Category Archives: News

Abraham, Sand, Stars and Winning the Lottery

A few years ago, the media reported about Joan Ginther, the woman who has won the lottery jackpot four times. Yes, four times! She’s won all told, about 20 million dollars. The Harper’s story about her by Nathaniel Rich probed the probability of her luck and found that it was about one in 18 septillion. There are other reasons why she might be so “lucky” like her Ph.D. in statistics. But what caught my eye from Rich’s story was this line:

There are one septillion stars in the universe, and one septillion grains of sand on Earth.

If that doesn’t make a Bible scholars antennae go up, I don’t know what will! This should remind any Bible student of this line in Genesis:

I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. (Gen 22:17 RSV)

God tells Abraham that he will have as many descendants as there are are stars and as there are grains of sand. What is so amazing about this is that upon scientific observation, those two totals are the same! There are roughly the same number of grains of sand on Earth as there are stars in the universe. Of course, there are many different estimates for these things. NPR even did a story on these questions. And then you start thinking, wow, we have a ways to go if Abraham is going to have a septillion descendants! If there have been, at highest estimates, 125 billion people ever, then we’re only 6.94 quadrillionths of the way there! (If I did my math right.) Whether you find interesting the number of Abraham’s descendants equaling the number of grains of sand or the number of grains equaling the number of stars, at least you can be happy knowing that the probability of winning the lottery four times divided by the number of Abraham’s promised descendants is 18.

What are the Dark Passages of Scripture?

So…I have a new book coming out entitled “Light on the Dark Passages of Scripture.” It will be released on September 20 from Our Sunday Visitor press. In the time leading up to the book release, I’ve put together a YouTube channel called “Bible Broccoli” and I’ll be posting several videos related to the book. This video above is my very first YouTube video and I address the first question you might ask about the book, “What are the Dark Passages of Scripture?” I hope you enjoy this video and I hope you check out my new book!

New Podcast: Over the Counter

 

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You might wonder what I’ve been up to. Well, my friend Andrew and I started a little podcast we’re calling “Over the Counter.” I see Andrew almost daily–he’s a world-class barista brewing up some wonderful stuff in our coffee shop. But he also happens to be something of a philosopher and conversationalist. We were having such great conversations over the counter in the shop that people would start to listen in…and even suggest we record what we were talking about. So, we took the hint!

We’ve started putting out a weekly podcast episode that is about 30 minutes and our goal is not so much to talk about one specific subject area, but to bring our perspectives to bear on many different arenas of life, culture, philosophy, and so on. We especially love to explore the friction between modern technology and what it means to be human in the truest sense. So far we’ve talked about things like uniforms, free stuff, and discerning God’s will. I don’t know if you’ll like it, but take a listen and tell us what you think.

Here’s a link to the Over the Counter Podcast web page. And I’ll also post an embedded player right here:

Over the Counter Podcast Player

Cardinals who are Biblical Scholars

Now that the cardinals have entered the conclave, there’s not much to be said about anything besides white and black smoke. So, I thought I’d add to the non-discussion discussion by listing the cardinal electors I can find who are biblical scholars in some respect.

Cardinal Giuseppe Betori, S.T.L. (Gregorian), S.S.D. (Biblicum)

Cardinal Thomas Christopher Collins, S.S.L. (Biblicum), S.T.D. (Gregorian)

Cardinal Dominik Duka, O.P., S.T.L. (Warsaw)

Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, S.S.D. (Biblicum – Jerusalem)

Cardinal Patriarch Antonios Naguib, S.T.L., S.S.L (Biblicum)

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, S.S.L. (Biblicum)

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, S.T.L (Milan), S.S.L (Biblicum)

Cardinal Robert Sarah, S.T.L. (Gregorian), S.S.L. (Franciscanum)

Cardinal Peter Turkson, S.S.L., S.S.D. (Biblicum)

Note that this is not a definitive list, so if you notice any cardinal electors who are biblical scholars not on this list, post a comment!

John Paul II’s Words to the Man Elected Pope

“I also ask the one who is elected not to refuse, for fear of its weight, the office to which he has been called, but to submit humbly to the design of the divine will. God who imposes the burden will sustain him with his hand, so that he will be able to bear it. In conferring the heavy task upon him, God will also help him to accomplish it and, in giving him the dignity, he will grant him the strength not to be overwhelmed by the weight of his office.”

-John Paul II, Universi Dominici Gregis, sec. 86

Why Benedict XVI Will Serve One Year Later Into Life than John Paul II

My post on the “math” behind Pope Benedict’s resignation has garnered some attention, so I wanted to speculate as to why Benedict might have set it up this way. If you haven’t read my previous post, the basic gist is that Benedict will serve the Church exactly 365 days longer than John Paul II–not that Benedict’s pontificate will be longer (JPII reigned for almost 27 years, but B16 will reign for almost 8), but that he will be exactly one year older when he abdicates than John Paul was when he died.

My speculations are as follows:

1. Benedict wants to honor the legacy of John Paul II. Many people were calling for John Paul’s resignation in the last few years of his pontificate, arguing that his ill health and frailty made him incapable of serving as pope. But John Paul stuck it out to the end and really became an example for eldercare and the morality of late-in-life health choices, namely that the dignity of the human person must be preserved and no steps should be taken to hasten death. Benedict, while having a different perspective than John Paul (see #3 below), wants to honor John Paul’s witness and serve the Church late into his life. By serving exactly 365 days longer, he nods to John Paul’s legacy and the example he gave to us.

2. John Paul II’s former personal secretary, Stanislaw Cardinal Dziwisz, has made comments criticizing Benedict XVI’s abdication as “coming down from the cross.” (Newsmax story here) I think this is exactly the kind of criticism that Benedict was hoping to circumvent (at least in the history books) by the timing of his resignation. The counter could always be: I served the Church even later into my life than John Paul–by a year!

3. Benedict wants to honor John Paul, while at the same time disagreeing with him. In 2002, he reportedly made comments that it would be “very wise” for a pope to resign if he was incapacitated by ill health.

4. Cardinal Ratzinger submitted his original resignation to John Paul II in Spring 2002 on his 75th birthday. Now, just before his 86th birthday, he’ll have served the Church 11 years past the mandatory retirement age for bishops of 75. (Just another interesting note–Benedict will not be participating in the conclave to elect the new pope, but even if he did he would be unable to vote, being past his 80th birthday.)

5. Perhaps Benedict wanted to abdicate before the canonization of John Paul II, so as not to give the impression that he was granting sainthood for the sake of an old friend. The miracle needed for John Paul II’s canonization is in the hands of the Congregation for the causes of saints (Vatican Insider).

6. Lastly, I think that Benedict wants to set a precedent for future popes. He believes the Church needs energetic leadership and that ill health late in life can preclude a man from bringing this kind of leadership to the task of governing the Church. Benedict, perhaps, is suggesting to future popes that if their old age or ill health prevents them from doing the pope’s job well that they too should abdicate and allow a younger man to fulfill the role.

 

Papal Resignation Math – Why February 28, 2013?

After the Pope’s shocking announcement of his resignation yesterday, I kept wondering about the timing. Why not resign right away? Why not resign at the beginning or end of a liturgical season? Why not resign on a major feast day? And why 8:00PM?

Pope Benedict XVI announced that he will abdicate the Papal throne at 8:00PM local time on February 28. I believe that most everything he does is symbolic and rich in meaning, as we saw with his gesture of laying his pallium on the tomb of Celestine V. So, if the timing of his resignation is symbolic and meaningful, how so?

First, the date: I believe the date of Pope Benedict’s resignation is tied to the death of John Paul II. Before you call me crazy, let me explain: If you calculate the time from John Paul II’s birth to death, it is 31,000 days (counting his birth-day 05/18/1920, but not his “death-day” 04/02/2005). He died 46 days short of his 85th birthday at the age of 84 years, 10 months and 15 days. Now Benedict XVI is going to resign exactly 31,365 days (counting his birthday 4/16/1927, but not his resignation day 02/28/2013) after his own birth, at the age of 85 years, 10 months and 14 days. Benedict XVI will have served as Pope exactly one year, or 365 days, later into his life than John Paul II.

Now, how about the time? Most official things in the Church–like bishop appointments–happen at noon, Rome time (CEST). The Church calendar officially changes dates at midnight–hence midnight Masses (despite the liturgy of the hours of a feast beginning the evening before). So noon or midnight would have been logical, normal, explainable times for the Pope to step down. So, why 8:00pm? Well, John Paul II was born at 5:30PM UTC+1 and died at 9:37PM UTC+1. Benedict was born at 8:30AM UTC+1 and will resign at 8:00PM UTC+1. So to be extremely precise, from John Paul II’s birth to death was 31,000 days,  4 hours, 7 minutes. From Benedict XVI’s birth to resignation will be 31,365 days, 11 hours, 30 minutes. So the exact difference between JPII’s birth-to-death and Benedict’s birth-to-resignation will be 365 days, 7 hours and 23 minutes. Ok, I have to confess at this point that the time does not seem particularly significant, only the date. If 8:00PM is meaningful, I can’t figure out why. However, I do think it is remarkable that Benedict will serve exactly one year later into life than John Paul II.

Pope Benedict XVI Resigns – What does Dante have to do with it?

Pope St. Celestine V

Pope St. Celestine V

Everyone is still shocked by the announcement made by the Pope today that he will resign, effective February 28, just 17 days from now. There are many commentators opining on the why’s and wherefores, but perhaps the most interesting strain in the commentary has to do with the last pope who resigned, St. Celestine V. Scott Hahn made an interesting post in which he mentions Pope Benedict’s two trips to pray by the tomb and relics (respectively) of Celestine V–notably the Pope left his pallium on Celestine’s tomb on April 29, 2009. (Interestingly, as Rocco Palmo notes, this pallium was the one with which Benedict was originally vested. The pope “retired” it from use and went to a smaller size of pallium. More here: Fr. Z, NLM)

St. Celestine resigned the papacy in 1294 after reigning for a mere six months. (Technically, the last Pope to resign was Gregory XII in 1415, but his situation was complicated by the Avignon papacy dispute.) St. Celestine was a Benedictine monk and hermit, who actually founded an order. He was famous for his ascetical practices. He was not a cardinal at the time of his election, but did send a letter to the conclave, which upon reading it, promptly elected him, even though he was 80 years old. It reminds me of Cardinal Ratzinger’s homily at the funeral of John Paul II in which he spoke against the dictatorship of relativism and described what the new Pope should be like. Apparently, anyone who tries to tell the cardinals how to go about the business of the Conclave becomes an immediate candidate!

Now, on to Dante! In his Inferno, Canto III, lines 58-63 (in Dorothy Sayers’ translation) we read:

And when I’d noted here and there a shade
Whose face I knew, I saw and recognized
The coward spirit of the man who made

The great refusal; and that proof sufficed;
Here was that rabble, here without a doubt,
Whom God and whom His enemies despised.

Now, Celestine is found in Hell’s “vestibule” here with the futile, who run around after meaningless banners, goaded by hornets. They are at the very “top” so to speak, of Dante’s Hell. Dante’s condemnation of Celestine V was rooted in the problematic reign of his successor, Boniface VIII, who imprisoned his predecessor. Apparently, Dante felt that Celestine should have embraced the office and out of cowardice or a faint heart, he abdicated, which led to very bad things in the reign of the next pope. Celestine died in a fetid jail cell. Interestingly, later on, Pope Clement V undid Dante’s literary condemnation and officially canonized Celestine V.

Later on, in the Inferno, Canto XXVII, lines 103-105, the character Guido is recounting Pope Boniface VIII’s words thusly:

Thou knowest I have the power to open or shut
The gates of Heaven, for those High Keys are twain,
    The Keys my predecessor cherished not.

Again here, Dante is condemning Pope Celestine V for his resignation of the papacy.

So, why would Benedict XVI identify with Celestine V?

  1. Both Celestine and Benedict practice Benedictine spirituality–Celestine as a hermit/monk and Benedict as an oblate (although I have had a hard time confirming that Ratzinger/Benedict is an oblate). Also, Benedict took on the name of St. Benedict and Benedict XV.
  2. Both hoped to retire from public life–Celestine as a hermit, Benedict to a quiet retirement with his brother in Germany.
  3. Both were elected very late in life–Celestine at 80 and Benedict at 78.
  4. Both saw themselves perhaps as short-term popes–Celestine for 6 months, Benedict now for 8 years.
  5. Both resigned–Celestine in 1294, Benedict in 2013.

I am glad, though, that Benedict XVI is able to trust in the Church’s wisdom in canonizing Celestine V rather than in the literary “wisdom” of Dante. In many things, Catholic thinkers and writers have deferred to Dante, but his judgment of Celestine V proved incorrect and may be shaped more by the travails of his era than by the actual facts of Celestine’s life. At this moment, it is best for all of us to pray for the conclave and the Holy Father’s sucessor. May the Holy Spirit guide the cardinals’ votes. St. Celestine V, pray for us!

Links on this topic:
Robert Moynihan, article
Robert Moynihan, lecture
Taylor Marshall
Mosaics

E-Readers for Academics

I have made several posts about the Amazon Kindle and my hope that a color version will be offered soon with ability to annotate text. It turns out I’m not alone. Another academic, Kevin Stolarick has the same wish–although, I’d have to say he’s a bit more fanatic about the whole thing considering he’s bought almost every device that came close to our shared desire. What we want is rather simple:

  • An e-ink reader (for long battery life, natural eyestrain-free reading)
  • 8 1/2″ x 11″ size (for reading academic articles that are scanned PDF’s and for reading student papers in Word DOC and DOCX format)
  • Ability to annotate in color (for highlighting and underlining academic articles and for annotating student papers)
  • Annotation must work with a fine point stylus (so it feels like writing with a pen rather than smushing pixels with a finger)
  • Good storage choices (whether SD card, Dropbox, etc.)

It seems like it would be a no-brainer for a tech company to offer a product like this. It would be custom built for the academic market (both students and teachers), but I think a lot of business folks would be interested too–for reports, policy binders, and other documents.

The makers of ereaders (Amazon, Sony, B&N) have focused on the book reader market because there’s money there. But they have missed the market of people who still use paper and would like to upgrade to the digital age. The 8 1/2″ x 11″ format may sound silly, but in a world that uses paper in that format all the time, there must be some level of interoperability between paper and ereaders. We want a paper-like experience without all the mess of paper. We want to read the same documents as our paperphile friends. It seems simple and when a tech company wakes up and provides us with a product like this for a good price, I’ll be first in line to get one.

Swearing Oaths on Bibles

With the upcoming inauguration of the President of the United States, much ado is being made

Image by Wonderlane, http://www.flickr.com/photos/wonderlane/

Image by Wonderlane, http://www.flickr.com/photos/wonderlane/, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en

about the Bibles that will be used for the cermonies. According to an article from ABC News, Obama will be using three different Bibles. For a first, private ceremony, the day before the public inauguration, he’ll use the Robinson family Bible, which has been in the First Lady’s family since 1958. During the public celebration, he’ll swear his oath of office on two Bibles: the one used by Lincoln in 1861 and Martin Luther King’s personal travel Bible. How exactly a person can swear on two Bibles at once is a mystery.

Presidential Oaths on the Bible

George Washington was the first President to swear his oath of office on the Bible. The oath was administered by Robert Livingston, the Chancellor and Grand Master of Masons of the State of New York. It was sworn on a Bible used for Masonic ceremonies at the St. John’s Lodge in New York City. (Oath-taking is a big part of freemasonry. You can read Charles Finney’s condemnation of it here.) This Bible was again used for swearing in Harding, Eisenhower, Carter and George H.W. Bush. It was supposed to be used in 2001 for George W. Bush, but was not because of rain. There is no constitutional requirement that the President use a Bible to swear in, but it is a tradition from the founding. Most interesting is the case of President Franklin Pierce, who “affirmed,” and did not swear his oath of office on a law book, not a Bible. He was a reportedly devout Episcopalian and some sects within the Episcopalian camp objected to oath-taking. So the Constitution built in an option for those who objected to oaths, that they could solemnly “affirm” a commitment rather than swearing an oath.

Objections to Oaths on the Bible

In Matthew 5:34-37, Jesus teaches:

But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,
35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.
37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.
(Mat 5:34-37 ESV)

And then in James 5:12, we read: “But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation. (Jam 5:12 ESV)

On the basis of these two scripture passages, several Christian groups have objected to oath-taking, as against the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles. Notably, Mennonites and Quakers have objected to oath-taking on these grounds. The problem, suggested by both of these passages, is that oath-taking seems to imply a double standard for truth telling, even to hint that under regular circumstances one is not obliged to faithfully tell the truth.

In fact, in Leo XIII’s condemnation of Freemasonry, which forbids Catholics from becoming Masons, he highlights the objectionable oaths of Masons:

“Candidates are generally commanded to promise – nay, with a special oath, to swear – that they will never, to any person, at any time or in any way, make known the members, the passes, or the subjects discussed. Thus, with a fraudulent external appearance, and with a style of simulation which is always the same, the Freemasons, like the Manichees of old, strive, as far as possible, to conceal themselves, and to admit no witnesses but their own members.” (Humanum Genus, 1884)

Now, what do Catholics have to say about oaths, especially oaths on Bibles?

A Catholic View of Oath-Taking

Catholics have a lot of oaths. Married persons take vows at their weddings, religious persons profess vows in special ceremonies, priests take vows at their ordination ceremonies. In addition, Pope Pius X commanded that all priests take the “Oath Against Modernism.” Catholic theology teachers often take the “Oath of Fidelity” to promise to hold to Catholic teaching–interestingly, the Oath includes placing one’s hands on the Book of the Gospels. The Catholic Encyclopedia takes a rather sanguine view of oath-taking and describes its various forms.

Thomas Aquinas has quite a lot to say about oaths (ST II-II, q. 89). He teaches that is “in itself lawful and commendable.” In specific, he cites, Hebrews 6:16-17, “For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath” (Heb 6:16-17 ESV). From this example, we see a New Testament author mentioning oaths as a normal part of life, without condemnation. Also, the author to the Hebrews insists that God himself makes an oath, swearing by himself (see earlier in Hebrews 6 for context). Now, to the problem of the Bible passages I listed above (Matt 5:33-37 and James 5:12), Thomas quotes Jerome and Augustine:

Reply to Objection 1.Jerome, commenting on Matthew 5:34, says: “Observe that our Saviour forbade us to swear, not by God, but by heaven and earth. For it is known that the Jews have this most evil custom of swearing by the elements.” Yet this answer does not suffice, because James adds, “nor by any other oath.” Wherefore we must reply that, as Augustine states (De Mendacio xv), “when the Apostle employs an oath in his epistles, he shows how we are to understand the saying, ‘I say to you, not to swear at all’; lest, to wit, swearing lead us to swear easily and from swearing easily, we contract the habit, and, from swearing habitually, we fall into perjury. Hence we find that he swore only when writing, because thought brings caution and avoids hasty words.” (Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 89, a. 2)

Augustine’s argument is rather weak. He argues that Scripture forbids something just to help us avoid the habit of it. I hope he wouldn’t say the same thing about murder or adultery! The Catechism of the Catholic Church does a better job explaining:

2154 Following St. Paul,83 The tradition of the Church has understood Jesus’ words as not excluding oaths made for grave and right reasons (for example, in court). “An oath, that is the invocation of the divine name as a witness to truth, cannot be taken unless in truth, in judgment, and in justice.”84

The citations in there are to 2 Cor 1:23, “But I call God to witness against me– it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth” (2Co 1:23 ESV), where Paul actually takes an oath in writing; and to Galatians 1:20, “(In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!)” (Gal 1:20 ESV), where the same thing happens. The last citation is to the Code of Canon Law 1198, which has lots of rules concerning oaths. For example, an oath becomes non-binding if the thing sworn becomes evil.

So it seems, from a Catholic perspective, that oaths can only be sworn by God (e.g., “so help me God”) and can only be done for serious reasons. Oaths should not be taken lightly. Swearing an oath on the Gospels is part of an official Catholic ritual, so swearing oaths on Bibles does not seem objectionable. One must constantly keep in mind the gravity of the oath and one’s obligation to fulfill it.