Monday, 23 April 2018

Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart: Do you will only one thing?

What then must I do?
The listener's role in a devotional address

The talk asks you, then, or you ask yourself by means of the talk, what kind of life do you live, do you will only one thing, and what is this one thing? The talk does not expect that you will name off any goal that only pretends to be one thing. For it does not intend to address itself to anyone with whom it would not be able to deal seriously, for the reason that such a man has cut himself off from any earnest consideration of the occasion of the address. There is still another reason: a man can, to be sure, have an extremely different, yes, have a precisely opposite opinion from ours, and one can nevertheless deal earnestly with him if one assumes that finally there may be a point of agreement, a unity in some universal human sense, call it what you will. But if he is mad, then one cannot deal with him, for he shies away from just that final point, in which one at last may hope to find agreement with him. One can dispute with a man, dispute to the furthest limit, as long as one assumes, that in the end there is a point in common, an agreement in some universal human sense: in self-respect. But when, in his worldly strivings he sets out like a madman in a desperate attempt to despise himself, and in the face of this is brazen about it and lauds himself for his infamy, then one can undertake no disputing with him. For like a madman, and even more terribly, he shies away from this final thing (self-respect) in which one might at last hope to find agreement with him.

The talk assumes, then, that you will the Good and asks you now, what kind of life you live, whether or not you truthfully will only one thing. It does not ask inquisitively about your calling in life, about the number of workers you employ, or about how many you have under you in your office, or if you happen to be in the service of the state. No, the talk is not inquisitive. It asks you above all else, it asks you first and foremost, whether you really live in such a way that you are capable of answering that question, in such a way that the question truthfully exists for you. Because in order to be able earnestly to answer that serious question, a man must already have made a choice in life, he must have chosen the invisible, chosen that which is within. He must have lived so that he has hours and times in which he collects his mind, so that his life can win the transparency that is a condition for being able to put the question to himself and for being able to answer it -- if, of course, it is legitimate to demand that a man shall know whereof he speaks. To put such a question to the man that is so busy in his earthly work, and outside of this in joining the crowd in its noisemaking, would be folly that would lead only to fresh folly -- through the answer.

(Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart Is To Will One Thing, trans. by Douglas V. Steere (Harper & Row, 1965), pp. 183-184.)

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Santa is not real, so maybe stop lying about it already?

It's that time of year again, when our thoughts turn to Christmas preparations, so perhaps this would be a good time to break the news: despite what you may have been told, Santa Claus is not real. That's right: people have been lying to you about this!

Lying about Santa can be a sensitive topic. For some people, this sensitivity has something to do with the figure of Santa himself: for them Santa is sacred, a bit like God, or the government: a basically magical entity that lives far away and gives them free stuff, and forms part of the basic fabric of culture and life without which the world would be a rather colder, nastier, more inexcusable kind of place. Others are sensitive about it because it concerns their own parenting decisions, and since parents naturally want to do well by their children, it can be uncomfortable to consider that certain treasured elements of one’s parenting practises might in reality be morally suspect.

In any case, sensitive issue or not, I think it's an interesting one, morally and sociologically. Morally speaking, we generally recognize that it's wrong to lie (and yes, wrong to lie even to your own children). And yet in our society we have a generally accepted practise of lying - entirely gratuitously, I might add - to our children about Santa. So why do people intentionally deceive their kids into believing stories about the jolly fat man with the beard and the reindeer? It seems obvious that the primary reason they do it is simply because "everybody's doing it" (it's a 'tradition') - and practically speaking, that is reason enough. 
But if you ask parents the straightforward question, so why do you lie to your kids about Santa?, you might find - as I have - that they are surprised and offended that anyone would even say such a thing; and they might even deny that it is lying - even though it perfectly obviously is. (They knowingly assert falsehoods to their children with the intention of inducing them to believe that those falsehoods are in fact true - in other words, it's very straightforward: they lie!) But I guess most people would not care to outright deny that they are lying to their children, so instead some justification needs to be offered for such an abuse - I'm just saying! - of their children's confidence and naïveté.
The primary reason why people actually do it (lie about Santa) in the first place is, as mentioned: everybody's doing it; and this reason might well be offered by some people also as a moral justification. But "everybody's doing it" is a pretty lame moral justification (obviously!), so in spite of the call of the herd, they need to appeal to more than just that.
So what more is there? There are a series of rather vague notions: it's harmless, it's fun, it's part of childhood, it's good for children to have vivid imaginations, to believe in magic, etc. And because everybody's doing it, they don't want their kids to miss out on the fun. In general, then, the idea is: I don't want to deprive my children of living this (lie-based) fantasy. So sure, I'll lie in order to give it to them.
Now I love fiction. I think it's mostly harmless, often beneficial, fun, part of childhood and of having a vivid imagination, and yes, everybody exposes their kids to fiction, and I wouldn't want mine to miss out on that. But still: If my son asks me, say, is Narnia real?, I answer him truthfully. When a child asks for the truth, I'm pretty sure that is a sign that he wants to know the truth and is ready to be told the truth (in a way, obviously, that is appropriate to his level of maturity and understanding, and doesn't simply denigrate the value of imagination). So I don't worry about whether I'll be stunting his imagination by revealing the truth to him when he asks about it, and I certainly don't think that any such concerns could justify outright lying to him about it. And I don't think there are any good reasons for thinking that the same doesn't apply when it comes to truthfully answering questions about Santa (not to mention introducing your kids to Santa in a truthful way to begin with). But it should go without saying: if there are any such reasons, please, I'd like to hear them!
Nonetheless, there is one obvious 'justification' for lying: I need no justification, because lying isn't wrong. If you don't like lying, then don't do it! But mind your own business: you have no right to arrogantly impose your moral views on others. Given the evident brazen hypocrisy of saying stuff like that, you would hope that no one would ever actually take such a position. But in the real world, unfortunately, shit (i.e., post-modernism, psychological trauma, nihilism, narcissistic personality disorder, bad parents and teachers, etc.) happens, and people all too commonly do have this kind of angrily puerile reaction when their views are challenged. In other words, the issues in this case are likely deep-seated psychological ones, not simply matters of confused thinking - and sadly I'm not much of a psychotherapist.
However, for those not overly hampered by arrested psychological development (such as - dare I say? - myself), it's often helpful to think about what a bright guy like Thomas Aquinas had to say about the subject. So put this (Summa theologiae II-II, q.110) in your pipe and smoke it (in honor of jolly old Saint Nic). Some quick highlights:

Article 1: Whether lying, as containing falsehood, is always opposed to truth?

In general yes; but "the essential notion of a lie is taken from formal falsehood, from the fact namely, that a person intends to say what is false;" thus " utters falsehood formally, through having the will to deceive, even if what one says be true, yet inasmuch as this is a voluntary and moral act, it contains falseness essentially and truth accidentally, and attains the specific nature of a lie.

Article 2: Whether lies are sufficiently divided into officious (useful), jocose (pleasing), and mischievous (injurious) lies?

Thomas says that the kinds of lies may be divided in various ways: but in regard to their object, the lies about Santa would primarily be lies that go beyond the truth; and in regard to their end, they are jocose lies, meaning their end is pleasure (they are told "with a desire to please"), as opposed to aiming at usefulness or mischief. In comparison to these others kinds of lies, they are less bad than mischievous lies, but worse than useful lies.

Article 3. Whether every lie is a sin?

Yes. "[Since] words are naturally signs of intellectual acts, it is unnatural and undue for anyone to signify by words something that is not in his mind. ... Therefore every lie is a sin." - Straight up. (You might need to ponder that one.)

Article 4. Whether every lie is a mortal sin?

No. "If the end intended be not contrary to charity, neither will the lie, considered under this aspect, be a mortal sin, as in the case of a jocose lie, where some little pleasure is intended, or in an officious lie, where the good also of one's neighbor is intended. Accidentally a lie may be contrary to charity by reason of scandal or any other injury resulting therefrom: and thus again it will be a mortal sin, for instance if a man were not deterred through scandal from lying publicly."

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Some views on Pope Francis' approval of the Argentine proposal

Robert Royal writes a very good piece here: A Bizarre Papal Move.
Jeff Mirus writes an interesting piece here: Not Heretical.
Ed Peters responds to Mirus here: May I Demur...
I would add this response to Mirus:

Mirus writes: "The key question is: Which is more important, the potential scandal which could weaken the commitment of others to the Church’s teaching on marriage, or the need for the (venial) sinner (caught in a no-win situation) to be spiritually nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ?"

This is a false dichotomy. One is not spiritually nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ only by receiving them sacramentally under the species of bread and wine. Spiritual reception of Christ does not require sacramental reception of Christ. These are very different things. Indeed sacramental reception can be the opposite of spiritually nourishing (obviously that's a central point in this whole discussion). So in fact one can be spiritually nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ precisely by one's conscientious actions to honor the Body and Blood by refraining from sacramental reception in order to avoid scandal (such as that caused when receiving sacramentally while one is in an objectively sinful state, even if there is some reason to believe it may be only venially sinful). So this action of refraining can in fact be a win-win (not 'no-win,' as Mirus alleges). What Mirus's analysis seems to ignore is the fact that sacramental reception of Christ is not an end in itself. Sacramental reception is supposed to be - it ought to be - a means to the end of spiritual reception. But again: sacramental reception is in fact largely independent of - indeed, sometimes, and perhaps often, positively opposed to - spiritual reception.

Monday, 12 September 2016

God Forgets

Yesterday our pastor declared that, quite unlike us, God doesn't just forgive; he forgets! I'm like, WHat?! So we forgetful human beings actually have a faculty of memory superior to that of God Almighty?! Hold up just a minute there. 

If you think that God forgets, that means God isn't eternal (or omniscient). If you believe in a God who is not eternal, you don't believe in a God who is the Creator of the world. In other words, your belief is not even theistic. It's not Christian, let alone Catholic.

So why say such a thing in a homily at mass? A friend suggested an allusion to a story she’s heard about Catherine Laboure (you know who I mean: 'laboo-RAY'). Supposedly a bishop wanted to authenticate Catherine’s visions of our Lord, so the bishop asked her to ask our Lord what he the bishop confessed at his last confession (perhaps forgetting our Lord's words, "it is an evil and adulterous generation that asks for a sign" and “it is written, thou shalt not put the Lord your God to the test”). When Catherine had her next vision she asked the bishop's question and Jesus's response was, "I forget."  

Now that's a lovely pious story (I guess - I'd like to find a source for it and read it in whatever the original form of it is), but what would it prove? It would prove one of two things: (1) Jesus has a sense of humour (or sarcasm, perhaps); or (2) the vision was not of divine origin. 

Yesterday’s gospel, which apparently inspired our pastor’s reflections, was Luke 15, the parable of the lost sheep (one out of 100) and the parable of the prodigal son. According to our pastor, the latter could well be called the parable of the prodigal father: “this powerful story contains the essence, indeed the heart of Jesus’ message. It is the ‘Good News’ par excellence. It reminds us that ‘God loves each one of us, as if there were only one of us to love,’ and that when we go astray, He goes all out in search of us and that when eventually He finds us, nothing can stop Him from showing mercy and forgiveness.”  

And this sounds like very nice, bland, late 20th century universalism (basically: “all shall be saved, because God wills it”).  

But surely it’s really repulsive nonsense, if we think about it. In James, ch. 1, we read:  

“Only you must be honest with yourselves; you are to live by the word, not content merely to listen to it.  One who listens to the word without living by it is like a man who sees, in a mirror, the face he was born with; he looks at himself, and away he goes, never giving another thought to the man he saw there. Whereas one who gazes into that perfect law, which is the law of freedom, and dwells on the sight of it, does not forget its message; he finds something to do, and does it, and his doing of it wins him a blessing. If anyone deludes himself by thinking he is serving God, when he has not learned to control his tongue [whereby he expresses his understanding], the service he gives is vain.”

Now, we don't live by an entirely different, disconnected 'word' each week. When we read Luke 15 (or think about some saint story we may have heard) one week, we mustn't forget that in previous weeks we also read, for example, Luke 14: “I tell you, none of those who were first invited shall taste of my supper”; “none of you can be my disciple if he does not take leave of all that he possesses. Salt is a good thing; but if the salt itself becomes tasteless, what is there left to give taste to it?  It is of no use either to the soil or to the dung-heap; it will be thrown away altogether. Listen, you that have ears to hear with.” Or Luke 13: “you will all perish as they did, if you do not repent”; “Fight your way in at the narrow door; I tell you, there are many who will try and will not be able to enter”; “But he will say, I tell you, I know nothing of you, nor whence you come; depart from me, you that traffic in iniquity. Weeping shall be there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets within God’s kingdom, while you yourselves are cast out.” This is all part of the one word which is the gospel of Christ, the word incarnate (and we can note that, for rather obvious reasons, the notion of gospel, Greek euangelion, is really not well translated as ‘the Good News’ (see Benedict XVI's "Jesus of Nazareth"), despite what our missals say).

Now it’s not likely that our pastor simply forgot these passages from the immediately preceding chapters of Luke’s gospel when he prepared himself to preach on Luke 15. So why did he ignore them, and speak as if he’d never heard of them? I’m not sure. Could it be that he just sees the ‘Good News’ gospel as a series of therapeutic-moralistic teachings to be opened up like so many fortune cookies, but not something we’re tasked with understanding as a coherent whole (he prefers psychology to philosophy - which doesn't excuse neglecting the latter). Perhaps he believes in “the Holy Spirit of surprises” (shout-out to Pope Francis) who surprises us by blandly contradicting himself from chapter to chapter (or from week to week), even in the divinely inspired gospels. Perhaps he doesn’t believe in the Spirit of wisdom and knowledge and understanding. And perhaps he doesn’t believe that he has a sacred pastoral duty to guide and form in his congregation a genuine, coherent knowledge and understanding of the apostolic faith handed down. It’s just, peek in the mirror each week, and forget about what we saw there any other week (and imagine God – and the inspired gospel-writers – as in the habit of doing the same thing!). When you open one fortune cookie, you don’t bother thinking about what your last one said, and how the different fortunes fit together and complement one another. Why not approach the gospel the same way? (“Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.” - “But God forgets; so why shouldn't I?”)

Or maybe it’s not that. I don’t know! But I find it really bizarre. How can a Christian be so indifferent to believing and preaching sound, coherent theology? -- to believing in and preaching the one true God (theos) who is revealed in the gospels as the Word (logos) made flesh? Why do pastors sometimes say in a dismissive tone, “Well, that's theology...”? “Woe upon you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites that encompass sea and land to gain a single proselyte, and then make the proselyte twice as worthy of damnation as yourselves.” Woe upon you pastors, who preach every week without showing care for true understanding of the gospel of Christ, then make your congregation twice as worthy of damnation, teaching them to scorn both natural and super-natural intellectual virtues even more than yourselves.

The old (how old, I wonder?) saying comes to mind: “God doesn’t call the equipped; he equips the called.” Oh really? But how do you think he does that, reverend sir? Just magically??...

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Against Racism: empathy or love?

So what we need is empathy? ("Our problem is that we don’t empathize with Black people.")

CCC 1767: "passions are neither good nor evil. They are morally qualified only to the extent that they effectively engage reason and will."

Empathy is entering into and sharing in the passions/feelings of another. It is a passion (a feeling, an emotion, a reaction). It is "neither good nor evil" (etc. - see above). When empathy has the effect of encouraging one to disengage reason, to disregard facts, it is evil. (Consider: "I have a lot of empathy for serial adulterers." Sure - but that's not a good thing!)

Love drives out hate.

Empathy may be useful, or not. Empathy may just mire a person in another person's irrational passions. Empathy in itself is not a strength. Empathy is different from love. And it is love, not empathy, that drives out hate. Empathy alone may lead a person to wallow in vain passions. Love leads to - it demands! - forgiveness, reconciliation, understanding. But only because genuine love is a participation in the love of the one God, who is justice, mercy, truth. Empathy is only a participation in the fragmented and contradictory world of individual passions.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

The Good Samaritan, a parable of latter-day saintliness?

The preaching that was preached to me this past Sunday was ostensibly about the parable of the Good Samaritan. The preacher took the opportunity to share with us some history which he believed we needed to understand in order to understand the Gospel reading, namely Lk 10:25-37. He reviewed the basic story of the Jews’ Babylonian exile, the introduction of the Samaritan people into the vacated land of Israel and their development there of a syncretistic religion which included significant Judaic elements, followed by the return to Israel of the exiled Jews and their subsequent hostility towards the Samaritans and towards the Samaritan corruptions of the Judaic faith. In this context he described in particular the Pharisees – a name meaning ‘set apart, separated’ – as a manifestation of a particular attitude towards the Samaritans – the ‘corruptors of true religion’ – which prevailed among some or most of the Jews of Jesus’s time, but especially among the Pharisees. The preacher’s take on Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan was that Jesus was engaging in a kind of expanding of religious consciousness, challenging the Pharisees’ negative stereotypes of Samaritans and Samaritan religion, and the Pharisees’ practice of valuing and cultivating separateness from the corrupting influence of their neighbors. Instead, it seemed the preacher was suggesting, Jesus rejected such separateness. Jesus wants to be a friend to all, and thus to destroy separateness. His mission, and so ours too, starts with relationship, and this emphasis on relationship is incompatible with the separateness of the Pharisees. He also threw in some bland remarks about the need to avoid being either 'all head and no heart' (presumably like Jesus’s interlocutor in the Gospel reading?), or 'all heart and no head' (it’s unclear to whom this was meant to refer).

This analysis struck me as superficial and misleading. It was what the preacher wanted to say, and probably sat well with most of the pew-sitters; but it wasn’t what Jesus said or implied in the day’s Gospel reading. In the Gospel, an expert in the law – a ‘lawyer,’ who may or may not have been a Pharisee – asks Jesus about eternal life, and Jesus directs him to the law – the law of Israel, the law revealed by God, the law by which God chose and set apart and sanctified a people for himself. (If you’re not familiar with these concepts, by all means read the Old Testament!) The ‘lawyer’ then asks Jesus about the meaning of the law, and Jesus tells him a parable about love of neighbor, wherein a Samaritan shows love to a stranger in need: to a Jew, that is, with whom he has no prior relationship and with whom, we may well assume, he does not go on to have any subsequent relationship. That is to say, in despite of those who wish to read into it certain views about evangelization that are trendy in these latter days of Christianity, it is not a story about the connection between mission and relationship. (If we consider the example of Jesus himself, his public ministry – his Gospel mission – lasted only three years and touched the lives of many thousands of people. There is no indication that ‘personal relationships’ were the essential element of his mission and every reason to think that they were not, since, simply practically speaking, that model would have been impossible.)

What about the business of the ‘separateness’ cultivated by the Pharisees, and criticized by Sunday’s preacher, ostensibly speaking with or for Jesus in doing so? I gather that that kind of thing is a popular line among Christians of these latter days. We all believe (of course!) in a ‘universal call to holiness’ – whatever we take that to mean. It suits many people just fine to be told that they shouldn’t separate themselves from others, and that others should not feel separated from them. Thus, for example, a lot of people believe in a universal call to receive Holy Communion. This call is for everyone, that is, for whomsoever shows up to mass, whensoever and howsoever often they happen to do so – unless they’re too young (don't have an official 'first communion certificate') or prefer not to – but then they should still be universally encouraged to come up to at least receive a ‘communion blessing.’ Why? Because this minimizes 'separateness.' Jesus may, or may not, have been serious about the separation of the sheep and the goats on the Last Day when he shall come in glory, but surely that kind of thing has little to no application to us now. The ‘universal call to holiness’ means that we should recognize that everyone is holy – ‘everything is grace,’ as some so sweetly say – and that Christ has destroyed all enmity between the sheep and the goats.

Except that that is anything but what Jesus Christ preaches. (By all means read the New Testament, in its integrity, if you doubt this!) So far as I recall, Jesus never criticizes the Pharisees for their separateness. He does criticize them for their hypocrisy, their lack of integrity. (Seven times he calls scribes and Pharisees hypocrites in Matthew 23; in Matthew 5 he says we must exceed their righteousness, and be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect, loving even our enemies – which seems different from pretending we don’t have any, or that we’re all already righteous and perfect enough). But hypocrisy is not even remotely the same as separateness. Hypocrisy is as different from separateness as it is from holiness. In fact ‘holy’ (Hebrew qodesh) means pretty much the same as ‘Pharisee’ – set apart, sacred, consecrated. (Jeremiah 1:5, for example, reads: “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee, and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee” (i.e., "made thee holy"), also translated as “I set thee apart.” Paul’s letter to the Romans begins: “Paul, servant of Jesus Christ, called an Apostle, set apart for the Gospel of God (Latin segregatus (segregated); Greek aphorismenos (at least reminiscent of the Hebrew to Aramaic derived pharisee)).”) The Pharisees cultivated separation because they believed in the call to holiness – like Abraham, Jeremiah, the blessed virgin Mary, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul, etc., and like Jesus Christ: “be holy” (see Leviticus 20:26: “And ye shall be holy unto me: for I the LORD am holy, and have severed you from other people, that ye should be mine”; cf. 1Peter 1:16; etc., etc.!). They read the Psalms, as we should too (Psalms 1 and 119, for example), and so believed in the connection between loving God, loving the law, and loving holiness. For a preacher to disparage separateness, then, is effectively for him to disparage holiness. And this suggests that he may not know what holiness is, at least from an authentic Judeo-Christian perspective; and even though he may well be rightly ajudged a rather exemplary preacher of latter-day Christianity – which is interesting, isn’t it?

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Grateful to Pope Francis

"It is just that we should be grateful, not only to those with whose views we may agree, but also to those who have expressed more superficial views; for these also contributed something, by developing before us the powers of thought." (Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book II)

Fr. Zuhlsdorf (here): "Last night I read a surprising account of some off-the-cuff remarks offered by Pope Francis on marriages.  He opined that most marriages today aren’t valid because people don’t understand very well what they are entering into.  Of course we know that people who don’t understand very well what they are entering into can and do validly contract marriage. [Similarly, we know that people who don't understand very well what they are entering into can and do validly receive baptism, for themselves or for their children (notwithstanding the obligatory baptismal dialogue: "Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?" "I do. (I think I do. I sort-of do. I really don't but I just want to get this over with.)").] And so the Pope’s remarks give us pause.  We pause and reflect seriously about the sort of catechesis (the lousy catechesis) we have given people for decades and the less than optimal marriage preparation so many couples receive.  We are, hence, ready to get our noses to the grindstone and improve the situation because, as we know, people can and do enter into valid marriages without knowing fully what they are entering into.  After all, validity is one thing and having the graces that come with the sacrament of matrimony are another."

So reflecting on Aristotle's words and Fr. Z's comments, we should be grateful to Pope Francis, even when he expresses superficial views, insofar as he affords us the opportunity of developing our powers of thought. Even if he isn't intentionally encouraging us to do so (and to some extent we can assume that that actually is part of what he is trying to do), if we are rightly disposed that should be the effect upon us: if we are struck by the superficiality and inconsistency of his views (as we should be), we should be encouraged to reflect more deeply so as to avoid such superficiality and inconsistency in our own thinking.

[Of course the problem with Francis's remarks is that most people are not rightly disposed towards reflecting carefully and deeply on the truth (nor are they intellectually well-equipped to do so), and unfortunately Francis's example (as too-often manifested in his problematic statements) hardly seems likely to serve as an encouragement for them to become better disposed towards love and care for the truth (or better-equipped intellectually) - it is rather the opposite danger that seems likely. But still: grace works in mysterious ways and God is able to bring about good even from evil.]