Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Addressing the conditioned relativist: Part Two

This is the second half of my persuasive speech for class. First half was posted last Wednesday.

Second argument: How can we truly be free if we can’t create our own values?

Despite an almost prevalent belief that each person can arbitrarily legislate his or her own self-governing laws, this argument also falls through on the grounds of simple logic. For starters, this argument must assume that freedom is really valuable – an objective value – precisely the kind of thing it attempts to relativize and argue against. If freedom is something good, then it must be freedom from something bad. Thus the relativist has already argued from an objective good. If he’s also stated that everyone should have freedom, then he’s advocating the real value of equality too. If freedom and equality are just his subjective values, then he’s advocating the submission of everyone else to his value system – not exactly very tolerant or free of him.

Using an ad hominen, I might say that well, I’m going to create my own values too. I declare that I’m to be treated as a god, and everyone should be obedient to me. If he protests in the name of justice, then he is arguing me based on an objective value. If he protests in the name of his created value system, then neither he nor I have the upper hand, and it again comes down to a power struggle where the physically weaker, less clever person or on a larger scale – a group of people – becomes submissive to the stronger, dominant party or majority. How this fosters freedom of any kind, I’m not sure.

While we can easily manipulate the rules to our favorite game, experience shows that we cannot create alternative morals. You will never feel morally obligated to be sexually promiscuous, but you can choose to be. On the other hand, you may feel obliged to support a friend in need even if it’s inconvenient. Those are rules you can’t change.

The reality we know is governed by laws of all kinds; why not moral ones?

The desire to eliminate guilt is strong, but pretending morality is what you make it is a detrimental lie to yourself and others. Moral relativism isn’t a solution; it’s a fairy tale, a distortion of reality. By realizing the illogicalness of the arguments for moral relativism from cultural relativism and freedom, this should help provide a clearer view of truth and reality. Believing gravity doesn’t exist never gave anyone the ability to fly; it only made them foolish. Likewise, ignoring moral absolutes won’t make you happy because these unchangeable, objective, universal laws are in your nature. If you want to be a dog, eating dog food and walking around on all fours barking won’t reduce you to one. You can’t change your nature, but you can deny it and act in a way contrary to who you are meant to be.

As a side-thought:

While listening to some of my classmates’ persuasive speeches yesterday, something reoccurred to me. Not once was there a mention of truth or adherence to reality or nature. There seems to be no concern for whether something is true or good or beautiful, but only if it meets what one desires: reality must conform to us, not us to reality. I think this is extremely relevant to my speech because mine is precisely based on truth and reality, and against the desire to pretend we create our own reality (because obviously Sartre was right; there is no meaning, we must create our own, but no one seems to realize where they found this idea). In fact it seems to be an entirely different way of thinking. People no longer think in terms of truth unless these terms are being qualified, coded, and hidden under sociological, psychological, or scientific determinations. I see more closely how relativism – not specifically moral – is so dangerous; it removes that which makes us human: our desire to know. Instead we pervert the act of creation and pseudo-create personal truths and moralities.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Beauty of Order from Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday

What is there poetical about being in revolt? You might as well say that it is poetical to be sea-sick. Being sick is a revolt. Both being sick and being rebellious may be the wholesome thing on certain desperate occasions; but I’m hanged if I can see why they are poetical. Revolt in the abstract is—revolting. It’s mere vomiting.

This passage, from G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, rubs its proverbial elbows with other equally distinguished bits of wisdom within that text. In this novel, which is one of my favorites, Chesterton attacks what he described as the, “logic, or lunacy” of the popular opinion that “the mysterious master both of the anarchy and the order was the same sort of elemental elf” in an article he wrote for the Illustrated London News in 1936. I will not attempt to summarize the plot, but I do encourage you to read the book or at least find a summary online.

I am refraining from a rehashing of the story because of its complexity and because, when taken out of context, it can seem rather fantastical. It comprises many themes--anarchy is just one in this book, which is rife with metaphor, beautiful logic, and subtle theology—in fact, the themes in the novel could provide fodder for a frenzy of blogs (and it just might!). The novel begins with a meeting of “The Two Poets of Saffron Park” (which is the title of the first chapter). The two wordsmiths argue about the place of anarchy in poetry; the resident poet, Lucian Gregory, claims that chaos and rebellion are poetic in themselves and that “an artist disregards all governments, abolishes all conventions. The poet delights in disorder only.” The second poet, Gabriel Syme (our hero!), counters that there is nothing poetic about anarchy; rather, “chaos is dull…it is things going right that is poetical.” (Note the symbolism of the names—Lucian/Lucifer, Gabriel/…Gabriel—the first poet expresses the twisted views of a fallen light-bearer, whereas the second proclaims truth.)

Another notable passage from Gabriel defends his position by describing his passion for, of all unlikely things, a train reaching its destination.

I tell you…that every time a train comes in I feel that it has broken past batteries of besiegers, and that man has won a battle against chaos. You say contemptuously that when one has left Sloan Square on must come to Victoria. I say that one might do a thousand things instead, and that whenever I really come there I have the sense of hair-breadth escape. And when I hear the guard shout out the word 'Victoria', it is not an unmeaning word. It is to me the cry of a herald announcing conquest. It is to me indeed 'Victoria'; it is the victory of Adam.

This quote exemplifies one of the notable notions in this book: Gabriel’s idea of the romance of order. Attributing high adventure and mystery to the order that Lucian views as prosaic is one of our greatest tools as Catholics. We see the romance of a life devoted to fully utilizing our freedom to live well according to the qualities of dignified and fully realized human persons—the only true freedom we can have. We are free to be as wonderful as the Lord meant us to be and can see the beauty and romance of this. As Chesterton wrote in another great work, Orthodoxy, “The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid. The determinist makes the theory of causation quite clear, and then finds that he cannot say, "if you please" to the housemaid. The Christian permits free will to remain a sacred mystery; but because of this his relations with the housemaid become of a sparkling and crystal clearness. He puts the seed of dogma in a central darkness; but it branches forth in all directions with abounding natural health. As we have taken the circle as the symbol of reason and madness, we may very well take the cross as the symbol at once of mystery and of health. Buddhism is centripetal, but Christianity is centrifugal: it breaks out. For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature; but it is fixed forever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms forever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre it can grow without changing. The circle returns upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travelers.”

Our victory as sons and daughters of Adam is to embrace the power our free will gives us to act in accord with truth and goodness. To say that we are imposed upon because there are guidelines to living well is erroneous; we have all been told the most valuable things are those we work for, and repetition has not made it false. We work to live up to certain standards, which only help direct our efforts. (Standards for beauty, for example, are even found in nature in the golden ratio, which has been found to describe the proportions of what is most pleasing to the human eye.)Most worthwhile things are done according to plans—buildings are built from blueprints, novels written (and rewritten) from outlines, paintings result from countless sketches…so embrace order and truth! To use a slightly corny metaphor, we are given the blueprints for living to our highest potential as human beings and will remain standing for eternity if we fashion ourselves according to them! [I apologize for the corniness!]

Monday, October 29, 2007

Speaking the Truth in Love, Part Three

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. ~ John 15:12-13

Thus far we have discussed the false dichotomy between truth and love and the necessity of verbally communicating truth. A reader might ask, then why can't I just speak love, and there is no problem with such a thing if that love is not separated from truth. But many attempts to reach someone with love or by "speaking love" are built on a notion of love that is separated from truth, a notion of love which is not truly love. Likewise, it is usually attached to the false expectation that love will be more readily received than truth.

Consider a woman contemplating abortion. Perhaps a gentle "I love you" from somebody whose love has been deeply demonstrated might convince a woman with a wavering conscience that she has the emotional support to carry her child to term. This happens because the expectant mother has some realization of both the truth about abortion and the truth of another person's love.

But what of a woman whose conscience has been turned away from reason and does not recognize even an inkling that she is about to destroy another human being. Her response to an "I love you" objecting to her choice is a request for a love which validates her destructive activity. The person trying to sway her must respond with a reasoned explanation of why she cannot have the abortion and hope that their sobriety of thought wins over her clouded mind. At the same time, the person trying to sway her must not lose control of their emotions and display a sense of anger, wrath, or judgmentalism that discredits love for mother and child.

In front of abortion clinics, there are surely women so desperate for a kind word that a "We love you and your baby" turns some away from the abortionist's door and to the sidewalk counselor. But others walk into the clinic with hearts hardened from hearing too many cheap "I love you's". This is not at all a criticism of the sidewalk counselors; rather, it is merely a recognition that the truth of love requires more demonstration than truths which may be conveyed by factual recitation and logical proofs.

And I am aware of women who turned away from abortion clinics after seeing signs with graphic images of the violence done to unborn children in abortions. And some would judge people who hold such signs as being unloving, but I am unaware of any woman who saw such a sign who went from wavering on abortion to thinking it was a good thing once she considered the images.

Postmodern society attacks any notion of truth on relativist grounds - this is common knowledge. But as much as we all want to be loved, the idea of anybody laying down their lives for us - anybody offering us truth or anything else that we cannot get for ourselves - is offensive to our notion of an autonomous self. Love offered from another reveals our own lack.

Christ spoke the truth with perfect charity in his heart. His Love, His Truth, His Very Person was rejected to the point of crucifixion 2000 years ago. He is still rejected on the same grounds to this day, and his disciples are called to love in the same way. Should we expect a different treatment than the master?

A person who loves or speaks love but avoids the wounds of love by withholding the truth is a person who does not love as Christ loved.

I am reminded of a poem by Amy Carmichael, a Baptist missionary to India:

Hast thou no scar?
No hidden scar on foot, or side, or hand?
I hear thee sung as mighty in the land;
I hear them hail thy bright, ascendant star.
Hast thou no scar?

Hast thou no wound?
Yet I was wounded by the archers; spent,
Leaned Me against a tree to die; and rent
By ravening beasts that compassed Me, I swooned.
Hast thou no wound?

No wound? No scar?
Yet, as the Master shall the servant be,
And piercèd are the feet that follow Me.
But thine are whole; can he have followed far
Who hast no wound or scar?

Most truths are easier to speak than the truth of love. Most truths are easier to be believed than the truth of real love for another person, provided the interior work of love is abounding in the speaker. A lack of charity is an overwhelming obstacle in convincing anybody on any point of truth. In part four of this series, we will focus on love.

Humble Inquiry Opens the Mind to Wisdom

Born into a culture and operating in a particular historical consciousness, the human mind stands in a paradoxical relationship to reality. From the moment of birth to death, the human mind dynamically begins assimilating experience and forming insights, yet the totality of reality always eludes us. As we struggle to understand the world around us and the world within us, our limited perspective teaches us one of the most important lessons in life. We can expect to learn very little about the world apart from a community.

Humility makes knowledge possible and must be practiced at all stages of life. By humility, I am suggesting that a certain receptivity must accompany our desire to know. This openness places us as a recipient of a gift, in this case, knowledge that could not have been achieved on one’s own. As a child we began to learn language and how to express our desires from others. Parents and adults are responsible for the formation of children, whether they realize it or not. While some instruction takes a formal dimension in school, most occurs in observation of others. One of the most significant sources of knowledge comes from everyday conversations and experiences. The interpersonal communication of the dialogue requires both individuals at some point to actively listen and receive what the other person communicates. Reading requires humility. The reader always assumes the position of receiving what the author has written. Yet, in all these experiences, something more than receiving occurs. The mind takes the experience and evidence provided and reflects to form insights. The mind strives to have a positive understanding of its experiences.

Many people take their knowledge for granted as they assume themselves solely responsible for their insights. Arrogance replaces a genuine search for Truth. Possibly this arrogance is what prevents knowledge from becoming wisdom. Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches that wisdom as a virtue is not limited to the formally “educated” but that anyone through merit of their relationship to Truth can be wise. Those who fail to become wise fail to remain humble. When people exalt their own understanding as the ultimate “Truth,” they have created a false idol.

How do we remain both humble yet open to Truth? How can we have both positive knowledge about reality without reducing that reality to an idea in our mind? One solution is how we treat language. We need to treat language symbolically, realizing that all words point to realities beyond themselves. Saint Augustine speaks of the two dimensions of language, the literal and spiritual. The literal refers to the word itself and the spiritual refers to the meaning towards which the word is pointed- in other words, the signifier and the signified. In this paradigm we can have positive knowledge without claiming to have complete knowledge. We do not have to mentally reduce reality to a category of the mind to make it intelligible. Thus, all philosophy leads to mystery.

The medieval theologians and philosophers had a motto that guided their disposition to learning: “Fides quaerens intellectum” (Faith seeking understanding). When we are created in a relationship with God, we are placed in a relationship with Truth. The desire for Truth is an expression of an innate desire for God. A sound intellectual formation allows the mind to gain insight about its ultimate purpose and share this insight with others. We need to be able to intelligibly look at our spiritual experience, reflect, and gain insight in order to communicate mystery to others. This is why philosophy is so important to the “New Evangelization.” Philosophy shows the link between the human spirit and truth. It brings the person in touch with the great philosophical questions around man’s life and teaches him how to think critically and seek the Truth. All inquiry should be seen as a movement towards Truth. This journey must humbly occur within a community, or you are just elevating your own understanding. Seek Him who you are learning about for only this relationship can bring ultimate meaning to the insights you have.

“Many people have such a general and confused idea of God that their religiosity becomes a religiosity without God, where God's will is seen as an immutable and unavoidable fate to which one has to bend and resign oneself in a totally passive manner.” -John Paul II from Pastores Dabo Vobis

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Christian Credo in a World of Faciendum

The question of the place of belief within a culture dominated by the notion of self-validation via its ability to produce, progress, and make that which is ‘makable’ is one that may be more relevant today than at any other time. It is an issue taken up by Pope Benedict in his book Introduction to Christianity written before his elevation to the throne of St. Peter.

When the defining criteria for culture devolves from the credo and the essens (belief and knowledge of being) to the faciendum (faith only in the future of what can be made), the reduction of the human person to the status of object seems to be a natural consequence, and its effect on the place of belief in such a world is equally detrimental. The reduction of the human person and the alienation of belief are not unrelated events. Rather they represent a symbiotic relationship, although the ‘bios’ of ‘symbiotic’ does seem to be a mischaracterization of the dynamic of such a relationship when one considers that ‘life’ is almost never the priority of that system.

The revolution that has taken place is the dethronement of ultimate causes and, thus, the rejection of the absolute of intrinsic value and dignity. This has been replaced by the exalting of the scientific mindset in which the greatest possible good is to make and to continue to make with the goal of constant progress – better bodies, better sex, more money, etc. In short, narcissism, perversion, and greed become preferable to the transcendent and metaphysical reality of the nature of things. When these become the new virtues of a society, the old virtues are cast off as relics of the past unable to answer the more pressing needs of humanity which can only be answered by the things we see, touch, and make. That which is measurable can be used for greater and ever more evolved factums. That which is immeasurable can be used for nothing and must therefore be discarded as unnecessary. It is seen as a hindrance to the never-ending roll of the progress-ball. Belief, therefore, becomes a laughing matter if not something to be vehemently scoffed at.

When credo begins to demand that the world of faciendum acknowledge its claims regarding the intrinsic value of man, it is seen not as a voice of reason, but as a clown unable to remove its makeup even in the ‘real world’, unable to make itself relevant in a culture that is ‘all grown up’. What is necessary is a reevaluation of the method by which our credo is presented. Tough questions must be asked and honestly answered. Why is that which is most relevant, that is, the intrinsic dignity of man based on his being an image of God, still seen as irrelevant? Confronting the culture on its own terms, I believe, is the only way to present a credible apologetic for belief. It must be the goal of Christianity to clearly demonstrate the transforming effects of belief through clear and rational argument, effects that would certainly not go unnoticed in a world obsessed with constant progress. In this regard, Christianity and the modern world are in constant competition, as both see the need for constant progress towards perfection.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Thinking of Christmas, Compline, and a poem by T.S. Eliot

I stumbled across a lovely poem by T.S. Eliot this morning called “A Song for Simeon” that meditates on the Canticle of Simeon found in Luke 2:29-32. This canticle is prayed at Compline (Night Prayer) in the Liturgy of the Hours and is also called “Nunc dimittis” after its opening words in the Latin text. It reads as follows:

Lord, now you let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled. My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people: a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.

Eliot’s poem expresses Simeon’s desperate hope and longing for salvation so poignantly that, as I read, I wished it were Advent already. Then I was struck with the realization that, as of today, Christmas is exactly two months away! The beautiful cool weather we’ve had lately has many of us looking forward to Christmas with anticipation. Ordinary time grows long, and much of our Easter-season fervor has faded.

As Catholics, we are asked to prepare ourselves to celebrate Christ’s birth with the same reverence, penitence and contemplation we practice during Lent. With great hope, let us look ahead to Advent (which begins on Sunday, December 2) and make Simeon’s prayer our own.

“A Song for Simeon” by T.S. Eliot

Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season has made stand.
My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.

Grant us thy peace.
I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have taken and given honour and ease.
There went never any rejected from my door.
Who shall remember my house, where shall live my children’s children
When the time of sorrow is come?
They will take to the goat’s path, and the fox’s home,
Fleeing from the foreign faces and the foreign swords.

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation
Grant us thy peace.
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.

According to thy word.
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
(And a sword shall pierce thy heart,
Thine also).
I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me,
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.
Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) was an Anglican poet, playwright, and literary critic. He is most famous for his poems “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock ” and “The Waste Land,” as well as his play Murder in the Cathedral about the death of St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Speaking the Truth in Love, Part Two

Some people apparently assume Saint Francis of Assisi mimed instead of speaking. How else can you explain the use of his admonition to preach the gospel and use words when necessary as an excuse for an utterly silent witness? Of course, the reason we know the admonition is because Saint Francis spoke it. He spoke many words that had an increased weight because of the purity of the life he lived. That life was lived in love with God and neighbor.

Our secular society cannot perceive the fullness of liberating truth from a mere visual display of doing what is just. A faulty concept of each person having their own "individual truth" allows the dismissal of such witnesses as examples of good deeds or random acts of kindness. Perhaps a cross around the neck may testify to some Christian sentiment in the eyes of the unbeliever, but in their eyes it is merely a sentiment that will not fit the "truth" of their lives. That false "truth" is held by those in bondage to what Pope Benedict XVI calls the tyranny of relativism, and the Catholic is called to resist that enslaving tyranny.

So then, if liberation comes from knowing the truth, and if faith comes only after hearing, there is a necessary use of words to untangle the web of misperceptions held by the unbeliever. Consider the words of the Lord spoken through the Prophet Isaiah:

Come now, let us reason together,
says the LORD:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
~Isaiah 1: 18

It is the work of the Lord to invite sinners to come back to reason. In conformity with our Lord, we must recognize that even in the most unreasonable sinners, the faculty for reason still exists though warped by sin. A gentle invitation back to the table of reason must be extended for the sinner to come to repentance. And this invitation must be spoken by the reasonable, who will be there to aid the sinner out of his or her lack of reason.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Attractiveness of the Church

The Catholic Church has a magnetic quality; it may attract or repel, but its presentation of the Gospel will not allow one to be merely neutral, unless one is made of plastic. She is viewed with wonder by everyone-those opposed to her can't believe she's made it this long; we who are thankful for her are amazed at her great beauty after all this time. She attracts and keeps people as diverse as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi, as G.K. Chesterton and Stephen Colbert. As a convert, the Church amazes me with her great wealth of tradition and wisdom. The prevalence of lapsed Catholics has also amazed me. While it is certainly true that the lapsed protestant is not an endangered species, a conversation with several friends of mine about topics as diverse as Walker Percy, confirmation saints (mine is St. Francis), and the Church shed much light for me on the mindset of a few of our brethren or, in this case, cistern.

I was most amazed by their love of tradition. In my mind, this is the most noticeable difference between the Catholic Church and the protestant churches-while doctrine and the Real Presence of the Eucharist cannot be minimized, one immediately notices that the Church has been around for a while. One realizes that the other churches, at least in their genesis, were defined by how they differed from the Catholic Church. My friends recognized this; one's exact phrasing of the tradition was, "it's like a secret code." Coming from a protestant background, where tradition is most noticeable in the wonderful old hymn selection, I was surprised that those who are not active in the Church still recognized it and found it attractive. If I may borrow a thought from Walker Percy, an ex-Catholic novelist who writes a book about being a communist in Columbia owes more to his novel writing from his upbringing than he does from all of the Marxist claptrap he quotes. Similarly, the Church's sense of tradition gets into the blood, and it is there indelibly whether you like it or not. Apparently lots of people like it.

The admiration of St. Francis didn't surprise me; oftentimes people remember his love of the world and forget his love of Christ. However, admiration of St. Francis guided Chesterton to the Church, and there is no reason to believe that " ad Jesus per Francis" won't become a description of more of our lives. It is the same with the admiration of Walker Percy, who I've always thought is accessible to anyone, including people who think like my friend.

The Church has an impact on those blessed to know her. If anything, it shows that the last thing the Church should do is sell her tradition in a doomed attempt for "relevancy." The fact that the Church makes such an positive and pervasive impact on those of us who are not practicing shows that there truly is something behind the Church and her traditions. That person is Christ; how else would the traditions of the Church be so tenacious?

Addressing the conditioned relativist: Part One

Public speaking is one of those classes I thought I could avoid. Since I’ve decided to get my Bachelors of Science in Nursing, this is no longer the case. On short notice I took up the project to write a five to seven minute persuasive speech against moral relativism (it was less fun than I imagined). If anyone was going to, it had to be a Parousian. This is my first direct attempt at bringing Catholicism to contemporary culture through the classroom. I give the speech (a modified version of the following) next Tuesday; pray for open minds and hearts.
(Note: the funny single-liners are “transition statements” required for class.)

What is the number one export of the United States? What is it that this country supplies in monumental quantities to the rest of the world? Ideas. However, because most people in the United States grow up with these ideas, and they are so immersed in their own culture, they may not realize how much these certain thought trends affect their way of thinking. I am thinking of a particular idea for which the United States is well known: moral relativism. In brief, moral relativism is a philosophy that denies moral absolutes and claims morality changes with the times, is subjective to thoughts and feelings, and is dependent on individuals.

The contemporary philosopher Peter Kreeft wrote, “The issue of moral relativism is merely the single most important issue of our age, for no society in all of human history has ever survived without rejecting this philosophy… There has never been a society of relativists.” Because moral relativism is such a pressing issue, especially in our country, I am going look at two of the popular arguments for this philosophy based on cultural relativism and freedom with emphasis on promoting its counterpart, absolutism – or the acceptance of moral absolutes.

To exemplify cultural relativism, let’s briefly consider a particular practice in the ancient Aztec culture.

For the Aztecs, human sacrifice was an integral part of their culture and beliefs. The question is… can we as outsiders objectively say whether or not this practice was immoral? Do we have any foundation to genuinely condemn this practice which took innocent lives? Note: I am specifically speaking of judging the action, not the people because their culpability for their actions is another matter entirely.

Some may believe that the Aztecs had the right to kill innocent victims because of their cultural understanding, but I would venture to bet that most believe that this practice should be abolished. The belief that we cannot comment on another culture’s morality is the basic tenet of cultural relativism. Like discovering different properties of chemicals, anthropologists and sociologists have discovered that moral values differ by culture. Some have concluded that this means there is no foundation for a binding system of morals. Relating back to the Aztecs then, human sacrifice would be morally right for them but considered morally wrong in our contemporary culture. Under the banner of cultural relativism, what is wrong in one culture can be considered right in another one. Morality becomes more associated with when and where you happen to be than the intrinsic value of a human person. Thus, according to cultural relativism, one of the failures of the Nazis wasn’t that they killed Jews, but they tried to bring it to other people who were equally justified by culture on their moral stance against these actions.

Besides my appeal to the moral conscience with examples, the argument for cultural relativism is fundamentally flawed. First, it assumes that morality is defined by what a culture teaches, or their values. Thus, your moral rightness is determined by your ability to always and unconditionally obey these culturally determined values. This argument is presupposing moral relativism to prove moral relativism.

So should rightness be determined solely by strict adherence to generally accepted norms of a given society, or is there sometimes a moral obligation to disobey certain values if those values can be deemed unjust? A moral relativist cannot point at Muslim terrorists and claim what they’re doing is wrong because they’re operating under their cultural influence, and thus it really is right. Nor can he look at those reformers who fought for equal rights for slaves and women as good because they went against the widely accepted cultural values of their day. All moral reform would have to be considered intrinsically evil.

To those who claim that another culture’s values cannot be deemed better or worse, but only different – this is an example of the linguistic confusion between objective true values and subjective value opinions which paralyzes cultural relativism. Analogously, we can distinguish between the objective truth that genetics influence the development of personality and the subjective opinion about to what extent genetics determine personality. Changing your opinion about how genetics influence behavior doesn’t change the reality or actually affect the way genetics and behavior is related. Just because one culture has opinions about what is right and another disagrees does not change the reality behind the debate. In fact without objective true values there would be no debate. We may never have complete knowledge of these things, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t have an adequate understanding of the moral law and that some moral systems are either more or less adequate than others.

In giving the cultural relativism argument people tend to point out differences, but cultures generally have more commonalities than differences. They may emphasize certain values over others, such as the Japanese emphasize community, whereas Americans emphasize individuality. However, there is no society that hates love and loves hatred; no society that prizes betrayal, selfishness, cowardice and despises honesty, courage, and justice. Such a society would devour itself.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Evaluating Claims in Mackie’s Argument from Queerness

A major obstacle in engaging the culture and the today is the problem of Atheistic relativism. In the academy, fields like Philosophy and Ethics are marginalized and often dominated by traditions that reject the possibility of objective moral standards. In this post, I’m critiquing a short argument from contemporary ethics that is often used against the objective account morality that Catholicism is founded on.

J.L Mackie’s work, The Subjectivity of Values, sets out to develop an argument against the objectivity of value claims. He establishes from the start that his project is a wholly negative one, aiming mainly at showing what isn’t true without making claims about what follows from his critiques. The groundwork of his case relies on supplemented versions of what he calls the “the argument from queerness”. This argument existed prior to Mackie’s work in different forms, but his versions contain notable distinctions from claims made before him.

The argument from queerness stated plainly is that objective values, if they existed, would have to be something very outlandish in order to truly motivate our actions. Mackie writes that “If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe”. His definition of a moral value is an entity that is undeniable and wholly self-evident to individuals who posses it. Something that unique could not be reasonably thought to exist by his naturalist account. He continues by stating that in order to be aware of something as otherworldly as objective values, human beings would have to possess some kind of special intuitive powers (which would be equally ridiculous).

First and foremost, the logical structure of Mackie’s argument takes a kind of reductio ad absurdum approach, which is itself a weak argument inasmuch as it depends on the reader’s agreement that such a conclusion would in fact be absurd to consider. Typically, this method of argumentation is most effective when it is able to demonstrate a true contradiction in the line of reasoning that it is evaluating. By taking for granted that the presuppositions of an argument are true, it can sometimes be made clear that the conclusions are obviously false, but I would not consider that to be the case for Mackie’s approach. The chain of reasoning in his argument is basically: if something is morally objective, then it would have to be able to motivate our actions; for an objective value to be motivating it would have to be categorical or unnatural, and a motivating-objective-unnatural entity would be something really bizarre, therefore, such things could not exist and there is no moral objectivity. My main point in addressing the structure of his approach is that the problem with making a reductio ad absurdum argument in this situation is that an equally persuasive claim could be made for a reductio on the contrary. Because many would see it as an equally ridiculous conclusion that morality is wholly non-objective.

The crux of his argument rests on the presupposition of a wholly naturalistic account of reality. By establishing that only a non-natural entity could be the foundation for objective account of morality in Ethics, Mackie only succeeds in establishing that one couldn’t be both a naturalist and a moral realist. This is the main point of his argument that must be evaluated. Is anything but a strictly naturalistic account of reality absurd? Most Theists (with the majority of human tradition in their behind them) would say no.

An interesting element in Mackie’s claim is his assumption that moral objectivity must be defended by either some kind of categorical imperative or an intuitionalist account of reality. His argument against both is probably the most effective element of The Subjectivity of values. He establishes earlier in the text that “Moral sense or “intuition” is an initially more plausible description of what supplies many of our basic moral judgments than reason”. Thereby, discounting the idea of a truly foundational categorical imperative. Then he goes on to show that intuitionalism is not valid because it has no means of being evaluated due to its purely individualist nature. So in this sense Mackie successfully establishes that these accounts of morality are indeed queer (specifically the Kantian and Humean constructs in Ethics) but ultimately fails because of his inability to recognize the possibility of a basis for objective morality that relies on neither of these systems.

Bella: A New Direction for Catholics in Film

To paraphrase Fr. Jason Vidrine (of Our Lady of Wisdom Catholic Church in Lafayette, Louisiana), a hallmark of the Catholic Church is that it spreads the Gospel through culture as opposed to other forms of evangelization. The history of the Church shows this—it has been integral to the development of the sciences, literature, and arts, among other aspects of social progress.

One area of today’s culture in particular that the Church has a wonderful opportunity to use as a tool for spreading its light is film. Whether we like it or not, movies are often more influential on people’s lives than literature is, and it is therefore time to step up and establish a current Catholic presence in the film industry. We can look to directors like Frank Capra as excellent examples of how film can be used to propogate and model morality, but I believe that this society needs more movies that show a Catholic viewpoint about the sundry moral issues that affect us today. (Though I appreciate Mel Gibson’s forays into making Catholic films, I am of the opinion that modern settings are also needed in order to address problems today’s Catholics and non-Catholics face. Also, his unfortunate reputation is a bit of an obstacle to making much of a statement to those who label him, correctly or incorrectly, as being antisemitic.)

I was therefore thrilled to hear of a group of young filmmakers who are releasing a project that addresses abortion from a Catholic perspective. The name of this movie is Bella. It is not a documentary or graphic depiction of abortion, rather, it is a love story between an unmarried pregnant woman and a former soccer superstar who now works as a chef in a Mexican restaurant. Though I haven’t seen it, I am confident in its quality, as it won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival, the Crystal Heart Award at the Heartland Film Festival, and was an official selection at no less than eight other film festivals. The movie opens in select cities over the next two weekends, and its reception at these venues will dictate whether or not it is released around the country. (The Passion of the Christ went through the same process—hopefully Bella will do as well as the Passion did!) I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to research the movie (the website is below) and plan to see it, if possible. If it is not possible for you to see it now, please encourage friends who are closer to a city it is showing in to see it! Catholicism needs to be established in film as it has been in literature and art, and now is the time to make it happen.

The website for Bella:

An article on Frank Capra’s Catholic vision:

An interesting discussion between Thomas Woods, author of “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization” and various critics/questioners:

Monday, October 22, 2007

"Christian" Materialism and Ambition Prevalent in Education

About six months back I attended a cultural performance at the Jetson Center for Youth, a Juvenile correctional facility outside of Baton Rouge,Louisiana. From my previous visits and observations this facility does a good job at both disciplining and motivating the youth, and I could notice a positive difference in the individual I was visiting. Furthermore, this cultural program gave the teenagers an opportunity to perform for friends and family showcasing their art, music, speech, and acting. Yet in the midst of this experience I noticed something very alarming.

At the beginning of the cultural program a local and young preacher opened the ceremony in prayer followed by a sermon. The sermon entailed his own struggles to transcend a troubled youth and rely on the grace of God. The gripping ‘truth’ that he emphasized was that he once struggled with drugs, behavior, and academically, but once he was saved all of these problems ceased and allowed him to achieve success. He proposed that because he was saved he begin receiving all A’s in college. He showed the audience his expensive watch, jewelry, and clothes. He proposed that once you are saved you no longer have problems and all your worldly concerns will magically vanish. His message embodied a gospel of success mentality that would be reinforced several times throughout this cultural program.

The drama program greatly disappointed me. Within the spirit of fundamental evangelical Protestantism the theatrical production was nothing more than “are you saved?” skits. Literally, in multiple skits, one boy or group of boys was approached by another group of boys and questioned about their assurance of eternal salvation in which the unsaved group climatically converted in the end asking Jesus to be their personal Lord and Savior.

The public speaking segment was the most revealing. The sequence involved several young men giving speeches about their aspirations and dreams. I heard ambitions about being famous athletes, boxers, music entertainers, successful businessmen, etc. The most consistent aspiration was to become financially wealthy and able to afford many material luxuries. What I did not hear were desires to be a good man, a contributing member of society, a good husband, and/or father. All the dreams appeared selfish and materially oriented.

These teenagers have developed a very material notion of success supported by a certain understanding of Christianity. The dichotomy becomes painfully obvious. The Christian life has been reduced to the acquisition of earthy pleasure and divorced from the acceptance of suffering that does not aid in this material quest. In other words, although personal suffering occurs, it will always translate into some material award. Even then I could not help thinking that I would rather this state funded facility emphasis Greek virtue over this flawed Christian perspective. At least then they would have a context to properly reevaluate certain values and live a more authentic notion of the Christian life.

The discipline and motivation provided did seem to inspire these teenagers to action but to what end. They learn the means to become selfish and achieve worldly wealth and success? What happens when the circumstances are stacked against them? Do they have the tools to cope and seek happiness with whatever circumstances of life they are given? The problem is the ideal of happiness being communicated is very material. The American dream has become a material dream. They are automatically placed in competition with their peers and community in which they live. To be successful they must elevate themselves above others. But not everyone can get to the top within this paradigm. Even those who get to the top will be greatly disappointed when they find that material goods only lead to the illusion of happiness. I can’t help believing that this type of education is setting young people up for personal failure in their spiritual lives and depression. They are told that certain things will make them happy but what happens when the illusion fades and they are still stuck with their unhappy selves.

The personal good of an individual is tied within the good of the community. Where is the context of virtue ethics that will associate personal achievement with communal living? Happiness is not in material possessions but in relationships- to God and neighbor. I believe it is too often thought, “I must become rich in order to be a philanthropist and help my neighbor”. On the contrary the opposite is true. “I must help and love my neighbor in order to truly become rich.”

Speaking the Truth in Love, Part One

"Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love." - Saint Paul's Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 4, Verses 15-16, Revised Standard Version

Many of the divisions in the Church today are created by people who impose false dichotomies in place of the transcendent unity that is inherent in God's revelation to man. Some contend there is a division between orthopraxy (right action) and orthodoxy (right belief). Those concerned with matters of orthodoxy are portrayed as fundamentalists or Pharisees (sadly, sometimes a true accusation), and people are encouraged to do what is right. But without a grounding in what is right (a foundation in orthodoxy), these social activities carry people away from orthopraxy as they are co-opted by people with a similar recognition of social injustice and a lack of a Christian anthropology. True orthodoxy insists on orthopraxy, and orthopraxy is only possible if orthodoxy precedes it.

Indeed any work of true liberation of persons is dependent on the transmission of knowledge. Jesus said (John 8:32), "you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." Likewise Saint Paul reiterates it in Romans 10:14-17:

But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?
And how can men preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!"
But they have not all obeyed the gospel; for Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?"
So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.

There is no opportunity to obey the Gospel, to follow Christ who identified Himself as Truth (John 14:6), without the work of evangelization.

John Paul II called for a new evangelization of society, where the expectation of influencing society was not left to priests and religious, but was shared in by all Christians. Saint Paul had his same vision in the quote from Ephesians above. Each part of the Body of Christ grows up into Jesus as we speak the truth in love.

Here we reach another false dichotomy imposed on the Gospel, the division between Truth and Love. We are taught from a young age that "God is love" (I John 4:8), yet somehow skim over the fact that Jesus (God in the flesh), is Truth, and every little truth in all the world is a truth that exists in Him. The first chapter of Saint John's Gospel identifies Jesus as the Eternal Word of God, and that Greek word which means word is logos. Logos is the word from which we get the word logic, implying that there is an order and a sense of reason in God. God is Truth, and God is Love, and there is no division in God.

Yet in our relativist culture, Christians have caved to demands that claims of truth not be made. This live and let live attitude fostered by the false god of tolerance cannot satisfy the altruistic nature of any person who sees their neighbors dying. If the wages of sin really are death, personal destruction and loss, societal discord, and a slavery that keeps the person from being who they were created to be, then isn't it obligatory to rescue your neighbors from that bondage? And is there a way for liberation other than the one the Savior prescribed in knowing the truth?

Welcome to Arrival

This is the new Parousian weblog, dedicated to redeeming intellectual life and recreating the culture. Our contributors are primarily students from Louisiana State University, the University of Florida, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, although we have a middle school religion teacher and a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps blogging as well. If you continue looking at this blog down the road, you'll find our interests are interdisciplinary but rooted in a thoroughly Catholic worldview. Information about the Parousians is on the sidebar. Feedback is encouraged. Prayers are being asked for in earnest.