Tradition and Progress: a Vlog Discussion

Manotti and I returned from a Latin Mass.  The whole thing got me thinking about tradition and how it seems we as a culture have more than ever chipped away not only at our own traditions, but even more debased tradition as something bad.  We think this is unfortunate.  Still, is it possible to retain tradition while also being progressive or meliorative?  We try to address this issue.  The conversation runs long and the discourse is arduous.

The Philosopher on Carmel Show: Inscrutable Philosophical Conversations

I invited my friend Manotti to try out vlogging (which auto-corrected to flogging, by the way).  Just in case no one reads blogs anymore I figured I’d try out making video for no one to watch.  This reminds me of something a colleague and I once discussed: since primary sources are better to assign in philosophy classes, but students don’t read what is assigned anyway, it is better that they not read the primary sources than not read the crappy textbook.  Whatever.

So here are three videos we made based on questions we each wrote.  It’s heavy philosophy, so buckle up.  In the end I am not sure we accomplished anything, but we had fun.  In the Socratic tradition these are “aporetic”, and perhaps that’s how it should be.  Either way, we’re two traditionalist dudes who are yakking just after Sunday Mass, and that means we’re a little formally dressed and wired on coffee and donuts.  Manotti didn’t want anyone to know, but he spilled water all over his shirt, which is why he’s wearing a jacket.

Question One: Which is primary – the Good, the True, or the Beautiful?

Manotti asks me about the three transcendentals, one of my favorite topics.  We have a very good conversation, and Manotti makes some valuable insights and then nearly commits the heresy of Sabellianism.  I think you’ll like this one.


Question Two: Is there room in our contemporary moral world for a Platonic notion of the Good?

When we decided to do this we both wrote down our questions, not letting the other know what they were.  It seems we had some similar themes in mind.  Here I ask Manotti about whether or not we can envision a morality based on something like the Platonic Good.  In other words, is there an overarching sense of the Good that we should be striving for?  We go deep on this one.  Very deep.  I bring up Augustine. Manotti brings in Leibniz.  Whenever Leibniz enters the room things get nutty.


Question Three: How and When Did the West Go Wrong in its Thinking, pt. 1

This was a fun conversation.  Manotti asks me about if and when the West went off course.  I propose a broad answer is with the Cartesian turn, but more acutely in post-enlightenment thinking.  We never finished, then decided to eat sauerkraut and keilbasa, and call it a day.  We’ll finish this one later.  IT WENT THAT WELL!


My Favorite Catholic Podcasts

A little over a year ago I told the director of religious education at my parish that I believe there is a slow and tenuous mood shift in our culture that will be increasingly open to traditional values and religion, including Catholicism. Translation: Catholic stuff is getting popular again.  She thought I was crazy.  Maybe I was and still am. But in not a lot of time I have seen a rise in the quantity and quality of Catholic social media.  Catholic Twitter alone is impressive, but the stuff going on over at YouTube and the increasing number of podcasts is, I would humbly assert, enough to give my comment from a year ago at least some credibility.

I wanted to highlight some of my favorite stars of Catholic social media for fun and hopefully to get the word out on some really great stuff.  The notable Catholic YouTube channels will have to wait for another day. Now, I’d like to introduce a few good podcasts that have gotten me through difficult times, enlightened me, entertained me, and helped me clean my house.  (I love learning while mopping the floor.)   Some of these I’ve been listening to for a while, and others are either new or I only just discovered them and found them compelling enough to stick ’em in here.

Rather than rank or rate these, or otherwise insinuate some ordering, I decided to categorize the eight podcasts I either regularly listen to, or got into recently and enough to “binge listen” while making paella (because it takes a long time).  They’re all quite different, and they’re all, by my humble yet discerning taste, quite excellent.

The Bishop Barron Two: Sermons and The Word on Fire Show

Has any Catholic under the age of 60 not heard of Bishop Robert Barron? I was trying to explain Barron to a friend lately and I described him as Fulton Sheen mixed with St. Patrick, which is to say he works the popular media like Fulton Sheen did TV, but also works diligently to convert non-Catholics and bring back lapsed Catholics the way that St. Patrick did with the Druid pagans of Ireland.

The Sermons are essentially Barron, in his unmistakable style, delivering homilies on the weekly readings.  But here’s the thing: these come out several days (Wednesdays, I think) before Sunday.  What I love about Barron is that he doesn’t hold back on the depth of the readings, and nor is he shy about making references to the lives and works of theologians, philosophers, saints, blesseds, and even heretics from antiquity to the present.  But don’t take this as suggesting Barron is pedantic.  Hardly.  What I love about these sermons is that they exhibit Catholicism in all its glory and really get to the heart of the meaning in the readings.  There are some I have listened to several times.  As I write this, just before Ash Wednesday 2017, his series from the past few weeks on the Sermon the Mount is especially noteworthy.  What’s good, too, is that these clock in at a short ten to fifteen minutes.

The Word on Fire Show is Bishop Barron responding to questions by the Word on Fire content director, Brandon Vogt, about various and sundry bits from pop culture.  These podcasts are typically about twenty minutes or so, and discuss things like movies, holidays, important news and events relevant to Catholics, and any other sensational bit that might be noteworthy.   Barron really rocks these, and I have especially enjoyed when he takes on famous and outspoken atheists.  These come out once a week, and when Barron is away on retreat or working one of his many lectures are uploaded, and these are not to be missed either.

Catholicism on Campus:  The Crunch and Fr. Mike Schmitz Homilies

It’s easy to forget what it’s like to be a college student once you leave school and start working.  We forget how nearly everything is more intensely experienced.  I don’t know if this is because of the age we typically are when in college, or more simply that the manner in which so much concentrated information is given to us, and that we, in turn, respond in kind with either intense attraction or repulsion to our studies.  Even when college kids are indifferent they are intensely indifferent.  But I think we can learn a lot from, and be inspired by, college students because of this.  Frankly, I miss being a college student, even though I am a professor and am around college students all the time.  I miss being so into things that I want to talk about them all the time.  OK, well, I still am that way, but it’s a heck of a lot harder to find peers that want to, or even can, do that.  And that’s what makes college students smart.

The Crunch is a podcast by two college students, Ethan and Pat, from Kansas State and Franciscan University at Steubenville, respectively.  They banter, they joke, they get personal, and they deliver some great Catholic content.  What I love most about these guys  is that they’re really into their faith, they love learning more about it, and they are really quite insightful.  One of the things I most enjoy about their discussions is they never fail to bring theology — or whatever it is they may be talking about — and bring it into their own worlds, into the context of college life.  And you know, college life with all its drama and weirdness is, in the end, really not that different from what any of us face over the age of 30.  I think, too, these guys aren’t afraid to try things and speak about them honestly, such as Gaitley’s 33 Days to Morning Glory.  So fun stuff!  Go check them out.  Episodes are uploaded weekly, on Sundays, I believe.

Man, I love Fr. Mike Schmitz.  If he was my priest when I was a late teen I may very well have discerned and entered seminary.  I came upon his podcast quite by accident during a very tumultuous time in my life.  Before then I knew next to nothing about him, but I started listening to his homilies from the Newman Center at University of Minnesota, Duluth and they just, well, spoke to me. It was using the Gospels and applying them to life problems.  And then I noticed these would sometimes run in themes, like “heroic confidence or “it’s nothing personal”.  It didn’t take me long to notice that he was speaking to college students, but that didn’t matter at all.  The content of our problems may differ a bit, but the structure and the solutions are remarkably similar.  And Fr. Mike has to be one of the most warm and approachable priests working in the new media.  Each homily is about 15 to 20 minutes, and are typically uploaded weekly on Monday or Tuesday.  In the summer they taper off.

Everyday Catholicism: The Catholic Hipster and Catching Foxes

If the TV show Thirtysomething came back as a Catholic podcast it might very well be either of these two very cool podcasts that currently I know little about because I only recently discovered them.  But how about this: you know those young families that you see at Mass, where the mom and dad look kind of hip, but frazzled enough that you can’t quite imagine they can rock an interesting conversation, but then you find out they are into craft beer, indie rock, and esoteric saints from the 9th century?  Well that’s how I imagine the folks that do these podcasts.

The Catholic Hipster is Tommy Tighe and Sarah Vabulas, who converse about adulting from a Catholic perspective.  Occasionally they have guests from the new media.  The conversation is light and engaging and offers intelligent perspectives on being a responsible adult in the current culture from a Catholic perspective.  Tommy and Sarah have a great dynamic that is immensely listenable.

So I should have found out about Catching Foxes a while ago.  Not sure how I missed it, but whatevs, what’s done is done, and I have a lot of catching up to do with these fun guys.  Catching Foxes is a duo, Gomer and Luke, who do interviews and discuss all the weird, wild stuff in popular culture through a Catholic lens.  I’m only three episodes in, but I really like what these guys are doing and how they are doing it.  Apparently, a lot of listeners agree!  They don’t hold back on the, a hem, “colorful language”, so best not to listen around yer children folk.

Theonerding: Catholic Stuff You Should Know and Pints With Aquinas

I had a student a few years ago who was going to convert to Catholicism, and my suspicion was that it was for our philosophy and theology, much like that Seinfeld bit where a dentist wanted to convert to Judaism for the jokes.  Our intellectual tradition is second to none in the world, and has produced many of the best thinkers from antiquity to the present.  The four priests that make up Catholic Stuff You Should Know and Matt Fradd in Pints With Aquinas run with this.

Catholic Stuff You Should Know is one of the first Catholic podcasts I subscribed to, and I’ve truly gotten a lot from listening to them.  In fact, they spurred my interest in Hans Urs Von Balthasar!  But appropriate to their name, CSYSK covers all the little bits of Catholic and priestly life that you may have wondered about but were afraid to ask, covering the simple question of priestly vestments, to the controversial matter of homosexuality.  Whatever it is they cover, it is with scholarly aplomb, precision, thoroughness, and levity.  They are currently four priests, Fr. Nathan Goebel, Fr. John Nepil, Fr. Michael O’Loughlin, and Fr. Mike Rapp, from various parishes around the Denver area.  In most cases their podcasts are any two of them at a time, and it always seems they have a great chemistry together.

Pints With Aquinas is Matt Fradd’s podcast, and he does an excellent job introducing and breaking down the main arguments from St. Thomas Aquinas, usually from the Summa.  No easy task! Plus, he does with humor and levity! I love Aquinas, and don’t mind spending an evening reading him, but I can see how, despite his importance in Church teaching, approaching him is a bit daunting.  However, Fradd’s approach is simple yet effective: take one of Thomas’ questions of interest and go through the objections and response slowly and methodically.  Sometimes, Fradd will take a question or problem from our own time and see where it might be in the Summa, but the method is the same.  Occasionally, Fradd brings on some guests, and also occasionally he will explore a more generally theme not necessarily related to Thomas.  But this one is well worth checking out.

The Socratic Project: The Perfection of the Soul

This is an essay that I wrote quite a few years ago.  It was written for students first encountering Socrates.  While I think it could be more nuanced, accurate, and better composed, I maintain it contains some valuable insights from Socrates that are relevant now.  Those insights belong to him, not me. 


If one can assume scholarly belief about the order of Plato’s writings, and separate the early from the later, and thereby also assume that the earlier dialogs exhibit what is likely the closes thing we have to what the historical Socrates believed, we can surmise what is the project of Socrates, the Socratic method, and Socrates’ exhortation to philosophy as a way of life that brings together his project and his method. This essay will focus on the project of Socrates, which is to attempt a generalization regarding what drove Socrates’ interest in philosophy, and why he did philosophy the way he did. Hence, to some degree this essay is logically prior to those involving the Socratic method and his exhortation to philosophy that is most clearly exhibited in Apology.[1]

A most concise understanding of the project of Socrates would be that of the perfection of the soul. A simple enough reply, but for Socrates this was a rich ideal that positively projected the philosopher toward a life of contemplation toward the values of truth, beauty[2], and goodness, and negatively slaked off the dogmas, presumptions and arrogances of popular opinion and the actions of the many. In other words, to perfect the soul – to be a philosopher – meant an understanding of, and a closeness to, values that are cardinal, values that are themselves the only values that could be considered ends in themselves. When we consider other values cherished by the average Athenian, such as wealth, power, and prestige, the Socratic shift in value could be seen as nothing other than an affront to popular opinion. This would be similar to the ways in which some Americans eschew capital gain, and forceful power with the values of living simply and wisely; to those who pursue capital wealth and bodily or militaristic might, such a reinterpretation of such values are often taken as an insult to a supposed American way of life. The force of the affront is even more acute when if we then also emphasize that this is not just a way of being or living, but is perfecting life and the soul. Even more, if we consider Socrates’ suggestion that “those who practice philosophy in the proper manner [are practicing] for dying and death”[3] we recognize instantly an additional affront to worldly values.[4] The point to all this is that such worldly values really cannot be considered ends in themselves. To be wealthy for its own sake is clearly absurd. Looking past the simple idea that wealth is good for buying goods and services, those goods and services still seem to be toward something else. Do we have things simply to have them? No. We have things for other reasons. Can we say a reason is pleasure, and that pleasure is an end in itself? This might be true but consider that even pleasure seems to be toward something else, and this something must be happiness. So, if wealth and power and geared toward happiness we will be in a terrible position if for some reason our wealth and power dissipates, as so often does happen with the vicissitudes of life. As Socrates argues, the only ends really worth pursuing are those that cannot be effected by such vicissitudes. Even health is not certain, for even if we pursue a healthy lifestyle, personal sickness or political upheaval may wreck our bodies as prisoners of war know. So if we perfect ourselves in any way, Socrates argues, it must be that part of us that cannot be altered by changes outside us. This may be what led Socrates to that momentous shift in philosophy that is the discovery of the soul.

Before considering the perfecting of the soul we need to delimit what he means by soul. First, soul in the Socratic sense is not in any way what popular new age spirituality, or even some forms of Christianity supposes soul to be. This understanding of soul is also closely related to what the Greeks considered Psyche, a vaporous second self that runs along with the body and that remains after death. While Socrates does not seem to disbelieve this understanding of soul, he locates a soul that is properly speaking prior to Psyche, and this is Nous. Nous for Socrates is the immortal part of the soul that, we might conclude, perfects Psyche, so that there are two levels of perfection occurring. At the first level is the perfection of nous, and at the second is psyche. I would not thereby conclude that there are multiple layers to our being, one of body, one of psyche, and one of nous. I think this is an indefensibly complicated metaphysical construct. But if we simply run with this picture for heuristic purposes it will hopefully serve us well.

Nous as soul is really insight. Insight into what? As insight – an inner-seeing – it is that capacity of a perfect seeing of things as they really are, of recognizing truth, beauty, and goodness. Nous is therefore intellect, and intellect and insight are mutually inclusive capacities. It in incumbent at this point to draw a vital distinction, and one to which Socrates often alludes. If I tell you that 2+2=4, and you believe it, and you can rehearse my words so that you can tell other people that 2+2=4 and you can also, upon request, declare that 4 is the correct answer to the problem 2+2=x, you are in the realm of correct belief, but it is belief all the same. Socrates, however, makes an important philosophical distinction between belief, or doxa, and episteme, which is knowledge. It is one thing to correctly believe that 2+2=4, that stealing is wrong, or that truth is good, but is best to see that these statements are so. This seeing is the insight of which Socrates speaks.

But the perfecting of the soul is not so much gaining something as much as it is clearing.[5] Perfecting of the soul is really a clearing and an opening. It is a clearing of presumptions, prejudices, conventions, and opinions – all those forms of doxa that infiltrate our judgments and that come to us through worldly interactions, for better or worse. Realize that neither Socrates nor any philosopher would admit that all popular opinion is false and bad. The point is that even when we believe what is true we are not seeing how and why it is true. Consider for moment the process of Googling for information versus attaining it through experience. Only a fool would surmise that finding information on the internet is epistemologically equal to experiencing it first hand or gaining the capacity for demonstration.[6] It is not that Googling or believing what is true is bad. It is just that it is a different kind of experience to what is true than what Socrates is calling nous or insight, or, rightly speaking, wisdom and knowledge, and that episteme is ultimately superior to doxa, and is therefore the proper aim of the philosopher.

Allowing for an openness to the true, good, and beautiful, which is a clearing in much the way that clearing away brush and debris from a landscape allows you to see the land better, is on the way to the perfection of the soul; it allows an openness to that excellence which in Greek is called arête, and which, for Socrates is a higher order virtue because it is direct insight into truth, beauty, and goodness. If we consider virtue in the ordinary Greek sense, or even the ordinary sense in our culture, virtue is merely playing a social role with excellence. We say “silence is a virtue” for instance to indicate a kind of etiquette in certain circumstances. Arête as excellent virtue on the other hand is an inner excellence. It is not following the rules of convention, as it were. This distinction must be understood, for it is integral to Socrates’ project.

To conclude this treatment of Socrates’ project, which is perfection of the soul, we still need investigate how this is done – the method Socrates employs – and how this perfection of the soul is implicated into a larger understanding of philosophy and living philosophically. The Socratic method, which is the use of irony and dialog is also immediately implicated into what might be considered Socratic philosophy more generally. I address both of these, method and the exhortation to philosophy in separate essays.

[1] This refers to the work by Plato, The Apology, considered by most scholars to be a faithful account of Socrates speeches before the Athenian juries, and therefore it is also considered to be an early dialog.

[2] Socrates means the very essence of the beautiful, as all beautiful things participate in beauty itself.

[3] Phaedo, 64a Phaedo is considered a middle dialog, but I am of the opinion that this particular belief is consisten with Socrates thoughts about death, while the more precise thoughts about the afterlife are Plato’s. It is good to consider that Socrates was agnostic about the afterlife (cf. Apology, Crito) while Plato had an afterlife consistent with his metaphysics.

[4] This point is made clearly in Apology, 36b: “…I have deliberately not led a quiet life but have neglected what occupies most people: wealth, household affairs, the position of general or public orator or the other offices, the political clubs and factions that exist in the city…”

[5] We might also consider here the Platonic, possibly Socratic, idea that knowledge is really recollecting. See Phaedo, 72e and Meno, 81b ff. It is more likely that this is more Platonic than Socratic, given the dates of these dialogs, which locate them in his middle period, where Socrates’ voice gives way to Plato’s.

[6] In philosophy demonstration is that capacity to show how and why it is true. It would be showing how 2+2=4 is true by taking two sets of two things, putting them together and counting a total of four.

Reflections on Some Dimensions of Adoration, Part 1 of 2

Last year in my Comparative Religions class while on the topic of Christianity I mentioned adoration in the context of Catholic practices.  A young student in the front looked puzzled and exclaimed, “I’m Catholic.  I’ve been a Catholic all of my life and I have never heard of this.”  I was not the least bit surprised.  Her story is mine, too.  A cradle Catholic surrounded largely by pre-conciliar family members we practiced an old-school style of our faith, which entailed the family matriarchs keeping everyone on point the best they could.  My grandmother and my great aunts were the ones who went frequently to Mass, who sat quietly in the corner chair praying the rosary, who would slip off in the evening to do who-knows-what at the parish.  Perhaps they did a holy hour, but I can’t be sure, as that was never mentioned.  And that I, like my student, never heard of adoration or a holy hour throughout adolescence and into young adulthood suggests that my other Catholic friends didn’t know much about it either.  Granted, the parish where I grew up was very small and I still don’t know if there was an adoration chapel anywhere nearby.  And while my mom took me to Mass I was not, despite having attended “Catholic Camp” as a kid, very well catechized.  So, to briefly segue, I don’t think that my story is all that unique for my generation, hence neither do I think that men and women of my generation had a strong enough engagement in their parish and Catholic life generally to really impart a substantial Catholicism to their children to keep them in the Church.  There is an obvious generation gap in my current parish consisting of teens through early thirty-somethings.  I don’t think this is unique.  But that is all for another discussion, and one, too, that Bishop Robert Barron has covered very well.

Adoration: Time spent before the Blessed Sacrament

An hour spent in adoration is a devotion par excellence.  I will not spend time explaining the roots of this practice, nor anything approximating a detailed description thereof.  For those interested you can read more about it here.  My aim is mostly to discuss, extemporaneously and personally, the value of this devotion and what I see as several dimensions thereof.

If you are fortunate to live near an adoration chapel with either perpetual (around the clock) or, like the one near me, hours from morning to evening, I recommend working this into a routine.  On the one hand it is a very good complement to the Holy Mass.  But it is also something that works very well in keeping an active and consistent spiritual life.  In my last blog on creating a rule of life I explain this. ( The Value and Formation of ‘A Rule of Life’)

Dimensions and reflections on the act of adoration.

Trying to explain the practice of adoration to the uninitiated is often, I have found, met with puzzlement. Not long ago I was chatting with a friend who was raised in a Presbyterian family.  He asked me what the building was that sits in front of the school that is connected to my parish.  “It’s an adoration chapel.”  “What’s that?” he replied.  I described it and the practice of adoring and holy hour. “So you sit and look at bread?”  Reduced to its simplest form it may seem so, but then so too can many the most meaningful activities of life appear absurd when leveled out to their simplest elements and acts.  Looking at a Monet is, we should all agree, much more than looking at fabric smeared with paint, and soccer is more than kicking a ball.  Unfortunately, however, ignoring the metaphysical while focusing on the material has become quite a theme in our culture, most affecting those areas of life we have hitherto identified as the sacred.  But equally troubling is what seems to be the infection of this leveling attitude among those ostensibly practicing their faith.  This is what Bishop Robert Barron meant in part by a “beige Catholic”: one who goes through the motions but is not fully engaged in the transcendent or spiritual, or perhaps more precisely, one who does not attempt to engage fully.

All that being said, I offer below reflections on some core dimensions of adoration: the aesthetic, solitude in communion, the meditative, and the active and contemplative.

The aesthetic dimension

Contra to Platonism proper, some forms of Eastern or New Age spiritualism, and debased Christianity, Catholic Christianity is an incarnate spirituality, which is to say human, creaturely experience is embodied as much as it is transcendent.  Material creation is good and abounds with God’s presence in its dynamism, beauty, awe and wonder, grandeur, sweetness, sublimity, and even the fearsome.  It is, moreover, an entry into the sacred.  In fact, it may be more correct to say, along with the Jesuits, that God is in all things.  And yet we can, at the same time, make the claim that there are spaces and places separated in intent and presence that we identify as sacred. The sacred space is designated as such by act of consecration, designation, or through a supernatural act of being present.  The cathedral, basilica, church, and chapel hold all three of these inasmuch as they are designated places of holiness, consecrated by a vicar of Christ, and hold the true presence of our Lord in the Eucharist within the tabernacle or monstrance.  Christian architecture is designed around this presence holding, as it does, the central position.  An encounter with the sacred is cognizant of these designations in their richness in splendor.  To this extent, the aesthetic encounter of the sacred is an exchange: it is receiving through an act of openness and reverence; one gives oneself over to receive what is offered.  Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of Judgment suggests something similar in that the aesthetic is both objective and subjective, participating in both the imaginative and the understanding.

There is something different about entering the adoration chapel that moves one from the secular and into the sacred.  The monstrance, holding the Blessed Sacrament, organizes the entire space as the center of a circle organizes all points around it.  We behave thusly when entering.  We further organize all other objects, art, and sacramentals present in the chapel around the radiant monstrance.  The more sensitive we are in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, the keen our understanding of real presence, the more we participate in the radiance extended outward.

Is this to suggest that every visit to adoration, every encounter with the Blessed Sacrament, will be an intense spiritual and aesthetic experience?  No, and for reasons both obvious and metaphysical.  Without going into the latter, which relates to our ontological composition as both material individuality and spiritual personality, we simply are often swayed by psycho-physical matters such as disposition, mood, and well-being.  Nevertheless, we might consider our Lord as the constant while we are the variable, open as we are, to influence.

Setting aside the more philosophical ruminations, I’d like to end this section with a few remarks about beauty.  Spending time in adoration is a beautiful experience and an experience of beauty.  I have never come away from spending time in adoration feeling less than edified.  There are many reasons for this, the most important of which I will hit upon in the discussion of the other dimensions to follow.  Further, this is not to suggest that our own edification is the function of adoration.  But yet I think it quite correct to say that our love and desire directed toward our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament becomes a momentarily filled intention, which is but one aspect of the encounter with beauty.  But even more basic is the very space that is the chapel itself.  Again, as a religion of incarnation we take beauty in art and architecture to be a very important element of our faith.  I always found the simple beauty of the chapel I visit to be quite edifying in its own right.  I often think of that Hemingway story, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, where the protagonist finds respite and meaning in his frequent visits to a humble but clean and well lit cafe.  Again, this speaks to our need for the sacred in our life; a place separated from the secular and the mundane.

This ends Part I.  In Part II I will continue the discussion through exploring the remaining dimension I mentioned above.  I predict these will augment and clarify some of ideas mentioned in the section above.