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.