Spread Fire, Not Cancer

Here is the link to my essay “At Pentecost: Spread Fire, Not Cancer.” It explores the contrasting images of fire and cancer and how they relate to self-giving love and selfishness, respectively:

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Trending or Tradition?

Here is the link to my article “Trending or Tradition?” It summarizes peer vs. parent orientation and applies it as a cultural and religious analytical tool:

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The Morality of Dolphins (and Ourselves)

What can dolphin behavior teach us about ourselves?

My oldest son is a budding zoologist. At his request, we read aloud The Dolphins of Shark Bay by Pamela S. Turner.[1] Shark Bay, Australia, is an ideal location for studying dolphins since the same bottlenose dolphins return to it year after year; the geography of the place also makes it relatively easy for scientists to observe them. Some of the dolphins of Shark Bay (and nowhere else in the world) have been observed using tools, a fascinating and extremely rare phenomenon in the non-human animal world. They dive deep to retrieve sponges, balance them on their rostrum (what looks like their “nose”), and then use them to flush out certain fish that dwell among sea rubble that would otherwise injure the dolphins. The scientists track how many “spongers” they observe and whether the behavior is passed on from mother to calf.

One intriguing fact about these dolphins is that they do not have one fixed way of hunting for their food. Some use the sponging method described above. Others engage in more straightforward hunting in open water using their famous echolocation. Some chase certain fish into a big group and then force them to swim right out of the water. The dolphins then take the risk of beaching themselves in order to eat and then make their way back into the water. Some chase fish into large shells and then shake them out. Others slam into sea birds to steal their fish. One dolphin, described as a “celebrity” among her peers, learned how to dive deeper than is typical for her species in order to catch an unusually large type of fish. Mother dolphins are particularly pressed to use their creativity to find food since they are solely responsible for the survival of their calves.

Is it legitimate to speak of “creativity” among dolphins? Yes, for the following reason: the higher the intelligence, the less rigid the instinctual behavior, and the greater the room for freedom of choice. The dolphins use their intelligence to discover different methods of hunting and even pass them on to their children. By contrast, less intelligent animals, such as insects, display more rigid instinctual behavior. Sand wasps, for example, are famous among entomologists for not being able to deviate from a certain sequence of actions related to prey and burrows.[2]

We, like the dolphins, share in this freedom of choice that enables us to survive and thrive in countless different settings. There is not just one sort of environment needed for human flourishing. The incredible variety of the saints—all times, places, educational levels, and cultural backgrounds have produced saints—proves this point. No matter our situation, we can use our God-given intelligence to work and thrive, and our children benefit from our efforts (or suffer from our lack thereof).

Another thing dolphins and humans have in common is a prolonged infancy. Dolphin calves usually nurse from their mothers for three or four years and stay with them even longer. They also spend significant amounts of time playing with other young dolphins. Like freedom of choice, a long state of dependency on parents is correlated with intelligence: “lower” animals are born self-sufficient whereas “higher” animals remain with their parents for varying lengths of time. The years spent with mom and playing with other young dolphins prepare the dolphin for the myriad of challenges of dolphin society and life in the open sea. As Hunt puts it, “a juvenile dolphin’s world resembles middle school. But with sharks.”[3]

Dependence in infancy is even more pronounced in humans. Child development specialist Dr. Stuart Shanker writes that “compared with the rest of the animal kingdom, the human brain at birth is remarkably immature for a remarkably long time.”[4] (New parents figure that out pretty quickly.) Human babies are basically embryos outside of the womb and need to be treated as such in order to thrive; their brains have lots of growing to do in a very short time. Yet that state of helplessness is the necessary context for the formation of a strong parent-child bond. As humans grow, we need interactions with others to become fully mature. Though we may not often have literal sharks to contend with, we certainly need strong bonds with other humans to engage well with the inevitable challenges of life. [5]

A further intriguing aspect of The Dolphins of Shark Bay is that the scientists do not hesitate to pass judgment on the animals. Certain dolphin mothers are praised as “attentive” and “hard-working,” qualities that lead to their calves’ success.[6] In contrast, one particular dolphin is described as “a lousy mom” who “ignores her calves,” none of whom have survived to adulthood.[7] Such a moral judgment is only possible because of the freedom available to dolphins. It would make no sense to speak of the morality of a less intelligent animal that simply follows its fixed instinctual behavior. For example, after drone bees mate with the queen bee, they are kept out of the hive to starve to death.[8] Such behavior sounds cruel and heartless, but those words do not really apply to bees following their instincts. Unlike the dolphin, the bee is not free to choose otherwise.

It is also our freedom which renders us praiseworthy for our good choices and blameworthy for our bad ones. Our current cultural climate does not tolerate passing judgment on human beings, but the ease with which scientists can judge dolphins is evidence for the objectivity of certain moral standards. As intelligence increases, so does freedom of choice; both are prerequisites for morality.

We have been taught, and rightly so, about the discontinuity between ourselves and the animals, yet we should not be afraid to examine and learn from the continuity as well. Ultimately, in human life, intelligence, freedom, and dependence create the necessary context for love.

[1] New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2013.

[2] https://genent.cals.ncsu.edu/bug-bytes/elements-of-behavior/sand-wasp/

[3] Turner, p. 45.

[4] Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), p. 50.

[5] Ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre explores the centrality of dependence in human life and the attendant virtues that we need to develop in his book Dependent Rational Animals (the title is his definition of us). He also talks a lot about dolphins.

[6] Turner, p. 17.

[7] Ibid, p. 18.

[8] http://www1.biologie.uni-hamburg.de/b-online/ibc99/koning/bees.html

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The Body of Christ at the Organ and Cellular Level: The Reproductive System

Within my body, I have a complete nervous system, digestive system, circulatory system, respiratory system, etc. These systems sustain and benefit my own bodily life. But what about the reproductive system?

The reproductive system is only complete when joined with another’s, and it exists for the creation of yet a third.

The reproductive system points to the truth that we are not made for ourselves. We are made to give ourselves away: we are made for love.

(For much, much more along these lines, see Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. I started with Theology of the Body for Beginners by Christopher West.)

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The Body of Christ at the Organ and Cellular Level: The Circulatory System

I have been reflecting on how the imagery of the Church as the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12 and elsewhere) resonates at all levels of the human body. This idea first struck me while waiting in line to receive Holy Communion when I noticed the similarity of the flow of people to the flow of blood within the body. (I plan to develop connections to other aspects of the body in future posts.)

When we come to Mass, we are worn down by the cares and worries of life. We are in need of refreshment and renewal. Likewise, when our blood cells are depleted of oxygen, they travel in the veins of the body to the heart to be re-oxygenated. The faithful standing in line at church making their way towards the altar are like the blood cells in the veins. When we receive the Eucharist at the heart of the church (the altar), we are given a new infusion of life. Then we are sent back into the world to do our work and share Christ’s life with the world–just as the blood cells are sent back to bring oxygen throughout the body in the arterial system.

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Mary, the Completion of Redeemed Humanity

While contemplating the Glorious Mysteries of the rosary, I was struck by the parallels between the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus and the Assumption and Coronation of Mary.  Hence the following musings:

When God created humankind in His image and likeness, it required both male and female to express that image and likeness (Genesis 1:27).  In his Theology of the Body 9:3, Pope St. John Paul II writes that it is in relationship with each other that we particularly express that image and likeness:  “man became the image of God not only through his own humanity, but also through the communion of persons, which man and woman form from the very beginning.”  This reality is especially evident in the life-giving, self-gifting love of marriage which brings about the third person of the child, thus mirroring more completely the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity.

It thus seems very fitting that redemption would be made manifest in both a male (Jesus) and a female (Mary).  An important aspect of masculinity is that of initiating.  Jesus, God Incarnate, initiates and effects our redemption from sin and death.  He triumphs over the grave in the Resurrection and brings redeemed humanity into the presence of God in the Ascension.  To femininity belongs the gift of responding to that male initiation.  Mary responds with her whole heart to God’s initiative in redemption and helps to complete the beautiful drama of redemption when female humanity is also drawn, magnet-like, into God’s presence in the Assumption and shares in His triumph in the Coronation.

And who is the child, the third person of this redeemed image and likeness of God?  The Church, born when the Holy Spirit descends at Pentecost (the third Glorious Mystery).

Now-Bishop, then-Father, Robert Barron articulates a fascinating theological principle in his Catholicism DVD series that may prove helpful here.  He says that when God intends to work something in the Church as a whole, He first accomplishes it in one person (my paraphrase).  I believe that we are all meant to follow the example and path of Mary in responding wholeheartedly to God’s offer of salvation.  In a sense, all of humanity is in the role of responder to God’s initiative.  This is what is conveyed in the Biblical image of the Church as the Bride of Christ.

Let us give a resounding “Yes!” to God’s invitation to join Him in glory through our Lord Jesus Christ!

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Handmaid of Your Handmaid

Luke 1:38 from the Vulgate:

“dixit autem Maria

ecce ancilla Domini fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum”

Vanessa:  “Ecce ancilla ancillae tuae (Behold, I am the handmaid of Your Handmaid).”

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Contra Sola Scriptura, from Peter Kreeft

I just love a good analogy.  Here is one I recently came across in Catholic Christianity, Peter Kreeft’s summary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  This is from his section 7, “Faith and Scripture,” and is given to illustrate one of the reasons for rejecting Sola Scriptura:

“Scripture should be interpreted from within the living tradition of the Church.  This is not narrow and limiting, but expansive and deep.  It is also reasonable; [here is the analogy:] for suppose a living author had written a book many years ago and had been teaching that book every day.  Who could interpret that book better than he?”

The Catholic Church, following the inspiration of the promised Holy Spirit, wrote the Bible.  She teaches it every day in Mass and all of the other liturgies of the Church.  She alone is divinely protected from misinterpreting it.

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NFP Leads to Vocations?

We once had a young seminarian over for dinner, and I asked him if his fellow seminarians were willing to speak the truth about the evils of contraception to their flock (something I see many current priests unwilling to do).  His response surprised and inspired me.  He said that if he ever became director of vocations, he would start by establishing good Natural Family Planning programs because he sees a vital link between the two.  When a married couple rejects contraception and instead uses Natural Family Planning if they need to space children, they are asking the Lord what He wants from their marriage instead of pursuing their own desires without reference to Him.  If children grow up with such an example, they will come to ask God what He wants of their lives (which might include a vocation to the priesthood or religious life) instead of living those lives without reference to Him.  The spirit of self-sacrifice in living Natural Family Planning could carry over into living a religious vocation.

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The Sign of the Moth

As the moth is drawn irresistibly towards a light, sometimes resulting in its death, so we must let ourselves be drawn irresistibly towards God, who is Light (1 John 1:5), which will result in the death of our sinful selves…and the emergence from the ashes of the true selves that He wants to give us.

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