All posts by Kevin O'Brien

Porn, Facebook and Human Nature

Yesterday Rod Dreher posted an article on pornography on his site.  He begins it with this …

Whenever I go to a Christian college to speak, I talk to professors, staffers, and campus ministers about what they’re seeing among the students. Two things always come up: 1) far too many of their students know next to nothing about the Christian faith, and 2) pornography is a massive problem.

At one Christian college I visited over the past few months, a professor said, “For the first time, I’m starting to see it becoming a problem for my female students, not just the male ones.” A campus minister who works with young undergraduates headed for professional ministry told me that every single one of the men he mentors has a porn addiction.

Every. Single. One.

He goes on to illustrate how porn has become a problem among elementary school students (including girls in the fourth grade), whose parents have been stupid enough to give them smart phones.

As distressing as this is, the problem is not just masturbation in front of a computer screen.  The problem is that pornography and lust itself (not just sexual desire, but lust) objectifies other people.  Men seem to be wired in such a way that we are more likely to see sex as an experience disconnected from love, marriage or babies – or from humanity, in a sense – than women are.  This is why the gay male culture is so horrific when it comes to promiscuity and brutality.

But we are dealing with a technology that was unimaginable a generation ago.  When I was a kid, pornography was hard to come by.  Now it’s ubiquitous.  All varieties of sexual activities are right there in your pocket and can be accessed within mere seconds, even for Christian men who try to avoid the temptation (and don’t fool yourself, the addiction is universal, including among devout Christian guys, or as Rod says, “Every.  Single.  One.”)  It’s as if we’re all walking around with a handy supply of heroin that we can rely on for an intense high when we’re down or lonely, mad or tired, horny or simply bored.

And, again, it’s not the sin of the flesh that is so harmful.  As serious sins go, sins of the flesh are the least harmful, as Christian culture has always recognized.  What’s harmful is the spiritual side of this sin.

And the spiritual side of it comes down to this: ABUSE.  We can’t just follow our lusts and be happy.  The more we indulge them, the more we think of other people as mere tools and the more we feel contempt for them.  I’ve experienced this attitude even in Devout Catholic young women, who have probably never viewed pornography, but who are nevertheless steeped in the throwaway culture, a culture that sees not only sex but intimacy and friendship and even basic social interaction as self-serving and cut off from a real encounter with the Other.

This is one of the things that makes Facebook so horrible.  There’s a kind of endless posturing, making a show of your beliefs and ridiculing others in the process.  My wife uses Facebook for sharing pictures and keeping up with her friends, but my Facebook friends engage in debates – except they’re not debates: they’re tirades or polemics or shouting matches, the object of which is to prove you are righteous and that you are justified in viewing the Other with contempt.  Without that final dismissal of the value of the Other, there’s no payoff, no “money shot”.  Polemic Facebook posts are posturing at best, “rage porn” at worst.

This is why technology is not neutral.  And we are not neutral, either.  We tend toward sin, and must be raised to goodness through grace and hard work.  Given good environments, we can be edified and educated and cultivated toward virtue and happiness.  Given bad environments, we will become abusive – to ourselves and to one another.  We all have this potential.  We can go either way.

Dreher and the people he quotes are right.  Pornography and the entire attitude that accompanies it (including the Rage Porn of Facebook) is the most serious problem in our society today.  And yet I have never heard a homiliy on it.  Ever.  The greatest spiritual threat in the world is simply ignored at the parish level.

The opposite of love is use.  And mere use always become abuse.  And we live in a culture of abuse.

The Rohr of the Crowd

Recently a friend of mine asked me what I thought of Fr. Richard Rohr, and I dismissed him with some sort of comment such as, “Oh, Rohr’s books are tea table twaddle.”

And, according to Dan Burke, there are, apparently, concerns about Rohr’s orthodoxy.

But, while researching something else on the internet, I came upon a link to Fr. Rohr’s book Immortal Diamond: The Search for our True Self.  And I read, with a good deal of interest, an interview with Fr. Rohr (pasted below, with my comments in boldface), as well as perhaps the BEST AMAZON BOOK REVIEW EVER …

I wonder why it was so hard to folloe.
What folloes below is the interview with Rohr.  Note that it’s C. G. Jung warmed over, but it’s the best of Jung, which is saying something.  Again, my comments follow (I mean, folloe) each of Rohr’s in bracketed boldface.

Q&A with Robert Rohr, author of Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self

Richard Rohr
Q. What do you mean by False Self and True Self? 
A. When I use the term False Self, I mean that it is the self we manufacture and adopt to find our identity in the world—our jobs, our occupations, our religion, our culture, our sources of status. False doesn’t mean that it’s bad; it simply means that it’s external, passing, that it changes. Everyone has a False Self—you need it to function in the world. True Self is who you are objectively in God. Most religious and spiritual traditions would call it the soul, although it is also mysteriously more than that. You do not create True Self by your own personality or choices or, or experiences. It’s nothing that you manufacture or do. It’s your innermost, essential being.
[Rohr is describing what Jung called the persona.  Other modern writers use the term “false self” instead of persona, so that they can set up a distinction between “false self” and “true self”, instead of Jung’s dichotomy of persona and Self.  The problem with Jung is that the Self is “autonomous”, or, in effect, deified.  The Self is God, or at lest the Inner God, speaking with a voice that must be obeyed so that the soul may achieve “individuation”, which, for Jung and his followers, simply means “self-indulgence”.  But Rohr seems to be on to something that Jung hit upon but did not take seriously enough.  
I would say Rohr is presenting the “false self” (the persona) as doxa, and the journey to the self-known-by-God (the “true self”) as a journey toward a reality that is not of our own making.  The potential for abuse, of course, is evident.  One may call “my wife and kids” the obligation of the “false self” and “sleeping with my mistress” the way to the “true self”.  
But, with the guidelines of the Church and the voice of conscience, perhaps this pitfall can be avoided … though Rohr does not stress this.]
Q. How do the concepts of True Self and False Self relate to the questions you explored in Falling Upward
A. In my book Falling Upward, I try to talk about the journey, the transitioning from the first half of life, the necessary suffering in the middle of life, and the liberation of the second half of life. In talking about True Self/False Self in Immortal Diamond, I’m trying to actually explain what it is we’re finding in the second half of life–our True Self. If you don’t find or recover your True Self, you remain in the first half of life forever, as many people do. They think they are their occupation, their family, their culture, their religion; without the falling apart of what Thomas Merton called our “private salvation project,” without that falling there is no upward. In Immortal Diamond I’m calling the upward the True Self and I’m trying to explain what the True Self is.
[Again, this is from Jung, who wrote about the stages of life and about the middle of life as being a crisis period that offered great opportunity for attaining spiritual growth.  Though the phrase “attaining spiritual growth” in our society usually means, “I’m finally doing what I always wanted to do, but was too decent to do before now.”  However, if we take Rohr’s insights in the proper light, what he seems to be saying is we need a crisis, a cross, a passion, to topple our house of cards, to undo our Unreality.  Perhaps both Jung and Rohr could avoid the pitfall of mere self-indulgence if, indeed, the “true self” is that part of us that is most visible to God’s penetrating glance and most needful of God, what I have elsewhere called the Vulnerable Thing.  That part of us is not our salvation, for it can be as selfish as any other part of our character: but it is the part of us that approaches Our Lord as a child, with simplicity, innocence and earnestness, all cynical worldliness stripped away.  If it takes a mid life crisis to get to that, then Rohr is on to something.]
Q. Why is finding True Self so important to the spiritual journey? 
A. In many ways this quest for the True Self is the foundational issue. Your True Self is the only part of you that really has access to the big questions, things like love, suffering, death, God. Your False Self just entertains itself. But once you make contact with your True Self, there’s a natural correspondence between who you are and who God is. Let me put it this way. When you discover your True Self, it’s very easy to recognize the presence of God. When you’re living out of your False Self, you tend to be more attracted to externals–external beliefs, external rituals–but you are never really touched at any deep level because it’s not really YOU that’s making contact. It’s your temperament, your personality, your culture, all of which are okay, but your True Self is that part of you that already knows God, already loves God at some unconscious level. When you can connect with your True Self, the whole spiritual life opens up.
[This is really good stuff.  He’s talking about the difference between living at the level of doxa vs. living at the level of sophia: philodoxy vs. philosophy, divertissement vs. periagoge, Unreality vs. reality.  Again, it’s very easy to say, “Now that I’m living with my gay lover I’m in touch with my true self and my whole spiritual life has opened up!”  But that’s simply a self-serving parody of the reality Rohr is describing; that’s indulging the false self, not turning the true self toward God.  But do we have the courage to tell ourselves that?  Or will we simply use the gifts of psychology to continue to play games and to continue to justify sin?]
Q. What is the connection between finding True Self and facing death? 
A. The phrase “you must die before you die” in one form or another is found in most of the world religions. Jesus would say, “Unless the grain of wheat die it remains just a single grain.” This means that this concocted False Self, this manufactured identity that is who we all think we are, has to go. That’s what the language of being “born again” really means. It’s not some kind of magical transaction that takes place between you and God, but the death of the passing self, the one you have created for yourself. That’s what has to die. Until that False Self dies you don’t really know who you are. Once you let go of your passing self, as St. Francis said, “The second death can do you no harm.” In other words, once you have experienced the little losses and failings or falling upwards, you know at a deep level that you’ve been there before and none of it is going to kill you. You’ve already learned how to die. If you don’t learn how to die early, ahead of time, you spend your life avoiding all failure, humiliation, loss, and you’re not ready for the last death. Your True Self, your soul knows spiritual things, and knows God. So if you don’t awaken it, you really don’t know God. You can be religious, but you don’t encounter God at any depth. It’s just spinning the necessary prayer wheels, whatever your tradition tells you is the appropriate prayer wheel. It isn’t really transformative religion.
[Of course, being born again can be both an ontological change wrought by baptism and also a symbol for the death-to-false-self and rebirth-to-God (and therefore to true-self): it can be both.  As with everything in Scripture, it can be both literally and symbolically true at the same time.  And, if I’ve learned anything from my Devout Catholic friends, it’s that “transformative religion” is the very last thing most of them want.  What most of us want is a more powerful false self, not the pain and sacrifice required to act from the true self.  And so, as insightful as all this is, if it’s not coupled with the humility, the basic humility, of our need for a savior, the recognition that we will turn all good gifts to the bad without God’s help – including the great good gift of psychological insight – then it’s a tool that’s ripe for abuse.]
Q. How can we make contact with our True Self? 
A. It is hard work to remain in contact with your True Self. That’s why daily prayer is important. Somehow we have to reestablish our foundational ground over and over because we lose it every day. I surely do. I get caught up in letters, emails, what people want of me, what I need to be, the little dance I have to do today for this person or that person. It may be necessary, but if you are living in that world, that revolving hall of mirrors, you so get enchanted with these reflections of what everybody thinks you are or wants you to be that you forget or you never discover who you really are before you did anything right or anything wrong, before you had your name, your reputation, your education, your family, your culture. That’s how we get caught up in what some call our “survival dance.” Finding True Self is about finding your sacred dance, who you are forever and who you always will be. That’s the self that can go to Heaven, if you want to put it that way, because it’s already in Heaven. It’s already there. So you’re returning home.
[I agree with this – with the caveat that heaven is not our heaven.  If we think we make heaven, we end up creating hell on earth.  If we find heaven, both the “Kingdom of God that is within you / among you” and the Kingdom of God that only fully comes outside of time and the world, we find it.  We don’t make it.  It’s objective, like truth itself; and getting there is a gift, a grace.  It’s real, like God.  It’s not a construct.  This is, in fact, implicit in everything Rohr says.  If the false self is false, it’s because we’ve concocted it to suit our needs; it’s made by us.  The true self is discovered by us.  It’s true because it’s there, it’s objective.  It’s a fact, as is God, who is the source of all facts and who is Himself the truest self.]
Q. Where did the title, Immortal Diamond, come from? 
A. The metaphor immortal diamond came from a poem by the Jesuit Englishman, Gerard Manley Hopkins. The last lines of this beautiful poem say, “I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and/ This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,/ Is immortal diamond.” When I first wanted to clarify this notion of True Self/False Self, I immediately said that’s going to be the, the metaphor. I think it names what I’m talking about, something that’s strong, true, clear, but hidden within us.

[What’s good about all of this is very good indeed.  What’s bad about it is what’s left unsaid.]


So there you have it.  Hope this was not too hard to folloe.

Why Seems It So Particular with Thee?

John Henry Newman on a problem he noticed roughly 200 years ago …

It is very much the fashion at present to regard the Saviour of the world in an irreverent and unreal way—as a mere idea or vision … [offering] vague statements about His love … [and] while the thought of Christ is but a creation of our minds, it may gradually be changed or fade away.

… so this is not a new problem.

Against this vagueness and blur, in opposition to the Unreality of Jesus the Nice Guy, Newman suggests something that most Catholics would consider novel.  He says to know this Person Jesus, you could simply read the Gospels.

… when we contemplate Christ as manifested in the Gospels, the Christ who exists therein, external to our own imaginings, and who is as really a living being, and sojourned on earth as truly as any of us, then we shall at length believe in Him with a conviction, a confidence, and an entireness, which can no more be annihilated than the belief in our senses. It is impossible for a Christian mind to meditate on the Gospels, without feeling, beyond all manner of doubt, that He who is the subject of them is God; but it is very possible to speak in a vague way of His love towards us, and to use the name of Christ, yet not at all to realize that He is the Living Son of the Father, or to have any anchor for our faith within us, so as to be fortified against the risk of future defection.

I know this is difficult 19th century prose, but what he’s saying is simply that Christ had a particular character, and was not an amorphous blob, blurry and fuzzy: and His character was, rather disturbingly, Divine.

The theological implication of this fact is what I would call the particularity of the saints.

We are sanctified not as indistinguishable blurry “nice guys” but as very particular individuals with zest and with deliberate things we are and are not.  Grace perfects nature, including the nature of our form, our limitations, our personalities.

Young people today seem to think that individuality is all about what music you like.  Demographic marketing and the niche of your favorite band defines who you are, and so if you find someone who likes the same garage band as you, you’ve found (one would assume) a compatible friend.  But, on the contrary, the mystery of who we are, and of what we are called to (our vocation) is much more personal and particular and even more biting and painful than the music we listen to.

It is like the stinging taste of salt.  And this ringing and stringent flavor is something we are not to deny.

Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his. savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good. for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.  (Mat. 5:13)

But when was the last time you went to a suburban Mass and had any sense that the particular – the particular anything – mattered?

Why I Believe

I became an atheist at age 9.   I became Catholic (of all things!) 30 years later.  This, after hating Catholics most of my life and agreeing with all of my artistic and theatrical friends that the Catholic Church was ridiculous at best, contemptuous at worst.

But, even now 17 years after my reception into the Church, I remain adamant about one thing.  If this is all a lie or a pleasant fiction, we should burn all the churches.  If this is all a lie, it is the worst lie in history.  If the Church is merely a human institution, then it will only get even more corrupt than it already is and it should be torn to pieces.  If people believe because it feels good, to hell with people and to hell with belief – and to hell with needing a lie to feel good.  You want the truth?  You can’t handle the truth!  But if we’re worthy of the name “men” or “women”, we can handle the truth – God or no God.

After all, Jesus Christ told us, “The truth will make you free”.  That much even atheists would agree on.  Or at least they should – if they were more than fad atheists playing party games with nihilism.

And I know, I know – it’s Easter and that whole rising from the dead thing is a bit much, but that’s not really what turns people off.  (By the way, if Jesus did not rise from the dead – crazy as that sounds – then the whole thing is false.  “If Christ be not raised, then is your faith in vain,” as St. Paul was honest enough to say, “and we are the most miserable of men”. – 1 Cor. 15:17  So don’t be a “Christian” because Christ was a nice guy; He was God and the proof of that was His resurrection; if you don’t believe that, well, that’s understandable, but then stay home on Sundays and don’t get a job as a fill-in pastor at a Presbyterian church … which is a story I’ll tell in my book.)

What turns people off, and what turned me off for all of my young life, was not the miracles or the resurrection or the weird Christian culture or the Bible.  Far from it.  The Gospels, in particular, always fascinated me, and I remain (I’m sorry to say) one of the few Catholics who regular reads Scripture (apparently).

What turned me off then and what turns me off now was Christians and what they did with their faith.  As Groucho once said to Chico, “I want to join a club and beat you over the head with it.”  That sums up a lot of what Christians do with “Christianity”.

Bl. John Henry Newman described what’s behind this attitude found in many Christians …

They forget that all men are at best but learners in the school of Divine Truth, and that they themselves ought to be ever learning … They find it a much more comfortable view, much more agreeable to the indolence of human nature, to give over seeking, and to believe they had nothing more to find.

This is the problem.  And it’s endemic in the Catholic Church, at least.  Eric Voegelin describes it this way …

Certainties, now, are in demand for the purpose of overcoming uncertainties with their accompaniment of anxiety … [and yet] … Uncertainty is the very essence of Christianity.  …  “Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1)

The bond [of faith] is tenuous, indeed, and it may snap easily. The life of the soul in openness toward God, the waiting, the periods of aridity and dullness, guilt and despondency, contrition and repentance, forsakenness and hope against hope, the silent stirrings of love and grace, trembling on the verge of a certainty which if gained is loss—the very lightness of this fabric may prove too heavy a burden for men who lust for massively possessive experience.

I love that last line.  We are “men who lust for massively possessive experience”!  We all are.

JRR Tolkien describes this very lust and the disenchantment that accompanies it.

[The things that become disenchanted] are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them.

In other words, God becomes a mere tool for prideful man, for anxious man, for lazy man; a possession, a “thing” like other “things”.

This is why we need a savior.  Because even the greatest gift we’ve been given – faith in a merciful and just God – is something we want to put in our pockets or “lock in our horde” and use for our own security, to allay our anxiety, or (what is worse) to use as a kind of weapon, a club we join and beat people over the head with.

Both believers and non-believers have this trait, this hard-heartedness, this possessiveness, this tendency not to be humble in the presence of the truths of God, but to appropriate and manipulate them.  One of the most apparently devout young Catholics I knew used faith in God as a giant contraceptive against reality, keeping the Spirit out while maintaining the bubble of fiction that was her life, a bubble she made certain He never pierced.   She lived a life devoted to Spiritual Contraception (and physical contraception, for that matter).  The quasi-atheist quasi-Catholic friend I described here is not intent on approaching God (and hence the meaning of life) with humility and genuine curiosity, but instead is set on constructing clever arguments that Jesus would be too foolish to penetrate.   And yet what is life but this reaching out in faith … this anxious trust that what we do in time matters eternally, that if we seek we find, that if we love we will somehow be loved back – and that even if we’re not, it’s the offering, the act, that matters?

One of my best friends is an agnostic, or at least won’t discuss matters of faith.  But she gives her entire heart and soul and being into educating children – a job which she finds eternally significant, though she would never describe it in those terms.  She knows, as we all do, that love outlasts time and death.  In that sense, she knows the inner meaning of the Resurrection better than most “massively possessive” Christians do.

Another friend of mine is a non-Christian and is in desperate need of cheap health insurance.  He looked into a Christian Health Share program, which would have saved him a lot of money, but refused to join it because they demand a profession of faith and he refused to lie in order to join the group.  He refused to lie!  He, a non-Christian, refused to claim to be a Christian, even though it would have benefited him to say so.  And yet, one of my most discouraging battles on the internet over the years was with “devout” Catholics who kept insisting that lying could be a good thing – a holy and righteous thing! – despite settled Church teaching on the contrary.

We could all give examples like this, examples of people who reject “Christianity” and yet behave better than most Christians, who believe in the transcendent nature of love, sacrifice, morality.

This is why I believe.  Because it’s true.  I believe in the dogmas, but the dogmas are signposts, signposts to encourage us to keep seeking, to keep praying, to keep living “in openness toward God”; they are not walls in which to barricade ourselves and keep God and others out.  We search because even through passion, death and darkness, even through the horror of Good Friday and the loneliness of Holy Saturday, even through moods of despair and absurdity, even through all of this, if we seek, we find – we find in the depths, we find in the tomb, we find in one another, the silent secret of new life.

 

Reason vs. Ideology

Here’s a brief outline of Eric Voegelin’s lecture “In Search of the Ground”, with quotations.

 

I. THE GROUND (Greek: αἴτιον) is the source of our being and our particularity (THE GROUND is GOD, viewed as a philosophical concept and not as a Person.)

There the quest of the ground has been formulated in two principal questions of metaphysics. The first question is, “Why is there something; why not nothing?” And the second is, “Why is that something as it is, and not different?”



II. Man’s nature is to seek this Ground, which is also the Final Cause, the Purpose, through an open dialogue of questioning and answering, pulled by God.  In fact, this is what Reason is.

In this questioning one keeps open one’s human condition and is not tempted to find cheap answers.  … That is reason: openness toward the ground.

III. How do we go about being Open toward the Ground?  Through a basic TENSION between our lives and the “transcendent” – a reaching out in this imperfect and muddled life for something greater which is Beyond.  This TENSION is expressed by the words FAITH, HOPE and LOVE.  It is not settling comfortably on a dogmatic answer, even if the dogma expresses a truth; it is a continued tensional questing toward God, for the Dogmas (though true) are signposts or objectified expressions of a truth that is not, itself, a “thing” to be comfortably conceptualized and mentally appropriated, but a form of being, a relationship marked by desire and an uncertainty on man’s part, overcome by trust.  That is what Faith is – a reaching out in hope with love (Eros).  Faith, Hope and Love are first grouped together hundreds of years before St. Paul.

Already Heraclitus knew three variants or nuances of the tension: love, hope, and faith.

IV.  As the ear is for hearing and as the eye is for seeing, so the PSYCHE (soul) is for desiring God.  We are built for this.  In the same way we are built for seeing and hearing, so we are built for seeking God.  And the Psyche is the “organ” that enables this.

V.  This common goal of seeking God (the Ground) unites us in friendship and like-mindedness: homonoia.

… since every man participates in love of the transcendent Being and is aware of such a ground—Ground, Reason, or Nous—out of which he exists, every man can, by virtue of this noetic self, have love for other men. … “If I did not love other men because they also are an image of God, I would have no particular reason to love them because they are just horrible.” – Nietzsche

VI. But what happens to all of this in A WORLD WITHOUT GOD???

We still have of course, the quest of the ground; we want to know where things come from. But since God (in revelatory language) or transcendent divine Being (in philosophical language) is prohibited for agnostics, they must put their ground elsewhere. And now we can see, beginning about the middle of the eighteenth century, in the Enlightenment, a whole series of misplacements of the ground. The transcendent Ground is misplaced somewhere in an immanent hierarchy of being.

TRANSLATION: God and the Purpose of Life is no longer seen as being something that is Beyond us, but as something that we can make and manipulate in the here and now.  Voegelin calls this IDEOLOGY.  I call it UNREALITY.  If the Open Existence is a life lived seeking the Divine Ground of our Being, the Closed Existence is shutting ourselves off to the Ground: it is Spiritual Contraception (found among some Devout Catholics, I would say, as among all agnostics).  And this Closed Existence takes the form of IDEOLOGIES that assert the Final Cause (the Ground, the Purpose of life) as anything but transcendent; it is not beyond our reach: power is God, money is God, sex is God, tolerance is God, gender fluidity is God, etc.

VII. Aspects of Ideology …


       1. IDEOLOGIES (worlds without God) are APOCALYPTIC.  They believe a better world will follow this one.
2. IDEOLOGIES are GNOSTIC.  Only the ideologue and his party know the recipe to produce this perfect world, which must be attained through a brutal rejection of this one; or through a meaningless use and abuse of this one: for this world and human nature itself are but the contemptible stuff that must be overcome to attain the Utopia.
3. IDEOLOGIES are IMMANENT: the apocalyptic heaven is man-made and of this world; not produced by grace and ultimately fully embodied in the world to come, but arbitrarily and forcefully produced by those in power.




IX. HOW DO YOU PROTECT YOURSELF against the Bad Thinkers, the Agnostics and the Ideologues?

E.V.: Oh, by reading the classics, of course. That’s the purpose of education—you must have the masters at your fingertips.

X.  And finally …

Nobody is obliged to participate in the crisis of his time. He can do something else. … No one is obliged to take part in the spiritual crisis of a society; on the contrary, everyone is obliged to avoid this folly and live his life in order.



… And order is discerned in the Ground, the source and end of our existence.

The Chain of Unbelief

In his sermon “The Christian Ministry”, Bl. John Henry Newman lays out for us a possible chain of unbelief.  Note that you can start this chain anywhere, but Newman starts it from the point of view of someone who doubts the Priesthood.  Doubt that Christ commissioned the Apostles, and set aside a group of men as special conveyors of divine grace; doubt that and the following logically follows.  And though not everyone may follow this chain, anyone would be logically consistent in doing so …

 

  • If Christ did not commission a group of men as special conveyors of divine grace, then the sacraments they administer may not be what these clergy claim them to be.
  • The Eucharist is therefore (potentially, at least) a “bare commemorative rite”.
  • Baptism, being one of these sacraments, is likewise (quite likely) a formality that may easily be dispensed with.  (This denigration of the sacraments is consistent with the denial of the ordained priesthood.  As Newman notes: “They who think it superstitious to believe that particular persons are channels of grace, are but consistent in denying virtue to particular ordinances.”  If specific persons can not be special channels of grace, why would specific things or actions be?  This is a reasonable inference.)
  • It is likewise “but consistent” to deny original sin.  For if baptism is a mere show, then what is the problem it addresses but a kind of superstition?
  • If sin is not the problem, then the Cross is not the answer.  The doctrine of the Atonement is thus jettisoned.
  • If Christ did not die to save us from sin and reconcile us with the Father, then Christ’s role on earth was that of mere preacher and teacher.
  • Christ therefore need not be considered Divine.
  • And if Christ is not God, then the Trinity is but a confused and arcane notion of the priesthood that we began this chain of conclusions by rejecting.
But why stop there?  If this all is the case, then …

Why should any part of Scripture afford permanent instruction? Why should the way of life be any longer narrow? Why should the burden of the Cross be necessary for every disciple of Christ? Why should the Spirit of adoption any longer be promised us? Why should separation from the world be now a duty?

… which is what we see around us: a Catholicism without Scripture as a guide, Catholics walking a Way that is wide and not narrow (Mat. 7:13-14), Catholics who do not even understand the cross (even as a form of discipline or daily suffering or endurance), Catholics who have never even heard of the “Spirit of adoption”, Catholics who would laugh at any suggestion of “separation from the world”.

Is it any wonder then, that if the parents or grandparents who live like this but who still retain the habit of churchgoing and prayer and Lenten penance manage to raise children and grandchildren who are logically consistent with what their elders believe, and who simply stop practicing all together?  If our faith is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (without the morality, the therapy or the deity), then why not stay in bed on Sundays … with the girl or boy or computer of your choice?  Really.  Why not?

Humans may be inconsistent day to day, but over the long haul, we are very consistent with behaving according to what we actually believe.  And if we’re not, our children are.

A Slice of Pie for the Pietists

In his essay “Democracy and Industrial Society”, Eric Voegelin (alluding to Ernest Renan) speaks of three foundational elements in Western society: Hellenistic Philosophy, Jewish-Christian Religion and Roman Administrative Order.  In shorthand, this means our society has the constituitive elements of

 

  • Reason (studium, the School)
  • Revelation (sacerdotium, the Church, priests)
  • Power (imperium, the administration of justice and the maintenance of order)
I would say that there are two more elements that make up who we are as a people …
  • The Family (ecclesia domestica, including agriculture: home life)
  • The Market (production, buying and selling, the economic sphere)
Voegelin points out that there are Disruptive forces that have opposed these elementary units of our society.  He calls these simply the “anti’s”
  • Anti-Reason is the rejection of Aristotelian philosophy, which began with the Reformation, and which Hilaire Belloc says has climaxed in a modern hatred of reason and an assertion of the Irrational.  Anyone who spends any time arguing on the internet understands that the Cult of the Irrational is a nearly demonic influence in our society, and is even dear to some of my fellow Catholics.
  • Anti-Revelation is the rather obvious rejection of the Church and all it stands for. The apparent irrelevance of the Church to modern men, as well as the Church’s modern focus on sentiment rather than reason, has contributed to this.
  • Anti-Power is the Quietist or Pietist reaction to the Wars of Religion.
Belloc explains all three of these very concisely …

 

By the year 1700, it became apparent that Europe was permanently divided into two camps, Catholic and anti-Catholic.  In the only department that counts, in the mind of man, the effect of the religious wars and their ending in a drawn battle was that religion as a whole was weakened. More and more, men began to think in their hearts, “Since all this tremendous fight has had no result, the causes which led to the conflict were probably exaggerated.  It seems, then, that one cannot arrive at the truth in these matters, but we do know what worldly prosperity is and what poverty is, and what political power and political weakness are.  Religious doctrine belongs to an unseen world which we do not know as thoroughly or in the same way.”

… except he is emphasizing the more typical reactions, which are the first two of the bullet points above, the anti-religious attitude, coupled with the anti-rational attitude that rejects the role of reason in seeking right order, reason’s role in approaching the transcendent and its role in ordering our lives toward it, especially as seen in Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy.

But the flipside of this rejection of the School and the Church (the rejection of philosophy and religion) is the rejection of the World and of Power.  Voegelin is especially critical of Pietism, which he says was especially prominent in Germany and laid the groundwork for the Nazis.

Pietism was a Protestant movement that began as a desire to re-emphasize sanctificiation – holiness – in a Christian faith that had become worldly and indistinguishable from mere secularism.  I am very much in sympathy with such an impetus, for, as you may notice, I spend much of my time complaining about inane suburban parishes and the modern fad of preaching Christ without the Cross.

But Pietism rather quickly became a Gnostic movement that rejected all contact with the messy life-of-the-world as something that was evil.  Voegelin quotes a common German saying, die Macht is bose, “power is evil”.  The Pietist attitude eventually becomes one in which an “anti-world orientation gets expressed.”  The Pietist lives “in expectation of redemption, which requires one to withdraw from the filth of the world and especially of politics.”

This may sound odd to most people who live among the secularists who make up the majority of our neighbors (and who are all quite worldly), but those of us who travel in what I call “Super Catholic” circles see a form of Pietism all around us.  It typically takes a more “Quietist” form: “Oh, well.  It’s all God’s will.  Everything happens for the best.  I’ll just sit here until God drops in my lap what I want.  And he if doesn’t drop it, oh well.  It was not meant to be.  Oh, well.” 

But it also takes the form of disdaining things like getting a job that excites you, and taking the risks of going to a college that challenges you, or (heaven forbid) dating someone who may entice you to move out of your parent’s basement and put down the video game joy stick.  These things are all scary, and when a young person sees them not only as anxiety provoking, but also as inherently evil, then the Christian faith becomes not a sacramental approach to living life, but a sanctimonious way of avoiding it.

Either way, Voegelin’s point is that the Distortions or Derailments, the “anti’s”, have this in common: they reject the transcendent as having any bearing on life: either because reason and revelation are despised, or (in the case of the Pietists) power and politics are despised: in both cases the Incarnation is cut off: the transcendent is divorced from the immanent.

Included in the Pietistic rejection of power and politics are the rejection of things like prudential decisions on how to make a living, taking responsibility for your passions and desires, reasonably exercising your authority as a spouse or parent, etc. – the kinds of real life issues that we never hear addressed in homilies that simply say, “God loves you just as you are,” or “Jesus was nice; you be nice, too,” or “Be enthused!  Isn’t it great?  Yeah, it’s really great!  Hey, Lent is half over!  That’s why I’m in pink.  Ha ha.  Hey!  It’s Easter!  We can eat chocolate again.  Ha ha.”    In all of these cases, the True Order that should be guiding our messy lives in this muddled existence is rejected or even treated with contempt.

The Church In Spite of Itself

Somehow in this corrupt and disappointing institution, there is at least one really great priest.

Obviously, there are many.  But today I met with a man who cannot be explained.  This crooked Church filled with crooked sinners (like me), a Church which can legitimately be prosecuted as a criminal organization under the RICO statues in the diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, has produced, in spite of everything, one really great, humble and holy priest.  I have met him, and I know him rather well.  I will not name him, because he would not want me to.  But he’s the real deal.

But … “are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” (Mat. 7:16)

The church in a shambles.  Cologne Cathedral, 1945.

Humanly speaking, an organization that appears as corrupt or at least as incompetent as the Catholic Church should not be able to put forth anything but thistles.

In other words, there is no human explanation for this.  Likewise, Cardinal Newman points out that there is no human explanation for the Church in history.

There have been many kingdoms before and since Christ came, which have been set up and extended by the sword. This, indeed, is the only way in which earthly power grows. … But the propagation of the Gospel was the internal development of one and the same principle in various countries at once, and therefore may be suitably called invisible, and not of this world.

He points out that not only did the Gospel spread without force of arms, on the efforts of an original rag-tag group of misfits we call apostles, but it sprang up as a group of local churches from community to community; local groups answering to a central authority that eventually stepped in and took the hollowed out shell of the Roman empire and made use of it; and you, as a Pagan, might be shocked that people you’ve known all your life are suddenly, even secretly, Christian and that an invasion and transformation of a worldly empire has taken place; and the empire replaced by something not of this world … and all of this, right under your nose.

How did this happen?  And how can a merely human institution produce saints?  The best human institutions can do wonders.  The Marines can produce a few good men.  The best colleges can produce great scholars.  But no one can produce a saint.  Even the family – the greatest of all earthly institutions – cannot produce saints, not even by trying.

How, then, do we find a few holy men and women here and there walking among us?

Seriously, the Church, especially the stump of a thing that calls itself “Church” in most of our parishes, by any human standard of judgment, should not be capable of this.

Anthony Esolen Out of the Ashes

Guess what?  There’s this really great online book club, started by my friend Brian Daigle of Sequitur Classical Academy in Baton Rouge.  It’s called The Pillar and it features online discussions of current books, classics and everything in between.

Last night The Pillar hosted a live webinar with Anthony Esolen, author of Out of the Ashes – Rebuilding American Culture, and Dr. Esolen said some remarkable things.

First, here’s a quote from Esolen’s book, culled by one of our book club members …

Say to yourselves and to your children…  We must be clear about this.  The world around us is not Christian.  It is not even sanely pagan.  It is quite mad and quite unhappy.  …We can minister to them only by being sharply distinct.  Those in the world…are longing for …the real language, which will restore to them the world’s lost beauty and goodness and point them towards what is beyond the world.

This is what the webinar did, in its own way.

The most memorable thing that Tony Esolen said in his hour-long visit with us was his answer to a question to from one of the attendees.  The questioner said (and I’m paraphrasing both the question and the answer, quoting from memory),

Q. “What would you have done differently 25 years ago when you began your career as an educator and a father, knowing, as you do now, how much the culture has decayed?”

Esolen became thoughtful, looked away from the camera, and replied from the heart.  “I would not have assumed that nature would fix things.  I assumed that my daughter, for instance, would manage to meet a good young man.  But even dating has vanished.  Boys no longer know how to approach girls.  We need dances – and not just occasionally, but all the time.  We need to teach boys how to get off their video games and approach girls – because it doesn’t happen on its own anymore.”

He continued with a memorable image.  “It’s a desert on one side, and a flood on the other.  It’s a desert of loneliness.  Not only is there no dating in that desert, there’s no friendship, no connection, no relationship with members of the opposite sex – period.  On the other side of the divide, in the flood, there’s the hook up culture, which is just as miserable and just as lonely, only in a different way.”

My friends, I can’t tell you how true this is.  It’s most serious for devout young Catholic women who are not sleeping around; but it’s bad even for secular women who are.  My most popular posts on my old blog, Waiting for Godot to Leave, were about the difficulties of dating and the complications of the Boy / Girl thing in the Devout Catholic world.

Esolen pointed out that, “The real vocations crisis is not in finding men for the priesthood – though that is a problem.  The great vocations crisis is in marriage.  It breeds all kinds of despair”.

That was the most memorable part of the webinar for me.  Here are a few more random notes I took while Esolen was speaking …

 

  • The word “productive” is a horrible word.  It’s a word borrowed from the factory.  Esolen (quoting Ruskin, I think) said, “Britain is productive.  Britain produces everything but men.”
  • If men gathered together as men, it might be possible for them, once more, to correct one another.  “Dude, get off the video games.  You’re wasting your life.  You have a family to provide for.  Start taking this seriously.”  If a wife says that to her husband, he will resist it and push back and tell her that she’s nagging.  But if his buddies say that when they’re together as a bunch of guys, he might listen.  “Male shaming” I think Esolen called it: men accusing other men of not being real men – when the need for such an accusation springs up … which, today, it frequently does.
  • Toleration is not simply “putting up with anything”.  It’s admitting a state of affairs is bad, that there’s something wrong with it, but that you’ll endure it, anyway.  “If your coworker is miserable and rude, you might be forced to tolerate this, but you don’t endorse it.”  Modern liberals, however, are not “tolerant” at all.  They seek power and the destruction of those who believe different things than they do.  (This from a man who has recently been more or less crucified by his own intolerant students and administrators at Providence College.)  And the politics behind much of this is the militant gay agenda.
  • At a recent fundraiser for St. Gregory the Great Academy in Pennsylvania, Esolen was impressed by the boys who reside there.  “They take away their phones and their computer.  The administration allows none of that – no internet, period.  Because they know that if the boys have access, they’ll be on porn and they’ll be poisoned.  Instead, the boys end up doing what boys used to do.  They go outside, they play sports, they have fun, they get in shape, and they build things.”
  • “The best young people I know were homeschooled.  They went to good Catholic colleges.  They got married.  They’re 23 with kids and they’re happy.  We need to witness to the secular world in this way.  The best example we can give to these other people is being holy and happy.  They will see us and say, ‘I want some of what they’re drinking’.”
  • The way to get back at bad bishops, especially those who impose “common core” on Catholic schools?  “Bishops are not well educated in the humanities.  Who is?  But they understand money.  Tell them, I am not supporting the schools you have forced common core on.  I’m giving my money to this classical Christian academy over here.  Tell them that.  They may not understand much, but they will understand the dollar sign.”
I was blessed to meet Anthony Esolen last month at the Prairie Troubadour Conference where we both spoke.  And last night’s webinar was almost as much fun as meeting him in person.
There’s more of this sort of thing at the Pillar Book Club, so check it out!
And even though things are very bad all around us – we now have online book clubs!  And good ones too!  So there are occasional silver linings – silver linings behind the clouds that promise the rain that will irrigate the desert in which we live.

 

When the Well Runs Dry

What is it about homilies on the Woman at the Well that annoys me so much?

The worst I ever heard was by a priest with horn-rimmed glasses, a creepy demeanor and an utter inability to relate to people, who said that Jesus “grew” in his encounter with the Woman at the Well.  He “grew” in learning the limitations of His own judgmentalism, prejudice and sexism.  This is why the reading is included in Lent, because Jesus needed Lent in order to overcome his own narrowness.  You see?

But a homily as bad as that is easy to spot.  The more dangerous homilies are those that do damage not by what they do say, but by what they do not say.

The homily I heard last Sunday, while on tour with my actress Maria, at a random parish we’d never been to before, was a good example.  Of the church itself, Maria said, “This church is so modern it must have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.”

“More like Frank Lloyd Wrong,” I countered.

But the art and architecture were not as bad as the music, and the music was not as bad as the constant chatter and party atmosphere before Mass, and the constant chatter and party atmosphere before Mass were not as bad as the homily.

And the heart of the homily was this: enthusiasm!  We need to leave our water jars behind and go spread the news about Jesus, as the Woman at the Well did.  We won’t be able to help it!  When we encounter Jesus we will be so excited that we’ll just have to spread the word!  We won’t be able to hold it in!  Apparently, we’ll just leave our water jar behind go and start to constantly chatter – like the people were doing before Mass started.

Pardon me, but this is so much BS.  And then it occurred to me: most people put their faith in BS.  But if Jesus Christ is anything, He is, at the very least, the antidote to BS – the BS we feed others, the BS they feed us, and the BS we feed ourselves.

But this is not the Jesus we encounter in homilies at Catholic parishes, in almost all cases.  He ain’t at that particular well, generally speaking.  Because at your local parish, you will be told to be enthused!  But the question remains: be enthused about what?  Or about whom?  In the Church of the Oprah, the Church of the Hallmark Channel, the Church of the Always Shape-Shifting Amoeba, we are constantly told to have faith, but we are never told what we are supposed to have faith in.  In our modern religion, there is no longer an Object to our Faith.

Terms have become indeterminate (and, for many bishops and theologians, deliberately so), and faith entirely subjective.

Newman spoke of this nearly 200 years ago, in explaining the tendency of Christians to assess the validity of their “walk with Christ” merely by how they felt about Him, and to be complacent and fruitless simply because they had a kind of vague religious sentiment – which, they were convinced, was the end of it.  Christ died, people believe, not to redeem us or reform us, and certainly not to call us to a greater and more awesome degree of maturity or completion as human beings, but to make us feel good about ourselves.  Which leads to the most shameful form of idolatry: idolatry of self.

They who make self instead of their Maker the great object of their contemplation will naturally exalt themselves, Newman wrote.

Which is what happens at almost every Mass I go to – the inane and insipid exaltation of self.  Our Lord remains in the Eucharist – but in the homilies, the art and architecture, the attitudes, the atmosphere, and above all else, in the deliberately dreadful music, we are self-absorbed.  And content with being self-absorbed!  That’s the part that amazes me.  (Perhaps the people who are not content with being self-absorbed are no longer coming to Mass.)

The Woman at the Well did not just encounter a vague feeling that made her excited.  She encountered God made man: a person who saw through her BS, saw past her half-lie about her so-called fifth “husband”, and pierced her soul the way we sinners would later pierce His side.  We are not told if she went on shacking up with the current dude or with the next one who came along, but if she did, then her “witness” to her neighbors is a witness against herself, regardless of how excited she was in the moment.

But this is never mentioned from the pulpit.  Repentance is hard and the cross is ugly.  Enthusiasm is fun, because enthusiasm can mean whatever each individual wants it to mean.

We can be fed by the sacraments at Mass – but in all other ways we are being starved.

Starved and deprived of water.

For the well – at least the well of self-indulgence – is running dry.