Saturday, June 30, 2012

On Confession (and the Priesthood)


[This is an extended and more in-depth version of the one available on the Knights of Columbus,  Tonti Council's Website]


My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

As I was praying with my rosary I began thinking about what it means to be a Knight of Columbus [an all-men group who dedicate themselves to fraternity, charity, support of their local churches, and support of priests and bishops]. I would similarly like you to think about what it means to be an adult and member of our Church. The qualities of loyalty, perseverance, and courage come to mind quickly. But as knights of our holy Catholic Church we are called to have an additional set of virtues which are faith, hope, and charity.
Check them out at their website: KOC

We and the Church by our efforts do a great deal of good, and I think we should be proud of that fact. Nevertheless we can also point to times when we're weak, forgetful, and sinful. This is where God comes in—he is our strength, our sword, and our shield. He gives us many personal graces but His greatest gifts are the Holy Eucharist and the other sacraments.

And the key word here is that they're gifts. We don't have to pay for them and sometimes we feel like we don't deserve them but, all the same, they are given for us to take.
The Sacraments founded on the Source of Life.

Now the sacraments Baptism, Marriage, Anointing of the Sick, Confirmation, and Holy Orders are not so much our concern here. What I want to focus on is the Eucharist and Confession/Penance/Reconciliation. Now, I trust all of us regularly attend mass—if not I encourage you wholly!— so my sincere urging this time will be to accept and embrace the gift of Confession.

Many of us readily accept the joy of Baptism and Marriage, and many of us stand before the altar to receive our Lord, but so many of us run away from the Sacrament that was central to Jesus' earthly ministry—that is to say forgiveness.

We all know the command that Jesus gave to His whole Church: go and baptize all nations in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In this commission we are all 'ones who are sent,' which is to say apostles and disciples.

But Jesus gave a command to His priests, his Apostles specifically chosen from among the people just as the elders of Israel were assembled by Moses (cf. Numbers 11:16-17). This time, however, it was not merely a prophet but the divine Word that selected these men.

For those who would doubt the priesthood of the Apostles, her special function, and the validity of their successive line, consider the following:

He chose twelve men, eleven who remained, to reveal the Word to all by their preaching and priestly ministry. For Christ told them at His last supper “whoever receives the one I send receives me” (Jn 13:20). He selected them from among the people to reveal the meaning of his teaching and to be leaders to those they gathered. As they spread the Word, they also laid their hands and selected from among the many communities men of sound character and true faith to carry on their work. They had the people assemble those from among their own who were “filled with the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3) so they might be “appointed” for a specific task. Then the Apostles “prayed and laid hands on them” (6:6). These men here were deacons but priests (and even bishops) were also selected from the line of the Apostles. For St. Paul tells Timothy (a bishop himself) to “stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands” (2 Tim 1:6). That gift is the priesthood specific to the Apostles. Even Paul himself was “appointed [by Christ] as preacher and apostle and teacher” (1:11). Furthermore he praises presbyters [Greek word for priest or elder] who preside well. All the same he warns him, “do not lay hands too readily on anyone [so as to confer this priesthood on them]” (1 Tim 5:22).
The seven men first chosen by the Apostles, men whom they laid their hands upon.

A tradition which continues today.

Truly, let anyone who denies a specific and holy priesthood among the faithful consider these words.

As such Christ selected his Apostles from among the many others he met and set them apart. Christ commanded them: Go and forgive the sins of my people and lead them to me. Be to them as I am to you (and so share the burden of my mission in a special way), give them my Body and Blood and give them forgiveness of their sins.

The Apostles stand as both a representation of mankind in that they are and were like us: weak, fearful, and doubtful. But they stand apart in that they were raised by Christ to bear His name and participate in his royal priesthood. He “gave them authority over unclean spirits and every illness” (Mt 10:1) and to give this gift freely (cf. 10:8). Furthermore, when Christ forgave the sins of the paralytic those around him questioned him and accused him of blasphemy. Yet to prove that He could forgive sins he healed him as well. But, at the end of this passage it states: “But the crowds, seeing this, were awestruck and glorified God who gave such authority to men” (my translation from the Greek, Mt 9:8). A fuller treatment is necessary, but not here. For our purposes it is worth reflecting on why the plural was used by Matthew and that the authority in question was the forgiveness of sins.
All that effort and Christ decides to heal him of his sins first.

This is where Confession is so important. This is the sacrament of healing, the healing of one's sins. And this sort of healing was preferred to the healing of the body (cf. The story of the paralytic, Mt 9:1-8). My brothers and sisters, it is easy to be courageous against a shared threat and it is easy to be courageous against something from the outside. But even truer courage comes from recognizing the threat inside of us: the stain of sin and how we, at times, let the enemy into our gates.

Yet as knights, that is to say faithful Catholics, we are to protect our priests and protect those who are as “sheep among wolves.” We can only be strong when we are weak, that is to say that we must humble ourselves. We can only show others how to convert their hearts when we convert their own. By allowing Christ into our hearts through the Sacraments we are transformed by that grace. We allow, humbly and with joy, simple and concrete realities to effect a great change in us. For in the same way Christ effected a great change in the world by adopting our frail and small humanity—something we received with joy.

Jesus said that we should not fear those who harm our body but rather the Enemy who can harm our soul (cf. Mt 10:28). Confession is a gift that remains unopened and unused, especially here in the United States and Europe. If no one goes, no one cares or notices. I encourage you all to strengthen your soul by a regular reception of the Eucharist and an attempt to regularly receive this great sacrament.

As we walk before the altar we ask for the greatest gift ever given. In Confession we are prepared to stand before the altar, we are instructed by holy priests (find one you know and trust!) to recognize sin and our sinfulness, and we are given Christ's peace. How often is it that we believe we know our own hearts—yet it turns out we live in self-doubt, darkness, and ignorance. This is the true gift of friendship, of good people, and good priests! They will help you know yourself.
"Show me the way to Ars and I will show you the way to Heaven." ~St. John Vianney
A priest, one whom you can trust and one whom you can be honest with will do more for your soul than any personal prayers could accomplish. Personal prayer should never be abandoned, but neither should your priests—let alone the whole body of the Faithful!

Remember that “he who conceals his sins prospers not, but he who confesses and forsakes them obtains mercy” (Prov 28:13). How easy it is to 'conceal our sins' by keeping them to ourselves, saying them only in our head. Even this can be hard. How much harder, yet more freeing, is it to confess openly and in person? But the person you are confessing to is one completely and readily willing to forgive those who seek conversion and absolution. This is because he was commissioned by Christ, installed by His holy Apostles through Him, to help 'share the burden of the people of God.'

Stand up for those who are afraid and ignorant of their own sinfulness and confront your own. It is by the strength of all the Sacraments of the Church—gifts of God—that we will flourish!


Yours in Christ and a sinner like you,

M

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

On Tolerance

I'll begin with a jarring statement to most readers: it seems to me that the Catholic Church is really the most tolerant of anyone or anything.

This is because the Catholic Church has rightfully questioned everything and accepted what it must. It is derived from the fact that we see creation as good and, as such, there is nothing that exists separated from goodness—no matter how hopeless. We are tolerant precisely because we call things evil and because we call things good. These are like the actions of a wise gardener who prunes leaves and branches, allowing the good to grow properly and the bad to fall lifelessly.

Indeed, the history and hagiographies [lives of the saints] of the Church attest to this attitude. St. Martin of Tours, though he had the mighty pine tree cut he erected an altar in its place. He removed the worship of something false with the worship of something true—he did not remove worship.

St. Catherine of Sienna scolded and encouraged Gregory to return to Rome. She did not seek to rid the Church of the papacy but rid the Church of the errors of the papacy.

But it seems that others consider themselves more tolerant by virtue of their adherence to progress, equality, or some such idea. Secular-types may see themselves as tolerant because equality and liberty are good, even though many disagree as to what sort of good they are. Some see utility as good, others consequences, and others still tolerance itself as a good worth pursuing in its own right. I propose we step back for a moment and look at these matters in brief:

+Those who propose a sort of utilitarianism replace the notion of good with "useful" and "beneficial." These terms are often anything but permanent and subject to a great number of changes. This avoids the discussion of what is really good. It is also a disposition that lends itself to casting off one thing in favor of another, e.g., the old for the new. The old being "what doesn't work" and the new being "what does work." If anything, utilitarianism is almost always intolerant to things seen as obsolete.

I readily confess that this attitude can be adopted by those who espouse an objective good. For some, this is how they see Martin of Tours above: he replaced the old worship with a better one. But unlike this, with an objective good in place one may easily examine the means by which that good is achieved and why. And this is also why Martin of Tours did not act out of a desire for utility. He did not believe that it was more beneficial for Germans to believe in Christ, he believed that it was necessary.

+ Others still try to champion the idea of progress, but it is often without purpose or direction. Some try to give each human being everything but they often ignore what it means to be human. They often reduce human beings to mere biology and the human person to whimsical preference. That is to say there there is no purpose to life but happiness, whatever it may be.
But if one progresses without knowing from where or to where they are going, he might as well be going in circles, which is to say he isn't progressing at all.

Tolerance

Tolerance has been very watered down as of late. In reality we are all intolerant of some things. Even to the person shallow enough to believe tolerance is "I like X, but I'm not forcing you to like it [and other variations]" is intolerant of various things.

And yet the rubik's cube remains unsolved despite there being a solution.

So we must ask ourselves, 'Is tolerance really something that is self-evident? Or is it the case that the grounds for tolerance lies in something else?'

I would argue that without a proper discussion of what is good we can never truly discuss what tolerance is. And anyone who discusses tolerance has some idea of what is good, yet some have been foolish enough to suggest that tolerance is a good in itself. These ones really are the most confused of all on this subject. This is because they don't realize that in order to tolerate anything there must be something worth tolerating.

Toleration, as some have seen it, is to love the person regardless of who they are or what they do—within reason. They cite love as the key to tolerance, yet this in itself is a poor argument. When one examines love it is paradoxically the most freeing and oppressive of things.

Love is seen most powerfully between persons and less perfectly in things. Those who advocate tolerance (as a higher good than 'good') ask people to love others without a care for what they do. Yet, for one who is in love cares for nothing but what his beloved does.

When one makes tolerance a greater good than "goodness," what that person is really saying is that "since we cannot agree on what is really good, let us make peace, concord, and our personal happiness our aim. Let us allow what we both see as good to be determined by these things." This is all very good if we all lived alone but this is not the case nor is it practical.

Tolerance, I say, comes from an agreement on what is really good and not from an agreement that it is better to not pursue that answer. This is why I can tolerate the faithful and moderate (for lack of a better term) Muslim or Lutheran more than many others, since they agree that good must be pursued, defined, and lived.

But I believe that Augustine gives us great wisdom when he says "love the sinner but not the sin."

More specifically he says:

For this reason, the man who lives by God's standards and not by man's, must needs be a lover of the good, and it follows that he must hate what is evil. Further, since no one is evil by nature, but anyone who is evil is evil because of a perversion of nature, the man who lives by God's standards has a duty of "perfect hatred" (Psalm 139:22) towards those who are evil; that is to say, he should not hate the person because of the fault, nor should he love the fault because of the person. He should hate the fault, but love the man. And when the fault has been cured there will remain only what he ought to love, nothing that he should hate.

(Augustine, City of God)
The City of God, the glorious Church that awaits the day to truly proclaim "on earth as it is in heaven."


Some may decry what Catholicism labels as a fault, yet from her earliest days the post-apostolic fathers of the Church proclaimed that "no one is evil by nature." Rather, by sin man has perverted his nature and at times seeks what is temporary and whimsical as the truest good. One of the greatest tragedies of sin is that we do not seek our true and proper goods. One of the great graces of the condition of sin is that when we finally come to recognize the true good we love it and hate all else that tries to separate us from it. This is so that, by means of our own journey and will, we come to love God personally. And by virtue of that love of God we love and seek what is truly good and hate what is evil. Incidentally, hate has become a strong word whereas love has become a soft word. In reality love is an even stronger word than hate, for love makes us vulnerable since it calls us to change.

When others claim we are intolerant what they mean is that our value of good is not theirs, but this does not excuse those who are truly intolerant.

There is no exhaustive way of showing which Christians are tolerant, which are intolerant, and in the proper or improper means. But, as the old adage goes, "a tree is known by its fruit." One who engages in violence, coercion, and slander for "love of the person" ought to reconsider tolerance. On the other hand those who are apathetic, noncommittal, or lax should reconsider how tolerant they are.

For my own part I see tolerance in its truest form exemplified by Christ. As God readily desires to pour out his mercy he also directs and commands us to change our hearts.

In this famous passage, an adulterous woman is brought forward both because she was an affront to the law and because she was being used to condemn Jesus. At its conclusion is our own lesson here:

"He was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, 'Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?'

She replied, 'No one, sir.'

Then Jesus said, 'Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.'"

(cf Jn 8:1-11, esp. 9-11)

Reflect for a moment on what has happened. The others, the scribes and Pharisees, stood her in the middle so as to shame her and do violence against her. Yet Christ stood in their midst without shame nor making the woman to feel any shame. He dismissed the crowd and then stood alone before the woman. He did not condemn her but all the same he commanded her to sin no more. She was caught committing adultery but was still pardoned.
The image of love. A lesson on tolerance.

Out of love for her Christ kept the woman but dismissed the sin. That is to say that by mercy, patience, and forgiveness he so loved the woman so as to both protect her and urge her to remove what was wicked from herself.

And here only lies, for some, the door to our discussion. This is because many see their actions as neither wicked nor perverted, but this too stems from what both they and we believe to be good—a subject worthy of discussing and a subject worth submitting ourselves to.

[Edit, 7:13am: some diction and syntax revised]

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Wisdom is a Gift


I've gotten into some pretty rough conversations over the past week. What often happens is that I'll receive comments from people who like my articles. They'll say things like "this is nice" or 'well put' and so on. I agree and disagree with my personal friends on a number of things and we still have many-houred conversations which remain amiable—so don't be afraid to talk with me or disagree with me. It's actually much more pleasant to speak with others on topics where we act as friends as opposed to rivals.

Now, I won't complain about these others who disagree with me. That's the acquired taste of the philosopher, namely being told you're wrong. In another sense, that's the acquired joy of a Catholic and all Christians. Scripture seems to indicate this as well:

"The man of intelligence fixes his gaze on wisdom, but the eyes of a fool are on the ends of the earth" (Prv 17:24).

Now to the average ignorant Christian or the average ignorant non-Christian this may seem like a 'pay attention to God and those who don't are just fools.'
Only a foolish fool foolishly fools himself into thinking he understands Scripture by reading it once. (And seeing as I love the Phoenix Wright universe be prepared to see more of these from time to time)

Well, in one sense, maybe it is so. Don't be a fool, then, and follow with me here: perhaps we need to see that wisdom is a gift. In Scriptures it is not often the powerful or the strong who are wise, rather it is the poor and the humble. So how could the simple-minded be wise and thus 'intelligent'?

Simply this: that the wise realize that wisdom is a gift, which is to say that we're given wisdom. Aquinas likened wisdom to a hill upon which a man can see all that happens below. I might add that wisdom is thanking God for the gift of hills that afford us such a sight--if you're still following me.

So what are the ends of the earth that make us fools sometimes? I find that Chesterton put it well: “There is nothing which is so weak for working purposes as this enormous importance attached to immediate victory. There is nothing that fails like success” (GK Chesterton, Heretics). It may also be said that “lust indulged starves the soul, but fools hate to turn from evil” (Prv 13:19) means that when we desire something very temporary and hollow (such as a victory) we starve our souls and do not feed it with what is a most beautiful nourishment—reason. Yet we, like fools, when confronted or attacked feel that crushing our opponent will result in some sort of nourishment, but it's hardly the case.
Technically this meme is still popular but past its peak, so I'm still behind the times.

Perhaps this is why Augustine said “hate the sin but not the sinner.” In many ways we must conquer ignorance, ignorance to sin, and sin for they are 'lackings' as it were in an otherwise good person.

Now, does this mean that we should shrink from the truth when we've found it? Or even run from difficulty when confronted? No, the former becomes timidity and the latter cowardice. Conviction is not arrogance, but they are cousins. I recall reading in √Čtienne Gilson saying, though I can't find where exactly, that 'When we are confronted with the truth we are also confronted with a moral problem, that is whether or not I will accept and incorporate this truth.' Naturally, a great number of us don't agree on what 'truth is' and thus we hand the reins to the men who are philosophers--who are seemingly madmen.The problem sometimes is that many people think they're philosophers.

I have to laugh, though, when I'm confronted by those who say things like “Ah yes.... I would like to spar with you if I might.” Or “Let us see if Christianity is true” when their intentions are at times an attempt to strip credibility from anyone who could possible believe in Catholicism or Christianity. (We can see this in the recent conversion of Leah Libresco (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked/, see comments).

But I do not fault them for doing this because this is how I am many times and certainly how I was when I was younger. I can attest first-hand the great power that perfectionism held over me and the years upon years it burrowed under my skin. I didn't have any major breakdowns, but I was prone to stress because I was also someone who wanted to do 25 different things—but perfectly. When you lust after perfection in whatever it is you want you're often left the fool. Luckily, and by His grace, people came into my life and were more patient with me than I ever could have been (we find that our weaknesses can be grounds for us to be both broken down, but rebuilt as compassionate to these same weaknesses we find in others).

Similarly, I do not fault them because often times these are well-meaning, well-educated individuals worth talking with and taking seriously. It forces me to stretch my intellectual muscles and consider propositions that aren't  necessarily problems (or hang-ups) for me but are for others. Not only is this attitude necessary for apologetics, it's necessary for Christians. Or did Christ not feel the full weight, death, and terror of suffering, sin, and death because he loved us? So too, we should take on the apprehensions, anxieties, and difficulties of our fair interlocutors out of love for them.
Aquinas contemplating the greatest gift and receiving the greatest wisdom, that is the say the Logos.

That's what I try to do. Sadly I can't say I always succeed, but young men like myself are moved by passion when attacked. Passion is in no way bad but it's a tool that must be used properly.

We all perhaps need to reflect on the matter that philosophy is properly called a love of wisdom because wisdom is something worth loving and not always something we really deserve, but get anyway.

Truly wisdom literature is a gift that keeps giving. I let this last quote be my prayer and my conclusion:

Wisdom 8:17-21

Thinking thus within myself, and reflecting in my heart That there is immortality in kinship with Wisdom, and good pleasure in her friendship, and unfailing riches in the works of her hands, And that in frequenting her society there is prudence, and fair renown in sharing her discourses, I went about seeking to take her for my own. Now, I was a well-favored child, and I came by a noble nature; or rather, being noble, I attained an unsullied body. And knowing that I could not otherwise possess her except God gave it-- and this, too, was prudence, to know whose is the gift-- I went to the LORD and besought him ...

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Early Christian Authors Worth Considering

Below is a brief list of some early Catholic authors that I believe are worth your attention. If you do wish to buy the books, I recommend the Ancient Christian Writers editions myself. Typically 17-28 dollars a book, I find their notes very helpful.

[A word of caution: ancient problems are not always our problems, so what they look at will not always address 1800 years of advancements]

1)Clement of Rome to the Corinthians--
A book almost accepted as Scripture by the early Church, it is one of the most produced non-biblical manuscripts dating to slightly after St. Paul in about 80-85AD. The head bishop of Rome, already in this book we see the trend of abuses and questions of conduct being sent to Rome or addressed by Rome. The abuse here in a phrase was that young members of the assembly ousted the older priests and instituted themselves as priests of that community.
Clement corrected the abuses in Corinth with this (and his 2nd) letter and strengthened the precedent of Rome being involved in other affairs. The history is not always clean, but it is also important to note that the "martyrology" played a big role in cities. If an Apostle or great saint was martyred in your city it was a sign of authority (because they taught there) and a belief that that saint was one who prayed and watched over that city. In this case Rome was where Peter and Paul were martyred, something respected widely in the early Church.
Pope St. Clement I, a "principal" figure who had to call the Corinthians to his office in one of the most famous non-canon letters of all time.

2) Ignatius of Antioch
Already an old man when he wrote (maybe 70) he wrote to various cities as he himself was instructed by St. John and a friend of his. John died around 100-105AD (aged, perhaps, 89-95). He defended the Church and, as you can see in my signature, was the first to utter the word "catholic" to describe the Church. Now I've attended the services of other denominations who have "one, holy, catholic (Christian), church." It may be worth reflecting on the man who used this word first and how it was used. As you can see from my quote it's different than you might expect. He was taken from his home where he presided in Antioch and was fed to lions in Rome at what was believed to be the Flavian Amphitheater.
“I am the wheat of God. Let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”
3) Origen
Prominent early theologian who shaped much of biblical interpretation and was also a brilliant scholar in many fields. He wanted to die of martyrdom (you read this in "Subtle Crosses"). He was not sainted because some of his theology became suspect. An early example of a great mind in the Church who was lauded and used, but whose own personal piety was particularly severe. Though not proven, it was rumored that he took the Scriptures "if it causes you to sin cut it off" and, as such, he castrated himself. Not sure if that's true, but he was a very severe ascetic who had a profound influence.

His expert learning was also an occasion for him to write elaborate commentaries on Scripture in an attempt to blend and synthesize Scripture in its literal (the truths being expressed), moral (how we apply it), and allegorical senses (truths derived from Scripture as they are found in events, history, and geography--but my explanation fails to capture it exactly).

Also worth noting is that Origen pioneered the posture many philosophy and theology students would adopt for centuries after.

4) Eusebius (I will probably write on him later)

2nd-3rd century father who was the first Church historian who made a comprehensive history of Jewish patriarchs to Christ, the Apostles, and the bishops they ordained.

Somewhat dry but somewhat like the James Monroe of the Church who wrote a sort of "Federalist Papers" in that he charted how the canon of Scripture was decided upon and why and many other early traditions and their origins in Scripture and the teachings of the Apostles.

Not the easiest read, but I'm slowly getting through him myself.
He's about as exciting as he looks in this picture, but it doesn't detract from his invaluable research, learning, or importance in understanding the early Church




I hope this inspired someone to pick one of these men (and there are plenty others) up.

M

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

I Hope You Have a Good Teacher


I Hope you Have a Good Teacher

Imagine a classroom setting where a teacher requests this of her students, “I want everyone to explain planetary motion to me.”
The students all look blankly at the teacher and respond, “We don't know how.”
The teacher looks at them, perturbed, and asks, “Why don't you?”
“You never taught us,” they responded.
“Everything is right here in the books. All the equations, methods, and considerations are easily accessible ….”

Now, the problem happens to be that these kids are in the 2nd grade and are still learning multiplication and division.

Despite the severity of the metaphor this is what the moral life and human landscape is for us. Life moves forward and expects us to 'do or die' and we often don't know how. The very human thing to do in life is to question “What should I do with my life?” and “why am I here?” Other questions eventually emerge: “How do I tell right from wrong?” and “How do I do what's best for my family, country, and others?” Many feel like they are scattered to uncaring winds. Like the example above, they often feel lost when presented with these unique and individual challenges. Even though the obvious rule of “do good” and “do what makes you happy” is easily seen it's not so easily done. (Another way of putting this, perhaps, is that planets revolved around the sun even before we learned that they did. It was obvious in that it was real, but was it an easy or (necessarily) obvious path getting there?)

In a world where happiness is supposedly laid bare before all—it's a matter of science, acquired knowledge, or “stuff.” Yet it seems the general attitude expressed by many is boredom or contempt.

That universal sign shared by all men alike. It was either pictures like these or people taking pictures of themselves half-naked. How happy we've become!

So many see life as something self-explanatory, but in reality we are all children who need instruction in life. In order to succeed there needs to be both a good teacher and attentive students. There are many more parallels to draw but let me say this: when being taught we need a clear purpose and a clear method. (How many of us act in a clear way with no clear purpose!)

Plato and Aristotle were geniuses at this. See where you're going, see how you're getting there, and evaluate if where you've gone is worth being there. The problem for Aristotle was that he couldn't commit to wonder like Plato could.

Plato realized that if life were composed of measure, balance, and order then a human being who mastered such things was truly blessed both in his life and afterward. The problem was that reason and a love of wisdom only brought him to the precipice of the truth he sought.

I consider Plato a teacher of mine and indeed a brilliant one. There, however, is one who is better: He is Father, Son (the Logos), and Holy Spirit.

And for Christians this is the great grace and reality of revelation. If life is temporary here on earth, then it is bound by measure, proportion—any man, in time, can learn these things. In this way we seem to have a method, but for what purpose? Even if we achieve fleeting happiness death, misfortune, pain, and everything else can come to take it away.

Revelation is the ultimate teaching tool in that it gives reason and purpose behind the mysteries of life. Plato and Aristotle glimpsed these truths as did many other non-Christians throughout history: the world and life are temporary. The one who puts his trust and wonder in material things sees them pass away—either it does or they do. They discovered that happiness did not lie in knowledge or possessions (however convenient they might be). Plato claimed that it is when one surrendered himself to wonder at it all that he began to understand. Our understanding did not begin by forcefully trying to grasp or control knowledge and wisdom, but when we resigned ourselves to the vastness of it all.

But he didn't have Christ. He didn't have the revelation of the Author of both wonder and certainty.

When Jesus came he revealed two key things: he revealed God to man and man to himself. Plato came to the doorway, but Christ is the door.

The Bible is the history of revelation and it additionally reveals in its structure a process, namely that in order to learn about “planetary motions” one has to learn the steps leading up to it, little by little.

The first great revelation and joy for the Jews were the laws of nature given through the commandments. The first few commandments only give a glimpse of God. Rather than reveal God fully it asks and requires that man fix his gaze appropriately on Him in their hearts and by their actions. This was for their benefit. The law of nature, such that humans should act, is an appropriate relationship between God and appropriate relationships between each other. This prepared the human heart. We have to learn to love what is good before we love Goodness.

No one appreciates this fully unless they appreciate all the little things that go into it.

But it wasn't to end there. As we know from the simplest things, that which is right, good, and true is not always chosen. Take, for example, my unhealthy love of red meat over vegetables. Out of preference and taste I will gorge on steak before I eat one pea. Does it mean I'm immoderate? Here, yes, especially because I will gorge myself. I'm sure you have your own vices. But what does that teach us?

Knowledge of the good does not mean that the good will be done. The Ten Commandments are sometimes seen as suggestions (honor your father and mother, especially, it seems), but it was revealed that this is the way to human fulfillment, but not the destination.

God was a wise teacher though. He knew he couldn't expect us to “calculate perfection” without knowing Him. But as humans, we could not do this without the help of nature. Because nature had beauty, order, and proportion we learned perfection by degrees.

But wisdom showed and humans could only feel that guidelines only guided us so far. All of Israel could only arrive at the precipice—all humanity could do was ask, “Now what?”

Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity,” proclaimed Qoheleth. (Ecc 1:2b)

This sage ends saying wisdom is fear (awe) of God and a recognition of his just judgment. Wisdom could only discover that we must dispose our work and heart properly. Humanity sees this. Now what?

Men learned with some help and effort justice, prudence, temperance, and courage.

Yet, where these practical and naturally good things were like multiplication and division the theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity [love]) were advanced calculus.

The Old Testament and nature herself sowed the seeds of this “advanced calculus” of life.

But then Christ came, lived, died, and rose again and it made sense.

Christ came and, much like how math and science do to our physical assumptions, shattered our moral assumptions—our human assumptions.

He told us that all the proportion and order we gained was meant to be given away. What?

This very experience was summed up by Scripture. You can see all of it in action, the experience of the entire Old Testament (and even humanity):

Mk 10:17-20

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus answered him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.' He replied and said to him, "Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth." "

The young man recognizes the goodness of the teacher and seeks advice. He wants to be taught how he might achieve his own perfection and completion. As John Paul II writes, “The young man senses that there is a connection between moral good and the fulfillment of his own destiny” (Veritatis Splendor [VS] sec. 8)

Jesus gives, in that sense, a rather mundane answer. He gives him an answer as old as time, for the Jew specifically and man generally. For the Jew, Jesus simply states the obvious: align your perspective to God properly and act appropriately towards others.

The young man emphatically responds that he has done this since his youth. He is a faithful Jew and a good man. He discovered that in life there is proportion, measure, and goodness and each man must conform his life as such.

Mk 10: 21

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, "You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to (the) poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."

It should first be noted that Jesus loved him. Ever the wise teacher, however, he knew that what he had wasn't enough to complete him even though he was good and love-able.

Jesus telling the young man he lacked something was indicative of the wisdom I spoke above: even when you know what is good it doesn't mean you will always do it. But, on the other hand, even when we obtain proportion and order, how often does life sweep it away? Sirach reminds us, “The knowledge of wickedness is not wisdom” (Sir 19:17).

John Paul II also challenges us: “Do the commandments of God, which are written on the human heart and are part of the Covenant, really have the capacity to clarify the daily decisions of individuals and entire societies?” (VS 4).

Jesus, after giving the obvious and mundane, shatters the young man's expectations. The natural inclination that we all have, the 'moral algebra' as it were, would say that 800 = 800. This is to say “what you have is what you can do.” It may also be said that our natural inclination is 'as long as I'm good to other people and decent myself I am a good person.'

Mk 10:22

At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

The man fell back, awestruck. All he knew was not the case. It was not that 800 = 800, but rather that 0 = (infinity). Yet, even in Jesus' example his humility and sacrifice made it such that -1 = (infinity).

Mk 10:27-32

Jesus looked at them and said, "For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God."
Peter began to say to him, "We have given up everything and followed you."
Jesus said, "Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come. But many that are first will be last, and (the) last will be first."
They were on the way, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus went ahead of them. They were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. Taking the Twelve aside again, he began to tell them what was going to happen to him.

Indeed the last are first and the first are last. Only he who sacrifices himself for others gains the completion he seeks.

And those who were with him were afraid. They were giving up everything but they were told they still had more to give. But they were instructed by Jesus example, because he told them (for a third time) what was going to happen to him. He would be the perfect teacher by going ahead and putting his lesson plan into practice.


In this short passage Christ instructs us—he gave us the clear method. But it is his Cross that gives us the even clearer lesson. His Resurrection becomes for us the clear goal.

Ever the good teacher he left his Apostles not with a 'good luck!' but a promise of His Holy Spirit.

The Apostles were stewards of the Gospel and the ultimate lesson plan for humanity—a lesson plan all but St. John died for.

Christ as such did not leave us his Spirit alone but a Church to stand in his stead. The Church stands as the bedrock which the Cross is firmly planted as the door to eternity. Its arms are stretched to infinity to gather all who might wander.

Christ is the teacher who taught only God fulfills us. Nature prepares us and teaches us measure and balance so we might withstand the imbalanced weight of the cross.

But we can't carry it without instruction. God gave us two textbooks: Scripture and nature. He have us an instructor in Sacred Tradition that flows from one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. He gave us the goal which is Christ for the purpose of becoming like Him just as Christ became man.

No one said life or morals were easy just as learning advanced calculus isn't easy (well, for me). But with such an instructor how could we fail when we apply ourselves to honest learning?

We work at small things in order to reach the infinite where even colossi are dust.


There are many who claim that life is fleeting so the purpose of life is happiness, but the one who begins to understand wisdom sees their idea as dust.

Others claim that we are drifting in an uncaring wind, that all ends in dust. I would say they are described in the latter half of this phrase: “The wise man has eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness” (Ecc 2:14).

The one who says there is no purpose walks without direction. The one who seeks pleasure walks to his grave and often with more sorrow than joy (or, perhaps, with more boredom and contempt). Even those who walk happily walk to their grave all the same.

This is why revelation is so crucial. It builds on nature and her wisdom. Yet it instructs us towards what nature is a beautiful reflection of: God Himself.

As it is so, it is the case that grace builds upon nature and faith builds upon reason. As Chesterton says, “The madman is not the one who lost his reason. [He is] the man who lost everything but his reason.” (Orthodoxy)

Prophetically he says, “When materialism leads men to complete fatalism (as it generally does), it is quite idle that it is in any sense a liberating force. It is absurd to say that you are especially advancing freedom when you only use free thought to destroy free will.”

There's much more to say but for now I ask you to look at what turns one into the fool, the unlearned, or the blind. Is it faith, hope, and charity and surrendering (when you must, not always) to the infinite or saying with a stern brow that fleeting happiness, proportion, measure, and reason that is our true end?

Only life teaches this lesson. I hope you have a good teacher.

Friday, June 8, 2012

For Those Who Deride Christian Morals: Initial Response

An introduction:
Okay, so maybe I got a little out of hand with the length. In that sense I may consider streamlining and simplifying what I've done here.
 

That being said the overall purpose of this piece is to provide a response to those who ridicule, critique, or speak out against Christian morality and in turn posit a secularist/atheist/humanist morality as superior, more rational, or whatnot.

The problem I've seen is that most secularists (etc.) do not really understand morality (the science) and many Christians do not understand morals (the nature).
 

I seek, perhaps foolishly, to address both problems. As I mention above the scope is rather large and far-reaching. I revised and expanding on my central claims so much I had to split it up. The whole thing was intended to be 3-single spaced pages. The first theme ended up being that length.

Here I do not seek to call atheists (etc.) immoral or stupid, but I will challenge that the morality they propose is incomplete. The problem is that "faith" has becomes a quick word to mean gullibility, stupidity, or naivety by a number of people--I can't say that Christians have always acted or spoken valiantly to the contrary. Nevertheless, I am never one who intends or wishes to present a weak opposition to support what I believe--just the opposite.


This may be a bit tough and my worry is that it won't seem organized enough. I tried my best to keep focus on some important points but I fear some deficiencies will arise. That is why I feel this piece may require some revisions despite heavy revisions already applied.

I just ask that you try and follow me, asking questions along the way. ~M

______


There are those who might deride Christian morals in that Christians "follow God" or "follow the Church." They, in turn, might also say of themselves that "we're good on our own." Below I would like to address this contention in both a positive and critical way. I fear that the scope of this piece will be broad, so I will break it into smaller segments. Even then, I will touch on matters such as faith, community, Tradition, the Church, and morality, among other subjects. I will attempt to weave in and out of topics with care. My hope is that my reader will catch me when I falter and hold me accountable to providing a cohesive account.

What I will do is begin by introducing the context by which I see faith and morality. I will also do this in regards to the Catholic Church, meaning that I will give a (very) brief explanation for the importance authority and Tradition. This will all be done to confront and explain some of the notions that often serve as ground for critiques. These themes, however, will only be touched on in this first part but expanded after I introduce some critiques by secularists, humanists, and atheists in the second part. Therein I will address some of their arguments and, hopefully, show their deficiencies. At the same time, however, I want to clear up some confusion about the relationship of faith and morals that fuels some of these critiques—both Atheists to Christians and the other way around. I will then return to morality that is informed by faith and what that means. Finally, I will comment on what the "force" of morality is and where it comes from. There is little better way to begin than jumping right in.

When one says that Christians do things out of duty or obligation he is only half correct. But this is not a legalistic duty but a duty that comes about by a real relationship. If you love someone you give your all to that person or, at the very least, you learn to over time. Catholics are a covenant people, meaning that we enter into a relationship with our Creator such that "we shall be His people, and He will be our God" (cf. Ex 6:7a, Jer 30:22,  Lev 26:12). The language used is not one of servant and master, though we rightly call Christ master and teacher. Rather, the language Christ uses is very clear: he taught us to pray "our Father;" he no longer calls us servants but friends. Christ is the bridegroom and the Church is the bride. The language concerning God and his people and Christ and his Church is used for a specific purpose and for a very important reason—one which I shall elaborate on later.

Now, amid the complexities of life and morals we trust the Church as she preserves for us the wisdom of many ages whether they are  temptations, failures, trials, or triumphs. We also train men (as priests) and men and women (as chaste religious) to guide us. These men and women are specially trained to know God, to know how to pray, to understand the human soul and, in humility, to serve others so they might know God. Just as good parents teach their children how to be good parents themselves, so too do we look up to the Church and holy and learned men and women to teach us how to love God better (and to love ourselves and others better as well). As such, we assent to their authority on account of their worthy actions and learning.

Yet, what son or daughter respects an abusive parent? So too, what man seeking God follows a man who cannot lead him? On the other hand, how many sons and daughters neglect the teaching of good parents? How many more faithful men and women, in closing their ears and hearts, neglect the wisdom and urging of holy men and women? This is why we need to form good relationships with one another.

Not only that, God, the Church, and all these men and women (clergy, religious, and lay), want to establish a relationship with each of us based on trust and love. Any relationship, though, involves a change and a transition. Because of this is has its own unique set of growing pains and how we deal with those pains can make the relationship a difficult and rocky one at times. We all know how difficult relationships can be with one another.

We Catholics must keep in mind specifically that the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ—our relationship is not only as bride to bridegroom. But we are also related to each other, not only as brother and sister but as veins to the heart, arms to their sockets, and lungs to the mouth. We, as members of one body, members of the faithful, cannot survive without one another.

Faith plays an important role—it draws together many to God as well as to each other. Faith is more than trust in a proven idea or theorem. It is a dynamic trust in a person. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) says "Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed. As personal adherence to God and assent to his truth, Christian faith differs from our faith in any human person" (sec. 150).

I do not deny those who claim that there is a personal element to faith, but I deny that faith is and remains a personal element. Faith moves one to act just as faith itself is an action in response to something, namely God acting in our lives. This is true because "it is no less true that believing is an authentically human act. Trusting in God and cleaving to the truths he has revealed are contrary neither to human freedom nor to human reason" (CCC 154). One must hear the Word before he trusts the Word in its fullness. Faith is personal insofar as how we've come to know and believe but it is communal insofar as what is believed and whom we believe in.

So, to summarize, faith is a matter of community and relationships just as morality is. Is faith just a type of morality or something super-added to morality? I propose that faith is not a type of morality or something grafted onto morality, but I will claim that morality that is informed by faith is more complete, whole, and true. I am, however, perhaps getting ahead of myself. Let us consider some things before we turn to secularism, humanism, and atheism and their claims/critiques.

Here are some important primary considerations of faith and morality which will guide us beyond this point.

First of all, faith is an experience and a response. Just as Christ descended in the Incarnation he also rose at the Resurrection and Ascension. God comes to us and he raises us up. But, how was that rising possible? By following the will of the Father and responding to his grace. Remember that faith is a free assent to the truth. It is also a relationship between two persons, an adherence to God. In this manner faith is, as I have said, dynamic in a way that a relationship between two friends or spouses is dynamic—it is never always clearly defined but it is all the same a bond that is always present.

Secondly, we must talk about morality in greater depth. The word itself derives its meaning from the Latin word "mores" meaning custom or ways. The Greek similarly has "ethos" (custom, practice) [ethics] and "nomos" (custom, law) that came to describe personal character and make-up.

Thus, when we speak of morality we are talking about the character of the individual. Now, there are many schools about how a character, but what I propose is both the classical and normative consideration. One derives his character from three sources:

The first is order, that is to say learning precision and clarity in ones actions and decisions. When we are left to our own devices we might learn, but not without consequences. When we are taught right from wrong (properly) we do what is good and avoid what is bad or evil.

The second is habit, which is to say an action practiced such that it becomes a part of us.

The third is rules, principles, tradition, and customs. Conveniently these words are contained in one Greek word, "nomos." This is to say that a character is formed by principles and ideologies for action—and this is important—precisely because an individual's character is not limited to himself (as an island unto himself) but rather as a character who lives among other persons. It might be said that principles, traditions, and customs are the "voice of generations" who assert that this is the 'right way to live.' Now, this does not mean it is immune to a critical mind and eye, but we should respect the force of tradition—even if only for a little while.

Whether it is faith or morals, I argue that both of them deal with the individual but always in a lens that has the greater whole, or others, in mind. One does not have faith merely for salvation but to be "as Christ to others" and that means sacrifice, service, speaking the truth, and love. This too I will elaborate on later. For now we will shift our focus to critiques to these claims above as well as other critiques.


[to be continued in part 2/3]