Digital Aquinas, Domesticated Foxes, Casinos and Cathedrals, Muslims and Mary

1. Shakespeare and Computers? They Go Way Back

The “digital humanities” calls to mind slick hypertext versions of Hamlet and Google Scholar, but the article explains that the pursuit actually originated in 1949. Then, Father Robert Busa, a Jesuit priest, approached Thomas J. Watson Sr., the CEO and founder of IBM, for help creating a concordance for the works of Thomas Aquinas (basically an index of all the places where key terms like, “God,” appear Aquinas’s writing). Using punch cards and IBM’s accounting machines, Busa demonstrated that it was possible to use new technology to perform tasks that had previously required decades of toil to complete—if anyone had dared to undertake them at all.

I just love that the first person to use a computer for textual analysis was a Jesuit and the first text was by Thomas Aquinas. Somehow that just seems so very right.

2. Scientist Risked Execution for Fox Study

An experiment by a Russian geneticist that shows how wolves evolved into dogs.

The problem was that Darwin could not say how domestication started in the first place. No one was taking notes while the first wolf changed into a dog, or a wild boar into a pig. This is where Belyaev stepped in and quietly began a Herculean task that no one would have thought possible — he domesticated a species from scratch.

Instead of trying to create a domesticated species by selecting for each physical trait, Belyaev selected for one simple behavioral trait — whether the foxes would approach a human hand.

After only 45 generations, the experimental foxes began to change in ways that might take thousands if not millions of years in the wild. By the time I arrived years later to see the ongoing work, Belyaev’s experimental foxes were radically different from their control population. They had smaller skulls and canine teeth. Their coats were splotchy and their tails were curled. They also had floppy ears and barked.

When I met the bred foxes for the first time, one jumped in my arms and licked my face. The difference between the experimental and the control foxes were remarkably like the differences between wolves and dogs.

Belyaev had done it. He had taken a population of wild animals and essentially domesticated them. And not just that, he had figured out the mechanism by which it happened — not by intentionally breeding for each physical trait, but by selecting only for behavior. That is, by allowing to breed those animals that were friendly toward people.

3. The Casino and the Cathedral: Reclaiming Our Abandoned Culture

Today’s pagan temples and chapels—capitalistic institutions bent on money making no matter what—have appropriated Catholic styles, symbols, art, liturgy, and rubrics just as Catholics have lost confidence in them. They are winning and we are not. It’s time for Catholicism to become newly aware of the richest of our own symbols lest we lose out completely.

What I find intriguing is how such secular institutions so strongly believe in themselves and what they are doing, even when they appropriate forms and styles that once defined Catholicism—and, in this respect, they are outwitting Catholics who have too often lost confidence in our own ritual and tradition.

These secular institutions understand that decor matters. Architecture matters. The music of the place needs to fit with its goal. Color and form does matter. Every form of art and its thematic integration to the whole is well considered with the driving purpose in mind. And many of these forms are borrowed from the Catholic ethos and transformed for money-making purposes—just as the Catholics once appropriated pagan forms for its liturgy, vestments, and calendar.

If Taco Bell is the mission parish, the casino is the cathedral. I made some effort to deconstruct the way this casino makes it all work.

All the while, I couldn’t help but be struck by how the prevailing ethos for many years in the Catholic church has been to downplay the importance of cultural signaling in its liturgical presentation, to suggest that style does not matter, that pop music is as good as chant, that statuary and iconography only serves to distract, that established sacred forms can be freely tossed out and replaced with no great damage, and so on.

Whereas Catholic institutions are shy about putting the liturgical and artistic forms forward in an aggressive way, secular institutions, such as this grand casino I visited, are more dedicated to using artistic forms—many drawn from Catholic experience—more competently in providing for material needs than our own churches are in providing for spiritual needs.

“People are drawn to institutions that believe in their purposes and put the evidence of it up front so that it is apparent to all who walk in the door. The casino makes an effort to transport its customers in order that they might come to believe things that are mostly fiction and all untrue.

The Catholic faith, which is that one space in this world that is charged to provide the fullness of truth in time and eternity, needs to make similar efforts to transport its people to a world of truth that no one else is willing to take on. The key to doing this is found in our heritage and liturgy, which, if we accept in its organic development as it has emerged through the centuries, give us a spectacular template for the art and sensory signals that put on display the mystical reality that liturgy puts before us.

The claim of the Mass of the Catholic Church is more impressive than that offered by any other institution. “Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” Would someone walking into Mass for the first time be convinced that we really believe and teach this?”

4. Millions of Muslims devoted to Our Lady and eager for exorcism

Devotion creates feelings of friendship and not antagonism. In the West it is often said that religions, especially the monotheistic religions, are a source of wars and divisions. This thesis is false from the historical point of view and from the point of view of content. Of course, wars have been waged in the name of religion. But man has also launched wars in the name of many other ideologies, religion itself does not wage wars. We only have to think of nationalism, the divisions and the world wars fought in Europe, we are forced to admit that nationalism has been the cause of a far worse violence than any religion, and that the atheistic ideologies of the twentieth century, have produced more deaths than religions.

Even the religious wars fought in Europe were based on political phenomena that exploited religion (“cuius regio, eius religio “). It was the common view of the time, not the vision suggested by the Gospel. This connection between politics and religion is still very strong in Islam and Judaism as well. Identifying one State with a religion and an ethnic group, generating Zionism, has created a violent movement that was fueled by religion, and that creates problems for many Jews who to not back Israel’s politics. On the Islamic side, the Palestinian cause has been identified with Islam and has created the same difficulty, and it is perhaps for this reason that the peace process and a possible reconciliation have stalled.

To date, it seems to me that Christianity as a religion distinctly separates faith and politics, though not always perfectly … like everything that is human. Benedict XVI also writes about this in his Apostolic Exhortation for the Middle East: “A healthy secularity, on the other hand, frees religion from the encumbrance of politics, and allows politics to be enriched by the contribution of religion, while maintaining the necessary distance, clear distinction and indispensable collaboration between the two spheres” (Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, No. 29).

In fact, with the Muslims, as soon as you mention Mary, there is a notable change in attitude: there is an atmosphere of piety, of silence, of brotherhood, as if after chatting about many things, you were entering a place of worship, and there is silence.

Some might see this as a kind of syncretism. But in fact, devotion is a phenomenon that is open to all. Even in the West, Marian shrines do not only attract Christians, but also other believers, or people who have left the Church, even non-believers. Even though the liturgies are clearly Christian. And if I, as I pray to Our Lady, see a Muslim praying next to me, what’s the problem? On the contrary: it is a great comfort because devotion is a far stronger foundation for a relationship and friendship than ideological, political or cultural bonds. Those who think the of Christian faith in an exclusive way, as do some Catholic traditionalists, have yet to fully understand Christianity.

2 Responses to Digital Aquinas, Domesticated Foxes, Casinos and Cathedrals, Muslims and Mary

  1. gina July 29, 2013 at 9:56 am #

    I’ve really enjoyed reading your 7 posts in 7 days!

  2. Willa August 1, 2013 at 8:11 am #

    I really enjoyed your posts during the challenge.  I could relate to what you said about blogging in bursts.  I think I do that too.

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