Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Moral Nation

As usually happens when I ready anything by C. S. Lewis, I was struck with an insight - oddly enough, about politics, our President, and the nature of Christianity.

Lewis, in Mere Christianity, is discussing "love your neighbor as yourself." This is, as he rightly points out, not an easy concept for humans to wrap their arms around - no pun intended.

Typically, Lewis puts it in order for me: he asks us to consider how we love ourselves. He reminds us that we don't necessarily "like" ourselves or our actions all the time; we can be harsh in our judgement of ourselves. We can be impatient with ourselves when we fail, and we can demand that we do better the "next time."

Too often, he says, Christians think that "loving one's neighbor" means being all warm and fuzzy toward him, approving him, almost feeling "infatuated" with him. And of course, we can't do this with most people.

Christ wasn't expecting us to be all cuddly with everyone we encounter. Just as he cautioned us, again and again, to keep try - to "sin no more" - there is no reason why we can't expect the same from our neighbors. Just as we judge our lapses and falls from grace, try to obtain forgiveness (from God and ourselves), and try again - this is how we should be "loving" our neighbor as we "love" ourselves. 

This got me to thinking about Obama's policy of non-judgemental interaction - bowing to the Saudi King, for example - as opposed to having moral standards that we live by, and while we may have to accept other standards as "real," this does not mean we have to accept them as "moral." We can and we should judge them as not meeting our standards.

"Judge" has become such a bad word. But in fact, we judge every day of our lives: we choose this restaurant over that; this brand of shoes over another; Winesap apples are better than Delicious. By our standards, one things fails to measure up to another.

So, we do not believe that stoning adulterers is appropriate. On the other hand, we can also believe that adultery is wrong - we can judge it wrong, without going all the way to stoning. We can acknowledge in a  public arena that we disapprove of this behavior, and our relationship with anyone who indulges in it will be tempered by that behavior.

I had an argument with my sister and niece some years ago, when I was still off in exploratory mode. It was the typical intellectual elite versus fundamental Christian dispute: I said that any person who was honestly trying to live by his principles, his religion, was worthy of salvation; my niece argued that one religion was not as good as another. A religion that nodded to, for example, infibulation, was simply misguided, wrong, and not worthy of the same respect as Christianity.

Well, it could be argued that a lot of bad things have been done in the name of Christianity. Gays would argue that fundamental Christianity persecutes them, for example. And what about (pulling a few chestnuts out) The Inquisition or The Crusades?

The difference, I was reminded, is that Christianity does not recommend that gays be castrated in the name of purity. It simply suggests that they not act on their impulses, and that to do so is simply a sin like many others. While adultery may be a sin according to Christian morals, the punishment recommended is not stoning. (In fact, wasn't the heart of Christ's message, "I forgive you, I came here to die for you so that you could be forgiven, now go and don't do this again?"

That's a vastly different message from "We condemn you for this, we will now bury you up to your neck in the ground and throw stones at you."

How about the bad things done in the name of Christianity - Catholicism in particular? What about the Inquisition? While it's impossible to clear the Church's name where events like these are concerned, the more important point is: was the Church acting according to Christian principles when these things were done? Of course not.

These events were the result of an unhappy marriage between the Church and monarchies - a thing that the United States, at least, has been at pains to correct for. Even Catholics, who desire the Kingship of Christ, don't presume to want the Kingship of the Pope, for example. We know that's probably not a safe thing, as, much as he is the Vicar of Christ, and his representative on earth, he is still human, and is only "infallible" when speaking on matters of faith and morals, not when speaking on matters of politics and commerce.

So, getting back to "loving our neighbors," and our moral standards as both Christians, and as citizens of the United States: Obama's brand of tolerance is like my old, and I now think misguided notion that all paths to God are equal. The United States has to stand for decent, moral, humane behavior (we can get into torture another time). We may not always live up to our own standard, but we've got to try. (Just as, individually, we may not always live up to our own standards but we must judge both ourselves and our neighbors when we fall short - and we must expect the same behavior of both ourselves and our neighbors.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Fullness in God's House

I realize that what I'm about to relate in this post is completely subjective, but here goes.

When I entered my Church on Good Friday I was struck by its emptiness. I know that this is at least in part because all the accoutrements of the altar are gone - the altar cloths, the candles, the reliquaries, the flowers. But it's more than that. There is a spiritual emptiness, as well.

Father instructed us in the seven last words, and between each instruction, we prayed. I was also struck by how much these prayers felt like the praying at the Protestant services I had attended from time to time. The praying itself was sincere - the sense of the presence of God was missing.

I went to Mass at my sister's NO church on Easter Sunday. And I was struck again, in a church decorated to the nines, and full of people, how empty that church was, as well. With the applause, with the people running up and down the aisles, with the guitar music (yes, guitar music) and hand shaking and Father singing a pop song while he consecrated (I think) the host, the church still felt empty.

I realize that I run the risk of fooling myself with this "feeling" thing.

I can only honestly say that when I enter our shabby little Church, there is a feeling of "fullness," which C.S. Lewis so perfectly describes in the Space Trilogy when he talks about how the main character feels in the presense of the Eldil (angels). I could no more run and shout, or applaud, or call across the room to a friend (all things I see in NO churches) that I could pull out a sandwich and eat it. My sense of "other" is far too great. Is this conditioned reflex? I don't know...

In a way, perhaps, it doesn't matter. Perhaps what matters is being open to the numinous. If little children are taught to behave with great deference in Church - to whisper, to genuflect, to pray quietly - then perhaps these very acts open our hearts to the presence of God, and then we can feel it more acutely. And if we just go about our ordinary business, while God is still there, and while yes, we should feel the presence of God in all that we do, perhaps we are not experiencing it as fully as we might.

And after all, isn't this what Sunday is all about? God is with us everyday, in everything that we do. Sunday Mass is setting aside time devoted utterly to Him, and as such, He is with us in a special way. It is a time when we should be doing something outside our ordinary routines.

I can't help but grieve again for all that the Church lost when it chose to give in to the pressures of the world.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Mere Anarchy

I read this feedback on a website this morning. The specific reference was to Tony Blair's taking the Pope to task for his "archaic" stance on homosexuality.

"This is why the bible should only be considered as an average novel, not literal instructions on how to live your life. What is immoral should be assessed by the values of the day and not be prescribed by an archaic book. To survive, we must modernise."

What's dangerous about this thinking is twofold:
1) all things "modern" become the next generation's "archaic."
2) simply adopting something "modern" is no guarantee that it will be better.

If we go down the road of "whatever, as long as it's new," we fail to grasp the concept of entropy. What is it the poet says?

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity."

- William Butler Yeats, from The Second Coming

Systems tend toward chaos. Society has persevered simply because some human do cling to "the old ways," and demand moral behavior that is not relative, but absolute. It is in the dynamic tension between the inevitible pull toward chaos, and this human tendency to absolutism (given by God?) that our survival subsists. 

Monday, April 6, 2009

Friday, April 3, 2009

Spiritual Muscle Building

On Sundays, after Mass, our pastor holds Catechism class for adults. It's a wonderful addition to the day.

This past Sunday, he talked about defeating bad habits, and practicing virtue. He said you can do this in steps: first, get rid of the mortal sins. Then, the venial sins. Next attack the bad habits, and finally, start seeking out virtuous behavior.

I have to admit I never thought about it this way before - it's a bit like planning to run a marathon when you're not even running yet. Where to start? By walking each day, of course.

He even suggested keeping a notebook in your pocket, and when you catch yourself doing something you shouldn't and don't want to be doing, you mark it down. Keep track of the type and nature of the fault. A picture begins to emerge.

Another priest addressed the enumeration of sins in the confessional. I have to admit I had also never really understood why we are supposed to say what we did and how many times we did it. The how many times, I now see, is a clue to how ingrained this behavior is in our personalities, in our day to day lives. Of course we all lie. But do I lie ten or twenty times a day, or ten to twenty times per month?

I've said before, but I reiterate here: Thank God for these men who devote their lives to the salvation of our souls.

And it also got me thinking how our Church needs so much to return to this kind of pastoral care - really helping us find ways to be better people on a daily basis.

When I was about 10 or so, it struck me very forcefully that we modern humans are very comfortable with the idea of building our minds (school, study, books, etc.), and our bodies (workouts, running, gyms), but we gloss over and neglect our spiritual selves. We understand that learning and physical training will demand an element of discipline and pain: getting out and starting that run is not going to feel "good." Yes, I'll feel better after, but not for the first 6 or so minutes. Why do we expect that training our souls is going to be any different?

An even bigger question: why have we completely abandoned the idea that our spirits even need to be disciplined? We seem to shy away from that idea - or even reject it with hostile vehemence. The "do you own thing" of my childhood became "you're perfect as you are," and finally, "you are God," as if you were perfect and all powerful spiritually just the way you are.

It strikes me this is kind of absurd, and even dangerous. We know that our bodies will decline and become ill if we don't discipline them (watch what we eat, get exercise, etc.). We know that our minds will slow down if we don't keep them active (reading, practicing music, even playing games). Why would we presume to think that third leg of our selves is any less in need of a good workout?

I realized that the Catholic Church, with it's "medieval" practices of fasting, abstinence, Confession, penance, etc., was actually on to something. When I deny myself something, however small, I'm taking control of my spiritual self - I'm building my spiritual vocabulary, my soul's muscles. These small acts build up; eventually I can take on greater challenges. And the payoff is when something truly big comes up: I'm tempted to cheat on my taxes or my spouse, for example. Because I have practiced saying no, because I have taken the time and suffered the pain of spiritual muscle building... maybe I can reach deep and actually avoid this temptation.