Thursday, January 22, 2009

Introduction to The Summa Theologica

It was only a year ago that I first read the introduction to the Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas, but when I read it I saw expressed in it so many of my frustrations (and I assume so many other people's) with school and education in general. Because of it I have always had respect for Aquinas and his views because I think he genuinely understood learning. Even though I tend to disagree with him on many fundamental points of doctrine, I also tend to agree with his arguments on many others. I also think it is interesting that he never finished the Summa.

Below is the introduction to the Summa:

"Because the doctor of Catholic truth ought not only to teach the proficient, but also to instruct beginners (according to the Apostle: As unto little ones in Christ, I gave you milk to drink, not meat -- 1 Corinthians 3:1-2), we purpose in this book to treat of whatever belongs to the Christian religion, in such a way as may tend to the instruction of beginners. We have considered that students in this doctrine have not seldom been hampered by what they have found written by other authors, partly on account of the multiplication of useless questions, articles, and arguments, partly also because those things that are needful for them to know are not taught according to the order of the subject matter, but according as the plan of the book might require, or the occasion of the argument offer, partly, too, because frequent repetition brought weariness and confusion to the minds of readers.

Endeavouring to avoid these and other like faults, we shall try, by God's help, to set forth whatever is included in this sacred doctrine as briefly and clearly as the matter itself may allow."

As an after note, in the first sentence the word "Catholic" could also be translated as "Universal" and "doctor" as "teacher" though the translation of "doctor" is accurate and illuminating.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

First (Real) Snow of Winter

So we had our first real snow fall this winter. They have been forecasting the storm for a few days and it finally hit last night. I woke up, looked out the window and saw a lot of snow (well, more than I had expected). I will have to post some pictures of it.

In addition to the delightful snow, Chapel Hill went into it's typical emergency mode. Even though there is only a little snow on the ground and it will be gone by tomorrow I still got this email:

"The University has declared a "Condition II" Adverse Weather Alert for today and tomorrow.... Classes are cancelled today beginning at 3:30 p.m. and extending until tomorrow (Wednesday) at 10:00 a.m. Offices will remain open on a normal schedule today and tomorrow. This means...employees are responsible for their regular duties and should make their own decisions about coming to work tomorrow (or leaving work early today) based on their assessments of what is best for their personal safety. They must make up any time missed."

Honestly, they get a little snow and they treat it like a natural disaster. Oh well, I guess this means I won't have to teach this afternoon. Maybe I'll still show up and see if any students show up and need help with their homework.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Today I was reading an editorial in The Daily Tar Heal, the student newspaper for UNC-CH. On the last page where they have the editorials there was one there that I found rather odd. It was, as far as I could tell, written in all seriousness. The editorial dealt with a proposed city ordinance in Chapel Hill that would make panhandling illegal. It is already illegal in certain locations within the city but this would make a city wide ban on panhandling.

After presenting the situation in the opening paragraphs the editorial came to the point and explained why they (the editorial staff) was opposed to such a measure. After pointing out that the ordinance would be difficult to enforce (so would a noise ordinance but they have those too) and ineffective (see difficult to enforce) they come to the crux of the matter as to why they are opposed to it, because it "infringes upon individual freedoms"....wait...WHAT? I barely know how to respond to that, but wait there's more!

From the subtitle of the editorial there is some clarification, "Proposed Chapel Hill anti-panhandling ordinance would be ineffective and degrading". So in other words it is a fundamental right for people to beg on the street and denying them that right would be "degrading". This to say, if homeless people want to beg then we should not infringe on their "individual freedoms" because doing so, and preventing them from begging would be "degrading" and "dehumanizing". So we should keep them on the street and encourage them to beg so that they can maintain their dignity and their humanity! Does anyone see a problem with this?!?

I don't think I could adequately write a proper response to this horrific debasement of reason and logic, if those terms could even be applied to that editorial. To be fair, in the rest of the editorial they make a case and they have a semblance of a valid argument, but that's like my saying a dinner was great, except for the main dish, when the main dish was a cow pie.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Explaining the Three Degrees in Evangelical Terms

A few years ago I took a class at BYU on the Philosophy of Religion, with an emphasis on LDS Philosophy. One of the topics we covered in the class was a discussion on how to create a dialogue between Members of the Church and Evangelicals. Frequently in our discussion and in the books and articles we read the differences and disagreements between the Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals was not due to a difference of belief and practice but rather a difference in the language we both used and the way we chose to define terms. Thus a significant portion of the class was taken up in understanding how other religions define their beliefs and noting the similarities and differences between our belief systems so that if we were ever in a discussion with those of another faith we could find common ground and use language and terms that allowed us to understand each other rather than not.

Of the many doctrines that evangelicals have a hard time understanding is the LDS doctrine of the Three Degrees of Glory. When we try to explain it (using common LDS terms) many Evangelicals are put off by it because from their perspective it appears to deny deeply held beliefs regarding salvation and grace. But recently as I was thinking about it and also discussing it with my wife I hit on an idea that allowed me to explain the doctrine using language common to Evangelicals so that they may have an understanding of what we believe and be able to understand it from our perspective. So here goes:

First we recognize that all men (when I say men I mean both men and women, unless context dictates other wise) are saved by grace. There is no way around it, salvation must come by grace. I must emphasize that everyone is saved by grace, but it is precisely this emphasis that causes some confusion, not only between Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals, but amongst Latter-day Saints themselves, and it is because of this confusion that I am addressing this issue.

The nature of the confusion comes as we explain the Three Degrees of Glory and what we mean by being saved. Generally when we (Latter-day Saints) talk about salvation and being saved, we only refer to entering into the Celestial Kingdom, but if we examine our scriptures we find that all men will be saved from death, thus we can say that all men will be saved. What I mean by this will become more apparent as I continue with this explanation.

In agreement with Evangelicals when men die, the righteous go to heaven and the wicked go to hell. In our theology we typically do not use these terms but rather we say that the righteous (or at least the repentant) go to paradise, and the wicked go to prison (spirit prison). Where we differ in our beliefs with Evangelicals is what happens next. Most in the Christian world believe that heaven and hell (paradise and prison) are the final states for all men, and that when someone goes to hell (or to heaven) they are there for an infinite duration. On the other hand in LDS theology, we say that even though paradise and prison are eternal (and the conditions there are eternal) we do not believe that those who go there will stay there forever, in either heaven or hell.

At this point in the conversation most Christians, and not just Evangelicals would stop and say, "Hold on a second...So you are saying that if we go to heaven or hell, we won't stay there? So God will kick the righteous out of heaven? Then what about the mercy and grace of God? Are we only saved for a time?" These concerns would be well founded if that were all there was, but there is more to the story. At this point we say that all men are saved, that is they are saved from death, through the resurrection. Thus all men do not stay in heaven or hell, and their suffering or bliss there has an end. But at this point comes the final judgment.

In the final judgment all men will appear before God to be judged according to their works in the flesh. Those who are honorable men, that have confessed their faith and have accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior, will be saved and by the grace of God will be allowed to dwell in His presence forever. This we call the Celestial Kingdom.

Those who are honorable men and have kept the commandments of God, but never accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior. These will live in a good place, but will not be allowed to live where God and Christ are, this is to say they will not enjoy the full glory of their presence.

Then rest of men, those who did not keep the commandments, liars, adulterers, oath breakers (false swearers), murderers and the proud, will be given another place in which to dwell for the rest of eternity. These are those who are "thrust down to hell" at the time of their death, but they will be redeemed from that hell (they will be taken from prison) by the power of the resurrection, and after the final judgment will go to a paradise of sorts, but they will not enjoy the glory of God in any measure.

Thus according to LDS theology all men are saved from death by the grace of God. Those that have faith can live in the presence of God and enjoy His glory. As we are told, "now is the time and the day of your salvation; and therefore, if ye will repent and harden not your hearts, immediately shall the great plan of redemption be brought about unto you." (Alma 34:31) And if we are saved it will be known by our godly walk, and our being new creatures in Christ.

I hope some people will find this helpful and informative.

Monday, January 5, 2009


The other day I was listening to NPR and they were covering a news story about several snowmobilers who had been buried in an avalanche. The reporter was interviewing the local police chief who was in charge of the recovery operation (it was not a rescue operation because no one survived), and in the course of the interview asked a question that I thought was rather interesting. The question itself was not interesting but I quickly understood why the reporter asked the question because it displayed her personal philosophy.

The reporter asked if "They [the snowmobilers] were adequately prepared?" In the context of the interview the reporter meant, "Were they adequately warned by the authorities of the danger of an avalanche." From the context of the interview and the way the reporter was asking the questions that lead up to that question I understood her question to be one of responsibility, that is, who ultimately was responsible for their deaths. In her opinion (as I gathered from her questions) was that she considered it the responsibility of the "authorities" to watch and determine when there was a danger of an avalanche. Thus it was incumbent on the "authorities" to warn the public of the danger and if they do not then they are responsible for any deaths that result from their failure to warn the public.

As I was listening I also found it interesting that she did not ask any questions about how individuals may recognize the conditions that would make avalanches possible. Thus as I surmised, from the questions she chose to ask and those that she did not, she felt that it was the responsibility of the "authorities" (and their responsibility alone) to recognize the danger and prevent all possible problems. In other words it was never the responsibility of the individuals to recognize and avoid the danger. From her perspective the individuals could never, or should never be held personally responsible for entering an area that was susceptible to avalanches.

It is this same idea, or philosophy, can be found all throughout our society. How many warning labels do we have on our stuff. Just from where I sit I can see several, and legally if they were not there and I got hurt then the company that made that product would be liable. In some cases I see where they would be useful, such as the instructions as to how to install a car seat, and having at least one warning to let me know that a car seat should not go in the front seat next to an air bag. I recognize that there might be some situations I would not think of or be aware of without a warning, but generally that can be overcome through education, and not through labels on each and every single item ever made.

While it may be a good idea to warn people of danger they may not know about, I think that unfortunately the attitude in our society has gone too far and thus many people have abdicated personal responsibility. This kind of attitude and philosophy results in everything from warning labels on every known idem to reporters asking questions about who is responsible for people dieing in an avalanche rather than asking how we might recognize that conditions that contribute avalanche danger so that we might avoid it. As a final note, the police chief responded to the question by saying that it is difficult to constantly monitor the mountain slopes for avalanche danger and that people should always use precaution when entering those areas. So at least there are some practical people still left who want people to take personal responsibility for their own actions.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

So War Is Bad But...

If you read news coverage of the current war in the Gaza Strip there will be plenty of pictures of injured people (usually children), and statements about how there is a terrible humanitarian crisis there that is worsening. Almost every news article that I have read had a statement from a UN Humanitarian Aid agency saying that they can't get supplies in to help the Palestinians. This comes with plenty of commentary about how people will start starving unless they can get aid in. When ever I read these statements and commentary I think, "It's a war. Do they expect the armies to politely pause the war every day for a few hours so that people can walk to the local market and get food, go to work, play in the park or plaza and fix the water faucet in their house that doesn't work?"

It's as if the media expect them to carry on with their lives as if nothing is happening or as if there is only an event going on like a major sporting event that temporarily disrupts daily life. True people still have to eat, even in a war, but as opposed to how the media presents it, the greatest travesty of war is not the fact that people don't have an uninterrupted supply of food and basic necessities. The greatest travesty is those that are killed and those that have their lives destroyed by the war. The media to some extent does try to present this, but they get bogged down in their concern over the "humanitarian crisis" rather than the events that lead to the creation of the crisis.

So having said that let us consider the principle contenders in this conflict and what they say about it. So let me say that I think that war is generally a very bad idea, but as it is happening somewhere else and not here where I live, I have the luxury of critiquing it and giving commentary from the comfort of my home. As I have to view the events through the filter of the media it may be difficult for me to tell who to believe and who is at fault (or if everyone is at fault). Because generally the media may take one side of the story and they may feed off their own redundant reporting to make what is happening worse (or better) than it actually is. One way to see how to judge the principle contenders is to look at what they are saying and how they are responding to what is happening.

As I was reading the BBC they occasionally have quotes from the people involved, such as the Israeli president and the leaders of Hamas. I found that if I just read the news articles about what was happening I would not know who was right in this conflict and who is to blame. If anything I might tend to sympathize with the Palestinian position. But when I read the statements from each side a different picture emerged. Lets compare their public statements:

ISRAELI PRESIDENT SHIMON PERES: "We don't intend neither to occupy Gaza nor to crush Hamas, but to crush terror. And Hamas needs a real and serious lesson. They are now getting it. We shall not accept the idea that Hamas will continue to fire and we shall declare a cease-fire. It does not make any sense."

Translation: "We're mad and we are going to do something about it. The idea that we should have a cease-fire just when we are getting going is crazy. We are committed and will go all the way."

ISRAELI DEFENCE MINISTER EHUD BARAK: "We have carefully weighed all our options. We are not war hungry, but we should not allow a situation where our towns, villages and civilians are constantly targeted. It will not be easy or short, but we are determined. We are peace-seekers. We have restrained ourselves for a long time, but now is the time to do what needs to be done."

Translation: "We don't like what they are doing and we will do something until they stop. When they stop we stop."

Contrast this with:

HAMAS OFFICIAL ISMAIL RADWAN: "Gaza will not be a picnic. Gaza will be a graveyard for you."

HAMAS MILITARY WING IZZEDINE AL-QASSAM: "Be prepared for a unique surprise, you will be either killed or kidnapped and will suffer mental illness from the horrors we will show you."

That doesn't sound very nice. When I read these statements I thought of a police officer called into investigate a domestic dispute (kind of like the things they show on Cops). When he arrives the two parties are fighting and he has to figure out what is going on and who to arrest or if anyone even needs to be arrested. After listening to both people argue for a moment the police officer takes one of them into custody. Usually its the one that's still spewing death threats and profanity when the policeman arrives.

So as for my personal sentiments of the situation, I do feel bad that people are getting hurt and that there are problems, but Hamas is making it very difficult for me to sympathize with their position. They may have a case that supports their claims, but at the same time they are not acting in a way that makes their argument very persuasive. The image that comes to my mind is that of a protester who after throwing a rocks and other things at the police, cries "Police Brutality!" when they get wrestled to the ground.