I have some extremely exciting news that I've been keeping under wraps for some time, and this morning it finally came out. At 9:00am ET, I launched StrangeNotions.com, a major evangelistic project which was two years in the making.
Strange Notions is designed to be the central place of dialogue between Catholics and atheists. One implicit goal is to bring non-Catholics to faith, especially followers of the so-called New Atheism. As a 'digital Areopagus', the site includes intelligent articles, compelling video, and rich discussion throughout its comment boxes.
(If you can't see the video above, click here.)
Strange Notions gets its name from St. Paul's speech at the Areopagus in Acts 17:16-34. There he proclaimed the Resurrection to the intellectual elite of the ancient world, who responded by saying, "you bring some strange notions to our ears; we should like to know what these things mean." StrangeNotions.com helps those asking the same thing today. Open-minded atheists will encounter reasonable arguments for God and his Church, maybe for the first time in their lives, and like St. Paul's listeners they’ll leave intrigued by these strange notions.
I've gathered several top Catholic minds to contribute to the site. Right now we have over 30 on board, including Dr. Peter Kreeft, Dr. Edward Feser, Fr. Robert Barron, Fr. Robert Spitzer, Dr. Benjamin Wiker, Dr. Christopher Kaczor, Dr. Kevin Vost, Christopher West, Jimmy Akin, Jennifer Fulwiler, Marc Barnes, Leah Libresco, Stacy Trascanos, Mark Shea, Carl Olson, and many more. The project has also received several great endorsements including these:
"Brandon Vogt is at the cutting edge of using the Internet and social media as a tool for evangelization...I believe that his latest endeavor, StrangeNotions.com, is an excellent example.”
— Bishop Christopher Coyne, Archdiocese of Indianapolis
"Brandon Vogt brings his energy, enthusiasm, and prodigious intellectual gifts to the Catholic conversation and demonstrates how social media can be used effectively to advance the mission of the Gospel."
— Fr. Robert Barron, founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries
This site is timely for several reasons:
- On May 12 the Catholic Church around the world will celebrate World Communications Day. Pope Benedict XVI, shortly before he stepped down, composed this year's official message which he titled, "Social Networks: Portals of Truth and Faith: New Spaces for Evangelization." This project embodies that theme as it uses social networks as "new spaces" to evangelize.
- Over the last ten years, the number of self-identified atheists in America has increased 500%. They're one of the country's fastest growing religious groups yet almost no Catholics engage them. Strange Notions is a frontier project in this needed effort.
- In the midst of the Year of Faith and the New Evangelization, this is a creative example of using "new ardor, new methods, and new expressions" to evangelize.
Any way that you could cover the site, either with a blog post, an interview, or by sharing the video trailer would be a huge help.
If you have any questions, email me at email@example.com. And please tell me what you think in the comment boxes!
Today marks the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest thinker in Church history. The Dominican prodigy is best known for his two massive "Summas", the Summa Theologica and the Summa Contra Gentiles, along with a wealth of other writings on Scripture, theology, and philosophy. Pope Benedict XVI recently noted St. Thomas' influence on the Church:
"It is not surprising that, after St. Augustine, among the writers mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, St. Thomas is quoted more than any other—some 61 times! He was also called the Doctor Angelicus, perhaps because of his virtues, in particular the loftiness of his thought and purity of life...
"In short, Thomas Aquinas showed there is a natural harmony between Christian faith and reason. And this was the great work of Thomas, who in that moment of encounter between two cultures—that moment in which it seemed that faith should surrender before reason — showed that they go together, that what seemed to be reason incompatible with faith was not reason, and what seemed to be faith was not faith, in so far as it was opposed to true rationality; thus he created a new synthesis, which shaped the culture of the following centuries."
For a brief introduction to St. Thomas and his work, check out this video by one of his most devoted disciples, Fr. Robert Barron:
If you'd like do go even deeper, here are my favorite four books on St. Thomas:
- Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master by Fr. Robert Barron
- Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide by Dr. Edward Feser
- Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox by G.K. Chesterton
- A Summa of the Summa by Peter Kreeft
Thanks to Kevin Knight at New Advent, who has digitized St. Thomas' entire Summa Theologica, below you'll find an excerpt from the First Part which outlines St. Thomas' famous five proofs for the existence of God.
It should be noted that these aren't proofs for God in the mathematical or scientific sense. Instead these are arguments appealing to the logical evidence for God. Also, St. Thomas uses philosophical terms like cause, necessity, and existence which for him carry very precise technical meanings which are often different than how we use those words today. Thankfully, Kevin has linked many of these terms to their entries in the Catholic Encyclopedia so if you come across one you're unfamiliar with, click on the link to understand it better.
As per his usual style, St. Thomas begins with objections to his position. In this case, the two objections are the existence of evil and Occam's Razor. Next he appeals to an authority who disagrees with the objections (often the Bible, Aristotle, or St. Augustine), then he explores a possible answer, and then finally he refutes the original objections. The selection below will not only answer the question, "can we know God exists?", but will also give you a taste of St. Thomas' characteristic style.
Article 3. Whether God exists?
Objection 1. It seems that God does not exist; because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the word "God" means that He is infinite goodness. If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.
Objection 2. Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God's existence.
The first and more manifest way is the argument from motion. It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion. Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by another, for nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is in motion; whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act. For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality. But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality. Thus that which is actually hot, as fire, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, and thereby moves and changes it. Now it is not possible that the same thing should be at once in actuality and potentiality in the same respect, but only in different respects. For what is actually hot cannot simultaneously be potentially hot; but it is simultaneously potentially cold. It is therefore impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e. that it should move itself. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another. If that by which it is put in motion be itself put in motion, then this also must needs be put in motion by another, and that by another again. But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is put in motion by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.
The second way is from the nature of the efficient cause. In the world of sense we find there is an order of efficient causes. There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Now in efficient causes it is not possible to go on to infinity, because in all efficient causes following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate is the cause of the ultimate cause, whether the intermediate cause be several, or only one. Now to take away the cause is to take away the effect. Therefore, if there be no first cause among efficient causes, there will be no ultimate, nor any intermediate cause. But if in efficient causes it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause, neither will there be an ultimate effect, nor any intermediate efficient causes; all of which is plainly false. Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.
The third way is taken from possibility and necessity, and runs thus. We find in nature things that are possible to be and not to be, since they are found to be generated, and to corrupt, and consequently, they are possible to be and not to be. But it is impossible for these always to exist, for that which is possible not to be at some time is not. Therefore, if everything is possible not to be, then at one time there could have been nothing in existence. Now if this were true, even now there would be nothing in existence, because that which does not exist only begins to exist by something already existing. Therefore, if at one time nothing was in existence, it would have been impossible for anything to have begun to exist; and thus even now nothing would be in existence — which is absurd. Therefore, not all beings are merely possible, but there must exist something the existence of which is necessary. But every necessary thing either has its necessity caused by another, or not. Now it is impossible to go on to infinity in necessary things which have their necessity caused by another, as has been already proved in regard to efficient causes. Therefore we cannot but postulate the existence of some being having of itself its own necessity, and not receiving it from another, but rather causing in others their necessity. This all men speak of asGod.
The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things. Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But "more" and "less" are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest; so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being; for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being, as it is written in Metaph. ii. Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus; as fire, which is the maximum heat, is the cause of all hot things. Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God.
The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.
Reply to Objection 1. As Augustine says (Enchiridion xi): "Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil." This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.
Reply to Objection 2. Since nature works for a determinate end under the direction of a higher agent, whatever is done by nature must needs be traced back to God, as to its first cause. So also whatever is done voluntarily must also be traced back to some higher cause other than human reason or will, since these can change or fail; for all things that are changeable and capable of defect must be traced back to an immovable and self-necessary first principle, as was shown in the body of the Article.
What do think of St. Thomas' arguments?
Today I have the great pleasure of interviewing Matt Fradd. Matt was born in Australia—hence the wicked accent which makes him sound 36% more intelligent—but now lives and works in San Diego, California for the well-known apostolate, Catholic Answers.
As a Catholic apologist, Matt helps people discover the beauty and truth of Catholicism. His strongest passion is to help atheists come to faith. He's written many blog posts about atheism and has a forthcoming booklet on the topic.
Matt also travels the country speaking about pornography, masculinity, and chastity. One of his most popular talks is called "The Man Talk" which helps men live authentically masculine lives. Another talk, "Taking Down Goliath," helps men escape pornography addiction. To that end, Matt also launched a website called The Porn Effect in order to undermine the pornography culture.
In our interview today, Matt and I discuss many of these favorite topics including authentic manhood, how men can become free from pornography, and how Catholics should respond to the most popular atheist arguments.
Watch or download our interview below:
1:12 - Why is pornography so dangerous?
3:54 - How can men overcome pornography addiction?
5:33 - 1. Admit you have a problem.
5:54 - 2. Prayer and fasting.
7:05 - 3. Accountability.
8:13 - 4. Be open to counseling.
10:04 - 5. Forgive ourselves.
12:39 - How does secular masculinity differ from Catholic masculinity?
16:28 - What's the most common argument for atheism?
19:45 - How do you respond to the problem of evil?
22:20 - What is Pascal's Wager and why is it so powerful?
Q: Why is pornography so dangerous to individuals and society?
Well, I like to start off by saying to people that the problem with pornography is not that it shows too much, but that it shows too little of the human person, that it reduces a human to the lowest common denominator. It teaches a man or a woman to think that a woman is but a collection of body parts for my amusement rather than a person to be loved.
Check out Matt's website, MattFradd.com and be sure to follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
What do you think about Pascal's Wager?
"The habit of reading is the only enjoyment in which there is no alloy; it lasts when all other pleasures fade." — Anthony Trollope
This was a relatively slow reading year for me. After knocking out 87 books last year and 108 two years ago, I only finished 54 titles this year. Granted, 2012 brought many wonderful diversions: our third child, Augustine, was born; I studied hundreds of hours for the Professional Engineering exam (which I passed!); I had several new writing and speaking commitments; and I worked on two large book projects. Considering all that activity I’m actually surprised I read as much as I did.
Yet 54 books still provide plenty of options for my annual favorites list. As with prior lists, these are my fifteen favorite books, not the most acclaimed, the most timeless, or the best-written. They're simply the ones I liked the most, the ones I kept thinking about well after finishing.
Only about half of these books were published in 2012. But as C.S. Lewis says, novelty isn't always good; newer books haven’t passed the test of time. Regardless, some of these older books may be unfamiliar to you and therefore “new” in the best sense of the word.
Also, this year I’m splitting the list up into three parts. The whole thing came ended up being 4,300 words which is way too long for a single post.
So with that, here are my favorite titles from 2012 (in descending order):
Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker
(Emmaus Road, 2008)
Richard Dawkins is the de facto leader of the “New Atheism,” a strange breed of unbelief characterized by vicious, vulgar, and militant attacks on religion (mostly on Christianity, and especially on Catholicism.) In 2006, the Oxford biologist wrote his scathing book, The God Delusion. The book, a sacred text for New Atheists, is plagued by confused science, bad philosophy, and even worse theology.
Dr. Scott Hahn and Dr. Benjamin Wiker are well aware of the book’s shoddy arguments. But they've troubled many of their otherwise well-formed students. So the two theology professors composed this book-length refutation, thus providing a definitive answer to the New Atheism.
The book argues against Dawkins from many angles. It covers St. Thomas’ famous cosmological proofs for God’s existence. It shows how objective morality, required for Dawkins to call religion “bad,” itself ultimately points to God. In the book’s strongest section, the co-authors point out several flaws in Dawkins’ understanding of Darwinian evolution—of which Dawkins is perhaps the world's most famous proponent—along with misunderstandings about probability and cosmological “fine-tuning.” They effectively show how evolution is not contradictory toward faith, and that using Darwinism to answer metaphysical questions is an ultimately futile pursuit.
Other books refute the New Atheists on higher intellectual grounds—I’m thinking of Dr. Ed Feser’s The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism and David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies—but Answering the New Atheism is a fantastic popular-level primer.
(Ignatius Press, 2001)
Acclaimed biographer Joseph Pearce begins profiling J.R.R. Tolkien by examining his early influences. Tolkien’s childhood years in the English countryside birthed a love for beauty, simplicity, and nature, all of which we see embodied in the idyllic Shire.
Later, however, Tolkien was forced to move into an industrial, urban city. He hated it. The crashing machines, suffocating smoke, and cold architecture all grated against his desire for the quiet, country life. The experiences formed a lifelong distaste for technology, which we also see in his epic Lord of the Rings trilogy.
But it was Tolkien’s early conversion to Catholicism that most indelibly affected his writing. His faith gave him a deeply sacramental view of the world. It enabled him to see God in all things, sacred and secular. That's why he could describe his seemingly-secular Lord of the Rings trilogy as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” even though it never mentions God, Christ, or the Church. Yet behind Tolkien's hobbits and dwarves, elves and wizards, lay many Catholic ideas. We see virtue, sacramental symbolism, and the constant hand of Providence, especially in the darkest moments. We also see grace building on nature, a specifically Catholic idea.
As both a Catholic and a literary Englishman, Pearce is the perfect guide to Tolkien’s faith-infused fiction. Most Tolkien biographies either skip his Catholicism or profoundly misunderstand it. Pearce gets it just right, and because of that his is my favorite biography of the Middle-Earth architect.
(Ave Maria Press, 2012)
From my earlier review:
In his new memoir, From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart: Rekindling My Love for Catholicism, Chris Haw recounts how he went from leading worship at one of the country’s largest megachurches, to protesting on behalf of the homeless and hungry, and finally to a crumbling Catholic parish in one of America’s darkest cities...
Sacred Heart Parish, in Camden, NJ, reawakened his childhood Catholicism. The liturgy’s paradoxical emphasis on the Cross and death, combined with his appreciation for Rene Girard and his “scapegoating” theology, ultimately drew him back in.
The book’s first half tracks Chris’ journey from megachurch evangelicalism to urban Catholicism. But in the second half, he offers profound meditations on themes like liturgy, violence, peace, death, and how to cope with the Church's institutional dysfunction.
From beginning to end, From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart is poetic, honest, and raw. It’s one of the most beautiful spiritual memoirs I've encountered, bearing the same mesmerizing glow as Dorothy Day’s Long Loneliness and Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain. If you liked those classic books, you'll enjoy this one.
(Our Sunday Visitor, 2012)
When reading anything about the New Evangelization, whether it be from the popes or the recent Synod, a constant them is the need to encounter Christ. As Pope Benedict explains in his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est:
"Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction..."
In my years as an Evangelical, this was common knowledge. Everyone knew that Christianity was grounded on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. But as fellow-convert Sherry Weddell knows, many Catholic parishes miss this focus.
Over several years, Sherry has traveled the world, delivering workshops designed to help parishes become schools of discipleship. She's collected all of her wisdom and success stories into this new book, which is perfect for priests, small groups, or individual study.
The book provides a road-map for parishes to become disciple-factories, yielding people who know and love Jesus and are excited to share him with others. The book gives several examples of this throughout the country, places where an emphasis on personal conversion has transformed a community’s spiritual tone and commitment level.
All of this makes Forming Intentional Disciples a must-read, practical guide to carrying out the New Evangelization. The movement is fundamentally about helping people encounter Christ and this book shows how parishes can facilitate that end.
6. How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice: Civil Responses to Catholic Hot Button Issues
(Our Sunday Visitor, 2012)
- The Church and Political Life
- Homosexuality and Contraception
- Equality and Religious Freedom (including the recent HHS mandate)
- Assisted Suicide
- Clerical Sex Abuse
- Defending the Unborn
- Catholics and AIDS
- The Meaning and Purpose of Marriage
- Women and the Church
However, this book is not just apologetics. It’s a guide to discussing these contentious topics with reason and grace. Effective strategies like “re-framing” and “positive intention” help diffuse heated conversation and pave the way for more productive dialogue. Watch below for a deeper review:
What were your favorite books of 2012?