Athanasius the resilient

Anyone who has achieved something significant knows the feeling of having set himself against the world to do it. Athanasius was one of those people in Christian history, and really world history. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput writes about Athanasius and why he’s worth paying attention to for his faith, his sheer resiliency, and his incredible grit:

Whether history judges the record of Christian discipleship in our own country a success or a failure finally depends on us—clergy, religious, and laypeople—and how zealously we live our faith; how deeply we believe; and how much apostolic courage we show to an unbelieving world that urgently needs Jesus Christ. We American Christians have far more freedom to live and preach our faith than do Christians in nearly any other nation. And God will hold us accountable for how we use it.

We live in a confused time, with deep anxieties even within the Church. But we’ve been here before. The Nicene Creed emerged largely from one of the most hotly contested gatherings in the life of the Church: the First Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. It was a meeting marked by fierce conflict between leaders of orthodox Christian belief and leaders of the Arian heresy—a heresy that appealed to many of the learned, comfortable, and powerful.

The Council of Nicaea could have failed. It, and all the long history that followed it, could have turned out very differently. It didn’t, because of one man—a young deacon and scholar (and later bishop) named Athanasius. Earlier this week, on May 2, Western Christians celebrated the feast of this man, whom we now remember as one of the greatest bishop-saints in history. His episcopal see was the city of Alexandria in modern Egypt. And his life is a lesson for all of us in the years ahead.

Athanasius fought for the true Christian faith at Nicaea and throughout his career. Arian bishops excommunicated him. Emperors resented him. His enemies falsely accused him of cruelty, sorcery, and even murder. He was exiled five times, for a total of seventeen years, and survived multiple assassination attempts. And in the face of it all, he became the single most articulate voice defending the orthodox Christian faith, which is why even today we remember him as Athanasius contra mundum: “Athanasius against the world.”

He had courage. He had the truth. He fought hard for it. He never gave up. And in the end, the truth won. The faith we take for granted today, we largely owe to him.

Purdue grows

Mitch Daniels, Purdue University president, last week announced an acquisition:

Purdue University, a flagship public institution in Indiana, is jumping into online education by buying for-profit Kaplan University with the aim of creating a new, public online university. The highly unusual acquisition will extend Purdue’s reach to more working adults while building an additional revenue stream at a time when state funding is uncertain.

Essentially, what Purdue will do is create a new, online campus to what Penn State did in creating the Penn State World Campus in the 1990s. Purdue will add about 30,000 students in the process and expand its reach in a major way.

What I hope Purdue can achieve is delivering a Purdue degree through its online campus where tuition covers the cost of academic instruction, but is not used to fund other revenue-hungry areas of the university.

Earning a degreee from a Penn State or Purdue should be dramatically less expensive than earning the same degree on a residential campus.

When the Mass is draining

The Mass is ended. The closing procession makes its way down the aisle at a pace slower than a funeral march. The priest is lost in his hymnal, following along a little farther back. You make your way out of the pew and down the aisle and out onto the steps of the church to a sweltering, muggy summer evening just in time to see what seem like shards of light slicing across the scene. Thank God.

What is this strange reality so many of us Catholics are stuck with where leaving the Mass becomes something truly like a gift; where the Mass was celebrated so limply that in fact it wasn’t celebrated really at all. Where leaving a climate conditioned church for a sweaty summer night with birds chirping and sun setting and fountains gurgling makes you wonder what you were doing inside in the first place?

What is this strange feeling we’re left with when not simply the homily but the entire liturgy feels like a diminishing rather than replenishing action?

We 20 percent of Catholics who continue to come face what seems like indifferent pastoral leaders more often than courtesy lets us too often acknowledge.

Why do limp, testosterone-sapped, formulaic, franchise-style churches die?

The question contains its own answer.

Pope Francis’s TED talk

Pope Francis has talked of the “God of surprises,” and just as often turns out to be a pope of surprises. That’s true of his surprise (pre-filmed) TED appearance in Vancouver last night.

I’ve been following along with the TED conference through Snapchat from a few people I follow, so already felt somewhat connected to the talks there. I hope Pope Francis’s participation sets a standard for things like this, and that someday a younger pope might surprise an audience like this in person.

Journalists should be skeptics

Walk into almost any news room or journalism class in the country and probably a majority will say something about the importance of objectivity in reporting. It’s not that they think they don’t have biases, but rather that they believe they will be impartial in their reading of events, placement of data, and interviews with sources as to provide an “objective” picture of reality. But what if the notion of objectivity in journalism were its great weakness?

“Objectivity” presupposes an impartial observer able to share a “view from nowhere.” A journalist’s mission is to synthesize the raw materials of a situation into a coherent portrait of the truth. But as a reporter learns more about a subject, cognitive biases will take hold on what information is deemed important or relevant.

Elizabeth Murphy, Penn State’s Daily Collegian editor, wrote a few years ago on her organization’s having received a court order to remove articles from their site and why they refused to agree. She provided a glimpse into the objectivity mindset of journalists:

The Daily Collegian will not yield to intimidation.
The Daily Collegian does not answer to the government.
The Daily Collegian reports the truth as it happens, day in and day out.

What happens when the newspaper reports information that turns out not to be the truth? Or only a partial picture of the truth? Does careless research not threaten to obscure the truth each day? Does lazy interviewing not threaten to obscure the truth each day? Does simple need to fill out a minimum word count not threaten to obscure the truth each day?

A better standard to adhere to as a journalist would be to acknowledge our tendency toward bias and proclaim that journalists should be naturally skeptical—rather than claiming the mantle of objectivity and truth. Skepticism is a useful attitude for journalists because it gives them a freer hand to investigate, to maintain relationships with contentious public figures, and to share what they know without having to climb onto the high pedestal of objective public good every time they publish.

Skepticism rather than objectivity insulates journalists from the sort of attacks their credibility suffers every time something is reported incorrectly.

In 2003, Jesse Walker explained a problem with the objectivity approach:

There’s a reason that Fox News, whose very selling point is its reliable slant, would adopt a slogan like “We report, you decide.” And there’s a reason why Ann Coulter and Eric Alterman, scarcely objective writers themselves, would attack the media not merely for being wrong but for being biased. The rhetoric of “objectivity” is far too useful a tool, for denouncing your enemies or for patting yourself on the back, to expect everyone to give it up.

Jack Shafer at Slate took on the notion of the “objective” war reporter that same year.

Lefebvre on human dignity

Where has the idea of “human dignity” come from? What is its intellectual genealogy? 

In evolutionary history, we understand all the ways in which a creature takes on slightly different form over time as the genetic structures adapt and change in an attempt to fit their circumstances. The same is true in exploring the genealogy of philosophical and theological history. What this means is that a simple phrase like “human dignity” carries within it the “genetic” memory of debate and discourse as men and women attempt to reach the essential truth about mankind that it attempts to speak to. What makes us distinct? Where is our dignity located? Why is it worth conserving? What does it ask of us?

David L. Schindler and Nicholas J. Healy, Jr. capture some of the history of the debate over human dignity in their book Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity: The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom. An interesting excerpt:

The opposition between Murray [freedom, rights] and Lefebvre [truth, duty] appears to be, and in a crucial sense is, fundamental. … Regarding the operative dignity of man, Lefebvre says that it “is the result of the exercise of his faculties, essentially intelligence and will.” (20). “To the perfection of nature is added to man a supplementary perfection which will depend on his actions” (20). Man’s operative dignity, thus, “will consist in adhering in his actions to truth and goodness” (2). It follows for the Archbishop that “if man fails to be good or, if he adheres to error or evil, he loses his dignity” (20). In a word, for Lefebvre the dignity of the human person, in the operative sense, “does not consist in liberty apart from truth … Liberty is good and true to the extent to which it is ruled by truth”(22).

Lefebvre’s problem with the teaching of Dignitatis humanae, in sum, is that it roots the right to religious freedom not in this operative dignity of man, which consists in “the actual adherence of the person to the truth,” but rather in the ontological dignity of man, which “refers only to his free will” made in the image of God (33). In the view of the Declaration, “any man, regardless of his subjective dispositions (truth or error, good or bad faith), is inviolable in the actions by which he operates his ‘relation’ to God” (31). But, according to Lefebvre, this is false: “when man cleaves to error or moral evil, he loses his operative dignity, which therefore cannot be the basis for anything at all” (33).

Thus, regarding the logic of Lefebvre’s and Murray’s positions with respect to each other: on the one hand, Lefebvre recognizes that there is in man a “transcendental relation to God” and a “divine call” that founds man’s duty and dignity, and hence his right to search for the truth. But this relation and call have been profoundly affected by sin, to the extent that man’s original natural orientation to truth and God are now conceived as only “potential,” not yet in any proper sense actual or effective. Hence the operative dignity of man, the dignity that truly qualifies him as a subject of the right to religious freedom, is for Lefebvre tied to the exercise of his faculties of freedom and intelligence in the actual realization of truth and goodness in relation to God. Murray, on the other hand, locates human dignity, for purposes relevant to man’s being recognized as a subject of the right to religious freedom, in man’s exigence for exercising initiative, abstracted from man’s relation to the transcendent order of truth.

Little Free Libraries

I snapped this photo back in February when I was visiting Penn State/State College with my brother Nick. This “Little Free Library” is located at the Penn State Arboretum, and I think these are generally super-clever and valuable contributions to community life.

Little Free Libraries are often expressions of a particular neighborhood as much as a community or wider place. The people of a place make them what they are, placing books that are often specific to that place rather than just whatever was left lying around. They become a way for a community to communicate bits about itself to each other and to visitors.

And they’re valuable for suggesting Here’s how you might like to spend some of your morning when you’re enjoying a distinctive place like an arboretum’s gardens, or when you’ve reached the summit of Mount Nittany and are ready to find a tree or rock to lean up against and enjoy a secluded afternoon with friends or by yourself.

I think adding one of these to Mount Nittany’s trailhead would be the perfect way to say, A hike can be more than just coming and going—linger a bit, and here, enjoy this book while you do…