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Dust to dust

Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to…


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I am almost 50,000 words into writing a systematic theology, which has been a dream of mine since my seminary days. A systematic theology is an attempt to make an orderly, persuasive statement of one’s own faith. Perhaps the most famous is Thomas Aquinas’ Summa theologicae, written in the 1270s (he died in 1274). It is one of the most influential works in human history.

Here I want to run by you why I believe such an attempt is worth doing, even now, even by me.

Frances Young discusses the need to interpret the Faith — and the doctrines that…


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Matilda’s tomb in St. Peter’s, Rome

When you think about powerful women in the Middle Ages, women who made a lasting difference, you might mention Eleanor of Aquitaine, Hildegard of Bingen, or in China, Mu Guiying, but you probably would not name Matilda of Canossa (ca. 1046–1115).

The struggle between Henry IV, the German emperor, and Hildebrand, the Italian pope known as Gregory VII, is well known, and has often been portrayed as the forge of the modern papacy as well as modern Europe. Matilda’s role has been recognized before, but always as ancillary to the two men.

Enter her modern biographer, Michèle Spike. In her…


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We humans have no direct knowledge of God. For knowing a truth or a good is to know what is concrete, not abstract. All communities of knowers share language, information, questions about that data, hypotheses as to their meanings, judgments of validity, and responsibility for what they know. And while what is true or good is always what is true or good about this or that thing or event, knowers only know the real abstractly. This is to say that human knowledge is at best, conditioned, that is to say, virtual: there are always more questions raised by answers.

Beyond…


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Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

Neuroscience is making great progress understanding the human brain, and there is no reason to think that it will not continue to do so. However, it will always have to deal with a blind spot that limits its results. What is a neuroscientist studying the brain but a brain studying? Such a study can only understand the functioning of the organ, and those functions vital to the life of the whole person: respiration, heartbeat, etc. Experiments will continue to verify or discard hypotheses concerning memory, language, the acquisition of habits and addictions, accumulating knowledge — there is no end to…


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Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

One way to dismiss an idea is to insist that it “is just a theory.” However, the point of calling something a theory is that it is a proven explanation. This doesn’t mean it cannot be changed, improved upon, surpassed by another theory that explains more and in better ways. When a concept is a theory, however, it sets the terms and relations necessary to improve or even overturn it.

Three examples of theories changing

The first is phlogiston. First introduced in the 17th century, this theory attempted to explain how things burn, and why they stop burning as well. Things which are liable to…


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Much of what we know is called “common sense.” Either we have learned its precepts and perspective from others, or we have asked questions and come up with answers that are usually satisfactory. Proverbs are examples of common sense codified in easily-remembered phrases: “a stitch in time saves nine”, “early to bed, early to rise, makes one healthy, wealthy and wise”, “red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky at morning, sailor take warning”, and so on. The trouble is, proverbs often contradict one another. “Lightning never strikes the same place twice” is (usually!) true, but the French say, “never…


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Let’s start with things that we investigate and wonder whether they have meaning. For instance, if you look at this word

Смысл

and if you cannot read Cyrillic, never mind Russian, you would conclude that it has no meaning to you (the word is the translation of “meaning”). But at the same time, you might well surmise that these signs have meaning for someone other than yourself, because you know how to read.

Then there are emojis:

😊

😅

😂

🤪

The meanings here seem pretty obvious. In fact, these little symbols are universally understood: they start with a smile…


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Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Pontius Pilate made a seemingly contemporary statement almost 2,000 years ago, according to the Gospel of John. “What is truth?” is his retort to Jesus’ claim that he came as a witness to the truth. It is a world-weary, cynical reply, from a man who had been assigned the worst posting in the Roman Empire. Whereas it is not clear why Pilate was not in the good graces of the emperor, Tiberius, it would not be very long after that he ordered Pilate to go either into exile or commit suicide. The Roman Empire did not give pensions to failures.


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Photo by Hannah Wright on Unsplash

First, what it’s not. In his last book, the late author Tom Wolfe, known for his iconoclastic journalism in works such as The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Right Stuff, took on language. In The Kingdom of Speech,[1] Wolfe skewered Charles Darwin for plagiarizing the theory of evolution from Alfred Wallace. He also pointed out that Darwin never showed that human language evolved from anything else — birdsongs, mother’s coos, animal grunts, and so on — though he desperately wanted to. No one has credibly argued for an evolutionary origin, since, as well.

Having done in Darwin, Wolfe then…

Pierre Whalon

Bishop in charge, Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, 2001–2019. French-American. Musician, composer, author, happily married. www.pierrewhalon.info

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