long passage towards the end of the book that considers these matters, he states the following:

It is clearly beyond our subject to ask in what measure divine inspiration corresponds with historical exactitude. If the critic, who sees the Bible as a historical document, reduces the facts in the crucible of his analysis, their dogmatic verity is not thereby destroyed. The test that we read is expressly declared to be the work of God, but by the intermediary of man: this accounts for certain fabulous details, or the many different styles, which are inevitable enough. On the other hand, the pseudo-scientific theories of concordism that during the last half-century have attempted to classify the facts of the Bible like facts of modern geology, astronomy, or biology, have produced only superficial criticisms.

The key to understanding this seeming contradiction is in fact Daniel-Rops’ Catholicism. He drifted from his faith and then came back to it. His belief in God is not based on a book but in God himself mediated through an institution. For all the problems that institutionalist religion has, Daniel-Rops—and many other Catholics—see the truth of the Scriptures primarily buttressed by the truth of God and not the other way around, as is customary with Protestants. That reordering, which many non-Catholics find disconcerting, was part of the key as to why the Roman Catholic Church, for all the chaos that came with Vatican II, has survived with its belief structure far more intact than those of its Main Line Protestant counterparts. It’s something that Evangelicals, wrestling with their own current problems in this area, would do well to consider.

Today we have our own new Gestapo and our new Nazis who are trying to impose their own pagan replacement for our civilisation. And we have the lengthening shadow of a very secular state. When Daniel-Rops wrote the book, the Third Republic (only recently gone from the German invasion) had imposed full-bore laïcité on France for at least forty years. It is fitting that we reconsider to our profit this magnificent little book, which finds its message for the present by considering nothing short of its subject: sacred history.

On the Creation of the Universe: Before the Creation, There Was Nothing But God

Continuing in Bossuet’s Elevations on the Mysteries, III, 2:

Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes (Genesis 18:27)  And of what do I speak to you, O Lord? By where can I better begin to speak with you than the place where you began to speak to men? I open your Scripture and I find first these words: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1) I do not find that God who has created all things, had need like a vulgar worker to find a material prepared with which he worked and from which he made his workmanship.  But only having the need to act from his own power, he made all of his workmanship.  He is not a simple maker of forms and figures in a pre-existent material: he made the material and the form, that is to say his work is entire.  Otherwise his work would not owe him everything, and basically it would be independent of its worker.  But there is no worker so perfect as God.  He who is the form of forms and the act of acts, he made all according to who he is, and as much as he is, that is to say, as he made the form, he made also that which was capable of being formed, because the same was something which could not be formed by itself, neither could it be formable from itself.

It is why I read here in your always true Scripture: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  And the earth was useless, unformed, void, invisible, confused, and the shadows covered the face of the abyss which was the sea.  And the spirit of God, the Holy Spirit in figure, according to the first meaning of the letter, a wind, an air which God agitated, was carried on the waters, or placed on them.  See this confused material, without order, without arrangement, without distinct form.  See this chaos, this confusion, of which the tradition is kept in the human kind and is seen in the most ancient Poets.  Because it is that which should be called shadows, this immense abyss which covered the earth, this confusing mix of all things, this lack of form, if one can speak in this way, of the void and sterile earth.  But at the same time, all of this was not without beginning, all of this was created by God.  In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  This spirit, this shadowy air which carried itself on the waters, came from God, and was only made and agitated by his hand.  In one word, all this mass, as much as we understand, was nevertheless his creature, the beginning and the outline, but always from the same hand as his great work.

O God, what was the ignorance of the wise of the world, who were called Philosophers? Having believed that You, perfect architect of the universe, absolute former of all that is, you found under your hands a material which was co-eternal with you: unformed nevertheless and waiting for your perfection.  Blind ones! Who has not heard that, to be capable of forms, there is already a form; that is some perfection that is capable of perfection; and if the material had from itself this beginning of perfection and form, it would have soon had the entire work done.

Blind and the leaders of the blind, who fall off the cliff and take those with them who follow! Tell me, who has subjugated God to that which he has not done, he who is himself also well as God, he who is independently the same as God? By where has he found taken that which is foreign and independent of his power?  By what art or by what power is he submitted? How is he taken to be moved? Or if he moves of himself, then confusedly and irregularly as one would imagine in the chaos, how will he give order to these movements, he who does not give moving force? This indomitable nature would escape from his hands; and, never imparted in its entirety, she cannot be formed in its entirety according to the power and the art of her maker.  But what after all is this material, so perfect that she has from herself the essence of her being and so imperfect that she awaits the perfection of another?  Her adorning and her perfection are only an accident, because she is eternally unformed.  God will have made the accident and not have made the substance? Will God have made the arrangement of letters which make up words and not have made the letters to be able to be arranged?  O chaos and confusion in the spirits, more than in this material and these movements which one imagines to be eternally irregular and confused! This chaos, this error, this blindness is still in all spirits, and it is not dissipated except by these words: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth (Genesis 1:1) and by this: God saw everything he had made and they were very good, because he alone made them in all goodness: all goodness, in one blow, and not only perfection in the end but also at the beginning.