Everything, Everywhere, All at Once – Part II: Hollywood versus Nihilism – Thanks Daniels

In a previous post, I noted that the film Everything, Everywhere, All at Once mischaracterizes the admittedly unjust condemnation, and worse, the penalty, Galileo received as the result of his two trials for heresy by the Holy Office of the Roman Inquisition of the Catholic Church. In that post I gave instead a more accurate, though brief, recounting of his alleged “crime” and the actual penalties he received; neither he, nor as far as I know, has anyone been “killed and tortured for believing otherwise” than that the earth was the center of the universe. The filmmakers thus failed to deliver the main thing that one looks for in film, vis. the fair and accurate presentation of historical philosophical and theological ideas and disputes.

Despite this failure, EEAaO is nevertheless insightful in describing the effect of scientific progress in creating a modern crisis over the loss of intrinsic worth and meaning. The film also presents what seems to me a fundamentally Christian response or answer to this meaninglessness and loss of worth. I think EEAaO is an excellent film for these reasons, and I recommend readers see it, if they have not done so already. The film is also funny, creative, excellently acted and visually stunning, so it has all that going for it, too. [The following summary and analysis contains spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the movie, and want to discover its plot fresh, read no further.]

The film follows the main character, Evelyn Wang, the owner of a failing laundromat, facing tax troubles and in a seemingly failing marriage to a funny and kind, though hopelessly impractical man Waymond. Evelyn is also mother to floundering young adult daughter, Joy, who is in a lesbian relationship that Evelyn cannot reveal to her elderly father, who disowned her for her youthful decision to marry Waymond, but who now has come to live with them. As a different version of Waymond suddenly explains through the body of her familiar husband, Evelyn is the key to defeating the truly metaphysically existential danger, the film’s antagonist, Jobu Tupaki, who threatens to annihilate the whole of reality. For, an Evelyn in another parallel universe was among a few special individuals who discovered how to jump between universes, but Jobu Tupaki became virtually omniscient and omnipotent by doing so at will, while being simultaneously aware of herself in all of them. The film, then, chronicles the adventure of Evelyn out-running Jobu, while learning her unique abilities, until ultimately confronting Jobu in a climactic battle.

The Problem Science Poses

I think the movie makes two interesting and insightful observations. The first is that scientific progress does not alleviate the meaninglessness of life viewed naturalistically, but exacerbates it. This is the context for Jobu Tupaki’s mischaracterization of some of the history of science (Galileo and the Church), as she describes how her existential crisis (as paradigmatic of modern individuals’) results from the progress of science.

At one point, Evelyn learns that Jobu Tupaki is her daughter, Joy, from another universe whom she drove too hard to master universe jumping, and that this is what led Joy to become the threatening Jobu Tupaki. They find each other in a lifeless universe as rocks and have this illuminating exchange:

Evelyn: I just feel so stupid

Joy/Jobu: God! Please. We’re all stupid! Small, stupid humans. It’s like our whole deal. For most of our history, we knew the Earth was the center of the universe. We killed and tortured people for saying otherwise. That is, until we discovered that the Earth is actually revolving around the Sun, which is just one sun out of trillions of suns. And now look at us, trying to deal with the fact that all of that exists inside of one universe out of who knows how many. Every new discovery is just a reminder-

Evelyn: We’re all small & stupid.

Joy/Jobu: And who knows what great new discovery is coming next . . . to make us feel like even smaller pieces of shit.

The classical Newtonian understanding of physical nature describes everything as obeying necessary physical laws, from planets and stars, down to rocks and trees, people and cats, all the way to the atomic and molecular level. This left no room for intrinsic value, meaning, freedom – and as I argue elsewhere – argumentation or science. In the 20th century, though, quantum mechanics provided an advance in understanding reality over classical physics by revealing that at the level of subatomic particles (e.g., quarks, mesons, charms and bosons) physical nature is inherently indeterminate, and the various outcomes of quantum events all exist superimposed on each other, until collapsing into one actualized by observation or interaction with its environment. (Of course, this is an oversimplification, and I admit, I don’t understand quantum theory well, or really very much, at all. But this is the theoretical framework, it seems to me, upon which the film EEAaO is built.) The indeterminacy of quantum states is symbolized in the thought experiment of Schrodinger’s Cat, where two possible outcomes of a quantum event results in a cat being either alive or dead, and the cat would seem to have to be paradoxically both alive and dead until it is observed.

The movie is predicated on the Many-Worlds interpretation as a solution to this paradox of quantum mechanics, where every outcome of all of our choices is realized and gives rise to an alternate universe where our lives develop in a manner different than the present one. Thus, Evelyn (and everyone else) has other lives in other universes in which she is a chef in a Japanese restaurant, a martial arts master, a famous singer, the partner to a woman in a “stupid, stupid universe where we have hotdogs for fingers,” among seemingly infinite others. Various versions of the main characters, Waymond, Diedre the IRS agent, but especially Evelyn and her daughter Joy, have learned to jump between versions of themselves in different universes, and in doing so, play out the conflict between Jobu Tupaki, who seems intent on destroying the overall reality of all universes in an Everything Bagel, and Evelyn who is told she is the only one who has the power to defeat her.

Jobu Tupaki at one point explains that her ability to pass between universes and experience everything there is to experience ultimately led to her despair, and the creation of the ultimate means of destruction, the Everything Bagel.

Jobu: Everything is just a random rearrangement of particles in a vibrating superposition . . . just a lifetime of fractured moments, contradictions and confusion, with only a few specks of time where anything actually makes any sense.

I got bored one day and put everything on a bagel. Everything. All my hopes and dreams, my old report cards, every breed of dog, every last personal ad on craigslist. Sesame. Poppy seed. Salt. And it collapsed in on itself. ‘Cause you see, when you really put everything on a bagel, it becomes this. The truth.

Evelyn: What is the truth?

Jobu: Nothing matters. . . . Feels nice, doesn’t it? If nothing matters, then all the pain and guilt you feel from making nothing of your life goes away. Sucked into a bagel.

She is saying, it seems to me, that looking for fulfillment in anything, even everything, available within the physical universe, or many, many (an infinitude of) universes, does not satisfy our infinite longing for meaning and purpose, but collapses in on itself, sucking meaning out of any of it.

As a rock in a lifeless universe, Jobu further explains:

Jobu: I’ve been trapped like this for so long…experiencing everything…I was hoping you would see something I didn’t…that you would convince me there was another way.

Evelyn: What are you talking about?

Jobu : Do you know why I actually built the bagel? It wasn’t to destroy everything. It was to destroy myself. I wanted to see if I went in, could I finally escape? Like actually die. At least this way, I don’t have to do it alone.

The indeterminacy and superposition of various quantum possibilities does not free humans from classical physics and mechanistic determinism. Rather, the realization through science that all possibilities are realized in alternate universes just means that there is another version of yourself living a better life, and that you are even more of a failure for having made the choices that trapped you in this disappointing and wasted life.

I thought this was an interesting and insightful exploration of the implications of the advance of science into barely comprehensible realms of quantum theory that continues to seemingly exclude anything non-physical beyond itself, and this results in nihilism and despair, just as much as mechanistic determinism does.

The Way Out

The second interesting feature of the film is its ultimate resolution and affirmation of something beyond the physical structure of underlying quantum features of reality. In the end, what defeats her nihilism, and pulls Joy out of the sweet release she sought in the annihilation in the Everything Bagel, is Evelyn’s free, undetermined, but self-determined decision to affirm the goodness of Joy, i.e., to love freely and selflessly. 

Evelyn: And of all the places I could be, why would I want to be here with you? You’re right. It doesn’t make sense. Maybe it’s like you said. Maybe there is some discovery out there that will make us feel like even smaller pieces of shit. Something that explains why you went looking for me through all of this noise. And why, no matter what, I still want to be here with you. I will always always want to be here with you.

Jobu: So what? You’re just going to ignore everything else? You could be anything anywhere. Why not go somewhere where your daughter is more than this? Here all we get are a few specks of time where any of this actually makes any sense.

Evelyn: Then I will cherish these few specks of time.

And it is not just any self-determination that brings resolution, for Jobu Tupaki’s path of destruction was also freely chosen. But this path of selfishness and ultimate self-destruction, I think, the filmmakers and the audience recognize as intrinsically inferior, morally corrupt. Jobu is, afterall, an antagonist, a villian, not an antihero, or misunderstood victim.

Against Jobu’s nihilism and suicidal drive, Evenly adopts the way of kindness and sacrifice that her husband Waymond pursued in various lifetimes in his different alternate universes. And this is inherently and intrinsically superior, and morally virtuous.

Waymond (from the universe where Evelyn is a famous singer): You think I’m weak, don’t you? All those years ago when we first fell in love . . . your father would say I was too sweet for my own good. Maybe he was right.

Waymond (from the universe where Evelyn owns a failing laundromat and is battling Jobu Tupaki): Please! Please! Can we… Can we just stop fighting?

Waymond 1: You tell me that it’s a cruel world . . . and we’re all just running around in circles. I know that. I’ve been on this earth just as many days as you.

Waymond 2: I know you are fighting because you’re scared and confused. I’m confused, too. All day, I don’t know what the heck is going on. But somehow, it feels like it’s all my fault.

Waymond 1: When I choose to see the good side of things, I’m not being naïve. It’s strategic and necessary. It’s how I’ve learned to survive through everything.

Waymond 2: I don’t know. The only thing I do know is that we have to be kind. (To Evelyn) Please. Be kind, especially when we don’t know what’s going on.

Waymond 1: I know you see yourself as a fighter. Well, I see myself as one too. This is how I fight.

The turning point in the fight to stop Jobu comes when Evenlyn, through the sweetness and kindness of Waymond, adopts that same kindness. When the main henchman of Jobu, an especially ruthless version of Dierdre (the IRS agent in our Evelyn’s universe) threatens to block her path, they have this exchange:

Dierdre: Unlovable bitches like us make the world go round.

Evelyn: You’re not unlovable.

Dierdre : What are you talking about?

Evelyn. There is always something to love. Even in a stupid stupid universe where we have hot dogs for fingers, we get very good with our feet. (Cut to a scene of tenderness between Evelyn and Dierdre as romantic partners in the universe where people have hotdogs for fingers.)

When Evelyn embraces the absurdity of rejecting merely physical, naturalistic ways of operating, she turns bullets into googly eyes, and when Waymond asks, what are you doing? she declares, 

I’m learning to fight like you.

And, I think this is inchoately Christian, for this new, better way of “fighting” is realized in the film, not merely as altruistic self-sacrifice (which every culture honors and rewards when done for certain of its members (family, clan, the state, the gods), and which has become a staple in our culture, especially in superhero movies). I think what makes it implicitly Christian (though obviously not perfectly realized) is that the self-sacrifice that “defeats” or actually redeems Jobu/Joy, and the spiral of fear and hate at the core of all physical realities, is a departure from “what makes sense” (in any universe, including the lifeless one where Jobu and Evelyn are rocks). It is an altruistic self-sacrifice for the sake of Evelyn’s enemies, an embrace in love of her daughter who rejected her and her prior attempts at love. And this kind of love of one’s enemies is at the heart of Jesus’s mission, and of the Christian life.

For Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly. Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. How much more then, since we are now justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath. Indeed, if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, once reconciled, will we be saved by his life.

(Romans 5:6-10) Emphasis added.

This is the essence of the Christian gospel: God uses our very sins (in the cross of Jesus) as the means to redeem us from that sin and separation from Himself, and by living out that love in our lives through His grace received in faith in Jesus, we share in His divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). I might be reading a little into the plot of the film, but I only think a little. I don’t know if the filmmakers thought their message was Christian – probably they didn’t. But it still may be, insofar as this ideal still lingers implicitly in the culture, even though the culture is post-Christian.

So despite the inaccurate, though oblique, reference and characterization of the Catholic Church’s unjust treatment of Galileo, and thereby failing in the main purpose of movies, the film Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, makes up for these lapses by giving an entertaining and engaging depiction of the meaninglessness of a purely physical grasp of the universe, as well as a vivid and creative (and implicitly Christian) depiction of the way to overcome this meaninglessness.

For more on the Catholic understanding of what salvation means and how Jesus’s sacrifice saves us, see the following:

Saint Thomas’s Skull Is on the Move

Reliquary of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Toulouse, France

Two years ago, in my first Happy Feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas post, I explained that January 28 was chosen as the date to commemorate his joining the Blessed in Heaven, not because it was the date of his entrance into that blessed state (i.e., the date of his death, March 7 (though, until 1969 the latter date was his feast day)), but because it was the date the relics of his body were returned to the Dominican convent in Toulouse from the Cistercian Abbey of Fossanova. I also noted that Saint Thomas’s relics suffered some extreme vagaries of place and condition until their (more or less) final resting place in France, but that what his remains underwent was not unusual for the time and place in which he lived and died.

Thom’s thumb in Milan

Certainly Thomas Aquinas is not the most post mortem widely travelled or widely distributed saint of the middle ages, but rather, his case seems oddly typical of medieval interest in relics. Indeed, Marika Räsänen has recently published a study of the journeys and vicissitudes of St. Thomas’s remains as emblematic of the importance relics had in the height of the medieval period: Thomas Aquinas’s Relics as Focus for Conflict and Cult in the Late Middle Ages: The Restless Corpse.

While such intense interest in the relics of Saint Thomas seems to us perhaps somewhat odd and even macabre, even to the point of missing the true significance of his life and work, Saint Thomas himself acknowledges that such devotion is right and fitting as it is an extension of the honor and veneration that ought to be given to the Body of Jesus Christ.

Well, the National Catholic Register reports that Saint Thomas’s relics, or at least his skull, is on the move again:

The skull of St. Thomas Aquinas has arrived at the Dominican Convent of Toulouse, France, and placed in a new reliquary as the order celebrates the 700th anniversary of the saint’s canonization in the Catholic Church….

The reliquary will now embark on a journey across France and abroad. 

For information about the display and procession of Saint Thomas’s skull at various locations around France, and presumably “abroad,” visit the website for the Jubilees of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

Happy Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, Angelic Doctor

Today, January 28, marks the annual celebration of the Feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas, source, inspiration and patron of the Thomistic Philosophy Page. Saint Thomas was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pope Saint Pius V in 1567, and over the centuries, the Church has conferred on Saint Thomas three doctoral designations: the Angelic Doctor, the Common Doctor and the Doctor of Humanity (the last conferred by Pope Saint John Paul II). Thomas Aquinas College continues to make available a homily by Fr. Romanus Cessario, O.P, in which he admirably elucidates these three titles and the propriety of ascribing them to Saint Thomas.

His title of the Angelic Doctor is certainly, if somewhat ironically, the most commonly used (instead of Common Doctor). I allude to two reasons for his designation as Angelic in an essay I wrote about Thomas’s teaching on Angels, which surprisingly has become the second most popular essay (after one on Natural Law) on the Thomistic Philosophy Page in the last three years (when I have had access to accurate site traffic data):

The fact that Saint Thomas is called the Angelic Doctor is not due to his cherubic physique alone. Rather, he spent a considerable amount of space in the Summa Theologiae, among other places, discussing the nature, activities and moral state of angels. Often, he would use the nature of the angels to illuminate the nature of human cognition by referring to angels as the extreme of what is possible for an intellectual nature to be. He also discusses them for their own sakes, but all the time keeping his remarks bound by the limits of the definitive teaching of Sacred Scripture, and by the rigors of consistent thinking.

As I say, this essay on Angels is surprisingly popular, and it is linked to by some rather theologically suspect sites. But Thomas’s equally surprisingly lengthy and lucid treatment of angels can, perhaps, remind or introduce to those who seek in angels spirituality without or apart from the God of Spirit, the One who created these spiritual being. His treatment of angels, too, may disabuse people (even functionalists) of the belief in some kind of “spiritual matter” of which angels are supposedly composed. This ill-conceived belief, it seems to me, was really a source of consternation to the Angelic Doctor, since he devotes considerable space and energy to refuting the idea throughout his career, starting in the early work On Being and Essence (De Ente et Essentia). I recount some of Saint Thomas’s reasoning about the bodilessness of angels in responding to a question submitted to me on Resurrected Bodies and Angels.

Another reason for the Church conferring on Saint Thomas the title Angelic Doctor comes from his life-long and extraordinary purity, and the manner by which he was blessed with such admirable and ardent chastity:

At about the age of nineteen, Thomas joined the Dominican Order, the Order Friars Preachers. His noble family was not pleased with this choice, however, since the friars, with their extreme poverty and itinerant lifestyle, were not held in very high esteem. When his mother set out for Naples in order to retrieve Brother Thomas from the clutches of the Dominicans, the friars sent him to Rome, but Thomas was captured by his brothers, soldiers in the Imperial Army.

Angels girding the young Brother Thomas

He was taken to a family castle and imprisoned for nearly two years as his family tried to dissuade him from carrying through his resolution to continue as a Dominican. His brothers even sent a prostitute into his cell, but Thomas drove her away with a burning brand he took from the fire, and drawing a cross on the wall in charcoal, knelt in prayer imploring God to free him of such temptation.

After acting in this way to preserve his chastity, two angels visited him and bound him with a blessed cincture which preserved him from temptations of lust throughout the rest of his life. 

His Dominican brothers discovered at his death the relic of the cord that Saint Thomas received from the angels and which he wore his whole life, and afterward they displayed it for veneration by the faithful to implore Saint Thomas’s intercession in resisting temptations to lust and for aid in growing in chastity.

Eventually the Angelic Warfare Confraternity grew out of these pious devotions, and it enjoyed varying degrees of popularity and support over the centuries. Today, all Dominican provinces, at least in the US, encourage this devotion and enrollment in the confraternity, especially among young people who are beset by such temptations on the internet, and many of whom suffer from addictions of this kind. I think this is a very good legacy of the Angelic Doctor, but I am astonished that the devotion of the Cord of Angelic Warfare, as it sometimes called, is so enthusiastically promoted by the Order of Preachers. When I was a novice in the Order almost 40 years ago, an older friar who was teaching us the history of religious life openly mocked the devotion, and I was certainly never encouraged to enroll in the confraternity (which I think must have been inactive at the time), though my superiors obviously did try to instill chastity in us who were in formation, but through more ‘enlightened,’ psychologically-informed means. I think prayer and penance, though, are indispensable in achieving self-mastery, in addition and as a means to mental integration and maturity.

There are, then, ample reasons Saint Thomas Aquinas is the Angelic Doctor, from his philosophically informed theology of spiritual substances (angels), to the angelic assistance he received in living a life of cherubic chastity. Sanctus Thomas Aquinatis, ora pro nobis.

Everything, Everywhere, All at Once – Part I: Hollywood versus History

Jobu Tupaki

Alas, another Hollywood film has failed in its primary responsibility of accurately depicting the history of disputes of Catholic philosophy and theology, however oblique its reference to this history. In the film, Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, the movie’s antagonist, Jobu Tupaki, says “For most of our history, we knew the Earth was the center of the universe. We killed and tortured people for saying otherwise.”

Geocentric model of the universe of Eudoxus

She is, of course, referring to the condemnation of Galileo by the Roman Inquisition of the Catholic Church, presumably for professing the heliocentric model of celestial movements, when the geocentric model was the prevailing, seemingly official, view assumed to be correct by Saint Thomas Aquinas in his First Way of proving the existence of God (among other places), following the explicit endorsement of Aristotle (who adopted it from Eudoxus).

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the film makers frustrated our omnibus, ubiquitous and perennial hope that every film, above all, provide theologically and historically accurate content. As I said before: “C’mon! Why do we watch movies if not for accurate references to medieval philosophers and theologians?”

So, just to be clear (here is the Cliff’s notes version of the historical drama):

Galileo Galilei

Galileo was not killed and tortured for saying the Earth was not the center of the universe. He was, of course, treated badly by church officials, but not as badly as is commonly thought.

Nicholas Copernicus

In 1614 Galileo, as a scientist, wrote a popular letter in which he asserted that the sun-centered (Copernican) model is true, that the Bible is not meant to teach science, but Christians should accept the Bible unless proven otherwise by science.

Saint Robert Bellermine

Cardinal Robert Bellarmine investigated Galileo for these claims, and in 1616, instructed him not to demand that the Church reinterpret passages of Scripture which referred to the sun moving (Joshua 10:12-13) and the earth remaining still (Psalm 104:5) because they conflicted with the Copernican (geocentric) model of celestial motions, nor teach the same as true, since the Copernican model had not been empirically verified (which would not definitively happen until the 1830’s when instruments became accurate enough to measure stellar parallax). He had to perform a penance, but was not imprisoned, much less tortured or killed. He went back to his research and writing on the Copernican model as a theory, among other pursuits.

A commission of cardinals did condemn Galileo (in a split decision) as ‘vehemently suspected of heresy’ for publishing in 1630 his Dialogue on Two Great World Systems, which advocated for the Copernican model (based on tides and sun spots) and implied that those who held an alternate theory (as his friend Pope Urban VII did) were simpletons. This, the commission claimed, was in violation of his sentence of 1616, in proof of which it produced a (probably fraudulent) strict order from Bellarmine forbidding any writing or teaching on the subject.

For his sentence, Galileo had to kneel and reject the Copernican theory, recite a penance and accept imprisonment, though the last condition was not imposed. He spent the last nine years of his life under house arrest, cared for by his daughter, a nun, and considered himself a faithful son of the Church to the end.

In 1992, Pope Saint John Paul II apologized for the Church’s role in the whole affair.

As far as I know, no one was ever tortured and killed for saying that the earth was not the center of the universe, though of course people have been for obstinately refusing to recant heretical teachings.

For a somewhat more detailed telling of the story click here.

Despite the historical inaccuracy of this one line in this 2 hour, 19 minute movie, the point Jobu is making offers an interesting take on the history of science and progress and goes to the heart of naturalism as a worldview, and the existential dread that this worldview engenders. The rest of the movie, moreover, offers a surprising, and I think veiled Christian, solution to that dread. I hope to make my case in Part II to this post. Stay tuned.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – Thomist

Today is the US federal holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the primary leaders of the US Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and ’60’s. He led protests and rallies of non-violent civil disobedience across the American South to overturn unjust laws protecting and promoting racial discrimination. Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968 for his beliefs and the success of his activism. As a result of the movement he led, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, ’65 and ’68 were passed into law prohibiting discrimination in employment, the exercise of voting rights, housing and access to education based on caste, creed, sex, race, religion, or nationality.

Of course, it is a stretch to label Dr. King a “Thomist” as he did not research, teach or write predominantly about St. Thomas Aquinas. But in one rather famous bit of writing, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” he does cite St. Thomas’ notion of natural law rather insightfully, and gives, on the one hand, a very illuminating illustration of Thomistic principles, and on the other, a rational justification for civil rights activism and legislation.

During a period of activism and civil disobedience during known as the Birmingham campaign in April 1963, King was jailed for violating a court injunction against protests and demonstrations. He wrote his letter as a response to an open letter from eight white Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faith leaders, A Call for Unity, denouncing King and his direct action or civil disobedience tactics. As he is addressing faith leaders of different traditions to show the justice of his cause and methods, he cites Jewish and Protestant authorities (Martin Buber and Paul Tillich, respectively) in addition to Catholic ones (St. Augustine and St. Thomas).

But his invocation of St. Thomas is both accurate and eloquent. As King says:

I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.

Despite the universality and objective character of the natural law, and the fact that Aquinas asserts that it cannot be forgotten or “abolished from the human heart” (ST I-II, 94, 6), he, nevertheless, recognizes that many people act as though they do not recognize this universal and objective standard of morality since they are inhibited by the influence of concupiscence or other passions, by an error of reasoning, or “by vicious customs and corrupt habits.” Indeed, as the third objection notes, there are whole societies which operate according to laws at variance with the natural law, declaring their departures as “just.” Aquinas responds that such laws abolish only the “secondary precepts of the natural law, against which some legislators have framed certain enactments which are unjust.” (ST 94, 6 ad 3). This nuanced understanding of the natural law, then, provides a standard for judging just and unjust laws. He makes this criterion of just laws explicit when he turns to the origin of human law.

Consequently, every human law has just so much of the nature of law, as it is derived from the law of nature. But if in any point it deflects from the law of nature, it is no longer a law but a perversion of law.”(ST I-II, 95, 2)

Aquinas, thus, seems to grant that whatever judges a system of human laws must stand outside and above that system. The laws of Nazi Germany which prescribed the execution of Jews and dissidents and forbade their protection constituted “crimes against humanity,” not because these laws were in violation of other laws of Germany, or the laws of France or the United States. The reason that the attempted destruction of the Jews was wrong was not even because the whole rest of the world thought it was wrong. The crimes of Nazi Germany could be judged as crimes because they were violations of a law that stands apart from and above the laws of every nation; they were violations of the natural law. Natural law, then, serves as the standard against which we determine whether human positive laws are just or not.

This is the same justification to which King appeals in order to show that segregation laws are unjust: not other laws of Alabama or of the United States, but the natural law as it is founded in human nature. Human nature demands a true sense of equality and dignity, and because segregation laws violate that equality and dignity, they are unjust. Segregation laws clearly diminished the dignity, and thus damage the personality of blacks in Alabama. Interestingly, King asserts that segregation laws were harmful to the white majority, distorting their proper dignity and damaging their personality as well. In both cases, segregation laws are an affront to human dignity, founded as it is in our common human nature.

A Thomistic Coincidence?

I just noticed, after at least 37 years of looking at this image of Saint Thomas Aquinas,

Saint Thomas Aquinas, by Blessed Fra Angelico, cloister of the Convent of San Marco, Florence

that he (or at least Bl. Fra Angelico imagined that he) parted his hair on the right, as do I

which is somewhat uncommon for men (at least in the late 20th and early 21st centuries (don’t know about the 13th)).

Coincidence?

I (and Saint Thomas) think NOT!

I Think Not Coincidence GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
viia Gify

If you follow the link to Summa Theologiae Ia, q. 103, a. 7 ad 2, you will find Saint Thomas arguing, not that some divine plan connects me to him (and all right-hair-parters), but that there are no coincidences at all – that nothing happens by chance as though it were outside of God’s governance.

He makes two points: First, nothing at all comes about by pure chance, as though it occurs without any cause whatever. He argues that chance, indeed, implies order and causality, for what we (normally) mean in saying something happens “by chance” is that it results from two (or more) lines of causality intersecting unexpectedly, as when a farmer digging in his field discovers buried treasure. This is unexpected, but not uncaused, as the pirate who buried it, and the farmer who dug it up, both were causes pursuing their own ends. The ace you need to complete your royal flush appears “by chance,” though, of course, it is the result of the shuffle of the deck, and the cards your opponents drew or didn’t draw, before the deal came to you.

Second, Aquinas makes the point that from God’s perspective, there are no coincidences since there could not be. Nothing is unexpected for Him, since all lines of causality have their source in His creating and sustaining things in existence and in his giving to them whatever causality they have. And He knows and in some sense (permissively or perfectively) directs or governs wherever His creative power extends, which is to everything other than Himself which exists. (See the whole rest of ST Ia, 103 for details.)

But in asking “Coincidence ?” and declaring, “I think NOT,” we mean that there is, in fact, a cause and purpose connecting the common features. Which is, to a theist, of course, true as a matter of general theology; there are no coincidences with God. In this particular case, though, I was tacitly suggesting that our shared hairstyle implies wisdom and grace in common between Saint Thomas and myself, which of course, is the joke. As a matter of personal spirituality, though, we (or at least I) seldom know the particular purpose by which God’s governance brings disparate causes to coincide, though, of course he must have one (ultimately, ad maiorem Dei gloria). (I suppose the similarity in Thomas’s and my hairstyles might serve a divine purpose of prompting me to write this post, which might (improbably) conduce to some particular spiritual benefit someone derives from it.)

If you view posts by atheists and skeptics on the internet, though, it will not be long before you encounter the blithe dismissal of both points Aquinas makes about chance and coincidence. In denying arguments for a Creator, some skeptics merely assert (without evidence (despite their incessant demand for it from theists)) that the universe arose by chance (meaning causelessly), though we don’t normally use the term in that way in other contexts (as Aquinas actually argues for in this text). (I address this point more thoroughly in an argument for a Creator I make elsewhere.)

Likewise, the critic of religion is fond of dismissing miracles as mere coincidences, (though, to be sure, very many occurrences which purport to be “miraculous,” probably are chance intersections of ordinary lines of causality (though still under God’s governance)). The unclaimed change you find in a vending machine coin return, which is the exact amount you need to take the bus to the job interview, can be both a normal coincidence (different lines of causality bringing your need together with its satisfaction) and an act of God’s general providence.

Again, to a theist, there are no coincidences since she already knows that God governs all. To the atheist and skeptic, this is unimpressive; there can only be coincidences, since they already suppose that no wisdom or purpose guides disparate causes. At this general level, if either view were put forth as an argument for or against God as the cause of seemingly chance “miraculous” occurrences, each would pretty obviously be circular and question-begging.

When it comes to reports of particular, shall we say “spectacular,” miracles, though, atheist and skeptics employ this general strategy to deny there could be any supernatural cause for any occurrence, since everything must have an natural explanation, and what seems not to have one, must be mere coincidence. When one considers the details of the spectacular miracles, though, it seems to me at least, that their disbelief simply beggars belief. That is, they will claim that what seems spectacularly miraculous merely happened by chance, with no cause (certainly not a Divine one (even if that is not what chance means)). Or, they might claim that an apparent miracle is the result of an intersection of known (and possibly unknown) ordinary lines of causality. Yet, when examining the details of particular miracles (as those needed for the Catholic Church to declare a person a saint), it is extremely hard to believe (I think) that God did not cause the occurrence in question.

If one looks at the “Miracle of the Sun” at Fatima, for instance, in order to suppose that God did not intervene miraculously in the events of October 13, 1917, one would have to suppose that the rain that had been lasting for hours before the event just happened to stop at the time predicted and that the soaking mud coincidentally became dry dirt in a matter of minutes (leaving aside the spectacular visual experience of tens of thousands of people, including skeptical newspaper reporters, and of people several miles away) without any known – or even plausible – explanation for how that could have happened.

Or, consider the thousands of miracles documented with objective, scientific or medical evidence by credentialed, often secular, professionals, such as two for the canonization of St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta. To deny (or not affirm) Divine intervention, one would have to suppose that patients suffering from life-threatening conditions, suddenly, by some strange coincidence, recovered their health with all traces of their disease having disappeared, against any known – or even plausible – natural explanation.

And yet, some people do fail to assign a Divine cause to such spectacular unnatural occurrences. The hematologist, Jacalyn Duffin, who provided evidence of a miraculous healing through the intercession of Marguerite d’Youville, and who investigated the thousands of miracles linked to above, remained an atheist throughout the process (and presumably still is), simply accepting that the explanations of these events are unknown. I had a student tell me once that she was only there, in my class, because as a child she nearly died of some medical condition, and was miraculously healed due to her parents’ and family’s prayers. Apparently she had been told this all her life, and she believed the events occurred as her parents had always told her, yet she still did not believe God was real (much less the cause of her healing). I thought it remarkable she told me all of this, and held the convictions she did. Apparently, we really are free to decide what we shall believe in the face of what seems to me should be pretty compelling evidence. But then again, I have explained elsewhere how my convictions are not really dependent, or as far as I can tell, shaped by the miraculous or wonderous (other than the marvelous truth that God created everything, and sent His Son to die for my sins, so I might be happy with Him forever).

Whatever evangelical weight the miraculous should have, there are a couple of objections worth considering. For instance, a skeptic or atheist might grant that even if the details of an account of a spectacular miracle were true, it does not show that God is real, since if God did exist and intervene in such extraordinary ways, He would do so more often. I had one student even assert that, while God might perform miracles for some (whom He loved), He must hate all those who do not receive their requested miracle. That seems especially harsh: the Giver of gifts need not hate those who receive none, since no one is due any. But, it fundamentally misses the point about true miracles: if the atheist were right, and there were no God, there should not be any miracles at all. While we might like more, even one true, well-documented miracle disproves the atheist denial of God. Fewer miracles than expected, however, do not disprove God’s existence. It just shifts to the problem of evil, for which there is an answer, though it’s not completely satisfying, for it comes down to the point of Aquinas’ text from the Summa, vis., everything is under God’s governance, because it must be.

The focus on miracles, too, seems to miss a really fundamental fact about God and our relationship to Him. While only He can perform the truly, spectacularly miraculous event (like at Fatima or dramatic healings), He is not in the business of trying to impress us, or fix all our problems. The main thing about religious (or at least Catholic) faith is that God (and the Church as His instrument) are mostly concerned with our eternal destiny, and everything in this life is about preparing for the next. We (I know especially I myself) can become overly concerned about fixing the problems of this life (paying bills, dealing with health issues, or the happiness of friends and family) and expecting God to at least help with this. God does sometimes help, even in spectacular, miraculous ways, but fixing the problem isn’t the main point of the miracles, or even of the problem. Everything in life, even the problems, are here to give us opportunities to love like God loves, which we need his grace to do. The vicissitudes of life can make it hard to remember what the real meaning of life is, and focusing on miracles, or the lack there of, can make that even harder still.

So while it’s certainly no coincidence that Saint Thomas in this portrait by Fra Angelico, and I both part our hair on the right, I don’t think there is some super deep reason for it. It might be truly miraculous, though, that you have read this far. I thank you that you did.

Happy Feast of Saint Pius V

Today is the Feast Day of Pope Saint Pius V. He is the greatest of the four Dominicans to be elected pope.  He reigned as pontiff during one of the most difficult times in the history of the Church.  Known to be a man of great prayer, austerity and zeal for the welfare of Holy Mother Church and the souls entrusted to her care, he was above all, even after being raised to the episcopate and the pontificate, a faithful Dominican friar and one of the Order’s greatest saints.

Saint Pius was born to a poor family in the small village of Bosco in northern Italy, January 17, 1504 and given the name Antonio Ghislieri.  He showed remarkable intellectual aptitude as a boy, but his family was too poor to provide any advanced education.  At the age of twelve, however, two Dominican friars happened through Bosco, and the boy approached them and demonstrated his knowledge, unusually advanced for his age.  With his parents permission, the two friars took him with them for a period of preliminary education and probation for the Novitiate.  He entered the Dominican Order at the age of 15, taking the name Michele, and continued his studies until he was ordained at the age of twenty-four.

Soon after his profession, he was sent to a Provincial Chapter to defend the faith against the then young Lutheran heresy.  Afterward, he served as prior in several convents until finally he was sent as Roman Inquisitor to Como in northern Italy to stop the spread of Protestantism.  There he endeavored to halt the heresy and braved ecclesial and civil opposition and threats of violence to preserve the faith from corruption.

In 1551, he was made Commissary General of the Roman Inquisition.  He visited convicted heretics in prison and sought to convert them through reason and his example of charity.  A famous story told of him at this time concerns Sixtus of Sienna.  Sixtus was a Jewish convert who had entered the Franciscans.  He became a professor of theology but fell into heresy and was subsequently convicted and imprisoned.  He eventually retracted and was released, but again he strayed from orthodoxy.  He was convicted a second time and condemned to death by fire.  Friar Michele visited him and eventually converted him with his persuasion, charity and prayers.  Michele was able to use his influence to arrange for Papal pardon for Sixtus.  He then received Sixtus into the Dominican Order.

When Paul IV became pope in 1555, he made Ghislieri bishop and eventually Cardinal, much to his reluctance and opposition.  Pope Paul also made Ghislieri Grand Inquisitor.  He adopted the religious name Alexandrine, and as Cardinal took as his titular church the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.  He continued to wear his habit and tried to keep to the observances of the Order as much as possible.

Side note: The custom of the pope wearing white is believed to have begun with Pope Saint Pius V, and has continued after his pontificate down to our present day. The current customary daily attire of the pope is not exactly the Dominican habit, but a white version of the simar, the floor length garment worn by bishops; it is similar to the cassock a Catholic priest might wear (which is usually black). The pope also wears a white sash around his waste, and a white shoulder cape called a mozetta. He wears a white zucchetto, the skull-cap also worn by bishops and a pectoral cross, another sign of his office as a bishop, the bishop of Rome.

In 1565 Michele, or Cardinal Alexandrine, was elected pope mostly due to the influence of St. Charles Borromeo.  He protested his election with many tears, but the conclave finally prevailed upon him to accept.  As pope he faced one of the most troubled times in the history of the Church: in Rome and the Papal States there was widespread corruption and disorder, in America to the West there were problems with the missions and colonists, the Church was in a state of decline and badly needed reform, in the North there was the Reformation and the persecution of Catholics in England, and finally to East there was the threat of a European invasion by the Ottoman Empire.

Pope Pius V had to deal with the problems over which he had direct temporal control and those in the New World.  He set about to reform the decadent lives of the Roman citizens and the rampant banditry in the Papal states.  Within a year of his accession, he had purged his domains of the worst of its vices.  In America, the Spanish colonists were treating the natives with severe cruelty and injustice.  He appealed to temporal leaders to correct these crimes for the sake of sheer human dignity and proper Christian conduct and because of the problems they were creating in missionizing efforts.

In religious matters he had to contend with both Protestantism and Church reform.  In regards to the Protestants, he is best remembered for having excommunicated Elizabeth I of England with the Papal bull Regnans in Excelsis in 1570.  Remembering the compassion and mercy he showed as Commissary General, it seems likely he was driven to this extreme action as remedy to call her and her subjects to repentance, not as a punishment.  He issued the bull only after the persecutions in England reached unprecedented cruelty.  It unfortunately had the effect of causing resentment among the British rather than resulting in Elizabeth’s reconciliation.

Pius also implemented the sweeping reforms mandated by the Council of Trent.  He promoted seminaries for the education of priests.  He published a universal Roman rite of the Breviary (in 1568) and Missal (Tridentine rite in 1570) while preserving those rites with a 200 or more year history. (Notable among such is the Dominican rite, still sometimes celebrated by priests of the Order).  He also fought vehemently among ecclesial circles against Nepotism and Absenteeism. In 1567, he declared his Dominican brother, Saint Thomas Aquinas a Doctor of the Church and established his feast day as equal to those of the four great Latin Fathers of the Church: Sts. Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, Jerome and Gregory.

His greatest contribution to Western civilization, however, was the halting of the invasion of Europe by the Ottoman Empire.  Seeing the threat posed by the Turks, Pius sought to unite the Catholics nations in an alliance named the Holy League.  He was only able to unite Venice, Rome and Spain against the Eastern menace.  These three powers assembled a fleet of about 200 ships to meet Turkish fleet of 300 ships.  Supported by a rosary crusade as well as other spiritual aids, the Christian fleet met the Turks at Leponto on October 7, 1571 under the command of Don Juan of Austria.  The Christian fleet won the battle, which began the slow decline of the Ottoman Empire. 

The pope was given a vision of the victory the exact hour that it occurred.  As a result, he instituted the feast of Our Lady of Victories that was ultimately changed to Our Lady of the Rosary (October 7th) or Rosary Sunday (the first Sunday in October).

Pope Saint Pius V died a few months after the victory at Leponto, on May 1, 1572.  His feast day is April 30.  His undying fidelity to the Church and her faith and his constant zeal are certainly inspirational.  Despite all his honors, he was always a humble Dominican friar.

Happy Non-Feast Day of Saint Thomas Aquinas

I noted on the actual — that is to say, observed (by the Holy Church of Rome) — Feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas on January 28, 2022 and 2021, that that date is not the one on which the Angelic Doctor entered upon his eternal reward, but the date when his relics were transferred from the Cistercian monastery of Fossanova in Italy, to the Dominican convent in Toulouse, France. The date of his death is today, March 7, and until the reform of the General Roman Calendar after the Second Vatican Council, this was the day on which the Universal Church celebrated his Feast Day and Sainthood. In 1969, Pope Paul VI issued a reformed calendar of saints’ feasts and moved that of Saint Thomas (among others), it is believed, to allow Lent to retain a more penitential tone without being interrupted by the celebration so many saints, especially that of so important a Doctor of the Church. In turn, this allowed Thomas’s feast to be celebrated apart from the penitential air of Lent.

I think there are some Catholics and devotees of Saint Thomas who consider March 8 to be the real Feast Day of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and continue to celebrate it, even though it falls in Lent, and even though the pope moved it to February 28 over 50 years ago. But Saint Thomas himself was ever the faithful son of the Church, and would have, and indeed did, defend the prerogative of the Church to set the celebration of feasts, as these are not Divine institutions and actual instruments of grace as the Sacraments are. As such, they are left to the discretion of the Church.

But in the sacred things [wherein] no grace is given: for instance, in the consecration of a temple, an altar or the like, or, again, in the celebration of feasts. Wherefore Our Lord left the institution of such things to the discretion of the faithful, since they have not of themselves any necessary connection with inward grace.

Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 108, a. 2 ad 2, emphasis added.

It is, I believe, good to be dispensed from penitential practices on Feasts and Solemnities during Lent, as we do for the Solemnities of Saint Joseph and the Annunciation, when we even go so far as to use the regular Gospel acclamation (the A-word) and sing the Gloria at Mass, for these feasts remind us of God’s mercy and the joy of heaven to which we are called, and for which the penances of Lent are meant to prepare us.

Nevertheless, I encourage you to redouble your Lenten sacrifices on this non-feast day of Saint Thomas, and practice extra mortification as an act of obedience and fidelity to the liturgical authority of the Holy See to institute and move the celebration of feasts. It’s what Saint Thomas would want, I believe.

Unless, of course, you have a special devotion to Saints Perpetua and Felicity, whose optional memorial is celebrated on March 7. Then, rejoice with those saint.

TMC Catholic Apologetics Now Live!

Over the years I have produced a lot of content explaining the reasons for Catholic hope (1 Peter 3:15), which I presented in videos, blog posts, philosophical web pages, class notes or in good, ol’ fashion, print material. A curious public wishing to find this content scattered across various and disparate media can now be satisfied in their anguished quest, for much of it is now available on one web page, TMC Catholic Apologetics, with more exciting Catholic, Christian and theist apologetic content to come.

The collection contains all your favorite classics like, “Catholics and the Bible” and “Are Catholics Saved?“. Plus, the page features new favorites, like “Does God’s Omniscience Mean There Is No Free Will?” and “Will There Be a Rapture?“. The essays will be updated frequently with all the latest-breaking innovations in God-related explanations and cutting-edge Catholic clarifications. Readers will want to check back often to find out the most up-to-date, trailblazing advances in information and insights into an eternal God and a 2,000 year-old Church. Exciting developments are always afoot!

Nor, does the collection shy away from contentious topics as “Can Non-Believers Go to Heaven?” and the Anointing of the Sick. Future additions will cover similarly controversial questions, such as “Why Can’t Women Be Priests?” and “Why Do Catholics Fast (and Do Other Acts of Self-Denial)?” and “Why Does the Pope Wear White?” No Catholic belief or practice is beyond thoughtful and honest treatment. Readers might not always agree with the teachings presented, but every effort will be made to “do it with gentleness and reverence,” (1 Peter 3:16), remaining faithful to God’s revelation and the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.

Visitors are also able and encouraged to submit their own questions and comments for expert treatment from the site’s resident philosopher, theologian and all-around pedant.

Check it out, TODAY!!!!

Happy Feast of Fra Angelico/Blessed John of Fiesole, OP (belated)

From this Facebook post by the friars of the Western Dominican Province, I just learned that yesterday, February 18, was the feast day of one of my favorite artists and Dominican saints and blesseds, Fra Angelico, or Blessed John of Fiesole. Bl. John was born in 1395 and died on yesterday’s date 1455. In his ministry as a Dominican friar and priest, he preached with color and brush, and became a master of the early renaissance who incorporated perspective and proportion into his work, innovating naturalism and realism in Western Art.

An early portrait of Saint Thomas Aquinas by Bl. Fra Angelico in Museo di San Marco in Florence
The Mocking of Christ

He painted many portraits of Saint Dominic and Saint Thomas Aquinas, or incorporated them among the saints in attendance in his Biblical or theological frescos which he painted in the friars’ cells in the Dominican convent of San Marco in Florence.

I was excited to visit the Museo di San Marco for the first time in 2018 and to see the paintings that I have come to know from my time in the Dominican Order. I did not realize, however, that almost all of Fra Angelico’s work was painted into the convent as frescos, and so I was not prepared to see all at once two of the works most important to me, personally, to be in the cloister garden of the friary.


As soon as one enters the cloister after entering the museum, one immediately encounters the fresco of Saint Dominic contemplating the Crucifixion. I was given a post card of this fresco when I was a novice with the Dominicans, and I kept it displayed on my desk through out my years in seminary and later in graduate school, often contemplating it while studying (or idling when I was supposed to be studying). To see the larger-than-life painting on the wall of the cloister was quite overwhelming.


Also in the cloister is a portrait fresco of Saint Thomas Aquinas that is quite famous and which I use as the sort of logo of the Thomistic Philosophy Page. This image also accompanied my in my studies. Some years into my graduate studies, my uncle who was a priest, Msgr. William Magee, willed to me some of his personal effects when he died, among them a wooden statue of Saint Thomas he had acquired in Rome when he studied at the Angelicum as a young priest, and a framed copy of the portrait of Saint Thomas.

Again, to see it there adorning a space above a door out of the cloister was quite unexpected, and a little unnerving. I’m not sure where I thought these images were supposed to be, but in San Marco, Fra Angelico’s work is everywhere. I was delighted to be there, and tried to spend time contemplating all of the works, but like most museums, it can be pretty overwhelming. I certainly spent more time with Bl. John’s painting than my wife was ready to, and when we returned in 2019, she had had quite enough of San Marco, and by the end of that trip, enough of Florence.


Tomb of Blessed John of Fiosole in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva

I include below a few of my favorite images of Fra Angelico I took on our two trips to Florence including this one of his tomb I literally stumbled upon in the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, near the Pantheon.


One of my favorites, Madonna and Child with Saints. I especially like St. Dominic on the left engaging the viewer with his gaze. Quite ahead of his time.
This cat was not painted by Fra Angelico, but is in the detail of a Last Supper in the refectory of the convent. It was the high-point of the visit for my wife.
Noli me tangere. “Do not cling to me.” Christ to Mary Magdalen after the Resurrection.
Who says Dominicans and Franciscans never get along?