Friday, December 21, 2007

Freedom in Obedience

In many other posts, such things as beauty and truth have been pondered in their absolutism, but freedom as an absolute cannot be overlooked. The reason it is an absolute is the same reason that truth is absolute. It is of the very nature of God as all-good that freedom would be of that nature. Freedom’s goodness can be ascertained by the fact that it is sought by all in many and various ways, but sought nonetheless, and only that which is good would be sought by all. If freedom is God’s nature, then God is Freedom Itself.

Advent, being a time of anticipation for the coming of our Savior, may not seem like a time to focus on freedom, but that would be a superficial view. In fact, the idea of freedom and our Savior are inseparable, for the coming of the Savior means the coming of Freedom Itself. Our Lord established this as He spoke of Himself through the reading of the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.”

Living in the “land of the free”, one would expect that freedom would occupy centrality in our cultural consciousness, and it does. Unfortunately what we believe to be freedom has proven to be the exact opposite. We have destroyed that which we seek so rabidly. Indeed it is the rabid nature of our seeking that has destroyed it. We have separated freedom from its source, and in so doing, it has shriveled into a limp and paralyzed version of freedom. Its limpness is what continues to inform our understanding of it so much so that freedom to many is the ability and the right to do whatever we want with no outside interference, input, or the most intolerable of intolerables – correction. Notice how in this version of freedom there is no room for God. This only begs the question: how can freedom possibly be obtained apart from its source? Can freedom ever be found outside of Freedom Itself? Not only does this sound like nonsense, it truly is nonsense in the strictest sense.

Our present situation is one in which nonsense, a.k.a progressivism, is touted as the realm of the intelligentsia and is, therefore, taught to the masses and believed with all too eager acceptance. We see this in the pro-abortion movement which conveniently ignores the facts of biology and simple logic. They would prefer to believe in the miracle of transubstantiation every time a fetus moves from within the womb to outside the womb, becoming a living, breathing human which it was not just minutes before. This is obviously tongue-in-cheek on my part, but it provides a clear sketch of said nonsense. Nor can we forget the nonsense of homosexual marriage, a movement which seeks to convince us that within our maleness and femaleness, there is no intelligible natural law and, thus, no nature in regards to our humanity. What is most disturbing about these is that they are nefariously promoted as freedoms when in fact they constitute the corruption of freedom. These along with a whole host of other likeminded issues have proven to be the spawns of deficient attitudes towards freedom and its obligations.

What, then, is an adequate attitude towards freedom and its obligations? The answer can and must be found in the Word of Freedom Itself, that of Divine Revelation. Romans 6:17 reads, “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.” The Logos Itself is revealing to us the true nature of freedom – obedience to Him Who is Truth. It is only in the conforming of our wills to what is true that freedom is obtained and perfected. While human freedom directed towards God leads to its perfection and actualization, the converse is also true. Human freedom directed away from God necessarily leads to corruption and slavery to sin.

In our country’s journey to Godlessness, we secure for ourselves the sure abdication of freedom, accepting for ourselves a slavery much more insidious than the slavery of the body which at least ends with its death. The enslavement of the soul, on the other hand, has the potential to be eternal, for the soul never dies. Its enslavement continues beyond the death of the body and into an unchanging eternity.

What we seek during Advent is the birth of freedom in our souls that can be wrought only in the birth, death, and resurrection of our Savior. May we all rejoice with St. Paul that we who were once slaves of sin now grow in Christ’s freedom.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

St. Edith Stein on Women's Professions [Part 3]

In my last post on St. Edith Stein’s Essays on Woman, I wrote about her view on the natural feminine vocations of wife and mother, for which the characteristics specific to women make us particularly suited. St. Stein also wrote on other feminine vocations besides these natural ones, such as those professions to which a woman can be disposed. St. Stein begins this essay with a disclaimer of sorts, writing that, “Only subjective delusion could deny that women are capable of practicing vocations other than that of spouse and mother…One could say that in case of need, every normal and healthy woman is able to hold a position. And there is no profession which cannot be practiced by a woman” (47). So, obviously St. Stein does not believe that women should not have professions; rather, she is simply explaining how our God-given feminine qualities predispose us to certain ones and that a certain spiritual attitude of service is necessary to allow a woman to perform any profession according to her feminine nature.

* An explanation may be handy before I describe these professions. It must be understood that St. Stein is really writing these essays as guides for women to live their lives according to how God created them. It is not that women are incapable of any profession, but that living according to God’s will entails submission to His will in every aspect of your life, including the domestic and professional spheres. Essentially, what everything boils down to is, “This is how we can live to fully realize the potential for which God created us.” Therefore, these views may not be easily accepted by those without a strong faith in a God who created them with specific qualities and talents for a specific purpose. *

St. Stein uses the term “feminine profession” to describe these positions that allow women to fully embrace and enact the fullness of their feminine nature. The most obvious ones are those that necessitate “sympathetic rapport” (48), which is basically working with and in the service of others. She writes that such professions include (but are not limited to) nurse, doctor, teacher, and a worker in the social services. She also writes, however, that even those professions that are generally considered “masculine” can be performed in an “authentically feminine way” (48) if they are viewed from the perspective of participating in service for humanity. In order to perform any profession according to the feminine nature, she writes that, “Basically the same spiritual attitude which the wife and mother need is needed here also, except that it is extended to a wider working circle” (48). Again, this is more a description of how a woman can perform her specific professional work with an attitude that is in keeping with her feminine nature than a precise list of “acceptable” or “unacceptable” professions for women.

Once again, St. Stein uses the Virgin Mary as a model of how feminine virtues can be developed and used well. She refers to Mary’s role at the wedding of Cana as a specific example, recounting how Mary observed what was needed and quietly found the remedy, serving others modestly and without self-glorification.

Let her be the prototype of woman in professional life,” St. Stein writes. “Wherever situated, let her always perform her work quietly and dutifully, without claiming attention and appreciation. And at the same time, she should survey the conditions with a vigilant eye. Let her be conscious of where there is a want and where help is needed, intervening and regulating as far as it is possible in her power in a discreet way. Then will she like a good spirit spread blessing everywhere. (49)

You may ask how women can find the strength, in this harried and cuh-razy world, to perform, not only their natural vocations as wife and mother, but also other professional vocations while remaining faithful and magnanimous. How can we be these superhero women? St. Stein writes that, “only by the power of grace can nature be liberated from its dross, restored to its purity, and made free to receive divine life. And this divine life itself is the inner driving power from which acts of love come forth” (55). St. Stein prescribes participation and respite in Eucharistic and liturgical relationships with God. This allows us to entrust our troubles to Him, from which is follows that, “our soul is free to participate in the divine life” (55). This participation happens by working for God and humanity in ways according to how we, male and female, were created. St. Stein writes that, “God created humanity as man and woman, and He created both according to His own image. Only the purely developed masculine and feminine nature can yield the highest attainable likeness to God. Only in this fashion can there be brought about the strongest interpenetration of all earthly and divine life” (56).

Monday, December 17, 2007

Prepare the way of the Lord!

John the Baptist is the dominant figure in the middle of Advent, and for good reason. From the Latin word “Adventus” and the Greek word “Parousia,” Advent means “come” or “arrival.” This arrival that we celebrate is the Incarnation. Of course, Parousia has meanings particular to the Incarnation, the Sacraments, and the Second Coming.

There is an intimate connection between awaiting the Incarnation and for Jesus Christ’s return in the Second coming. The nation of Israel and all of fallen humanity await redemption. This salvation narrative culminates in the Incarnation, the moment that transforms the course of history. Already this incarnation prefigures the resurrection from the dead through the exaltation of the flesh. God physically entering the human stage of cosmic history gives us hope in the resurrection at the Second Coming. Advent not only reminds us of the Incarnation but also points us towards the culmination of God’s promise at the end of ages. We are always awaiting the arrival of our Lord.

Advent is about preparing for the coming of our savior. However, in order to prepare the way we must begin by preparing ourselves. It is very significant that John the Baptist shows up in our advent readings because he always directs us how to prepare to receive Christ.

In August, I heard a priest’s homily describe John the Baptist as being too harsh with people by telling them to repent. This priest explained that Jesus calls people to the table just the way they are, where as John the Baptist was telling them they had to change. This priest portrayed John as an unchristian character. The priest was right about one thing: John was calling people to change their ways, but so was Jesus. To receive transforming love and grace is to freely accept it while intentionally turning away from sin. I believe the dichotomy this priest was drawing implied that God does not really want to save us from our sin but from the troubles of the world, as if returning to God and repenting from sin are two very different things. However, the reality is that John the Baptist’s message is indispensable from salvation.

John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said:

A voice of one crying out in the desert,
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.

John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.

When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:1-12)

In preparation for Christmas, many people sing carols, buy gifts, and perform many other ritual happenings. Christmas is so important we have a whole industry built around it and consumerism reaches year highs. This is truly a feel good season. Yet John the Baptist’s words stand as a piercing sword; he was no modern day consumer and his message was for our good, not for our immediate pleasure. Repentance is the immediate condition to open us to receiving God just as John the Baptist is the precursor prophet readying the way for Christ. Grace follows conversion. There is no contradiction. We must repent and we must do good works as evidence of our repentance. This is the advent challenge and our challenge as long as we await the Parousia.

John the Baptist stands as a sharp contrast to the many things the Christmas season has come to signify. Yet, if this is truly the season of giving we should easily find value in John’s words. The goodness we do should reflect our interior disposition to receive Christ and respond to his grace. We should not avoid enjoying the Christmas season as much as we should heed this warning and attempt to celebrate its true meaning; preparing ourselves to receive Christ and celebrate his birth. Ultimately, this will enhance Christmas as a family occasion and put Christ at its center.

More so than Santa Claus, John the Baptist is the chosen herald to proclaim God’s presence among men. Possibly a good mental exercise would be to compare and contrast these two figures and ask why Santa Claus is given more precedent in our celebration of Christ’s birth. Maybe people could dress up like John the Baptist instead of Santa Claus. We could have Advent carols: You better watch out, you better not cry, better not pout, I’m telling you why, John the Baptist is coming to town!

note: Advent seems to have originally been an ascetical (fasting) season without Liturgical celebration that may have been a six week period that ran up to the Epiphany but later became a liturgical season with no fasting. In Rome it became a season enclosed by four Sundays as a pre-Christmas season. In preparation for Christmas some minor form of fasting may still be appropriate.

Friday, December 14, 2007

A New Magnificat

Other Parousians have posted on the topic of beauty, analyzing it from a more sophisticated point-of-view and offering profound bits of wisdom and understanding. I am offering something slightly different – a firsthand experience of the transforming effect of suffering on the conventional idea of beauty into a recognition of beauty as determined not by shapeliness and symmetry but by faithfulness and poorness in spirit.

My wife has recently pulled through one of the most trying experiences she will ever face – brain tumors that left her completely debilitated for a period of approximately half a year. For both of us, this experience of suffering worked wonders at adjusting our vision, which could actually be qualified more as blindness rather than vision. Blindness to our own insufficiencies and hypocrisies may have been more debilitating than her physical illness, yet it was the illness that helped to open our eyes, particularly mine.

It was Beth’s intense beauty that first drew me to her, but of course at that time, my understanding of beauty was the result of complete acquiescence to what was socially and culturally defined as beauty. It was a conventional view of beauty, and Beth certainly fit the conventional mold. Watching her waste away in her hospital bed was another level of suffering, but also an invitation to modify and purify my limp standard of beauty. She no longer had the strong and shapely legs she once had. In fact, I remember thinking that they now looked like the legs of a frail, thin, 80 year-old woman. Her eyes were crossing and her hair was falling out in clumps. The smell of tube-feeding seemed to emanate from her body all day every day. With face gaunt, skin unnaturally pale, and nails yellow, it was as though my wife had disappeared. But what struck me throughout all of this was that though I saw this, my love for her never dimmed. It only grew stronger. In fact, the more she lost her conventional beauty, the more I loved her. I still believed she was beautiful, not because of her thin legs or her gaunt face, but because of her. This was my wife, flesh of my flesh and bone of my bones. How could I think anything else of her?

What the loss of her conventional beauty did was open a door that I never thought existed. It was as though her physical beauty stood as a dense fog or a veil before a door that opened to the heart of true beauty, a sanctuary of holiness. Once the fog lifted and the veil was torn in two from head to toe, from top to bottom, I was able to lift my eyes upon a soul strong and alive with holiness. In the midst of all the suffering, Beth remained completely faithful, never crying out of self-pity and always calling upon God for strength. While I should have been the one to comfort her, more often than not it seemed as though she was doing the comforting. She constantly reminded me that I needed to learn to trust God and that our earthly life was not the greatest good. The word that keeps coming to mind is magnificat, for her soul truly did magnify the Lord. If God is Beauty Itself, then to magnify Him is to magnify Beauty. It is only in complete docility to God’s will for us that magnification of Him becomes possible.

This was the beauty I finally began to see – the beauty of holiness through submission. And what a privilege it has been to be called by God to minister to her, attending to her and guarding her.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

What do the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have to do with the Church? Part 2

(Continued from Part 1)

When I was a child, I would use the same four words week after week to express my interest in something that was, simply put, a phenomenon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. There was nothing else like it in the world. No other group of superheroes was so stereotypically Teenage, conveniently Mutant, awesomely Ninja and pleasantly Turtles. The only thing that even came close was the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, but they were hardly Mutant and definitely not Turtles.

These days, I use another four words week after week to express my faith in another phenomenon: the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church. And much like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, there is nothing like it in the world. There is no other church in all of Christendom that is as One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic as the Roman Catholic Church. In his talk entitled "Seven Reasons to Be Catholic", Peter Kreeft notes that the Holy Spirit inspired the Nicene Creed in the 4th Century in anticipation of a split or series of splits within Christianity. Indeed, the First Council of Nicea promulgated the Nicene Creed to clarify the Apostle's Creed and to immediately address the heresy of Arianism, which claimed that Jesus was created, not begotten, and therefore was not of the same essence (ousia) as God the Father. Kreeft explains that, in the event that Christians would be confused as to which church is the true Church, the Holy Spirit provides four marks or signs of the Church that Jesus Christ established: it is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.

The unity of the Catholic Church comes from its faithfulness to the One deposit of faith that was received from the lips of Christ Himself, the Word Made Flesh. The fact that the Church has always taught one doctrine throughout its entire history without succumbing to the pressures of social trends and worldly desires is proof of its oneness. This is evident in the Church's teaching on the True Presence of Christ's Body and Blood in the Eucharist, which was clearly believed and upheld by the earliest Church fathers. This oneness is also evident in the Church's teachings against divorce and priestesses, because it does not claim the authority to contradict the precedent that Jesus Christ set by forbidding divorce and by choosing twelve men to be His apostles. Furthermore, this unity is physically visible in the one Pope, the Vicar of Christ and the Supreme Pontiff of Christ's flock on earth.

A somewhat obvious mark of the Church is that it is Holy. Let there be no confusion, though: holiness does not mean perfection. The Catholic Church, like any other faith, has its share of beloved saints and notorious sinners. To sanctify something is not to perfect but to set it apart. God did just that with the nation of Israel, and see how much the Jews have been persecuted because of it. They were independent from the rest of the world, from the rest of the society. Not only that, but the characteristics of the Jews as a people far surpassed the cultural or subcultural context. More so than their familial traditions or traditional clothing, the Jews were different because they obeyed the commands that God bestowed upon them. This is something that the man-made world does not understand. Is it any wonder why the world, the media, the politicians hate the Catholic Church so much? In John 15:19, Jesus says, "If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you". And so the Catholic Church is holy because Jesus has set it apart from the rest of the world. "We are the new Jews," remarks Kreeft. "An iron ball in the pit of the world's stomach. We cannot be digested."

At a glance, the word Catholic may also seem to be self-explanatory. This may simultaneously refer to the universality of the Church as well as its presence in all parts of the world. Then again, one may consider that the Eastern Orthodox church also considers itself Catholic, though not in communion with Rome. Similarly, many Protestants would consider themselves part of the catholic (note the lowercase "c"), or universal and invisible, church. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386) gives a more thorough definition of the word in one of his catechetical lectures: "[The Church] is called Catholic, then, because it extends over all the world, from one end of the earth to the other; and because it teaches universally and completely one and all the doctrines which ought to come to men’s knowledge, concerning things both visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly; and because it brings into subjection to godliness the whole race of mankind, governors and governed, learned and unlearned; and because it universally treats and heals the whole class of sins, which are committed by soul or body, and possesses in itself every form of virtue which is named, both in deeds and words, and in every kind of spiritual gifts." Then the mark of Catholic is that of geographical omnipresence, but also the full splendor of truth, which ties into the mark of the One Church.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the Church is that it is Apostolic. This notion is clearly seen in St. Paul's second letter to Timothy when he says, "[W]hat you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also". He is appointing St. Timothy to appoint and teach the faith to others, who will in turn appoint and teach others. That's three generations of apostolic succession! Indeed, the easiest way to find the true Church, at least for the early Christian, is to find the Church which can be traced back to the Apostles through the unbroken line of apostolic succession. The faith which they proclaim has been received from their predecessors, who in turn received it from the Apostles, who in turn received it from Christ.

So now that I've lulled you into a state of boredom, you may be wondering, "What does all this Catholic stuff have to do with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?" Let's refresh: The Roman Catholic Church is the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church. It is One because it is unified in the one deposit of faith under one pope. It is Holy because it is set apart from the world and unassimilated. It is Catholic because it is universal, worldwide and uniform. Finally, it is Apostolic because it teaches the faith that has been passed down by the successors of the Apostles who received everything they know from Jesus Christ our Lord. Basically, if you remember nothing else from this essay, at least remember that you can always sing the Four Marks of the Church to the tune of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song: "One Holy Catholic Apostolic, One Holy Catholic Apostolic, One Holy Catholic Apostolic! Four Marks of the True Church! Papal Power!"

Reflections on the Words of Our Lady of Guadalupe

"... I love you. I desire you to know who I am. I am the ever-virgin Mary, Mother of the true God who gives life and maintains its existence."

It is fitting that the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Dec. 12) falls during the season of Advent, during which the faithful ask God to renew within them a spirit of patience and hope. Yesterday, Catholics throughout the Americas celebrated the feast of their beloved patroness, "La Virgencita," or the "Little Virgin" of Guadalupe, who appeared to St. Juan Diego in 1531.

At the time of the apparition, Juan was a widowed farmer in his late fifties and a recent convert to Catholicism. He had spent the better part of his life waiting to hear the saving message of the gospel, and though he became a devout Catholic after his conversion, he lived during a time in which many of the Mexican people were still practicing the pagan religion of the Aztecs. On his way to Mass one day, Juan met a beautiful young Lady who spoke to him in his native language, Nahuatl, and asked: "Juanito, my son, where are you going?" When he responded, "Noble lady, I am on my way to Church to hear Mass," the Lady revealed her identity with such gentleness and such affection that her words speak volumes about her love for each of us.

"My dear little son, I love you. I desire you to know who I am. I am the ever-virgin Mary, Mother of the true God who gives life and maintains its existence. He created all things. He is in all places. He is Lord of Heaven and Earth. I desire a church to be built in this place where your people may experience my compassion. All those who sincerely ask my help in their work and in their sorrows will know my Mother's Heart in this place. I am your merciful Mother, the Mother of all who live united in this land, and of all mankind, of all those who love me, of those who cry to me, of those who have confidence in me. Here I will see their tears; I will console them, and they will be at peace."

Our Blessed Mother truly loves us. She wants us to know who she is, to know the inexhaustible love, mercy and compassion that flow forth from her Immaculate Heart, and to have confidence that she accompanies us in our work and in our sorrow. She wants to remind us, especially during this season of Advent, that she is the Mother of "the true God who gives life," and that if we wait on God's Word with hope and prepare ourselves to respond to Him with a "yes" like hers, He will sustain us and we too will "bear Christ" to the world, as she did.

The rest of the story of Guadalupe is familiar to most Catholics: Our Lady then asked Juan Diego to go to the bishop and share with him all that he had seen and heard. When the bishop asked for a sign to substantiate the peasant's claims, Juan returned to Our Lady and she sent him to a hilltop where he was able to fill his tilma (apron) with beautiful roses to take to the bishop. The roses themselves were miraculous, since it was the middle of winter and no other flowers were blooming - but since God is not to be outdone in beauty, when Juan unfurled his tilma before the bishop, all who were present were astounded not only by the roses, but also by the magnificent picture of Mary they beheld "painted" on his cloak. She was just as he had described her - a young, olive-skinned Indian woman surrounded by light and wearing the belt traditionally worn by Aztec women during pregnancy. To this day experts have not been able to determine just how the image was rendered, nor how the image and the tilma, which is made of poor-quality cactus cloth, have not deteriorated over the centuries. It is accurate down to the minutest detail: the proportions of the image are those of a young girl of about 15 years of age, the pattern on her red garment is a map of Mexico, the stars on her cloak form real constellations, and it is said that reflections of Juan Diego and his bishop can be seen in her eyes.

Our Lady also appeared to Juan Diego's uncle, who was miraculously cured of an illness thanks to her intercession, and she told him that she and her image were to be called "Santa Maria de Guadalupe." Some linguists believe that "Guadalupe" is really a Spanish spelling of the Nahuatl word Coatallope or Coatlaxopeuh, which means "Who Crushes the Serpent" or "Who Treads on Snakes." This title can refer to traditional depictions of Mary crushing the head of a serpent, as well as Our Lady's triumph over the Aztec snake-god, Quetzalcoatl, since the story of her appearance and the exposition of Juan Diego's tilma led to the conversion of millions of the indigenous people of Mexico and their descendants. The image is loaded with mythological significance for the Aztec people if it is read as a pictograph. This article explains the image in fascinating detail: The Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe as a Pictograph.

Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, ruega por nosotros. Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for us. Accompany us through Advent as we wait to celebrate the birth of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

What do the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have to do with the Church? Part 1

I have always been a fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Ever since I saw the live-action movie (1990), I was hooked. I had the action figures, I watched the cartoon series faithfully, I even dressed up as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle for Halloween. But it wasn't until I saw the fourth movie (TMNT, 2007) that I fully realized what the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles really were.

Up until that point I had just taken it for granted that they were Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and you may have, too. The name rolls off the tongue so easily that one might miss the meaning of the phrase completely. In fact, I think it would benefit everyone if we separated each word by a period for emphasis: Teenage. Mutant. Ninja. Turtles. Not only are they turtles, not only are they ninja turtles, not only are they mutant ninja turtles, but they are Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! How could I have missed this before?

Maybe this doesn't mean much to you, but it means a whole lot to me. Think about it: Each and every one of those words is important. In fact, to remove any one of those words would place the entire existance of these heroes in jeopardy. Don't believe me? I'll prove it to you.

If these Mutant Ninja Turtles were not also Teenagers, they would not have nearly as much appeal to the youth as they do. They would not eat pizza, they would not ride skateboards, they would not play video games, and they would certainly never cry, "Cowabunga!" The fact that these strange heroes are Teenagers is part of what makes them so funny and so lovable.

Mutant is probably the most important word of the four because it explains the anthropomorphic nature of the Turtles. It allows these Turtles to train and fight as Ninjas while speaking and acting like Teenagers. If these Teenage Ninja Turtles were not also Mutant, the credibility of the series would be in question. One might even ask, "Are you sure they aren't just Teenage Ninjas who simply dress like Turtles?" The answer is, "No, they're really Turtles. They're Mutant Turtles."

The basis of the cartoon's genre as action-adventure (not to mention much of the plot) lies in the distinction of Ninja. This is the word that gives the four green brothers a purpose. Not satisfied with just hanging out in the sewer, they are sworn to uphold the code of the Ninja with acts of valor, righteousness, loyalty, and benevolence. It is because they are Ninjas that they defend the defenseless of the city against crime and evil. It is also worth noting that the phrase Teenage Mutant Turtles (sans the "Ninja") would imply that the characters are awkward and outlandish in every way. But they are, in fact, Ninjas. And that's pretty cool.

Finally, they're Turtles. This is mostly an idiosyncratic term that sets them apart from other heroes that are also considered Teenage Mutant Ninjas, such as Spiderman, the X-Men, et cetera. What's the difference between the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and all the other superheroes? Those other superheroes may be heroes, but the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are heroes in a half-shell, my friend. You don't see that in a hero (or, you don't see a hero in that) too often.

At this point you may be wondering, "What do the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have to do with the Church?" I'm glad you asked. Because in the same way that someone can talk about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles without fully understanding what those four words imply, one can state their belief in the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church week after week and not really comprehend the weight of this title. While these adjectives might seem redundant or superfluous, one must understand that the Church is seldom wordy for the sake of being wordy. Like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, every word counts in the Catholic Church. In the second part of this essay, I hope to thoroughly and sufficiently analyze these four words that so beautifully describe the Roman Catholic Church, just as I have analyzed the four words that describe my favorite childhood heroes.

Proceed to Part 2

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

All I want for Christmas...

…is one of your sweet sweet…………. skin cells? The New York Times reports

In the ongoing struggle of protecting the sanctity of human life at all stages (yes, even in the teenage years), the storm cloud of controversy looming over embryonic stem cell research has been fierce for the past decade. I am glad such controversy took hold rather than complacency and an overlooking of moral implications for “the greater good” – a very selective greater good if you ask me. However, it seemed to be a never ending battle, perhaps until now. The moral debate will go on forever, but the practical one may end within another decade.

Dr. James Thompson was part of one of two laboratories to first extract stem cells from embryos in 1998. Today he is part of more research which has found “a new way to turn ordinary human skin cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells without ever using a human embryo.” How fascinating! I hope my personal enthusiasm is contagious. The new technique is basically just adding four genes to ordinary adult skin cells. In the interview with the New York Times, Dr. Thompson said, “It will not be long before the stem cell wars are a distant memory. A decade from now, this will be just a funny historical footnote.”

Tell us more Dr. Thompson. The NY Times reports his ethical concerns, “If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough,” he said. “I thought long and hard about whether I would do it.” Obviously, he eventually decided to go through with it, reasoning that the embryos they use are unwanted from fertility clinics and would be disposed of anyway.

Not to downplay or insult Dr. Thompson’s moral dilemma, but I would just like to sidestep here and dig a little bit. I have heard this argument before: well, they were going to be thrown away anyway, we might as well make good use of them. I have never heard anyone say: well, that mother doesn’t want her baby anyway, we might as well make good use of it and start the drug testing. Even if all abortions became illegal, and for some reason everyone stopped wanting babies, I still don’t imagine testing facilities being created for the sole purpose of making use of unwanted humans. If we really understood the continuum of life – seeing beyond appearances – then we would value the simple (which isn’t really that simple) as much as the complex as both possess the dignity of human life. Furthermore, if we really understood how to value life in the first place (allow it this dignity), there would be less confusion over what is life. Technology in the form of machinery or medicine and so forth should be valued by its usefulness, but man is not another technology to be judged by his societal input. If utility is the measure of a man, then perhaps embryonic stem cell research and prostitution should be re-evaluated.

Before beginning research, Dr. Thompson consulted with two ethicists at his university (the University of Wisconsin), Dr. Fost, a physician, and Ms. Charo, a law professor. The NY Times quotes an impressed Dr. Fost, “It is unusual in the history of science for a scientist to really want to think carefully about the ethical implications of his work before he sets out to do it.” If this is true, it seriously concerns me. It brings us back to the haunting question of whether the ends justify the means. In the 8th grade I openly admitted to my Louisiana history class that I thought they do. Now I feel trapped in a bad science-fiction time warp where I’m back in the 8th grade except everyone else has adopted my view and I’ve changed.

Anyhow, I am thankful for this hopeful departure of research using embryos and for its replacement with a more humane approach. As I mentioned earlier, the moral implications for embryonic stem cell research have not changed, and we will no doubt continue to fight the relativistic, ends-justifying-means mindset and its manifestations such as this.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Woman's Natural Vocation [St. Edith Stein, Part 2]

St. Edith Stein’s Essays on Women offer compelling descriptions of ideal femininity and how women can best attain this in their lives. First, St. Stein describes the natural vocation of women, writing that, “Only the person blinded by the passion of controversy could deny that woman in soul and body is formed for a particular purpose. The clear and irrevocable word of Scripture declares what daily experience teaches from the beginning of the world: woman is destined to be wife and mother” (43). St. Stein writes that this purpose is perfectly compatible with the nature of women to seek “to embrace that which is living, personal, and whole” (43). She also writes that women are suited for another role compatible with motherhood: companion. According to St. Stein, “it is her [woman’s] gift and happiness to share the life of another human being and, indeed, to take part in all things which come his way” (44). This role requires “subordination and obedience as directed by God’s work” (44).

It is difficult, in this feminism-ridden day and age, to accept that the primary role of women, for which we have been formed and according to which we have been endowed with certain and sundry capacities, is a supporting one. Most of us have been ingrained with the idea that women can and should do whatever men do, a view that effectively denies the unique qualities and gifts that make us specifically suited for specific functions—through which we are able to become what we were created to be (which, to put it mildly, is no small thing!). The secular view of freedom as the liberty to do whatever one wants, whenever one wants is a main culprit of the disparity between what women do and what women should do (this applies to men as well, of course). To be enslaved by our whims is no freedom. Contrarily, to FREELY CHOOSE to work for the good and benefit of others by living according to God’s will is the way, not only to salvation, but to the fulfillment of our purposes—our reasons for being. There is supreme dignity in the choice to excel in what we were created for.

Advent is the perfect time for women to accept, not our place, but our purpose. This implies something far beyond anything chauvinistic or misogynistic; rather, it involves embracing our ideal forms and working to realize them through our lives. Advent is a wonderful time for this because of the glorious example of obedience, support, and love that the Virgin Mary demonstrated when she FREELY CHOSE to submit to the will of God. Hers is an example of the feminine ideal for which we should all strive. It is also an example of what results from bowing to the Lord’s will, as is stated in these words from Hail Mary: “blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.” The fruit of Mary’s choice was the means for the salvation of the world! Of course, not all of our actions may result in such obvious splendor, but our participation in the Lord’s will is always glorious. May all of us, male or female, pray this Advent for the strength and will to act according to our reasons for being, so that our works may bear fruit as Mary’s did!

[In my next post, I will write about St. Stein’s views on feminine vocations other than the maternal.]

Monday, December 10, 2007

Ecumenicalism of Benedict XVI

Since the historic elevation of Cardinal Ratzinger to Pope, I have heard many opinions regarding this controversial figure. Sadly, many people honestly believe this election will bring nothing short of a catastrophe that will consequently end in nothing less than another schism in the Church. I often find myself struggling to understand this way of thinking, but it is there nonetheless.

I believe one of the problems is that many have never read anything by Pope Benedict XVI. Of course this doesn’t mean that reading his works will necessitate agreement; however, many of the type of disagreements I hear seem to be misunderstandings and out of context quotes. Just the other day I went to a public library and perused the religion and theology section. I found quite a few books that speculate about the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI and how his rigidity will divide the Church, yet I could not find a single book actually written by him. How do these one-sided opinions infiltrate the minds of so many people? Is it laziness or merely the library selection? Maybe the reality is that many people no longer want to do the homework.

One of the things I believe is becoming more obvious is Pope Benedict’s commitment to fruitful ecumenicalism. From his first message as Pope after his first mass in the Sistine Chapel, the Pope iterated this commitment.
The current Successor assumes as his primary commitment that of working tirelessly towards the reconstitution of the full and visible unity of all Christ's followers. This is his ambition, this is his compelling duty. He is aware that to do so, expressions of good feelings are not enough. Concrete gestures are required to penetrate souls and move consciences, encouraging everyone to that interior conversion which is the basis for all progress on the road of ecumenism.

Recent activities affirm this desire. Journalist Damian Thompson writes about many of these happenings focusing on three Church of Ireland parishes which have around 400,000 Anglicans. In Thompson's words, “The liberation of the Latin liturgy, the rapprochement with Eastern Orthodoxy, the absorption of former Anglicans - all these ambitions reflect Benedict's conviction that the Catholic Church must rediscover the liturgical treasure of Christian history to perform its most important task: worshiping God.”

November 15, 2007 the Joint Catholic-Orthodox Commission released a statement regarding the sacramental nature of the Church which focuses on “Ecclesial Communion, Conciliarity and Authority.” This promising document goes beyond local authority and discusses the problematic division within the Body of Christ. Although this statement doesn’t say anything too groundbreaking it is important that the Catholics and Orthodox are saying this together. By formally recognizing that this division is not of God in a joint document, both sides have set before them the commitment to work towards unity. Although much disagreement still lies in understanding the role of the Pope, the document recognized the Bishop of Rome as a first among equal. The next meeting of this commission intends to discuss this issue further.

On a few occasions, I have gotten into conversation about the universal indult allowing greater use and access to the traditional Latin mass. Many of the conversations started with somebody upset at the Pope’s actions. Somehow his actions supposedly confirm his rigidity and inability to be open-minded because he is seeking an older way of things and rejecting the goals of Vatican II. Without getting into what seems to be an improper understanding of Vatican II, on the surface level I find this intriguing since Pope Benedict has done nothing to make the new mass any less available. If anything he is reaching out to those in the Church who feel ostracized by not being able to worship in what they consider to be a valid liturgical expression. Even though people contend for a right to be upset, Benedict is not taking anything away from them but being more ecumenical.

Rather than being close minded, the Pope, if anything, is being open to being inclusive to a particular part of the church. Of course this inclusiveness will never be merely for the sake of inclusiveness but a response to the Gospel message to bring Christ to his people in a way that conforms to the mission entrusted to the Church. And Pope Benedict XVI definitely outlines his reasons for this decision in his Apostolic Letter “Summorum Pontificum” and his letter accompanying it to the Bishops. I recommend reading the latter as Benedict addresses the concerns of harsh opposition that this decision detracts from the liturgical reform of Vatican II.

This experience begs a question. Those people discontent at the decision of the Latin mass being made more available: are they upset because they believe this is somehow against the gospel, or are they jealous because this in no way benefits them? More complicated reasons are possible as well. I just don’t see how this can be used as a justification to show that Pope Benedict XVI is rigid and close minded in the negative way so many people seem to indicate. Yet, without getting too deep in the semantics of what constitutes an open or closed mind, a closed mind may not be an entirely undesirable thing, depending on what it closes upon of course.

"The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid."
-G.K. Chesterton

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Spe Salvi, Advent, and the Parousia

Pope Benedict XVI's second encyclical letter, Spe Salvi (Saved by Hope), comes at an opportune time, one that is particularly important to the Parousians: the beginning of Advent.

According to Catholic Encyclopedia, during Advent, Catholics are encouraged to "prepare themselves worthily to celebrate the anniversary of the Lord's coming into the world as the incarnate God of love, thus to make their souls fitting abodes for the Redeemer coming in Holy Communion and through grace, and thereby to make themselves ready for His final coming as judge, at death and at the end of the world."

In other words, Advent is the time when we as Catholics:
1. Prepare to celebrate the Incarnation at Christmas.
2. Make our souls "fitting abodes for the Redeemer" who comes to us in the Eucharist and in grace - which requires us to repent (read: go to Confession).
3. Ready ourselves for the Second Coming, also called the Adventus (Latin) or the Parousia (Greek).

The Catechism gives the faithful a similar admonition:
"The coming of God's Son to earth is an event of such immensity that God willed to prepare for it over centuries... When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior's first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming" (CCC 522, 524).
Thus the four weeks of Advent are a time of expectation and renewal, namely, the renewal of our desire for Christ's coming, which is the renewal of our hope - which brings us to the Holy Father's new encyclical.

In Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that Christian hope is future-oriented: "We see as a distinguishing mark of Christians the fact that they have a future: it is not that they know the details of what awaits them, but they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness" (Spe Salvi 2). This hope for the future, which has as its foundation our salvation in Christ, helps us to make sense of the sufferings of the present, and to see their cause. "Present society is recognized by Christians as an exile," the Holy Father writes in Section 4. Our homeland is in Heaven, and we long to return to it, but we must first complete our earthly sojourn - we must first suffer, and wait.

The Holy Father goes on two explore two different approaches to life, one which takes as its "substance" (hyparchonta) the things of this world, property, material security; and another approach which depends on a new "substance" (hypostasis) in order to survive - the substance of faith-filled hope.

"In order to understand more deeply this reflection on the two types of substance - hypostasis and hyparchonta - and on the two approaches to life expressed by these terms," the Pope writes, we ought to look at Chapter 10 of St. Paul's Letter to the Hebrews and pay particular attention to his use of the words hypomone (10:36) and hypostole (10:39).
"Hypomone is normally translated as 'patience' - perseverance, constancy. Knowing how to wait, while patiently enduring trials, is necessary for the believer to be able to 'receive what is promised' (10:36). In the religious context of ancient Judaism, this word was used expressly for the expectation of God which was characteristic of Israel, for their persevering faithfulness to God on the basis of the certainty of the Covenant in a world which contradicts God. Thus the word indicates a lived hope, a life based on the certainty of hope" (Spe Salvi 9)
And yet, the Holy Father continues, our hope is more certain than that of the Jews because of the Incarnation. We wait not only for the Savior who is to come, but for Christ who was, who is, and is to come - for Christ who has already revealed to us the love of the Father.
"In the New Testament, this expectation of God... takes on a new significance: in Christ, God has revealed Himself. He has already communicated to us the 'substance' of things to come, and thus the expectation of God acquires a new certainty. It is the expectation of things to come from the perspective of a present that is already given. It is a looking-forward in Christ's presence, with Christ who is present, to the perfecting of His Body, to his definitive coming."
In this way, we can be sure that Christ accompanies us through Advent, and because He is eternally present, He is with us even as we await His coming at Christmas, as well as at the Parousia.

In contrast to hypomone, the word hypostole indicates a "shrinking back" in fear of speaking the truth. The hope with which we are asked to live leaves no room for such fear.

In his homily on the First Sunday of Advent in 2005, Pope Benedict encouraged Catholics to look to the example of the Blessed Mother in order to understand both the nature of Christ's coming and what we must do to prepare for it:
"Mary belonged to that part of the people of Israel who in Jesus' time were waiting with heartfelt expectation for the Savior's coming. And from the words and acts recounted in the Gospel, we can see how she truly lived steeped in the prophets' words; she entirely expected the Lord's coming. She could not, however, have imagined how this coming would be brought about... The moment when the Archangel Gabriel entered her house and told her that the Lord, the Savior, wanted to take flesh in her, wanted to bring about his coming through her, must have been all the more surprising to her.

"We can imagine the Virgin's apprehension. Mary, with a tremendous act of faith and obedience, said "yes": "I am the servant of the Lord." And so it was that she became the "dwelling place" of the Lord, a true "temple" in the world and a "door" through which the Lord entered upon the earth."
Like Mary, we must prepare our souls to be "fitting abodes for the Redeemer," a daunting task, indeed; but let us not be discouraged, for we may find consolation in the knowledge that Christ and His Mother accompany us on our journey, and that, as St. Paul writes in Romans 8:24, "SPE SALVI FACTI SUMUS" - we have been saved by hope.

Our Lady of the New Advent by Fr. William McNichols

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Strong Women = Lustful Men?

I want to be a strong woman. If I were to look to the media for guidance, I would see countless “strong” women; women portrayed as vain, greedy, ambitious, and lustful. These women seem to attribute hedonistic and selfish values to masculinity (which does a grave disservice to men). Women like Carrie Bradshaw from “Sex in the City,” whose goal, as she describes it in one of the earliest episodes, is to, “have sex like a man.” In other words, she wants flimsy strings of meaningless one-night stands with which to package an emotionless and hedonistic lifestyle. Is this strength?

St. Edith Stein did not believe so. In her Essays on Women, St. Stein describes how womanhood and femininity should be exemplified. She describes the role of women as one of support, nurture, maternity, and obedience. She uses the Blessed Virgin Mary as the exemplary female, writing,

The image of the Mother of God demonstrates the basic spiritual attitude which corresponds to woman’s natural vocation; her relation to her husband is one of obedience, trust, and participation in his life as she furthers his objective tasks and personality development; to the child she gives true care, encouragement, and formation of his God-given talents; she offers both selfless surrender and a quiet withdrawal when unneeded. All is based on the concept of marriage and motherhood as a vocation from God; it is carried out for God’s sake and under His guidance (46).

If we look carefully at this passage, we see a description that is quite different from the individualistic, ambitious, selfish attitudes Americans tend to cherish. We are taught to work hard, not to further society or implement meaningful change, but to “get ahead”—essentially, to beat everyone else in the rat race to wealth and vainglory. And when a woman succumbs to this view, it is desperately against the values of which St. Stein writes. I know firsthand that it is difficult to lay aside vanity and pride for our actions. To be perfectly candid, when I accomplish something, I want people to know about it so that they love and admire me. This can be a sinful and is always a destructive way to live a life, and I am ashamed of it. It contrasts truly Christian charity for men and women, but also contradicts the supportive and nurturing roles that specifically belong to females.

To combat the images with which the media assails us, women must learn to see and demonstrate strength by striving for the best values to which the Lord, through His love and wisdom, has created our natures to dispose us. Also, men must strive to combat the vices with which society them. Few of the values and attitudes cherished by the media are worthy of emulation. We must change this!

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Good Life vs. The Moral Life: Nagel and Nietzche

In "Living Right and Living Well", Thomas Nagel addresses the apparent conflicts in ethics between the moral life and the good life. He recognizes that, ethics should not only tell us how we should live, but also how to live well. The fundamental conflict that Nagel says has not been resolved, however, is the problem that results when the two elements contradict each other. He addresses the seriousness of the issue in the beginning of the essay when he states, “The admission of a variety of motivational elements among the sources of morality results in a system that reflects the divisions of the self. It does not resolve or eliminate those divisions (189).” The reality of this division is rejected by some, and the idea of a moral life being founded in an account of human good is considered but ultimately rejected by Nagel. In this post I will discuss his reasons for doing so and then address some problems that result from it.

The heart of Nagel’s interpretation of the moral life rests on the idea of an “impersonal morality.” The idea that individuals must order our actions towards the objective reality that our wellbeing is no more important than anyone else’s. The moral life is one that rejects personal prejudices towards oneself or loved ones and acts in a way that is wholly selfless. “… the welfare and the projects of others should be accorded as much weight as my own and those of people I care about: that I should be as impartial between myself and others as I would be between people I don’t know (201).” This makes claims beyond merely rejecting prejudice or the standard definitions of selfishness. The problem that he attempts to resolve is that it seems to go against the commonly held perception that living a moral life is conducive to one’s personal happiness. One’s life would be wholly absorbed in fulfilling the requirements towards every other individual that was less fortunate that oneself. The attainment of personal goods would be out of the question until the needs of everyone else were addressed. Indeed, Nagel recognizes “It is clear that a strongly impersonal morality, with any significant requirements of impartiality, can pose a serious threat to the kind of personal life that many of us take to be desirable (190).” But that does not change the fact that these claims may still be justifiable. After all, the question is not whether these duties are difficult but whether they are true. And since Nagel is assuming impersonal morality as a foundation of his account of ethics, his task is to explain why this idea is reasonable and how it relates to the general welfare of individuals.

From the start, Nagel is attempting to harmonize the elements of the moral, the good, and the rational. His hope is to use reason to balance out the claims made by both the moral life and the good life. He says “We must so to speak strike a bargain between our higher and lower selves in arriving at an acceptable morality (203).” To live a life that denied all of the goods of personal wellbeing would simply be too much to ask-it would in fact be irrational. Since the claims of the good life and the moral life are apposed to each other in this sense, compromise is the only solution. According to this idea, a proper account of ethics would require that an individual must live morally but not too morally, or at least not so moral that their good life is sacrificed to the degree that it would be unreasonable to require. “The result is likely to be that at some threshold, hard to define, we will conclude that it is unreasonable to expect people in general to sacrifice themselves and those to whom they have close personal ties to the general good (203).” The important part of this argument is not the conclusion that Nagel reaches as much as his justifications for it. Ultimately, the moral life and the good life are inevitably opposed; it is rationality that balances the two.

Generally speaking, however, this approach seems overly simplified to account for everyday human experience. Nagel’s views about the nature of moral claims centers around the idea that the good life for an individual which is subjective, should sacrifice itself for the objective claims that contradict it. In other words, it leaves no room for the possibility of a general good. To thrive, in his view, is to thrive as an individual; to be moral is to check your personal goods in order to help along the personal goods of other people. We are, in a sense, isolated entities who nonetheless have an obligation to assist one another’s personal endeavors to the degree that we are interested in our own. The two problems become apparent with this view. First, the lack of any real account of a good that goes beyond the flourishing of an individual combined with the demands of an impersonal morality makes the cultivation of friendship difficult to justify on the basis of the human good. Secondly, the justification for acting selflessly has its basis in an asserted principle rather than any claims towards the good for human beings. In other words, acting according to an impersonal morality may be the right thing to do, but its not necessarily a good thing to do, and it definitely shouldn’t be counted on for happiness or general wellbeing.

This is ultimately why the justification for morality cannot be derived from an account of the good for human beings according to Nagel. “Moral requirements have their source in the claims of other persons, and the moral force of those claims cannot be strictly limited by their capacity to be accommodated within the good individual life (197). The disagreement is twofold: Since impersonal morality only makes sense in terms of claims made from one individual on another, they cannot be seen as an aide in the general wellbeing of an individual or communal flourishing, only a necessary sacrifice. And since any account of the good life is individualistic by definition, it cannot be compatible with morality inasmuch as it is wholly objective and selfless. So the moral cannot be derived from the good because the good is too personal and the moral is too impersonal. Both of these assumptions are problematic because they separate the moral standards of an ethic from its motivational element. Nagel’s interpretation of the good life, although somewhat inadequate, still stands for what he considers a life of happiness. The justification for sacrificing a purely selfish pursuit of happiness is solely because such a life would not conform to his concept of impersonal morality.

This has a good deal in common with Nietzsche’s account of slave morality. His critique of the moral life was that it had no justification other than the personal assertions of the individuals that institute it. Nagel’s moral system has nothing to stand on because it is based on an account of selflessness that is objective in name only. In response to the question, “Why shouldn’t I pursue my good life without any regard for the wellbeing of others?” Nagel can only respond, “Because that would be immoral.” And if asked why one shouldn’t be immoral, his only response is that it would be wrong, or that it would be irrational. The justification is circular and rooted in assertion because it means little more than “We should balance our own pursuits with a genuine concern for the wellbeing of others because I just think that’s the right thing to do.” Sacrificing personal wellbeing to such a standard would be irrational. In addressing the Nietzschian arguments against morality, Nagel is reduced to making unsure statements of personal preference “I am inclined strongly to hope, and less strongly to believe, that the correct morality will always have the preponderance of reason on its side, even though it needn’t coincide with the good life (199).” According to his terms he has no other answer. Beyond personal preference for the ideas, following such maxims only renders one a slave to morality-reducing one’s chances for happiness by subscribing to the personal assertions of someone else.

Nagel has no answer for Nietzsche because his claims take happiness out of the equation when talking about morality. To act is to act towards some good, either real or perceived. It is a statement that cannot be argued without assuming it as a given. To try to base an ethics from an alternative method is simply adding an element to the statement. Nagel statement that, “There is pressure from the moral standpoint itself to adjust those demands so that they converge with the condition of full human rationality, though not the condition of a good life (205)” only makes sense if it asserts that living in accordance with full human rationality is a good. The statement “One should not live a good life but a rationally moral life” defeats itself because it is only justified by “It is good to live a rational moral life.” The answer to Nietzsche’s purely selfish individual is not simply that he would be living an immoral life, but that the immoral life would render him miserable. It would be acting against his own good as well as the good of the community. Ultimately in rejecting that the moral life is derived from the good life, Nagel is rejecting the only answer to the Nietzschian critique of morality

A little Augustine on Pantheism, Evil, and Platonism

Before Augustine became a Christian he had to overcome some serious intellectual problems. One of Augustine’s problems was his material conception of God. Even though Augustine did not conceive of God in the shape of human body he imagined him as something pervading all physical space of the world and continuing infinitely outside the world. Peter Kreeft calls this the ‘blob god’ because it envisions God as some sort of cosmic blob that encompasses everything. Augustine’s understanding of the real was limited to the external world of space and time, materialism, by which anything beyond lacked real existence. This hypothesis created a pantheism by which the more matter something contained, the more God it contained. Thus an elephant contained more God than the sparrow.

Since Augustine envisioned God surrounding and permeating all real and imagined bodies yet infinite in all directions, Augustine struggled to understand how evil originated. The second problem Augustine faced, the existence of evil, challenged him to question the corruptibility of God and/or creation. Influenced by Manichaeism, Augustine fought the idea that evil substances exist parallel to the existence good substances, and our souls suffer evil by becoming enslaved in flesh. This dualism made “it more acceptable to say your substance suffers evil than that their own substance actively does evil.” (Confessions).

Augustine dealt with the problem of evil and his sponge theory of God by reexamining the nature of God and creation. Based off the premise that God is the highest good and the incorruptible is better than the corruptible, Augustine concludes that God is incorruptible, immaterial, immutable, and evil cannot originate in God. God as the supreme Good makes all creation good, but created beings are lesser goods in comparison to God. Furthermore, neither evil nor matter could pre-exist God because this would make him less omnipotent by his reliance on something co-eternal to himself. God would no longer be the supreme Good.

Influenced by platonic philosophy and through a process of inspection, Augustine turned inward to his own mind. He went from external bodies to inward perceptions next ascending to his power of reasoning. In his reason he saw the power of judging values and discerned the immutable light, God, which transcended his mind and made his knowledge possible. In the hierarchy of being Augustine imagined God as the supreme good, man as a lesser good which could have immaterial ideas, and the rest of material creation as a lesser good but without immaterial ideas. God did not make all things equal, but he did make them all good. God is not infinite in the physical sense, but he holds all creation in existence by his power. Nor does He suffer the evil that creation does.

Evil is not a substance in itself but a corruption of something created good. Augustine links evil to a perversion of the will. All created things are good by the nature of their existence. Wickedness is “a perversity of will twisted away from the highest substance, …God, towards inferior things” (Confessions). Evil is choosing lower goods over the greatest good, God, by which the will orients itself towards nothingness.

The intellectual conversion of Augustine came when he started to focus inward rather than towards the external and temporal world of space and time. Platonic books and philosophy helped him make this transition. In fact, platonic philosophy gave him a perspective and context by which he could understand God’s transcendence; of course Augustine would not inherit the pagan beliefs of the Greeks. With other Church Fathers, like Irenaeus, Augustine was willing to accept truth wherever it was to be found, even in pagan texts, but not to the exclusion of true belief in Christianity and God. In a way, Christianity gave Augustine the content of his thought and platonic philosophy gave him a way to think about it. But philosophy itself cannot provide the fundamental truths about God nor provide the grace and humility that one needs to understand these truths.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Authority, Obedience, and Selfishness

The title of this post reminds me of the “which one doesn’t fit?” question often found on IQ tests and the like. Clearly, the answer to the above would be ‘selfishness’, but why doesn’t it fit? If we recognize that selfishness is insoluble with authority and obedience, why do the terms ‘authority’ and ‘obedience’ cause such discomfort in people? I would propose that a population conditioned by an environment and culture absolutely obsessed with individualism claiming that this individualism is what makes us ‘great’ has not a chance of escaping the pitfalls that are bound to occur – pitfalls characterized by the eventual rejection of obedience as a virtue and selfishness as a vice. When this occurs, recognition of authority as a good becomes a virtue held by a small minority, those who are diagnosed as sheltered, parochial, and even simplistic by the multitude of self-made pop psychologists who have it all figured out. They just can’t seem to figure out why their own marriages are broken, their own children are misfits, and the list could go on.

Evidence of this as the prevailing mindset of many today (although none would ever admit to it), is most clearly seen in the elementary and high school classroom, a veritable observatory of the many and varied errors the modern family has imposed upon itself with the children serving as guinea pigs for the new human cultural experiment performed by mad scientists that go by the title of ‘mother’ and ‘father’. In this experiment, a dual hypothesis is being tested: children will be better suited to reach the goal with less guidance, and they will be able to assimilate into the real world in a productive way without being conditioned to recognize the need for authority and more importantly the need to accept another’s authority.

There is an insidious movement of parents away from the role of teacher, guide, and disciplinarian and towards the role of friend. This establishes a relationship in which authority has no place, and the results of this new experiment are quite telling. Since mothers and fathers have decided to be simply peers to their children, there has been a corresponding rise in apathy towards those things that create a stable society – education, self-discipline, faith, and marriage. This should raise a question in our minds: Why would lack of authority on the part of parents within the home lead to such a result?

To answer such a question, we must first understand the nature of authority and, therefore, its purpose. Etymologically, ‘authority’ comes from the Latin auctor and auctoritas, meaning ‘model, teacher, and progenitor’ and ‘security, full power, and decree’, respectively. The purpose of authority is to provide a standard by which we learn and model our lives. It is meant to securely and with power guide those in submission to it into a life of goodness. Clearly authority can be abused in the most horrid of ways; nevertheless, this fact does not take away from its necessity for cultural stability. More specifically, authority in the home plays an even greater role. The role of the father, and consequently his authority, is meant to provide an image of the paternity of God to his children, thus forming the child’s notion of God and the submission due to Him by virtue of His authority. St. Paul assures us of this notion in Ephesians 3:14,15 where he writes, “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named.”

The natural consequence of such a lack of authoritative parenting, most clearly seen when they choose to be their children’s peers, is a corresponding lack of acknowledgement of God as Father. This rejection may not occur in an explicit fashion but can certainly be discerned in the wayward decisions of those who adopt such a way of life. How could a child conditioned to reject the notion of valid authority somehow innately accept the authority of God? Faith, therefore, is no longer part of the equation. Neither is the concept of self-sacrifice, for if mom and dad have taken on the role of ‘friend’, then at what point will little Suzy or little Johnny ever experience the need to submit their will and desire to the greater good? This sets up children for nothing but failure, but not only children as individuals, but also the society of which these children will ultimately take control. With no appreciation for self-sacrifice and an overdose of selfishness, lasting and fruitful marriages become near-impossibilities, and as we are experiencing now, the breakdown of marriage translates into breakdown of the culture.

Another symptom of such rampant selfishness is the unveiling of its high-maintenance handmaiden that goes by the name of Materialism, which should be no surprise to the thinking individual. The materialist philosophy is a natural outgrowth of such an environment in that the one who rejects sacrifice for the greater good accepts only consumption for the benefit of self.

At the risk of sounding sheltered or parochial, I would gladly forgo the pleasure of being my child’s friend if it meant saving them from adopting the status of a selfish, materialistic, and faithless divorcee.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

God Desires Our Human Love and Its Perfection, Part Three

All Christians agree that God's Word to us in Sacred Scripture makes one truth abundantly clear: God loves us, and He sent His only son, Jesus Christ, to die for our sins so that we might enter the kingdom of Heaven (John 3:16, 1 John 4:9); and He desires for us to "abide in His love," to love Him and to love one another (John 15:9).

We see the call to imitate the love of God over and over again in His Word. "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5:48) "Anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:27) "Love one another as I have loved you." (John 15:12) "Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly beloved children." (Ephesians 5:1)

God's love for us is perfect. He asks us to imitate His love. Thus we are asked to love perfectly - and yet some people argue that as Christians, we need not strive for perfection in love.

There are no new heresies, and when we hear what certain Christians have to say about the call to perfect charity, we hear the 21st-century versions of some of the oldest heresies in the book. The first, which smacks of the doctrine of "total depravity" embraced by Luther and Calvin, deems the perfection of our human love impossible, even with the help of God's grace. The second is much akin to Jansenism, which encouraged its adherents to set an example of rigorous piety and moral behavior. It argues that perfection in love is naturally possible, or that as humans, we can work to achieve it, presumably without the help of God's grace.

The latter heresy is easily refuted. We know that God's grace is necessary if we wish to amend our lives, and is therefore necessary for our perfection. Apart from Him we can do nothing (John 15:5). We say with St. Paul, "By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace to me was not without effect" (1 Corinthians 15:9-11). That said, let's focus on the former - the denial of the possibility of perfection in love.

Many of the ideas set forth by Protestant author Brennan Manning, a former Franciscan priest, in his book The Ragamuffin Gospel, are prime examples of this denial. While Manning has no qualms about quoting the saints and using Latin phrases here and there throughout the book, he clearly harbors bitterness toward the Church, specifically towards the emphasis Catholic theology places on the call to perfect love and holiness.

"The gospel declares that no matter how dutiful and prayerful we are, we cannot save ourselves," Manning writes (p. 79). It's true that we cannot save ourselves, but dutifulness and prayerfulness are attitudes that constitute a proper response to the gift of our salvation. We prove we are Christ's disciples not by remaining as we are but by "bearing much fruit" (John 15:8).

In reference to Christ's teaching that we must be "like little children" (Matthew 18:2-4), Manning writes:
"The kingdom belongs to people who aren't trying to look good or impress anybody, even themselves. They are not plotting how they can call attention to themselves, worrying about how their actions will be interpreted or wondering if they will get gold stars for their behavior. Twenty centuries later, Jesus speaks pointedly to the preening ascetic trapped in the fatal narcissism of spiritual perfectionism... The child doesn't have to struggle to get himself in a good position for having a relationship with God... He doesn't have to create a pretty face for himself; he doesn't have to achieve any state of spiritual feeling or intellectual understanding. All he has to do is happily accept... the gift of the kingdom." (p. 53)

And yet our relationship with God demands by definition that we do more than "happily accept the gift of the kingdom" - it demands that we take up our cross and follow His Son: "Anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:27). It demands that we suffer with Christ. How do we suffer with Christ if not by striving to "avoid the near occasion of sin" and to love more perfectly? The journey towards perfection in love is arduous, but it is the path set before every Christian: the path to sainthood.

In 2 Corinthians 9:8, St. Paul reminds us that God will give us the grace to accomplish whatever good work we attempt: "God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work." If God's grace makes all works of charity possible, who are we to dismiss perfection in charity as an impossibility? It is as St. Teresa of Avila writes in her Meditations on the Song of Songs: "Many remain at the foot of the mount who could ascend to the top... I repeat and ask that you always have courageous thoughts. As a result of them the Lord will give you grace for courageous deeds."

We know that we are free to pursue perfection because the Church teaches that we retain our free will even in our sinfulness. "By our first parents' sin, the devil has acquired a certain domination over man, even though man remains free" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 407). In the light of this truth, the rejection of the possibility of perfection in love - the heresy of total depravity - is ultimately a denial of our free will. It gives Satan far too much credit, and in its attempt to highlight our great need of God's grace, it actually fails to acknowledge the full extent to which God's grace can sanctify us.

I'll leave you with a passage from C. S. Lewis' The Four Loves, from the chapter about Charity, that says more beautifully what I have been trying to say all this time:
"God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them. He creates the universe, already foreseeing - or should we say 'seeing'? there are no tenses in God - the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops... Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves." (p. 127)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Compassionate Killing: Reflections on Recent News and Malcolm Muggeridge's "The Humane Holocaust"

The culture of death marches on, and the late "enfant terrible" remains relevant as a social prophet. Malcolm Muggeridge, the famed British journalist, convert, and champion of Mother Teresa, wrote the essay "The Humane Holocaust" in 1980, decrying the use of subjective and selfish standards spewed with a spin of compassion in justifying the destruction of life. Muggeridge asked:

Which vision are we for? On the one hand, as the pattern of our collective existence, the broiler house or factory-farm, in which the concern is solely for the physical well-being of the livestock and the financial well-being of the enterprise; on the other, mankind as a family, all of whose members, whatever physical or mental qualities or deficiencies they may have, are equally deserving of consideration in the eyes of their creator, and whose existence has validity, not just in itself, nor just in relation to history, but in relation to a destiny reaching beyond time and into eternity. Or, in simple terms, on the one hand, the quality of life; on the other, the sanctity of life.

The supposed "quality of life" argument gives a pretty facade to the ugly reality that some people find other people's lives inconvenient and costly, so much so that they would opt to destroy such lives. The option becomes much easier if you can drop the killing conotation, and can be twisted into a moral good if you have a feel-good utilitarian motive for it.

Such notions are being found on both ends of life in the battles over abortion and euthanasia.

Recently,The New York Times celebrates the heroic Dr. Susan Wicklund, a woman who became a compassionate abortionist after having an unpleasant experience while receiving a legal abortion in her early twenties.

Wicklund reveals a prick of conscience in her heart before offering opposition to regulations on abortions:

Dr. Wicklund describes her horror when she aborted the pregnancy of a woman who had been raped, only to discover, by examining the removed tissue, that the pregnancy was further along than she or the woman had thought — and that she had destroyed an embryo the woman and her husband had conceived together.

While that couple's tragedy is never mentioned again, Dr. Wicklund's story ends on a high note:

One question Dr. Wicklund hears “all the time,” she said, is how she can focus on abortion rather than on something more rewarding, like delivering babies.

“In fact, the women are so grateful,” Dr. Wicklund said in the interview. “Women are so grateful to know they can get through this safely, that they can still get pregnant again.

“It is one of the few areas of medicine where you are not working with a sick person, you are doing something for them that gives them back their life, their control,” she added. “It’s a very rewarding thing to be part of that.”

Muggeridge discussed a similar dose of poisoned compassion:

To quiten any qualms Christians might have about it, an Anglican bishop has devised an appropriate prayer for use on the occasion of an abortion which received the approval of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It runs, "Into thy hands we commit in trust the developing life we have cut short," though whether with the idea of God's continuing the interrupted development elsewhere, or of extinguishing in Heaven the life that was never born on earth, is not clear. In the case of euthanasia, a hymn more in keeping with the occasion - "The life Thou gavest, Lord, we've ended. . . ."

Muggeridge and most of the pro-life advocates a generation ago saw abortion and euthanasia intimately linked. The issues could not be separated from the root of selfishness and power. The unborn child and the elderly cost money to maintain, and they are weak. As abortion became more prevalent, euthanasia became a greater likelihood. Muggeridge played the social prophet against the Culture of Death:

Euthanasia, it is true, has not yet been legalized except in some American states, but notoriously it is becoming practiced on an ever-increasing scale. Already among old people, there is reluctance to go into government institutions for fear of being done away with. As for governments - hard-pressed financially as they all now are, and unable to economize defense expenditure for fear of laying themselves open to the charge of jeopardizing national security, or on welfare expenditure for fear of losing votes - will they not look ever more longingly at the possibility of making substantial savings by the simple expedient of mercy-killing off the inmates of institutions for the incurably sick, the senile old, the mentally deranged, and other such? With abortions and family-planning ensuring a zero population growth rate, and euthanasia disposing of useless mouths against the debilitated old, besides mopping up intervening freaks, the pursuit of happiness should be assured of at any rate financial viability.

Yesterday,The New York Times article "In Hospice Care, Longer Lives Means Money Lost" reported, "Over the last eight years, the refusal of patients to die according to actuarial schedules has led the federal government to demand that hospices exceeding reimbursement limits repay hundreds of millions of dollars to Medicare." While the piece does not mention any advocates of euthanizing the patients, the poorer quality of thir care in light of the Medicare penalties is noted:

A number of hospice providers said ethical and legal constraints would prevent them from discharging patients who outlived their profit potential. But some said they sometimes delayed admission for those patients with illnesses that might result in longer stays.

Viewing the elderly as inconvenient is not limited to governemnt and health care bureaucrats. Consider these quotes from Lillian Rubin's piece on how advances in geriatric care are cutting into inheritances:

“I always expected to inherit some money because my parents have been reasonably well off for most of my life. Not rich, but comfortable and careful with money,” explains a sixty-two-year-old college professor. “But now, I doubt it. My father had Alzheimer’s and spent his last years, nine of them, in a nursing home. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t been through it really understands how terrible that is. I don’t mean just the financial burden, which, by the way, was over three-quarters of a million, but the human cost. Seeing someone you love turn into a thing, not a person, and there’s no way out, it’s just terrible, one of the worst experiences in life.”

He stops talking, visibly moved, struggles to contain his emotions, then brightens. “My mother, bless her, is eighty-two and doing great. She moved into one of those assisted-living places a year or so ago, and before she was there a month, she was already practically running the place. It’s great; it keeps her busy. But it’s very expensive. Even with the money she got from selling their house, if she lives another eight to ten years, which right now seems likely, she’ll use up her money, and my sister and I will have to find a way to pay the bills.
“That’s a big twist, isn’t it? You go from knowing you’ll inherit money from your parents to wondering how you’re going to support them. I don’t begrudge her, don’t misunderstand me.” He hesitates, smiles, then in a voice that mimics an Old West cowboy twang, “Ah’m just tellin’ you the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”

and another:

“I love my parents, they’re good people, but you can’t help wondering: How long will they live? My mom’s only seventy-two and Dad’s seventy-six, which isn’t very old these days. If I have to take care of them, and I will, what happens to me and my family? What about my retirement? Who’s going to take care of that?”

There are many active ways people dehumanize one another daily - it happens everytime we sin against one another. However, consciences are clearer in the assertation of self when you deny the full personhood of another person, especially the least of these with whom Jesus so readily identified himself. Granted, the people in Rubin's article are not lobbying for euthanasia, but we can easily anticipate society taking the selfish slouch towards the slippery slope. Likewise, we can anticipate the crowd that calls good evil and evil good shouting down any objections to their shaky life ethic as inhumane and lacking compassion.

The only antidote is active participation in a culture of life.

Muggeridge uses Mother Teresa as our guidepost:

In Christian terms, of course, all this is quite indefensible. Our Lord healed the sick, raised Lazarus from the dead, gave back sanity to the deranged, but never did He practice or envisage killing as part of the mercy that held possession of His heart. His true followers cannot but follow His guidance here. For instance, Mother Teresa, who, in Calcutta, goes to great trouble to have brought into her Home for Dying Derelicts, castaways left to die in the streets. They may survive for no more than a quarter of an hour, instead of feeling themselves rejected and abandoned, they meet with Christian love and care. From a purely humanitarian point of view, the effort involved in this ministry of love could be put to some more useful purpose, and the derelicts left to die in the streets, or even helped to die by the requisite injection. Such calculations do not come into Mother Teresa's way of looking at things; her love and compassion reach out to the afflicted without any other consideration than their immediate need, just as our Lord doeswhen He tells us to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked. She gives all she has to give at once, and then finds she has more to give. As between Mother Teresa's holocaust of love and the humane holocaust, I am for hers.

The choice is still between those two holocausts, the holocaust of love and the humane holocaust. Love never fails. Movements will fail. Politics will co-opt our sanctity for selfishness if we are not on guard. We too will march to the drums of the culture of death, unless we dig in our heels now and insist on loving God and our neighbor, without any utilitarian considerations.