Anti-discrimination & Religious Freedom – easing the tensions

We might see less tension between religious freedom & anti-discrimination goals if we view neither as absolute & both as forms of equal protection (where the establishment clause forbids government prescription & the exercise clause – proscription).

We should remain mindful that today’s majority could well be tomorrow’s protected minority. Also, charitable accommodations & hospitable accompaniments don’t, a priori or in & of themselves, necessarily amount to formal agreement, material cooperation or compromised principles.

Public lawmakers should aspire to accommodate consciences to an extent that allows persons to avoid – not only formal, but – all material cooperation with evil, however im/mediate, non/necessary, proximate or remote.

This isn’t to say that neutral & generally applicable laws advancing a compelling government interest should never burden consciences, only that they should always employ the least restrictive means practicable (including even the avoidance of a licit remote cooperation).

In the application of ecclesiastical laws that govern various forms of participation, the pastoral has primacy over the legal; episcopal discernment jumps evidential & prudential hurdles, aspiring to foster conversion and to avoid scandal & sacrilege.

Various relationships have been described as public, objective situations of sin – not because those relationship per se are inherently sinful, but – because they, presumptively, have objectively sinful aspects. Those presumptions are rebuttable per certain evidential criteria & those subjective situations can be variously ex/culpable.

Conscience accommodations can include one’s desire to avoid formal expressions, explicit or implicit, of approval of such relationships as well as any type or degree of material cooperation that would be tantamount to same.

Sometimes, when conscience accommodations are placed in competition with antidiscrimination goals, there may be no practicable means to avoid discrimination without burdening certain consciences with material cooperation. Even then, lawmakers can generally ensure that such cooperation remains as remote as possible.

In discerning a given degree of material cooperation, one must assess how definite or tentative is the causal chain between it and the objective situation and/or its allegedly sinful aspect. This is to ask just how necessary or contingent that objective situation and/or its sinful aspect is as a result of such cooperation (thereby, for example, increasing or decreasing scandal).

Since, in the USA, there are sufficient examples of the kinds & degrees of remote material cooperation that make one’s participation in a pluralistic society defensible & licit, those can be used to calibrate the sincerity of one’s participatory objections.

The more tentative the causal chain & the more highly contingent an objective situation and/or its sinful aspects vis a vis one’s kind & degree of participatory cooperation with same, the greater the risk of exposing one’s cooperation matrix to parody & thereby subverting the time-honored moral calculus that is indispensable to norming our participation in social, economic & political spheres. Also, the less likely any material cooperation could be reasonably considered tantamout to a formal expression.

This is to suggest that one’s rationale to discriminate in a given circumstance could very well be inconsistent with and thereby seriously undercut one’s very own justifications (sincerity not reasoning) for participating in other life spheres & circumstances (paying taxes, selling goods & services, walking bioethical tightropes, etc).

The more seriously one thus undercuts one’s very own participatory justifications & renders one’s own cooperation with evil matrix susceptible to parody, the more presumptively disingenuous (vis a vis sincerity) one’s rationale for discriminating (rebuttably so, but I’d certainly like to hear such rebuttals).

As in other life spheres, political realities can present as prima facie true, prudent or virtuous. Such beliefs, of course, employ rebuttable presumptions (evidential, prudential or ethical).

Such stances provide helpful default positions that rely on principled biases. While such principles may be grounded in absolute values, those biases should not be taken as absolute political norms.

So, for any given political issue, it’s not one’s stance, per se (e.g. conservative, libertarian or progressive), that will indicate that one’s an ideologue. Rather, it’s one imagining that one’s presumptions are not open to rebuttal & that one’s biases are necessarily absolute norms.

Because values can compete and political goals can come into conflict, compromises & accommodations (political strategies often anathema to ideologues) must often be fashioned. In such conflict situations, even our most well justified political presumptions & biases will especially invite good faith evidential, prudential & ethical deliberations.

Whether styled proscriptively or prescriptively, the norms reflected in such default political stances must be subjected to appropriate levels of scrutiny when rights come into conflict. For example, this would include such cherished norms as, generally though not exclusively, for conservatives, nonestablishment & free exercise; for libertarians, noninterventionism & federalism; and for progressives, nondiscrimination & inclusivism.

When humans apply general precepts (as derived from even absolute values) in various concrete norms, because we are finite, seldom will we find such norms to be exceptionless. Even for those considered so, whether absolutely or virtually, prudential & political strategies to realize such values will still require deliberative processes.

Only a conservative ideologue would reflexively reject any and all curtailments of free exercise or gun restrictions, as if such rights were absolute.

Only a libertarian ideologue would reflexively reject any and all federal interventions or statist solutions, ignoring the rebuttable nature of subsidiarity’s presumptions.

Only a progressive ideologue would reflexively reject any and all discrimination or exclusion, treating inclusivity as an absolute norm.

Certainly, ideological postures present in a manner of degrees and to various extremes, but I’m guessing not nearly as often as we hear the pejorative, ideologue, thrown around?

While the identification and definition of axiological realities (both evaluative & moral) involve a different methodology than the political approaches discussed above, such stances can also be ideological in other ways and to various degrees, especially to the extent they fail to abide any ethical pluralism, whatsoever. Such failures often result from a lack of epistemic humility and is often manifested in the eschewals of metaphysical fallibilism & moral probabilism.

Note: I kept this discussion mostly abstract although concrete examples would greatly help explicate my points. I just don’t want to engage at that level for such a volatile issue, presently. I hope one take-away is that the issue is much more nuanced than those approaches that reflexively resort to name calling (e.g. shallow inclusivists vs rampant bigots).

Note 2:

All of the above considerations aside, regarding sincerely held beliefs that are variously burdened, when nondiscrimination laws are in tension with religious freedom, the least restrictive means standard is not a high hurdle to jump because public accommodations laws do not simply guarantee access to goods or services. Instead, they serve a broader societal purpose: eradicating barriers to the equal treatment of all citizens in the commercial marketplace. Were we to carve out a patchwork of exceptions for ostensibly justified discrimination, that purpose would be fatally undermined.

Contra Ethical Chicken Littles

Ethical slippery slope arguments deserve serious but not facile engagements. Below is a consideration of why some such arguments are oversimplified.

There is a taxonomy of slippery slope arguments [SSAs]. It distinguishes causal from logical arguments and further separates arguments per their results, arbitrary & horrible.

Causal arguments are concerned with domino-like effects. Logical arguments explore the in/consistency of rules, whether grounded in casuist, principlist or even consensual ethical decision-making approaches.

An arbitrary result is deemed objectionable by the mere fact that an argument has employed some type of slope. A horrible result refers to an argument which would permit morally repugnant outcomes.

Ethical slippery slope arguments are often of the logical-horrible variety.

Others have well-treated the logical in/consistencies & un/soundness that can afflict/bolster all manner of ethical SSAs. I will discuss, below, why we shouldn’t overstate the influence that formal argumentation has on societal maxims, rules & norms, why, for example, various case-holdings won’t inexorably unravel the moral fabric of society or, switching metaphors, send a rapid succession of taboo-boulders rolling down the ethical slopes of a culture’s moral highlands. I will also discuss whether the introduction of some degree of arbitrariness should a priori deligitimize an ethical decision-making approach.

The degree of consensus regarding humanity’s most general precepts remains largely sufficient to norm a modicum of public peace, public order, public justice & public morality, extending, for example, even to international declarations regarding human rights and to international law & treaties.

The more specific & concrete application of such precepts become much more problematical for thornier issues, e.g. bioethical realities regarding gender, sex & life issues.

A society’s laws & rules reflect a shared public reason & shared evaluative dispositions. It’s this overlapping consensus of mid-level principles & these mutual intuitions of common sensibilities that, together, constitute a relatively stable, wide, reflective equilibrium of moral reasoning.

Over against any Ethical Chicken Little hysteria, then, an ethical pluralism, grounded in a fallibilist epistemology & probabilist deontology, notwithstanding some unavoidable degree of inconsistency, need not explode into an ethical incoherence or moral relativism, much less trivialism.

Pluralistic societies can have different cohorts of naïve realists, each which may subscribe to its own particular, foundational moral theory with its distinct metaphysical commitments. Such cohorts will tend to imagine that a pluralistic society’s moral slopes are far more slippery than they actually are because they fail to recognize the limited relevance of their own theories & commitments to a given society’s maxims, rules & norms. They also tend to ignore the resilience & relative stability of the above-referenced reflective equilibrium, grounded as it is – not just in formal logic, but – in deeply felt evaluative dispositions, common sensibilities & ethical intuitions, which certainly can reflect an inchoate grasp of the natural law, secured by connatural inclinations. This remains the case even when such a grasp of the natural law remains rather difficult to articulate by formal argument (and not just difficult for the vox populi but also for the ethical literati).

Such a stable reflective equilibrium will generally stand in the way of any cascading of consensually, morally repugnant outcomes, when otherwise specific incremental changes are effected in societal rules & norms.

This is to recognize that Ethical Chicken Littles will too often make much ado about their own arguments, which are not more universally compelling, sometimes, because their logic is simply flawed, if not due to validity, then, by unsoundness; sometimes, because certain maxims, rules & norms have established their coherence & resiliency less so by formal argumentation, more so by innate connatural inclinations & subconscious social formations.

As with other apparent inconsistencies, dilemmas, aporiae or paradoxes, human common sense & sensibilities can often evade ethical conundra, practically, via reductio ad absurdum, while patiently abiding either their dissolutions via paradigm shifts or resolutions via dialectics.

We may not be able to formally articulate why a putative outcome would be impossible, improbable or absurd using a robustly truth-conducive triadic inference, but we can, most certainly, very often employ a veritable multitude of weakly truth-indicative abductions, logically, as well as evaluative dispositions & ethical intuitions, axio-logically, which, when bundled together into a preponderance, evidentially, can sufficiently justify a solidly probable moral proposition.

Over against any notion that slopes afflicted by degrees of arbitrariness must simply be avoided, we must recognize that we are ALREADY on such slopes, ubiquitously so. Such a notion could not survive the parody of purging all moral discourse of references to reality’s manifold & multiform dis/continua.

Thus, even among those who subscribe to a particular foundational moral theory as well as its deeper metaphysical commitments, the more critical (less naïve) realist cohorts will not overestimate the slipperiness of various moral slopes, for they recognize:

that our appropriations of moral realities ALREADY often involve approximations;

that our fallible grasps of moral realities ALREADY require the use of concepts that are not wholly essentialist but variously clustered, vague or fuzzy;

that human symbols, icons & indexes are ALREADY seldom going to be wholly nonarbitrary;

that the human mind ALREADY must often transcend rational formalities with common sense and informal & paraconsistent logics (see note below) in order to avoid absurdity & trivialism.

To the extent that epistemology models ontology, this variety of ethical approximations (conceptual, semiotic & logical) implicates various ontological dis/continuities, regarding – not only the spatio-temporal, materio-energetic continua of physical entities (e.g. age-related, developmental, genetic, non/strict identities), but – the causalities of physical events, including various teloi (e.g. teleopotent, teleomatic, teleonomic & teleologic).

For example, whatever one’s paradigm regarding non/strict identities, even an essentialist account might best resort to a conception of deep & dynamic formal fields.

The above taxonomy of SSAs & categories of axiological epistemology can still be rather insufficient, relying as they do on an implicit canon of common sense that can’t always be taken for granted. This is especially true, again, as we move from general precepts to their more specific, concrete applications. See, for example: An anthropological exploration of contemporary bioethics: the varieties of common sense. Turner L. , J Med Ethics. 1998 Apr;24(2):127-33.

N.B. From:

If the mind is able to reason around contradiction without absurdity, then paraconsistent machines may be better able to model the mind.

Defending consistency, or denying the absurdity of trivialism, is ultimately not the job of logic alone. Affirming coherence and denying absurdity is an act, a job for human beings.

Put another way, a paraconsistent logician can say that a theory is inconsistent without meaning that the theory is incoherent, or absurd. The former is a structural feature of the theory, worth repair or further study; the latter means the theory has gone disastrously wrong. Paraconsistency gives us a principled way to resist equating contradiction with absurdity.

How Wide is your Spiritual Moat? – an holistic approach to emotional sobriety

Anamnesis (from the Greek word meaning “reminiscence”) is a liturgical statement in which the Church refers to the memorial character of the Eucharist (thanks-giving). It has its origin in Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, “Do this in memory of me.”

In a wider sense, Anamnesis is a key concept in the liturgical theology: in worship the faithful recall God’s saving deeds. This memorial aspect is not simply a passive process but one by which the Christian can actually enter into the Paschal mystery.

So, if amnesia means “to forget,” then an-amnesis means “not to forget.” We recall, then, why we simply must be thankful. And we do so prayerfully.

As they say, a family that prays together, stays together. So, too, psychologically, modern medicine has discovered that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Religion means to re-ligate or “tie back together.”

All of this taken together suggests that our spiritual survival requires a vigorous hygiene and rigorous practice of “not forgetting to give thanks.

Phillipians 4:8 reminds us: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is fair, whatever is pure, whatever is acceptable, whatever is commendable, if there is anything of excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy—keep thinking about THESE things.

From a properly holistic perspective, this spiritual hygiene of anamnesis thus plays an indispensable role in maintaining one’s emotional equilibrium. The more seriously compromised one’s emotional homeostasis has been, especially over protracted periods of time, the more vigilant one must be to stand guard over one’s thoughts, the more rigorous must be the practice of anamnesis and the more integral must be one’s assault against any and all threats posed to one’s psychological defenses.

Anamnesis – a suggestion:


1) 5 most stimulating intellectual curiosities that once captured your imagination

2) 5 most wholesome and emotionally satisfying moments that you can still recall with great relish

3) 5 most morally courageous commitments you undertook together with others

4) 5 most satisying practical accomplishments from your academic, athletic or work life

5) 5 most wholesome and rewarding social engagements you’ve enjoyed

6) 10 most wholesome and grace-filled familial memories, persons, events

7) 5 most spiritually rewarding divine encounters and the persons who shared or mediated them, whether personally, through books or media, etc and 5 holy places where such encounters were gifted.

Commit the above inventory to memory and recite it daily. Recite it once. Or recite it 70 times. Recite it in the place of other tapes that have been playing in your head, perhaps for decades.

Go to this place of gratitude. It will become your sacred, safe place. It not only represents but constitutes your reality. It WILL rewire your brain. Neurons that fire together will wire together. Others that cease firing will eventually lose their wiring. I did this over 30 years ago and it rescued me. I refer to my Litany of Dayenu.

Dayenu (Hebrew:דַּיֵּנוּ‬) is a song that is part of the Jewish holiday of Passover. The word “Dayenu” means approximately “it would have been enough”, “it would have been sufficient”, or “it would have sufficed” (day in Hebrew is “enough”, and -enu the first person plural suffix, “to us”). This traditional up-beat Passover song is over one thousand years old.

Later, I listened to a Melody Beattie audiobook and she prescribed a similar daily inventory of gratitude and I better understood how and why my old spiritual hygiene had worked. Finally, my spouse came into this type of practice from yet another spiritual resource group and I witnessed its transformative influence on her, too.

In January 2003, I published the following: “How Wide Is Your Moat? – our holistic moat

The mutual fund industry has popularized the moat metaphor, a moat being that deep and wide trench around the rampart of a castle, that is usually filled with water. There are even pinball games, like Medieval Madness , in which players use different strategies to breach the castle’s defenses, such as the moat, the drawbridge, the gate, the wall. Sometimes the madness is not so medieval but very much contemporary, within our own psychological castle walls.

I have often thought of the analogy of the moat in other than economic terms. It might also be a useful image in considering a person’s general well being. Like a castle with its multiple layers of defenses, one’s general well being is also bolstered by its own moats and walls and gatekeepers and can be breached by many different types of attacks. There are times in our lives when we know our well being will have to do battle, when we need to both widen and deepen our psychological moats and pull up the drawbridges of our physical ramparts. The size of such bulwarks must be determined by many factors.

Let’s consider some examples of the types of battles we must all fight and of the kinds of defenses we might need to put in place to fortify our general well being. When we are healthy, physically, emotionally and mentally, and under no significant stress, in other words are not under attack physically or psychologically, the size of our holistic moat doesn’t matter much, seemingly.

I’m going to call this moat the holistic moat because its depth and width is determined by many factors which, I will argue, all need to be considered as a whole. Ignore any given factor and our defenses will be breached , which is to suggest that sometimes we don’t have a very wide margin of error to work with because our moat is both shallow and narrow. What are some of the things that fill up our moat and seriously jeopardize our castle of well being?

Well, certainly anything which can affect us emotionally, such as trauma due to grief, terror or physical injury, such as chronic or acute illness, addictions, broken relationships, financial difficulty, employment and career setbacks, academic and professional failure, damage to one’s reputation whether unjust or from a personal failure, and so forth.

The effects of aging or of a chronic debilitating illness, the propensity toward chemical imbalances of neurotransmitters, and other insults to our general well being, all of these things and more, can lower our defenses and increase our vulnerabilities to where we spiral down into near or total dysfunction and immobilization.

The return to any normalcy and full functionality can be difficult, near impossible. In such desperation, we can approach the point where we even lose the will to go on, despite our loved ones, and, assuredly, when the blessings of those relationships no longer weigh heavily enough in the balance against the pain of a truly tormented existence, the castle has been most seriously breached; our physical well being drawbridge is down; our emotional gate has been battered; our mental gatekeeper defeated.

Our spirit has thus retreated to the most inner recesses of our being and, though still sharing immanently with its Beloved in these innermost chambers, there is no felt sense of communion, neither with God nor with the castle cohort, that indwelling and abiding relating to family and friends, and most definitely not with the outer world of strangers.

What are some of the kinds of defenses we might need to put in place to fortify our general well being?

When our moat is narrowed and shallowed by any of the insults to our well being we have considered, we have no room to maneuver and have little margin of error. We cannot afford any mistakes and must move aggressively on all fronts.

If one’s castle is especially vulnerable, either chronically or acutely, one cannot take a casual approach to defending the castle.

One must proactively work to widen the moat! Like the Corps of Engineers on the Mississippi River, one must continuously dredge because the silt is being deposited 24/365 when we suffer from chemical imbalances or are otherwise in the midst of trauma, grief, anxiety or depression.

Physically, we cannot afford to miss out on proper diet, sufficient rest and good exercise. Our diet must be substantial and routine and not made up of the four mainstays of the 4 Cajun Foodgroups , which are sugar, salt, fat and alcohol .

Rest and exercise are essential, too, for manifold reasons documented elsewhere.

Medically , we must seek out pharmaceutical aids to help us through the acute phase of any substantial psychological crises with antidepressants or antianxiety prescriptions and maybe even sleep-aids or other therapeutic regimens.

Emotionally , we must force ourselves to interact with family and friends, with outdoors and nature, acting ourselves into a new way of thinking , unable to think ourseleves into a new way of acting.

Mentally , we may need ongoing psychological counseling and, perhaps, even that in combination with specialized trauma counseling or social welfare assistance and counseling.

Specialized support groups can be most efficacious in assisting and advising on all of the fronts under consideration here and can be an emotional lifeline. They can also make us feel a little less alone by being in the empathetic company of others who don’t know and will never know your tears but who have cried tears for similar reasons.

We should seek to stimulate and enrich our minds with good reading materials, uplifting movies and music, and engaging hobbies.

Spiritually , we may need spiritual direction, either formally or informally, with a director-directee relationship, or in a spiritual companioning mode with a fellow pilgrim with whom we may share a special spiritual kinship.

The life of prayer, no matter how arid or desolate, must be maintained with perseverance and discipline, privately and communally, perhaps augmented by small group participation but most definitely sharing as well in at-large community worship services.

Ideally, one can likely not implement the entire holistic regimen because the very exigencies and contingencies of life, which press in on us and lower our defenses, such as employment and parenting responsibilities, such as financial and physical constraints, also get in our way during the rebuilding efforts. However, one must aggressively and vigilantly attend to all of the factors within one’s means and to the fullest extent possible, notwithstanding constraints on one’s time and resources, and make these efforts a priority, because spiralling down to the lowest ebb of life will most assuredly defeat everything else one is trying to accomplish and deprive one of the vibrancy in one’s relationships, with God and others, that makes anything else worthwhile.

Our road to healing must be holistic and I emphasize this multifaceted approach because I have seen healing stratgeies sabotaged by approaches that don’t take the whole castle into account.

What good is it to deepen or widen a moat if one leaves the drawbridge down?

The attempt to make it through significant crises only pharmaceutically can backfire and bring on even more substance abuse. The temptation to self-medicate with over the counter stimulants or sedatives can simiarly cause problems. To take pills but not eat and rest properly is self-defeating.

Confusing psychological counseling and spiritual direction can be a problem; they are distinctly different enterprises, however related.

If one’s castle is especially vulnerable, either chronically or acutely, one cannot take a casual approach to defending the castle. One must proactively widen the moat!

Neglect of one’s spiritual life, in my opinion, represents the first shallowing of the holistic moat because the spiritual life, a life of prayer, is the climbing into the watchtower of our castle, lifting our hearts and minds to God, aligning our wills with His, and, whereby through ongoing self-examen and discernment, we can vigilantly gaze out over all of our defenses and remain on guard for those attacks that no castle avoids.

All of this we do as we await that Kingdom which is to come while living as safely as we can within that one which is already within us but constantly under siege.

It may be, that what I have outlined above can be viewed not merely as a defensive maneuver against life, but rather as one’s offensive strategy for looking to make one’s mark on the world. These are the very same things I’d suggest as New Year’s Resolutions, to anyone serious about deepening their relationship with God or their relationships with loved ones, to anyone interested in advancing on one’s academic or career path, etc

There is a great unity of purpose in the spiritual life, to a holistically informed lifestyle. When God is first in our lives, everything else falls into place and we will be about the same tasks in life whether our castle is under siege or not. Mark my words, however, it is best not to wait.

For all of my emphasis on remembering, I resonate fully with and heartily commend Fr Aidan Kimel’s Remembering and Forgetting, Depression, and the Healing of Memories @EOrthodoxy

Ode to Stringbean – a tribute to James Taylor

the true handy man doesn’t work on a house

with a pencil and a rule

what he’s handy with are his people you see

love is jt’s tool

most songs that are sung are about going home

according to his school

when life’s skies grow dark and full of clouds

and the world turns down right cruel

when ole stringbean sang about carolina

he sang about a woman not a state

about a holy host of others

loved ones his truest fate

he had no need for sad salvation army sisters

singing nearer my god to thee

or moonlight ladies in the canyon

he was going home you see

up on the roof went ole jt

what a fool I was to leave

the only happiness i’ve ever known

where the seeds of faith were planted

and the fruits of love were grown

where seldom was heard a discouraging word

only rockabye sweet grady james

where I always thought I would see you again

e’r my flying machine went up in flames

when ole stringbean sang about carolina

he sang about a woman not a state

about a holy host of others

loved ones his truest fate

he had no need for sad salvation army sisters

singing nearer my god to thee

or moonlight ladies in the canyon

shower the people sang jt

walking man walks like ole jt

in every life there are sacred places

where sweet memories abound

but it’s a place in time not a place in space

where a person’s home is found

when life’s cold winds blow and your back’s to the sun

what’ll turn your head around

are those precious sacred faces

whose voices make such precious sacred sounds

when ole stringbean sang about carolina

he sang about a woman not a state

about a holy host of others

loved ones his truest fate

he had no need for sad salvation army sisters

singing nearer my god to thee

or moonlight ladies in the canyon

b s u r like ole jt

he was going home you see

john s sylvest, 2014, bmi

lyrics put to melody 2018 – in production

The Best Systematic Theologians Become Ascetics & Mystics!

The existential leaps entailed in our liturgical & devotional practices and dogmatic & doctrinal formulations can be normatively justified by foundational theologies – philosophical, historical & exegetical.

Most believers appropriate such norms w/a subconscious competence.

Theologians, as practical more so than speculative scientists, first, consciously appropriate & explicate those foundational & doctrinal disciplines, then craft systematic expositions that might best foster pastoral communications & complement pastoral practices.

At one level, such expositions, while yet vague & commonsensical and trafficking in contemporary idioms, can still be eminently efficacious in fostering ongoing conversion & in integrally applying a faith outlook to every sphere of human concern.

I say this because, at another level, systematic expositions properly aspire to go beyond our vague & idiomatic expressions, which rely more so on successful “references to” than on robust “descriptions of,” to more rigorously define reality’s entities & precisely specify their relations.

The more speculative a metaphysic, however, the more tentative will be its ontology, hence, the more modest one should be in urging its de-ontological implications.

Metaphysical idioms aid apologetics, deepen understandings & help us locate the theological tensions within dogmatic & doctrinal canons.

We can’t expect metaphysics to resolve any tensions, dialectically, but they can help us dissolve some, paradigmatically &, when unable, otherwise, can still open new horizons for us to exploit them, creatively.

Christianity remains in search of a metaphysic, as does any philosophy of science (due to manifold & multiform aporetic causal joints).

When theological opinions diverge, eg trinitarian, their impasses might be found at any number of methodological loci, but, among coreligionists, presumably not in foundational & dogmatic disciplines.

If impasses are located in such a choice as between substantive & relational ontologies, we can too often expect them to prove too much, theologically, especially since such idioms have done very little to adjudicate so many other aporiae, whether philosophically or commonsensically, eg quantum interpretations, philosophies of mind, in/determinist freedom, etc.

When systematics cum metaphysics do locate tensions we can exploit creatively, beyond apologetics & deepened understanding, what forms might such exploitations take?

It’s here that our systematics serve – not only the missiological & epistemic, but – the ascetical & mystical!

Good systematics foster intellectual, affective, moral, sociopolitical & religious conversions, instill humility & expand horizons on our journeys to authenticity. They integrate with our prayer, mortification & unitive ascents. They transform us from otherwise hopelessly & aimlessly wondering wanderers into hope-filled & purpose-filled worshipful wonderers!

The best systematic theologians become ascetics & mystics!

You May Keep Your Trinitarian Kataphatic Crayons if You Color Inside Defensible Dogmatic Lines

There are many common phenomenological themes that present as we have encountered manifold & multiform aporiae throughout the great chain of being, beginning with whether or not being, itself, is a useful construct when predicated of existence writ large, mereologically, or even of a given existent.

An emergentist account has proved helpful as a heuristic device, which will strategically employ a suite of conceptual placeholders at each of reality’s causal joints in order to provide a lingua franca to alternate interpretations, typically, of emergent novel effects as will have appeared to have been proper to no previously known causes.

These aporiae have arisen and been addressed especially in the facts of quantum mechanics & the approaches of quantum interpretations, the facts of cosmology and interpretations of age-old & modern cosmogonies, the facts of biological realities and biogenetic interpretations, the facts of neurobiology and the interpretations of philosophies of mind, the facts of human sapience and the interpretations of brain & language evolution, the fact of human agency & freedom and the interpretations of free will.

The phenomenological lingua franca will typically be constructed using a familiar set of epistemic hygienes. I’m not suggesting this has always been consciously recognized as a rather universal epistemic suite, only that, having dabbled in these philosophies of science and some metaphysics over the years, although the terminology was different from one domain to another, I repeatedly encountered recurring themes.

A vague phenomenology will often:

1) prescind from necessities to probabilities

2) not a priori interpret probabilities as ontological vs epistemic

3) bracket ontologies, i.e. no root metaphor & no prioritization of entities or of relations or of static vs dynamical accounts

4) implicitly employ Aristotelian causes associated with acts & potencies

5) implicitly employ modal categories of both temporality & adequacy

6) navigate the shoals of essentialism & nominalism with a moderate realism

7) attend to predications (e.g. analogical, univocal, equivocal, apophatic, kataphatic)

8) attend to a conceptual typology (e.g. essentialist, fuzzy, vague, pluralist, cluster)

9) attend to philosophical distinctions (e.g. real, logical, conceptual, virtual, formal, metaphysical, modal)

10) attend to evidentiary standards for normative impetus (e.g. scholastic notations)

11) follow the rubrics of triadic inference (e.g. abductive, retroductive, inductive, deductive)

12) attend to triadic ellipsis (e.g. syntax, semantic, pragmatic, contextual)

13) confront paradox w/o a priori approach to its dialectical resolution, pragmatic evasion, paradigmatic dissolution, exploitation of creative tensions

14) return to fast & frugal heuristics of common sense (e.g. reductio ad absurdum, existential actionability)

15) consistent with common sense and vital traditions, recognize the value-realizations of successful reference even when successful description evades us

16) attend to the normative significance & existential actionability even of inchoate meta-heuristic realities, which impart reasonable ontological implications & suggestions, even when meta-physical ontological specifications & definitions otherwise elude us (e.g. Whether in a modest moral deontology, grounded in a tentative ontology, which invites an ethical pluralism derived from a suitable moral probabilism, or in a dogmatic theology, grounded in diligent historical, exegetical & mystical hermeneutics, which invite diverse theologoumena & a theological (sometimes even a polydoxic) pluralism, this is to recognize that there are still lines within which we must color, time-honored, tradition-tested, boundaries within which we best remain)

I just inventoried the above meta-heuristic rubrics without elaborating on examples or engaging them in a robustly explanatory way because I don’t have the time and space or interest, presently. At the same time, I’ve indeed treated this emergentist approach exhaustively over the years, elsewhere. For one thing, most who’d have any interest will rather quickly recognize its general themes, anyway.

My particular purpose, above, is to set forth this rubric to better reveal how it applies to trinitarian theology, where I see similar dynamics, tensions, aporiae, antinomies, paradoxes presenting and where rigorous parsings and prayerful reflections continue even after millennia.

To the extent that intratrinitarian realities will, definitionally, represent humankind’s ultimate aporetic horizon, this is to suggest that the problematics that inhere in the rubrics above are of a different order of magnitude (of difficulty!), because the above-listed heuristic devices address spatio-temporal, materio-energetic realities, where Aristotelian causes, acts & potencies, and semiotic modal ontologies & ellipses, simply do not adequately address, for example, the ousia or hypostasis of a putative actus purus, where a modal ontology would represent a category error, where kataphatic predications are so vague that they more so implicitly entail the inference-blocking strategy of a rationally apophatic via negativa (thankfully thereby at least providing dogmatic lines within which to color).

This is not to suggest, however, that there are no legitimate fields of discourse regarding the immanent trinity, only to recognize that philosophy is neither their academic starting place nor their proper existential landing. Others will have to determine which beliefs represent authentic dogma and/or legitimate opinions, which impart normative impetus to our moral excursions and/or liturgical celebrations.

It is to say that there are authentic dogmatic lines within which theologians should color in their otherwise diverse theological disciplines …

including normative (ethos & mythos) foundations (historical, exegetical & philosophical);

evaluative (pathos) liturgical & devotional doctrines and dispositions;

interpretive (topos) ecclesiological & systematic expositions; and

descriptive (logos & cosmos) propositions, which include soteriological & sophiological, ascetical & mystical, moral & pastoral, anthropological & eschatological communications.

In my view, they all best follow Lonergan’s trajectory of methods & his imperatives of conversion.

This is also to recognize that the above-bracketing exercise will not issue forth deliverances regarding whether a primarily relational or substantive intratrinitarian account is more coherent, but that, even left bereft of robust definitions of entities & specifications of relations, the church has for millennia, nevertheless, enjoyed the fruits of the reasonably presupposed successful dogmatic references, as implicated in its celebrations of same liturgically & mystically! And these have sufficed at producing spiritual fruits, reaping myriad consolations and fostering authentic conversions!

Ortho-communal belongings have cult-ivated ortho-pathic desirings inculcating ortho-praxic behavings, which have, with varying empirically measureable degrees of success from one community of believers to the next, authenticated ortho-doxic beliefs, all through a process of becoming, i.e. who we are meant to be, thereby realizing the freedom called forth by our temporal & eternal ends (telos).

Much of this is appropriated and validated much more so via our participatory imaginations than by our cognitive map-making excurses. Most of us taste & see the goodness of our leaps of faith without employing classical or analytical theology.

Still, those systematic theologians who continue to wrestle with intractable metaphysical & theological aporiae, just like the many philosophers of science, can hygienically cleanse our epistemic hubris and therapeutically purge our insidious conceptual idolatries, many of which can needlessly & scandalously divide our community of faithful.

Done with a suitable metaphysical circumspection and not overinvested with a supposedly universal normative impetus, theological opinion-giving, even regarding the Divine Essence, needn’t a priori retreat behind a radically apophatic, rational via negativa, which can, ironically, reveal a rationalistic bent, albeit inverse. It just had better plant its seeds in the existential soil of a prayerful, mystical garden of an experiential apophaticism and genuine religious conversion. And the intellectual and affective excesses of rationalism, encratism, quietism, pietism, fideism, relativism, voluntarism, intellectualism and so on can thereby best be avoided.

What might we not unreasonably infer from our own telic realizations, both temporal & eternal, secular & religious, and the manner through which they progressively gift our freedom?

Realizations that advance our mere agency to a clear liberty?

That reduce our unrealized potencies through increasingly authentic acts that determine them via habitual virtue?

And through which we receive the beatitudinal & beatific consolations that ensue from that sustained authenticity, which has been born of our ever-enlarging circle of loving personal relationships?

If that donative gifting of freedom thus ensues via our telic realizations of our truest nature, whereby loving interpersonal acts determine otherwise indeterminate potencies of our human relational realities, then, even without being able to definitively describe a divine entity or completely specify a divine relation, might we not reasonably infer that an Actus Purus (free beyond all freedoms imaginable, love beyond all loving conceivable) could be somewhat successfully referred to as having gifted such effects as would remain proper to no other known cause?

And also, at least, be somewhat successfully referred to as somehow & in some way (neither wholly describable nor robustly specifiable) a circle of loving personal relationships?

See also:

Freedom – from Aquinas to Modern Emergentist Semiotics

If freedom’s a realization of essence, the gratuity of creation already gifts us degrees of freedom via co/operative connaturality ordered to temporal ends, e.g. Lonergan’s secular conversions thereby foster an obediential potency to the gratuity of grace, necessary to realize our eternal ends, theological virtues, our fullest essence.

Co/operative graces don’t abrogate but bring freedom to fruition.

Acting per our temporal ends grows freedom, per our eternal ends IS freedom.

By analogy, infinite actuality to be His essence = God’s freedom.

Tracking Aquinas: Formal causes or habits grow & correspond to increasing freedom, as the ratios of acts to potency, formal to final causes, determinations to indeterminates, increase (in the direction of Actus Purus).

Interestingly, in modern emergentist semiotic accounts, final causes (teloi) have been parsed per degrees of indeterminate potency that have been progressively actuated & determined. Entities & states emerge as teleopotent or end-unbounded; teleomatic or end-stated; teleonomic or end-directed & end-purposed; teleologic or end-intended, where freedom is realized.

Whatever one’s position re nomicities (act/formal & potency/final), a more robust account of reality’s emergent, nested nomicities, as Lonergan might say, would provide “no end of room for God to work on the free choice without violating it.”

A generic emergentist semiotic heuristic can indeed provide a more robust account of creation’s nomic realities vis a vis divine interventions.

Avoiding Political Pseudo-Subsidiarity

Here’s a good inventory of authentic principles from Catholic Social Teaching toward our realization of the common good & community.

Dutiful critiques of various political ideologies, Left & Right, will uncover in them different types of pseudo-subsidiarity, ie revealing persistent patterns of various under- & over-emphases of such principles as well as inconsistencies in their application from one class of ends to another.

Here’s a look at some things that different party platforms and ideological approaches will variously properly emphasize as well as sadly ignore:

Governments’ interventions legitimately include fiscal, monetary, economic, foreign, military, rights enforcement & curtailment, moral expressions (both homogenous & diverse) & such, all fostering the ends of order, peace, justice & morality.

While no ends would be a priori removed from or added to deliberations regarding such interventions, the burdens of argument lie w/advocates for interventions.

Presupposed are sufficient solidarity, moral enculturation & public deliberation, which foster the formation of a common will (degrees thereof). Also presupposed is ongoing interventional accountability.

Interventions require a proper ongoing assessment of the competencies of persons (subsidia) as individuals & at each institutional level to determine comparative effectiveness.

For a given specified end, interventions to advance the common good remain in tension w/the preservation of personal dignity, though individual rights & liberties may be limited to preserve the common good & interventions must be attenuated by suitable majority constraints to protect minority rights.

A Semiotic Phenomenology toward a more Ecumenical Trinitology and Trinitophany

If one breaks open a new category, semiotically, for an actus purus, such as with Peirce’s Ens Necessarium, one could, for example, apophatically negate such conceptions as temporal priority in trinitarian relations, even while kataphatically affirming that such relations are onto-logically fundamental (note below). Similarly, one could negate the conception of creativity vis a vis intra-trinitarian entities, while affirming an eternal generativity.

This semiotic move doesn’t force one into either a relational or substantive ontology, a theistic personalism or classical theism, Palamism or Thomism. It’s not trying to explain, much less prove, that much!

Its apophatic negations, metaphysically, would be literally true, saying, in essence (wink): “I know you’re familiar with conceptions of act & potency, but dis ain’t dat!”

Its kataphatic affirmations would be more trinitophanic, Biblically, than trinitological, systematically and/or philosophically.

Trinitophanic affirmations refer to intra-trinitarian eternality, generativity, relationality, koinonia, hypostasis, prosopon, ousia & physis.

However, prior to (though not without) their rational & intellectual apophatic metaphysical implications, they invite a more robustly mystical & experiential apophaticism.

Semantically, while such concepts may be vague & their full meaning elusive, that situation is, perhaps, less due to the limitations of our modeling power, epistemically & methodologically, and much more so due to the intra-trinitarian nature, ontologically & metaphysically.

We generally don’t a priori assume that any reality is necessarily permanently occulted, ontologically. Rather we suppose that we are otherwise being only temporarily thwarted, methodologically (e.g. principle of sufficient reason).

Still, the last aporiae we’d ever pass, in principle, due to sheer epistemic distance, will not be “what it feels like to be a bat” or “how to reconcile gravity & quantum mechanics” and such. If, with all due epistemic humility, we must nurture a healthy aporetic sense regarding quantum interpretations, philosophies of mind, and biologic & cosmogonic origins, how much more so, then, regarding divine energeia, much less divine ousia?

It often seems that the most we can aspire to rationally with such trinitarian affirmations & negations is a demonstration that, taken together, they aren’t logically contradictory, and that, while incomprehensible, they aren’t unintelligible. There’s sufficient rationality here to avoid fideism and sufficient mystery to avoid rationalism.

Historical & exegetical foundations (and general revelation) demonstrate the reasonableness of our creedal trinitarian affirmations & trinitology vis a vis the cognitive map-making of our epistemic modeling power (including our rational via negativa & positiva as well as our sustained authenticity via secular & kenotic conversions).

The ascetical, mystical & liturgical experiences (and special revelation) of our participatory imaginations foster our trinitophanic human value-realizations (truth, beauty, goodness, unity & freedom) via both connaturality & grace (including our mystical vehicle negativa or relational apophaticism as well as faith via our religious & theotic conversions).

The best theological anthropologies will primarily model Biblical theophanies not trinitarian ontologies.

Faith and mystical experience – not metaphysical understanding (via either philosophical or systematic theology) – ground our understanding of divine unity, which is not purely substantive but relational.


Saying that intra-trinitarian relations are onto-logically fundamental is a trinitophanic affirmation grounded in historical & exegetical realities of special revelation. As such, it invokes only vague, commonsensical (heuristic) conceptions and not robustly metaphysical specifications, e.g. re-ordering entities & relations, indicating substantive vs relational ontologies. The take-away is that we are somehow dealing with a mystery involving loving relationships. That stance has normative significance (ontological implications & suggestions of a heuristic) for any subsequent systematic expositions (ontological definitions of a theory) of doctrine, which different metaphysics will try to further articulate.


When I refer to what I (likely idiosyncratically) call my semiotic phenomenology, I am talking about the basic categories most often applied to entities & relations, including general realities like act & potency, Aristotelian-like causes, modal temporality, modal adequacy, various types of concepts, predications & distinctions, various evidentiary standards that impart different levels of normative impetus, triadic inference, types of triadic ellipsis, a plain vanilla emergentism (e.g. w/o supervenience) and a meta-heuristic architectonic with anthropological, epistemological, ontological, axiological (evaluative & normative), theological & mythological categories.

I engage the grammar of those categories & distinctions prior to choosing a root metaphor & w/o prioritizing either relations or entities. As such, this phenomenology is but a meta-heuristic of meta-metaphysical placeholders, which mostly brackets specific metaphysics, epistemologically modeling value-realizations prior to elaborating a metaphysic. The premise is that there are many values to be shared & realized inter-ideologically, inter-religiously & ecumenically, metaphysically & really, even while we all remain in search of a metaphysic. Good thing, huh?

See also:

I commend the article, below, for the best direction to pursue that search.

Wesley J. Wildman, “An Introduction to Relational Ontology,” in John Polkinghorne and John Zizioulas, eds. The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010): 55-73