LUCRETIUS – The Consistent Atheist

I have just read a book that has achieved a rather impressive audience recently: The Swerve, by Harvard Professor of Humanities Stephen Greenblatt.  Accurately subtitled “How the World Became Modern”, it is a look at the re-discovery and modern embrace of Roman Epicurean philosopher-poet Lucretius and his epic work On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura).

Little is known of Lucretius’ life. One historian writes that “Lucretius was probably a member of the aristocratic gens Lucretia, and his work shows an intimate knowledge of the luxurious lifestyle in Rome. Lucretius’s love of the countryside invites speculation that he inhabited family-owned rural estates, as did many wealthy Roman families, and he was certainly expensively educated with mastery of Latin, Greek, literature, and philosophy.”

In chapter 8, Greenblatt  summarizes Lucretius:

Everything is made of invisible particles, eternal, infinite in number but limited in shape and size, all in motion in an infinite void.  The universe has no creator or designer.

Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve [i.e. random motion]; the swerve is the source of free will.

Nature ceaselessly experiments. The universe was not created for or about humans; humans are not unique. Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival.

The soul dies; there is no afterlife; death is nothing to us.

All organized religions are superstitious delusions, and invariably cruel.

The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.

The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.

Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.

Continue reading



I referred recently to the difficulty of fully uprooting the weed of anti-Semitism from the Catholic Church, despite the heroic efforts of modern popes (Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, and Benedict XVI).

Consider Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras: papabile, (considered possible pope material), indeed a leading contender as John Paul II’s successor, and one of eight cardinals chosen by the current pope to reform the church.

I described him earlier as a Liberation (i.e. Marxist) Theologian.  Let me demonstrate, from his speech on October 25 (read it all here):

He rails against “the neoliberal dictatorships that rule democracies” and advises that “to change the system, it would be necessary to destroy the power of the new feudal lords.Continue reading

Progress Report on the Search for Faith

[Written November 11, 2013]

Still searching.

The best result so far is that I can accept the Thomist logic of a plausible God.  But I cannot make the leap from this Philosopher’s God to a loving, caring, father God; and only such a God can offer Hope for what I love. (see previous posting)

The Catholic Church attracts me, calls to me.  Its commitment to Faith and Reason is essential: I cannot believe in a God who makes no sense.  This Thomist thought is one of the Catholics’ greatest contributions to humanity.  (Not to mention other gifts such as clarified morality, organized charity, and the sanctity of marriage.)

But sometimes the church seems to know too much.  Too much confident Dogma where it seems only Trust can serve.  Too much certainty regarding details of God’s thinking.

On this too-great certainty the Church has constructed a demand for trust in its own thinking; and the Church has too often been too wrong.  It has been the fountainhead of anti-Semitism.  It has massively and brutally inquired into individual souls.  It has criminalized heresy and apostasy.

To its credit, the modern Church has purged itself of these errors (sins).  This has been late in coming and grudgingly accepted, but it has happened.  The heroic efforts of the modern popes (from Pius XII to Benedict XVI) deserve honor.

I cannot oppose myself to the Catholic Church of today.  Indeed, the Church today stands as the leading champion in defense of almost all that I hold dear and that is now under such attack.  Family, Life, Truth.

So I find myself standing with the Church…but apart from it. Continue reading

Hope for the Hopeless, O, Abide With Me

News today from the Mideast – all bad.  The Israeli-Palestinian “peace talks” drag on, with the US Secretary of State publicly blaming Israel for the lack of success.  In Geneva the US is on the verge of giving Iran the kind of deal the Mullahs want; in response, the Saudis are ready to buy their own nukes from Pakistan.  It will take a miracle to prevent a truly horrible all-out war in the region within a year. (My friend Mr. Hans Moleman has an insightful take on all this at his site

Back home, the trend towards undermining of the family continues at a rapid and yet accelerating pace.

Meanwhile, I continue my lonely search for Faith. And I sometimes wonder why.  What is so imperative about Faith?

I could, like many good people I know, put the Big Questions aside. Without Faith I could live a relatively moral, or at least decent, life, and when the time comes die a bravely accepting death.  It mightn’t be too bad.   I have lived an extremely easy life; with luck I could just continue on until it ends.

But without Faith there is no Hope.  And that I cannot do without.

As a young man, I saw the world as do most young men fresh out of (liberal arts) college: a cesspool of suffering and misery, caused by greed and folly, and just waiting for some brave, bright young man like me to set all things right.

The course of my adult life was one of gradual discovery (re-discovery, some might say) that there was much to love and value in this world.  The beauty of art and music, as humans re-capitulate the wonders of nature. The courage shown throughout history by those fighting (what they believed was) the good fight. The endless search to find the truth about ourselves and our world.   In a word, the great culture we have been blessed to inherit, and graced with the opportunity to hand forward to the future.   (In a word, I became conservative.)

But all this appreciation brings with it fear – the fear that every parent feels when gazing into his child’s future.  Can it possibly be safe, in such a dangerous world?

What if everything exists by accident, constructed on nothing, the result of an inexplicable chance pinpoint explosion called the Big Bang?  If we are accidental, then all we have done and built is doomed, if only by the force of Entropy.  We see these forces of entropic doom all around us every day, and we keep our sanity only by extreme mental exercises.

Some place their hope in mankind and science as the forces that will save us.  This is a fool’s hope, available only to those who haven’t looked into it too deeply.

Some avert their eyes and seek constant distractions to avoid thinking about it.  This works well until it doesn’t.

And some find Hope in their Faith in a loving God who cares about us and has a plan for us.

I have tried the first two, and they no longer work for me.  So I keep knocking on Door Number Three.

I still don’t know if God exists. But I know that without God, there is no Hope.

And I don’t think I can live without Hope.

What If God Is NOT Omnipotent?

Much thinking (and prayer) goes into the matter of Theodicy: Why does God allow suffering of the innocent?  Great minds have been working on this for a long time, and I have nothing to add to this debate.

But I find myself wondering otherwise.  What if God cannot stop accidents of nature (disease, flood, etc.) from hurting the innocent? And what if He cannot stop me from hurting others?

In giving me Free Will, He has certainly given me the ability to choose to hurt others.  So it seems reasonable that He cannot stop others from being hurt by me without robbing  my choices of their reality and their results.

And perhaps, in creating a rational world of cause and effect, He has also set in motion physical events that He cannot prevent without making His world irrational. 

The Bible shows God consistently acting out of love for us.  When we seem to suffer unjustly (as does Job), then God wants us to accept that it is part of His higher reason, His divine wisdom.  We are to accept and trust in His divine wisdom, even though it be incomprehensibly beyond our own human reason  We are to accept and trust.

Islam simplifies the matter somewhat. God (Allah) is pure will.  Our only choice is submission (Islam). Even seeking o understand His will is presumption and blasphemy.

Acceptance. Trust. Submission.  God’s divine wisdom.  The will of Allah. 

Is there really any difference?

But what if God is not omnipotent?  What if He made us as we are, and the world as it is, and he must let us, and it, play out as our choices, and nature’s cause and effect, play themselves out?

Clearly, as regards us and our choices of good and evil, He who created us must care which we choose.  If we choose to hurt others, He must feel pain – for the suffering of our victims, and also for our own failure to see and choose the right path.

Certainly, the God of the Prophets is one who suffers greatly, in both sorrow and  anger, when His chosen people choose badly.  (Abraham Heschel wrote beautifully about this in The Prophets.)  This feeling, indecisive god seems so human, and so far from the unchanging, eternal first cause of the philosophers, that one wonders if they are even related.

Could God be all-powerful in creation, but an emotional basket-case in dealing with his self-determining creatures?  Could He be like a parent of a willful child?  Full of good advice but unable to stop His child from making its own mistakes?  And in the end, having only His perfect love to offer?

Predestination: If True, Why Try?

Of all elements of Christian belief, predestination is perhaps the least acceptable to me.

For one thing, it undermines the strength of one of the great realisms of biblical faith: free will.

If predestination is true, then why bother resisting temptation, or seeking God, or … anything?  If God has ordained my success or failure at finding Him, at being saved, then I am Home Free (or the opposite).  And my Free Will, which I now struggle to direct in the right way, is all for nought.  It is an illusion.

Predestination seems to me as foolish and hopeless as the atheist philosopher’s materialist determinism.

I am undoubtedly missing something here.  But for me, the relevant question is this:  Is Predestination a necessary belief?


Visiting the Valley

Recently I have spent some time volunteering at our hospital’s cancer treatment center, where folks come as out-patients  to receive their regular chemo-therapy.  The patients and nurses are grateful, and we seem to make things a little easier. We help with ordering and serving lunch, fetching drinks, blankets, pillows, and things like that; what would be orderly work in the wards.

Most of the volunteers are themselves cancer survivors.  I am not.  And I got to thinking about the significance of that reality.

My wife is a cancer survivor – a very successful one.  Twenty-eight years since her cancer, with no recurrence!  But I know the fear of it never entirely leaves her.  Her annual screening is always a time of some anxiety, for me as well as for her (though she hides hers well).

While working at the center, I had a thought: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” The 23rd Psalm. And I understood it, in a way I never had before.  Every patient in there was walking through the valley of the shadow of death.  And the fortunate ones, the survivors like my wife, never entirely leave the valley.  They just make it to the brighter side of the valley.  But they never entirely leave the shadow behind them.

Of course, the rest of us are just as mortal; we all live with the daily possibility of death being around the next corner.  Car accidents, heart attacks, whatever – the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.  But we don’t think about it.  The shadow of our mortality does not block our sun.

But cancer is different.  No doctor will ever tell you that they got all the cancer cells.  You know there may be some in there, lying in wait for you.  You know their name.

I suppose heart attack and stroke survivors may be in a similar situation.  The chance of recurrence of those seems never to go away either.  Maybe they dwell in the valley too.

What is remarkable to me is how well most cancer survivors deal with the shadow.  Judging by the ones I know, they may be the least depressed people around. This is courage, no doubt, but also something else.

The awareness of the near presence of death has often been regarded as a morally salutary thing.  “Memento mori” (“remember death”), the Romans were told in their moments of greatest triumph.  Yet I think no one really does that except those dwelling in the valley of its shadow.  I know my wife cherishes every birthday as a gift, a gift of time, of life.   I try to emulate her attitude.  She is a constant example to me, of the courage to live life to its fullest.

When I volunteer at the center, I am visiting the valley. I find the valley-dwellers to be for the most part surprisingly cheerful, yet never frivolous.  They are serious about life, but never somber.

And when I sit at a bedside vigil for a dying patient, I watch them exiting the far end of the valley. I bid them farewell.

This volunteering is an invaluable gift to me, a memento mori as well as a memento vivere: “remember to live”.

Roger Kimball, Modern Art, and Flabby Elites

Roger Kimball of New Criterion has an excellent essay up at PJ Media, entitled “Annals of the art world: everything old is new again“.  He portrays the sad emptiness, the hollow pretensions, the “mere flabbiness” of modern “transgressive art.”

It reminded me of something I wrote a while back, in 2011, about something else written even further back,by classicist Gilbert Murray in 1940 (that’s how these things go, some time).   Murray pithily sums up the art world, and much the rest of culture, from around 1900 or so.

“First come inspiration and the exaltation of breaking false barriers: at the end comes the mere flabbiness of having no barriers left to break and no talent except for breaking them.

Here is “The Mere Flabbiness of the Elites”.


I came across a passage which seems to describe in remarkably succinct terms the process of the “avant garde” elite’s degradation of our culture.  It is in a 1940 book on Aeschylus by the classical scholar Gilbert Murray.  He is contrasting his subject with the turmoil raised by the Sophists of Athens.

“The development is one which has often been repeated in ages of great intellectual activity.  Vigorous minds begin to question the convention in which they have been brought up and which they have now outgrown.  They reject first the elements in them which are morally repulsive, then the parts that are obviously incredible; they try to reject the husk and preserve the kernel, and for a time reach a far higher moral and intellectual standard than the generations before them or the duller people of their own time.

“Then, it seems, something is apt to go wrong.  Perhaps a cynic would say – and it would be hard to confute him – the element of reason in man is so feeble a thing that he cannot stand successfully except when propped in the stiff harness of convention. At any rate there is always apt to come a later generation which has carried doubt and skepticism much farther and finds the kernel to consist only of inner layers of husk and then more husk, as the place of George IV’s heart, according to Thackeray, was supplied by waistcoats and then more waistcoats.

First come inspiration and the exaltation of breaking false barriers: at the end comes the mere flabbiness of having no barriers left to break and no talent except for breaking them. “

(Gilbert Murray, Aeschylus pp. 79-80)

I must confess that, not being a classical scholar myself, I found this only by reference in Eric Voegelin’s Plato and Aristotle, the third volume of his Order and History.  EV’s analysis of Plato’s exposes of the Sophists has made it clear to me that these clever, clever men were the true models of much of modern Western society. ”Plato saw Athenian society as the Sophist writ large”, says EV somewhere, and it seems to be true again in our own day. The inter-connectedness of the Advocate, the Social Scientist, and the Community Organizer seem to me to be most meaningfully placed under the umbrella of the Sophists, all in more or less open, contemptuous rejection of the search for truth of the philosopher and the religious believer.

At any rate, Kimball’s book sounds like it will be worth the pain of reading it.

A tip of my hat of the hat (or at least a touch to the brim or knuckle to the forehead) to Jay Nordlinger at NRO’s Corner for pointing me to all this.

An Unbeliever’s Prayer Journal



I write this after spending the morning at the bedside of a dying lady. Sophia (not her real name) is in a nursing home, and the hospice assessment is of “imminent death.” Family, friends and volunteers maintain a vigil so she will not die alone. But she will die.

We give her soothing words and strokes, which she may or may not hear or feel. They are given anyway.  Prayers are offered by others, and I want to pray, for her sake. But prayer is a problem for me.

I am not a believer. I am at most a seeker, trying to find faith in God, but not succeeding. I am as consumed with doubt and uncertainty as I am with a desire to believe.

So how do I pray? And to whom?

“God, if you are there, please…” That sounds as heartfelt as a letter addressed “To Whom It May Concern.” Or even worse, a message in a bottle tossed into the sea: “If anyone finds this, please…”

Can such a prayer, so conditioned upon doubt, be sincere or meaningful? If I were God, would I answer such a prayer? Not if I was having a busy day.

Can I address the Lord as “God, if you exist,” or “God, IYE…”, the way devout Muslims refer to “the Prophet, peace be upon him…”, abbreviated as PBUH?

So there’s that problem. To whom do I pray?   The other problem is “For what do I pray”?

A priest once explained that there are three types of prayer: to praise God, to thank God, and to ask God for something.  In Sophia’s room, the third seemed most in order.

What do I ask for Sophia? Recovery? A quick, easy death? Rest? To hang on a little longer? What exactly is it she needs most, what is best for her? God only knows.

And that’s the problem. Whatever is best, whatever she needs, God knows it better than I do. And because He loves her, he will give Her what is best, with or without my advice. Any specific request seems terribly presumptuous: “I’ve given this a lot of thought, Lord (IYE), and I think you ought to…”

Finally, and simply, I find myself saying, “God, be with Sophia.” I don’t know if He is anywhere, or even IS, but I sure want him to be with Sophia. I know my wanting and my asking are of no account. But it is what I want. So I said it, over and over, as the hours passed.

I realize it is not really coherent. If God exists, He is there with Sophia; if not, then not. My request cuts no ice either way. Even if, as Martin Buber said, we can only talk TO God, and not about Him, it seems silly.

Still, I repeated my silent prayer. And to Sophia, I spoke aloud when she was restless. “Rest, Sophia. God is with you.” How fraudulent, even cynical! As if I know that to be the case! But I knew it was what she, as a believer, wanted and needed to hear. And it is what I wanted for her. So I said it. I don’t know if she heard it, or if He heard it.


Which brings me to my little friend, Vivian. A wonderful, bright, beautiful 5-year old daughter of our wonderful loving neighbors, and big sister of a wonderful, rambunctious 3-year-old brother.

Her family is the best missionary project I have ever seen. They are a living billboard for Christianity’s ability to generate and support the very best kind of people and families. I am blessed to live next door to them and to play with the kids whenever I have the energy. It is a joy to bask in the glow of this loving family.

Well, Vivian has been diagnosed with cancer. She is being treated at a top hospital, and her type of tumor is a rare form of childhood kidney cancer with a very good survival rate. She is getting chemotherapy. The odds are in her favor. But she is suffering, and her parents are suffering.

Like all of their friends, I have offered any help I can give. Her family asks only for prayers.  And I face the same problems described above regarding Sophia. To whom, and how?

So I prayed “God, be with Vivian”

But I could not stop there. My prayer for Sophia was vague because I don’t know how to be more specific. A certain humility stops me from giving God my impertinent list of demands.

Not so with Vivian. I know what I want God to do. I want him to heal her tumors, to make them go away. And I want her restored to health, and her family restored to peace.

And I want it NOW!

I realize how presumptuous this is.  God, with whom I am not even on speaking terms, knows what is best for Vivian and her family. And He loves her far more than even I do.

So I should just pray “Thy will be done,” and leave it in His hands. But I cannot.

I pray my very specific prayer, hoping He will forgive the impertinence.

“God, please heal my Vivian.”


Sophia clings to life. My visits to her bedside continue to be lessons in prayer.

Since she is Catholic, I brought along an old Missal (Saint Andrew, 1949) I had found at a thrift store (99 cents: see below, “The Forgotten Books of Witness”).   In the back, I found a section of “Votive Collects”: short prayers for various needs.

“For the sick”? No, “restoration to health” was not the point.  “For a dying person”? “Refresh the soul” seemed a good request, but as for “all her sins being washed away”, I did not feel it my place to ask. I don’t know her well enough to know anything about her sins, if any. Asking forgiveness seemed presumptuous for me. Likewise the prayer “For a happy death”.

I found one I really liked: “For Pilgrims and Travelers”. “Hear, O Lord, our humble prayers and set Thy servant Sophia in the path of Thy salvation; that amidst all the changes and chances of this life, she may ever be sheltered by Thy help.”

The “Secret” part of this prayer (a Catholic thing, I guess) asks that God “send Thy grace before her to guide her steps, and sending it with her be pleased to accompany her on her way; both in her progress and in her safety.”

I liked the image of Sophia on her journey.  I remember once, driving along the east coast of Florida near Cape Canaveral, we quite accidentally got to see a rare night launch of the Shuttle.  It lit up the sky as if we were passing a brightly-lit city. As we watched, it became a single bright spot, which rose straight up.  Then, it did something I had not expected: it made a sharp, almost 90 degree turn to the southeast. And only then did it look like what it actually was; a ship of explorers sailing away from us, into uncharted territory.  I always thought of rockets as unique space things that went straight up.  Only when I saw that shuttle turn and sail away (rather than up) did I realize that the people in it were pilgrims and travelers.

Another prayer caught my attention at just the right moment. Nursing homes, especially in the dementia wards where dying patients are often placed, are all too often filled with the cries and screams (sometimes articulate, sometimes not) of suffering patients. It is rarely physical suffering: pain management usually handles that these days. It is rather the anguished cries of confusion and loneliness: “Get me out of here”, or “Help me”. Others wail or shriek like Banshees.

It is not neglect. The overstretched staff cope as best they can, trying everything to soothe and quiet the sufferers, but to little avail; as soon as the staffer moves on to other duties, the screamer continues. Dementia can be an implacable demon.

One particularly strong-voiced Banshee has her meals near Sophia’s door. While listening to her, I found the prayer “In any Tribulation”: “Despise not, O almighty God, Thy people who cry out in their affliction…” I didn’t quite understand how a loving God could despise these sufferers, but that was beside the point. I certainly knew how irritated those shrieks could make me, and the others around her.

I didn’t try to pray that one, as I am sure God (IHE) must love the suffering Banshee, without any advice from me. But I found myself repeating it silently every time she cried out in her affliction. I needed the reminder, not God.

I thought of my favorite parable from the Gospels (Luke 18:9-14), about the pious Pharisee who prays “God, I thank Thee that I am not as other men are.” I think of this prayer whenever I find myself feeling smug.

I still have discomfort with the idea of praying a very specific prayer for a specific outcome for someone. Yet I admire the trusting relation they must have with God who pray so. They let their pain and their need flow from their hearts, straight to their loving parent, in personal conversation.

They seem unconstrained by doubt and rationalization about God. Prayer, without IYE qualifiers, is a loving and personal conversation with the God of all Creation.

How I envy them.  There can be no greater blessing than faith in a loving God.  I want that faith and that blessing; but wanting does not seem to be enough.

Yet, despite the impertinence and the hypocrisy, I keep praying: “God, please heal my Vivian! She has so much traveling yet to do.”

[UPDATE:  Sophia died a few days later, peaceful and surrounded by her family.  Her journey is at an end.]


I wrote earlier about my young neighbor and friend Vivian, who is battling a rare kidney cancer (I hope for your sake that you are not familiar with Wilms’ tumors, or any of the other diseases that prey on children.) She has been through hell: surgery, chemotherapy,  nausea, feeding tube, hair loss.  Tough stuff for an almost-six year old.  The Valley of the Shadow of Death is a tough enough place for adults.  But for six-year olds?

She and her brave family are still fighting, and the prognosis is very hopeful.  But the road is a hard one: More chemotherapy, then surgery, then radiation, then more chemotherapy.  And always prayer and more prayer.

Throughout her pain, Vivian remains brave and hopeful and trusting and loving.  And her parents maintain their lonely vigils, all the while continuing to keep life as normal as possible for their 3-year old son (100% boy!).

This family is one of the most beautiful examples of loving faith I have ever seen.

You who can pray, pray for my Vivian and her family.

[UPDATE: Vivian’s seven-month-long chemotherapy is done, and her prognosis is very good.  She and her family are back home, next door to us, and Vivian and her brother stop over to visit us regularly.     So now, prayers of Thanksgiving must be added to the ongoing supplications for her (and her family’s) continued good health.]

Note on DANTE

My name, Ben Finiti, is borrowed from Dante’s Purgatorio, Canto III, Line 73.  The excellent new translation by W. S. Merwin reads it as “you who ended well”, and is addressed to the souls in Purgatory.  They had lived sinful lives, but were able to turn it around and be forgiven at some point before they died.

For anyone living, it is therefore an aspiration rather than a fact.  It is my aspiration.  If I die today, I will have failed.  But I am not giving up. (And so far I’m feeling well; thanks for asking.)

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I cannot read or speak Italian; I don’t even like Italian food.  But Merwin’s version, with original and translation on facing pages, makes it easy, and lets me make an attempt at enjoying the music of Dante’s beautiful poetry.]

The rest of the verse, in Italian, is:

“O ben finiti, o gia spiriti eletti,”

Virgilio incomincio, “per quella pace

ch’i’ credo che per voi tutti s’aspetti,


ditene dove la montagna giace

si che possibil sia l’andare in suso,

che perder tempo a chi piu sa piu spiace.”

[In Merwin’s English:]

“O you who ended well,” Virgil began,

“o spirits already chosen, by that peace

which I believe awaits you every one,


tell us in what place the mountain slopes

so that it would be possible to climb,

for who knows most grieves most at the loss of time.”

[I love that last line.   I can certainly appreciate Merwin/Virgil/Dante’s sense of urgency.]

Here are some other examples of Dante’s lyricism (from Merwin’s beautiful translation of  Purgatorio) 

“fatti sicur, che noi semo a buon punto”   (“Take heart, it is good to be where we are now.) IX 47

ch’or si or no s’intendon le parole” (“now the words are heard and now are not.”) IX 145

e piu e men che re era in quell caso.”  (“and at that moment he was less and more than a king.”) X 66, of David dancing before the Ark.

pensa che questo di mai non raggiorna.” (“Think that this day will never dawn again.”) XII 84

di vera luce tenebre dispicchi.” (“you gather darkness out of light itself.”) XV 66

d’amaro sente il sapor de la pietade acerba.” (“the flavor of raw pity when tasted is bitter.”) XXX 80-1

di pentimento che lagrime spanda.” (“penitence that is poured out in tears.”) XXX 145

Merwin’s translation is in many libraries, and online at Amazon’s used book section.

Dante wrote in iambic pentameter, so it should flow like Shakespeare:

“But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? 

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”

A quick guide to Italian pronunciation is here.