Monday, December 26, 2016

Christmas and the Romance of Night

When an atheist, agnostic, or general cynic wants to needle a Christian, especially around this time of the year, they either bring up the so called "pagan origins of Christmas," or they make some joke about how they themselves will be celebrating the Solstice rather than indulging in a phony celebration involving some bearded fat guy in a red suit. By dismissing Christmas in this way, they see themselves as somehow superior to those who are still willing to buy into such childish legends.

Now whether or not they are correct about the birth of Christ (i.e. that Christ's birth was superficially placed over a pagan feast day) I cannot say. What is indisputable is the fact that Christmas actually did succeed in replacing the former. Indeed, so universally beloved is this season that even when people no longer embrace the religion, they cannot bring themselves to deny the feast. However, what is more interesting to me is not simply that people still like Christmas after nearly two thousand years (which is amazing in and of itself), but just how Christmas has change people's perception of reality.

While there are many things I could focus on here, for brevity's sake I will stick with the original theme (i.e. the Solstice and pagan feasts).

First of all, I have nothing against people celebrating Sol Invictus (i.e. the victory of the unconquerable sun). Let us together raise a toast to that giant orb in the sky that gives us life and light; though it feels a little superstitious to thank a celestial body and I thought that's what we were trying to avoid. In any case, celebrating and worshipping light and/or the source of that light, would seem natural enough. In fact, I would be surprised if such a practice wasn't as old as the hills... literally. Nevertheless, what cannot be ignored is just how the birth of Christ changed, and in fact truly elevated, this simple idea of the celebration of light coming into (or returning to) the world.

From a distance it would seem that the celebration of the Nativity of Christ is merely a continuation of this popular idea. And it is a continuation of it- but for one very significant addition. Yes, part of the romance of Bethlehem is the idea that the "true light" has come into the world, but there is also something far stranger which is introduced here, something far more paradoxical.

In the ancient world there was no "romance with the dark." The dark represented everything that we still recognize as fearful: death, blindness, evil, confusion, wickedness. The only kind of romance there may have been with the dark is the kind that humans still "enjoy" today. Indeed, some like the dark because it provides cover for their wicked deeds.

Yet what one comes into contact with at Bethlehem is an entirely different order of things. Indeed, the Nativity of Christ wasn't merely the celebration of the light dispelling the darkness, it was rather a celebration of the light coming in to make the darkness, as it were, a little more hospitable and cozy.

Formerly a tameless and terrifying beast, darkness has become domesticated. The dark may still have its shroud of mystery, but in this context it is more the mystery of a starry, starry night, an evening of moonlit musings, a midnight sleep with mom and dad's face all aglow as they sing us to sleep with lullabies, or even a Christmas Market in Germany. The warmth that radiates from that primitive barn at Bethlehem, still sheds light into the grotto of this dark world.

Yet what Christmas invites is something far more compelling than the act of making a primitive barn seem somehow cozy and appealing. By the pure light of reason we already know that we should celebrate the dawn, but who would have considered that we might come to celebrate the beauty and majesty of the night. Indeed, so beautiful is this season leading up to Christmas and beyond, that it is no embellishment to suggest that we are downright dreamy and nostalgic about it; "O Holy night", "Silent Night, Holy Night," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear", 'Twas the Night Before Christmas." Even the cold and snow becomes the object of our nostalgia this time of year. Consider how the cold of winter gets idealized in light of Christmas, and how death and baroness somehow get turned into a cause for celebrating a "White Christmas'", not to mention countless songs that appear to brag about just how cold it is outside.

Still, what is most incredible about this particular version of Sol Invictus, is the method by which this "victory" comes to pass.

If the so called Unconquerable Sun actually entered into our midst, it would certainly conquer everything it came into contact with, but there would literally be nothing left to celebrate. And in the same manner, if God had chosen (at Bethlehem) to enter into the world in all his glory, no one could have endured it. However, he apparently chose another way, a method of conquest that to this very day still provokes a riot of hymns, poems, movies, and writings of all sorts.

At a grotto in Bethlehem, he chose to light up the darkness, not as some terrifying autocrat blazing and blinding humanity with the midday sun, but rather like some hidden furnace in the heart of the world, slowly thawing out the hearts of humanity from the inside out. Hence, as opposed to merely cursing the darkness, he chose instead to give it a little bit of ambiance and atmosphere. He sought to prepare humanity for the dawn of his coming by giving it a "night light", temporarily shrouding His glory, if only to share it with everyone.

Consequently, whenever we behold a yard tricked out with an assortment of lawn ornaments, or a host of lights dangling from the rooftops, or trees all aglow for the holiday season, we should (before all else) be reminded, not only of the brighter days to come, but of something still more marvelous and amazing- a warmth that should "make our spirits bright", even in the midst of the darkness, a paradox of beauty and wonder that can only be summed with the Psalmist's words; "with Him even the darkness is not dark; the night is as bright as day, for darkness is as a light to you." Psalm 139:12

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Hate Christmas Shopping Like I Do? Here's Some Poetic Inspiration For You...

When doing some Christmas shopping it never hurts to use one's poetic imagination in the service of this painful task. For example, whenever I go Christmas shopping at the mall, I tell people that I've just been to hell and back again for my wife. If they inquire further, I simply point out that for me the Netherworld consists in enduring the local mall, beginning with the general limbo of being anywhere outside during this time of year, and then progressively moving from the parking lot (which may in fact be the outer rung of hell), all the way to the inner sanctum, or bowels of hell the mall, if only to redeem one of the few worthy items that have been surreptitiously confiscated by some beast out of the Apocalypse.

Perhaps this is a little bit heavy-handed and self-serving, but there is a real point here. So often we lose a sense of the beautiful and heroic in our day to day actions because we fail to recognize that whenever and wherever we exercise virtue it is always dramatic and heroic no matter the circumstances. After all, the very same virtues that we exercised when we first fell in love (and it came easy), are the very same ones that we employ when we perform some everyday task (after the initial thrill wears off), and that includes those tasks which are particularly displeasing. In fact, generally speaking, the more unpleasant, the more gallant and noble the behavior. Yes, it is impressive for a man to stand out in the rain when he is in love, but how much more so is it when he has been in love for 20 years, and he is holding a shopping bag instead of an engagement ring?

If one could only see one's actions in this manner, one might just find greater inspiration to be more romantic all of the time. Indeed, if man could just recognize that what makes his life beautiful is not merely a set of harrowing circumstances (like some Christmas DieHard film), but rather the resiliency he demonstrates in fighting the day to day "armageddons" that are waged in our hearts, those that threaten the very existence of our true happiness. Ironically, the biggest threat to man's triumph in this battle is not even the fearful opponent that he faces, but rather the odd detail that before anything else, he must be convinced that he is already fighting the battle (or failing to fight it). 

The "fantasy genre" frequently attempts to make this connection. Consequently, I suppose it is appropriate (in a sense) that Fantasy Football, via Pepsi, might assist us in articulating this point:    

The true purpose of "fantasy", as introduced here, is not mere escapism. To the contrary, it helps us in seeing our lives, however mundane they may seem, as God sees them. In fact, as it is depicted here, one man's mundane, may be another man's fairytale (and vice versa). And they are both right! They are champions to each other, as well as champions in their own right.

A healthy Christian imagination knows that the battle for goodness may simply involve one amazing act of courage, though it is far more likely to involve a whole series of tiny martyrdoms; like working a job that you don't like out of love for your family, or caring for some family member that lacks any appreciation for all you've done for them. It is this boldness and bravery that ultimately gives one the courage to persevere against the greatest foe, death. Indeed, whenever we exercise these muscles of virtue (as opposed to letting them atrophy), we are truly becoming strong in the spirit, or rather we are going to hell and back again, if only to bring back a jewel from the jaws of the beast worthy of one so beautiful as our beloved bride. 

The Mall

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Sunday School Catechism Class with "The Boss" (Bruce Springsteen)

When I say "The Boss" this is not a euphemism for God, but it is nevertheless true that I learned something divine from Bruce Springsteen when he appeared on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. I have never been much of a fan of the sound of Springsteen, but I have always admired his energy and commitment to his work and fans.

Furthermore, I also had the pleasure of hearing him discuss in an extremely moving fashion the Nativity of Christ- during an unplugged performance some years back (as you can see here):

However, in the following interview, I learned a little bit more about how his Catholic youth influenced him, and more importantly how it has informed his lyrics over the years. All the same, like many artists who are influenced directly, or indirectly, by growing up Catholic, he seems aloof to the fact that- not only is the Church incidentally a part of his lyrical inspiration- but that there is a damn good reason for it  (i.e. the Catholic Faith is truly inspiring)!

Quite often there is a begrudging admission of the Church's positive influence, and more often than not it goes something like this; "Oh well, I guess I can admit that there's at least something salvageable about the Catholic Church... in spite of all its endless shortcomings." However, what never seems to dawn on such artists is the possibility that one is able to employ such beautiful theological categories, because the Catholic Faith itself is irresistibly beautiful, or better still, irresistibly Musical.

For example, in the above interview, the "Boss" appears initially reluctant get into the Church's influence on his music, but then once he does, he waxes philosophical  in a completely natural way; "At the end of the day, a lot of the language found its way into my music. And I always say 'the verses are the blues, and the chorus is the Gospel... if you look at the ways my songs are built... A lot of it came out of my Catholic education."

Colbert then asks him about something Springsteen calls "the magic trick". This, Springsteen explains, is something that happens between he and his audience; "You're there to manifest something... Before you go in it's just an empty space. So the audience is going to come, you're going to show up, and together you're going to manifest something that is very very real, very tangible. But you are going to pull it out of thin air. It wasn't there before you showed up. It didn't exist... but it's real magic. And hopefully on a night when we're at our very very best, there's some real transcendence... It's always new. It's like if you could have a first kiss on a nightly basis, that sense of newness... that if you had it once it would stay with you for the rest of your life... that sense of us..."

There's too much here to unpack! I will keep my insights as simple as possible. As far as his description of the structure of his songs. Is he not simply providing a description of the Gospel itself? In other words, is he not suggesting a kind of mournful O' come O' come Emmanuel of fallen man for the verses, subsequently building to a joyful Alleluia for the chorus (viz. Redemption)?

As far as the lengthy second quote- is this not a profoundly poetical description of what Christians mean when they attempt, however unsatisfactorily, to describe the Trinity (i.e. how something can be three and one simultaneously)? Notice, he doesn't simply say that there is "something in the air". He says this presence is "tangible" and "real" (in Biblical terms he is saying "verily verily"). It is so real in fact that "it can change you for the rest of your life, even were you to experience it once." Moreover, this only happens, according to The Boss, when the audience and performer unite in a kind of divine and "transcendent" communion. Without the first two principles, there can be no third. In fact, as he points out, the space is a mere void/vacuum before these aforementioned parties appear.

One final insight that Springsteen offers (it comes in the following segment) is more liturgical than anything else. In this segment Springsteen speaks about what happens to space and time at his concerts:

"Once I get to a certain point, I'm not thinking about the time. I'm here to take you out of time. I'm here to transport you someplace else. I'm here to alter time and space..." Equally fascinating (at least for me), is the fact that all of this transcendence is set against the backdrop of what he describes in the interview (and his book) as his "night terrors." According to him, his music, or rather this "liturgical" transcendence was//is really his true refuge from the terrors of the night, as well as the depression that haunts him by day. Just as the Mass exists in such a way so as to take us from the the mundane to the sublime (from time to the transcendent), so also this ecstatic musical experience exists to take us to heaven.

To be honest, this entire interview reads a little like a subliminal Sunday School lesson. Even at the end of the segment, when Springsteen discusses how the the birth of his child changed him, his insights seem to be framed in an unmistakably theological manner; "You want to run out into the streets and say; 'People! Stop shopping. Get off your cellphones. Stop watching television. A messiah has come!' That's how you feel about your kids... 'Here in Babylon Los Angeles, a new son of New Jersey has been born..."    

Thus reveals the fascinating influence of a Catholic education, and how becomes inescapably part of one's DNA on the level of the imaginative, even while being rejected by the artist on a conscious level. For whatever reason, most Catholic artists who no longer profess the Catholic Faith, are still willing to live with this obvious contradiction, even while simultaneously enjoying the creative influence it provides (shades of the Prodigal son with his inheritance). Yet hopefully, like Bruce with his father (as mentioned in the final segment), the artist ultimately realizes that just because our humanity is profoundly wounded, and just because the servants of God are profoundly flawed, does not then mean that the same is true of the Gospel. Indeed, if the message were as miserably conceived as some would suggest, then how would the artist, as is patently clear here, derive such transcendence and beauty from it?      

Sunday, September 25, 2016

What a Good Conscience Looks Like vs. A Bad One

I was an English major in college. Unfortunately, I never learned to actually type my own papers until I was faced with a terrible dilemma (this was before everyone had a computer). I had three papers due by the end of the week, and no one available to type my papers. I offered all kinds of financial incentives, but it was of no use, everyone had their own work to do. I was extremely frustrated, if not infuriated, but at who? This may sound strange, but I was infuriated at "past me"!

How could "former me," with my typical procrastination, have put "present me" in this untenable situation. What was "present me" to do?! Well, I could dwell on what put me in this situation in the first place, or I could actually devise a plan to salvage the future. Consequently, instead of simply falling down in despair, I organized a schedule and program to finish the papers that allowed for a sane regimen of progress laid out over the week. I accomplished my task, but even importantly, this sort of conundrum never happened again, because that is how I approach projects even today.

And let me tell you, "future me" (or rather, "present me") is very pleased with that decision. In any case, what is the value of discussing this seemingly schizophrenic division that can exist between past, present, and future you? In a word: conscience. The man or women who listens to their more virtuous instincts is at peace, and at one internally, while the individual who neglects themselves and their future, has no one to blame but themselves. For this reason, the following commercials are quite on point in this regard:

However, it is not always easy to listen to that deeper sense of wisdom, which is why when our conscience is well-formed it can feel a little like an inner drill sergeant, demonstrating an awareness of the bliss and happiness that is at stake, perhaps even more so than we ourselves might consciously  sense it at the present moment:

In many ways, "future self" is a lot like every good teacher you have ever had, one that knows exactly what happens when we dismiss the most the essential details of our lives. And since a good conscience is the ultimate authority in this regard (because it is the voice of God in our soul), it is meant to be attentive to the highest order of happiness. For this reason it may feel relentless, and even cruel at times, though it's ultimate aim is immortal rest:

This is true even in the every day practical things; "You can't have any pudding unless you eat your meat/vegetables!" And so what is leisure without work? A kind of lethargy without rest. What is an extended sit upon the couch without a prior run in the park? It is idleness and sloth. Hence, we can recognize the effects of a bad conscience, especially when we observe the inevitable side effects (which are the reverse of the former). War in the heart. Inner division (which may involve you referring to yourself exclusively in third person). Psychological disintegration. Narcissism and excessive self-love. Hatred of self. War against those who might actually be trying to free you from said condition. No doubt, the ill effects tend to be "legion" in this regard.

Consequently, when we are true to our conscience, we may find it challenging, and even frustrating at times, but we will ultimately find peace within ourselves. After all, a well formed conscience aligns perfectly with who we were designed/created to be in the first place. By the same token, if we betray our conscience, and “will” what is wicked, even if we are fully given over to that wickedness, inner division remains. Why? Because our nature is our nature regardless, and no matter what we tell ourselves internally that fact remains forever.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

13 Essential Philosophical Insights Provided by the Creation Accounts in Genesis

While I am far from a Biblical literalist, I am not so quick, as are many modernists in the church today, to reduce everything in Scripture to a fascinating, if useful, fiction. And while I do not read Genesis as if it were designed to be an account of "Eden's itinerary", neither am I shut off to the extraordinary possibility that something, well, "extraordinary" happened there. Furthermore, I am also not trapped within a worldview that regards empiricism as the only reputable kind of truth that exists out there (as if man were somehow able to live by math alone). To the contrary, there are any number of truths that we do live by every day, and most of them move well beyond the nomenclature of the binomial system.

Enter the Book of Genesis, which is often dismissed by "thinking people" as ignorant superstition, and by "unthinking people" as true because, well, God said it. I will not get into which particular position is more sympathetic to me, I will only say that I am not satisfied with either one. In any case, after reading both Genesis creation accounts, what I am most struck by is not how purely mythological they are, but rather how remarkably rational they are. Nevertheless, I will not attempt to argue here that Genesis possesses a bunch of modern scientific categories (which is impossible and anachronistic for any number of reasons), but rather what I will attempt to argue is that Genesis Chapters 1-2 are philosophically sound, and offer any number of insights that are in fact the precondition for scientific and philosophical progress (yes I said that). Below I provide thirteen examples of what I believe to be the most essential philosophical insights provided in the aforementioned creation accounts.

1. "In the beginning..."

Insight #1: Time and space have a distinct starting point... 

In order to study something scientifically in a manifestly satisfactory way, you must have an understanding of the essential nature of thing that you are studying. Whether the universe is eternal, or began to exist at a certain point 13-14 billion years ago (along with all of the rest of space and time) matters. Indeed, 21st century science would be unimaginable without that prior assumption. And yet as recent as one hundred years ago, most scientists accepted something called the "steady state theory," which posited an eternal universe. Knowing what type of universe we are living in is a pretty essential starting point if you are going to do any real scientific investigation. Yet equally important, at least to me, is knowing that I believe in a Faith that not only doesn't contradict the current model of the universe, but rather (to the contrary) seems to have ultimately anticipated it. I am not a scientist, nor do I play one on TV, but the story of the priest Fr. Georges Lemaitre is a compelling one, especially when you consider that his initial attempts to convince Einstein of Big Bang theory (or as he called it, the Primeval Atom) failed. And why did his initial attempts fail? Because, at least in part, Einstein feared the religious implications of the model. So much for following the evidence where it leads!

2. "... God..."

Insight #2: The idea that the universe had a "First Mover," or an "Uncaused Cause," is not only a Judeo-Christian concept, but was posited by ancient philosophers as well

The simple statement "in the beginning God..." is meaningful not only from a religious standpoint, but also from a scientific one as well. From a religious view-point it is a radical statement simply by virtue of suggesting that there is only one God who, by Himself, generated all of creation. In the ancient world, the notion that there was one preeminent god was relatively common, but the notion that there was One true God (not merely one to be placed foremost in a larger landscape of competing gods) was truly unique. From a scientific point of view the assertion that God was there in the beginning, both confirms and introduces, not necessarily a God to be worshipped, but rather a First Principle, or Uncaused Cause. While the mystery remains as to why there is any "Principle" at all, the simple act of allowing for the possibility of some kind of Primordial #1, explains how all subsequent numbers can exist in the first place. Indeed, without this assumption about life how would one do any scientific investigation at all. To accept an ultimate "Ground of Being" respects the rule of science, even if it maintains the mystery of religion. Ironically, it is the atheist alternative that essentially rejects the basic rule of cause and effect (which is a truly unscientific formula) by embracing the more illogical mystery, the notion that everything was just there. In a most remarkable way, then, Occam's razor comes to the defense of the Hebrew God, for what more concise explanation could there be than the notion that there must have been some kind of Primordial #1 in order for there to have been any subsequent numbers.

3. "...created the heavens and the earth"

Insight #3: Modern science assumes design, order, and intelligibility in the universe, how else would one even begin to do science in the first place without this presupposition?

A "creative" order is assumed in Genesis (is there any other kind?). Yet one does not need to be a believer to assume it. To put it another way, believer or not, we function and operate in the world as if we believed in design even when we claim not to believe in an overarching Designer. We do not regard the universe as ultimately unfathomable (as did the ancients), but rather as a kind of willing partner, both intelligible and logical, in the larger project of discovery. But whatever you believe in this regard, what is essential to understand here is that we assume a posture towards our world and cosmos as one who believes, even without believing. Whether scientist or theologian, we believe that "everything happens for a reason". Thus, if we take it as a given that the cosmos is both logical and intelligible, then why would we also not assume that at the back of it all there is also some kind of larger "Logos" and Intelligence? Indeed, if we already assume that the forces of nature are capable of being commandeered for the sake of our own "designs", then what precipitated this awareness, save a God who is Himself fully aware of the larger Architecture?

4. "God saw all that he had made, and saw that it was very good"      

Insight #4: Genesis provides a rational explanation for man's natural pursuit of the good life, of progress, and of human perfectibility

For something to be truly insightful it must possess, on a certain level, an idea which might be described as counterintuitive, otherwise why even point it out. Enter our fourth insight on the list. Based on what we see in the world every day (or throughout history), the average observer might describe their earthly experience in any number of ways. They might say that the world is meaningless, they might say that it is generally evil, they might even say that it is some combination of both (all of these views were particularly common in the ancient world). What would have been completely incomprehensible (or even laughable) to individuals in antiquity would be the notion that world was from top to bottom "good". On many levels this is patently absurd, if not easily falsifiable (or so it seems). Yet without this basic conviction about the world, how could man have ever advanced as a collective. Indeed, it is this pervading sense of a higher "goodness", in spite of the daily evils that confront us, that inspires us to move beyond mere barbarism, whether one believes in a Deity or not.  


5. God created each thing "according to its kind"

Insight #5: While the basic idea of evolution is compatible with Genesis, so also is the notion that each creature is intended (i.e. things are things and not merely an indistinct amalgamation of accidents)       

Another feature of the creation accounts that is impressive, philosophically speaking, is the methodical manner in which creation unfolds. While some intellectuals get hung up on certain fundamentalist details (like whether or not birds of the air really precede land mammals), others take note of just how remarkably coherent and rational the description is as a whole.
And this is all without the aid of many centuries of scientific research at their disposal. When one compares this account in Genesis to any other primitive account of how the world came about, it is like night and day (no Genesis pun intended). From gods tearing each other to shreds in the process of "creating the world", to accounts of deities purging themselves (i.e. vomiting) as a method of creating the earth and everything in it, it is difficult not to recognize just how much more rationale the account in Genesis appears to be. The world is intentional and rational, meaning that there is an internal logic to the way it unfolds. In fact, not only does the narrative allow for an interpretation of creation that could unfold over eons, but it also provides room for an evolutionary view of how life came to be in the universe. The narrative begins with the formation of land and sea, then slowly we move to vegetative life, after which life develops and "teems" in the water, then on land, in the air, and then finally it culminates with man. This is not science in the strictest sense of the word, but it is a rational and logical explanation of the order of events. This is not to say that every other creation myth lacks an internal logic, but they do lack, in several significant ways, the kind of logic and earthiness that would lend themselves to the study of science as we undertake it today.            

6. "Then God said: 'Let there be lights in the dome of the sky, to separate the day from the night. Let them marked the fixed times, days, and years..."

Insight #6: The cosmos is rational and orderly, and behaves according to fixes laws. Thus, unlike other ancient cosmologies, Genesis lays the groundwork for a rational understanding of the universe   

Unlike just about every other ancient tale surrounding the origins of the cosmos, the celestial bodies in the book of Genesis are not gods. In fact, according to the Book of Wisdom, everything was created having, "measure, number, and weight." From the perspective of the ancient world, the notion that the cold eyes in the heavens were anything but inscrutable and indifferent, would have been a fancy supported by little more than mere speculation. Such a view would not have been perceived as bold, it would instead have been perceived as arrogant, if not laughable. Socrates and Plato prized something called "epistemological humility," a kind of ancient agnosticism rooted in the inescapable notion that man was helplessly ignorant and in no position to assert anything dogmatically about the heavens. Who are we? Who made us? Why are we here? Few answers seemed forthcoming from that massive, terrifying and unpredictable dome that loomed above. Yet here comes the book of Genesis, suggesting not only that there is a method to this cosmic madness, be even better still, a purpose and intention that naturally inclines itself to a rational study of the heavens.

7. "... And the name of the third river is the Tigris, it runs along the east side of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates..."

Insight #7: The Genesis creation narrative is uniquely "down to earth," especially when compared to other primitive creation stories  

While the story of Eden is prehistorical in its approach (because by definition it is pre-history), what is most striking about the narrative is the fact that most stories of a mythological nature tend to feel more like fantasies disconnected from certain concrete realities (e.g. Mount Olympus or Xanadu). However, what is most striking about Genesis is just how remarkably down to earth the description really is. Though it passes through (and describes) the various ages and eons of the earth, it never departs from the sober and solid realities that are recognizable to the casual observer. Even while the terminology remains pre-scientific, especially in terms of how it articulates the nature of the cosmos, there is still the presence of a very rational, if rudimentary, approach to the world around us. In some ways Genesis is profoundly dramatic for not being terribly dramatic at all- believable because it is so very clinical and repetitive. It is a little like Jesus post-resurrection when he makes breakfast for the disciples. "Breakfast with Jesus" is a remarkable statement (and believable) simply for its mundanity. In the same sense, when I discover that Eden was located between two rivers that can be located on any map today, I am stunned by the accessibility of it all. Does this mean that it proves that Eden was precisely there. No. But it does prove that the authors did not see this tale as a kind fanciful bedtime story, or even some kind of pleasurable dream, but rather something deeply rooted in space, time, and as it is pointed out here, geography.            

8. "Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being"

Insight #8: Why does man believe himself to have a free will, a conscience, a sense of rationality, and a higher purpose? Either he is delusional, or these qualities are real and have a source       

The evolution of man chart has been used in any number of hilarious ways, not because evolution is hilarious, per se, but because man, while physically a match for this seamless chart, from intellectual standpoint is a misfit in the most humorous of ways. Why do I say humorous? Because, quite literally, humor and irony are not something that our evolutionary ancestors engage in any discernible way, at least not on this level (i.e. doing science, making a chart in order to explain primate development, then making an ironic bumper sticker as a humorous and insightful reflection on how different man is from the rest of the creation). We are indeed 98.6% the same (DNA-wise) as our closest animal ancestor, a detail which is fascinating in and of itself. Yet what is even more fascinating is the stunning difference that 1.4% of DNA can make. This inexplicable "ontological leap", as the late John Paul II called it, is a profound mystery however you slice it, and simply saying that it happened slowly over a really long period of time, doesn't exactly offer much in the way of causation. Stephen Hawking once put it this way; "Millions of years ago mankind lived just like the animals, then something happened to unleash the power of the imagination... we learned to talk." "Something" indeed happened, something which cannot precisely be accounted for on the empirical level, and thus requires a different order of truth, one that is less about mechanics, and more about meaning. That Great Big "Something" is described by divine revelation as an intimate and profound investment of Self from the One who made everything; "he formed man out of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils". No other creature in Genesis is created directly by the hand (and breath) of God. What else could explains this profound disjunct, or rather mind-blowing evolutionary leap? Like inanimate matter becoming animate, there seems to be a rational demand for a rational explanation. Some may think this is begging the question", but what is more of an intellectual dodge, saying that "something (mysterious) just happened", or claiming in the most basic terms that whatever that Something mysterious is, it has to at least possess the same characteristics that we inexplicably possess. At any rate, whatever one believes on this front, there are two possibilities offered here, that the One who is Rational, Free, Good, Ironic, and Powerful shared with us some of his divinity, or that there really is no satisfactory explanation for all of these delusions of grandeur, other than to say that they are "God delusions."            

9. "And the Lord God commanded man; "You are free to eat of any of the trees in the garden; but you must not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you shall surely die'"

Insight #9: The fact that the majority of humanity (even atheists) recognize a general morality, not to mention personal responsibility, only confirms the instincts of the Eden narrative      

The fact that a man has a sense of right and wrong, a conscience, a volition, may in the end be a grandiose delusion. However, to claim this without any concrete evidence to confirm this hypothesis is simply begging the question. Because some people are deluded when employing any of the aforementioned concepts does not then mean that these concepts are therefore void. In other words, you still have to address the origins of this sense of moral responsibility. It is interesting to note that while atheists by definition deny the very existence of God, they do frequently appeal to morality in order to condemn this God. It is, for example, in their opinion, both immoral and illogical to believe in the God of Christians, Jews, and Muslims (in whatever order you prefer). Yet the point here is that while many diverge on what is moral and what is immoral, few would in practice deny the basic premise of morality, the notion that in order to have a prosperous, happy society, there needs to be sufficient degree of freedom, choices which redound to the happiness of the individual, and to the larger society as a whole. Not to mention a citizenry that is willing to correct its errors, especially when the collective is going down the wrong path. You may call this awareness of wrong-doing, "shame", as does Genesis, or you may call it "regret", as a secular individual might. In any case, whatever you call it, you cannot explain it away, without both literally and figuratively doing violence to what it means to be human. Indeed, would anyone argue this point, especially when one considers the behavior and disposition of a sociopath?

10. "It is not good for man to be alone"

Insight #10: Man is made for communion

My favorite philosophical insight from Genesis is this one. Why? Primarily because it is a psychological insight, which is not necessarily the general focus of Scripture. While dogs may be "man's best friend", they can only go so far in nourishing our deepest longings for companionship and communion (consider why "crazy cat lady" is regarded as crazy). Thus, when the second chapter of Genesis informs us that everything that God created was good... except the condition of "man being alone", we should take particular notice. Even the tree of the "knowledge of good and evil" is not deemed bad, rather it is simply off limits to man in his current state. While in some ways such a detail may seem tangential, it is anything but. In point of fact, highlighting this particular need in man, not only lends insight into the precise nature of psychological evil, but into the nature of spiritual evil as well. Whatever else man is, he is not a psychological unitarian, he is rather an utterly contingent being (dependent for his existence on others), or in a more positive sense he is communitarian/ trinitarian.

11. "Then God said; 'Let us make mankind in our image, after our likeness...' So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female, he created them."

Insight #11: The communion that is expressed in the basic constitution of the family (Father/Mother/Child) is necessary for the positive evolution of the human species

Picking up where I left off from the previous insight, not only is it not "good" for man to be alone, but from an evolutionary standpoint, man cannot neither "survive" nor be "fit" unless he rejects- on every level- this kind of anthropological solipsism. In fact, man is not even man by himself. He is only fully himself (as well as a reflection of God) when he is seen in communion with woman. This explains the paradoxical language in the above clause; "God created him... he created them." As the band the Who once said; "in life 1and 1 don't make 2, 1 and 1 makes 1." Moreover, this idea of communion seems to reflect larger logic of the passage. Why else would God describe the divine experience in terms of "us", and then subsequently follow with these words; "it is not good for man to be alone"? So the full picture of humanity (as well as divinity) is expressed in a paradox. Why? Because the fullness of humanity is not expressed in merely a "him alone", but also a "them" as well. And furthermore, when this living paradox is expressed in the form of a sexual union, it winds up not only being fruitful in the biological sense, but it quite literally becomes embodied in the face of the child. For in the face of the child the man and woman really are one.            

12. "... And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing... So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable partner was found."

Insight #12: Man is from the beginning a scientist and a biologist, for not only does he seek to harness and understand nature, but he also seeks to name it, not merely for amusement sake, but presumably based on some particular insight about it    

The door of anachronism swings both ways. It may be anachronistic to say that Adam was the first biologist, but if that is true, then it's equally silly to call Karl Linnaeus the first one to name and classify animals. In any case, there is a natural kind of "scientific" disposition in man right from the get go, at least as far as the science of categorizing and naming the animals. Yet the larger anthropological point is not merely that this classification continues to "happen", but rather that there is a basis for it happening. Indeed, according to Genesis, it is man's job to be both governor and steward of creation. And the sign of that "governorship" can be seen in his simple power to name and describe things. There is a reason animals can't enforce animal rights, while humans can. Our unique awareness of the mistreatment of animals is derived from the fact that we are ontologically superior to animals. If we were genuinely equal to other animals we could simply destroy them without impunity- as they do to one another. There is a worthy debate to be had about where that line should be drawn, but even in that case, Genesis strikes a valuable balance, avoiding the two possible extremes (e.g. animals are equivalent to humans versus animals exist purely for the slaughter).

13. "Now the serpent was more subtle than any of the other wild animals the lord God had made. He said to the woman; "'Did God really say that you must not eat of any of the trees in the garden?"

Insight #13: Genesis offers the most satisfying and practical explanation for why we are divided even within ourselves 

Though this verse appears at the beginning of chapter 3 in Genesis, it is pertinent to this list. for it offers a fascinating insight into the apparent psychological and spiritual schizophrenia from which every human suffers. The story of the Fall not only provides an explanation for our inner conflict, but also seeks to warn humanity about two equally horrible (logical) abysses. The first logical abyss involves atheistic nihilism. The second logical abyss involves a view God that would impute to Him malicious intent. Something is wrong with the world, and even the most hardened atheist will rarely deny it. Yet there can't be something wrong, unless there's something that is ultimately Right. And the mystical tight wire upon which this passage teeters (coupled with Catholic interpretation) is the only one I've ever heard that preserves the aforementioned original "goodness", while simultaneously offering a satisfactory explanation for the evil that does exist. Evil is not a pre-existent material (like a god), as Genesis suggests, but rather the free decision to act against one's nature (which is synonymous with God's will). This conclusion proves not only logically consistent (though some may understandably dwell on certain confounding details therein), but also a workable hypothesis from a practical standpoint (i.e. from the perspective personal improvement). In any case, every true insight is like a riddle solved, or even a lot like a punchline being delivered that is both witty, surprising, and right on the mark.        


Sunday, July 24, 2016

What's Missing from Modern Education... in Two Commercials

Just recently I attended a seminar at Notre Dame on the relationship between science and religion. It was spectacular. I had the opportunity to listen to several preeminent scientists, as well as some incredible theologians, all of whom helped elevate my understanding surrounding both subjects. I took notes like a starving man scarfs down a meal. It was great to be back in the classroom as a student again, especially a student like myself who loves theology and philosophy. Education is wasted on the young, I tell you! OK, maybe it's more accurate to say that it was, to some degree, wasted on me.

While I am mature enough to appreciate this now, when I was in high school, I was not. Perhaps it is the nature of education today, or maybe it was my lack of maturity, but I believe that when I was in my teens my time would have been better served learning a trade. The truth is that while I enjoy transmitting important information in my capacity as a teacher, I feel- in a sense- an absence, especially as it relates to my capacity to create and fix things as a man.

Man is, by his nature, both a creator and a redeemer (simply consider the nature of the majority of the jobs out there), for he is made in the image and likeness of God. And while I am not a fan of the cynical (and simplistic) adage that states; "if you can't do… teach",  I do sometimes feel that there is a lot to be said for a saying like this in a world that is as abstracted as ours. Unfortunately, for the past several generations we have created a kind of one track system of education, suited primarily to an office-cubicle kind of world. Consequently, it is not only me who feels this longing for a more "physical" brand of education, but many of my students as well.

My students often complain of what they like to call this "race to nowhere" education, wherein they are made to jump through any number of hoops in order to satisfy the latest demands of college administrators. While some of this problem can be solved by a more purposeful and focused education- wherein teachers and administrators grasp the deeper motive for education, and where subject matter in one class works in harmony and dovetails with other subjects (as opposed to existing in hermitically separate containers), there is something more at issue here.

What I am getting at is more than just the importance of kids playing a sport, or involving themselves in some sort of extracurricular activities. All of this is essential, but certainly not off the radar as far as educators are concerned. The larger point here is about the kind of education imparted by St. Joseph, a master carpenter, who happened to teach our Lord how to employ his holy and venerable hands in the art of creating and redeeming.

This is not a criticism of those who do good work in the field of education today; rather it is an encouragement for our culture to return to the noble and necessary work of learning a trade, or rather to return to the "carpenter's bench" once again. Consider St. Paul, for example, who studied the Law as a Pharisee, but who also learned a important trade (he was a tentmaker).

The following commercials to a large extent reveal what's is wrong with our mentality today, celebrating cleverness and technological superiority over craftsmanship. These commercials exist for the general purpose of making light of our ancestors and their retrograde mentality, but what they reveal, in my opinion, is something quite to the contrary:

The ironic name given to this "backward" family are the "Settlers". Obviously it is meant to be a double entendre, and the humor is well taken, but there is also a reverse humor, and I wonder if the makers of this commercial actually see it. We as a society have also become "settlers", but in an entirely different sense. So great is our obsession with technology that we actually have the nerve to mock people that are in reality better fit for long term survival in this world than ourselves.

In truth, we have built our various DirecTVs on the back of craftsmanship and innovation of our ancestors, who all too often worked their fingers to the bone to create a world stable enough for the leisure that we assume is our right today. We live in technological castles in the air, while they chose to build their lives on the rock of things fashioned from the earth. In any other age of the world- these so called backward "Settlers" would not only have been the ones who survived, but also those who serve as the backbone of society. By contrast, the "superior" family next door would in all likelihood have wound up becoming some sort of Darwinian casualty.

In the following GE commercial, similar humor is employed (i.e. prior generations can't seem to appreciate the technological savvy of the current generation). However, by the end of the commercial, as you will see, one is left wondering whether this kind of physical impotency is really a good thing after all:

It is possible that these commercials are attempting to make light of both world views, and truth be told, that is my take away- even if it is not intended by the company. However, in terms of real world application, it is hard not to come away from these ads thinking that we have lost something along the way far more than essential our "boiled clothes" or our "grandpappy's hammer". Indeed, creatures made from the soil of the earth after all, and the more we neglect that aspect of ourselves, the more we imperil future generations by placing undue focus on only one aspect of our being.

Do you genuinely believe that the young man in the above commercial would survive in a world of even slightly harsher conditions? Obviously, we need all sorts of people to run the world today, but right now with all of the "tablet toddlers" and "computer kids" out there, could anyone possibly argue that what the world needs now is a greater proliferation of screens with eyes glued to them?

And so it may be that the kings and queens of the future world are the plumber and the tentmaker, the carpenter and the cloth merchant. For if we need the above technology at all (and I believe we will), it will certainly not be for the purpose of useless entertainment, but rather for the kind of technological advances that allow us transmit the necessary means and methods of survival across the face of the earth, much like the monks' were able to do during the Dark Ages of Europe.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Millennials and Micro-Agressions: Why Our "Victim Culture" Needs the Sacrament of Confession More Than Ever

In adolescence we often believe (at least subconsciously) that all the good that has come to us is there on account of our own worthiness, while all the bad things are the result of the failings of those who reared us. The first day of spiritual adulthood truly begins when one realizes, not so much that everyone in the world is innocent, but rather that while we were spending our time assessing the faults of others, we ourselves were accruing a sizable debt.

In the past (or so it seemed), people tended to grow out of this behavior relatively quickly, after all, who would really have the time or patience for this kind of self-pitying narcissism? Today, unfortunately, this "victim culture" is somehow thriving and has much more of a market (as well as an audience).

Somewhere along the line we have taught this generation how to confess everyone else's sins, but have forgotten the most important lesson (viz. how to confess their own). We have practically given them trophies for existing, while simultaneously teaching them to despise the ones who have given it to them. This modern day Pharisee has no problem dismissing virtues that have been embraced for the past three thousands years, while elevating to the level of unchanging dogma terms that were invented in the previous month.

Practically speaking, this has become a total nightmare for every day communication. For who knows where and when all of these verbal land mines will be detonated. Indeed, what was once thought to be a pleasantry, has inexplicably become an insult. What was once thought to be an act of chivalry is now an act of sexual aggression. And what was once thought to be a simple attempt at humor, has now become grounds for firing. This is not to say that there are no examples out there of behavior that is worthy of condemnation, however, the following video should make it quite clear just how far we've taken this "art" of being offended by everything:

One has always been able to find people in society who will say just about anything in front of a camera, but what makes our times particularly unique is that the people that are speaking in this video (and the following one) are quite sober and reasonable in their assessment of these questions.

Towards a Solution

The question is what has inspired this self-centered obsession with how others have failed us? Let us first consider Jesus' rather ironic saying about the danger of judging others; "You hypocrite, first take the beam out of your own eye, then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from the eye of your brother" (Matthew 7:5).

Here Jesus is describing something that is a physical impossibility, namely the reality of an entire plank/log of wood being lodged into the eye of a human being. The purpose of this hyperbole is to make a point about how hypocrisy distorts and disfigures our perception of the world around us.

In other words, when we enthusiastically set ourselves up as the supreme judge of the goodness of others, we are so comically off base that we are worthy of a kind of satirical mockery (and so Jesus in essence does just that). At any rate, if we had even an ounce of humility we might see just how merciless and disproportionate our judgments are under these circumstances (an idea that is embodied in this saying).

Yet the point here is less about what our neighbor did or didn't do, and more about our own failure to recognize what needs correcting in ourselves. By neglecting this essential discipline, the faults of others become significantly (and mysteriously) magnified. As we become more innocent in our own eyes, others become increasingly guilty. It's magic!

In the meantime, we are so preoccupied with our campaign of perfectibility, that we progressively find ourselves incapable of even listening to such "offensive" personages, fearing that even the sound of their voice might taint us. Consequently, not only are we offended by most everything, but we go about looking for further opportunities of being offended, like some child in the first grade (or Pharisee) taking pleasure in tattling. Indeed, these hypocrites love the sin, but hate the sinner.

However, what Jesus is saying here is not merely that personal hypocrisy is a bad thing, but rather even more importantly, that self-recrimination is something which is good and necessary. To put it another way, if we do ponder our faults and failings before launching into an attack on others, we may well see their faults in the proper proportion (faults that are quite frequently more forgivable than we first thought), an initiative that might genuinely lead to the resolution of the problem as opposed to a shouting match.

There is a tremendous difference between pointing out failings and trying to resolve them. In this case, Jesus isn't simply looking for his followers to have a proportionate response to the wrongs committed by others, but an attitude of remedying the situation. To remove a splinter from someone takes tremendous caution and care (I think of a mother trying to remove a tiny splinter with tweezers), not the reckless bluster that we often bring to these occasions.

For these reasons (and many more), the Sacrament of Penance is needed more than ever today. Where else in our society is this form of self-accusation encouraged? Where else do we encourage individuals as a practice to critique themselves? To many individuals today, such criticism amounts to masochism, or a kind of self-harm, but to the one who practices it in reasonable measure, it is the key to seeing everything, including ourselves, in the proper light.

According to Scripture, before we can take an account of anyone else's transgressions, we must take a full accounting of our own. And if after we're done judging ourselves with sufficient care and circumspection we still have the strength to pick up stones and hurl them at others, then we should proceed with utmost caution, knowing that we too must be forgiven for our failings.

However, if (on the other hand) you find yourself a little less ferocious and little more humble after examining your conscience, you may want to use the rest of your strength to figure out how to heal a particular situation as opposed to exacerbating it.

By pointing the finger at ourselves before blaming others, and by marshaling our efforts towards a regimen of self-improvement, we  develop a healthy sense of conscience. This is not to be confused with a destructive negativity which seeks to turn everything into a sin, as our "victim culture" is wont to do, but rather to turn every moment into an opportunity to be the best version of ourselves.

As an adult, there are far fewer opportunities for genuine self-critique (in childhood it is built into the natural framework of things), but by developing a gentle spirit of self-examination, we can learn to hold ourselves to account and work towards improvement. In confession we get to observe the plank in our own eye, because we actually stand outside of ourselves and see our lives "flashing before our eyes". We take, as it were, a God's eye view. It is a judgment day of sorts, but on the bright side, when we take the initiative to call ourselves out first, we know that the story will end in our favor.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Best Scriptural Evidence for Saintly Intercession That You've Probably Never Heard

On a purely practical level, the intercession of the saints makes perfect sense to me. Yes, God is everything to me, but he's not the only thing. In other words, I cannot navigate life without the assistance of God's creatures (both living and dead). Whether it is the immediate help of a friend whom I ask for assistance, an ancestor who assisted in my physical existence, or better still, some historical figure whom I've never met before, but who is nevertheless responsible for much of the wisdom and prosperity that I enjoy in my culture today. In this sense, then, man does not live by God alone.

If this weren't really the case, then why would we even begin to thank anyone for anything? Indeed, where there's a will, and some good received, then gratitude should ensue. It brings to mind that popular joke about the man drowning, who refuses various forms of help/intercession under the pretext that "God will save him." He eventually drowns, and subsequently finds himself standing before God, only to discover that God had employed those aforementioned individuals as agents of His saving help. We are not mere puppets of God, we are, by His generosity, partners and ambassadors of his plan for salvation.

And that all makes perfect sense to me on a practical level. But looking for clear Biblical evidence that human beings can come to our assistance post-mortem, always poses a bit of a challenge for any number of reasons. Thus, when I heard last Thursday's Mass readings I had to take a double take. I've heard numerous individuals invoke the book of Revelation (e.g. Rev. 5:8 and 8:3-4) as a defense of the doctrine of intercession, but I always found the argument somewhat unconvincing- if only because divine activity is so other-wordly and symbolic (how could it be anything else). And this is part of the difficulty in making the case. How do we make something so other-worldly, a little bit more "earthy"… if only for a moment?

Enter the prophet Elisha and last week's reading:

"Then Elisha, filled with the two-fold portion of his (Elijah's) spirit, wrought many marvels by his mere word. During his lifetime he feared no one, nor was any man able to intimidate his will. Nothing was beyond his power; beneath him flesh was brought back into life. In life he performed wonders, and after death marvelous deeds."  Sirach 48:12-14 

Had I misread the passage? I read it again. No, that's precisely what it said "after death he performed miracles." The critique I had always heard about the intercession of the saints seemed refuted by this simple statement. Whenever I had previously attempted to draw the analogy of human and divine behavior, I was often reminded by those attempting to refute this that the rules of this life don't apply on the other side of the curtain. In this life, I was told, you are allowed to accomplish Godly works for the sake of the kingdom, but after death, not so much. And yet, here was a verse, one that I do not remember ever having read, before suggesting something suspiciously like a saint interceding after his physical death. How much more direct do we need it to be? I'll state it again; "After death he performed marvelous deeds".

This is not to suggest that Elisha is in some kind of competition with God. Quite the contrary, the point is death does not change our ability to love God and serve our neighbor. As a matter of fact, one might argue that our close proximity to God in the next life might only serve to bolster our efforts in this respect.

All the same, one may point out that Sirach is part of the Septuagint, and not accepted as part of the Protestant canon. And indeed, if there were no related verses to support my claim, I would agree that my argument would seem to be on shaky ground. However, what is most compelling to me about this passage is not simply what it says, but rather that it further corroborates and clarifies another passage which is in every Christian Bible:

"Elisha died and they buried him. Now the bands of Moabites would invade the land in the spring of that year. As they were burying a man, behold, they saw a marauding band; and they cast him into the grave of Elisha. And when the man touched the bones of Elisha he revived and stood up on his feet."     Kings 13:20-21

Hence, not only was Elisha capable of performing miracles in this life, but apparently, as both passages suggest, he "performed marvelous deeds" even after death. What marvelous deeds you may ask? See the aforementioned passage. In one fell swoop these corresponding texts not only point to the possibility of holy figures effecting miracles after death, but something still more shocking, that healing exists quite literally within their very bones.

The healing handkerchief of St. Paul  -Acts 19:12

From the Catholic perspective, these relics are not seen as an amulet, but rather derive their potency from the same Source they always did. Whether in life or death, the prophet's power comes from their unshakable union with God. Still, one common counter argument to this claim goes something like this; "prophets may have been necessary before Christ, but now that Christ has come and died once for all, there is no longer a need for them." Yet Christ did not come to abolish saints and prophets, rather he came- as the following prophets suggest- to share his intercessory power with all of his people, not just a select few:

"And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of Moses, answered and said; 'My lord Moses, forbid them!' And Moses said unto him. Enviest thou for my sake? Would God that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!"
                                                                                                          Numbers 11:28-29

"And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Yours sons and daughters will prophesy. Your old men will dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions"
                                                                                                       Joel 2:28

Were not these very words of Hebrew Scriptures fulfilled at Pentecost… and afterwards?