Teaching in tempore Coronae

Just as I was getting my sea-legs back for writing on a regular basis, the teaching world was turned upside down.  Probably the last thing the world needs these days is another take on how the coronavirus has changed things, especially in the world of education, but I tilt at windmills.

I think from the teacher-side of things, the most important thing to say about quarantine and distance learning is this: no one, and I mean no one, got into the teaching business so they could be an Internet Content Creator.  People become teachers for a lot of different reasons, some good and some bad, but I don’t think that “I’ve always wanted to crank out YouTube videos and conference on Zoom all day” makes the list.

I will be curious to see, especially if the shutdown continues to drag on through the coming academic year, just how many people quit the profession.  Whether that’s younger people quickly disillusioned or older people who can no longer learn new tricks, I think we’ll see some serious fallout as the shutdown stretches on.  The learning experience in this temporary solution will be less than stellar.  Just what that exposes about school and learning, and what lessons we draw from it, remains to be seen.

That’s not to say no one will be good at it.  People are adaptable and some teachers will find that content creation is actually fun, or at least challenging and rewarding.  Some will fight hard to preserve the old way of doing things as best they can and some will happily embrace the new world of learning.  But I think it’s important to realize that creating online content is difficult and that no teachers are properly trained for it.

Whether all that will be part of the drive to return to on-site learning or whether it helps forge the new world order in education remains to be seen.  A lot depends on just how long this will drag on.  Not only is that unknown, it’s also going to vary quite a bit by jurisdiction.

The unknowns and unknowables about the coming months means that teachers–the ones who are inclined to prepare, anyway–are preparing for more distance learning for the foreseeable future.  In my case, that means (among other things) creating videos of all my basic lecture content on YouTube.  I’ve always been afraid of real Dominicans finding out what I say about the Summa or real philosophers finding out what I say about Plato or Aristotle or the meaning of life, but the time has come to laugh at those fears and realize that, most likely, only students will ever see these videos.  YouTube is a big place, after all, and there is plenty to distract us in this online world.

And so, while I very much hope to return to writing some day soon, my life has been consumed these last few months with the new normal of a perpetually-online teaching life.  Once I have a good head start on all my lectures, I hope that I find time and pressure to write again–perhaps to better explain my teaching!  But recording lectures takes an enormous amount of preparation, time, and energy.  Never again will I laugh at people who make their living creating content for consumption on the internet; it is, indeed, real work.  So this, I suppose, is some kind of self-apologia for the end (?) of my blogging and an invitation, if anyone reads these pages with profit, to follow my creative work on YouTube for the near future.  I would always be interested in critical feedback (and of course, slam that like and subscribe!).

I personally look forward to a complete restructuring of the world in which we live and so I find all this more exciting than distressing.  And it turns out I like being online and creating content in a variety of ways.  I told my parents when I was 12 that I wanted to be a professional video game player, even knowing at the time that such was impossible.  It turns out, of course, that I was simply born too soon and that it is a profession nowadays.  But my teaching career and my video game longings have apparently served me well: I have been training all my life, it seems, to be an online teacher.

Sacrifice and Sanctity

One of my pet peeves is the way people throw around the word “holy” to mean a lot of things other than what the word historically means.  Sometimes when word-use shifts you just have to shift with it; thems the breaks in the evolution of language.  Sometimes it’s worth the effort of preserving the older usage alongside the new one and recognizing which one you are facing in any given context.  But sometimes, if the word and its concept matter enough, you just have to draw a line in the sand and say “No further!” and break your little ships if people try to take liberties with the word.

“Holy” is one of those latter words.

I think that the erosion of the meaning of the word “holy” has been a disaster for thinking seriously about the meaning of life and religious matters.  I go out of my way to teach a basic sense of the word to my younger students and always resolve to find more ways to use the concept with my older students.  I have occasionally alluded to the correct use of this word in some of my older posts, but I have never set down a full account of what I take to be the essential features of the concept of “holy.”  Let’s remedy that. Continue reading Sacrifice and Sanctity

Sacrifice, Gift, Liturgy

Another way to look at the religious act of sacrifice is to see it in relation to gift-giving.

“Gift” in English typically has the connotation of freely-given, something not given in payment of some debt.  In light of my previous post on sacrifice, that would making gifting and sacrificing two different modes of giving.  Sacrifices are things given to God (or, more broadly, the gods) because we owe a debt of worship; gifts are given in a superabundant act of generosity or love.*

The asymmetry of the God-human relationship I discussed in the previous post extends to this gift-sacrifice distinction.  God can never owe anything and creates all that is in a superabundant act of love; He can only give gifts.  Humans can never truly own anything of their own to gift to God; humans can only give sacrifices.  God gives; we sacrifice. Continue reading Sacrifice, Gift, Liturgy

Debt, Worship, Sacrifice

Let’s reinvent the wheel a little bit.  By the end of this we will have come back around to a very common, very basic doctrine of the Catholic Church.  In writing this I have in mind primarily my students, for whom connecting all the things we teach is usually very difficult.


We begin with justice, the repaying of debts that we owe.  Among all the different kinds of justice-relations we can find ourselves in, the just person above all recognizes that there are some debts that can never be properly repaid.  To be truly just is to attempt to repay those debts anyway, even knowing that it will never really be done.

By way of introductory example, consider the case of one person saving another person’s life.  It doesn’t seem strange to imagine a person feeling that they could never repay their savior, but that they would in any event constantly strive to do so.  Just because “thanks” or “a check for a million dollars” doesn’t seem to cover the debt doesn’t mean we should do nothing.  It’s not hard to imagine the indebted party gladly doing good for their savior in a variety of ways, hoping that some day they could reciprocate in some genuine way.  Anyone who shrugged and ceased to care about their debt because of the inadequacy of their efforts would be wicked. Continue reading Debt, Worship, Sacrifice

Theological Virtues

Brandon has a thoughtful piece on the virtue of hope which I enjoyed very much and yet with which I find myself in several points of disagreement.  Much as I typically agree with Brandon, that I might disagree on a few points here is no surprise: the nature of the theological virtues and their relation to the other virtues is notoriously problematic.  Perhaps putting down my own thoughts on the matter can mark a return to active blogging!

Caution: what follows is my idiosyncratic attempt to re-invent the wheel.  It is not really a proper response to Brandon either, more of a set of counter-thoughts inspired by him (much like his original post with respect to the article, I think).  Caveat lector. Continue reading Theological Virtues

Rhomphaia in the New Testament

Remember when I was playing with biblical weaponry and speculated on a muddy, probably-impossible-to-prove distinction between rhomphaia and machaira as divine and human swords, respectively?  You have suggestive uses like the cherubim wielding a rhomphaia to keep people out of the garden; you have an explicit contrast in Ezekiel’s doom against Egypt between the machaira Pharaoh wields and the rhomphaia God will give to Babylon; but mostly you have an unclear mixture of the two throughout the Old Testament.  It feels to me like there’s an idea lurking behind it all but much too obscure and inconsistent to do much with it.

Well, enter the New Testament.

New Testament authors refer to swords 36 times and there is a very strong pattern indeed.  Here’s a quick list, with commentary to follow. Continue reading Rhomphaia in the New Testament

Biblical Weaponry

[This is an old draft I want to push out, warts and all, so that I can riff off of it with another post coming up.  It’s verrry imperfect but hopefully amusing.  This investigation is what inspired me to write my post on the Septuagint and the Masoretic text two years ago.]

You know who likes ancient weapons?  This guy.

Trying to get a handle on the use of framea for spear in the Vulgate sent me down a rabbit hole of Biblical word studies for naming all the different tools you can use to kill people.  There’s quite a tangled web of words and strange choices by biblical authors.

I’m no closer to being an archaeo-armorer, but I can share the fruit of my paltry labors.  Think of it as another “how to say ‘tree‘” post, but with gore this time. Continue reading Biblical Weaponry

Aquinas Against the Death Penalty

The most crushing objection I’ve ever seen against the use of the death penalty is given by St. Thomas Aquinas as the first objection in ST II-II Q64 a2.  Let’s marvel at the objection for a bit and then look at how Aquinas responds.

In the Summa Theologiae, very often the first objection of an article is the conclusion of a previous article.  You might think of these as consistency objections, or an introduction to further refining a point.  “But wait a minute, you just said…” in the most annoying student voice you can muster.

On the other hand there are many objections which are just very intuitively powerful or insightful.  Reading the really great objections, being rocked on your heels, finally seeing the problem, really seeing it for the first time–these are perhaps the greatest the pleasures of reading St. Thomas.

The first objection against the use of death as a penalty is one of these, but with a bit of a twist: it’s a quotation from Sacred Scripture.  Why is that weird?  Well, very often I find his Scriptural objections fairly week or formulaic, or at least a bit of an interpretive strain to see how it really works as an objection.  There are exceptions of course, but I usually steer my students away from these so they can focus more on the main argument.

Well this is definitely one of the exceptions.  I’m not sure Aquinas ever gives a Scriptural citation with as much power as this one.  For those who know the reference, you probably don’t even need to see the text or have it explained to realize the problem for someone inclined to argue in support of the death penalty.  It is the famous parable of the wheat and the tares from the thirteenth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel.

The text, si placeat: Continue reading Aquinas Against the Death Penalty

Christ and the Alien

Pretty soon my students will be asking me questions about how aliens from other planets factor into the economy of salvation.  No, seriously.  It’s one of the most common questions I face throughout the spring semester as we talk about human nature, Original Sin, and Christ’s saving work.

I first encountered this line of worry in my college metaphysics class, taught at Franciscan University by the most fittingly eccentric metaphysics professor one could ever hope to have.  Naturally, it was the delightfully weird professor himself who brought it up; I’ve been fascinated ever since.  What follows is roughly how I walk my students through the issue when they ask.

First thing’s first: despite the wonders of imagining, despite the fact that I myself am a sci-fi and fantasy nerd who hopes that all such enchanting things are real, despite the fact that pop science remains committed to it, it really must be said that there might not be any other rational creatures in the universe.  Maybe the universe really is just vast and beautiful so that we can marvel at it and never travel to see any of it.  I don’t really want that to be true but it’s worth considering.  More to our point here, maybe the universe is teeming with bizarro aliens but none of them are rational creatures.  The only way the alien question becomes theologically interesting is if there are Predators or Klingons or Goa’uld or whatever out there.

Listen, Catholics already believe in the existence of non-human rational creatures.  If you ask Aquinas, there’s like billions of species of them out there.  We call them angels.  There doesn’t seem to be any requirement that all rational creatures in the universe share biological descent.  Getting weirded out by Necromongers seems a little silly at that point. And yes, I’m going to keep flashing my nerd cred until someone is impressed. Continue reading Christ and the Alien

How Tall Are You?

I believe I’ve noticed for the first time a way in which modern English preserves a distinction between adjectives used attributively or predicatively.  What’s that you say?  Such terms never featured in your grammar education?  How appalling!

One of the basic things you have to learn about adjectives in ancient Greek is when the adjective is simply modifying a noun (attributive) and when it is serving as a predicate (predicative).  No big deal.  In Greek the adjectives have the same morphology but are placed differently relative to the noun and the definite article.

Generally English doesn’t have nearly the same synthetic features that ancient languages do, and so it’s always fun (well, my kind of fun) to see where English still conjugates verbs (ever so slightly) or declines nouns (pronouns, relative pronouns), and the like.

At the lunch counter my Hispanic friend asked why some Anglos say “four foot, five inches” and others say “four feet, five inches.”  After making a joke about one foot, two foot, three foot, four foot…, I decided to try to work out a rule.  Bonus: when I posed the question about the rule to some of my students, one of them quickly worked it out on his own.  So I must be right!

The rule: Units of measurement are “always” in the singular when used attributively; i.e., as an adjective simply modifying a noun.  Units of measurement are “always” in the plural when used predicatively; i.e., when serving as the predicate of a sentence or clause.

Example 1:

I bought a twenty-five foot length of rope at the store.

The rope is twenty-five feet long.

Example 2:

This twenty-pound baby is breaking my back.

My son weighs twenty pounds or more.

Example 3:

Please hand me the 100 cubic centimeter flask.

The flask holds 100 cubic centimeters of liquid.

And so on.  I’m pretty sure this rule applies to all units of measurement but is applied inconsistently when it comes to measuring the height of a person.  Lots of people tend to one usage or the other when it comes to measuring humans, and lots of people freely shift between the two usages.  But otherwise, I claim my rule is sound.

And sure, I probably could have looked this up in a textbook for teaching English to non-native speakers.  But what’s the fun in that?