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

Old Testament Adventures: Josiah’s Failure

Why isn’t Josiah the greatest of all the kings of Israel?

Sure, David is the gold standard by which all future kings are judged.  They either walk in the ways of David their father or (much more commonly) they do not.  He writes the psalms, the prayer-book of the people of Israel, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  He brings the ark to Jerusalem and attempts to build God a temple, which leads to God making him a covenant mediator on par with Abraham and Moses.  None of this even touches upon the countless stories of his great personal faith in God.

But then again he has epic failures.  No other king has so much ink devoted to them, and quite a bit of that ink draws an unflattering portrait.  He multiplies wives.  He massacres the blind and lame of Jerusalem in response to a taunt.  He rapes a woman and murders her husband, one of his own trusted warriors, to make her his own.  And that’s not even the worst one!  He brings down a curse of death upon the people of Israel through the taking of the census against God’s command.  So at a minimum Josiah compares quite favorably to David by what he doesn’t do; there are no epic failures counter-balancing his greatest accomplishments. Continue reading Old Testament Adventures: Josiah’s Failure

Old Testament Adventures: Elisha’s Death

As Elisha nears the final hour of his life, we get this perplexing scene in II Kings 13:

14 Now when Elisha had fallen sick with the illness of which he was to die, Joash king of Israel went down to him, and wept before him, crying, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” 15 And Elisha said to him, “Take a bow and arrows”; so he took a bow and arrows. 16 Then he said to the king of Israel, “Draw the bow”; and he drew it. And Elisha laid his hands upon the king’s hands. 17 And he said, “Open the window eastward”; and he opened it. Then Elisha said, “Shoot”; and he shot. And he said, “The LORD’s arrow of victory, the arrow of victory over Syria! For you shall fight the Syrians in Aphek until you have made an end of them.” 18 And he said, “Take the arrows”; and he took them. And he said to the king of Israel, “Strike the ground with them”; and he struck three times, and stopped. 19 Then the man of God was angry with him, and said, “You should have struck five or six times; then you would have struck down Syria until you had made an end of it, but now you will strike down Syria only three times.”

What a horrible old man that Elisha must have been!  A grieving king comes to him in his final hour, full of filial devotion for this departing holy man, and instead he gets yelled at and blamed for Israel’s future ills because he didn’t correctly read Elisha’s mind?  How awful!

Just kidding.  What, do you people not read the whole Bible or something? Continue reading Old Testament Adventures: Elisha’s Death

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