Thursday, October 30, 2014

Something That Resists Me

I experience the fact that [God] exists because I run up against him, and if ever it were I that had fashioned him, I should certainly have made quite a different job of it. As it is, I am obliged to accommodate myself to him. I am obliged to take him just as he is.

No, I never made him, in my image. I am the one who finally has to come down to doing things his way. And there’s the rub that makes me know I am in contact with the real: when I feel, that is, something which resists me, that I have no control of, and that, on the contrary, I must finally end up by adapting myself to, making way, giving up, against my will, all the while dragging my feet.
Jean Danielou, The Scandal of the Truth

Reflection – I’m going through some of my old files from my academic thesis and pulling out interesting quotes here and there. One thing that struck me around the Synod and the discussion surrounding it was the general need to ‘up our game’ intellectually a bit in the Church. I don’t mean to sound patronizing, as I firmly believe people are quite capable of being intelligent and thoughtful, but so much of what I read in the Catholic blogosphere during that time simply did not manifest that, much.

So I’m going a wee bit intellectual on the blog for a few days anyhow. It’s also good to remember some of these absolutely first rate theologians from the 20th century who have to greater or lesser degrees been forgotten today (because, after all, they wrote their books more than ten minutes ago, and so cannot possibly have anything relevant to say, right?).

Danielou, for example, is fantastic, and as you can see from this passage, very readable. God is the One, here, who resists us, who thwarts us, who is Not Us, and to Whom we have to adapt ourselves, not have Him adapt Himself to us. It strikes me that this is more than a little relevant in the discussions around marriage and family life, human sexual expression and openness to life.

‘Do what comes naturally’ is the cry of our times. The right thing to do is the thing you feel most strongly like doing; such is our understanding of the natural law, commonly. Of course this is an incoherent position, as there is no shortage of people for whom what comes naturally is torturing animals, having sex with children, raping women… and nobody (except the perpetrators, I suppose) believes these things to be ‘the right thing to do.’

‘Do what comes naturally… ummm… unless you are hurting someone by doing so.’ That seems to be a way out of that particular quandary. But while that may work for us (sort of) as a rough and ready ethos for daily life, as a matter of strict logic, it won’t do. Philosophically, we have introduced a condition for moral action without any warrant or rationale. Why not hurt others? A sociopath will argue that there is no rational basis for that condition. We can simply say it and insist on it irrationally, but we are cheating by so doing.

The truth is, all the ways of trying to forge a human ethic without God and a moral law/natural law coming from Him founder on this precise point or arbitrariness. Utilitarianism, consequentialism, proportionalism—all of these fail to satisfy the question of the persistent five-year-old child: but why? It is only when we hit up against this Other, this One who made all that is, who is the source and sovereign Master of all that is, who gives it (and us) structure, meaning, purpose, and who thus has in our regard that most dreaded and despised word of our time.

Who has Authority, in short. We don’t like this, but this really is the only way to advance any kind of coherent ethical vision of life short of ‘do whatever the hell you please, and if what pleases you is to torture and kill me, please know that I am heavily armed.’ Without God, all things are permissible—Nietzsche and Dostoevsky really did have it right, after all. And we have to be clear that it really is ‘all things’ – not just the things that we enjoy doing or approve of or think we have a right to do.

But once we acknowledge this Authority, then ‘doing what feels right’ goes right out the window. The law of nature, the natural law, behaving in a way that is consistent with the structure and purpose of our humanity, means conforming our behavior to Him, not conforming all of reality to our own preferences.

It seems to me that in the Church we have placed so much stress on a sort of ‘feel good’ Christianity, advanced very strongly the (quite true) thesis that God wants us to be happy that we have failed to teach people that happiness comes on the other side of death to self and being crucified with Christ. 

And we are reaping the fruit of that poor and one-sided teaching in the present inability of so many people to conceive of the notion that God may want them to sacrifice their natural preferences and inclinations for a greater good.

But that is the God of the Bible, the God of all our Catholic tradition, the God we believe in. And so we have to get busy re-learning, re-teaching, re-presenting that God who is the One True God, and the Good News that this God truly brings us in Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

God and Human Freedom

Transferring to humanity the prerogatives which Christians acknowledge to be God’s, positivism, by that very fact, reverses in the social field the attitude of Christianity, whose heir it means to be.

Without rights vis a vis God, since he receives his whole being from God, the individual thought he had rights vis a vis society: however organically incorporated in it., however subject to its authority in all things temporal, however sincerely devoted to its welfare, he was aware of transcending it by his first beginnings and his latter end.

He knew that, by what lay deepest in himself, he formed part of a greater and vaster society and that, in the last analysis, everything rested with an authority that was not human…

But, if temporal society is an adequate manifestation of the only true deity, from whom the individual receives all that he is, how can he have any right as against society? That notion of right is essentially ‘theological-metaphysical’… the positive faith, everywhere substituting the relative for the absolute, substitutes ‘laws for causes and duties for rights.’

Henri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism

Reflection – Well, it’s been a while since we had a ‘difficult’ text on this blog, and it’s good for us (that is to say, me) to flex some intellectual muscle once in a while. All my fancy book-larnin’ has not been for nothing, after all.

De Lubac’s book is, I believe, still one of the most important books of the 20th century. It has held up extraordinarily well in its analysis of the tragic dynamic of atheism, its false promise of liberation and human fulfillment, and its subsequent collapse into tyranny and human destruction. It’s a slender little book, and for the most part quite readable; I recommend it highly.

This quote is taking that discussion to the field of human rights and society. If you find it a bit convoluted, let me un-convulate it for you. Essentially, de Lubac is saying that human rights either come from God by virtue of His creation of man and the inherent structure, nature, and dignity of the human person, or human rights come from society and the social contract—a shared consensus of values among those living in the community.

But since ‘society’ is an abstraction and human rights are concrete, what this latter concept of right really means is that our rights are granted us by the state. And this is no true right, but a concession, a privilege, which can then be revoked by government fiat.

In other words, either our rights are from God and dwell within us ineradicably, or we exercise whatever freedom we have at the good pleasure of our social masters. It is either God or the president/prime minister/congress/parliament/courts.

There is a great irony here. De Lubac is quite right that, if our whole being is from God, then we have no rights vis a vis God—this would imply some higher power to which we could appeal against the One who is All in All. So humans would seem to be in a state of radical subjectivity and bondage towards God, which is the position of Sartre and Nietzsche.

But God is changeless, eternal, not subject to flux. Once we grasp that God’s creative will towards us is for our freedom and dignity, our capacity to genuinely act and move freely, then the whole notion of human rights becomes very secure.

If we reject God and His dominion, we are indeed left with the highest power being the government. The changeable, fluid, political, malleable, intensely corruptible, say-whatever-will-get-us-elected next time government—and this is the guardian of human rights, freedom, and dignity?

What Caesar can give, Caesar can take away. If the state is the source, or even (since in our post-modernity frivolity and folly we are allergic to metaphysical statements and avoid them whenever possible) simply the final arbiter of human rights, our freedoms are very perilous indeed. We have to think about these things: atheism tends towards tyranny and arbitrary exercises of state power; religion tends towards rule of law, at least (the historical record at least bears this out), which itself is an absolutely necessary pre-condition for democracy.

De Lubac (and his good friend Joseph Ratzinger) have diagnosed this situation with great perspicacity and clarity. The phrase ‘the dictatorship of relativism’ is relevant here: if there is no God (or God is irrelevant) and hence no absolute truth (or none that we need to consult), then there is no such thing as a human right, only human arrangements that are suitable to those who exercise power at any given moment. 

The only way to secure human freedom is to assert timeless and unchanging truths about man and his nature, and the only way to coherently assert those truths is to acknowledge the changeless and eternal nature of God and His laws. And without delving into a lot of controversial subjects that I have no time or energy to treat of right now, this is all rather relevant in our days, don’t you think?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Throwing Ourselves on Mercy

I had an unexpected trip to Toronto this week (typing this to the unfamiliar sounds of traffic and smells of the streets), so my life is a bit in disarray. So rather than try to write something myself, the blog today will be this beautiful reflection by Catherine on the mercy of God. The saint Mary of Egypt she refers to here may not be familiar to everyone: she is a truly great saint, a prostitute who had a miraculous conversion of heart and became a heroic ascetic in the desert of Egypt. 

Forgive the out-of-season references to Lent--the simple truth is, the best writings by Catherine on God's mercy date from that season of the year. Anyhow, here is Catherine to tell us about her and some of her spiritual sisters, and the workings of God’s mercy in their lives:

Monday, October 27, 2014

Who May Receive Communion? - A Reflection on Psalm 15

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,

nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;
in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honor those who fear the Lord;

who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.
Those who do these things shall never be moved.
Psalm 15

Reflection – This psalm is one of a several that are likely to make us modern prayers of them just a bit uncomfortable. Namely, the psalms where the psalmist speaks of the need—need—for moral purity to enter the presence of God, to be in communion with Him.

In the original context, the reference to tents and hills would have been to the temple in Jerusalem, and the state of life necessary to enter into that temple and offer sacrifices to God. Meanwhile, the ‘blamelessness’ referred to wholly exterior matters of ethical conduct and ritual purity.

When we who are Christians pray this psalm, we run into a problem, in that we understand blamelessness in a much broader, deeper, and more interior context. We just heard yesterday Jesus identifying love of God and love of neighbor as the heart of the Law, and both the Sermon on the Mount and the new commandment in John 15 to ‘love as I have loved you’ bring out for us just how total this demand of love is, and just how little any of us can claim to be truly blameless, how little any of us can seriously say we always ‘do what is right.’

The temptation for us faced with a psalm that contains at least implied claims of moral perfection (although this particular psalmist at least does not say, ‘And that’s me, Lord, yep!’) is to simply not pray it. Wrong answer! This is Scripture; this is part of the prayer patrimony of the Church. It is for us to see what this psalm really means for us, and to go deep in our meditation for that purpose.

Well, Jesus is the blameless one, of course. So first, this psalm has to be prayed Christologically if it is to be prayed at all. Only the man Jesus can truly merit to dwell in the courts of God, and our ability to enter those courts and dwell in them is only possible through, with, and in Him. When this psalm makes us feel a little uncomfortable, that discomfort is meant not to drive us away from the psalm, but towards Jesus who is the Just One who makes possible what is impossible for us by our own power.

But in our Catholic understanding, Jesus does not simply cover over our blame with his blamelessness. Yes, He does this, but in doing this He communicates His moral righteousness to us. Grace does not simply make up for what is lacking in us; grace transforms us into what we are not. In other words, it is the very nature of the grace of communion with Christ that it both calls us into a process of conversion and effects that conversion.

In the painful discussions going on right now around the Eucharist and who may or may not receive it, this fundamental dynamic, the intrinsic connection between communion and conversion, has to be kept in view. No, the Eucharist is not only for the perfect (I would be the first one to excuse myself from the table if that were so). But the Eucharist is for those who desire to be perfected, and who have made the first graced movements towards that perfection by repenting of grave sin and receiving the forgiveness of God lavished freely in the sacrament of reconciliation.

Jesus, and His Church, do indeed welcome all to the banquet table of the Lord. But it is the Lord’s banquet table, not ours, and God calls us all to examine ourselves thoroughly, with great humility of heart and contrition, for we all have sinned, and to not approach that banquet with hands and hearts unwashed by the fountains of mercy made so easily available to us in the sacrament of mercy.

To deny one is a sinner, to insist that one has a ‘right’ to enter the banquet, to stand on one’s own blamelessness, or to define all these terms in one’s own way and not God’s way—these are terrible, spiritually dangerous stances to adopt. And the Church, in my view, is being profoundly merciful in instructing people who will not humbly accept God’s laws as they are and so amend their lives in accordance with those laws to refrain from approaching the table. Not because ‘they are not worthy’ – none of us are worthy. But because they are not in their current state allowing Christ to communicate his blamelessness to them, and hence are not able to truly receive the gift of communion.

It is deep stuff; it is painful stuff; it is stuff that implicates all of us and calls us all to searching self-examination before we ourselves approach the altar of God. But that is the way it is, and the way it must be, and the way it will always be, for that is the nature of God and His righteousness, and His mercy in Christ Jesus.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Cynicism: An Anti-Christian and Blasphemous Cop-Out

To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbour's thoughts, words, and deeds in a favourable way. Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favourable interpretation to another's statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 478

Reflection – This little snippet from the CCC popped up somewhere on my Facebook news feed the other day, and I jumped on it immediately as blog fodder. I’ve been toying with the idea of periodically having some basic catechetical stuff on the blog from time to time—not as a regular feature, but once in a while.

This paragraph should be required reading for everyone before going on the Internet. One of the most harmful, toxic patterns of discourse I have seen on the ‘net over the years is the strong tendency to assume the worst of people, to interpret every thought, word, and deed of another, especially another that you do not like, in the most negative terms possible.

This is a sin against charity, it is widespread in our online discourse, and it is poisonous. It derails the most innocuous and positive discussions into cycles of random hostile accusations and counter-accusations and defenses, and renders it impossible to actually discuss an issue, because everyone gets worked up discussing the inner hearts and minds (about which we can know nothing) of the people putting the issue forward.

Cynicism, in other words, is deeply anti-Christian and deeply evil. It is destructive of community, of the search for truth and goodness, and undermines the hard work of forging a genuinely good and beautiful path of life in the world, of restoring the world to Christ, as we put it in Madonna House.

Cynicism is also a cheap cop-out. It is true that sometimes people have base motives for their words and deeds—of course! But the cynic who makes a blanket judgment that everyone has base motives for his or her words and deeds, or at least everyone that the cynic himself disagrees with or dislikes is taking the easy path indeed.

The truth is, people are complicated, and life is complicated, and there is such a tangled mess of good and evil, virtue and sin, honesty and hypocrisy in almost every human heart. But the goodness, the virtue, and the honesty are no less real than the evil, sin, and hypocrisy. And that is the fundamental mistake of the cynic—an unwarranted and illogical assumption that the good in a person is just window dressing, just exterior practice, and that the ‘real person’ is only shown when their moral failures and perfidy is exposed.

I think cynicism, while it is among the basic stances of the human person, is exacerbated by certain forms of Calvinist theology. The doctrine of total corruption of the human person, the idea that it is our sins that name us, define us, and that only God’s grace is any good whatsoever, and his grace is merely an external application of forgiveness on (essentially) a rotten putrid corpse of sinful corruption—all of this will of course engender a deeply jaundiced and cynical view of reality.

This is not Catholic theology. We never have believed in total corruption, but have always held that there was some capacity for natural goodness in the human person. And we believe that God’s grace is actually transformative, working on the interior of the person to actually make them good and loving. And so in our dealings with one another we must be charitable, not because it is ‘nice’, but because otherwise we may inadvertently but very seriously sin against the Holy Spirit and commit a most profound act of blasphemy—that of denying the possibility of grace acting in a person to truly make this person good.

Cynicism is, as I have said is a cheap cop-out, a childish refusal to engage in the real complexity of life and its nuances. And so, as we engage with one another on-line and off-line, let us try to remember:


“Everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbour's thoughts, words, and deeds in a favourable way. Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favourable interpretation to another's statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.”