Fr. Jeremy Paretsky, O.P., on the knowledge of God

The last time I visited New York as a mere tourist before my promotion to citizen, I had the privilege of hearing what I – as an orthodox unbeliever – thought was a superb sermon by my old friend Jeremy Paretsky at St. Vincent Ferrer, the lovely Dominican church in the East 60s.

Now, my judgment might have been biased by friendship, but Mike O’Hare – a tough critic, and (if possible) even futher from being a Christian than I am – agreed with me that the sermon was a perfect specimen of its kind.

Jeremy was kind enough to expand the notes he spoke from into a full document, and to permit me to reproduce it below. On the off-chance that some RBC readers might not have the entire Bible memorized, I have provided the four readings for the day as a prologue.

The Texts

Job 38

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said, Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?

Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.

Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding, who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb? When I made the cloud the garment thereof, and thick darkness a swaddling band for it, and brake up for it my decreed place, and set bars and doors, and said, “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further: and here shall thy proud waves be stayed?”

Psalm 107

They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep. 

For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof.

They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble. They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wit’s end. Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses. He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still.

Then are they glad because they be quiet; so he bringeth them unto their desired haven. Oh that men would praise the Lord for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men!

For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead:

II Corinthians

And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again.

Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more.

Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.

Mark 4

And with many such parables spake he the word unto them, as they were able to hear it. But without a parable spake he not unto them: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples.

And the same day, when the even was come, he saith unto them, Let us pass over unto the other side. And when they had sent away the multitude, they took him even as he was in the ship. And there were also with him other little ships.

And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full. And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest thou not that we perish?

And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.

And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith?

And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?

How Do We Know God?

How do we know God? Is it even possible to know God?

Well, how do I know the world?

Through observation and experience, although sometimes observation and experience are misleading. The sun rises, the sun sets, but I have to learn that it is the earth’s rotation that creates the illusion. I don’t see microorganisms or blood corpuscles except with the aid of a microscope, so that only in comparatively recent times have people been aware of a vast invisible world, and the existence of sub-atomic particles have to be inferred.

And when it comes to people, how do I know another person? In dealing with other people I can evaluate experience, deduce consequences of interaction. But observation is misleading and sometimes we find what we expect to find, prejudices determining our conclusions: is that another person or a creation of my imagination?

In a general way I know another human being because we have the power to bond with one another, to love one another, to enter into one another’s lives. We are all in some ways alike, have something in common – humanity – and know the common human experiences of hope and fear, of hatred and of love.

To truly know I have to be on the inside, find what is common, what is different and what bridges the differences – our common humanity containing sometimes more than we would like to admit. If we do admit the common that
bridges our difference, we can become like the other, like knowing like.

So, back to my first question: How do we, can we know God?

Who and what am I looking for? Job thought he knew God, thought God was just as he imagined him, that he was like knowing like, but every step he took
towards the God he thought he knew increased his bewilderment, his anguish, as he went from being a man who was comfortable with the god who rewarded him for his piety to one who experienced God as raw power, even fearful, bestial, if not outright demonic in his ability to overturn an entire universe.

With each stage of his attempt to confront God Job has to deal with a god created by the human imagination, and must learn that each new “god” is not God. Only when Job strips away from his experience all that is not God,
only when he exhausts all his human knowledge and power, can he meet the voice that speaks from the depths of the unknown in the uncontrollable, ungraspable whirlwind. The voice from the whirlwind taunts, both to put down and to build up.

To know God, unlike must be remade, so God accords Job the dignity of assuming he is like God. He isn’t, but he is still in God’s image, so Job learns what he is and what he is not, when he learns who God is and who God is not.

The disciples in the boat face a similar problem: they thought that Jesus was like them, and so the disciples felt that they understood him, knew all about this man that anyone needed to know. But in a single night their world was overturned. His voice spoke into the whirlwind (the whirlwind out of which God’s voice spoke to Job), the voice which had spoken at the beginning of creation and which continues to echo down through the ages, fashioning creation ever anew.

The voice that spoke to calm the wind and the waves is the voice that makes us all a new creation. There is a great calm. Suddenly the familiar became unfamiliar – who is this?

St. Paul says, “From now on we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer.”

There was a time in my life when I regarded Christ from a human point of view, indeed regarded God from a human point of view – there was
nothing to know, no one to know. And if Jesus existed, he was misinterpreted by the church that arose after him, or else he was simply crazy. In short, I recognized nothing in common with God, with Jesus. In my late teens I was first seduced by the desire to know how it was that I could reason and how it was I could insist on a moral universe, that there was really Good and Evil.

When I eventually came up against a wall, I pounded on it and demanded to know if there was anyone on the other side. The answer spoke into my chaos.
It created a new relationship, and in so doing established how alike we are: able to use reason, to create, to know good and evil. Only later did I come to accept that in Christ’s humanity we share the common knowledge of human hope and fear and suffering and love.

In Christ the part of our humanity that is unlike God is remade. Christ knows us as like knowing like, knows God as like knowing like, and puts us into a new
relationship with God. My life has never been the same. Your life has never been the same. A new way of being brought about a new way of knowing, and all of us who now exist in a new way, and know in a new way, can know the hand of God that touches us.

At the edge of our experience, when we have exhausted all strength, realized the limits of human knowledge, the limits of human life, there is where we encounter that ungraspable unknown – the ancient power speaking to us from the heart of the whirlwind. It is this power that the disciples witnessed.

Yet the marvel of God’s saving act is that all that unlimited power and knowledge and life enters into our created world as the calm after the storm. We are not given a name in answer to our question – “who is this?” – but the calm which contains the power of the Name of God, who says that from now on in Christ we have a shared history with God – it is this Name of God which enters into our very humanity in order to make us new creatures, new beings with new ways of knowing: like knowing like, man knowing man, God knowing God.

If we try to control him, we are repulsed by the terrifying storm; if we let the unknown in and let it embrace us, we enter the peace and consolation beyond all understanding.

I admire Campaign Zero. Here’s how I would augment it

It’s been obvious for a while now that the Black Lives Matter movement would benefit from a concrete policy agenda around which it could focus its organizing, public protest, and practical negotiations with public officials. Developing such an agenda is no easy task — especially for a grassroots movement that basically came into existence a year ago.Black Lives Matter took an admirable step forward on this front, however, thanks to the new Campaign Zero documents released Friday, co-authored by a group including DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie (a.k.a. “Netta”), two of the movement’s leading activists.

Jesse Singal, over at New York‘s Science of Us, asked for my thoughts on their recommendations to reduce police violence. I admired their well-crafted and specific proposals. I hope in their future work that they will layer on a more positive vision of urban policing and link their efforts to an active public safety agenda.

More on how they might do that, here.

Pharma Lobbying Ensures Meth Lab Explosions

Dan Morse of Washington Post has covered the strangest meth lab explosion case of which I have ever heard, which took place when a police officer named Christopher Bartley tried to make meth in the federal research facility which he was assigned to guard:

According to facts in the case, as laid out in court, Bartley, who had been a lieutenant with the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s internal police force, was on duty the night of July 18 when he slipped into a building on the edge of NIST’s 578-acre campus. He tried to make meth. It exploded, blowing out four windows at the lab — one traveled 22 feet; another, 33 feet.

It is fortunate no one was killed in the explosion. Bartley himself was burned as the temperature in the room rose to 180 degrees, but thankfully survived his injuries.

Meth lab explosions happen with regularity in many states, often with far worse results, including buildings burning to the ground, lasting environmental damage from caustic chemicals, and children and adults being killed or permanently scarred by fires.

The only reason the problem persists is that the manufacturers of pseudoephedrine-containing cold medications used in meth-making continue to flood state legislatures with lobbying money. The states that have resisted the political pressure and put products like Sudafed on prescription-only status have essentially eliminated meth lab explosions.

Meth lab explosions can be eliminated without any need to inconvenience people who want to take pseudoephedrine-containing products for congestion. Cold medicines resistant to pseudoephedrine extraction by meth cooks are available and could be exempted from any prescription requirements. But the pharma companies that profit handsomely from their meth-cooking customers will have none of it, and thus far our political system has rarely been able to resist their power.

Good guys with guns

As it is universally acknowledged that the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, it must be the case that the dudes who laid out the bgwag in Arras were armed (as Real Americans should always be).  If they had not been packing heat, a terrible massacre would have unfolded.

But press coverage of the event has completely omitted the important details: what kind of pieces did they have, how many extra magazines, holstered how?  This is the kind of coverup we can expect from liberal media, but you can see how big the real conspiracy is: even Fox News is hiding the facts here!

Addiction as tragedy

Keith wrote, of deaths caused by drunk driving:

But if we think of tragedy as the Ancient Greeks did — something that was unavoidable — drink driving deaths aren’t a tragedy but an outrage.

Dead right on the outrage. But did the Greeks really see tragedy this way?

maskSFIK the Ancient Greeks did not use the remarkable and unique art form they had developed, the “goat-songs” that they performed in competitive religious festivals, as a metaphor for life. It was the reverse: life and myth gave them stories to be recapitulated and reshaped in the performance of tragedies, and these in turn gave them insights into the human condition. Alexander modelled himself on Homer’s Achilles, but he was an outlier in everything.

The goat-songs and epic recitations came first, the theorising later. Continue Reading…

A Primer for Americans on Corbynmania

v218-Jeremy-Corbyn-Get-v2 Many of my American friends have asked me what’s going on with the UK Labour Party leadership election. Hence this primer on the state of play.

After the Labour Party’s shock drubbing in the 2015 election, Ed Miliband resigned as leader. The usual internecine fight that losing parties go through broke out: One faction said the party was not centrist enough and another said it was too close to the center and too far from its traditional roots. The former group are known as New Labour or Blairites (e.g., Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson and of course Tony Blair himself). Andrew Rawnsley’s massive book is the essential resource if you want to understand New Labour in depth, but in short New Labour explicitly rejected the socialist left, made peace with the market and neoliberalism and was handsomely rewarded for these changes by British voters (Labour were in power from 1997-2010). In their eyes, Milliband lost because he positioned himself too far to the left, and the party will therefore not get back in power unless it goes with someone closer to the center, like Andy Burnham or Liz Kendall.

Rubbish! says the Socialist wing of Labour, whose negative views of New Labour I related in a prior post that quoted Ian Martin’s dyspeptic, hilarious take on the 2010 Party Conference:

Labour’s message to the electorate is clear – austerity is the new reality but we’re nicer than the Tories. Berks. I hate Labour more than I did when Blair was in charge, squinting into the distance, joshing with America, socialising with the Murdochs. At least he believed in neo-liberalism. The current Loyal Opposition half-believe, but also half-yearn to reconnect to the movement that sustains them, which is half-decent of them I must say. The first clear chance for years to differentiate themselves, to renounce austerity and commit to a genuine Labour manifesto, sod the Mail, renationalise, reunionise, tax the rich, protect the poor, FIGHT FOR THE WORKING CLASS WHICH IS TECHNICALLY THEIR FUCKING PURPOSE and all they can offer is the Vegetarian Option.

In the eyes of old Leftists like Martin, Labour must return to its Pre-Thatcher era values and policies. And to the shock of New Labour, the traditional left has found a champion who is electrifying the party’s grassroots: Jeremy Corbyn (photo above). You can read a bit about his policies here, which reject the essentials of Blairism in favor of the more socialist policies that Labour embraced during the first 90 or so years of its existence. Corbyn is demonstrating the truth of the same political principle as did Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland: If you passionately articulate a clear political message without equivocation and associated Westminster-speak, many formerly disengaged people come out of the woodwork to support you. What can’t be overlooked about Corbyn is that while he is a greybeard who makes aging Labour members nostalgic for their youth, his message is also resonating with a new generation of young leftists who have been alienated from politics until now.

Despite the vein of discontent he has tapped, Corbyn only has a chance of winning because of a major change in the leadership election rules. Previously, Members of Parliament (MPs) had significant control over who became leader. Now they only get to form the list of candidates on which all members of the party then vote (and in that establishment-controlled phase, Corbyn just barely scraped by). The grassroots members are thus in control from here on out, and many of them are looking for someone like Corbyn who speaks to the hearts. A parallel that Americans might appreciate is what happened in the Democratic Party between the 1968 and 1972 elections: New nominating rules meant that former political bosses were overthrown and a wave of new faces with challenging views crashed the party. Of course their hero, George McGovern, got crushed, and that could happen to Corbyn as well if he ever leads his party in a national election. But based on the Labour members I have talked to, many of them would rather lose with someone like Corbyn than win with a New Labour leader.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Enron – The Smartest Guys in the Room


How did one of the country’s largest companies go from riches to rags almost overnight, if it ever truly had riches in the first place? That question is skillfully and intelligently answered in this weekend’s film recommendation: Alex Gibney’s 2005 documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.

The title refers to Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, who convinced themselves and the world that they had a created a new kind of company that could make unprecedented profits in the energy sector. As one insider puts it, as each quarterly report approached it seemed the company was not going to make its numbers yet somehow it always did, and then some. Enron’s astronomical reported profits did not gain credibility in a vacuum: Its books were audited by Arthur Anderson, its accounts were interconnected with those of some of the nation’s most trusted financial firms (e.g., Merrill Lynch) and all the “objective” stock analysts were singing the company’s praises. But of course it was all a lie, and it unraveled with shocking speed and horrific destructiveness.

This movie adroitly combines interviews of journalists, former Enron insiders and political figures with archival news footage (e.g., Skilling and fellow crook Andrew Fastow’s Congressional hearings) and some truly damning movies made by Enron executives themselves. Although it’s a bit long-winded at 110 minutes, the film has an admirable ability to explain even to financial novices how Enron executives defrauded investors (not least its own rank and file employees) as well as put California through living hell by intentionally starving the state of electricity.

When this muckraking documentary came out, some critics complained that the film massaged the facts for the sake of left-wing axe-grinding. The narrator being staunch anti-capitalist Peter Coyote and one of the key interviewees being the lawyer who led the class action suit against the company (Bill Lerach) could trigger worries for some viewers that the film is simply comfort food for socialists. But any concerns about bias disappear as the film unfolds because the perpetrators so thoroughly hang themselves before the viewers’ eyes. The film accuses Enron of dodgy “mark to market” accounting and backs it up with Skilling himself appearing in a company produced comedy sketch where he brags about the phony nature of Enron’s books. Likewise, the accusation that Enron traders delighted in destroying California with contrived energy shortages and price gouging is immediately backed up by audiotapes of traders laughing over doing just that (Most disgustingly, cheering on a raging wildfire because it is damaging power lines).

Gibney has done a public service with this movie, but it doesn’t feel like eat your peas viewing. It’s fascinating, disturbing and compelling throughout. And also, there is something refreshing about a movie in which white collar criminals who steal billions actually go to prison in the end. Those were the days.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior recommendations.

Drunk Driving Deaths: More an Outrage than a Tragedy

I will never forget one of the most horrible phone calls I ever received, even though it was over 20 years ago: “John was killed yesterday by a drunk driver”. John was a valued colleague and wonderful soul who died young when someone driving on a suspended license (lost due to a prior drunk driving conviction) took John’s life and those of the two other passengers in his car. People close to me have received even worse calls “Your father is dead, a drunk driver cross the center line and killed him”, “This is the state highway patrol, I am sorry to tell you that your daughter and grandaughter are dead”. Dozens of calls like this are received by horrified people every day in our country.

Is this a tragedy? In the common usage of the word tragedy as something very sad, of course it is. But if we think of tragedy as the Ancient Greeks did — something that was unavoidable — drink driving deaths aren’t a tragedy but an outrage. We have a technology that has been convincingly shown to reduce drink driving deaths, but most states are not using it. It’s called 24/7 Sobriety and it not only reduces intoxicated driving, but domestic violence and imprisonment too.

The details of this remarkably simple, effective program are in my article at Wall Street Journal.

Look Ma, No Hands

The driverless car is one of those ideas that was obvious long before it was feasible. As soon as Marconi had demonstrated radio transmission of sound, televisions and videophones were on the agenda. Engineers toyed with driverless cars in the 1920s, with no success; the scheme requires massive cheap computation, which has only become available in the last decade.

SF robot carI looked for an SF magazine cover with transport pods from the 1930s. In vain: the problem is not that writers hadn’t thought of it, it’s that it’s not sexy, in the white girl/BEM/blaster convention of the genre. The best I could find was this alarming robot enforcer from 1935. Contrast today’s unthreatening prototypes.






We don’t get the technical progress we need, but what comes easiest. Cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s? They will be in the post, some day soon. Multi-player role-playing video games, that we never missed before they showed up: step this way. Sometimes need and feasibility coincide, as with the smartphone: the prototype of the universal communicator terminal of science fiction, and a social revolution. Are driverless cars more like video games or smartphones? Continue Reading…