Thursday, June 30, 2011

Yes or No

“When faced with the question of God, man cannot permit himself to remain neutral. All he can say is Yes or No – without ever avoiding all the consequences that derive from this choice even in the smallest details of life. Accordingly, we see that the question of God is ineluctable; one is not permitted to abstain from casting one’s vote… In this question, we are not analyzing isolated fragments of reality that we might in some way take in our hands, verify experientially, and then master. This question regards, not that which is below us, but that which is above us. It regards, not something we could dominate, but that which exercises its lordship over us and over the whole of reality.” Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures. 89

Reflection: Ah, the lure of agnosticism! To simply say, ‘who knows?’ , shrug one’s shoulders, and move on with one’s life. ‘There’s probably no God – now relax and enjoy your life’ – so went those signs on the sides of buses in England last year.
In this passage (and by the way, the book it is from is fantastic, and short!) Ratzinger points out that the decision for or against God is not an idle intellectual speculation, but rather determines everything else about one’s life. Either the universe has a meaning, a purpose, a point, or it doesn’t. Either there is a moral law which is absolute, or there isn’t. Either our lives are heading into an eternal framework of some kind, or they’re not. And yes, there are consequences to all those questions.
Even the smallest details of life are influenced by this. As Catherine de Hueck Doherty used to say, you can go to heaven or hell sweeping a floor. Either God is real, and our whole life is headed towards him (which in Christian terms means that every bit of our life is taken up into the mystery of love), or He is not real, and even the most seemingly important moments of our life ultimately lead nowhere. There’s no third option.
And by nature this question involves faith. That’s what he’s getting at when he says it’s not something we can take in our hands and analyze. The question of God is a question of what is bigger than us, by definition. We can reason about it, to a certain point. But at that point, we are confronted by the ultimate existential question: can I trust this Being, this Reality, this God? Can I order my life according to something bigger than me, something I will never fully comprehend? Is there a Love big enough, a Truth solid enough, a Goodness expansive enough, that I can give my whole self to it? Yes, or no.

For Democracy to Survive

“We are obliged to ask: must there not be a non-relativistic kernel in democracy too? For is not democracy ultimately constructed around human rights that are inviolable?.. We prefer today to speak of values rather than of truth, in order to avoid coming into conflict with the idea of tolerance and with democratic relativism. But such a terminological transposition will not allow us to evade the question I have just posed, since values derive their inviolability precisely from the fact that they are true and that they correspond to true requirements of human existence.” Values in a Time of Upheaval, p. 56.

Reflection – The problem of relativism looms large in Ratzinger’s writings. The section quoted above is from a lengthy discussion of the relationship of democracy, tolerance, and truth. In a secular democracy, can we make claims about the truth of good and evil, or absolute truth statements about reality? Does this not open us up to the danger of intolerance, the suppression of the rights of those who disagree with us? How can a secular and pluralistic society manage its affairs unless it excludes any truth claims from its legal and social structure? Many would answer these questions by insisting that a secular society must adhere to a position of strict relativism, confining all claims about truth to the private sphere.
These are indeed big questions at any time, but are especially pressing today, as courts and legislatures redefine the very meaning of marriage, human rights commissions define and re-define the limits of free speech, and the rights of human beings at the far ends of life (i.e. the unborn and the elderly) are alternately denied or debated. What are we free to say? To do? To think? What is the nature of freedom in the world, and what is its safeguard?
In this passage, Ratzinger points out that a democratic free society cannot safely commit itself to a strict moral relativism without endangering its own foundations.
The question is simple: do human beings have rights or don’t we? A strict relativist would have to say, “That depends.” But if we do not have rights which absolutely cannot be violated, then the very core of democracy is gutted.
Without a theory of inalienable rights, we are left with this: in some fashion, some entity in society, some arm of the state, determines what we do or do not have a right to do at any moment. If there are no inherent absolute rights that stand independent of social organization or government fiat, then we are essentially serfs of the state, exercising our freedoms only at the good pleasure and discretion of those controlling the levers of power.
This is a grim, even alarming prospect, yet we have to be clear. It is the strict logical implications of moral relativism at the level of mass society. A truly free society logically must rest on truth. If there is no truth, there is no freedom, since our freedoms can be denied at any moment by our betters. If there is no freedom, there is no democracy. Some kind of binding truth statements is necessary for a healthy democracy to survive.
Of course, this necessity of truth for freedom and democracy carries us into deep waters, difficult determinations. Yet without engaging these deep and difficult questions, we are in deeper waters yet. Indeed, we are profoundly vulnerable to tyrannies of the right or the left, to having any particular right we currently enjoy disposed of as soon as it becomes inconvenient to the achieving of this or that social good.
And this, in fact, is the situation of the modern world, insofar as it insists on a relativistic view of reality and morality.

The Future

[Faith] is not a system of semi-knowledge, but an existential decision – it is life in terms of the future that God grants us, even beyond the frontier of death. This is that attitude and orientation that gives life its weights and measures, its ordinances, and its very freedom. Certainly a life lived by faith resembles more an expedition up a mountain than a quiet evening spent reading in front of the fire; but anyone who embarks upon this expedition knows and feels more and more, that the adventure to which it invites us is well worthwhile.” Faith and the Future, p. 50.

Reflection: Ratzinger here summons us to the adventure of life, to a journey towards our true future.
The question of ‘the future’ is a key one today. So many ideologies that governed the course of world events in the 20th century were essentially eschatological, that is, future-oriented. Marxism anticipated a workers’ paradise, and was willing to smash everything and everyone to get there. Nazism heralded the glorious Third Reich when the Master Race could order all things in beauty and peace… once all the inferior races were cleared out of the way, especially the Jews.
Scientism promises an end to suffering… if we just let them experiment on and vivisect us in whatever way they please. Environmentalism, meanwhile, holds out a grim specter of eschatological doom, a sort of Judgment Green Day when all our carbon sins will come home to roost. We must repent before it is too late, in sackcloth, if not in nasty carbon-producing ashes. Again, if only we can abort and contracept enough people, environmental doom can be forestalled.
Human eschatology always seems to involve human sacrifice.
Ratzinger surveys all of these throughout his writings and holds out the Christian alternative. There is a glorious future held out for humanity; there are great deeds to be done, obstacles to be surmounted, works to be achieved. But this future is held in the heart and hands of God, not in human endeavor alone. The human efforts to secure the eshcaton end in horror, bloodshed, tyranny. Placing our hands in God’s hands, and allowing Him to guide us to the future of man allows us all the joy, excitement, expectation and greatness of spirit that we yearn for in these ideologies, while grounding all of this in truth, love, and a deep respect for the human person.
The weights and measure of life given by faith are just that: that each person is included or at least invited into this glorious future, that it is seen in the love and tenderness of God, in Christ, for every single human being, and that our own path to this glorious future is precisely this path of love, service, mercy, in imitation of Christ.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Good Soil

This excerpt from Ratzinger is in relation to Mary’s role in the Incarnation. It is from a homily he preached on the text of Isaiah 55: 10-11: “For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and does not return, but waters the earth, and makes it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater, so shall my word go forth from my mouth: it shall not return to me empty, but accomplish what I desire…”
And so he writes:

“when the text says that the word, or the seed, bears fruit, it means that, unlike a ball that hits the ground and bounces back up, the seed actually sinks into the earth, assimilates the earth’s energies, and changes them into itself. It thus brings about something truly new, for now it carries the earth in itself, and turns it into fruit.”

This is crucial in understanding, not just Mary’s role, but ours. We tend to think of our lives as somehow being just about us, don’t we? Even if we’re essentially trying to be good people? You know: I am me and you are you and she is she and God is God and… we’re all in little hermetically sealed compartments. We may bump up against each other, but ultimately we’re all locked into our own selves. This kind of atomic individualism is deeply ingrained in us.
And God is God, and the world is the world: so much of modernity is founded on a conviction that the two are not just distinct, but strictly separated one from the other.
But ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John ). God seems to have crossed the threshold of the world. And Mary is right there at that moment: it is Mary’s flesh that clothed him. And she was not just a passive vessel in this—she gave her consent. God entered her, and she gave herself to this event, so that God could become man in Jesus.
And this same Word comes into us, too. Mary was this good soil who totally gave herself to Jesus. But we’re that soil, too, not quite as good as her, but even so... The Father wants our consent, too. He wants to do something with our ‘flesh’ – the stuff of our humanity, the energies, as Ratzinger puts it, of our being. And He wants to bring forth something new in us, too, from our earth, our being. He wants to make it fruitful.
This ties right back to the previous post on creativity. The deep creativity of our lives, the fruitfulness we really are made for, is not a question of producing a book, a blog, a poem, a song, or a cake.
It is producing Christ in the world, in our flesh. My individual self is made to be soil, receiving the Word so as to (in a sense) become the Word, a living Gospel, so as to give the Word to others who can receive it and become it and give it in turn. Not exactly as Mary did; she is unique. But as I can, and as you can, in faith. Receive so as to become so as to give. This is holiness, and it is the deep creativity of our lives.


“We can only be really creative if we are in harmony with the Creator of the universe. We can only really serve the earth if we accept it under the aegis of God’s word. Then we shall be able to further and fulfill both ourselves and the world.”
From: In the Beginning, p. 52.
It is fitting as I begin this blog, which is a creative work, to start ‘in the beginning’ – with a quote on creativity from Ratzinger’s book of the same name.
The typical modern attitude holds that to be creative means to produce something entirely my own. To be creative is to extend my being, my person, my ego into the raw material of the universe. That’s it, period. The typical modern attitude regarding creative activity is domination and control, especially control of truth, of meaning, of language, of the narrative. Who will get the last word? This is the critical issue of modernity.
Ratzinger reminds us in this quote that the true critical question here is not who gets the last word but ‘who had the first word?’ Furthermore, whose Word is continuing to hold and sustain all reality in existence? There is indeed a Creator God, and his creativity gives being and structure, truth and purpose, to every atom that is. A true creative work must begin there.
To make a contribution to the truth, beauty, and goodness of the world through some creative work, whether it’s composing a sonnet or baking a cake, requires an attentive listening and contemplative beholding of the existing structures of the cosmos. Otherwise, the cake will burn, or fall flat as a pancake. The sonnet will fall flat, too.
And it is in this attentive and contemplative work alone that we can be truly creative and truly ‘fulfill both ourselves and the world.’ God’s creative work is not in competition with ours; unlike Sartre and Nietzsche, we don’t need to do away with God to be creative. His creativity is the foundation, the wellspring, the guarantor of ours. To be in relationship and in obedience to the Creator of All is the only way to have a joyous, full, rich life.

I Call Him Ratzinger...

I should mention, as I get going on this little endeavor, that in general I refer to Pope Benedict as 'Ratzinger'. This implies no disrespect in any way, shape or form. There is no one I have more respect for than him, and my reverence for the office of the papacy is what any Catholic should have.
However, the works I will be quoting of his date from when he was Fr. Ratzinger, continue through his time as Archbishop Ratzinger, Cardinal Ratzinger, and go up to and include his most recent works as Pope Benedict XVI. All his writings show a remarkable consistency of thought and expression, and I don't want to suggest a sort of retroactive papal authority to all of his life's work. I call him Ratzinger on this blog.

Why I Am Blogging

It all started in 2007, when my superior sent me off to get a licentiate in sacred theology (pontifical equivalent of a master's degree). I was interested in Mary, being from the Madonna House community, and interested in modernity and its challenges, being a sentient human being living in the year 2007!
I had read a book by Pope Benedict on precisely that subject, and to make a looong story short, ended up writing my thesis on his Mariology in light of his engagement with modernity.
This gave me a keen appreciation of his writings, and provided me hundreds of beautiful quotes of his, which continued to live on my laptop. I began to share these on my Facebook page. This blog is a natural evolution of that sharing.
In the years since I began studying the Pope's writings, I have realized that many people have a deeply false picture about him, driven by wildly misleading media coverage. You know what I mean: God's Rotweiller, the Panzerkardinal, former Hitler Youth, etc. This actually prevents many people from reading him, which is really sad. He writes clearly, beautifully, and with penetrating insight into our world.
My hope is that this little blog might help change that reluctance of many to encounter the Pope in his writings. I hope to make bite-sized snippets of his works available, with some commentary by myself, and hopefully a lively comment section (hello? Is there anyone there... there... there...) So, if you happen to stop by, enjoy!