Halloween

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Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays, and I refuse to allow Fundamentalist Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, to spoil it for me. It is because of that that I am writing my second post on this topic.  I am quite aware that October 31 is the eve of All Saints Day. Why should that face forbid Halloween parties and trick-or-treating? Some Fundamentalists behave as if Halloween is the doorway to the Satan‘s closet. They claim that the holiday began in devil worship; therefore, those who celebrate Halloween today are celebrating a Satanic holiday. Now this reasoning is as fluffy as the neural structure of many Fundamentalist Christians because it is a classic case of a genetic fallacy. It is not legitimate to argue from the origin of a practice that the practice has the same meaning today. The same reasoning applies to holidays. Even if Halloween began with Satanic worship (which is historically false anyway), it would not follow that trick-or-treaters are engaged in Satanic worship today. What is the harm in dressing up like monsters and skeletons and presidents and going out to ask people for candy? I enjoy the ambiance of Halloween, the ghost stories, the horror movies and books that come out this time of year. I enjoy giving candy to trick-or-treaters who drop by my house (as long as they don’t try to double-dip). I do not own a Satanic altar on the side, nor do I use one owned by someone else.

Halloween has its roots in a Celtic fall festival associated with nature religion. The pre-Christian Celts were “pagan,” but paganism is not the same thing as Satanism, the early church fathers notwithstanding. True, from a Christian point of view, nature religion confuses the creature with the creator, but it does except the existence of some kind of transcendent and it recognizes the awe people sometimes fell in a beautiful or sublime natural setting. As C. S. Lewis remarked, there is a dignity to high paganism even if its theological premises are flawed and/or incomplete. Paganism has nothing to do with the worship of evil demons, at least in its classic forms. Even if the Druids had a fall festival that marks the roots of contemporary Halloween celebrations, it does not follow that that is what Halloween means today. Even if there are contemporary Druids who engage in pagan rituals on Halloween–and there are–this does not mean that a child saying “trick-or-treat” is a pagan practice. Neither are similar holidays, such as the Day of the Dead in Mexico, which is practiced by Roman Catholic Christians.

Children should take proper safety precautions–if they do, then I say, “Go ahead and have fun!” If a Fundamentalist Christian objects, that is that individual’s right under the law, even if his case were weak. The Fundamentalist needs to be careful in judging others and calling them pagans or Satanists without adequate evidence. Their zeal can move them to the borders of slandering the children who are only out having fun. My word to the Fundamentalists about Halloween is to “lighten up!”

Horror Movies

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One of my pleasures (some people might consider it a guilty pleasure) is watching horror movies. But as Noel Carroll notes in his fine book, The Philosophy of Horror, there is a paradox in enjoying horror. How can something frightening and sometimes violent be a source of entertainment? Another paradox is that to actually be afraid we must “suspend disbelief” and, for the time of the film, believe that the horrific entities described in the film exist. Fear in real life is not a pleasant thing. If I were being chased by a deranged serial killer who desires to eat my tongue for dinner, it would be one of the worst moments of my life, and if I survived, I would not wish to remember or relive that experience. Yet watching the same scene on film is exciting. If ghosts existed (I am open minded, but neutral) and a hostile ghost who could cause harm to me existed, it would not be pleasant if I suffered bodily harm or was scared half to death during the night.

If Aristotle had been familiar with horror films, he most likely would have pointed to catharsis, the cleansing of emotions, in this case negative emotions of fear and dread, as the reason that some people enjoy these films. The emotions I feel seem to be real fear–my heart pounds (usually more in anticipation than when the horrid looking entity pops out), I breathe fast, I feel the adrenalin rush. But I realize that the film is fiction and even if it were not fiction, it is only a film. Nothing will jump out of the projector and attack the audience.

I tend to prefer ghost stories most of all–Ghost Story (with Fred Astaire) is my favorite horror movie; The Shining is also an excellent flick, as is the original The Haunting. Notable also are The Others, the recent film, Insidious, and the first Paranormal Activity. The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Rite, and Frailty are examples of top-notch theological horror.

Horror originally was influenced by the latent Christianity remaining in Europe, and Dracula by Bram Stoker basically operates with a Judeo-Christian point of view, and this is reflected in the classic Dracula films. In the older horror films, and in some of the recent ones, there is hope at the end of the film. Lately, with the decreasing influence of Judeo-Christian culture, horror films have become more negative, often ending in despair. I remember a movie from the 1970s in which the audience thinks a couple has gotten away from rampaging people in their van–but the movie ends with their van surrounded. The ending of the recent movie, The Mist, was also one of despair, as a man kills his son and two other people to spare them from being eaten by Lovecraftean-style monsters–yet right after he killed them the army clears the area. Despair is the cry of those without hope, of people without faith who believe, as did Bertrand Russell, that all human hopes and dreams will die in the death of the universe. Since I am in the Christian tradition which is ultimately optimistic, I find those films too much in tension with my values to enjoy. There are still many recent horror films that have a more optimistic ending, though the Judeo-Christian element is omitted or replaced by neo-Paganism or other pantheistic religions.

I suppose I really like horror because it brings into play the transcendent–what goes beyond ordinary experience–whether it be a ghost, a demon, or a serial killer who transcends most human beings in his evil. There is a sense in some horror films of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of Rudolf Otto. Combine that with being “just plain scary,” that combination creates a powerful horror film. That is difficult to do, which is why so few horror films are good films–but those that are good have given me and millions of other people enjoyment.

I also enjoy the Frankenstein theme, both in the old 1930s movies as well as in the more perverse Reanimator and Bride of Reanimator. I wish more movies would be made with a Lovecraftean element. Some have, but other than the recent silent film, The Call of Cthulhu, none captures for me the cosmic horror from Lovecraft’s writings. I prefer older vampire flicks when the vampire is an evil entity rather than (gag!) vampire romances. Japanese horror, with its references to popular Buddhist legends, is particularly entertaining and frightening, especially Ringu and Juon and their American remakes.

Marriage between Cousins and Same-Sex Marriage: A False Analogy Fallacy

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US Map of Same Sex Marriage Laws

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Consanguineous marriage (marriage between people who are second cousins or closer) is common in some traditional societies. It used to be common in small farming communities in the United States when the number of men and women available for marriage was small. My grandparents on my mother’s side of the family were second cousins. There is a slight increase of risk for recessive gene disorders, but the goods of social cohesion are considered worth the risk in traditional societies. First cousin marriages are legal in twenty states.

Today I saw a poster on a colleague’s door with two maps of the United States. One map colored in the states allowing marriage between cousins. The other map colored in the states allowing homosexual marriage (five states). The import of the poster is that homosexual marriage between people in love is no more problematic, and most likely less problematic, than marriage between cousins–and that this is unfair.

However, this commits the fallacy of false analogy. Marriage, even in ancient Paganism that accepted homosexuality in general, was only between a man and a woman. Marriage between cousins is only thought to be problematic because of the slight risk for recessive gene disorders, and these can be serious. However, traditional societies prefer stronger social bonds in tight communities. There is nothing “unnatural” about cousins marrying–the number of “degrees of affinity” is great enough that even Catholic and Anglican canon law do not forbid first cousin marriages. It does forbid marriage between siblings, between a parent and his or her child, and between uncles and aunts and their nephews and nieces. Opposition to marriage between first cousins is primarily an American phenomenon resulting from the greater mobility of American society. Such marriages fulfill the proper ends of marriage for conjugal love and the procreation of children. Homosexual marriage is by nature barren, and one cannot change that by adoption or by cloning (that is, manufacturing) a child for a homosexual couple. It is not that love itself is bad–not even the love between homosexuals. What makes that love inordinate is that it is directed toward the wrong goal and does not fulfill the proper ends of a sexual relationship between man and woman. The fact that some couples are past childbearing age or some cannot produce children due to physical problems beyond their control does not change the usual order of nature.

The poster is more like a slogan, something to move people emotionally in a certain direction. It has no logical force, for the analogy it purports to find is false, making any “argument” implied by the poster a weak inductive argument. This is consistent with debate in the United States on both sides of controversial issues such as abortion or euthanasia–or homosexual marriage. There is an abundance of emotion but precious little reasoning about these issues. I realize that many people do not agree with the natural law perspective I espouse (in agreement with the Roman Catholic Church and with my own church, the Anglican Catholic Church). Opponents of natural law should put forth their best arguments from reason and experience rather than resorting to emotional screeds like the implied screed in that poster.

Newspapers and Stillborns

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Memorial Service

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Before I read Robert Kastenbaum’s textbook on death and dying, I was not aware that some U. S. newspapers refuse to print the obituaries of stillborn infants. I had to read the statement twice to believe it was there–to be fair to Kastembaum, he does not like that fact any more than I. Although my fraternal twin brother, Jeffrey, was not stillborn, he died two hours after birth of severe bilateral pulmonary hemorrhage. The tendency in society is to downplay the import of such losses and downplay the parents’ grief. “The child really didn’t get a chance to live.” Granted, the child’s life was short, but what follows from that? Is a mother or father’s love somehow missing because a baby was stillborn or died shortly after birth? What gives a newspaper a moral right to deny the existence of such infants to the point of refusing to print their obituaries? I wonder if a society that allows abortion through the ninth month of pregnancy (provided, during that last trimester, that a woman has a doctor certify that the fetus is a threat to her physical and/or “mental” health) can properly value stillbirths or infants dying shortly after birth. Those newspapers that forbid such obituaries are reflecting the values of moral liberals in the wider society, liberals who do not admit the intrinsic value of human life from conception onward. Such an attitude is reflected in bioethicist Peter Singer’s statement that “An adult chimpanzee is of more moral worth than a newborn human infant.” He would go as far as to deny personhood to a newborn until the baby is a week old, and even then Singer does not believe that true moral personhood is present until the child is several years old. American society may not be quite that radical, but when children are considered to be burdens rather than gifts, a stillborn infant can be relegated to secondary status–or perhaps to tertiary status, lower on the scale of value than nonhuman animals.

Recent research on grief suggests that parents, especially mothers, mourn deeply over stillbirths and over infants who die shortly after birth. The least a newspaper can do is to acknowledge their loss by printing their child’s obituary. To do otherwise is to exhibit a fundamental lack of respect for the dignity of the stillborn infant or of the infant who dies shortly after birth. To do otherwise says that the severe grief felt by parents over the infant’s death is misguided. I suggest that it is not the parents who are misguided; it is newspaper editors who refuse to respect the dignity of all human persons, born, stillborn, or unborn.

Wall Street Protesters: Are their Criticisms Justified?

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Wall Street

The protests against corporate greed on Wall Street has spread beyond the borders of the United States–Italian police had to break up an unruly mob that was throwing rocks into buildings. I wonder if the buildings they damaged were owned by the corporations they despise–or whether they were family owned small businesses who were harmed by the damage.

Despite such bad behavior, I have some sympathy for the protesters. The banking industry almost singlehandedly destroyed the American economy. The repercussions could have damaged beyond repair European economies and led to a world economic collapse. When the regulatory shoe was pulled off the banks, their leaders did everything they could to get richer quickly by selling debt, dealing derivatives, and engaging in other risky behavior. The claim of some conservatives that the program that required banks to make home loans to the poor was responsible for the economic crisis is naive–bad loans were being made across all socioeconomic classes. Like most quick buck schemes, the bankers were bound to fail. Their greed devastated real people and their “punishment” was a reward–a multi-billion dollar bail out that would not have been given to most companies if they were in similar danger of going under. The banks were infamously thought “too big to fail.” Executives who failed were rewarded by the banks with huge bonuses. I can understand how the public can be angry when much of the recent federal debt is due to bailing out bankers.

The problem I have with the protesters is that they confuse capitalism with corporatism. Capitalism can flourish in a world without large multinational corporations. Small, community-based businesses in the older American of country and small towns can compete with each other but be close enough to their  communities to care for the people in them and be motivated by more than the profit motive. Local banks run by people with a stake in their communities have a better chance of being operated for motives other than mere profit. This is the world the Southern Agrarians–especially Andrew Lytle and Donald Davidson, wanted to return in a country dominated by huge corporations.

Some of the protestors might have sympathy with the Agrarians–there have been moves by some on the left to approach the right–especially Ron Paul supporters–about setting up capitalism in a way that encourages the local community in  a decentralized governmental system in which there is more personal freedom, a necessary prerequisite to people having room to operate small businesses. Generally, however, protestors support the same old tired socialist and Marxist systems that have failed in the past. By setting up in advance a false dichotomy with no third way, they end up supporting a system which has caused the deaths of millions of people and which has enslaved many more. Communism leads to hard-core oppression as government goes beyond its proper bounds of power and gains the hubris to think it can reverse man’s Fall.

Corporitism leads to a softer tyranny by manipulation (through a compliant media and business community). Social pressure is used to force individuals into molds that fit the corporations’ thirst for profit.  Corporate executives also lack knowledge, for the most part, of the branches of the company they are supposed to supervise–the efficient distribution of needed goods and services to local communities will be lacking. Communities desperate for jobs may sell their souls for a bowl of corporate porridge. Local resistance to large corporations often evaporates in the face of a threat from a corporation that it will not move a plant to the area unless it receives tax breaks and other economic incentives. Local communities need the jobs, and instead of encouraging small business investment, they go for a quick fix. Local banks fail, and branches of  large corporate banks open in their place. This brings jobs and capital temporarily, but corporations have become increasingly disloyal to their initial commitments to the community and have closed U. S. plants in favor of outsourcing to Mexico, Central and South America. Banks have put speculation over fiscal responsibility. In an entity as large as a contemporary corporate, money is the name of the game, and people take a distant second-place unless strong corporate leadership changes the ethic of a corporation. But that is a difficult task in a large corporation; the larger the corporation, the more difficult a change in its fundamental moral practices becomes.

The protestors are correct in much of their critique of corporatism, but are wrong in their Marxist solution to the problem. It would be better if they read the Southern Agrarians, especially Take My Stand, and authors such as D. H. Lawrence and J. R. R. Tolkien. These works offer a tertium quid that can shortchange the greed of the moneychangers.

The “Good Ole’ Days” Really Were the Good Ole’ Days

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Rural Scene. Looking almost due west. One of t...

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This side of eternity, change is a constant in life. Some change is for the better–I think of the wonderful advance in medicine, advances that saved both my parents‘ lives. The computer on which I am typing has been a useful tool, speeding communication, research, and writing–I remember the days when I typed on a manual typewriter, then moved up to an electric–and stayed up all night two times in my undergrad days typing term papers. With a computer I might have gotten eight hours of sleep.

Change, however, can be for the worst. Despite recent drops in violent crime, the overall trend since the 1950s has been upward. Religion plays less and less a role in American society, and it seems that the U. S. is moving toward a European style secularism with a few New Age attempts to rescue some measure of spirituality from the maelstrom of materialism. The South used to be one of the few areas (outside Italian-American communities in cities) in which people lived together in extended families. The system was imperfect, but overall there was less loneliness and more social support in times of trouble–and the grandparents could babysit the children in case the parents had to work to make ends meet. When I was a child, the legalization of abortion, homosexual marriage, and (in three states) physician assisted suicide was in the future. A person was attacked for defending immoral practices, not attacked for criticizing them. Discipline was practiced, both in homes and in schools. Of course the world in which I was a child was imperfect–I was happily oblivious to the destruction of society from 1964-70, although I felt the effects in my teenaged years in the mid and late 1970s. I remember my childhood as a happy one–but I remember what happened in detail, I can discover some unhappy times–but I choose not to dwell on them. Overall I was blessed, and memories of a childhood that was filled with the joy of exploring new worlds every day outweigh memories of spankings and being picked on by other children. If those memories of the “good ole days” are unrealistic, I will live in their unreality to help give me a picture of Paradise–a world in which people live without the flaws that mar life today.

The “good ole’ days,” like all times in human history, were marred by sickness, death, and mourning–the universals of humanity before the eschaton. People sinned in the past just as they sin in the present, and usually in the same ways. There were murders, assaults, rapes, and robberies fifty years ago just as there are today. The difference is that Christianity was respected then and was part of the public square, and today it has been removed from the public square, as if Christians live in a two-tiered world, one totally secular and the other sacred, and never the twain shall meet. Basic Christian morality was respected–in 1960, both Jews and Christians understood that abortion is not the kind a thing a person should do. Abstinence until marriage was the standard position before the Pill changed everything in and after the early 1960s. If a child screamed, “Shut up!” to his parents (as I heard one scream in a store), the parents would remove the child from any place of business and discipline that child. Today bad behavior by children in public is tolerated by many parents, to the chagrin of other people who must put up with hearing unruly children.

It may be that the eighteenth century Enlightenment, with its radical secularism and denial of tradition, helped lead to the present poor state of society. While history reveals periods of chaos and moral turpitude in society, what is unique about the current age is the combination of such bad behavior with a denial of the transcendent. I do not believe that I am an “old fogey” in saying these things–in some significant ways, apart from technological advances, earlier times really are “the good ‘ole days.”

What can be done to restore society? A blind nostalgia will not do. Restoration of community begins not only with encouraging families to remain together, but with encouraging people to understand that there is transcendent meaning in life. When people render aid to others who are in need and establish a personal relationship with them, this draws them out of themselves to understand that their needs are not the only ones important in life. A relationship with the Transcendent also draws a person out of the self–and it is only in this way that the radical individualism of the last fifty years can be overcome and society can start to recover from its moral and religious lapses.

Universal Terms and Reality

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The problem of universals is one of the oldest problems in philosophy. From Plato and Aristotle to Boethus, Abelard, and the other medievals to the modern and contemporary periods philosophers have discussed whether universal words such as “man,” “dog,” “oak tree” or “water” exist in themselves, are mere labels for objects we group together for our convenience, or do not refer to things, but to objective similarities between things. Extreme realism, such as held by Plato, holds that universal terms such as “dog” refer to the Form “Dog” that exists in a spaceless, timeless world separate from the empirical world, and which is known by reason, not by sense experience. The opposite view, extreme nominalism, associated with Foucault and Derrida (although whether this is their actual position can be debated) holds that “dog” refers to what any society labels particular animals they wish to group together as “dogs.” There is no essence of dogness, no set of necessary and sufficient conditions for dogness to which the term “dog” refers. Finally, moderate realism (the position of Abelard (perhaps–I think so), St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Blessed Duns Scotus, asserts that universal terms refer to objective similarities between natural kinds of the same type, to a set of, say, necessary and sufficient conditions that make a dog a “dog.” The trend since William of Occam has been toward conceptualism, such as Occam’s notion of universals as labels that refer to similarities between entities that have some basis in extramental reality. He sounds like a moderate realist; some interpreters call him a “realistic conceptualist.” In his own day he was interpreted as a nominalist, and whatever his position may have been, philosophers after Occam gravitated toward nominalism. This trend accelerated the split between faith and reason that ended the Medieval synthesis. The end stage of this process is found in Nietzsche’s work, which supported nominalism in the sense that all meanings are culturally constructed and do not have an objective basis in extramental reality. Contemporary English Departments at many universities, especially in the United States, tend toward a radical nominalism and linguistic constructivism in which universal words refer to whatever fits a particular society’s interest. Even though I agree with the notion that meaning is flexible, since I accept the medieval four-fold model of meaning in Biblical interpretation, there remain limits to the scope of meanings that a word can have. Meaning occurs in context, and a particular context may both increase the number of possible meanings of a term, but it can also lower or eliminate the possibilities of other meanings. “I am going to the bank” makes sense if the person saying that also adds “to go fishing.” If he says, “I am going to the bank to withdraw money,” that eliminates the the other meaning of “bank” as “bank of a river.” Natural kind terms clearly refer to entities that are objectively similar. Sure, a beagle does not look like a Rottweiler, but they are both carnivores, they both bark, they can interbreed, and they have similar genetic codes and similar causal powers. There is no need to posit the existence of “Dogness” in any transcendent world independently of actual dogs. “Dogness” might exist in individual dogs in the sense that it refers to the set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions to make a dog fall under the universal term “Dog” (or another term, such as Canis, used in another language. Thus my own sympathies are with Aristotle’s and Aquinas’ moderate realism: universal terms refer to objective similarities between things that are necessary and jointly sufficient for an entity to be the kind of thing it is. Universal terms may also hint at universal ideas or patterns in the mind of God through which He created the universe and the things in it. This view, dating back to Augustine, was picked up by the Medieval philosphers such as Aquinas, and did not fade until William of Occam denied it in the fourteenth century. Moderate realism evades the problem of arbitrariness found in postmodernism as well as the over-transcendence of Plato’s world of the Forms. I am hopeful that it will be adopted by philosophers outside the Thomist school, since as Richard Weaver pointed out in his fine book, Ideas Have Consequences, nominalism helped lead to the idea that nature, including human nature, is infinitely malleable by human ingenuity. Realism, whether ultra or moderate, helps to form a stable society in which human nature and nonhuman nature are both respected. Moderate realism avoids the problems of Plato’s doctrine of participation by placing the entity to which a universal term refers “in” the individual substance. Now substance, I believe, following Fr. Norris Clarke, is “substance-as-relation,” so that the intellectual content of the object observed would “seek” (metaphorically speaking) to communicate itself as far as possible–and the observer would strive to communicate was much as possible. Through such joining of information the mind becomes “intentionally one” with the object perceived, and thereby knows it, not exhaustively–but the actual information he receives is accurate to a degree. If this is the way communication between being and mind takes place, there is no need for transcendent Forms, but there is a need for “forms” with a small “f” to guarantee stable behavior patterns among natural kinds.

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