Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Art is Inherently Public

Being someone who was very involved with the arts as a teen (music primarily, but photography as well), I remain very interested in art (in the summer after my freshman year I actually switched my college major to photography but switched again to biology before the semester started) and I like to ponder how the big questions of life intersect with the world of the arts. Art and philosophy seem to have a certain natural affinity with each other. (Aesthetics is considered a branch of philosophy.)

Here is a statement that I would claim is true about any form of art, if it is truly to serve as art: art is inherently public.

This statement probably either strikes you as obvious, or, you wonder what I mean.

Simply, I mean that art is created for the sake of being seen (or heard) by someone. The finished creation exists 'for' a public other--someone other than the artist himself.

Who has heard of a composer who writes music never intending any of it to be heard only so that he can play it to himself in his own mind? I am referring in this post to a person who has a vocation to be an artist, who understands art to be his (or her) primary work in life. Sure, an amateur may create something as a hobby or simply for his own enjoyment never intending it to be seen by others. But I am speaking here about the artist who works as a professional. Or, at least, someone who has genuine gifts of artistic talent which he develops seriously whether or not it becomes his main source of income.

My reason for stating that art is inherently public and what I mean by this is primarily to get to this: there are significant consequences for the process of artistic creativity that follow upon the fact that it is in the nature of art to be created for others--for a public to see/hear.

What are these consequences? There are probably several, but I would like to try to shed some light on at least one. The process of creating a work of art is both highly personal (in a way very particular to the individual artist), and, generous. Generous meaning selfless, humble before and deliberately mindful of the multifarious realities of the artist's (and his intended audience's) own culture, time, and place. Both he and his audience approach any work of art with a background. The artist and his society have a history with artworks of the past and communicate within a certain culturally influenced context of signs and symbols. There is a base of literary, historical, and traditional influences that significantly form the mental and spiritual world of the communities of which the artist is a part. If his art is to have enduring power and meaning for anyone other than himself, the artist must keep in mind this background as he creates. He must care about the world of his audience. In this sense, the vocation of a good artist, while remaining very personal, requires a certain ability to step outside of self and take upon himself the eyes of his "people," whomever they may be.

Why do I write about this? Because I think that the art world, at least that of Western societies, has over the course of the last century or so lost sight of this. Artists, it seems, are encouraged (or, perhaps they do this on their own) to create art in a way that cares only for the self. Some art, at least, seems to have lost any regard for the audience. Some art seems to be an exercise in solipsism--totally and exclusively wrapped up in the interior world of the artist and thus highly self-indulgent. Art that is made in this solipsistic mode does not make the effort of being interested in the cultural context of the viewing public. It is analogous to the artist talking to himself in a mirror in his own unique language; there is an onlooker to the side (the audience), but the artist doesn't care for he is interested in talking only to himself. If others want to look on, fine, but he is not concerned for whether they gain anything by it. An artist with real talent who makes this mistake does great injustice to his calling as an artist.

Some art (music as well as the visual arts, theater and dance) made in the Western world of the last century or so has this unfortunate quality of being essentially an exercise in solipsism--of the artist interacting solely with himself. When this happens, I would claim, genuine art is not being made. Because, as I said above, I don't think art is truly art, and cannot serve the inherently public role of art, if it is not made with the common inner world of some public--of some community beyond the artist himself--in mind. The genius of a great artist is displayed, in part, in how he can creatively and generously weave the interior world of the public 'for whom' he creates together with his own unique inner world. In so doing, he can make art that communicates something meaningful to the public. He may thus produce something which endures, which might be accessible to the minds and souls not only of the people of his era, but for generations to come.

This is harder than simply "being true to oneself" (a euphemism for self-indulgence). Art is supposed to communicate something meaningful to other people. To do this, you have to have something in the medium of communication that the audience can understand on some level. In other words, in the history of art (until recent times, anyways), art has never been understood primarily as a means of self-therapy for the artist. It may be this secondarily--but not primarily.

I have hope that there is positive development on this front. But the development is slow.

I conclude with a quote from the 19th century English artist (and socialist!), William Morris, which captures the spirit of what I am getting at:

I do not believe in the possibility of keeping art vigorously alive by the action, however energetic, of a few groups of specially gifted men and their small circle of admirers amidst a general public incapable of understanding and enjoying their work. I hold firmly to the opinion that all worthy schools of art must be in the future, as they have been in the past, the outcome of the aspirations of the people towards the beauty and true pleasure of life.
[as quoted in, "When art Was by and for the people," by John Robson, 6/20/09, mercatornet.com]

[Thank you, Rachel! Our recent conversation inspired this post.]

Song of Songs, 5 [on spousal love]

[To see all of the earlier posts and this one gathered together in this my sporadic running commentary on the Song of Songs, look to the sidebar on the right under, "Labels," and click on Song of Songs.]

Chapter 1, vv 10-11

These two verses are couplets and are parallel to each other (they correspond in a parallel fashion; the first part of 10 to the first part of 11 and the second part of 10 to the second part of 11). The bridegroom is speaking. He notices the earrings and necklace on his beloved. But, he does not comment on their appearance; rather, he comments on the appearance of his bride's face and neck. The ornaments are subservient to what matters here--the physical appearance of his bride. It seems somewhat like the role of a proper frame around a great work of art. A well-chosen frame helps to present and enhance the artwork, but the beauty of the art does not come from the frame but from the painting itself. The frame merely assists in drawing the onlooker to the splendor of the artwork itself.

The bridegroom recognizing the beauty of his bride seems to be a public thing. In verse 11, the fact that he will have golden earrings and silver beads (for a necklace) made for her adds an exclamation point that he not only sees her as beautiful but sees her possessing a beauty that should be recognized by others. He not only wants to see her beauty but wants others to notice her beauty as well. Having his own party make ornaments for her acknowledges this; it is like framing a beautiful work of art for more proper recognition.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Mind of Man and the Mind of God--A Mysterious Harmony

The topic of how religious people view the interplay between human reason and the mind of God is very important. The way in which the Catholic tradition understands this is one of those things that make me especially grateful to be Catholic. It helps us to steer clear of the two extremes that are rationalism (putting all the weight upon human reason) and fideism (putting all the weight upon what comes to us by faith).

Faith and Reason Together. The most enduring and robust strands of Catholic theology have long grasped a vision of the human person which realizes that the sort of knowledge that comes to us by faith (i.e. by a supernatural self-communication of God to man) should always be received in the context of a human mind fully alive in every way--whose natural powers of reason are always striving to fire on all cylinders.

Thus, we should have no fear or hesitation of simultaneously and vigorously engaging a most devout and pious faith together with the most rigorous and probing rational thought processes! The book of nature and the book of Sacred Scripture come from the same divine source. Our faith, necessarily, brings our minds beyond where our reason alone could go. But, in so doing faith never violates our reason; indeed, faith, in turn, gives our reason more nourishment to feed upon as it turns back to the book of nature enriched with the truths of faith.

Reason by Itself Knows Traces of God in the World. After briefly mentioning faith and reason together, I would now like to narrow my focus just to natural human reason, exploring how natural reason on its own, considered apart from faith, is still involved with God (and this is so regardless of whether a particular person is aware that God is real).

The natural operation of human reason itself has a connection with the knowledge God has of Himself within the Trinity.

If I understand this properly, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, God knows us (in the deepest, most thorough sense of the Creator knowing his creatures) within the same act of knowledge that is His own knowledge of Himself. In other words, as His creatures, God's knowledge of us is contained inside His own self-Knowledge. (Important note: this does not in any way mean that human creatures are a part of God's own nature, which would blur the clear distinction between God and His creation; it has more to do with the fact that God's knowledge of His creation does not add anything new to the knowledge He had of Himself before creation)

Now, what about human nature and our own ability to reason aside from faith? The idea (still using St. Thomas) of 'Image' is very important here. We are "images" of God (Gen 1:26). More specifically, we are images of The Image--who is Jesus Christ, the Son, the Word, the one Perfect Image of the Father. Now this Perfect Image which is God the Son is also the Truth and the Word--the Word which is the Father's perfect self knowledge, "spoken" to Himself.

What impact does this have upon our own natural reason? Because we are in our very nature images of this one Perfect Image of the Father, we, in our own human acts of knowing the created world, share (participate) in the very self-understanding of God within Himself. To gain authentic knowledge--to grow in wisdom and understanding of the world and of ourselves--is, by the very activity of our minds, to come more deeply into contact with the interior "thought" of God Himself. (Note: the new knowledge of God we gain by the gift of faith, opened to us at Baptism, is another thing beyond this and is not attainable by our reason alone; I am trying now to remain on the natural plane that all mankind shares regardless of faith.)

This train of thought leads us to see (though dimly) that knowledge and love--in God--are united. To know is to love and to love is to know, at least from the divine perspective. In the beatific vision knowledge and love will be one in the awesome splendor of each individual person's direct encounter with the Triune God. (The role of grace in our earthly life and how the infused virtues transform and elevate natural reason with a new capacity is another important aspect of all this which I won't try to go into here.)

I find this mysterious interplay between the mind of God and the minds of men fascinating. Without losing sight of the clear demarcation between God and man, creature and creator, it means that exercising the human mind upon the created realm is already to possess an awesome dignity--the dignity of being an image of God in the very operation of our minds as we learn and grow in our understanding of reality. For indeed, even as we know things independently as unique, free, self-possessed thinkers, ultimately it is also the case that we know all that we know in Him (in whom and through whom all things were made; Jn 1:1-5)! How's this for anthropological awesomeness!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Horse and Rider Together as One

This is for anyone who likes horses and is a follow-up (of sorts) to yesterday's post on the Song of Songs. . .

Here is a link to an impressive video: Stacy Westfall (now a professional horse trainer), in 2006, riding a Quarter Horse mare named Roxy in a competition ride while bareback AND bridleless.
(Video link here)
[note: the video cannot be embedded; it is a Windows Media File]

As someone who rode horses when I was younger (my little sister still is a horse person--she has three of them), what is most impressive is that Stacy is riding not only bareback (which isn't that big of a deal)--but without a bridle. She has nothing in her hands to control the horse's head. The technical sort of pattern riding she does in the video without a bridle is very impressive. It takes years for a horse and rider to get really good at this sort of riding with a saddle and bridle. But bareback and bridleless both? Wow.

This video is sort-of a follow-up on that portion of yesterday's Song of Songs post (chapter 1, v 9) that has to do with an analogy to a chariot horse because it provides a good example of an excellent horse and rider that have become one. They work as a single unit. This is the sort of bond that is possible between a horse and a human person that I alluded to in my remarks on Scripture.

update: Below is a You Tube video of Turkish mounted riders shooting bows and arrows (and some sort of spears at the end). Horsemanship came from the East and spread from there to Western Europe. Traditions of horsemanship in the East (such as Turkey, Tibet, Mongolia) have very ancient roots.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Song of Songs, 4 [on spousal love]

[To see all of the earlier posts and this one gathered together in this my sporadic running commentary on the Song of Songs, look to the sidebar on the right under, "Labels," and click on Song of Songs.]

Chapter 1, v 8

The maiden may gain an understanding of her bridegroom's ways by being alert for the "tracks" of those whom he looks after. Or, another way, she may look for traces of the effects of his work in the world. These need not be great in the world's eyes. Simply, how do her groom's activities impact (whether in ways large or small) the lives of those on behalf of whom he works? Further, if she wants to get a variety of perspectives as to what sort of person he is, she might be wise to spend some time alongside those companions in his life who are closest to him.

v 9

I grew up with horses. They are excellent creatures! Mares (female horses) are not all of the same temperament. A mare who was destined to the honor of pulling the Pharaoh's chariot would surely have been hand picked as the very best among those suited by disposition for this special role. Such a horse could not be timid, "flighty" (easily scared), or overly delicate and prone to injury. A chariot horse (in a horse-like way) would have to be strong; sturdy; fearless (to forge ahead in spite of the din of war all around her); totally trusting of her driver's signals yet also possessed of tremendous and quick instincts of her own about where dangers lay on the field of battle and how to avoid them without flipping the chariot over; she would need to be fast; of extraordinary stamina and determination (to hold to a line through the battlefield and keep charging through it no matter what). In other words, superb chariot horses were very special, extraordinary creatures--and greatly prized. Certainly they were highly trained to work as a single unit in harmony with their particular drivers. And, in keeping with ancient cultures for which the horse was an integral part, it would always be best if the mare were all the above and also beautiful and glorious to behold! There truly is something very special about a beautiful horse. Horses seem to have a nobility and grace--a combination of natural majesty together with refined power--that exceeds any other creature (beyond the world of persons) on earth.

And so when the bridegroom compares his beloved to a mare of Pharaoh's chariots, this is something quite extraordinary. For the Pharaoh's mares, for sure, would have been the most superlative in power, instinct, toughness, speed, docility to the driver's touch, and fearlessness, as well as the most breathtakingly beautiful of all their noble equine sisters! Such literary comparisons perhaps pass through our minds as quaint or of little consequence. But this would not have been so for a reader belonging to an ancient Eastern culture that depended on horses in battle. Good horses were vital to the survival of their society.

Indeed, I suggest that perhaps it would have been true that in the ancient east, in a horse culture, the most flattering animal that could be used out of all the creatures of the earth as an analogy for an extraordinary and beautiful woman would be the horse. Ancient horse cultures were serious about their horses!

Frenetic, Distractible, Unfocused Minds

This is a big problem: (what seems to me, anyhow,) the growing lack of ability of young people to maintain focused attention upon one item for a prolonged span of time.

Not everyone has the same intellectual potential. But, among those who are at least average or above average in intellectual gifts, a very important part of becoming adult and a good citizen of our democratic society is developing the virtue of well-reasoned argumentation. This requires first the mental facility to engage a subject in a deep, significant way, to scrutinize it in one's mind against what one already knows, adding in the wisdom of experience and common sense, and thus to come to a reasonable conclusion about something which can then be articulated and defended competently in dialogue with others. This virtue of sound thinking and the effective communication of one's ideas to others is vital for a healthy democratic society. Without it, we cannot have real arguments. And arguments--authentic arguments (not the same as the alternating closed-minded monologues and empty personal attacks that often falsely pass for argumentation)--are crucial. If a democratic society cannot effectively engage itself in the sharpening of mind against mind that takes place with genuine argumentation, the replacement may eventually be some form of totalitarianism.

Witness in evidence of this negative trend: the mass media. Now, the major TV news shows have never been remarkable for their depth. However, it seems to me that in recent years this has been getting worse. One struggles in vain to gain significant context from the frenzied, here-there-everywhere "reports" as they jump around, presenting the viewer with a jumble of visual images along with word phrases that often do not contain complete sentences. The style of media reporting seems to increasingly assume that viewers do not want to think about anything, they just want a smattering of things thrown out to occupy the mind for a brief time. This passes for taking in the news.

What has brought us this decline in clear thinking? Many things, I'm sure. But, certainly one significant factor is the way we use the electronic communications media and how this impacts our habits of mind. Young persons, especially (say, under 30 or so?), have spent a significant part of their formative years attuned to electronic media (internet, texting, etc.) that specialize in packaging information into tiny snippets. Seldom do they, say, read an entire book; more likely to scan headlines, exchange cryptic texts, or watch a one minute video on You Tube. Such habits mitigate against being a people of sound reasoning and argumentation.

Among the many goals that are critical to curtailing the negative cultural drift in America is to raise up our youth to be men and women who can think clearly--who can focus upon something with their minds in a sustained and serious way. How to do this? How to stem this surging tide of ever more unfocused, easily distracted, unfocused minds?

[The post at Inside Catholic, "Turning Conservatism Into a Grunt," got me to thinking along these lines]

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Song of Songs 3

I would like to return to my sporadic commentary on the Song of Songs. For my earlier posts see the first here and the second here.

Chapter 1, v 7

The maiden wants to know where her bridegroom is active about his work--where is the place where he is engaged in the world. Where is the place where he is responsible to watch over others--where is it that he has a vocation to guard, protect, and provide for others? For this, this is the place she wants to be also. The maiden senses that she is somehow fated to be joined with the destiny of the work of her groom--she is to be one with not only him, but with his vocation and his place of active engagement in the world. Until she is finally together with him and his field of action in the world, she feels a little bit lost, wandering, with no definite place to belong. Wherever he leads his 'flock' is where she wants to be; this is where she is no longer a vagabond.

[Please note these are simply my reflections based upon Sacred Scripture, following where it seems to lead; I make no claim to anything like a definitive exposition. A highly poetic and literary book of the Bible such as this especially lends itself to multiple interpretations.]

Friday, June 19, 2009

Do Catholics Commit Idol Worship?

While having a pleasant evening last night with a friend and several of her acquaintances, I was reminded of an all-too-common belief among some Protestants: that Catholics (some of them, anyway), when they pray in front of statues or images, are practicing a form of idolatry.

I want to comment on this from the point of view of what it would actually require to really be able to conclude truthfully and honestly that another human being is engaging in idol worship. I'll start by laying out some basic facts that all people of reason and fair judgment should agree with.

Real idol worship (indeed, any worship, for that matter) is an act that is not primarily external but mainly internal to the one doing it. In other words, you cannot tell what is truly in a person's heart--whom (or what) they are worshiping--from outside observation alone. Worship is essentially determined by what comes from the center of a person's soul--from the heart. It does not essentially derive from one's physical gestures or surroundings.

Here is a corresponding observation: You cannot tell that a person regards something as an idol and is worshiping it simply by what physical objects are in front of him, nor, by his physical gestures. For example, some Christians have Sunrise services on Easter Sunday morning. Nothing wrong with this! Now, such a service may involve facing East, toward the rising sun, and engaging in gestures and words of worship. From external appearances only, this might appear similar to ancient pagan sun-worship. Would it be fair, then, for an observer to conclude, without speaking to the worshipers about what they intended in their hearts, that they were worshiping the rising sun? Of course not! Or, consider this. Some Christians like to have some sort of devotional space set up in their home--a place set aside to pray, read the Bible, and worship God. No problem! Now, this might include putting a Bible in a position of special prominence, perhaps on a special stand or pedestal, highlighted with a decorative cloth, and perhaps even a display of real or artificial flowers nearby. An observer might see the pious Christian kneeling in front of the Bible and praying, hands clasped, and conclude, "this person is worshiping the Bible" (as in, the physical book in front of her)--"she is making a physical book into an idol and worshiping it." Would such a conclusion be reasonable or fair, without asking the person what was in her heart as she prayed? No. Certainly not.

I simply would like to point out that the very same consideration should apply to Catholics. By the mere fact that a Catholic is praying, including kneeling, in front of a statue or a religious image, does not by any means prove that they are worshiping that statue or image. And to conclude that they are doing so, without bothering to ask, is tremendously uncharitable. I would even suggest, that to presume that the largest group of Christians in the whole world (more Christians are Catholic in the world than any other group) are idolaters, without knowing what is in their hearts when they pray in front of a statue or image, is incredibly contrary to the love and good will that we are called upon by Christ to have for fellow Christians. We are to love one another, and should presume the best of each other, not the worst.

Any preacher or Christian evangelist who makes any sort of blanket statement implying that people who pray in front of statues or images (i.e. Catholics) are idolaters, is in fact assuming the worst of his fellow Christians. He is presuming to read the hearts of such people, when in fact he does not know what is truly in their hearts at all.

I could go into a Buddhist temple and kneel silently near a statue of Buddha, and yet I could still pray an ardent prayer to Christ in my heart. It might look, from the outside, like idol worship. But, it would not be. Simply being in front of a Buddha would not make any difference to what the prayer in my heart truly was.

I might have a picture of a deceased loved one on my wall. If, on occasion, I were to kiss my fingers and touch the photo, would I thereby be worshiping the photo? Of course not. No fair person would suggest this. The gesture would represent affection for the person represented in the image, not for the image itself.

If I ask another Christian to pray for me for a specific intention, am I thereby making that person an idol? Of course not. If I am especially eager to ask a person who is especially close to Jesus--someone considered holy--to pray for me for a specific intention, would I be making that person an idol? Of course not. It is only natural to have a little more personal emotional investment in asking a person who is very prayerful and Christ-like to pray for you than someone who is less remarkable in this way.

Now, bring all the above to bear in the situation of a Catholic kneeling in prayer in front of a statue of a Saint, and let's say even kissing his fingers and then touching the statue (something I have personally done). First, as I do so, I am by no means worshiping the statue. In truth, any claim I am doing so is highly unjust, and frankly, silly. What am I doing? There is only one being I am worshiping--and that is God, in the persons of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Period. No one else is being worshiped. But what am I doing, then, with the statue? Well, I am simply asking another disciple of Christ--the particular Saint the statue represents--to pray on my behalf for particular intentions. Unless we believe that Christians cease to exist when they die, there is nothing odd about asking a deceased disciple of Christ to pray for me. They are still part of the body of Christ, alive in heaven, and still are able to pray on behalf of others just as people alive on earth can pray for others when asked. And, just as I might be more emotionally moved as I ask someone living whom I consider very holy to pray for me, so too, I am emotionally moved as I ask a brother or sister in heaven to pray for me. So, the gesture of kissing the statue is not worship of the statue. It is simply a very normal, human expression of a particular emotional and spiritual bond that I feel with a particular Saint, especially as I ask him or her to pray on my behalf. It is no more odd or shocking than hugging someone physically living here on earth as I ask him to pray something special for me. This is very human, very normal, and has nothing at all to do with idolatry. The Saint whose statue I kiss--knowing that the statue only symbolizes the person (like kissing a picture of my grandmother)--is not a fiction. This person is a real person, alive now in heaven. And, by the grace of God, I will see this person someday in eternity in the bliss of heaven as we worship our Savior together. I do not think our Lord will mind as I thank my brother for his prayers on my behalf. Isn't this mutual care and concern part of what it means to be brothers and sisters in Christ?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Simple Love: Alison Krauss

All right. I guess I'm on an Alison Krauss kick today.

Here is another beautiful song, "Simple Love." It's not explicitly religious. But, it's wonderful for how it brings out a simple truth we sense inside us that ought to be so about genuine human love. As the lyrics state, love (real love), is "always giving, never asking back."

It's also great because, I think, it shows the importance of parental love for their children--especially the love of a father for his daughter. The song is a tribute by Alison to her parents' love for her (and it highlights her father particularly). It's a simple song about the "simple" love of a Dad for his daughter. I love it. How powerful, and so important, is the love of parents for their children! It roots them in an inner security they will have all their lives.

Here is the video. It's a live performance at the 2007 CMA awards.

Here are the lyrics to the song. What a blessing for a father, to have your daughter sing like this one day about your love for her!

Little yellow house sittin' on a hill
That is where he lived
That is where he died
Every Sunday morning
Hear the weeping willows cry

Two children born
A beautiful wife
Four walls and livin's all he needed in life
Always giving, never asking back
I wish I had a simple love like that

I want a simple love like that
Always giving, never askin' back
For when I'm in my final hour lookin' back
I hope I had a simple love like that

My momma was his only little girl
If he'd had the money he'd have given her the world
Sittin' on the front porch together they would sing
Oh how I long to hear that harmony

I want a simple love like that
Always giving never asking back
When I'm in my final hour looking back
I hope I had a simple love like that

I want a simple love like that
Always giving never asking back
When I'm in my final hour looking back
I hope I had a simple love like that.

There is a Reason; Suffering can Highlight the Love of Christ

Here is a beautiful song written by Ron Block and sung by Alison Krauss: There is a Reason. Click the link for a live video performance. (Unfortunately, I can't embed it).

Take note of the lyrics (below) as you watch. It speaks to the mystery of why Jesus chose to die in the way He did, so full of suffering. He could have saved us with far less suffering, for He is the infinite God; any suffering by the God-man would hold infinite value. Why, then, suffer as much as He did? In part, at least, it was to reveal the sheer depth and limitlessness of His love--to draw us into His heart.

I've seen hard times and I've been told
There isn't any wonder that I fall
Why do we suffer, crossing off the years
There must be a reason for it all

I've trusted in You, Jesus, to save me from my sin
Heaven is the place I call my home
But I keep on getting caught up in this world I'm living in
And Your voice it sometimes fades before I know

Hurtin' brings my heart to You, crying with my need
Depending on Your love to carry me
The love that shed His blood for all the world to see
This must be the reason for it all

Hurtin' brings my heart to You, a fortress in the storm
When what I wrap my heart around is gone
I give my heart so easily to the ruler of this world
When the one who loves me most will give me all

In all the things that cause me pain You give me eyes to see
I do believe but help my unbelief
I've seen hard times and I've been told
There is a reason for it all

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Culpability and Intent in Relation to Medical Malpractice Lawsuits

"If you have taken the drug, wonder-dundersol, and then had a tear in your Achilles tendon, contact us! You may be eligible for payment!"

Have you seen any of the commercials in this genre? Some law firm announcing that there is a big lawsuit underway, trying to gather up all the plaintiffs they can to increase the pile of money they can squeeze out of a drug company.

Something very damaging to our society is happening. As a society, we no longer seem to assume good faith on behalf of our fellow Americans. For example, if a new drug ends up having a nasty side effect, a whole lot of people seem all-too-willing to assume that "somebody is to blame." Someone must have done something wrong; somebody must have wanted to cut corners; somebody was incompetent.

Well, maybe. But maybe not.

Producing a new drug is an extremely complex and difficult endeavor. Not many compaines in the entire world can do it consistently. There are many, many things that have to be done and many things that could go wrong. If a new drug ends up having a bad side effect that was not foreseen, it does not mean necessarily that somebody messed up. It just might be a result of the fact that developing drugs is really hard and the drugmakers cannot look into a crystal ball and predict how everything is going to go at every step along the way.

If someone wants to bring a lawsuit against a drugmaker, there should be genuine culpability involved for whatever went wrong. This has to involve intent on some level. If I am making a new drug, and doing everything meticulously as I should, not skipping any steps, doing all the testing carefully, there still could be negative side effects. The drug might be from a natural product, and this product might contain some things that have an unforeseen bad effect in some people that was not uncovered in the development and testing process. In such a situation, I would not be culpable (worthy of blame) for what was simply in the drug naturally, if I carefully followed all the expected procedures for developing and testing the new drug. You can't catch absolutely every possible negative thing all of the time.

If I were a drugmaker, and I was incompetent in some way, or deliberately cut some things short, or did not test properly, etc., then, I might be culpable for not finding out about a negative effect of the drug.

I wonder if anyone who suffers from a bad effect of a new drug cares nowadays about the difference between the above two situations? In the first, even though the drug had a negative effect, the drug maker would not be to blame--he did everything right and tried his very best to produce a good, safe product. However, in the second case, the drug maker did not do everything right. In this case the drug maker would be culpable (at least partly) for the negative effect. This is because somewhere along the way there was an intention--a deliberate decision made with a certain end in mind--to do something (or not do something) that the drug maker knew was not as it should be, yet he did it (or omitted it) anyway.

Same result: a drug with negative effects. But, different culpabilties. In one case the drug maker would be culpable; in the other, not. The difference is in the intention of the drug maker.

We are going to sue ourselves into financial and social ruin if we cannot rediscover this basic difference and accept that it matters.

This applies not only to drugs, but any situation where there has been a negative medical outcome. Was someone truly to blame? If not, then we sould not be suing.

Sometimes, bad things happen and we cannot do anything about it. And, there is not always someone to blame. We need to stop acting as though we have some right to pin blame on somebody simply because we are suffering. We need to grow up, and stop acting as though we are the center of the universe. We need to assume that our fellow human beings have the best intentions in what they do unless we have good reason (and not merely because we want to blame somebody) to conclude otherwise.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Is media annoyance at Letterman's sexual jokes targetting a young girl for real?

Probably just about everyone has heard of David Letterman's pathetic and perverse jokes aimed at Governor Sarah Palin's 14 year old daughter, Willow.

The Washington Post published on Sunday a laudable article by columnist Kathleen Parker, "Why Dave's Not Funny," critical of Letterman. Ms. Parker remarked, "children deserve protection from adults who have lost sight of their responsibility to be wardens of the innocent." I agree.

However, I wonder how committed Ms. Parker and other mainstream press people truly are to the admirable notion of bringing negative attention to anyone who would contribute to a social climate increasingly tolerant of using young girls as sexual playthings?

Why do I wonder this? I don't hear any criticism in the major media of the abortion industry for covering up the sexual abuse of young girls by adult men. Silence. Where is their concern for young girls when it would require saying something negative about abortion clinics?

I sent an email to Ms. Parker at the Post:
Thank you for your Sunday article critical of David Letterman. His sexual "jokes" about a 14 year old girl were beneath what any civilized adult should tolerate.

I would like to encourage you to follow-up on this admirable instinct to stand up against anything suggestive of the sexual abuse of minor girls by adult men. Perhaps you might do a feature article on how abortion clinics around the country routinely ignore--even aid--the statutory rape of young girls (who come for abortions to cover-up the ongoing abuse) by never reporting such abuse to the proper authorities even when they have obvious evidence that this is taking place. This is a very real thing that continues to go unnoticed by the major media. Hopefully, in your genuine concern for the abuse of minor girls, you will consider taking on this subject. It would be a great follow-up to the Letterman article. I wonder if he donates to Planned Parenthood?
I won't be holding my breath to see if this happens. It's OK for the Washington Post to chastise a comedian. But the major media loves abortion. They will not criticize it, even if it means turning a blind eye to the ongoing cover-up by abortion clinics all over this country of the sexual abuse of young girls by adult men who prey on them and take them for abortions to destroy the evidence when they become pregnant.

And so this is why I wonder. Is this apparent concern by the Washington Post that young girls not be the targets of sexual abuse for real?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Hilary Hahn & Jennifer Higdon on the Composition Process

OK, I guess this is Hilary Hahn night for me! One can gain greater insight, I think, into the great potential and the universal dignity and nobility of the human person through what highly gifted artists reveal in their artistry.

Here is what I think is a very interesting clip of Hilary speaking with composer Jennifer Higdon. Jennifer wrote a violin concerto specifically for Hilary which she debuted with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in February, 2009. In this interview Hilary and Jennifer speak about the creative process of composing for a specific musician. You get a few glimpses of some of the ways Jennifer got ideas and inspiration for the piece. A few themes that I picked up:

1) The creative process is inherently personal--both for the composer and the musician
2) The new composition, while new and original, is not disconnected from other works of musical art. There are inspiriations that come from what has gone before.
3.) The composer gets ideas from multiple places, some from outside the sphere of the music world.
4.) A piece written with a particular musician in mind is itself inspired during the creative process by that musician's particular style, gifts, flair, personality, etc. So, this sort of composition is especially born of relationship--a human relationship between composer and musician.

If you liked this, the interview continued for two more parts. See part 2 here, and part 3, here.

Hilary Hahn video II; Music, "Communicates . . ."

Here is Hilary Hahn during a recording session in London. You can get an idea of her talent here. The clip starts with an interesting brief commentary by Hilary about what she strives to do in making a recording. Her last remark points to that quality of music as communicating, . . . something (ineffable).

The proper British narrator sounds to me like someone from the 1950's and is somewhat amusing. But he doesn't speak for long, and then you can listen and watch Hilary play the violin. Extraordinary. It's also interesting to see a recording being made of such cultured music and the solo musician is wearing jeans. A sign of our times (I don't mind this; however, I think it is interesting as I doubt we would have seen classical musicians in jeans 40 or 50 years ago in a recording session). I wonder if the "gentleman" conductor (as the narrator points out) approved! But that's not very important. I post this clip for Hilary's comment and for her musicianship. Enjoy.

Music as Communion; Violinist Hilary Hahn on Audience Interaction

Here is an interesting short clip from an interview with the incredibly talented classical violinist, Hilary Hahn.

She touches upon one of the things that is so wonderful about music as it is performed live. For the musicians, a live concert can be a powerful experience of human communion in at least two different modes simultaneously: musicians-with-musicians, and, musicians-as-a-group with the audience-as-a-group. Each type of communion is unique and they both bring a special thrill to the performers during a live event. I want to highlight that these are deeply human thrills--experiences that are especially of the realm of the human person.

When both types of communion are happening at a high level in a given performance it makes for a very special event. I would say music is, at least in some ways, the highest art form that man can engage in. It involves exquisite, living realities of some of the highest aspects of human communion that can be experienced in this life. Music can plunge a listener's soul incredibly deeply into the heart of the musicians-as-a-group and of the composer as well. It can be a form of wordless unity--and full of meaning--that has great power and poignancy, capable of communicating with astounding immediacy, subtlety, and directness, while also revealing the alluring, tantalizing mystery of human life as mystery--secrets of the human soul that no words could capture.

Praise God for the great gift of the human person's ability to create music!

Are You a Prude?

I would like to post here comments I made (with a few slight changes) on a thread at The Linde, the blog of my friends at The Personalist Project.

In her post, Katie van Schaijik asks, "What is prudishness?" What entails being prudish as contrasted with simply having a proper sense of decorum, modesty, propriety, social grace, etc.? It may seem a simple question, but it strikes at something rather deep in American culture and is very relevant to the complicated relationship between American culture and being a person who strives to live as fully Catholic a life as possible here in America.


Is the following instructive to ponder in light of the subject of prudishness and American culture? Think of the example of the “Christian Temperance” movement of the early 20th century, which resulted in the (to me) very silly and ill-fated Prohibition laws banning alcohol. What does this show about the more fearful segments of (Protestant) Christian influence upon our culture? It seems to me that anything like Prohibition would have been considered absurd in any majority Catholic nation.

Wasn’t Prohibition roughly around the same time as a surge of Pentecostalism (born-again, spirit-led, Bible-only, morally heavy-handed) in America? (not to blame this on Pentecostalism alone)

American culture does suffer, I think, from its Christian roots being essentially Protestant (not denying that there are many good things in Protestant Christianity!). How? It seems to me (and I used to be one) that Protestantism has a very hard time seeing that potentially dangerous aspects of life do not have to be entirely walled up and kept at bay like dynamite in order to remain safe. This is why Prohibition is instructive. Instead of realizing that one can—through a grace-assisted cultivation of virtue—use alcohol in a culturally healthy, beneficial, even life-affirming way, America chose instead to deal with its potentially dangerous aspects by simply banning it altogether. This is an approach that makes a certain sense if you have little understanding of the real possibility of cultivating supernatural virtues (together with ordinary virtues) in any human life lived in close relationship with God. It gets down to having a truncated view of the interplay of nature and grace in this life.

So, while a fundamentalist Baptist, for example, might shun things like gambling (in any context), drinking, and dancing, as too dangerous to handle, a Catholic—in moderation—does not fear a decorous use of alcohol and dancing and gambling because he has hope in the possibility of grace and human virtue uniting in such a way as to transform the use of these things into not only acceptable, but positively beneficial, culturally enriching, sacramental signs in themselves.

Though I think many Catholics today do not have a sense of this, nonetheless, it seems to me from the witness of human history that believing, practicing Catholics have the fullest potential of attaining a firm hope for the possibility of baptizing many aspects of human culture in this life—a hope that flows from a healthy awareness of the power of grace-infused virtue to liberate culture from the severity of all types of prudishness.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Christopher West on Concupiscence, II

Update: For more and very interesting discussion about Christopher West's talk on Wednesday evening, June 3, check out a new blog, The Linde, over at The Personalist Project. The first speaker of the evening, Dr. Michael Healy, offered a very good commentary on West's talk.

Last night here in West Chester, PA, I attended a talk sponsored by The Personalist Project at which Christopher West spoke. He was the second of two speakers. The first was a former professor of mine at Franciscan University, Dr. Michael Healy. He gave an excellent address on human sexuality according to the thought of Dietrich von Hildebrand.

After this, Christopher West spoke. I thought it was a good talk. After he spoke there was time for Q & A. I asked him a question to clarify what his thoughts are on concupiscence. West answered in such a way as to satisfy me that he does not hold that grace wipes out concupiscence (which would be contrary to the teaching of the Church). In fact, in the course of his talk, he stated that in this life we are never free of the pull of concupiscence.

And so, on the specific topic of concupiscence, I do not think there is a problem with what West personally believes.

During the evening I think I gained an insight into why he can sometimes be taken as teaching problematic things in regard to concupiscence. Just after West stated that in this life we are never free of the pull of concupiscence (which correctly represents Church teaching), he said (and I think the quote is accurate as I took notes), "Christ has set us free from the domination of concupiscence." (emphasis mine) . . . I will come back to this in a moment.

The larger subject of West's talk last night was an overview of the three-stage journey of the human soul on the path to sanctity--a classic theme of Catholic spiritual theology. He spoke about this in the context of his efforts to promote the Theology of the Body because he wanted to emphasize that both John Paul II and Dietrich von Hildebrand had this in common: a firm belief that purity--real purity--is indeed possible (with grace) in this life. How? By staying the course on the lifelong threefold journey to holiness described by spiritual writers as the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways. With the ongoing help of grace and our personal cooperation, we truly can be transformed and made pure. This is indeed a wonderfully Catholic understanding and I agree with it fully. This beautiful truth about the interplay of grace and nature in this life--that genuine, personal transformation that makes one holy is possible in this life--is one of those pearls of Christian wisdom that only the Catholic Church seems to have held onto with a full and constant embrace since our savior's return to heaven.

So, why does West's teaching sometimes spur controversy among Catholics on this specific subject of concupiscence? This sometime-misunderstanding I think is rooted in a misreading of what West means when he says things like, "Christ has set us free from the domination of concupiscence."

There is a very significant difference between being freed from concupiscence outright (which West affirmed last night he does not hold as possible in this life), and being freed from the domination of concupiscence. Being freed from being dominated (i.e. easily overwhelmed and overpowered in such a way that one does not seem able to stop temptation from leading quickly into sin) by concupiscence is very much something any Catholic should ardently desire. We should see this as truly possible through an ongoing process of growth in holiness as we walk with Christ in this life. This is the sort of thing--being freed from enslavement to concupiscence--that the journey of the spiritual life through the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways is supposed to bring about in us.

I think it is very possible that when Christopher West claims (correctly) that we can--by the interplay of grace with human freedom--be freed in this life from being dominated by temptations to sin, some people hear this as no different from saying that we can be freed from temptation itself. But West (as I heard him last night) is not saying this. He is saying that there is real hope in the power of grace--if we are open to it and accept the crosses that may come with it--to remove the bondage of being unable to resist the pull of concupiscence toward committing sin. We will never be free in this life from concupiscence itself. But, we can become pure, so that when an enticement to sexual sin arises within us we are not thrown into a frenzy and dominated by it. It is there, but it can no longer have its way. Rather, we can allow it to pass by, not giving it permission to take control of our heart and our will. The temptation of concupiscence whispers to us, "go down this path," but, by grace, we firmly, confidently, peacefully, say in return, "my Savior's Passion has given me the power to say no; I will not go down this path."

Before being made pure--acquiring the virtue of chastity--a person may be in the grip of sin, controlled and easily overpowered by lust when it comes knocking on the door of his soul. But after a long (and always ongoing) process of sanctification, at some point eventually the same person is no longer overpowered by lust, though he is tempted by it for the duration of his life.

As I put my question to West I acknowledged that there is a difference between concupiscence itself (the pull toward sin), and vice. All Christians are called to the hope that Christ's grace can over time and with much prayer gradually strip away our vices (sinful habits). Christopher agreed with this.

This, I believe, is a very sound Catholic understanding of life. To be gradually freed from enslavement to sinful patterns that have become rooted in our lives is a great thing and possible in this life and to be hoped for as we put our trust in Christ. This is true even as we realize that inclinations to sin will still bite at us throughout our life. And at least according to last night's event, I believe it is what Christopher West believes and teaches as well. There may be other critiques of his work that hit their mark. But, as far as concupiscence is concerned, I am satisfied for myself that there are no serious problems with Christopher West.

A concluding remark. West is passionate about his ministry, has a passionate rhetorical style, and strives to speak in a way that is accessible to the average person. I suspect that there may be times in the midst of an exuberant presentation when he is not as clear as perhaps he could be on the important distinction noted above between concupiscence itself--which remains even as grace increases--and the domination of concupiscence over a person--which is rooted out as grace transforms us. The "new man" in Christ is still tempted, but no longer in such a way that he cannot do other than to defile his soul by giving in to sin. He is no longer helpless against temptations. If West ever seems to be unclear or fuzzy on this, please ask him in charity to simply clarify. I think you will find as I did last night that he fully accepts the doctrine of the Church in regard to concupiscence.

A hearty thanks to Jules and Katie van Schaijik for putting together last night's fruitful evening with professor Healy and Christopher West.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Concupiscence, Catholic Teaching On; and Christopher West

In light of recent controversy over the content and style of the public presentations by Catholic lay evangelist, Christopher West, I would like to offer a brief primer on the teaching of the Catholic Church on "concupiscence."

Why am I concerned to address this topic? It is because I am sure that some Catholics can be easily mislead, even if unintentionally, into thinking that something is wrong with them spiritually if they still experience temptations (one type of which stems from concupiscence). This is a mistake that can be harmful and a serious obstacle to spiritual progress. Growth in sanctity can most definitely happen even as temptations to commit sin are still experienced in a person's soul. Temptation is always cause for sober concern, but, with God's help, should never be a cause for panic or despair.

First, some background items. What is concupiscence? Simply put, it is the inclination to sin. Why do we have it? We have concupiscence because of original sin (the fall of Adam and Eve). Concupiscence is not equivalent to original sin, it is a consequence of it. And so it is not a result of our own personal, individual sins--it resides in us at birth because of the wounds inflicted upon human nature by original sin and passed down to all via generation. And this is very important: concupiscence is not itself the same thing as personal sin; to undergo an inclination toward a sinful act is not yet in itself the same thing as committing a sin.

So concupiscence is neither original sin nor personal sin--nor is it a result of personal sin. It is, however, a result of original sin. It is a tendency--a propensity--a leaning toward, sin.

The glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) defines concupiscence as follows:

human appetites or desires which remain disordered due to the temporal consequences of original sin, which remain even after Baptism, and which produce an inclination to sin.
Why mention this in relation to the teaching of Christopher West? Some intelligent and educated Catholics criticize West's approach for coming across as downplaying the reality and significance of concupiscence. To some, West almost seems to suggest that not only sin, but concupiscence itself, can be overcome in this life, thus restoring man to a subjective state of original innocence, as before the fall.

I have heard West speak in person and listened to a few of his audio recordings, but I am by no means expert in all things West. I do not know whether Christopher West personally believes that concupiscence can be eliminated in this life, but I think it is true that some of his language, presentation style and emphases can together be interpreted as teaching this or something similar. And to the degree that this is the case, this is a problem. (I want to acknowledge as others have that there is no doubt much good has been and continues to be done by West. However, even one who has done much good can still make mistakes and thus be subject to sincere and charitable criticism.)

Here is what the Catholic Church teaches officially about concupiscence. . .

[Council of Trent] The holy Council, however, professes and thinks that concupiscence or the inclination to sin remains in the baptised. Since it is left for us to wrestle with, it cannot harm those who do not consent but vigorously resist it by the grace of Jesus Christ. Rather, "one who strives lawfully will be crowned." Of this concupiscence which the apostle occasionally calls "sin" the holy Council declares: The Catholic Church has never understood that it is called sin because it would be sin in the true and proper sense in those who have been reborn, but because it comes from sin and inclines to sin. If anyone thinks the contrary, anathema sit. [Decree on original sin, no. 5; the year 1546]

And further, the following is a condemned proposition (i.e. the Church formally declares this to be wrong):

[Condemned Propositions of Michael de Bay]
The integrity at the beginning of creation was not a gratuitous exaltation of human nature but its natural condition.
[Bull Ex Omnibus Afflictionibus; Pius V, 1567]

Note: this proposition is wrong. This deceptively small item is quite significant in itself. Why? Because it indicates that what the Catholic theological tradition refers to as 'integrity' (the perfect control of the emotions and passions by reason [note: this is not the same as the absence of emotions and passions, but, rather the harmony of these with all that pertains to knowledge and reason]), while part of mankind's original state, was not strictly speaking natural to man even before the fall. I'll repeat this another way because of its importance: integrity--the fully harmonious and agreeable relationship between emotion and reason which Adam and Eve originally possessed but then lost for themselves and for their progeny because of their sin--was itself a gift from God that stretched beyond and perfected what human nature was capable of on its own without His assistance.

Catholic theology delineates three states or categories of gifts and attributes that mankind originally possessed as first created by God (i.e. man's condition before sin entered the world). These are three: 1. nature, 2. preternature, and 3. supernature. These roughly can be thought of as 1. the state of created human beings according to all the powers and conditions inherent to their own essence as human beings, apart from any special help from God beyond what He built into human nature itself; 2. human nature with some added assistance from God to "stretch" it beyond what it could do on its own, but in a way that is nicely harmonious with and complementary to its own merely natural powers (preternature completes or perfects nature); 3. human nature plus special help from God enabling it to do things or to exist in ways completely above and unlike what human nature itself could ever attain to in any way by itself.

Here are examples to help clarify:

nature: digestion; sight; movement; language ability

(nature completed): integrity (absence of concupiscence); freedom from suffering; immortality
(effects of losing, see CCC 400)

: sanctifying grace (the life of God present in the human soul making man friends with God and able to live with Him in eternal life); miraculous healing
(effects of losing, see Gn 2:17; Rom 6:23; CCC 399)

With this in mind, here is a quote from the Catechism that talks about the effects of original sin:

[Original sin] is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death; and inclined to sin--an inclination to evil that is called "concupiscence." Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ's grace, erases original sin and turns a man back toward God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle. [CCC 405]

The significant point here in all this, in the context of some confusion over what Christopher West really says and means, is this: concupiscence, not in itself the same as sin, is a result of the loss of the preternatural gifts (see above)--not a result of the loss of supernatural gifts. This loss is a consequence of original sin. Sanctifying grace (regained by Baptism and then strengthened by prayer, the sacraments, and charity) restores the loss of the supernatural gift of God's life to man's soul. However, sanctifying grace does not restore the preternatural gifts. Man still suffers. He still dies a physical death. And, he is tempted to sin because of concupiscence.

It is a mistake to think that sanctifying grace--which increases in the soul as a person grows in holiness--removes concupiscence. It does not. It restores that divine life to the soul which makes it possible for the human person to live in heaven. But temptation, in this life, will remain as a trial and a test--just as physical death and suffering remain. Even the most holy saint will still die, still suffer, and still be tempted. His temptation, however, need not lead to sin. Sanctifying grace helps the child of God to better deal with the temptations of concupiscence so that they no longer lead him into sin, though temptations still occur.

For more detail on this, see my further comments on Dawn Eden's blog here, here, and here.

And I will close this post with a final quote from the Catechism:

Nevertheless the new life received in Christian initiation has not abolished the frailty and weakness of human nature, nor the inclination to sin that tradition calls concupiscence, which remains in the baptized such that with the help of the grace of Christ they may prove themselves in the struggle of Christian life. This is the struggle of conversion directed toward holiness and eternal life to which the Lord never ceases to call us.
[CCC 1426]

Grace Abundant; Five New Dominican Priests

By the grace of God there are five new Dominican priests in the world, ordained last Friday, May 29. They are: Fr's. Gregory Schnackenburg, Bruno Mary Shah, Anthony Mary Giambrone, Thomas Petri, and Jonah Pollock.

I attended their ordination to the holy priesthood at St. Dominic's Church in downtown Washington, DC. It was awesome. I've been to a number of ordinations. But when it is men with whom you have lived and know well who are being ordained it is even more special than ordinations always are.

I am very happy and excited for them, the Dominicans, and the Church, for they are excellent men and I'm sure will be excellent priests. I pray for abundant blessings upon their priesthood, and that they all become holy in the exercise of their priestly ministry. All praise and thanks be to God for this great gift to the Church!