Friday, December 25, 2015

Aristotle on Christmas

Wonderful use of Aristotle to understand the meaning of Christmas. Through Front Porch Republic:

Aristotle on Christmas.

On Twice A Year Catholics

"Judge not, that ye be not judged."

But does that mean I cannot think? I find it impossible not to think of twice a year Catholics when I am at Christmas Mass, and it is obvious that many of the congregants are unfamiliar with the Mass; and that many of them obviously have no respect for the Mass. Standing with their hands in their pockets, surreptitiously checking their iPhones, chatting with each other like they are at a pub. And of  course everyone goes to Communion, during which it is best to keep one's head down in prayer so as at least to avoid seeing how they take Communion.

Do not judge. I think that does not mean I must pretend I do not approve of such behavior. It means that it is not my place to condemn anyone for their behavior. That is the prerogative of God.

We are all sinners. Discovering the reality and nature of our own particular sins is a necessary process on the way to becoming closer to God. Although we are not to condemn others for their sins, it is generally easier to see sins in others rather than ourselves. But in seeing those sins, perhaps we can recognize the same sins in ourselves.

Consider a man, a father, who is divorced and sees his daughter at Christmas. At that time he gives her gifts, talks with her, plays with her, hugs and kisses her. He tells her how much he loves her. But after Christmas and into the New Year, the daughter calls and emails her father but gets no response. In fact this continues throughout the rest of the year; she regularly calls, leaves messages and gets no answer. Then at Christmastime the next year, her father again shows up with gifts, talks with her, plays with her, hugs and kisses her and tells her he loves her. He says he is sorry he didn't return her messages but he was very busy. But he is here now. Surely she understands. And this goes on year after year.

What is the daughter to make of this? Might she think her father is simply a liar and is using and cheating her, showing up once a year to get good feelings about pretending to be the father he is not? Might she not demand that he at least show her enough respect to be honest about their relationship? Instead he forces her to be complicit in the lies he tells himself. This is worse than indifference, for were he indifferent they would at least understand each other in their lack of a relationship. Her dignity would not suffer annual humiliation at his contrived intimacy.

What is Communion but a particular and deep form of intimacy that God has granted us? To take Communion indifferently or by rote or merely as just another part of the Christmas season, is to hug your daughter once a year at Christmas. Traditionally the Church has demanded of us that we make ourselves worthy of the Sacrament of the Mass through prayer and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Like all the Church's rules, this is for our own benefit so we don't find ourselves taking hugs from God without the prior respect for God that makes such intimacy true rather than a lie.
So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. (1 Cor. 11:27)
It is not for me to condemn once or twice a year Catholics. But I can learn from them the danger of taking Communion lightly, and renew my resolve to prepare myself properly for Mass.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Chesterton, the Internet and Community

What would G.K. Chesterton have thought of the Internet?

We can get an idea from his essay On Certain Modern Writers originally published in Heretics and recently republished in the excellent collection In Defense of Sanity. Chesterton discusses Christianity, the family and community in this essay, and makes the point that small communities like the family force different types of people to know and get along with each other. Ironically, it is the small community that is truly more broad than the large one:
In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy; and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are all descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls, by the divine luck of things, there will always be more colors than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell. 
That last sentence contains a typical Chesterton surprise. We might tend to think of "spiritual coherence and contentment" as something good, or at least not positively bad;  and Chesterton plays on that conceit, leading us along in the sentence until shocking us at the end with his view that it is actually hellacious. What is hell like? It is a place where everyone has the same kind of soul, and far from being a place of discord and conflict, in fact there is "coherence" and "contentment." It is place where everyone is content in his sins. It is not a happy place, however, and so we can conclude that Chesterton sees a distinction between contentment and happiness. I am picturing Chesterton's hell as one of drabness and dullness, where everyone is "content" with his situation only because he doesn't have the energy to do anything about it. All the souls are the same because they are all worn down to the nub. Heaven, then, must be a place of glorious diversity (in the real sense, not the PC sense, of that word) where the souls are very different, and express the energy of their difference yet in the unity of God.

Back to the theme of this post, it seems clear Chesterton would have some problems with the Internet - the chief being that it is an ideal clique-forming ground, beyond anything Chesterton might have imagined. Now one doesn't need to be in physical proximity to spend all his time with the like-minded. A few clicks of the mouse and you can find somewhere online where everyone thinks exactly like you do. The everyday encounters that bring us into contact with a variety of people - like shopping, taking the bus, going to the library - may also be minimized via online shopping. "Sociability, like all good things, is full of discomforts, dangers, and renunciations" Chesterton tells us. On the internet, as soon as you experience any discomfort or any degree of renunciation, there is always another more comfortable page to repair to.

There is no neighbor on the Internet in any real sense, and thus no place for the second great commandment. "We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour." God commands us to love the man who is given to us in our circumstances; but what if our circumstances (e.g. online existence) are such that no one is given to us?

We have, in Chesterton's words, "a society for the prevention of Christian knowledge."

Of course I can't leave off here without discussing the irony of making this point on the Internet itself.  The Internet itself is neither good nor evil - Chesterton would certainly agree with that - it is our use of it that makes it turn for good or ill. And so it is when internet "communities" begin to displace real communities that we begin to have a problem, and especially when people begin to think of online "communities" as real communities.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Original Sin, Paradise and Irish Music

In a comment to my recent post concerning Chesterton and Original Sin, M asked the pertinent question: If this is our true home but we don't know how to live here, how do we learn?

The short answer is we can't, at least on our own. That's the problem with the Fall - we fell in our entire nature right down to our core, so there is no place we can fall back on from which to pull ourselves up. Any attempt we make is doomed to fail because the attempt can only come from fallen nature, and so is already affected by the problem it is trying to cure. That's why our attempts to find a way to live always have a ring of artificiality to them. They must, because we are trying to construct a way to live from degraded blueprints and with degraded carpenters.

The only answer is for someone to save us - which, of course, God has accomplished in the Incarnation. Christ shows us what it really means to live naturally, in our home, and gives us the grace to do it, if we will but accept it. Just how far we have fallen is indicated by the shock with which we apprehend the crucifix:


Christ is the perfectly natural man, but the way He lives is not something that comes naturally to us (anymore).  And it never quite will, as long as redemption is not complete. The best we can do is imitate him, ask for His grace, and hope we can through Him learn to live again in a truly natural manner. In the meantime, we can console ourselves with the knowledge that the strangeness we feel, the feeling of never quite fitting in or knowing quite what to do, is a consequence of the Fall, and will be with us to some degree for the rest of this life - but it is not the end of the story, and we can look forward to truly being home when history is finished.

And we can even in this life get a taste of what paradise - another word for living in our true home - is like. We know that in paradise we will live in the presence of God and no longer feel the longing that we do in this life, that something isn't there that should be but we can't quite say what. God will fill us and we will rest satisfied in Him. It's difficult for us to imagine how this would be possible, how we could rest in God without becoming bored (another indication of our fallen nature). For me, I imagine paradise as a "dynamic restfulness",  active yet not going anywhere or feeling the need to go anywhere. One way I get an idea for this is playing Irish music; when you get the rhythm right in a reel, it feels effortless and as though you could ride the rhythm all day without trying but without getting bored. It's that "dynamic restfulness" I strive for in my playing and when I approach it, I feel I am getting a little taste of heaven. This is the Irish reel Lucky In Love:


Sunday, December 6, 2015

On Living Together

I am old-fashioned enough to still be surprised at the matter-of-fact way couples allow it to be known that they are living together without benefit of clergy. It now seems to be the conventional wisdom that couples live together for months or even years before getting married, if they ever do. A young man at work has been living with his girlfriend for four years. He has even gone on cruises with his parents and her; apparently the parents see nothing amiss in this relationship. This is all related matter of factly over the lunch table.

The idea seems to be that you should get to know each other in a living-together arrangement before getting married. That way, the thinking goes, there won't be surprises when (if) you eventually do get married. Supposedly this will put the marriage on a firmer basis. The statistics say otherwise.

So does common sense and, frankly, simple decency. I thank God that I had the sense not to go down this path when I was 23 and foolish in many ways - but not that way. Instead I married the woman I loved - without ever having lived with her - and have stayed married for 29 years.

Jan. 3, 1987

I instinctively sensed at the time that to ask her to live with me would be disrespectful. It was to ask her to upset the basic arrangements of her life - where she lived and how, the independence of her own apartment - and restructure her life according to mine, presumably for some extended period of time. It meant a raft of simple things like letting everyone know the new telephone number at which you can be reached, and changing your mailing address. There was an "overhead" investment that would act to discourage her from ending the arrangements should she so desire; not to mention the embarrassment of admitting failure after, say, two years of living with someone.

Yet with no commitment from me that this fundamental restructuring would lead anywhere. This is to put the woman you supposedly love at a disadvantage. It is to take her out for a test drive like she is a used car.  To really love someone is to wish the best for her, and to presume to take several of the best years of someone's life, years when she is young and single and looking for the right man, as exclusively your own yet with the explicit proviso that you may discard her at any time - how can a man do this to the woman he loves?

It doesn't matter if she "agrees" with it. Simply because someone shows no respect for himself or herself does not give one license to disrespect him or her as well. At bottom, such a relationship is one that mimics the appearance of genuine self-giving marriage, but is at heart really a relationship of two people using each other rather than giving themselves to each other. That is the whole point of avoiding marriage, isn't it? I'll see how you work for me for a time and decide then if it's been worth it.

And then, if such a couple finally does get married, the character of their relationship has already been formed. They have been living together for all appearances as man and wife. Now that they really are man and wife, will their relationship suddenly change from the one of mutual use it has been, to the mutual self-giving of genuine marriage? I doubt it very much. In fact, I suspect they would have difficulty even conceiving the self-giving involved in genuine marriage. Instead, while the formality of marriage would add more "overhead" to the relationship in the sense of making it more difficult to break up, it wouldn't change the fundamental possibility of that breakup, which has been foundational in their relationship since the beginning.

Consider also that everyone shows the best sides of themselves when getting to know someone. From the first instance of meeting, we try to put our best face forward and hide our less attractive aspects. As we get to know someone, we gradually reveal more of ourselves, including those less attractive elements, doing so to the degree that we believe we can trust the one to whom we are revealing it.  Now the whole point of living with someone without marriage is to hold open the option of leaving them at any time; in other words, it puts a lack of trust at the center of the relationship. In such circumstances, people will hide those unattractive elements. And I'm sure they can do so for years at a time.

In other words, you can live with someone for a long time without truly knowing her should she choose not to reveal herself. The point of the living together arrangements, however, is a sort of truth in advertising: I insist on knowing exactly what I'm buying before I do so in marriage. Imagine a man's perplexity after five years of living with someone, that after a year of marriage he's discovering sides of his wife's personality he never dreamed were there. She thinks, of course, that now that they are married she has the level of trust necessary to finally reveal herself completely. For his part, he may feel he's been taken advantage of: I was supposed to find out all this beforehand, and she held it back from me, so she's gone back on our arrangement.

Of course, demanding that someone reveal her deepest self to you in an arrangement constructed so that you can examine that self and decide if you like it or not, and then decide whether or not to discard her, is deeply disrespectful. Again, it doesn't matter if both parties are doing it to each other. Mutual disrespect is a very poor form of equality and certainly no basis for marriage.

The fact is that genuine marriage involves tremendous risk; that is one of the things that makes it so exciting. Real marriage is an adventure that involves much deeper risk than rock climbing or skydiving. You don't really know your marriage partner until you have been married for a time and they have fully revealed themselves. And both of you know this going in; to some degree, you are marrying a stranger.

What sense, then, does the marriage vow make? How can you promise yourself to a person you don't really know, and won't really know perhaps for years? The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel addressed this question in his book Creative Fidelity. The title neatly summarizes his answer: In marriage, the partners create the conditions under which they remain faithful. What they are vowing themselves to is not just a person, but a mutual journey of discovery and self-creation, where the partners discover each other and themselves, changing and growing in the process. I am not the man I was when I married at age 23; and I am not the man I would have been had I not married or even married someone other than Tricia. She has been a dynamic element of my self-creation over the last 29 years, and I of hers.

That sounds very abstract, but it is extremely concrete in practice. It means being able to confront and discuss aspects of your partner's personality that you find difficult and, perhaps, even impossible to live with over the long term. Will they do what is necessary to develop that aspect of themselves for the sake of the marriage? And of course it runs the other way as well: I discover things about myself through her that I had not noticed, but are unpleasant for her. Am I willing to work on those things for the sake of her happiness, or will I demand that she take me as I am? Not all things can be changed. The ongoing negotiation and development, in the context of love, is the substance of marriage.

This dynamic process of growth is stunted if the partners have gone into marriage after a trial period of living together; for they have already sent each other the message that they reserve the right to bail out if they find they don't like what they see, instead of sending the message that they are committed to the process of change and growth no matter what.

The result is not a more secure marriage, but a marriage in which the trust necessary for the deepest communication will be difficult to find.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Chesterton and Original Sin

From the introduction to The Defendant in the collection of essays In Defense of Sanity:
This is the great fall, the fall by which the fish forgets the sea, the ox forgets the meadow, the clerk forgets the city, every man forgets his environment and, in the fullest and most literal sense, forgets himself. This is the real fall of Adam, and it is a spiritual fall.
The rest of the animal kingdom has an advantage on us: They are what they are and can be nothing else. A bear cannot fail to be bearlike, or a worm wormlike. But man can fail to be human. Chesterton's wonderful description of Original Sin, imagining what it might be like should an animal suffer it, illuminates what it means for us. Imagine a fish that forgets the sea; meaning, I think, a fish who forgets how to live in the sea as a fish. Such a fish is never home, for the only home it could possibly know, the sea, is foreign to it. It must live its entire existence as a stranger in its own home.

Even better is the ox who forgets the meadow. Unlike the fish, for whom the entire sea is all home to it, or should be, the meadow is peculiarly the home for an ox. An ox in the city or on a mountain is not home. But the ox who forgets the meadow is still not home in the city or on the mountain; like the unfallen ox that finds itself in the city, it would search for home. But while the unfallen ox would recognize the meadow as home should it find it, the fallen ox may find the meadow but would, tragically, not recognize it as home... it would wander right through home and continue to pine for the home it already found.

The great fall for man means that he has lost the knowledge of how to live as man in the world; he feels that he is not at home, or that he should be home but somehow isn't. So what does he do? What can he do? A man at home lives naturally; he doesn't have to figure out how to live. Since we are not at home - or at least we have forgotten how to live at home - we must construct ways of living. And these ways are at some level false simply because they are constructed - they can never replace the natural way of living of unfallen man.

Rousseau noticed this artificiality but rejected Original Sin; for him, the social constructions of man are the fall rather than a consequence of the fall. This has the convenient consequence that the fall lies outside us rather than in us, and in dealing with it we don't have to change.

But the truth is that there is no state of nature that is our true home, and in which we would be at peace could we find it. We are already in our true home. We just don't know how to live here.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Matthew 11:28-30

Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly of heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

What is it to be "heavy laden"? For me, it has been the effort to make my life meaningful by filling it up. You get one shot at life, I thought, and I didn't want to waste it. So I've got to be something and do things, and I've got to start right now, because life is passing by even as I speak. This was how I thought as a young man.

But be what and do what? That's not so easy a question to answer. For there is the problem of opportunity cost. To do something or to be something is implicitly to choose not to do or be all the other things you could have done or been. To become an engineer is not to become an English teacher, an historian, or a philosopher. Suppose you choose the wrong thing? You will have invested long time and effort to become something you should never have been. And there is no "do-over." You can't get those years back that you invested in becoming something you were not.

I always envied the nerds who knew who and what they were: engineers. No anxious struggle about life's direction for them. I, on the other hand, could be interested in just about anything but not overwhelming passionate about anything. So I would flit from thing to thing, hoping to land on one that I would somehow know was "me", like finding the girl you "just knew" was the one for you.

In his Either:Or, Kierkegaard discusses something he calls the "rotation method": This is a way someone bored with life keeps himself from going crazy. What he does is pursue an interest for a while until it becomes fatigued and he is bored with it. He then moves onto another interest, going from one to another until he eventually, after enough time, comes back to the first which has become interesting again through neglect. This was essentially what I did. My best friend used to ask me what "kick" I was currently on.

There is an alternative. And that is, instead of trying to fill up your life with either things you are becoming or things you are doing, to recognize the futility of that approach, and instead empty your life. But isn't that just giving up on life itself? Yes, it is and would be, and is why the great philosophers like Aristotle did not recommend it. But the fact of Christ changes everything.

For by emptying yourself and taking on the burden offered by Christ, you open yourself to the possibility that Christ Himself will fill you, and satisfy you in a way not possible for anything on Earth. As Kierkegaard would say, it is the difference between filling yourself with the eternal versus the merely temporary.

That sounds all well and good, but how do I know such satisfaction is an actual reality rather than, say, merely a pious hope? For if it is merely a pious hope, then the apparent death that would happen if I empty myself is an actual death. The rotation method may be unsatisfying and ultimately lead to despair, but at least it is something, and I get at least the satisfaction that I am trying.

This is where the matter of faith comes in. Faith in this context does not mean a blind belief in something you know to be false or have no reason to believe is true. It means to act take a chance and act on trust. Is the Gospel true? Did Jesus Christ really rise from the dead and show that a life of self-emptying is really a life of true fulfillment rather than a living death? I cannot prove that in any absolute sense. But then I don't think that is necessary. At least it wasn't for me.

It was enough for me to establish that the Gospel was at least plausible. Furthermore, I was and am firmly convinced that something highly unusual happened in Palestine in the first century. For the events that launched the Christian religion form a hinge point in history, one that turned the world from an eternal cycle of civilizational births and deaths, with one epoch not so different from any prior one, to a world launched in history, one condemned to development and change, and charging through time to some denouement to happen when no one knows. (See Chesterton's The Everlasting Man for the classic development of this theme.)

The conviction that something transcendent happened at the origin of the Christian religion, and my own recognition of the futility of trying to make life significant by filling it up, was enough to allow me to make the act of faith in renouncing the life I had been following and instead attempt to empty it and follow Christ. Yes, there was a bit of Pascal's Wager going on here.

What does it mean to embrace a self-emptying life in the name of Christ? It means to sacrifice all things you might have become or done for the sake of following Christ, and that means living for others rather than yourself. For me, it meant that instead of pursuing various hobbies obsessively I would spend that time coaching youth soccer or playing games with my children. It meant accepting a professional career that I might not have been passionate about, but was competent enough at to be successful enough to support a family. And it is to accept that as the years go on, working at a job that is just a job, and getting older and slower, missing the experiences I might have had, that in fact I was not slowly dying but rather accumulating treasure in Heaven, which is Christ Himself.

There are consolations. The vanity of earthly pursuits becomes more obvious as one grows older. And  we find that there are earthly rewards as well: Matthew 6:33. But these rewards also constitute a temptation, for they renew the possibility of life as self-fulfillment: I have filled my life with family rather than experiences or personal development. If we are following Christ, we devote ourselves to our family for His sake, not our own. If we give in to the temptation to the latter, then we are open to grasping after our family (e.g. helicopter parenting, or forcing our children to take their freedom when they are older rather than giving it to them as free equals.)

And it's not like flipping a switch. More like a slow process where one gradually weans oneself from the temptation to grasp at life rather than renounce it for Christ. And I am constantly tempted to grasp, especially in retrospect. The last few years I have taken up long distance running as a way to avoid getting old faster than necessary. Running a weekly 5k fun run here in town, I find myself envying the younger men (in their 30's and 40's) who did not wait until they were 50 to take the sport seriously. I wonder what I could have done had I taken running more seriously back then. But at that time I was changing diapers, or coaching youth soccer teams, or going to little league games, or playing board games with my daughter. I imagine an alternative history in which I have filled my life with such things and am happy, a history that I know is a lie, and thank God that he gave me the grace to see the futility of that life before I had misspent it.