Sunday, October 18, 2009

Growth in Supernatural Virtue Involves a Close Harmony Between Nature and Grace

[Update: for a related post, see here]

Here is another topic on which I commented over at The Linde (see this post). It pertains to the big and very significant issue of the relationship between nature and grace. And this issue is a very important backbone to any discussion of how we should understand the virtues, natural and supernatural.

From the point of view of a Catholic understanding of the world, natural and supernatural virtue are closely related and yet very different. Natural virtues can be developed with merely ordinary natural human powers and abilities (e.g. courage, patience, generosity, friendliness). Supernatural virtues have a supernatural goal and can only be developed with the assistance of divine grace (e.g. charity, fortitude, chastity).

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There is a close relationship between natural and supernatural virtues and between the growth of natural and supernatural virtues.

As I studied virtue (natural and supernatural) at the Dominican House in moral theology classes, one of the things that was very intriguing and clarifying to me was learning something about how St. Thomas understands the relationship between these two basic categories of virtue.

An overly simplistic view (and not correct according to St. Thomas)—one that I think is often a default sort of understanding for many Catholics—is that natural virtue gets you to a certain point. Then, supernatural virtue takes over and from that point on it is supernature “building” upon nature (i.e. “grace building upon nature”). Sort of like laying bricks to construct a wall. The first ten rows, say, are brown, and represent natural virtue. Then, rows 11 and higher are red, and represent supernatural virtue. The latter continues building upward, taking up where the other left off. Or, like a relay race where one racer (natural virtue) hands off the baton to the next racer (supernatural virtue). The transition from one to the other is such that there is a clean demarcation line in between—a nice, neat borderline between them. One shifts to the other in a way that you can point to it and say, “there is where one ended and the other began.”

Wrong—according to Aquinas. This is not how it really works. Grace comes in and infuses, permeates, transforms, what is already there in natural virtue. They continue on together, intertwined and enmeshed one into the other. One Dominican professor liked to use the analogy of food coloring. You have a container of water. Then you add a single drop of coloring (i.e. grace). The water does not become something else. Yet, it is permeated throughout by the color as it spreads through all the water in the container. However, when you look at it, you cannot observe a clean demarcation or break between the water (i.e. nature) and the coloring (i.e. grace). They are completely intermingled once the grace has been introduced and just a little bit of stirring taken place. Now, the grace might be a little or a lot (or gradually more over time). But the point is that the nature and the grace are very closely allied to each other and ought not be thought of in a compartmentalized way.

The amount of water might be analogous to the amount of natural virtue. The natural and supernatural virtue are closely related, while still being of a totally different nature—yet not clearly distinguishable once they have been brought together.

An example. Let’s take courage (as the natural virtue) and fortitude (as its supernatural complement). Using the water image, say a person has built up one gallon’s worth of courage. Then, he converts, is baptized and becomes a practicing Christian. He now has one gallon of an intimately close mix of courage but now infused with a new color it did not have before—the color of fortitude. The amount of natural virtue effects the operation of the supernatural. The supernatural is not caused by the natural, but it is enabled to work upon a broader field by the larger presence of the natural. If there were one-half gallon of natural courage to start, there would be one-half gallon of fortitude-infused courage after grace came in. Likewise, if there were two gallons at first, and so forth.

The water cannot make itself red. That must be supplied into it from without. But, the more water there is in the pot, the more of it there is to become the new color red when the color is added. And similarly as virtue is increased. A person in grace grows in natural and supernatural virtue in a such a way that they both grow in an intertwined fashion, each being like a stepping stone for the other (but without the natural ever being the origin of the supernatural).

So, it is not accurate to say grace “builds” on nature as though one stops at a certain point and then the other begins. Rather, grace infuses (transforms) nature thoroughly without destroying it or covering it over. (You can still see through colored water; but you see through it in a new way). The nature persists and the amount and character of it remain essential to the way in which the infused, new supernature can be enacted.

Life's Purpose: Where Do We Find a Shared Vision? A Secular vs. Faith Approach

 I would like to reproduce here some thoughts I initially put down in the comments section over at The Linde (see this post), the blog of The Personalist Project. This pertains to the subject of what is needed for a human culture to be truly human. How do we keep society from degenerating in a downward spiral? Is there a difference between secular humanism and faith-inspired personalism? These thoughts relate closely to my previous post about the myth of utopia.

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Human beings need to understand our common human purpose from a source higher than ourselves. We need our true end to be revealed to us from above. This begins with pre-Christian religious sensibilities and conscience (placed in our nature by God) and culminates in Christ. Without this, we only have our independent, human and worldly ideas about the purpose of human life. Without a source greater than ourselves we are left with a struggle for power as the only way to ultimately settle the problem of which ideas about life should be placed above others.

And again, it could be said this way: there is no “ought” without an “is.” In other words, if we do not have a shared understanding of our own human nature (which comes from God whether we explicitly acknowledge this or not), we cannot come to a peaceable agreement on how we ought to live. And this lack of some minimum shared vision of our nature necessarily devolves into a struggle for power. For unless we have a common “is” we have no rational means by which to unite in common moral obligations.

It goes perhaps without saying that having a shared vision about the purpose and nature of human life does not require explicit faith. It does require good will and openness to what life teaches and openness to one’s conscience and to the innate religiosity within us.

But of course, the highest possible perfection of human society in this world could only happen after the revelation of Christ and the new availability of the New Covenant graces which were unleashed into the world by His passion and resurrection.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Myth of Utopia

I want to comment on a topic that is one of those issues that often declares its presence in the back of my mind. It is something I see as a critical factor underlying many of the social-political problems of contemporary western society. I tend to see traces of it everywhere. If any of us were asked, "What's wrong with the world?" there are probably three or four key themes that we would each gravitate toward. This is one of those for me.

It is the myth of utopia. Utopia is the ideal of a perfect world--a world without war or strife, a world in which everyone gets along nicely and all have what they need for a happy life.

There are two fundamental approaches to this idea. The first is the mindset that thinks a utopia is attainable if only we could find the right social system and the right people to run this system. The second mindset accepts the reality that a utopia is not attainable in this life and yet believes real progress in human society can always be made.

I am firmly of the second mindset. And as I get a little older and a bit more experienced in life, I observe that people of the first mindset are more likely (though I don't claim exclusively) to be those who have lost faith in God. People of the second approach are more likely to be people who have held on to a real faith.

Why the difference? A great deal could be said about this. In fact writing about this profound difference goes back at least to St. Augustine's great work, City of God. I will only attempt here a meager beginning.

Original sin. A classic Christian understanding of mankind knows that man is born with the stain of original sin. This view realizes that man, though not totally corrupted by sin, nonetheless is deeply wounded in his soul and because of this is not capable of acting in this world with perfect motives. Man cannot save himself from sin, and anything he does, no matter how hard he tries, will be tainted in some way by sin and imperfection. An inevitable consequence of this in the political realm is a realistic understanding that a perfect system of governance cannot be achieved in this life, no more than sin can be wiped out in this life.

I acknowledge that those who think a perfectly just social order is possible in this world do not use the term "utopia." But, I still claim that they really do, in practice, hold that it is attainable. They are forever acting surprised at corruption, injustice, dishonesty, and incompetence in others even as they are largely blind to these things in themselves.

What is the alternative to this implicit utopianism (which I think afflicts many on the politically hard left)? Should practicing Christians throw up their hands and say, "to heck with it!" because social perfection is impossible? Do we retreat to our homes and churches and pretty much leave the outside world alone? Some devout Christians do just this. But this is a serious mistake. And as I understand it, this has never been the attitude of Catholicism.

Why does Catholicism proclaim that quietism is wrong--that radical isolation from and lack of involvement with the world (apart from a monastic calling which is a particular detachment that is not without care for the world, but rather a separation from the world for the sake of spiritually benefiting the world) is not appropriate? In a word, the answer is grace! This is the key.

Serious Christians ought not despair about the world. Even though we know a utopia cannot be had--that hoping for such is a dangerous dream and a fantasy--we do know that grace is active. And because of this we know confidently, by faith and by experience of the Christian life, that human beings can truly be transformed for the better when we welcome and cooperate with the healing, elevating waters of grace.

And so here is the mindset of a properly aware Christian. It is the attitude upon which the culture of Christendom sprouted and grew. We look to the future with a balanced, hardened realism. On the one hand, we do not embrace naively idealistic political visions, imagining a social order of perfect peace and harmony could be realized if only we figured out how to structure society the right way. Nor do we indulge in a fantasy about finding and attaching ourselves to one special genius who would show us the way. On the other hand, we do not pull back in hopeless despair, washing our hands of the mess of today's political storms. Why? Because we know by faith, by the experience of our walk with Christ, and by the example of the Saints, that mankind can be transformed. We can, with God's help, overcome our demons. We can serve and love our neighbor. We can imitate Christ. We can be the Good Samaritan. Are we ever perfect? No. But, can we always become more loving, more like Christ? Yes! Even when we fall, grace is there to pick us up and help us start again on the path to wholeness.

We should look at society as a whole in a way similar to how we see ourselves as individuals being transformed by grace. It is a process. There are setbacks, even tragedies. But so long as we do not reject God, do not give up hope, and keep our eyes fixed on Christ, we can continue to be transformed. So too, society. There will be no perfection of the social order in this world. But there is always the possibility of genuine improvement. Though we cannot attain the social ideal we can always move closer to it, just as there is always the possibility of growth in sanctity for the individual person. And so we regard political leaders and political plans with a healthy awareness of the real condition of the human person--fallen, yet redeemed; tainted, yet transformed by grace. We are works in progress. And we never lose sight that two outcomes are possible--two extremes--sainthood, or depravity. The best leader can still fail and let us down. And the roughest slouch can rise to a greatness unforeseen.

So, two views of the world. Utopia as possible, or modest progress as possible. "Progress," not meaning something that will reach its zenith in this world but that will culminate ultimately in the life to come. Perhaps these two views boil down to this: Do we see this world as the sole endpoint of the human spirit's deepest hopes and aspirations? Or do we see this life as a preparation, a training ground, the antechamber, to that truly perfect society of unimaginable joy and vigor and peace which is life with God--heaven? One view, ignoring the full reality of the human person as fallen and then redeemed by grace, ironically leads to an endless struggle for power. The other at least makes possible an imperfect, though improving, society in which persons under grace may strive toward ever greater human flourishing until such time as this world ends and the next begins.

[For more on a related issue, see my post about the Catholic teaching on concupiscence.]

Friday, October 9, 2009

Steeler's Troy Polamalu on Christian faith

Here is a neat video of NFL football player Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers giving a testimony about his faith. Well said. If only there were more examples like this among professional athletes! I love how his first comment in this clip is about serving his wife. Serving with passion is a theme of these remarks.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

St. Therese of Lisieux

Today is the Feast St. Therese of Lisieux (also known as The Little Flower) on the Catholic liturgical calendar. Happy Feast!

I want to mention this wonderful Saint and Doctor of the Church for a virtue I haven't heard referred to her very often: meekness. Perhaps this is because her humility is so radiant we don't stop to consider this other virtue which was so closely allied to her humility.

Meekness is, I think, a virtue which in our times is especially overlooked, misunderstood, and undervalued.

Indeed, St. Therese, whose spiritual life is called, "the little way," was blessedly humble. But she was also marvelously meek. (This word is so misunderstood I still find resistance within myself to using it as a positive attribution, even though I know it is a great virtue). Perhaps, if this can be said, if the other virtues aside from humility were ranked according to how humble they seem, meekness would be at the top.

I'm not sure how closely this corresponds with more expansive and precise definitions of meekness, but the way I think about it, meekness is that virtue which enables a person to absorb any sort of personal assault, offense, or irritation--no matter how big or small--without lashing back in any way that would contravene Christian charity. To be able to immediately respond to personal offense or annoyance with love, with no bitterness in one's heart, is the height of meekness.

Here's where people get confused. Meekness is not equivalent to becoming a door mat. Meekness is not being a wimp. Jesus, the most meek of all ever to walk this earth, was no wimp; nor was he a door mat. When I think of our Lord's meekness I see Him nailed on the cross, in the midst of great suffering, saying "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." The pinnacle of fortitude is perfectly compatible with the pinnacle of meekness.

It seems to me the Little Flower is a beautiful example of meekness because in many and various ways during her days in the convent, she absorbed small hurts, annoyances, and irritations without responding in an unkind way. When faced with small crosses she became so successful at transforming temptations toward frustration or anger into spiritual acts of penance and love that her sisters in the convent did not know what her dislikes were, whether food, chores, or particular personalities. But she was meek not only in small, but also in great ways. When she became ill with tuberculosis (which ended up killing her) and was suffering pain and had bouts of coughing, she did not reveal outwardly that she was in pain. So much was this the case that some of her sisters (that is, until Therese became so ill she would collapse) thought she may have been faking her illness.

Now, it is not a great thing to react once or twice to small annoyances with calmness and equanimity. But to do this without fail--especially when one lives in an enclosed community and sees the same faces every day--and to do this consistently for love of one's sisters and for Christ--this is truly heroic.

May we all strive toward authentic Christian meekness, that meekness so powerful it can absorb the nails of the cross without malice.

If you want to learn more about her spirituality, I Believe in Love, is an excellent book that does a good job of helping you enter into her Little Way. (And of course her duly famous spiritual memoir is Story of a Soul.)

Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, pray for us!