Thursday, December 29, 2005

Darwin's Black Box, ch. 1

I'm starting to read one of the seminal popular works of the Intelligent Design movement, Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box, published in 1996. Behe is a professor of biochemistry, so he knows whereof he writes.

I'll say, early on, that I don't think that serious ID proponents think Darwin was all wrong, still less that they agree with the "young-earth creationists" who take the Biblical account of creation literally.

And sure enough, Behe writes in chapter 1:

Many people think that questioning Darwinian evolution must be equivalent to espousing creationism. ... For the record, I have no reason to doubt that the universe is the billions of years old physicists say it is. Further, I find the idea of common descent (that all organisms share a common ancestor) fairly convincing, and have no particular reason to doubt it. ... I think that evolutionary biologists have contributed enormously to our understanding of the world.

But then he delivers the kicker:

Although Darwin's mechanism -- natural selection working on variation -- might explain many things, I do not believe it explains molecular life.

And that, it appears, is going to be the battleground described in the book. Darwinism does a fair job of theorizing about large-scale adaptation, like the famous case of the Galapagos finches' beaks; but it has a much harder time accounting for life at the molecular level -- the level, indeed, at which life actually happens. He takes Darwin's mid-nineteenth-century speculation on how the human eye might have developed, and puts it up against the biochemical knowledge of our own time, 150 years later. Even Behe's simplified summary of what has to happen, chemically, for the eye to detect and transmit one "round" of photon reception is stunningly complex. One is left with the impression of a biological machine whose parts are far more intricate than Darwin imagined (the cell was thought to be a simple blob of uncomplicated carbon-based mush). And so the task for Darwinists is to explain how such intricate machines could have developed by the slow accretion of tiny, random variations.

More about this as I get farther on in the book.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

A sense of sacred space

Because my interest in photographing stained glass has meant a growing interest in church architecture, I put a book called Theology in Stone by Richard Kieckhefer on my Amazon wish list, and my wife was kind enough to put it under the tree this Christmas. I'm sure I'll have more comments to make about it as time goes on, but here's one excerpt I found myself thinking about:

One is reminded of J. L. Pearson's declaration that his business was "to think what will bring people soonest to their knees." But then Pearson worked within the established forms of Gothic revival, whose vocabulary anyone would have recognized as whispering a summons to reverence. Saarinen's accomplishment [in designing the boxlike, hypermodern interior of Christ Church Lutheran in Minneapolis] was to achieve a similar effect without the conventions of recognized sacred architecture, engendering a spirit of reverence with what might have seemed -- and in the hands of another architect might well have been -- the desacralized vocabulary of a modern aesthetic.

I have two thoughts about this.

  • "Bringing people to their knees" seems like just what you want a church to do. So if an older style of architecture is nearly 100% sure to engender the spirit of reverence one wants in a church, why risk millions of dollars building in a new style, when the result might well be a building that drives people away, or worse, erodes their faith?
  • I'm glad he agrees with me that the modern aesthetic has a desacralized vocabulary. I've nearly always found "modern" churches sterile and deeply depressing. Like this one.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

December 25: not a recycled pagan holiday after all

I've always thought I knew that we Catholics decided to celebrate Christ's birthday on December 25 as a repurposing, if you will, of a pagan holiday prevalent in Rome at the time of the early church -- the solstice feast of Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun.

Turns out, according to this article, that Sol was the latecomer to the party. Christians had probably already staked out December 25 as a good day to celebrate Christ's birth as much as a century before the emperor Aurelian proclaimed the observance of Sol Invictus in A.D. 274. They didn't have very accurate reasons for doing so, but they seem to have grabbed the date first.

A more detailed article on the subject is available here.

So, when someone tells you that Christians "stole" the date of Christmas from the (peaceful, tolerant, eco-friendly) pagans, don't let 'em get away with it.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

"Always winter and never Christmas"

That's the way the deplorable condition of Narnia under the White Witch is described at the beginning of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

For its author C. S. Lewis, this must have been a particularly powerful image for a world in which all real joy had been suppressed: the slushy chill of December in turn-of-the-century Belfast, but with all its excitement and anticipation gone, and nothing ahead but an imminent return to the boarding schools that Lewis loathed.

It strikes me as an apt image for what the ACLU, People for the American Way, and other such groups are trying to establish in this country: a winter "holiday" season without its chief holiday, without the event that the majority of Americans regard -- when they think of it, which is not as often as they should -- as the real source of true, deep, and everlasting joy. Oh, they'll let us have Hanukkah because they say it has become only a "cultural" event (this would probably be a surprise to most Jews, but let that go); they'll let us have Kwanzaa because it's politically correct to do so; they'll let us have the Solstice because it carries a frisson of fashionable paganism with it. And they'll let us have the counterfeit joy of frantic gift-giving and party-going and overeating because those things take our mind off the wintry chill of hearts without Christ. And besides, it's good for business.

But Christmas? Uh-uh. The public square is to be just the ultimately grim, ice-bound wasteland that Lewis wrote of: winter, but never Christmas.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

A few childhood memories

I grew up in southern California in the 1950's and '60's, and so had my elementary-school education in the last years of the "old" Catholic Church, that is, the Church before Vatican II. Of course, what you experience in childhood profoundly affects your entire life's outlook, and so my impression of what the Church is and should be was formed in an environment light-years distant from the predicament the Church finds itself in today. Whereas today's Catholic Church in the U.S. is timid, left-leaning, and weak, the Church of my youth was strong, conservative, and vibrantly confident of its role in the nation and the world.

My little parish in Fullerton, California was blessed with a beautiful little mission-style church with ten or twelve magnificent stained-glass windows. I loved being up in the little choir loft. A pair of driveways, parallel to the right side of the sanctuary, led into the courtyard behind, and were separated from each other by a narrow strip of lawn with neat boxwood hedges, with a small shrine to the Virgin Mary at the far end and a flagpole at which the 8th-grade students raised the flag every morning during the Pledge of Allegiance.

Across the driveways was the two-story school building, built in the 20's, with tall windows and hardwood floors. The first floor housed the classrooms for the 5th though 8th grades, the library, the tiny school office, and a closet-sized "store" where you could buy pencils, paper, and other essentials. The second floor housed an auditorium -- home to many a school play and science fair -- and a kitchen. The driveways entered the grounds through an arched colonnade that ran from the school building to the sanctuary. Everything was roofed in red Spanish tile.

Behind the sanctuary was the rectory, home to three priests during my time there -- Frs. Siebert, O'Brien, and O'Malley. (Today, a parish in the L.A. area is lucky to have even one priest it can call its own). Across the courtyard, behind the big school building, were the lunch benches. In the courtyard, beside the rectory, and facing toward the lunch benches as if to bless us while we sat there, was another statue of the Virgin -- donated by a family whose daughter had been killed in a playground accident. Behind the courtyard was a low, cinder-block building, put up in the late '40's, that housed grades 1 through 4. And behind it, finally, was the playground.

That was then.

I knew that the lovely parish church burned to the ground around 1970, a victim either of arson or a misbehaving devotional candle. The warm, homey, mission-like church where I had my first Holy Communion, where I had studied the stained glass for hours, and where I gone to Mass every First Friday with the whole school, was replaced with the sort of "modern" church that was popular back then -- cold and sterile, as much like a warehouse as a church.

I went back there earlier this year, just to see how my old parish and its school had otherwise changed. The new church was still there -- more's the pity. The old two-story school building, with its big windows and hardwood floors, where I had answered Fr. O'Brien's acerbic questions in Confirmation class and been taught by the unflappably sweet-tempered Sister Genevieve Marie, had been torn down, replaced by an ugly, nondescript thing. The pretty lawn, with its shrine to the Virgin and its flagpole, was gone too, removed to make the driveways wider, and the colonnade had been demolished, too. The rectory had been replaced with a concrete-block affair that played host to the priest who came by on Sundays and Wednesdays -- no one really lived there anymore.

The overall impression: shrunken, tawdry, and depressing.

Quite a bit like what the Church in America has become, overall. The physical uglification of the place where I did so much of my growing up is mirrored in the vulgarization of the Church that was so strong and confident.

And that should help to explain a bit further why the imagery of Dover Beach seems to me so vivid and apt:

The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-winds, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

An invisible massacre

"The army entered the city, massacred its inhabitants, pillaged and burned it, leaving it in ruins, making prisoners of all who escaped the massacre, and took possession. [The number of dead was such] that one could not make way for himself without crossing over them. The number of prisoners were not less than 30,000 souls."

Whenever the subject of the Crusades comes up these days, one almost always hears about the massacre of the Muslim defenders of Jerusalem when the Crusaders took it in 1099. One also hears about how vividly this is remembered in the Muslim world even today, and how we can hardly blame them for being angry with the West, etc., etc.

But the passage quoted above isn't about Jerusalem, and it isn't about a Crusader conquest.

It's a contemporary account of the Muslim capture and sack of Ani, the capital of Christian Armenia, in 1064 -- thirty-five years before the Crusaders showed up before the walls of Jerusalem. You won't read about it in the mainstream press, or hear about it on the History Channel, though; because it was a Muslim massacre, it's invisible, a non-event. You're not allowed to know about it.

Now, the account above was written by Matthew of Edessa, an Armenian historian living at that time, so one might suspect a certain amount of exaggeration. So how do contemporary Islamic annals describe the taking of Ani?

"They entered the city and killed more inhabitants than one could count, so that many of the Muslims were unable to enter the city because there were so many corpses. They took captive nearly as many as they killed. The happy news of these conquests travelled around these lands and the Muslims rejoiced. The report... was read out in Baghdad in the Caliphal palace, and the Caliph issued a rescript praising and blessing [the Muslim commander at Ani] Arp Arslan."

Dancing in the streets of Baghdad a thousand years ago at the news of the deaths of so many infidels. Dancing in the streets of Gaza four years ago, on 9/11.

Ah, that changeless Religion of Peace.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Paging Charles Martel...

France is in big trouble.

Urban rioting -- almost entirely by Muslim immigrants and their children -- keeps spreading, and though the French government is finally beginning to wake up, their response is still too anemic to stem the rising tide. Civil war may not be entirely out of the question.

The mainstream media is telling us that these "youths" are simply erupting in frustration over high unemployment, poverty, and discrimination, and that religion has nothing to do with it. But if so, why are cries of "Allahu akbar" now being heard more and more often in the streets, as the mayhem spreads and gains strength? Why have so-called moderates among French Muslims issued only ambiguous fatwas against "blind" violence? And why have even those weasel-worded cautions been condemned by other clerics? No, Islam is definitely there; just behind the scenes for now, providing religious cover for anything anyone wants to do.

Some Muslims are already suggesting that the best solution to the underlying problems is the establishment of Muslim enclaves, similar to the millet system in the old Ottoman Empire, which would govern themselves by Sharia law, not the laws of France.

Thirteen hundred years ago, the infant nation of France faced another Muslim challenge. Spain had already fallen to Muslim armies from north Africa, as had the southern French regions of Septimania and Provence. A reconnaissance in force was driving north toward Paris, and the smart money was on a Muslim conquest.

But France had vigorous leadership then. The king's right-hand-man, the mayor of the palace, led an army out to face the foreign marauders, although the Muslim armies were known to be better equipped and well-led. (For one thing, he had only foot soldiers; the Muslims had a large and superb cavalry). When he met the Muslims somewhere near Poitiers sometime in October of 732, he didn't try anything fancy; he simply and grimly held his ground. After a day or two of trying to smash the Frankish shield-wall, the Muslim commanders gave up and went back to Spain. And though their raids into France continued for decades, they never again seriously threatened the existence of an independent France.

The name of that mayor of the palace was Charles, and he soon picked up the sobriquet "Martel" -- the Hammer -- from his soldiers. And so he has come down to us in history as Charles Martel.

France desperately needs another Charles Martel, a brave man who will simply stand his ground, and refuse to let his country be overrun by Islam.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Islamic indoctrination for public school kids? No problem!

Imagine if public school students were required to learn Christian prayers, fast during Lent, adopt saints' names, and generally pretend to be devout Christians for a day. Do you think the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State might, shall we say, put in an appearance?

But require those same students to learn Muslim prayers, fast according to Muslim practice, adopt Muslim names, paint Muslim slogans on banners, and generally pretend to be devout Muslims for three weeks, and hey, no problem. This, according to Judge Phyllis Hamilton of the incomprehensible Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Ms. Hamilton was, inter alia, among the first to declare the Partial Birth Abortion Ban unconstitutional, just a few hours after it was signed into law.

Chant rules

Thomas Merton explains why Gregorian chant rules:

"The cold stones of the Abbey church ring with a chant that glows with living flame, with clean, profound desire. It is an austere warmth, the warmth of Gregorian chant. It is deep beyond ordinary emotion, and that is one reason why you never get tired of it. It never wears you out by making a lot of cheap demands on your sensibilities. Instead of drawing you out into the open field of feelings where your enemies, the devil and your own imagination and the inherent vulgarity of your own corrupted nature, can get at you with their blades and cut you to pieces, it draws you within, where you are lulled in peace and recollection and where you find God."

In short: chant will still be sung a thousand years from now, while all the vapid "praise songs" and Christian pop music that stultifies so much contemporary worship are long forgotten.

Fr. Merton may have gone a little overboard with the fashionable leftism that washed into the Church in the 60's, but he remains one of the most skilled Catholic writers of the 20th century, and his conversion, described in his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, is one of the most influential of a century that drew many great men and women of letters into, or back to, the Church.

The Front of Decent People

Sunday's beatification of Cardinal Clemens von Galen, one of the most courageous figures in the German resistance to Hitler, happened to come just a few days after I finished Thomas Fleming's The New Dealers' War.

The Front of Decent People, as the chief resistance organization called itself, ultimately included not just the prominent, like Admiral Canaris (Germany's spymaster), General Rommel of Afrika Korps fame, and Claus von Stauffenberg, the maimed Catholic veteran whose bomb should have killed Hitler in 1944, but thousands of ordinary Germans as well. And thousands of them died for their actions when that bomb failed in its purpose.

It must have taken extraordinary courage to work secretly against the Nazis, let alone openly condemn their practices, as von Galen did in his famous 1941 sermon against their program of euthanasia. Thank God we don't live in such an age.

But there's still plenty of work to be done, it seems. In the comment at the end of the excerpt at this link, we read that after von Galen spoke, the Nazis stopped their mass euthanizing of the mentally ill and others considered "life unworthy of life," but carried on more discreetly:

Drugs and starvation were used instead and doctors were encouraged to decide in favor of death whenever euthanasia was being considered.

Starvation. Doctors encouraged to decide in favor of death. Remind you of a young woman from Florida who was in the news recently?

Friday, August 12, 2005

Dover Beach

When I was a senior in high school, more years ago than I like to think of, I first came across the poem Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold, and was captivated. I was struck by its imagery of the moonlit cliffs of Dover and the "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of the "sea of faith" -- even though it wasn't apparent to me, as a teenager who had grown up in the days when my Catholic Church seemed vigorous, that the tide was ebbing. I thought at the time that Arnold was far too pessimistic. Almost forty years later, I no longer think so.

The influence of Christian faith, and specifically the Catholic faith, in our culture has waned drastically in my lifetime, with terrible consequences. Worse, the strength of belief among believers seems to have waned, too. An aggressive materialism is intent on establishing itself as the new and exclusive orthodoxy, denying any role for Christianity in public life, relegating it to the sidelines as mere private piety, or even condemning it as a harmful force to be destroyed. Despite materialism's close association with the most vicious movements of the twentieth century, somehow it is still able to present itself as the voice of sweet reason struggling against superstition. And it still seems to be winning.

I could be fooling myself, but the sound of those melancholy waves might be changing, almost imperceptibly. It may be that the tide is now coming to that moment of equipoise when the ebb finally slows and stops, and the flood tide imperceptibly starts to take hold again. Or the ebb may only be gathering itself for another slide towards the ends of the earth.

Either way, I'll be watching and listening here, on the beach.