Friday, November 14, 2014

Private Values and a Public Faith (Part I)

Do Religious Values have any Place in the Public Square?

The general consensus among those of faith and without seem to be “no.” Religion is a personal preference and conviction. Personal convictions, while good for me based on various experiences and reasons, are not grounds for me to impose these convictions and others. I believe in God because (a) I was brought up to believe, (b) it gives me comfort, and (c) it makes me a better person. But someone else may have experienced religion in negative circumstances. Likewise a non-believer may not share feelings and values of religious pronouncements on reproduction, family, and (deeper still) premises that inform public action and (politically-speaking) policy.

A non-Christian, non-religious, non-believer also builds convictions derived from his experiences and holds onto them for various reasons. They too may have been brought up to hold certain values that give them comfort and in turn, according to those values, make them “better.” I use quotes for “better” insofar as anyone, when he lives according to values, wants to live up to those values he considers as good. No one, or more accurately, very few of us ever embody fully the values we hold dear—but the more we live our lives according to these values we consider ourselves “better off,” perhaps because we can decide on things more confidently or can discern and solve problems more efficiently.

None of us can escape our upbringing and no one is ever truly free to choose his own experiences. While we are active agents in our lives we are also passive—things happen to us whether we like it or not. We are just as informed by what we do out of choice and by what we experience with no say in the matter. We as humans, however, have a unique ability to reflect on our experiences. More uniquely, since other animals also have memory and learn from experience, human beings have the capacity to reflect on their values and culture. This is not only consistent with ancient wisdom but also modern science.

Man, by applying his reason to himself, may reject what he has been given in a nearly-complete way. Moreover some may even claim that we are unique among the animals insofar as we know how we came to be and that we are also aware of how we are wired (this imagery is by no means exhaustive). Because we “know” we may also reject our wiring in some ways—the example Dawkins uses is that we “rebel against our genes” when we contracept, i.e., that we actively deny the 'desire' of our genes to be replicated through propagation.

Thus both ancient sources, e.g., philosophy or theology, and modern sciences have agreed throughout the ages that man is unique. He is not unique according to his flesh, since his flesh and composition is not too different from other mammals. Perhaps one might say that his brain as an organ is the most impressive according to its construction and capacity. Man is unique according to his reason—formulated in antiquity as possessing a “rational soul”—because by his reason he can even master himself.

While our knowledge, scientifically-speaking, is still expanding on the subject of human cognition we can see that we form connections, both socially (e.g., mother and child) and intellectually (i.e., neural connections), in a way not dissimilar from other creatures. All but a few can recognize, however, that we are capable of understanding how we work and, by our own efforts, direct ourselves beyond mere instinct. While evolution has brought the structure of our bodies and brains to a certain point we also know that in the realm of human and child-development the manner in which we teach each other affects the way that our brain makes connections. In a manner of speaking we can intentionally affect how our brains are organized. This organization, in turn, affects how we act and interact. One may even argue that how we act makes us more fit. Fitness in the narrow sense is simply propagation. I believe that in a broader sense it involves more than just reproduction—fitness also includes well-being, productivity, and living in concord with fellow human beings. Thus how we regard one another, work with one another, and help each other to be our best is a benefit for both ourselves and for those around us.

These activities are achieved through “values” which is shorthand for those conceptions which influence dispositions, habits, and actions. Man, since he has been able to communicate with his fellow man, has discussed values—what is good and what is best—and likewise handed down those values. Values themselves are tested by time and experience. They are tested by hardships and challenges.

Reason and discussion, it may be said, are what make up the furnace of values. Likewise values are applied by different people and in different circumstances, thus their weaknesses are exposed and strengths refined. How those values are expressed are also important—do our actions actually mirror our values? It is foolishness to think that we automatically embody our values—living in accord with any value takes time, effort, and humility. We must always recognize our weakness. On the other hand when we do not attempt to live out certain values we do not actually express them.

In a manner of speaking values are physical and organic, both in their history and within an individual. Consider the image of a tree: when a tree is planted it needs the right circumstances and ingredients to grow. It may very well grow in weak or sandy soil, grow in competition with other trees, grow to be proud and strong, or simply die. Some trees by virtue of its light source will grow in a different direction. Others may be twisted, broken, and bent because of natural disaster. Nevertheless many of them survive in various conditions and amid various trials. Thus, while the tree may appear different in its external presentation each tree is from the same heritage, source, or family (e.g., an oak or a maple are still themselves despite their outward image).

Values themselves may die or they may die in the individual. They may also take root and flourish. Every generation is both the soil and the planter. We are the ones who, having grown up, decide where to plant and how. Values are, in some ways, of supreme importance for how we interact with one another as well as important insofar as they actually affect our physical makeup on the macro and even micro level.

With these in mind, we will proceed to the next part and talk more directly about values and the people who hold them.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Humility and Martin de Porres

This was a homily preached to my seminary community on November 3rd, 2014. The reading for the day (Phil 2:1-4, Ps 131:1b-3, and Lk 14:12-14) may be seen here

Martin de Porres was a lay member of the Dominican Order. (b. 1579 - d. 1639, Lima, Peru)

Humility, as we heard today, is regarding others as more important than ourselves and giving of our wealth and gifts to those who cannot repay us. Humility is expressed by lowliness and generosity.

Martin de Porres, whom we celebrate today, is a model of humility. Born in lowliness as a mulatto he sought to make himself even lower. He preferred to be out of sight and perform menial tasks. He cared for the poor and the sick. He also performed many miracles of healing. His fame spread because of this, much to his dismay.

He was sent by his superior at one time to heal the Archbishop of Mexico who had fallen very ill. Having completed his task, he returned to his friary embarrassed his gift was made public. He then sought to perform the most menial tasks he could think of. A priest asked him, "Would you not be better off in the palace of the Archbishop?"

Martin replied, "Father, I think one moment doing what I'm doing is more important than many days in the palace of the Lord Archbishop."

I believe an appropriate image of humility is a bed of white-hot coals. Whether they are our faults and failings, or our accomplishments and talents, humility immolates them all.

Gold is purified by intense heat which separates the dross from it. We ought to commit all things to the furnace of humility, for it separates the dross of despair and pride and produces in us love--that one virtue that is the fulfillment and crown of all things; it is the one thing that endures, for even faith and hope will pass away.

Jesus Christ is rightly said to love perfectly because He emptied Himself perfectly. Allow this Eucharist, a sign of His humility and the source of ours, to remove all dross from your hearts day by day.

To paraphrase the book of Sirach,
There is no precious gold except by fire,
and there are no acceptable men made except in the furnace of humility (cf., Sir 2:5).