January 2006 Archives

George Washington's God


Michael Novak and his daughter have written a new book, George Washington’s God, that I am looking forward to reading. As is the case with new books, this one has been reviewed, an early one appearing in the Kirkus Review. In a comment on his website concerning this review, Mr. Novak refers to the anonymous reviewer as the “village atheist”. The village atheist, in his review, accuses the Novaks of not considering a question that goes something like this, “If two opposing armies are preparing to meet in battle, and both pray to the same God, how can Providence be faithful to both sides if the prayers of one side are answered and not the other?”

Of course, this question is supposed to be a challenge to the faith of believers. The problem is, it ignores a few very important points.

First, “no” is just as much an answer to a request as “yes”. I think that the question posed by the village atheist presumes that every request made of God is automatically granted. It puts God in the position of some giant slot machine; all we have to do to strike it rich is ask. I think every one of us can recall instances of a prayer request that was denied and, on reflection, agree that it was a very good thing, indeed, that it was. There’s meaning behind the old saying, “Be careful what you pray for, you might get it.” Every prayer request is answered, that just doesn’t mean that the answer is yes.

There is another point that Mr. Novak makes in his post on his web site. God, in his wisdom, has given us free will. That means, contrary to another assumption implicit in the question, that He is not like some grand puppeteer who pulls strings and directs the lives of every person on earth. He allows us to have a role in determining the course of events here on earth. While there seems to be times when there has been heavenly intervention in earthly affairs, we generally regard those events as miraculous, and infrequent.

Finally, it is important to remember that God is not the God of nonsense. If two armies are about to meet in battle, they know, despite their prayers, that one of them will lose. I think both armies would agree that, if that were not the case, there would be no point in going to battle in the first place. The sole reason for two armies to fight the battle is for one of them to be defeated, for the issue to be decided. It seems to me that it is impossible for two armies to enter into combat and both emerge victorious, even though both prayed for victory. God will not, likely cannot, do the impossible, at least not here on earth.

It’s maddening to see those who are hostile to religion use any opportunity, no matter how far fetched, to take a pot shot at faith, and be so lazy about it. Mr. Novak points out that the reviewer found no factual fault with his book, but still made the supposed omission of consideration of a rather stupid question, the main focus of the review. Especially when the Novaks included a somewhat lengthy discussion of the question. Maybe the village atheist just can’t read.

I began this blog . . .

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with the intention of trying to understand what it means to be Catholic and live in the modern world. I think most people, including most Catholics, would think there was a tension between the two. I don’t believe there it, but, clearly it is not an easy path to follow for the devout Catholic.

Anyway, I my main objective was to focus on what the impact of my, then, relatively new Catholicism would have on my business career and business decisions. The background to all of this was two-fold.

First, just prior to my coming home to faith, still as a Protestant, I had been reading and studying Steven Coveys wildly successful book, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. I was very interested in what it is that makes a business, or any organization, successful and effective, and I thought, and still do, that Covey made a lot of good points. After I converted to Catholicism and began studying Church teaching, I began to see a parallel between the seven habits and the seven virtues, the theological virtues of faith, hope, love, and the moral virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. I became convinced that the underlying idea behind what Covey was saying about effectiveness was really what the Church had been saying for centuries about the virtues; that to be successful in life, as well as business (vocation), it is necessary to live the virtues. Covey was merely repackaging a very old, and very Catholic idea that goes back to the Middle Ages. Thus the title of the blog: The Seven Habitus.

Incidentally, the word habitus was used by St. Thomas to describe the operation of the virtues. The Catholic Encyclopedia puts it this way:

From Saint Thomas's entire Question on the essence of virtue may be gathered his brief but complete definition of virtue: "habitus operativus bonus", an operative habit essentially good, as distinguished from vice, and operative habit essentially evil. Now a habit is a quality in itself difficult of change, disposing well or ill the subject in which it resides, either directly in itself or in relation to its operation. An operative habit is a quality residing in a power or faculty in itself indifferent to this or that line of action, but determined by the habit to this rather than to that kind of acts.

The Catholic Encyclopedia defines virtue as:

“According to its etymology the word virtue (Latin virtus) signifies manliness or courage. "Appelata est enim a viro virtus: viri autem propria maxime est fortitudo" ("The term virtue is from the word that signifies man; a man's chief quality is fortitude"; Cicero, "Tuscul.", I, xi, 18). Taken in its widest sense virtue means the excellence of perfection of a thing, just as vice, its contrary, denotes a defect or absence of perfection due to a thing. In its strictest meaning, however, as used by moral philosophers and theologians, it signifies a habit superadded to a faculty of the soul, disposing it to elicit with readiness acts conformable to our rational nature. "Virtue", says Augustine, "is a good habit consonant with our nature."”
Is there any doubt that a person living the virtuous life would be, truly, both “effective” and, morally and spiritually if not financially, successful? (I believe financial success might well also be expected to accompany a virtuous life, but not in every case.) Such a person would habitually tend towards the good and avoid evil.

There have been a lot of examples that confirm my theory in the corporate scandals surrounding Enron, MCI, Tyco, and the rest. The executives who precipitated these corporate scandals may have appeared successful at certain points in their careers, but that was truly a fleeting condition. In the end, they were hardly effective, they destroyed themselves and a lot of people who were depending on them for their livelihoods.

Now, why am I going into all this? First, I have never really explained the title of the blog, and doing so has helped me recover a bit of the original sense of direction and purpose I had for the blog. Second, this all ties in with the mystery I have been trying to write.

Now, I’m sure that seems a bit of a stretch, and maybe it is but I’ll try to explain.

What is a mystery except the story of what happens when virtue is lost? It represents the story of a disorder in the world and the effort to put it right, usually at some cost to the hero. It is the classic theme of the legends of the Old West, and the cowboy is the hero of those stories. Lately, there have been few major movies or TV series set in the old West, I’d like to change that. But, we live in a modern world, ranching, cowboying, is a business like everything else. A successful rancher, while being virtuous, must also be a good business man. That’s the general idea behind my accountant/auditor/cowboy character.

So, I’ll keep working, trying to develop my skills as a fiction writer, and also exploring these themes here. I hope one will support the other.

PS – Novel Update. I’ve realized over the last two or three months that the problems I’ve been having with the story so far are fundamental – and easily corrected. The plot sucked, really it was totally incredible, I thought it would be very difficult, nearly impossible, to come up with plots for mysteries, and therefore was not putting enough thought into it. However, I have realized that my career as an accountant provides lots of fodder for murder and mayhem. Therefore, I have a new story line.

I am also working to revamp my protagonist, Joe Morgan. In my earlier efforts, he was not much more than a caricature, and his motivation is weak. While the cowboy is the archetype hero, I don’t want this guy to be a card board cut out type character; I think he has a lot to say about the world he is living in and I hope I can help him say it.

I’ll keep you posted.

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