Getting the Joke: From New Yorker Cartoons to Dark Matter – The  Priority of Christ  


               To get a joke, you have to recognize the incongruous and anomalous within the congruous and ordinary. Robert Barron introduces us wonderfully into the topic: Barron: “I love the clever cartoons in the New Yorker magazine. But there are some times when, though I have seen all the characters and understood fully the caption, I don’t understand why a given cartoon is funny – I don’t ‘get ‘ it.’ Then, although I have seen no new feature of the design nor grasped a new word of the caption, I see the pattern that obtains, the light goes on, and I smile. The philosophy is how we manage to see something as something, precisely what is at stake in ‘getting’ a joke. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said that the most puzzling problem in all of philosophy is how we manage to see something as something, precisely that is at stake in ‘getting’ a joke. He illustrated the issue with his famous example of the ‘duck-rabbit’ design, a simple drawing that, squinted at from one perspective and the right suggestion in mind, looks like a duck and, perceived from another angle and with a different suggestion, becomes a rabbit. Such perception involves the transcendence of the merely empirical or measurable – this feature or that – and rises to the far more elusive grasping of a formal structure.”

               The humor of the New Yorker joke always has something to do with the developed dignity of man, the prototype of whom is Jesus Christ. The joke is invariably the incongruity of the denizen of the City, and the developed social sophistication of same which point toward Jesus Christ for its meaning. That is to say, jokes and narratives of creation discover meaning in Jesus Christ.  Barron writes:

“This means that Jesus is the iconic representation of the very mind of God, the enfleshment of the pattern according to which God fashioned the universe. In the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Colossians we find a similarly bold claim in regard to Jesus. We are told that he is the ‘image (eikon) of the invisible God,’ the one in whom ‘all things were created, in heaven and on earth… [and] all things hold together’ (Col 1, 15- 17). Infinitely more than one prophet among many or one spiritual teacher alongside others, Jesus is the lens through which the whole of reality is properly read, the means by which we correctly see the universe as something. Balthasar said that Christ ‘is the unchangeably valid blueprint in every situation in the world and in history.’ These maximalist metaphysical claims carry the implication that the narratives and doctrines concerning Jesus are epistemologically basic. To state this negatively, the Jesus presented in the New Testament must function as an epistemic trump, that is to say, the truthful pattern that cannot be finally gainsaid by any rival system, philosophy, or overarching perspective. This claim by no means disallows insights from other points of view and intellectual disciplines, but it does rule out the possibility that those views or disciplines could, at the end of the day, fundamentally contradict what is presented in and through Jesus Christ. This is why the Catholic tradition, at its best, has exhibited a generosity in regard to mythic, philosophical, and scientific claims to truth, seeing them as logoi coherent with the Logos. But Jesus is the final and definitive pattern by which reality is interpreted – the manner in which we ‘get’ God and the world, and the dynamics of our own spiritual transformation. That claim stands at the heart of the Catholic intellectual tradition.” [1]

               In Defense of “Laudato ‘Si:”

Where else do we find this? Pope Francis: “Laudato ‘Si” in nos. 233: “The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things. Saint Bonaventure teaches us that ‘contemplation deepens the more we feel the working of God’s grace within our hearts, and the better we learn to encounter God in creature outside ourselves….  (234) Encountering God does not mean fleeing from this world or turning our back on nature. This is especially clear in the spirituality of the Christian East. ‘Beauty which in the East is one of the best loved names expressing the divine harmony and the model of humanity transfigured appears everywhere: in the shape of a church, in the sounds, in the colors, in the lights, in the scents.’ For Christians, all the creatures of the material universe find their true meaning in the Incarnate Word, for the Son of God has incorporated in his person part of the material world, planting in it a seed of definitive transformation. ‘Christianity does not reject matter. Rather, bodiliness is a considered in all its value in the liturgical act, whereby the human body is disclosed in its inner nature as a temple of the Holy Spirit, and is united with the Lord Jesus, who himself took a body for the world’s salvation.”

               Consider the Eucharist: (236) “It is in the Eucharist that all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation. Grace[2], which tends to manifest itself tangibly, found unsurpassable expression when God himself became man and gave himself as food for his creatures. The Lord, in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter [underline mine]. He comes not from above, but from within, he comes that we might find him in this world or ours. In the Eucharist, fullness is already achieved; it is the living center of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life. Joined to the incarnate Son, present in the Eucharist, the whole cosmos gives thanks to God. Indeed the Eucharist is itself an act of cosmic love: ‘Yes, cosmic! Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world.’[3] The Eucharist joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation. The world which came forth from God’s hands returns to him in blessed and undivided adoration: in the bread of the Eucharist, ‘creation is projected toward divinization, toward the holy wedding feast, toward unification with the Creator himself.’ Thus, the Eucharist is also a source of light and motivation for our concerns for the environment, directing us to be stewards of all creation.”

               John Henry Newman: “Catholic Fullness:” This means that because the entire cosmos has been created in the image and likeness of the Son of God, the inklings of the Son are to be found throughout all creation, material and spiritual:

“Now, the phenomenon, admitted on all hands, is this:—that great portion of what is generally received as Christian truth, is in its rudiments or in its separate parts to be found in heathen philosophies and religions. For instance, the doctrine of a Trinity is found both in the East and in the West; so is the ceremony of washing; so is the rite of sacrifice. The doctrine of the Divine Word is Platonic; the doctrine of the Incarnation is Indian; of a divine kingdom is Judaic; of Angels and demons is Magian; the connexion of sin with the body is Gnostic; celibacy is known to Bonze and Talapoin; a sacerdotal order is Egyptian; the idea of a new birth is Chinese and Eleusinian; belief in sacramental virtue is Pythagorean; and honours to the dead are a polytheism. Such is the general nature of the fact before us; Mr. Milman argues from it,—”These things are in heathenism, therefore they are not Christian:” we, on the contrary, prefer to say, “these things are in Christianity, therefore they are not heathen.” That is, we prefer to say, and we think that Scripture bears us out in saying, that from the beginning the Moral Governor of the world has scattered the seeds of truth far and wide over its extent; that these have variously taken root, and grown up as in the wilderness, wild plants indeed but living; and hence that, as the inferior animals have {232} tokens of an immaterial principle in them, yet have not souls, so the philosophies and religions of men have their life in certain true ideas, though they are not directly divine. What man is amid the brute creation, such is the Church among the schools of the world; and as Adam gave names to the animals about him, so has the Church from the first looked round upon the earth, noting and visiting the doctrines she found there. She began in Chaldea, and then sojourned among the Canaanites, and went down into Egypt, and thence passed into Arabia, till she rested in her own land. Next she encountered the merchants of Tyre, and the wisdom of the East country, and the luxury of Sheba. Then she was carried away to Babylon, and wandered to the schools of Greece. And wherever she went, in trouble or in triumph, still she was a living spirit, the mind and voice of the Most High; “sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions;” claiming to herself what they said rightly, correcting their errors, supplying their defects, completing their beginnings, expanding their surmises, and thus gradually by means of them enlarging the range and refining the sense of her own teaching. So far then from her creed being of doubtful credit because it resembles foreign theologies, we even hold that one special way in which Providence has imparted divine knowledge to us has been by enabling her to draw and collect it together out of the world, and, in this sense, as in others, to suck the milk of the Gentiles and to suck the breast of kings.

“How far in fact this process has gone, is a question of history; and we believe it has before now been grossly exaggerated and misrepresented by those who, like Mr. Milman, have thought that its existence told against {233} Catholic doctrine; but so little antecedent difficulty have we in the matter, that we could readily grant, unless it were a question of fact not of theory, that Balaam was an Eastern sage, or a Sibyl was inspired, or Solomon learnt of the sons of Mahol, or Moses was a scholar of the Egyptian hierophants. We are not distressed to be told that the doctrine of the angelic host came from Babylon, while we know that they did sing at the Nativity; nor that the vision of a Mediator is in Philo, if in very deed He died for us on Calvary. Nor are we afraid to allow, that, even after His coming, the Church has been a treasure-house, giving forth things old and new, casting the gold of fresh tributaries into her refiner’s fire, or stamping upon her own, as time required it, a deeper impress of her Master’s image.

“The distinction between these two theories is broad and obvious. The advocates of the one imply that Revelation was a single, entire, solitary act, or nearly so, introducing a certain message; whereas we, who maintain the other, consider that Divine teaching has been in fact, what the analogy of nature would lead us to expect, “at sundry times and in divers manners,” various, complex, progressive, and supplemental of itself. We consider the Christian doctrine, when analyzed, to appear, like the human frame, “fearfully and wonderfully made;” but they think it someone tenet or certain principles given out at one time in their fullness, without gradual enlargement before Christ’s coming or elucidation afterwards. They cast off all that they also find in Pharisee or heathen; we conceive that the Church, like Aaron’s rod, devours the serpents of the magicians. They are ever hunting for a fabulous primitive simplicity; we repose in Catholic fullness. They seek what never has been found; we accept and use {234} what even they acknowledge to be a substance. They are driven to maintain, on their part, that the Church’s doctrine was never pure; we say that it never can be corrupt. We consider that a divine promise keeps the Church Catholic from doctrinal corruption; but on what promise, or on what encouragement, they are seeking for their visionary purity does not appear.”[4]


            And so, it is suggested that in view of “Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover The Rest of Reality” (cf. “The 4% Universe” – Richard Panek), it would be wise to bring theology to the table. As I posted two days ago from Robert Barron: “Following the inner logic of Christian revelation, Newman, like Bonaventure, saw that theology not only should be around the table [of all intellectual disciplines] but must be the centering element in the conversation, precisely because it alone speaks of the Creator God who is metaphysically implicit in all finite existence.”[4] What theology brings to the table is the experience of reality as subject, rather than object  which takes place by empirical sensation and abstraction into categories. The experience of Christ is very different from the experience of a tree. To experience Christ, one must become Christ by doing what Christ does [as relation to the Father]. Christ gives Himself. The tree – or the cosmos – does not give itself. Hence we experience them in two irreducibly different ways.  But both those ways make up the human way of knowing. And if the material universe is the extension of the humanity of Christ – and the humanity of Christ is not object but “Subject,”[5] then it would be necessary to enter the sensible cosmic order subjectively. This is apparently what was in the mind of Heisenberg in attempting to formulate the indeterminacy principle. Ratzinger remarked in this regard: “The intellectual approach of modern physics may offer us more help here than the Aristotelian philosophy was to give. Physicists know toda that one can only talk about the structure of mat ter in approximations starting from various different angles. They know that the position of the beholder at any one time affects the result of his questioning of nature. Why should we not be able to understand afresh, on this basis, that in the question of God we must not look, in the Aristotelian fashion, for an ultimate concept encompassing the w hole, but must be prepared to find a multitude of aspects which depend on the position of the observer and which we can no longer survey as a whole but only accept alongside each other, without being able to make any statement about the ultimate truth? We meet here the hidden interplay of faith and modern thought. That present day physicists are stepping outside the structure of Aristotelian logic and thinking in this way is surely an effect already of the new dimension which Christian theology has opened up, of its need to think in ‘complementarities”… E. Schroedinger has define the structure of matter as ‘parcels of waves’ and thereby fallen upon the idea of a being that has no substance but is purely actual, whose apparent ‘substantiality’ really results only from the pattern of movement of superimposed waves. IN the realm of matter such a suggestion may well be physically, and in any case philosophically, highly contestable. But it remains an exciting simile for the actualitas divine, for the absolute ‘being-act’ of God, and for the idea that the densest being – God – can subsist only in a multitude of relations, which are not substances but simply ‘waves,’ and therein form a perfect  unity and also the fullness of being… But let me also mention the second aid to understanding provided by science. We know today that in a physical experiment the observer himself enters into the experiment and only by doing so can arrive at a physical experience. This means that here is no such thing as pure objectivity even in physics that even here the result of the experiment, natures’ answer, depends on the question put to it. In the answer there is always a bit of the question and a bit of the questioner himself; it reflects not only nature-in-itself, in its pure objectivity, but also gives back something of man, of our individuality, a bit of the human subject….There is no such thing as a mere observer. There is no such thing as pure objectivity…[6]

[1] R. Barron, “Exploring Catholic Theology,” Brazos (2015) 64-65.

[2] Which is Divine Love as affirmation of the creature imaging the Father’s engendering the Son.

[3] John Paul II, “Ecclesia de Eucharistia”## 8 and 48.

[4] Barron, “The Priority of Christ,” op. cit. 159.

[5] “Feel Me and see that a ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones as you see I have” (Lk. 14, 29).

[6] J. Ratzginer, “Introduction to Christianity,” Ignatius (1990) 124-5.


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