Monday, 3 July 2017

Toomas Karmo: Further to Mr Kaller: Three Theological Shocks

Quality assessment:

On the 5-point scale current in Estonia, and surely in nearby nations, and familiar to observers of the academic arrangements of the late, unlamented, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (applying the easy and lax standards Kmo deploys in his grubby imaginary "Aleksandr Stepanovitsh Popovi nimeline sangarliku raadio instituut" (the "Alexandr Stepanovitch Popov Institute of Heroic Radio") and his  grubby imaginary "Nikolai Ivanovitsh Lobatshevski nimeline sotsalitsliku matemaatika instituut" (the "Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky Institute of Socialist Mathematics") - where, on the lax and easy grading philosophy of the twin Institutes, 1/5 is "epic fail", 2/5 is "failure not so disastrous as to be epic", 3/5 is "mediocre pass", 4/5 is "good", and 5/5 is "excellent"): 4/5. Justification: There was enough time to write out the  necessary points to reasonable length.

Revision history:

All times in these blog "revision histories" are stated in UTC (Universal Coordinated Time/ Temps Universel Coordon√©,  a precisification of the old GMT, or "Greenwich Mean Time"), in the ISO-prescribed YYYYMMDDThhmmZ timestamping format. UTC currently leads Toronto civil time by 4 hours and currently lags Tallinn civil time by 3 hours.

  • 20170705T1457Z/version 3.1.0: Kmo corrected a thoroughly embarrassing error regarding the Office of the Hours. (He had thought, as a layman who has not ventured beyond Laudes Matitutinae, Hora Vespera, and Completorium, that the present canonical schedule is eightfold, when in fact it is sevenfold - with the pre-Vatican II  "Prime" now excised.) - Kmo slightly improved his reference to ancient (pre-Roman) scriptural redactors, by writing of "pasting-together". - Kmo somewhat expanded  his questions for the author of - Kmo reserved the right to make further tiny, purely cosmetic, nonsubstantive tweaks over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 3.1.1, 3.1.2, 3.1.3, ... . 
  • 20170704T2042Z/version 3.0.0: Kmo finished converting an undisplayed upgrade of his displayed "version 2.0.0" point-form outline into full-sentences prose. He was now about to start polishing his "version 3.0.0". He reserved the right to make tiny, purely cosmetic, nonsubstantive tweaks over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 3.0.1, 3.0.2, 3.0.3, ... . 
  • 20170704T0341Z/version 2.0.0: Kmo uploaded a much-polished point-form outline. 
  • 20170704T0001Z/version 1.0.0: Kmo uploaded a point-form outline which was itself not correctly polished. He hoped to continue working on this essay over the coming 3 or 4 hours, improving the point-form outline and converting at least part of it into full-sentences prose. He feared he might have to finish the full-sentences-prose part of his work later still, perhaps around 20170704T1700Z.

[CAUTION: A bug in the blogger server-side software has in some past weeks shown a propensity to insert inappropriate whitespace at some points in some of my posted essays. If a screen seems to end in empty space, keep scrolling down. The end of the posting is not reached until the usual blogger "Posted by Toomas (Tom) Karmo at" appears. - The blogger software has also shown a propensity to generate HTML that gets formatted in different ways on different client-side browsers, perhaps with some browsers not correctly reading in the entirety of the "Cascading Style Sheets"  (CSS) which on all ordinary Web servers control the browser placement of margins, sidebars, and the like. If you suspect CSS problems in your particular browser, be patient: it is probable that while some content has been shoved into some odd place (for instance, down to the bottom of your browser, where it ought to appear in the right-hand margin), all the server content has been pushed down into your browser in some place or other. - Finally, there may be blogger vagaries, outside my control, in font sizing or interlinear spacing. - Anyone inclined to help with trouble-shooting, or to offer other kinds of technical advice, is welcome to write me via]

Last week, I reprinted, with Eire-based journalist Brian Kaller's kind permission, Mr Kaller's essay "The Past is a Foreign Country". This was originally published two or three or so weeks ago, at

Mr Kaller urges our reconnecting with our cultural roots. A large part of Mr Kaller's desired reconnection, indeed in the view of many (myself included) a part central to Mr Kaller's aim, is a reconnecting with our spiritual traditions. 

Mr Kaller and I both write as Catholics. These days, people everywhere have their hilarious stories of inauthentic spirituality. I refrain, even in mirth, from pointing fingers at the Protestant Christian (post-1500) world, at the New Age (post-1960) world, or at other faith traditions postdating the fall of Imperial Rome. I instead confine myself to Catholicism.

Catholicism is an intercontinental way of life equally familiar to Mr Kaller and to me, and familiar also to many in our respective readerships. Catholicism might be said to go back to a Passover Seder (or perhaps, depending on how you read the Gospel of John, to a mere Seder-like meal, within Passover Week) from between A.D. 32 and A.D. 34. This makes Catholicism older than most of the theological traditions nowadays on offer - excepting, of course, the still-more-venerable Judaism from which Catholicism sprang. Catholicism has, on the other hand, been sorely buffeted over the generations, including our own.

The story I am about to relate rings reasonably true to my impressions of Ontario Catholicism. It sounds, to my ears, reasonably believable, even though a hasty Google fact-checking effort in the afternoon of 2017-07-03 bore me no fruit:

The year is 1975 or so. An Ontario parish is approaching the culmination of its Mass, with the Victim now present in Paten and Chalice under the respective forms of bread and wine. The approach is being made in a spirit of Vatican II liturgical "updating". [However ill-instructed this particular parish might have been, I cannot believe it would actually have stepped into heresy or schism through an outright denial of the "Real Presence" Eucharistic teaching.] As the People of God step forward for Eucharist, the choir launches into song. Their song stands far from Gregorian chant, or even from earnest prewar Anglo-Saxon Catholic-cum-Anglican-cum-Presbyterian-cum-Methodist hymnody. And yet it is familiar enough from the Canadian stage or the Canadian screen. [Although I have not myself seen the film, I do know the tune from radio.] So I imagine lots of people, as they step forward for the Eucharist that is supposed to be the apex of their week, are kinda-sorta pleased: 

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go

To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star

[and so on, and so on]

What can we do, in our own private efforts as individual lay Catholics, for reconnection with cultural roots - especially in the face of such unbearably, and tragically, comic vulgarity? It is necessary to read our New Testaments - notably our Gospels and our Paul - intelligently, informing ourselves on their historical context. This means venturing, in as serious and thorough a way as may prove feasible for us in our particular individual circumstances, into the Old Testament. At all points in our (perhaps modest) Hebrew explorations, we shall have to be mindful firstly that the Gospels were in part written for readerships versed in the canonical Hebrew books, and secondly that Paul was himself a professed theologian, of formidable Pharisee-faction credentials.

The Old Testament is in any case (quite apart from our urgent contemporary Catholic need to read it) gripping at the level of secular literature. Its fascination outclasses even the powerful pull of Virgil, Caesar, and Cicero. With those great Romans, we are spending pleasant hours inspecting dried, meticulously arranged, blossoms, on the heavy paper sheets of a herbarium. With the Old Testament, on the other hand, we are outdoors, in rain and wind and sun, intent on field botany. I do not denigrate Latin literature. And yet how much truer to Real Life - how much more like a thing written by some creative Facebooker or blogger this very morning - is that chaotic little library we call the Old Testament!

I do write "chaotic" and "library" advisedly. The chaos comes from violent ancient pastings-together (and perhaps even cuttings-out) before the text assumed the carefully conserved form we find in our official Bibles (and which the philology professors have found also, to everyone's relief, in the big ceramic jars at Qumran, greatly though Qumran does antedate the conventionally received manuscripts). Persons desiring an impression of the violent ancient pastings-together have only to ponder the two strains present in the Genesis creation-of-humans narrative - how did Eve get made? -  by (for instance) glancing at footnotes in that Catholic-student workhorse which is the New Jerusalem Bible.

As for "library": this, not "book" in the singular, is the term needed for a collection so bulky, and also so varied in literary genres, styles-within-genre, and periods of composition. One must on no account get misled by our modern printing technology, which - wisely enough forsaking the scrolls, baskets, and jars of our encumbered remote forefathers - compresses the whole collection between a single pair of covers, through setting type densely onto some hundreds of pages.

The Trueness to Life comes despite - or rather, in some ways comes despite, in other ways comes because of - that so-exotic little library's atavistic, Epic-of-Beowulf, Kalevala-and-Kalevipoeg, attachment to the fabulous and grotesque. As the troubled history of Estonia, with 1944 exile and disapora and post-1991 homecoming, is only a shadow of the Major Thing - the history of Jewish suffering from the successive destructions of the Divided Kingdoms up to the happier modern days of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion - so also our Fenno-Ugric narrative pragmatisms and extravagances pale in comparison with that exotic little library. I will cite a few examples, paraphrasing from memory or quoting from the New Jerusalem Bible, and perhaps stressing more the pragmatic than the (so easily found) extravagant:

  • Before the Twelve Tribes have kings, they have "Judges", who [so I gather] combine the modern functions of counsellor and arbitrator. Hebrew society is patriarchal to the core. And yet, writes Judges 4:4,5: "Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel /.../. She used to sit under Deborah's Palm between Ramah and Bethel in the highlands of Ephraim, and the Israelites would come to her for justice."
  • The attributes of a Practical Wife, some centuries after Deborah, are seen by the poet-author of Proverbs 31 to include skills in real estate, not to mention the possession of a certain sway within the municipality: "She gets up while it is still dark/ giving her household their food,/  giving orders to her serving girls.// She sets her mind on a field, then she buys it;/ with what her hands have earned she plants a vineyard./.../ She holds out her hands to the poor,/she opens her arms to the needy.// Snow may come, she has no fears for her household,/with all her servants warmly clothed.// She makes her own quilts,/ she is dressed in fine linen and purple.// Her husband is respected at the city gates,/ Taking his seat among the elders of the land."
  • Military trouble: one or more of the Twelve Tribes convert the X People to the Hebrew faith (for some value of "X", which of course I forget), and impose the requisite circumcision, and then hack the X People to bits while they are still in pain from their so-elective surgery.
  • The Chomsky-like or Solzhenitsyn-like Ezekiel is commanded on Divine authority to bake bread from wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and spelt, and to eat it lying on his side for 390 days: "Of this food, you are to weigh out a daily portion of twenty shekels and eat it a little piece at a time." The awkward proceeding is to be a testimony against Ezekiel's faithless people, for "this is how the Israelites will have to eat their defiled food, wherever I disperse them among the nations." [Well, actually, unlike Chomsky and Solzhenitsyn, Ezekiel is the social critic who does stuff in mime, as an ancient Marcel Marceau. Today's seminary professors, I gather, find his Hebrew prose style drab, in contrast with the majesty of Isaiah. But being strong in mime does count for much.] "You are to eat this bread in the form of a barley cake baked where they can see you, on human dung. /.../ I then said, Lord [DIVINE-NAME], my soul is not defiled. From my childhood until now, I have never eaten an animal that has died a natural death or been savaged; no tainted meat has ever entered my mouth. 'Very well,' he said, 'I grant you cow-dung instead of human dung; you are to bake your bread on that.'" 
If one had to compose a publisher's blurb for this astounding bookshelf, one could perhaps write, "Real People, Doing Real Things". So, I repeat, it is a good idea to learn Hebrew - certainly from the standpoint of Catholicism, but even from the standpoint of being in a secular sense instructed.

At the moment, I am about halfway through my seminary-level textbook, Gary Pratico's and Miles Van Pelt's Basics of Biblical Hebrew. I have covered essentially all elements of noun-adjective-pronoun syntax - the hard-to-remember vowel changes such as "Propretronic Reduction" (some long vowels become short when their nouns, through acquiring suffixes, leave the problematic vowel too far from the vowel that carries the stress), the "Compensatory Lengthening", the charming little Daghesh-Forte dot that goes with the definite article often-but-not-always, the "Construct Chain", and so on. (The extravagantly Levantine flavour of this philology might be conveyed by taking a Pratico-and-Van Pelt "Construct Chain" example from Judges 9:11: "all of the family of the house of the father of his mother" - or as I would myself prefer to write it, "all-of/the-family-of/the-house-of/the-father-of/his mother".) Further, I have worked through the inner core of the verb, whose subsequent layered intricacies consume the still-to-be-studied second half of Pratico and Van Pelt. What I have so far worked through are verbs in the Qal stem, in both Perfect and Imperfect, both Strong and Weak, including the "Waw" (or "Vav") Consecutive.

This is now enough, as I realized upon taking stock on 2017-07-03, to enable the actual thinking of Hebrew thoughts, in the same spirit as I offered to students of Estonian in my blogspot posting of 2017-02-06 or 2017-02-07. (That was "Part B" of the multi-installment essay "Practicalities of Studying Estonian". Specially relevant in "Part B" is the material under subheading "3.4 An Exercise in Estonian Thinking".) For with the Construct Chain, the pronouns and pronominal suffixes, the definite article, and related topics covered, and with a translation to hand, one can hope to read the original in at least a gappy sort of way, confining one's translation-crutch gap-fillers to the verbs (when these are, moreover, Imperative, Infinitive Construct, Infinitive Absolute, or Participle, in the six non-Qal stems - the commonplace Qal Perfect and Qal Imperfect now rank, fortunately, as terra bene cognita).

To reach this admittedly modest stage took me a rather long time. GNU/Linux flat-ASCII timelogs show my Brian-Keller-spirited project to have kicked off on 2009-11-01, racking up 169 hours, 26 minutes by 2013-12-09. Then I gave up, in boredom and discouragement, until 2016-02-10. On or around 2016-02-10, I took fresh inspiration from some good Web materials (distinct, however, from the still deeper, still more thrilling Web materials I am going to cite as one of this week's "theological shocks"). By the end of last week, I had reached a cumulative Hebrew total of 280 hours and 2 minutes. It has been a matter of grabbing a little time here, a little time there - perhaps 30 minutes on some good morning, and then no time at all for a couple of busy or depressed days, and then once again grabbing 30 minutes on each of two or three days.

But now there is something of a watershed. I want to chronicle it this week as a matter of urgency, even for the present week neglecting my ongoing duty to write on the analytical philosophy of perception and action. What I have to put on record this week is a triple personal theological earthquake from the Sunday which was 2017-07-02.


What I categorize as the first shock was my unexpectedly finding, in a place I had not thought of examining, an adequately reasonable - and eminently Judaism-centred - discussion of a question in Catholic religious philosophy. What does Saint Thomas Aquinas mean by calling the Divinity "Pure Being", completely "simple" and fully actualized to the exclusion of all mere "potency"?

When I was still in academic philosophy, I spent twelve or so months (from 1987 September through 1988 August) at Indiana's University of Notre Dame, wrestling with this question. In the end, I did not achieve much. So I think Notre Dame ended up wasting money on my salary. I did, I think, dimly note back then, possibly from a remark made by Notre Dame authority Prof. Alvin Plantinga, an anticipation of Saint Thomas Aquinas in a place one would least expect it - namely, in the pages of one of the more primitive works in the Scary Little Library, Exodus 3. On 2017-07-02, however, I found to my surprise that the possible Exodus 3 foreshadowing, which seems to have registered with me just faintly at Notre Dame back in 1987 or 1988, is in fact well known. I was reading in a popularizing work on Jewish history, the 1975 Time-Life Books volume The Emergence of Man: The Israelites. Here is what I found. (Although the author makes no mention of Saint Thomas, those particular dots are easily connected.) My popularizing author's passage becomes particularly poignant because it captures two disparate things - a possible anticipation of high philosophy in Exodus 3, and then the possible incomprehension of Moses's immediate successors. I quote with redactions, replacing the author's use of the Name with "[NAME]", and his use of the Name's written four-letter name-of-Name with "[TETRAGRAMMATON]". (In reading Hebrew aloud, one is asked by tradition to make a different kind of adjustment, reading those four letters not phonetically but as the word - common, I think, even in ancient secular Hebrew political contexts - for "Lord".) 

/.../ there is much evidence that, far from being Egyptian in origin, the idea of the personal god is Semitic. In Exodus, the Israelites' god comes into sharp relief and takes on some new characteristics.

First, he has acquired the name [NAME]. In ancient Hebrew - whose alphabet had few, if any, vowels - the word is written [TETRAGRAMMATON], and the same four consonants occur in different forms of the Hebrew verb "to be." This fact has led some scholars to link the name to various concepts of being.

By the Biblical account Moses, standing with his hands in front of his face to shield it from the radiance of the vision before him, asks his god: "If I go to the Israelites and tell them that the God of their forefathers has sent me to them, and they ask me his name, what shall I say?" The answer in the the original Hebrew text is cryptic: it reads Eheyeh-asher-Eheyeh. Since the dawn of Biblical study and translation, that answer has been rendered with variations of phrasing; but it has always convened the same general sense: "I AM; that is who I am. Tell them that I AM has sent you to them."

Scholars have filled pages on the meaning of that enigmatic phrase, and on the name [NAME] that derives from it; but they can come to no agreement. One theory is that [TETRAGRAMMATON] meant "I am" in the sense of everlasting existence. The important point, however, is that by the time [TETRAGRAMMATON] was committed to writing - which did not happen for at least 200 years after the desert journey, during which the name first came into use - the Israelites themselves had probably lost track of the original meaing; they held the name [NAME] sacred simply because it designated their god.

They also incorporated it extensively in naming their children, following a common practice of the times. Like the Egyptian pharaohs Thutmose, Ptahmose and Ramses, Near Easterners generally made extensive use of their gods' names in their own. For example, the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal's name incorporates that of the god Ashur. The Israelites applied the name [NAME] to their priests and prophets as well as to their offspring - either as a way of invoking the god's favour for the individual or of offering a prayer of thanks. Familiar examples, in which the last element of the name - iah - is a form of [NAME], include Hezekiah (meaning "[NAME] is my strength"), Jeremiah ("May [NAME] lift up") and Nehemiah ("[NAME] has comforted"). 

Is the Time-Life author being eccentric? A quick glance at the one suitable scholarly resource on my rather thinly stocked shelves, namely the old Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968) suggests, reassuringly, that the author is in the scholarly mainstream. For in the old Jerome Biblical Commentary, we again find an endorsement of the link with "to be", and the added promising detail that the Exodus 3 "to be" verb "can only be a causative Hiphil". (Alas, my knowledge of verbs presently extends only through the Qal stems, and so does not presently embrace the Other Six, in whose menacing ranks stands Hiphil. But the Hiphil reference is promising. The experience is a little like serving Sherlock Holmes as some fumbling Watson, and managing to note that yes, a helpful fingerprint indeed appears on that bloodied lead pipe beside Colonel Mustard's dying cranium, on the conservatory floor.)

The old Jerome does admittedly mention also a competing interpretation, on which Exodus 3 conveys the refusal of the Divinity to divulge a name. But the competing interpretation is given only for the sake of completeness - as an alternative for the view that the old Jerome, in consonance with Sunday's popularizing Time-Life author, favours.

My little discovery suggests that I must now keep working, somehow, even on philosophical problems - committed though I must always remain to my more respectable chosen fields of physics, astronomy, mathematics, and practical computing. I think I will have to keep philosophy simmering on a back burner, resisting the temptation to dump it brusquely into the darkness of the freezer chest.

My 1987/1988 failure at Notre Dame notwithstanding, I do know that some modest sense can be made of the old Aristotelian-Thomist dictum that "There is a scientific discipline studying being as such, and the properties which being has insofar as it is being." Various rigorous things, admittedly falling short of  Exodus 3 conceptual heights, can be said about being-as-such.

For instance, we can and must contrast being-knotted (an "accidental mode of being") with being-a-knot (the "substantial being" which is necessarily had by the knot in the rope, for all such times as the rope stays in its present knotted condition). - A further example of this same general point: we can and must contrast glowing (an "accidental mode of being" which might befall a radar screen) with being-a-glow (the "substantial being" that is necessarily had by the blip in the screen, as long as that present glowing continues).

A fully worked-out theory here must - this much I did note at Notre Dame - regard the knot's being-in-existence-now as proceeding "in" the rope's being-knotted-now. In general, the idea must be that one thing's existing can proceed "in" another thing's taking on one or another mode of accidental being. This is formally a little like - the formal analogy should perhaps not be pressed too hard - the idea to which I must return next week or thenabouts, in future installments of my perception-and-action essay: we see the coffee cup "in" seeing a patch of light on the retinal surface, and even that little patch of light we see "in" seeing some recondite cranial neuronal event.

Again, we can and must develop, as an exercise in quantified tense logic, complete with various axiomatizations in the manner of Arthur N. Prior (1914-1969) and various corresponding canonical-model completeness proofs with reference to formal semantics in the spirit of Prof. Saul Kripke (1940-), a view of existence on which to exist is to have a property.  Such properties can themselves be tensed or modalized: a presently existing bird, for instance, might have the (tensed) property of being-destined-17-days-from-now-to-be-pulling-on-at-least-one-worm, and the (modalized) property of being not-actually-and-yet-nevertheless-possibly flying. Formally, we have to upgrade the usual notation for tensed predicate logic, writing open variables not only as suffixes to predicate letters but additionally as prefixes. On the appropriate notation, "xF17y R yx" means "x now has the property of being-such-that 17-days-from-now y has the property of being such that y R-eth x". This entails (writing the usual existential quantifier "Ex" for "at least one entity x is such that" and the usual existential quantifier "Ey" for "at least one entity y is such that")  "Ex F17 Ey y R-eth x", and also entails the logically weaker "F17 Ex Ey y R-eth x", and yet does not entail "Ex Ey F17 y R-eth x" (since it could be that no two things now existing are destined to be 17 days from now related to each other as R-er and R-ed; a bird existing now might be destined to be pulling on a worm that has not yet come into existence).

Again, we can and must explore "adverbial modes of being". It is one thing to be glowing, and a different thing to be glowing dimly. We additionally can and must explore "iterated adverbial modes of being", as when we distinguish a radar screen's glowing-dimly-through-a-filter from its glowing-through-a-filter dimly.

It may conceivably prove in some way helpful to link substantial being with adverbial modes of being, by saying that just as glowing can be going-on-dimly, so "izzing" can be going-on-glowingly (when a glow exists), and also going-on-screenly (when a screen exists), or for that matter going-on-sparrowly (when a sparrow exists) and going-on-wormly (when a worm exists). Is the fact that, in general, "x Q-eth M-ly N-ly" and "x Q-eth N-ly M-ly" have different truth-conditions of potential relevance here, as we struggle - perhaps by introducing neologisms such as "izzeth wormly" - to disentangle the quasi-mathematical formalities of being from the limitations of the so-sloppy human languages that are the longstanding, so painfully limited, traditional Homo sapiens tools for describing being?

Such formal investigations comprise a field, explored somewhat in Greek and mediaeval times, and subsequently perhaps left lying rather fallow, that might be termed "formal metaphysics" or "analytical metaphysics". The field is at least in part to be investigated with the mathematical or para-mathematical tools of quantified modal logic ("modal operators with predicates and quantifiers") and quantified tense logic ("tense operators with predicates and quantifiers") - eventually including even sortal-relativized quantifiers, in the spirit of the recently departed Catholic logician-philosopher Prof. Peter Geach (1916-2013).  (At this point I have had, for the third time in this week's writing, to name a philosopher's name, in defiance of my as-a-general-rule-necessary Igominy and Humiligation Precept from 2017-05-22 or 2017-05-23.)

Part of the theory here is that u can be the same S as, and yet a different T from v.  - I indeed argued at the Cambridge Moral Sciences Club in a short visit around 1982 that even the notion of equivalence relation has to be sortal-relativized, with binary relation sigma being "an equivalence relation on Ss", and yet "not an equivalence relation on Ts".

At Cambridge, they somehow saw my radical sortal-relativization as in some sense a successful reductio ad absurdum  of Prof. Geach. Prof. Geach (I do not think he was in town when I read my paper) at some stage intimated to me that I had developed his ideas in an incorrect way. Well, we'll see. Some younger person may some day be able to take up some of this stuff where I have left off.

Perhaps, for all anyone now knows, philosophers in the remoter future might be able to turn Saint Thomas into something formally rigorous, while at the same time shedding light on what the Exodus 3 author so evocatively wrote so long before the malign dawn of Philosophy Departments. I am inclined to think that the way forward involves breaking down interdepartmental barriers, so that there is eventually a cadre of young analysts equally at home in three different academic places, one of them currently not communicating well with the other two - in the Department of Physics, in the Department of (Pure) Mathematics, and (a place I normally love to ridicule, for its self-chosen intellectual isolation) in the Department of Philosophy.


The second theological shock was my 2017-07-02 reading in a site with a self-explanatory URL - I found the site author, theologian-philologist-philosopher John Parsons, communicating a way of reading the Old Testament which embraces my idea of thinking Hebrew thoughts, and yet goes further. Christians, stresses Mr Parsons, can and should aspire not only to the thinking of Hebrew thoughts but to something more radical - to the outright leading of Jewish lives.

His explains, in page upon gripping page, how to go about the wider and more radical task. The author explains how to keep Shabbat, from Friday evening to Saturday sunset. He explains how to mourn (dissecting the Kaddish, including the bereavement Kaddish, at

He also explains how to laugh. Under his homepage "Humor" link are jokes about Einstein, about the drooling-and-yet-ever-so-frum bear, about Jewish mothers, and the like.

His mention of Jewish mothers does remind me of a Jewish-Catholic story. I digress into this for a moment, as one might imagine a television talk-show guest waxing loquacious under the combined warming influence of studio lamps and Ms Oprah Winfrey. I presume the story is absent from Mr Parsons's collection. I heard it here in Ontario ten or fifteen or twenty years ago on the radio, from some Jewish microphone comedienne:

So I had to hire a hall for my daughter's Bat Mitzvah, and I was driving through town checking things out. I saw this big sign: OUR LADY OF PERPETUAL GUILT. Well, I said to myself, this one has got to be Jewish. But when I parked at the office and went in to talk to the reception desk, I found it wasn't Jewish. 

In all his various expressions of Jewish modes of living, Mr Parsons reminds us of a point readily forgotten: namely, that a language is embedded in a wider way of cooking, eating, dressing, and socializing - in a word, of being. If we are to think authentically in a language, we cannot remain strangers to the concrete modes of human existence from which those human linguistic forms have sprung.

But what can Mr Parsons's culture-study precepts - he is himself not explicitly writing as a Catholic - mean in Catholic terms?

The Catholic will surely follow Paul, and also Mr Parsons, in rejecting the legalistic demand for male circumcision.

As for Shabbat, whose faithful observance Mr Parsons does recommend, I would as a Catholic layman respectfully propose the following pair of points:

  • The unique position of the Jewish nation in the ongoing "Economy of Salvation" is to be affirmed, in deference to the contemporary Catholic Magisterium. The pre-Vatican II Catholic deprecations of Judaism, some of which ranked in their day as at least quasi-authoritative, are now to be in their turn deprecated. In particular, the pre-Vatican II Good Friday prayer imputing guilt to the Jewish nation, and such 1910-era Catholic Encyclopedia phrasings as "the deep and wide racial difference between Jews and Christians" (abrasive language viewable at are now to be deprecated. Wind-vane theology? Doctrine-√†-la-mode? But Vatican II rightly remarked, Ecclesia semper reformanda - "The Church is at all times a thing-to-be-reformed." 
  • Individual contemporary Catholics are, however, to consider themselves as innocent in the unfortunate historical drama enacted by their remote historical predecessors, as the centuries-long process of Church reform grinds forward. The history being what it unfortunately is, there is now no binding obligation to observe Shabbat on a Saturday rather than on a Sunday, just as there is no binding obligation to observe Shabbat on a Sunday rather than on a Saturday. What is binding is only that a Shabbat be kept. The position here is analogous to the position of the dietary laws, on Paul's analysis. Let people be aware, says Paul, that all foods (except, he has to add, those sacrificed to the Graeco-Roman idols) are licit. But let people additionally, he says, take care not to abuse their freedom, by taking decisions that give offence or scandal to ecclesial neighbours weak in their faith. As Paul considers the Kingdom to be "not about eating and drinking", so we may well here consider the Kingdom, imitating Paul, to be "not about the calendar". 
With a mandatory Saturday Shabbat off the table for the practical Catholic (what remains on the table is only an optional Saturday Shabbat - and what Catholic in Ontario is going to feel at all comfortable in taking the option of relaxing on Saturday, labouring on Sunday?), it might be thought that little remains for the Catholic seeking a Jewish life. Yet a central thing remains. The daily Catholic rhythm of prayer, outside Mass, has always been anchored in a Jewish rhythm known and understood in the (Roman) times of Yeshua ben-Yosef. As in the Judaism from the generations around Yeshua, so also perennially in Catholicism, pride of place is given to the Psalms, prayed in public under some canonically fixed daily schedule. In Post-Vatican II Catholicism, the Psalms are said under the headings of Laudes Matitutinae, Hora Tertia, Hora Sexta, Hora Nona, Hora Vespera, and Completorium, plus the time-flexible "Officium Lectionis"  - with, to be sure, suitable scriptural and patristic texts other than the Psalms, and with further prayers and hymns, rounding out this sevenfold liturgy.

It has to be conceded that there is no one Psalter schedule uniting our Catholic and Jewish traditions. Within Catholicism itself, moreover, a lack of uniformity already presents itself as decades and centuries pass. What is common now, under the Vatican II liturgical reforms, is a little different from the earlier twentieth-century practice. (In particular, the earlier practice was eightfold, and lacked the time-flexible "Officium Lectionis". I also think it allowed the earliest Office of one day to be said during the evening, or at least the pre-midnight dark hours, of the day before. I presume the sixth-century Psalm schedule of Saint Benedict, with its one-week eight-times-daily cycle (fully laid out in Benedict's Regula) was itself at variance with the two - the eightfold pre- and the sevenfold post-Vatican II - we know from our own time.)

These, however, are points of detail. What is central is that the Psalter becomes, both in Jewish traditions and in mutating Catholic traditions, a distinctively venerated and distinctively communal mode of prayer.

Now, I say: let us as Catholic laity, obliged in our living arrangements to pray privately (perhaps far from cathedrals and monasteries), continue working privately from our psalters. Optimally, that will mean  working from the Latin, so as to secure a measure of emotional emancipation from the silly dream-the-impossible-dream, Man-of-La-Mancha, cinema-and-television mindset that is perpetually threatening to snuff out our perpetually feeble prayer life. Working from the Latin is nowadays easy: one loads, for instance, into smartphone or tablet or desktop in the usual English-only, and then one clicks on the bottom-of-browser hyperlink that says "You can also view this page in Latin and English."

And yet, I add, let us in the laity work, to the extent feasible for us, toward Hebraization, partially forsaking even such valuable resources as (or else, perhaps, looking to the day when starts sporting a new hyperlink: "You can also view this page in Latin and English, or as a further alternative in Latin and English, with Hebrew accompanying each piece of Vulgate-OT Latin"). Bit by bit, we may hope to replace one or another of our familiar Latin Psalm verses with Hebrew, at least in such private observations of the Office of the Hours as our work schedules and our state of endurance may permit.

The greatest of all the various services rendered by is from my (Catholic) standpoint its making such a piecemeal lay-Catholic conversion away from Latin toward the Hebrew possible, by supplying tools - translation, text, and above all word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase commentary - at

Two sets of practical questions do arise for the author of I will try to send them to him in e-mail this week. If he responds, I will try somehow see to it that his answers somehow get documented, within 48 hours, on this present blog:

  • How close are the pronunciations in the audio files reachable from to the current best philological understanding of ancient Hebrew phonetics? (I press this question in the awareness that modern spoken street Hebrew differs slightly from the philological understanding - with the (no-Daghesh) Dalet, for instance, hardened from the voiced-th, as in English "this", to "d" as in English "dome", and with Waw or Vav hardened from w-as-in-English-"wing" to v-as-in-English-"vote". The situation calls to mind the embarrassment that is Latin ecclesial pronunciation, with our Church unfortunately making several consonants Italianate, contrary to what is known to have been oratorical-best-practice in the Golden Period of pagan Latin literature: "Temperance wins out", or "temperantia vincit", is in Cicero's phonemes "tem - pe - RAN - tee- ah WIN -kit", and yet in ecclesial Latin becomes "tem - pe- RAN - tsee- ah VIN -tschit.") Further, what is Mr Parsons's, and his audio-file reader's, position on the difficult question of the letter Ayin - in classical Hebrew times pronounced as a true, albeit a subtle, guttural, and yet even in the careful Pratico-and-Van Pelt book recommended to be left silent, even as Aleph incontestably must be left silent? What is Mr Parsons's, and his audio-file reader's position on the Pathach vowel? (This, and Ayin, are the two main problems presently confronting me as I continue addressing phonetics. It is especially puzzling that Pratico and Van Pelt recommend pronouncing Pathach like the "a" in English "bat", and yet seem in the CD which accompanies their fine book to favour pronouncing Patach like the a in English "affair". - I am particularly anxious to get the phonetics right here when I reflect that the post-Roman Masoretes creating "pointing" - the vowel marks included - now present in all good printed Hebrew Bibles, exactly as a way of preserving the correct phonetics. Had they been blessed with such modern resources as the printing press, the International Phonetic Alphabet, and Internet servers with audio files, they would have used those tools too.) What is Mr Parsons's, and his audio-file reader's, position on the letter Qof? (I suspect that the Masoretes' Daghesh-hardened Kaf was in classical Hebrew times, in the pronunciation the post-classical Masoretes  sought to conserve, a bit lighter than Qof. This is the sort of thing that might make a good joke when someone comes round to my place for tea: "No, no, I don't have a cough [that is like Daghesh-hardened Kaf]; I have a Qof" (here one has to sound positively Arabic, taking the consonant WAY down deep, so that one's alarmed guest begins to wonder if one is about to don a keffiyeh, in a conceivable homage to Lawrence of Arabia). Finally, can Mr Parsons recommend to me some authority - some e-mail-contactable professor, in some such eminent place as Yale or Jerusalem, or alternatively some authoritative book - for Hebrew phonetics? Ideally, one would be able to work from some phonetics book equivalent to that authoritative analyst of Latin phonetics from the pagan Golden Period all the way into the (Italianate?) Dark Ages which is W. Sidney Allen's Vox Latina (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition 1989).
  • Can Mr Parsons recommend an analytical treatment of the Hebrew scriptures - at any rate a treatment that has each verb parsed to indicate stem, conjugation, person, gender, number, and root? (On the noun-pronoun-adjective side of things, analyses of Construct Chains would be reassuring also, and yet are less urgent than analytical support on verbs.) Here I am looking for a book paralleling, for Hebrew, Max Zerwick's and Mary Grosvener's Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament (issued as an "Unabridged, Revised Edition in One Volume" in 1981 at the Biblical Institute Press in Rome). - Ideally, an analytical treatment would serve the reader rather as model answers serve in calculus: you work the problem on your own, keeping the answer key closed, but then you open the key to ascertain whether your solution was in fact correct. - My suspicion is that the answer to my question is "Nothing recent exists, and nothing (however far back we may go) exists for the entire Hebrew scriptures." At any rate all I have been able to find so far is a work of limited scope, from very far back indeed - Joana Julia Greswell's Grammatical Analysis of the Hebrew Psalter (Oxford: James Parker and Co., 1873; various download options are presented at


Before quite leaving Mr Parsons and proceeding to the third of my three theological shocks from 2017-07-02, I wish to comment in parenthetical, positive, terms on his philosophical interests. The interests are anchored not only in his attachment to theology but also in his training in formal logic (a subject which he has taught, I presume on some university or college campus).

Some of Mr Parsons's remarks on post-mediaeval philosophy suggest an approach to the subject similar to what I am trying to develop here on this present blog, in my ongoing multi-installment philosophy-of-perception-and-action essay. Like me, Mr Parsons deprecates approaches to perception that regard the perceiving subject as blocked by a wall of sense-data or sense-impressions from knowing the reality of physical objects.

Like me again, he defends a conception of objective truth. Here, for instance, is what he writes, in language which I could cheerfully make my own, at

/.../ [G-d] made us so that we could discern truth about reality. The mind functions according to logical laws because it is made in the image and likeness of [G-d] Himself /.../ The Source of all truth is [G-d]. He is the Master of the Universe, the Lord of all possible outcomes and worlds. The heavens declare His glory (outer world) and human beings are made b'tzelem Elohim in His image (inner world).


The third of my 2017-07-02 theological shocks was my noting the 2010-11-11 upload of YouTube user "Micha'el Eliyahu BenDavid", under the title "SHEMA YISRAEL by Micha'el Ben David", to a length of 6:17. Micha'el Eliyahu Ben David is in fact a high-profile figure in contemporary Jewish music, born in 1951 and still active. So here, for once, is an accurate YouTube username. In my corner of the Web, Ben David's ("son-of-David's") material can be viewed under the URL

With this musician today, as with his father's namesake royal Psalmist in the ancient Undivided Kingdom, theology gets brought to life. Ben David gives an overwhelming - so to speak, a total - expression, in a mixture of the Deuteronomic Hebrew and contemporary English, of truths in some way already hinted at by a 1916 or 1917 American mystic I have previously published on this blog. That previous publication is in a 2016-12-19 or 2016-12-20 posting headed "M.P.Montague: 'Twenty Minutes of Reality'", archived by the blogspot server as I would urge my readers this week to review Margaret Prescott Montague first, and then to turn to Ben David's YouTube performance. In so turning, they might seek out points of theological similarity.

With that pair of tasks accomplished, it may for some of my readers even prove appropriate to follow Mr Parsons in studying Hebrew - say, first and foremost through that theologically central Deuteronomic prayer which is the Shema, and later through selected Psalm fragments.

[This is the end of the current blog posting.]

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