Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Lessons Learned from the Finding of Jesus in the Temple

Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. When he
was twelve years old, they went up to the Feast, according to the custom. After
the Feast was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed
behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their
company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their
relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem
to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting
among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who
heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw
him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, "Son, why have you treated us
like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you." "Why were
you searching for me?" he asked. "Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's
house?" But they did not understand what he was saying to them.

Luke 2:41

This is a story so familiar to all of us that we may be inclined to pass it over without deriving much meaning from it. As I came across it yesterday, however, I began to think about it differently.

First of all, imagine what the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph were feeling when they realized Jesus was not where they thought he was. Of course, any parent would feel terrified, frantic, worried, etc., but this was Jesus. Imagine being responsible for losing God’s only son—“I send Him to you for a few decades and you LOSE Him? After TWELVE years?!”—the prospect must have been rather upsetting, to say the least. So, naturally, the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph scrambled about Jerusalem searching for their child. Equally naturally, they found Him in the last place they looked, the Temple—which should have been the first place they had thought to search.

Analogies to our own lives can be drawn from this story. Do we search for Jesus when we feel we’ve been separated from Him? And do we search in the right places—the confessional, Mass, the Eucharist, prayer, etc.? Questions about this search should be very important to us as people of faith, as Christians, and especially as Catholics.

One of my favorite lesser-known teachings of the Church is about the path to salvation. The Catholic Church teaches that even non-Catholics can travel along this path as long as they are actively seeking truth; for by this ACTIVE search, they are participating in the universality of Catholicism. I assume most people feel comforted by this. I know I do, to a certain extent, for it gives me hope for those who do not ascribe to the Catholic (or even Christian) faith. At the same time, however, I find the implications of this teaching very frightening for those of us who already claim to be Catholics. According to this, we are not participating in the Catholic Church unless we are actively seeking truth. Therefore, unless we are growing in our faith, we are not being truly Catholic—and not working towards our salvation.

This is a serious issue, and it should be at the center of our lives. It is only by better understanding our faith and how to implement it in our everyday actions that we can become the people the Lord created us to be. Let us hope that we pursue this with the zeal of our Virgin Mother and St. Joseph!

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Purpose of Education

Education is one of the intrinsic goods of human existence. At the very core of our being is a desire to know, not just a few things, but all things. Evidence of this desire can be seen in the expressions of knowledge from the sciences to the arts--to enter into debate with this precept is to already prove its presence. This quest for truth engages all dimensions of the person: mental, physical, and spiritual. Therefore, education must be oriented towards the holistic formation of the person. Who we are and who we become is affected by what we know.

As a young man St. Augustine seems to have identified a certain benefit of philosophy, at this time he admits that he did not read and learn merely to sharpen his style but to receive substance and content. He viewed this new perspective on the purpose of education as a turning point in his spiritual life by which this emphasis changed his feelings, prayer, values, priorities, and reset his gaze toward the “immortality of wisdom.” Augustine learned to enjoy truth for its own sake rather than for some pragmatic and utilitarian end. Education should primarily be about seeking this “immortality of wisdom.”

Education always instructs the individual how to view the world. This usually occurs informally within the household and more formally within an institution of learning. The type of importance that society places on education has obvious affects on children. People spend countless hours creating methods and styles to teach. A certain seriousness and urgency for education has become a humanitarian cause, but often the fundamental question as to the aim of this instruction is neglected.

The educational task should not be a mere transferring of information, but should directly and indirectly teach individuals in the art of living a good life. Virtues like self control, discipline, seeking the common good, and most important of all, humility, are inherent to the educational process. If they are not in some form present, even in most secular institution, then education is impossible. Every student must stand in a relationship of receiving from without the self from another or they cannot learn. Every instructor must be open to understand who their student is or they cannot effectively teach. Education is much more about interaction within a community, dialogue, and reciprocity than gaining intellectual means to succeed. However, the latter goal is usually overemphasized in modern society. These virtues have roots in the Socratic education which involved knowing the truth about fair, just, and good things in order to help order the society towards the common good and ideal state. The implication is that a person will be rich with happiness because he has a good and prudent life and will be able to impart this knowledge through leadership and example. This, in turn, will help structure society by preventing turmoil and encouraging peace.

The Enlightenment movement of the rise of rationalism has created a problem in the academy whereby people are taught a compendium of knowledge so that they know a little bit of everything, but they should be educated in such a way that they can educate themselves in whatever they will need to function in society. Education has become too enamored with a philosophy of doing rather than a philosophy of being. Curriculum should not exalt technical knowledge over other forms of knowledge. The arts and humanities are possibly more important the sciences. While sciences may help us in understanding physical aspects of the world in which we live and even physical aspects of the self, the arts and humanities help us tap into the mysteries of human nature.

Education must place balanced values on both practical and speculative experiences so that the individual may be well integrated and able to communicate their knowledge. One of the growing difficulties with education today is that we have more fields of knowledge that individuals must develop. To confuse things more, society tends to value only those individuals who can advance in these fields and produce more technical methods than others produce. Those that are incapable of competing in these technological driven fields fall through the cracks all the time. The worth of a person should not be determined by function, yet this theory of utility permeates throughout educational institutions. The end of education is not knowledge of how things work but to enable the person to achieve wisdom about what they should do.

While being wealthy and famous is not inherently wrong, there is a problem when social approval becomes the dictum of the good life and we institutionally stress the importance of education only as useful in procuring wealth and fame. Education should not be primarily viewed as a means of wealth, social superiority, and power over others. Too long education has been used to divide. Education viewed properly can unite by helping build community in as much as it fosters a student’s ability to think, create, and communicate within a spirit of humility. A burden of responsibility always accompanies truth. The truth we know requires us to respond accordingly and education is a gift that better enables us to serve others.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Justice, Obedience, and Choosing a State of Life as Seen in St. Thomas Aquinas - Conclusion

Furthermore, freedom of choice in the areas of virginity and marriage is important because of the ordering of these states in life. Aquinas clearly states that virginity in itself is a greater state of life because, “. . . a Divine good takes precedence of a human good, and because the good of the soul is preferable to the good of the body, and again because the good of the contemplative life is better than that of the active life” (ST II-II, Q. 152 A. 4). Because virginity makes one more available for contemplation and the Divine good, it is a higher state in life. However, St. Thomas explains that the virtue with which either virginity or marriage is lived out is dependent upon the person and his or her habits (ST II-II, Q. 152 A. 4). Therefore it is possible for a married person to be more virtuous than a virgin, regardless of the fact that the virgin’s state of life is more conducive to the Divine. The choice of perpetual virginity or marriage must be one that is specific to the person making the decision. One person may habituate virtue more readily in the state of perpetual virginity while another may do so more easily in a state of marriage, despite the fact that virginity is intrinsically more excellent than marriage.

St. Thomas’ recognition of the value of choice is prophetic in the sense that it points toward the common notion today that the freedom to choose a state in life is among the greatest of freedoms rooted in human dignity. The equality of persons predicates this freedom. Aquinas’s discussions of justice and obedience recognize the necessity of a hierarchical ordering of the human race without negating the primacy of choice.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Justice, Obedience, and Choosing a State of Life as Seen in St. Thomas Aquinas Part III

According to Aquinas, prudence involves “. . . the knowledge of what to seek and what to avoid . . . [it is] concerned with ‘things done,’ that is, with things that have their being in the doer himself. . .” (ST I-II, Q. 47 A. 1, Q. 57 A. 4). Because justice is always between people, and prudence is involved in the doer himself, justice must involve prudence. Therefore, a superior is incapable of issuing a just order without using prudence. In the specific situation of choosing virginity or marriage, a superior disallows for true justice to be present if he forces anyone into either state of life. People entering the religious life or marriage must freely choose it.

The free choice of one’s state in life contributes to the common good as exemplified in Aquinas’s understanding of the liberal and just man. Aquinas says that “. . . the liberal man gives of his own, yet he does so in so far as he takes into consideration the good of his own virtue, while the just man gives to another what is his, through consideration of the common good” (ST II-II, Q. 58 A. 12). It is good to give to others for the sake of being virtuous, but it is better to give to others for the sake of the common good. Both marriage and virginity are choices that involve the common good. Marriage allows for the continuation of the human race, and virginity allows for greater time spent in contemplation and service to others, for, “. . . the end which renders virginity praiseworthy is that one may have leisure for Divine things” (ST II-II, Q. 152 A. 5). Because both of these states of life involve a permanent disposal of one’s body for some form of common good, it is in the interest of justice that no form of superior be allowed to choose perpetual virginity or marriage for someone else. While marriage and virginity are goods in themselves, Aquinas recognizes that they are brought to fulfillment when freely chosen.

Suffering – Antithesis to the Contraceptive Mentality: Part II

In my first post on this topic, I focused on the suffering-selfishness dichotomy and its effects on marriage and beauty. In this second part, I shift to a discussion of the purgative effects of suffering and why there cannot exist for long a “both…and” relationship between suffering and selfishness.

For the one caring for the suffering loved one and for the one suffering, there exists a dynamic of necessary self-forgetfulness and self-giving. If I had continued to focus only on the way Beth’s condition was affecting me, I never would have been able to enter into service to her, nor would I have been able to appreciate the beauty that she was radiating to everyone in her conformity to the image of Christ. I never would have seen it had I continued to stare at myself. Every minute spent feeding her and wiping her mouth as she spit it back out was one minute not focused on me or my own hunger. Every minute spent bathing her and dressing her became minutes not focused on my own selfish desires. This is what it means to be truly human, because if God as Trinity is a unity of persons totally, freely, and fruitfully opening up to each other, then we as images of this must do the same in order to actualize our full potential. For most people, the experience of suffering is probably the most effective means of reaching this actualization because suffering and caring for the suffering demands such a dynamic as mentioned above.

An advantage of the deepening of married love through suffering over sex is that suffering practically casts out any possibility of the using of one another for personal gain or pleasure. There is no pleasure in suffering, nor is there any apparent, personal gain. What’s left is the choice to give up or to take advantage of such an opportunity by allowing it to purify the relationship of any selfish motives. In fact, depending upon the type of suffering being endured, the very possibility of sex may be completely nil. This forces a couple to examine their marriage and their love for one another through the lens of sacrifice. Because of what Beth was going through, sex was simply not an option for about nine months, and during that time our love for one another grew exponentially. My complete concern for her and forgetfulness of myself could only be brought about through the suffering that we were enduring. Sex, I believe, had become a stumbling block for me due to selfishness until my motives were purified through the fire of suffering. It wasn’t until I learned to love her through the school of suffering that I realized how selfish I had become in the marriage act, and we weren’t even contracepting! The contraceptive mentality can take over even when one is not contracepting, because the mentality is ultimately a mentality of selfishness. “How much pleasure can I derive without having to recognize the value of the other?” It’s not about a pill or a condom. It’s about the refusal to give of oneself without reserve and without the expectation of pleasure. Suffering is very efficient at excluding any possibility of such a refusal. Eventually, my only concern was Beth, but even that took a while to happen. I had to be reminded by a very close friend of mine that this was not about me, and this is something of which I have to remind myself on a daily basis. When I think about the purifying effects that this suffering had on our marriage, I’m simply amazed. Our love for each other eventually began to transcend the fear of death that had become a dark specter always hovering over us.

Even our understanding of suffering was being purified during this time. While there wasn’t a moment and still isn’t a moment where we hope for a complete healing by God, we moved slowly from a deep fear of suffering and the unknown to the more solid foothold of trust in God’s Fatherhood and His faithfulness to His promises. But it still doesn’t come easily. The only possible way to attain this and hold on to it is through constant prayer -- prayers of submission and prayers of trust. Then and only then can one enter more fully into that dynamic of self-giving and self-forgetfulness with another.

There cannot be a dynamic of self-giving and self-forgetfulness within the context of suffering without there existing a corresponding deepening of the relationship in love. Even St. Paul sees the connection between conjugal unity of husband and wife and suffering. In fact, it seems that he suggests that the love between husband and wife is brought about through an experience of suffering in his letter to the Ephesians: “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Savior…Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her.” Christ is Savior because of His sacrifice, because of His suffering. Christ loved the Church by giving Himself up for her. The bridegroom establishes unity with and life for the bride through suffering. Even as far back as the creation story in Genesis we can see these same elements at work, the elements of self-giving and self-forgetfulness as the means by which a marriage is established and sustained. In order for Adam to be brought into unity with his bride, he first had to open up, literally, in an act of self-giving. He opened up to give of himself in order to bring about new life, both the life of his bride Eve and the life of the marriage itself. But the opening up required self-forgetfulness, implied by the deep sleep into which he fell. He entered into an ecstasy characterized by self-giving, not self-concern and self-absorption. In this is priesthood. The priesthood of the husband is rooted in his call to sacrifice, but sacrifice is not the only aspect of priesthood. Ministering to his bride is as necessary as the sacrificial part of it.

Let us not become lax in praying for the men of today, that they will recognize the great calling that comes with masculinity. It is a calling to service that leads us out of ourselves and into a proper understanding of masculinity. We pray for this in the name of Jesus Christ, through the intercession of Pope John Paul II. Amen.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Theology of the Body in Shakespearean Comedy

Jonathan Pryce as Petruchio and Paola Dionisotti as Kate in The Royal Shakespeare Company's 1978 production of The Taming of the Shrew
Whether we realize it or not, the love of “mutual submission” John Paul II writes about is the defining characteristic of the happy ending we expect from Shakespeare’s comedies.
Many of Shakespeare’s plays explore the tension between duty and inclination, and the various conflicts that arise from this tension. In Shakespeare’s comedies – take The Taming of the Shrew, for example – man’s struggle to reconcile duty and inclination is often typified in a conflict related to sex and marriage, which is resolved only when the characters learn to compromise their inclinations for duty’s sake. In Taming, for instance, Petruchio and Kate learn to channel their passions and to relate to one another respectfully as they are obligated to do as husband and wife. In Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (TOB), Pope John Paul II discusses the necessity of this sort of compromise and couches it in terms of his theology about the meaning of creation, sex and marriage.

Shakespeare makes the basic thematic point that while duty and inclination seem to contradict one another, they do not have to remain at odds. John Paul II develops this idea further and argues that if we allow our inclinations to be ordered properly, that is, toward our duty to obey the moral law, we will find the happiness and fulfillment that we seek in God’s plan for sex and marriage.

In the TOB, the Holy Father presents what he terms an “adequate anthropology,” a comprehensive philosophy intended to help man better understand himself in light of his created body, his sexuality, and the mysteries of the Catholic faith. The significance of the sexual act transcends the physical because we are not merely bodies; rather, we are beings with great worth because God created us, body and soul, and His plan for sex and marriage redeems our entire person, bodies included (144). Marriage is sacramental, and therefore more than merely a social convention; it is the visible sign of a spiritual reality, and it is intended both to safeguard the sacredness of sex and to help husband and wife grow in virtue, specifically in love for one another and for God (363).

We noted earlier that conflicts involving sex and marriage often form the basis for the theme of “duty vs. inclination” in Shakespeare’s comedies. More often than not, marriage becomes purely a matter of duty, and sex – or sexual desire – purely a matter of inclination. John Paul II argues that this dichotomy is due, in part, to the ways in which God’s plan for sex and marriage is tarnished and obscured by human sinfulness (256). He uses Sacred Scripture and natural law to support the TOB as he explains that in God’s plan for sex and marriage, man’s desire for sex directs him toward marriage, and the sacrifices married life requires ensure that man’s sexual desire remains properly ordered toward its unitive and procreative ends, and thus toward his eternal happiness.

We can see John Paul II’s ideas at work in the ways audiences typically respond to Shakespeare’s characters. At the beginning of Taming, Petruchio treats marriage as merely a binding social contract, and we cannot help but disagree with him for doing so; nor are we wiling to believe that marriage is merely as Lucentio imagines it to be: a lifetime of infatuation, sunshine and roses. We recognize very early on in the play that both men’s views are erroneous. If, at the play’s end, it seems that Petruchio still regards marriage as “a contract of domination,” we will most likely be unsatisfied with the play’s resolution (473). Shakespeare seems to point out that marriage is not purely a matter of obligation or purely a matter of romance; ideally, it is a combination of both.

The TOB echoes this idea, while of course developing it further: if we wish to be happy, we must submit our inclination to our duty; we must place sex within its intended context, that is, within the sacrament of marriage. At the center of the Holy Father’s reflections on married life are the words of St. Paul in Ephesians (Ephesians 5:21-33), in which Paul calls husbands and wives to “be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” The Pope calls this practice “reciprocal submission” expressed in love (473). While Paul is often quoted as simply instructing wives to submit to their husbands, the Pope examines this directive in context and concludes that spouses “are, in fact, ‘subject to one another,’ mutually subordinated to one another” (473).

This ideal of mutual submission plays a central role in the resolution of the sex-and-marriage conflicts in Shakespearean comedy. Depending on how Taming is played, it may seem by the end of the play that Petruchio and Katharina have learned to practice the sort of reciprocal submission necessary for a happy, lasting marriage; or it may seem that only Katharina practices submission, which we find distasteful and unfair, since we know intuitively that Petruchio ought to submit, in some way, to her as well. Whether we realize it or not, the love of “mutual submission” John Paul II writes about is the defining characteristic of the happy ending we expect from Shakespeare’s comedies.

While The Taming of the Shrew is perhaps one of the clearest examples of the TOB at work in Shakespearean comedy, John Paul II’s ideas are certainly applicable to the other comedies as well, perhaps especially to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, and Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Justice, Obedience, and Choosing a State of Life as Seen in St. Thomas Aquinas Part II

St. Thomas says that obedience is “. . . considered by some to be a part of justice . . .” (ST II-II, Q. 104 A. 2). He speaks about justice between a religious and his superior under the form of obedience, as well as the need for obedience in general (ST II-II Q. 104 A. 1). This general obedience entails that subordination of men to each other is necessary for societal operation and function (ST II-II, Q. 104 A. 1). However, Aquinas distinguishes clearly that men are not required to obey their earthly superiors in all situations, because “[i]t is written (Acts 5:29): ‘We ought to obey God rather than men’” (ST II-II, Q. 104 A. 5). Obedience is ultimately assigned to God, because the will of any superior can be contrary to the will of God.

Culpability is an important aspect for having limitations on obedience to superiors. In Aquinas’s discussion on culpability for actions, he says that “. . . the goodness of the will depends on reason, in the same way it depends on the object” (ST I-II, Q. 19 A. 3). Therefore, the ultimate value of an action does not depend on a superior. Man is culpable for his actions on a personal level, and therefore must seek to follow the will of God, whether it be through obedience to an earthly authority or a heavenly one.

Beyond the reasons of human fallibility and personal accountability, Aquinas indicates that there are certain states in life that are never to be imposed upon another. This also limits the type of obedience a person can have to a human superior. On the basis of equality of men, Aquinas says that “. . . servants are not bound to obey their masters, nor children their parents, in the question of contracting marriage or of remaining in the state of virginity or the like” (ST II-II, Q 104 A. 5). This specific declaration about marriage and virginity must be seen through the eyes of proper prudence as it pertains to justice.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Justice, Obedience, and Choosing a State of Life as Seen in St. Thomas Aquinas Part I

In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas offers concepts about the equality of men and the importance of free choice. Throughout his explanations of justice, obedience, and prudence, Aquinas’s conclusions are still held in the Catholic Church about the gift of oneself to a state in life. By comparing the different types of justice present in relationships, the primacy of obedience to God allows for individuals to freely choose their state of life as a contribution to the common good. Aquinas’s recognition of the equality of men and their need to be wholly obedient to God leads to his discussion about the importance of freedom of choice in the specific areas of disposal of one’s body in marriage or perpetual virginity.

In his explanation of justice, Aquinas states that “it is the object of justice to direct human beings in their relations with another. For justice signifies a certain equality, as the very name indicates, since we commonly speak of equal things being exactly right” (ST II-II Q. 57 A. 1). Aquinas recognizes that the equality of men is based on the nature of their creation, and he declares that this equality is essential to justice. However, Aquinas’s view of equality does not include total self-governance (ST 104 Q.1 A. 5). Different types of justice are required for specific relationships. St. Thomas says that justice is between two persons, and the relationship between them determines the areas in which each is entitled to justice. For example, two unrelated men under the same ruler are completely separate, but a son is only separate from his father to a certain degree (ST II-II, Q. 57 A. 4).

Aquinas further details the different forms of justice in relation to wives and their husbands, slaves and their masters, and fathers and their sons. St. Thomas says that a wife belongs to her husband “. . . since she stands related to him as to her own body, as the Apostle declares (Ephesians 5:8)” (ST II-II, Q. 57, A. 4). However, Aquinas recognizes that the relationship of the wife to her husband is more distinct than that of the relationship of slave to master or father to son. He bases this on the Aristotelian conclusion that justice between husband and wife is different from the others because of the relationship of their marriage to the good of the community as a whole (ST II-II Q.57, A. 6). In general, St. Thomas links justice to the community, therefore a particular type of relationship will determine how justice should be carried out. He also describes the more possessive relationship of father and son when he states that “[h]ence a father is not compared to his son as to another simply, and so between them there is not the just simply, but a kind of just, called ‘paternal’” (ST II-II, Q. 57. A. 4). Aquinas applies a similar form of justice to master and slave, because a slave is an instrument of his master, and therefore belongs to him (ST II-II, Q. 57, A. 4). However, St. Thomas reaffirms the equality of all people by emphasizing that although the slave belongs to a master and a son to his father, they are all men and therefore have justice due to each of them. This seems inconsistent with the modern thinker in the idea of equality of persons, which often includes the idea that everyone should have full reign over every aspect of his life. The modern notion seems to deny the difference in which justice is applied to particular types of relationships. According to Aquinas, the different forms of justice would not even be considered if equal persons were not involved. Without neglecting equality, Aquinas directly relates the concept of obedience to justice and its differentiation among relationships.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Drawing the Line in Catholic Belief

When asserting the conformity of one’s ideas to reality there is always a judgment call. Although the human mind is capable of unlimited ideas, nothing necessitates that these ideas accurately represent reality. Furthermore, ideas in themselves are not very satisfying. Our desire to know is not just to know our own ideas as if reality is merely something that exists in the mind, but we want to know reality as it exists in itself. This has been the cause of much philosophical turmoil and theories. Yet, because of this primordial desire to know, there is always an inseparable question of judgment and truth -- “is it really so?” This question is not always explicit but underlines every philosophical, scientific, and everyday practical attempt to know.

The evidence available via experience always limits the content of understanding. When it comes down to knowing, there are very few things in life of which we can be certain. Rather we exist and operate most in the domain of faith. As G.K. Chesterton states, “It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.” A person is not born with innate knowledge of the inner workings of the cosmos or even the faintest idea about the self. Every person is born into a relationship to a community, and all knowledge is mediated through these relationships. However, despite our limitations, our quest for knowledge is very dynamic. People want to know and believe in what is true. Humans naturally seek the Truth, and even those who would claim otherwise usually construct elaborate systems of argumentation to prove why their theory is true.

Even in the most concrete experience of a historical record, there are many limitations to knowing. Science books provide data, experiments, and theories that most people have not the first hand experience to verify but take it for granted that what is taught is true. History books give an account of past events that many readers must accept on good will that these events actually occurred. Rightfully when contradictory views of science and history occur, people question the validity of sources. This is not an exact science but a humble attempt of trying to piece together an understanding of reality. These examples do not imply that we should distrust these types of sources altogether but be aware that most of our academic instruction on matters of history and science comes through secondary sources. If nothing else, this should teach us this one thing—humility is the beginning of knowledge. All of our historical knowledge is based off witnesses whose testimony we choose to believe or not. Likewise, this same dependence on historical witnesses exists in Christianity.

A certain historic record accompanies Christian belief. As Christians, we must put our faith in God, His revealed scriptures, and the oral tradition passed on through the Church and Her saints. Without the family, without the testimony of witnesses, there would be no Church. God’s relationship to his chosen people centers on a historical genealogy, because God has a history with his people. No single person exists apart from the context of the community and that context is always constituted by the history of humanity--to understand the self is to understand it in relationship to the community. We were not physically there in Bethlehem when the Christ Child was born or Calvary when he was crucified. However, our universal experience of sin and suffering make us present spiritually to this cosmic family event that transcends time and space so that we may physically live out this event historically in our own conversion. For we all have a past that predates our physical birth. We are our parents’ children and just as we are constituted by them genetically and socially, how much more should we be constituted by our Mother Church spiritually. Undoubtedly, historical references to early Christianity exist, but in the end, we must trust that the deposit of faith passes from generation to generation preserved by the constant testimony of the Church.

All this brings me to the essential question I want to ask: where does one decide to stop in their assent to seemingly amazing claims such as those proclaimed by Christianity? The prospect of God becoming man is undoubtedly a scandal to the intellect. God who existed before all things enters creation in the form of dust and limits himself to a physical nature becoming like humans in all things but sin. God dies and suffers the consequences of all the inequities ever committed-- past, presence, and future. Although this story of salvation has its own history, inner logic and beauty, Christianity still requires faith that this knowledge is known not by natural reason alone but divine revelation. To be a part of Christianity requires not only the implicit humility of participating in a system of education but also an explicit act of humility formulated in an act of faith. For Christianity proposes more than a philosophical argument that flows from premises to conclusion, but a cosmic narrative that holds all history together in a battle of love conquering death and God redeeming man. We do not get to customize truths because we are dealing with something larger than we are. For this very same reason, neither are we entitled to understand completely the truths that are revealed because of the great mystery at work. We are a part of the narrative, not its author.

Many people claim Christianity as their religion—slightly more than one-third of the world’s population. I am amazed that this remains to be the case even though skepticism seems to permeate and dominate many academic institutions and the very educational process of most people. Many modern processes of education that will always implicitly require trust from the student has theoretically replaced this trust with skepticism and doubt. The Augustinian formula, “I believe to understand and I understand to believe,” has been replaced with doubt, and this doubt has entered the private domain of people’s religious understanding.

The other day in conversation with friends, the issue of Mary’s perpetual virginity arose. Everyone present in the conversation professed to be Catholic. However, two of these individuals expressed non-belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity. I reminded them that they profess this truth in the Creed every Sunday. They accused me of being close-minded and that I shouldn’t accept everything the Church tells me. I was bewildered at the implication because the truth in question was not an issue of Church teaching but of Church dogma. Even though I have labored over many theological questions, my faith in Christ and His Church has not always come easily and my intellectual and spiritual conversion have a long history that is still in the making. But I learned years ago that my faith in Christ and His Church was all or nothing. For this is what Christ requires out of us, faith. It is true that Mary either is or isn’t a perpetual virgin, this is a matter of historical record that either occurred or didn’t. Arguing over it as theory will not change the history and we cannot go back 2000 years and ask Mary. Rather we must trust the deposit of faith entrusted by God to the Church. My issue is why do many assume the Church is lying or ignorant about things like this especially when it is a matter of historical record? I am not promoting absolute unquestioning obedience but practical reason—“I wasn’t there. It either happened, or it didn’t happen. No amount of theory will change that historical record one way or the other. The Church who transmits the deposit of faith says it happened a certain way. Who am I based off of nothing more than a whim of my fancy to deny this?”

Furthermore, given all the other off the wall things Christianity requires you to believe such as the incarnation and transubstantiation, why question something as sane as the possibility of a celibate woman? They exist, believe it or not, today. People can in fact survive without having sex. This really is not a scandal to the intellect like so many other things Christianity professes. I address this because this really seems epidemic among many Catholics. They have no problem believing all the seemingly hard matters of faith but gawk at the things that I would think should be easier to believe. “God became a man, of course, but a human person remaining a virgin? Outrageous!” Why draw the line here? Why not abandon all the things the Church claims to be true? If she is lying about Mary’s Virginity, in my mind it only makes sense that she may not be reliable about other things. If she is not faithful in small things, how can we expect her to be faithful on larger matters of faith?

Surely the limitations of the mind open it up to something greater than itself that it cannot merely reason to as some lower principle. Humility is a proper response. Reality is much too mysterious to understand definitively. We cannot be at all places at all times testing the historical validity of everything we are told. Either Christ rose from the dead or he did not. We can believe he rose, but we cannot go back and watch. As easy as it is to become lost in one’s own abstract speculations about the ultimate principal of all that is, there is something infinitely comforting to know that a truth exists that is not merely a figment or creation of one’s own imagination, although it may be known with the imagination. There is an exclusivity of belief because there is an exclusivity of the will. You cannot truly believe what you don’t live, and you can’t live what you don’t believe, at least in a total sense. You may try but the heart will struggle to follow. A person may claim to believe a certain action is wrong and still perform that action. The problem is somewhere deep down inside the wrong that person does is perceived as a good. This is not merely a problem of the intellect but of the will. What we really believe reveals itself in the way we live. Christianity is an act of the will more than an act of the intellect, but the two are not separated. The process of conforming our mind to the mind of Christ must be willful. In love, knowing and doing meet in perfect union.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Suffering – Antithesis to the Contraceptive Mentality

In previous posts, I’ve hinted at the discovery of both ecstasy and beauty through suffering. In keeping with this line of thought, I would like to share a few thoughts in two parts on the purgative effect of suffering on the contraceptive mentality. I say “purgative” because of the fact that the authentically Christian experience of suffering and the contraceptive mentality are so antithetical in nature that there cannot be a “both…and” relationship. It must be an “either…or” dichotomy, for the two cannot coexist for long. Many may already be aware that these thoughts are the fruit of experience as I myself had to experience this purgation in dealing with my wife’s illness. In this first part, the nature of the contraceptive mentality will be reviewed along with the utilitarianism it engenders.

Why is the contraceptive mentality a danger to one’s marriage? It becomes like an empty glass to the one who is thirsty. One dying of thirst may hallucinate because of the fact that he’s dying of thirst and believe that he is drinking water from the objectively empty glass in order to slake his thirst, yet it is nothing more than a hallucination. This hallucination will be the death of him, for as long as he continues to believe that he is actually drinking water, he continues to die of thirst. The same goes for the marriage act. To empty the act of that for which it is made will lead to the slow but sure exsanguination of the marriage, and the belief that a husband and wife can safely sexually express their marriage with the goal of excluding unity and new life is nothing more than a hallucination.

Keeping all of this in mind, one should naturally begin to question the place of artificial contraception within marriage. Artificial contraception and the reasons for the use of it reflect a desire to obtain pleasure without the primary goals of unity and new life. In fact, the primary goals are actively battled against, as though they are a hindrance to the expression of the marriage, when in fact, unity and new life are the very reasons for being for the sexual act, a fact made clear from both a biological and natural law standpoint. The use of artificial contraception, therefore, hinges upon selfishness and creates a situation in which unity and new life are impossibilities. Yet the contraceptive mentality directs one to believe that the marriage is safe even though it has been emptied of its vitality.

I would suggest that a contraceptive mentality even causes adverse effects upon our view of suffering and the proper way to deal with it. Because the contraceptive mentality fosters selfishness and feeds the obsession for pleasure at the exclusion of self-giving, suffering becomes a thing to be avoided at all costs, for suffering seems to be the exact opposite of pleasure. Within such a context, suffering cannot be seen as an opportunity to empty oneself for love of another. I clearly remember thinking many times after Beth’s condition began causing extreme problems, “What am I going to do? How am I supposed to deal with this?” What I should have been thinking was, “What can I do for Beth? How are we going to deal with this?” This insight would come after having been through the fire and learning from my mistakes, mainly by having them pointed out by trusted friends. The suffering involved in caring for a suffering loved one is profound, and it demands the denial of one’s own desires and necessitates a “standing outside of oneself”. This concept of “standing outside of oneself” is necessary to understand if we wish to correct our views of sex and suffering which for the most part are formed by cultural viruses like MTV, Sex and the City, Paris Hilton, and other such misfits. Please refer to my other post entitled An Ecstatic Suffering.

There was a point during my wife’s illness at which she was capable of doing nothing other than talking, and even that was labored. To make matters more dreadful, there seemed to be no end in sight except for that end that everyone must undergo at some point. This was a time of spiritual and emotional freefall. It was as though there was nothing to hold on to. The bottom had dropped out and everything was getting worse at an alarming rate. Nothing seemed to make sense anymore. I would often ask God why he would allow us to marry and then snatch everything away from us. “How could You bless our union, and then make it impossible to live it out? What purpose could You possibly serve by ruining our marriage and our life together?” This revealed the utilitarian mindset that I had fallen to, which seems to naturally spawn from the contraceptive mentality. In my mind, since we weren’t being “productive”, then we weren’t being successful, and God was the reason for this failure. What I couldn’t seem to wrap my mind around was the possibility that maybe, just maybe, what we were actually doing was living out our marriage in exactly the way God wanted us to: true to our vows, self-sacrificial, and totally dependent upon Him. Although I couldn’t see it at the time, we were on the road to success within our marriage by learning how to be submissive to God’s will, by offering up our sufferings to God, and through self-sacrifice.

Stay tuned for the second part which will recount a personal experience of the actual purgative effect that suffering has on this contraceptive mentality.